The turn of the year finds North America courting despair. Too much has been happening. Our consciences are being drained of sensitivity.
The most obvious reason for our disillusionment is the recurring political scandals. These scandals leave us wondering whether any holders of high public office can be trusted. Are the pressures so great that few or none can resist? Is it no longer possible to expect standards of right and wrong to be maintained?
Problems in the Middle East and the apparently consequent energy crisis compound our gloom. A major depression may ensue with widespread unemployment and perhaps an increasing crime rate. What is infinitely worse, we could be plunged into a nuclear war over oil. Ecological imbalance is a growing danger, as is population growth. Toffler insists that change itself represents a menace. Today the threats to our quality of life, even existence, come from an unprecedented number of different sources.
Evangelical churches are for the most part alive and well, though they still house vast stores of untapped potential. They showed some signs of mobilization in 1973.
More important than all these factors, and at least partly the result of them, is the ideological vacuum in which North America now finds itself. The civil-rights movement carried the ideological initiative in the early sixties. Then the New Left and Women’s Lib picked up where the blacks left off. All have had some positive social impact amid the turbulence they generated. Thanks to them, American society as a whole is somewhat more aware of the need for greater justice. But these movements have run out of steam. American blacks still have a long way to go to achieve the equality due them, but their leaders and interested whites have failed to show sufficient perseverence. The New Left, never quite sure what kind of new system should replace the old one, seems to have petered out. If the Equal Rights amendment fails, Women’s Lib may follow it into oblivion. There is currently no movement capturing the imagination of those who have the power to mold if not control society.
We are left with a sobering question: Can or will evangelical Christianity rise to the challenge, or will it let itself be numbed by the surrounding adversity? If true believers do not seize the initiative, the ideological vacuum will be filled by some alien influence. The opportunity will not be with us very long, for nature abhors a vacuum. Would-be messiahs will surface soon and take over the cultural leadership.
Evangelicals’ main problem is that so many of them question whether anything substantial can be done. Os Guinness makes the point well in The Dust of Death:
I have often seen people deeply stirred by the terrible dilemmas of modern society and excited by the relevance of a related Christianity only to be paralyzed by the thought of their own next step or contribution. This malaise of immobility, this dearth of discipline is a blight upon our generation.
A hundred persevering Christians in an intelligent, well thought out effort could turn this country around. The attitude that the world is going to hell anyway encourages evangelicals to accept an overspiritualized view of the future. A mentality develops that says in effect that the drift of this world cannot be altered or even slowed; all the Christian can do is wait for the advent of the next divine era. Such an attitude virtually loses sight of the biblical view of the Christian’s role as God’s agent: he is to preach the Good News of God’s offer of salvation, to be sure, but he is also to tend God’s creation. Our main goal is to help unregenerate men understand the claims of Christ and to give them a chance to accept or reject God’s offer. By working for a good earth, we not only obey God’s cultural mandate to look after the garden, but we also show the unbeliever that we have his best interests at heart, that we are not after his soul simply for the sake of church statistics or personal gratification.
Evangelicals everywhere should echo the Chicago declaration (see December 21 issue): “We make this declaration in the biblical hope that Christ is coming to consummate the Kingdom and we accept his claim on our total discipleship till He comes.”
This means that individual believers must put aside the good and nice for the better and best. The world responds to the pressure of the times by succumbing to a vast assortment of diversions: sex, drugs, sports, and all kinds of creature comforts. For Christians, it is a matter of setting priorities and sticking to them. Will we allow ourselves to be preoccupied with things that take our minds off our problems, or will we work to solve those problems? We need not swing the pendulum to the extreme of austerity or monasticism. We should, however, separate important goals from less important objectives and strive for achievements that will really count in the long run—even if it brings frowns from friends and acquaintances who are content with crumbs. Key 73 gave us a start. Can we not build upon it?
A great new evangelical movement must start with thinking Christians in the congregation and on the campus. The great battle today, after all, is the battle for the mind. Nothing can withstand a great idea supported with passion, and it is at this level that our best prospect lies. Christians on campuses throughout the continent have a special stake in this battle.
At the local church level, a great deal of boredom, indifference, fatigue, and frustration must be countered if evangelicals are to rise to the occasion. These are but symptoms, however, of disobedience to the marching orders of the Church, and they will not be cured by treatment that isolates them from God’s commands.
They will be vanquished when evangelical Christians get their minds off themselves and individual spiritual experience and start thinking about others—working for them and with them for the glory of God and the advancement of his Kingdom.
Daniel Day Williams, 1910–1973
Among the exponents of process theology, a school of thought strongly influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, the name of Daniel Day Williams stands out. Williams was ordained to the ministry in his native Colorado in 1936; he later followed the majority of his fellow Congregationalists into the United Church of Christ. Called to various scholarly posts—ultimately to Union Theological Seminary (New York) to succeed Paul Tillich—at the time of his death in early December he ranked, along with his Harvard namesake George H. Williams, among Congregationalism’s academic theologians of international stature.
The origins of process theology lie in an attempt to grapple with the twentieth-century revolution in the scientific world view on the one hand and, on the other, the dynamic theme of the dialectic, elaborated by Hegel and his successors. It involves a legitimate criticism of what many see as an excessive influence of Platonism and preoccupation with categories of being, rather than activity and existence, in the classical tradition of Christian theology. At the same time, it resembles the other branches of modern liberal theology in its defective view of revelation and of truth.
Several of the so-called process theologians built on Whitehead’s thought to speculate about the nature of a dynamic God; the French Catholic thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin pursued similar themes to arrive at a mystic vision of the whole cosmic process. Williams, by contrast, was interested less in the doctrine of God than in the doctrine of man as made in God’s image. The idea and the lived-out reality of love and its fundamental significance for man’s being are the themes of his best-known book, The Spirit and the Forms of Love. As a consequence, Williams’s works have a freshness of approach and insight that makes them stimulating and often useful to evangelical believers despite the major criticisms that must be made of process theology from the perspective of historic, biblical Christianity.
The New Vice-President
Early indications suggest that Gerald Ford will be good for America. The new Vice-President was enthusiastically approved by Congress and well received by the people. Thank God for that. We went through a great deal in 1973, and we look longingly for signs that the country is on the rebound.
Ford came through an intensive investigation virtually unscathed. He is highly respected even by those who oppose his ideology. Those are important factors, especially in light of the fact that he took office under something less than favorable circumstances. We challenge Ford to take most seriously the lessons to be drawn from the sordid events of the past year and to remain scrupulously honest. Only by doing so will he contribute to the restoration of a respect for leadership.
A Certain Difference
Just before the Middle East war broke out, the well-known French legal scholar and Reformed layman Jacques Ellul began an article for the French magazine Réforme. Faced with the war, he said that he found all of France, himself included, strangely sluggish about recognizing the tremendous moral implications of the recurrent struggle:
Between the Arabs and Israel, there is a major difference: even if defeated, the Arab world will survive and will remain intact, although it may lose a few square miles of territory. Israel, once defeated, will disappear from the map. Everyone knows perfectly well that the reconquest of lost territories is only the prelude to the next war, because the “Palestinian problem” will not be resolved. What is at stake on one side is absolutely not comparable to what is at stake on the other, and no one who is not blinded by passion can fail to realize that to risk everything is much more tragic than just to risk something [Réforme, Nov. 3, 1973, p. 3].
Ellul accuses the leaders of France—and by implication, of other nations as well—of manifesting a “stupefying ignorance” of what is at stake—comparable to that manifested, for example, by France, Britain, and America toward the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, and also in countless ways since then. “I am now afraid,” he writes, “that the accumulation of injustice will provoke (and why not) the unleashing of God’s wrath.”
In the conflict between Israel and the Arabs, there is, as in virtually every human conflict, right and wrong on both sides. There is, for example, the question of the Palestinian refugees driven out in 1947–50. But now there are 1.5 million “refugees,” ten times as many as fled the nascent state of Israel. And there would be no refugee problem if the Arab states, so large and possessed of such immense wealth, had accepted them. What would be the prospects for peace and justice in Europe if the 100,000 Hungarian refugees of the 1956 revolt had been maintained until the present in squalid camps near the Hungarian border, armed, incited and periodically sent on raids of sabotage and assassination?
But even the Palestinian problem, aggravated though it has been through twenty years, could be resolved, provided the Arab world is willing to recognize, as it has not yet believably done, Israel’s right to exist as a nation. We may disagree with Israeli action, and acutely feel the embarrassment—and shortages—that support for Israel may cause us and others, but unless we are willing to say that Israel has no right to exist and may properly be exterminated or scattered to the four winds, we must recognize that between the claims of Israel and those of its Arab neighbors there is a certain and significant difference. Unless we face this reality squarely and are prepared to take the consequence, we run the risk of fulfilling what Ellul says France has already begun—adopting a policy of accommodation to the horrible that can only end, for us as for its other victims, with consequences of which we will say with astonishment, “But we never wanted that!”
From Uncle Sam: A Hapless New Year
Like many other religious magazines, including denominational ones, CHRISTIANITY TODAY has always lived from hand to mouth. We have no endowment and must secure substantial gift income each year to balance our budget.
The government recently increased postage rates and will increase them further and substantially in the next few years. To mail the same amount of material in 1974 that we mailed in 1973 will cost us an additional $100,000. The new rates will certainly drive many ailing publications out of business, and many more will be pushed to the wall if the further projected increases go into effect.
It has been argued that the previous mail rates were unrealistic and constituted a government subsidy. For the sake of argument we will grant that perhaps the rates for magazines, newspapers, and non-profit organizations have not fully covered the actual postal costs. One can argue that every tub should stand on its own bottom, that any enterprise unable to hold its own should go out of business.
But if this argument is to apply, it should apply across the board. There should be no farm subsidies; the railroads and airplane companies should not be rescued from bankruptcy by government support; and the thousands of other direct and indirect subsidies should be discontinued. This is a very unlikely possibility.
The free flow of ideas is essential to the democratic way of life. When this flow becomes difficult or impossible, the loss is irreparable. Fifty or a hundred thousand or several million dollars’ differences in annual postage costs can force many newspapers, magazines, and eleemosynary organizations out of business. This is too high a price to pay for postal inefficiency, particularly when the government spends billions of dollars in other subsidies.
What To Do To Earn God’s Favor: Nothing
The Bible shows in the clearest and simplest terms the perfection and permanence of Christ’s atoning work. In Hebrews 1:3 and 10:12 the expression “sat down” is used in describing what Christ did after he had given himself in suffering for human sin. While ministering in the temple and tabernacle the Jewish priests have always stood, as did the high priest when he entered the Holy of Holies once a year. Theirs was a partial work. But Christ our great high priest accomplished redemption once and for all in his death on the cross. There was nothing else left to be done, nor indeed could there be. His was a completed and perfect work to be appropriated individually by faith and trust.
For some reason or other, this all-important point is not readily put across. Many men and women throughout history and even now—theologically intelligent people—have condoned the notion that “we have to do our part.” Perhaps the saddest sight in Rome is penitent pilgrims climbing steps on their hands and knees. Our attitude as believers should be that of humility, and our gratitude to God for what he has done for us should be expressed in good works, but this response on our part does not impart additional grace—saving or otherwise. God’s son did it all!
Reason alone tells us that lowly human beings cannot do anything in and of themselves to gain stature with an almighty, sovereign God. Scripture confirms the principle: Christ paid the debt in full.
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