The Church and Its Task

Hugh Black. The New World. Revell, $1.

For those who habitually see only the ends of their noses, ours appears to be an age of merely ruthless iconoclasm and general confusion; for everything is being questioned, often unwisely no doubt, and nothing is held too sacred to be challenged. On the other hand, for those who are able to view the intellectual welter of the age with something like a true historical perspective, it is a glorious privilege to be living in this 20th century.

During the past two generations new forces have been at work in the world of thought; and having accumulated slowly and, to the generality of people imperceptibly, these forces have at least reached the point of outbreak. Thus an illusion of abrupt change is given — an illusion well calculated to make us, as we surely are, a bit heady, forgetting that change itself is never abrupt, but that it is merely our perception of the change that comes suddenly. Owing to this outburst of forces slowly accumulated, the world has been thrown into a state of exaggerated expectancy of things new and startling. We think the past is dead, and it has become a stock phrase that the dawn of a brand new world is upon us. This attitude has seriously affected every province of thought, and religion itself — the last to be questioned — has been summoned before the bar of democratic judgment. There are some who fear for religion; there are others who are merely resentful of the presumption and irreverence of such a proceeding; and there are still others, happily, who know that it is only natural and just that every vital idea should undergo every test of human experience.

Of the latter class is Professor Hugh Black, who in his volume entitled “The New World,” discusses the problem which confronts Christianity in this crucial age. The first half of his book is given to an examination of those slowly accumulating forces which have made a restatement of many things necessary. He shows how science has upset our former beliefs concerning the universe of matter and life; how the spirit of criticism has developed; and how the democratic idea has revolutionized the conception of man’s obligations to man. He is not backward in granting the contention, now so frequently heard, that the church as an institution has lost much of its old authority and, consequently, much of its effectiveness in society. But he does not, for that reason, leap at the unwarrantable conclusion, as many do, that the world has “outgrown religion” — an absurd proposition! He holds that what the world has really outgrown is a theology that is no longer in harmony with the knowledge of men and with the aspirations of modern society. He does not allow an misconception as to what he means by theology, which he defines as the attempt made at a given time to express the faith held by the believers of that time and to state the contents of the gospel as received and understood in the light of that time. Therefore, he argues, theology must change as any other living thing changes, adapting itself to the evolving consciousness of mankind. But religion, which is man’s faith in the scheme of the Creator, cannot pass away. To this end, then, that religion may realize its maximum effectiveness in our time, Professor Black insists that criticism must not be met with indifference or resentment, but fairly faced with the knowledge that the truth cannot die, and that whatever may be lost through criticism can never have been essential. He further sees that the democratic idea is essentially an outgrowth of Christianity. “It still remains a task of the church,” he says, “to create men fit to be members of the Kingdom of Heaven. But it is also true that a bigger task is before us to create a state of society worthy for a Christian man to live in.”

The argument for a restatement of religion in terms of modern thought is reverent; and nowhere is to be found in it that high-handed impudence which is characteristic of so much of what is termed “advanced thought.”