“Is It Time to Preach Optimism?” by Roger L. Shinn
May 12, 1947
It is a common complaint against Christian interpretations of life that they are not optimistic enough. Such protests, which came in past years from the proud confidence of secularism, express themselves now in more plaintive, and very sincere, tones. Why, it is asked, does Christian theology want to undermine our hopes? This may have been all right in days of proud self-confidence, but it is out of place now. The attack upon utopianism is like beating a dead horse, because no one feels very utopian these days. Contemporary society has been a whipping-boy for the theologians long enough; now smarting from the lash of war and disillusion, it needs a message that will rub salve, not salt, on its wounds. People need encouragement, a message of confidence. They will not struggle to improve themselves or society unless they can hope to accomplish something. The church should fight cynicism, not optimism. So the protest runs.
The argument must be considered, if only because it is so common. We may suspect it, because it comes so often from those who have indulged false hopes in the past. We may question whether American pride and self-confidence have been so humbled as many seem to think; a first-hand acquaintance with even a small part of the suffering in other parts of the globe often produces a revulsion against the scramble for money, luxury, and power in America. But it is only fair to look for the inherent merits in the idea.
Two suggestions offer themselves. First, a genuine Christianity will take a soberly hopeful view of what can be accomplished. It will not shout pessimism for its own sake. If there is in some preachers or theologians a sadistic strain which loves to torment sinful humanity for the sake of the torment, it has nothing to do with the Gospel. Men ready to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and obey His will can always find areas of human life open to transformation. The Christian hope is not the salvation of the isolated mystic but the communal vision of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom with meaning for every human situation. A creative Christianity will always work for the gains which can be made in the structure of any society.
Second, prophetic religion rightly shows a tendency to buck the historical tide. Prophecy emphasizes condemnation against the proud and threatens destruction to the mighty, but offers comfort and hope to the humble and penitent. This is not a vacillating message; rather it is the proclamation of a faith that remains consistent while circumstances shift. Thus our best Christian leaders have maintained a consistent message through recent years, in contrast to the extremes of enthusiasm and despair of the common mood. But Christianity and prophetic faith do not simply pour out hope, whenever people feel bad. A true Christian hope, by its very nature, is available only to the humble and penitent, and our most earnest advocates of optimistic preaching can hardly claim that America, disconcerted though she be, qualifies very far here.
Recognizing the place for a genuine religious hope born of faith and for an enthusiasm for realization of social and ethical gains in any historical situation, Christianity will nevertheless, when true to itself, set its face against utopianism or popular brands of optimism. For doing this it will find reasons which are purely religious and reasons related to social-ethical strategy.
The religious reasons are two: (1) Christianity will be truthful. A faith that is sustained by a genuine hope will not need to peddle illusions. It will not cover up the hard facts of history, either to please the crowds or to give people what they think they need. It will not succumb to the fatal temptation to cry peace when there is no peace. No amount of longing for comfort justifies the Christian in bending the truth of facts or of faith to meet the demand.
(2) Christianity will always see the need to strip life of pretext and make men face the essential religious problem. It will recognize with St. Augustine that the peace of this world, valuable though it is, is always insecure. Men, in difficult times as well as in happier ones, are always ready to find rest in a false security. It is the drowning man who grasps after straws. Only the most empty preaching, lacking any real bulwark of confidence, will persuade men to put confidence in the straws which they so eagerly clutch.
There are some who will accept these religious reasons, but will still protest that such denials of easy optimism cut the nerve of social action. It is obvious that men will not usually struggle for justice unless they see some possibilities of attainment. Only a sadly inadequate Christian theology will deny the possibility of social achievements which have a genuine significance as service of God and as betterment of human life. But this is not inconsistent with a radical criticism of illusory utopias. There is no logical reason why a Christian, recognizing that the Kingdom of God is more than the social order which he can build, should not continue to work for the best attainable embodiment of justice and love in the social situation. The psychological problem is slightly more difficult, but should not be insurmountable. A physician would be a fool to try to stimulate his morale by thinking that he could keep a patient alive forever. But the inevitability of death does not keep doctors from working to heal patients every day. So the inevitability of human sin, corrupting any social order, should not hinder honest, vigorous efforts to improve existing situations.
We may go beyond this and point out three positive reasons which make a criticism of popular forms of optimism an actual asset to Christian social-ethical strategy.
(1) False optimism breeds the self-righteousness shared by the fanatic and the complacent man. The illusion that a certain system embodies the answer to human ills produces a warped judgment of all who stand in the way. If the proletarian revolution, or the preservation of free enterprise, or anything else is regarded as the guarantee of utopia, then almost any conceivable means is justified in its behalf. One more reign of terror is only a small evil compared with the good to be gained, or preserved. Religious and ideological struggles reach an uncontrolled fury, unless a transcendent Kingdom of God stands as a criterion and a judgment, producing humility and repentance. If any think that America has been shaken severely enough to need no criticism of false securities, the report of any week’s debates in congress, or any poll of public attitudes about Germany, Japan, or the atomic bomb should be an eye-opener. Far too many Americans share the viewpoint of the taxi driver who within the last year told his passenger, a Japanese Christian woman visiting this country: “You should repent. America is always right.”
(2) The end result of fanaticism, or of any misplaced confidence, is disillusion. The facts of history operate against utopian dreams, leaving the dreamers either smiling ineffectually or giving up. If a Christian realism falls short of the enthusiasm of fanaticism which fights for the perfect historical future, it has a greater sustaining power than illusory optimism. It has been widely recognized that one reason for the problem of American morale in facing the problems centering around the Second World War was the disillusion resulting from the deflation of hopes centering around the First. Numerous reporters, trying to understand the terrible despair of German youth today, have recognized that it is caused not only by defeat and suffering but also by the collapse of the fanatical hopes built around false gods. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., writing a book review last summer, said that St. Augustine, whatever moderns might think of him, would not have been startled by the turn of events in modern Russia. The whole problem was recognized by Arthur Koestler, although he would not agree with this analysis, in the title of an article in 1943: “We need a fraternity of pessimists to lift the world out of the historical wave in which it flounders.”1 The man who places his hopes entirely in the achievements of historical and social life subjects himself to all the fluctuations and caprices of history. In contrast the great Christians of prophetic and apocalyptic faith have found the confidence and motive power for serving God and their fellowmen, whether in times of cheerfulness or of pain.
(3) Uncritical hopefulness leads to an inept use of tactics to achieve social goals. Trying to leap the ditch between a given situation and an ideal solution, it is likely to land in the middle of the ditch. Those who refuse to choose between live alternatives in the political world because none offers an ideal line of action are likely to find themselves doing nothing effective at all. This is real futility, however ambitious its hopes. If a situation somewhere in the world demands attention, the only meaningful plans are those which will have an effect in that place. The uncritical idealist wants to avoid the use of force or of power politics, but he seldom asks himself what he would do if he were in Secretary Marshall’s shoes. As Emil Brunner has said, “a heedless pacifism can render the very people defenseless who would be most capable of creating a peaceful order in the world if they had the necessary means of power at their disposal.”2 If conscientious scruples prevent some nations from indulging in power politics, the field is left open for the less scrupulous to have their way in the areas where power politics is undoubtedly effective. A Christian can recognize this, and still avoid the error of uncritical optimism about victory in the power struggle. Faith in a transcendent God makes him critical of political measures, even while he recognizes the need of political means to reach political ends.
A Christian who criticizes the movement for an immediate world government today is met in some circles with raised eyebrows. Surely the Christian should favor this, he is told. Perhaps it is not quite attainable, but we should try for the best. Better to err on the side of the angels than of the devils. And it is true that the Christian does feel more comfortable attacking nationalism than world government with its measure of inherent validity. But this approach can make nonsense of the tactical problem involved in world order. Already the advocates of world government are moving in two opposite directions: one group says we must refrain from opposing Russian interests because that destroys the possibility of international unity; the other group says that we must organize the world government without Russia if she is unwilling to go alone. The latter idea—world government without Russia—is a contradiction in terms. The former alternative may lead to the negation of any balance of international order; for to yield in every case to the demands of the ambitious and powerful is to destroy the meaning of government in trying to achieve it.
[For a deeper dive into how Christianity and Crisis viewed world government—and how Christians should first advocate for a world community that might enable something like world government later—here is Reinhold Niebuhr on the topic, and here is Richard Fagley. The journal’s statement on foreign policy in 1946 also covered world government and community. In these articles, the authors do not appear to be some kind of proto-national conservatives despite criticism of world government. Instead, they are responding to post-World War II debates about what global order should look like.]
Let no one think that this is an article in praise of pessimism. The whole point is to find the means of getting things done. What is sought is a facing of our contemporary situation in a way that will enable an honest and vigorous struggle for social gains, avoiding both superficial optimism and despair. The best starting point is a realistic view of human history, recognizing both the attainments which social organization can make and the danger—call it “ideological taint” or “original sin,” as you please—inherent in any solution.
Further, this is no justification of complacent acceptance of situations with unsatisfactory alternatives. Although the Christian must choose the best course of action in the immediate situation, his faith in a transcendent God shows him that no alternative is perfect and calls him to repentance for his share in the order which permits only inadequate choices. Real repentance is never complacent. It will seize every opportunity—and there are many today—to change the circumstances which make available only grim and dangerous alternatives.
The late Archbishop Temple affords a worthy example of a combination of idealistic vision and practical shrewdness. He was capable of advocating such radical social changes that he felt obliged to defend himself against the charge of utopianism, but he kept his feet on the ground. “A statesman,” he wrote, “who supposes that a mass of citizens can be governed without appeal to their self-interest is living in a dreamland and is a public menace. The art of Government in fact is the art of so ordering life that self-interest prompts what justice demands.”3 Understanding this, he knew also that man is capable of response to God’s Gospel. “He must be treated as what he actually is, but always with a view to what in God’s purpose he is destined to become.”4 Such a view offers the highest conceivable estimate of the significance of social action, with a realistic criticism of naive optimism.
Sidney Hook, vigorous radical and foe of religion, in a recent statement of his belief in a democratic socialism, has offered this fighting faith for social action: “To be resigned to the contingency of defeat, but to fight like hell for the best possible chance in every alternative, is what the good life in action means.”5 This is an almost perfect statement of a Christian view of social action, on the practical level. Christians should find such action easier because of their faith in a God whose service requires a constant fight in every political situation but whose purpose and will are not contained within any contingent program. With confidence that His will can never be finally defeated, Christians can fight boldly where justice and human welfare are at stake and victory hangs in the balance.
Roger L. Shinn (1917 – 2013) was an American theologian and the author of many books, including Christianity and the Problem of History (1953). He graduated from Heidelberg College in 1938 and from Union Theological Seminary in 1941. As the managing editor of a student journal, he convinced Albert Einstein to write on science and religion. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and won a Silver Star for valor. He was ordained in 1946 and taught at Union, Heidelberg, Vanderbilt, and then returned to Union in 1960. There he was dean of instruction from 1963 to 1970, and was acting president from 1974 to 1975.
1. N. Y. Sunday Times Magazine, Nov. 7.
2. Justice and the Social Order (Harper), p. 257.
3. Christianity and Social Order (Penguin), p. 43.
4. Ibid., p. 44.
5. Quoted from the Partisan Review in Time, Feb. 17, 1947.