Are Foreign Missions Done For?

I

WILL the churches soon be forced to abandon missionary work — more especially foreign missionary work? Are they actually on the verge of such abandonment now? Missionary effort must be based chiefly, if not solely, upon evangelism — the carrying of the Gospel to those who have not yet received it. Is it not a fair question, then, to ask whether or not evangelism is passing, as other things pass in this changing world? It does seem incredible that so vast a world movement, which began with Saint Paul’s mission to the non-Jewish world, should be approaching its end. But it may be so. It will be so unless the churches come to a more definite faith than they now exhibit, and — though this may seem a contradiction — unless certain types of missionaries leave the Orient and return to Main Street.

This puts me in the happy position of hitting out with two hands at offenders on both sides. Let me explain. No one can read the now famous report on Re-thinking Missions without both rejoicing and misgiving. Mr. P. K. Mok’s protest in the August Atlantic against the ‘ typical missionary’s ’ attitude gives one furiously to think, especially as the Laymen’s Report would seem to indicate that the investigators had met a very considerable number of the sort of Christian evangelists whose heads Mr. Mok will not spare, though he has nothing but praise for their sincerity of purpose. The missionary he knows is a sloppy thinker, as Mr. George Ade would say, but he has a good heart.

And yet — what does either Mr. Mok or the lay investigator offer as an alternative? Must we have a missionary whose aim is to erect a Pantheon for the gods and set his own Master in the midst? Is that the only substitute for the other, who has never outgrown the stage where he sees only the heathen in his blindness bowing down to wood and stone? I plead for the men on the middle ground. Certainly the missionaries whom I know are gentlemen who offer their gifts of grace with ‘ good manners.’ At the same time, though their approach toward the ancient religions of the East is sympathetic, they believe with all their hearts that the Christ they wish to make known is more than one of a company of religious teachers whose portraits adorn the sanctuary. Theirs is not a creedless gospel; they have a gospel creed.

If anybody in the world needs a creed —must have one — it is the missionary. Unless he has a real body of beliefs which he considers of such infinite worth as to lay upon him the need of sharing his treasure with others, the missionary is ‘done for.’ And he is doubly ‘done for’ unless there is behind him a body of fellow believers so convinced of the value of their faith that they will give gladly and generously for its propagation.

It is quite the fashion now to decry dogma. One of my friends recently held an eight-day preaching mission in a small town in Pennsylvania. The services drew many people from other congregations and some who had no church affiliation whatever. The sermons must have been more than acceptable, for at the close of the mission one woman was heard to declare, most earnestly, ‘Well, I don’t believe in havin’ no creed; but if I was n’t a Free Will Baptist and did believe in havin’ a creed, that man’s creed is the kind I would like to have.’

The extraordinary thing about the woman’s statement was that she stood solidly upon dogmas, though denying that she had any. Of course, if she was a Free Will Baptist, she had a very definite confession of faith. I hardly know a more definite one, unless it be that of the Two Seed in the Spirit Predestinarians. Hardly less significant, however, is the fact that in her confusion, while abhorring creeds, she was really longing for some more reasonable and acceptable statement of assured beliefs; she felt drawn to the man who evidently knew what he believed and why he believed it.

Men are hungry for a definite religion. They want to know whether or not we have it. They look, searchingly, to discover its fruits. Mere conventional decency of life is not a strong enough force to convert the doubter or overcome evil. An easy-going, half-believing, half-hearted acceptance of religion, with no real faith and no strong sense of duty, is not enough to stabilize society. We are a decent people, most of us in America, in spite of political grafters, money-mad speculators, conscienceless bankers, gangsters, racketeers, and an army of lawbreakers; we are decent, but we could not, even by the wildest flight of the imagination, be called ardent Christians. What we need in missionary service is a glowing faith in combination with a reasonable and intelligent faith — but faith we must have.

The trouble with all churches in America to-day is that faith in God, a personal God with whom we may have fellowship and communion, seems to be succumbing to a hazy speculation about God. I talked recently with a learned college president who felt that he had fully vindicated his religious position when he said that he believed in ‘an abstract principle of truth and right with which we should be ready and walling to coöperate.’ Plain folk far outside the circle of the intelligentsia breathe the same religious mist. It is a poor substitute for the clear and freshening air breathed by the Christian believer. Men will never worship a Philosophical Abstraction. They need sure faith, and they will welcome gladly the church or the minister who makes such a faith reasonable and appealing.

Please do not misunderstand. No reasonably sane person wants the oldtime elaborations of belief which were made confessions of faith in Reformation days. Nor does anyone want stiff theological outlines, dead dogmas of dull teachers; they ask for simple instructions in Christian doctrine as applied to Christian living — warm, vital, moving, appealing. Few of us are interested in mere denominational differences. Of course, we want our creed stated in simple terms. Moreover, there must be an effort to restate the Christian faith in terms of to-day, with special reference to modern difficulties. The ancient creeds were so phrased in days of philosophic thought. Our task is to meet the new thought of a new day. To quote a wise and reverent contemporary writer, Dr. Leonard Hodgson: ‘It took four and a half centuries to think out the problem in terms of ancient philosophy. It may take as long in terms of modern. But “ he that believeth shall not make haste.”’

II

One suspects that the chief trouble about foreign missionary effort springs out of the question of creed or no creed. It arises from the fact that the churches have been attempting, apparently, to preach one Gospel at home and to reserve another for export. Here at home we have leaders who are trying to march abreast of modern thought. They have discarded the idea of the Bible as an infallible book, inerrant in every statement, covering every subject, an inspired manual of science and a divinely dictated handbook of history, as well as the story of an evolution in manners and morals and above all a guide to faith. They are much less concerned about meticulous exactness in stating their doctrine than they are in its social implications. They are faced with the troubled questionings which arise out of our new knowledge of the immensity of the universe and the relatively insignificant place man seems to have in the scheme of things; this creates new difficulties about prayer; it raises new doubts about an overruling Providence; it demands new effort to realize God at all. Necessarily this means, also, a different approach to the problem of sin. Morality for a machine world, for example, must be set forth in terms quite unlike the moral teaching of a century, or half a century, ago. Moralists must find new methods of approach and former mistakes must be corrected if the minister is not to be regarded as a pessimistic complainer, painting in deep black the sins he himself either is not tempted to commit or is a bit afraid to venture upon.

Meantime, perhaps, while struggling with such problems in our several churches here, the Laymen’s Report implies that we have been sending men and women to the East with the very Gospel which the ministers at home are no longer presenting with appealing power. It is a repetition of the separation we find at our doors. Here we have Modernists holding the strong city pulpits, Fundamentalists in control of the rural parts. The latter voice ignorant prejudices against the guiding light of modern knowledge, contending for the faith, but confusing it with outworn explanations of it. The former, in their revolt against the crudities of the ‘ Bible Belt’ religion, reduce Christianity to a man-made system; they rob it of all mystery, explaining, correcting, or apologizing until little is left but a badly cracked shell of humanistic goodwill. Few, on either side, seek a middle ground, where faith may still be found and yet be reasonable.

Presumably, the Commission representing various Protestant communions, whose conclusions are given in the report entitled Re-thinking Missions, hoped to arrive at some constructive conclusions by which these two seemingly contradictory convictions might be brought into concord. In this they did not succeed. Mr. Mok is more moving in his thesis. He touches, it seems to me, at the real heart of the matter and suggests ideas about which the rest of us have been timidly silent, fearful of hurting some of the weaker brothers and sisters, unwilling to ally ourselves with their hostile critics, decently considerate in refraining from attack upon the work of churches which we do not regard as being as forward-looking as our own.

The time has come to speak out. Why not admit that Mr. Mok is to a large extent right in his analysis and confess that we have been trying to give the Orient a Western Christ? (Just as we insist on ‘carpenter Gothic’ churches.) Why not go further and express penitence at the errors of those who have been evangels of Americanism rather than of Christianity? Why not acknowledge that there are all sorts of queer fanatics in some of the absurd sects which have gone to China? Why not confess that, where fanaticism is absent, knowledge is not necessarily present, and that ignorant and stupid missionaries have done infinite harm to the cause of Christ? Why not be more specific in pointing out just who these churches and missionaries are? Certainly the missionaries of my own church with whom I come into contact at home have not failed here, whatever may have been done by the Bible School graduates of many strange sects. They have caught the spirit of Saint Paul, who on Mars Hill began his address: ‘Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are very religious.’ The best of the modern missionaries always say that; not, ‘Ye are too superstitious,’ as we once quoted Saint Paul. They do not begin with scornful attacks on the old religions; they have sympathetic appreciation of all that is good in them. Just as the Old Testament was, for the Jews, a schoolmaster to lead them to Christ, so they feel that the religions of the Eastern nations may be regarded as their Old Testament; they treat them as a preparation for the fuller truth they bring.

III

Of course the missionary’s one aim, if he is sincere, is to win men to a religion which means so much to him that he cannot be content until he shares it with others who need it. Presumably he goes to the Orient because there the need seems to him overwhelmingly great. Of course, therefore, his first desire is to ‘win souls.’ The Commission advances some excellent criticisms of the unfortunate results of overemphasis on the gaining of converts. These discoveries, however, are not startlingly new. The best missionaries learned long ago not to count success by membership lists; they have repeatedly declared that it is a great error to measure the effect of Christian missions by the number of full converts due directly to missionary effort. The East has absorbed the Christian elements into its religions to a degree always evident and sometimes amazing. That very fact speaks much for the maligned missionary. It is the real test of missionary success. I wonder if Mr. Mok could not turn aside from the path of criticism — much as criticism may be necessary — to look for other types of missionaries? Would he not find in this test of missionary success the expression of his own germ of belief in Christ as the fulfillment of religious aspirations? Would he not find this Teacher so far above other teachers as to suggest that only the traditional faith of Christendom explains His greatness?

Having stated a self-evident fact about overzealous effort to gain converts, the Commission goes on to a most remarkable conclusion. It declares: —

‘The ideal missionary method would have been for the missionaries to present to the races among whom they came the vital principles of Christianity, those truths and ideals of life which constitute the eternal aspects of it, and to have let this direct spiritual impact upon the Oriental peoples produce, in its own fresh form, its peculiar type of organization and its unique modes of corporate development. If that could have happened those who responded to the message which the missionaries brought and who felt the attractive power of the Christ whom these missionaries interpreted would slowly have found their place as living members of what may be called the universal church. Instead of a rigid institution, it would have been a group or a fellowship of believers and seekers of many names and types.’

In other words, the Church (for them) is merely a convenient organization for gathering like-minded people into a society. Christians may therefore be disciples unattached. The ‘ideal’ method, so it appears, would be to have as many ‘churches’ as various groups might feel disposed to organize, with varied forms of government, different beliefs, and a kaleidoscopic worship. How extraordinary, when we consider the present passion for Christian unity and realize that the tragedies and absurdities of our unhappy divisions have so hindered the work of foreign missions as to imprint upon the consciences of those most consecrated in service the need of healing the wounds in Christ’s Body the Church and restoring its Oneness! The longing for Christian unity is, indeed, a by-product of foreign missions. From the mission field came the call to peace. Later its echo came from the overchurched villages and towns in the domestic field. If we in America are ashamed of producing so many hundreds of sects, some of them wildly fantastic, why urge Oriental converts to employ their talents in framing more sectarian organizations different from any yet conceived in the fertile brains of ‘original’ thinkers among the Christians of America?

Certainly Christianity was from the beginning a corporate thing. It was such for Saint Paul, whose method the writer of this report thinks he finds embodied in his sketch of the ideal plan in missionary service. The great Apostle to the Gentiles did indeed bring to the cities he visited ‘a new inspiration, a new sense of the certainty of God, a new redemptive power, and a transforming spirit’ — but he did not stop there; he sought to knit together the individuals who had caught this spirit into a society which he called ‘the Body of Christ.’ Nor can it be said of him that he had ‘no fixed and finished system of doctrine.’ The fact is that he could not touch upon any matter of morals, or of discipline, in the informal letters which he sent to inquirers, without basing everything on a definite faith. ‘ Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, thought God-equality no prize to be grasped, but emptied himself.’

Perhaps the traditional Catholic idea of the Church, had it ever been presented to him instead of the curious sect ideas by which he was repelled, might have helped Mr. Mok. A mystical Body of Christ might have an appeal to the Oriental mind quite as strong as the mystical in the individual who wishes to tread his own path in his search for God. Perhaps the mystery of the Blessed Sacrament as the Church’s great act of sacrificial worship would fit in with his thinking. Somehow one feels, however, that his teachers would be compelled to show him that Christianity, if in many things like his older faith, is in many ways different.

Does the Laymen’s Commission think clearly here? One of its members, at the meeting last November of the directors and sponsors of the inquiry, told of a visit with four hundred Indian women to a Hindu temple where the sacred birds were to be fed. ‘Then at the end of the ceremony, those Hindu priests said, “Will all orthodox Hindus come forward and receive the sacred food?” I had not realized that they had a ceremony so much like our own Sacrament, and there was a moment of terrific suspense, and then a woman from the back of the group said, “There are no such distinctions here. We are all one and either we all come forward or no one will come forward.” And the Mohammedan woman who stood next to me said, “I am going forward; are you?” I said, “I had not thought of it. I don’t know whether we shall be welcome.” She said, “That does not matter. I believe we should share in these religious experiences.” And so in a few minutes, after a consultation of those Hindu priests on that altar rock, the priest came down among us and offered to us their sacred food — to Hindu, to orthodox, to outcaste, to Mohammedan, and to Christian they offered the Hindu food.’

No doubt this will please many sentimental people. Some of the more soft-hearted women will doubtless feel the tears filling their eyes, while throats are choked with emotion. But get back to hard facts: Was it a loyal exhibition of Christian faith? Is this the attitude that best expresses the Christian faith of the Commission? Is it a true expression of the faith they would have accepted back home? If it is accepted, will any real motive for missions remain? Has it already been accepted, indeed, in the more sophisticated congregations, and does that mean that the problem as to whether or not foreign missions are ‘done for’ is a problem as to whether or not Christianity has been quietly rejected and set aside at home?

IV

All of which brings us back to the beginning. It is conceivable that good men and women, however hazy in belief, may, nevertheless, find in the teachings of Jesus the ‘best thought’ of God and perhaps go to the trouble and expense of winning others to the same belief. It is conceivable, also, that with the loosening of authority and custom in the Far East, Christianity may be regarded as the only force which can be counted upon to maintain a social order. It is conceivable, even though we go no further, that some might feel the need of contributing of our best to the emergence of a general world culture when changes in the East have gone further. We may believe ‘ the best’ to be the larger ideas of God and of the world, developed partly within and partly outside the Christian society.

But is it conceivable that motives such as these — cool and unemotional — can renew the fires which keep the missionary spirit warm, in the real sense of the name? One wonders whether some of China’s troubles today may not be due to contributions which missionary-minded folk of the more ignorant type have ‘tossed into the pot.’ One wonders, also, whether they have not been overzealous in inoculating the Oriental with their own conceptions of Western culture. One wonders how much real admiration they have for a civilization different from our own. But one also wonders whether, when the Commission has dispelled this ignorance of foolish men, we shall not find in the hearts of the Liberalists the same confusion of thought. One-hundred-per-cent Americans are not confined to those whom Mr. Mencken elegantly names ‘Boobs of the Bible Belt.’ As for myself, I dislike, quite as intensely as Mr. Mok, the thought of a remodeled Orient, built upon approved Western patterns.

Has the Commission of Inquiry any idea more appealing? Honest as its work is, it does seem to be an example of vagueness and haziness in religious thinking. Its inferential conclusions are wrong. If they are accepted, they will turn Christian missions into a social-welfare enterprise. Social service, surely, must be rendered. But its place is secondary; it is the expression of the faith the missionary preaches; it makes real and concrete the love he comes to proclaim. How many people will be anxious to contribute toward promulgating a hundred-per-cent American philosophy and manner of life for China and Japan? Who then will pay the bills? That is a question which ought to be laid on the Commission’s neatly swept doorstep.

The missionary motive is very definite — obedience to the command of Christ to ‘go into all the world.’ Its compulsive call is heard by those whose desire is to make known everywhere the Lord and Master who means so much to themselves. When missions lose that call and cease to regard as binding the command of Christ, missions will die. They cannot live in a faith that is but a morning mist. They will not be supported by Christians who have only a ’vague, dreamy, diffused sense of duty.’

Without such definiteness of faith and purpose, indeed, missions do not deserve support. We cannot go to China to build schools if we must sign a pledge not to speak of Christianity in the schools we have built. We cannot go to Japan to erect hospitals if we are compelled to confine our work to research, diagnosis, and scientific treatment of disease. Surely we must do what Christ did in healing the diseased bodies of those who appealed to Him; we may be permitted to show equal interest with Him in diseased souls. We do not go to India with a new philosophy for the Brahmins or the Untouchables; we go to give them the religion of Jesus Christ. At least, so we had always supposed. But what says the Commission? It would secularize the missionary schools, making them purely educational rather than distinctly Christian — which would mean taxing American Christians for a secular school system in China and Japan when many of us are no longer enamoured of secularized education at home. It would also have a sort of missionary chest, like our community chests, out of which the colleges of all denominations would be supported, again with a secularized atmosphere. One can hardly imagine a wave of enthusiastic support from church members in America, especially from parents whose sons and daughters have attended some of our American institutions of higher learning.

Once more, the Commission would eliminate doctrinal teaching and return to the ‘simplicity of the Gospel’ and be ‘unfettered by any historical system’ — although they are not asking for a return to the simplicity of medical and educational methods of early days, however unfettered.

On one page the members object to using Christian hospitals in evangelizing patients, on the plea that it is taking undue advantage of their helplessness; on another, they ask for workers in agricultural parts who can teach modern agricultural methods and at the same time have an opportunity for evangelism which has just been denied hospital workers. Does anyone remember Christ’s ever teaching about agricultural methods, however vivid may be some of His parables about the fields, the woods, the wind, the weather? Did He ever allow His willingness to help in sickness and suffering to obscure His one absorbing desire— to restore into harmony with the beautiful nature that lay around about them the sick souls as well as the diseased bodies of those who came to Him for help?

Here we come to the parting of the ways. The Commission is right, Mr. Mok is right, as to the crudities of some of the missionaries. They want to be divorced from them on the ground of incompatibility and mental cruelty. They are right in declaring that at their best the religions of the East to-day may lead men to Christ. But Mr. Mok would find refined specimens of Homo Americanus among the membership of the Commission whose desire to bring Western civilization to the East could not be less annoying to him than are the ministers who insisted on immersing his mother in baptism in midwinter, although he might be less troubled over the union of Jesus the Christ and Gautama the Buddha in a sacramental feast.

Is there any hope of muzzling both elements, while the solid middle-of-theroad people prove that they can develop enthusiasm without losing their common sense? In such will lie the hope for missions — in men who have a definite faith and with it an affectionate (though not a soft) heart; who believe in Christ without damning all who do not; who recognize goodness, beauty, and truth wherever they appear, are sure that the supreme revelation is in Christ, and are earnest enough in their own discipleship to carry to others what does so much for themselves.

V

I have never volunteered for foreign service because I have been everlastingly busy trying to make a little dent here and there on the consciences of some beneficiaries of a supposed Christian civilization in America. I could not go on were I not sure that I have found the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. I understand and sympathize with those who have not found what I possess. There was a time when I was not any too sure myself. There were times, indeed, when I could not possibly have said, ‘I believe.’ There have been times, since, when I say it tremblingly. I was born with a skeptical mind.

But every time I read the Gospels — putting aside, for the moment, all critical questions, all doubts about miracles, all prejudices and preconceptions — every time I read I find there ‘the shining mystery of Jesus,’ as Douglas Edwards calls it. I cannot understand how anyone who has found that can keep it to himself. I am frank to say that there would not be much temptation for me to do any prophesying, preaching, or plain straight talking if this faith were not mine. It is a dogmatic faith — a faith expressed in doctrine. The doctrines of Christianity seem to me to be but the logical exponents of its facts. The prejudice against dogma dates back to the time when men framed ‘articles of religion’ or ‘confessions of faith’ which dealt meticulously with careful definitions of many minor doctrines. One can heartily dispense with all such ‘creeds’; acceptance of a creed which deals only with a dozen foundation facts and truths is quite a different matter. I believe — and in believing find that belief influences life.

And I believe Jesus Christ is the only hope of the world to-day. There are many things in His teaching which now have new meaning for us. We are discovering what have been called the ‘unappropriated treasures’ of Christ. We are discovering, for example, out of the long depression, that individuals must learn the law of service, or society will perish. ‘No man liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.’ We are beginning to learn that nations also exist for service, not for self-aggrandizement. We live in a world so interdependent that there is a practical compulsion to coöperate for the common good. In statecraft (and even in everyday politics) we have been discovering that the conception of society as made up of individuals each free to serve his own ends, while the devil takes the hindmost, is as faulty from the point of view of economic realism as Christianity has always told us that it is from the point of view of spiritual idealism.

All this supplies the incentive for missions. Some such convictions linger in the minds of those who have lost the ancient faith. To me the creeds are compelling, because the teaching of Jesus rests back upon my belief that, when He speaks, He speaks with divine authority. If I believe that, then I believe I have more than man’s ‘best thoughts’ about God; I have a revelation about God, a wonderful message for all of His children. I cannot keep it to myself. The Commission which has been ‘re-thinking missions’ falls back upon motives far less compelling. I doubt whether their enthusiasm for propagating a sort of Christian Kultur will inspire to gifts of money or of self. With all due respect, their report is a signpost pointing toward a road of retreat.

When men have faith, missions necessarily follow. The point of this paper is that, if the faith goes, missions will go, too. Will the men who have been ‘re-thinking’ please dispel suspicions by telling us what their faith is? What least common multiple their research has left uninjured and secure? It is important that we should know, for in substance the report would seem to say: ‘We have been exporting a Gospel which we no longer accept at home. We must begin to export the same Gospel we are offering for home consumption. There is weakening faith at home; no matter, let’s try it.’

The real questions are: Is the new Gospel worth so much of pains, care, and cost? Are the Eastern races likely to be enamoured of it? Will Mr. Mok find the common people hearing it gladly? Arc the people back home likely to be so vitally concerned about its propagation as to give generously for the cause? Is the new Gospel a triumphant progress toward a larger faith, or is it a halfway house on the road to agnosticism? Are the objects of our zealous attention apt to respond to a message which says that they need Western enlightenment, Western progress, Western efficiency, and a diluted belief which is all that the West can offer? Or do they need the message which says, ’I know that my Redeemer liveth’? And is it not our present task to use every ounce of heart and brain in the effort to gain a new grip on the faith of Christianity, a new appreciation of its real significance, while yet conserving the values of all honest endeavor to give fresh interpretation of it and a more liberal and more sweetly charitable presentation of it?

Then — if only the Atlantic were willing to open its pages to the theologians — some of us might give a record of the experiences and the arguments which hold us to the faith of our fathers, even though it be seen in new forms through the open eyes of their sons. The question of missions truly presses home questions as to whether we are building a constructive faith in America. How many of the church members at home are really convinced Christian believers? Do they think of the life of Jesus as an unveiling of the heart of Deity? Do they see His cross as a great light streaming backward and forward to show the cost at which human redemption is won? Do they see in His resurrection a certain pledge of immortality? Do they regard His plan of life as practical and realizable?1

It is not a question of missions only. If this were a sermon, my text would be: ‘When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?’

  1. The Atlantic is ‘willing to open its pages to the theologians,’ and we hope that Bishop Fiske himself will prepare a further paper dealing with the questions he raises here. — EDITOR