“The Quest for Christian Imperatives,” by F. Ernest Johnson
August 5, 1946

In the issue of this magazine for July 8, H. Richard Niebuhr presents a challenge that should have the serious attention of every Christian. He indicts “utilitarian Christianity” or “Christian pragmatism” for making religion a means to social and personal ends—good ends, to be sure, such as social order and mental health, but ends that are not the “intrinsic good” of religion. The recent pronouncement of the Federal Council of Churches on The Churches and World Order is given as an illustration of putting ethical recommendations in “a theological setting that is almost exclusively utilitarian.” The word “utilitarian” is used, of course, in its historical sense, not with any crass connotation.

That Mr. Niebuhr has described an actual tendency in Protestant Christianity can hardly be questioned. It is to be hoped that his article will be made the basis of much study and discussion, for it has far-reaching implications. Many may attempt a refutation of the critique by reference to the biblical dictum, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” But this is rather too facile. The ethical relevance of Christianity is not called in question, nor the usefulness of social and moral criteria in testing the genuineness of religious profession. The point is that the attempt to validate Christianity itself by reference to its ethical results, actual or hoped for, runs counter to the historic belief in the absolute imperatives of the Christian religion, which stand independently of all consideration of the objective consequences of their acceptance. As a proposition, that is hard to dispute, whatever inference may be drawn from it.

No doubt the tendency to base the Christian apologetic on pragmatic grounds is more characteristic of liberal than of orthodox Christianity. Indeed, it is implicit in all “value theories” of religion. To be sure, evangelical Protestantism has fostered it by its emphasis on the subjective aspects of religious experience. After all, to make “inner peace” an end in itself is not different in this respect from making world peace an end in itself. Nevertheless, it is in liberal theological circles that the “value” apologetic to which Mr. Niebuhr objects has become explicit. The social gospel, whose distinctive feature is the application of the Christian ethic to the structure of society, has undoubtedly encouraged this trend, not because it is “utopian”—an accusation that is only partly true—but because it stresses the developmental as against the consummatory aspects of the Kingdom of God. Its focus is historical and hence it engenders objective criteria.

It should also be noted that this tendency is accentuated in a time of social crisis, such as the present. An odd paradox results. “Crisis thinking” operates against “crisis theology.” Total war, cultural disintegration, and atom bombs focus attention on impending disaster rather than on that “critical” encounter between man and God which is quite independent of the vicissitudes of history. The perennial human “predicament” is overshadowed by imminent historical tragedy. Even orthodox theologians tend to reinforce the Christian apologetic by reference to objective perils.

But merely to point this out is to raise questions rather than to answer them. Granted that Christian imperatives have an absolute character, supported by a transcendental faith, how are these imperatives to be identified? Consider the issue of pacifism, which has stirred so deeply the readers of this journal. No one more than the earnest pacifist Christian affirms the absoluteness of the Christian ethic, and the duty to act in scorn of consequences. And how does the non-pacifist Christian answer him? Not merely by proclaiming that it is the will of God that tyranny be resisted but by what he regards as a realistic analysis of historical forces. If his analysis had resulted in a rational conviction of the historical efficacy of nonresistance as an ethical force, would this not radically affect his interpretation of the will of God? To affirm the absoluteness of a Christian imperative is one thing; to be convinced as to the content of that imperative is another. How can we escape resort to some pragmatic test in the effort to discover the will of God?

Admittedly, the Christian ethic is all too commonly watered down by the infusion of purely secular criteria. But is it a mark of secularization to seek validation of the Christian enterprise by reference to objective criteria which point to the realization of spiritual goals? How else can a Christian apologetic to the non-Christian world be constructed? The church cannot escape judgment by the world on the basis of ethical effectiveness. On the negative side, this is too patent to be ignored. If, for example, Protestant Christianity is accused of deepening class cleavage, or if Catholic Christianity is accused of reinforcing Fascist tendencies, the necessity to meet the challenge is instantly felt. Can we exclude the converse of this principle: the authentication of Christianity by reference to the “fruits of the Spirit”? Who among us has not on occasion seized upon the German Confessional Church’s resistance to Nazism as having apologetic value?

These questions defy any attempt at simple categorical answers. Perhaps they call for a reexamination of this word pragmatism. We all recognize the pragmatic (judgment-by-consequences) basis of practical decisions. The pragmatist who consistently identifies “truth” with the “consequences of its being true” is a rara avis. Much of the current “social pragmatism” reveals an ethical dynamic that could not be generated through total preoccupation with “process.” Rather, it suggests an inexplicit faith in the ordering of human affairs that puts “long-run” outcomes beyond hazard. Perhaps if this faith were rendered more explicit, and if the implications of “absolute imperatives” for Christian practice were clarified, the conflict between historic and “utilitarian” Christianity would be less acute.

F. Ernest Johnson (1885–1969) was president of the Religious Education Association from 1944–46 and the author of The Social Gospel Re-examined (1940).

“Practical Christianity,” by Edwin E. Aubrey
September 16, 1946

In a recent issue of this paper (July 8, 1946), Professor Richard Niebuhr launched a vigorous attack on what he called “utilitarian Christianity,” which he regards as “an alarming phenomenon.”

His general contention was that we are subordinating the true aims of Christianity to social well-being; and he pointed out that this temptation arises from a misinterpretation of the faith as a this-worldly panacea, which is offered out of a subtle desire to prove the superiority of Christianity to any other faith.

He sees in this “utilitarian” approach several serious risks. It invites a disillusioned reaction in the face of the Church’s inability to bring about peace, prosperity, justice, freedom from fear and from suffering. It suppresses vital elements of the faith, supplanting resurrection with social adjustment and radical repentance with strategic retreats from manifest evils. It reduces Christianity to the level of other reform movements, so that “nothing peculiarly Christian” remains.

He assures us that he does not mean to make the Christian faith socially irrelevant when he urges us to a “love of God for his own sake”; and he concedes that social values may accrue as secondary effects of our loving God and our neighbors. But we must, he says, accept love and justice as “immediate demands” and not as “far-off goals.”

Any thoughtful Christian will be glad for Dr. Niebuhr’s insistence that love of God must not be subordinated to hope of gain, however “spiritual” the gain may be. Yet it seems to me that a distinction needs to be clarified between “utilitarian” and “practical” Christianity. To say that love and justice are “immediate demands” and “not far-off goals” is confusing, for they are both. The ends to be pursued serve also as motives for conduct.

At the same time, we live as human beings by virtue of pursuing goals: God is always “calling us up higher.” Of course, we can deify our own ends and land in idolatry; but surely it is not idolatry to seek the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. In seeking that Kingdom we must give some concrete meaning to what is meant by loving God, or else we have nothing to guide us. And if that Kingdom is the final consummation of the finest human potentialities, all that contributes to this end is of Christian worth. To speak in derogatory terms of “the progressive realization of the dignity and worth of man in every area of life” is to court the risk of being so abstract in Christian ethics as to play into the hands of sinister forces that are all too active in society today. Such groups are pleased when Christians do not become too specific about political or economic exploitation and oppression. This is one reason why fundamentalism is well financed.

When ultimate ends are translated into terms of next steps, this is a necessary part of concrete ethical decision. It is only when the next steps are taken as the ultimate reality that idolatry occurs in ethical judgment.

Meanwhile, if benefits accrue which are recognized by others than Christian ethicists, this does not invalidate the Christian values. It is dangerous to use these incidental benefits, “these things added unto you,” as an apologetic for Christianity; because this shifts the attention of men from the repentance demanded to the “advantages” offered. In this Dr. Niebuhr is absolutely right, but he has overstated his case.

He implies that in the current social gospel there is “a repentance which leaves ends uncriticized.” This is surely a misleading description. To call attention to evils that threaten civilization does not require us to abandon the ultimate demands of Christian ethics. We can still challenge society to reshape the ends of civilization in harmony with God’s will, whatever that may demand.

Christian ethics cannot live in the rarified atmosphere of absolute demands. It must deal in concrete social issues, and it must acknowledge as genuine gains the achievement of its proximate goals like juster laws, cleaner amusements, a better status for women, fairer treatment of backward peoples, more intelligent education of children. Such achievements are not to be an occasion for pride among Christians; but they are certainly evidences—indeed the only evidences apart from personal spiritual improvement—of the Christian faith.

In this sense it is proper to pursue such proximate goals as expressions of Christian duty. Christianity should not be utilitarian, but it must be practical. In order to be practical it must define its abstract demands for justice and love in concrete programs of action. Such action will be visible to others, and will incur either approval or disapproval. To such approval the Christian cannot be indifferent for it is his opportunity to explain his gospel. To disapproval the Christian must pay heed because it may be directed at the pride Professor Niebuhr castigates; but the Christian cannot yield his principles merely because their outcome in action is socially disapproved. And even when great things have been attempted and accomplished for Christ, the Christian must always say, “Not good enough.”

But all this does not require us to supplant a striving after “far-off goals” with a reliance upon “immediate demands.” Such a reliance would furthermore require objective definition to save it from the perils of either abstract formalism or arbitrary subjectivism. Concrete aims are a part of Christian living in history; and therefore proximate goals of Christian action are still tests of devotion.

When Christians have lost the sense of historical relativity in eternity, they have become docetists, and have ended by denying that Christ bodies forth God. This should be a warning to ethical thinkers, that not merely abstract principles but practical objectives are the stuff of Christian living.

Edwin E. Aubrey (1896–1956) was born in Scotland and became an American in 1918, after which he served with the US Ambulance Service in France and Italy during World War I. He received a doctor of philosophy and a doctor of divinity from the University of Chicago, and at the time of this writing was president of Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. During these years he also served as a visiting professor at several universities, including Union Theological Seminary. Afterward, he established the Department of Religious Thought at the University of Pennsylvania. From 1945 to 1956, Aubrey held the office of secretary and vice president of the American Theological Society. His books include Humanistic Teaching and the Place of Ethical and Religious Values in Higher Education, Religion and the Next Generation, Present Theological Tendencies, Man’s Search for Himself, and Secularism, a Myth.