Anyone present at uppsala this past summer had to be impressed with the this-worldly focus of the World Council of Churches assembly. The world around us, not the world above us, was given top concern. The world and its crises, not the individual and his condition, had center stage.
Isolationist piety and introverted faith were clearly of no interest here. The acute questions that haunted the assembly were relational ones: faith and ethics, faith and politics, faith and justice More than at the previous assembly in New Delhi, delegates were bent on demonstrating that the Gospel does not abandon the world and human life as a no-man’s-land beyond Christian concern and influence. They tried to show that the Christian Gospel has everything to do with this world and with human life in all its dimensions within the world.
How this is to be done is another matter, one over which the real arguments arise. But the concern itself is authentically biblical. Genuine faith always carries consequences in life, always bears fruit in practical affairs. The Scriptures abhor introverted faith. John the Apostle said something about a man who closes his heart to a brother in need—how can the love of God be in such a man (1 John 3:17). We need not be surprised that the threats to humanity within our modern world compel the older just as well as the younger generation to ask what the Christian faith has to say and do in the face of them, what the Christian Church can mean, in its words and actions, for this age.
We all know that the problem is not a new one. Anyone who has ever wrestled in earnest with the meaning of faith has come to grips with the relation between the first and second commandments. Anyone who has looked hard at his own response to Christ has asked himself about the identity that Jesus makes between himself and the least of his brothers (Matthew 25). Some of us are inclined to see hints to humanistic religion in any concentrated concern for the neighbor and the world. And, of course, this-worldly concern can be the expression of humanistic religion rather than the concern of the Gospel. But we should never let fear tempt us to ignore or even shave a hair off the real biblical concern for earthly life. The Bible does, and the Church should, make abundantly clear to all that genuine Christian faith makes a radical difference for human life on this earth and in this time.
The choice between a vertical and a horizontal faith is, biblically considered, ridiculous. We should never allow ourselves to accept so false a dilemma. When, according to Isaiah 11:9, the earth is full of the knowledge of Jahweh, then shall man do evil no more within God’s holy mountain. Indeed, all of Scripture—the Old Testament prophets along with Paul, John, and James—is charged with protest against introverted, individualistic, egocentric piety. The vertical dimension of the Gospel does not relativize the horizontal concerns of faith; rather, the vertical dimension forces us to awaken to the urgent and inescapable demands of the horizontal dimensions of life.
Naturally, the evangelical Christian has to keep his eyes open to the possibility that horizontal concerns can betray a reintroduction of a social gospel that is tempted to let our actions, our involvement, and our solutions to cloud the light of God’s Gospel. Should we fall to this temptation, we would let the second commandment swallow up to first, the secular to consume the sacred, the human to crowd out the divine. But, with our eyes open to this danger, we must be willing to accept the theme of Uppsala, a theme that reminds us emphatically of the Lord who wills to make all things new and who exposes any pretentions we may have of achieving the new creation on our own.
What God is doing and shall do, however, only increases Christian responsibility. For the Gospel of Jesus, Christ rejects defeatism and its partner, inertia. It may be a temptation of our technological age to suppose that we have little need of God anymore, that all things that need doing can be done by human ingenuity. It is also a temptation of Christians in any age to suppose that, since God shall do for us what we cannot do, we really have nothing much to do. Uppsala tried to transcend this dilemma.
All churches, within and without the World Council, are called to reject this dilemma, and to stand ready for service to the world.
While at Uppsala, I was reminded that this challenge is crucial for the future. The ways ahead are full of familiar dangers. On one hand, we could react to the challenge out of fear, fear of humanizing the Gospel, and so turn our minds and wills away from our calling in and for the world. On the other hand, we could react in impatience with other-worldly faith and accept only the challenge of this-worldly concern. The Gospel shows us a better, more fruitful way, a way that can liberate us from either of these one-sided, myopic outlooks. The Gospel can save us from dependence on human morality in the world and from a piety that is willing to let this world go to the devil. For it is the Gospel that calls us in the name of the ascended and coming Lord to bring the Light and to be the salt of this world as it agonizes through history into God’s future.
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