The medium-sized church of my youth had about 600 members and was built in the 1960s by a contemporary Asian architect. The entryway contained a cubic aluminum cross sculpture. Inside the sanctuary, instead of the traditional rectangular building design lined with pews facing the forward altar, the church had a hexagon design with rows of pews facing downward to a central alter. The six-sided upper facades contained massive, copper-plated modernistic Biblical scenes. It was a unique worship experience that reflected the decade built and the members’ reformed theology.
I loved this church. I made friends with the youths of my age and participated fully in the life of the church. Many members were highly educated, civic leaders, and progressive thinkers who desired to transform their community into a more just society. Social issues were frequently debated. There were two full-time ministers: a senior pastor who did most of the preaching and a younger pastor who did visitations and Christian education. I liked both men and knew their families. It was an inclusive church where one felt respected and loved.
When I was in college and away from home, I learned that the younger minister had a consensual affair with a married woman who was a member of my church. When I inquired about it, my parents said that it was being dealt with quietly, so as not to disrupt the church. I asked if the denomination was going to remove the minister and defrock him. My parents said that the church leaders were working with the minister to stop the sexual relationship. Eventually, the woman’s husband found out and divorced her. The younger minister later received a call from another church and departed. I was astonished at the whole church process and politics. Why had the church leaders allowed the affair to continue? Why didn’t the church leaders tell the denominational leadership that an ordained minister was violating church policy?
In his 1932 publication, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Must Have Books, Victoria, BC, 2021), Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr discusses in Chapter 3 “The Religious Resources of the Individual for Social Living.” Of all the various social organizations in the world, religion should be the one place where antisocial behavior and selfishness are countered. “Both the personality and the holiness of God provide the religious man with a reinforcement of his moral will and a restraint upon his will-to-power.” (page 39) History has shown otherwise.
The early Church practiced equality between Christians during spiritual group gatherings but reverted to societal norms afterwards. Ascetics separated themselves from secular society and tried to avoid the prevailing culture, although they were unsuccessful. Medieval Christianity used state power to enforce societal injustices. Martin Luther spoke of freedom from the Roman Church tyranny yet supported the German Prince in his savage crushing of peasants who rebelled against local injustices. American slaves were converted to Christianity and religious leaders told them to accept their status as divinely decreed, conveniently forgetting that God delivered the Hebrews out of Egyptian bondage. Recently, the Russian Orthodox Church supported Putin’s Ukrainian invasion and military violence.
While religion preaches the transcendent values of Scripture over the self, it also participates in the “absolutizing of the self. It is a sublimation of the will-to-live.” (page 43) I witnessed this during my youth. The desire to preserve religious tranquility, the community, justified overriding the morality of Scripture. This historical trend continues into the present with many current social issues. “The sin which the religious man feels himself committing against God is indeed the sin of self-will; but his recognition of that fact may, but need not, have special social significance.” (page 45)
Liberal religions look inward to reason. If only humans could fully understand the divine, then all would be right. Conservatives look outward at the omnipotent God, who commands obedience from sinful humanity. Grace abounds for all who humbly request. Both extremes, and those between, feel contrition and little need to resolve the underlying social issues. “It may create moral sensitivity and destroy moral vigor by the force of the same vitality.” (page 47)
Some religious individuals yearn for the creation of a Christian nation under the laws of Christ. This is a sentimental hope which failed in past centuries. Even if a nation obtains such lofty goals, it will fail in international relations. “Individuals could not possibly think themselves into the position of the individuals of another nation in a degree sufficient to insure pure benevolence.” (page 49)
Niebuhr takes direct aim at liberal Protestantism, “the privileged classes of Western civilization, it is not surprising that its espousal of the ideal of love, in a civilization reeking with social injustice, should be cynically judged and convicted of hypocrisy by those in whom bitter social experiences destroy the sentimentalities and illusions of the comfortable. Yet the full force of religious faith will never be available for the building of a just society, because its visions are those which proceed from the insights of a sensitive religious conscience. If they are realized at all, they will be realized in intimate religious communities, in which individual ideals achieve social realization but do not conquer society.” (page 52)
Niebuhr views the cross as “the symbol of love triumphant in its own integrity, but not triumphant in the world and society. Society, in fact, conspired the cross. Both the state and the church were involved in it, and probably will be so to the end.” (page 53) There is no optimism from Niebuhr on religion’s ability to eliminate injustices. His next chapter discusses the morality of nations, the topic of my next blog.