Failure and Recovery
Chalcedon Report No. 69, May 1, 1971
An age without faith and the leadership of faith is like a rudderless ship. It will be driven by every current and is destined for shipwreck, unless it is repaired and given direction.
The central failure of the modern age has been the failure of the churches. In the United States, as nowhere else in the world, the culture should be dominated by the churches. The majority of Americans are church members. If we eliminate those who are modernists, we must still recognize that thirty to forty million Protestants claim to be evangelicals who believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. No other group in America, however, has less impact on the national life. The communists, who are less than 1 percent of the population, exercise a deeper influence. But this is not all. The more this Protestant evangelicalism is “revived,” the more irrelevant it becomes. The deeply rooted antinomianism of its pietism (and the same antinomianism or anti-law temper is apparent in Roman Catholic pietism, as witness St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori) has made it unable to work effectively in society. It has become present-oriented and experiential. Its answer to problems is not the application of God’s law-word to man and society, but instead a yearning for more emotional experiences and supposedly charismatic manifestations. Such experiences have been pursued to the point of the demonic.
Jesus Christ required His followers to be good fruit-pickers, “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). He came as the great Redeemer to save His people by grace, in order to restore them to the way of sanctification, the law (Matt. 5:17–18; Luke 16:17; Rom. 8:4). The law of God is His future-oriented program for man and society; it is the means of warfare and conquest which God has ordained. The emphasis on experience as a substitute for law is antinomian and anti-Christian. The “Jesus freaks” who want to repeat with God what they experienced with narcotics (“Freak out with Jesus”) are guilty of blasphemy as well as irrelevance. Their concern is not with God but with themselves. Quite rightly, the reviewer of one such leader’s book commented, “after all the shouting and talking about God, it is Mr. B. (the hippy pastor-author), not our Lord who is the hero of the book.” What people seek in pietist experiences is themselves and their satisfaction or fulfillment; what they seek in obeying the law-word of God by faith is His kingdom and righteousness.
Pietism is a form of modernism. The open modernist finds his truth in the world, not in God’s enscriptured Word. The pietist formally retains that Word but practically denies it. When science began to dominate the minds of men in the eighteenth century, it emphasized experimentalism as the main and even only source of truth. This idea infiltrated the churches, and “experimental religion” or revivalism was born. To “prove” his conversion, many American churches demanded experimental or experiential evidence in the form of a revival experience. Godly faith and law-abiding living were not accepted as proof. Christian schools were regarded with hostility as a breeding ground of formal or “head” religion as against “heart” religion, and the result was that the churches began their decline from relevance. From men who worked to bring every area of life and thought into captivity to Christ, churchmen became men who sought an emotional experience within and retreated from the world into the cell of their withdrawn souls. To such people, Christian schools and postmillennial thinking became horrors to be decried. From being the dominating and future-oriented leaders of society, the churches began their retreat to a lower-class, present- and experience-oriented status. Even the Calvinistic Presbyterians were conquered by the new trend. Faith was not enough for church membership; they began to require an “experience.”
Not surprisingly, the whole tradition of pietism has been readily infected by existentialism (Kierkegaard and others among Protestants, Gabriel Marcel among Roman Catholics), and with good reason. Existentialism is simply a more honest and rigorous form of experimentalism and pietism. It emphasizes the moment, and the experience of the moment, in divorce from the past, all law, and all schooling and morality. Logically, Sartre and others divorce that experience even from God to bring about the total self-concern of the questing, experiencing soul.
Because of this emphasis on experience, increasingly the churches seek new dimensions of experience for their members, new forms of worship, “Jesus rock,” participation in demonstrations, the experience of peoples of other colors, sensitivity training, and so on. “Social relevance” is to found, they insist, in experience. A hard, systematic study of Scripture, the application of this knowledge of Scripture to the problem of communism, economics, race, political society, and family order is avoided. Not study, not an understanding in the light of Scripture of our world and problems, but an existential experience is held to be the answer. With amazing callousness and brutality, people are used to provide these experiences. Import some black children, they insist, into your Christian school or church, and give your children and adults a new dimension of experience. Trot out some minority groups into our groups, so that we can revel in our growing social experience. Like dolls that are moved at will by little girls in their play, so these churchmen want to treat people, as lifeless dolls to dance to their tune, so that their social experience may be enriched and fulfilled. Not surprisingly, the black response to this unfeeling integration game has been black nationalism and an ugly, hostile segregationism.
Into this world of a decaying church, Marxism made an easy headway. The conquests of Marxism have been largely violent and brutal. They have been grounded on conspiratorial and revolutionary action. This action has been made possible, however, by the default of all other leadership. The growing bankruptcy of the modern world made it susceptible to overthrow by any well-organized group, because the real revolution had already occurred. That real revolution was the progressive abandonment and overthrow of orthodox Christianity by leaders and people. The forms of faith were retained, but the power was gone, and the collapse of the churches was rapid.
Marxism, despite its evils, was at least future-oriented. It had a plan and vision for man’s future. As a result, it was able to capitalize on the spiritual vacuum of the twentieth century and to capture many superior minds.
The shallowness of its future-orientation became very quickly apparent wherever Marxism gained power, and the disillusionment of its followers has been very real. Moreover, Marxism has become, in every country where it has gained power, very rapidly and inescapably bureaucratic, a super-establishment. It moves in terms of power, not faith.
The results have been gradually apparent. The brutality of Marxist states has not abated and has in some areas increased. The hostility to Christianity has often been intensified. But a bureaucracy is not adventurous; it is usually concerned with protecting and perpetuating itself. It can be exceedingly brutal in its self-protection, but it lacks initiative, although it has momentum. Thus, the bureaucratic momentum carries world Marxism along the same lines established by Lenin and Stalin, but the bureaucratic self-protection makes it both resistant to change and unwilling to risk defeat. A bureaucracy is thus present-oriented; as a result, it can blunder into serious disaster because of its inflexibility and its inability to see consequences beyond self-perpetuation.
What happens in a world of present-oriented people? A basic lawlessness sets in. No law is recognized as valid if it does not suit the person or people. The situation becomes comparable to a busy intersection, where traffic lights are suddenly removed, together with policemen, and every driver races to the intersection as though he alone existed. The wise driver thinks ahead; the fool tramps on the gas pedal.
The failure of the churches, and the inner decay of Marxism, is matched by the decay of capitalism. As Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell have shown (in The Public Interest, no. 21 [Fall 1970]), capitalism has declined because it has lost its basic faith.
We can add that most capitalists (like labor) are not libertarians. They do not believe in free enterprise but are instead champions of protectionism and subsidies. The rise of capitalism was an aspect of the development of Christian faith. Without agreeing with much or all that Weber and Tawney have written on the subject, it must still be granted that the development of capitalism had deep roots in Christian theology. Those roots are now largely gone, and with them the faith and the rationale that made for a society of dedicated entrepreneurs. Too often today, when a businessman talks about freedom, he is not too different in his basic premises from the New Leftist student. His concept of freedom is not too closely tied to responsibility; it is merely a desire to be free from the state’s regulation while reaping the benefits of the state’s subsidies. When freedom as an ideal is divorced from independence and responsibility, it is not truly freedom but welfarism disguised.
Meanwhile, in this context of civil, economic, and religious irresponsibility, hatred flourishes as one group after another tries to push all the blame on a particular class, race, or group. That tensions and hostilities are a part of life, every wise man will readily acknowledge. That conflict is sometimes unavoidable is all too true. Under normal circumstances, law is the means whereby society controls hostilities and wages war against its enemies. Those who work to aggravate hostilities are fools. As Solomon observed, “He that passeth by, and meddleth with strife belonging not to him, is like one that taketh a dog by the ears” (Prov. 26:17). When you declare war, you had better be prepared to wage it. This is a lesson that many blacks and whites, and many working men and many employers, have failed to learn. It is an aspect of the lower-class mind that it does not count the cost nor think ahead.
A future-oriented man recognizes that, while many problems have easy and simple answers, few problems have agreeable people involved. “Your problem is very simple,” said a simple-minded pastor once to a husband and wife who could not get along with each other; “you’ve got to learn to live with each other.” How true, and how absurd! Men are not angels, and, sometimes, their problems will not disappear until they disappear, because they will not change. Even simple problems thus are often not simply solved. Passing a law, or making an obvious statement as that pastor did, is no answer.
Our progress in the past usually came slowly, and our recovery will come slowly. It will come as men, each in his own sphere of action, begin the task of reconstruction. Reconstruction begins with our lives and God’s grace; it extends to our vocations, our institutions, homes, and society. Life and progress are made up of a great number of little things; we cover a mile by small steps, and the surest move forward is that small step rather than a giant daydream.
Remember, a shovel turns over more earth than a wrecked tractor. Our religious, civil, and educational institutions are largely like wrecked tractors today. It is time, then, for shovel work, a great and exciting time when new foundations shall be laid, a world recaptured, and a future established by those who will work for it.
Topics: American History, Biblical Commentary, Christian Reconstruction, Church, The, Culture , Dominion, Government, Humanism, Justice, Theology