Chapter 6: Life in the Church and the Healing of the Human Spirit
So far we have given our attention mainly to pastoral care for individuals. Now we must bring to the center of our analysis the fact that the minister-pastor is responsible leader in the Church, the believing community which works in history, declares its faith, and seeks to practice the way of life which it believes its Lord requires. Some who come to the pastor belong to the Church, either nominally or actively; some once belonged and have left; some have been hurt by their experience in the Church; and some are seeking for the first time to become members of the Body of Christ. But in all pastoral care, the Church is present as the context in which the healing power of grace is to be known. Can the conception of the pastoral task which we have been examining contribute to our understanding of the Church? What light may be thrown upon the nature of the Church through the personal experience of acceptance and forgiveness? When we say in the General Confession, "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us," and hear the Word of the Gospel, "There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus," we participate in the greatest of all therapies. We shall try to see how this point of view contributes to a valid doctrine of the Church. I do not mean that we should conceive the Church merely as a rescue operation for the neurotic victims of civilization; but rather that we see the Church in a true light when we see it as a community of acceptance, humility, and love, in which personal faith can grow.
We can approach the nature of the Church and the work of healing grace within it by considering the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Charles Williams called his brilliant history of the Christian Church The Descent of the Dove, quite rightly suggesting that it is God’s presence and power as Holy Spirit which the Church understands to be the key to its being. The Holy Spirit is often invoked in the healing ministry. I shall set forth an interpretation of the Holy Spirit in which we try to correct three common misunderstandings which have beset the Church’s life from the beginning: individualism, perfectionism, and immanentism. First we must consider the meaning of "spirit" as we use it in speaking both of God and of man,
I. Spirit in Man and God
The word "spirit" links the nature of God and of man. In the Old Testament God is spirit, or he has spirit and manifests himself as spirit. But man is "spirit" too. For the Old Testament this means that man is a living, responsible, personal creature of his Creator. Spirit is not an entity separate from the body as a part of man, but is what we would call the whole person, capable of a responsible relationship to God and to other men.
The spirit of God means God himself in his power and majesty as he manifests himself in his self-disclosure to man. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . ." is the announcement of the prophetic vision. The spirit of the Lord is seen in his creative acts. In the creation story, it is the spirit which moves upon the face of the deep. Israel is called, and its prophets are inspired by the spirit of God. In the story of the redemption, God promises man a new spirit, as in Ezekiel 36:26-27:
A new heart also will I give you; . . . and I will take away the stony heart Out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.
And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.
The prophet Joel anticipates the outpouring of the divine spirit "upon all flesh" in the Day of the Lord (Joel 2:28).
Thus in the biblical view our knowledge of the meaning of spirit is inseparable from our self-knowledge. We are made in the image of God. To say we are spirit is to assert that we come to know the meaning of spirit only as we discover ourselves in our relationship to God. Our life, therefore, is a search for the meaning of spirit, not a simple possession of it, even though we are spiritual beings. Recalling the analysis of the three aspects of the self -- actual, ideal, and potential -- we may say that spirit is not only what we are but what we are coming to be.
Spirit, then, is one of the categories which are fundamental for our knowledge of God, and yet which we hold as analogies and symbols, for we can never claim full understanding of them even as they apply to our being, nor can we assert that we know their full meaning in God. He is spirit. He is active, loving, creative, personal power. This we affirm and yet acknowledge the brokenness of our language which never permits a simple application of any category in precisely the same way to man and to God. Surely spirit is the best category we have, for in our human experience it describes responsible creative being, and yet it suggests the mystery of that being.
In the New Testament we are still within the fundamental pattern of Old Testament faith. But in the New Testament God’s action in Jesus Christ has meant a new revelation of his spirit. The Fourth Gospel records the Lord’s promise to send the spirit, the Comforter (John 15:26). In the account of the outpouring of the spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), and in Paul’s description of the new life "in the spirit," the experience of the Holy Spirit is connected with God’s redeeming love incarnate in his Son, which has overcome the power of sin and death. Matthew and Luke declare that it is through the Holy Spirit that Mary has become the bearer of the Christ (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:35).
One can, therefore, make a strong case that in the New Testament knowledge of God as the Holy Spirit is always knowledge after Christ, that is, we know who God is through his Son. This view, of course, underlies the Trinitarian assertion that God is at once Father, Son, and Spirit. In the western church the doctrine that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son tends to reinforce the view that the Spirit is known only where the Father and Son are together known, that is, through the revelation in Jesus Christ. Of course the Christians already had in their Old Testament affirmations concerning the work of God’s spirit from creation onward and sometimes acknowledged this, as in the Letter to the Hebrews where it is explicitly said that it is the Holy Spirit which has inspired the Psalmist (Heb. 3:7; 10:15).
The Holy Spirit, then, means God as he has disclosed himself to us in Jesus Christ. It is not a semidetached divine being with special and odd functions in the world. It is God himself present in Christ the Lord. As St. Paul repeatedly affirms, life in Christ is life in the Spirit, and it is life in the Church. In Jesus Christ God has created a new people which is the Body of Christ in the world. What has been prepared and anticipated in all history has become actual. There is a new people in history "which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy" (I Pet. 2:10).
There are three implications of this view of the Spirit for a doctrine of the Church. Each can be stated over against one of the exaggerations which have crept into the Church’s life, often in connection with a distorted emphasis upon one aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit.
II. The Spirit and the Church
God’s redemptive action has created a new kind of relationship between himself and men and between men. The foundation of all ecclesiology is summarized in the Letter to the Ephesians:
. . . remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two so making peace. [2:12.15]
It is the actuality of a new order of life together which is the Church’s essence. God has established a new humanity in history, in the midst of the old humanity. From whatever cult or nation men come, the way is now given for them to be members of one another in a new order. Life in the Church ought to be fully personal life, the only such life possible on earth, because it is the only one in which man’s belonging to his neighbor is affirmed as truth without restriction. Here we should be able to discover what spirit is, and to know ourselves through the Holy Spirit, for in Jesus Christ God’s Spirit and man’s response have come together.
It follows that the marks of the Spirit’s presence should be found in the kind of relationship which men have to one another. This is the most important insight which the doctrine of the Spirit can give to us in understanding what the Church may do to serve the growth of spiritually mature persons. Yet just here one of the great misunderstandings of the Spirit has entered in the tendency to look for its marks in the individual alone, in his subjectivity, even in his peculiar and bizarre religious emotions. The other side of the same error of a false understanding of the individual in his relation to the community is that which finds the marks of the Spirit only in collective ecstasies where personal freedom and responsibility are lost. The point that the Spirit is to be found in the kind of relationship where we are truly members one of another as free persons is so important that we should dwell upon its significance for theology and for the function of the church in ministry to individuals. A brief reminder of some aspects of the modern history of the Church is in order.
The Protestant reformers quite necessarily stressed the indispensability of personal faith for salvation. The church cannot believe for its members. But while the reformers did not lose sight of the community, they stressed the work of the Holy Spirit as the inward testimony which makes it possible for the individual to discern the Word of God in Scripture; and this made it possible for the churches in a more individualistic culture to seek the Spirit’s presence exclusively in individual experience.
Unquestionably, the pietism which both Luther and Calvin resisted, tended to reinforce an individualistic view of salvation in spite of the fact that pietistic mysticism usually stressed experience of the Holy Spirit in the agape-love which binds the community of the faithful together. But pietism found this experience only in the sect, withdrawn in part from the world with its distinctive marks of separation. There are those within who have the experience, those without who do not. That this quite easily leads to an exaggerated emphasis upon individual experience is clearly demonstrated in the history of Puritanism.
Ecstatic sects have insisted that there are special gifts of the spirit marked by highly emotional reactions and expressions. Here again the tendency is either to stress the individual who has these gifts, as in the perfectionist doctrines, or to lose individuality entirely in a collective ecstasy. Roman Catholicism tends to identify the marks of the spirit’s presence with the marks of the authentic church as Catholicism understands the Church. St. Bernard exhorts his monks, "Do you not know that to obey is better than sacrifice! Have you not read in the Rule that whatever is done without the approval of your spiritual father must be imputed to vainglory and therefore has no merit?"1 No chance for the Spirit to get out of bounds here! In all these cases the crucial point is obscured: it is in a new kind of personal relationship, defined by what man knows of himself through the action of God in Jesus Christ that the true work and marks of the spirit should be sought.
It is in its witness to this new kind of community, that Christianity brings something distinctive to the task of the healing of the human spirit. The Church offers nurture in a community where the human soul can be unburdened, and find a sustaining, accepting love. The Christian pastor should be the counselor most sensitive to the meaning of the kind of personal relations people have, and above all, to the need for the community to which the person can go to discover his true need.
I think it is not unfair to say that modern psychiatry has given insufficient attention to the question of where such a sustaining community is to be found. Of course, psychiatrists know that it is in the interpersonal relationships that the dynamic factors are to be found. But the interpretation of the healing process by Freud, for example, suggests that once the individual has been released from the effects of the infantile complexes all has been done that can be done. Freud’s pessimism about civilization contributed to this narrowing of his perspective. He saw no hope for correcting the destructive aspects of the common life. In contrast, the neo-Freudian Erich Fromm becomes quite unrealistically utopian in his hope for the "sane society" of reasonable men, and he never asks where the individual can find in present history the community which can sustain the spirit which must live in this threatening and imperfect world.2
What the Church offers is that community in which man’s need is understood and his life is sustained by a hope which is grounded on God. If this be the intention of the Church, let us quickly say that it is also the problem, for the church’s self-understanding and its practice are often in conflict. What should be a community of accepting and loyal love extending its life to all, is in part a community divided against itself, sometimes adding to, if not blessing, the existing divisions in society and unable, therefore, to give a convincing witness to the faith by which it lives.
One of the reasons psychiatrists have had so much negativism about religion is surely that they have had to deal with the wreckage left by a petty and self-righteous religiousness. They must indeed wonder about a community which exalts the Holy Spirit and has not learned what forgiveness means. We need not indict the whole church unfairly. Even the most loyal and loving community cannot protect people from what other forces in the culture may do to them; but we are required now to state realistically what it means to believe in the Church and this leads us to our second consideration in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
We have said that it is in a new kind of relationship among people to which we are to look for the distinctive mark of the Spirit’s presence in the Church. That new relationship is one in which the estrangement of men from God and from one another is acknowledged and is being overcome; but it is critical for our understanding of life in the Church that we see it as a continuing participation in the movement of redemption. That movement is to be remembered and continually re-enacted in symbolic ways and in actuality in the church’s life. The Church and its members are not free from sin. They are not infallible. They are not free of the temptation to use the very forms of life in grace to support exploitation and injustice. The Church ought to be the community in which we pray continually for restoration to our rightful minds, and where in the humility of such acknowledgment there is ever-new occasion for the renewal of a sane life together.
Let us put the vital point paradoxically and say that one true mark of the presence of the Holy Spirit in any group is its renunciation of the claim to perfection, and its confession of need for forgiveness. We are together in Christ when we are in his Church. That means we have been brought by him into a community where the reality of sin is acknowledged, and where we may learn to love one another because we are grateful for what the love of God has done for us. As Reinhold Niebuhr once said in a sermon on forgiveness: "A whole community is a healed community." We are saying that the genuinely whole community of faithful people knows that it depends upon God’s healing power, and also knows that healing is never to be treated as its possession, or as a completed work.
It is even necessary to see that the work of the Holy Spirit may create new divisions among men. Christ asserted a new perspective upon life against others. So we may understand the saying about his bringing not peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34). Men have some of their profoundest disagreements over what their Lord requires of them. Consider the divisions among the Christian churches. The Spirit does not blot out such divisions, though in the Spirit we are required to search for the misunderstanding and the sin which is in them. The Holy Spirit will be found where we learn to live in creative conflict, respecting one another’s humanity and faith even where we have profound differences over fundamental issues.
We invert, then, the frequent use of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit to support either an individual or a collective perfectionism. The Spirit convicts us of our imperfections, and demonstrates the power of God to bestow a new life in which imperfection is not removed, but where the great good of love is fulfilled in a new and humble community.
Thirdly, then, the Holy Spirit remains God’s Spirit, not ours. It is God’s communication of his power and truth which we receive in earthen vessels. Prayer is the deepest communion between God and man, yet Paul reminds us that the Spirit prays with us, with groanings which cannot be uttered (Rom. 8:24). He never says that the Spirit becomes one with our human spirit. That is the false immanentism of those types of spiritualist doctrines in Christianity which endanger the clear understanding of the sovereign power of God’s grace. To say that the Holy Spirit is God, not anything man possesses, does not devalue the human spirit which bears the image of its divine origin. There is human creativity, freedom, and worth in the order of God’s universe. He has given men the dignity of counting in the scheme of things. The human spirit is quickened and fulfilled through the divine inspiration. But man is not God. Even the Incarnate Lord says, "I do nothing of myself" (John 8:28).
There are marks of the Spirit’s presence. We see, however, that they should be sought much more in the signs of humility than in claims to perfect faith and love. There are profound emotional expressions of the awareness of God’s salvation. The sects which have stressed the doctrine of the Spirit as a release for ecstatic forms of worship may rightly rebuke a staid and too decorous Christianity in which the springs of religious feeling remain untapped. But there is a sound New Testament principle for judging religious forms. It is the principle of the fruits. Paul recognizes extreme expressions of Christian feeling and ecstasy, but he never allows the immediacies of experience to become final tests of truth. He wants ecstatic speaking interpreted reasonably (I Cor.14). And the fruit of the Spirit is the real test of its presence: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith" (Gal. 5:22).
The Holy Spirit, then, is present in and to the church as the Spirit of God’s Holy Love, bringing his people into a new kind of relationship to one another and to him. Everything in the life and liturgy of the Church has its meaning in this new kind of community. It is the real context of pastoral care, no matter how individual and private may be the problems which persons bring to the pastor. And the reality of this community is an empirical and spiritual fact by which the pastor and his people are supported. There is a reciprocal movement between the pastoral task and the Church. If we find the life of the Church a continual support and fulfillment for what the pastor seeks to do, we also discover that the experience of personal and mutual ministry in the Church deepens our participation in the Church’s worship, sacraments, and witness to the world. Let us illustrate this point of view toward which our whole discussion has been moving by looking briefly at the sacraments of the Church, the Christian meeting of death, and the Christian life of active service as expressions of the way which is enclosed in the grace of this kind of community.
III. The Sacraments
In the Church all the experiences of life are surrounded with sacramental expressions of forgiveness and eternal life. This is true even in the churches which give little or no emphasis to baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or the other five sacraments recognized in Catholicism: confirmation, penance, marriage, extreme unction, and, for priests, ordination. Quaker silence, for example, has a sacramental quality. All Christian groups give a general sacramental significance to the acts of Christian worship. Our concern here is to consider the significance of sacramental expression for the nurture of the human spirit. Where the Church is understood as a community of acceptance and reconciliation, the sacramental forms will be discovered to have a meaning and power which for many they have lost. St. Augustine defines a sacrament as the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace; but he does not lose sight of the community of believers as the mediator of grace, nor should we, even though our doctrine of the relation of grace to the visible Church may declare considerably more freedom for the Holy Spirit than is the case in some traditions.
It is true that the sacraments are signs and seals of God’s self-expression to us, not of anything which the Church possesses by itself; but we have seen in our study of pastoral care that we receive God’s grace as persons living in dynamic interchange with other persons. Our response to grace is made in the context of personal relationships where acceptance and forgiveness are always needed.
Baptism surely is a clear example of this significance of the community. Most churches, not all, have held that it can be administered to infants who have no conscious understanding or faith. But the community of faith is there, represented by parents and by the congregation. It is there potentially even where it is symbolized only in the act of baptism itself, as in some extreme cases of the baptism of infants who are without family or relation to the Church. Baptism proclaims the existence of the community of faith which sustains every soul. The community depends upon the Holy Spirit for its cleansing and fulfillment. Hence the act of baptism with its promise of cleansing and renewal affirms for the community its dependence upon grace.
The central sacrament of the Church is Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. The meaning and power of this Sacrament is for many Christians realized for the first time when they have passed through the crisis of personal failure and have discovered the accepting and sustaining community. It is important for the Christian minister-pastor to help people see the relation between the Sacramental Communion and this personal experience. This does not mean that our human experience alone makes valid the sacramental act. To say that would be to psychologize its significance falsely. What we are saying is that our experience of discovering love mediated through the human experience of forgiveness and renewal is a condition of our participation in the ultimate mystery of God and his grace. Without that participation the signs and actions of the Christian life can become hollow formalities. There are many Christians for whom the sacramental life of the Church and the Holy Communion would have power beyond anything they can at present imagine if a genuine connection should be established in their understanding between the Sacrament and the mutual ministry which is going on all the time in the life of the Church. The signs of the Body and Blood of the Lord broken and shed for us do indeed point beyond the range of our immediate experience. They bespeak the hidden life of God and of man with God. They tell us of that which, in a sense, we are not yet ready to experience. We participate in them by faith as well as by sight. But what they point to is truly present where there is caring and forgiving love. We commune with God as those whose lives are broken for one another, and we find the beginning of communion with one another through Christ who stands between us, as one of us, and yet as the new man calling us into new life. The words of confession, penitence, and trust in grace become new words when they are spoken out of the experience of acceptance.
What is being declared in the Sacrament of Holy Communion is not, then, something merely momentary and immediate. The great corporate and historical tradition of the people of God is present. To realize this can be a check upon the ever-present tendency to self-centeredness in our search for health of soul. The Holy Communion rightly understood will bring its own corrective of a too narrow vision. Those who have faith in the divine forgiveness are participants in the history of salvation which reaches to the creation of heaven and earth in the beginning, and to the new heavens and the new earth at the end. Josiah Royce’s definition of the Church as "a community of memory and of hope" is a valid pillar of all sacramental life.3
Hope, then, is one dimension of every Christian sacrament. We should stress the sober but confident realism of the Christian faith against all sentimental illusions or cynical despair. In the Christian view of soul therapy we are released to live a new life; but one in which all the great issues are to be faced on new levels and in which hope is an abiding source of the soul’s poise and humility. In his account of the tradition of the Lord’s Supper as he had received it, Paul includes the words, "as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes" (I Cor. 11:26). Here in one pregnant phrase is the concentrated meaning of faith’s foundation in Christ’s self-giving, and its hope for the continuing presence of the love of God.
To say anything about the sacrament of Holy Communion is to have the problem of the divided church bear directly upon mind and conscience. It is true that so-called "intercommunion" is denied today in many Christian churches to other Christians. We should not be superficial in our estimate of the issues here. We rightly guard our theologies of the Sacrament, for the foundations of the Church are involved. But has our theology of the Sacrament lost sight of the love which the bread and the wine declare? The new perspectives in pastoral care we have been considering do not indeed lead to a new theology of the Sacrament, but they remind us that the bread and wine are signs of God’s love given for all his finite, needy, wayward people, and thus they may become a source of renewed determination to find the way to reunion at the Lord’s table. The word "intercommunion," like the word "interracial," does not belong in the Church’s vocabulary. We are not obliged to find reasons for putting things together which are already One in Him.4
As we discuss the sacraments let us recognize that the language of the Church has sacramental character. The considerations we have been urging in connection with the Lord’s Supper apply also to the very difficult questions which every pastor meets in considering what words to use in the counseling experience. What shall he do with the great words of the faith such as God, grace, and forgiveness, which he knows may be in certain circumstances blocks to a person’s understanding of his problems? We can state two principles. One is that the pastor must know he cannot depend upon one vocabulary alone in getting at the realities of human feelings and experience. He must be prepared at times to avoid "religious" words. He should be on guard against using the great words, with their heavy freight of meaning, at a time when people are either not ready to hear them, or are only too ready to seize upon them because they offer temporary refuge from facing reality.
Once this first principle is recognized, however, we can affirm the second, that the pastor’s greatest resource, humanly speaking, is the language of the Scripture and the Church, precisely because this is the language of honest confession, of acceptance, and of hope. Speech has sacramental power. The skillful pastor comes to know when the words of grace and hope can be spoken and truly heard, but he knows that there must be preparation and continued renewal if the language is to have its true function. We could say that one goal of pastoral care is to restore to people who have lost it the use of the biblical language and the Church’s sacraments. Unless there is integrity in our Christian speech and our participation in the liturgy, the Church is not witnessing as the people of God.
IV. Death and the Communion of Saints
Ministry to the dying and liturgies for the dead are among the expected services of the Christian minister. The Christian belief in eternal life puts human existence in a perspective which transcends the secular view. Psychologists deal continually with the fear of death and the lure of death, but it is quite clear that many modem psychologists have not known what to do with the meaning of death. Erich Fromm says bluntly:
All knowledge about death does not alter the fact that death is not a meaningful part of life and that there is nothing for us to do but to accept the fact of death; hence as far as our life is concerned, defeat.5
Freud came upon the "death instinct," which helped to explain the attraction of danger, as well as some of the internal dynamics of repression and self-inflicted pain. Civilization, he held, uses the death instinct as a means of enforcing the painful demands of work in spite of the ego’s basic desire for fulfillment in "pleasure."6 But Freud gave no clue other than this as to how the fact of man’s dying can be taken into a philosophy of life. I have already mentioned the proposal of the Freudian, Herbert Marcuse, for a panerotic philosophy of life in which eros, agape, and thanatos (death) will all be integrated in the one self-expression of the human spirit. But this, he recognizes, remains a hope and speculation. The way to it is by no means clear.
What Christianity asks us to see is that death must be met by faith. Since time "like an ever-rolling stream bears all our goods away," what is the worth of human efforts? Does anything count finally? A philosophy of life which has not asked these questions remains trivial.
The Christian pastor has the ultimate resource of his faith which declares the participation of every life in the eternal purposes of God. Death can never destroy the meaning of life. At the same time he has to learn, in part from the psychologists, that the way in which people react to death reflects all the emotional patterns in the self. There are those for whom the fear of death is the constant overtone of life. There are others who want to die, perhaps to escape intolerable suffering, perhaps to relieve others of care. Sometimes it is to take revenge upon others. There are those for whom death is regarded as a natural experience and accepted without either regret or support from any religious belief; and others for whom death is a door opened upon a new adventure of life with God. This very diversity of response supports the view that for every person the way in which he understands death reflects in part his unique biography.
This fact that death’s meaning is always related and interpreted in experience throws light on one of the difficult themes of the New Testament, the connection of death with sin. The idea that "the wages of sin is death" and that death is in the world because of the fall of man is one theme in the structure of salvation history in the Scripture (Rom. 5:12 ff.). Yet it is difficult to combine this idea with the view that God has created a good world of finite beings, and that death is one natural mark of that finitude.
We come nearer the central New Testament truth in the affirmation that "the sting of death is sin," as Paul says (1 Cor. 15:56). This we can recognize in our experience. As sinners hind as men of faith, we find death taking its varied guises. Indeed, so long as we are human, both dimensions are in our experience. Death is known as a threat because we do not have trust and love which God intends for his creatures. When we meet death with anxiety, or with a sense of meaninglessness, we reveal our way of life, not only our concept of dying. It follows that the pastoral task is to help us to recognize what our attitudes toward death mean. Neurotic traits can lead to a preoccupation with death, just as the inability to think about it may betray repressed fears or hostilities. A well-known American journalist had an inflexible rule that the word "death" could never be spoken in his presence. One wonders if this gave him freedom from thinking about it. Keeping in mind the principle of linkage, we see how anxiety about death may be bound up with unresolved questions about the meaning of life.
The Christian faith meets death with the affirmation that God overcomes this threat to the fulfillment of his purpose by a new action in which he brings all life to judgment and fulfillment in his Kingdom. The biblical expression for this action is the resurrection of the body, thus preserving the doctrine of the unity of man, and rejecting the conception of the soul as a spiritual entity in man which is naturally endowed with the capacity to persist beyond death. This human life, in all its good and evil, its failures, its worth, and its hope, has its destiny in what God prepares for us, not in anything we possess in ourselves. "Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s" (Rom. 14:8), and since the Lord has made his mercy and grace known in Jesus Christ, those who believe in his love know that nothing in life or death can separate them from him.
The connection of Christ’s resurrection with our hope of eternal life is understood when we see that it is Jesus, the man who gave his life trusting the divine love, whom we know as the risen and present Christ. It is his disclosure of God’s love, standing by man through all tragedy and despair, to which we give our witness in the faith that death cannot hold or destroy what Jesus was and what he brought into human existence.
It is true that modern culture both in its religious and nonreligious moods has tended either to ignore or to sentimentalize this faith in eternal life. Certainly we are not required to think of the new life with God as an indefinite extension of this creaturely existence. It is our participation in the ongoing life of God in whatever way he will open to us. It means that what counts in any human life is not lost or wasted or rejected, but has its decisive judgment and fulfillment in the one history of creation and redemption.
It is necessary to emphasize that in the Christian faith the affirmation of eternal life includes acknowledgment of the divine judgment. Søren Kierkegaard never wearied of declaring, "Immortality means judgment," for it is the meeting of man with God. Therefore, the traditional doctrines of heaven and hell as descriptive of the final state are always relevant for faith. It must be admitted that when Christianity has dwelt upon the promise of heaven and the threat of hell, it has often combined a selfish hedonism with a morbid sadism. Nicolas Berdyaev has remarked that the traditional hell is a place invented by good people to put the bad people in.7 We can be grateful to modern psychology for exposing the pathology of this sadomasochistic structure as a warning to all religion.
What can be asserted as true in these symbols, however, is that heaven and hell function as signs of ultimate spiritual realities and that they reflect important psychological elements in the meeting of death. The trouble with many conventional pictures of heaven is that they describe eternal life as a vapid and self-centered perpetual enjoyment rather than, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy, a rejoicing in the vision of God. And the trouble with the traditional pictures of hell is not that they recall the wrath of God and the reality of a final judgment, but that they forget the ingredient of mercy in all God’s judgment, and allow the human wish for revenge to dictate the divine policy toward sinners. Christian faith brings realism about death. We can accept both judgment and fulfillment in Holy Love as the reality in which our life is founded. It is this life in its brokenness and need which we offer to God when we leave this flesh. Faith in eternal life is an acknowledgment of our utter dependence upon God, not a demand that he satisfy all our private desires.
When the pastor speaks of faith in eternal life, he will try to show that this faith is a declaration about present reality, not only a promise of something beyond death. The quality of eternity is present in the love which trusts God and his goodness. As the pastor speaks to those for whom death is a problem or threat, the quality of his faith, his honesty with himself, his acceptance of the limitations of our human understanding, will be significant elements in his bringing strength to others. Kurt Eissler has suggested that in a true communication with the dying, one who loves will experience death with the one who dies. This is surely an insight into the ministry of love, and reflects in a humble and particular way the truth that the Son of God tasted death for us all.8
When we say that a goal of pastoral care is to lead toward the true valuation of each moment of time as having its destiny in eternity, we imply no rejection of the worth of this created world. It is only that we see the greater glory of the world when we believe that God gives to all times and places a share in an enduring Kingdom. To experience this sharing in eternity with other persons is to enter a relationship for which the Christian Church has a special name, the communion of saints.
We have come, then, to the communion of saints as the ultimate personal context of pastoral care. It is this community which surrounds each personal pilgrimage with an inexhaustible source of strength for faith if we will but accept it. The communion of saints is the company of all those, living and dead, who have trusted in the love of God as their experience and faith have given them light. It is not a perfectionist clique, but the human company transfigured. It is not a company of people preoccupied with their own salvation, but those who through grace have found their lives by losing them. The great Christian creeds conclude by putting these major affirmations together: "I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting." These words do not merely add diverse things to one another; they are related aspects of the constitution of the personal fellowship in which Christ enables us to live.9 No Christian proclaims his membership in the communion of saints. God keeps that roll with its secrets. But the Christian accepts the reality of that communion as the substance of the new life he has begun to know and upon which he depends. Believing in the community of eternal blessedness, he is bound in love to his neighbor no matter what may separate us in this earthly existence. We die belonging to one another and to Him who makes all things new.
We can easily fall into the habit of thinking of pastoral care only as a rescue operation, holding life together when it threatens to become unraveled, or picking up the pieces after the damage has been done. All honest living has these aspects, and pastoral care certainly does. Christianity sees every soul as in need of healing. But the goal in Christian terms is strength to live usefully in the world. Humanity’s needs are staggering; it is our responsibility to find our place in doing what needs to be done. Surely there is no greater human therapy than this: to become part of a working group of people who are doing something important not for themselves but for human life everywhere. To find that one’s life has use in spite of inadequacies, to belong to a group which will not let us turn our attention always to ourselves but which enlists our concern in the tasks of the common life, is to enter a truly healthy environment. It is what the Christian Church ought to be. The spirit of the congregation is as much a concern of pastoral care as are the special problems of individuals.
It is such a conception of the minister as the leader and guide of a responsible community of Christians at work which gave rise to H. Richard Niebuhr’s suggestion in his book, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, that the conception of the minister as "pastoral director" is emerging as an authentic expression of the minister’s function and task in the church of the twentieth century.10
The response of many to the term "pastoral director" is a measure of the inroads which secular culture has made upon the very language of the Church, for some said that to call the minister "director" was to capitulate to the conception of the Church as a business and the minister as its administrator. But through the centuries of church history "spiritual director" has been the Church’s name for those who care for souls. To call the minister "director" is only to reinforce that high calling and function. The pastoral director is indeed responsible in the modern church for a highly complex organization. And he may have much to learn from the experience of corporations about honesty and efficiency in human relations. The church has no monopoly on these. But as pastoral director he is to give guidance, encouragement, and leadership to a congregation of people who do the work of the Church, and who are seeking to live as committed Christians. The minister does not do it all himself, inside or outside the Church. He is concerned with opening the way for the more adequate Christian service and witness of all, and with keeping all church activity under the judgment of the Gospel.
We learn many things when we see pastoral care in this way. There are those for whom activity is a kind of busy work useful in protecting one from facing himself. All good causes suffer from fanatical and hostility-ridden people who need an inward orientation before they can really begin doing works of love. There are also the "well-adjusted" folk in comfortable circumstances who have not even begun to learn the meaning of Christian love in racial and other group relations. There are the conflicts of conscience in the ethical decisions which work, politics, and all of life press upon us. All of this will be in the mind of the minister as he deals with individuals, and as he seeks to help his congregation realize its true life.
What can guide the pastoral task at all points is the principle that in the mature Christian life personal growth and social action belong together in the integrity of the person. Social action here includes the usual meaning of sharing in movements toward social alleviation or reconstruction, and the wider sense of any deliberate effort to bring Christian faith to bear on the way we live together. It is toward the maturity of life given in concrete service that the pastor seeks to help people to grow.
It follows that one of the greatest pastoral responsibilities is the encouragement of the strong to use their strengths more effectively. To uncover people’s talents and wisdom is as important a part of the pastoral task as is care for those in special distress. It might be quite convincingly argued that more insight and skill are demanded in giving counsel and leadership to the mature Christian than to the immature. In every congregation there will be some who need to be carried on the shoulders of others. All need it part of the time. And there are always those who prefer the sickness to the cure in matters of spirit as well as of body. But there are others who by grace do become centers of strength in their faith, their insight, and their courage. The pastor is concerned with all as he seeks to enlist each in the service of God. It is for him and his people to learn and relearn that our life has its meaning in accepting the Form of the Servant, no matter what the measure of our present power to do so may be.
VI. The Spirit in the Church
All the lines of thought we have been exploring lead to one conclusion about the Church: It is the true Christian community holding out hope for the nurture and health of spirit of those within it when it is animated by the spirit of acceptance, of reconciliation, and of service. In the Church we always live beyond our spiritual depth. The vision and hope of the Christian faith lend to each one a stature he does not merit of himself. The Church truly lives by hope. But the foundation of that hope is something which can be claimed without sentimentality or pretense. That is the experience of learning and practicing a genuine acceptance of one another and a sacrificial caring for one another. Such love can inform the spirit of a congregation, and be the power of saving grace for those whom it touches. In his ministry to individuals the pastor must never lose sight of the significance of the kind of community the church is in its basic intention. The spirit of the reconciling community is, to be sure, never created by our giving constant attention to our intimate feelings. It comes mainly through acceptance of the tasks God sets for us to do, and our seeking to be his Church in a difficult world. But in the absence of this spirit in the Church, the mending of broken souls will have to turn to other auspices.
There are problems to be solved to keep the Church such a community. There is the tendency of our religiousness toward "moralism" in the bad sense, that is, toward a rigid and self-righteous judgment according to a moral standard which we assume puts us in a good light and others in a bad. It is easy to condemn moralism; it is much harder to see how the Christian Church can live both as a community of forgiveness and yet as a community with loyalty to a high ideal of conduct. Plain ordinary respectability is a good, and the Church cannot ignore it. But can the congregation put respectability in the second place as our Lord did when it is necessary to the saving of souls? That is a test.
The forms of church life may either help or block the growth of an understanding community. There is good reason to think that some of the important things can happen only in groups small enough to permit deep and personal sharing of experience over a considerable period of time. The growth of such groups of inquiry and sharing is one of the significant movements in the churches at the present time. These groups are not substitutes for the total life of the congregation in worship and witness; but they may be a most important means of breaking through rigidities and opening up a frank discussion where there will be no fear of probing sacred symbols and doctrines.
Our theme has been the care of souls, and we have discussed this theme in relation to the work of the Christian minister-pastor. We have seen, however, that it is neither to the Church nor to the pastor in the first instance that the care of souls belongs. It is God in his supreme act of love in Jesus Christ who heals the human spirit. The pastoral task, as it comes to every minister and every Christian, is to respond to the wonder of God’s care for the soul and to share with others such knowledge as he has of God’s healing power.
1. Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, Sermons 13, 15, 18-20. In edition by a religious of C.S.M.V. (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1952), p. 49.
2. S. Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: J. Cape & H. Smith, 1930).
Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (New York: Rinehart & Co., Inc., 1955).
It is curious that in spite of the great optimism with which Fromm writes about man, he says in this book, "It is man’s fate that his existence is beset by contradictions, which he has to solve without ever solving them" (p. 362).
3. Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914), Vol. II, p. 72.
4. The ecumenical problem of the Church is directly related to the problem of pastoral care. I have written elsewhere a proposal concerning unity at the Lord’s table. "Intercommunion at Lund," The Ecumenical Review, Vol. V., No. 4, (1952-3)
5. Erich Fromm, Man for Himself (New York: Rinehart & Co., Inc., 1947), p. 42.
6. S. Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (Westport, Conn.: Associated Booksellers), p. 74.
7. N. Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937), pp. 345-46.
8. Kurt Eissler, The Psychiatrist and the Dying Patient (New York: International University Press, 1955).
9. I am indebted to Robert McAfee Brown for an important suggestion about the interrelatedness of the creedal affirmations.
10. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry (New York: Harper & Brothers. 1956), pp. 79 ff.