Chapter 6: Church: Message and Ministry
THE MESSAGE OF THE CHURCH DURING THIS PERIOD OF WORLD TRANSITION SHOULD BE FRAMED IN UTOPIAN-ESCHATOLOGICAL TERMS, STRESSING THE POWER AND PURPOSE OF THE DIVINE SPIRIT TO BRING ALL MEN INTO THE ECSTATIC JOY OF A NEW AGE, WHILE THE MINISTRY OF THE CHURCH IS BASICALLY TO CREATE A COMMUNITY OF PERSONS WHO CAN CAUSE, CELEBRATE, AND COPE WITH THE CHANGES THAT ARE REQUIRED BRING HUMANITY INTO THE PROMISE OF THE PLANETARY SOCIETY.
In his recent best seller, Alvin Toffler argued that many among us are already suffering from “future shock,” an illness with both physical and emotional symptoms resulting from exposure to change beyond the adaptive capacities of the human system. He points out that if the last 50,000 years of human life were divided into equal life-spans of 62 years, there have been about 800 such lifetimes. Of these 800, fully 650 were spent in caves. Only during the last 70 has written communication from one generation to another been possible. Only the last 6 have seen a printed word. Only the last 4 have been able to measure time accurately. Only the last 2 have used an electric motor. The great majority of all the material things we use today have been developed in the last of these 800 life-spans.(Future Shock [New York: Random House, 1970], p. 15)
This way of putting it sets in dramatic perspective the enormity and rapidity of change that the present generation is undergoing. My basic purpose in writing this “tract for the times” is to call attention to the crucial significance of the eight-hundred-and-first generation. We are living, I have argued, in a unique period of transition, marking a transformation as far reaching in importance as the leap that occurred when that biological man began to make history thousands of years ago. John Platt contends that “the present generation is the hinge of history,” sentiments echoed by a burgeoning chorus of voices. But should not we be sobered by the recognition that throughout the centuries men have felt that their own time was somehow unique, that they were living though the greatest crisis of all, that the future of civilization depended on how they responded to great challenges of the ages? Did not Gilbert Murray, for example, speak of the “widespread failure of nerve” that occurred following the demise of the autonomous Greek city-states in the midst of the conquests of Philip and then Alexander the Great? The rapid influx of new ideas, exotic religions, strange customs, foreign languages, and novel wares catapulted the old Athenians out of their comfortable little world into a perplexing cosmopolitan setting. Is not this “failure of nerve” in the face of these vast changes and an uncertain future much akin to what Toffler calls “future shock”?
Yes, one must be cautious about making extravagant claims. One evening when I had presented the thesis found in the first chapter of this book, a distinguished New Testament scholar in the audience said to me in effect, “It may be all right for you theologians to talk this way, but we historians know that men in many ages past have felt that their generation was unique and that the outcome of the future depended on them. . . . Your thesis is absurd.” Nevertheless, despite all this, I persist in my original claim that there are features in the present transition which do set it apart as a climactic era. While the psychological responses of men — “failure of nerve” and “future shock” — in our day and in previous eras in the face of rapid change may be similar, there are a number of converging factors which, when taken together, add up to an objectively novel state of affairs in history. My basic thesis is this: a planetary society is emerging. A worldwide network of interacting, interdependent human thought and activity covering the skin of the earth is developing, held together by global processes of communication, travel, commerce, communication, and cultural exchange. This is happening under conditions when the human race is approaching the biological limits of the earth, in terms of its capacity both to support the rapidly increasing numbers of people with food and materials and to absorb the polluting poisons we cast off into the land, the sea, and the air. At the same time the knowledge and know-how explosion is putting unprecedented and rapidly multiplying powers in man’s hands either to bless the earth or to curse it, to feed, clothe, and house all people and open up for them new vistas of creative adventure and enjoyment or to destroy the whole human race with doomsday weapons. In the light of all this, I believe it is true to say that we do live in a situation radically different from that of any previous generation.
Given this situation, what should be the message and ministry of the church in this eight-hundred-and-first generation? Throughout the preceding chapters I have suggested the basic outlines of a future-oriented perspective which takes the form of Christian biopolitics. This credo and strategy must be developed in alliance with secular futurists and other persons who are committed to a vision of a planetary brotherhood, living at peace with nature and with God, in which all people have equal access to the material resources of the world. In this final chapter, I wish to spell out more systematically some of the theological pre. suppositions which have been implicit throughout and to develop a conception of the role of the church for this crucial period of transition.
Biblical motifs are usefully viewed in a temporal perspective which moves from creation to consummation. The Bible opens in Genesis with the proclamation that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The Bible ends in the last chapter of Revelation with the promise that in the end the whole cosmos will be brought to glorious consummation in the appearance of a new heaven and a new earth. This destiny is seen as the consummation of the creation and as the realization of the divine purpose for the world. The message of the Bible is theocentric, and its Christology is to be viewed as a clarification of the relationship existing among God, man, and the world. The significance of the kerygma, which proclaims the redemptive work of God in Christ, lies in its opening up in a universally relevant fashion the manner of God’s dealing with the whole created order in carrying out his saving purpose. The content of this disclosure can be found in the witness of the Gospels to the life, deeds, and words of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as in the apostolic testimony to the preexistent Logos, the virgin-born Messiah, and the dying-rising, exalted Lord, the divine agent whose appearance marks the inauguration of the New Age. The central theme of the New Testament wherever one looks is the saving activity of God motivated by his unbounded love for every creature. Above all else, it is the quality and intention of the divine love that is manifest in Jesus. What he announces and inaugurates is the beginning of the end, the in-breaking of the eschaton in which the Kingdom of God long awaited and promised will appear in its fullness.
It cannot be doubted, however, that the New Testament focuses on the cross and resurrection as the event in which the divine love is most clearly discerned. The cross and resurrection, when demythologized and reinterpreted in a modern setting, symbolize the suffering and triumphant love of God which struggles in every time and place, in every event and experience, to fulfill the potentialities of every creature. The divine love which suffers and triumphs in the cosmos and in human history defines the meaning of creation and of consummation. God creates because to be is good; there is joy in existing. Man’s being is a gift of God, and the fulfillment of his being is the aim of the underlying power which bears him and the whole universe forward in struggle and success, in crucifixion and resurrection. The enjoyment of being occurs when man responds in gratitude and trust to God and by reproducing in his relations with his human companions the quality and intention of the divine love. Man finds his true fulfillment in this life of grateful and adoring love toward God and self-giving love toward his neighbor. The end of life is an organic community of selves in which each finds his own enjoyment of life by sharing in and contributing to the good of the whole. Each suffers with every defeat and each triumphs in every victory that occurs in the human pilgrimage. Salvation is the enjoyment of life despite ambiguity. This joy in being is a possibility ever hovering over individuals and communities who can discern in the pattern of events the working of a universal purpose within the very nature of things. Men can be reconciled to one another and to life itself if and when they can be convinced at the depths of their being that the hope and promise disclosed in Jesus’ announcement of the coming Kingdom is truly the wave of the future. Ambiguity can be partially transcended most of the time, and fully transcended in certain ecstatic moments in which the awareness of being in loving union with all life blots out all alienation.(The two previous paragraphs were taken from my article, “Salvation and the Mission of the Church,” Religion in Life (Autumn, 1970), pp. 386-87.)
But what about the biblical notion of a final consummation in complete victory is finally and permanently won over the powers of evil? Classical Christianity has assumed a life beyond the grave for the righteous, a heaven of bliss forever. There is, of course, no way to settle that question prior to death. We simply do not know whether there is a life beyond or not. I am willing to leave the question open for the moment. However, I do believe that ideas of biblical eschatology, of a final consummation of the human drama, of heaven and hell, have primary relevance for history itself.
If we examine the Old and New Testaments, what we find, at least from the eighth century BC. on, is that in each era the prophets define an “end” to history, specifying an ideal destiny for the righteous growing out of the particularities of that time and place. As long as attention was focused on the community, the hope tended to center on a historical fulfillment for Israel itself in some future Palestine. A destiny for Israel is forecast in which righteousness, peace, and prosperity reign under a Davidic Messiah. (Isaiah) Later on when the individual comes to be more important and when the powers of evil, now cosmic in scope, are thought to be too formidable to overcome within history, the expectation becomes otherworldly, and a resurrection of the individual dead is announced. The revived faithful will share in the bliss of the new age, and the wicked will be further punished. This is the apocalyptic vision of Daniel and others of that period (second century BC.). In the New Testament an apocalyptic perspective is assumed. This age is running out. The new age is dawning. Men are urged to repent, believe, and obey God in order to inherit the bliss of the Kingdom to come and to avoid the wrath to fall upon the disobedient. The alternatives are set before men, either life or death, heaven or hell. The great transition is under way. Soon the consummation of all things will take place and the powers of evil will be put down once and for all. The dead will be raised. The judgment will take place, the righteous to inherit everlasting joy, while the wicked are abandoned to outer darkness.
If we take, for example, Isaiah (eighth century BC.), II Isaiah (sixth century BC.), Daniel (second century BC.), Revelation (first century AD.) and II Peter (second century AD.) we see that at each period in the history of Israel and the church the community looks forward to an ideal good future. Each set of images projects a perfected social order in which the ambiguities of history are overcome. The content of this ultimate hope grows organically out of the felt needs, miseries, dreams, and faith of that given period, using categories available in the culture of the time. But at the same time this good future is seen as transcendent to the present order; that is, it embodies features radically different from those that are characteristic of the present. Isaiah sees the lion lying down with the lamb and the author of Revelation envisions streets of gold and gates of pearl. The central feature is that men are reconciled to each other in perfect justice and stand before God in ecstatic joy.
But let us note carefully that in no case did the consummation predicted actually come to pass.(This came home to me particularly while reading John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1953). I kept asking myself, “When are these Jews and Christians going to catch on to the fact that this perfect age is not going to take place in the way that was predicted?” The book is an excellent account of the centrality of the Kingdom of God in Scripture and of the various forms the hope assumed through the centuries.) Generation after generation prophets announced the imminent appearance of the Messiah and the inbreaking of the Reign of God with power. Time after time the future reality failed to measure up to the promise. The realizations that did occur were partial or took unexpected turns, as, for example, in the appearance of Jesus who did not quite fit the model of the expected Savior. Obviously the final consummation of all things in the full glory of the promised New Age has never come to pass. Rather, history moves on, full of ambiguity, a mixture of enjoyment and suffering, of crucifixion and resurrection, of tragedy and triumph. There are real gains. Lines of moral as well as material progress can be charted. But each new age brings with it new perils as well as new promises, and the perfected order of justice and joy is still a hope unrealized among the children of men.
My suggestion, then, is that we take the New Testament conception of the consummated Kingdom of God as a symbol of the transcendent goal of history. Heaven and hell define the ultimate limits of human destiny. Heaven stands for the complete blessedness and joy of life in perfect unity with nature, man, and God. Hell indicates the utter despair and damnation which characterize life completely cut off from meaning and enjoyment. In history we move between and toward these absolute possibilities. In addition to these absolutes which are transcendent to all epochs, we need specific, detailed images of a good future which set forth the ultimate horizons of ideal possibility for a given epoch. These concrete utopias consist of visions of a perfected social order growing out of an encounter between present actuality and future possibility in the light of that ultimate good defined by the Kingdom of God. I have, in this book, outlined the content of an appropriate image of the future, a concrete utopia, relevant to the perils and promises of this era. I refer to the notion of a planetary society living at peace with nature and with God organized in such a way as to provide all persons with equal access to the available means of human fulfillment. I believe that this vision stands in the tradition of biblical religion with its future-orientation toward a perfected community, an ideal destiny which never fully comes to pass but which stands as a powerful lure generating faith, love, and hope. Persons who are grasped by the power of such visions, who are inspired by a “sublime madness in the soul” (Reinhold Niebuhr), are the probable agents of redemptive social change, even though they know in their critical moments that no future achievement is likely to embody the full measure of their treasured ideal.
The God who bears the historical process forward in suffering and triumph toward the perfected reign of justice and joy must be seen in three aspects — God the Father (Creator), Jesus the Son (Clarifier), and God the Spirit (Consummator). God as Father is the transcendent Ground and Goal of the cosmic process. As Cosmic Life he is an Individual Organism who is striving for his own fulfillment through the perfection of his body-world. As Cosmic Whole he is also a Society of Organisms, made up of the sum total of all the finite processes that compose the spatiotemporal cosmos. As Ground he is the absolute originator of all particular beings who come into being and pass away. As Goal he is himself in a process of becoming, struggling toward the fullest possible realization of the potentialities of his Life.
God can be called perfectly good because we experience the potential joy of life as an excellent gift and because we believe Jesus to provide the best clue to the divine character. But the power and persistence of evil in frustrating the promised goodness of life raises questions as to whether God can be called perfectly powerful in any traditional sense. My own intuition is that God is most adequately comprehended in images stressing struggling, suffering love. God is prevented from achieving the perfection of his body-world, not only by the recalcitrant freedom of the creatures, but also by some dark, unspecifiable impediment.(I have worked on this problem in some detail in Science, Secularization and God, chapter 5.)
With regard to creation itself, three emphases have run throughout the theological perspective assumed in these pages: the goodness, the unity, and the goal-oriented striving of all created things. In the first chapter of Genesis we are told repeatedly that God looked at what he had made and saw that it was good, very good, and this long before man appeared on the scene. Whatever is, is good, and it is good because it is. No thing is evil in itself. Evil arises in the interactions that occur among the parts of the universe. Things collide with each other. One being seeking its own ends interferes with the goal-seeking activity of another. Hence, it is not true to say that whatever happens is good.
Secondly, we must say that the evolution of galaxies, the development of life upon earth, and the story of man are part of one show. Suppose an observer could be placed so that he could see everything that happened. Imagine, then, that the flow of time is reversed. Our observer watches as very shortly there are no men on earth, only various animals. Then all life disappears; further back, the earth is a molten mass. Continuing to move backward in time, the mass of earth disappears into a gaseous cloud and merges with other vaporized bodies and so on until billions of years back we come, presumably, to the vast, compacted, superheated “atom” which, to reverse directions again, explodes to send the evolving, expanding galaxies on their way. When did God begin to create man? Are not our distinctions between nature and history shortsighted anti of limited validity when seen in this cosmic perspective? While man is not a stone, or a tree, or a dog, or a chimpanzee, but a creature whose powers of reason and spirit set him apart, still his past merges with one vast creative process that recedes into primordial mystery. We cannot understand fully the nature of history apart from the history of nature.
Finally, while the Bible focuses upon the history of human salvation, the whole creature is struggling toward consummation, striving to realize to the fullest degree the potentialities of the creative thrust that throbs within it. Perhaps it will die at the conclusion of this epoch, maybe to rise again in some fresh adventure in times and spaces beyond all imagining — a new heaven and a new earth.
God as Son refers in a special way to Jesus. Jesus is both Messiah and Logos. As Messiah he appears as a particular man in history, the divinely sent redeemer figure. As Logos he discloses the pattern and purpose immanent in the divine activity (John 1: 1-14). The symbol of the divine Son is a way of pointing to those places, times, and events in which the nature and character of the transcendent Creator are disclosed and discovered. Jesus is a unique Son of God because he provides for the Christian the single most effective clarification of the will and work of God for and in history. There may be other “sons of God” in and through whom supplementary or corrective revelations may come. I am suggesting that in the society of the future, imperialism must give way to humility in religion. While the Christian will continue to find in Jesus a special, even normative, light and life leading to salvation, he ought to be open to listen to the testimony of other prophets and saints, even while sharing his own good news with confident conviction. It is more important in the future to ask how the great religious traditions can together open men up to the full potentialities of the joy of life. We should not seek some kind of exclusive loyalty to Jesus that will simply perpetuate religious divisions in ways which further accentuate the fragmentation of the human family.
God as Spirit is the divine presence and power at work in the world, both saving it here and now and luring it forward toward consummation. In a general sense, spirit is the internal vigor of organisms, that which makes them “alive,” the quality of active energy driving toward the actualization of their potentialities. Spirit is, in this sense, almost identical with life itself, especially when thought of as the internal, invisible livingness or vitality of organisms — animating, power-giving “breath.” In man this quality becomes self-conscious and exists in union with rationality. Referred to God, Spirit is that ultimate power and meaning which gives life to creatures and directs them toward fulfillment. Most abstractly, Spirit is the power of self-transcendence. That which is being led or lured out of its present state toward a new state of wholeness and joy, is being saved. Hence, the Spirit is the power of God for salvation.
In the specific Christian sense, the Holy Spirit is the “secret energy . . . by which we are introduced to the enjoyment of Christ and all his benefits.” (Calvin) (A Compendium of the Institutes of the Christian Religion [Presbyterian Board of Education, 1939], p. 89.) When persons experience the quality of life and love that was revealed, manifested, and intended in Jesus of Nazareth, there the Spirit is present. When human existence is enjoyed despite the ambiguities of life, the Spirit is at work. Wherever persons are united to each other and to God in justice and joy, the Spirit has done it. Where hope is born in the expectation of a good future, of a consummation of life in which its promise is fulfilled, the Spirit is the source.
Spirit, however, refers not only to the saving power of God in the present but also to the nisus which drives toward a consummation of history that lies beyond any present realization. The Spirit is the vitality that operates on the frontiers of life directing it and thrusting it toward wholeness and joy. The Spirit is the quest for a fulfilled future, God luring and leading life toward an ultimate redemption that was promised and begun in Jesus but which waits for its complete realization. The Spirit, then, is the principle of novelty, the power of futurity, the fulfiller of promises. The theological perspective outlined in these pages is in a special way a theology of the Spirit, both because it focuses on ecstatic joy (life united in love to all of life as the culminating moment of salvation) but more because of its utopian orientation toward a consummation of present possibilities in a New Age (perfect justice in a prosperous planetary society). The ecstatic-mystical and immanent utopian tendencies are traditionally connected, particularly with emphasis on the Spirit. Montanus, Joachim of Fiores, Thomas Münzer and others with their notions of the imminent appearance of the telos are examples. In these theologies a historical consummation is expected which is identified with the age of the Spirit, which follows in succession the age of the Father and of the Son.
Let me develop this theme in the light of the thesis of this book. I have suggested that the study of the future may increasingly provide a source of insight and a guide to action, supplementing the role that the study of history has traditionally played. In times of stability when change comes slowly, men can learn well from the accumulated treasury of past experience. But if the next fifty years brings more change than the last five hundred, how valuable will the solutions of the past be for the problems of the future?
Men have always lived both by memory and by anticipation and must continue to do so. But I have urged that attention be shifted from the former toward the latter. Put theologically, this means that Christians need to concentrate less on remembering in faith what God has done in Christ in reconciling the world to himself and more on anticipating in hope what God will do through the Spirit to bring men into the ecstatic joy of the promised Kingdom. It may be more important at the moment to discern the intention of the Spirit than to declare the Incarnation of the Son. If it be protested that this is an unwarranted unbalancing of the trinitarian pattern, then I reply that the Spirit has most often not been regarded as significantly as the Son. All that I maintain is that an ecumenical council of 1975 ought to give as much attention to the Spirit of God as the ecumenical council of 325 gave to the Son of God. What we need is a genuinely trinitarian theology in the future that will take the future as seriously as trinitarian theology in the past has taken the past.
Put philosophically, it may be said that the Father is the principle of power or creativity, the Son is the principle of order or meaning, while the Spirit is the principle uniting and transcending these two. The result is the drive toward novelty, fulfillment, and self-transcendence. A theology of the Spirit will emphasize freedom, the creation of the new, and the fulfillment of the creative process. Classical Protestant theology has insisted that the Spirit has to be tested by the Word, that is, by the norm given in history in Christ. Not all who claim inspiration are inspired by the Spirit. Not all enthusiasms, not all new proposals, not all innovations, are the work of the Holy Spirit. There are standards and structures by which the products of freedom must be tested. Word and Spirit, order and freedom, identity and novelty, established structures and creative innovation must be kept in balance.
Hence, the problem of a theology of the Spirit which stresses the new thing that God will do which goes beyond anything yet seen in history can be stated as follows: How can persons and societies achieve novelty without the loss of identity? How can one claim the promise of the future which brings what is new without losing the achievements of the past which are worthy to abide? How can we develop a theology of freedom which looks with radical openness to the future for new truths and values without neglecting the claims of a theology of order which is mindful of what has been established in the past?
In practical terms we are asking the question that is posed by Alvin Toffler when he speaks of the “future shock” which results when people are faced with changes so rapid and so profound that they cannot cope with them. They feel lost, insecure. They are confronted with so much novelty and are faced with so many new choices that they are threatened with a loss of their identity, having no secure principle of meaning to give them stability.
How much change can a person take without losing all security in his life? That is clearly a problem, both for citizens of our time facing the momentous and accelerating crises of the future and for the theological vision I have been developing in the preceding chapters. I have stressed the unprecedented era into which we are moving. I have claimed that we are headed for a new age, pregnant with magnificent promise and horrifying peril. I have maintained that basic transformations in ideas, values, and goals are required if we are to prosper in the coming global society. Finally, I have called for the nourishing of utopian dreams of a perfected social order to shake us loose from our obsolete ideas and idolatrous loyalties and to open us to the images and ideals appropriate for the coming era. Clearly enough this hope for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit which will cause our old men to see visions and our young men to have dreams is a call for risk and adventure. Can the church be an instrument of the Spirit, a witness to a vision of a world brotherhood in which increasing knowledge and know-how are put in the loving service of human need? Can the church teach men to celebrate change, to welcome it and work for it? Can it at the same time provide meaning and stability in the midst of change so that people can keep their sanity? I believe that these are among the crucial questions facing the Christian enterprise today. The most creative intellectual response to these questions, I believe, will produce a theology which focuses on the human future in the light of the Christian past, which searches the revelation of God in Christ for the clues to the intention and goal of the Spirit of God for the future of mankind.
With regard to man I have already discussed briefly his nature as a biospiritual organism whose life is set within cosmos and nature as well as within society and history. Also, I have touched upon his tendency toward sin as a free, rational spirit who is seduced into idolatrous loyalties both by fear of losing his life and by fascination with special advantages he can gain for himself by calculating self-aggrandizement. I have tried to say, however, that most people do not fall into extreme patterns of evil doing toward their neighbors, either out of fear or out of sheer perversity. Rather, they struggle along adopting the conventional morality of their day, doing what they can, and hoping for the best, but not motivated by any great obsession for either good or evil causes. Hence, inertia, passivity, and lethargy are among the prominent sins of mankind as well as pride, greed, cruelty, and sensuality. Finally, I have held out the hope that a creative minority of dreamers and doers can be radically transformed by the power of a magnificent vision of an ideal future, while many others can be converted to a lesser degree so that they will at least provide some support for the prophets and producers of a new age. Beyond this, I would like to suggest some further dimensions that need to be included in any theology designed for the future. These have to do with the classical doctrines of the image of God and of election. These two can be considered together. In Genesis 1:26-28 we are told that God addressed the divine beings who made up the heavenly council, proposing that they make man in the divine image and that he be given dominion over all living things. Man is to be like the gods, the heavenly hosts who surround the divine throne, and like God. In a theology for the future we need to take into account the polytheistic flavor of that early text and suggest that man is indeed becoming like a god. By this I mean that science and technology are putting powers into the hands of human beings that have traditionally been reserved for the gods. Gods were thought to be superhuman in knowledge and power but still finite.
Consider the following anticipated possibilities. It may be possible shortly for man to produce life in the laboratory that is constituted of the same biochemical elements as that which has evolved over billions of years by natural processes. Men may soon be able to create as many genetically identical copies as desired of any given person through what is technically called cloning. It may become possible sooner or later to modify personality through genetic engineering, thus creating whatever kind of person we desire. This forming of persons in accordance with a chosen pattern may be aided by electro-chemical control measures, by techniques of conditioning and training, and by a host of other methods now coming into being or yet to come. It may be possible to lengthen indefinitely the span of life by mastering the biological processes which control aging.
Cryonics holds out the yet unverified possibility that bodies may be frozen and later reanimated for an indefinite number of lives. Conception of babies and growth of embryos will likely become possible in a number of ways that completely bypass sexual intercourse and the womb. In the future, men may be able to build an existential computer, a conscious machine that can think, feel, and choose in ways that far exceed the limits of man’s own powers.
Finally, men are coming to be capable of producing weapons, a doomsday machine, that can wipe out all life on earth. Man as godlike creator or godlike destroyer — that seems to be the prospect. I have given familiar examples of future possibilities, some of which are sure to come (barring global disaster of some sort), others of which are likely, and others still uncertain. Nevertheless, what does finally come about, given the present rate of accelerating knowledge and techniques, will find us in a situation in which man can know and do what in former times was the privilege of the gods.
What I am suggesting is that man is coming to reflect God by developing godlike powers. But note that the claim is that man is becoming a god, not God. That awe-ful chasm between man as god and God as God will everlastingly remain. Note also that I am suggesting that man is reaching out for godlike power. He does not show unambiguous signs of increasing in “Godlike” goodness. In man the image of God is distorted, corrupted, broken. In short, man is a sinner. Hence, his growing powers can have satanlike effects. This is one of the fundamental reasons why the coming epoch is fraught with unprecedented possibilities for lifting man to higher levels of enjoyment than the race has ever known before. But for the same reason, unprecedented possibilities of horrendous evil lie ahead if the demonic potential of man is unleashed in a holocaust of nuclear war or if he foolishly populates or pollutes himself to death. Thus, the man-god still needs to experience the saving grace manifest in Jesus the God-Man.
In the light of the foregoing it may be that the coming era will be the age of “theological man.” The man who is becoming a god must face the God question in a twofold sense: (1) As a god, who is to be my God? In whose image am I made? What intentionality has come to self-conscious focus in me? What is my relationship to the total context in which I have emerged? What environing powers and purposes constitute the ultimate Source and Limit of my existence? What values, goals, and duties should take preeminence in my life? In what or whom shall I trust and to what or whom shall I be loyal when ultimate decisions must be made? (2) As a god, who am I? What is my true nature, function, purpose, and destiny? What am I good for, and what is good for me? For what was I intended, and to what am I headed? What is my place in the adventure of planetary life? What responsibilities, privileges, and limits define the range and the rules of human existence? These questions will increasingly emerge, I believe, in the minds of thoughtful persons in the coming decades and will define the existential situation to which the Christian message must be addressed. As already stated, Herman Kahn has himself said that increasingly the problems that must be faced are more theological than technological and that the remainder of this century will see a great deal of attention given to the question of the meaning and purpose of life. The present discussion is an attempt to begin the formulation of theological perspectives that speak to the condition of the emerging “theological man.”
A second classical theme that needs to be given a new dimension is the doctrine of election. The man who is made in the image of the gods is given power and authority over all living things.
And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28 RSV)
Man is an elect creature with a unique status and function, both in relation to all living things and with regard to the earth itself. He is to subdue it. From now on, however, we must understand this command in the light of Genesis 2:15. God put Adam in the garden and tells him “to dress it and to keep it.” The Hebrew word translated as dress is ’abhad, which suggests service; shamar (keep) means to guard, protect, or preserve.
A more powerful way of understanding this election of man to a special status is to see it after the pattern of Israel’s calling to be a special servant people of God through whom light and life would be brought to all nations. This high privilege carried with it heavy responsibility. Likewise, the privilege of ruling over all living beings and of subduing the earth carries with it the obligation to care for all things. Increasingly varieties of birds, fish, mammals, etc., either perish or are perpetuated by what men do to them directly or to the environment. Consider the implications of the fact that seals in Alaska have mercury in their livers, while penguins in the Antarctic have DDT in their fat. Men destroy some forms of life as they range to and fro over the globe with their machines, their chemicals, and their bombs. But men have also saved others from extinction by taking special pains to ensure their continuing reproduction. Man is called as the elect creature into responsibility for other species who in their own ways reflects the glory of God and show forth in their own struggle to live that it is good to be.
But not only must man develop “reverence for life” (Schweitzer), he must also have regard for the goodness of the whole creation, that which is living and that which is not. The whole earth is now man’s garden, and his task is to serve it, to guard it, to preserve it, and to protect it. This includes in our time taking care that the precious resources of the planet be used wisely and for the benefit of all men and that pollution be controlled for the sake of both survival and beauty. If man comes to have godlike powers, then his calling is to exercise the same regard for the goodness of all things, as does God, who numbers the hairs of our heads, takes note of every sparrow that falls, and gilds the lilies of the field. His duty is to so direct his own affairs and so to have regard for all other creatures as to develop a future in which there is peace not only between man and man but between man and animal and between man and the whole delicate system of relations that makes the earth a cradle of life.
Finally, I would like to speak briefly to the question of the ministry of the church in the present period of transition. The church is the community of those who have found in Jesus of Nazareth the clue to the ultimate creative power that has brought all things into being and to the immanent vitality that operates on the frontiers of life directing all things toward fulfillment. This community takes various forms in history as it seeks to give visible, institutional expression to the imperatives of Jesus, through whom both a disclosure of the will of God and union with his saving work have been mediated. In this discussion by the church I shall mean basically the churches, the congregations of believers in their organized life. More specifically, I have in mind those mainline American Protestant churches made up of largely middle-class people, mostly white. Attention is directed here since such persons are the most likely readers of this essay, and at this point I want to be as practical and down-to-earth as possible.
After presenting an earlier version of what appears here as the chapter on Christian biopolitics to a group of United Methodist denominational officials, one person suggested that my concern was “white and suburban.” I think there is truth here in that the poor, the black, and the oppressed generally are occupied — and rightly so — with a most urgent social struggle for simple justice. This practical point must be taken seriously, although I would argue that the issues I have discussed will increasingly affect the destiny of us all. Nor do I mean for a moment to retract what was said earlier about the role that the poor and oppressed may play in formulating and following visions of the good future. There is a great potential, I believe, in particular for dreaming and doing in the black church. The passion and purpose expressed in the dream of Martin Luther King hold a promise of reaching out beyond its immediate concern with black liberation to become a positive force in contributing to a general remaking of society. King himself had already begun to think not only of blacks but of the poor generally, and his linking of civil rights concerns to the immorality of the war in Vietnam is indicative of the promise that we hope may still blossom with power. My concern in these pages, however, is much more modest and will be directed primarily to mainline white American Protestantism.
During the last decade there has been, in the words of Jeffrey Hadden, “a gathering storm” in the churches.(The Gathering Storm in the Churches (New York: Doubleday, 1969). This conflict has emerged between the liberal and militant activist pastors and denominational leaders, on the one hand, and a large body of more conservative laymen, on the other hand, who think the church should stick to spiritual matters and stop meddling in politics and “social” issues. The “new breed” of clergyman is often seen in the streets and elsewhere protesting the war in Vietnam, demonstrating for civil rights for blacks, and leading the fight against poverty. This sight has produced consternation in many pious hearts who wonder what has happened to ministers to make them become fomenters of disorder. In addition, churches of mainline Protestantism have frequently resounded with sermons lambasting the complacency of the comfortable. Scorn has been heaped upon the defenders of the status quo who happen also to be the pillars of the congregation. The vices of the middle-aged and the middle class of middle America have been scored repeatedly, while the suburbanite is routinely pictured as one who cowardly flees from the tumult of the inner city to enjoy his affluence in the privacy of his background with its green grass and ubiquitous charcoal grill. Then, when these occupants of the comfortable pew who have been so severely rebuked are then asked for their money to support liberal and radical causes that are not in their minds the proper business of the church anyway, it is no wonder that stormy weather has developed.
While my own sentiments fundamentally favor the liberal social activists, I recognize that there are complex cultural and theological issues at stake that cannot be easily resolved. The storm has to do not only with the social role of the church but also relates, as Hadden points out, to confusion having to do with beliefs and the authority of the minister. Hence, the church is likely to be in for even more turmoil in the next decade. But with regard to the meaning and purpose of the church, both sides have a point. The conservatives are right in insisting that the primary function of the church is not to be a social action agency. The basic concern of the Christian message is with the ultimate issues of life, death, and destiny, that is, with man’s relationship to God, his will and work, his providence and purpose. The sermon ought to offer more than another partisan line on current political controversies. The church should be a “sanctuary” from the world, an extra-worldly source of hope, wisdom, and comfort.
But the liberal activists are right in insisting that one cannot separate the individual’s relationship to God at the ultimate level from his relationships to other persons in the political and economic spheres. It is precisely the encounter with the gift and demand of God’s love that puts the prevailing social order under radical judgment and requires a fundamental transformation of its structure. The experience of salvation is not complete apart from worldly action by individuals and churches not only to preach the gospel, but also to secure justice in society. If taken seriously, this task calls for corporate action by bodies of Christians as well as efforts by individual Christians in the various secular spheres in which they are involved. The gospel is a revolutionary social force precisely because it does confront individuals with the living God of the Bible. Appropriate means must be sought by which Christians make a corporate witness and impact upon the whole social order.
Beyond this, however, I think there are probably practical as well as theological factors that have entered into the turmoil of recent years over the role of the church in dealing with economic, political, and social issues.
The point I am leading up to is that for many laymen the gospel of liberal social activism offered to them by many pastors, denominational headquarters, and ecumenical leaders has not come as good news. Some laymen, of course, share the visions of their activist leaders. But for large numbers the message of judgment and condemnation which has come through has not produced militant social action designed to transform the structures of society. Rather the result has been to stiffen their support of the status quo. The reason may simply be that a message of liberation has been preached, but the liberation is for somebody else. They have been pronounced guilty, but guilt alone is not a motivator but a paralyzer, even if the judgment is accepted. They have heard demands for sacrifice of comforts but have not heard much promise of salvation for them. The white, affluent American, presumably, has it made already, and it is his heavy foot, he is told, which rests on the neck of the black, the poor, and the discontented. In this situation it should come as no surprise that not many volunteers have come forth to play the role of suffering servants.
If white middle class and affluent Protestant churches are to become dynamic centers of social transformation, then a vision must be offered them which makes it clear that the ideas, values, and actions required by the vision lead to their liberation. This is why the black church became a positive social force in the previous decade. Black Christians were awakened to the possibility of release from bondage, a vision inspired and undergirded by the language of liberation growing out of the eschatological faith of the Bible.
If the analysis I have offered in these pages is correct, the vision and the values required to carry the human race through the perils of the transition to enjoy the promises beyond result in a union of self-interest and morality. There is no happier combination than this. If what is demanded of me by high moral principles also leads to my deliverance in a situation where not to act in accordance with these ethical demands or to continue in my same ways of acting leads to my destruction, then there are possibilities for basic transformations of my ideas, attitudes, and goals.
It is not surprising that affluent, white Americans have been defensive of present arrangements in America. A social order that has enabled them through hard work to succeed and prosper cannot be all bad. Where members of churches are also members of “the establishment,” we should expect them to see basic congruence between the prevailing order and what Christian principles require. If, however, the analysis developed in this volume is correct, we are all in trouble unless we change. To refer to the parable of an earlier chapter, we are all in the overturned boat. Our lives are at stake. Our liberation is the prize that must be sought. If this is true, then changes of ideas and ideals are required by persons outside as well as inside the church. Can white, middle-class and affluent churches be a factor in facilitating the birth of a new vision, a new consciousness? There are some signs of hope.
There are reasons for believing that the group most able to appreciate the ecological dimensions of the emerging crisis — population, pollution, use of resources — may well be prosperous white Americans, especially their children. These are the same people that make up a good portion of the membership of mainline Protestant churches. In these congregations are thousands of professional people, teachers, scientists, engineers, physicians, and well-informed people generally who are in a position to understand the ecological facts of life. Perhaps more importantly it is the children of the affluent who are most alienated from the present order and in quest of a new society where peace and love dwell and where technology has lost its dehumanizing demonic powers. It is among the militant young, most of all, that the ideas and ideals that the future requires with respect to war, to consumption, to population, to pollution, and to nationalism may be expected to flourish.
There are hints of a dawning new consciousness in America. (Elements and aspects of this new consciousness, its forms and contents, can be found in the following sources: William Braden, The Age of Aquarius (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970); Charles Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Random House, 1970); Lewis Mumford, The Pentagon of Power (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970); Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope (New York: Bantam Books, 1968); Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966); Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1959); Ferkiss, The Technological Society; Lynn White, Jr., Machina ex Deo (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968), and Roszak, The Making of a Counter–Culture. In addition, I have been influenced in one way or another by the writers mentioned in the first three chapters: McHale, Calhoun, Boulding, Platt, Polak, and Fuller. Theological expressions of a new consciousness are found in Sam Keen, To a Dancing God (New York: Harper & Row, 1969); Harvey Cox, The Feast of Fools (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), and, of course, Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man. The rock-musical Hair is a cultural expression of a new quest for joy in relationship to cosmic-natural vitalities.) Its outlines are vague, its manifestations vary, even contradict each other. It is emerging from many sources, and its forms are still evolving. As life itself gropes toward new and higher expressions, so new visions evolve, mutate, leap up and out of the imagination. My own grasp of this dawning consciousness is impressionistic, vague, partial, biased.
Obviously in what follows I have blended my intuitions about a new awareness that may be actually emerging into the vision I would like to see flourish. In relationship to the past and present, the new consciousness will likely be more sensuous, ecstatic, erotic, earthy, bodily oriented, festive, playful, feminine, idealistic, utopian, mystical, sacramental, hedonistic — in sum, a quest for joy in the wholeness of body and spirit. Its ways of expression will stress unity, harmony, peace, love, universal brotherhood. Its scope will be planetary, embracing all mankind in its hopes and dreams. It will value spontaneity and vitality more than cool, calculating rationality. It will not scorn intellect or critical reason but will trust feeling and intuition. Its aim will be to humanize technology, to put machines in the service of feeding, clothing, housing, helping, and healing all mankind. It will direct science into the service of life-values — survival and fulfillment. It will seek political mechanisms which express and accomplish its universal vision rather than simply consolidate power to promote some parochial idol. Its key categories will be organism, wholeness, life. Its perspective in the largest sense will be ecological — seeking the unity and harmony of man with man, man with environment, and man with the vitalizing, creative, purposive powers that throb in the cosmos itself in its thrust forward. Its quest will be a kingdom of perfect justice and joy — the ecstasy of life in loving union with all life and being.
Among what may be a growing number of people in our churches, aspects of a new consciousness are stirring, at least in the form of a vague hunger often below the level of articulate thought. There is a feeling for a new vitality that darkly aches to be born. This yearning is more obvious in the young, but it can also be found here and there among the not so young anymore. At least this is my hunch, an impression based on my own contact with church members but confirmed by what others are saying, writing, and feeling.
I believe in the light of this that the greatest opportunity before mainline American Protestantism in the seventies lies in nourishing this quest for a good future and in providing a basis of hope amidst the fears that arise from the thoughts of facing the future. I would like to see concerted efforts made in churches to discover in human experience where the growing edges of this hunger for hope are and to give shape and substance to it out of the communal memory of what God has done in Christ and in expectation of what he can and will do through the power of the Spirit. I have in these pages tried to give expression to my own dawning yearning, but I do so with modesty and in humility. The dreams and doings of us all are required. I can only give expression to my own intuition that this possible emergence of a new consciousness should be given shape by a utopian vision of a planetary brotherhood at peace with nature and with God, united with all of life in the enjoyment of its potentialities. Such a vision, I believe, can grow from the thrust of the human spirit, the quest of life itself, pushing its way to the surface in dreams and hopes of a better world, a world that is not yet but which might be.
I believe the church can give form to these vague yearnings out of the treasures of its own eschatological faith. I would like to see churches become centers where Spirit-inspired followers of Jesus set their imaginations free to dream of a world community united in peace and brotherhood. I would like to see worship services come alive with joyful cries of humans made ecstatic by hope of a new world. I would like to see educational programs which immerse children into the history of hope in Israel and in the church, showing how visions of a good future grew in every age out of the memories of God’s past disclosures to provide anticipations of a coming kingdom. I would like to see church schools become nourishers of dreamers and creators of doers, providing growing minds with the insights of Christian hope and with the empirical data of secular futurists, setting imaginations free to create images of wonderful future worlds that could really be. I would like to hear sermons giving shape to possibilities of human delight in the future God intends for us and setting forth the moral imperatives that are required to make the ideal real. From such visions of alternative good futures might come those guiding images that we need. From such visions might also come insights relevant to the discovery of social strategies and political mechanisms and technological deployment that could help give concrete substance to the futures we desire to invent. Out of such churches might come the dreamers and the doers with the visions and the values that can save us. At least this is my hope. Or is it my fantasy run wild past all realistic probabilities?
The task to which I would like to see Christians the world over commit, themselves during the next three decades is to formulate visions of a good future in the light of which believers can learn to cause, to celebrate, and to cope with change. The changes are coming. Believers need to be at work causing changes that direct men toward the promise of the new world. The changes are coming. Christians need to learn to live with the new, to welcome it, and to be open to it. The changes are coming. Followers of Jesus need to be so deeply rooted in a confidence in God’s good providence that they can suffer with and for others as new outbursts of evil may erupt to postpone further the coming of the final, perfect day. The changes are coming. The world needs Spirit-inspired celebrators who can rejoice with every evidence of the coming of the expected kingdom, never ceasing to live in the faith that God loves and never finally loses, always loving the life that God has given, and always hoping for the good future he has promised.