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Christian Affirmations by Norman Pittenger


Dr. Pittenger, philosopher and theologian, was a senior member of Kingís College, Cambridge for many years, then Professor of Christian Apologetics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, before retiring in 1966. Published by Morehouse-Gorham Company, New York, 1954. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter: 11: Our Faith and our Living


The general theme of this chapter is our faith and its implications for life. This is such a huge subject that I must beg indulgence, therefore, if I give my space to but a small fraction of the historic faith -- namely its main emphases on God, Christ, the Church, and eternal life -- and consider only these in our modem context, in the effort to discover what values they may have for men and women who are tossed about in an unsettled world, with an uncertain future, and doomed -- almost certainly it seems -- to a doubtful truce of arms, at worst to a war which threatens to annihilate man as we have known him and in any event to leave us a bare existence such as we can eke out on a totally devastated planet.

But first let me say that when I speak of the historic faith I mean precisely that. The day of a reductionist Christianity is at an end. On every side we have witnessed the collapse of the old optimism, in which "the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man were easily Linked with "the progress of the human race forever upwards and onwards." Despite superficial thinking like that found, as I think, at the conclusion of du Noüyís Human Destiny, the temper of our time is one which is much more plainly realistic and honest. We can have no truck with cheap religions which promise easy improvement for man; we know, now, that man is a sinner, and a terrible sinner as well as a miserable one. We know that only from beyond the bourne of time and space can a Salvation come which is adequate to give us hope; and we are all of us, I take it, quite done now with the notion that a finite God, a humanitarian Christ, a sociological Church, and "the wages of going on," will provide a sufficient answer for the dilemma in which man finds himself. This, at least, the last twenty-five years -- culminating in the war, the atomic bomb (Americaís most doubtful among many doubtful contributions to human life), and what has happened since -- should have taught us.

Yet in our reaction from the excesses of optimistic liberalism, we have gone much too far in the other direction. Nowadays, irrationalism, authoritarianism in the worst sense, dictatorship in a spiritual if not a material way, are all the rage. We are witnessing the emergence of Neo-Fundamentalism in many guises, and it behooves us to take care lest the real gains won during the heyday of Liberalism be lost, so that (so far as there is to be any future for us at all) the battle must once more be fought, for a truly free and, in the right meaning, liberal religion, which is yet firmly historic and orthodox, such as may win the hearts and souls of men.

Anglicanism represents, we believe, the kind of dynamic Catholicism which alone can guarantee the maintenance of the historic faith, while at the same time securing that freedom which man has discovered in the days since the Reformation and which he properly and firmly insists shall be his right. No dead orthodoxy this, but a living and vital movement of sound thinking and right believing -- an orthodoxy which is alive and moving, moving in the lines laid down for us by our own past but still moving, and alert to the truths, whatever they may be and wherever they may be found, which modern science, philosophy, and thought have made available to us. Catholicism with the windows open -- that is our Anglican heritage; and it is that sort of faith which we shall call the historic faith, and seek to consider in relation to our modern situation.

First, then, our faith in God. For this, certainly, is our central conviction, despite all appearances to the contrary. We shall see presently the place of our Lord Jesus Christ in this whole context, the utter necessity of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ, and the inescapable reality of "the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come." At this moment, however, let us make quite clear that the whole point and meaning of the faith is that it is about God. It is the deity of God that is fundamental to the whole Christian position. God is God -- and by God we mean no mere stream of tendency, no evolutionary influence, no compendious noun to describe the sum of human good will, but the one almighty and eternal Reality upon whom we depend both for our being and our continued existence, whether or not we are believers in Him, worshipers of Him, or doers of His Will. He is -- and He alone really is. And this means purpose, significance, and sense in the universe in which we live, and in our lives which are part of that created order. There is no other way in which the world and our lives can have purpose, significance, and meaning -- for it is idiotic to talk as if these could be given to finites unless there be something from outside and beyond which values them, appreciates them, appraises them, and thinks them worthwhile.

The supreme faith of the Christian Church is that God is and that God reigns. All that happens is in some way, either directly or permissively, related to His most holy Will: "nothing walks with aimless feet," and we shall make hash of human life if we assume that we can evade God or get on well enough with only a casual nod at Him; that is not the way the universe is run. Either we co-operate with His purpose, or we are utterly smashed -- and it ought not to have required a World War to show us that, although God Himself knows that it is doubtful if even the war has convinced many of us of that terrible but unavoidable truth. "His ways are just and holy altogether" -- and any man or any nation which departs from those ways will sooner or later come to shipwreck. We must proclaim the inescapability of God.

Now this confidence in the reality of God and His Will at once enables us to face the experience of life with a like confidence. We live, as we all know, in an age characterized by neurosis: fear, frustration, schizophrenic social and individual lives, despair with regard to the future, hopelessness about the present -- these are the marks of our time. And they are bound to be with us if our perspective is time-bound and world-bound; it is only by relationship to, and trust in, some Reality bigger and other than the world, yet working in and through the processes of time and history, that we can be raised above the level of immediacy into the sphere of ultimacy -- and it is in that sphere alone, so far as I can see, that man can achieve any peace of mind. But if the Will of God is in control of the historic series itself, then our security in the realm of ultimacy does not deny the importance of the realm of immediacy; in other words, Christianity offers no extricationist technique, by which (as it were, in Aldous Huxleyís fashion) we may escape the necessities of temporal existence; our God is in history as well as above history.

Therefore sheer and utter hopelessness and despair are impossible for the Christian. While we ought not to continue to commit the error of so many people, especially religious people, that is, "kidding ourselves" about the likelihood of a bright future; we cannot, on the other hand, commit the error of the totally disillusioned, which is to give themselves over to the darkest outlook and see no chance for anything but the gloom of night in a world where all ends in nothing, and nothing is the price of it all. There is a purpose of good at work in the world. Its achievements are not always visible to our eyes, and there is no Christian guarantee, despite a secular misreading of Christianity in the heydey of Liberalism, that the purpose will be worked out, according to our prescription, and exhaustively, in this world. But the purpose stands sure in Godís providence; and every good deed, every right and brave action, every move towards justice and good will amongst men, every search for truth, every creation of beauty, above all, every humble and holy life, plays its due part in the accomplishment of that purpose. By Godís strange operation, the essence of that action or word or thought is made to contribute to a good final product; and the whole course of the world itself, no matter how ghastly it may appear to us from time to time and how hopeless may seem the possibility of lasting peace and order amongst men, will contribute in Godís sight to a good final product.

You may call this a rather chastened optimism; I know of no other which is truly Christian, for the confidence of the Christian man is not set on the evolution of a perfect society, here in our secular world, but "on things above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God." Yet this Christ, now regnant with the Father, is the same Christ who for us men and for our Salvation came down from Heaven -- so we are driven to make terms with Him, the Incarnate Lord.

Once again, we must comment on the change in atmosphere. While the humanitarian Christ is still popular enough, so that a recent President of the United States can refer to the need for following the teachings of "the great Disciple of Peace," yet in thinking circles and amongst scholars of repute, there has been at last a recognition that the Jesus of those "happy walks and talks by the Lake of Galilee," so popular when I was young, never existed excepting in the imagination of the sentimental Liberal Protestants of the time. The Christ of the Gospels, and the Christ of the Churchís faith, is One who is indeed truly human, in every respect and without equivocation; but he is also One who is truly divine -- pictured first as Messiah, sent from God and coming again from God with power and great glory; pictured soon as the Word of God, as God Himself, made flesh and dwelling amongst us. This rediscovery of the real historical Jesus, who is the Christ of faith, changes the emphasis in our Christian preaching and thinking; no longer can we talk only of the imitation of the Masterís manhood -- although we must never forget that in one sense this manhood is part of the full Gospel. We are obliged to make terms with the faith that here, in the conditions of human life, the very God who swings the stars in their courses has tabernacled in true human life, as bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. Now this is an audacious faith; and if it be true, if it be indeed "the terrible, frightened, whispered, sweet, heart-shattering secret of Godís way with us," it can be true only because God and man are not far off one from the other, but rather are ever in close relationship, so that every one of us is penetrated by the presence and purpose of God, in greater or less degree, grounded and established in the Word of God, and therefore "capable of deity," as the watchword of Catholic thought so rightly puts it, despite Calvinís protest. Man is not God, of course; man remains man -- yet as the grounding of his being, there is somewhat of God. It is the Christian faith that this Logos spermatikos, as the early apologists put it -- this germinal Word, has in Christ become Logos ensarkos, the Word incarnate. Without contradicting the conditions of human life, but within those very conditions, God can, and God did, dwell as Man, our Brother.

This faith, which, in Solovievís words, is the very differentia of Christianity from all other religions, is the thing that ultimately gives the Christian his hope, as it also imparts to him his charity. For every man is now the brother of God, and God is every manís Brother. Such I take to be the true motivation for Christian concern about social, economic, political, national, and international problems; for example -- that the path of life trodden by those who are brothers of God-made-man must be made a fit path for those who are Godís brothers as well as Godís sons. It ought to be inconceivable to a Christian that any obstacle, beyond those of temporal and finite necessity, should be placed in the way of the full and free growth, in and under God, of any man or woman or child, because each and all of them now must be seen as blood-brothers, not of us only, but of the most-high God. That is why Father Doling was interested in the drains of East London. Perhaps you recall how he replied when asked, "Why do you concern yourself about these matters?" with the words, "I believe in the Incarnation."

We shall see in a moment the deeper sense of brotherhood with those who belong with us to the Church and hence are members with us of Christís mystical Body. At the moment I am concerned to stress simply our total human solidarity, not only because we are sons of God by creation, but because we are brothers of God by redemption. Piers Plowman was made to sing of Calvary,

Blood brothers we became there,
And gentlemen each one . . .

There, so far as I can see, is the only ultimate reconciliation of man with man. Made by God, we are, all of us, either potentially or actually, re-made by Him; we share in our common sin, for each one of us is guilty of horrible defection from the true pattern of human life, the full realization of our manhood as mind-bodies dwelling in community; we share likewise in the given reality of the life of Christ coursing through humanity, and in those who become members of His Body burgeoning forth into greater or less visible expression. Our humanity is one with God, now; we have become partakers of His divinity, who for our sake became sharer in our humanity. Human nature is enthroned at Godís right hand, and we can despair of no man if we believe in the incarnate, crucified, risen, and regnant Christ: least of all, perhaps, can we despair of ourselves, whom we know so appallingly well. Need I tell parish priests that it is such a Gospel of hope that countless thousands need today?

And now we come to that rediscovered doctrine of our day: the mystical Body of Christ in which we, by Baptism, are incorporate so that "in Christ" we live divinely human lives, as members of the order of supernatural charity which permeates and penetrates this order of relative justice which we call the secular world. William Temple said, years ago, "Let the Church be the Church. . . ." But what is the Church? Is it really the human organization which flourishes at 281 Fourth Avenue, or even in the Vatican, in Rome? No, it is not that, although that is the empirical expression, not to be sneered at, of the true reality of the Church, which is the supernatural organism, the divine society, in which Christ Incarnate still dwells among men, making them one with Him and thereby one with God. The sense of "churchly appurtenance," in von Hügelís phase, is something we must cultivate these days, to help our people recognize that in and through the parish of St. Vitus, Smithville, the very glory of the mystical Body of Christ shines forth, "the holy Church throughout all the world" is reflected, and Christ is present still as we offer ourselves, m union with His perfect Sacrifice, in the eucharistic memorial of the passion and death of our Head.

To develop this sense of "belonging" will be a way in which, here and now, life can become meaningful; for in the little cells of Christian faith and love which are our parishes as they ought to be, hope is implanted m menís hearts that lifts them above, and yet sends them back into, the community life of which they are also a part, knowing that they have passed from death into life, because they love the brethren and are therefore empowered to bring a stream of fresh, courageous, loving life to a sadly disillusioned and despairing world. That is what the Church can do, ought to do, and to a rather remarkable degree is doing, wherever it is let be itself.

It is, I have said, at the Eucharist that this reality is effected. Without question of kind of Churchmanship -- high, low, broad, or, best of all, "deep" -- this is the common fact about which we as Anglicans, loyal to our established liturgy, must center our interest and our preaching and our teaching. It did not require Dom Gregory Dix to tell us -- although we can be grateful that he has done so -- that the heart and center of Christian life these two thousand years has been the Table of the Lord and the repetition of those actions which spring from what our Savior performed on the night in which He was betrayed. Our Prayer Book says it all, yet how many of us have failed to do what the Prayer Book plainly intends -- to make this Table and its service, rather than a clerically intended service like Morning Prayer, the chief event of every Sunday, in order that the people of Christ may be incorporated into Him, find there the strength for life, be taught there the meaning of life, and be sent forth to conform life to the pattern there displayed.

But human life cannot be exhausted within this world. There is the "sure and certain hope" of life not simply beyond but more than this world can contain or convey -- and in this sense, surely, Christianity is incurably otherworldly. "Thou hast made us for thyself, O God. . . ." At best, we men are pilgrims whose true Patria is the heart of God; we walk as wayfaring men in the company of the Son of God, seeking to do our duty and live aright in this world, but not ashamed to let it be known that God has prepared for us another habitation, "a city which hath foundations." We are, indeed, colonists of Heaven, as Moffat rightly translates St. Paulís phrase. We are, then, resident in this world, with the task of making it, so far as may be, a replica of the perfect justice and utter charity of our homeland, but not surprised nor in despair when the work cannot be brought to complete fulfillment because the conditions of our present place of residence do not permit, or our selfishness and pride interfere.

There is, and must be, an amphibian quality about the Christianís life; he is a citizen of two cities, that of God, which in the Church is partially realized even now; that of Man, in which he must strive for the relative goods which are possible in the realm of space and time. Hence there is a tension, if you please, in Christian living; it is a fruitful tension, and a right one, meaning that we are never contented, like earthworms, with the status quo; like Mallory and Irvine, we want to go all-out so that we can climb Everest and stand where man has never yet stood. That is the very secret of Christian living -- a divine discontent and a desire for "more," so that the very mountains can become a way by which we shall walk towards our destiny in God. St. Augustine knew all this centuries ago; hence he could write that we live, quite literally, by hope -- that is, by the earnest expectation of that which we shall be in God; so we can walk the path of this world, singing in our hearts, as he said, because we are "on the way." "So sing and march on," he wrote, and even when Rome was falling and all civilization seemed at an end, he was not in despair, for he knew by faith that God reigned, and that in the midst of secular disillusionment the eternal hills stood firm.

Something like this, too, is what we need today -- to have a song in our hearts as we see the United Nations crumbling, peace retreating to an improbable future, and God alone knows what awful fate in store for us and our proud civilization. But the only song which we can sing is one of the "songs of Zion," the endless "Alleluia!" which can be on the lips of those whose hearts are fixed where true joys can be found. Above all, in this our time of tribulations, let us not be found guilty of failure in preaching to our people that "there is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of our God, even the dwelling-place of the tabernacle of the most Highest." Of that river, whose life is eternal, we need not be ashamed, and we must help men and women to drink of it as they walk in the Way.

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