A Unified Christianity

From “The Fourth Gospel and the Life of Today”
by Mary Redington Ely Lyman, 1887-1975

Just as in the first century A.D. in the Mediterranean basin, Christianity in America today is living in a world in which the old standards of authority have broken down. Today, as in Hellenistic times, people are seeking for guidance in life through new channels, because the standards both of thought and of conduct which prevailed in the previous generation have lost their significance for us. Just as in the first century A.D., Christianity in our Western world today is undergoing rapid change, because of a fusion of cultures which is bringing diverse elements of thought together. Just as in the Christian world to which the Gospel of John originally offered its message, specialised religious interests are receiving stress in different quarters, but few people are able to take a view of the whole which is able to unify or harmonise those interests. In the first century this specialisation was seen in the stress on the ethical aspects of religion by those with Jewish background and sympathy, in the desire to philosophise about Christianity on the part of those who represented the Greek intellectual tradition and in the attempt to make of Christianity a redemption religion with mystical experience at its centre, on the part of those with the popular religious interests of the contemporary world at heart. Today, although the incentives to specialisation are different from those which operated in the first century, we find it far easier to analyse our religious life than to synthesise it and the same tendency to the specialisation of interest is common to our time.

The ethical appeal of Christianity has stirred our age deeply. Perhaps the most characteristic role in which Christianity appears in our time is in its summons to us to build a better world. Some of the finest prophets of our time are those who are urging us in season and out of season to order our social life so that the oppressions of race, war, capitalism and industrialism shall no longer fall upon our people. But those who are committed most deeply to these ethical tasks of Christianity in our time look wistfully for help from the directions of philosophy and individual religious experience. They know well that an aggressive attack upon the evils of society cannot go forward without both an adequate philosophy behind it and a religious experience to be its dynamic.

Parallel with this social movement in our Christianity today, we recognise another tendency equally characteristic of our time, but not yet drawn into a close and helpful relationship with it. This is the interest among Christians today in relating their religious faith to the world of scientific discovery. It is all very well to say that the conflict between science and religion is a thing of the past, but actually, new problems are continually arising. Not only is the new physics asking for a new cosmological theory, in a way that brings a philosophical challenge to Christian thinkers, but new psychological theories are offering us views of human personality that compel us to weigh again the validity of Christianity's view of human life. The attempt to relate the Christian gospel to the present-day world of scientific thought is one of the major interests of our religious world.

But again, those who take this interest most to heart know that it must not isolate itself as an intellectual movement from the practical interests of religion. Challenging as the intellectual problems of the Christian life are, we know that the pursuit of them cannot fulfil the whole function of religion. Christianity, if it is to meet the needs of our time, must not only have regard for the intellectual relationships that it sustains with the scientific world but must function actively in the world of practical human relationships and must minister to the inner life of the heart of man. The effort to relate Christianity to the present-day world of science is one of the finest activities of religion in our time, but it must go forward hand in hand with the more practical work of building a better world for human society, and of ministering to the inner life of the heart. The hungry sheep will look up and will not be fed unless these interests come into a harmonious relationship with each other.

And so it is also in a third clearly marked tendency of the Christianity of our time that which stresses the values of mystical fellowship with God. That a real revival of mystical religion is taking place today is quite apparent. That the heart of religion lies in the direct experience of God by the individual is the contention of this school of religious thought. The popular response that has come to this interpretation of religion is in itself testimony to the fact that there was need of this return to the more intimate and personal values of religion. But again we know all too well by the experience of the past how necessary it is to the healthy development of mystical religion that it should maintain its balance by constant reference to its intellectual foundations and its expression in ethical living.

In all three of these tendencies in our Christian life today the need for balance is apparent. We know that ethical Christianity should have the dynamic of personal religion and the satisfactory working base of a self-respecting theology. We know that theological speculation ought to be saved from barrenness by the warm accompaniments of inner religious experience and outward moral expression. We know that mystical religion needs to be safeguarded from excesses by keeping its relationship true both to sound theological thinking and the outlets of ethical living. But in actual practice, this balance is hard to preserve. Dean Inge, one of our most noted advocates of mystical religion, looks with disfavour on democracy. Christian social workers often distrust both theological speculation and the emphasis on personal religion, because they seem to be diverting interest from the immediate and desperate needs of the poor, which to the social worker are the supreme concern of religion. Theologians stand always in danger of becoming too rationalistic and of being so much preoccupied with the explanation of things, that they neglect that side of religion which concerns itself with changing wrong social conditions or with deepening the inner life.

So it is that practically speaking, our present-day religious world is a divided world. However much we realise our need for wholeness of view, we fail actually to achieve it. What we need most today is a Christianity that gives full place to the intellectual quest for truth, that satisfies the demands of the human heart for an inner experience of God and that at the same time gives full expression to those impulses in us that reach out for the making of a better world. We want our Christianity to be theologically sound, at home in the present-day world of science and philosophy. We want our Christianity to be dynamic with a sense of the reality of God. We want it to take seriously to heart the task of building the city of God on earth. Not until these three have come to dwell together in unity shall we realise the abundant life in Christian experience.

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