What Can We Hope For In Society?

by John C. Bennett

John C. Bennett was co-chairman of the Christianity and Crisis Editorial Board and president of Union Theological Seminary. He has contributed significantly to Protestant thinking on international affairs, communism, Catholicism and church relations.

This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis. Used with permission. It was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


A major figure in Christian ethics describes the elements of hope for our society.

Within the past half-century, men in the Western world have plunged from the highest expectations that they have ever held concerning their future in this world to the darkest fears that they have ever known concerning that future. This change has taken place in the minds and hearts of many of us. In this country the change has been more recent than in Europe. Even now the older expectation lives on in the minds of many of the older generation who have not been able to revise their earlier hopes with consistency.

This change of outlook in regard to the future has taken place within the churches as well as in the secular mind. Liberal Christianity shared the belief in progress that came to dominate the culture. It often gave New Testament sanction to this belief by identifying the kingdom of God with a new social order in history. It is only fair, however, to recognize that much liberal Christian thought preserved some checks on this expectation.

There are at least three forms of optimistic belief in progress which we should reject.

  1. There was the tendency to make the expectation of progress the substance of religious faith in some Christian circles and to substitute it for Christian faith in a clear-cut manner outside the church. The idea of progress that had its source in the Enlightenment was deliberately conceived as an alternative to belief in divine providence and to Christian ideas of redemption. It became a selfsufficient faith. There can be no doubt that though this view of progress does depend upon the biblical assumption of the importance of human history, it is a complete distortion of the biblical outlook. It is opposed to Christianity and is the source of morally destructive illusions in its denial of a transcendent source of judgment upon history. One of the weaknesses of any such religion of progress is the sacrifice of most generations to those generations whose lot will fall near the fulfillment of history.
  2. We must reject the idea that progress is inevitable. This was given its strongest support by the conception of biological evolution. It often involved the tendency to deal with human history as though it were an aspect of nature. It left no clear Place for human freedom. And yet I think that such criticisms are not always applicable. The idea of inevitable progress was often no more than the belief that the right must prevail. This was not a denial of human freedom but rather confidence that men would come to see and do the right.
  3. The third type of expectation to be rejected is the assurance that the major sources of social evil can be removed in such a way that the gains we make in removing them are secure. This view does not involve the idea of inevitable progress in all respects and it avoids the excesses of utopianism. It is no more than the faith that the major obstacles to justice and freedom and peace among men can be overcome and that when they are overcome, there will be no danger of falling back into the darkness of earlier periods. I suspect that whatever conventional symbols of perfection in history may be used, most believers in progress would be glad to settle for this more sober expectation.
  4. But it is precisely this sober type of assurance along with all Utopianisms which has been taken away from our generation. As I reflect upon it, it seems clear to me that it is basically untenable and that our loss of it is not the consequence of some recent failure of nerve caused by Hitler or the atom bomb.

The classical Christian teaching about the universality and persistence of sin has not been the main cause of the rejection of this sober belief in progress though it is a ground for doing so. There are many shades of the historic doctrine, and its precise relationship to our problem was never fully developed in the New Testament because of a lack of interest in it. Not until men began to count on a future of indefinite length and not until they became aware of the degree of change possible in social institutions was the issue raised that we now face. When we consider some of the factors that make it difficult to believe in progress in this third sense, it becomes possible to see how they are related to Christian teaching about sin and especially to one element in that teaching: the recognition that the deepest roots of sin are spiritual, that it is on the higher levels of human development that the most destructive perversions of human life appear.

There are two contemporary experiences which very vividly bring home to us the truth in this Christian teaching, and these two experiences in themselves have done most to destroy in many of us the confidence in secure progress by which we had formerly been guided.

The first is the realization that at the very moment in which the technical means of developing world community are available and at the very moment when more people than ever are convinced that world community is essential if civilized life is to continue in the world, the division between two parts of the world has become so deep that we cannot now see any way in which it can be overcome. I do not say that it cannot be overcome, only that we cannot see the steps by which such a favorable change might come. The division is all the deeper because it is caused not only by differences of economic interest or by nationalistic rivalries, but by a spiritual chasm that for the present destroys communication between those on opposite sides of the conflict.

Other aspects of the situation illustrate the point that the most stubborn problems come at a high level of development. The very formation of larger and larger communities creates the possibility of more fateful forms of power. The world divided into two parts is in a more dangerous condition than if it were divided into many parts. Also, one result of man's scientific development has been the production of weapons of war which threaten the existence of every form of moral and social progress. To the increased size of the units of power and the increased destructiveness of the weapons of war we must add many techniques for controlling the minds of men which modern rulers possess. This situation which I have been describing results from perversions of reason and of idealism, from the misuse of some of man's most remarkable intellectual achievements.

My second contemporary illustration covers much of the same ground but it suggests to me even more poignantly the way in which the idealisms of men can become the instruments of terrible evil. There has been remarkable progress in the concern for social justice and, in many countries, in the social and economic institutions which give effect to this higher sense of justice. There are some quite remarkable advances in our own country in this respect for which we should be very thankful. And yet the just aspirations of the underprivileged and the generous idealisms of many of the privileged have been changed into the means by which the most efficient and most oppressive of all tyrannies has been imposed on many nations. This is the same development that divides the human race and threatens it with global atomic war. The totalitarian tyranny itself does not necessarily lead to anything better. It may be destroyed by revolution, but what will follow the revolution?

The point which emerges most clearly from these two illustrations is that the most destructive social evils of which we have knowledge appear on what, according to any previous conception of progress, have been high levels of intellectual and moral advance. It now seems all too clear that the various over-all solutions of the social problem which have been emphasized in the past two centuries by the believers in progress are not solutions after all. I refer especially to the belief that education, the development of the social sciences, the spread of democratic institutions, or the socialization of property would be the saving factor.

Each one of these factors is greatly to be desired. My point is that each one of them creates new problems and cannot by itself be regarded as a selfsufficient solution. Education, for example, is a great good, but it will always be difficult to get the right educators; and there is no way of insuring that the educational process will not be perverted by those who have the most political or economic power.

There are two other general considerations which support what has been said so far concerning the difficulty of believing in progress even in the third sense. The first is the fact that all solutions of social problems create unexpected new problems. The balance between such social values as freedom and order is very delicate, and it is natural that changes that seem good in themselves are made at the expense Of one of these values in ways that are not fully understood in advance. An experimental shifting of emphasis from time to time in a reasonably stable society is to be expected and desired. But hazards become greater as the units of power be come larger and the instruments of power more efficient. Such long-term trends as the development of technology, the increase of living standards, the growth of leisure, the elaboration of the mass media for entertainment and communication-all these create new and perplexing problems. But there is no turning back and it is our responsibility to do what is possible to redeem these instruments of "progress."

The second consideration is that spiritual advance from generation to generation is not dependably cumulative. Each generation has to learn its own lessons on the matters that are most important for its welfare. There is flexibility that is good in the fact that each generation rebels against its predecessor, but this very fact keeps moral gains from being secure. A strong spiritual impulse tends to lose momentum within a generation. If it is true, as I have suggested, that external gains are never secure gains, that institutional changes which promise much can be easily perverted if the spirit goes out of them, that in the precarious balance between freedom and order the responsible use of freedom and the self-disciplined exercise of power make all the difference -- then this fact that we cannot count with assurance on the preservation from generation to generation of the loyalties and the sensitivities and the faith which are the chief sources of the health of a culture or of a social system is the factor which, more than any other makes assurance concerning progress impossible.

So far I have been chiefly negative and have shown what we cannot believe about the future. Now as I turn to the things that we can believe, the result may seem less precise and, hence, anticlimactic. But my major interest in this article is to emphasize the elements of hope that remain.

There are no Christian guarantees of any particular good to be realized in the secular order, but there are Christian grounds for hope that man's cause in this world is no lost cause and that there will be significant embodiments of God's righteous purpose in human society. We cannot be sure of secure and cumulative progress in the moral quality of life or in the over-all welfare of the race. But every act of social justice, every corporate encouragement to the spiritual freedom of men, every achievement of true community is a gain even if we cannot promise that it will be followed by more and, more of the same. The enormous technical advance creates possibilities of good that did not exist before. Take as an example the extraordinary extension of the life span, the improvement of health, the relief of suffering which are the results of the advance of medicine. All this is mostly gain though length of life may often lead to greater frustrations, and in the total picture the means of healing may be outweighed by the instruments of destruction.

History is not merely a platform on which individuals are prepared for inward blessings or for eternal life. Nor, as a record of man's collective life. is history a story of a vast and unified success. But within it there have been and there will be many communal and institutional embodiments of justice and fraternity which have value to the Lord of history. They are all of them partial and marked by man's sin as well as by true loyalty and love. If they pass away they remain as possibilities to be realized again. The record of them inspires generations that know them only as a memory. To work for such communal and institutional embodiments of justice and fraternity is to serve the kingdom of God, even though that kingdom far transcends them and all are judged.

The grounds for social hope which we find in Christian teaching are of two kinds -- one related to God’s creative work and the other to Christian redemption.

If we take seriously the idea that God is the creator and Lord of history, it is natural to infer from this that the structure of life is favorable to the continuation of his creative work. The belief that all men are made, in God’s image and the fact that Christians are encouraged to stress their own sin rather than the sin of other men, should undercut any tendency to cynicism about humanity in general, Calvin was surely right, as far as he went, in allowing for "common grace" in social life. In spite of a very dark view of the deformity of fallen man, he was able to writ: "…as man is naturally a creature inclined to society, he has also by nature an instinctive propensity to cherish and preserve that society; and therefore we perceive in the minds of all men general impressions of civil probity and order." Augustine’s insistence that there is no man "so wholly abandoned to turpitude, but he hath some feeling of honesty left him" is similar. Augustine goes on to say that the devil must "change himself into an angel of light (as we read in the Scripture that he will do) if he is to effect fully his intention of deceit."

A somewhat different phase of this basis for hope in God's creative work is the tendency of evil to be self-destructive. This has long been emphasized as a phase of the divine judgment in history. There is no comforting assurance that the process of judgment may not destroy most of the forces that make for good as well as those that make for evil, but there is strong pressure at work upon men today which causes them to see that they must find ways of living together more justly or perish. This kind of pressure by itself is not likely to bring men to a better society, but it has its positive value when combined with other motives.

We can see this process at work in international relations today. I have emphasized the tragic character of the East-West split in the world, but in spite of that we can say that the world has been brought closer than ever before to a recognition of the futility as well as the moral horror of war. There is fear in this and there is sheer fatigue in it. But there is also a widespread will to peace, the importance of Which can be seen from the fact that the Communists can play on it so successfully. All this is important of the institutions preparation for the development of world community.

The interaction between these broad grounds for hope that we find in the creation itself and the redemptive forces that have been released as the result of the , work of God in Christ is the heart of the matter. if we had only the redemptive forces to which to appeal, it is likely that we would think only in terms of a remnant to be saved out of the world. But it is the faith that the God of redemption is also the creator of the world which enables us to hope for more than that.

There is a quite remarkable converging of Christian thinking today, including New Testament studies, on the idea that the powers of the kingdom of God are already present within history. This emphasis upon the present kingdom is a more significant development in contemporary theology than the more widely publicized emphasis upon the hope for a future kingdom beyond history or a sophisticated conception of the "second coming." This idea of the present kingdom often takes the form of the rather difficult conception of the invasion of the future into the present, or the overlapping of present and future. We have to put the New Testament faith into a context that differs from the New Testament context at two points: the expectation of a, indefinitely prolonged future and our better knowledge of the population of the whole world.

It seems to me that the strongest New Testament basis for hope for society is to be seen in the broad implications of this idea that the redemptive power; of the kingdom of God are present in history. The interaction of the redemptive powers of the kingdom with the factors that are favorable to social good in creation becomes relevant to our social hope when we see it in the context of an indefinitely prolonged future.

As I have warned so often, there is here no guarantee of any particular social good, but at least there is ground for hope that in ways beyond our present understanding the powers of the "age to come," the work of the living Christ, the influence of the Holy Spirit, the impact of that within the church which Paul Tillich calls the "New Being" will break through many of the obstacles in the secular order to transform and transform again the kingdoms of this world. Within human history we may not see the kingdom of this world become the kingdom of God, but we may see among them many places and at many times communities, institutions, and corporate acts of justice which truly embody the grace and power of that kingdom.

To make this idea concrete I shall refer to a recent event which had in itself some of the characteristics that such embodiments of the kingdom must have. It is an event that took place outside the sphere of what is usually regarded as Christendom. It is an event that seems to me to symbolize most of the real gains that have been made in recent history. I refer to the recent Indian general election in which a large proportion of the electorate voted and which was remarkably free from corruption. Let us grant that universal suffrage is no panacea, that the new institutions of India are quite precarious, that the people may vote themselves into totalitarianism. I accept all those reservations. But does it not remain true that this event was a symbol of the human dignity of all persons, of their participation in the common life, of their will to be free from the control of another people? What had the redemptive work of Christ to do with this event? There was little direct influence from the church in bringing it about, but it is unlikely that such an election could have taken place without the indirect influence of Christ upon Indian leadership and, we may add, without a Christian conscience in the country that yielded in time to Indian demands for independence. The acceptance of the importance of political action and the recognition of the essential equality of all human beings can be understood best against the background of such Christian influences. This event illustrates two aspects of every gain that is made in history. On the one hand, we know that it is insecure; on the other hand, we have good reason to thank God for it.

In conclusion, I shall bring together several considerations that need to be emphasized together.

  1. The future should be regarded as open. There is no place for fatalism or for a dogmatic pessimism. Reinhold Niebuhr's phrase, "indeterminate possibilities," is a good way of indicating what we should think about the future. We must not face particular problems, no matter how difficult, with the idea that nothing constructive can be done about them.
  2. We should not put any less emphasis than in the days of liberal optimism on the importance of large-scale events, of institutions, of the behavior of social groups. These are important because of what they do to persons.
  3. We should avoid the tendency to allow many particular disappointments with the results of the great drive for social revolution, of which communism is but one expression, to cause us to swing to the conservative extreme. In particular, this means that we should distinguish between communism and the many efforts to bring about deep social changes which actually are an essential antidote to communism. Disappointment with the poor when they gain power should not tempt us to be less critical of the older forms of privilege. Disappointment with the results of social planning should not send us back into a one-sided emphasis on the freedom of the individual. We should have known long ago that the social revolution in any one of its many forms is no panacea, that it brings with it many new problems, but that these problems are on a level on which new and precious possibilities of justice for the vast majority of human beings are present for the first time in history.
  4. The meaning of what we do does not depend only or even chiefly upon our correct calculations about future consequences. Our intentions must be directed toward the future and we have a responsibility to seek the best possible consequences. It is not enough to satisfy ourselves that our intentions are good. Something more is necessary to save us from the anxiety which accompanies such decisions if we are to have Christian wholeness of spirit or even a troubled peace. This something more is faith that God will forgive us for the evil in our decisions and actions, that God will use them and us for the fulfillment of his purpose in ways beyond our calculation. The motive for action should not be hope, but love for all the people whose welfare is at stake in what we do or leave undone. The direction of action does depend upon some measure of hope, for if there were no hope of results we would in most cases change the course of our action. The morale for action depends upon faith. Hope is important but it is subordinate to faith and love.