The Function of the Church

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Steven T. Byington

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CORRESPONDENCE

The Function of the Church

SIR: You have rebuked Bishop Manning for saying that it is not the function of the Church to pass upon questions of the management of business. You say that if that is so, then the Church abdicates her claim to moral leadership.

Many might say what you say. What I cannot see is how you ran say it. For it seems to me that week in and week out you are preaching doctrine that distinctly supports Bishop Manning and requires him to take just the stand he does.

The Church has a standing as a teacher of morality. It has this standing on the basis of the idea that moral principles have an intrinsic validity independent of circumstances. As a teacher of what course is best adapted to meet the exigencies of a given set of circumstances, the Church has no standing. To acquire standing in this department she would have to turn from her present specialty to a different specialty, sacrificing her present standing in the uncertain hope of acquiring a different standing —a course rather less dignified, I think, than to abdicate her claims outright.

Now the Church might raise Cain with radicalism without going beyond her traditional sphere. She might, for instance, insist that it is a crime to shoot a man in order that we may avenge an insult, or may express our abhorrence of his wickedness, or may make some trade more lucrative. Then she might go on to say that this means not only that there must be no war with Mexico Aver oil, but also that no coast-guard shall shoot at smugglers who are merely trying to avoid the payment of duty. She might

then announce the inference that when either an employer or a trade union is guilty of demanding tariff protection, this employer or trade union does not come with clean hands into any industrial dispute until it has publicly confessed itself a sinner in the matter of the tariff and has done works meet for repentance.

Or she might say that it is a grievous sin to allege the authority of the moral law in an issue that is not of a moral nature; and that therefore, for instance, when Joe Doe and others have furnished the capital and Richard Roe and others the labor for a certain industry, and there arises a dispute as to whether Doe etc. or Roe etc shall have the management of the industry, it is a work of the devil for either side to claim that it has a sacred right against which the other side is committing an outrageous crime.

Obviously, if the Church began saying such things as these, it would keep clear of the curse which Scripture pronounces upon those of whom all men speak well.

But you, if I am not mistaken, are constantly decrying the idea of trying to base our actions on principles which are supposed to have eternal validity for all occasions. You teach that what we ought to do is to find what will best suit the needs of our time, and do this; and that any other policy is a pernicious error. According to you, if the Church wishes to make her moral leadership amount to something she ought to be in the business of deciding what is now a proper standard of living and how much money a person of ordinary discretion must have in order to make it probable that he will attain that standard.

If the Church is to make such decisions her business, why should she expect her utterances to be received with more deference than those of an average editor? What commission for the job of arbitrator can she show?

Steven T. Byington.


Social Creeds and Christian Truth

IN a letter published elsewhere in this issue, a correspondent, Mr. Steven T. Byington, raises a pertinent question with respect to the New Republic's recent criticism of Bishop Manning. The Church, he says, has an indubitable standing as a teacher of morality, which it derives from the intrinsic validity, independent of circumstances, of certain fundamental moral principles. But as an authoritative judge and teacher of the particular conduct which is best adapted to meet the exigencies of a given set of circumstances the Church has no standing at all. This objection, he thinks, applies with peculiar force to the criticism of the New Republic. How can a journal which has leaned towards pragmatism and has disparaged the idea of seeking the sanction of human action in principles which are supposed to have intrinsic validity, independent of circumstances, consistently demand of Christians the application of magisterial principles to the industrial fabric? If the Christian Church descends from her eminence and lends her authority to fugitive decisions about hours of labor and standards of living, how can she expect her utterances to be received with more deference than those of the average editor?

The question which our correspondent has raised is old, respectable and puzzling,—as old, at least, as the coexistence of religion with philosophy. Like most other important questions, it has always been easier to ask than to answer. When science and religion were happily married, as they were during the Middle Ages, good Christians congratulated themselves upon the possession of a machinery of salvation which the Church could gear up or down to meet all specific emergencies, but later, when science and religion fell out, as they did during the Reformation, confidence in this machinery broke down and it still remains to be restored. In the absence of a more satisfactory relationship between science and religion than that which now exists, it will always be difficult to derive from religious truth an authoritative way of individual and social life. To this intent our correspondent has propounded a real question to which there is no entirely satisfactory answer.

The terms in which our correspondent poses his question leave, however, much to be desired. When he identifies "moral principles independent of circumstances" with religious truth, he is shoottng in the air. He abstracts moral rules and confuses them with the rich realities of religion. Moral

principles have no meaning independent of the circumstances to which they are applied, and if they had, they would be irrelevant to the craving of individual human beings for salvation through contact with the truth. Had Christianity imposed on the faithful a rule which by its essential nature was incapable of any convincing adjustment to the concrete ephemeral circumstances of everyday life, it would long since have degenerated into an esoteric cult. Whatever the Christian religion is, it is not, as our correspondent asserts, a "specialty." It claims to reveal a truth which, if believed and lived, is adequate to save the believer. Even though it does not furnish to faithful Christians a gear-box which is capable of flexibly adjusting their movements to all grades and emergencies, it certainly is not a stationary or a one-speed vehicle. Considering the prevailing misunderstanding between science and religion, it may not be able positively to vindicate the unity of life and truth which religious aspiration craves, but the Christian churches cannot allow professing Christians to ignore the unity of life and truth without abandoning the historic claim of Christianity to reveal a true and an adequate interpretation of life.

Professing Christians like Bishop Manning and Mr. W. Frew Long ignore the unity of life and truth which has always distinguished the Christian religion. "It is not the function of the Church to prescribe the economic views which men hold nor the economic systems they care to adopt," said the Bishop in his recent sermon to the Diocesan Convention. To be sure, but he uses this limitation of the functions of the Church as an excuse for discounting the discrepancy between industry as it is now conducted and the Christian vision of the Kingdom of God on earth; and he does this specifically for the purpose of protecting the abuses of existing business from the destructive effect of affirmative Christian ideals. He and his like, consequently, expose a vulnerable flank to an .indictment of Christianity made by an East Indian friend of Mr. R. H. Tawney and repeated by him in an address delivered last January in Glasgow at a Church Conference on international and missionary questions.

"What bewilders the alien observer," said this critic of applied Christianity, "is not the occasional aberrations of the Christian nations but their habitual conduct and organization; not their failures but their standards of success; not their omission to live up to right principles but their insistence that wrong principles are right. Your religion (he said) is a noble if paradoxical creed, which affirms that all men are brothers; that humility and poverty are blessings and riches a dangerous misfortune; that the way of service and self-sacrifice is the way of happiness. I do not blame you for not reproducing those theories in your practice. Evidently they are not meant for daily life. What surprises me, however, is that you erect into a system the duty and happiness of practising precisely the opposite. The normal condition of your social order is an economic civil war, which you hardly take the trouble to conceal. Your industrial system involves the regimentation of the masses of mankind by a few thousand rich men, who are individually, no doubt, innocuous, but who quite frankly regard their subjects as somewhat rebellious and inconvenient instruments of production. . . . Your creed is exalted but your civilization is a nightmare of envy, hate and uncharitableness. I would forego the former in order to escape the latter."

Admitting the exaggeration of the indictment as it proceeded from Mr. Tawney's Indian friend, it remains none the less dangerously true. If we look back over the moral and social history of the western peoples since capitalism has dominated their institutions and behavior, we can trace clearly an increasing secularization of conduct, thought and spirit and an increasing disposition to look upon religious truth as something which can be ignored with impunity. It was the waning authority of Christianity and the necessity of reasserting its power over the human conscience and imagination which has resulted in the recent attempts on the part of the churches to block out "social creeds" and to give new vitality to the conception of' a Kingdom of God in this world. The New Republic believes warmly in the value of these attempts and sincerely hopes that the pure-hearted men and women who have started them will not flinch at the opposition they have aroused. They are wholly justified in attempting to arouse the Christian conscience, not merely to the abuses of power and to the mutilation of humanity which are perpetrated in the name of economic law but to. the gradually increasing social cleavage between the class which profits from the abuses and the class which does not.

Christian economic reformers cannot, however, afford to ignore the difficulty to which our correspondent calls attention. As soon as they seek to translate the repugnance which they feel at the toleration in the name of Christianity of the existing conduct of industry into a specific Christian industrial creed, their crusade suffers a damaging loss of authority and momentum. They cannot deduce the minimum wage, the eight-hour day and collective bargaining from the Gospels without

risking the precious authority of Christian truth on the immediate availability and adequacy of a fugitive and doubtful experimental program. There are persuasive reasons to be urged in favor of assuming this risk. The discrepancy between the existing conduct of industry calls for something more than an indignant protest, and a Christian way of life if it is to be taken seriously requires the formulation of a concrete program. But the Christian industrial reformers who push on to formulate a concrete program should understand the weakness of their resulting position. Their program is at present an experimental compromise about which Christians may differ without being damned. Essential as the formulation of such a program is to the vitality of their, agitation, it counts only as a pious opinion which the Christian churches have no authority to impose upon dissenters.

If Christian economic reformers are serious in their desire to Christianize the economic and political conduct of contemporary nations, they cannot stop with what our correspondent correctly describes as an editorial expression of opinion. Their social creed, even though carefully considered and formally adopted by many different denominations, remains an editorial expression of opinion for one obvious reason. It is the expression of a fragmentary and imperfect knowledge which is separated by a yawning gulf from valid accepted and authoritative Christian truth. Since capitalist industry has come to dominate civilized societies, scientific inquiry has brought to light a great deal of knowledge about human nature both in its individual and social expression which Christians could and should use in adjusting their religion to the needs of contemporary life, but as yet the corporate Christian consciousness is blind both to the existence of this knowledge and to its useful relationship to Christian truth. Christian reformers have not yet braced themselves to deal with the better knowledge of man which naturalism as distinguished from supernaturalism is unfolding. It is this evasion which chiefly accounts for the existing gulf between science and religion. x

The criticism of Mr. Tawney's East Indian friend applied with peculiar force to those Christians who ignore the clear violation of the spirit of Christianity and the precepts of the Master which modern industry authorizes and practises, but it is not irrelevant to contemporary Christianity at its best. As he says, the "standards of success" of good Christians in relation to their own interpretation of the truth of Christianity are partly to blame. They differ too much among themselves as to the obligations and the meaning of their religion in relation to the art and discipline of life. Their differences concern not only superficial matters such as temporary "social creeds" but the very nature of goodness in relation to truth.

Until recently the intelligent members of the Christian churches agreed substantially to recognize the authority of one particular interpretation of the good life. This recognition of an authoritative way of living did not, of course, necessarily bring with it loyalty in practice to the ideal, but it did imply substantial agreement among good people as to what the ideal was. The true interpretation differed at different periods in the history of the Church. The Catholic regimen and rule was abandoned by the Protestants who objected both to the asceticism which it demanded of the priests and the laxity which it permitted to laymen. They substituted a new interpretation vaguely described as Puritanism; and it was the general recognition of the authority of Puritanism as a way of life which has given integrity to Protestant Christianity and neutralized the effect of the trivial but stubborn doctrinal disagreements among its sects. Protestantism, consequently, owes much to Puritanism, and has not in name abandoned its earlier allegiance to the Puritan rule of life. Yet as a matter of fact much of this allegiance is at the present time shallow, uneasy or merely nominal. The devotees of this world, both interested and disinterested, have much more to say for the object of their devotion than they had in the middle of the seventeenth century. Modern science and technology have made the world wear a very different aspect, and its different appearance has deprived of its former authority much of the "other-worldliness" and the distrust of human nature which bulked so large in the Puritan vision of Christian life.

Intelligent Christians of today are bound to be more interested in this world and to expect more from human nature than did the good Christians of the previous centuries. While recognizing, as their predecessors did, the unique importance of purity and continuity of consciousness (the Kingdom of God within) they are repulsed by the manifest failings of Puritanism—its unfortunate marriage with the doctrine of human immutability and depravity, its disposition to impose exclusive moral judgments and penalties by compulsion on oneself and on others and its willingness to impress self-righteous moral fanaticism into the service of arbitrary class and personal moral prejudices. They are seeking a more natural and less otherworldy meaning for the religious task of human fulfillment and regeneration. In fact these very

Christians who have interested themselves in drawing up church "social creeds" also tend to depart from the old pugnacious Puritan moralism. Their "social creeds"imply a more genial conception of the good life, based upon a more fluid conception of human nature. Yet in spite of these profound alterations in their moral, values, they have not reinterpreted Puritanism in the light of their new interest and their better understanding of human nature. For the first time in its history the Christian consciousness does not frankly and fearlessly confess and proclaim what it means by a Christian way of life.

Under the circumstances we can hardly blame Protestants who are interested primarily in the preservation of their existing churches for shirking the task of reinterpretation. They fear the grave dissensions which would follow from the attempt to incorporate a larger infusion of naturalism and the results of a really disinterested scientific investigation of human nature into the authoritative Christian rule of life. But Christian economic reformers should recognize the penalty of the evasion. The lack of a recognized Christion conception of the good life, both individual and social, renders it almost impossible for them to obtain the moral leverage which they need to succeed in their task of Christianizing industry. As long .as the moral values which good people apply to contemporary problems of living are so arbitrary and subjective and as long as the wrong is so generally and so hopelessly confused with the right, the Christian churches will continue to fumble their opportunities and responsibilities. Dedicated as they are to the ideal of unifying life and truth, they will not be paying the price which the sincere realization of that ideal imperiously demands.

Ballard Vale, Massachusetts.


  • Steven T. Byington, “The Function of the Church,” The New Republic 27, no. 340 (June 8, 1921): 50.