An Address to the
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012
CHRISTIAN "Sociology" in this country is somewhat under the weather. The tradition of thought about the bearing of the Christian Faith upon the problems of society has not in recent years been conspicuous within the Church of England. The purpose of my paper is to ask why this is so, and to consider whether there is still a sound theological basis for the work of the Christian sociologist.
1. The Welfare State has appeared to cut the ground from beneath the feet of the Christian sociologist. In the days of gross injustices in wages, and of neglect of provision for the workers' health and security and housing, churchmen were concerned with a Christianized politics and economics as a corollary of the Incarnation. Now that the State does so much to make the people well-paid, well-housed, healthy, and secure, it has become the role of the Christian teacher not to say, "Let us have a Christian politics", but rather to try to bring home to the people that politics is not everything and that they should think about eternal life, the worth of the soul, and the worship of God for his own sake. Let the Church keep alive the transcendental concerns which the Welfare State tends to crowd out of the minds of the people.
2. At the same time the security of the Welfare State is crossed by the radical insecurity of a world that might suddenly be blown to bits. The sense of crisis about this has set in motion some efforts at Christian political thinking. I note three trends of thought. The pacifist thesis has gained in strength, since the nature of total war has made not easily tenable the concept of a just war issuing in restraint for an aggressor. Then there is the "Churchill" thesis: the new weapons are so terrible that their very existence is a source of security against their use. This is a sort of doctrine of "the redemption of horror by horror": I suspect that it has a theological basis, though I find it hard to formulate to myself what that theological basis is. Thirdly, there is the "Evanston" thesis: that the situation calls for a new League of Nations [2/3] procedure of disarmament and control—the ideology of the 1920's is applied to the 1950's. But all these attempts at a Christian politics for an atomic age are dulled by the thought in the Christian heart that of course the world may be blown to bits, and it hardly matters whether we leave it one at a time or all together now.
So it is that one realm of our existence gives us so much security that we are driven to emphasize the other-wordly elements in our religion, and the other realm of our existence keeps us so near to a precipice that our theology is "on the edge of things". Not security, we say, but God the creator and judge of human souls. And as for present duty, there can be obedience to the will of God wherever it is known, in faith that God will gather up our fragmentary acts of obedience in the coming of his reign in ways beyond our calculations. "The world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever."
3. These difficulties notwithstanding, there might still be possibilities for sociology if the gospel which we preached retained its integrity as the sovereign will of God demanding and enabling the response of man in the totality of his being. But the disturbing fact is that in recent years the preaching of the Gospel has gone awry. How has this happened? We have reacted rightly from the pragmatist panacea type of apologetic: the "if only" preaching, which is not a gospel but a sort of insurance policy—"if only" you would repent and turn to God, then peace and security for mankind would be round the corner. Rightly reacting from this perversion of the Gospel we are now eager to say that God is to be proclaimed for God's own sake and his glory, without much mention of the sort of society which reflects God's glory. Again, we have reacted rightly from an over-liberalized evangel which appeals to reason and assumes that unconverted human reason can perceive divine truth without conversion of the heart. So, reacting alike from a false pragmatism and a false intellectualism, we have come back to the gospel which proclaims God in his own right and calls for moral decision and submission.
When, however, such a gospel is preached by fundamentalists the mind of the hearer has either to be stifled or ignored on account of the crudity of the doctrine presented, and the appeal is made to less than the whole man. The act of decision and conversion, instead of being related to man's place and duty in society, [3/4] abstracts a man from his place and duty in society; and society becomes the mere stage and scenery alongside which the moral decisions are made. The moral will is separated from its context, because the appeal is made to less than the whole man as a reasoning being and a social being. So it is that Billy Graham, the Inter-Varsity Fellowship, and Moral Rearmament all help to destroy the ground of a Christian sociology. It does not seem to me enough to say, "These forms of Evangelism are splendid: they win souls to Christ. Now we can go on and add the necessary complement of Christian social application." These forms of evangelism of themselves cut at the root of Christian sociology, just as they cut at the root of a rational faith. There is need for a radical critique of an evangel which dishonours man by appealing to less than the whole of him as a creature made in the image of God.
For all these reasons the tradition of Christian social thinking, the tradition of Maurice, Westcott, Holland, and Gore is at a discount: its disciples are discouraged, and some of them adopt a role of laudatores temporis acti. Their difficulties lie in the theological background, for it is in theology that sociology has its creative springs. The Incarnational theology which produced the sociology of the period from 1890 until almost 1940 was framed in the idiom of an evolutionary and progressive world which no longer exists, and its idiom no longer suffices. And much of our current theology stifles sociology at birth. It is for the sociologists to grumble until theologians serve them better than they are doing at present.
Where is the theology which can give to Christian social thinking and prophetic witness its sanctions and its impetus, the theology which can justify the Church in its attempts to say what ought or ought not to be in the social order? I offer no more than some introductory hints.
We start with the doctrine of the Church as standing over against society. "The Church is the redeemed community comprised of redeemed men and women and children. It is Christ's new creation: its life is already the life of the world to come. Ontologically, its members are reborn. Sociologically, they have fellowship with the Father and the Son through the indwelling of the Spirit, and no secular concept of fellowship means the same thing. Morally, they are able to fulfil the hardest of Christ's [4/5] commandments because his grace enables them so to do. They can turn the other cheek, abandon their goods in a vocation to poverty, or retain their wealth and (only just) be safe in its possession: they can follow a vocation to celibacy or carry out the marriage vow as the heathen cannot be expected to who lack the grace which is at work within the Church. Here is a realm in which Christian sociology is possible, an island-realm amid the perishing world. But do not expect such possibilities in the world that lieth in the evil one. Any moral impact the Church may have upon the world is in God's hands and cannot be made the subject of theory. Furthermore, expect that any approximations to God's Kingdom from the side of the world may be bogus and misleading, because pride and titanism infect such efforts and bring them to grief."
I start with this doctrine of Church over against world because it seems sensible at first sight, and indeed it can claim much support in the New Testament. But we must see how it needs modification, and as it becomes modified the possibilities of Christian social action begin to arise.
1. First modification. God created the world. His Logos penetrates it. His light illuminates men's minds and consciences and leads them (apart altogether from conversion) to live not as savages, but in societies, bound by ethical sanctions and aesthetic perceptions and with institutions such as State and family which evoke reverence. Society or civilization has features everywhere common, even in a world as split by ideologies as in the world to-day. It is not devoid of perceptions of what is right for individual, family, community, and State, nor of certain capacities to do what is right and to expect right to be done. The State, stricken as it is by sin and operated by sinful men, is set to be a check against the ravages of sin by upholding order and justice. It is therefore possible for a Christian to talk to a non-Christian man or group about what ought to be done in the social order—not as lecturing as if to say, "If only you were Christians you would grasp this", but as saying, on the same level as the hearer, "This is what is just for us men in the nature of things to do".
2. Second modification. The world is a redeemed world: it is not only the Church which is redeemed. What does this really mean? Is it a rhetorical paradox of the theologian? We need to be concrete and empirical. Society since Christ, both when [5/6] unconverted as well as when converted, is affected by the presence within the universe of the risen Christ and his Church in paradise and on earth. It is subject to inroads of Christian influence. These may not be enough to make Christian assumptions to be the dominant assumptions: but they are enough to keep alive the perceptions of conscience and natural law. The pond of civilization is dirty and befouled, but it is not stagnant: movements of a cleaner water from time to time stir it. For instance, the totalitarian portion of the world in our time is not merely savage and amoral, but embarrassingly interfered with by at least some few perceptions of conscience, of the light that lighteneth—because the whole world is a world not only created but redeemed by God. So if the first "modification" provides the Christian with the duty of talking about what is right in Society, the second "modification" provides the likelihood that someone will listen even in the most unpromising contexts.
3. Third modification. This seems to me of great importance, and it is widely forgotten. The Church's own members have a double existence. They belong to the new age of the regenerate: they also belong to a race which is created and creaturely, illuminated by conscience and subject to natural law. Their possession of the new glorious status does not lead them to think themselves "above" the old status, of a child of Adam. Far from it. Being under grace enables them the more to know themselves as creatures alongside their fellow creatures guided by law. Being now the heirs of a supernatural sanctity they are the more able to stoop to ally themselves to whatsoever is good, true, lovely, of good report—if there be any virtue, if there be any praise—amongst their fellows. That is how the Christians are the salt of the earth: they season civilization to be its best in terms of justice, order, and decency.
There is thus a kind of kenosis or self-emptying in the Christians witness and influence in society. They span both worlds, and their possession of the new world should enhance their power to talk to the old world—not as from a pedestal of the converted but as from alongside. Let me give a practical illustration. Suppose a Trades Union is bullying a man and sending him to Coventry because he refuses to toe the line with the party. A Christian in the Trades Union protests. What is the nature of his protest, and how can it be effective? He will not say, "You heathen [6/7] fellows know nothing of justice and liberty; we converts know better, and have justice and liberty in our converted society?" No, that is the kind of hot-gospelling which disallows the moral validity of the natural order. No, the Christian protests against the bullying of a Trades Union in the name of the justice and liberty which lie at the root of human association as made by God, and at the root of Trades Unionism itself. That is the true form of Christian protest; and the ad hominem approach is not only good tactics but the soundest doctrine. The courage and humility with which the protest is made with a power to prick the heart—these come indeed from a supernatural source, from a life hid with Christ in God. But just because the source of the courage and the humility are supernatural and from Christ, the witness has the "kenotic" power of coming down to the natural and appealing to the natural in terms of the natural.
Put it now in terms of the role of the whole Church over against Society. That role is to go both farther from the world in supernatural sanctity than is commonly seen in our present-day Church life; and in so doing to gain the power of affirming with confidence the validity of the natural order and something of its significance and its obligations. The Catholic can fail to grasp this in practice no less than the fundamentalist hot-gospeller: in going to Mass, in receiving Holy Communion, and in seeking the union of his soul with God he is doing something which should affect his impact upon the pattern of society around him—without waiting until that society is converted like himself.
Such is the outline of a theology which can make Christian sociology to be a real possibility, indeed a necessity. This theology, when stated, seems familiar enough and orthodox enough: but it has become far to seek as an effective doctrine in the Church to-day, especially the truth that the supernatural status of the Christian enhances his grasp of the natural. We have had much theology, both in Protestant and in Catholic circles, which does not take the natural order with due seriousness. And we have theology which takes the natural order seriously enough, but levels the supernatural down to it. A noble exposition of this sort of doctrine is seen in Dr. Raven's Gifford Lectures: he recalls the grandeur and the significance of the natural in ways which are very moving, but—in a righteous reaction against a false dualism [7/8]—he so shrinks from any duality as to identify natural and supernatural tout court. A less noble exposition of this sort of doctrine can be found in the Report on the Doctrine of Man of the Lambeth Conference of 1948: here the distinction between the natural and the supernatural slips out of sight, and the inference seems to be that it is replaced by the most misleading antithesis of "spiritual" and "material". So the fog continues. Sociology will find renewal from a theology in which the concepts of the supernatural and the natural are held distinct and yet in relation, and in which the glory of the former is seen in a power to descend to accept the meaning of the latter. This means a theology which goes hand in hand with a spirituality, with a vocation of otherworldly sanctity. Do not the epochs of the apostolic age, the making of medieval Christian Europe, and the Tractarian revival in our own Church illustrate, each in different ways, the truth that when Christians have responded heroically to an other-worldly vocation there follows a power to say and to do practical things about the life of society? There is a vast difference between such other-worldly sanctity and an academic theology of the eschatological kind.
My theme has reached its conclusion. I have said nothing about the tasks of the sociologist, and indeed it would be hardly expected that I should. I have spoken only of theology; and I believe that the aberrations in theology and in evangelism which I have mentioned, together with the separation of theology from spirituality, have been enough to kill Christian sociology. Recover something like the theology of Charles Gore, not in its philosophical dress which is dated and limited, but in its fearless blending of the denial of the world and the affirmation of the world's possibilities and in its integration of dogma and spirituality. Then there may come, from a heavenly source and yet in a natural milieu, the power to speak about what society ought to be like and ought to do in respect of this or that. The weakness of sociology lies not in itself, but in the failure of theology to give it what it needs. There is a theology, through which sociology might again run and not be weary.