Elton Trueblood, a Quaker professor of philosophy who died in 1994, wrote Alternative to Futility just after World War II, where he put his finger on the source of the problems of modern Western society and made a radical suggestion on how to fix it:
The Root Problem and What The Solution Looks Like
During the last few years, and particularly since the conclusion of open hostilities, the reading public has been offered an abundance of studies describing various symptoms in detail. But our main emphasis now must be placed on prescription and cure. Men cannot live well either in poverty or in abundance unless they see some meaning and purpose in life, which alone can be thrilling. So our central problem is moral and spiritual. The central problem is not political, for it is clear that any political system will be destroyed if the life of the citizens has lost its meaning.
What we seek is a situation in which the rank and file of our people are filled with a vibrant faith. If they could believe greatly in something, if they could see some purpose to give them a reason for striving, life might become more radiant than we can now imagine. Then, in spite of rubble and lack of housing, men could live joyously and victoriously. There are two chief ways in which spiritual solidarity comes, one temporary and the other enduring. The temporary way is by response to a common danger, but this does not last. The other way in which there can be spiritual solidarity is by common devotion to a great cause. This is frequently not so exciting in the beginning, but it involves remarkable endurance and releases deep springs of power. It is, ultimately, the only true way in which men can be united and inspired. If we can find a sufficiently positive cause to inspire men’s loyalty, and if we can present it in such a way that millions are committed to it, we shall be on our way toward a cure for the sickness of Western man.
The Solution: Redemptive Societies
Jesus was deeply concerned for the continuation of his redemptive work after the close of his earthly existence, and his chosen method was the formation of a redemptive society. He did not form an army, establish a headquarters or even write a book. All he did was to collect a few unpromising men, inspire them with the sense of his vocation and theirs and built their lives into an intensive fellowship of affection, worship and work. The fellowship must be marked by mutual affection of the members, by a sense of real equality in spite of difference of function, by inner peace in the face of the world’s turmoil and by an almost boisterous joy. The members are to be filled, not with the intoxication of wine, but with that of the Spirit.
How is civilization changed? It is changed, early Christianity answers, by the creation of fellowships which eventually become infectious in the entire cultural order. We are surprised to see how little the early Christians dealt with current political and economic problems, if we may judge by the extant literature of the period. They did not even attack slavery, iniquitous as it must have been. They just went on building the kind of fellowship which was bound eventually, to destroy slavery. All this seems alien to our modern mentality, but it may involve divine wisdom.
Early Christians were thrilled as they thought of themselves as part of this emerging divine purpose. They had a link with eternity because in the fellowship they were partners in the creative love that made the world. It is perfectly clear that the same method could be effective again, if we could have the simplicity to try it. Men who are partners in the redemptive task of God Himself have all the dignity of personal life that is required to lift them out of mediocrity, but their glorification does not come at the expense of others or by means of antagonism. It was a cardinal point in the redemptive fellowships which changed the ancient world that all human barriers must be transcended.
What we require is not intellectual theorizing or even teaching but a demonstration. It is not enough to say simply, “Turn to Christ and all is well.” There is only one way of turning loyally to Christ and that is by trying to create the kind of fellowship which He required of His followers. Abstract or unembodied Christianity is a fiction. We cannot revive the faith by argument, but we might catch the imagination of puzzled men and women by an exhibition of a Christian fellowship so intensely alive that every thoughtful person would be forced to respect it. The creation of such a fellowship is the argument that can count in the confused world of our day. If again there appears a fellowship of men and women who show, by their vitality and moral sensitivity and overwhelming joy, that they have found something so real that they no longer seek means of escape, the seekers will have something to join without disappointment and without embarrassment. If there should emerge in our day such a fellowship, wholly without artificiality and free from the dead hand of the past, it would be an exciting event of momentous importance. A society of loving souls, set free from the self-seeking struggle for personal prestige and from all unreality, would be something unutterably precious. A wise person would travel any distance to join it. This, and this alone, will take us beyond diagnosis to cure.
The Habit of Adventure
How can we suggest that Christian society is what our sagging culture needs for its renewal? We find churches on thousands of street corners in our great cities and at country crossroads, but the world does not seem to be saved by them.
In the spirit of adventure, and by the use of disciplined imagination, we need to encourage a new growth, within the existent churches. The ideal would be a reformation within the Church, not a reformation from the Church. We must nourish new shoots in the old stump. Otherwise we merely become schismatic again and dissipate our power. What we require, then, is a new reformation, but not one like that of the sixteenth century, which divided Christians so sharply. We need a reformation which unites at a deep level.
It is the combination of fidelity with boldness which succeeds. Boldness alone tends to produce the merely bizarre, while exclusive respect for ancient models produces the merely quaint and antiquarian, but the combination of the two may be genuinely creative. We must analyze former experiments in creative Christian fellowship and, in many cases, we must conduct our own modest experiments. We note that the tide of spirit and life has been much higher in some centuries and in some situations than it has been in others. Why is this? What makes a creative fellowship so different from others which may be far larger and more grand? The major danger is not that we shall fail to appreciate past models but that we shall lack the courage to be sufficiently bold in our creative dreaming. Whatever else may be the character of the redemptive society which the crisis of our time demands, it is at least clear that the society must make the habit of adventure central to its life.
It is instructive to note that many of the most encouraging experiments in the past have been, not new churches, but new orders within the Church. This helps them to make a reformation within rather than a reformation from. There seems to be no good reason why an adventurous Christianity might not follow this same policy outside Roman Catholicism. This has already been done, in part, in the formation of several societies such as Christian Endeavor, the YWCA, the Student Volunteer movement, the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and many more. All of these are horizontal in that they cut across all denominational lines and seek to make their members loyal to their churches rather than divided from their churches. All seek, in some sense or other, to be orders within the Church Universal.
One of the most encouraging aspects of our time is that there is already a stirring of the imagination with the introduction of orders or quasi orders. Some involve dangerous tendencies and each may be inadequate, but this is the way new life comes. Most really vital movements seem dangerous and queer when they begin. The early Christians did not always commend themselves to their neighbors, partly because they included, as any vigorous movement does, some of the lunatic fringe…In view of this experience we must not look for perfection in new orders, but rather for vigor and adventure, in the hope that wisdom may come— and come without destroying the vigor.
We cannot be loyal to adventurous movements in the past by copying precisely from their procedure; the only way in which we can be loyal to an adventurous movement is by going beyond it in being adventurous ourselves. The essential experiment we need to make in our day is an experiment in radical Christianity. The redemptive society we need is an order within the Church Universal, devoted to the recovery and fulfillment of radical Christianity.
A Disciplined Approach
Powerful groups, for whatever ends, are disciplined groups, whereas libertarian movements end in futility. The following minimal discipline [aka rule of life] is suggested, not as a finished product or as in any way ideal, but as a possible starting point for any group of concerned people, anywhere, who are tired of waiting and propose now to begin:
- Worship. Regular and unargued sharing in the public worship of God is expected of all who would truly be members of a redemptive society. The minimum attendance is once a week, but may well be more.
- Solitude. Each person who seeks to proceed from nominal to real membership in the Church of Jesus Christ must agree to spend some part of each day alone, in private prayer or other devotional exercises. These may include the devout reading of classic prayers, the use of devotional literature, silent meditation and the reading of the Holy Scriptures. In the reading of the Scriptures it is strongly advised that a definite plan be followed and that the practice of rereading the same passage for many consecutive days be tried, until the deeper meanings become plain. Most Bible reading is too quickly accomplished. Frequently it will be desirable for a genuine fellowship group to decide together on an order of reading and expect its members to follow this order. Such acceptance of group guidance is often a valuable antidote to our conventional individualism.
- Silence. Each person who wishes to be creatively Christian must learn the discipline of silence. He must learn to get his body still and he must learn to get his mind still. Apart from this the deeper messages of the still small voice will not be heard. In countless churches, services of worship begin with the words, “The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him,” and then, instead of obeying these sacred words, the congregation immediately does something noisy. We say, “Be still and know,” and then proceed to talk. It is not likely that we can cultivate the art of listening apart from silence. One danger is that we tend to become restless and make the silence brief. It is important to recognize that “a moment of silence” is almost worthless. Long experience indicates that an hour is required for the emergence of the best which this method makes possible.
- Humanity. The concerned Christian must be identified with the sufferings of his fellow men and active in the lifting of burdens wherever found. The rule is that every day must include some outgoing activity, that is not for ourselves alone. It is easy to make this sound sentimental, but it need not be. Woolman’s concern for the relief of oppression was not sentimental and ours need not be. This service must go beyond conventional philanthropy to various deeds of social action, in many of which each person can act alone. The extension of real friendship to a representative of another race, the lending of a hand to an overworked young mother—these are not grand or colorful acts, but they are the stuff of which Christian behavior is made. One of the chief concrete ways in which social concern can be expressed daily is in care for the reputations of others. This involves refusal to participate in slander and malicious gossip, which are such a temptation to otherwise good people. One of the most disciplined of another generation put it memorably when he said, “O how good it is, and how it tendeth to peace, to be silent about other men, and not to believe at random all that is said, nor eagerly to report what we have heard.”
- Austerity. The tradition for simple living is more than a tradition. It has a double justification in that the rejection of luxury serves, on the one hand, to release the mind from worldly interests, and, on the other hand, to release income for the service of God and man. Many poor groups of concerned Christians are able to give to foreign or domestic relief in amounts which shame more wealthy congregations, largely because they live in such simplicity that they do not require all of their earnings for their private and family use. Austerity and charity go together.
Such a discipline is tentative and manifestly inadequate, but it is so much beyond what we normally experience in the modern world that it is really revolutionary. Imperfect as it is, any group of concerned persons who will accept loyally this five-point discipline, along with the principles outlined above, will belong to a new world. We need people to discuss it, but far more, we need people who will try it.