When one examines the blueprints of a post-war Paradise offered for our encouragement or enticement by the spokesmen of the contending nations, one perceives a common denominator in their various plans: a unanimous assumption that the new order is to be an affair of this world only; a taking it for granted that all that men need for security and happiness and peace is an industrial and political setup well conceived; a postulation that man, when he regards himself as an end to be served, is morally competent, of sufficient natural good-will to make his system—whatever it may be—minister to something more satisfactory than a frequently renewed fratricidal conflict.
Against this common assumption which characterizes all the popular post-war hopes—British, American, Russian, German, Japanese, Italian—the teaching of Jesus Christ stands in unqualified opposition; nor can the Christian Church compromise in respect to that opposition without ceasing to be Christian. In that simple fact is the essence of the Church's problem.
If man, as envisioned by democrats and totalitarians alike, is for himself a determining end; if he may safely do as he pleases, in such fashion as may from time to time seem to him expedient; if he is able to handle his affairs without redemption from an ingrained folly; if in his own power he can rise above self-seeking and live in a voluntary sociality; if he is able to get along quite nicely without contact with any power not of himself which makes for righteousness—then Christianity is irrelevant to life. In that case the Church is at worst an incubus which ought to be destroyed and from which innocent children should be protected, at best an ivory tower in which peculiar and incompetent people may from time to time be permitted to take refuge from reality—an institution insignificant but relatively harmless.
As a matter of fact, it is in one or other of those two ways that most people in the pre-war world came to regard the Church. In Russia, the Church was stamped out as thoroughly as the regime could manage with safety, on the ground that it was a dangerous distributor of "opium to the people." In such lands as Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Church was forbidden to bring the current statecraft before the bar of God and, even more significant, was shut off from an effective educational access to the oncoming generation. In "liberal" countries—Sweden, England, the United States, for example—the Church was more and more regarded as a polite confraternity of occasional pious individuals, which had little or no social function except to lend a tone of respectability to a culture secularistic, man-centered, man-devised. In such countries the Church was not persecuted; it was granted every possible liberty. This was due not so much to a singular nobility as to the fact that it was felt that the Church could be relied on to "mind its own business," the said business being defined as providing a poetic delight for those who happened to crave its form of emotional release.
There was no country in the whole world, in the year before the war broke, in which the Christian Church had for years been expected or permitted to exert a controlling or even a largely critical influence on education, politics, industry, the arts, marriage and divorce. These are life's chief activities. In respect to every one of them, modern man had become used to ignore what might be the will of God for him, to substitute a desired self-expression for an attempt to do that will; and in respect to them all, he assumed his own entire competence. This same self-centeredness and self-confidence are also characteristic of the programs now variously offered for the shaping of things to come. Without a complete rediscovery of its own function, the Church is hardly likely to matter any more tomorrow than it mattered yesterday or than it matters at the moment, which is just about not at all.
That the Church has had small influence of late, and seems likely to have little more in the immediate future, is the Church's own fault. Christians have been too willing to come to terms with, and even to flatter, an essentially godless world. Sometimes this has been due to ecclesiastical venality; more often it has come about from inability to understand what has been happening. Carried along by inertia, churchmen have watched without comprehension while congregations have melted away, while the secularly educated younger generation increasingly has absented itself from worship and activity. To have retired fighting before the attacks of a growing secularism would have been a hard but glorious adventure, perhaps the prelude to a new and vigorous offensive; to have drifted into the position of a tolerated minority, politely begging an increasingly indifferent multitude for occasional smiles and reluctant contributions, has been to enact a role no less ignominious because ecclesiastics have not known what they were doing, no less deplorable because the populace, at least in Anglo-Saxon countries, has been too polite to tell church people the truth about themselves.
If one looks at the New Testament, the scriptural charter of the ecclesiastical enterprise, or if one examines the nineteen centuries of Christian history in an attempt to analyze the causes of alternating periods of success and failure, it seems plain enough that the Church's business is the simple and difficult bearing of witness, in terms of creed and code and cult, to the nature of God, the nature of man, the right relationship between the two, as these are revealed in the person and teaching of Jesus; the offering of Him, as solution of man's problems individual and social, to a world which does not desire Him but cannot get along without Him, a world which for its own safety must be brought to adore and obey him, a world which cannot be brought to do that except by those who do themselves adore and obey Him. The function of the Church is, with complete conviction of the divine inevitability of what Christ reveals about life, to resist all lesser, carnal interpretations of life—resist them in love but with firmness and consistency, convinced that thus it may persuade natural man, turn him to the right-about, save him from conceit and folly and cupidity and from the destruction these engender.
Any significant impact of the Church upon the day whose sun is sinking into a confusing twilight, or upon the tomorrow which struggles in the womb of night, must necessarily be an impact of challenge, of opposition. That challenge remains constant, because of the essential continuity which exists between the immediate past and the immediate future. Their relationship is not that of supplanted and supplanter, but rather that of boy and grown-up man. The liberal age, with its trust in rational idealism, soon degenerated, because of man's conceited irrationality, into an era of class struggle and of stridently expanding empire. These now lead straight on into a period of greedy collectivism dominated by demagogues. The history of man from 1750 to 1950 will be seen by historians in the twenty-first century to have been all of a piece. The secularist structure during the two centuries has been and continues a consistent development: an un-Christian, indeed an anti-Christian folly.