Thirty-four years of age, having received his early training at Elmhurst College and Eden Theological Seminary, since his graduation from Yale University and Yale Divinity School in 1915, Mr. Niebuhr has been pastor of the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit. An editorial writer on The Christian Century, much of his time is spent in student work in colleges and universities, where his “deadly Christianity,” as his friends describe it, awakens youth to the fact that religious faith is something more than a casual acceptance of a conventional creed.
A philosopher-preacher, Mr. Niebuhr sees that the tragedy of our age is a deadlock between a cynical realism and a sentimental idealism, equally barren and futile. By the same token, his analyses of the stupidity of modern civilization, in the light of Christian truth, are as merciless as they are hopeful; as witness his recent article on “Puritanism and Prosperity” in the Atlantic Monthly, and his review of The Decline of the West, by Spengler.
In the sermon on the Foolishness of Preaching he shows us, against a wide background of philosophy, a glow-point of Christian faith, as relentless as it is revealing—“as foolish as love, as foolish as the Cross,” whereof he is destined to be a prophet: a Divine foolishness, wiser than the wit of man, whereby we may be led out of our dim idealisms and blurred cynicisms into a day of “open vision” and heroic fellowship.
It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. I Corinthians 1:21.
Two very penetrating analyses of the ills of our western world have appeared in Europe in recent years which arrive at strikingly similar conclusions in regard to the cause of the alleged decadence of western civilization. One, The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, is by the noted African missionary, physician, theologian, and Bach virtuoso, Dr. Albert Schweitzer. The other, The Decline of the West, is by the German historian, Oswald Spengler. The two authors agree that our western civilization is morally and spiritually impotent because of the spirit of sophistication which, according to their diagnoses, acts as a blight upon the vital spiritual energies from which all art, culture, and religion are derived.
Schweitzer thinks this spirit of sophistication was introduced into western life by Greek philosophy, which insisted on rational consistency and thereby destroyed the naïve dualism of the Jewish prophets in which primitive Christianity is rooted. An absolutely consistent world-view, according to Schweitzer, is bound to betray us into the absurdity of either unqualified optimism or unqualified pessimism. The eastern world permitted philosophical monism to steep it into religions of pessimism and despair. The western world chose the other horn of the dilemma and developed a philosophy and a religion of such uncompromising optimism that the facts of life, particularly as modern science revealed the ruthlessness and blindness of the natural world, were not able to maintain it. Whereupon the western world has been prompted to lose confidence in all of life’s ethical factors and to sink into an irreligious pessimism as morally enervating as the religious pessimism of the Orient. Spengler arrives at a similar conclusion by an altogether different route. Large cities, he declares, with their impersonal relationships and their artificial modes of life, with their fluid masses of nomads divorced from the soil and their cold and calculating commercial and industrial processes, produce a spirit of sophistication which is not only killing western civilization but which has been the cause of the decay of all civilizations which preceded ours.
It would not be relevant to our purpose to pass judgment here upon the relative merits of these so widely divergent diagnoses which arrive at the same conclusion. The significant fact is that two of the profoundest and most authoritative treatises on western civilization both issue in a protest against intellectualism, as the real root of our moral difficulty. It is a far cry from the day of Spencer to the day of Spengler, from the nineteenth century with its easy confidence in the emancipating power of pure intelligence, to the twentieth century turning, baffled and confused, upon the very forces which had so recently been the hope of mankind. It will be well for Christian people and for all men of good will who hope for a spiritual renaissance to observe this trend of thought carefully.
The Christian church has unfortunately been an armed camp for some decades between those who frantically cling to religion’s untenable irrationalities, and those who are so chagrined by this obscurantism that they are tempted to sacrifice everything in religion which savors of the irrational. The church is divided between those “who require a sign” and those “who seek after wisdom.” One half of the church is so overcome by life’s mysteries and so distressed by the difficulties which moral good will encounters in an evil world, that it is always tempted to reduce religion to magic and cut the Gordian knot of life. The other half of the church seems so blind to the mysteries of life which reason can not comprehend and so oblivious to the moral difficulties which reason can not solve, that it is inclined to reduce religion to mere culture. Against both these contending parties the peculiar emphasis on the irrational in religion, upon “the foolishness of preaching,” which we find in the first two chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, seems particularly timely.
The Christian religion, Paul declares in effect, is not magic but neither is it wisdom, at least not the “wisdom of this world.” The Christian religion must remain to the world, to those who are lost, to superficial intelligences and to complacent sophisticates, foolishness. It seeks to apprehend realities which can be found only when imagination and courage come to the aid of reason, and it unlooses energies of heart and will which reason alone can not contain. It is as foolish as love, as foolish as the cross. While we may wonder whether Paul’s rabbinical training and his contact with the mystery religions of the Orient did not tempt him occasionally to read a little more magic into the cross than can be found anywhere in the sublime simplicities of the religion of Jesus, yet at his best the cross was to Paul a symbol and a revelation of a love and of a life whose potency was moral rather than magical, but also spiritual rather than rational. All the paradoxes in which Paul revels in these first chapters of the epistle to the Corinthians emphasize a truth not essentially different from that contained in Jesus’ own words, “Except ye be converted and become as little children ye can not enter the Kingdom of God.” All the great affirmations upon which the Christian religion is based, and all the vital energies which it develops, must depend for their life upon a simplicity of heart which is not incompatible with the highest intelligence but which a superficial sophistication easily destroys.
History teaches us that a morally potent religion is to a great extent dependent upon an adequate theism. We judge ourselves and our fellow men in the light of the God whom we have discovered in the world. The religion of Jesus prompts us to find love and personality, “the Father,” at the heart of the world. A God whose righteousness convicts us of sin and whose love redeems us of sin, is a paradoxical rather than a completely rational conception. A God “in whom we live and move and have our being,” who is immanent in the affairs of men but who is at the same time as high above us “as the heavens are above the earth,” is again a reality which cold and calculating reason cannot comprehend. Because He is not easily comprehended, religion is perenially tempted to guarantee his reality by magical revelation. If religion is to have any power in modern life it must resolutely turn its back upon that temptation, and must disavow those forms of orthodoxy which betray that they are prompted by skepticism.
Yet, on the other hand, it is as disastrous to religion to sacrifice its faith in a transcendent and moral God as to guarantee his reality by magic. Many forms of modern religion make exactly this mistake and fall into a morally enervating pantheism. They identify the real with the ideal. Anxious to be rational, they identify God so completely with the vast impersonal and automatic processes which the natural world reveals, that they lose the moral force which inheres in the faith of the prophets and of Jesus in a moral and transcendent God. A morally adequate theism is, of course, not finally unreasonable. It is not unreasonable to believe that a universe which produces the values and the realities of personality has personality at the heart of it. Yet at the same time there are so many obvious facts which run counter to our faith in a personal and moral God, the obvious facts of a mechanistic nature, with its blindness and cruelty, that no one will be able to validate his faith in God if he is not willing stubbornly and courageously to maintain it in defiance of immediate evidences, until it can be proved by the ultimate evidences which moral and spiritual life is able to adduce.
It is because civilization is becoming almost as impersonal and mechanistic as nature, that Spengler cannot be altogether wrong in regarding modern civilization itself as destructive of religious faith. Wherever personality is degraded and personal values outraged, whether in the world of nature or in the world of man, our faith in a good God is seriously challenged. Timid and sophisticated souls are bound to lose their faith through such a challenge. Only those are able to maintain their faith who are simple and naïve enough to live lovingly and nobly in a cruel world until their sight is clarified, and in the purity of their heart they will see God. Faith in God is a moral and mystical achievement for which all the resources of heart and will and mind are required. No one can be lifted into the presence of God by a syllogism.
The love which discovers beauty and goodness in human life is superficially as foolish as the faith which discovers goodness at the heart of the world. If we consult the obvious facts about human nature, trace the long history of man’s inhumanity to man, analyze the greed and the hatred which inform the motives of so much of our contemporary industrial and international life, and follow the psychologists in their explorations into the devious paths of the subliminal self, it is not easy to maintain confidence in human nature, to love and to trust men. It is easy both in haste and at our leisure to call all men not only liars, but potential murderers. The cynicism of both modern psychology and modern economics is the inevitable product of an intellectual and sophisticated age which has gone to much pains to trace the details of man’s kinship with the brutes in both his social actions and the secrets of his private life. In the face of all this evidence it is simple and naïve indeed to believe in man as the child of God and to love men as potentially good and beautiful.
But love has always been foolish, and there is a trace of the pathetic and the tragic in its foolishness. Love may never fail, but only those can maintain their confidence in it who are able to see victory in a sublime defeat. The life of Jesus issued upon the cross, and his love was not able to conquer Judas. Yet it did remake the majority of the disciples and gave them the power to be “fishers of men.” Love, like faith, creates much of the evidence which validates its assumptions. Men are not trustworthy except to those who will to trust them, and men are not lovable except to those and through those who have willed to love them. The wage motive seems all that prompts the activities of a workingman until an employer has enough imagination to assume that workingmen are personalities who live by the noblest as well as by the basest and the most indifferent motives.
Nations will continue to be selfish and therefore dangerous to the peace of other nations, until some nation decides to act upon the foolish assumption that nations may be moral and therefore trustworthy. The interesting fact about life is that the “wisdom of this world,” the shrewd and calculating intelligence, the practical reason of diplomats and politicians, of business men and industrialists, are always involving human beings in vicious circles of fear, mistrust and hatred, from which they have no way of escape except through the foolishness of impractical idealists who believe that men are potentially moral and therefore trustworthy and even lovable. There is always an element of unproved and therefore foolish faith in perfect love. Yet there is creative and redemptive power in that faith; for men cannot become better than they are except by the power of a love which is able to discern the good which is hidden behind and enmeshed in their evil. To “hope till hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates,” must remain the task of simple souls who are foolish enough to create goodness by discovering its potential presence in seemingly evil lives.
It might be well to add that the relation of a man to himself, of a man’s will to his ideals, ought to be prompted by the same simplicity for which we have been pleading in man’s relationship to the world and to other men. What is more reasonable than the pride of average respectability, and what is more foolish than the self-castigations of saints who are prompted to such abject humility and contrition by the contemplation of impossible ideals of righteousness? What is more foolish than the challenge of Jesus that we be perfect “even as our Father in heaven is perfect”? But here again “the foolish things of this world confound the wise,” for the reasonable respectability of the world is always sinking into sordidness, and whatever redemptive forces are at work in the body of society are generated in the lives of men who refuse to be satisfied with the standards of common decency which they share with most men, and who see the blackness of their sins against the background of the holiness to which they aspire and which they apprehend in communion with God. The pride of respectability must finally issue in the despair which can see in man no more than a sublimated beast, while the humility of the simple will finally lift man into his heritage as a child of God.
“Faith,” declares Jacks, “is reason grown courageous.” Perhaps that is a more respectable way of saying what Paul tried to express by his emphasis on the “foolishness of preaching.” We cannot finally run counter to our best reason and we cannot pit one part of a man, his imagination and his will, against the other, his intelligence. Yet it is well to remember that a reason which is not courageous enough to defy some immediate facts will never arrive at ultimate facts, and an intelligence which is not imaginative and spiritual enough to seem foolish to superficial minds will never know God.