Christianity and Progress
by Harry Emerson Fosdick
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The more deep and transforming a man's own religious experience has been, the more he will insist upon the importance of this inward approach. Here is a man who has had a profound evangelical experience. He has gone down into the valley of the shadow with a deep sense of spiritual need; he has found in Christ a Saviour who has lifted him up into spiritual freedom and victory; he has gone out to live with a sense of unpayable indebtedness to him. He has had, in a word, a typical religious experience at its best with three elements at the heart of it: a great need, a great salvation, a great gratitude. When such a man considers the modern social movement, however beautiful its spirit or admirable its concrete gains, it seems to him superficial if it presents itself as a panacea. It does not go deep enough to reach the soul's real problems. The continual misunderstanding between the Church and the social movement has, then, this explanation: the characteristic approach of the Christian Gospel to the human problem is from within out; the characteristic approach of much of the modern social movement is from without in.


If, therefore, the Christian Gospel is going to be true to itself, it must carefully preserve amid the pressure of our modern social enthusiasms certain fundamental emphases which are characteristic of its genius. It must stress the possibility and the necessity of the inward transformation of the lives of men. We know now that a thorny cactus does not have to stay a thorny cactus; Burbank can change it. We know that a crab-apple tree does not have to stay a crab-apple tree; it can be grafted and become an astrakhan. We know that a malarial swamp does not have to stay a malarial swamp; it can be drained and become a health resort. We know that a desert does not have to stay a desert; it can be irrigated and become a garden. But while all these possibilities of transformation are opening up in the world outside of us, the most important in the series concerns the world within us. The primary question is whether human nature is thus transformable, so that men can be turned about, hating what formerly they loved and loving what once they hated. Said Tolstoy, whose early life had been confessedly vile: "Five years ago faith came to me; I believed in the doctrine of Jesus, and my whole life underwent a sudden transformation. What I had once wished for I wished for no longer, and I began to desire what I had never desired before. What had once appeared to me right now became wrong, and the wrong of the past I beheld as right." [1]

So indispensable to the welfare of the world is this experience, that we Christians need to break loose from our too narrow conceptions of it and to set it in a large horizon. We have been too often tempted to make of conversion a routine emotional experience. Even Jonathan Edwards was worried about himself in this regard. He wrote once in his diary: "The chief thing that now makes me in any measure question my good estate is my not having experienced conversion in those particular steps wherein the people of New England, and anciently the dissenters of old England, used to experience it." Poor Jonathan! How many have been so distraught! But the supreme folly of any man's spiritual life is to try thus to run himself into the mold of any other man's experience. There is no regular routine in spiritual transformation. Some men come in on a high tide of feeling, like Billy Bray, the drunken miner, who, released from his debasing slavery and reborn into a vigorous life, cried, "If they were to put me into a barrel I would shout glory out through the bunghole! Praise the Lord!" Some men come in like Bushnell, the New England scholar and preacher, who, when he was an unbelieving tutor at Yale, fell on his knees in the quiet of his study and said, "O God, I believe there is an eternal difference between right and wrong and I hereby give myself up to do the right and to refrain from the wrong." Some men break up into the new life suddenly like the Oxford graduate who, having lived a dissolute life until six years after his graduation from the university in 1880, picked up in his room one day Drummond's "Natural Law in the Spiritual World," and, lo! the light broke suddenly—"I rejoiced there and then in a conversion so astounding that the whole village heard of it in less than twenty-four hours." Some come slowly, like old John Livingstone, who said, "I do not remember any particular time of conversion, or that I was much cast down or lift up." Spiritual transformation is infinitely various because it is so infinitely vital; but behind all the special forms of experience stands the colossal fact that men can be transformed by the Spirit of God.

That this experience of inward enlightenment and transformation should ever be neglected or minimized or forgotten or crowded out is the more strange because one keeps running on it outside religion as well as within. John Keats, when eighteen years old, was handed one day a copy of Spenser's poems. He never had known before what his life was meant to be. He found out that day. Like a voice from heaven his call came in the stately measures of Spenser's glorious verse. He knew that he was meant to be a poet. Upon this master fact that men can be inwardly transformed Christ laid his hand and put it at the very center of his gospel. All through the New Testament there is a throb of joy which, traced back, brings one to the assurance that no man need stay the way he is. Among the gladdest, solemnest words in the records of our race are such passages in the New Testament as this: Fornicators, adulterers, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revelers, extortioners, such were some of you; but ye were washed, but ye were sanctified, but ye were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. One cannot find in the New Testament anything stiff and stilted about this experience. Paul's change came suddenly; Peter's came slowly. They did not even have, as we have come to have, a settled word to describe the experience. Ask James what it is and, practical-minded man that he is, he calls it conversion—being turned around. Ask Peter what it is and, as he looks back upon his old benighted condition, he cries that it is like coming out of the darkness into a marvelous light. Ask Paul what it is and, with his love of superlative figures, he cries that it is like being dead and being raised again with a great resurrection. Ask John what it is and, with his mystical spirit, he says that it is being born again. See the variety that comes from vitality—no stiff methods, no stiff routine of experience, but throbbing through the whole book the good news of an illuminating, liberating, transforming experience that can make men new!

It is the more strange that this central element in the Christian Gospel should be neglected in the interests of social reformation because it is so indispensable to social reformation. Wherever a new social hope allures the efforts of forward-looking men, there is one argument against the hope which always rises. You cannot do that—men say—human nature is against it; human nature has always acted another way; you cannot change human nature; your hope is folly. As one listens to such skepticism he sees that men mean by human nature a static, unalterable thing, huge, inert, changeless, a dull mass that resists all transformation. The very man who says that may be an engineer. He may be speaking in the next breath with high enthusiasm about a desert in Arizona where they are bringing down the water from the hills and where in a few years there will be no desert, but orange groves stretching as far as the eye can reach, and eucalyptus trees making long avenues of shade, and roses running wild, as plenteous as goldenrod in a New England field. But while about physical nature he is as hopeful of possible change as a prophet, for human nature he thinks nothing can be done.

From the Christian point of view this idea of human nature is utterly false. So far from being stiff and set, human nature is the most plastic, the most changeable thing with which we deal. It can be brutalized beneath the brutes; it can rise into companionship with angels. Our primitive forefathers, as our fairy tales still reveal, believed that men and women could be changed into anything—into trees, rocks, wolves, bears, kings and fairy sprites. One of the most prominent professors of sociology in America recently said that these stories are a poetic portraiture of something which eternally is true. Men can be transformed. That is a basic fact, and it is one of the central emphases of the Christian Gospel. Of all days in which that emphasis should be remembered, the chiefest is the day when men are thinking about social reformation.


It is only a clear recognition of the crucial importance of man's inward transformation which can prepare us for a proper appreciation of the social movement's meaning. For one point of contact between religion's approach to the human problem from within out and reformation's approach from without in lies here: to change social environments which oppress and dwarf and defile the lives of men is one way of giving the transforming Spirit a fair chance to reach and redeem them. All too slowly does the truth lay hold upon the Church that our very personalities themselves are social products, that we are born out of society and live in it and are molded by it, that without society we should not be human at all, and that the influences which play upon our lives, whether redeeming or degrading, are socially mediated. A man who says that he believes in the ineffable value of human personalities and who professes to desire their transformation and yet who has no desire to give them better homes, better cities, better family relationships, better health, better economic resources, better recreations, better books and better schools, is either an ignoramus who does not see what these things mean in the growth of souls, or else an unconscious hypocrite who does not really care so much about the souls of men as he says he does.

An illuminating illustration of this fact is to be seen in the expanding ideals of missionary work. When the missionaries first went to the ends of the earth they went to save souls one by one. They went out generally with a distinctly, often narrowly, individualistic motive. They were trying to gather into the ark a few redeemed spirits out of the wreck of a perishing world; they were not thinking primarily of building a kingdom of social righteousness in the earth. Consider, then, the fascinating story of the way the missionaries, whatever may have been the motives with which they started, have become social reformers. If the missionaries were to take the Gospel to the people, they had to get to the people. So they became the explorers of the world. It was the missionaries who opened up Asia and Africa. Was there ever a more stirring story of adventure than is given us in the life of David Livingstone? Then when the missionaries had reached the people to give them the Gospel, they had to give them the Bible. So they became the philologists and translators of the world. They built the lexicons and grammars. They translated the Bible into more than a hundred languages on the continent of Africa alone. Carey and his followers did the same for over a score of languages in India. The Bible to-day is available in over six hundred living languages. Everywhere this prodigious literary labour has been breaking down the barriers of speech and thought between the peoples. If ever we do get a decent internationalism, how much of it will rest back upon this pioneer spade work of the missionaries, digging through the barricades of language that separate the minds of men! When, then, the missionaries had books to give the people, the people had to learn to read. So the missionaries became educators, and wherever you find the church you find the school. But what is the use of educating people who do not understand how to be sanitary, who live in filth and disease and die needlessly, and how can you take away old superstitions and not put new science in their places, or deprive the people of witch doctors without offering them substitutes? So the missionaries became physicians, and one of the most beneficent enterprises that history records is medical missions. What is the use, however, of helping people to get well when their economic condition is such, their standards of life so low, that they continue to fall sick again in spite of you? So the missionaries are becoming industrial reformers, agriculturalists, chemists, physicists, engineers, rebuilding wherever they can the economic life and comfort of their people. The missionary cause itself has been compelled, whether it would or not, to grow socially-minded. As Dan Crawford says about the work in Africa: "Here, then, is Africa's challenge to its Missionaries. Will they allow a whole continent to live like beasts in such hovels, millions of negroes cribbed, cabined, and confined in dens of disease? No doubt it is our diurnal duty to preach that the soul of all improvement is the improvement of the soul. But God's equilateral triangle of body, soul, and spirit must never be ignored. Is not the body wholly ensouled, and is not the soul wholly embodied? . . . In other words, in Africa the only true fulfilling of your heavenly calling is the doing of earthly things in a heavenly manner." [2]

Indeed, if any one is tempted to espouse a narrowly individualistic gospel of regeneration, let him go to the Far East and take note of Buddhism. Buddhism in wide areas of its life is doing precisely what the individualists recommend. It is a religion of personal comfort and redemption. It is not mastered by a vigorous hope of social reformation. In many ways it is extraordinarily like medieval Christianity. Consider this definition of his religion that was given by one Buddhist teacher: "Religion," he said, "is a device to bring peace of mind in the midst of conditions as they are." Conditions as they are—settle down in them; be comfortable about them; do not try to change them; let no prayer for the Kingdom of God on earth disturb them; and there seek for yourselves "peace of mind in the midst of conditions as they are." And the Buddhist teacher added, "My religion is pure religion." But is there any such thing as really caring about the souls of men and not caring about social habits, moral conditions, popular recreations, economic handicaps that in every way affect them? Of all deplorable and degenerate conceptions of religion can anything be worse than to think of it as a "device to bring peace of mind in the midst of conditions as they are?" Yet one finds plenty of Church members in America whose idea of the "simple Gospel" comes perilously near that Buddhist's idea of "pure religion."

The utter futility of endeavouring to care about the inward transformation of men's lives while not caring about their social environment is evident when one thinks of our international relationships and their recurrent issue in war. War surely cannot be thought of any longer as a school for virtue. We used to think it was. We half believed the German war party when they told us about the disciplinary value of their gigantic establishment, and when Lord Roberts assured us that war was tonic for the souls of peoples we were inclined to think that he was right. When, in answer to our nation's call, our men went out to fight and all our people were bound up in a fellowship of devotion to a common cause, so stimulated were we that we almost were convinced that out of such an experience there might come a renaissance of spiritual quality and life. Is there anybody who can blind his eyes to the facts now? Every competent witness in Europe and America has had to say that we are on a far lower moral level than we were before the war. Crimes of sex, crimes of violence, have been unprecedented. Large areas of Europe are to-day in a chaos so complete that not one man in a thousand in America even dimly imagines it, with a break-down of all the normal, sustaining relationships and privileges of civilized life, and with an accompanying collapse of character unprecedented in Christendom since the days of the Black Plague. If we are wise we will never again go down into hell expecting to come up with spirits redeemed.

To be sure, there are many individuals of such moral stamina that they have come out of this experience personally the better, not the worse. There are people who would build into the fiber of their character any experience that earth could offer them. But if we are thinking of the moral stability and progress of mankind, surely there is nothing in the processes of war, as we have seen them, or the results of war, as they now lie about us, that would lead us to trust to them for help. War takes a splendid youth willing to serve the will of God in his generation before he falls on sleep and teaches him the skilful trick of twisting a bayonet into the abdomen of an enemy. War takes a loyal-spirited man who is not afraid of anything under heaven and teaches him to drop bombs on undefended towns, to kill perchance the baby suckled at her mother's breast. The father of one of our young men, back from France, finding that his son, like many others, would not talk, rebuked him for his silence. "Just one thing I will tell you," the son answered. "One night I was on patrol in No Man's Land, and suddenly I came face to face with a German about my own age. It was a question of his life or mine. We fought like wild beasts. When I came back that night I was covered from head to foot with the blood and brains of that German. We had nothing personally against each other. He did not want to kill me any more than I wanted to kill him. That is war. I did my duty in it, but for God's sake do not ask me to talk about it! I want to forget it." That is war, and no more damning influence can be thrown around the characters of people in general or around the victims of military discipline and experience in particular than that supplied by war. How then could inconsistency be made more extreme than by saying that Christianity is concerned about the souls of men but is not concerned about international good-will and co-operation? After all, the approaches to the human problem from without in and from within out are not antithetical, but supplementary. This tunnel must be dug from both ends and until the Church thoroughly grasps that fact she will lead an incomplete and ineffectual life.


The purposes of Christianity involve social reform, not only, as we have said, because we must accomplish environmental change if we are to achieve widespread individual transformation, but also because we must reorganize social life and the ideas that underlie it if we are to maintain and get adequately expressed the individual's Christian spirit when once he has been transformed. Granted a man with an inwardly remotived life, sincerely desirous of living Christianly, see what a situation faces him in the present organization of our economic world! Selfishness consists in facing any human relationship with the main intent of getting from it for oneself all the pleasure and profit that one can. There are folk who use their families so. They live like parasites on the beautiful institution of family life, getting as much as possible for as little as possible. There are folk who use the nation so. To them their country is a gigantic grab-bag from which their greedy hands may snatch civic security and commercial gain. For such we have hard and bitter names. There is, however, one relationship—business—where we take for granted this very attitude which everywhere else we heartily condemn. Multitudes of folk go up to that central human relationship with the frank and unabashed confession that their primary motive is to make out of it all that they can for themselves. They never have organized their motives around the idea that the major meaning of business is public service.

The fact is, however, that all around us forms of business already have developed where we count it shame for a man to be chiefly motived by a desire for private gain. If you thought that the preacher were in love with his purse more than with his Gospel, you would not come again to hear him, and you would be right; if you thought that the teacher of your children cared for payday first and for teaching second, you would find another teacher for them tomorrow, and you ought to; if you thought that your physician cared more for his fees than he did for his patients, you would discharge him to-night and seek for a man more worthy of his high profession; if you had reason to suppose that the judges of the Supreme Court in Washington cared more for their salary than they did for justice, you could not easily measure your indignation and your shame. In the development of human life few things are nobler than the growth of the professional spirit, where in wide areas of enterprise, not private gain, but fine workmanship and public service have become the major motives. If one says that a sharp line of distinction is to be drawn between what we call professions and what we call business, he does not know history. Nursing, as a gainful calling, a hundred years ago was a mercenary affair into which undesirable people went for what they could get out of it. If nursing to-day is a great profession, where pride of workmanship and love of service increasingly are in control, it is because Florence Nightingale, and a noble company after her, have insisted that nursing essentially is service and that all nurses ought to organize their motives around that idea.

What is the essential difference between professions and business? Why should the building of a schoolhouse be a carnival of private profit for labourers and contractors alike, when the teaching in it is expected to be full of the love of fine workmanship and the joy of usefulness? Why, when a war is on, must the making of munitions here be a wild debauch of private profits, but the firing of them "over there" be a matter of self-forgetful sacrifice? Why, in selling a food which is essential to health, should the head of a sugar corporation say with impunity, "I think it is fair to get out of the consumers all you can, consistent with the business proposition," when the physician is expected to care for the undernourished with a devoted professional spirit utterly different from the sugar magnate's words? There is no real answer to that "why." The fact is that for multitudes of people business is still in the unredeemed state in which nursing and teaching and doctoring were at the beginning, and nothing can save us from the personal and social consequence of this unhappy situation except the clear vision of the basic meaning of business in terms of service, and the courageous reorganization of personal motive and economic institutions around that idea.

If, then, Christianity is sincerely interested in the quality of human spirits, in the motives and ideals which dominate personality, she must be interested in the economic and industrial problems of our day. To be sure, many ministers make fools of themselves when they pass judgment on questions which they do not understand. It is true that a church is much more peaceable and undisturbing when it tries experiments upon religious emotions with colored lights than when it makes reports upon the steel trust. Many are tempted, therefore, to give in to irritation over misdirected ministerial energy or to a desire for emotional comfort rather than an aroused conscience. One has only to listen where respectable folk most congregate to hear the cry: let the Church keep her hands off!

Let me talk for a moment directly to that group. If you mean, by your distaste for the Church's interest in a fairer economic life, that most ministers are unfitted by temperament and training to talk wisely on economic policies and programs, you are right. Do you suppose that we ministers do not know how we must appear to you when we try to discuss the details of business? While, however, you are free to say anything you wish about the ineptitude of ministers in economic affairs (and we, from our inside information, will probably agree with you), yet as we thus put ourselves in your places and try to see the situation through your eyes, do you also put yourselves in our places and try to see it through our eyes!

I speak, I am sure, in the name of thousands of Christian ministers in this country endeavouring to do their duty in this trying time. We did not go into the ministry of Jesus Christ either for money or for fun. If we had wanted either one primarily, we would have done something else than preach. We went in because we believed in Jesus Christ and were assured that only he and his truth could medicine the sorry ills of this sick world. And now, ministers of Christ, with such a motive, we see continually some of the dearest things we work for, some of the fairest results that we achieve, going to pieces on the rocks of the business world.

You wish us to preach against sin, but you forget that, as one of our leading sociologists has said, the master iniquities of our time are connected with money-making. You wish us to imbue your boys and girls with ideal standards of life, but all too often we see them, having left our schools and colleges, full of the knightly chivalry of youth, torn in the world of business between the ideal of Christlikeness and the selfish rivalry of commercial conflict. We watch them growing sordid, disillusioned, mercenary, spoiled at last and bereft of their youth's fine promise. You wish us to preach human brotherhood in Christ, and then we see that the one chief enemy of brotherhood between men and nations is economic strife, the root of class consciousness and war. You send some of us as your representatives to the ends of the earth to proclaim the Saviour, and then these missionaries send back word that the non-Christian world knows all too well how far from dominant in our business life our Christian ideals are and that the non-Christian world delays accepting our Christ until we have better proved that his principles will work. Everywhere that the Christian minister turns, he finds his dearest ideals and hopes entangled in the economic life. Do you ask us then under these conditions to keep our hands off? In God's name, you ask too much!

In the sixteenth century the great conflict in the world's life centered in the Church. The Reformation was on. All the vital questions of the day had there their spring. In the eighteenth century the great conflict of the world's life lay in politics. The American and French revolutions were afoot. Democracy had struck its tents and was on the march. All the vital questions of that day had their origin there. In the twentieth century the great conflict in the world's life is centered in economics. The most vital questions with which we deal are entangled with economic motives and institutions. As in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries great changes were inevitable, so now the economic world cannot possibly remain static. The question is not whether changes will occur, but how they will occur, under whose aegis and superintendence, by whose guidance and direction, and how much better the world will be when they are here. Among all the interests that are vitally concerned with the nature of these changes none has more at stake than the Christian Church with her responsibility for the cure of souls.


Still another point of contact exists between the Christian purpose and social reform: the inevitable demand of religious ideals for social application. The ideal of human equality, for example, came into our civilization from two main sources—the Stoic philosophy and the Christian religion—and in both cases it was first of all a spiritual insight, not a social program. The Stoics and the early Christians both believed it as a sentiment, but they had no idea of changing the world to conform with it. Paul repeatedly insisted upon the equality of all men before God. In his early ministry he wrote it to the Galatians: "There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female; for ye all are one man in Christ Jesus." Later he wrote it to the Corinthians: "For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit." In his last imprisonment he wrote it to the Colossians: "There cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman; but Christ is all, and in all." Yet it never would have occurred to Paul to disturb the social custom of slavery or to question the divine institution of imperial government.

Nevertheless, while this idea of human equality did not at first involve a social program, it meant something real. If we are to understand what the New Testament means by the equality of men before God, we must look at men from the New Testament point of view. Those of us who have been up in an aeroplane know that the higher we fly the less difference we see in the elevation of things upon the earth. This man's house is plainly higher than that man's when we are on the ground but, two thousand feet up, small difference can we observe. Now, the New Testament flies high. It frankly looks from a great altitude at the distinctions that seem so important on the earth. We say that racial differences are very important—a great gulf between Jew and Gentile. We insist that cultural traditions make an immense distinction—that to be a Scythian or to be barbarian is widely separated from being Greek. We are sure that the economic distinction between bondman and freeman is enormous. But all the while these superiorities and inferiorities, which we magnify, seem from Paul's vantage point not nearly so important or so real as we think they are. He is sure about this central truth, that God asks no questions about caste or colour or race or wealth or social station. All men stand alike in his presence and in the Christian fellowship must be regarded from his point of view.

It was utterly impossible, however, to keep this spiritual insight from getting ultimately into a social program. It appealed to motives too deep and powerful to make possible its segregation as a religious sentiment. For however impractical an ideal this thought of human equality may seem in general, and however hard it may be to grant to others in particular, it is never hard for us to claim for ourselves. If ever we are condescended to, does any assertion rise more quickly in our thought than the old cry of our boyhood, "I am as good as you are"? The lad in school in ragged clothes, who sees himself outclassed by richer boys, feels it hotly rising in his boyish heart: "I am as good as you are." The poor man who, with an anxiety he cannot subdue and yet dares not disclose, is desperately trying to make both ends meet, feels it as he sees more fortunate men in luxury: "I am as good as you are." The negro who has tried himself out with his white brethren, who wears, it may be, an honour key from a great university, who is a scholar and a gentleman, and yet who is continually denied the most common courtesies of human intercourse—he says in his heart, although the words may not pass his lips, "I am as good as you are." Now, the New Testament took that old cry of the human heart for equality and turned it upside down. It became no longer for the Christian a bitter demand for one's rights, but a glad acknowledgment of one's duty. It did not clamour, "I am as good as you are"; it said, "You are as good as I am." The early Christians at their best went out into the world with that cry upon their lips. The Jewish Christians said it to the Gentiles and the Gentiles to the Jews; the Scythians and barbarians said it to the Greeks and the Greeks said it in return; the bond said it to the free and the free said it to the bond. The New Testament Church in this regard was one of the most extraordinary upheavals in history, and to-day the best hopes of the world depend upon that spirit which still says to all men over all the differences of race and colour and station, "You are as good as I am."

To be sure, before this equalitarian ideal could be embodied in a social program it had to await the coming of the modern age with its open doors, its freer movements of thought and life, its belief in progress, its machinery of change. But even in the stagnation of the intervening centuries the old Stoic-Christian ideal never was utterly forgotten. Lactantius, a Christian writer of the fourth century, said that God, who creates and inspires men, "willed that all should be equal." [3] Gregory the Great, at the end of the sixth century, said that "By nature we are all equal." [4] For ages this spiritual insight remained dissociated from any social program, but now the inevitable connection has been made. Old caste systems and chattel slavery have gone down before this ideal. Aristotle argued that slavery ethically was right because men were essentially and unchangeably masters or slaves by nature. Somehow that would not sound plausible to us, even though the greatest mind of all antiquity did say it. Whatever may be the differences between men and races, they are not sufficient to justify the ownership of one man by another. The ideal of equality has wrecked old aristocracies that seemed to have firm hold on permanence. If one would feel again the thrill which men felt when first the old distinctions lost their power, one should read once more the songs of Robert Burns. They often seem commonplaces to us now, but they were not commonplaces then:

"For a' that and a' that, Their dignities, and a' that; The pith o' sense and pride o' worth Are higher rank than a' that!"

This ideal has made equality before the law one of the maxims of our civilized governments, failure in which wakens our apprehension and our fear; it has made equal suffrage a fact, although practical people only yesterday laughed at it as a dream; it has made equality in opportunity for an education the underlying postulate of our public school systems, although in New York State seventy-five years ago the debate was still acute as to whether such a dream ever could come true; it is to-day lifting races, long accounted inferior, to an eminence where increasingly their equality is acknowledged. One with difficulty restrains his scorn for the intellectual impotence of so-called wise men who think all idealists mere dreamers. Who is the dreamer—the despiser or the upholder of an ideal whose upheavals already have burst through old caste systems, upset old slave systems, wrecked old aristocracies, pushed obscure and forgotten masses of mankind up to rough equality in court and election booth and school, and now are rocking the foundations of old racial and international and economic ideas? The practical applications of this ideal, as, for example, to the coloured problem in America, are so full of difficulty that no one need be ashamed to confess that he does not see in detail how the principle can be made to work. Nevertheless, so deep in the essential nature of things is the fact of mankind's fundamental unity, that only God can foresee to what end the application of it yet may come. At any rate, it is clear that the Christian ideal of human equality before God can no longer be kept out of a social program.


There is, then, no standing-ground left for a narrowly individualistic Christianity. To talk of redeeming personality while one is careless of the social environments which ruin personality; to talk of building Christlike character while one is complacent about an economic system that is definitely organized about the idea of selfish profit; to praise Christian ideals while one is blind to the inevitable urgency with which they insist on getting themselves expressed in social programs—all this is vanity. It is deplorable, therefore, that the Christian forces are tempted to draw apart, some running up the banner of personal regeneration and some rallying around the flag of social reformation. The division is utterly needless. Doubtless our own individual ways of coming into the Christian life influence us deeply here. Some of us came into the Christian experience from a sense of individual need alone. We needed for ourselves sins forgiven, peace restored, hope bestowed. God meant to us first of all satisfaction for our deepest personal wants.

"Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee"—

such was our cry and such was our salvation. If now we are socially minded, if we are concerned for economic and international righteousness, that is an enlargement of our Christian outlook which has grown out of and still is rooted back in our individual need and experience of God.

Some of us, however, did not come into fellowship with God by that route at all. We came in from the opposite direction. The character in the Old Testament who seems to me the worthiest exhibition of personal religion before Jesus is the prophet Jeremiah, but Jeremiah started his religious experience, not with a sense of individual need, but with a burning, patriotic, social passion. He was concerned for Judah. Her iniquities, long accumulating, were bringing upon her an irretrievable disaster. He laid his soul upon her soul and sought to breathe into her the breath of life. Then, when he saw the country he adored, the civilization he cherished, crashing into ruin, he was thrown back personally on God. He started with social passion; he ended with social passion plus personal religion. Some of God's greatest servants have come to know him so.

Henry Ward Beecher once said that a text is a small gate into a large field where one can wander about as he pleases, and that the trouble with most ministers is that they spend all their time swinging on the gate. That same figure applies to the entrance which many of us made into the Christian experience. Some of us came in by the gate of personal religion, and we have been swinging on it ever since; and some of us came in by the gate of social passion for the regeneration of the world, and we have been swinging on that gate ever since. We both are wrong. These are two gates into the same city, and it is the city of our God. It would be one of the greatest blessings to the Christian church both at home and on the foreign field if we could come together on this question where separation is so needless and so foolish. If some of us started with emphasis upon personal religion, we have no business to stop until we understand the meaning of social Christianity. If some of us started with emphasis upon the social campaign, we have no business to rest until we learn the deep secrets of personal religion. The redemption of personality is the great aim of the Christian Gospel, and, therefore, to inspire the inner lives of men and to lift outward burdens which impede their spiritual growth are both alike Christian service to bring in the Kingdom.

[1] Leo M. Tolstoi: My Religion, Introduction, p. ix.

[2] D. Crawford: Thinking Black, pp. 444-445.

[3] L. C. F. Lactantius: The Divine Institutes, Book V, Chap. xv, xvi.

[4] Gregory the Great: Moralium Libri, Pars quarta, Lib. XXI, Caput XV—"Omnes namque homines natura aequales sumus."




Hitherto in the development of our thought, we have been considering the Christian Gospel as an entity set in the midst of a progressive world, and we have been studying the new Christian attitudes which this influential environment has been eliciting. The Gospel has been in our thought like an individual who, finding himself in novel circumstances, reacts toward them in ways appropriate alike to them and to his own character. The influence of the idea of progress upon Christianity, however, is more penetrating than such a figure can adequately portray. For no one can long ponder the significance of our generation's progressive ways of thinking without running straight upon this question: is not Christianity itself progressive? In the midst of a changing world does not it also change, so that, reacting upon the new ideas of progress, it not only assimilates and uses them, but is itself an illustration of them? Where everything else in man's life in its origin and growth is conceived, not in terms of static and final creation or revelation, but in terms of development, can religion be left out? Instead of being a pond around which once for all a man can walk and take its measure, a final and completed whole, is not Christianity a river which, maintaining still reliance upon the historic springs from which it flows, gathers in new tributaries on its course and is itself a changing, growing and progressive movement? The question is inevitable in any study of the relationship between the Gospel and progress, and its implications are so far-reaching that it deserves our careful thought.

Certainly it is clear that already modern ideas of progress have had so penetrating an influence upon Christianity as to affect, not its external reactions and methods only, nor yet its intellectual formulations alone, but deeper still its very mood and inward temper. Whether or not Christianity ought to be a changing movement in a changing world, it certainly has been that and is so still, and the change can be seen going on now in the very atmosphere in which it lives and moves and has its being. For example, consider the attitude of resignation to the will of God, which was characteristic of medieval Christianity. As we saw in our first lecture, the medieval age did not think of human life upon this earth in terms of progress. The hopes of men did not revolve about any Utopia to be expected here. History was not even a glacier, moving slowly toward the sunny meadows. It did not move at all; it was not intended to move; it was standing still. To be sure, the thirteenth century was one of the greatest in the annals of the race. In it the foremost European universities were founded, the sublimest Gothic cathedrals were built, some of the world's finest works of handicraft were made; in it Cimabue and Giotto painted, Dante wrote, St. Thomas Aquinas philosophized, and St. Francis of Assisi lived. The motives, however, which originated and sustained this magnificent outburst of creative energy were otherworldly—they were not concerned with anticipations of a happier lot for humankind upon this earth. The medieval age did not believe that man's estate upon the earth ever would be fundamentally improved, and in consequence took the only reasonable attitude, resignation. When famines came, God sent them; they were punishment for sin; his will be done! When wars came, they were the flails of God to thresh his people; his will be done! Men were resigned to slavery on the ground that God had made men to be masters and slaves. They were resigned to feudalism and absolute monarchy on the ground that God had made men to be rulers and ruled. Whatever was had been ordained by the Divine or had been allowed by him in punishment for man's iniquity. To rebel was sin; to doubt was heresy; to submit was piety. The Hebrew prophets had not been resigned, nor Jesus Christ, nor Paul. The whole New Testament blazes with the hope of the kingdom of righteousness coming upon earth. But the medieval age was resigned. Its real expectations were post-mortem hopes. So far as this earth was concerned, men must submit.

To be sure, in those inner experiences where we must endure what we cannot help, resignation will always characterize a deeply religious life. All life is not under our control, to be freely mastered by our thought and toil. There are areas where scientific knowledge gives us power to do amazing things, but all around them are other areas which our hands cannot regulate. Orion and the Pleiades were not made for our fingers to swing, and our engineering does not change sunrise or sunset nor make the planets one whit less or more. So, in the experiences of our inward life, around the realm which we can control is that other realm where move the mysterious providences of God, beyond our power to understand and as uncontrollable by us as the tides are by the fish that live in them. Captain Scott found the South Pole, only to discover that another man had been there first. When, on his return from the disappointing quest, the pitiless cold, the endless blizzards, the failing food, had worn down the strength of the little company and in their tent amid the boundless desolation they waited for the end while the life flames burned low, Captain Scott wrote: "I do not regret this journey. . . . We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last." [1] That is resignation at its noblest.

When, however, a modern Christian tries to do what the medieval Christians did—make this attitude of resignation cover the whole field of life, make it the dominant element in their religion, the proof of their trust and the test of their piety—he finds himself separated from the most characteristic and stirring elements in his generation. We are not resigned anywhere else. Everywhere else we count it our pride and glory to be unresigned. We are not resigned even to a thorny cactus, whose spiky exterior seems a convincing argument against its use for food. When we see a barren plain we do not say as our fathers did: God made plains so in his inscrutable wisdom; his will be done! We call for irrigation and, when the fructifying waters flow, we say, Thy will be done! in the way we think God wishes to have it said. We do not passively submit to God's will; we actively assert it. The scientific control of life at this point has deeply changed our religious mood. We are not resigned to pestilences and already have plans drawn up to make the yellow fever germ "as extinct as the woolly rhinoceros." We are not even resigned to the absence of wireless telephony when once we have imagined its presence, or to the inconvenience of slow methods of travel when once we have invented swift ones. Not to illiteracy nor to child labour nor to the white plague nor to commercialized vice nor to recurrent unemployment are we, at our best, resigned.

This change of mood did not come easily. So strongly did the medieval spirit of resignation, submissive in a static world, keep its grip upon the Church that the Church often defiantly withstood the growth of this unresigned attitude of which we have been speaking and in which we glory. Lightning rods were vehemently denounced by many ministers as an unwarranted interference with God's use of lightning. When God hit a house he meant to hit it; his will be done! This attitude, thus absurdly applied, had in more important realms a lamentable consequence. The campaign of Christian missions to foreign lands was bitterly fought in wide areas of the Christian Church because if God intended to damn the heathen he should be allowed to do so without interference from us; his will be done! As for slavery, the last defense which it had in this country was on religious grounds: that God had ordained it and that it was blasphemous to oppose his ordination. In a word, this spirit of passive resignation has been so deeply ingrained in religious thinking that it has become oftentimes a serious reproach to Christian people.

Now, however, the mood of modern Christianity is decisively in contrast with that medieval spirit. Moreover, we think that we are close to the Master in this attitude, for whatever difference in outward form of expectation there may be between his day and ours, when he said: "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth," that was not passive submission to God's will but an aggressive prayer for the victory of God and righteousness; it was not lying down under the will of God as something to be endured, but active loyalty to the will of God as something to be achieved. To be resigned to evil conditions on this earth is in our eyes close to essential sin. If any one who calls himself a conservative Christian doubts his share in this anti-medieval spirit, let him test himself and see. In 1836 the Rev. Leonard Wood, D. D., wrote down this interesting statement: "I remember when I could reckon up among my acquaintances forty ministers, and none of them at a great distance, who were either drunkards or far addicted to drinking. I could mention an ordination which took place about twenty years ago at which I myself was ashamed and grieved to see two aged ministers literally drunk, and a third indecently excited." [2] Our forefathers were resigned to that, but we are not. The most conservative of us so hates the colossal abomination of the liquor traffic, that we do not propose to cease our fight until victory has been won. We are belligerently unresigned. Or when militarism proves itself an intolerable curse, we do not count it a divine punishment and prepare ourselves to make the best of its continuance. We propose to end it. Militarism, which in days of peace cries, Build me vast armaments, spend enough upon a single dreadnaught to remake the educational system of a whole state; militarism, which in the days of war cries, Give me your best youth to slay, leave the crippled and defective to propagate the race, give me your best to slay; militarism, which lays its avaricious hand on every new invention to make gregarious death more swift and terrible, and when war is over makes the starved bodies of innumerable children walk in its train for pageantry,—we are not resigned to that. We count it our Christian duty to be tirelessly unresigned.

Here is a new mood in Christianity, born out of the scientific control of life and the modern ideas of progress, and, however consonant it may be with the spirit of the New Testament, it exhibits in the nature of its regulative conceptions and in its earthly hopes a transformation within Christianity which penetrates deep. Progressive change is not simply an environment to which Christianity conforms; it is a fact which Christianity exhibits.


This idea that Christianity is itself a progressive movement instead of a static finality involves some serious alterations in the historic conceptions of the faith, as soon as it is applied to theology. Very early in Christian history the presence of conflicting heresies led the church to define its faith in creeds and then to regard these as final formulations of Christian doctrine, incapable of amendment or addition. Tertullian, about 204 A. D., spoke of the creedal standard of his day as "a rule of faith changeless and incapable of reformation." [3] From that day until our own, when a Roman Catholic Council has decreed that "the definitions of the Roman Pontiff are unchangeable," [4] an unalterable character has been ascribed to the dogmas of the Church of Rome. Indeed, Pius IX, in his Syllabus of Errors, specifically condemned the modern idea that "Divine revelation is imperfect, and, therefore, subject to continual and indefinite progress, which corresponds with the progress of human reason." [5] Nor did Protestantism, with all the reformation which it wrought, attack this central Catholic conception of a changeless content and formulation of faith. Not what the Pope said, but what the Bible said, was by Protestants unalterably to be received. Change there might be in the sense that unrealized potentialities involved in the original deposit might be brought to light—a kind of development which not only Protestants but Catholics like Cardinal Newman have willingly allowed—but whatever had once been stated as the content of faith by the received authorities was by both Catholics and Protestants regarded as unalterably so. In the one case, if the Pope had once defined a dogma, it was changeless; in the other, if the Bible had once formulated a pre-scientific cosmology, or used demoniacal possession as an explanation of disease, or personified evil in a devil, all such mental categories were changelessly to be received. In its popular forms this conception of Christianity assumes extreme rigidity—Christianity is a static system finally formulated, a deposit to be accepted in toto if at all, not to be added to, not to be subtracted from, not to be changed, its i's all dotted and its t's all crossed.

The most crucial problem which we face in our religious thinking is created by the fact that Christianity thus statically conceived now goes out into a generation where no other aspect of life is conceived in static terms at all. The earth itself on which we live, not by fiat suddenly enacted, but by long and gradual processes, became habitable, and man upon it through uncounted ages grew out of an unknown past into his present estate. Everything within man's life has grown, is growing, and apparently will grow. Music developed from crude forms of rhythmic noise until now, by way of Bach, Beethoven and Wagner, our modern music, still developing, has grown to forms of harmony at first undreamed. Painting developed from the rough outlines of the cavemen until now possibilities of expression in line and colour have been achieved whose full expansion we cannot guess. Architecture evolved from the crude huts of primitive man until now our cathedrals and our new business buildings alike mark an incalculable advance and prophesy an unimaginable future. One may refuse to call all development real progress, may insist upon degeneration as well as betterment through change, but, even so, the basic fact remains that all the elements which go to make man's life come into being, are what they are, and pass out of what they are into something different, through processes of continual growth. Our business methods change until the commercial wisdom of a few years ago may be the folly of to-day; our moral ideals change until actions once respectable become reprobate, and the heroes of one generation would be the convicts of another; our science changes until ideas that men once were burned at the stake for entertaining are now the commonplace axioms of every school boy's thought; our economics change until schools of thought shaped to old industrial conditions are as outmoded as a one-horse shay beside an automobile; our philosophy changes like our science when Kant, for example, starts a revolution in man's thinking, worthy, as he claimed, to be called Copernican; our cultural habits change until marooned communities in the Kentucky mountains, "our contemporary ancestors," having let the stream of human life flow around and past them, seem as strange to us as a belated what-not in a modern parlour. The perception of this fact of progressive change is one of the regnant influences in our modern life and, strangely enough, so far from disliking it, we glory in it; in our expectancy we count on change; with our control of life we seek to direct it.

Indeed no more remarkable difference distinguishes the modern world from all that went before than its attitude toward change itself. The medieval world idealized changelessness. Its very astronomy was the apotheosis of the unalterable. The earth, a globe full of mutation and decay; around it eight transparent spheres carrying the heavenly bodies, each outer sphere moving more slowly than its inner neighbour, while the ninth, moving most slowly of all, moved all the rest; last of all, the empyrean, blessed with changeless, motionless perfection, the abode of God—such was the Ptolemaic astronomy as Dante knew it. This idealization of changelessness was the common property of all that by gone world. The Holy Roman Empire was the endeavour to perpetuate a changeless idea of political theory and organization; the Holy Catholic Church was the endeavour to perpetuate a changeless formulation of religious dogma and hierarchy; the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas was the endeavour to settle forever changeless paths for the human mind to walk in. To that ancient world as a whole the perfect was the finished, and therefore it was immutable.

How different our modern attitude toward change has come to be! We believe in change, rely on it, hope for it, rejoice in it, are determined to achieve it and control it. Nowhere is this more evident than in our thought of the meaning of knowledge. In the medieval age knowledge was spun as a spider spins his web. Thinking simply made evident what already was involved in an accepted proposition. A premise was drawn out into its filaments and then woven into a fabric of new form but of the same old material. Knowledge did not start from actual things; it did not intend to change actual things; and the shelves of the libraries groan with the burden of that endless and largely futile cogitation. Then the new knowledge began from the observation of things as they really are and from the use of that observation for the purposes of human life. Once a lad, seventeen years old, went into the cathedral at Pisa to worship. Soon he forgot the service and watched a chandelier, swinging from the lofty roof. He wondered whether, no matter how changeable the length of its arc, its oscillations always consumed the same time and, because he had no other means, he timed its motion by the beating of his pulse. That was one time when a boy went to church and did well to forget the service. He soon began to wonder whether he could not make a pendulum which, swinging like the chandeliers, would do useful business for men. He soon began to discover, in what he had seen that day, new light on the laws of planetary motion. That was one of the turning points in human history—the boy was Galileo. The consequences of this new method are all around us now. The test of knowledge in modern life is capacity to cause change. If a man really knows electricity he can cause change; he can illumine cities and drive cars. If a man really knows engineering, he can cause change; he can tunnel rivers and bridge gulfs. It is for that purpose we wish knowledge. Instead of being dreaded, controlled change has become the chief desire of modern life.

When, therefore, in this generation with its perception of growth as the universal law and with its dependence upon controlled change as the hope of man, Christianity endeavours to glorify changelessness and to maintain itself in unalterable formulations, it has outlawed itself from its own age. An Indian punkah-puller, urged by his mistress to better his condition, replied: "Mem Sahib, my father pulled a punkah, my grandfather pulled a punkah, all my ancestors for four million ages pulled punkahs, and, before that, the god who founded our caste pulled a punkah over Vishnu." How utterly lost such a man would be in the dynamic movements of our modern Western life!—yet not more lost than is a Christianity which tries to remain static in a progressive world.


Among the influences which have forced well-instructed minds first to accept and then to glory in the progressive nature of Christianity, the first place must be given to the history of religion itself. The study of religion's ancient records in ritual, monument and book, and of primitive faiths still existing among us in all stages of development, has made clear the general course which man's religious life has traveled from very childish beginnings until now. From early animism in its manifold expressions, through polytheism, kathenotheism, henotheism, to monotheism, and so out into loftier possibilities of conceiving the divine nature and purpose—the main road which man has traveled in his religious development now is traceable. Nor is there any place where it is more easily traceable than in our own Hebrew-Christian tradition. One of the fine results of the historical study of the Scriptures is the possibility which now exists of arranging the manuscripts of the Bible in approximately chronological order and then tracing through them the unfolding growth of the faiths and hopes which come to their flower in the Gospel of Christ. Consider, for example, the exhilarating story of the developing conception of Jehovah's character from the time he was worshiped as a mountain-god in the desert until he became known as the "God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."

We are explicitly told that the history of Jehovah's relationship with Israel began at Sinai and that before that time the Hebrew fathers had never even heard his name.[6] There on a mountain-top in the Sinaitic wilderness dwelt this new-found god, so anthropomorphically conceived that he could hide Moses in a rock's cleft from which the prophet could not see Jehovah's face but could see his back.[7] He was a god of battle and the name of an old book about him still remains to us, "The book of the Wars of Jehovah." [8]

"Jehovah is a man of war: Jehovah is his name"—[9]

so his people at first rejoiced in him and gloried in his power when he thundered and lightened on Sinai. Few stories in man's spiritual history are so interesting as the record of the way in which this mountain-god, for the first time, so far as we know, in Semitic history, left his settled shrine, traveled with his people in the holy Ark, became acclimated in Canaan, and, gradually absorbing the functions of the old baals of the land, extended his sovereignty over the whole of Palestine.

To be sure, even then he still was thought of, as all ancient gods were thought of, as geographically limited to the country whose god he was. Milcolm and Chemosh were real gods too, ruling in Philistia and Moab as Jehovah did in Canaan. This is the meaning of Jephthah's protest to a hostile chieftain: "Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess?" [10] This is the meaning of David's protest when he is driven out to the Philistine cities: "They have driven me out this day that I should not cleave unto the inheritance of Jehovah, saying, Go, serve other gods." [11] This is the meaning of Naaman's desire to have two mules' burden of Jehovah's land on which to worship Jehovah in Damascus.[12] Jehovah could be worshiped only on Jehovah's land. But ever as the day of fuller understanding dawned, the sovereignty of Jehovah widened and his power usurped the place and function of all other gods. Amos saw him using the nations as his pawns; Isaiah heard him whistling to the nations as a shepherd to his dogs; Jeremiah heard him cry, "Can any hide himself in secret places so that I shall not see him? . . . Do not I fill heaven and earth?" [13]; until at last we sweep out, through the exile and all the heightening of faith and clarifying of thought that came with it, into the Great Isaiah's 40th chapter on the universal and absolute sovereignty of God, into the Priestly narrative of creation, where God makes all things with a word, into psalms which cry,

"For all the gods of the people are idols; But Jehovah made the heavens." [14]

Moreover, as Jehovah's sovereignty thus is enlarged until he is the God of all creation, his character too is deepened and exalted in the understanding of his people. That noblest succession of moral teachers in ancient history, the Hebrew prophets, developed a conception of the nature of God in terms of righteousness, so broad in its outreach, so high in its quality, that as one mounts through Amos' fifth chapter and Isaiah's first chapter and Jeremiah's seventh chapter, he finds himself, like Moses on Nebo's top, looking over into the Promised Land of the New Testament. There this development flowers out under the influence of Jesus. God's righteousness is interpreted, not in terms of justice only, but of compassionate, sacrificial love; his Fatherhood embraces not only all mankind but each individual, lifting him out of obscurity in the mass into infinite worthfulness and hope. And more than this development of idea, the New Testament gives us a new picture of God in the personality of Jesus, and we see the light of the knowledge of God's glory in his face.

Moreover, this development, so plainly recorded in Scripture, was not unconsciously achieved by the drift of circumstance; it represents the ardent desire of forward-looking men, inspired by the Spirit. The Master, himself, was consciously pleading for a progressive movement in the religious life and thinking of his day. A static religion was the last thing he ever dreamed of or wanted. No one was more reverent than he toward his people's past; his thought and his speech were saturated with the beauty of his race's heritage; yet consider his words as again and again they fell from his lips: "It was said to them of old time . . . but I say unto you." His life was rooted in the past but it was not imprisoned there; it grew up out of the past, not destroying but fulfilling it. He had in him the spirit of the prophets, who once had spoken to his people in words of fire; but old forms that he thought had been outgrown he brushed aside. He would not have his Gospel a patch on an old garment, he said, nor would he put it like new wine into old wineskins. He appealed from the oral traditions of the elders to the written law; within the written law he distinguished between ceremonial and ethical elements, making the former of small or no account, the latter all-important; and then within the written ethical law he waived provisions that seemed to him outmoded by time. Even when he bade farewell to his disciples, he did not talk to them as if what he himself had said were a finished system: "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all the truth."

In Paul's hands the work which Jesus began went on. He dared an adventurous move that makes much of our modern progressiveness look like child's play: he lifted the Christian churches out of the narrow, religious exclusiveness of the Hebrew synagogue. He dared to wage battle for the new idea that Christianity was not a Jewish sect but a universal religion. He withstood to his face Peter, still trammeled in the narrowness of his Jewish thinking, and he founded churches across the Roman Empire where was neither Jew nor Greek, barbarian, Scythian, male nor female, bond nor free, but all were one man in Christ Jesus.

Even more thrilling were those later days when in Ephesus the writer of the Fourth Gospel faced a Hellenistic audience, to whom the forms of thought in which Jesus hitherto had been interpreted were utterly unreal. The first creed about Jesus proclaimed that he was the Messiah, but Messiah was a Jewish term and to the folk of Ephesus it had no vital meaning. John could not go on calling the Master that and that alone, when he had hungry souls before him who needed the Master but to whom Jewish terms had no significance. One thing those folk of Ephesus did understand, the idea of the Logos. They had heard of that from the many faiths whose pure or syncretized forms made the religious background of their time. They knew about the Logos from Zoroastrianism, where beside Ahura Mazdah stood Vohu Manah, the Mind of God; from Stoicism, at the basis of whose philosophy lay the idea of the Logos; from Alexandrian Hellenism, by means of which a Jew like Philo had endeavoured to marry Greek philosophy and Hebrew orthodoxy. And the writer of the Fourth Gospel used that new form of thought in which to present to his people the personality of our Lord. "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God"—so begins the Fourth Gospel's prologue, in words that every intelligent person in Ephesus could understand and was familiar with, and that initial sermon in the book, for it is a sermon, not philosophy, moves on in forms of thought which the people knew about and habitually used, until the hidden purpose comes to light: "The Logos became flesh and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth." John was presenting his Lord to the people of his time in terms that the people could understand.

Even within the New Testament, therefore, there is no static creed. For, like a flowing river, the Church's thought of her Lord shaped itself to the intellectual banks of the generation through which it moved, even while, by its construction and erosion, it transfigured them. Nor did this movement cease with New Testament days. From the Johannine idea of the Logos to the Nicene Creed, where our Lord is set in the framework of Greek metaphysics, the development is just as clear as from the category of Jewish Messiah to the categories of the Fourth Gospel. And if, in our generation, a conservative scholar like the late Dr. Sanday pleaded for the necessity of a new Christology, it was not because he was primarily zealous for a novel philosophy, but because like John of old in Ephesus he was zealous to present Christ to his own generation in terms that his own generation could comprehend.[15]


Undoubtedly such an outlook upon the fluid nature of the Christian movement will demand readjustment in the religious thinking of many people. They miss the old ideas about revelation. This new progressiveness seems to them to be merely the story of man's discovery, finding God, here a little and there a little, as he has found the truths of astronomy. But God's revelation of himself is just as real when it is conceived in progressive as when it is conceived in static terms. Men once thought of God's creation of the world in terms of fiat—it was done on the instant; and when evolution was propounded men cried that the progressive method shut God out. We see now how false that fear was. The creative activity of God never was so nobly conceived as it has been since we have known the story of his slow unfolding of the universe. We have a grander picture in our minds than even the psalmist had, when we say after him, "The heavens declare the glory of God." So men who have been accustomed to think of revelation in static terms, now that the long leisureliness of man's developing spiritual insight is apparent, fear that this does away with revelation. But in God's unfolding education of his people recorded in the Scriptures revelation is at its noblest. No man ever found God except when God was seeking to be found. Discovery is the under side of the process; the upper side is revelation.

Indeed, this conception of progressive revelation does not shut out finality. In scientific thought, which continually moves and grows, expands and changes, truths are discovered once for all. The work of Copernicus is in a real sense final. This earth does move; it is not stationary; and the universe is not geocentric. That discovery is final. Many developments start from that, but the truth itself is settled once for all. So, in the spiritual history of man, final revelations come. They will not have to be made over again and they will not have to be given up. Progress does not shut out finality; it only makes each new finality a point of departure for a new adventure, not a terminus ad quem for a conclusive stop. That God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself is for the Christian a finality, but, from the day the first disciples saw its truth until now, the intellectual formulations in which it has been set and the mental categories by which it has been interpreted have changed with the changes of each age's thought.

While at first, then, a progressive Christianity may seem to plunge us into unsettlement, the more one studies it the less he would wish it otherwise. Who would accept a snapshot taken at any point on the road of Christian development as the final and perfect form of Christianity? Robert Louis Stevenson has drawn for us a picture of a man trying with cords and pegs to stake out the shadow of an oak tree, expecting that when he had marked its boundaries the shadow would stay within the limits of the pegs. Yet all the while the mighty globe was turning around in space. He could not keep a tree's shadow static on a moving earth. Nevertheless, multitudes of people in their endeavour to build up an infallibly settled creed have tried just such a hopeless task. They forget that while a revelation from God might conceivably be final and complete, religion deals with a revelation of God. God, the infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting, the source and crown and destiny of all the universe—shall a man whose days are as grass rise up to say that he has made a statement about him which will not need to be revised? Rather, our prayer should be that the thought of God, the meaning of God, the glory of God, the plans and purpose of God may expand in our comprehension until we, who now see in a mirror, darkly, may see face to face. "Le Dieu defini est le Dieu fini."

This mistaken endeavour, in the interest of stability, to make a vital movement static is not confined to religion. Those of us who love Wagner remember the lesson of Die Meistersinger. Down in Nuremberg they had standardized and conventionalized music. They had set it down in rules and men like Beckmesser could not imagine that there was any music permissible outside the regulations. Then came Walter von Stolzing. Music to him was not a conventionality but a passion—not a rule, but a life—and, when he sang, his melodies reached heights of beauty that Beckmesser's rules did not provide for. It was Walter von Stolzing who sang the Prize Song, and as the hearts of the people were stirred in answer to its spontaneous melody, until all the population of Nuremberg were singing its accumulating harmonies, poor Beckmesser on his blackboard jotted down the rules which were being broken. Beckmesser represents a static conception of life which endeavours to freeze progress at a given point and call it infallible. But Beckmesser is wrong. You cannot take things like music and religion and set them down in final rules and regulations. They are life, and you have to let them grow and flower and expand and reveal evermore the latent splendour at their heart.


Obviously, the point where this progressive conception of Christianity comes into conflict with many widely accepted ideas is the abandonment which it involves of an external and inerrant authority in matters of religion. The marvel is that that idea of authority, which is one of the historic curses of religion, should be regarded by so many as one of the vital necessities of the faith. The fact is that religion by its very nature is one of the realms to which external authority is least applicable. In science people commonly suppose that they do not take truth on any one's authority; they prove it. In business they do not accept methods on authority; they work them out. In statesmanship they no longer believe in the divine right of kings nor do they accept infallible dicta handed down from above. But they think that religion is delivered to them by authority and that they believe what they do believe because a divine Church or a divine Book or a divine Man told them.

In this common mode of thinking, popular ideas have the truth turned upside down. The fact is that science, not religion, is the realm where most of all we use external authority. They tell us that there are millions of solar systems scattered through the fields of space. Is that true? How do we know? We never counted them. We know only what the authorities say. They tell us that the next great problem in science is breaking up the atom to discover the incalculable resources of power there waiting to be harnessed by our skill. Is that true? Most of us do not understand what an atom is, and what it means to break one up passes the farthest reach of our imaginations; all we know is what the authorities say. They tell us that electricity is a mode of motion in ether. Is that true? Most of us have no first hand knowledge about electricity. The motorman calls it "juice" and that means as much to us as to call it a mode of motion in ether; we must rely on the authorities. They tell us that sometime we are going to talk through wireless telephones across thousands of miles, so that no man need ever be out of vocal communication with his family and friends. Is that true? It seems to us an incredible miracle, but we suppose that it is so, as the authorities say. In a word, the idea that we do not use authority in science is absurd. Science is precisely the place where nine hundred and ninety-nine men out of a thousand use authority the most. The chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy which the authorities teach is the only science which most of us possess.

There is another realm, however, where we never think of taking such an attitude. They tell us that friendship is beautiful. Is that true? Would we ever think of saying that we do not know, ourselves, but that we rely on the authorities? Far better to say that our experience with friendship has been unhappy and that we personally question its utility! That, at least, would have an accent of personal, original experience in it. For here we are facing a realm where we never can enter at all until we enter, each man for himself.

Two realms exist, therefore, in each of which first-hand experience is desirable, but in only one of which it is absolutely indispensable. We can live on what the authorities in physics say, but there are no proxies for the soul. Love, friendship, delight in music and in nature, parental affection—these things are like eating and breathing; no one can do them for us; we must enter the experience for ourselves. Religion, too, belongs in this last realm. The one vital thing in religion is first-hand, personal experience. Religion is the most intimate, inward, incommunicable fellowship of the human soul. In the words of Plotinus, religion is "the flight of the alone to the Alone." You never know God at all until you know him for yourself. The only God you ever will know is the God you do know for yourself.

This does not mean, of course, that there are no authorities in religion. There are authorities in everything, but the function of an authority in religion, as in every other vital realm, is not to take the place of our eyes, seeing in our stead and inerrantly declaring to us what it sees; the function of an authority is to bring to us the insight of the world's accumulated wisdom and the revelations of God's seers, and so to open our eyes that we may see, each man for himself. So an authority in literature does not say to his students: The Merchant of Venice is a great drama; you may accept my judgment on that—I know. Upon the contrary, he opens their eyes; he makes them see; he makes their hearts sensitive so that the genius which made Shylock and Portia live captivates and subdues them, until like the Samaritans they say, "Now we believe, not because of thy speaking: for we have heard for ourselves, and know." That is the only use of authority in a vital, realm. It can lead us up to the threshold of a great experience where we must enter, each man for himself, and that service to the spiritual life is the Bible's inestimable gift.

At the beginning, Christianity was just such a first-hand experience as we have described. The Christian fellowship consisted of a group of men keeping company with Jesus and learning how to live. They had no creeds to recite when they met together; what they believed was still an unstereotyped passion in their hearts. They had no sacraments to distinguish their faith—baptism had been a Jewish rite and even the Lord's Supper was an informal use of bread and wine, the common elements of their daily meal. They had no organizations to join; they never dreamed that the Christian Gospel would build a church outside the synagogue. Christianity in the beginning was an intensely personal experience.

Then the Master went away and the tremendous forces of human life and history laid hold on the movement which so vitally he had begun. His followers began building churches. Just as the Wesleyans had to leave the Church of England, not because they wanted to, but because the Anglicans would not keep them, so the Christians, not because they planned to, but because the synagogue was not large enough to hold them, had to leave the synagogue. They began building creeds; they had to. Every one of the first Christian creeds was written in sheer self-defense. If we had been Christians in those first centuries, when a powerful movement was under way called Gnosticism, which denied that God, the Father Almighty, had made both the heaven and the earth, which said that God had made heaven indeed but that a demigod had made the world, and which denied that Jesus had been born in the flesh and in the flesh had died, we would have done what the first Christians did: we would have defined in a creed what it was the Christians did believe as against that wild conglomeration of Oriental mythology that Gnosticism was, and we would have shouted the creed as a war cry against the Gnostics. That is what the so-called Apostles' Creed was—the first Christian battle chant, a militant proclamation of the historic faith against the heretics; and every one of its declarations met with a head-on collision some claim of Gnosticism. Then, too, the early Christians drew up rituals; they had to. We cannot keep any spiritual thing in human life, even the spirit of courtesy, as a disembodied wraith. We ritualize it—we bow, we take off our hats, we shake hands, we rise when a lady enters. We have innumerable ways of expressing politeness in a ritual. Neither could they have kept so deep and beautiful a thing as the Christian life without such expression.

So historic Christianity grew, organized, creedalized, ritualized. And ever as it grew, a peril grew with it, for there were multitudes of people who joined these organizations, recited these creeds, observed these rituals, took all the secondary and derived elements of Christianity, but often forgot that vital thing which all this was meant in the first place to express: a first-hand, personal experience of God in Christ. That alone is vital in Christianity; all the rest is once or twice or thrice removed from life. For Christianity is not a creed, nor an organization, nor a ritual. These are important but they are secondary. They are the leaves, not the roots; they are the wires, not the message. Christianity itself is a life.

If, however, Christianity is thus a life, we cannot stereotype its expressions in set and final forms. If it is a life in fellowship with the living God, it will think new thoughts, build new organizations, expand into new symbolic expressions. We cannot at any given time write "finis" after its development. We can no more "keep the faith" by stopping its growth than we can keep a son by insisting on his being forever a child. The progressiveness of Christianity is not simply its response to a progressive age; the progressiveness of Christianity springs from its own inherent vitality. So far is this from being regrettable, that a modern Christian rejoices in it and gladly recognizes not only that he is thinking thoughts and undertaking enterprises which his fathers would not have understood, but also that his children after him will differ quite as much in teaching and practice from the modernity of to-day. It has been the fashion to regard this changeableness with wistful regret. So Wordsworth sings in his sonnet on Mutability:

"Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear The longest date do melt like frosty rime, That in the morning whitened hill and plain And is no more; drop like the tower sublime Of yesterday, which royally did wear Its crown of weeds, but could not even sustain Some casual shout that broke the silent air, Or the unimaginable touch of Time."

Such wistfulness, however, while a natural sentiment, is not true to the best Christian thought of our day. He who believes in the living God, while he will be far from calling all change progress, and while he will, according to his judgment, withstand perverse changes with all his might, will also regard the cessation of change as the greatest calamity that could befall religion. Stagnation in thought or enterprise means death for Christianity as certainly as it does for any other vital movement. Stagnation, not change, is Christianity's most deadly enemy, for this is a progressive world, and in a progressive world no doom is more certain than that which awaits whatever is belated, obscurantist and reactionary.

[1] Leonard Huxley: Scott's Last Expedition, Vol. I, The Journals of Captain R. F. Scott, Rn., C. V. O., p. 417.

[2] Kirby Page; The Sword or the Cross, p. 41.

[3] Tertullian: De Virginibus Velandis, Cap. I—"Regula quidem fidei una omnino est, sola immobilis et irreformabilis."

[4] Vatican Council, July 18, 1870, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Chapter IV, Concerning the Infallible Teaching of the Roman Pontiff.

[5] The Papal Syllabus of Errors, A. D. 1864, Sec. 1, 5.

[6] Exodus 6:3; Chap. 19.

[7] Exodus 33:22-23.

[8] Numbers 21:14.

[9] Exodus 15:3.

[10] Judges 11:24.

[11] I Samuel 26:19.

[12] II Kings 5:17.

[13] Jeremiah 23:24.

[14] Psalm 96:5.

[15] William Sanday: Christologies Ancient and Modern.




In the history of human thought and social organization there is an interesting pendular swing between conflicting ideas so that, about the time we wake up to recognize that thought is swinging one way, we may be fairly sure that soon it will be swinging the other. Man's social organization, for example, has moved back and forth between the two poles of individual liberty and social solidarity. To pick up the swing of that pendulum only in recent times, we note that out of the social solidarity of the feudal system man swung over to the individual liberty of the free cities; then from the individual liberty of the free cities to the social solidarity of the absolute monarchies; then back again into the individual liberty of the democratic states. We see that now we are clearly swinging over to some new form of social solidarity, of which tendency federalism and socialism are expressions, and doubtless from that we shall recoil toward individual liberty once more. It is a safe generalization that whenever human thought shows some decided trend, a corrective movement is not far away. However enthusiastic we may be, therefore, about the idea of progress and the positive contributions which it can make to our understanding and mastery of life, we may be certain that there are in it the faults of its qualities. If we take it without salt, our children will rise up, not to applaud our far-seeing wisdom, but to blame our easy-going credulity. We have already seen that the very idea of progress sprang up in recent times in consequence of a few factors which predisposed men's minds to social hopefulness. Fortunately, some of these factors, such as the scientific control of life through the knowledge of law, seem permanent, and we are confident that the idea of progress will have abiding meaning for human thought and life. But no study of the matter could be complete without an endeavour to discern the perils in this modern mode of thought and to guard ourselves against accepting as an unmixed blessing what is certainly, like all things human, a blend of good and evil.

One peril involved in the popular acceptance of the idea of progress has been the creation of a superficial, ill-considered optimism which has largely lost sight of the terrific obstacles in human nature against which any real moral advance on earth must win its way. Too often we have taken for granted what a recent book calls "a goal of racial perfection and nobility the splendour of which it is beyond our powers to conceive," and we have dreamed about this earthly paradise like a saint having visions of heaven and counting it as won already because he is predestined to obtain it. Belief in inevitable progress has thus acted as an opiate on many minds, lulling them into an elysium where all things come by wishing and where human ignorance and folly, cruelty and selfishness do not impede the peaceful flowing of their dreams. In a word, the idea of progress has blanketed the sense of sin. Lord Morley spoke once of "that horrid burden and impediment upon the soul which the Churches call Sin, and which, by whatever name you call it, is a real catastrophe in the moral nature of man." The modern age, busy with slick, swift schemes for progress, has too largely lost sight of that.

Indeed, at no point do modern Christians differ more sharply from their predecessors than in the serious facing of the problem of sin. Christians of former times were burdened with a heavy sense of their transgressions, and their primary interest in the Gospel was its promised reestablishment of their guilty souls in the fellowship of a holy God. Modern Christianity, however, is distinguished from all that by a jaunty sense of moral well-being; when we admit our sins we do it with complacency and cheerfulness; our religion is generally characterized by an easy-going self-righteousness. Bunyan's Pilgrim with his lamentable load upon his back, crying, "What shall I do! . . . I am . . . undone by reason of a burden that lieth hard upon me," is no fit symbol of a typically modern Christian.

Doubtless we have cause to be thankful for this swing away from the morbid extremes to which our fathers often went in their sense of sin. It is hard to forgive Jonathan Edwards when one reads in his famous Enfield sermon: "The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; . . . you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes, as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours." Any one who understands human nature could have told him that, after such a black exaggeration of human depravity as he and his generation were guilty of, the Christian movement was foredoomed to swing away over to the opposite extreme of complacent self-righteousness. Unquestionably we have made the swing. In spite of the debacle of the Great War, this is one of the most unrepentant generations that ever walked the earth, dreaming still of automatic progress toward an earthly paradise.

Many factors have gone into the making of this modern mood of self-complacency. New knowledge has helped, by which disasters, such as once awakened our fathers' poignant sense of sin, are now attributed to scientific causes rather than to human guilt. When famines or pestilences came, our fathers thought them God's punishment for sin. When earthquakes shook the earth or comets hung threateningly in the sky, our fathers saw in them a divine demand for human penitence. Such events, referred now to their scientific causes, do not quicken in us a sense of sin. New democracy also has helped in this development of self-complacency. Under autocratic kings the common people were common people and they knew it well. Their dependent commonality was enforced on them by the constant pressure of their social life. Accustomed to call themselves miserable worms before an earthly king, they had no qualms about so estimating themselves before the King of Heaven. Democracy, however, elevates us into self-esteem. The genius of democracy is to believe in men, their worth, their possibilities, their capacities for self-direction. Once the dominant political ideas depressed men into self-contempt; now they lift men into self-exaltation. New excuses for sin have aided in creating our mood of self-content. We know more than our fathers did about the effect of heredity and environment on character, and we see more clearly that some souls are not born but damned into the world. Criminals, in consequence, have come not to be so much condemned as pitied, their perversion of character is regarded not so much in terms of iniquity as of disease, and as we thus condone transgression in others, so in ourselves we palliate our wrong. We regard it as the unfortunate but hardly blamable consequence of temperament or training. Our fathers, who thought that the trouble was the devil in them, used to deal sternly with themselves. Like Chinese Gordon, fighting a besetting sin in private prayer, they used to come out from their inward struggles saying, "I hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord." But we are softer with ourselves; we find in lack of eugenics or in cruel circumstance a good excuse.

Undoubtedly, the new theology has helped to encourage this modern mood of self-complacency. Jonathan Edwards' Enfield sermon pictured sinners held over the blazing abyss of hell in the hands of a wrathful deity who at any moment was likely to let go, and so terrific was that discourse in its delivery that women fainted and strong men clung in agony to the pillars of the church. Obviously, we do not believe in that kind of God any more, and as always in reaction we swing to the opposite extreme, so in the theology of these recent years we have taught a very mild, benignant sort of deity. One of our popular drinking songs sums up this aspect of our new theology:

"God is not censorious When His children have their fling."

Indeed, the god of the new theology has not seemed to care acutely about sin; certainly he has not been warranted to punish heavily; he has been an indulgent parent and when we have sinned, a polite "Excuse me" has seemed more than adequate to make amends. John Muir, the naturalist, was accustomed during earthquake shocks in California to assuage the anxieties of perturbed Eastern visitors by saying that it was only Mother Earth trotting her children on her knee. Such poetizing is quite in the style of the new theology. Nevertheless, the description, however pretty, is not an adequate account of a real earthquake, and in this moral universe there are real earthquakes, as this generation above all others ought to know, when man's sin, his greed, his selfishness, his rapacity roll up across the years an accumulating mass of consequence until at last in a mad collapse the whole earth crashes into ruin. The moral order of the world has not been trotting us on her knees these recent years; the moral order of the world has been dipping us in hell; and because the new theology had not been taking account of such possibilities, had never learned to preach on that text in the New Testament, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God," we were ill prepared for the experience.

Many factors like those which we have named have contributed to create our modern negligence of the problem of sin, but under all of them and permeating them has been the idea that automatic progress is inherent in the universe. This evolving cosmos has been pictured as a fool-proof world where men could make and love their lies, with their souls dead and their stomachs well alive, with selfish profit the motive of their economic order and narrow nationalism the slogan of their patriotism, and where still, escaping the consequences, they could live in a progressive society. A recent writer considers it possible that "over the crest of the hill the Promised Land stretches away to the far horizons smiling in eternal sunshine." The picture is nonsense. All the progress this world ever will know waits upon the conquest of sin. Strange as it may sound to the ears of this modern age, long tickled by the amiable idiocies of evolution popularly misinterpreted, this generation's deepest need is not these dithyrambic songs about inevitable progress, but a fresh sense of personal and social sin.

What the scientific doctrine of evolution really implies is something much more weighty and sinister than frothy optimism. When a preacher now quotes Paul, "as in Adam all die," not many of the younger generation understand him, but when we are told that we came out of low, sub-human beginnings, that we carry with us yet the bestial leftovers of an animal heritage to be fought against and overcome and left behind, well-instructed members of this generation ought to comprehend. Yet in saying that, we are dealing with the same fundamental fact which Paul was facing when he said, "as in Adam all die"; we are handling the same unescapable experience out of which the old doctrine of original sin first came; we are facing a truth which it will not pay us to forget: that humanity's sinful nature is not something which you and I alone make up by individual deeds of wrong, but that it is an inherited mortgage and handicap on the whole human family. Why is it that if we let a field run wild it goes to weeds, while if we wish wheat we must fight for every grain of it? Why is it that if we let human nature run loose it goes to evil, while he who would be virtuous must struggle to achieve character? It is because, in spite of our optimisms and evasions, that fact still is here, which our fathers often appraised more truly than we, that human nature, with all its magnificent possibilities, is like the earth's soil filled with age-long seeds and roots of evil growth, and that progress in goodness, whether personal or social, must be achieved by grace of some power which can give us the victory over our evil nature.

In past generations it was the preachers who talked most about sin and thundered against it from their pulpits, but now for years they have been very reticent about it. Others, however, have not been still. Scientists have made us feel the ancient heritage that must be fought against; novelists have written no great novel that does not swirl around some central sin; the work of the dramatists from Shakespeare until Ibsen is centrally concerned with the problem of human evil; and now the psycho-analysts are digging down into the unremembered thoughts of men to bring up into the light of day the origins of our spiritual miseries in frustrated and suppressed desire. We do not need artificially to conjure up a sense of sin. All we need to do is to open our eyes to facts. Take one swift glance at the social state of the world to-day. Consider our desperate endeavours to save this rocking civilization from the consequences of the blow just delivered it by men's iniquities. That should be sufficient to indicate that this is no fool-proof universe automatically progressive, but that moral evil is still the central problem of mankind.

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