Searching for Faith’s Social Reality

by Lewis S. Mudge

Lewis S. Mudge, Ph.D., is Professor of Systematic Theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.  He was a Rhodes Scholar in Theology at Oxford and received his Ph.D. from Pinceton University in Religious Studies.   He edited Paul Ricouer’s Essays on Biblical Interpretation (Fortress, 1980), and with James Poling edited Formation and Reflection: The Promise of Practical Theology (Fortress, 1987).  His most recent books are  The Sense of a People: Toward a Church for the Human Future (Trinity, 1992) and The Church as Moral Community: Ecclesiology and Ethics in Ecumenical Debate (Continuum, New York, 1998).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 22, 1976, pp. 784-787. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


We have not worked out a vision of the social embodiment of Christian faith adequate to a post-Enlightenment world. Ironically, though today we possess more factual knowledge about humankind than ever before, we still have no universal symbols of what it means to be human.

In the year 1911, as he penned the final pages of his famous Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, Ernst Troeltsch was certain that Christianity as he knew it could not "master" modernity. The key to understanding Christian faith in general, Troeltsch thought, lay in understanding its practical social expressions. And in all the history of Christendom, only two such expressions had been truly potent: the medieval social-cultural ideal, and the form of Calvinist asceticism we know today as the "Protestant ethic." Despite continuing achievements, both these syntheses, said Troeltsch, had "exhausted themselves." If there were to be a new and culturally fruitful expression of Christianity in the modern world, new thoughts would be needed that had "not yet been thought."

I do not think that the situation has changed very much. If the key to the vitality and creativity of Christian thought lies in the vitality and creativity of Christian praxis, then -- despite all that has happened since Troeltsch’s time -- we have little new to say. We have not worked out a vision of the social embodiment of Christian faith adequate to a post-Enlightenment world.

Meanwhile, one of Troeltsch’s predictions has proved quite accurate. What was left of Christian vitality, he thought, would emerge as privatistic individualism. We see this trend today not only in a resurgence of conservative pietism but also in the syncretistic search for personal meanings -- especially on college and university campuses, where interest in religious questions as such has little to do with the building of faith communities. But religious individualism seldom generates potent social practice. It tends to be parasitic on the achievements of past generations. It is not the answer we seek, but rather an evasion that could deflect us, fatally, from facing the issue.

The Question of Human Identity

We will not find the theological breakthrough we need until we have wrestled with Troeltsch’s problem. But with what resources and under what conditions? Most theologians since Troeltsch have had, for reasons of their own, other agendas. Even H. Richard Niebuhr, who saw his Christ and Culture as linked to Troeltsch’s work, was in fact pursuing something different. Niebuhr gives us a brilliant typology of theological visions, but he does not wrestle in Troeltsch’s way with "the social question." And in his reluctantly written final chapter Niebuhr tries to graft the social dimension onto a fundamentally Kierkegaardian, and hence individually focused, understanding of faith. This effort does not meet either his problem or ours.

The exception, of course, is the early Bonhoeffer. In Communio Sanctorum Bonhoeffer is determined to go beyond idealism’s stress on the individual and to come at theology by way of sociology. Indeed, he shows that Troeltsch’s understanding of Christianity is itself too personalistic. The church, said Bonhoeffer, is the world as it is meant to be in Jesus Christ -- the space where the world is structured according to its true center. Thus we meet the reality of God in the reality of the world. How tragic that Bonhoeffer did not live to develop these hints further. Or did the war and the Holocaust, as Bonhoeffer himself may have thought, make them invalid?

Today, at least, we have new conceptual possibilities. The theologian has colleagues in the human sciences that make available a vast array of dialogical resources. The philosophy of the human sciences in particular is becoming very important to us. But at the same time, the position of Christian thought and institutions in Western culture may have deteriorated. Troeltsch knew that Christendom had to face the problems of pluralism and historical relativism. But he also thought that European culture as such was intact, and he seemed to believe that this culture sufficiently defined what human nature is or could be. If Christianity could not "master" the social ferment of the day, at least the Western individual knew who he or she was. But today we live in the midst of a worldwide human identity crisis.

Ironically, we possess today more factual knowledge about humankind than ever before, but we have no universal symbols of the human essence. Our knowledge of the human is arranged in hundreds of conceptual systems -- psychological, sociological, anthropological, theological -- which cannot communicate with each other because they employ incompatible symbolic languages. The question of human identity is now a hermeneutical conundrum.

We need some universal theory of symbolic communication merely to interpret to each other our different ways of knowing.

Power and Imagination

What I have to offer is no such theory. But I think it may still be helpful. I suggest that we have lost our hold on who the human being is in part because we are suffering a disruption of the relations between power and imagination in our personal and corporate lives. I mean by this that our sheer capacity to do things overwhelms and distorts our awareness of the meaning of what we are doing. And at the same time our imaginative lives, fed by media bent on exploiting us, are less and less relevant to the tasks we must perform as human beings and citizens. When, then, the need arises to put power and imagination together, we are at a loss. Soon we will have to make decisions about the uses to be made of our capacity for genetic engineering. But no available image of what it is to be human seems adequate to guide us.

The energy and know-how at our disposal today are obviously consequences of the imaginative acts of previous generations. Our forebears dreamed their dreams and channeled their capacities in ways that affect us today. But technology, once it gets going, seems to have an internal logic of its own. If we can do it, we will. Electronic information storage and retrieval, combined with the capacity of computers to talk to each other, make it inevitable that we will eventually have a data system involving every man, woman and child on earth. The logic of computer technology will let us stop at no less. The same seems to be true of military technology. But the data-bank operator does not experience the impact of his or her mistakes in violated lives, any more than the bombardier sees the napalm-disfigured faces of children. Power tends to generate an obsessive, imaginative life of its own, far from the point of its impact on actuality.

At their best, of course, our imaginative resources are still able to expose power for what it is, But increasingly the imagination of the Western individual is exploited for profit. Mass-produced entertainment succeeds, ironically, because it makes us feel powerful vicariously. We are fed a diet of derring-do and violent conquest which arouses our fantasies, however disempowered we may be in real life. We identify with middle linebackers, dashing police officers, omnisapient and omnipotent physicians. Yet all these are action models that divert us from understanding the capacities for self-determination and action we really have.

The most striking consequence of the disordered relations of power and imagination in our civilization is surely the distortion of sexuality in pornography. Sexuality by its very nature involves physiology and fantasy in mutual support. The physical energy of sex is summoned and released by fantasy. And the art, music and literature of every civilization are informed by sexual symbols. But today sex itself has been turned into technique. Aided by the pill, and by technical manuals of every description, sex is torn away from images of fidelity, devotion and responsibility and comes to depend on pornography. The pornographic imagination, in return, turns sexual energy in the direction of selfishness, violence and exploitation.

We long today for a humanizing reintegration of power and imagination, but we find it impossible to re-create any of the great syntheses of the past, or to invent new ones. Instead, we live in a vacuum, vulnerable to totalitarian ideologies that would integrate our civilization by force. Demonic, dehumanizing syntheses seem to come alive and gain momentum in such vacuums. George Steiner, for example, has suggested that the Nazi death camps were no new invention. They were an acting out -- with all the power of an industrial society -- of imaginative archetypes which, for a thousand years of European history, have clustered around the idea of hell.

Diabolical junctures of power and imagination readily master our incoherence. Divinely inspired ones do not. Humanizing and regenerating images remain locked up in traditional belief-systems unavailable to society at large. Troeltsch was right, and the consequences are worse than he knew. Men and women who are bearers of the Christian tradition have something to give the world but do not know how.

Toward a Sacramental Sociology

Can Christian faith be ‘rethought in a way that will help us break out of this box? Troeltsch believed that there were only two alternatives. Christians could provide symbolic legitimation for the prevailing society and culture, thus generating the "church type" of interaction between the tradition and the world. Or they could protest the prevailing situation and set up a countersociety, thus generating the "sect type." For us, neither is an attractive possibility. Much less so is our current, impotent religious privatism.

I want to suggest a different way of thinking. We need to formulate what I would call a "sociology of the Word of God," or, in other language, a kind of sacramental sociology. This sociology would try to understand what it might mean to speak of a social space of God-ruling as this world decentered and recentered by the word and work of Jesus Christ. The manifest structures of society would be the appearance while the social space of God-ruling would be the reality of humanity coming-to-be by his grace.

Christ’s destructuring and restructuring of this world opens up a social space which is the faith-reality of this world in the midst of the world. Obviously I am using the word "space" metaphorically. Our religious traditions have been concerned with the relation of faith to space, in a variety of senses. The ancestors of some of us moved to Massachusetts Bay Colony to find in it the sense of new land for a holy commonwealth. Others sought room for the evangelical experience on the frontier. Still other traditions have understood faith-space as the religious enclave or ghetto. And some have thought of faith-space as space within the self, private and inviolate.

My notion of faith-space corresponds to none of these. There is a difference between space for faith -- an opening of whatever kind where faith can grow if it will -- and the space of faith, which is existing society seen as, restructured as, reconstituted by the power of grace as, the realm of God-ruling. Indeed, space for faith in the old sense is hardly available now. Certainly there is little physical room on earth for the founding of new religious commonwealths. But more important, neither the cognitive ghetto nor the sovereign self easily resists the constant implosion of normlessness and otherness which is the mark of our times.

The faith-space of this world is at the same time the true reality of this world -- which is what we mean by God-ruling. Clearly this use of the term "reality" threatens to become philosophical. For the moment, I want to resist such a step. We know Berger and Luckmann’s book The Social Construction of Reality, as well as Jurgen Habermas’s Knowledge and Human Interests, and realize the implications for some kind of sociological ontology. But for the moment, I want to stress the experimental: what we can get hold of, grapple with, suffer through, exult over, weep over, encountered as interpersonal. This is the reality in which we encounter God-ruling.

The relation of these thoughts to the Bible should be transparent. In the Hebrew Scriptures the sense of Promised Land, of the place the Lord shall choose, involves geography but transcends it. The land becomes truly the Lord’s space when it is the realm of justice and righteousness.

Jesus creates a faith-space which radically rearranges the power-images of his hearers. He does this by both word and deed. The parables re-present the social world with normal expectations overturned. And Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, considered as a parable, force a re-vision of the world which reveals the meaning of the rule of God. As Mary says in the Magnificat, "He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts." What can this mean but that the power elite no longer have their place? They have been displaced by the humble and the meek, whose empowerment in Christ reveals the power to come.

Paul, too, is grasped by the reality of grace as the truth of a social space -- in this case the nexus of centuries-long tension between Jews and gentiles. The setting is Antioch; the issue, table fellowship. Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace alone is his reflection on a social experience in which the ancient barriers are overcome. The social world responsible for his reality sense is radically recentered.

The structure of the New Testament message as a whole, the line of argument which appears again and again in the preaching of the primitive church, supports this vision. Jesus is the one with power to see through, to see beyond, the styles of social imagination "in power" in this world. He is the one with imagination to subject himself to power as its victim, and power enough to engrave the subjection on the world’s imagination. He is the one who makes of his disempowerment a sign of power yet to come. In all this, for those who follow him, Jesus turns this world into a space of faith. Within this space, men and women live by a power that is promised but not yet manifest, knowing that, despite appearances, the truth of this world is grace.

Becoming the Responsible Ones

Do these thoughts help us with Troeltsch’s question? I have tried to sketch two pictures: the first, of a world spiritually incoherent and therefore vulnerable because power and imagination interact in potentially demonic configurations; the second, of this same world imaginatively reconstituted as faith-space, the space of God-ruling, by the power at work in Jesus. The result, I believe, is what H. Richard Niebuhr would have called a transformationist account of the relation of Christ to culture. But does this theological model help us with "the social question" as such -- the actual worldly form of this new sociality in Christ?

There will be no such new sociality unless at its center are men and women who know the biblical tradition and celebrate it. Sociologically speaking, such a company of persons is bound today to function as something of a "sect," or at least as an organized religious minority. From this status there is no escape if the tradition is taken seriously. What Bonhoeffer called his "secret discipline" -- his meditation upon Scripture, hymns and confessions which linked him to companions across time and beyond prison walls -- was vital to him, as it must be to us.

But we are discovering that the content of this tradition demands that we see ourselves not as persons saved out of a fallen world, but rather as persons called to be that very world reconstituted as the social space, and therefore as the worldly reality, of God’s rule. Only if that reconstituting is possible for all humanity is it possible for us. And the essence of our being as a called community lies in the way we constitute the very notion of "humanity" at the level of awareness which forms us in both being and action. By the grace-shaped intention which brings "humankind" into being in our awareness we also become human beings under grace. Thus we become the responsible ones, the dependable ones, the faithful ones, the unsettling ones, the demanding ones, the free ones.

On the road to a human future there are forests, dragons and deep waters. The spiritual disorder of our culture invites adventurers. The image of the concentration camp is not descriptive of us now, but we are vulnerable. We need not adopt the eschatology either of Daniel Bell or of Robert Heilbroner to pay attention to what these men are telling us about our situation. Our rationalized, individualistic society has generated a hedonistic culture which is undermining the behavior such social rationality requires. Simultaneously we are depleting our resources, polluting our environment, and producing too many babies. Merely to survive on this planet, we are told, we will have to produce a culture oriented toward collective values. And the only way to do that may be through the technologically aided power of centralized authority combined with the sanctions of an officially sponsored religious imagination. What would that be like? Could the leaders of such a world resist the temptation of the demonic?

No, we are not in a concentration camp. But the Holocaust raises questions we still must confront. I hear two answers today. One, from Bruno Bettelheim, celebrates the autonomy of the individual, the integrity of the private self. The other, as presented in The Survivor, a new book by Terrence Des Pres, suggests that nature is our savior, that self-consciousness has gone too far, that we never should have assumed so Promethean a posture.

I can answer neither summons. I find a more authentic image in Elie Wiesel’s slim but overwhelming book Night. What kept men and women alive in the Nazi death camps, Wiesel seems to be saying, was initiative, fidelity and concern. And none lasted longer than those who took responsibility toward others: responsibility of a son for a father, of a rabbi for his flock, responsibility for strangers. A space of faithfulness, a space of God-ruling, in the midst of hell. Something more real than power and imagination in demonic interplay. An authentic image precisely because of its brokenness, the moments of faithlessness and forgetfulness which threatened to destroy the reality but never quite did so. Deep within, Wiesel knew he wanted to be free of this responsibility. But he also knew that without it, he could have won no authentic freedom.

I envision a people for whom the space of God-ruling is the reality of this world. Might they be the ones against whose presence "the gates of hell will not prevail"? We, or our children, or our children’s children, will see.