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The Predicament of Modern Man by Elton Trueblood


Elton Trueblood is Professor at Large at Earlham College (1944). He is the author of more than twenty books, including The People Called Quakers and The Lord’s Prayers. Published by Harper and Row in 1944, New York, N.Y. 10016, this material was prepared for Religion-Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 5: The Necessity of a Redemptive Society


There have been high civilizations in the past which have not
been Christian, but in the world as we know it I believe that civilization must have a Christian basis and must ultimately
rest on the Christian Church
.
Lord Tweedsmuir

It was said in Chapter I of this book that the war is not so much the cause of the sickness of our civilization as a symptom or a demonstration of that sickness. We can now go further and say truly that the war is partly a means of hiding from us the serious character of the sickness. Since it is relatively easy to unite men negatively, i.e., for purposes of combat, we have come to be more optimistic about our culture than conditions warrant. Many of the wounds of our body politic have seemed to be healed during the course of the struggle, everyone being conspicuously patriotic, but actually the wounds are still present and the healing has been only superficial. The worst phenomena of racial hatred, for example, have been merely postponed. The new Fascism has not yet been openly espoused.

The most dangerous time that Western civilization has known for many generations is immediately before us. It is the period of convalescence. The threat of world tyranny having been surmounted, there will be a strong temptation to suppose that all is well, but the dangers will actually be far greater than they have already been. All kinds of malignant germs will be offered a splendid opportunity for growth in the post-war world.

Though the war has been carried on so far as a sordid but necessary business, with very little talk about ideals, it remains true that the spirits of many of our soldiers and civilian workers have been supported by the recurring thought of real oppression in the modern world. Eyewitness stories of what has occurred and continues to occur in concentration camps have aroused many of our people to a great desire to set the captives free. This has been combined in varying degrees with the motive of national or cultural survival, the latter motive being especially strong in our country after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Not only in England but in America men have been given abundant reason to believe that they are fighting for their lives and liberties, and the spectacle of conquered countries has given point to this belief. When we have mentioned these two motives, we have said about all there is to say on the subject so far.

The chief point to note about these two motives, the motive of liberation and the motive of survival, is that they can suddenly come to an end, so far as their effectiveness is concerned. When the oppressor is forcibly deprived of his power to oppress, both motives are removed at once. Then the question is: What will hold us together in the Western world? The well-known fact that our young men have performed conspicuous deeds of gallantry against Japanese and Germans is no evidence that we have an adequate spiritual structure for our society when the pressure from Japanese and Germans is removed. Furthermore, one who is at all close to the men in the services cannot be blind to the perplexity of many of the men, even while the fighting continues.

The task, then, is still before us -- the task of making a decent world in our modern technical age, after the elimination of such open enemies of Christian civilization as Hitler and his kind. We have argued, in previous chapters, that this cannot be accomplished without ethical convictions, that the ethical convictions cannot be made to prevail if separated from their religious roots, and that the religious roots cannot be nourished apart from the organized church or something like it. If this reasoning is sound, we are carried forward to a final question concerning the nature of the organized movements without which civilization as we know it will perish. We need to be both precise and concrete in our proposals.

Men are saved by faith, but not by just any faith. Though the absence of faith means eventual spiritual death, the presence of faith does not ensure spiritual life, since there are many kinds of faith and there are radically different objects of faith. It is true that there can be no thorough regeneration of society except at the religious level, but this does not mean that any religion will suffice. There are good religions and there are bad religions and there are many that include some good along with some evil. The logic of events that points to the necessity of a religious reformation of civilization is no evidence of the sufficiency of any particular existent religion or even of all existent religions combined. Civilization may be hopeless on the basis of irreligion, but it may likewise be hopeless on the basis of some of the religions we know.

The church, broadly speaking, has been the chief means by which our most regenerative influences have been preserved, but, even so, we must admit that many of the parts of the church are now in a much-weakened condition. The Confessional Church of Germany has thrilled the world by its courageous stand against tyranny, but there are many churchmen who have, during the same critical period of history, compromised with tyrants. Civilization needs the church, as we argued in Chapter IV, but the church itself needs something to revive it. What do we do when even the salt has lost its savor?

The saving faith we need will not come of itself but must be consciously fostered and spread. It was in this kind of work that Augustine and his associates were so successful in the dark times following the decline of Roman culture. They made a church adequate to the needs of the time, something that could survive even when the empire went to pieces. The close parallel already suggested makes it reasonable to suppose, in advance of specific arguments, that our central need is for a contemporary redemptive society which will do for us what the redemptive society envisaged by Augustine did for his generation and for succeeding generations. Christianity won in the Roman Empire, not chiefly as a belief, though it was a belief, but more as a self-conscious fellowship, and there is nothing in subsequent history to make us suppose that the faith adequate for our day will win m any other way.

In this the children of light may profit by the wisdom of the children of this world, who, as Jesus said, are often wiser in their generation than the children of light are.(St. Luke, 16:8.) Perhaps the most original part of Mein Kampf and also the part which bears the marks of the greatest intellectual care is that in which Hitler outlines his conception of membership. He distinguishes between "supporters" and "members." The supporters are the many well wishers who can be reached rather easily by propaganda and are consequently helpful, but no great new movement could succeed if it merely had supporters. Far more important than the supporters are the actual members, the relatively few who can count on one another in every eventuality and who constitute the striking power. It is really better that the number of the members should not be large, since the moment it becomes large it is evident that the strict qualifications for membership have been relaxed.

The idea of membership involves the notion that the nation or the world is the mission field while the party is the missionary band. "The victory of an idea will be possible the sooner," says Hitler, "the more comprehensively propaganda has prepared people as a whole and the more exclusive, rigid, and firm the organization which carries out the fight in practice." Those who are to be influenced, so as to adopt the new thought, cannot, in the nature of things, be too many, but the membership can easily be too large. Accordingly any movement that hopes to be effective must guard against the natural temptation to show early numerical success. "If propaganda has imbued a whole people with an idea, the organization can draw the consequences with a handful of men."

The key to Hitler’s idea is the difference between propaganda and organization. "The first task of propaganda is to win people for subsequent organization; the first task of organization is to win men for the continuation of propaganda." The organization is just as crucial as is propaganda, and even more crucial, because the propaganda is wasted without it. Therefore entrance into membership is a serious matter, and, as soon as the movement begins to succeed, enrollment should immediately be blocked and the organization should be allowed to grow only with extreme caution. The following passage is a convenient summary:

In every really great world-shaking movement, propaganda will first have to spread the idea of this movement. Thus it will indefatigably attempt to make the new thought processes clear to the others, and therefore to draw them over to their own ground, or to make them uncertain of their previous conviction. Now, since the dissemination of an idea, that is, propaganda, must have a firm backbone, the doctrine will have to give itself a solid organization. The organization obtains its members from the general body of supporters won by propaganda. The latter will grow the more rapidly, the more intensively the propaganda is carried on, and the latter in turn can work better, the stronger and more powerful the organization is that stands behind it.(These quotations from Mein Kampf are from the new Houghton Mifflin edition, Boston, 1943, pp. 582-584)

We are foolish indeed if we permit our abhorrence of Hitler, both in his methods and his aims, to blind us to the practical wisdom that these quotations express. Hitler has demonstrated the wisdom of the indicated procedure by employing it with remarkable success in the service of a bad cause. There is no reason why it cannot be employed in a good cause. Hitler has spoken much that is false, but he was not speaking falsely when he said, "All great movements, whether of a religious or a political nature, must attribute their mighty successes only to the recognition and application of these principles, and all lasting successes in particular are not even thinkable without consideration of these laws."(Ibid.,pp. 585, 586.)

When we begin to apply these principles to the task before all men of good will, we get something like the following: We need a world-shaking movement to offset the planetary dangers that a peculiar combination of factors has now produced. What is required to save us from the destruction of which world wars constitute a foretaste is a new spirit. We need this far more desperately than we need any new machine or anything else. We are fairly clear concerning the nature of this new spirit, since it has been tested repeatedly in the religious tradition out of which our highest moral standards have come, even though it is now so largely ignored. We must spread this spirit by the written and spoken word, as many are already doing, though nowhere in sufficient force. But we must go beyond this to the formation of cells, made up of men and women who are as single-minded in their devotion to the redemptive task as the early Nazi party members were to the task of National Socialism.

The kind of organized movement that the need of the hour suggests does not at present exist. Certainly the existent church cannot function in this way because Christianity has long ceased to be scrupulous in membership. Some may be members because they are greatly concerned over the redemption of our civilization, but they are surrounded by millions who are members because they were born that way or because membership helps their social standing. Since the devoted and effective group cannot be found, it must be made.

The present is the time for some creative and urgent dreaming about the nature of the redemptive society that is so clearly necessary. This society may be as different from the conventional church of today as an airplane is different from a buggy. But just as a buggy and an airplane have the same fundamental purpose, namely, transportation, so the church of today and the religious society of tomorrow may have the same redemptive purpose, though new problems require new vision.

Our time is not unique in the need of new movements that can bring spiritual refreshment, since the process has been illustrated repeatedly in crucial times. We need only to remind ourselves of the immense importance of the Franciscan movement, of the Society of Jesus, of the Children of the Light as the associates of George Fox were called in the seventeenth century, of the new fellowships inspired and organized by the Wesleys.

The sad truth is that such unconventional religious movements, after being wonderfully salutary at the beginning, tend to become conventional until finally they take their place among those which require revivication. The Children of the Light did marvelous things in the seventeenth century; for a while, it looked as though the Quaker movement might be a renewing power in the whole culture of Christendom, but soon Quakers allowed themselves to become a mere sect, one church among others. Then they were merely a competing organization and no longer an activating force in the entire culture.

Now it is again necessary to create and organize a radically new kind of society engaged in a perennially necessary task. It is not within the scope of this book to engage in the question of what the precise nature of such a society must be. Such a discussion would obscure the outline of the logical structure that it is our purpose to present. But we may point out briefly that the specific character of the redemptive society is of crucial importance. For example, the redemptive society must be unconventional, but mere unconventionality is not enough. We have lately seen, in the experience of the Oxford Groups, a demonstration of the way in which a new and unconventional religious fellowship may fail of the highest purpose because of insufficiently rigorous thought.

The mistakes of the Oxford Groups and the consequent ill repute of their movement should make us realize how carefully we must think through the problem before us; but, at the same time, the relative success of this movement should open our eyes to the power that lies in really devoted groups. The same lesson can be learned from numerous cults, of which Jehovah’s Witnesses constitute one of the most striking examples. The path of wisdom lies not in rejecting a method, in itself successful, because it has had associated with it some unpleasant features. The path of wisdom lies rather in seeing how the successful method can be retained and employed while the unpleasant features are detached from it.

The idea that salvation, both for individuals and society, comes through the work of living fellowships is as old as Christianity and older. We have said that it is incumbent upon the children of light to borrow the wisdom of the children of this world but the earlier borrowing was the other way around, inasmuch as the technic which Hitler so carefully describes is essentially the technic of the first Christian victory. John the Baptist was a voice crying in the wilderness, but Jesus was not, because he depended on the way in which twelve men were bound together. The fellowship of the Nazi party members is a kind of parody of the Koinonia.

It is interesting to note that when Hitler wants to express the kind of relation which must exist among the individuals who make up an effective central organization, and when he wants a strong word to contrast with mere "supporters," he is forced to rely on specifically Christian terminology and speak of "members." Apparently nobody ever spoke of being a member of anything until the term was coined to express the relationship that existed, at least ideally, among the first Christians. In the beginning, when St. Paul first used it, the figure of speech must have seemed extreme or even grotesque. He said Christians had the relation to one another that exists between the parts of a body. As though the original figure were not strong enough, St. Paul went on to speak of a situation in which men are "members one of another." (Ephesians, 4:25 and Romans, 12:5. See also I Corinthians, 12).

Here lies a path of redemption for which many in the modern world are waiting, even though they do not realize what it is they seek. There is a vast amount of loneliness, and a consequent desire to belong to something. This is shown by the success of new cults and by the emergence of groups in which fellowship is genuine, even though, as judged by conventional standards, hardly respectable. For example, the organization called Alcoholics Anonymous appears to have an enormous influence in the lives of its members. Its paradoxical entrance qualifications sound peculiarly Christian, in that each man must admit that he is too weak to help himself and that each undertakes to help another.

Real fellowship is so rare and so precious that it is like dynamite in any human situation. Any group that will find a way to the actual sharing of human lives will make a difference either for good or ill in the modern world or in any world. But fellowship is always more likely to be genuine if men are united for something. The problem of purpose, however, really solves itself, so far as the present discussion is concerned. Those who see the danger in which our civilization lies and who have some intimation of the spiritual renewal without which our present order cannot possibly be saved have a ready-made purpose to draw them together. What we want is a group so devoted to this purpose and so tightly organized that it can work as effectively for redemptive ends in our time as the first Christians worked for redemptive ends in the first century of our era and as the Nazis have worked for divisive ends in the first century of their would-be era.

The way to begin is to take seriously Hitler’s principle of limitation of membership. Consider, for example, a university campus as a field of missionary labor. A group of fifty really devoted Christians who are not in the least apologetic and who are willing to make the spread of the gospel their first interest would affect mightily any campus in the country, no matter how great the initial opposition might be. The same can be said of an average town. The prospects for the gospel might be better if the average town had only a few dozen Christians in place of the few thousand church members now listed.

It is not necessary, in our spiritual enterprise, to lay the arbitrary limitation on numbers that Hitler undertook in forming the Nazi party, since the limitation appears in the nature of the situation. There are not actually too many potential members anywhere. The problem is to find them, to unite them, and to make them into an effective organization cutting across all existent barriers.

One of the greatest weaknesses of the churches as now organized is not merely that they include so many who are irreligious, but that they fail to include so many who are deeply religious, though they may not express their religion in traditional ways. Many of those who believe most strongly that there is no redemption of civilization apart from religion are not in the church, with the consequent loss both to themselves and to the organized religious forces. Characteristic men in this situation are Walter Lippmann and Lewis Mumford. It is easy to quote passages from the work of both these thinkers to show how much concerned they are over the religious life of the Western world. In his Good Society, Walter Lippmann reserves his religious discussion for the climax of his book, in which he shows why tyranny finds its mortal enemy in religion:

By the religious experience the humblest communicant is led into the presence of a power so much greater than his master’s that the distinctions of this world are of little importance. So it is no accident that the only open challenge to the totalitarian state has come from men of deep religious faith. For in their faith they are vindicated as immortal souls, and from this enhancement of their dignity they find the reason why they must offer a perpetual challenge to the dominion of men over men.(Walter Lippmann, The Good Society, Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1937, p. 312.)

In similar vein Lewis Mumford has made an unambiguous testimony. "The crisis, then, presses toward a conversion, deep-seated, organic, religious in essence, so that no part of political or personal existence will be untouched by it."(Lewis Mumford, Faith f or Living, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1940, pp. 193, 196.)

The redemptive society we seek must include men such as these and not merely those who have been identified with ecclesiastical enterprises. Many of the best people are not in the church precisely because they are the best people. We have, of course, some conspicuously vigorous minds actively at work within the church and wholly devoted to it, William Temple, T. S. Eliot and Reinhold Niebuhr being striking illustrations of this; but too many of essentially similar spirit are outside any self-conscious religious organization. Consequently the lines must be redrawn. "No religion," writes T. S. Eliot in his famous essay on Lancelot Andrewes, "can survive the judgment of history unless the best minds of its time have collaborated in its construction."(T. S. Eliot, Essays Ancient and Modern, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1936, p. 7)

The church of Elizabeth’s time, Eliot argues, succeeded because it had the advantage of the collaboration of men of the intellectual stature of Hooker and Andrewes. But on what do the intellectual giants of our day collaborate? They collaborate on economic planning, they collaborate on foreign policy, they collaborate on military strategy, but on the matters of the greatest possible importance and urgency they do not collaborate. Relatively few give themselves loyally to a consciously contrived fellowship of work and worship. Consequently the representative men of our day are closer to the tradition of John the Baptist than to the tradition of Christ. They are indeed voices crying in the wilderness. Many speak truly and well, but they are not members one of another and their influence is dissipated because they are not joined together in a redemptive society. Unless this situation is altered, there is little hope for our civilization.

Pessimistic as the more thoughtful spokesmen of this generation necessarily are, it would not be fair to bring this sense of the meeting to a close without reference to the deep faith that underlies so much of the intellectual and spiritual searching of our time. We have to strive to keep our faith, but we are keeping it. We are perplexed, but not unto despair. We believe that we can survive a civilization gone rotten and that the essential faith of Western man can be restored to this end. The moral decay of imperial Rome was overcome by the gospel for that day, and the moral decay of Western civilization will be likewise overcome by the gospel for our day. If modern man can be made to see and understand the predicament he is in, that very recognition may be amazingly salutary. As a fitting conclusion to this book, nothing better could be found than some sentences that Lord Tweedsmuir wrote just before he died, words that seem to the author to be the true conclusion of the matter. "I believe -- and this is my crowning optimism -- that the challenge with which we are now faced may restore to us that manly humility which alone gives power. It may bring us back to God. In that case our victory is assured. The Faith is an anvil which has worn out many hammers."

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