In a recent issue of The Nation a professor of sociology in Columbia University, C. Wright Mills, issues a stinging condemnation of Christianity (“A Pagan Sermon to the Christian Clergy,” The Nation, March 8, 1958). Cast in the form of a sermon preached by a pagan to Christian clergy, he deals positively and emphatically with the problem of total war in an atomic age. He sees only one possible attitude of the Christian toward this problem. “But truly,” says Professor Mills, “I do not see how you can claim to be Christians and yet not speak out totally and dogmatically against the preparations and testing now under way for World War III. As I read it, Christian doctrine in contact with the realities of today cannot lead to any other position.… I believe the decisive test of Christianity lies in your witness of the refusal by individuals and by groups to engage in war. Pacifism, I believe, is the test of your Christianity—and of you.” Since the vast majority of those who claim to be Christians, even among the clergy to whom he is preaching, fail in this decisive test, he finds Christianity bankrupt in moral imagination and a party to the moral defeat of contemporary man.

As a priest of the Church, I am one of those to whom Mr. Mills’ sermon is particularly addressed. But in my added capacity of one who consents to direct a small part of the program of the Atomic Energy Commission, I would certainly be singled out as a glowing example of treachery to the Faith.

The Nature Of Christianity

There is a widespread impression both in the secular world and in large segments of Protestant Christianity that the essence of Christianity is to be found in an ethical idealism. Christianity is interpreted as a religion founded by a teacher in much the same way as Confucianism is based on the teachings of Confucius, or Islam on the teachings of Mohammed. Its essence is considered to be found in the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, supplemented with certain other selected teachings from the Synoptic Gospels which have a suitable ethical or idealistic content. All the rest of the New Testament and essentially all of historic Christianity along with it is rejected as being primarily dogmatic and doctrinal and, therefore, unessential. Judged by this standard of the essentials of Christianity, one who professes to be a Christian can preserve the integrity of his profession only by evident adherence to this ethical ideal.

Sociologists are able to adopt an especially patronizing attitude toward religion in general and Christianity in particular. Having made an exhaustive study of the structure and characteristics of human communities, they are aware of the essential role played by religion in giving meaning, purpose, vitality, and stability to sociological structures. Although confident from the vantage point of their own world view that religion of all kinds is essentially unreal, they nevertheless consider it to be a practical necessity as a source of values which a community must have in order to cohere. Although the objects of religious faith are axiomatically disposed of as having no external reality, and the belief in them as a sad illusion, the majority of men are unable apart from such belief to maintain a sufficiently unshakable loyalty to the central values whose preservation is a pragmatic necessity for society. Thus the typical sociologist is quite prepared to put up with religion and even assign it a place of real practical importance in his scheme of things. However, it is permitted to enjoy this privileged status only so long as it really fulfills its intended function in society.

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Any sociologist who preaches a sermon to Christian clergy, whether an acknowledged pagan or not, can be counted upon to make this demand for functional fulfillment his central point. Dogma and doctrine, liturgy and worship, institutions and personnel, and all other aspects which the clergy take so seriously are permissible and acceptable, but not essential. Since all such things have no reference in reality, they do not really matter one way or the other. But society does depend, really and substantially, on having the Christian clergy actualize the Christian ethical ideal. Sociologically speaking, this is the only real role they have. If they fall down at this crucial point, then Christianity ought to be discarded as a useless and pointless appendage to society. In this judgment both liberal protestantism and secular humanism concur. If the central reality and point of Christianity resides in its ethical teachings and ideals, then the Christian Church is admissible as a proper and useful institution in society at large only insofar as it makes this ideal ultimate in its own life and demands a rigorous adherence to it.

A Sublime History

This view of the essential nature of Christianity is radically at variance with what in fact has been its essential character throughout almost the entire course of its history. Thus none of the great historic affirmations of the Christian faith, the catholic creeds, contain any ethical assertions whatever. They, in full agreement with the central witness of the New Testament, present as the very heart and essence of Christianity not an ethical ideal, a moral code, or a philosophical system, but rather simply a story. To the twentieth century secular humanist as to the first century Greek, this story may seem sheer foolishness or even, as to the first century Jew, a stumbling block in the way of achieving the larger schemes for the perfection of society to which he is committed. It may seem unimportant or irrelevant to the complex issues of the modern world. But however it may be regarded, it nevertheless remains true that Christianity itself has always maintained that this story does in fact constitute its essence.

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Essentially all other world religions have proclaimed the necessity of a reformation of the world before it could be saved. They have held up an ethical ideal and demanded that men somehow acquire the stamina and the moral courage to live up to it before the world could become worthy of God. It is here more than in any other aspect that Christianity is unique among all other religions. For the wonder and power of Christianity and that which made its proclamation really good news was that, while the world was still unworthy and evil, God had acted to save it. This is the great meaning of the story. It is the story of God’s action in power on behalf of sinful and unreformed man. As St. Paul put it, “While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly … while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6, 8). Incredible as it might seem, the good news is that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19).

This is the story, and its great and astounding meaning is that the divine Word by whom all things were made “came down from heaven,” as the creed says “for us men and for our salvation, … and was made man.” “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” This story is the dogma. It is the story of a rescue operation carried out at great cost and danger, even to death upon the cross, by God himself. The good news of it has warmed the hearts and lifted the spirits of men down through the ages. Over and over it has brought with it redeeming and saving power. It is a tragedy of our time that so many have removed this story from the center of Christianity and replaced it with an ethical ideal. In so doing they have taken all the good news out of the Faith, put Christianity on the same status as other religions, and converted Jesus from the Christ into merely one among many in a long line of ethical teachers and moral leaders.

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Other religions have shown their power over men by drawing them out of involvement in the world into a life of superior virtue insulated from the tough immediacies and hard dilemmas of history. The world could stew in its own evil while the religious man separated himself from it and need no longer suffer with it in its misery. Christianity, on the other hand, has shown its unique power in its capacity to send men in the opposite direction into the midst of the world to share fully in all its sickness and misery and unrighteousness. The typical Christian saint has been found in the slums and the leper colonies, bringing the redeeming and saving power of Christ to the publicans and sinners of every age. Other religions call men out of the world into an artificial environment of superior righteousness. Christianity on the contrary draws them into the world to share in its life as it is actually lived and to share too in the joy of participation in its wonderful energy and glorious power to heal and to save.

The Believer’S Involvement

What then shall we say about the role of the Christian in the world today with respect to his involvement in his country’s preparations for nuclear warfare? What must be the response of one who, like myself, after becoming fully involved in the national effort in atomic energy, finds himself discovering that this central story of Christianity really happened, that the incredible assertions of the Church about it are really true, and is thereby caught in the grip of its redeeming power? Must he in response to this discovery escape from his involvement in a situation in which God had placed him beforehand? Are we called upon to break away from the history of which we are a part as our necessary response to the call of a Lord in whom God himself entered human history? Undoubtedly this was the response which much of the world expected of me. But then the world at large in seeking an explanation for my having taken Holy Orders seized upon a moral revulsion at my involvement in the atomic project as the most likely reason. Should I then bear witness to the living reality of my discovery by withdrawing, and so confirm the world’s opinion that Christianity is after all only an ethical ideal? Or would it be a truer witness to stay where I am, the world then wondering whether Christianity might after all involve something more than mere idealism?

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Mr. Mills, from whose pagan sermon to Christian clergy we quoted at the outset, has issued a call to all Christians to join in an all-out effort to end warfare at all costs. One of the chief difficulties with such a call, as I see it, is the sheer enormity of the task. Taken seriously it could easily absorb the entire energy of the Church and make the elimination of war so overriding a consideration that the real task of the Church of proclaiming the Gospel would be swallowed up and lost.

A serious effort of the necessary scope to mobilize all Christians in the service of such an end would involve the Church in what seems to me a most damaging identification of Christianity with the aims and aspirations of the secular world. For secular humanism is just as intensely idealistic and humanitarian as Christianity appears to be to those who have made it into an idealism. Modern man by and large looks upon contemporary history as his own affair, and the world as something to be molded by science to the benefit of man. This is the secular ideal, and it necessarily abhors war because war threatens man’s autonomy and is by now capable of wiping out the gains he has so far made in his quest for self-sufficiency, mastery, and omnipotence. Secular humanism places its whole hope and trust in the efficacy of improved social structures and informed political action to cope successfully with the “problem” of war. It insists that the Church, if it has any residual social value, should join with it so as to form a united front against this dark threat to the sovereignty of man. Placing all our confidence in informed social and political action, let us, they say, make together a great effort to achieve a peaceful world. For them Christianity as such is unreal and outmoded, but they are quite ready to recognize Christian love as a powerful sociological force and to exploit it to the full for the achievement of their goal.

The easy identification of Christian ethics with secular goals is perhaps the greatest barrier in the way of modern man’s receptiveness to the central proclamation of Christianity, the wonderful good news that “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.” It is important for the Christian to see this clearly and to avoid the temptation to allow something secondary and derived to obscure the central theme to which he is called to bear witness. War, death, and destruction are not the ultimate calamity. If they were, we should be lost indeed, for time would then see to it in any event that every achievement of man would finally be swallowed up in meaninglessness and nothingness.

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Terrible as atomic war unquestionably is, it does not stand as dominantly against Christianity as another more subtle, and from man’s standpoint much less fearful, aspect of our contemporary life. For the most radical opposition between Christian faith and the actuality of modern life is found not in modern warfare but rather in our modern quest for the complete autonomy of man. The prevailing spirit is one of marvel at the triumphs of science, medicine, and modern technology. The prevailing hope lies in the expectation of the practical achievement of a man-made universe functioning in accordance with man-made standards of efficiency, economy, and comfort. No more terrible affront to his Creator can be made by man than this all-out determination to seize God’s creation from him and make himself sovereign within it.

War is not only a fruit of the wickedness of human hearts whose cure we must be ever vigilant to bring about. It is also, and always, at the same time a manifestation of divine judgment on human sin. We must be careful that in bringing the redemptive power of the Gospel to the cure of the one, we do not at the same time become involved with the world at large in a proud and unrepentant rebellion against the other. For how can we be sure that it is really God’s will that modern man should be released from the judgment of war, and set free thereby to proceed once more unhampered along his chosen path toward the achievement of mastery over nature and society?

Dispelling Human Autonomy

The great truths of the Christian faith, which must be proclaimed if the prevailing secular illusions of the possibility of human autonomy are to be dispelled, are the Lordship of Christ in history and man’s need for humbling himself and seeking guidance and mercy from him who really created the universe. We must at all costs avoid committing ourselves to any course which weakens or obscures this primary mission of Christianity. This to me is a crucial problem for those Christian bodies organized for action on behalf of world peace. How, for example, is the world at large to distinguish between the Christian mission for world peace and the equally urgent call to all secular humanists of reasonableness and good will which was issued a few years ago by Mr. Lewis Mumford in his book, In the Name of Sanity? If we in the name of Christ issue the same call as that which the world at large issues in the name of sanity, how is Christ to be truly known again in our time? If our preaching becomes identical with Mr. Mills’ pagan sennon, who is to preach the truth of Christ to the pagan world?

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From our finite vantage point on the earth we can easily acquire a view of reality and a scale of values which is the direct opposite of God’s view which encompasses the whole of creation from an infinite vantage point. The contrast between God’s view and ours can be made with respect to the whole modern technological enterprise including as its most striking manifestation the atomic energy enterprise. Doubtless the majority of people would agree that the expenditure of human energy in the development of the beneficial aspects of atomic energy for power, industry, agriculture, and medicine, is a social good directed toward the betterment of the conditions of human life and, therefore, doubtless pleasing to God and in accordance with his will for man. General assent would also be given that the devotion of such a large part of our energy to the perfection of atomic and thermonuclear weapons in preparation for a holocaust on a truly terrible scale is an unmitigated evil diametrically opposed to God’s will and meriting only his wrath and righteous indignation. Before giving our approval to these apparently axiomatic assertions, let us, however, pause to ask whether it might be that in God’s sight these two aspects of our atomic energy efforts would stand in a quite different contrast?

An unusual and important book was published several years ago under the title, Tomorrow is Already Here, by the Swiss journalist, Robert Jungk (Scribner’s, 1954). This book is not nearly so well known as it deserves to be. He holds up a mirror to American life which reflects a rather ugly image. In summary he says of this image: “America is striving to win power over the sum total of things, complete and absolute mastery of nature in all its aspects. This bid for power is not directed against any nation, class, or race.… The stake is higher than dictators’ seats and presidents’ chairs. The stake is the throne of God. To occupy God’s place, to repeat his deeds, to re-create and organize a man-made cosmos according to man-made laws of reason, foresight, and efficiency: that is America’s ultimate objective.”

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If this indeed is a valid picture of the innermost drives which empower contemporary American life, would it not be true that such a “grasping for omnipotence” could well be a far more terrible affront to God than even our current preparations for atomic warfare? If our effort in the peaceful development of atomic energy is taking place in such a context, it may really be worse when viewed from the perspective of the eternal purpose and destiny of human life than is our effort to develop the military aspects of atomic energy. If this is indeed the case, then it is perhaps not God’s will that we be released from the threat of nuclear warfare.

With respect to the proposal that the United States immediately and unilaterally stop all military preparations and weapons development, which Mr. Mills’ sermon urged the Christian clergy to adopt, I could not possibly conscientiously urge such a policy upon our government. I do not believe it would make World War III less likely, but rather my own expectation would be that such a decision would encourage war. Moreover, I cannot believe that a free decision on our part to abandon ourselves and the rest of the world to the grim tyranny of communism would represent a right or moral action on our part. At the same time, however, I must agree with Mr. Mills that war has become so total and so horribly destructive that any policy of preparation for it which seriously contemplates engaging in it is morally indefensible. I cannot develop a rational reconciliation between these two positions.

What will be the outcome of this terrible juncture we cannot foresee. We must, of course, do everything in our power to find ways of restraining the terrible potentialities of the human will now that the vast powers locked in the very heart of matter have been placed at man’s disposal. But when we have done all that is within our power to do, what if the end is nevertheless upon us? Is this prospect to be the occasion for us of hysterical fear and panic?

For secular man it is indeed a black and fearful prospect. But for the true Christian it is nothing of the kind. For the Christian lives in a created world; a world that has had a beginning in time and is moving toward an end; a world which was brought into being in the first place for some wonderful and mysterious purpose of its Creator, and whose unfolding in time is leading toward some great and wonderful fruition at its climax. The whole New Testament is pervaded with a thrilling sense of the imminent possibility of the termination of history in a great climactic act in which the judgment of the Creator is to be finally rendered on his creation. Within the life in Christ the contemplation of such finality is the occasion of sober joy and prayerful anticipation. As St. Paul puts it: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God … the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19–21).

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From his own profound understanding of the dark depths of his own sinful nature, the Christian knows that it is the power of Almighty God alone which can “order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men;” that in the words of the 65th Psalm it is he “who stilleth the raging of the sea, and the noise of his waves, and the madness of the peoples.” But knowing this in a spirit of deep contrition and repentance, the Christian also knows the joyous wonder of the Good News that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Secure in this knowledge the Christian, having by the grace of God done all that he can in his own small way, is content to leave the ultimate destiny of the world in the hands of its Creator.

Dr. William G. Pollard is Priest-in-Charge of St. Francis’ Episcopal Church, Norris, Tennessee, and Executive Director of the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies in Tennessee. This article abridges his closing address in the Bohlen Lectures delivered in Philadelphia’s Church of the Holy Trinity on the timely subject of “Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.”

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