A popular debate among theologians is the debate as to whether the moral imperative of Christianity is to be understood as an absolute requirement, or to be taken pragmatically in terms of its consequences. A naive utilitarianism says that God’s law is to be respected for its results. Neo-orthodoxy as well as a critical idealism suggests that God’s law ought to be obeyed in spite of the results.
This is a debate which would have been unintelligible to most of the Hebrew prophets. If we can imagine one of them being asked for his opinion on the matter, he would doubtless say, after recovering from his initial amazement, “Of course God’s law is an absolute requirement for man. Of course it can be seen in its consequences in history. These are two aspects of the same thing.”
Apparently the prophetic position is too crass for the liberal idealist, too naive for the neo-orthodox, and too complicated in its analysis of consequences for the utilitarian. It is a position which, nevertheless, I should like briefly to defend.
The first and least praiseworthy hypothesis, then, is that of a naive Christian utilitarianism. This does not refer to the teaching of Rotary that “he profits the most who serves the best.” It is, more honorably, the belief that the use of Christian forces and a devotion to Christian ideals should bring to pass Christian results in society.
There are two obvious flaws in it. For one thing, the Christian results after which we aspire are too often complicated by a non-Christian content. Thus, when Americans yearn for peace, they instinctively make prosperity and national prestige its basic contents, rather than the reign of justice and of righteousness. In other words, neither our motives, nor our methods, nor our ends are altogether Christian.
In the second place, in this philosophy, one forgets too easily the unstable relationships between the flesh and the spirit. Moral purity has its spiritual rewards, but it is not bound to have a material reward. And the extent to which our “peace” and our “social justice” are intended to be an intermingling of these two types of reward is always difficult of discernment.
The real trouble with a Christian utilitarianism is its lack of utility. In the complicated relativities of history, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But there is nothing in the nature of the hypothesis itself to indicate when it will work and when it won’t. We reject it on pragmatic grounds.
A second hypothesis seems to say that Christianity is without practical effect in history. In contrast to the first doctrine, I am tempted to call this a futilitarian theology. It may allow for occasional incursions of God’s will into history, but such events are sporadic and absolutely unpredictable: they have no cumulative nor continuous effect. This appears to be the unavowed theory of those who are most vigoroùs in their attack on a pragmatic, or utilitarian theology.
The initial support for this view comes from the disgruntled materialist who feels that when he is good, he ought to get something out of it. He has discovered, alas, that it is not always true that he profits the most who serves the best. No one in this journal has espoused such an approach to the question; but it is worth mentioning, since both the materialist and the idealist support an identical hypothesis.
The Liberal idealist has a sentimental distrust of power. Because power is so often evil in man, he thinks it must be evil in God. Therefore, the only way to preserve God’s goodness in history is to make Him impotent. It does not occur to such a one that pure goodness, utterly divorced from power and efficiency of any sort, may be a selfish luxury, or else a vain shadow of the real thing ; and that pure goodness divorced from wisdom may be of all evil things the most evil.
A third hypothesis, which I espouse, may be phrased as follows: God’s will is normative and determinative in history. A knowledge of His moral law—so far as we may have it—is the only true basis for interpreting past events, and the only sound basis for predicting and controlling future events. There are three complicating factors which set off this hypothesis from the theory of a rigorously deterministic providence in human affairs.
The first is the fact of human freedom. This freedom is not absolute, but it is great in degree. We may therefore flout God’s will and take the consequences. Yet His will is affirmed in our violations of it as in our observings of it.
In the second place, because of the duality of our nature (as well as because of our freedom), there is a confusion in correlations between the realms of the flesh and of the spirit. To illustrate it very simply: a man may become rich because he has cheated his fellowmen, or he may become rich because he has served his fellowmen; a man may be poor because he is lazy and good-for-nothing, or he may be poor because he has deliberately preferred certain spiritual rewards to material ones. In other words, in this world, there is no utter harmony, nor any utter disharmony between the material and the spiritual.
In the third place, there is the fact of growth. This means that, at any one time, values are relative to the situation under consideration, although they are measured absolutely by the law of growth. It also means that the specific applications of values change in quality: the hard-won justice of one age may become the crying injustice of another age.
There is not space to elaborate further this hypothesis. Suffice it to say that, in this doctrine, God’s essence is His creativity. This makes allowance empirically and naturally, for the many polarities in God’s activity which, in more rationalistic theologies, are stated as “contradictions״ and then resolved by an appeal to “faith.”
Let us reject a futilitarian as well as a utilitarian theology, and reaffirm the historic prophetic position. Certainly the Scriptures speak of the absolute imperatives of God. Certainly they tell of the fruits and of the rewards that flow from obedience to those imperatives. When God’s essence is His creativity, then the absolute quality of His will and the results of that will in history are one and the same thing.
As for pragmatism, it furnishes its own judgments upon its inadequate practitioners. There are pragmatists like [William] James, whose vision embraces all the diversity of man’s spiritual life, but cannot see its unity.
There are pragmatists like [John] Dewey, whose understanding of the promises of intelligence and of science is great in scope, but who has an incredible and extraordinary blindness to the heights and depths of human nature. If these and certain theological pragmatists fail in their functions, then they fail for the same reason that some of the prophets fell short of their aspirations: they have not with sufficient humility explored the whole range of the realities and possibilities of God’s creative activity.
To be sure, it is not given to any man to know that whole range. Yet for all the mysteries God holds in reserve, He has revealed in abundance His meanings to mankind. The function of prophecy rests upon the efficacy of these meanings in history. In the light of them the true prophet will continue to interpret the happenings of the past and of the present, and to predict the course of the future. His may not be a prediction of specific events—the hour, the manner, the place. But it will be prediction as a statement of the probabilities in the outcome of present tendencies; and as a statement of inevitabilities when, barring miracle, events are finally shaped to an inescapable consequence.
The beginning of wisdom is to know that God’s will rules His world. To learn the specific values and principles by which that will releases in man the creative power which makes him a worthy image of his Maker is the fulfillment of wisdom.