That life is not easy for Christians in Western lands these days is obvious. Falling congregations in the churches and a confident movement of secular humanism in the community at large leave us in no doubt but that things are very different from what they once were. Christians have a battle on their hands.
Sometimes they make it harder for themselves by failing to recognize who their enemies are and who are their friends. Dr. W. A. Visser ’t Hooft points to those who see Goethe as “the first consistent representative of the Christianity of the future.” A little later he says, “A more recent example is to be found in Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God, where he quotes a typical passage from the Plumed Serpent, D. H. Lawrence’s restatement of the primitive Mexican paganism, and says that this comes near to what he (the bishop) has been saying. Even if the God is very different, there is a way through here to the transcendent in a world without religion. Lawrence would have been astonished to hear this and might well have asked what on earth he would have to write in order to be recognized not as a secret ally of Christianity, but as an honest-to-goodness adherent of a radically different, pagan religion.”
We can all recognize this. Christians like to put the best possible face on things. We sometimes claim victories in what seem to other people to be plain defeats. And we like to think that those who appear to be our enemies are deep down really friends. We remember that Jesus said, “He who is not against us is on our side” (Luke 9:50). We prefer to give less weight to the fact that Jesus also said, “He who is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23).
The position is complicated by the fact that there are others who reverse the importance of the two texts. They are so sure of the rightness of their own narrow way that they do not see that others may be accounted by Jesus as his faithful servants, even though they do not mouth all the shibboleths of one particular group. So they unnecessarily restrict the number of those who are Christ’s.
Getting the right balance is not easy. But it is a task to which the church must always set herself. She must resist the temptation to reduce Christianity to the confines of a narrow sect. And she must not give way to the temptation to make Christians out of any men of good will, however slight their commitment to the great teachings of the Christian faith.
In countries where Christianity has been the accepted religion it is natural to think of almost everyone as Christian. Especially is this the case when it is the custom for most people to undergo some ceremony of reception into the church.
This kind of thinking yields some curious results. Visser’t Hooft points out that according to the last World Christian Handbook Sweden has 7,500,000 Christians out of a total population of 7,630,000, Switzerland 5,190,000 out of 5,420,000 and the two Germanys 72,000,000 out of 75,000,000. These are incredible statistics. One would think that Europe is a continent full of dynamic Christianity. With no disrespect for the people of God in that continent it is impossible to accept this as the whole story. We all know that the church in Europe has problems, as it has elsewhere.
The trouble is that we are not seeing the picture clearly enough and this gives us a false idea of the strength of the church and the magnitude of the task before us. This must hinder us in our task of evangelizing this generation. We must have a clear sight of the task if we are to perform it adequately.
And just as we are apt to exaggerate the number of adherents of the Christian way, so we are apt to misinterpret the status of those who are not with us. We persist in regarding them as something like lapsed Christians. Even though they are not completely with us we see them as people who really belong with us. They are church members who have fallen down a little on their obligations and our task is simply to recall them to their duty.
But this oversimplifies the position. Many of those who are not with us are secular humanists or the like, people who are not rightly to be regarded as adherents of any religion. Others are crass materialists. Gorged with the good things of this affluent, technological age, they are too much caught up in the pleasures and problems of the moment to rank as serious adherents of any way of life or as thoughtful opponents of Christianity.
But there are still others. A new form of paganism is emerging. While some of its adherents seem not to realize that they have departed from Christianity, most of them are not trying to be Christian in any sense. They do not join in any cult, nor do they consciously see themselves as proclaiming a new religion. But they are to be distinguished from secularists, humanists, and materialists in that they do have a religious attitude to life, albeit one that belongs with ancient paganism rather than with any of the world’s great religions.
A striking example a few years back was the religion of Hitler. There was an emphasis on nationalism, on blood and soil and race, something of pantheism, something of rationalism. Those great rallies at Nuremberg and elsewhere had every attribute of religious fervor. Hitlerism was a blatant form of paganism with a real opposition to Christianity.
Not every form of modern paganism goes to such extremes. Some pagans simply take up a religious attitude to nature. The relation of man to nature has become an urgent question with our exploitation of natural resources and our frequent pollution. Christians have not made clear how their doctrine of creation leads to respect for God’s handiwork. They have too often been avid polluters and defenders of pollution. It is more than time that a right attitude to nature was developed and made plain. Instead of which we leave the way open for modern pagans to see God and nature as identical. A pagan nature worship emerges.
Others emphasize love in the sense of Eros. Or wholehearted vitalism, the worship of the life-force. This does not mean that either is consciously seen as a deity. But the religious attitude involved is often indistinguishable from that of classical paganism.
Such religion is dangerous. The return to Eros all too often means an eroticism that lacks due respect for the other. Eros is concerned to get, not to give. And unbridled vitalism emphasizes self rather than social justice. The most vital are certain to dominate in a society where their view is accepted.
We must be on our guard against seeing such religion as simply a less than perfect form of Christianity. Unless we see this our evangelism will necessarily be handicapped.
Leon Morris is principal of Ridley College, Victoria, Australia.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.