Chapter 3: The People to Whom We Preach

Preaching the Gospel
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 3: The People to Whom We Preach

In the mid-1930s when I was first at the General Theological Seminary in New York, one of my colleagues and friends among the younger members of the faculty was Theodore Parker Ferris. He was academically brilliant and personally charming; what was more, as part-time assistant at Grace Church in downtown New York with duties confined to weekends, he showed himself a remarkable preacher. He preached at Evensong at Grace Church every third Sunday -- and in those days Evensong was a service which was reasonably well-attended -- and his sermons were so splendid that even now, after a half-century, I can remember some of them.

Later ‘Ted’ Ferris became rector of Emmanuel Church in Baltimore. Maryland, and then rector of Trinity Church in Boston, Massachusetts. He continued to be a magnificent preacher; most of the books which he published were simply his sermons slightly revised. I believe that he was the finest preacher I have ever heard. Alas, he died some fifteen years ago after a long and painful illness.

I have introduced him to the reader because in one of his essays, prepared for a volume of which I was an editor, he dealt with the task of preaching; and in that essay he used a phrase which is relevant to our present discussion. The job of a Christian preacher, he said, is to ‘proclaim the given gospel to the given world,’ The given gospel -- that is to say, the gospel which has come to him from the Christian tradition which he represents and for which in his preaching function he speaks; the given world -- that is to say, men and women in their actual concrete situation, with their interests and worries, their concerns and their problems, And the two are to go together, so that the gospel will be heard and (one hopes) accepted by those who hear its proclamation as directly relevant to their own lives.

We have already spoken about that gospel; this chapter will focus attention, as the title indicates, upon the people to whom we preach. But there is something else to be said and Ferris was a supreme representative of that ‘something else.’ He realized that in thus proclaiming the given gospel to the given world, it was necessary to find ways in which that proclamation could be brought home to men and women. Its manner of statement must be such that it would be intelligible to them and appropriate to their understanding of themselves and their world. It is at this point that another man comes to my mind. Leonard Hodgson had taught for a short time at the General Seminary, coming there from Magdalen College in Oxford where he had been Dean of Divinity; he returned to Oxford and for many years was Regius Professor in the Faculty of Divinity of that university. I knew him very well and am sure that he was one of the most alert and valuable members of the Oxford faculty during the 1930s and after the Second World War until his retirement.

Why does Hodgson come to my mind? Because those of us who were his students can never forget his insistence, made over and over again in various ways of phrasing, that precisely such an ‘up-dating’ of the significance of the Christian faith and its proclamation in preaching was not only desirable but essential. One of his ways of saying this has lately been made familiar by Dennis Nineham, now a professor at Bristol University but one-time Warden of Keble College in Oxford. who has quoted it again and again. It runs something like this: ‘What must the truth be for us, if men and women who thought and spoke and wrote like that in their own day expressed its truth in the fashion in which they did in fact do this?’ Here ‘the truth’ means both our way of understanding and stating the abiding faith of the Christian tradition and our way of affirming this in sermons.

To do this required, Hodgson made plain, that one must have a profound grasp of what in the past was taken to be the right way of seeing Christian faith and the gospel which is its grounding. Thus we are delivered from the merely contemporary and have entrance into all the richness of the historical tradition in which we stand. But at the same time parrot-like repetition of the older ways of speaking would not be right. It is our task in our time and place to discover how to re-affirm that abiding faith and its gospel grounding, so that what it is about, what it is concerned to assert, is brought home to men and women today.

In the preceding chapter I have sought to do just this. My own manner of doing it is by no means the only possible one; doubtless there can be and there are other and perhaps better ways of accomplishing the task, In any event, we need to bear in mind Whitehead’s remarkable statement that ‘Christ gave his life; it is for Christians to discern the doctrine.’ Or to put it otherwise, the essential point is the event of Jesus Christ; all interpretations of its importance and all efforts to state its meaning will be the attempt to bring out both the essential elements in that event and also its significance for others. And it is precisely that which in the last chapter I have sought to do, in an idiom and context that to my mind is both appropriate to the originating witness and intelligible to contemporary people.

Now it will be useful for us to think about those people in their concrete situation and with their actual ways of looking at themselves and their world.

I have already given a sketch of the general world view which I believe is more or less assumed by thoughtful men and women today. It includes the processive, societal, dynamic picture of the cosmos; it sees that we have to do with events or happenings and not with inert and static ‘things’; it insists on genuine freedom and readiness to accept the consequences of decisions made in that freedom; and it is prepared to see that however difficult this may seem to be, it is persuasion rather than coercion which in the long run is effective in the world. Doubtless very few people would phrase the matter in just those words; unquestionably most people are not able to work out such a world view in a consistent and coherent fashion. None the less, this is how they see things; and any proclamation of the gospel must be alert to that way of seeing things and must come to terms with its several emphases. But what about these men and women themselves? How do they see themselves, once they have got beneath superficial appearances and have been brought to an awareness of their own existence, with its problems as well as its promise, its significance as well as whatever calls that significance in question, with their hopes and their fears?

The first thing to be said, to my mind, is that such people do in fact feel that their existence has genuine significance -- or value, as we may prefer to phrase it. That existence matters to them; they cannot accept the notion that they are meaningless and accidental incidents in the cosmic enterprise. Of course they may deny in word that their existence has such significance. But their actions contradict this denial and their attitude toward themselves and others makes that contradiction apparent, Even the person who decides to commit suicide, because he or she has been disappointed or frustrated or rejected, is really asserting a sense of value, if only in the implicit assumption that by ending life one can give it a meaning. The act of suicide is a negative way of affirming a positive reality: ‘At least I can do this and thereby demonstrate, at least to myself, that I count somehow in the scheme of things.’

But the very possibility of such an extreme act is a demonstration that along with a sense of life’s significance there is a feeling of discontent or dis-ease present in experience. Theodore Ferris said in one of his sermons that anybody who had lived at all deeply must be conscious, usually in a dim and vague manner, that he or she ‘lives among broken things’ -- broken hopes, broken dreams, broken ideals, broken relationships, broken desires and aspirations; and that he or she is aware, however dimly or vaguely, that all human existence, in each and every instance of it, has about it just such a ‘broken’ quality. Henry David Thoreau spoke of the ‘quiet sense of desperation’ which now and again comes to all of us. perhaps when we are unable to sleep at night or feel lonely and unaccepted. That deep feeling is a token of the inescapable fact that our human existence, however rich or poor, prominent or obscure, successful or unsuccessful we may be, is incomplete and needs fulfillment in some fashion. This sort of feeling of human life is precisely what St. Augustine was getting at when in a famous sentence in The Confessions he said: ‘Thou [God] has made us with a drive towards thee; and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.’

One of the tasks of a preacher is to bring to those who hear him exactly this understanding of the human predicament: a genuine sense of value in human life but yet an accompanying grasp of its incompleteness, frustration, and inadequacy. The gospel of God in Christ speaks directly to that condition.

This does not imply that the more positive affirmation of life’s importance is to be rejected. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer urged in his Letters from Prison that men and women have ‘come of age’, he was by no means saying that they were entirely mature, without any other interest than in their own accomplishments. He was asserting that they must be treated as those who have both responsibility and dignity and should be prepared to accept that fact. They no longer could ‘run to Daddy’ when things became difficult; neither could they be ready to shift the blame for their failures onto somebody else, certainly not onto whatever God there may be. They insisted that they were men and women who could at least try to act in a fashion appropriate to their having grown out of babyhood or childhood and advanced to late adolescence if not to full adulthood.

Thus people today are much concerned to assert, both in word and deed, that they can and do make decisions that count; that they do have a human dignity which is inalienable and which they must seek to awaken in their brothers and sisters; and that their responsibility is to do all that is in their power to make human existence a good and honest and true and harmonious one. This is why Bonhoeffer could also urge that it is a grievous mistake for a preacher of the Christian gospel to appeal to humans only in their weakness. The appeal must also be made to them in their strength, however that may be understood and implemented. He protested about the fashion in which those who proclaim the gospel often spend most of their time in stimulating an artificial sense of utter failure and sinfulness, so that then those preachers could declare that after all God still cares for such miserable wretches as he has induced his hearers to think themselves to be. Of course his attack was on a particular kind of Lutheran pietistic practice with which he was all too familiar. But what he said is equally relevant to other kinds of Christian proclamations and every preacher should bear in mind his almost bitter denunciation of this kind of approach.

To humans in their need God has come, and God still comes, with his unfailing love. But let us be sure that we grasp correctly what sort of love is of God and is God. There are moments when any man or woman likes to luxuriate in sentimentality and to indulge in a merely emotional feeling about life. Such sentimentality and emotionalism, however, has nothing to do with genuine love. It is the contradiction of human love; indeed, it is the exact opposite of divine love. The sort of love which enriches and ennobles human life has about it a quality of sternness and demand; it is adamant in wanting and expecting the best that is possible from the beloved. Divine love, likewise, is not easy and soft and undemanding; it has its adamant quality. Above all, genuine love is passion. It is passion in both senses of that word. First, it is strong and vigorous and can be represented (as in the Bible it is represented on numerous occasions) as much more like sexual passion than like sloppy acquiescence in whatever happens, And second, it is passion as suffering or anguish. The Spanish peasant saying that ‘to make love is to declare one’s sorrow’ is very much to the point here, Human love requires such an identification with the one who is loved that his or her deepest and most painful experience is known and shared. Divine love as demonstrated in the event of Jesus Christ is a participation in the total existence of the creature, to the very limit of possibility. So St. John can say in the Fourth Gospel, that Jesus, ‘having loved his own which were in the world, loved them to the end’-- the Greek word for ‘end’ here is telos and that is to say ‘unto the very limit’, a limit which in Jesus was to the point of death for those whom he loved. God is not only like that. If indeed God was enacted in the human existence of Jesus, in a signal and decisive fashion, then God is that.

Rightly to proclaim the love of God is to declare that God’s love is both accepting and demanding; both joyful and anguished; both fulfillment and judgment. And this speaks precisely to the human condition, as men and women understand that condition to be when they have been delivered from superficiality and triviality to an awareness of themselves as they really are.

The reader may have wondered why I have not yet said much about human sinfulness. After all, he or she may say, it is with this sinfulness that Christian preaching has to do. Only those who are conscious of their sin, he or she may tell us, can really hear the gospel. But as a matter of fact I have been talking of sin, although not in conventional terms. Conventional terms have little if any meaning to scores of our contemporaries; hence they are better avoided. But the awareness of human inadequacy, human defection, human lack of potential fulfillment, and the like is very much present in our fellow-humans. The preacher’s task is to show that this is what sinfulness is really about; and then he or she is to go on to indicate that concrete actions, words, or thoughts which are inhuman, negate right movement toward fulfillment, and damage other persons and society. These are the outward expression of just that deep lack of which they are poignantly, if not always vividly, conscious. When Paul Lehmann in an often quoted sentence said that ‘God’s purpose for human life is to make it and keep it human’ he was putting the point in an admirable fashion -- which helps to make contemporary people grasp both their high dignity as humans and their defection from that possibility. At the same time he was indicating very profoundly what God is ‘up to’ in the continual coming to men and women which finds its climactic expression in the event of Jesus Christ, so far as Christian understanding is concerned, although we dare not be so exclusive or uncharitable as to rule out other ways for other people ‘who know not the Lord Jesus.’

If what has so far been said in this chapter comes anywhere near the truth, it follows that preachers must acquaint themselves so far as they are able with the portrayal of the human situation in novels, plays, poetry, as well as in the more technical and quasi-scientific writing of our time. But not only of our time. For it is equally the case that the great inheritance in literature which is available to us has its place here. While today’s conditions and circumstances differ in many respects from those of earlier periods in our history, the basic situation of and for humanity does not change greatly. Hence what has been said by the Greek tragedians, by Vergil, by Dante, and by many others, including such novelists as Dostoyevsky, Turgeniev, and others writers, as well as in the profound self-analysis found in a Pascal or a Kierkegaard, needs to be given attention. What Matthew Arnold styled ‘the best that has been thought and said’ in the past has its contribution to make to the preacher, if he or she is not to appear superficial or easy-going in presentation of the ‘good news’ of God’s love-in-act as it meets human sensibility at its most profound.

The German-American thinker Paul Tillich, who died only a few years ago, believed that the Christian faith could only be rightly understood when it was recognized as providing the ‘answer’ -- not of course in words or propositions but in the reality which is behind such statements -- to the ‘problems’ which are posed by human existence as such. He was saying in his own idiom what I have been urging throughout this chapter. Another emphasis of Tillich’s is relevant here when we are considering what ‘it means to be human’ and realize that our situation is such that the achievement of this human possibility is so frustrated and impeded. Tillich argued that basic in this respect is a deep feeling of what he called ‘alienation and estrangement.’ Humans are conscious of an estrangement from their right fulfillment and they sense an alienation or separation from their best selfhood, from other persons, from nature, and through all these from God who the source of their existence. In consequence, he said, they are not able to accept themselves as they are; nor can they accept others as they are. Humans are both unacceptable and unaccepting. The Christian gospel then comes to them with the assurance that they are accepted by a power greater than themselves; hence they are able to accept both themselves and others and to overcome their feeling of alienation and estrangement.

I believe that what Tillich was attempting to say in his own particular idiom (based as it was on a combination of existentialist analysis of human sensibility and the philosophical outlook found in German idealist thought) can be put in another fashion -- and one which in my judgment speaks more directly to the ordinary man or woman. I have noticed that when in a sermon a reference is made to love, to the difficulty and pain of loving, to the necessity for us to know that we are loved, and the like, there is an immediate quickening of interest. The reason is obvious. Humans need love, which is to say that they need acceptance and sympathetic relationships in which there is both a giving and a receiving on each side. Often enough this need is spoken of in too easy a manner; it is sung about in sentimental songs and described in terms which can cheapen the reality which is at stake. Nevertheless it is a present fact; and even if we dislike the language that is popularly used, the truth is exactly as one popular song of the earlier part of this century put it: ‘It’s love and love alone the world is seeking.’ To dismiss this is to fail to grasp something that is deepest and most real in human existence.

Our human difficulty, however, is that we are keenly aware that we are neither loved nor lovable; furthermore, we find it well-nigh impossible to ‘live in love’, as it is so often phrased. That is what is behind the sense of alienation and estrangement, along with the feeling of unacceptability, about which Tillich wrote. As a matter of fact, Tillich himself realized this. I happened to know him well; and in conversation or discussion, he was quite prepared to accept this way of speaking. although he personally preferred the rather more abstract idiom which his background had suggested to him. Lack of love, failure in loving. inability gratefully to accept love toward oneself: here is another way of describing the defection of which men and women are conscious, even if they do not find it easy to put into words the awareness which is theirs.

The gospel which a preacher is to proclaim is to be seen as a bold affirmation, based upon the earliest Christian witness and the confirmation of that witness in the agelong Christian tradition, that we humans are loved, that we can be delivered from the lovelessness which makes us miserable and lonely, and that we can be enabled to return love even if very inadequately and partially. The love which is available for us is the Love which is God in action in the creation. It is the strong. vigorous, adamant yet gracious, loving which is the deepest need of humans and the final explanation of ‘what makes the world go round’ -- to use the words of still another old popular song. When the day before yesterday the Beatles sang their lyric, ‘You’re nobody till somebody loves you’, they were speaking to something which is felt most profoundly by men and women today as everyday.

This tells us, of course, that we are made -- or better, that we humans are being made, for it is a continuing process -- for each other and that nobody, in John Donne’s already quoted famous phrase, ‘is an island entire unto itself.’ Doubtless there was a time when there was so strong an emphasis on ‘rugged individualism’ that this social aspect of human existence tended to be minimized and sometimes even forgotten. Doubtless too, in reaction from that absurd pretence of individualistic independence. there has been a tendency to speak about our communal existence as if to be a man or woman amounted only to being an ant in an anthill, with little if any significant personal identity. Both these extremes must be avoided if we are to be realistic. Furthermore, they must be avoided if we are to speak to the way in which increasing numbers of people today understand their humanity. We belong together, yet each of us counts in that togetherness. To learn ‘the lesson which Love us taught’, as one of Edmund Spenser’s poems tells us, is to learn to accept our human situation, to grasp our basic need, and to find an answer to it in the affirmation that ‘God so loved us that he gave . . .’

An implication of this is that humans are not ‘saved’ merely as individuals, all alone and by themselves; neither are they ‘saved’ when they are thought to be lost in the crowd’, without personal integrity such as they are sure must be theirs. The people to whom we preach are those who are both personal and social. Indeed the personality and the sociality belong together. This is why the message of Love active in the world is a challenge to work so that in human ways and for human concerns such loving may become the dominant quality of life. It is also why the insistent human belief that justice for all people and deliverance from oppression and servitude is met by the divine Love that labors for precisely such justice and freedom. This is no ‘cold justice’ and no impersonal interest in freedom for others; it is a passionate caring which cannot be content unless it is doing something; and that is a something which is social in context yet also personal in its acceptance by each and every son and daughter of God.

To talk of a ‘personal gospel’, as some have done, ought at the same moment to be to talk of a ‘social gospel.’ For humans are like that; and when they are most themselves they know this to be true. Hence the preacher cannot rest content unless he or she has spelled out the wider implications of God’s loving act in the event of Jesus Christ. This is why the moral side in preaching cannot be neglected, although the preaching itself is not about morality but about the activity of God which is the abiding basis for moral concern.