Introduction: The Question of the Church, by H. Richard Niebuhr
The title of our book is not so much the enunciation of a theme as it is the declaration of a position. We are seeking not to expound a thesis but to represent a point of view and to raise a question. The point of view is from within the church, is that of churchmen who, having been born into the Christian community, having been nurtured in it and having been convinced of the truth of its gospel, know no life apart from it. It is, moreover, the point of view of those who find themselves within a threatened church. The world has always been against the church, but there have been times when the world has been partially converted, and when the church has lived with it in some measure of peace; there have been other times when the world was more or less openly hostile, seeking to convert the church. We live, it is evident, in a time of hostility when the church is imperiled not only by an external worldliness but by one that has established itself within the Christian camp. Our position is inside a church which has been on the retreat and which has made compromises with the enemy in thought, in organization, and in discipline.
Finally, our position is in the midst of that increasing group in the church which has heard the command to halt, to remind itself of its mission, and to await further orders.
The question which we raise in this situation may best be stated in the gospel phrase, "What must we do to be saved?" The "we" in this question does not refer to our individual selves, as though we were isolated persons who could have a life apart from the church or apart from the nation and the race. It denotes rather the collective self, the Christian community. In an earlier, individualistic time evangelical Christians raised the question of their salvation one by one, and we cannot quarrel with them; they realized the nature of their problem as it appeared to them in their own day. Today, however, we are more aware of the threat against our collective selves than of that against our separate souls. We are asking: "What must we the nation, or we the class, or we the race do to be saved? " It is in this sense that we ask, "What must we the church do to be saved?" It is true that the authors of these brief essays have no commission to ask the question for others, nor to raise it as though they conceived themselves as spokesmen of the church. Yet they can and must ask it, as responsible members of the body of Christ, who believe that many of their fellow members are asking it also, and that the time has come for an active awareness of and discussion of its meaning.
The point of view represented and the question raised are to be distinguished, we believe, from those of many of our contemporaries who look at the church from the outside. Though some of these are members, yet they do not seem to be committed to the church, and they appear to direct their questions to it rather than to raise them as members of the community. They seem to criticize the church by reference to some standard which is not the church's but that of civilization or of the world. Apparently they require the church to engage in a program of salvation which is not of a piece with the church's gospel. They demand that it become a savior, while the church has always known that it is not a savior but the company of those who have found a savior. These critics have a right to be heard. A church which knows that it is not self-sufficient nor secure in righteousness but dependent on God for judgment and renewal as well as for life will expect him to use as instruments of his judgment the opponents and critics of Christianity. Yet the judgment of the outsider is not the final judgment of God, and his standard is not the divine standard for the church. An individual can profit greatly by the criticism of his fellows yet he will realize that they are judging him by standards which are neither his own nor God's, that he is both a worse and a better man than their judgments indicate, and that the greatest service they can render him is to call him back to his own best self. He will realize that he is not under any obligation to conform to the ideals which his friends or his critics set up for him, but that he is indeed obligated to be true to his own ideal. It is so with the church. Much as it may profit by the criticisms of those outside, it must not forget that they are asking it to conform to principles not its own, and endeavoring to use it for ends foreign to its nature. The question of the church, seen from the inside, is not how it can measure up to the expectations of society nor what it must do to become a savior of civilization, but rather how it can be true to itself: that is, to its Head. What must it do to be saved?
This question is not a selfish one; it is only the question of a responsible self. Critics of the gospel of salvation, who characterize it as self-centered and intent upon self -- satisfaction, thoroughly misunderstand the sources and the bearing of the cry for salvation. In the period of individualism, persons sought redemption not because they desired pleasures in "the by-and-by" but because they found themselves on the road to futility, demoralization, and destructiveness. Because they were concerned with their own impotence in good works and with the harm they were doing to others, they were not less altruistic than those who were concerned only with doing good, and inattentive to the evil consequences of many good works. The avowed altruists were not less selfish than seekers after salvation just because they wished to be saviors rather than saved. Nor is it true that the desire for salvation is unsocial. It arises for the church today as for individuals in all times -- not in solitariness but within the social nexus. The church has seen all mankind involved in crisis and has sought to offer help -- only to discover the utter insufficiency of its resources. Confronting the poverty, the warfare, the demoralization of human life, it has sought within itself for the wisdom and the power with which to give aid, and has discovered its impotence. Therefore it must cry, "What must I do to be saved?" It has made pronouncements against war, promoted schemes for peace, leagues of nations, pacts for the outlawry of war, associations for international friendship, organizations of war resisters; but the march of Mars is halted not for a moment by the petty impediments placed in its way. The church has set up programs of social justice, preached utopian ideals, adopted resolutions, urged charity, proclaimed good will among men; but neither the progressive impoverishment of the life of the many nor the growth of the privileges of the few has been stayed by its efforts. It has set up schemes of moral and religious education, seeking to inculcate brotherly love, to draw forth sympathetic good will, to teach self-discipline; but the progress of individual and social disintegration goes on. The church knows that the meaning of its life lies in the service it can give to God's creatures. It cannot abandon its efforts to help. Yet, looking upon the inadequacy and the frequent futility of its works, how can it help but cry, "What must I do to be saved?
The question has another and more positive source. The church has been made to realize not only the ineffectiveness but the harmfulness of much of its labor. The individual raises the question of his salvation, rather than that of his saviorhood, when he faces the fact that he is not only not a Messiah but actually a sinner; that he is profiting by, consenting to, and sharing in man's inhumanity to man; that he is not the man upon the cross but one of the crowd beneath. So, the church has discovered that it belongs to the crucifiers rather than to the crucified; that all talk of becoming a martyr in the cause of good will, some time in the future, is but wishful thinking with little relevance to present reality. Its outside critics have taxed the church with giving opium to the people, and with securing its own position as well as that of its allies by preaching contentment to the poor. Had it been poor as Jesus was poor, had it identified itself with those to whom it preached contentment, had it not profited by the system of distribution which brings poverty, its conscience would have been clear. It would have been able to respond that it had preached nothing which it had not practiced. But being what it is, the church has been unable to refute the charge with a wholly good conscience. It knows that it has often been an obstruction in the path of social change and that it has tried to maintain systems of life which men and God had condemned to death. Its outside critics have held the church responsible for the increase of nationalism. They have pointed to the role of Protestantism, Pietism, and even of Catholicism in fostering the sense of national destiny, in giving religious sanction to the imperialist programs of kings and democracies, in justifying nationalist wars and in blessing armies bound on conquest. The church stands convicted of this sin without being at all confident that it has found out how to resist similar temptations in the future. At all events, it knows that it has been on the side of the slayers rather than of the slain. The critics have reminded the church of its part in the development of that economic system which, whatever its virtues, has revealed its vices so clearly to our times that none can take pride in having assisted it to success, in however innocent a role. The harm which the church has done and is doing in these and other areas of human life may be greatly exaggerated in its adversaries' indictments. But no section of the church can plead "not guilty" to all the counts. Convicted by its conscience more than by its foes, it joins the penitents at its own altars, asking, "What must we do to be saved?"
In the crisis of the world the church becomes aware of its own crisis: not that merely of a weak and responsible institution but of one which is threatened with destruction. It is true, as Francis Miller points out in his essay, that the church will probably survive in some form in any circumstances, and that the real question is whether it will survive as a reliable witness to the Christian faith. Yet it is also true that the larger question receives part of its urgency from the threat of extinction. It was when Israel's life as a nation was in danger that the prophets came to understand the more dire peril to Israel as a people of God. The knowledge of death played a part in the conversions of Augustine and Luther. So the church is being awakened to its inner crisis by the external one in which it is involved. It has seen enough of the indifference or hostility of the world, and of the defeats of some of its component parts, to realize that its continuance in the world is by no means a certainty. It knows the ways of God too well not to understand that he can and will raise up another people to carry out the mission entrusted to it if the Christian community fail him. It cannot look to the future with assurance that it carries a guarantee of immortality. The knowledge of the external crisis -- in which as an institution it must become increasingly involved -- may lead it to inquire first into the conditions of physical survival. Yet a society based, as the church has been, upon the conviction that to seek life is to lose it, must discover the fallacy in any attempt merely to live for the sake of living. Like any Christian individual faced with death, the church then realizes that the important question is not how to save its life but rather how to keep its soul, how to face loss, impoverishment, and even death without surrendering its self, its work, and its service.
From the point of view of civilization the question of the church seems often to be regarded as that of an institution which has failed to adjust itself to the world and which is making desperate efforts to overcome its maladjustments. The problem it presents is that of a conservative organization which has not kept abreast of the times, which has remained medieval while the world was growing modern, dogmatic while civilization was becoming scientific; which is individualistic in a collectivist period and theological in a time of humanism. The answer, it is thought, must come from science, politics, history, civilization. If the church is intent on being saved, then, from this point of view, it must direct its question to civilization. But within the church the problem has a different aspect. There is a sense, to be sure, in which the church must adjust itself to the world in which it lives and become all things to all men in order that it may win some. It is true also, within certain limits, that failure to adjust results in decay as is evident in all mere traditionalism.
But the desire to become all things to all men still presupposes a faith which does not change and a gospel to which they are to be won. The failure of traditionalism, moreover, is less in its lack of adjustment to changing conditions than in the confusion of the spirit with the letter and in blindness to the actual shift of attention from meaning to symbol that has taken place within the church.
In the faith of the church, the problem is not one of adjustment to the changing, relative, and temporal elements in civilization but rather one of constant adjustment, amid these changing things, to the eternal. The crisis of the church from this point of view is not the crisis of the church in the world, but of the world in the church. What is endangered in the church is the secular clement: its prestige as a social institution, its power as a political agency, its endowment as a foster-child of nation or of class. And this very peril indicates that the church has adjusted itself too much rather than too little to the world in which it lives. It has identified itself too intimately with capitalism, with the philosophy of individualism, and with the imperialism of the West. Looking to the future, the danger of the church lies more in a readiness to adjust itself to new classes, races, or national civilizations than in refusal to accept them. This moment of crisis, between a worldliness that is passing and a worldliness that is coming, is the moment of the church's opportunity to turn away from its temporal toward its eternal relations and so to become fit again for its work in time.
From the point of view of the church, moreover, the threat against it is being made not by a changing world but by an unchanging God. The "cracks in time" which now appear are fissures too deep for human contriving, and reveal a justice too profound to be the product of chance. The God who appears in this judgment of the world is neither the amiable parent of the soft faith we recently avowed nor the miracle worker of a superstitious supernaturalism; he is rather the eternal God, Creator, Judge, and Redeemer, whom prophets and apostles heard, and saw at work, casting down and raising up. He uses all things temporal as his instruments, but resigns his sovereignty to none. Hence the fear of the church is not inspired by men but by the living God, and it directs its question not to the changing world with its self-appointed messiahs but to its sovereign Lord.
Because this is true the church can raise the question of the church but cannot answer it. It knows what way that answer will come: so that it will be compelled to obedience by the authority of the word and the conviction in its heart. It knows that it must go to the place of penitence. It knows that it must go into silence and quiet. It knows that it must go to the Scriptures, not in worship of the letter, but because this is the place where it is most likely to hear the reverberations of that commandment and that promise which sent it on its way.
The following essays are variations upon this theme or, since none of us is empowered to speak for the others, this introduction may be considered as a variation upon a theme stated more clearly in one of the subsequent parts. We have not sought to define closely our common point of view. We wish only to add our contributions to a task which seems to us all-important, the task of the Christian community in defining and taking its position against the world.