Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Advice to a theological windbag who didn't know when to quit

Cleaning out my files,  I recently ran into a commentary I wrote after suffering through an extremely long-winded sermon at a Homecoming chapel service back in the mid-1970s.  (The service should have concluded at 12 but didn't get out until 12:20.) It can be sung to the tune of the hymn,  O God Our Help In Ages Past:

I do not for one moment doubt
that you have much to say;
but next time you can count me out,
I do not have all day.

"They also serve,"  it has been said,
"who only sit and wait."
But those who sit until they're dead,
may start to serve too late.

You need not show us all your stuff,
you need not numb our brains;
eternity is not enough,
time finite still remains!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Welcome to the Dark Ages

I have been cleaning out my files and recently ran into a sermon I delivered to the Adrian College chapel service over 40 years ago.  For some reason they never invited me to do another one! Here it is, for whatever it might be worth.


Welcome to the Dark Ages

(A chapel address delivered at Adrian College by Paul F. deLespinasse on October 25, 1972.)

Did you ever wonder what life was like in the Dark Ages? Our ability to imagine Eighth and Ninth Century conditions is probably rather limited.  But according to William G. Pollard we need not therefore resign ourselves to ignorance;  like the Michigander seeking a pleasant peninsula,  we need merely look around us.  Professor Pollard,  who is a physicist,  persuasively argues that we ourselves are living in a Dark Age,  a Second
Dark Age.

Pollard defines a dark age as any “period in which the West has lost the capacity to respond to either one of its two cultural roots.”  These two roots are known as the Greek-Roman tradition and the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The First Dark Age was a result of losing hold of the Greek-Roman tradition.  The Second Dark Age, in which we presently live, resulted from our collective loss of feeling for the Judeo-Christian way of thinking.  The First Dark Age was dominated by the Church,  the institutional embodiment of the Judeo-Christian tradition,  and ended when the Renaissance brought a renewed feeling for Greek and Roman ideas,  restoring the balance.

The present Dark Age, conversely,  is dominated by the Greek-Roman outlook and characterized by a general religious feebleness.  Harvey Cox, of the Harvard Divinity School,  accurately calls ours the age of the “secular city.”  As Edward Shils rather vividly put it:

            Having, with the aid of Deweyan naturalism,  “demythologization.” and
            existentialism, disposed of their deity or at least placed him in a weak
            position,  Protestant clergymen in the United States have been suffering
            from the intellectual equivalent of technological unemployment.

But it is not just—or even mainly—the clergymen. It is the whole climate of the times.  As Pollard points out:

            A college student of today who is introduced for the first time to
            Thucydides or Plato,  to Cicero or Virgil,  finds himself rather much at
            home in the ideas and outlooks which he encounters. He recognizes
            important differences,  to be sure,  but there is in them,  nevertheless, very
            little which seems so alien that he cannot respond sympathetically from his
            own experience to the outlooks on life and history which he discovers there.
            The same student,  on the other hand, even though formally associated with
            Christianity or Judaism and regarded himself as a committed and practicing
            member of a church or synagogue,  nevertheless finds himself in alien
            territory when he comes to Biblical literature.

For Harvey Cox,  in spite of the secular city,  there is no present Dark Age;  he believes that the secular city is unequivocally good, and indeed that it is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.  If Cox is right,  even if we want to define a Dark Age so that the present era qualifies as one,  the description implies no negative connotation.  “The name is not the thing,”  and if the thing is good it is not rendered otherwise by having a frightening label stuck on it.  It is difficult, however,  for me not to agree with Pollard when he says that:

            underneath all our material prosperity and accomplishments there is a deep-
            seated malaise, a sense of meaninglessness and frustration, and a background
            of dark and foreboding suspicions about the feasibility of modern man’s
            whole enterprise which have been widely noted in much recent commentary.

Pollard,  incidentally,  was writing in 1964—during the pre-Vietnam era of relatively good feelings and liberal euphoria—and not just reflecting the more recent fashionable secular gloominess.  If the malaise he notes has really been lurking under the surface all along,  then Cox’s complacency is not called for.

Pollard’s prescription calls for a second renaissance in which people would redevelop their feeing for the Biblical style of thought so that balance between the two roots of our culture would once more be restored.  But how feasible is such a renaissance?  What would it require?

The very minimum condition for a religious renaissance---it seems to me---would be a renewal of our ability to take seriously the Biblical thesis that God creates men in his own image and is interested in each individual human being.  This thesis has come into apparent conflict in our time with the sociological idea that men have created God in their own image, and with the common sense feeling---grounded in our own hectic lives--that God could not possibly have time to be personally concerned with each of the four billion individuals presently on earth.  For those who realize that there may well be sentient beings on millions of other planets in this universe,  the problem only seems to be compounded.

The trouble with the sociological theory that men create God in their own imagine is not that it is completely false.  As Rupert Brooke suggests in his poem about how a fish  might conceive of heaven,  it is natural for us to extrapolate qualities we see in ourselves to God:

                        …somewhere,  beyond Space and Time,
                        Is wetter water,  slimier slime.
                        And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
                        Who swam ere rivers were begun,
                        Immense,  of fishy form and mind,
                        Squamous, omnipotent and kind;
                        And under that Almighty Fin,
                        The littlest fish may enter in.

The trouble when we say men create God is that we are referring to creating a concept of God,  whereas when we say God creates men we mean He creates the objects themselves and not just the concept.  Two different things, which have little bearing on the validity of each other,  are thus being talked about.  In the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant,  the fact that the Blind Men were creating various partial and hence inevitably erroneous concepts of the elephant around which they were groping had no implications for the existence or nature of the elephant itself.  I do not see how the situation would have been appreciably changed if it had been blind but intelligent baby elephants groping around their mother.

A more serious obstacle to a religious renaissance is the difficulty in believing that God has enough time to be personally concerned with each individual person.  Modern social conditions have made it increasingly hard to take the Biblical thesis on this question seriously and literally.  It has become commonplace to observe that ours is the age of large-scale organization,  impersonality, and facelessness.  The inhabitants of the secular city,  as Cox correctly says,  cannot know everybody and cannot have deep personal dealings with everybody.  Just for one person to shake hands with every person in the United States would take a lifetime, and shaking hands is an extremely superficial transaction at best.  A certain degree of anonymity in large scale human interactions is therefore inevitable.

The theological danger in all this is that we may be tempted to take our new appreciation or even obsession with a facelessness, impersonality, and anonymity which are direct and logical results of the finite amount of time each individual human being has,  and extrapolate this human characteristic to God.  Cox,  I think,  falls into this trap when he says “we need to develop a viable theology of anonymity.” 

Fortunately,  men are more imaginative and more able to transcend themselves in their thinking than the Blind Baby Elephants or Brooke’s Fish were.  Not only can we project essential human characteristics into our concept of God, but we can also extrapolate obvious differences.  One such obvious difference has to do with time: the relationship between men and time, on the one hand,  and on the other hand the relation between God and time.  The basic point that I would like to make today is that in a created universe time is a part of the created order,  and therefore must be transcended by God.  It seems to me that there is no escaping this conclusion if any sense at all is to be made of Judeo-Christian theology and the Bible is not to be dismissed as a fabrication with no basis in reality whatsoever.

The point that time is part of the created order is not new;  St. Augustine said it a long time ago (though I admit that my own appreciation of it derives not from the study of St. Augustine,  but from the works of Dewey Larson.)  But an idea need not be new in order to be true,  and I think that it speaks in a particularly direct way to the obstacles human experience in our time has placed in the path of taking the Biblical thesis literally.  If God is the creator (among other things) of time, it logically follows that time can be no limit on the activity or attention of God.  When the Bible claims that not one sparrow shall fall on the ground “without your Father” (Matthew 10:29),  a claim which sounds absurd to the busy modern ear---I might almost say to the Greek-Roman ear!--- there is therefore no reason why we cannot take the statement literally.  Indeed,  until many more people can take this statement literally,  I believe we must wait in vain for the religious renaissance.

Is time a key to the intellectual and emotional logjam of our age?  Perhaps time will tell. Meanwhile,  let me welcome you to the Dark Ages with a concluding observation:  we must remember that a Dark Age is only a collective phenomenon which can be surmounted by individuals, and that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

William G.  Pollard,  “Dark Age and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century,” in Edmund Fuller (Ed),  The Christian Idea of Education (New Haven:  Yale U. Press, 1964).

Edward Shils,  “Intellectuals and the Center of Society,”  The University of Chicago Magazine, July/August 1972,  p. 5.

Brooke’s poem was quoted in Herbert Butterfield,  Christianity and History (New York:  Scribners, 1949), p. 118.

Harvey Cox,  The Secular City (New York:  Macmillan, 1965), p. 42.

Dewey B. Larson,  New Light on Space and Time (Portland: North Pacific Publishers, 1965).
Paul F. deLespinasse is professor emeritus of political science at Adrian College, but now lives in Corvallis, Oregon.  He can be reached through his website,