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The Unquenchable Light by Kenneth Scott Latourette


Richard Heard, M.A., M.B.E., M.C., was a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge and University lecturer in Divinity at Cambridge (1950). This book was originally written as the William Belden Noble lectures at Harvard University in 1940.


Chapter Nine: The Outlook for Christianity


What is the outlook for Christianity? Is the influence of Jesus to wane or to grow? Even though we may be confident of the far future, what do the decades immediately ahead hold in store? Are the factors which threaten a recession to become stronger? Are we in the early stages of a momentous retreat, or are we on the eve of a fresh advance?

These questions are of major importance, not only for those who call themselves Christians but also for the entire human race. Here has been and still is a major force in the history of mankind. No other set of ideas has been disseminated so widely. The dominant culture, that of the Occident, has especially been shaped by the Christian faith. If the influence of Jesus is receding and is progressively to decrease until it is eliminated, results will follow which will profoundly alter the entire face of human culture.

At first sight it would seem that the only wise reply is either silence or an evasive noncommittal. Unknown and unpredictable developments may nullify all our most careful calculations.

However, out of even so brief a survey of the record of Christianity as the past chapters have contained, certain generalizations emerge which provide a basis for confidence in some important predictions. We cannot hope to forecast details or even approximate dates, but conclusions as to main trends seem fully wananted.

It appears reasonably certain that Jesus will have a growing influence in the life of mankind. Ebbs in that influence may occur. They have done so in the past. There are some indications that we are now witnessing another ebb. Yet up to the present, taking the entire world into our view, that ebb, if ebb there be, is not so pronounced as any of its three major predecessors. Indeed, although it has not moved forward so rapidly as in the nineteenth century, since A.D. 1914 Christianity has grown in its influence upon the race as a whole. Whether the present powerful forces militating against Christianity will increase in strength and bring about a recession we do not know. However, in the past each ebb has been followed by a fresh advance and each advance has set a new high mark for the influence of Jesus in the total life of mankind. The presumption is that that in general will be the course in the future.

This presumption becomes as near a certainty as anything in the future of humanity can be when we recall that the appeal of Jesus has been proved to be universal. A century and a quarter ago we could not have been sure from observed experience that this is so. Then Christianity was still primarily the possession of European peoples. Even today it is chiefly identified with the Occident and its expansion is closely associated with that of Westerners and their culture. It is still largely dependent upon Occidental leadership and funds. However, Christianity has now been planted in practically every race and among the vast majority of the tribes and nations of the earth. While its entrance and acceptance have often been facilitated by the prestige of the culture with which it has chiefly been affiliated, it is clear that it meets universal human needs. Its characteristic fruits in human life are seen in every people and culture where it has won followers. The rapid emergence of indigenous leadership in non-Occidental Christian communities in the past twenty-five years bears additional witness to the truth of this generalization. This leadership is appearing among the Negroes of Africa, the high and low castes of India, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, the Pacific Islanders, and the American Indians as well as among those of European stock. The universality of the appeal and of the effect of Jesus has been demonstrated by experience as has that of no other being who has ever lived on this planet.

It has also been proved by experience that the spread of Christianity is not dependent solely upon the appeal of Jesus to the consciences and aspirations of men. It has been furthered by other factors and forces. Some of these have been contradictory to the spirit of Jesus. Some have been neutral. The support of rulers, often accorded from personal ambition or from purposes of state, the use of armed force, the association with imperialism, the prestige of a higher culture with which Christianity has seemed to be identified, the openings given by commerce, and the migrations of professed Christians—all these have at one time or another assisted in the propagation of the faith. Always where the faith has won wide acceptance it has been through a mixture of motives. What has been termed Christianity never perfectly mirrors Jesus. It is always a compound of Jesus with other elements, some of them repugnant to him.

It has likewise been demonstrated that, in spite of the innate universality of the appeal of Jesus, extraneous factors may prove so adverse that Christianity will be prevented from gaining a foothold or, where once it has been strong, will be entirely eliminated. The blood of the martyrs is not always a guarantee of the continuance of the faith. Wars and persecutions have stamped out Christianity in vast areas. More than once Christianity has yielded ground to another religion. It has suffered especially from Islam. By its nature and the means by which it has been introduced and by which conversions from it have been prevented, Islam has won many times more from Christianity than have been won from it to Christianity. Latterly some of the totalitarian ideologies, notably Russian communism, have reduced the strength of the Christian communities in wide areas.

It must also be said that the spread of Christianity has been due in large part to its association with European peoples. It is that tie which has given the appeal of Jesus the opportunity to demonstrate its universality. So far as can now be seen, had it not been for the expansion of European peoples in the past four and a half centuries Christianity would not have obtained the wide extension which it now enjoys. It is possible, to be sure, that this expansion of Europeans would not have occurred had it not been for the stimulus given by the Christian faith. Certainly that faith was an important cause of that expansion. Yet the expansion was also a cause of the spread of the faith.

When all of these qualifications have been made, the fact remains of the universality of the appeal of Jesus. Often he arouses, as in the days of his flesh, the most bitter opposition. Indeed, the forces inimical to him attain the greatest dimensions in the areas and among the cultures in which his influence is the most potent. Yet everywhere it is carried, the knowledge of him awakens eager acceptance in some hearts and works striking and characteristic changes. Always that knowledge spreads by contagion. Whatever the other forces with which it is associated, it has invariably taken firm root only when it has been transmitted by souls which have been set on fire by it. The presumption is that an appeal so compelling to some from all races and cultures will continue to be made and to awaken a response.

The persistence and growth of the influence of Jesus seem also to be assured by the proven ability of Christianity to survive the death of cultures with which it has been intimately associated and, after a period of crisis provoked by the collapse of such a culture, not only to win a foothold in the new, succeeding culture but also to make a deeper impress upon it than upon its predecessor. This, indeed, follows as a corollary of the attraction of Jesus in all ages and among all peoples.

As we have seen in the preceding chapters, in each period of the advance of Christianity the basis has been laid for a recession. The very success of Christianity has brought the next major threat. The winning of the religious allegiance of the Roman Empire served to identify Christianity with that realm. When, due to factors entirely outside the Christian faith, that empire and its culture declined, the future of Christianity became very dark. Yet, after a period of recession, Christianity not only won what proved to be the most important of the successor cultures, that of Western Europe of the Middle Ages, but also held a larger share in shaping it than it had had in molding that of the Greco-Roman world. Indeed, it was the elements which entered Medieval Europe by way of Christianity which were chiefly responsible for making it the channel through which the main stream of civilization flowed on into the future. While it did not become so nearly exclusively identified with Medieval Western Europe as it had with the Roman Empire, by A.D. 1400 Christianity had its chief strength in that area. Its success, therefore, again proved a serious menace. When, in the fifteenth century, Turkish con~ quests and other factors had limited Christianity chiefly to Europe, the transition from the Europe of the Middle Ages to that of the Renaissance and modern times brought another major threat. Similarly the close association of the geographic spread of Christianity in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries with the imperial programs of Spain and Portugal and with the absolute monarchies of that period precipitated another crisis when Spain and Portugal became stagnant and absolute monarchies were being shaken by revolution. In the nineteenth century the extension of Christianity both geographically and into various phases of culture in conjunction with the expansion of the Occident, private enterprise, laissez faire, political democracy, and Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, made for unparalleled growth and heretofore unequaled influence upon the human race. If, as now seems to be the case, the features of the nineteenth century with which the growth of the influence of Jesus was so closely associated are fading, another recession can be anticipated. However, since in the past Christianity has demonstrated its ability to survive the passing of the order which it has helped to shape and of which it has seemed to be an inseparable part, it is to be expected that this again will be the record and that after what may be a decline Christianity will revive and with increased power go on to mold, more than before, the human race. Even if it should lose in some areas where it has once been strong—perhaps in sections where it has been strongest—this would be no new phenomenon. That has happened before. Past experience gives ground for the expectation that elsewhere, perhaps in some quite unexpected region, Christianity will encounter an environment in which, partly because of its own inward vitality, it can achieve a fresh extension and in which and from which it can continue its growth.

It must also have been noted, if the earlier chapters have been perused with care, that during each major recession the preparation has been made for a fresh advance, and, as we hinted at the close of the last paragraph, this has been in quite unexpected quarters. In that disheartening period which followed the fifth century, when Christianity appeared to be passing, geographic gains were being made in Western Europe which formed the basis for most of the next advance. Yet Western Europe was a most unpromising area. In A.D. 500 Christianity was far weaker there than in the Eastern Mediterranean. For centuries, moreover, Western Europe was being overrun by barbarians, most of them pagans. During the decline which accompanied the conquests by the Ottoman Turks and the fading of Medieval European culture, currents of life were appearing which contributed to the later unprecedented revival. Some of the most potent of these currents were not in the south of Europe, where the majority of the new movements which had brought vigor to the Christianity of the Middle Ages originated, but north of that area—in Germany, England, the Low Countries, and Bohemia. Protestantism was chiefly from regions north of the Alps and of Southern France. While much of the revival of Roman Catholicism was through leaders from Italy, it was from the Iberian Peninsula that Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the chief organization of the Roman Catholic Reformation, the Society of Jesus, came, and it was from Spain and Portugal, only recently emerged from the Moslem yoke and where in the seventh and eighth centuries Christianity had suffered some of its worst defeats, that the next chief geographic expansion of Christianity issued. In the period of stagnation and reverse that came in the eighteenth century, revivals were beginning to appear which were to swell into the stream from which issued the major part of the extension of the faith in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That extension was not mainly from Roman Catholicism, although the latter had a very large and active share in it, but from Protestantism, whose part in the pre-nineteenth century expansion of Christianity had been relatively minor, and Protestantism spread chiefly not from the traditional centers in which it had had its inception and in which had arisen its greatest theologies, but from the British Isles and the United States. Judging from this record, the weakening of Christianity in some of the areas in which it was most potent in the nineteenth century should not be a cause of dismay. We can expect that a revival will come from quarters which may now seem to us unlikely.

In just what regions the next great revival of Christianity will arise we ought not to attempt confidently to predict. Probably it will be in some area in which there is a minimum of the control of the Church by the state. That at least has been a condition of several of the former awakenings. However, it is not a necessary condition, for Ignatius Loyola came from a land in which the state had greatly enhanced its supervision of the Church, and John Wesley was a priest of a church which seemed hopelessly subservient to the Crown. The friendship of the absolute state is not essential, for most of the members of the ruling classes of eighteenth-century England were scornful of the early Methodists. Christianity achieved its amazing gains in the first three centuries against the chronic suspicion and the recurring active persecution of the Roman authorities. In spite of these seeming exceptions, a certain amount of freedom from state interference appears a prerequisite to a renewal of vigorous life in the Church. The great persecutions of the third and the first part of the fourth century, if they had persisted, would probably have wrought far greater damage than they did. For one reason or another, each was allowed to lag or was brought decisively to an end by a reversal of policy before it had continued many years. So, too, at its inception the Protestant movement was assisted in Germany by the weakness of the imperial authority and the favor of some of the local princes. The Jesuits early won royal patronage, notably that of the King of Portugal. When in the eighteenth century royal authority turned against them, they ceased to flourish and were actually driven out of some kingdoms before their dissolution by the Pope. In spite of statutory restrictions, Hanoverian England contained a certain degree of practical religious liberty. The presumption is, therefore, that revival will arise in some region or regions where the state permits a measure of religious liberty or where it is actually friendly to the new movement, even though that favor be from other motives than those of which Jesus could approve.

It may be that in the years just ahead more of the center of the strength of Christianity will lie in the United States. Certainly in the past few decades this land has been forging to the front in the Christian movement. Here Church and state are separated, but the state is, on the whole, friendly to the Church. Here the proportion of the population who have a formal connection with the Church has been increasing, even since A.D.1914. While it is affected by the wars of Europe and either as a belligerent or as an active sympathizer with one or another of the contestants has been drawn into each of the general European wars which have been fought within the span of its history, geography has spared the United States the full impact of these wars and the nation has not been so severely impoverished as Europe, nor has its normal life been so badly disrupted. It is enormously wealthy, more so than any other country. Indeed, it is said to have about half the world’s wealth. In it democracy survives and, although threatened, is fairly certain of continuing, even though that will undoubtedly be in modified form. In it both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are strongly represented and both forms of Christianity are drawing from it a mounting share of the funds and personnel for their world-wide enterprises. All of the major Eastern types of Christianity are also present, although as minorities. Unless some cataclysm, now quite unlikely, overwhelms the United States, it seems probable that from it will come in the decades just ahead an increasing proportion of the initiative of the Christian movement. For at least a generation, more and more the influence of Jesus will depend upon the United States for its perpetuation.

In the United States, Christianity may be substantially altered. The falling birth rate of the older stock may make for a decline in the relative importance of those denominations, largely of Anglo-Saxon origin, which heretofore have set the pace.

It seems clear from past experience that when it comes the renewal of life will have its chief channel through what in the broadest sense is the Church. It may create a new denomination or denominations. Unquestionably it will give rise to new organizations and fellowships. If it is in the Roman Catholic Church, some of these will be orders and congregations. Moreover, it may give birth to movements for the betterment of society which have neither an official nor an unofficial connection with any church. That, at least, has happened repeatedly in the past century and a half. Yet, if the past is any criterion, even the nonecclesiastical bodies will be deeply indebted to the Church. It is through some form of organized avowedly Christian fellowship of confessed Christians that the impulse given by Jesus is continued from age to age.

It seems probable that, in the age into which we are entering, the Church will be less a community institution and more an organized minority than among European peoples between Constantine and the nineteenth century. Beginning with Constantine and even before Constantine in some areas, such as Armenia, when Christianity became powerful it was usually accepted as the faith of the community and, except for a few intransigent minorities, membership in the Church became coterminous with citizenship. Increasingly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a contrary tendency has been evident. In country after country Church and state have been formally separated. This has been due on the one hand to rejection of Christianity and dislike of the Church. On the other it has come from the presence of Christian groups not supported by the state who have resented the exclusive favor of the state for one church, or from the conviction on the part of earnest Christians that the Church should be purified of merely nominal Christians and removed from the control of officials who regard it as an instrument of the state or as a tool of their own private interests. This tendency has been reinforced by the position of the churches in non-Occidental lands. Here, with a few exceptions, usually in some of the smaller islands of the Pacific, Christians have been in the minority. The policy of missionaries, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, has been to place higher standards of instruction and of conformity to Christian morals for admission to church membership than was customary between Constantine and the nineteenth century. In the Roman Catholic Church those adhering to that form of the faith are already knit into a world-wide fellowship under the supervision of a hierarchy heading up in the Pope and more nearly exclusively devoted to the spiritual care of their flock than have been their predecessors for many centuries. Non-Roman Catholic Christians, especially Protestants, are being rapidly brought together into a fellowship which is also world-wide. There seems no likelihood that these two fellowships will coalesce— certainly not at any early date. In general, however, antagonism between the two is less acute than at most former times, perhaps less than in any previous period. The consciousness of a common enemy in the ideologies supported by the totalitarian states has made them lay less stress on differences. What we are seeing, then, is two world-wide Christian fellowships set not primarily against each other but chiefly against the world. In some quarters persecutions have depleted the Christian forces and in a few have driven the remnants underground. This may be the fate which the near future holds in store in still other countries. Yet, as never before, the two fellow-ships are world-embracing, with a leadership which is increasingly indigenous. The non-Roman Catholic fellowship is still in its early stages but is rapidly coming into being and acquiring self-consciousness. The Roman Catholic fellowship is less hampered by subservience to the state and is more closely integrated under the Papacy than at any previous time. Both are growing in numbers and influence in non-Occidental lands, areas where they have heretofore been weakest.

This position of the Church as a self-conscious minority in two world-wide fellowships, whose strength is increasing most rapidly in the lands in which it has been weakest, augurs well for the future. By its nature Christianity must always be in antagonism to much in the world about it. Yet it must live in that world, bear witness to the Christian Gospel, and seek to permeate the world with its ideals. While it can never hope to bring the world into full conformity to its standards, it must always be striving to do so. Now and again it will make striking progress. This seems to be best accomplished by organized, avowedly Christian fellowships, the churches.

These are never entirely free from contamination from the world which they are endeavoring to transform. Yet they are the channels for the undying Christian life. We are living in a time when the human race is being compelled by the machines which it has created to live together. These machines are in part the product of the Christian impulse, although all too often perverted from Christian ends. It is ground for great hope that in this day the Church is finding expression in two world fellowships. Through them it can bring to bear upon the entire race the life of which it is the trustee.

In this world the Church’s complete triumph is never assured. In some areas grave reverses will be met. In all areas the Church will be confronted by foes. There is that in human nature which will always be antagonized by Jesus. Yet in human nature there is always that which responds to him. Men everywhere and of every race are both repelled and attracted. Always there will be some who will seek to crucify Jesus. But always, where he is seen, he will win followers. In these followers he will be reincarnated, even though never perfectly. Here and there the crucifiers will kill off his followers. Somewhere, however, followers will survive. From these survivors Jesus will again be carried to the lands from which he has been driven.

In this witnessing Church, always imperfect but always bearing something of the likeness of its Lord and always a channel for his life, is the hope for the continuation of the influence of Jesus in the world. No other religion and none of the modern ideologies has a fellowship which equals the Church in its world-embracing extent and strength. If the present age is one of retreat for Christianity, here, in this day of seeming reverse, is the preparation for the next advance. If, in spite of discouragements, the age is really one of advance, here is the instrument through which the forward sweep of the tide is being manifested.

Always, we need again and again to remind ourselves, the secret of the Church’s strength is not organization. Christianity spreads through organizations. Its propagalion and perpetuation are aided by many factors, some of them political, some economic, and some intellectual. Yet the real reason for the continuation and expansion of the influence of Jesus is in Jesus himself. Age after age it is men and women who have been captured by Jesus and have entered a new life through him who have been the center of Christian advance, the active agents through whom the faith has gone on. The greatest of early Christians clearly saw this. They declared that Jesus was the expression, in such fashion that men could see it, of the Eternal God Himself, that he was and is the Logos, the Word, through whom God touches human life, that in him was life, and that that life is the light of men. Always that light, so they saw, shines in darkness. Yet, they declared, the darkness never puts it out. The experience of nineteen centuries has justified their insight. It is this life and this light which constitute the secret of the power of Christianity and of the Church. It is this life and this light, emanating from the creative heart of the universe and of its very essence, which are the sure hope for the future.

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