By Edmund Opitz, author of The Libertarian Theology of Freedom and Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies. This essay was originally published in the October 1969 issue of The Freeman, and was adapted from his guest sermon at Kirk in the Hills, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, August 10, 1969. Considering the ensuing election, this is a welcome reminder of the greater order of things around us.
The great naturalist, John Burroughs, wrote that “in the ordinary course of nature, the great beneficent changes come slowly and silently. The noisy changes, for the most part, mean violence and disruption…. The still small voice is the voice of life and growth… In the history of a nation it is the same.”
This is a time of noisy change, a time of violence and disruption, a time of perpetual crisis. There is, we are told, a crisis in family life, a crisis in the cities, a crisis in race relations, a crisis in religion. Doubt has been cast on all the old certainties; nothing appears fixed except change—and the inmates are trying to run the asylum. The present mood has been captured in the familiar lines by William Butler Yeats:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
A bill of particulars is not needed; any man can supply his own, from any newspaper, any day of the week. And the feeling grows among us that the whirlwind of change which has scrambled our value system has erased all guidelines, all benchmarks, all standards.
The 1960′s have not dealt kindly with Americans, and our magnificent accomplishments in outer space serve but to highlight the tragic ruptures which mar our social life. We are bogged down in a land war in Asia, as a phase of the cycle of wars into which we have been locked since 1914. Whereas America was once regarded by the world’s peoples as “the last, best hope of earth,” it is now reviled in many quarters. Latin American countries ask a Presidential emissary to call off his tour because they cannot guarantee his safety. The nineteenth century trend in the direction of constitutionally guaranteed liberties of the citizen in his personal, his social, and his economic affairs slowed to a halt in the twentieth. The tide of totalitarianism began to rise, and communism in Russia has recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, confident of its strength, sure of the future, able to count on the disaffected of all countries—including our own—as allies.
We are uncertain about the philosophical basis of our own form of society; Adam Smith seems almost as remote as the original Adam, and who reads The Federalist Papers nowadays? The Executive branch has become semi-autonomous, and the Supreme Court usurps a legislative function. At the level where most of us live there is mounting concern over increased crime and the open incitements to violence—to which certain sectors of our society respond by displaying a paranoid sense of collective guilt. And then there are the demonstrations, the riots, and that crushing blow to our spirit—three tragic assassinations.
What has happened to people? What will become of America? What of the church in all this?
Outward Signs of Inner Turmoil
I take it as axiomatic that external disorder and social strife is a reflection of disorder in the mind and soul. For it is in the nature of the human condition that man forever seeks a harmony within himself, that is, an ordered soul; and secondly, he works for an outer order of society. Thomas Aquinas put it this way: “Man has a natural inclination toward knowing the truth about God, and toward living in society.” This is to restate the Great Commandment given to us by the Master when he said: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength…. And thy neighbor as thyself.” (Mark 12:30-31) The inner and spiritual liberty proclaimed in the Gospels must seek to realize itself and find proper expression in outer and social freedom. Christianity penetrates society and creates the appropriate political and economic structures by means of Christian persons who are citizens or magistrates. The earth will never witness a fully realized Christian society, for this would mean the Kingdom of God, and God’s Kingdom is beyond history. But what we can hope for is a society Christian in its norms, Christian in its understanding that man is formed to serve a transcendent end, to fulfill a purpose beyond society.
Biblical religion understands the world as the creation of God who looked out upon his work and called it good. It regards man as a creature who bears a unique relation to this God, being formed in his image—meaning that man possesses free will and the ability to command his own actions. This free being is given dominion over the earth with the admonition to be fruitful and multiply. He is commanded to work in order that he might eat; he is made steward of the earth’s resources and held accountable for their economic use. He is to respect the life of his neighbor and not covet his goods; theft is wrong because property is right. When this outlook comes to prevail, the groundwork is laid for a free and prosperous commonwealth; the City of Man is not an end in itself, it is the proving ground for the City of God.
The contemporary outlook is quite different. It excludes God from its reckoning, and in a sector of the church we witness the paradox of a school of thought proclaiming “secular Christianity.” The present outlook views the world as self-existent and man is reduced to a mere natural product of natural forces—autonomous man, stripped of all attachments which were thought to bind him to a transcendent realm of being. Shorn of his cosmic dimension, man is depersonalized; no longer the creature of God, he is reduced to a mere unit of mass society struggling to retain vestiges of his humanity as his world goes through a time of troubles.
Secular trends have acquired such a momentum that religious movements tumble along in their wake. Theologians talk about the death of God and the new morality. The New Clergy tell us that the church must go, as they rush out to man the barricades; they preach violence and the overthrow of society. “The New Clergy intersects with the New Left,” declares a writer in a recent Harpers. “These men are out to remake the world,” some wit remarked, “as God would have made it in the first place—except he lacked the funds!”
Politically-minded churchmen seek to shape the churches into an ecclesiastical power bloc which would reduce religion to a mere instrument of revolutionary social change. We witness the growth of organizations, agencies, and councils designed to bring ecclesiastical leverage to bear on society, in a manner indistinguishable from the efforts of secular collectivists. Chief among these is the National Council of Churches and the World Council. If social salvation were to be had from large, powerful, and prestigious ecclesiastical organizations, then we should have been saved already. But provide a religious organization with wealth and power and it begins to change into a secular agency. The church in every age has come under the spell of secular movements and enthusiasms, to the detriment of spiritual religion. Churchmen dream of a large and powerful organization, both for the sake of the church itself—as they think—and for the sake of what that church might accomplish by its influence on government. In former days, churchmen invoked government to guarantee purity of doctrine by punishing those who deviated into some heresy. The aim was to get more souls into heaven. Today, churchmen seek to strengthen the hand of government and give it the power to manage the economy and control, where needed, the lives of the citizenry. The aim is to guarantee economic security from cradle to grave.
It is easy for us now to see that medieval churchmen were mistaken in thinking that souls could be shoveled into heaven by the forced repetition of some incantation. Someday it will be just as evident that present-day churchmen are sadly misguided in their preoccupation with the reshuffling of the existing stock of economic goods. Like the secular liberals and collectivists, these churchmen expect to overcome economic disabilities by political interventions. They’ll never achieve prosperity by taking this tack. Poverty can be overcome by increased productivity, and in no other way; and a society of free men is more productive than any other. It follows that we maximize production and minimize poverty only as men are increasingly free to pursue their personal aims—including their economic goals—within the framework of law. Prosperity, in fact, is a by-product of liberty. Limit the government to its proper competence, so that men are uncoerced in their interpersonal relations—including their economic arrangements—and the general level of well-being rises.
A generation ago, Dean Inge of St. Pauls foresaw a “reversion to political and external religion, the very thing against which the Gospel declared relentless war.” It is not that Christianity regards social progress as unimportant, the Dean goes on to say; it is a question of how genuine improvement may best be promoted; “the true answer… is that the advance of civilization is a sort of by-product of Christianity, not its chief aim; but we can appeal to history to support us that this progress is most stable and genuine when it is a by-product of a lofty and unworldly idealism.”
The church is in the world, but it is not wholly of the world. Whenever it seeks to further social progress by embracing the currently fashionable political nostrum, it not only fails to achieve its social ends by politicalizing its gospel, but it betrays its own nature as well. The church’s job is to remind man, in season and out, who he really is and what he may become; and this task, in every age, means some resistance to “the world.” The church must never marry the spirit of the age, Dean Inge used to say, for if she does she’ll be a widow in the next.
The Saving Remnant
Sometimes we despair of the church, but we must not forget that in every age there has been a creative and self-renewing activity at work within it; and it’s at work there today. This is the saving Remnant. The seventeenth century Church of England Bishop, Richard Warburton, pondered these matters. Is the church worth saving, he wondered? Whimsically, he compared the church to Noah’s ark, and concluded that the church, like the ark of Noah, “is worth saving, not for the sake of the unclean beasts that almost filled it and probably made much noise and clamor in it, but for the little corner of rationality [Noah and family] that was as much distressed by the stink within as by the tempest without.”
The French have a saying: “The situation is desperate; but it’s not serious.” The human venture has always been an uphill fight. The biological odds were against the emergence of man, and the scales have always been weighted against man’s survival. But these facts, in themselves, have never been grounds for widespread or long-continued despair; certainly not wherever the Christian faith has taken hold.
A certain seventeenth century New England Puritan left a journal, in which was found this entry: “My heart leaps for joy, every time I hear the good news of damnation.” Now the Puritans were a peculiar people, and this one had an odd way of putting things. But perhaps he is telling us something, in his oblique way. It is good news that man possesses the gift of freedom so far-reaching that he is personally responsible for the ultimate fate of his soul. This is not to say that man saves himself; it is to say that the individual may choose to accept or reject the means of grace made available to him, and that his act of choosing is determinative.
Responsibility Implies Freedom
This old doctrine says, first of all, that somebody in the universe cares for us individually, one by one. Such is the basic implication of any system of rewards and punishments based on merit or demerit. The conviction that this is a universe where, in the long run, we do get our just deserts implies that we have a responsibility for our lives; that nobody really gets away with anything.
No man is held accountable for an outcome which his actions did not affect one way or the other. Responsibility implies freedom. To say that man is a responsible being is to say that his freely made choices do cause things to happen this way rather than that. Life’s alternate possibilities of reward and punishment imply that men must choose. And because the universe does not jest, it has not given man the freedom to make a choice as to how he will commit his life without at the same time equipping that choice with power to affect the ultimate outcome. This is the core of the Doctrine of Election which a hillbilly preacher explained to his flock in this fashion: “The Lord votes for you; the Devil votes against you. It’s the way you vote that decides the election.” Even if you do nothing, your very inaction becomes a form of action, affecting the outcome one way or the other.
The Power behind the universe has so much confidence in man that it has made him a free and responsible being. This is a basic premise of our religious heritage, but our generation, like each before it, must earn its heritage anew before we can make it our own.
The rest of creation is complete; we alone are unfinished. The Creator has given the animal world all the answers it needs; answers locked up in instinctual responses as old as time. But man has not been given the answers; before our eyes the Creator has posed a gigantic question mark. We are handed a question, and the answer is ours to give. We have the responsibility, the freedom, and the power to respond.
If these things are true at all, they are true for everyone, but not everyone is equally able to grasp them as truths. Organizations that are equipped with the blinders fastened on them by wealth, power, and success are handicapped; they come to care more for their image than for the truth. It is sad to observe that nothing fails like success. But organizations and individuals who are not drawn into the power-and-success game may advance the truth without encumbering it with themselves. They may become part of the saving Remnant.
“Be still, and know that I am God,” sang the Psalmist (Ps. 46:10). “In quietness… shall be your strength,” said Isaiah. (Isaiah 30:15) Victory for the things we want victorious comes not with noisy demonstrations, clamorous agitation, bustling campaigns, shouted slogans, heated discussions, passionate arguments, emotional debates, demagogic harangues; neither will it come by a display of power or a show of strength. The only victories worth winning arrive quietly, by the slow progress of thought, by the refinement of moral values. “Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come,” and the ripening of ideas in the corridors of men’s minds and the translation of these into appropriate action when ready is the only way man may advance. It is in the intellect and in the moral imagination—that is, in the human spirit—that men may “wait upon the Lord and renew their strength.” The great Swiss economist, Wilhelm Roepke, was also a deeply religious man. He fought in World War I and was the first intellectual exiled by Hitler. “For more than a century,” he writes, “we have made the hopeless effort more and more baldly proclaimed, to get along without God. It is as though we wanted to add to the already existing proofs of God’s existence, a new and finally convincing one; the universal destruction that follows on assuming God’s nonexistence. The genesis of the malady from which our civilization suffers lies in the individual soul and is only to be overcome within the individual soul.” And if the care of souls is not, first and foremost, the province of the church, what—in God’s name—is the church’s main business?
Disorder in society reflects a disorientation in man’s inner life. If there is confusion as to the proper end, aim, and goal of personal life, then bizarre social ideologies will prove irresistibly attractive and a sickness spreads in society. A healthy society, on the other hand, is the natural consequence of sound thinking and right action among men and women who are pursuing the life-goals proper to human beings.
The church is a means for ends beyond itself; and our lives contain potentialities which can never be fully realized on the biological and social planes alone. We are involved in lost causes; but take heart from St. Paul, where he speaks of foolish things confounding the wise and weak things confounding the mighty. Paradoxically, there is a kind of strength in weakness, and there is a kind of wisdom in foolishness. And there are victories in lost causes, because God may choose them to work out his purposes.