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Utilitarian Christianity

by H. Richard Niebuhr

H. Richard Niebuhr, for many years Sterling Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School, was one of mid-century's most respected teachers and writers. This article appeared in the Journal Christianity and Crisis, July 8, 1946. Used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In religion and science there is a constant conflict between the devotees of pure endeavor after truth and the seekers after immediate, tangible results. For the latter, truth is a pragmatic device by means of which men are enabled to gain satisfactions as biological and temporal rather than as rational and eternal beings. For the former, truth— abstractly in the case of science, concretely in the case of religion as "The Truth"—is an intrinsic good. Devotion to it does have consequences for the biological and temporal being, but to seek it for the sake of these consequences is self-defeating. Pure science and pure faith believe that the secondary satisfactions come only by way of indirection. The secret of atomic structure is not found by those who want to win victory in war or cure diseases; the secret of the kingdom of God is not revealed to those who are anxious for their lives, for food and drink, for freedom from want and fear.

In the present crisis of mankind, however, all emphasis seems to be placed on utilitarianism in both science and religion. How science is responding to the complex situation in which it finds itself is not our immediate concern here. In religion, to which we want to direct our attention, the growth of the utilitarian spirit is an alarming phenomenon. Utilitarianism seems to mark not only the attitude of the political powers that use religion for the sake of social control and transform it to suit their purposes, but also the attitude of many who oppose them. The utilitarianism of the Japanese war party in its employment of Shintoism is one thing; the pragmatism of the American military government in dealing with that Shintoism is another thing; but they are both utilitarian and pragmatic. The instrumentalism in matters of religion which characterizes communism and national socialism differs from the instrumentalism of the resistance movements and democracy; but in both instances we are dealing with a utilitarian use of religion in the service of non-religious ends. The utilitarianism of an individualistic period, which promised men that through faith they might gain the economic virtues and wealth, differs from the pragmatism of our social climate of opinion, in which religion is used as a means for gaining social order and prosperity; but they are both utilitarian and equally remote from the love of God for his own sake and of the individual or social neighbor in his relation to God. The use of religion for the sake of healing mental illness differs from its use in the effort to heal physical diseases; but in either case religion, the worship of God, is a means to an end.

Recently the social form of this utilitarianism has been given high sanction in an official statement made by the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America. Addressing the Christians in America on the subject of The Churches and World Order, the Council not only recommended many helpful steps which might be taken in the direction of the much desired goal of peace and order, but put its recommendations within a theological setting that is almost completely utilitarian. Doubtless there are overtones and undertones of another spirit but the major idea is a thorough social pragmatism. "Our first task," the report declares, "is to demonstrate that our Christian faith can enable all men to enjoy a fullness of life which not only equals but surpasses that which any other faith can accomplish." "Fullness of life" may mean many things; but what is meant here appears from the fact that it is something which other faiths also offer in an inferior or equal manner and that it is elsewhere declared that "our dedication . . . is to the progressive realization of the dignity and worth of man in every area of life—political, economic, social and religious." It is the sort of fullness of life that will amount to "a demonstration of the practical application of our faith" and which will therefore bring into being a world "responsive to that faith." The general idea is very clear: Men in our time desire some things very much—escape from suffering war and other disaster, freedom and a sense of their dignity, abundance and peace. These values they may have if they will turn to the Christian faith, if they will repent and lay hold of the sources of spiritual power that Christianity offers. The church will also benefit, for the demonstration that Christianity can provide these goods will cause men to turn to it.

Similar ideas are being voiced in numerous church statements and in the writings of Christian theologians. Christianity offers an alternative to communism, it is said, as a way of organizing the economic life. Christianity, another maintains, gives us the key to the problem of justice in our time, enabling us to know what is due to every man and how to give it to him. Christianity, it is argued, shows us how we may have not only a durable but also a just peace. Christianity has the answer to all the human problems that arise in man’s quest after health, peace, prosperity, justice, joy.

Why there should be such a development of theological utilitarianism at any time and especially in our time we can readily understand. There is a reason in the faith itself. Its paradox of the losing and finding of life, of the addition of all other things if the kingdom of God is sought, has always tempted men to lose life for the sake of finding and to seek the divine rule for the sake of food and clothing. This temptation becomes especially acute when long cherished values are imperiled. Men beset by anxieties are likely to seek mental peace through worship since they discovered in earlier experience that it was a by-product of a devotion that had no ulterior purpose but was directed to the eternal glory. In the decline of a culture, the revival of the religion which gave life to that culture is sought for the sake of staving off death, though the civilization had been a by-product of religious concern. When individual liberties are threatened men tend to cultivate the sense of duty to the transcendent for the sake of which they originally fought for those liberties. One can also easily understand why religious utilitarianism in our time should be dominantly social, since our greatest concern is for the preservation and ordering of a social life that is threatened with anarchy and since our greatest sufferings arise out of our social disorder. There is another reason for the rise of this social, religious utilitarianism—the apologetic one. Christian faith is so much faith and so little sight that its adherents are always seeking for some demonstration which will prove to themselves and others that it is true, though the demonstration is bound to be somewhat beside the point—like most miracles—proving not truth but utility, and exhibiting a power which may be that of God, but may also be that of faith itself, or of spiritual forces somewhat less than divine.

Though one can understand the reasons for the rise of this Christian pragmatism, it remains a dubious thing, giving birth to all sorts of skeptical questions. Will the church be able to live up to such promises? Is there any warrant in its history or in the nature of its faith for the assurance that it can, if men will follow its teaching, guarantee them peace, the end of suffering, escape from disaster, the realization of human dignity and worth in politics and economics as well as in religion?

There is little basis in history for the promise that this religion sincerely followed will bring fullness of life to its adherents in the sense that theological utilitarianism intends. The Jewish people, more faithful than any similar group in the keeping of the moral laws they share with the Christians, more assiduous in the practice of repentance, more diligent in forgiveness, have indeed survived to this day and so demonstrated in a fashion the social relevance of their faith; but it would be difficult to describe the sort of existence the Jewish race has enjoyed as "fullness of life." The Christian church cannot maintain on the basis of its own record that it has made a notable contribution to the peace of the world. It has rarely if ever been at peace within itself, and the wars of the nations it has most deeply influenced have equaled and surpassed in frequency and in destruction those waged by societies dominated by other faiths. It is easy to say that Christians have fought so much not because they were Christians but because they were not good Christians, but this is a dubious argument since there is no indication that men can now be more sincere in their practice of Christianity than in the past, and since Christianity makes men deeply concerned about values for the sake of which they sacrifice peace. Historically there is no ground for the assertion that faithful adherence to Christian faith reduces suffering. It leads to the alleviation of the sufferings of others, but through the operation of sympathy and compassion, of asceticism and the sense of sin to the increase of suffering among Christians.

If there is not much ground in history for the assurances of theological utilitarianism, there seems to be less ground in the structure of the faith itself. If Second Isaiah, the book of Job, and the New Testament were dropped from the constitution of the church it might be possible to maintain that the biblical doctrine is one of prosperity as the consequence of virtue, but how shall one rhyme the ideas about the suffering service of Israel and the story of the cross with the assurance that faith leads to fullness of life? It can’t be done except by means of reference to another sort of experience than is contemplated in statements about "fullness of life"; it can’t be done without reference to a resurrection. On the other hand the effort to translate Christian faith into a socially useful force entails the suppression and transformation of some vital elements in it, just as the effort to make it serviceable to individualistic success in the era of early capitalism entailed the deformation of the Reformation into the sort of thing that Tawney has described for us.

All this does not mean that Christian faith has no social applications or a relevance to the crisis of our days. It does mean that these applications and this relevance must stem from its own imperatives and not from the wishes and desires we entertain apart from the faith. It does mean that the effort to recommend Christianity as a panacea for all the ills from which man suffers and thinks himself to suffer is erroneous and disastrous; it does not mean that Christians are not bound to seek for ways and means of alleviating these ills. It does not mean that repentance does not bear social fruits; it does mean that repentance practiced for the sake of such fruits is a bad kind of magic.

To take the last point first: Christian faith calls for a complete change of mind, not because repentance is socially effective, or individually effective for that matter, but because the mind is out of harmony with reality. Repentance is called for not because we shall suffer or because civilization will perish if we do not repent, but because others are now perishing for us and because we are attacking the very son of God, or God himself, in our endeavor to escape suffering and to maintain our civilization at any cost. Repentance is called for not because we have chosen false means to the achievement of our ends but because our ends themselves are idolatrous. A repentance which leaves ends uncriticized and which is motivated by the desire to escape judgment in history or beyond history is a far cry away from that change of mind which the gospels present. But such radical repentance, though it is not designed to be socially relevant, may have social consequences. It may lead to that sort of disinterestedness which is able to deal with the questions of politics and economics objectively and helpfully just because it does not take them too seriously, just because it has gained a certain distance from them. It may lead to that situation in which men are able to think the new thoughts which the crisis of the times requires and which they cannot think so long as they remain bound by the passion of this—worldliness.

A Christianity that is not socially utilitarian still has social relevance because its imperatives direct it to work in society. It is imperative for such a Christian faith to remember and to realize the dignity of every man as an eternal being, in his political and economic relations as well as everywhere else, though that realization may involve the sacrifice of dignity on the part of Christians and the Christian community. Imperative Christianity does not ask whether the love of neighbor will bring forth a society in which all men will love their neighbors; it acts in hope, to be sure, but love and justice are its immediate commands and not its far-off goals. It does not condemn the abuse of atomic power because we have thereby imperiled our future but because we violated our own principles. It does not believe that social virtue will be rewarded by length of life but that "no evil can befall a good man"—or a good nation— "in life or in death."

Such a non-utilitarian faith does not undertake to show that in the Christian gospel we can find the solution to all the problems of human existence any more than that we can find in the Scriptures answers to all the questions we raise about the world of nature. It does direct its followers to seek by means of all the intelligence they can muster to find out what to do to alleviate distress, to heal physical and mental disease, to order the vocations and to distribute justly the goods men produce. In consequence the social measures of such faith have nothing peculiarly Christian about them. The Christian setting in which they are conceived and practiced does not become tangibly or visually evident. There is nothing here to which one can point and say, "This is the demonstration of what Christianity can do for man." For every such measure will be only a demonstration of what disinterestedness can do, and Christians will participate with men of many other faiths in carrying them out.

In a world where the power struggle has taken precedence over every other concern, where every group is interested not only in doing good but in seeing to it that it gets credit for doing good, and where good is being done for the sake of power, the church, as church, must surely feel called upon to go about its work with quietness and confidence, abjuring utilitarianism and the defensiveness that goes with it.


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