Intelligible Religion by Philip H. Phenix
Philip H. Phenix was educated at Princeton University, Union Theological Seminary, and Columbia University. He was formerly Dean of Carleton College, and was professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Published by Harper & Brother, New York. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 11: The Christian Message
Thus far our discussion of some of the traditional religious ideas in the light of an analysis of religion in terms of actual human experience has not been concerned exclusively with any one religious or sectarian movement. The fact is, however, that for the most part the doctrines here discussed have stood within the main Jewish and Christian tradition of the west. It is the purpose of this chapter, and largely also that of the next two, to focus attention on the central beliefs of the Christian community. It will also help to show better how the method of analysis applies, through its use in connection with certain central tenets of the dominant historical faith of western civilization.
When we propose to deal with "the Christian message", it is first necessary to state what that message is. But this leads to the difficulty that there is a wide variety of opinions about the nature of that message. What is an essential aspect of Christian teaching to one group of Christians is considered by another group as a minor matter or even as a heresy. Some would say that the Sermon on the Mount is the sum and substance of Christianity. Others would say that the essential Christian message is that Christ died to save sinners or that only by believing in Jesus Christ as personal Savior can one inherit eternal life. The sorely divided condition of Christendom is largely a reflection of the many divergent ideas about what constitutes essential Christianity --about what is fundamental and what is of secondary importance in the Christian message.
In spite of this terrifying diversity of beliefs, it is the present writer’s conviction -- and this is shared by many students of the history of Christian thought -- that there is a fairly clear central core of belief which forms both the original Christian message and the continuing main source of inspiration and doctrine throughout Christian history. This basic Christian message is to be discovered through a careful and critical study of the Christian Bible -- the Old and the New Testaments. It is in the biblical record that the earliest statements of the essential message are to be found. And it is to this record that Christians have continually made reference in re-examining the content of their faith from generation to generation. The next chapter will contain an analysis of the nature and authority of the Bible. Our purpose is here to indicate what this book says about the central message of the Christian faith.
It is impossible to understand Christianity apart from its Jewish background. This is why the Jewish Scriptures or "writings" (the Old Testament) are part of the Christian Bible. The connecting link between Judaism and Christianity is the idea of the Messiah. The word Messiah means "anointed one" and refers to an expected God-appointed agent who would come one day to implement in one way or another the rule of God on earth, ushering in a new age in which the powers of evil would no longer hold sway. The Messiah is the one in whom the Jews centered their hopes for the coming of a new age of righteousness, in which particularly the injustices done to the people of Israel would be punished and loyalty to the one true God appropriately rewarded.
Throughout all Jewish history the coming of the Messiah has remained a hope not yet fulfilled. In the time of Jesus the coming of the anointed one was fervently longed for by many, in the face of the enforced subservience of the Jewish people to the Romans. And even today the unfulfilled and expectant hope for the Messiah is a part of the Jewish faith.
The Christian message may be briefly summarized in the single assertion: "Jesus is the Messiah." The word Christos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. Thus an alternative way of stating the Christian message is to say: "Jesus is the Christ." It will take some explanation to make clear what this means -- to show in what sense Christians believe Jesus to be the Messiah. Indeed, the various forms of Christianity are, in part, different ways of interpreting the meaning of this basic assertion. But the central fact remains that the Christian movement was the expression of this fundamental conviction about Jesus. The major difference between Judaism and Christianity is that in the former the Messiah is still to come, while in the latter he has already come.
The New Testament contains the record of how a belief in Jesus as Messiah arose. As we have already implied, the belief would never have arisen had there not been within Judaism a vivid expectation of the anointed one. But this of itself was of course not enough. The direct cause, within this context, was the whole series of events associated with the career of Jesus of Nazareth. In most respects his life was not unlike that of some of the other great spiritual leaders of Israel. Most of his teaching has parallels in the prophetic or rabbinic literature. He exercised over his followers a remarkable power which often resulted in transformations of character and even in physical healing. He pronounced decisive prophetic judgments on the organized religion of his day, reminiscent of an Amos or a Jeremiah. He interpreted his teaching and actions in terms of the current messianic expectation, and he regarded himself in some sense as the bearer of the messianic commission. It seems unlikely that Jesus’ followers would ever have regarded him as the Christ if he had not made this claim for himself during his brief ministry.
From the biblical record it is clear, however, that the decisive influence in establishing the messianic claim of Jesus was not his life and teaching but the events associated with his death.
It is easy to mark the point at which the Christian message came into being, and that is the moment at which certain of Jesus’ followers claimed to have seen him alive again after his death by crucifixion. It was primarily by virtue of the claim that Jesus had risen from the dead that the Christians established his messiahship. For the early Christians the resurrection of Jesus was the foundation upon which their message rested. Jesus is the Christ, they said, because he has risen from the dead. By historical right, then, the heart of the Christian message is that Jesus of Nazareth, crucified as a criminal, rose from the dead and by that evidence was shown to be God’s anointed one.
From this it follows that the key to the interpretation of the Christian message is the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus. The New Testament itself is by no means unambiguous regarding this meaning, though it is clear that there was unambiguously a belief in the resurrection. Some of the accounts depict post-mortem appearances in a physical body. Some accounts tell of the empty tomb. But a careful study of the earliest accounts, in Paul’s letters, indicates that these physical resurrection stories were probably later than the descriptions of the risen Jesus as an exalted heavenly being. A strong case can be made for the view that the original resurrection appearances were in the nature of visions, and that the physical resuscitation accounts were developed for the purpose of convincing the doubtful, who thought the disciples had only seen a ghost.
In terms of our modern scientific world-view it is difficult to believe that anyone has ever risen bodily from the dead. We must remember, however, that the people of Bible times knew nothing of modern science and that in the Judaism of that day belief in the possibility of resurrection was common; there are several other instances in the Bible where resurrection is claimed. We can therefore understand the way in which the New Testament account of Jesus’ resurrection developed, but we are not likely to be able to accept any belief in a physical resurrection. What meaning, then, can the resurrection of Jesus -- the central Christian message -- have for moderns with an intelligible religious outlook ? The important fact is that the early Christians were convinced that Jesus had been delivered from the bonds of death, and that in a real sense he continued alive with them and for them. It is important to add that they did not regard his aliveness as only a matter of vivid memory, but as a present fact. They did not find his power diminished, but rather multiplied after his death. The meaning of the resurrection therefore has to do with the problem of death. Ordinarily death is the end of things. What was, no longer is. But in connection with Jesus the early Christians experienced a reversal of this customary experience. Instead of death being the end, it turned out to be the beginning.
Actually, if we consider the matter, deaths are often beginnings. Sometimes the existence of some real value is a bar to the achievement of a greater value. Often people or institutions have to die before certain creative developments can take place. But more to the present point, it is by sacrifice -- by the voluntary loss of some good out of devotion to a greater good, that the highest possibilities in human life are realized. Heroes in every area of attainment are those who have given themselves without reservation for a cause they love more than life itself.
In Jesus’ case it was a combination of factors -- such as the fervent longing of oppressed people, their religious preparation and ethical sensitivity, the remarkable personal power of Jesus, and the particular circumstances of his death -- which produced among his followers a mental and emotional situation favorable to the attainment of a remarkable new intensity of life, marked by love, loyalty, courage and joy, all for the sake of the Master, who had sacrificed his life for them and for the larger good he saw through them.
In terms of the fundamentals of religious experience, the resurrection first provides an answer to the problem of change. There was the shock of disappearance (Jesus died), giving rise to the question: Where does that which perishes go? The answer was not a theoretical, but a practical one, and came in the form of a new resurgence of life within the disciples as individuals and within the Christian fellowship. This was the old Jesus appearing in a new form. Where did Jesus go ? He went "to God" (the source of the new and the destiny of the old). The resurrection experience means the realization, through the rising within one of powers related to him who has died, that there is a depth of surprising creative possibility in existence in which we may participate, and that the realization of this possibility is often contingent upon the loss of existing structures. The resurrection experience shows the unity of the depth into which existing actuality sinks and that out of which new possibility arises into actuality.
The resurrection also answers to the experience of dependence. One of the striking things about the New Testament account is the complete reversal of the disciples’ outlook between the day of crucifixion and the day of resurrection. And the impression is strong that this change was not something expected but which "came upon" them, as it were overpowering them. There is no suggestion of any effort to believe something that one hopes is so. The atmosphere is wholly one of wonder and excitement at the remarkable things that have happened to them and of thankfulness for having been granted the gift of the new life they sense within themselves and the Christian community. The resurrection experience was essentially an affair of grace, not of human effortful achievement. It was through it that the early Christians gained a vivid consciousness of the sources from which their life derived.
In the third place, the resurrection experience was one of form. The new life experienced in connection with Jesus had a clear and definite structure. That structure was expressed in terms of obedience to Jesus’ commands, imitation of his life, and the development of forms of organization and patterns of behavior and belief consonant with the emerging life of the new fellowship.
The new life was also of supreme value to the Christians. They were irresistibly drawn not only to the Jesus who had lived among them but even more to the form of dedicated life which had come into being after his death. Furthermore, this value was such as to inspire in them a sense of the limitless possibilities lying beyond their actual attainments. The new life filled them with intense hope for better things, together with an acutual awareness of how far they fell short of the full potentialities inherent in the new community. Everything they did fell under the judgment of the highest good -- Christian love -- which was their version of what we call "community".
Thus the resurrection experience for the early Christians involved an intense exemplification of the five fundamentals of religious experience. We may suppose that this is the primary reason for the centrality of the resurrection in the Christian faith. In the above we have spoken of what the experience of Jesus’ resurrection meant to the early Christians. The same remarks hold good for all those who since that first age have shared in the transforming power which the first believers unquestionably received. The central Christian message is therefore really the proclamation that within the Christian fellowship it is possible to realize the power of new life which was first known by the disciples after Jesus’ death and expressed by them as evidence of his resurrection from the dead and continued living presence among them. Adherence to an organized Christian group does not of itself guarantee the conferring of this new life. All that has been said is that the resurrection of Jesus may be understood in terms of a transforming power within the group of believers, first operating amongst the immediate followers of the crucified Master and then continuing in varying degrees from generation to generation in the Christian fellowships springing from them.
Belief in a dying and rising being is found in many religions. Nowhere else does it have the concrete historical reference found in Christianity. Usually the one who dies and rises is a mythological figure, such as Osiris in the Isis cult. The historical reference probably has the effect of greatly intensifying the power and the vividness of the resurrection belief. Apart from this, the widespread belief in the resurrection of a representative being is a further confirmation of the way in which this belief expressed the universal experiences underlying religion.
The belief in Jesus’ resurrection is not the same as to believe in his immortality. According to the Christian message, Jesus was not immortal. He really died, and then rose again. This is certainly borne out by the disciples’ experience. As far as they were concerned, Jesus was dead, until resurrection day, when (as they believed) God created him anew amongst them. This distinction is important in regard to the doctrine of immortality. One cannot argue from Jesus’ resurrection to the immortality of people in general for two reasons: first, because people in general are not Jesus or even much like him -- and there is strong presumption that Jesus’ nature had everything to do with his resurrection -- and second, because Jesus was not immortal, according to the Christian message. What one can infer from Jesus’ resurrection is that the fountain of life and being is not necessarily frustrated by death, and therefore that we may take courage and hope regarding the deaths of others and of ourselves that we may in like manner be the occasion for some of the creative-death-defeating power which was so magnificently poured out in the case of Jesus. And Christians consider it likely that the best way to ensure that participation is by partaking now of the new life in the Christian community, under the inspiration of the Jesus who founded it and still lives within it.
There is a doctrine closely connected with the resurrection of Jesus which will be briefly mentioned. This is the belief in the ascension of Jesus. According to this teaching Jesus after his resurrection was taken up into heaven. It is clear that this is a logical consequence of the idea of a physical resurrection, for if Jesus returned bodily to life, then some explanation of his ultimate disappearance from earthly residence is required. Careful analysis of the New Testament shows that the ascension story (like the physical resurrection accounts) was relatively late and was not part of the earliest message. Thus it is unlikely even on the grounds of the New Testament itself that the ascension is an integral part of the Christian story. Furthermore, from the modern view it is incredible as a physical phenomenon and belongs to the pre-Copernican cosmology The symbolic meaning of the ascension is that the continuing life of the risen Jesus is a "heavenly" life, i.e., one not dependent upon his physical body, and manifesting itself in the spiritual life of the Christian fellowship.
The essence of the Christian message is that Jesus is the Christ, demonstrated as such by his victory over death in his resurrection. Starting from this basic affirmation a number of other conclusions regarding the nature and function of Jesus in the faith were developed. Probably the most important of these is the assertion that Jesus is divine or that Jesus is God. Orthodox Christians have usually taken this as the basic test of doctrinal soundness. A believing Christian, they say, must affirm the "divinity of Christ", or the "deity of Christ". This is consistent with the attitude of the earliest Christians and must be understood as an expression of their experience of the risen Christ. These people found in that experience the kind of personal renewal, inspiration, and life-direction which they had by their religious training always attributed to God -- the giver of life and the Lord of individuals and nations. Therefore they identified the risen Jesus -- the spirit of life amongst them -- as a manifestation of God himself. From this it was easy to derive such formulas as "Jesus is divine" or "Christ is God".
Another way of putting it is to say that for the first Christians the best in everything they had ever known about religion was fulfilled for them in their encounter with Jesus -- in his life, in his death, and particularly in his new life after death. Thus there was no better representation for them of what God meant to them than Jesus the Christ. The doctrine of the divinity of Christ was nothing more nor nothing less than this. It was a way of expressing a genuine experience of the meaning of Jesus for them. And whenever there has been a re-creation of that original life and experience in Christian history, the meaning of the doctrine has been illuminated afresh. It is not a theoretical or abstract principle. It is an expression of a powerful experience within the Christian circle. It is nothing which can be argued about in such a way as to show it to be true or false in general. It is a symbolic way of talking about attitudes and values of actual persons who have been caught up in devotion to one in relation to whom they have found a new and ultimately satisfying kind of life.
The divinity of Christ so understood is by no means incongruous with his humanity. Indeed, it was precisely through the fact that he lived a fully human life that the powerful experiences which linked him with God in the faith of the Christians were possible.
It is easy to interpret the doctrine of the divinity of Christ in terms of our analysis of religious experience. We showed above that the resurrection experience contained all the elements of the universal experiences of change, dependence, form, value, and imperfection. We have also shown in Chapter VIII how the word "God" may intelligibly be defined by reference to these five fundamentals. If "God" is defined in this fashion, then it would follow that the resurrection experience was (and, whenever it is repeated, is) an experience of God.
The doctrine of the divinity of Christ is only a brief way of affirming this. In our terms, to say that Christ is divine is to say that in the participation in a new life, associated with and resulting from the death of Jesus, the Christian finds an answer to the mystery of change, gratefully receives from the fountain of life upon which he is dependent new access of power, becomes aware of a new form of truth and of life, is grasped by a new enthusiasm (value), and sees as never before the boundless higher possibilities which existence affords (imperfection).
A Christian affirmation closely related to the one just discussed is the Incarnation. The Incarnation means that the earthly Jesus was the embodiment of God in human form. On the face of it, as an abstract proposition, this looks absurd. If one thinks of the universal creative powers (or however he customarily considers God) as becoming concentrated within the limits of a human body, the assertion is pure nonsense. Many times such irrational views have been defended, to the detriment of the cause of intelligible religion. The Incarnation is actually another way of expressing what the significance of Jesus is within the vital Christian community. It is a way of pointing out the rather extraordinary fact that the primary and really convincing evidence which Christians claim to discover for the reality and power of God for them is in their relation to Jesus. It is in him that a center of illumination for all life appears. It is in him that a source of power for the fulfillment of life is provided. Not from any general "sources of being", but from this one particular source. The Incarnation expresses this remarkable focusing of the religious experience in terms of this one person. It is a turning away from religion in general to a special religion, and then finding, incidentally, that the general is freshly illuminated as it never was before. In terms of our analysis, for example, the Christian faith in the Incarnate God would imply that the fullest implications of change, dependence, form, value, and imperfection are apparent when understood in the light of the experience of the resurrected Christ.
Another traditional Christian doctrine is that God is a Trinity -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God. Again, it is useless to try to analyze this as a general theoretical proposition. It can only be understood as a "symbol of the faith". By the Holy Spirit is meant the life of God in the community of believers. The Spirit was regarded as the source of that tremendous outpouring of enthusiasm, courage, hope, and love which accompanied the rise of the resurrection faith. Experientially there is no difference between what is called the Holy Spirit and what is regarded as the manifestation amongst Christians of the living, risen Christ. Thus the identification of Jesus with God leads also to the identification of the Spirit with God (and with Jesus). The doctrine of the Trinity is simply the statement that, for Christians, Jesus (the Son) and the Spirit to which he gave rise in the Christian community were both none other than the manifestations of that source of spiritual energy which they called "God". It is only to say that God manifests himself in different ways in the general facts of existence (Father), in the particular man Jesus (Son), and in the life of the Christian community (Holy Spirit). In terms of our analysis, this would mean that the five fundamentals could be regarded at the same time as universal experiences (Father), as especially illuminated in the life of Jesus (Son), and as continually re-established in the life of the Church (Holy Spirit).
These considerations lead to the problem of the relation of Jesus to the rest of the human race, that is, to the question of the uniqueness of Jesus. Was Jesus "just another man", though admittedly a great one, or is he in some special way set apart from all the rest of the race? The traditional Christian answer has been to affirm his uniqueness. Usually this affirmation is founded on an abstract and nonexperiential inference from such doctrines as the Trinity and the Incarnation. If Jesus is divine, it is said, he cannot possibly be just another man. To argue in this way leads only to confusion and absurdity. The question about the uniqueness of Jesus can only be answered in terms of experience. To say that Jesus is unique is only to assert that the kind of new life which vital Christians discover they regard as available only through Jesus. They think it is a fact that what they experience in him they have never experienced through any other man. And thus they set him apart as unique.
While it may be true that individual Christians have actually not found the new life they prize other than in relation to Jesus, it is quite something else to assert that there is no other comparable source. It is often this latter which is meant by the uniqueness of Jesus. It is at this point that a perfectly intelligible individual or group experience is arbitrarily extended as a principle to which all possible experience must conform. It may be true that certain persons find only in Jesus the unfolding of the deepest meaning of life -- and we have seen how the experience of the resurrected Jesus makes this possible -- but it does not follow from this that there is no other particular channel through which new life may flow. In fact, the whole history of the race is against it. There are countless particularly creative situations having nothing to do with Christianity historically in which life-fulfillments quite comparable to those of the best of Christians are experienced. In this sense Jesus is not unique. Of course strictly speaking every person is unique; no one is just like anyone else. And in a sense every man has a "divine spark" -- in that he may serve as the occasion for the experience of God. Jesus is different from the rest of mankind only in the degree that the consequences of his life are of special significance in comparison with the rest of the race. That these consequences have been momentous historically and a profound creative power none can deny. But that he stands totally and absolutely beyond and above all other men seems to be an assertion of arbitrary and unwarranted dogmatism which does nothing to enhance the faith of the Christian and much to alienate those who cannot share that faith.
In a number of different connections in the present discussion we have spoken of the new life which constitutes the evidence of the living risen Christ in the community of Christians. It is now important to state more precisely what the nature and source of that new life are. As already suggested, the manifestation of it consisted in such things as heightened courage, confidence, hope, fidelity, enthusiasm, and love. Doubtless nobody ever became perfect, but it does seem clear that Christians at their best have given evidence of truly remarkable achievements, in what have been generally regarded as major virtues -- in such things as the power to endure hardships, to be patient in the face of opposition and disappointment, to forgive others for wrongs inflicted on them, and to show concern for the needs of others. The important fact in this connection is that these achievements are not the result of resolves to be virtuous or of comprehensive programs in self-improvement. They are rather by-products of a transformed personality. What is the nature of the transformation that has taken place? One way of describing it is to say that, to a certain extent at least, the dominion of self-centeredness has been overcome. When we then ask by what means self-centeredness has been destroyed, the answer seems to be related to the death and resurrection of Jesus. How can this be interpreted? It happens, says the Christian, because self-centeredness is caused by the ever-present fear of death: every man sees the life which he desires threatened in all its forms by dissolution, and he strives at all costs and by every means to grasp and hold this insecure treasure. Self-centeredness is the attempt by man to hold fast to that which he knows and fears will pass away. Note that the "death" of which one is afraid does not refer only to the cessation of earthly existence -- to mortality in the usual sense -- but also to the whole parade of smaller deaths -- the endless disappointments, failures, declines, agings -- which render all human life insecure.
The meaning of the resurrection is that the death of Jesus, whose life was certainly worth preserving, was not the end but the beginning of a larger, richer, more powerful, and more widely significant life. By the process of identifying himself with Jesus, the Christian seeks to participate in and appropriate the benefits of the resurrection. Thus he is freed from the fear of death and hence from self-centeredness.
It has been usual to speak of this process of life-transformation by faith in or identification with Jesus as "salvation by faith in Jesus Christ". Salvation here means being rescued from the destructive power of self-concern induced by the sense of personal insecurity. This self-concern is usually called "sin". (In Chapter IX we showed that sin is primarily self-centeredness.) Thus the Christian Gospel or good news is that by faith in Jesus Christ one can be saved from sin. This is not to be understood as a guarantee of perfection, but only as a promise of a new personal orientation in which the self is no longer dominated by the ceaseless but ultimately hopeless struggle to secure his own position in the scheme of things. Nor do we think this is to be interpreted (as is often done) as a particular way of gaining assurance of a favorable position in the life hereafter. It seems like sheer superstition to expect that by affirming belief in Christ one can gain a happy eternity, while those who do not affirm it must suffer everlasting torment in hell. Salvation, according to our interpretation, does not consist primarily in the destiny of the soul after death, but in present participation in the kind of life over which the fear of death has no dominion because it has been shown not to be permanently frustrated by death.
From the standpoint of our interpretation of religion the central Christian experience just described is important because it provides an answer to the question regarding the relative power of community-creating and community-destroying factors in human history, i.e., to the question concerning the outcome of the battle between good and evil. What the Christian message asserts is that the events associated with Jesus precipitated a situation in which a decisive blow was dealt to the community-destroying powers (symbolized in the form of devils or dark spirits) and in which a hitherto unavailable key was provided for opening up the treasure-house of community-creating powers. This can be understood best in relation to the fundamental experience of imperfection. When a person or group is dominated by a sense of impending loss, the resulting fear demands a kind of absolutizing of what already exists, and it dispels any courage for looking to ideals beyond the present imperfect situation. The grasping caused by fear of death therefore results in a constricted and restricted view of things which obscures the heights and depths of possibility inherent in existence. But the measure of these values is community. Hence a sense of profound insecurity results in the frustration of community and the fixation of life on lower levels of achievement. The active awareness of imperfection -- the vital consciousness of the limitless perfectibility in things, which is one of the essentials of religious experience -- thus depends on release from this fear. For this reason the kind of new life which Christians claim through faith in the risen Christ is essential to the actual advancement of community and to the creation of the religious outlook which underlies it.
As a footnote to this discussion it is interesting to observe that a vivid sense of imperfection (including a sense of sin) is a necessary component in religious experience, and that those who are the worst sinners (i.e., who most frustrate community) are the least aware of their sin. Fear of death entails a protective blinding to the fact of imperfection. This points to the fact that for religious fulfillment ("salvation") it is not enough merely to be preached to about sin for that tends to set up defenses against the awareness of imperfection; "grace" is also necessary -- the confidence born of the conviction that the sources of life upon which we are dependent are not extinguished by our death. It is because this conviction has been one of the fruits of the good news about the victorious Jesus that Christians have been so conscious both of the seriousness of sin and of the joyful certainty of freely-given salvation.
What has just been said confirms what was pointed out in Chapter IV and earlier in this chapter about the relation between faith and works. The fruits of the Christian life do not stem from a gigantic effort of the will, but from a transformed personality. The Christian message is not primarily a statement about what man must do but good news about what has been done for man, namely, about his release from the power of sin through identification with the risen Christ, and from this springs the thankful response of a life devoted to good deeds. This is the meaning of the New Testament discussion concerning the relation of the Law (moral requirements) and the Gospel. The Christian answer is that because of sin (self-centeredness) man cannot by nature obey the Law. His only hope is for a transformation of nature which destroys the rule of self-concern by means of the Gospel.
Three critical problems about the Christian message must still be faced. First, we must ask whether the Christian claim regarding the transformations effected by identification with Jesus is actually true. In answer it seems to this writer that there is clear evidence both in past history and in present experience that many persons and groups of people have validated this claim. On the other hand, it seems equally clear that a great many more persons and groups calling themselves by the name of Christ and seeking in every possible way to benefit from faith in him have failed to validate it. It therefore seems on the basis of actual performance that the Christian faith provides an uncertain means of effecting the desired transformations of human nature.
The second problem grows out of the first. May it not be that the particular form of the Christian message, based as it is upon a record of events long ago, recorded in terms largely alien to modern thinking, partly explains the comparative ineffectiveness of the Gospel ? Can modern man consistently, permanently, and whole-heartedly believe that the fulfillment of his life depends upon the events associated with the life of the one man, Jesus of Nazareth?
This leads to the third problem, which was touched on in discussing the uniqueness of Jesus. Is the Christian way of identification with the risen Jesus in the experience of the historic Christian community the only way in which the new life referred to above may be attained? Is it only through Christ that the fear of death and the resulting self-centeredness may be overcome? Is it true that "there is no other name given under heaven by which men may be saved"? The answer seems clearly to be No. It is right to recognize the genuine power and illumination in the Christian message without asserting its exclusiveness of all other messages of salvation. This refers not only to other historic religions, which also produce high fruits of human achievement -- whether or not in as great numbers or with as much efficiency as Christianity we are not concerned to say at this point but to movements and influences not ordinarily called religious. For example, many of the deepest insights of Christianity are implied in some of the current work in psychotherapy. May it not be that a careful scientific attack on the problem of insecurity and fear will enable us more consistently to achieve what has been only sporadically effected by the proclamation of the traditional Christian message?
There are many ways in which to some degree self-centeredness is overcome. In times of national emergency, in warfare, and in the struggle for great causes there are countless illustrations of the sacrifice of personal gain in the interest of the large good. The willingness of devoted parents or of husbands and wives to give up their own immediate comfort or safety in exchange for the privilege of serving those whom they love is further evidence of the larger loyalties that may cause people to abandon concern for personal security. The heroes of culture -- the dedicated scientists, artists, and statesmen of every age -- have also achieved greatness and usefulness in part by the same process.
In summary, it would seem right to regard as truly "saved" anyone who has been given the grace of a high and noble purpose which draws him out of preoccupation with self into a full creative life which serves the development of community. Without underestimating the relevance of the positive Christian message as described above, it is still important to recognize and gratefully to benefit from the other saving influences at work in human life.
An intelligible and a truly universal religion would require this broader basis for faith. The deep insights of historical Christianity -- as well as of other historical religions -- are of great value in understanding the human situation and the resources available in it. But to be of full value for all people in all ages these insights must be understood as illustrations and particular embodiments of general aspects of universal human experience. A durable universal religion cannot be built upon historical particularities and claims of uniqueness and finality. The Christian message must, from this point of view, be regarded as one important source of suggestion and of exemplification for such a religion.
Viewed 66351 times.