Chapter 12: Christian Ethics and Culture

Christian Ethics
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 12: Christian Ethics and Culture

We come now in this concluding chapter to some observations about the relations of the Christian ethic to our total environing society. Had our approach been essentially empirical rather than theological and biblical, this chapter should have stood first in the book. However, it may help to draw together various threads, as well as to state some things not heretofore discussed, if we consider this theme last.

The procedure will be first to define the term, for culture is an unusually slippery and ambiguous term, and to outline the nature of the problems. Then we must look, as we have done in other chapters, at the biblical and theological foundations for their solution. The chapter will conclude with a look at some of the concrete contemporary issues involved in the fields of science, art, and education.

1. What is culture?

The word "culture" has two meanings, not sharply separated but not identical, and we shall have to consider both of them. Both present difficulties and opportunities for the Christian approach to life.

In the broader meaning of the term, culture is synonymous with civilization. Every people has its culture, whether primitive or advanced, and this culture is discerned in the folkways and moral standards, forms of family life, economic enterprises, laws and modes of dealing with lawbreakers, forms of recreation, religion, art, education, science, and philosophy that constitute the social aspects of human existence as contrasted with the bare biological fact of living.

There is, however, a narrower use of the term which is related to but not identical with this inclusive meaning. In ordinary speech, who is a cultured person? By what canons does one judge another to be uncultured? Superficially but with widespread potency, one’s degree of culture is judged by his manners and conformity to correct social usage, good taste in dress and appearance, cleanliness and freedom from offensive odors or habits, ability to converse agreeably and to fit smoothly into any social situation. If a person is cultured, he is not a boor! On a deeper level, one’s degree of culture is to be judged by the extent of his education, the breadth of his interests, and his knowledge and appreciation of such "cultural" pursuits as good art, literature, and music.

Culture in this second sense has many manifestations, but all converge to constitute the secularism of the modern world. Social conformity plays a major part in it, even though at the point of education and the arts the right of individual differentiation is recognized. Culture in this more limited sense, as defined by the attributes of a cultured person, is an important formative factor in the total culture of a people but cannot be identified with it. For example, the prophet Amos was an uncultured person by the standards of either his time or ours, yet an important contributor to Hebrew culture. Abraham Lincoln is lauded in the American tradition because from such a lowly and uncultured background he rose to such heights of greatness.

In whichever sense the word "culture" is used, it is a distinctly human phenomenon. There is nothing like it in the instinctual organization of the anthill or beehive or in the gregarious impulses of animal life. Though its roots may indeed be traced to defensive, acquisitive, or reproductive traits which the human shares with the subhuman world, its manifestations are very different. Only men form civilizations, and only men insist on adaptation to the patterns of the cultural community.

It is always a social phenomenon. This is self-evident from the definitions given. Individuals may conform to or reject the prevailing social patterns, and thereby shape the direction a culture takes. But this never happens except in response to a social situation.

It is, furthermore, always in some measure a spiritual phenomenon. This does not mean that it is always a direct outgrowth of religion, though religions are always to be found in interplay with culture. Rather, every culture is the product of the human spirit, as the spirit of man wrestles with its total environment and seeks to work out a satisfactory adjustment to the material world, to other men, and to such invisible powers as are believed to control its destiny.

It is always rooted in a concern for values. That is, every culture presupposes in some sense a "kingdom of ends." These ends may be high or low by other standards, but to the people who live within a given culture, prize it and seek to preserve and exalt it, they are always high. There may be room for differences of individual opinion, as democracy preserves the right of minority dissent, but no culture can endure without general support by its people of the values central to it. This is why patriotism and group loyalty, though subject to perversion, not only are but ought to be regarded as virtues of great worth.

Is culture an "order of creation"? The existence of culture as a whole may be so regarded. The framework within which cultures develop is God-given, as are the foundations of family, economic, and national life which constitute so large a part of any civilization. It is apparently the will of God that men live together in civilized societies. Yet this is far from saying that any particular society or cultural group is as God would have it, or wholly the product of divine activity. The particular form a culture takes is the product of many forces, in which geographical location, economic resources, historical contingency, the pull of tradition, and voluntary human effort all play a part. This fact, with the resulting intermixtures of good and evil, is clearly illustrated by differing attitudes toward racial segregation in the North and South of the United States, or the presence of nontheological social factors in the creation of the various denominations of the Christian Church.

A culture, even one of long duration, is modifiable by human effort under the impact of a new ideology — witness the radical transformation of China under Communist influence or the other revolutionary changes now taking place in the Orient from an emergent nationalism. This malleability is what makes both advance and decline in civilizations possible. Yet there is always a "raw material" of culture which no amount of human effort can erase. The eternal human problem, as man seeks to change his status and that of his group, is how to deal with the intransigence of nature and the inviolability of the divine order in that interlocking structure of natural, human, and divine forces which Constitutes a given culture.

The Christian faith must come to terms with culture in both the senses in which I have defined it, and with full regard for all these considerations as to the nature of culture. Because there is so much in Western civilization that is good,1 and that can be and ought to be made better, it would be fatal to withdraw in isolation from it or condemn it as wholly evil. Nevertheless, the perennial problem of the Christian is how to be a Christian within "the world," that is, within one’s total environing society. When this surrounding culture is at the same time "worldly" — cultured in the narrower sense, demanding conformity at the peril of loss of social status — the problem is intensified. The American Christian of today lives in a nominally Christian but largely worldly culture. What shall he do with it?

2. Biblical and theological foundations

The Bible as a whole is the record of man’s effort to conform to, and to transform, his culture under the impact of spiritual insights conceived to be God-given. That these were in so large measure actually God-inspired is what gives the Bible its "holy" character as the bearer of universal and timeless truth. Yet at every point it must be read in reference to the culture within which it emerged, so that its "situation-conditioned" and temporal elements may be seen in their true perspective. To disregard this surrounding culture is to nullify much of the Bible’s spiritual meaning by reading into it what is not there but is imputed to it from the thought patterns of a different day.

We cannot at this point go into the whole matter of the relation of the Bible to its cultural setting. This was attempted in its main elements in Chapters 2, 3, and 4. But a further word is needed as to the relations of Jesus both to his own culture and to culture in general.

It has often been charged that by focusing attention away from "the world" to God, the kingdom of heaven, and eternal life, Jesus introduced an ascetic and otherworldly element that nullifies human culture. The Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner, for example, holds that the Pharisees and Sadducees were justified in their attacks on Jesus because he imperiled Jewish culture at its foundations, and that by ignoring everything that belongs to wholesome social life he undercut the work of centuries.2 Others within the Christian tradition have felt considerable uneasiness lest the words of Jesus about nonresistance imperil the civil power of the State, or his words about having no anxiety for food or drink or other material possessions curtail an economic motivation essential to society. Sometimes in direct attack, as in the Roman persecutions of early centuries and the Nazi and Communist movements of our time, sometimes through sneers and the opposition of hostile public opinion, Christianity has had to defend itself against those who believed the false or utopian ideas of its founder to be dangerous. This opposition has been most overtly urged on political but often on intellectual grounds, and Schleiermacher’s defense of Christian faith against its "cultured despisers" is a procedure that has again and again proved necessary.3

This struggle to co-ordinate Christian faith with culture is not temporary but has lasted through twenty centuries of Christian history. The fullest and most accurate analysis of it is found in H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, which any reader will do well to consult. There he points out that the answers given have taken five main directions: Christ in opposition to culture, Christ in accommodation to culture, Christ as transcending culture but with some elements of synthesis, Christ in paradoxical relation to culture, and Christ as the transformer of culture. He also says wisely that "when one returns from the hypothetical scheme to the rich complexity of individual events, it is evident at once that no person or group ever conforms completely to a type." I shall attempt to outline a view which follows most closely the third and fifth of these types, but adopts none of them in entirety.

It is true that Jesus said little about "the world" except to warn against letting its claims usurp the place of first loyalty to God, and had almost nothing to say about particular features of contemporary Jewish or Roman culture. Nevertheless, the message of Jesus has vital relevance, in elements which have been pointed out in all the preceding chapters. It bears upon the world to challenge culture at some points, to encourage it at others, to transform it at many. This is so for these reasons:

In the first place, Jesus’ supreme concern was with persons, not in any humanistic sense of man’s self-sufficiency, but because persons are of supreme worth as the recipients of God’s love. Moreover, he cared about persons in their total bodily-spiritual unity, and with their life on earth as well as in heaven. Both his deeds of healing and his words repeatedly attest this fact. Whatever impulse his followers have had to labor for the amelioration of human life in ministering to the sick, the weak and helpless, the ignorant, the poverty-stricken, the imprisoned by any kind of chains, owes its primary origin to the love of God for persons as this was manifest in Jesus.

Cultures are of many types, and some have much and others little concern for the individual person. Yet as we noted, every culture is a human, social, and spiritual thing in which the values precious to the persons comprising it are exalted. Those cultures which approximate the view of Jesus as to the worth of every person are high cultures, democratic in political organization, peace-minded in international outlook, altruistic toward those in need, person-centered in education and a wide range of social services. These are the goals of a Christian civilization, imperfectly realized, to be sure, in any society but sufficiently manifest in Europe and America to make it evident that a Christian democracy is not merely a utopian dream.

Second, Jesus called his followers to faith, hope, and love. This particular conjunction of terms is Paul’s, but what they signify abounds everywhere in the message of Jesus. And these are very important foundations for the stabilization or the progress of any culture. With faith in God people can endure dark days, even the jeopardy of their nation or personal martyrdom, and know that all is not lost and their cause is not in vain. With hope for the future, not in any illusory "progress of mankind onward and upward forever," but in the confidence that the issues for time and eternity are in the hands of God, remarkable staying power is generated even in the midst of what appears to be social retrogression. With love as a basic conviction, not even the awful carnage of war can wholly erase human sensitivity, and foundations remain for building in love beyond it. Every age has had need of these qualities, but ours more than most has cried out for them as indispensable. "In God we trust" has taken on new relevance in the darkness of our times.

Third, Jesus called his followers to challenge evil and to transform the world. It is impossible to say precisely what Western civilization would have been like without the influence of Jesus, but it most certainly would have taken a very different course. Few would question the judgment of H. G. Wells, "His is easily the dominant figure of history. . . . A historian . . . without any theological bias whatever, should find that he simply cannot portray the progress of humanity honestly without giving a foremost place to a penniless teacher from Nazareth."5

Cultures, even with all their values which their people do well to prize, need to be challenged and transformed through the influence of Jesus as this is mediated through his followers in every age. More than once this has happened through the work of a devoted and persistent minority when the Church as a whole, enmeshed as a social institution in its surrounding culture, lagged behind. This happened with reference to the abolition of human slavery, and it is happening now in regard to race discrimination and war. Often this comes about in conjunction with other agencies, as in the factory legislation which has made obsolete the twelve-hour day and the seven-day week,6 established minimum wage levels, and eliminated the grosser forms of economic exploitation.

New evils emerge, and these too must be challenged with wisdom and patience. New forms of work, of recreation, and of social organization bring both opportunities and perils to the human spirit. Both intelligence and persistence are required to cope with these problems, and the use of the best types of secular knowledge in a Christian framework, as in the growing convergence of Christian faith with psychotherapy in pastoral counseling. Christians in many matters must act with others outside the Christian fellowship. Where political action is required, it is not often that Christians alone bring it to pass. Yet Christians who keep witnessing to their convictions and thereby molding opinion contribute vitally to the fashioning of a better society.

In view of these facts, it cannot justly be said that either the message of Jesus or the Christian ethic derived primarily from Jesus is irrelevant to culture. In fact, nothing else is so relevant to the preservation and growth of right social attitudes, and from these attitudes the establishment of the "good society."

3. Science, art, and education

At the beginning of this chapter I defined culture first as synonymous with civilization, and then in a narrower context. What has been said so far applies chiefly to its broader meaning.

Previous chapters in the book have dealt with the relations of Christian ethics to the culture of our times in reference to family life, economic relations, race relations, political structures, and the problems of war and peace in the international scene. These issues cover a large part of the terrain of culture in the inclusive meaning of the term. Certain other issues, however, need to be looked at both to round out this picture and to point up some special aspects of culture in the narrower connotation.

It is not necessary to say much about culture in the sense of "polish" or good manners, except that this is an important asset to Christian character and a dangerous substitute for it. Nobody ought to suppose that conformity to the accepted canons of good taste is inconsequential, for disregard of such niceties limits seriously one’s acceptability to others and hence the persuasiveness of one’s witness. But neither ought one to suppose that suavity and a superficial politeness are all that is needed. True politeness comes from the heart, in sensitivity to the feelings of others and adaptability to their need. The more vital one’s own Christian experience and love of people, the more naturally will he reach out to them with a tact and gentleness no superficial good breeding can generate. No veneer of soft and pleasing words can ever take the place of Christian depth of character.

The major issues with regard to the cultured person are at a higher level, and are epitomized in his attitudes toward science, art, and education. At each of these we must look briefly as the book is brought to a close.

a) Science. It is most unfortunate, though not surprising, that there has been such a long battle between science and the Christian faith. It is unfortunate because the exponents of each have had to expend energy needed for other things in defending their position against the assaults of the opposing group. In this process neither has lost the battle, as is evident from the vigor of both at the present time. Nevertheless, at specific points such as the time and manner of creation and the expectancy of divine intervention in an established order, the defenders of traditional Christian belief have had to make more adjustments than have the exponents of the scientific spirit. This is not to say that science has remained unchanged — it obviously has not — but only that its course has been affected less by Christian belief than the reverse.

This is natural, and not to be deplored if these two great interests of the human spirit are kept in proper co-ordination. Both are modes of the pursuit of truth about one world, God’s world, and therefore to the degree that their affirmations are true, they cannot contradict each other. Science, however, is a partial, objective attempt to discover facts about the empirical aspects of existence; Christian faith is an inclusive, committed approach to the totality of life’s meaning as this comes to us through the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The modifications in Christian belief above referred to in no sense discredit this revelation; they are modifications only in man’s interpretation of it, and in particular, they arise from new ways of looking at the Bible as this is seen in its historical, prescientific setting. Though science has reached phenomenal heights in our time, it has at no point invalidated anything basic to Christian faith, and at no time in human history has the revelation of God in Christ shone upon the human scene with greater clarity and power. There have been more obviously religious eras, as in the medieval "age of faith" or the periods of the great revivals under Jonathan Edwards or Dwight L. Moody; it is doubtful that there has ever been a period of such general high Christian intelligence or deep commitment to Christian social ethics as in our own time.

This can be said in spite of the fact that it must also be said that secularism is a very widespread phenomenon of our culture, and secularism means conformity to the world, the organization of life as if God did not exist. How, then, shall we sort out the strands with reference to science and the Christian faith?

Science is the pursuit of truth in any particular field of observable reality, and the attempt to discover facts and formulate the laws of structure and behavior within this area. This pursuit, when an adjective is needed, is designated as pure science or descriptive science. There is, however, another use of the term to cover the application of scientific discovery to the satisfaction of human wants. This is applied science, with a meeting point in the research laboratories of most of the great industries. Applied science is sometimes called technics, but since it covers also a vast range of studies affecting human life, as in nutrition and dietetics, medicine and surgery, psychiatry, pedagogy, geriatrics, social casework, penology, and the like, it is hardly accurate to classify all of these under the heading of technology. Whatever terminology is used, science cannot be fruitfully discussed unless we know whether we are talking about the quest for knowledge in objective detachment from personal interest, or an attempt to make hydrogen bombs, bigger and better automobiles, wonder drugs, or a million gadgets because men desire them to satisfy some real or fancied need.

Both types of science have their relations to Christian faith within our culture, but these are not the same relations.

Science as the quest for knowledge, for reasons suggested above, cannot contradict the Christian faith if it keeps to its own field of inquiry about the visible, tangible, experienced world. What it does is simply to shed new light upon the world created by God, and upon the orderly processes by which Cod works within his world. The evidence for biological evolution can contradict belief in a six-day creation, but not in God the Creator; astronomy can put an end to belief in a heaven "up in the sky," but not to eternal life; knowledge of the regularities of nature can recast interpretation of some of the biblical miracles, but it cannot eliminate belief in divine Providence or discredit grateful reverence before God’s wonderful works.

It is only when descriptive science grows arrogant, and, not content with describing what lies within its province, makes naturalistic pronouncements which eliminate or belittle God and the human spirit, that Christian faith is affronted. When science claims that its methods and its knowledge are the only methods and knowledge to be trusted, it becomes not science but "scientism." Scientism and its usual accompaniment, scientific humanism, are serious rivals of Christian faith in the modern world. This point of view flourishes on many university campuses, and not infrequently sucks the vigor out of Christian experience by undercutting its foundations. Where this happens, the culture accompanying it may be kindly, law-abiding, and even altruistic, but it is not Christian culture.

It is at the point of the applied sciences that the more widespread and the more formidable attack on Christian ethics and culture can be found. This is true in spite of the fact that the products of applied science have been instruments of great good in physical healing, improvement of living conditions, and social services of many types, in which the Christian believes that it is the will of God for persons to be helped. Furthermore, from the invention of the printing press to the wide use of radio and television, from sailing schooner to ever-faster airplanes, the applied sciences have been essential instruments in the spread of Christian witness. Some things viewed formerly as luxuries, such as telephones, automobiles, electric lighting, and refrigeration, are now so common in the Western world as to seem virtually necessities, and none would wish to do without them.

Yet, it is just at this point that idolatry becomes dominant in our culture. Partly because of a real need for what technology supplies, more because of artificial wants aroused through a constant, competitive barrage of advertising, modern man’s attention is inevitably focused on the things science produces and money can buy. To live simply, unconcerned for the "cares of the world and the delight in riches," which Jesus said so often choke the word (Matt. 13:22; Mark 4:19), has become a possibility only for the stanchest soul. Most men feel that they must "lay up . . . treasures on earth," or they and their families cannot have the things other people have and all want. As a consequence, the word is choked, and Christian witness persuasive to a thing-centered and hence idolatrous generation becomes very difficult.

Here, then, is the real point at issue between science and Christian ethics within our culture. There are other points of great seriousness, as in the widespread production and advertising of alcoholic beverages and hence the encouragement given to their consumption, and in the doubtful validity of the production of implements of atomic destruction. The Christian conscience needs to be aroused and active upon these points, and because the issues are concrete, people are apt to take sides upon them. We are prone, however, to be far more lethargic at the point of our gadget-minded culture, not even recognizing that a moral issue is involved. It is here perhaps that our greatest difficulties lie, for we cannot revert to the pattern of the penniless teacher of Nazareth, and we cannot follow him in opulence without major temptations to the soul.

b) Art. A second sphere in which the claims of Christ and of culture both converge and diverge is art. This is a broad term, but we shall use it to designate the expression of the human aesthetic impulse, in both the creation of works of beauty and a love for and appreciation of beauty. Only the genius creates true art, and there are few geniuses in any generation, but many can enjoy and be lifted in spirit by their work.

There is a secondary sense in which we must speak of art also as craftsmanship, the work of a skilled artisan, to satisfy a desire for that harmonious blending of line and color and texture that makes a commercial product attractive, or gives one pride in the ability to construct something. This is related to art in the deeper aesthetic sense much as applied science is related to pure science, as based upon its principles but produced for another reason and with a different kind of creativity. Just where to draw the line between the artist and the craftsman is not easy, but it must be drawn. So, as we speak of the relations of art to Christian culture, we must again speak in two categories.

There is a natural kinship between art in the first sense and religion, yet each has its own autonomous sphere. Both come out of the inner spirit of man and speak to that spirit for release, reinforcement, and challenge. In both there are "new eyes for invisibles,"7 and the "vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within the passing flux of immediate things."8 Whether or not divine inspiration is claimed by the artist, in his work he surrenders to something beyond his ordinary self and produces some expression of inner meaning capable of evoking purer feelings in those to whom he communicates. "In any case, whether it be in poetry, painting or music, the work of art is the expression of something inward, passing on that inwardness to the one who enjoys it. Art, therefore, in all its branches, is expression capable of impressing." 9

The artist need not of necessity be a religious person, or the religious person an artist. Yet so similar are the sources in the human spirit that through all ages, and not in Christianity alone, the worship of God has found natural expression in music and song, poetry and the graphic arts, the drama of sacrificial rites, and where not inhibited by convention, the dance. Man has always given to his deity, not only gifts laid upon the altar, but the gift of his soul in temples of great beauty and rituals of soul-stirring depth. What Christianity would have been like without its great hymns and oratorios, the poetry of the Bible, the time-transcending liturgies of the sacraments, and the distinctive beauty of Christian houses of worship is hard to contemplate.

Yet at this point two aberrations appear from opposite directions. One is the suspicion of art at some periods because of the prohibition of "graven images," and the rejection not only of painting and sculpture but of instrumental music as worldly and idolatrous. Fortunately, this has never been a dominant note in Christian practice, and is seldom encountered today. There are vestiges of it in the rejection by some of liturgies and any formal patterns of worship as inhibiting the work of the Holy Spirit, but the rejection is seldom made on the basis of the Second Commandment.

The other, very widely prevalent, aberration is the substitution of beauty for holiness. Again and again the quality of a service of worship is judged by the kind of music the choir renders, the aesthetic fitness of the minister’s voice or vestments or manner, the beauty or ugliness of the sanctuary, the general decorum with which everything is done. That at all of these points there ought to be "comely praise" is indisputable, but that any or all of them is a guarantee of or a substitute for the presence of the Spirit of God must be questioned.

Ours is in general a beauty-loving age. Music appreciation is taught in the public schools; much good music and other forms of art are readily available. This is as it should be, but when it is carried so far in our culture that beauty becomes a substitute for righteousness and churches are bypassed unless they appeal to the aesthetic, this accent on beauty is not wholly gain.

A word needs to be said about art in the second sense, which like the products of applied science to which it is closely related, is a dominant note in our culture. It is well that the things we possess, from automobiles to kitchen equipment, are made for beauty as well as efficiency. No people in any age ever had so much that was good-looking as well as useful.

Yet this too has another side, for there is much that is raucous and blatant. There is a bizarre element in contemporary taste which corresponds to, and probably at bottom is derived from, the nervous, jittery temper of our times. One has only to turn on his radio or television — our best indexes of "what the people like" — to discover how much is directed to the amusing or lulling or startling of jaded nerves, as the commercials that accompany such presentations pull at our purses and entice us to buy what we do not need.

It will not do for Christians simply to inveigh against this state of affairs. Not all of it is bad, and what is bad cannot be cured simply by complaint. But until tastes as well as moral acts are subject to the spirit of Christ, we shall not make our best use of the high potentialities for beauty in the modem age.

c) Education. Education is so vast and many-sided an enterprise that it will obviously be impossible at this point to make more than a few observations upon it. It is fundamental to any culture, for the form a culture takes is shaped mainly by the way in which the people are molded in the educative process.

The processes of education are, of course, much broader than the specific instruction given in the public or private schools or the universities. It is a truism that the home is the first, and often the most potent, educative influence. From early childhood to senility, the play group, the work group, and many other types of informal group association are molding attitudes. V/hat one reads, hears, sees, or otherwise experiences leaves in varying degrees its stamp upon both consciousness and conscience. Not all of this is educative in the sense of constructive growth; some of it promotes miseducation or retrogression. Yet in the broad sense in which education means the shaping of ideas and ideals, it never ends as long as any mental flexibility remains.

The institution devoted essentially to education is the school. What, then, are basic points at issue between the schools and Christian ethics?

That Christian education must be given in the churches and through church schools,10 if the Christian heritage is adequately to be transmitted, can be taken for granted without argument. Whether under the name of church school or Sunday school, this is indispensable. In general, the quality of both curriculum and instruction is much better than in former years. Three observations only I shall make in passing. First, that the time available on Sunday morning is totally inadequate for transmitting all that is vital to knowledge of the Bible and Christian faith. Second, that what is taught must not conflict with the accepted facts of science, or the pupil is bound to be in trouble as he senses the disparity. Third, that much more theology can and should be taught at every level as the undergirding foundation of Christianity.

This last point, in particular, requires far more attention than it has generally received. To teach the Bible as factual knowledge is better than not to teach it at all, but without attention to both its historical setting and its theological implications, its richness for Christian experience can be missed. Too frequently the attempt is made to teach Christian morality without foundations other than the ordinary assumptions of our culture. When a person does not know what he believes as a Christian or why he believes it — and this is true of many adults as well as of young people — he is likely to act on the assumptions of this secular culture and not on the principles of Christian faith.11

But what of religion in the public schools? Can we teach the Bible there? Or must we as in the past go on permitting an intellectual vacuum to exist at the point of the Judeo-Christian heritage which has done more than anything else to shape our culture? Shall we teach our children Homer and Vergil, Shakespeare and Milton, but not the words of Amos, Isaiah, Jesus, or Paul?

It is apparent that sectarian instruction cannot be given in the public schools, and that no proselyting activities can be permitted. Since it is not easy to draw the line between proselyting and evangelism, it may also be asserted that no teacher ought to evangelize for his faith in the classroom except through the silent witness of what he (or she) as a Christian is. But this does not necessitate the alternative of the religious and biblical vacuum.

It is commonly assumed that our Constitution guarantees the separation of Church and State, and this has been invoked repeatedly to ban all forms of religious instruction from the public schools. Yet this is not just what the Constitution says. The relevant article is the First Amendment, which reads: "Article I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .The Constitution prohibits the establishment of a State church and guarantees religious freedom in the exercise of one’s faith. Yet it does not prohibit the tax exemption of churches, or the employment by the federal government of chaplains for the armed forces. It does not prohibit the giving of nonsectarian courses in religion for academic credit in the state universities, and this is widely and increasingly being done.12 America is not a Godless nation. We place upon our coins "In God we trust," and by an official act of Congress the words "under God" have been placed in the salute to the American flag. Those who framed the Constitution apparently intended, rightly, to preserve freedom of religion. But that this should be interpreted as freedom from religion, and used as a means of sealing our culture against the imparting of religious knowledge, has no justification in fact.

What must be done is to keep insisting on the right to teach the Bible as history and as literature in the public schools until this not only is permitted but becomes as widely practiced there as in the state universities. Presumably, as in higher education, this needs to be on an elective basis to avoid infringement of religious freedom. However, the real issues lie (1) in the opportunity to teach religion at all, and (2) in the provision of persons properly qualified to teach it on a nonsectarian basis. For the present, the Supreme Court decision in the McCollum case of 1948 interposes barriers, but this need not be final.13 In the meantime, the churches should seize every opportunity to give weekday religious instruction on released time outside the public schools.

Ought public funds to be used to aid parochial schools? Ought public money to go to a church to pay for the services of its nuns as public-school teachers? The answer is No, though this need not be pushed to the lengths of denying such services to the children in parochial schools as rides in school buses or access to school lunches. Services to children or their parents are not identical in principle with grants to churches as ecclesiastical institutions. About the former, opinions differ; the latter must not be tolerated.

To return to the public schools, a less controversial but still a focal matter is the teaching of moral and spiritual values. This obviously needs to be done, but it is no substitute for more specific instruction in the Hebrew-Christian moral and spiritual heritage. It is essential that teachers who take seriously their obligations in character building should be protected from attack from those who cannot distinguish between democracy and subversion. Charges of indoctrination are too often leveled at those who try to lift the sights of their pupils above prevailing culture patterns, and thus the mediocrity born of fear stifles creativity and progress.

There is remaining space in this chapter only for a brief look at the relations of Christian culture to higher education. Here the same opportunities for moral and spiritual building and the same dangers to academic freedom are found as are suggested in the preceding paragraph. Yet the situation as a whole differs both in the general recognition of the right of religion to a place in the curriculum and in the existence of many church-supported and independent as well as state institutions.

The first observation to be made is that the church-related colleges, of which many were founded in the early days of the frontier, can justify their existence only by being distinctively Christian. Through their departments of religion, in the selection of Christian faculty members, and by their general atmosphere they have an important contribution to make. When a church college seeking prestige or financial support simply imitates its secular neighbors, it has lost its birthright. Standards of scholarship ought not to be lowered, but scholarship is not all that makes a training ground for the leaders of the future.

Second, much can be done on campuses not church-related. As it is the total environment that educates, so it is the total personality of a faculty member, not his presentation of specialized subject matter only, that determines the degree of Christian influence he exerts. It is a hopeful sign that responsibility in these matters by faculty persons outside the departments of religion is being increasingly recognized. The Hazen and the Danforth Foundations have done much to encourage such interest, and the Faculty Christian Fellowship14 merits warm support.

Third, the student must be kept in touch with the church during his college years. The student foundations, like the Wesley, the Westminster, and those of other denominations, are valuable links in keeping alive both church contacts and Christian service at a time when preoccupation with the multitude of other interests pressing for attention might leave the church far in the rear.

And finally, Christian theology — first, last, and always — is important. Moral standards rest on basic beliefs, and the moral standards prevalent in the culture of the future will rest in no small degree on those implicitly accepted or consciously formed during the college years. The intellectual climate of institutions of higher learning is apparently less naturalistic and humanistic than a decade or two ago, but where this mood still is found, the counterclaims of Christian faith must be persuasively though never dogmatically set forth. As both the numbers and the influence of college-trained persons within our culture increase, so does the vital need of having the right foundations laid within those years in which not only life attitudes, but vocational and family relations, are so often determined.

Here we must stop. The unknown author of the Epistle to Diognetus, writing in the second century A.D., said of the Christians of his time,

They spend their existence upon earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they surpass the laws. . .In a word, what the soul is in the body Christians are in the world. . . The soul is enclosed in the body, and itself holds the body together; so too Christians are held fast in the world as in a prison, yet it is they who hold the world together.

So it is today. To the degree there are vital Christians in any culture that culture is strong in inner fabric and high in possibilities for human good. Christians who really follow Christ "hold the world together"!



1. For a survey of these elements see my The Modem Rival of Christian Faith, ch. 6, which is entitled "What Is Right with Modern Life?"

2. Jesus of Nazareth (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1929), pp. 369-76.

3. Addresses on Religion to Its Cultured Despisers.

4. P. 43.

5. Bruce Barton, "H. C. Wells Picks Out the Six Greatest Men in History," The American Magazine, July, 1922.

6. When the Methodist Social Creed was revised in 1956, it deleted, as a vestige of

an earlier day now obsolete, the words: "We stand for all workers’ having at least one day of rest in seven."

7. The title of a book by Rufus M. Jones dealing with spiritual insight.

8. A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1925), p. 275.

9. Brunner, Christianity and Civilization, Part II, p. 73. Used by permission of Chas. Scribner’s Sons.

10. By church school I do not mean the parochial school. These have their place, if they do not invade the public treasury or displace public instruction.

11. I have developed this theme at greater length in The Gospel and Our World (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1949), especially in chs. 5 and 6 dealing with "The Layman and the Gospel" and "Christian Faith and Ethical Action."

12. Merrimon Cuninggim in The College Seeks Religion (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1947), pp. 298-300, reports on a careful study of seventy state-supported institutions and finds that 80 per cent have departments of religion or courses in religion offered in other departments of the curriculum. More recent studies indicate an increase in this percentage.

13. It should be noted that a corresponding decision in the Zorack case affirms the legality of released time for weekday religious instruction, provided this is not given in the school buildings.

14. An autonomous group of teachers in many fields, affiliated with the Department of Campus Christian Life which is a part of the Commission on Christian Higher Education of the National Council of Churches. The official organ of the commission serving the interests of this fellowship is The Christian Scholar, with offices at 257 Fourth Ave., New York, N. Y.