“Have We Any Spiritual Capital for Export?” by Charles W. Gilkey
March 3, 1947
An American professor who spent last summer in relief work on the Continent of Europe under the American Friends’ Service Committee, has received since his return a letter from a German medical student in Cologne that has searched the minds and consciences of those Americans, and especially of those students, with whom it has been shared. Here are its relevant sentences:
“Our eyes know that life is worthy to be lived. Why? Because we hope to see better times? No! The future for all the boys and girls belonging to this new movement is as black as for the others. But we put ourselves upon the only ground that is laid: Christ. The aims of this youth are not at all political ones; our care is the revival of religion. We begin with the inner life that will of course then have its efficacy upon the outward situation, for we are looking for the connection between religion and life.
This is our very task. Knowing this task, we are able to go forward in rebuilding our country and renovating our souls and minds. And what may you do for us in furthering this process? You may give us hope. For that is the thing we cannot give ourselves.
You see; youth can suffer, youth can endure, youth can stand all pains, youth can be deprived of all material goods and yet be happy, if youth is not hopeless! We shan’t be hopeless with your help.”
This letter raises some searching questions about our own spiritual economy. If the need overseas were simply for machinery or raw materials, for coal or capital or credit, we have enough of these to export them in large quantities: economically we are a producer and a creditor nation. If it were only food that hungry Europe needs, we have enough of that to spare a good deal—if we had the heart to do so. But have we any hope and faith for export? In this time of apprehension and pessimism, here as well as over there, have we any hope and faith to spare? Current quotations in the conversational market do not seem to indicate that we have any large surplus of free spiritual capital available for investment where it is needed most.
Under the portrait of President Harper in the Memorial Library that bears his name at the University of Chicago, is an inscription selected from Paul’s Letter to the Romans (15:4) by Dr. Ernest D. Burton when he was Librarian:
“Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning…” But even these two well-known Biblical scholars could hardly have foreseen the striking relevance to our present situation of the final phrase in Paul’s complete sentence:
“Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope.”
As if to suggest, with two Jewish captivities and with Calvary above all for historical evidence, that in all dark times a major “comfort of the scriptures” is their assurance that if we too have patience to endure and to plant the right seed, we also may have hope that out of what looks for the moment like tragic evil, God can once more at long last bring forth a final harvest of good.
Even that scriptural assurance is however not Paul’s final word in these matters. His last word is a prayer:
“Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, in the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). The God Who speaks to us through Biblical history and witness, speaks to us also directly through our own experience as well; and by His quickening presence within us, reawakens and sustains hope and faith within our own hearts. The result becomes what our contemporary lingo would call a spiritual economy of abundance.
There are two distinctive marks of such religious hope, which distinguish it from the hopefulness that is characteristic of youth, or of an optimistic temperament. One mark is that religious hope does not depend upon, and refuses to be judged by, the outcome of the event or the situation. Failure or sorrow cannot by themselves discount it, any more than success or happiness can confirm it. More important than any outcome is the wisdom and the purpose of God, on which we build our hope, regardless of the event. In that will is not only our peace, as Dante said—but our hope.
The other mark of religious hope is that it lives and moves on a two-way street. Like international trade, spiritual fellowship has to travel both ways —else it speedily ceases to move at all. While some American liberals were questioning whether Martin Niemoeller had taken his final anti-Nazi position soon enough or sharply enough, thousands of American Christians were being stirred by his straight-forward confession of a shared sense of guilt and repentance and forgiveness through Christ, to an awakened conviction of their own need, and of our American churches’ need, of repentance and forgiveness—and thus to a deepened sense of ecumenical Christian fellowship. Those who have worked in the post-war youth camps of the Low Countries tell us that the gulfs between racial and religious groups are there so deep and wide, that the “mutual understanding” in which we Americans put so much social faith is not there enough: only where there is some religious sense of forgiveness and of being forgiven, does any bridge toward better human relations become possible. Our hope in God becomes then our firmest basis for hope in man—and in our human future.
Charles W. Gilkey (1882–1968) earned his bachelor’s and master’s from Harvard in 1903 and 1904, followed by a doctorate from Union Theological Seminary in 1908 and further studies at Universities of Berlin and Marburg (1908–09), United Free DH College Glasgow (1909–10), New College Edinburgh, and Oxford University (1909–10). He also received honorary doctorates from Williams College (1925), Hillsdale College (1925), Yale University (1927), Brown University (1928), Harvard University (1929). and Colby College (1931). In 1910 the Hyde Park Baptist Church ordained Gilkey as their pastor and he remained there for 18 years. Gilkey acted as a trustee of the University of Chicago from 1919–29. In 1928 he accepted the position of dean of the university’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, which he would hold until 1947. He also served as the associate dean of the Divinity School and represented the University in the position of the professor of preaching of the University of Chicago Divinity School at Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Chicago, Toronto, Wellesley, Stanford, Purdue, Harvard, Wellesley, and the University of Washington. The University of Chicago also appointed Gilkey as the Barrows Lecturer to India (1924–25). He retired in June 1947.