Chapter 2: What Has the Church to Say?

The Gospel and Our World
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 2: What Has the Church to Say?

In the preceding chapter attention was focused on the current malaise of the churches. A number of things were found to be wrong, though with hopeful signs of latent health at each point of disorder. The most deep-seated cause of the present malady was found to be in the failure to proclaim the gospel in a way that makes any very significant impact on our world.

The term "Christian gospel," like its correlative term "Christian faith," has two related but not identical meanings. In its initial and basic meaning it signifies "good news," something that quickens the heart, something one rejoices to hear and to tell again. In a derivative sense it means the whole great body of Christian truth which gives validity as well as vitality to what is heard and told. In the first sense the gospel is the Christian evangel; in the second it is Christian belief, which when systematized we call theology. In either use of the term the gospel means the good news spoken by God to us in Christ; but in the first meaning the appeal is to the will for the commitment of life, in the second to the mind for the understanding of truth.

It has been a common and very serious error either to merge or to separate too radically these two meanings of the gospel. The fundamentalists have often assumed that the preaching of "gospel" sermons and the singing of "gospel" hymns, looking toward the winning of converts and witnessing to the glories of the Christian life, made theology unnecessary. This same emphasis, however, has often been joined to a rigidly authoritarian theology which held as suspect the Christian experience of those having a different structure of belief. The liberals have been more conscious of the need of applying human intelligence to the quest for the truth of the gospel, and chastened by an awareness of the fallibility of the human mind, they have been less dogmatic in asserting that God has given to them the full and final disclosure of Christian truth. But this tentativeness regarding our knowledge has had the unfortunate effect in many instances of undercutting the assurance with which the Christian evangel is proclaimed. Thus one group of Christians in propagating the gospel as evangel has propagated with it a theology which cannot stand up under scrutiny, while another group -- not always, but too often -- has lost the power of the evangel without which there is no true gospel. Whichever way we move, the result seems to be unfortunate.

This situation must be overcome if the churches are to proclaim a God-given message with truth and power, and make it speak to the minds of modern men. What is needed is a much closer linkage of evangelism with theology, and a recognition of the interplay of divine with human factors in both spheres.

The bedrock of Christian faith is that God was in Jesus Christ, speaking to men and acting for men with revealing light and saving power. The Christian gospel, whether as revelation or redemption, comes to us from God by his will and purpose, and is not merely of our own devising. Moral endeavors in response to the gospel, like theologies which attempt to clarify and systematize its truth, are man-made structures; the gospel is from beyond ourselves. Yet in laying hold of it, both for the renewal of life and the apprehension of truth, human co-operation is necessary. God neither saves nor informs us passively. He gives new life and imparts some measure of his truth to our minds only when we are open to receive it and willing to pay the cost of clear thinking and devoted living.

Furthermore, God imparts his truth and power, not in the abstract, but always within a concrete human situation. What he has given us in Christ is a timeless gospel, but it always comes to us in time and must be transmitted in time, within the conditions of a particular age and social climate. This makes it imperative to see as clearly as possible our human opportunities and human predicament, and try to discern what God is saying to us in the midst of it. Tentatively as far as our own human wisdom is concerned -- but confident in the assurance that in Christ, God has spoken and is speaking to our age -- we must try to discover, to understand, and to proclaim the gospel.

We shall therefore attempt now to broaden the scope of our inquiry in two directions. We shall first ask what are the deepest desires of the modern man -- of persons in the churches, on their margins, and outside of all religious bodies. In short, what are the elemental promptings of the human spirit as they appear within the conditions of our time in the Western world? We shall then in a quick survey attempt to consider some of the things which the churches have to say to the modern mind from the eternal truths of the Christian faith .

What are the deepest desires of the modern man? Amid confusion and chaos in the outward scene, disharmony among the nations, high prices and high wages and high taxes, uncertainty as to the political or economic future, what would modern man like most to have?

He would of course like to see peace and prosperity upon earth. But there are other things he thinks more about. He wants to possess, to enjoy, to be admired and looked up to. In this he is like all his ancestors, though there are now many more things to possess and more apparent sources of enjoyment. He wants to have and to enjoy what he wants to without restriction from the government or any other quarter. He does not want to be tied down by too little money, or too long hours of work, or too constricting traditions. He wants a family, for considerations in which biological impulse, desire for companionship, and genuine love play a mixed role; and he wants his family to have what they need for their comfort and social standing. He wants a decent job that will give him an assured income. Within the intersecting circles of the job, the family, and personal desires, the modern individual’s world is focused.

In short, modern man wants to be his own master. But the way is not easy going. Attainable as are some of these desires, the network is so complex that he finds them frequently in conflict. He cannot get ahead in business and do all the other things he wants to; he cannot always please his family and please himself. He tries to "have his cake and eat it,’’ but it does not work. Some of his desires are opposed by moral considerations which, though he tries not to be bound by old-fashioned scruples, he can neither obey nor silence. Many of his wishes as soon as they are fulfilled turn to emptiness or evoke a more intense longing for something else.

As a result frustration has become not only a familiar term but a familiar experience in our time. Frustration is not new to human nature; but as life becomes more complex and the means of satisfying material desires more numerous and alluring, frustration at failure to find the deeper satisfactions increases proportionately. When modern man tries to have his own way and finds that the world does not respond readily to his wishes, he pities himself, gets nervous, and looks for a way of escape. The particular route that is followed depends much on temperament and the social situation. Among the commonest routes are alcohol, sexual variety, speeding on the highways, exciting sports or movies or radio or wood pulp, harder work with less time to think, the physician, the psychiatrist, some cult or other.

What the modern man is looking for, though he often fails to realize it, is dependable sources of inner satisfaction. It is these which the Christian religion has given to men for nineteen centuries and can give to men today.

What can the Christian religion contribute to our baffled world? The answer is found in the last verse of the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians, "So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Overshadowing and permeating every desire mentioned above is the desire for security. Modern man wants to be secure from annihilation by atomic bombs and economic loss. He wants security and prestige for his family. He lauds the goals of freedom from fear and want in the world scene, though he is less willing to pay the price of their achievement. But beneath all other longings for security is his desire to be free from fear and inferiority and conflict within, to find meaning in life and a power to live by, to find a home for his soul. In short he wants a faith that will see him through.

Modern man in the midst of much that is shaky and uncertain wants confidence in something. He does not have much confidence in the United Nations, in the politicians who run the government, or even in military force, though he does not see what else to depend on if things get worse. He would like to trust the scientists to create a brave new world; but though he trusts them more than others, he is not sure they are equal to it. He may or may not have confidence in his personal family ties, but the termination of one marriage in every four by divorce does not strengthen his assurance. He would like to project his life into the future through his children, but he does not know whether they will be left alive a generation hence. He desperately needs hope but finds little of which to be hopeful.

Modern man wants fellowship. In spite of some satisfactions within the family and the circle of his friends he is on the whole a lonely creature. Technology and the accompanying competitive struggle make for much togetherness but little understanding or sharing of life. Overcrowding and the unremitting pressures of space and time increase the degree to which one is jostled, body and soul, but decrease the opportunity of unhurried and fruitful communion with other souls. The family is a scene of tension perhaps more often than of fellowship. Relatively few people, whether children or adults, feel themselves to be deeply loved or fully understood. It is apparent that modern man for his soul’s survival needs not only faith and hope but love.

The Christian religion has the answer to this predicament. "So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

In what, then, can the Christian have faith? For what can he hope? How can he love and be loved?

Our first answer must be faith in the living God in whom, and in whom alone, is man’s true security. But what may a Christian believe about God?

It is the Christian faith that God is the creator and ruler of the universe, a righteous and loving Father who demands goodness in his children, a saving God who in mercy forgives the penitent sinner and gives him a new start in life. God is both within and beyond the currents of history and human destiny; and while his will may be thwarted, he cannot finally be defeated. His will, discoverable in Jesus Christ, is for peace, righteousness, reconciliation, and "the abundant life" among men.

Each of these concepts has profound bearing upon the plight of modern man, and more clearly grasped and appropriated could remake our world.

To say that God is the creator and ruler of the universe is to exalt him above the world and its manifold claims. It is to regard not mechanical force but spiritual personality as the ultimate in existence, and to put physical things in their rightful place as servant, not master, of the spirit. Science, whether descriptive science or applied science, can live in harmony with religious faith if the discovery of natural law is the charting of God’s ways of working and if technology means the production of goods for the enlargement of men’s capacities as God’s servants. Once more an ancient word becomes relevant, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

To say that God is a righteous and loving Father who demands goodness in his children is to affirm the existence of a moral order in the universe, the operation of which, though less precise, is as certain as any physical law. The world is so made that men cannot sin with impunity, as the events of recent years have clearly shown. This is true whether the sin is the selfishness and self-righteousness of the individual human spirit or the collective sin of global destruction. But God is not judge only; he is Father. This means that all men are meant by God to be brothers; and because we are brothers, we ought to treat one another as such. Before this conviction, if taken seriously, no race prejudice, no economic strife, no national arrogance could stand.

To say that God gives saving help to the shattered, the empty, the vacillating, the sinful life is to say that what has happened to many millions of individuals in Christian history can happen to any individual today. This "good news" of the Christian gospel is that if one is willing to pay the price of obedience and moral surrender, God can take any life and make it over. To find such saving help is to find a new center for the soul, new direction, new power, new joy. It is what our baffled, frustrated modem man with his welter of conflicting desires needs most.

To say that the eternal God is the Lord of history also is to say that "in his will is our peace." There is no guarantee that man may not destroy himself in total war. Yet of two things the Christian can be confident: that the way of brotherhood and mutual understanding is God’s way, which if followed leads to justice, security, and peace; and that if man does end his collective life upon earth, God will still reign in his eternal Kingdom. This assurance affords no naïve optimism, but in it the Christian can labor, and pray, and wait in hope.

Faith in the living God of Christian faith provides a ground of security, of confidence, of fellowship with the Most High. But how may the Christian know that this faith is not simply "a lurking luminosity, a cozy thought"? The answer is in what we see of God in Jesus Christ, and in the grounds of hope he sets before us.

Among the various and sometimes conflicting doctrines which the churches have held regarding Christ, two stand out as central. These are that he is the revealer of God and the redeemer of men.

In the self-giving, impartial love of Jesus, in his compassion, understanding, eagerness to heal the bodies and souls of men, in deeds of love during his ministry and the supreme sacrifice of the Cross, we see what God is and what he is always doing for men. Though the details of Christian living are not neatly charted for us in the Sermon on the Mount or elsewhere, we are left in no doubt as to the type of character and action which God as seen in Jesus requires of us. Complex as life is, to evade Christian decision on the basis of inadequate direction from Jesus is to evade moral responsibility on other grounds. In his teaching and example of unbroken fellowship with God, of love and service to men, of humility and sincerity, of forgiveness toward even his most malicious enemies, of sensitive understanding of the spoken or unspoken needs of the humblest of persons whose lives touched his, we see the kind of living to which we are called. This is something very different from the selfish, callously indifferent, thing-centered desire for personal enjoyment which so widely pervades modern life.

But to know through Jesus what God requires of us is not to do it! Awareness of this fact is important, but it need not foredoom us to despair. For at the heart of Christian faith is the gospel of divine grace, and the conviction that in Jesus Christ is not the pattern only, but the power for man’s salvation. In him God has acted, not to make us sinless, but to lift the burden of our sin and give us victory. Not only through the ministry of his words and works, but through his death in apparent defeat and the triumph of his resurrection to be with us always as a Living Presence, God has acted for our healing. It is an ever-repeated miracle that to those who commit their lives to Christ in loyalty and faith God gives forgiveness of sin and deliverance from frustration and fear. What man must do is to open the channels of the soul through repentance and humble submission to God. What God does is to make life over until one becomes a new creature in Christ Jesus, victorious and strong. The kind of living that eventuates is described by Paul, "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law."

The new life in Christ is not without its continuing costs. It must be nourished in prayer. It calls for more kindness, sympathy, and sharing -- in short, more love -- within the family, in business, toward other races, toward our enemies, among the world’s suffering multitudes. This is not easy. But who would not gladly exchange the kind of society we have for such a fellowship?

This brings us to the third great need of modern man -- the need for love to prevail, and strife and enmity to be done away with. Human nature being what it is, is there any prospect that this may come to pass? What is the Christian view of man?

The Christian judgment regarding man’s nature is twofold, and both aspects need continually to be kept in mind. The first and last word, ranging in the Bible from the majestic symbolism of the Genesis story of creation to other great imagery in the book of Revelation, is that man is a spiritual creature, made in the divine likeness, the child of God and intended by God for eternity. Yet on almost every page of the Bible is the record of human sin and rebellion, and the need of divine forgiveness and saving help because man is not good enough or wise enough or strong enough to save himself.

What is written in the Bible is written everywhere in human experience. There are marks of the divine image in the kindness, generosity, self-forgetfulness, and high devotion of which even common men are capable. Yet men can be indescribably brutal, vindictive, arrogant, and hard. War brings out both sets of qualities. But the best of men in the best times are sinners, desiring at some points to have their own way and exalt themselves above God and their fellow men. There is no one who, if he is honest with himself, does not need to say, "God, be merciful to me a sinner."

The Christian conception of man as a child of God, as was intimated earlier, has profound social significance. The basic ground of democracy is this belief in the innate worth and dignity of every human creature, regardless of race, color, nation, economic status, language, creed, culture, or any other man-made line of cleavage. This is the chief meeting point of the Church with men of good will outside its ranks.

General recognition of this essential equality of men is the only hope for a just and peaceful world. From the Christian perspective the way out of our present social confusion lies neither in relying on military force nor sacrificing principle for appeasement, neither in fighting a "cold war" nor in yielding to totalitarian autocracy. It lies rather in respecting the men of all nations and peoples as sons of God and, as sons of God and forgiven sinners ourselves, trying humbly and without malice to do the works of healing, relief, and reconciliation which are the will of God.

Yet in this needful emphasis on the dignity of man -- and of all men -- the Christian conception of man as sinner ought never to be forgotten. To do so is to blind ourselves to our own evil and impotence. Any form of theology or of preaching which moves lightly over the stark fact of sin is foredoomed by its shallow optimism to the failure which awaits too great lightheartedness in a tragic world. God has given man dominion "over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth"-- and we may add, over steam, electricity, ether waves, the stratosphere, plutonium, uranium, and every invisible physical power. But God has not given man dominion over his own soul, to save himself by his own goodness or wisdom from either inner dissolution or outward destruction. God alone in divine love empowers man to confront his world, and God in Christ points the way.

This in brief is the gospel of faith and hope and love, mediated to man from God through Jesus Christ, which the churches hold in their keeping. It is this gospel which the churches must offer to the people if they are to justify their existence and fulfill their divine mission. Amid much bad news this "good news" is what the world needs above all else. With it modern man can live and face the future with security, confidence, fellowship with God and man. Without it the outlook for faith or hope or love, whether in the individual soul or the social scene, is nebulous and dark.