The time has come to look back over the whole course of these lectures and try to see what it all comes to. One reviewer of the first published volume remarks that in it I have mixed autobiography with the argument.1 In a sense that is true, a sense in which, both last year and this, it has been inevitable. I have been trying to put before you what I have come to believe as a result of a life spent in the interpermeating study of theology and philosophy. The argument of these twenty lectures is a kind of map of the course my mind has travelled through forty-seven years. It has often been concerned with questions which are not patient of demonstrative proof, where in each case all that can be done is to state as clearly as possible how one has come to see it asking ‘Cannot you see it too?’ Where I have included autobiographical detail it has been in the hope that I can most clearly expose to your gaze my present thought by showing what has led my mind to move this way or that.
Moved it certainly has. If any apology is needed for having ruthlessly criticized devotion to cherished forms of words such as justification by faith or the invisible church,2 it is that I know myself what it means to be called by God to cut loose the ship of faith from its traditional moorings and launch out into the deep. I will not now attempt in one lecture to summarize the contents of the previous nineteen. Instead, I will pick out for emphasis three directions in which I feel myself to have been driven far into the open sea. I will speak in turn of what I now believe about how we should think of God, how we should think of the Church, and how little we know about anything.
For thought about God there are three cardinal passages in what I have said. The first came in the middle of last year's fifth lecture, the other two in the second and sixth of the present series.3
In the first of these we had been thinking about the nature of human thought in general, of how our quest is for objectivity, to know the truth about things, to apprehend reality. We had to face the fact that not only is the way in which we ourselves see things coloured by our outlook, but that this is also the case with all those whose works we study as evidence of what they have seen. We came to see the history of human thought as proceeding by the interaction of categories with evidence, the objective logic in the nature of things working itself out in the interplay of human minds, evidence forcing revision of categories. This led to the conclusion that the ultimate object of our study is not what this or that man may have thought or said or meant, but what was the objective truth, the reality, which was seeking to make itself known. We had already thought of natural theology as concerned with God revealing Himself in the manner of His creation. It needed but a small step to see that the true object of our study is God's revelation of Himself, that the history of human thought is the history of God making Himself known in the minds of men, stripping off successive layers of presuppositions which miscolour what is seen.
God in Himself, the eternal author and source of all created being, is unchanging in His perfection. But our knowledge of Him changes as it grows in accordance with His method of revealing Himself to us. Whether or no it ever occurred to the mind of the author of the Book of Revelation, there is food for thought in his speaking of God as the Omega as well as the Alpha, the End as well as the Beginning. Is it because of the nature of our theological education in universities and colleges that we tend in our religious thought to behave like men walking backwards, our eyes fixed upon the past? Corporately we think of God as the Creator who has brought the world into existence and through Moses called the Israelites to be His chosen people; as the Redeemer who died and rose and started the Christian Church on its way; as the Sanctifier who came to inspire that Church at Pentecost. Individually we think of God who has made us and called us, has redeemed us and baptized us into membership of His earthly body, has come in our confirmation to sanctify and inspire us. When we think of Him as present now we think of Him as the God who has done these things, and we ask what we can learn about Him from the biblical writers, the early fathers, the scholastics, the reformers, the Carolines, the evangelicals, or the tractarians. How often do we think of Him as standing on before us, calling us on to fuller knowledge, bidding us consider what revision of the categories inherited from all these our forefathers is required by the evidence He is now providing?
Surely this should be an integral element in our thought of God's eternity. Last year we thought of the relation between teacher and pupil as illustrating God's creative activity.4 The illustration is indeed apposite when we are thinking of His revealing activity. Of a schoolmaster it might be said: ‘Boys may come and boys may go, but he goes on for ever’—goes on as one to whom they look up to draw out their capacity for learning, and to share with them the riper knowledge he already has. So our lives are lived in the presence of God who because of His eternal perfection can draw out all our capacities for good and fulfil all our aspirations. The story of creation rolls on through the evolutionary process. At the human stage we make our conscious efforts to struggle onwards. Artists, scientists, inventors seek to discover creation's possibilities for use and beauty. Philosophers seek for a deeper understanding of the universe. Theologians seek for a fuller grasp of God's revelation of Himself in Christ. All are in the presence of God who has started us on our way, who, as present with us now, with us looks back over the past history of our race,5 setting us free from our sins and binding us to Himself in personal communion. He is always calling us on to fuller knowledge, and to that use of it through which we may grow in the freedom that He looks for in citizens of the City of God.6 All the discoveries of our minds, all our fresh powers of control over nature and of self-expression, are given us by God for the shaping of the world and of ourselves in accordance with His will. We press onwards, enriching our minds, increasing our control. Always He is on in front, calling us to fuller knowledge and greater power.
Religious life is stunted and crippled when it loses this sense of God being on before us, calling us to press on into the unknown. The enthusiasm of conversion settles down into the dull routine of conscientious observance. We become timidly afraid of any novelty or change, whether it be in ways of thought, or fashions of dress, or social order. We remember ‘Hold fast that which is good’, but forget ‘Prove all things’. When we say ‘Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost’, we think only of what He has done up to date and the response ‘As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be’ becomes a dull assertion of the monotony of life instead of a challenge to remember the ever-living presence in all ages of the God who is ‘making all things new’.
I jump now to my third cardinal passage, the reference in this year's sixth lecture to Donald Baillie's book, God was in Christ.7 In that book Baillie pointed out that when we ask whether Christ was God we put the question in a form which assumes that we know what we mean by God and ask whether Christ was that. But this is logically unjustifiable. For if Jesus Christ really and truly was God incarnate, the answer to our question may require a revision of our existing idea of God. The question to be asked is no longer whether the kind of God we had previously been thinking of could become incarnate and live a human life of the kind lived by Jesus of Nazareth; it is whether the kind of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ Himself could have done so. This new light on an old question makes the book what I call a seminal book, a book that sows in the mind seeds of thought that continue to grow. For our present purpose its fruit is the principle that in thinking about God we are to bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.
This gives no promise of early finality in our quest for knowledge of God. As we have seen, both in what He did and what He said, ‘Christ gave His life, it is for Christians to discern the doctrine’. This discernment is a process that is still going on, and is likely still to be unfinished at the end of this world's history.8 By the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who takes of the things of Christ and shows them unto us, successive generations of Christians are enabled to disentangle the revelation of God in Christ from miscolouring presuppositions and gain a fuller grasp of its true import. Whatever growth we may be given in our knowledge of Christ must be allowed to illuminate, and, if necessary, to transform, our way of thinking of God.
Look back now to this year's second lecture. We were thinking of the early history of human religion, how it began in attempts to enter into personal relations with whatever powers control this universe and our life within it, how they were thought of as both hostile and friendly, malevolent and beneficent, needing to be propitiated as well as adored.9 We have thought of the history of theology as God stripping off layers of misconception which obscure His true nature. Among our own spiritual ancestors the Hebrew prophets were inspired to discard the notion of God as malevolent and hostile to human aspirations. Where He appears to be so, it must be for the upholding of His righteousness in face of His creatures' iniquity. In Christ He revealed Himself as so essentially and perfectly beneficent as to take on Himself the purging of His creation from the evil with which, in order to create persons endowed with genuine freedom, He had allowed it to become infected.
The transformation of our idea of God by the light of His revelation of Himself in Christ is, I believe, one of the growing points for theology to-day. I have hinted at this in what I have said about His sovereignty, His claiming responsibility for the existence of evil, and belief in hell.10 To go further we must ponder more deeply on the question of the nature of His fatherly love and the grounds of our difficulty in accepting His revelation.
Psychologists are aware of the stubborn power of deep-rooted long-standing mental habits. Our more recently gained beliefs, superior though they may be as apprehensions of truth acquired through the exercise of our reason, he, so to speak, on the surface. We need to be continually practising ourselves in living by them if they are to penetrate deeply, get a real grip on our minds, and control our thoughts and actions. When they are in conflict with what they find in possession, we are apt to be more swayed by the old occupants than by the new arrivals, especially when under the stress of some emotional disturbance.
It has been my thesis throughout these lectures that the specifically biblical Christian revelation comes to us at the level of the conscious rational mind. God has been educating us in knowledge of Himself by doing things and inspiring men to grasp their significance. The minds of the men before whose eyes He does them are possessed by ingrained habits of thought which colour their vision. The work of the Holy Spirit in the minds of men is never ending so long as the newly-acquired truth is entangled with persisting error and is itself in need of clarification.
How far are our minds still under the spell of the ancestral belief that God is sometimes hostile and malevolent, projecting on Him that fear of the terrible unknown which is one of the most primitive elements in our consciousness? The history of our religion, beginning in Old Testament days and reaching its climax in the coming of Christ, is the history of God revealing Himself more and more fully to man as the all-good and all-loving Father who wills the good of His creatures. Yet every now and then one comes upon a Christian who simply cannot bring Himself to accept God's full and free forgiveness, who feels that there is something presumptuous in being carefree and happy, whose life is such that if by inadvertance he allows himself to slip into such a state, afterwards his fears are redoubled by the thought of how he may have imperilled his salvation through his momentary forgetfulness to be anxiety-ridden. To such a one we may surely think of our living Lord as saying: ‘What is the good of my having become man, having been crucified and risen again, having baptized you into membership of my earthly body with the gift of the Holy Spirit, if you are still living your life enthralled by the thought of a god who is always wanting to catch you in some misstep, as though to cry: “Now I've got you!”—a blasphemous myth of a god who does not exist at all?’11
We must go further. We are not only under the thrall of primitive fears. We are ‘bound by the chain of our sins’. Selfishness is so deeply ingrained in us that we find it well-nigh impossible to conceive of love which is wholly free from self-interest. It is extremely difficult really to accept God's gospel of free forgiveness as something we can do nothing whatever to earn but must simply receive. When we have got this far we find it still more difficult to disabuse our minds of the notion that in relation to God we now have in His eyes a status superior to that of other men. What if the revelation of God in Christ shows His essential nature to be love so perfect in its unselfishness as to be unimaginable by us except in so far as fitfully and here and there we catch a glimpse of what it is to lose ourselves in devotion to some person or cause?12 Problems multiply. We have to remember the danger of a sentimentality which forgets God's revelation of Himself through our judgments of value as the God of righteousness, which ignores the necessity of believing in His wrath against sin and sinners, in which the doctrine of God degenerates to the level of ‘He's a good fellow and 'twill all be well’. But we have to ask ourselves very carefully whether our way of thinking about God's wrath and punishment is to any extent compounded of ancestral fears of hostile deities with desire to escape the doom that will fall on others. How far do we need to disentangle from such relics of the past our apprehension of God's revelation of Himself in Christ? Is failure to do this the chief obstacle to our believing that His care for the genuineness of our freedom moves Him to claim responsibility for permitting the existence of evil as well as taking it on Himself to rescue His creation from its toils?
I have no time to pursue this inquiry further. Nor would it be right for me to try to reach a conclusion on this subject here. Lord Gifford's will directs his lecturers to address themselves to realms so high that a man would be a fool to attempt to do more than point out to fellow searchers after truth directions in which he thinks the way lies open for further advance. Each of us must see what he can, describe it as best he may, and leave it to his successors to discount the error due to his point of view. Let me at this point sum up what I have been trying to say in three sentences. The revelation of God in Christ has to make its way in the minds of men already well stocked with ideas and beliefs that colour their understanding of it. The history of human thought, including Christian thought, is the history of God stripping off layers of misconception which hinder our grasp of His truth. We have always to be asking how far our understanding of the Christian faith needs to be disentangled from hangovers from the past which miscolour our vision, including some so deeply rooted in our mental inheritance that they are only coming to light after nearly two thousand years of Christian faith.
I know no more powerful solvent of theological doctrines that one may be accustomed to take for granted than to ask: ‘What kind of an idea of God does this imply? Is it consistent with His being the kind of God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ?’13
The character of Jesus Christ is to be determinative for our thought of God. The nature of His messiahship must equally be so for our understanding of the Church, the messianic community, His continuing earthly body. At the end of my sixth lecture this year I was asking questions about what revision of our customary ways of thinking this will require. As on earth our Lord had to put from Him ideas of messiahship taken for granted by His Jewish contemporaries, so to-day He bids us put away the thought of the Church as the body into which men are to come in order to escape the doom destined for those outside and secure their own salvation. This disentangles the question of Church membership from that of the hope of resurrection to life eternal. The use made of this disentanglement in the last lecture shows the necessity of this revision to deal with one of the puzzles with which we set out on our inquiry last year.14 This led further to our questioning whether in the will and purpose of God the Church militant here in earth is intended ever to include in its membership all the inhabitants of this world.
So far these conclusions are negative in character, the stripping off of presuppositions inconsistent with God's revelation of Himself in Christ. On the positive side are the implications of the fact that Christ ‘went about doing good’, the thought of evangelization as the enlistment of recruits in a body that exists to set forward the welfare of mankind and to enable creation to manifest the glory of its Creator. It is for this purpose that its members are His fellowship of forgiven sinners, cleansed from their own sins and seeing their service of the world as their response to His love.
So in every locality the congregation of Christian people is to be foremost in zeal for progress in the arts, the sciences and whatever makes for the good life of man on earth. That in general. In particular the Church has a special work of its own of which in these lectures I have said little or nothing because I have dealt with it at length elsewhere.15 Christ in His messiahship went directly to the heart of the world's problems by dealing with evil in its manifestation as sin. The specific task of the Church is to act as the continuing earthly body of the Christ who, in biblical language, is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world. To quote from my earlier work:
Where there is evil in the world, no matter from what cause, no matter who is to blame, there is the potential source of further corruption of God's creation. Human history shows only too clearly that ignorance, sickness and poverty provide breeding-grounds for envy, hatred and malice, for strife between classes, between races, between nations. What is needed is a body of men and women bound together in a fellowship whose raison d'être and vocation is to step in and say: ‘Never mind whose fault it is, let it be our privilege, at whatever it may cost us in money, time, energy, health or life, to take these potential sources of corruption and transform them into material for increasing the world's output of good’.16
In this its specific task, as in its wider service, Christ calls the Church to a self-forgetful outward-looking attitude, to see the world as our heavenly Father's world in which His work is waiting to be found and done.
Of all the issues that arise from this let me call attention to one of theoretical and three of practical importance.
1. In my second lecture last year I was showing how philosophy is the attempt to make sense of this world as it actually exists. In the following lecture we saw something of the complexity of the puzzles it presents. I do not see how a man who has been bitten by the bacillus philosophicus can ever be satisfied with a theology for which God is only interested in the salvation out of the world of a certain number of human souls. This limitation of God's interest in His creation, which is characteristic of much continental theology both Lutheran and Reformed, provokes a disastrous divorce between theologians and philosophers. It is idle for theologians to complain that philosophers are indifferent to the preaching of the gospel and the study of theology when they and their God have no interest in the problems of the actual universe which exercise these men's minds, when the gospel they preach has no relevance to them. I hope I have made clear my conviction that the heart of the Christian gospel is the message of God's free grace in Christ, of cleansing and forgiveness ready and waiting for all who repent. Let there be no mistake about that. If to a man burdened with the consciousness of his sins there could not be found anywhere in this world someone to say with authority in the name of Christ: ‘Go in peace, thy sins are forgiven thee’, that would be the final and ultimate failure of the Church, failure in its own specific task. From this root must all its thought and action spring. But we need to reopen the question: What are we forgiven for? If we are tempted to stop short at forgiveness and the man's own reconciliation to God and salvation, to treat these as the end and go no further, our gospel is inadequate to God's revelation of Himself in both the Bible of the theologians and the universe of the philosophers.
2. I have used the word ‘evangelization’ and I have just spoken of the Christian gospel as directly addressed to men burdened with the consciousness of their sins. If the Christian faith be true, all men are sinners; the difference is that some know it and some do not. How can its preaching be relevant to men with no such consciousness of burden, indeed, with no consciousness of sin? It has always been recognized by those engaged in the work of evangelization, in conducting parochial missions or otherwise, that their first task is to ‘stir up a sense of sin’. In the days of the evangelical revival this could be done by what has been described as ‘shaking people over hell’. We cannot do that now. What then?
We fail doubly if, dropping hell, we simply speak to men of their own need of salvation. We are untrue to the gospel in urging them to concentrate their attention on themselves, and we do nothing to help them themselves to feel the need of which we are speaking. But a great door and effectual is opened if we turn their minds outward to ask, as we ourselves were asking earlier on,17 what difference it would make if in the relations between nations, races and classes we could eliminate such factors as national, racial and class pride, ambition, envy and greed. Then let them ask whether they can deny that in their own lives, and in their relations with their fellow-men, there are working those same forces which wreak havoc on the larger scale. From the vision of what this world might be and is not, of how in our homes, our offices, our clubs and elsewhere it fails to reflect the glory of God its Creator because of our selfishness, our grumpiness, our laziness and what not, we learn our need of cleansing and forgiveness. We learn it in a healthy way when we see that the real tragedy of our sins is not that they keep us out of heaven but that they make us useless to God in the carrying forward of His creative and redemptive work.
Once many years ago I was talking to a young nurse who said frankly that she had no religion, that to her the word ‘God’ simply meant nothing at all. I asked her what she lived by, to which she replied that she tried to do her best for her patients. She was an honest girl, and when I asked: ‘Do you?’ she said, ‘No; sometimes when I'm out of temper or tired I'm short with them or scamp things’. ‘What then?’ ‘I say to myself, “Come on, you must pull yourself together”.’ There was only one thing to be said, to tell her that if she wished for herself to find true religion she must begin by praying ‘O God, if there be a God, help me to do what I know I ought to do’.
3. If we think of Church membership in terms of salvation for eternal blessedness we land ourselves in a dilemma with regard to our creed. We are torn between the claims of charity and faith. The Church exists to be the body of the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world and to proclaim the gospel of God's grace, of forgiveness and the power of the Spirit available to man as a result of what God has done in history incarnate in Christ. It has a definite work to do and a definite message to deliver. For this there must be agreement about what it has to do and say: it must be a body of men and women agreed in believing the central affirmations of the Christian creed. But if we think that to remain outside is to be cut off from hope of heaven, out of very charity we shall be moved so to blur the outlines of the content of the gospel as to leave it with no cutting edge.
By disentangling the idea of Church membership from that of preferential status with a view to the world to come, we make it possible for the Church to be its true self, and to be an effective body, without loss of charity. Imagine yourself to have been attempting to persuade an unbeliever of the truth of the Christian faith, to have got as far as you can by argument and discussion and leave him unconvinced. What are you to say? Something like this. ‘I do not pretend always to understand God's ways. Often they are mysterious. If it is His will that for the next stretch of your life you are to serve Him outside the Church, it is not for us to question it. Of one thing I am certain, that His fundamental demand on you is for honesty. From the days of the Hebrew prophets He has made this clear. He would rather have you remain outside until you can honestly come in, than compromise with your convictions for some ulterior motive.’ You may have to lose him from the Church Militant here on earth in order to find him in the Church Triumphant in heaven.
4. For the best part of twenty years I was secretary to the World Conference on Faith and Order which became the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. In that capacity, both in these islands and overseas, I have shared in a very large number of discussions between representatives of different churches, discussions aimed at reconciling the differences of conviction which keep the churches apart. This experience has led me to think that we have got as far as we are likely to get on these lines until each and all, in our respective churches, we have radically revised our understanding of what the Church is for. We have explained to one another what we stand for in the tradition of the patristics, the scholastics, and the tridentines, of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, Richard Hooker, William Perm, and John Wesley, of the congregationalist and baptist founding fathers. But all has been on the basis of a common assumption that the Church exists for the benefit of its members, for their rescue out of the perishing world, as the ark in which they are to be ferried over the troublous waters of this life to the celestial shore. So far as this is so we cannot help regarding one another as rivals rather than fellow workers. We shall get no further so long as we continue to discuss the respective merits of what our ancestors thought in terms of bygone ages. We need the new start that can come from revising our thought of the Church in the light of its historical origin as the messianic community of Jesus Christ the Messiah.
So to the last lap. How little we know about anything.
More than once I have pictured human thinkers as peering into the darkness of the mystery that surrounds us. As human beings we all look out on the universe from our human standpoint. In each generation we look out with an outlook conditioned by our age and culture. Within each generation each individual is conditioned by his own particular circumstances. Each and all we have to peer into the darkness along the rays of such light as we are given to see by. Knowledge grows by sharing what we see, by comparing our different visions in the faith that they are apprehensions or misapprehensions of a coherent objective reality, that by perseverance in looking and comparing errors can be corrected and the truth discovered. There are two factors to be considered: the extent and the nature of the surrounding mystery and the value of the light at the centre from which we look out.
I have described philosophers as men with so passionate a concern for knowledge that they question the conventions and assumptions commonly taken for granted in the thought and action of their age and culture, seeking for reliable clues to the puzzles that confront us.18 This year we have set ourselves to examine the nature of God's revelation of Himself in Christ with a view to discovering how far it gives us our central clue to the understanding of all things, what is the value of the light which it gives us to see by. In the course of the inquiry we have learned two things: how much less we know than we want to know, and have often thought that we do know, and something of the nature and value of the light that lightens our way.
Let me remind you of the striking parallel we observed last year between the history of scientific and of theological study in the present century.
Neither to theologians nor to physicists has God thought fit to give the kind of revelation they feel that they would provide if they were God. Theologians… have had to adjust themselves to the fact that God's truth is not given in forms of sound words uncoloured by the outlook of those who bear witness to His revelation. Just so do physicists have to adjust themselves to the fact that all observations of the natural world are relative to the standpoint of the observer. It is equally true of God's revelation of Himself that is given through the sciences as of that which is more strictly the basis of Christian theology that to grasp it we must patiently set side by side our several apprehensions of it, asking what the truth must be if it so appears to men who see it from these various points of view.
When we try to study the universe by scientific method, for a while it seems to respond encouragingly to our inquiries, but when we push these inquiries further in an attempt to grasp its fundamental nature, it seems to slip through our fingers and elude us. It is, I believe, true to say that so far as we are seeking to know enough about it to be able to control it, it is responsive to us. It is when we seek to answer the question of what it is in itself that we are baffled.19
In so far as scientific research enables us to increase control over sub-human nature and theological study to make more fitting response to God's calls upon us, the distinction between them bears out our observation of their respective descent from primitive magic and superstition.20 My present point is to call attention to the difficulty we feel in both fields in adjusting ourselves to the realization that we do not know what our fathers, and we ourselves in our youth, used to think we knew. The reaction against acceptance of conventional certainties has produced on the one hand the existentialist emphasis on angst, and on the other the dictatorial attempt to impose order on chaos by mass-produced gleichschaltung. Those who attribute the present state of affairs solely to decay of religious faith betray an inadequate analysis of the situation. The upheaval of Victorian certainty that science gives us the true description of the real world of nature has as much to do with it as inability to accept Victorian understanding of the divine revelation.
Hence the forms in which a threat to human freedom is actually felt as a matter of practical urgency. ‘What kind of freedom is ever conceivable in a technological society? Or in a mass-society governed by all the controls which are now available?’ asks Dr. Dillistone in reviewing my first volume.21 Without specifying what questions he has in mind he goes on to ask whether my discussion had been relevant to ‘the questions which are really being asked in this modern age… the deepest concerns of our age’. I take this reference to be to the existentialist angst. Man can have no deeper concern than the question of his own existence as that is analysed, for example, by Professor Paul Tillich in his book, The Courage to Be.22
It seems to me that the philosopher, reflecting on the assumptions which men take for granted in their thinking, must come to the conclusion that neither through the natural sciences nor through theology has God thought fit to give us revelation that issues in the kind of knowledge we used to think we had. The light we have is given to enable us to discern in our present circumstances what needs to be done with them: it is in the doing of it that we shall open the door to progress beyond what knowledge we already have. For scientist and theologian alike the field of knowledge can only be cultivated on the basis of faith, faith that the universe ‘makes sense’, faith that no matter what revision of categories may be required by evidence to come there will be a consistency between the discoveries of the past, the present and the future. Whatever our standpoint, Christian or non-Christian, we find it difficult to adjust ourselves to the necessity of acknowledging this element of faith. A Christian reviewer of my first volume in the Times Literary Supplement23 apparently claims for the theism I have been expounding that it is a matter not of faith but of knowledge; in private correspondence a non-Christian reader of the book has made the same claim for his faith in an impersonal immanent urge working in the universe for its perfection.
As I was saying a few minutes ago, in times of stress and strain we are always in danger of slipping back into our mental habits of longer standing. How happily we could cease from mental strife if we could revert to the belief that God is only interested in the rescue of a certain number of souls out of the perishing universe and has given us the Bible as a manual of instruction for those that are to be saved! For myself the discovery that to see in Christ the revelation of God makes this impossible has been the root of the trouble. It leads on to the question: What then is God aiming at in this universe of His creation? When that question has been asked there is no stopping short of discovering how many and great are the mysteries and how little we know.
I have a strong suspicion that many who are asking Dr. Dillistone's questions are hankering after the kind of knowledge which here and now it is futile to expect. They suffer from a sense of frustration due to the assumption that without such knowledge they are adrift on a trackless sea with neither compass nor guiding star. They are impatient with theologians who cannot give them what they feel they want. If they are too intelligent to become the prey of either fundamentalist or existentialist prophets, they carry on as agnostics. They exemplify the difficulty we find in adjusting ourselves to the lesson of our age, that God has not thought fit to give us that kind of revelation, that we do not need to be able to picture the eschaton of this world's history in order to know what now we ought to be thinking and doing, that without sharing Christ's vision of the end of His journey we can find in Him the way, the truth and the life.24
So much for the surrounding mystery. Now for the value of the light we have been given by which to walk and to explore. I have tried to show two things: (i) that, quite apart from Christian faith, we can best make sense of the universe and of our life within it by the hypothesis that it is aiming at the creation of a community of genuinely free persons; and (ii) that if we accept the Christian faith it confirms that verdict and enlists us in the service of our Creator's aim. In considering the first of these we saw how from our experience of imperfect freedom we can get some understanding of what its perfection would be, how from this we can learn what is likely to help and what to hinder its true growth. Then we took note of the fact that for Christian faith the Church is a body called into existence by God not only to learn this lesson but to take the lead in acting upon it. We have seen, too, how the increase of scientific control over natural forces increases our capacity for growth in freedom. But while we are passing through the stage of freedom (a) on our way to freedom (b), misuse of the freedom we have got leads to its destruction and not its perfection. Thus at this stage increase of power may be for evil as well as for good.
In the light of these considerations we have to face the practical problem of how to promote the growth of true freedom in an age of mass-society, technology, mind conditioning and brain washing. It helps, I think, to realize that this is one form of the general problem presented by increasing power of control over nature in the hands of men possessed of freedom (a). In these lectures I have done what I can to clarify our understanding of the true nature of freedom, and thereby to indicate what kind of actions are likely to help or hinder its growth in human society. To elaborate the practical application of this teaching, to examine, for example, the obligations it implies for those in authority, those who are in a position to exploit the newly-discovered powers of control, belongs, as Aristotle used to say, to another inquiry.
It will be in place, however, to end with some remarks about the contribution to be made by Christian theology to these pressing problems of the day. It should be clear by now that their faith does not enable Christians to provide the kind of knowledge that some people think they have a right to demand from them. What then can we offer?
We will start from the existentialist emphasis on angst, the view that an essential characteristic of human nature is a paralysing sense of futility.
Existentially everybody is aware of the complete loss of self which biological extinction implies.…
Non-being is omnipresent and produces anxiety even where an immediate threat of death is absent. It stands behind the experience that we are driven, together with everything else, from the past towards the future without a moment of time which does not vanish immediately. It stands behind the insecurity and homelessness of our social and individual existence. It stands behind the attacks on our power of being in body and soul by weakness, disease and accidents. In all these forms fate actualizes itself, and through them the anxiety of non-being takes hold of us. We try to transform the anxiety into fear and to meet courageously the objects in which the threat is embodied. We succeed partly, but somehow we are aware of the fact that it is not these objects with which we struggle that produces the anxiety but the human situation as such.25
For Christian existentialists this sense of insecurity, of being poised precariously over the abyss of non-being, is transfused and darkly coloured by a sense of sin, of guilt.
Let us assume that there is truth in this, that the Christian is right when he says that all men are sinners, that the actual difference is between those who know they are and those who do not. Let us assume that the Christian existentialist is right when he says that in the depths of their being men have more sense of their sinful creaturehood than they are aware of. What then?
The Christian faith is that down the ages God has been seeking, and is still seeking, to make Himself known to us as our Creator who wills our perfection in freedom. He watches over us with fatherly care, and in Christ offers us entry upon a new way of life of eternal quality. In this life we cease to be concerned about ourselves as we lose ourselves in our share of God's interest in the welfare of His creation. We may be sinners, but God bids us remember that as we answer His call to share in His creative and redemptive work we are to do so as members of Christ's earthly body which is the fellowship of forgiven sinners.
Here I would like to quote once again from the Retreat Addresses of the late Father Talbot, a book from which I have learned more than I can say of the true meaning of Christian faith as seen and known from the inside. I quote this passage for its contrast with Tillich's description of the effect of man's realization of the abyss of non-being.
We are utterly dependent, there is something precarious in our lives; unless we were sustained and embraced by that which is greater than ourselves, we should cease to be. It would be very strange if we thought we made truth by recognizing it; if beauty and truth were exhausted by our little efforts. We do not make beauty. It is a visitation to us which we welcome. We are dissatisfied by anything less than the Altogether Perfect. Wake up, then, and recognize this deepest truth: that not only are we made for God, but here and now you are being made, and without Him you are nothing.26
Here Father Talbot stands in the true tradition of Christian faith. It was a very early Christian writer who wrote: ‘God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind’.27
We peer out into mystery. For many that mystery is the darkness of the terrible unknown, the terrible unknown which threatens each man's annihilation and paralyses him with the sense of his nothingness. We look back over the history of human thought and see how bit by bit man has sought to understand and make sense of his world and of himself and to gain mastery over the forces of nature. All these efforts depend on his faith that the universe does make sense and will be responsive to his efforts to understand and to control. He discovers the reality and the imperfection of his freedom and comes to see that only by his growth in knowledge and in the mastery of himself and his world can it reach its perfection. His science begins in his attempts to control the forces of nature, his religion in his attempts to enlist on his side the powers of the terrible unknown. For Christian faith God reveals Himself as willing man's growth in freedom, as having acted in the history of the world to rescue it from obstacles to that growth, as calling man to a partnership in which alone true knowledge and full freedom can be found. All knowledge comes from faith of some kind, faith in virtue of which we ask our questions and seek for the answers. I have tried to show that Christian faith, while it forbids us to claim knowledge we have not got, gives us light enough to walk in the way that leads to knowing more. By this faith I have tried to live, and in this faith I hope to die.
Manchester Guardian, March 6th, 1957.
Vol. I, pp. 108 ff.; above, pp. 122 ff.
Vol. I, pp. 114–5, and above, pp. 30 ff., 129 ff.
Vol. I, p. 152.
Above, pp. 23 ff.
Vol. I, pp. 186–8.
Above, p. 128.
Above, pp. 81 ff., 133 ff.
Above, pp. 30 ff.
Above, pp. 57, 58, 201.
In this paragraph I have largely reproduced a passage from The Lord's Prayer (London, 1934), p. 59.
Above, p. 60.
E.g., with regard to revelation, Vol. I, p. 77; to sacraments, my contribution to Baillie and Marsh: Intercommunion (London, 1952), pp. 264 ff.; to eschatology, J. E. Fison: The Christian Hope (London, 1954).
Vol. I, pp. 54–6; and above, p. 199.
The Doctrine of the Atonement (London, 1951).
Op. cit., p. 96.
Above, p. 73.
Vol. I, pp. 27 ff.
Vol. I, pp. 155, 159.
Above, p. 31.
The Hibbert Journal, January 1957, p. 210.
March 15th, 1957; p. 165.
Above, p. 192.
P. Tillich: The Courage to Be (London, 1952), pp. 40, 42.
L. Menzies: Retreat Addresses of Edward Keble Talbot (London, 1953), p. 23.
2 Tim. i. 7.