Perhaps never before has there been greater necessity for clear and specific loyalty to Jesus as the Son of God and his complete and unique revelation of God and God’s will to men. There is little doubt, however, that the dilemma is an increasing one for many modern religious thinkers: Is Jesus Christ the Incarnate Son of God or is he not? There seems to be no possible way to answer the question by taking a little of both positions and trying to find a “least common denominator” of our faith. Is the revelation of God in Christ full and final, or is it not? Related to that is the question, “Is the Christian religion the ultimate religion or is it merely one of many good religions, all of which should make their relative contributions to the great and final religion of the future?” We are not concerned here to ask, “Is Christianity in any of our present forms the ultimate religion?” but rather, “Is the Christian religion, revealed ideally in Jesus Christ, the ultimate religion toward which we strive to move, in contrast to a syncretistic fusion of all modern religions?” The dilemma is a serious one not only for religious thinkers but for literally millions of honest lay people in our time. One of the strongest appeals of the sects is their positiveness at this point.
Among the severer attacks on Christianity have been the subtle attempts to undercut its basic assumptions. Among these assumptions are the deity of Christ, the full revelation of God in the Incarnation, and the divine mission of the Church. When challenged to choose whether Christ or Caesar was God, men gladly submitted themselves to be torn limb from limb, and later, through the refinement of the centuries, were dismembered on the rack or burned at the stake. Such heroism and wide dissemination of the truth for which they died actually did result in making their blood the seed of the Church. In recent centuries methods of persuasion have usually been much less strenuous. Even disbarment from one of the leading denominations has been somewhat eased, as in the case of the “heretical” Professor Briggs, by his gentle reception into the Anglican fold.
The really dangerous attacks upon Christianity have not been the open frontal challenges but the subtler methods of inquiry, carried on with no basic assumptions except the nature of the problem at hand and implicit unquestioned confidence in human intelligence to solve the problem. Such assumptions have led men to depend more and more for the solutions of their problems on the immediate evidence sensibly present, and the ability of the human mind, though finite, to interpret this evidence correctly. So the Renaissance, while contributing through its spirit of inquiry to the Reformation movement, issued ultimately in a sterile rationalism. This sometimes took the form of a diluted Spinozan pantheism or an impersonal and irresponsible deism, in which God disinterestedly looks on what he has made. By such stages of deterioration a personal God ends in an impersonal principle, before which none is moved to bow or to pray.
The subtle, internal, intellectual attacks on Christianity have been far more effective and damaging than open frontal attacks on individual Christians and the Christian Church. Occasionally one might wish that contemporary Christians were confronted with a choice of loyalty to Christ or being tossed to the lions. The probability is that we would find a higher percentage of favorable response to such a challenge than we are finding to the modern boring from within.
THE BASIC ISSUE
There is no other way to be certain we are living under the truth of God than to ask whether we fully understand what the basic items of our Christian faith may mean under the enlightenment of our age and whether we are fully committed to them. The essential question then is not of our understanding but of our acceptance of truth beyond our limited understanding. Do we believe that this truth is embodied in Christ, whether or not we fully understand it?
It has been very interesting to see the wide publicity given in recent days to the government support of adventurous scientists at the Brookhaven laboratory on Long Island. It is reported that the $18.5 million annual budget is dedicated in essence to the solution of two questions: “What is matter?” and ‘What is life?”
Not only in religious thinking but also in those areas where modern science impinges most closely on human life, such as psychology and sociology, we have frequently been led to a type of relativism which explains away a distinction between good and evil and right and wrong and leaves the conscientious individual dangling for want of an absolute. Even though all the mysteries of life seem to end up being merely relative, men still long for the absolute. Because of this longing Father John LaFarge in his An American Amen is able to assert that the general public, including the nonreligious and the antireligious, is more than ever interested in what churches and churchmen have to say. He feels that this may be due in part at least to the fact that religious thinkers are giving some answers to the large question of good and evil and the meaning of human life.
But the subtle difference between the “Brookhaven type” investigation and the committed, yet alertly critical, approach is one of underlying assumptions. Recognizing that all modern science embodies the scientific progress of the past, we can say that the quest for the understanding of matter and life in a contemporary frame of reference must always be limited to such understanding as one human mind, or group of minds, currently engaged on the problem can perceive.
The religious outlook, while alert to the findings of Brookhaven and all other sources of truth, is clearer and wider because it is set in a larger perspective. Even the physical experimenters in “particle” physics at Brookhaven seem to be searching for a larger referential dimension. One reporter says: “These innumerable particle experiments have thus far tended to intensify rather than solve the mystery of matter. Even so big and mundane an article as a common old proton is still a pretty mysterious object, but the exotic new particles—the hyperons, heavy mesons, and light mesons—are much more baffling, if only because the most durable of them lasts only for a millionth of a second” (Life, Sept. 29, 1958, p. 109). A truly religious scientist or a properly scientific theologian is guided not only by external evidences but basic assumptions as well. He is bound by faith besides understanding. The Christian scientific theologian assumes and believes the Incarnation and the full revelation of God in Christ.
THE CHRISTIAN THRUST
Having stated the essential difference between the scientific and the Christian approach to the ultimate questions a thoughtful human must face, we come now to the most dangerous area of all: the attempt to distinguish between the Christian and other possible religious points of view.
The real dilemma in our times is an overconcern for the elimination of differences among faiths. In our haste for unity we prematurely resolve these differences not by clarity of understanding of the eternal truth of God but by a compromised, diluted, half-truth (or combination of half-truths) of man’s own devising. This makes it ever more difficult for us to recognize the truth when we see it and to accept it.
Now as objectively as possible, admitting that we are emotionally involved and unashamedly committed, we must attempt to sharpen the issue and indicate the direction in which the answer to our dilemma lies.
It would be difficult to trace to its beginnings the subtlest attacks on our basic Christian assumptions. Equally difficult would be the designation of those who, having denied these assumptions, still insisted on calling themselves Christian. I suppose a case for priority in all this could be made for Chloe’s friends at Corinth. Certainly one finds such evidence already in Clement and Origen and in the earlier school at Antioch, all of which lie back of the Arian problem. For historical purposes, these are fascinating; for understanding that our dilemma is not alone a mid-twentieth century problem, they are essential. The relevant fact is that currently we are face to face with this perennial problem and stand a chance of losing the battle.
To take an arbitrary modern point of beginning, we may say that ever since laymen inquired into the modern missionary program we have been “rethinking missions” and other world religions to the point where we have minimized differences between them and Christianity and frequently moved in the direction of compromise with them. Several years ago Arnold Toynbee said that if he were pressed to choose between modern Buddhism and Christianity he would be hard put to it. His own relativistic interpretation of history has often left the distinguished British historian with something less than a reasonable hope for the future and has earned him the rather unenviable title of “mortician to civilizations.”
Nor has this movement in the direction of religious relativism and indifferentism, as Karl Barth calls it, been the sole prerogative of the Christians. Two distinguished Jewish writers, Mordecai Kaplan and Jack J. Cohen, have recently and respectively written Judaism Without Supernaturalism and The Case for Religious Naturalism. Such men have had nonprofessionally religious ancestors among the pragmatic philosophers of the ages. We have others now, even those more professionally allied with the structure of the Christian Church, who would assert that the word God is a proper name to designate a principle of being at the heart of our universe, but that to admit that he exists as a person, though infinitely greater in all dimensions than our personality, is an impossible proposition. In such a system the identification of Jesus with God becomes only symbolic and the Incarnation a major “myth of the dogmatic theologians.”
The very procedure and choice of words describing methods used by modern critical scholars sometimes obscures the end in view. Now Formgeschichte is probably a neutral word, yet many serious-minded persons would probably hope that it would not happen to their best friends. The word “myth” is an emotional and colored word and by its overtones connotes something fanciful and possibly untrue about the faith to be demythologized. Using better discretion we could well be zealous in our critical approaches to the proper reconstruction of historical backgrounds of biblical history and form and yet leave the faithful with their faith unharmed or even supported by our description of our procedures. Is it any wonder that there are thoughtful people who are more concerned about their admission to exclusive clubs than they are about their admission to the no-longer-very-mysterious church?
There may be another straw in this wind to be observed when one considers the matter of fine arts in recent decades. One of Boston’s most promising artists says that while religious writers have been concentrating on the rational and minimizing the mystery of faith, painters, at one time much more photographic and realistic in their efforts, have now become enamored with depicting the numinous. Modern music has also attempted to invade this sphere. Finding no longer the external challenge of the mysterium tremendum, men have been willing to settle for the mysterium moderatum. That there is mystery in life, not understood but full of meaning, men are willing to give a lifetime to prove and describe. And here we are back at our beginning. We are seeking to know ultimate answers: What is matter? What is life? What is back of all being?
There are two possibilities of approach, the religious and the nonreligious. If one chooses the religious, he has before him many possibilities. And even if one chooses the Christian approach to find the solution to these questions, there are varieties of emphasis. But if it is a Christian approach, certain basic assumptions or convictions must be assumed. We do not have to choose these assumptions, but if we are truly Christian we cannot begin our quest without first assuming a personal God (greater in every dimension than our own person), his incarnation in Jesus Christ, and the full and final revelation of God’s truth in Christ, which, although we may not now fully understand it, remains for us the major and ultimate quest and its achievement the source of our strength.
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
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