Chapter 3: The People to Whom We Preach
Some years ago Dr. Theodore Parker Ferris, rector of Trinity Church in Boston, in discussing the problem of preaching in the contemporary situation, described the preacher’s task as that of "bringing the given gospel to the given world" -- and particularly to men and women to whom we preach here and now, where we have been placed by God in this world of the mid-twentieth century. For there can be no question that we do preach to that "given" world and to the men and women in it. Whether we like it or not, we preach to them as they really are in concrete fact; we do not preach to some fanciful group of people living in an imagined situation which may happen to appeal to us. If the gospel which we are commissioned to preach is "given" to us, so is the world in which we preach it and the people to whom we preach it. There is no escape possible for us.
First, something should be said about "given-ness" and its profound religious implications. One of the great spiritual writers of the French Roman Catholic Church was Jean de Caussade, whose writings have been made known to us through Miss Evelyn Underhill. Nothing which that master of spirituality wrote or said is so important as his insistence, found over and over again in his letters and his essays in "spiritual direction," that it is the "present moment," the exact place where we are, the time in which we live, the situation in our existence is set, which constitute for us what he liked to call the "sacrament" of God’s presence with us. That situation, that moment, that "given" time and place, provide, he said, the location and the occasion in which, and in which alone, we are able to meet and know God; and de Caussade maintained that any attempt on our part to evade that situation, to run away from it, to seek for God somewhere else, is bound to lead us astray. This truth needs emphasizing in our own religious life; and for the preacher its application is of supreme importance. For surely the preacher of the gospel is to declare the Word of God in the place where the preacher is, to the people whom he has before him, and with the most humble and honest recognition that that place and those people are "given" him by God and that he must keep that "given-ness" constantly in his thinking and speaking. If he tries to escape this, then he is "running away" -- and he is running away not only from his ministerial duty and his ministerial privilege, but also from God himself -- for God puts men in the place where they are to serve him; and if they are to serve him at all, they must serve him there.
This does not suggest to us, or at least it ought not to suggest, a bovine complacency about the way things are. Obviously it does not mean that there will not be other, and perhaps greater, responsibilities and opportunities for a preacher of the gospel at some other time and in some other place. But what it does mean most certainly, is that for the time being, while he is in that place and at that time, his duty is to do his work in that "given" situation. And the immediate corollary of all this is that the preacher must know his people where and as they are. He must know them as they are, not only in those personal matters which any good pastor will appreciate, but also in their patterns of thought, in the ideas they have, in the notions they accept, in the "facts of life" as they see them, and with the needs that they feel. Dr. Ferris’s "given world" is, then, the world of the twentieth century in which we are living; and the people who live along with us live in it, are the people to whom we are to proclaim the gospel.
In that sense, every one will admit that we must be "up to date." This does not mean that we should have a "nice modern gospel," which is specially tailored to meet the requirements of our less exacting contemporaries. We cannot cut the gospel to "what Jones likes." But when we preach the real gospel, the Church’s gospel, the historic gospel, we need to remember always that we preach it to people who are real people, who are our own contemporaries. For it is they to whom we are sent. In preaching to them we are not only fulfilling our proper responsibility as ministers of Christ’s Church, but are also serving and meeting God in the concrete situation in which, by his grace, we have been placed.
Now, what sort of people are these to whom we speak? What sort of world is it in which they live? What are their ways of seeing and understanding things?
First of all, there is the prevalence in the contemporary world of what is usually called "the scientific outlook" or "the scientific attitude." There can be no doubt that a dominant motif in the cultural pattern of our time is the high respect which is felt for science and the tremendous attention and respect which are paid to its supposed findings. It is not so much that the special results in this or that field are known in detail to our people; rather, the point is that their way of seeing and thinking is molded to an enormous degree by the outlook or attitude which in the widest sense may be styled "scientific."
Professor C. A. Coulson, a distinguished Oxford mathematician and physicist, has recently given an admirable description of this attitude as it manifests itself in modern life. Science, he tells us, is for vast numbers of people
the sure and safe ground on which to build a way of life. . . . This conviction about science lies deep in the subconscious thinking of the ordinary man, who sees all around him the exciting and varied products of a technology that provides for almost every physical and mental need, and who concludes that the scientific mode of thought and experiment out of which this technology grew is large enough, and solid enough, to be a chief foundation for his life.
Professor Coulson is himself a devout English Methodist; but he is honest enough to see facts for what they are. He goes on to quote some words from a former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
The greatest event in the world today is not the awakening of Asia nor the rise of communism -- vast and portentous as these events are. It is the advent of a new way of living, due to science, a change in the conditions of the world and the structure of society which began not so very long ago in the West and is now reaching out over all mankind.
He quotes further, this time from a distinguished scientist: "At the present time only science has the vigor and the authority of achievement, to make . . . the highest human values captivate men’s hearts and minds, and restore faith in them." All this is from Professor Coulson’s essay in the symposium An Approach to Christian Education. The professor himself does not agree with the judgment that only science can do these things; he believes that religious faith, and above all Christian faith, must somehow be restored to men and women today. But he indicates one of the most significant aspects of our contemporary scene and one with which preachers of the gospel necessarily have to deal if they are to bring that gospel home to their hearers.
What Dr. Coulson has noted has been put for us in another way by Dr. Derwyn Owen, Provost of Trinity College, Toronto, in his excellent study of the present "cult" of science, entitled Scientism, Man, and Religion. Dr. Owen describes the modern and widespread phenomenon of "scientolatry" (as he styles it) as including five basic assumptions which help to make up the scientific outlook or attitude which is generally accepted among our contemporaries. Here are the five, in Dr. Owen’s listing: (1) truth is available through science alone; (2) matter is the primary reality; (3) all behavior is determined; (4) all values are social conventions and hence are "relative" rather than absolute in significance; (5) the coming of an ideal society is guaranteed through science. I am not so sure that the fifth of these is as widespread as Dr. Owen thinks, although he makes a very good case for it; but no sensitive observer of our age can deny that the other four come very close to "hitting the mark." The extraordinary thing is that even among our own people, such assumptions are often held, albeit quite unconsciously.
The point to be stressed is that science and scientific ways of thinking are so widely accepted that for vast numbers of people -- and not only for those who are described as being "educated," but also by some sort of cultural "osmosis" for the rest of the population -- these ideas are often simply taken for granted. They form part of the mental furniture; they are simply there, unquestioned even if not explicitly and consciously held. And it is apparent that for such persons, religion is bound to seem to belong to the realm of the "merely ideal," some vague area which does not actually get anything done. This is why we hear so much about "religion" as a way in which moral character is promoted and some sense of peace and security engendered. But the gospel, in its terrible reality, is very hard for such people to understand, much less to accept.
We might at this point examine these assumptions, consider this attitude or outlook, and demonstrate its utter inadequacy, not only in respect to its philosophical implications but in its consequences in practical experience, but all this has been done admirably by Dr. Owen himself, as well as by Professor Coulson. In fact it is part of the stock-in-trade of most contemporary writing in defense of Christian faith. What we must say emphatically, however, is that we shall never get very far in our preaching if we spend our time ignorantly sneering at science, impatiently rejecting its attitude or outlook in toto, or pretending to do this -- for I doubt if we could manage to do it completely. There is really no use in turning our sermons into demonstrations that insofar as science is thus understood and portrayed it is a "false Messiah." Of course it is a "false Messiah"; we all know that. But it is highly important for us to realize that with whatever modifications may be required in the interests of honesty and accuracy, not to say modesty in its claims, the scientific attitude in its broader sense is here to stay. The scientific way of seeing things, of handling things, of acting upon things, is going to continue to be one of the ways in which men and women will look at their world and at themselves. We cannot wish it away; we must find a place for it in the total Christian view. We cannot claim that it is irrelevant; we must claim that it is revelatory -- revelatory of God and his ways in his world.
My first suggestion is that we should not waste time by pretending to show that the scientific attitude is all wrong. It is our task to show, with all the wit and wisdom we can summon, that it is not enough. This attitude, so widespread today, may be true so far as it goes, but it is not adequate to the whole of human life, to the entire human situation, to the total world in which we live. The way to show this is not by making snide attacks on science but by the continuing demonstration that the greatest things about life, as every man knows them, are never exhaustively stated in a scientific formula and never exhaustively described in a scientific picture. If a personal experience may be cited, I myself had an illustration of the success of this method not long ago, when I had the privilege of preaching for several days to a large university audience. It occurred to me that I might show that no student would willingly "exhaust" the "meaning" of his fiancée in the terms of physics or chemistry or biology or psychology or sociology. In this way the group was brought to the place where the specific claims made in the gospel for God’s personal relationship with men could at least be heard, even it they were not accepted. I am sure that I should have got nowhere at all if I had turned those sermons into denunciations of science or a contemptuous dismissal of what most of the young people present simply took for granted; they would have rejected the whole thing and stopped listening.
In the second place, it is essential that we take every opportunity to make it perfectly clear that the Christian gospel is not bound up with out-of-date scientific ideas. Most of us take that for granted and assume that our hearers take it for granted, too. But this is a highly unrealistic attitude. For we are not yet far enough away from the days of the Tennessee "trial" of a schoolteacher over the teaching of biological evolution to take it for granted that everybody understands perfectly well that "science" and "religion" are in no essential conflict. Yet the clergy do make this assumption all too often. University students especially need assurance on this matter. Even among quite intelligent men and women, there are many today who do not understand that scientific methods and religious experience can dwell together; they still wonder about the relation of divine creation and natural evolution; they are still very doubtful as to the possibility of their holding to religious convictions and at the same time honestly accepting the findings of the laboratory. Far too many preachers are simply not realistic about the situation. They tend to think the problem has been solved for everybody when in fact even they themselves may only have shelved it.
The problem is compounded for us by the reappearance in recent years of biblical fundamentalism. A relatively small number of earnest Christians, frightened by the "risk" which comes from taking scientific biblical studies seriously and above all afraid of the honest attempt to bring scientific understanding and biblical thought into some kind of unity, have retreated into a theological "never-never land" where they may talk among themselves about the religion they hold without exposing it to the attacks of modern scientific thinking. They produce spokesmen who are extremely vocal, although not very enlightened; and the end-result of it all is that the word gets around that this is Christianity and that the gospel, if it is to be accepted at all, must be understood in this way. Of course the number of those who respond to biblical fundamentalism is relatively small, but it is just large enough to make the report seem probable -- and in consequence, a surprisingly large number of men and women who might be reached by a more intelligent presentation are "put off" Christianity once for all. In circles where biblical fundamentalism is impossible, we often find its partner-in-arms, creedal and ecclesiastical fundamentalism. Here certain articles of the historic creeds, or certain statements in the Reformation confessions of faith, or certain inherited structures in the ecclesiastical body, are set off from all critical examination in the same fashion as that which is found in the biblicist’s treatment of the Bible. But once again, this narrow interpretation leads many others to identify the Christian gospel with what seems to them an impossible obscurantism.
In contrast to all this, our task is to speak in such a fashion that the ordinary man or woman can see that they can quite well be "scientifically minded," as they might put it, open to new knowledge from any and every realm, but that at the same time, with complete honesty and integrity, they can hold to the affirmations of faith which the preaching of the Church’s gospel is concerned to evoke in them. Yet there is an even deeper problem, one which has to do, not with the specifically scientific attitude or outlook, but with the total pattern of thought in our time.
A quarter of a century ago, in 1932 to be precise, the English philosopher Samuel Alexander addressed the Manchester Science Federation. In the course of his lecture he made a statement which is still worth repeating: "What we need is a religious mythology which is not in complete contradiction of all of our ordinary knowledge." Alexander was a free-thinking but loyal Jew with a deep religious sense, although his philosophical statement of the basis for religion, in his book Space-Time and Deity, cannot commend itself to us. He was speaking a long time before the word "myth" became fashionable in theological circles; but what he was saying was, in effect, that the "story" which a religion tells must not be so at variance with the common experience and the accepted patterns of thought of a given age that it seems to the hearers nonsensical or unintelligible. If it does seem nonsensical or unintelligible, the hearers will very likely refuse to give it serious consideration or will reject it out of hand as ridiculously inadequate or totally irrelevant to their actual situation.
It was noteworthy that Alexander did not say that the "religious mythology," to use his own not very satisfactory phrase, must be identical with what is taken as "ordinary knowledge." He was not so naïve as to think that a religious interpretation of life, and a fortiori the "mythology" upon which religion depends, is simply the republication of such ordinary knowledge, perhaps with the addition of an emotional flavor. He recognized that religion does say something; the "myth" brings additional knowledge to us, although in its own way and in its own language, which is not that of scientific or conceptual thinking. So, even in Alexander’s terms, we ought not to assume that there is going to be, or should be, a precise correspondence between the common experience and accepted patterns of thought in our or any other age, and the message which is conveyed through the religious story. To put this in another way, the gospel which we preach is not just what everybody believed anyway. A Christian interpretation of life, based on the proclamation that in Christ God is brought near to men for their wholeness, brings into the center of the picture what Professor Tillich has taught us to call our "ultimate concern hence it is bound to see all things in a different perspective, to open up to those who accept it wider vistas, and to give such men and women a deeper insight into the meaning of their existence. As a result, it will convince them of the inadequacy, for a full understanding of the meaning of that existence, of the run-of-the-mill experience of men, and of the scientific and philosophical patterns which in any given age seem useful and satisfactory within their proper limits.
On the other hand, however, the Christian interpretation of life need not flatly contradict the best insights, the most thoughtful evaluations and appraisals, and the noblest ideas and aspirations of men in any given culture. It may, indeed it must, correct them, especially when they manifest a sinful and stupid pride in man’s own unaided and uncriticized abilities and powers; it may, indeed it will, raise to the highest power those aspects of a given culture which do possess truth. What it will not do is simply negate such insights, evaluations, appraisals, ideas, and aspirations, and the pattern of culture from which they spring, as if they were sinful in themselves and without any relevance to the religious enterprise.
Alexander’s remark has a striking significance for us today, for one of the unfortunate, and indeed highly dangerous, aspects of the present revival of theological interest is precisely the disjunction between the religious "story" and "ordinary knowledge." The particular point to which I should like to direct attention is the contempt now so often manifested in religious circles and in theological discussion for the "reconciliation" of Christian faith with philosophical thought.
This contempt is shown in different ways. With some, it has as its basis a mistaken theological conviction that there can be no "point of contact" between faith and philosophical enquiry. With others, it expresses itself in the notion that religion "has its own logic," which is entirely incommensurable with the common "logic" of other human enterprises. With still others, it is manifested in rather cruder ways, as for example in a glib distinction between "dimensions" of human experience and the assumption that the several dimensions can never meet or intersect. All these attitudes have one thing in common. They seem to have forgotten, if they ever knew, that the demand of men, wherever they may live and whatever they may believe, is always for a real unification of thought and life -- a unity in which religious faith may be the highest integrating factor, but a unity which includes within it the rest of human thinking and experience, so that the whole man is at one in his response to the world. These popular contemporary ways of stating the meaning of religion seem to split man up into compartments or to suggest a dizzying variety of quite unrelated ways of adjustment to the world. They might almost be said to glory, of course for what they conceive to be the highest ends, in a kind of schizophrenia.
Again, in sharp contrast to the great tradition of Christian theology, many contemporary religious writers seem to spend most of their time explaining themselves to themselves or their colleagues. They regard theology as the activity by which the Christian thinker articulates or systematizes the experience or life of the Christian community, or creates a schematic summary of the basic data found in the Scriptures upon which the community’s life is founded. Professor Alan Richardson, for instance, falls victim to this tendency when he describes theology as the study of the phenomenon presented by the existence of the Christian Church. The whole procedure has a striking resemblance to the way in which, as an old story has it, a band of Chinese shipwrecked on a desert island supported themselves: "they took in each other’s laundry."
But in the grand tradition, Christian theology was nothing short of the study of God in relation to everything else. It was not regarded as concerned only with the experience of life in the Christian community, nor solely with the biblical data upon which that community is founded, but with the whole range of life and experience, in every area, as this was related to God. It had to do with God in his relationship to the whole creation; it welcomed as material for its work anything and everything that men had discovered, and it sought to find the divine purpose manifested there; it insisted upon, and gave itself to discover, that basic unity which would give unity to the existence of men. Against this background, the gospel was to be preached. For the Christian gospel made sense of, and gave sense to, this vast mass of data, this enormous range of human experience, which constituted the "ordinary knowledge" of man in the world.
So we are brought back to Alexander’s remark. All Christians ought to acknowledge that the "ordinary knowledge" of men, so far as it approximates truth, is the gift of God, who as the divine Reality, is every man’s "ultimate concern" and who is inescapably encountered by every man under countless incognitos and through innumerable, and sometimes very strange, media. If that be true, then it is an absolute necessity that our "religious mythology" -- the "story" we tell, the gospel we preach -- shall be seen to have the most intimate relationship with that knowledge. Our theology, when we come to develop one on the basis of the gospel the Church proclaims, must make sense of and give sense to this knowledge. It is not called to acquiesce without criticism in what people commonly say or think; it must certainly criticize and correct. But at the same time it must be aware of, have respect for, and use this "ordinary knowledge." It must not speak in flat contradiction to it; nor dare it give itself, in its failure to use this "ordinary knowledge," the convenient alibi of claiming that the gospel is necessarily an "offense" and a "scandal."
Of course the gospel is that, but let us be careful about how we understand what we mean. Alfred North Whitehead once wrote about the "fallacy of the misplaced concretion." We may speak today, in respect of much theological writing and discussion, of the "fallacy of the misplaced offense." The real offense of the gospel is to sinful, proud, self-assertive man. As Rudolf Bultmann has rightly remarked, the "offense" or "scandal" ought not to be found in the sheer irrelevance and utter meaninglessness of the gospel, when it is interpreted out of all relationship to man’s "ordinary knowledge." To make this vividly clear to contemporary theologians and apologists, and above all to contemporary preachers, is Bultmann’s purpose in the controversy which has developed about his ideas; and we should be able to see this and bring it home to ourselves, without necessarily adopting Bultmann’s own way of meeting the problem. This is not just a theological issue; it is vital for the working pastor who is called upon to preach Christ week by week and day by day. In fact it is he who must be partially concerned. For Sunday by Sunday in his preaching from the pulpit, and day by day in his pastoral duties which are nothing but preaching in another manner, he must seek constantly to bring the "religious mythology" to bear on the "ordinary knowledge" of the common man.
The pastor of a certain congregation, a man of deep convictions, high ideals, and keen pastoral sense, has succeeded in nearly emptying his church because, as one of his people, a devout and dedicated layman, told me, he preaches nothing but denunciation of all human activity and enterprise as sinful, in contrast to the message of Christ which alone has value and makes sense. He has failed to give meaning to and to make meaning of that ordinary experience and general knowledge through which, as I firmly believe was recognized by the great doctors of the Christian tradition, God is also speaking and revealing himself to those who hear the gospel.
Surely the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the gospel in its authentic reality, is meant to be the master-light of all our seeing; it is meant to enable us to find the presence and purpose of God in all our work; it is meant to bring the whole world, and every bit of our "ordinary knowledge" about it, into relationship with God in Christ -- to the end that finding him and being found of him we may come to live integrated, full, abundant lives, now in this present time and to all eternity. In an age of religious awakening, as many call our day, we must never forget that the gospel is to be preached and taught to people who live with "ordinary knowledge." There is a sense in which insistence on the "relevance" of the gospel can become a disguise for a "reduction" of it. But there is another and higher sense in which it is but a way of saying that the God of whom the gospel speaks is the God of the whole world, and that the Lord in whom that God so richly dwelt claims "all the kingdoms for his own."
Despite the respect owed to "science" and its achievements, there is a growing anxiety and uncertainty, on the part of many people, about life as a whole. People are ill at ease. What Thoreau called the "quiet sense of desperation" is much more prevalent than the prosperous "front" of modern life might seem to indicate. The very fact of our increased knowledge, thanks to science, and the dangerous power this has given men, may have much to do with the dis-ease. However that may be, this anxiety is the explanation for the appearance of the many cults of "reassurance" or "peace of mind" so popular today. It is, of course, true that these cults cannot, so to speak, "deliver the goods." At best they may be able to give their adherents a temporary sense of well-being and security, at worst they are likely to provide dangerously effective techniques for evading the harsh reality of life as it really is. Like the ostrich in the desert, those who succumb to their appeal may simply hide their heads in the sand while the storms blow. They are trying to escape from the world.
Yet we dare not forget that the Christian gospel does promise peace -- not as the world gives it, to be sure, but peace nonetheless. The words of Isaiah are often in my mind: "Thou shalt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusteth in thee." This ancient prophet’s affirmation was drawn from the depths of his own experience of the anchorage that faith in God had provided for his life. To the Christian it should come with renewed power. For our gospel is that in the person of Jesus Christ, and through a total surrender to him and a life lived in him, God has provided for us a basic security among the changes and chances of this mortal life. So it is that in our "given" world, and to the people who dwell in it here and now, the gospel is not only challenge and demand but also the "peace of God which passeth all understanding."
It will require all our ingenuity to distinguish, both for ourselves and for our people, between the specious "peace of mind" of the cults and the abiding "peace of God" which follows upon acceptance of the proclamation of Christ as Lord. Yet we are compelled to this effort, for we must make clear to our people in this day of confusion, anxiety, and disquietude, that in their Christian faith, as they respond in heart and mind and soul and will to the love of God declared and shown in Christ Jesus, there is a steadying power that will enable them to take life as it comes and to make of it, by God’s grace, a thing of beauty, of dignity, and of glory. The parson who talks about these things but who in his own life is a fussy, bothered, anxious, and confused person, will teach quite the opposite of what his lips are saying. This is why it is incumbent upon us, not only for our own salvation but above all for those whose joy, as St. Paul puts it, we are commissioned to help, that we develop in ourselves a deep and rich and serene life of Christian faith and devotion. A preacher of the gospel without that is a preacher without the "one thing needful."
This leads directly to another element in the pattern of our times. It is plain that men and women today, again perhaps largely because of the scientific temper, but perhaps also for much deeper reasons, tend to be pragmatic in temper. They judge by results. Many of us are likely to believe that such pragmatism is essentially unchristian and therefore dismiss it out of hand. I cannot think this right. "By their fruits ye shall know them," our Lord said; and it seems to me to be part of the Christian claim for the gospel of Christ that acceptance of our Lord as Master of our lives does produce results. Dean Inge once remarked that "faith is an experiment that ends in an experience"; and we need to remember that while a cheap and easy judging by results is both dangerous and ignoble, what Baron von Hilgel described as "long-range pragmatism" -- the slow, gradual, but sure ripening of the fruit -- may be both a valuable criterion of truth and a convincing demonstration of it.
The real trouble, of course, is that people today want not only results, but quick results. They are imbued with the idea that immediate consequences must follow from the first, or at most the second or third, application. They are likely "to send the bottle back" to the tradesman if such immediate results do not come. Surely our job here is plain. We must make it clear, in our preaching of the gospel, that like everything that is worth having, Christian "fruits" do not come easily. They must be worked for; they must be given time. We need to be careful not to preach the gospel as if it were a quick panacea for all ills. We must say plainly that nobody became a Christian, and nobody remained one, without putting all of himself into it and studying for a long time in the practice of it. We must ask for the whole man. Then the results will come.
We dare not give the impression that the gospel is a panacea in still another cheap sense. Sometimes preachers suggest, if they do not actually say, that if everybody should become Christian, all the world’s problems would be solved. I have often thought that if everybody did become Christian in a serious commitment to our Lord, our problems would at once be enormously increased. We should then be enabled to see heights and depths of human possibility, of human achievement and of human degradation, which the secularist, the humanist, or the semi-Christian, never even dreams about. Christianity, and the gospel it proclaims, does not and cannot claim to solve every human problem and to answer every human question. What it can claim is that in the gospel we have a perspective in which we see these problems and questions in a new and right way, a sense of proportion which helps us get things in their proper place, and a power which enables us to live as human sons of God rather than as sophisticated simians.
It is important to make this clear from the start. We must not pretend to be able to give more than in fact we can deliver; we must not let people think that the gospel can do for them what it can do for no man and for no age. It is the "power of God unto salvation," not the blue-print for an earthly utopia nor a detailed program for worldly achievement, however good. This is not to say that the gospel is not relevant to the political, economic, social, industrial, national, and international situation. It is relevant to them all, but not in any easy way. It provides us with the ultimate standard: human personality made in the image of God, living in community with the brethren. In terms of that standard, all blueprints and all programs are to be judged. And the gospel provides us with the power -- the love of God released in Christ Jesus and made effective in our love for our fellowmen -- which enables us to go through toil and hardship in the effort to bring more justice to more men at more times and in more places. Surely that is relevance of the highest order.
Many years ago, when I was a student, I walked in Times Square, New York, with a friend. We were commenting on the drab and dull faces of the city dwellers whom we met on the street. And then there came along the street a young lady of such beauty, poise, and charm, that my friend -- rather susceptible in such matters -- suddenly said, "Look at her. I guess there’s something worthwhile after all." In my more mature years I have found that that incident points to a truth of much deeper significance. When I ride in the New York subway or on a bus, I am inclined to think how drab and dull, how stupid and inane, much of life is; how hopeless most of the people one meets seem to be. And then, with a turn of the mind, I think of the flaming figure of Jesus Christ, who wore our humanity like a royal garment, who turned the curse of life into a Cross bravely borne, who triumphed not so much over strife as in the midst of strife. And when I think of him, I can look again at the people around me and the world in which they and I live; and then I find that I have for these people and for that world a strange love, a deep concern, an inescapable care. If he lived in our world, if he wore our human nature, then indeed there is hope. The gospel of God in Jesus Christ gives us precisely this hope; and it also gives us renewed faith in the ordinary man and woman of our towns and cities and villages, and a renewal of love which cannot rest until all men have been given the opportunity to live with dignity and beauty even in our meanest streets, and until those very streets have been made fit highways for the brethren of the Son of the living God.
The gospel is directed at sinners: "I came to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance." The irony of our Lord’s word is found of course in the fact that all men, but especially those who think themselves righteous, are sinners. The old evangelical saying, that you can preach salvation only to a man who feels himself convicted of sin, is entirely true and should never be forgotten by any preacher of the gospel of Christ. Yet I must make some qualifications.
Thanks to many factors -- the present world situation with its dangers, the frustration which industrialized society creates, the diffused influence of critics such as Reinhold Niebuhr, and many other contributing causes -- most men and women in the western world today are quite aware of sin in a general and pervasive sense. They would not use the word "sin," of course, but they would admit that they know the sense of failure, the awareness of estrangement, the feeling of inadequacy to meet the demands of life. All this is real enough to our contemporaries. They may seem on the surface very comfortable in Sion; they may seem interested only in keeping up with their neighbors; they may be conservative politically or they may be self-satisfied with their radicalism. But when we get down underneath that surface, there is exactly what some recent American writers, themselves secularist in point of view, have insistently noted: a sense of loneliness, of lostness, of heavy burdens to be carried. I am thinking of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Lionel Trilling, Peter Viereck, and Arthur Koestler; but there are many others like them in other lands, who in book after book have painted our generation for us. What the old, and perhaps now unworkable, concept of "original sin" (and how many of us wish that we had a better and more adequately descriptive phrase!) was intended to portray is as real to them as anything can be.
But what is lacking in these analyses and in the people who are being described is a vivid realization of the equally important fact of actual sins, of the particular this and that which each one of us does and for which each one of us is finally responsible. This is the stuff of our daily experience and yet it must be brought home to us. Here the preacher of the gospel today is presented with a task that will exact every ounce of his energy. He must somehow show the ways in which such men and women as he finds in his congregation, or wherever else he proclaims Christ, are actually sinners. It does not do much good to talk about our "state of sin" or our "sense of estrangement"; it is much more important to bring into the foreground the actual commissions and omissions of this man and that man. But we shall not get very far with him if we talk about sin and sins in a strictly "religious" sense. For it is not in the "religious areas" that most people, inside the Church or outside it, do really sin. Of course it is true as a theological statement that sin is a "religious" concept, as we so often hear it said today. What that fact ought to mean is that the common stuff of our sinning, in the places where we actually do sin, is always to be seen -- once we are aware of our potential and partly realized God-man relationship -- as being in the last analysis "against" God because it is contrary to his will for his children. But in the actual business of sinning we sin against society, our husband, wife, children, parents, classmates, neighbors, business partners and business competitors, against our friends and our enemies, against our talents and abilities. It is true that the man who has understood the gospel knows that "against thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight." Yes. But the places where he sins, and the kind of sins he commits, are not likely to be religious in the narrower sense. Our job as preachers of the gospel is to probe deeply, to awaken in our hearers the sense that in the "given" wrong-doings, wrong-thinkings, wrong-sayings of which they are conscious or can be made conscious, they are demonstrating both their involvement in sinfulness and also expressing their deep need for the gospel of Jesus Christ with its message of pardon, grace, and peace.
Yet even so, the gospel is not about sin; it is about redemption. It is not about the old Adam, in whom all die; it is about the new Adam, in whom all shall be made alive. It is my settled belief that we have had nearly enough preaching which centers attention on men’s sin; what we need these days is preaching about God’s grace. We need the good news of what God is, what God has done and still does and will do; we do not need the bad news of human failure, wickedness, frustration, evil-doing. We need to hear more about what men may be, what in the divine purpose they really are, what by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ they may become. We need the preaching of faith in Christ, of hope through him, and of love given by him. That is to say, we need the gospel.
In the period between the wars, North America was swept by a somewhat silly popular song which urged us to "accentuate the positive and minimize the negative." In our preaching of Jesus Christ, we need the positive: God in Christ, Christ in us the hope of glory, the glorious liberty of the sons of God. Here is our task as preachers of the gospel. If we preach so that men and women can see the joy of the Christian life, as the result of acceptance in faith of the Lord whom the gospel proclaims, and if at the same time we who are Christ’s ministers demonstrate that joy in our own lives, we shall find a surprising response not only from people inside but from people outside the Church. We must, of course, be sure that the joy is not that spurious and specious thing which makes the "professional Christian" an abomination unto the Lord and an annoyance to his neighbors. The joy of which we speak is the free, spontaneous, overflowing of life in charity, such as marked our Lord himself. Nobody could have called him a gloomy man, although he was certainly a serious one. Nobody could have called him "professionally" religious, although he was certainly one whose life was filled with the divine presence and power. He was a happy man; but his happiness was the blessed happiness of one whose life is hid in God.
The good news of the gospel can bring to our "given" world, and to the lonely, lost, heavy-laden people in it, "joy and peace in believing." If our preaching of the gospel does not do that, there is something radically wrong with our preaching, and very likely something radically wrong with us who are the preachers.