“Our Present Anxieties,” by James C. Baker
May 13, 1946
Browsing among the books, articles, and editorials of the month immediately following World War I is both instructive and exceedingly disturbing. One discovers the same concern and anxiety as is everywhere apparent among thoughtful men in 1946. Many paragraphs or sentences are as applicable today as they were then. For example, here is a sentence from a leading editorial in The New Republic a month after the Armistice in 1918:
Although the fighting is over, there is no peace in the world, little confidence in one another or in the future, little common understanding and goodwill. Reconstruction depends upon union and there is no living impulse to unite.
That thoughtful men are troubled in spirit in every field of American life will be accepted without debate. The scientists who ushered in the atomic age are uncommonly vocal regarding the social and political perils we face. In the halls of Congress, in their united address to President Truman, in such symposia as “One World or None” they make known their determination that science shall not be chained “in the shameful galleys of slaughter” but shall be free for lofty and noble service to humanity.
The Harvard Report on “General Education in a Free Society,” with its emphasis on “preparation for life in the broad sense of completeness as a human being, rather than in the narrower sense of competence in a particular lot,” is but one distinguished voice in a rising chorus shared in by leaders in the field of Education. Years ago a former President of Harvard, when asked “What is the unit of education?” replied: “The boy! The boy! is the ‘unit of education.’ Not ‘what has he studied’ but ‘what has he become’?” Whatever the curricula and methods there seems increasingly unanimity of judgment that the test of education is the student—has he achieved social imagination and vision, human understanding, cooperative purpose, principled character.
Outstanding publicists are sounding deep notes of concern and anxiety. Mr. Swing, for example, has now published his Friday broadcasts, under the title “In the Name of Sanity,” in which he pleads for world government as the only alternative to world suicide.
The Saturday Review of Literature, through editorials and articles, is doing its prophetic utmost to make sure that the scholars and writers of this period of our history shall not justifiably be called “irresponsibles.”
A special session of The Federal Council of Churches was held at Columbus, resulting in two tremendously important documents addressed to the Nation and to all Christian people—one on “World Order,” the other by distinguished theologians on the atomic bomb.
In an Old Testament poem, describing a grave national crisis, it is said that in one tribe “there were great searchings of heart.” So we might describe our present day situation. However, a modern translation (University of Chicago, American Translation) reads: “there were great debates” instead of the words “great searchings of heart.” And in the outcome the debaters “lounged in the ravines” while other tribes “exposed themselves to death… on the heights of the field,” and won the victory.
Coming back again to the written record of 1918 and the years following, one cannot help wondering whether we too in 1946 shall fail at critical vital points, and our “searchings of heart” end in “debates.”
Let us return to the important Harvard Report. Here are three sentences which reveal a fatal flaw in the recommendations: “Education is not complete without moral guidance; and moral guidance may be obtained from our religious heritage” (p. 174). “We are not at all unmindful of the importance of religious belief in the completely good life” (p. 76). Then follows: “But, given the American scene with its varieties of faith and even of unfaith, we did not feel justified in proposing religious instruction as a part of the curriculum” (italics mine). The difficulties suggested are there beyond question. Why not say they must be surmounted instead of saying “But…”? A famous colleague of the distinguished scholars who presented the Harvard Report, remarked regarding it and similar reports: “their reports on education retreat from the one thing needful.”
Our political leaders pay unctuous lip service to the United Nations and then, instead of a trumpet call for acts of trust and goodwill, make their passionate plea in first place for the building up of so-called “National Security” through “the conventional reliances” of the past. The President’s Chicago speech began with “We are determined to remain strong” and his chief hope for world security is through armed force. How one longs for the primary challenge that instead we make ventures of understanding and cooperation. But… “given our world scene, with its varieties of faith and of unfaith,” must we call for “National Security” of a traditional type?
Lip service is paid to the principle of trusteeship, which would be in the great American tradition “but… ‘given our world scene, with its varieties of faith and unfaith,’ we must take over the Pacific bases unilaterally, etc.” Wherein lies true “National Security” and shall the ever present “but…” lead us in the old ways of death?
The editorial in The New Republic of December 21, 1918, to which I have already referred and which haunts me, got at the heart of the business with an unflinching honesty: “All our modern progress has not saved us, individually and collectively, from remaining miserable sinners. There can be no sufficient union or reunion without a common sense of sin, without a willingness to repent, and without faith in the saving virtue of a resurrection of the Christ in man… The time has come when the building up of a sincerely Christian community is only awaiting the coming of sufficiently sincere, alert, knowing and devoted Christians.”
Several years later, in 1925, John Masefield published his moving drama “The Trial of Jesus.” He concludes with the same stirring personal challenge and appeal as is found in The New Republic editorial. The risen Jesus, “let loose in the world” cries:
“Open your heart, open your mind,
If ye bind your souls it is me ye bind:
* * *
O brothers, I make the world one kin: Open your hearts and let me in,
That the reign of my Father may begin.”
Our present anxieties are more than justified. One cannot even wonder at the approach to hysteria and panic. The question this editorial raises is, will we be radical enough to succeed in saving our world? Will we recognize that the answer is in the depths of each human heart and in a soundly renewed moral and spiritual fellowship? All of us, like the educators to whom Professor Hocking referred, are in danger of “retreat from the one thing needful…” which is the redemptive power of the living Christ in the individual heart and in society.
James Chamberlain Baker (1879 – 1969) was a bishop of the of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church, and the United Methodist Church.