Belief that a good society is possible on earth has been one of the powerful constructive forces in the life of modern man. Today when it is necessary to human survival itself that the nerve of hope for that better society be kept alive, there is widespread bewilderment and anxiety. Have we, in spite of all idealism, succeeded only in preparing our doom?
I have written this book to state and defend two convictions about that hope. The first is that there is solid ground in human experience for believing that the better world can be made. It is cynicism and nihilism which in the last resort are unrealistic about what human life can be. The second conviction is that any enduring hope must be based, not upon man alone, but upon the fact that God is present in human history, and is there creatively and redemptively at work. To try to establish the City of Man on anything other than faith in God is to build on quicksand. These two convictions, taken together, place my thought within the tradition of the Christian social gospel of which Walter Rauschenbusch was both prophet and pioneer. It is an honor indeed to have the lectures which are here set down and expanded bear his name.
There is widespread agreement, in which I share, that the social gospel was too optimistic about man and his progress. There is also a growing impression that the "neo-orthodox" reaction to the liberalism of the social gospel is too pessimistic. I concur in this judgment also. But the point is not to add a little more optimism to balance so much pessimism. The point is to find that truer Christian understanding of man and God which can be expressed in a structurally sound theology. We need an interpretation of the Christian faith which can guide moral effort and sustain the exercise of social intelligence while it strengthens our hold upon the reality of God’s judgment and His mercy. Whether this book offers any basis for such a theology is for the reader to decide, but that is what I am after.
The way through the tangled issues which surround our theme leads to the discussion of many problems, the chief of which are: the nature of God’s working and our knowledge of Him; the conflict between Christian love and power politics; the mystery of time and its relation to the idea of human progress; the meaning of the Christian’s "calling" in the making of moral choices; the question whether there is a Christian ideal for society, and how such an ideal is to be stated; and finally the query which searches the human heart, whether and how it is possible for a man to love his neighbor as himself.
In seeking to give a reason for the Christian hope for man I have dealt critically with the work of several contemporary theologians from each of whom I have learned much. I have given special attention to the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, and I hope that the attempt to state an alternative to his position on many points does not obscure my debt to him. His teaching, writing, and political action have been for me, as for so many, a major aid to Christian thinking in our time.
The list of all those who have contributed to my thought is too long to give here. I do want to acknowledge with gratitude the continuing encouragement and stimulating criticism of Dr. Justin Wroe Nixon. It is a pleasure to recall the gracious hospitality and the thoughtful attention given by President Edwin McNeill Poteat and the faculty, students, and alumni of Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, when the lectures were given at Easter time in 1947. For so many of the ideas which have lighted my theological way I am indebted to my teachers and colleagues, Wilhelm Pauck and Henry Nelson Wieman. On specific points James Luther Adams and Herbert W. Schneider made helpful criticisms. My father and brothers have patiently tried to let me in on the lawyers’ understanding of the law. For the positions taken, I am alone responsible. Mr. Hartley Ray did excellent detective work in locating elusive references. Mrs. Ruth Murphy prepared the manuscript with a skill and devotion beyond the call of duty. My wife, to whom the book is dedicated, not only typed the original lectures, but has shared with me throughout her intuitive theological wisdom for which no plodding reflection can ever be a substitute.
I have tried to show that God can use evil and error to serve good and truth. If through any truth it may possess, or any discussion of its shortcomings the book may contribute to the development in the Church of a more powerful witness to the Good News which our world so deeply needs, I am content.
New Year’s Day, 1949