What will the last quarter of the twentieth century be like? How will the Church of Christ fare in it?
Many people today seem to assume that our future will be dominated by Marxism, or even by some form of Communism. They foresee a state of affairs in which, under pressure from economic forces, lives will increasingly be controlled by the state. Not a few think this kind of take-over is inevitable and have been trying to adjust their expectations accordingly. I do not say that this is always deliberate; often they are just caught up half-thinkingly in the prevailing trends.
On the whole the churches seem bent on adapting themselves to the ceaseless onrush of socio-political change, under the naïve impression that this is the progressive or enlightened thing to do, and that neither preaching nor theology can be relevant unless it is politically involved. This outlook seems to reflect a form of the Marxist fallacy that religion is the opiate of the people, namely, the idea that the less people think of the other world, the more they will love their neighbors—which is the exact opposite of the teaching of Jesus.
Furthermore, militant “theologies of liberation” have assimilated the prophetic passion of Jewish messianism, and the revolutionary nature and impetus of the Christian message, to Marxist ideology. These liberation theologians adopt a Marxist interpretation of history according to which class conflicts lead, through an inner necessity, to a future in which all human miseries will be eliminated. They believe that Karl Marx uncovered the fundamental “laws of motion” governing society, and thereby turned the understanding of our social problems the right way up. All this involves a causal interpretation of human affairs and a materialist framework for all human ideals, while the kind of utopia it holds out ultimately relies for its fulfillment on violence.
I believe that such an alliance of Christianity with Marxism is a grave mistake. Any socialization or materialization of the Church’s message along these lines can only empty it of its biblical and evangelical content, as well as undermine the freedoms to which traditional Christianity has given rise. There is no possibility along that road of transmuting human society into a community of love, for Marxism has no gospel of salvation from man’s self-centeredness and greed; it can only clamp down upon human life the enslaving structures of group egoism. But even apart from that, I believe that Marxism has no real future. Let me offer two broad reasons for this conviction.
First, the great advances we have been making in science have steadily been eroding the foundations of Marxism by destroying the obsolete ideas of a closed mechanistic universe and the hard instrumentalism that goes with it. The Marxist conception of the technological society is a product of the old positivist view of science, operating with causal mechanisms that it imposes upon every aspect of natural and human existence. But all this is now collapsing. An enormous revolution is taking place in the foundations of knowledge. What is emerging is a very different outlook upon the universe, an outlook characterized by open structures, in which mechanistic concepts have only a limited and low-level validity. The correlate of this new science is a freer and open society in which personal and social relations are emancipated from the tyranny of impersonal forces.
Even apart from the scientific destruction of Marxist premises, we find everywhere today a vast, instinctive revolt against the imperialism of socio-political institutions. One instance of this is the reaction of the young against social mechanization and establishment structures. But this kind of reaction has nothing constructive to offer, unlike what is now developing out of the new science.
I do not believe that the Christian Church has anything to fear from the advance of science. In fact, the more truly scientific inquiry discloses the structures of the created world, the more at home we Christians ought to be in it, for this creation came into being through the Word of God, and in it that Word was made flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord. The more I engage in dialogue with scientists and understand the implications of their startling discoveries, the more I find that, far from contradicting our fundamental beliefs, they open the way for a deeper grasp of the Christian doctrines of creation, incarnation, reconciliation, resurrection, and, not least, the Holy Trinity. This is an age in which we are being emancipated from the tyranny of a narrow-minded scientism, an age in which true science and theology are thrown closely together in the service of God the Father Almighty.
Fuel the pastoral ministry and you feed a society surfeited by secularism, materialism, and a Marxist interpretation of history.
The other reason why I think Marxism has no real future is that there has arisen an immense hunger for spiritual realities that will not be satisfied with merely technological or social reorganization of human affairs. Even science itself, as Michael Polanyi has shown us for many years, cannot do without transcendent grounds, for it perverts and destroys itself when it cuts itself off from spiritual reality and ultimate beliefs. Science has reached the boundary point where it realizes its own limits; hence it is dangerous to delude ourselves with the idea that through natural science we have the only avenue to a true understanding of the universe. Scientists themselves are everywhere acknowledging the need to probe into a deeper dimension of the spirit.
Human civilization is sick of its diet of materialism and secularism; there is a longing for other-worldly and divine resources. The very fact that the Soviet government has to use secret police and brute force to suppress the distribution of the Bible and the dissemination of the Gospel is a mighty tribute both to the power of Christianity and to a desire for spiritual life that will not be denied. In the Western world, this longing for spirituality sometimes takes bizarre forms, such as involvement in the occult, but behind it all there is surely a desperate hunger for God, a craving for the bread of life. The human spirit has been made for communion with God and will not be stifled by social or institutional substitutes.
The most striking sign of the quest for spiritual experience is the tide of pentecostalism that has broken through the confines of religious and ecclesiastical formalism. It refuses to have anything to do with a distant, inactive deity; it insists that God is alive and dynamically at work through his Spirit in the personal and social life of believers, moving them toward Jesus Christ.
But whether or not the charismatic movement as such breaks out among the churches, undoubtedly a steady spiritual eruption is taking place. Common people, bored and depressed by the incessant moral denunciations they hear all round them and frustrated by sermons lacking evangelical joy, clamor for the sheer, stark simplicity of Jesus, and the good news of the Gospel of salvation he proclaimed. In the last few months many people have written or spoken to me of a deep hunger in human hearts, a cry for spiritual help, a yearning for deeper faith in Christ, and a new desire for prayer. I believe a spiritual awakening is on the way, rising from the grass roots of the Church.
What this all means is that the Church is faced with an unparalleled opportunity. The deep changes going on in our way of life that (despite outward appearances at the moment) are leading to a free and open society, together with the recognition that human thought must be lifted up to a higher level of spiritual reality, even for the progress of science, give us a magnificent chance to hold up Jesus Christ in such a way that the Gospel is allowed to exert its transforming power upon human culture, and thus shape the fundamental pattern of our social order.
To do this, we must reach a deeper understanding of the essential mission of the Church. Let me indicate something of the way in which I envisage this mission by calling to mind the early Church and the Reformation.
Surely the most impressive fact about the early Church was the irrepressible, spontaneous outburst of Good News with which it exploded upon the ancient world in land after land. Its daily life throbbed with mission and expansion in such a way that every believer seemed to be a missionary. At least, every believer was a witness, for to be a Christian and to be a witness to Christ were the same thing. It was the hallmark of a Christian that he was ready to pay the cost of witness and discipleship in martyrdom. There were no missionary societies in those days, and yet the Gospel spread like a forest fire, until within three hundred years the civilized world was claimed for Christianity. There was no attempt to carry through a program of social change, and yet society was profoundly transformed. The Christian Church proved to be most effective in changing the world by being faithful to its missionary mandate.
What was the secret of it all? The early Christians had a divine message, and they really believed in it. I am thinking here not of the great doctrines of the faith to which they gave classical expression in the creeds so much as of belief in the active intervention of God himself in our human life. They could not get over the staggering significance of the Incarnation, God manifest in the flesh, or of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, which knocked a gaping hole through all mundane religion and philosophy. This is the Creator himself at work in our life and death, the Saviour of the world. And it was because they really believed in that kind of direct interaction between the living God and this world that meditation, worship, prayer, and intercession occupied such a large place in the life of the early Christians.
Such a Church with such a message was able to penetrate culture and society and reshape them from within, and thus put a Christian stamp upon the foundations of our Western civilization. Because the Church’s message was free from ideological ties, it could create new situations in society and in the world in which the transforming power of the Gospel left such an impact that all subsequent history has been affected.
Why not today? I believe we now have an opportunity such as we have not had for many centuries to carry out the same kind of mission. But to do it, we must learn from the fact that the early Church had a crystal-clear message and really believed in its divine power. We have tried so hard to fit in with the current patterns of society, obsessed with the idea that the message of the Church must be made relevant, that what we actually do is to belittle the Christian message and imprison it in what is merely transient. I believe that whole procedure is now utterly bankrupt. What we need, and need desperately, is a renewal in the very springs of our faith in the living God: not an inert, inactive god, not some vague deity behind the back of Jesus Christ, but the God who has come himself among us in his own mighty eternal Being, and personally has to do with us in Christ, crucified and risen as the Redeemer of the world. God has been using the chaotic forces of the modern world to plow up our culture and civilization, so that they are now ready to receive the seed of the Gospel.
The Reformation was another great period in which there was an irrepressible, spontaneous outburst of the Gospel that proved to be evangelical and social dynamite in country after country. Out of research into the original sources of the Church, its apostolic foundation in Christ, came a great rediscovery of the centrality of Christ. This evoked a movement to bring the Church back into conformity to him, and thus to restore the face of the ancient catholic Church. Somehow the institutional church through its alliance with worldly power had come to usurp the place of Christ, and the voice of the Church seemed louder than the voice of God. In contrast, the great emphasis of the Reformers was upon the mighty, living Word of God, which is no mere word but the Word-Act of God, still operating through his Spirit in saving, transforming power.
I had a vivid experience of what this meant when I was a young student in Greece. I had set out to climb Mount Olympus, and at the end of the first stage I lodged at a small monastery on the lower slopes. That evening as I sat by the stream outside the monastery reading my Greek New Testament, an aged monk, bent with the years, came to sit beside me. When he saw what I was reading he became very excited. Apparently he had never held a New Testament in his hands before; all they had in the chapel was a lectionary. And so I gave him my copy, and he tucked it away in the folds of his cassock like a treasure. On my return from the top I stayed at the monastery again, and down by the stream I found my friend the monk absorbed in the Gospels. Out of his eyes shone a light that I shall never forget. He was so changed that he seemed even physically transfigured.
It was a spiritual renewal of that kind on a vast scale that happened in the sixteenth century when the living Word and Spirit of God transformed the face of Europe. And it is a recovery of that Reformation experience of God’s Word that we need if we are to meet the challenge presented by the opening of the structures of our way of life, and direct the tide of spiritual regeneration now going on.
But such an experience does require a recovery of Bible reading throughout the Church and a renewal of the ministry as a proper instrument of the Gospel. And by that I mean two things: we must recover both genuine preaching of the Word and genuine pastoral visitation.
Far too much of our preaching today seems to do little more than reflect prevailing trends in society. Often we preachers seem no more than servants of public opinion. Because we do not spend sufficient time in the study wrestling with the Word of God, our sermons tend to be boring and trivial, made up of scrappy ideas often suggested by the newspapers or television, and the human heart remains hungry for the bread of life. I do not believe there is any way other than through faithful ministry of God’s Holy Word to inject the creative truth and dynamism of the Gospel into the fabric of our life. If we fail here, we will not match up to the challenge that beckons us so excitingly.
But it is no less important to minister that Word, as Calvin used to say, privati et domatim, privately and from house to house. It is there that we really minister the Gospel to people as persons, and not as just functions of industry, or cogs in the machinery of trade-union power, or pawns of the politicians. Humanity is made up of real people interlocked in personal connections, and it is there, in the midst of birth and death, marriage and family, that the Gospel must be planted. How can we do that except by complementing our proclamation of the Word from the pulpit by personal, pastoral ministry of the same Word in the home?
Genuine pastoral visitation has undergone a disastrous decline, and we seem to be allowing a secular psychology to replace spiritual counseling. I do not want to detract from the valuable help the ministry can derive from good psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists; but I do object when all this is allowed to relegate into secondary importance, and even to replace, a distinctively Christian understanding of man, and when some doctrine of self-fulfillment, or what a friend of mine calls “auto-salvation,” replaces justification by the grace of God. I do not believe anything can be a substitute for the evangelical insight into human nature that a minister gains as he prays with people in their homes and directs them to Jesus Christ. Nor do I believe a minister can preach the Gospel from the pulpit in ways relevant to his congregation unless he converses with them about spiritual realities in their homes.
This is not a ministry that can be adequately fulfilled by one person on his own. Pastoral care of this sort must be shared, with the eldership revitalized as a spiritual office. Even so, I believe, it is very difficult for a minister to be a shepherd to more than six hundred souls if he is to engage in pastoral care as he is commissioned to do by the great Shepherd of the Sheep.
Former students of mine in the ministry tell me there is a host of young people in our midst who are largely outside the Church, or often only half within it. They believe in God and are desperate for spiritual guidance and clear convictions, but they recoil from the institutional church because somehow its formalism and legalism get in the way of Christ. Direct personal and pastoral contact of the kind I have been speaking of can contribute much in a situation like this. These are the young people in whose hands the future of Christianity in the last quarter of the twentieth century may lie—and it would be fearful if we lost them.
I believe that from generation to generation the Church relies more on the parish ministry than on anything else. No doubt the concept of the parish needs modification through assimilation to that of the community, while the ministry also needs restructuring to give place to a shared or corporate ministry, and no doubt other forms of ministry have their proper role today. But even so, nothing can replace the parish ministry as the staple ministry of the Church.
I am full of hope for the future. If we can once again develop the parish ministry as a vigorous ministry of the Word, matching a revitalized proclamation of the Gospel, I believe the Church will be able to turn the life of our people in a radically Christian direction.
A Missionary Dying On the Molopo
What shall I do to fill the sense of void?
The night is heavy like a coverlet
Upon this fevered man who cannot move
His feet, his legs, his hands, his giddy head.
The smell of citronella, insects’ whirr,
The slender assagai against the fence,
The aardvark pawing at the rotting stump,
The eerie sheen of moonlight on the veld
Press in upon the vanguard of my life.
In the kraal the intermittent cry
Of Lumba’s baby measures out the hours;
Its swift incision cuts the straining ropes
That hold the bastion of my sanity.
Out of my panicked depths the swell brings up
Two lines I learned from Auden on Yeats’ death:
‘The provinces of his body revolted
The squares of his mind were empty.’
Never shall I return to Oregon
Nor see the gulls by Neah-Kah-Nie Light,
The moist, clean forms of holly, razor-edged,
The fruit trees on the foothills of Mount Hood.
Even when I was only eight my wish
Was to be buried in a country plot
Near Bethany, Damascus or Monroe,
One not well-tended but knee-deep in leaves
Of alder and madroña before the rains.
Not dying, God, but dying in this place,
Dying where there was never from the first
A sense of home, a sense of knowing love,
A sense of unity with smells, with soil,
With flowers, landscapes, birds, familiar sounds,
A sense of sharing one’s most transient life
With those whose eyes understood at once.
Here there was always mystery in their eyes,
Never the light for me but vacant stares
Looking through me as if diaphanous
And what transfixed them were outside of me,
As if I were an interference poised
Between them and their nameless numina.
Until the precipice of this last hour
I believed that You would order life for me
To end the way that You had ordered five
To follow four or be the half of ten.
I would go home. I moved by that sole hope.
Whether to live or die I would go home.
I will not go. The end is destined here.
Thoughts of all man-made consolations, God,
Increase my pain. There now is no pretense.
I go out to this death with no defense.
Lumba’s baby cries my requiem,
My final terror in an ochre land.
George E. McDonough
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