The Church Against the World by H. Richard Niebuhr, Wilhelm Pauck and Francis P. Miller
H. Richard Niebuhr was associate professor of Christian ethics at Yale University Divinity School from 1931. Prior to that he taught at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Mo., served as President of Elmhurst (Illinois) College, and held pastorates in St. Louis, Mo., and in Clinton, CT. Wilhelm Pauch represented, it was said, the first important post-war gift of the theological faculties of Germany to the religious thinking of America. He came to the Chicago Theological Seminary as an exchange student in 1925, later serving there as professor of Church History. In 1931 Dr. Pauck became a force to be reckoned with in American church life by the publication of Karl Barth: Prophet of a New Christianity. Francis P. Miller was chairman of the World Student Christian Federation, having come to that responsibility after long service as one of the national secretaries of the federation in the United States and as administrative secretary of the world body. He was also the field secretary of the Foreign Policy Association, America's foremost organization for the study of foreign affairs. These positions of leadership required extensive travel in America, Europe and the Far East, and enabled him to discuss the problems of International Christianity against a background of almost unrivaled political as well as religious knowledge. A graduate of Washington and Lee, he later studied at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, and at Yale. Published in 1935 by Willett, Clark and Company, Chicago, New York. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Richard and Sue Kendall
Part I: The Crisis of Religion, by Wilhelm Pauck
It is likely that at all times in human history many men and women have spent their lives unaware of the deeper meanings of existence. But surely there have been few historical periods in which men were so disillusioned about the meaningfulness of life as they are in our own era. A majority of our contemporaries seem to lead the existence of drifters. They perform perfunctorily those "duties" which lie immediately at hand; they struggle grimly for "a place in the sun" for themselves and their own. They seem unconscious of any peculiarly human dignity -- if such consciousness involves active and resolute participation in a meaningful process of the whole universe. Depth seems to be the one dimension strangely absent from the life of the present generation. A spirit of uncertainty has shaken, it seems, all positive convictions. The most urgent human concern appears to be "security." All political movements, economic and cultural discussions, and religious longings are directed toward the overcoming of the feeling of "insecurity" which is abroad in all lands. The world-wide depression is not primarily economic but psychological in character. The morale of present-day mankind is not that of builders of civilization. There are comparatively few who can say how a civilization should be built and there are many who ask why it should be built anyway.
When we ask ourselves how this situation has come about we answer, usually, that we are experiencing a crisis of civilization, that we are living in the end of an era, that we are members of a period of cultural transition. History indicates that cultural crises arise when men grow uncertain of the validity of the principles which determine their cultural activities, when they cannot look with confidence into the future. As far as I can see, there are three typical interpretations of this situation. The first is that of the pessimists. Oswald Spengler, author of the famous work, The Decline of the West, may he considered an absolute pessimist. On the basis of a philosophy of history which interprets cultures as quasi-organic units undergoing development from youth through maturity to decline, and on the basis of a comparison of the stages in the growth of world-civilizations, he concludes that Western civilization has exhausted its productive powers. The technical, metropolitan, militarist, organizational nature of our present civilization is proof of its decay. The astonishing similarities between our age and that of the declining Roman Empire make it necessary that we reconcile ourselves to the inevitable destiny of complete cultural disintegration. Western civilization will be superseded by a new culture which will arise in other parts of the earth. Whether this future leadership lies in Russia or among the colored races, no one can tell. Although significant criticisms can be raised against this interpretation, especially because Spengler has overlooked the fact of historical continuity, it cannot be denied that the mood of heroic despair which he expresses is widespread in the Western world.
H. G. Wells's The Shape of Things To Come is an example of relative pessimism. In so far as he sees forces at work which seem to prepare the way for a world-state -- namely, economic and cultural interdependence among all people of the earth -- his outlook is hopeful. But because of the present strength of those powers which counteract the tendencies toward a unification of the world -- primarily nationalism and politics dominated by the principle of the sovereignty of the state -- he is pessimistic about the next decades. For he believes that these anti-democratic, anti-universalistic, fascist powers will call forth a long chain of world-conflicts. He is persuaded that they will not yield to the world-unifying powers without a struggle for life and death. But they will inevitably destroy themselves, and the world-state of the future will arise only on their ruins. The generations of the present day and of the near future will therefore need to suffer vicariously for the benefit of their great-grandchildren and their more fortunate descendants. This speculative fatalism does not appear absolutely impossible to one who considers the present state of the world realistically. Prophets of doom, however, have been wrong more frequently than right. One cannot depend upon their opinions. Furthermore, human nature is so constructed that it will not accept a positive or negative fatalism. In his freedom to make vital decisions, man will act to change those tendencies in his civilization which he recognizes as leading him to his doom.
The second group of interpreters of the present crisis are fully aware of this characteristically human possibility. They are the revolutionaries. Overcome by the knowledge that the social order does not permit the full realization of social justice or that the rulers of the present system will not yield to the just demand of economically, socially or politically vanquished masses and groups, they work for the destruction of a cultural order which has proved to be sick and unproductive. By smashing an old order they hope to pave the way for a new one. It is not impossible that the cultural crisis of our day will issue in a world-revolution. Many among us speak of "the coming struggle for power" between fascism and communism. But it must be evident that even a "successful revolution" destroys more than it builds, and that, when the revolutionists are compelled to engage in construction, they are forced to obey the laws of historical continuity by adjusting themselves to the world as it is and has been. The history of the Bolshevist revolution in Russia exemplifies this fact.
Finally, there is a third group of leaders who are neither pessimists nor revolutionaries. They speak and act with a sense of true historical responsibility. Recognizing that men are part of an historical process from which they cannot escape, they also know that human culture is the result of human decisions made in constructive reaction to the process and with a view to man's physical and spiritual welfare. They remember that our own Western civilization has run so far through two main phases of development: the so-called "medieval" feudalist form of life (the last remnants of which are still effective in certain parts of our civilization, in the monarchic governments, for example) was superseded by the bourgeois culture, which has determined the so-called "modern" period of history and of which we are the heirs. Because the creative possibilities of the fundamental principles of this second phase of Western civilization have been exhausted we arc experiencing the present crisis. These principles are commonly called "self-determination" and "profit system." They came to life in the medieval towns, flourished first in the period of the Renaissance, and finally reached their highest expression in our modern scientific, technical, economic, imperialistic civilization.
It cannot be doubted that the modern world is what it is because it has cultivated and practiced the doctrine of the self-determination of man. It is the self-determined mind which has called " modern" philosophy into being, has produced "modern" science, has given the drive to "modern" economics and constantly nourished the spirit of capitalism, has caused the "modern" inventions to be made, and has created and sustained the political democracies. All these undeniably great achievements of the "modern" spirit have been extended to the ends of the world because the autonomous character of this spirit was effectively coupled with a restless acquisitiveness. But it has now become clear to an ever increasing number of our contemporaries all over the world that this "profit system" of a "rugged individualism" must be replaced by an order which, without sacrificing the values and attainments of bourgeois culture, is impelled by a new cultural temper.
If it were possible to define this new temper, the most significant step toward the overcoming of the crisis would have been taken. It may require the thought and action of more than one generation to develop this new sense of cultural responsibility. We can be true contemporaries of our era only if we recognize the historical place in which we find ourselves. This means that we must be willing to admit that what is happening today in America, Italy, Germany, Russia, and all countries, is a series of expressions of the crisis itself.
Of the programs which are now being developed in the different parts of the world none, I think, can be considered a definitely hopeful, truly constructive, absolutely "satisfactory" measure. New cultural building will begin only when more men and women recognize the religious nature of the cultural crisis. The self-determined civilization of the last centuries is disintegrating because it does not correspond to the divine (i.e., universally meaningful) order of things. I do not wish to use merely a pious phrase when I say that we are now in our difficult situation because the hand of God is upon us. We must be ready again to listen to the voice which calls to us: "Repent ye, for the Kingdom of God is at hand."
It is just at this point, however, that the most disturbing aspect of the crisis becomes apparent. We are uncertain of our readiness to listen to this call, for we have lost confidence even in those institutions and practices which nourish and express the religious spirit. It can hardly be doubted that the Christian church as well as civilization is at present in a state of crisis, for it also is beset by uncertainty as to its own sufficiency. Consequently, the church is not sure of its message or of the methods by which that message can be brought to people at home and abroad. It recognizes, with resultant loss of confidence in itself, that it is being subjected to critical examination.
It may be enlightening to observe that in its history Christianity has undergone several crises of a similar nature.1 They all were successfully overcome, but each of the crises of the past has led in some direct way to the critical state of affairs in the church of the present day.
The symptoms of a crisis in Christianity, consisting of the loss of the certainty of its absolute validity, appeared first of all during the Middle Ages in consequence of the Crusades. Whatever the causes of these great adventures, they were undertaken with the sanction and under the leadership of the Roman Catholic church. They were looked upon as an expression of the power of papal universalism; the popes and churchmen who sponsored these enterprises hoped that they would demonstrate to the whole world the strength of the church's control over the lives of the believers. But the actual effect was an opposite one. Instead of increasing the confidence of Christendom in its church, the Crusades caused the rise of movements and ideas which shook the sacramental, hierarchical institution to its foundations. Heretical movements (e.g., the Albigenses) were organized under the direct influence of the new contact of the Western peoples with the East. A new social economic spirit, expressing itself in the rise of commercial towns and of a new social class, emerged in the Christian world. To be sure, the church succeeded in making the necessary adjustments, but it was difficult to ban a spirit of enlightenment which spread under the influence of foreign cultures upon the Christian civilization and which furthered the growth of skeptical attitudes toward the absolute validity of the ecclesiastical institution of redemption. The situation was saved by the piety which is best represented by St. Francis. The church made the wisest possible move by incorporating the new monasticism into itself. The world-ruling church of Innocent III received a new religious sanction from the most human and most Christlike of all the saints. The famous painting by Giotto which shows St. Francis upholding a basilica, no longer resting safely upon its own foundation, clearly suggests this idea. The Roman organization was supported by the devotion of those who lived for the ideal of the imitatio Christi. Henceforth, the unified Christian civilization could continue under the protectorate of the Roman bishop. Apparently the crisis had been overcome.
Its effects, however, continued to accompany the life of the church during the next centuries, until in the Renaissance and Reformation the sickness broke out again. The Renaissance was the expression of the spirit of the lay world which, in the towns and cities, had first emerged as a new and partly foreign element in the structure of medieval Christian society. The Reformation rapidly developed into a movement of violent criticism directed against the absolute authority of the ecclesiastical organization. The Roman church with its hierarchy and its sacraments, outside of which there was supposed to be no salvation in the name of Jesus Christ, was under fire. The fact that separate Protestant churches were soon formed necessarily raised the question: How could Christianity continue to offer the only salvation to mankind, particularly in view of the belief that this salvation was obtainable only in the society of those who called themselves the church? Luther and the reformers solved the problem by their teaching concerning the church. They distinguished between its visible and invisible forms. Only those who represented the invisible communion of saints, living by faith in the word of the gospel and in love of their fellow men, inspired by fellowship with God, formed the true Christian church. This distinction between essential or perfect, and unessential or imperfect, features in the church mitigated somewhat the bad effect of the division of Christianity and of its radical separation into two bodies which, by practicing an irreconcilable hostility, might endanger the cultivation of the Christian religion as such.
But the evolution of distinct Protestant bodies, which enhanced their claim to individuality by the formulation of new creeds and the construction of creedal theologies, soon led to a division within Protestantism itself. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries especially witnessed a perennial strife of the evangelical groups with each other, which almost completely overshadowed their common contrast to the Roman church from which they had both seceded. This intra-Protestant conflict did not cease even during the Wars of Religion, in which the ecclesiastical conflict of the Reformation period was carried into the political arena. With the rise of a new cultural movement during the eighteenth century, commonly known as the Enlightenment, a new critic of the church but one which was also a helper appeared on the scene.
Out of a spirit similar to that of modern America, which is inclined to repudiate denominational religion, the men of the Age of Reason tended to consider the churches incapable of furnishing them with that religious life which was needed, since they worked for the destruction of each other in the name of their creeds, while all of them claimed to serve the one Lord, Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the development of the modern sciences, and particularly of philosophy and history, brought about an entirely new view of religion and Christianity. The apparent moral weakness and inefficiency of the creedal churches, together with the wider knowledge of the religions of foreign and ancient peoples, produced in many minds a critical attitude toward the church, comparable in many ways to the situation which had threatened the medieval establishment centuries before. The problem of the finality of Christianity now became really pressing. Under the impact of the historical comparison of religions, undertaken with ever increasing effectiveness, and in consequence of a rational analysis of the dogmas and creeds, the church was about to lose its power over the hearts of men. The protests of the orthodox groups were in vain; in vain also was the revival of religious emotionalism in the various groups of Pietism upon the Continent. The Christian church was face to face with a crisis more radical and dangerous than any that had arisen in the past. Indeed, it has been latent within Christendom ever since.
But again the situation was saved. The cure was effected by methods very similar in character to those which had proved helpful in the crises of the past. It must be observed that in the crises so far discussed the physicians appeared within the church itself. Each time the crisis was felt first of all in the ranks of outsiders who, seeing the weaknesses of the church, proceeded to treat it with indifference and contempt while they cultivated those forces which had shaken the confidence of the church in itself. Thus the church was never led into the road to recovery by the efforts of these critics, but rather by the contribution of those who, filled with the fresh spirit of new times, reformed the Christian religion from within. It was not Frederick II who came to the rescue of the medieval church, but St. Francis, the product of town-society. Not the leaders of the Renaissance and not the Humanists of the sixteenth century saved the church from destruction, but Martin Luther, the revolutionary and the arch-heretic. Similarly, it was not Voltaire, the most prominent among the literary critics of Christianity in the eighteenth century, who suggested constructive means by which healing might be effected, but men of the type of Schleiermacher, Maurice, Kingsley, Robertson, Bushnell, Chalmers, Wichern, Rauschenbusch. Thoroughly in harmony with the mood of their time, they set about to suggest to the Christians ideas by which they could understand themselves in a new way. Just as the medieval church did not need to undo the effects of the Crusades in order to benefit by the spirit of holiness exhibited by St. Francis and his kind, and just as Luther maintained the belief in the truth of Christianity without sacrificing any part of the new life which had become apparent in his reformation, so Schleiermacher and the modem interpreters of Christianity did not cease to be loyal to the new age when they taught the church a new understanding of itself, sufficient for the maintenance of faith in its own validity.
These saving new ideas have been characteristic of modern Protestantism to the present day. In various ways and with increasing directness, they have been asserted by modern Protestant thinkers. Their content, to describe them very simply, may be said to affirm the validity of Christianity in so far as it assures the fulfilment of life or the best possible moral living. In other words, the Christian religion is now no longer described as the true faith because it represents a supernatural revelation of God on which the absolute authority of the church or the Bible or the person of Jesus can be based. It is now defended on the basis of personal religious experience and on the ground of an analysis of its essence in which the supremacy of its moral character is disclosed. Thus modern theology has devoted a major part of its work to the proof of the thesis that in Christianity mankind is given the best guarantee of the highest and purest life. It can hardly be doubted that the defense of this thesis led not only to the overcoming of the eighteenth century crisis but also to the silencing of many questions concerning the validity of the Christian religion, which, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were continually revived under the assault of the transformed world-view fostered by the development of science, technics and industry. Up to this day, Protestant apologetics depends largely upon the claim that only with the help of "religion" can the highest morality be sustained.
Now another religious crisis has arisen. Its appearance is due to the fact that this solution of the problem of the absoluteness of Christianity no longer suffices. For, in the meantime, there has emerged a secularism which claims to represent the same high moral ideals that Christianity does, but without dependence upon the religious beliefs which are characteristic of the church. Christianity is now face to face with an enemy more dangerous than any of the past. It is an atheistic movement which claims to cultivate moral ideals of the same value as those defended by the church. The modern crisis of religion is therefore caused by the conviction of many of our contemporaries that man can lead the good life without believing in God.
A closer analysis of this situation is necessary for the understanding of all its aspects. First of all, it must be pointed out that the rise of atheism is an almost unprecedented phenomenon. It is difficult to say at what time it became respectable, so to speak. But it is clear that even the most ardent enemies of the church who appeared during the eighteenth century, and won their outstanding triumphs in the French Revolution, rarely went so far as to identify their hostility against church and religion with the denial of God. The change occurred during the last century, when, particularly in France, public opinion became outspokenly atheistic and when, especially in Germany, Marxian socialism grew more and more into a definitely antireligious and irreligious movement. The climax of this development was reached in the establishment of the Soviet regime in Russia, which has now become the most powerful political exponent of atheism in the world.
All this, of course, is only the most radical expression of a change of mind which has been characteristic of the development of Western civilization since the days of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. For the history of the modern Western mind may be said to be the history of a gradual secularization of man. Its outcome is apparent in the total structure of contemporary life, which as a whole moves along without a profound challenge from the spirit of religion, especially in so far as belief in God is implied. If that typical product of the modern age, the newspaper, can be considered an adequate mirror of the life of modern society, the world of religion has now been relegated to an insignificant corner in the existence of man, which is otherwise determined by the events and decisions in the fields of politics, business, sport and art.
This transformation has naturally not taken place without profound effect upon theology. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a theological writer could assume that belief in God was a common and firm conviction; he could devote his arguments chiefly to the problems which necessarily follow from such a conviction. But since the beginning of the last century the fundamental theme of theological works is the question: Is there a God? -- a question which, in the days of the past, was treated by way of prolegomena to the truly significant, constructive, theological discussions. It appears also that up to a recent past the preacher addressing his congregation could presuppose that its members were rooted in the belief in God. Modern sermons, however, seem to be directed chiefly to the end of communicating the conviction that the truly good life can be attained only by means of belief in God. A majority of modern sermons are arguments for a belief in God rather than exhortations, meditations or expositions which presuppose such a belief from the very outset. From this point of view, the baffling predilection for the word "religion" which seems to characterize most contemporary preachers, discloses a significant element in the modern mind.
These signs all indicate that the church is face to face with a powerful opponent whom we have come to name "secularism" in preference to the comparatively narrow word "atheism."
The most interesting feature of this development is its effect upon the missionary enterprise. Indeed the very term " secularism" was coined by men whose primary interest lay in missions. This enterprise has been comparatively slow to recognize the tremendous changes which modern civilization and the Christian religion have had to undergo. In 1910 the missionary organizations of Protestantism, meeting at Edinburgh, could still look forward to a period of great progress in the evangelization of the world, in view of the ever growing political, economic and cultural interdependence of all its units. They did not realize the hostility (or at least the indifference) to religion of the very forces which they hoped to engage in advancing their cause. When the Jerusalem missionary conference was held eighteen years later, the atmosphere had changed entirely. One of the most significant features of the discussion at this meeting was the consideration given to the problem of secularism. In consequence, numerous reporters observed with amazement that the representatives of Christian missions, who previously had defined their task in terms of the conversion of non-Christian people to Christianity, now joined hands with the adherents of the other great religious cults of the world in view of the rise of a common enemy, the spirit of secularism. This, if anything, is a clear proof of the fact that religion finds itself today in a state of crisis. It must be noted that this modern crisis affects the whole world of religion and not only the life of a particular historical faith, as was the case in the other crises of Christian history discussed above.
The discovery of the means by which this crisis can be met and perhaps overcome is the most pressing task of contemporary Christians. Before we discuss the various ways suggested to accomplish this task, we must point out that one method often applied to the situation is wholly inadequate, because it is purely negative. This is the method which consciously ignores the fact of crisis and suggests to the church that it continue in its tested course of the past while resolutely refusing to consider the causes and forces which have produced the modern critical conditions. The group which proposes this method has chosen to call itself fundamentalist, suggesting thereby that it still clings, in spite of what our time may demand, to the foundations upon which the church of the past was built, that is to say, to the authorities of Scripture and creeds. It is evident that such an attitude can be adopted only at great cost, at the cost of seclusion from the world.
It is remarkable, indeed, that the fundamentalist sections of the church do not appear to be more profoundly disturbed by the fact that the modern world runs along without paying more than slight attention to their voices. On the other hand, the number of Christians who consider themselves members of this group is so remarkably large that it must startle the innocent outsider who, preoccupied with the problems of modern life, is apt to underestimate the number of those who cultivate their Christian traditionalism with a loyalty as curious as it is admirable. But it is certainly neither sane nor wise intentionally to ignore an existing historical fact. For this reason, the fundamentalist method cannot receive serious attention from us when we consider the concrete problem of the contemporary religious crisis.
A discussion of the positive solutions that are offered must concern itself first of all with that movement which claims to take the modern situation most seriously, i.e., with the group which, under the banner of Humanism, was in the limelight a short time ago. The religious Humanists may be said to be the representatives of secularized religion. They do not deny the reality of the spirit of religious devotion. To them it is identical with the recognition of the fact that life is not as it ought to be, particularly in so far as many men are denied the realization of the birthright of human beings, the abundant life. They see religion particularly at work in the endeavor to bring about such changes in the total structure of human existence as will transform this world into one in which everyone may develop a rich and good and happy life. They are persuaded that the content of the historical religions no longer suffices for the quest of the good life. They openly deny the existence of God (or of gods) and therefore abandon all consideration of religious ideas and practices which are dependent on such theistic belief. They desire to concern themselves with the problems of man and his universe as modern science has made them clear. Their chief authority is, therefore, the modern scientific spirit, which they demand should be made the agent of a moral transformation of man. Observing that science has radically changed man's outlook upon life, they proceed to develop a program for the cultivation of human living, built upon the methods and results of the scientific endeavor. The findings of modern biology, anthropology and astronomy enable them to give a new answer to the perennial human question about the origin of life: man is a link, perhaps the final one, in the long chain of events that composes the evolutionary process which has been going on for millions of years; he must understand himself primarily as a product of nature whose course is now, thanks to the research of the natural sciences, no longer as incomprehensible as it was a few centuries ago. Thus man is told to define his place in life not in terms of himself, as if the universe had been created for his special benefit, but rather in terms of a long natural process, in which, objectively speaking, he plays but an insignificant part. Such a conception, of course, is not meant to depreciate in any way the high value which is to be placed upon human life. It leads, however, to a new interpretation of the purpose of living. As the natural sciences have helped man to understand his place in the totality of the universe, so they have also given him means by which he can adjust himself to the natural processes and by which he may even control them. Scientific technique and the machine are new tools in man's hands which determine his outlook upon life. But only when they are used by a society which is governed by the methods and results of the new social sciences of economics, sociology and psychology will they become useful in the fullest manner. The most urgent immediate task, therefore, is the development of education on the basis of the sciences, both natural and social, for only with their help can society as a whole be taught to construct a life completely in accordance with that knowledge which has become the factor by which our age is distinguished from all preceding periods of history.
The appeal of this program is profound because it is universal. It transcends the limitations imposed upon human groups by their historical traditions. From the point of view of theoretic and practical science, all mankind is united in a new way. The distinctions which now obtain between races and nations and social classes will break down, so one hopes, as scientific education conquers all parts of the earth; and the taboos of religious, racial, national and tribal history will vanish before the enlightening influence of modern science with its universally valid methods. It is this aspect of the scientific world-view which has led to the universal religious crisis and has caused the world-religions to subordinate their rivalries with one another to the requirements of common defense against the spirit which challenges them all alike. The religious radicals whom we, very inadequately, call Humanists can thus point to a world-wide sympathy with their cause. Nor dare it be forgotten that in the eyes of its promoters and defenders this scientific world-view enables man to answer the three fundamental human questions which, up to this day, have been primarily reserved for religion to answer. Kant formulated the three questions as follows: What can I know? What may I hope for? What shall I do? On the basis of scientific realism, so the claim runs, these questions can now be answered more concretely and often more satisfactorily than was possible with the help of the old religious world-views. The apparent power of this claim is probably the reason why so many of those who have received a scientific education have left the church and why large sections of the so-called cultured middle class in all parts of the world treat organized religion with indifference.
We may now consider the value of the humanistic method of dealing with the religious crisis. Is this the proper way of treating the modern problem of religion? First of all, it is necessary to point out that the concept of religion which underlies this view is very peculiar. One must evaluate it from two points of view. In the first place, it is to be noted that the adherents of Humanism do not wish to be called irreligious. They claim to cultivate a truly religious concern. Religion to them is " the shared quest for a satisfying life." One of their spokesmen2 declares: "The very vernacular use of the term religion is tending to hasten the identification of religion with the questing process. When a man commits himself to a great cause we say that cause becomes his religion. We speak of men who make their art, or their business, or their social theory, their religion. Communism is said to he the religion of young Russia, as indeed it is." In the second place, they interpret the historical religions of the world in terms of the "social quest to find satisfactory values for all mankind."3 Ludwig Feuerbach described the essence of religion as a reflection of human desires into a transcendent realm, and proposed therefore to change men "from friends of God to friends of men, from believers to thinkers, from worshipers to workers, from candidates for the 'Yonder' 'to students of the 'Here,' from Christians, who, according to their own confession, arc partly animals and partly angels, to men, whole men." Much in the same manner modern Humanists interpret all positive religion from an anthropological point of view. The historical religions then appear to be crude and superstitious attempts to attain the good life. While their symbols and beliefs about God and a divine world must now be abandoned, their inner spirit can be carried on.
It is apparent that this definition of religion cannot claim to be factual or objective, but that it is interpretative. To be sure, there is probably no study of the history and the essence of religion which can be called wholly objective. Nevertheless, it can hardly be doubted that the Humanist's understanding of religion ignores that feature in it which gives it its character. It is impossible to hold that religion is to be discovered primarily in its beliefs concerning this world or the next, but it is just as impossible to derive its essence from an analysis of human wants. Or, if we are to give the widest possible interpretation to the definition of the religious life by calling it the quest for the good life, we should surely include in a description of this quest, as it undoubtedly has accompanied man through his history, a reference to man's recognition of those factors and elements in his and nature's life which clearly transcend his or its making and control. It is this aspect of living which allots a very special field to religion and makes it appear as a special and individual phenomenon in human life. And it is this aspect which the radical leaders of religious thought overlook, apparently with intention. The observation which is often made, that the recognition of those factors in life which transcend the control of living beings is primarily due to a state of ignorance which possibly may be surpassed in the future, is not very astute. It ignores the most profound human problem, the problem which is raised by man's awareness of the fact that he is cast into a given existence. This problem is perpetuated by his persistent query as to why there is existence. It cannot be assumed that the search for the meaning of life will ever end or die. And so long as this search persists to plague the human mind, religion will continue to engage man's central attention. To be sure, one may say that this search will lead men first of all to metaphysical speculation. But it ought to be admitted that metaphysics is never hostile to religion, and that it never has replaced the peculiar air of conviction which marks the religious life. For what is the object of speculation to the metaphysician is the object of reverence and worship to the religious person. That which constitutes existence in its concreteness and in its meaningfulness, that which invests it with what it is and ought to be, is called divine by the religious person. The historical-psychological researches of Rudolf Otto have irrefutably shown that all religious worship devotes itself to this numinous factor of life, recognizing it as a mysterium tremendum and as a mysterium fascinans.
In view of all this the charge must be made against the radical group of religious leaders, whom we call Humanists, that they have failed to do justice to the fundamental feature in the phenomenon of religion. Therefore, they cannot be expected to make a positive contribution to the task of overcoming the religious crisis. Their whole program -- worthy as it is in many, particularly its practical, aspects -- fails to do justice to religion itself. What of religion there is left in it, is but a remnant of the thing itself. It is merely the spirit of devotion which is retained. This, however, does not deserve to be called religion in the true sense of the word, since it is not linked to the divine (that is, to that which is worshiped as superhuman, super-worldly, " supernatural"), but merely to a cause or causes proposed by men for the improvement of their station. The metaphysical as well as the truly religious quest for the meaning of life is radically and intentionally denied. This quest must be considered more fundamental than the quest for the "good" life, i.e., the "improved" life, which the Humanists have inscribed upon their banner.
In view of this analysis, it is not surprising that Humanism has not become the challenger of the churches which it promised to be during the short period of its flourishing a few years ago. Its own followers find themselves involved in more problems than they can solve from their strictly humanist viewpoint. The main service which this movement can render is to bring the churches, their leaders and people, face to face with the religious crisis itself. If Humanism does not do justice to religion, it certainly does take seriously what we called the spirit of secularism. As a matter of fact, it has carried this spirit directly into the churches. It must be considered the most concrete representative of the crisis of religion within Christianity itself. If it ever were to prevail, the church as a church would die. Then the crisis would have ended without being overcome.
Another method by which it is hoped to maintain the confidence of the church in itself is presented by Modernism. In many respects, this method is but the further development of the solution offered in the crisis of the eighteenth century. It appears in many different forms, among which two may be distinguished as outstanding. One is primarily philosophical, historical and theological, and the other is chiefly practical. The former is best represented by what is known as modern German theology and the latter by modern American Protestantism. Theological Modernism has the virtue of having made the Christian religion "intellectually respectable." By the application of the methods of historical criticism, it has produced a new understanding of Christianity and of other religions as well. It has shown them to be psychological or experiential expressions of human life, which, in constant interplay with the cultural enterprises of the various groups of mankind, have assumed definite historic forms. Christianity in particular has been interpreted as the religious experience of the peoples of Europe, constantly nourished by the life, teaching and personality of Jesus of Nazareth, and as the dominant force in the unit of Western civilization, holding together its constitutive Hebrew, Greco-Roman and Germanic elements. The chief general lesson of these studies has been the discovery that Christianity survived throughout the ages because it adjusted itself with remarkable ease to the changing demands of the peoples of whose culture it became an inherent part, while it never surrendered the essentials of its faith in Jesus Christ as the revealer of God the Father and the teacher and example of the love of God and fellow men.
In obedience to this principle, derived from historical investigation, modern theology set itself the task of reinterpreting the Christian faith in the light of modern knowledge. Thus it absorbed modern philosophy, history and science. The works of the learned modern theologians since Schleiermacher contain ever changing presentations of the Christian religion which are dominated by the desire to do justice to historical and contemporaneous Christian experience as well as to all phases of modem knowledge. This tremendous labor has had many important results for the church.
1. It led to the rise of the modern Christian scholar. Few academic groups of modern times can boast of having produced so many world-renowned figures of almost universal scholarship as the modern Protestant faculties.
2. It bestowed upon the church also the gift of highly educated and cultured ministers who, profoundly aware of the needs of modern life, became the proponents of the advancement of modern civilization and the leaders of many progressive movements in education and social reform.
3. It established beyond doubt the psychological and historical fact of religious experience in the life of man. Although the results of the studies in the psychology and philosophy of religion have not yet led to unanimous agreement among the scholars, the present-day knowledge of the place of religion in human experience is firmer than ever before.
4. In consequence of these findings, the Christian religion is seen in wider perspective. The changes it has undergone in its history are generally admitted, and it is recognized that attempted definitions of its essence must be based upon the total development of the church. But what is still more important is that, although by some argument the belief in the absoluteness of Christianity or at least its inner supremacy is retained, other religions, particularly the great world-religions, are taken seriously. Modern Christian theology depends also upon its acquaintance with non-Christian religious experience. Thus its horizon has been broadened, both theoretically and practically. The most drastic example of the application of this principle is to he seen in the view of religion which underlies the recently published report of the Laymen's Appraisal Commission on Missions.4 In agreement with the opinions of a minority group among the missionaries, it implies the abandonment of the old methods leading to conversion, which are based upon the conviction of Christianity's possession of absolute religious truth. Instead it favors the cultivation of a co-operative exchange of religious experiences and beliefs with a view toward the mutual enrichment of the respective religious groups. The uniqueness of Christianity is firmly maintained and its superiority is at least implicitly presupposed. It must be recognized, however, that in this view the character of uniqueness is assumed also for the non-Christian religions.
So much for theological Modernism. As we now turn to practical Modernism, which is best represented in American Protestantism, it must be pointed out first of all that it is possible to make only a theoretical distinction between these two types of Modernism. Nineteenth century German theology has exerted a deep influence upon American religious thinking. And if it cannot be said that the effects of American Christianity upon the German church have been equally strong, it must at least be admitted that the characteristic movements of the church in this country are not without parallels in Germany. One difference, however, must be taken into account. With a certain reservation, it is the difference between American and European Protestantism. The reservation refers to two facts: First, the place of Great Britain in this picture is not clearly definable, for not only politically and commercially, but also religiously and theologically, it stands in the middle between Europe and America. Second: The transplantation of old-world traits to this continent has not been without effect upon its religious life, particularly in so far as some of the largest American denominations are the direct offspring of European Protestant groups. The difference then is contained in the word "activism" which, during the last decade, has often been used by Europeans in order to indicate where they feel the presence in American Christianity of something strange and unknown to them. It is doubtless correct that, under the influence of the peculiar American cultural climate, the churches here have developed a temper which is altogether lacking in Europe. This is due to many unique facts, of which the following may here be mentioned: the power exerted by New England Puritanism; the separation of church and state which led to the official maintenance of religious tolerance and caused the groups representing the radical wing of Protestantism to seek a future in America; the profound influence of the frontier with its spirit of adventure and virility; the emphasis upon organization which marks the industrial era of American history. Under these various influences modern American Protestantism has assumed a character all its own. Alongside the two old evangelical confessions, Lutheranism and Calvinism, it has arisen as a third group. Its essence lies in its program, which calls for the transformation of society by Christian ethical ideas. The ideal of the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth is its most characteristic trait. In its pursuit certain great American churches consider themselves to be integral parts of society. With the sense of the special responsibility which religion imposes upon man, they devote themselves more than any other group of past or present Christian history to the cause of a holy society. The will of God begins to be fulfilled, they believe, as an ever increasing number of people identify themselves with the church by becoming its sworn members, thus entering a social group which stands and fights for the assertion of Christian love in all phases of life. It is the task of the church, so one believes, to establish a collective Christian morality. The church must therefore be willing to keep in close touch with the trends and movements of social life and to raise its voice when these trends need to be directed into the channels of social justice. This duty has been imposed upon American Protestantism particularly during the last generation, when the great teachers and heralds of the so-called social gospel demanded that attention be paid to the unique and pressing problems raised by industrialism. Since that time the aspect which we stress as characteristic of American Protestantism has been especially prominent. But it must not be denied that " activistic " tendencies were present long before.
The consequences of this attitude have lately come clearly to light. In the first place, the leaders of the church have been induced to listen very closely to the social scientists and sociologists, and thus they have adopted programs and ideas of social planning which, worthy as they may be, can often be recognized only with difficulty as the real concern of the church. Movements which foster noble moral causes and which therefore should have the support of the churches have been embraced by them so wholeheartedly that they often appear to be primarily agencies of social reform. Hence their worship services and other "religious" activities have frequently been transformed as if they were means of upholding the morale of a group in society whose special interest is the maintenance of the ideal and program of the good life in the public affairs of the day. For the same reason church groups were sometimes forced to adopt methods of political strategy in order to enforce their programs or in order to protect themselves from loss and defeat in society's struggle between power and power.
The church has thus come to foster activities which do not appear to belong to its realm. Of course, it is often said that religion ought to affect all phases of human life and that the church must therefore consider no issue of living as outside of its sphere. But if this attitude is carried as far as it often is, so that the specific understanding of religion itself is lost in a feverish activism in the interest of international peace, racial integration, settlement of the urban-rural conflict, industrial arbitration, birth control, sanitation, clean sports, better movies, and so forth, it becomes clear that something is radically wrong with the state of the church of Christ. The second feature of modern American Protestantism which must be pointed out is the loss of a firm understanding of itself. A survey of modern preaching illustrates this observation. Is it not truly amazing that when religion is distinctly referred to in these sermons it needs elaborate and suggestive interpretation and justification, as if a church should not be able to presuppose thorough understanding of this very thing? But in view of the actual situation it is not astonishing that many ministers and even congregations have strongly felt the temptation to embrace the cause of Humanism.
This survey of the two outstanding types of Modernism enables us to answer the question, what it has to offer to the overcoming of the religious crisis. As in the case of Humanism our answer must largely be negative. Modernism also seems to be too deeply involved in the crisis itself to be in a position to repress it successfully. There are two primary reasons for this judgment:
1. In its desire for openness of mind and for adjustment to the trends and needs of the day, Modernism, both in its theological and practical forms, has intentionally or unconsciously adopted a philosophy and a world-view which are dramatically out of accord with the character of religion and of Christianity in particular. It has permitted itself to grow into a conformity with the world which does not benefit the Christian religion. It is beset on all sides with the rationalism and moralism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the truth and urgency of which depend almost entirely upon the doctrine of the autonomy of man. And no religion, and certainly not the Christian religion, can survive if it be understood as the concern of autonomous man. But Modernism has attempted to interpret religion in all its aspects -- philosophical, historical, psychological, doctrinal and practi-. cal -- from the point of view of anthropology. In spite of all its theoretical and practical knowledge of religion, it has lost God. Hence it is drawn into the conflicts of human life to such a degree that it can no longer speak with that authority or objectivity which ought to be expected of those who believe in God. It is this aspect of Modernism which brings it so dangerously close to the heresy of Humanism. But it has never fallen into the pit of this error, because it never permitted itself to doubt the place of the church and religion. And this brings us to the discussion of the second reason why Modernism is helpless in the present crisis of religion.
2. From the very start, Modernism has taken Christianity for granted. It has always thought and acted on the basis of the existent church. As a matter of fact, its chief purpose was and is a defense of the church. Modernism is an apologetic movement. To be sure, it has been exceedingly critical of the orthodox conceptions, teachings and practices of Christian tradition, but it has never been critical of Christianity or of religion as such. It has always gone back to Jesus, and when a few hypercritical or hypersensitive men nursed doubt as to whether Jesus actually ever existed, they were indignantly vituperated or laughed out of countenance. And it could always point to the church as a healthy and strong institution. But in spite of all this two questions were very persistently raised: What is Christianity? and, What is the church? The answer which Harnack gave with such scholarly confidence and gentlemanly self-assurance has long been deemed insufficient. But the questions persist. And who among the Modernists can be said to have given them a cogent answer? Hence it was possible for the word quest to become almost sacred in Christian circles, for the leading Modernist journal to publish an editorial on "The Cult of the Questers," for the Laymen's Appraisal Commission on Missions to suggest that the missionary activity of the church be also made part of the quest for the truth or the true religion.
All this, so it seems, does not furnish Modernism with a proper defense against the crisis of religion which is caused by the widespread doubt that Christianity and religion in general have any valid contribution to offer toward the victory over life's ills and toward the understanding of the process of living in this world. As a matter of fact, the Modernists seem to share this doubt; they themselves do not claim to know the truth!
Hence the Modernists are not good defenders of the church against Humanism; secularism is at their very door and they are not strong enough to battle with it.
To many, who go so far as to agree with the observation that religion finds itself in a state of crisis (and there are, indeed, many who will not even admit the justice of such an observation) a new theological movement, which has attracted the attention of the whole Christian world, appears to be the only savior. It has been claimed that Barthianism is inaugurating a new period of reformation. The various representatives of this theological group by no means agree with one another, but their views are sufficiently alike to warrant a common name. All of them, notably Barth, Brunner and Gogarten, hold the same theological tenets in so far as they are critical of the present religious situation. They took their rise in the camp of the Modernists. Admitting the validity of the criticism which this school directed against orthodoxy, and sharing with it most of its views concerning the interpretation of the Bible and historical tradition, nevertheless they react violently against the constructive efforts of modernist theologians. Instead they offer a new Christian thought, based upon a new appreciation and a rediscovery of the phenomenon of revelation. This new thought is expressed in manifold ways.
1. It leads to the claim that all theology must be theocentric, instead of anthropocentric. In contrast to modernist interpretation, the Christian experience of God is said to depend upon the recognition of a unique and miraculous act of the transcendent God.
2. In consequence, all true theology is understood to be dialectical in so far as all human statements about God and his actions can be but the broken reflections of a being who lives in a light which no one can approach unto.
3. In line with this argument, there is a tendency to introduce a new philosophical approach to theological problems. In contrast to all naturalism, positivism, and especially idealism, the various representatives of Barthianism have sought affiliation with the new philosophical schools of Germany. Bultmann depends upon the metaphysical-phenomenological realism of M. Heidegger, known as Existentialphilosophie, Gogarten upon the historical realism of E. Grisebach, the author of the critical work entitled Gegenwart, and Brunner, partly under the inspiration of Gogarten, seems to give room to the ethical realism of the famous Jewish philosopher-theologian Martin Buber, author of a philosophical essay entitled I and Thou.
4. Only Barth has tried to keep aloof from philosophical entanglement, and has purified his thought in this respect with increasing decision and passion. In the course of time he has made it clear that, from the beginning, his main intention has been directed toward the development of a new biblical theology, based upon the recognition of the unique claim of the Bible that God, who must never be understood in the terms of man, has disclosed himself in Jesus Christ. The Christian church, he declares, is constantly confronted by the Bible and in dependence upon its message proclaims the fact of God's revelation. Theology is conceived as the criticism of the preaching of the church by the one adequate criterion, the Word of God, to which the men of the Bible bear witness.
5. Such a position leads to the condemnation of Modernism as well as of Roman Catholicism on the charge that both have deviated from the true Christian theological task, the former by humanizing the Word of God in the attempt to interpret it by means of man's psychical, social or cultural experience and in terms of the analysis of his existence, the latter by imbedding the absolute Word of God in the channels of a sacramental and hierarchical human institution.
6. This highly critical modern theology is apparently reactionary. It is nourished by an understanding which the church had of itself, before it came in contact with the tendencies of the civilization which we call modern. It favors the thought of the Reformers. Barth in particular seems lately to prefer the genius of Luther to the brilliance of Calvin, upon whom he formerly relied to a great extent.
7. Most striking is the Barthian thesis, that the world of history and science, the whole world of modern culture, recognition of which forced theology into a new course, is not of positive theological significance. Barth himself does not even allude to these significant problems, and he appears to be critical of Brunner's effort to demonstrate the sufficiency of Christian thought by a critical analysis of the various types of modern thought and action. Gogarten is primarily interested in the problems of history, but he is incapable of appreciating it as a process. In consequence, the charge has often been made against the Barthians that they neglect the ethical problem. They have felt the justice of such a criticism. Gogarten was the first to offer a corrective by attempting to restore an ethics of authority. Brunner has recently published a monumental work on ethics which takes full recognition of the concrete problems of living. It may mark a change in his whole outlook, a change which is suggested by his declared intention of applying the Christian insight of the Reformers to contemporary forms of life. Thus his work seems to tend toward the restoration of a Protestant theological traditionalism, which, it may be remarked, has enjoyed continued cultivation both in the Lutheran and Reformed churches throughout the modern centuries, more or less undisturbed by the spirit of modern times. A similar tendency is to be noted with respect to Barth. It would not be surprising in these circumstances if the total effect of Barthianism would ultimately lead to a restoration of confessional Protestant theology.
With this observation we have suggested the chief reason why Barthianism cannot be productively helpful in the modern religious crisis. The cure which it advises is that the church return to itself, after it has identified itself under modernist leadership with the world to such a degree that it has almost reached the abyss of self-defeat. But the question is whether such a cure is possible. The church is challenged by the widespread query whether its dependence upon God and its cultivation of religious knowledge and action is not superfluous. The Barthians recognize this question. They admit its justice and even go so far as to agree with the modern critics of religion. They too propagate a criticism of religion, not from the point of view of secularism, but from the point of view of God. They declare that they are not concerned with religion, but with revelation, not with man's ideas and experiences of God, but with God's doings with man. They are not interested in worship of any kind, but in man's recognition of God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
In other words, they make the unique claim that what is offered as the modern understanding of religion is indeed not worthy to be preserved, because it implies a betrayal of the Christian message of God's revelation. It cannot be doubted that the Barthians have won a strong following with this criticism. The Christian church is indeed still an active reality. Instead of taking this fact simply for granted, as the Modernists do, the Barthians take it very seriously, especially in so far as the church is constantly confronted by the Bible. While the Humanists propose to solve the problem of the religious crisis by allowing only a religion which completely identifies itself with the spirit of secularism, and while the Modernists rely primarily upon the actuality and presence of the religious life, the Barthians wish to depend almost exclusively upon the Bible and on a church which recognizes the special worth of the Bible. But since they cannot go back behind the secularism which dominates the modern world nor behind the wider knowledge of religions which characterizes the modern religious consciousness, they find themselves facing most difficult problems, when they attempt to recover the absoluteness of the Bible and the revelation of which it speaks. Indeed, the Barthian conception of revelation and the word of God is by no means clear. It is so deeply enveloped in theological sophistry and dialectics that it is the subject primarily of academic theological argument and cannot be made effective among the people, to whom it appeals chiefly emotionally as a representation of Christian conservatism.
One fact, however, is perfectly clear, whatever the reactions to the Barthian theology as theology may be: It has been a powerful influence upon the religious life of our time, because it teaches us to take God seriously in his divinity. It impresses us with the realization that when we use the word "God," we refer to an aspect of reality which transcends us and our creativity as well as our control, and which, if we are compelled to translate it into life, shatters the self-sufficiency of any form. In other words, Barth and his friends have led us to recover the sense of true religious devotion which is directed toward a life based upon a foundation which transcends human or worldly creation, and which springs from the awareness that the meaning of life is a first principle that must be recognized before it can be gained.
In so far as this is true, Barthianism indicates the way in which the crisis of religion may be overcome. This way may be described in old words by the sentence: "God is in heaven and man is on earth and man cannot live on earth unless he recognizes the heaven above it." Or it may be suggested in philosophical language by saying that life is meaningful only if it is qualified by theonomous rather than by autonomous decisions and judgments.
Wherever such lives are lived, the religious crisis does not exist. Since we can be sure of the actuality of many such lives in all circles and groups of men everywhere, it may be that we should not allow the crisis to frighten us. Nevertheless, it is a fact, and a vast majority of our contemporaries cry for guidance. This can be provided only by new thought. That is why we have to concern ourselves with the analysis of the crisis and the means of overcoming it.
In this connection we must mention a movement which has lately swept the West, claiming that it can give disillusioned men a new religious life. It is the Oxford Movement or Buchmanism. By the revival of religious emotions, by surrender to God, by commitment to an unselfish life of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love, by a renewal of the practice of confession and by the sharing of religious experiences, by reliance upon divine guidance and by a revivification of first-century immediacy and spirituality, it proposes, and claims to solve, the problems of the religious crisis in a practical manner.
It must be pointed out that by such means the solution of the problem is merely anticipated in the emotions -- which is to say that, in reality, it is postponed. For we cannot doubt the fact that Western civilization is today in a state of transition. More particularly, we should say that the doctrine of the autonomy of man which theoretically and practically has upheld the last phase of this civilization is now found wanting. What the ultimate effect of this breakup will be, no one can yet suggest with certainty. But it is evident that the realization of the inadequacy of a life dominated by the spirit of human self-determination is of great religious importance. This realization has already entered all fields of human endeavor. In this respect, our age is a religious period. The time is again fulfilled. It is our duty to know this and to be patient. Only by a comprehension of the changes which are befalling us can we be sufficiently prepared for a new religious certainty.
The considerations of these pages are intended to further the understanding of the situation in which we find ourselves. They do not offer a solution of the problem to which they are addressed. But they hint at the solution in so far as they contain the observation that an age which has attained more power of world control than any other longs for sanctification by a new sense of God. The spirit of secularism has brought about the crisis of the old and of contemporary religion. A new religious sense, built upon a new certainty of God, must bring the spirit of secularism into a crisis. When this event occurs, we shall be saved. Perhaps the time is not far distant when a prophet will arise among us who, fully imbued with the mood and spirit of our era, will speak to us in the name of the living God with such power and authority that all who long for salvation will be compelled to listen. In the meantime, we must learn to be humble in the awareness that it is God, the Lord of all life, who has laid his hand upon us in this crisis. And we must learn to pray: We believe, O Lord, help thou our unbelief. He who will have authority to declare that this prayer has been heard will be the leader of the movement by which the crisis will be overcome.
1. The following historical analysis was suggested by the lecture of H. Frick on Die Krise der Religion (Giessen, Topelmann, 1931). The whole article may be considered as an effort to describe the religious Situation as it appears to an American observer. It was inspired by a reading of Frick's lecture, written from the German point of view.
2. C. W. Reese, Humanist Religion. New York, Macmillan, 1931, p.53.
3. Ibid., p. 50.
4. Rethinking Missions. New York, 1932.
Viewed 88316 times.