Commentary Magazine

The Last Years of the Church, by David Poling; The Search for a Usable Future, by Martin E. Marty

The Challenge of Secularism

The Last Years of the Church.
by David Poling.
Doubleday. 153 pp. $4.95.

The Search for a Usable Future.
by Martin E. Marty.
Harper & Row. 157 pp. $4.95.

David Poling's The Last Years of the Church appears to have been written for the benefit of the maiden aunts of the religious world, who will undoubtedly get something out of its tedious recital of well-aired facts and ideas. This is not to deny a relevance to the book or the importance of its subject. If we are living in the last years of the Church, as Poling insists, we certainly would do well to understand the how and the why of it: on the choice of a subject certainly Poling cannot be faulted. But just as a starving man need not have his condition described to him to understand his need for food, the Church, already painfully consumptive, deserves something more than seeing its own autopsy report repeatedly dangled in front of its nose by friend and enemy alike.

In short, Poling says nothing new. One reads of the tyranny of the institution, the dominance of the economic in church life, ecclesiastical apathy and cowardice in the face of social change, etc., and one wonders if we have to be told all this again. Yet even as he mourns the Church's failings, Poling celebrates Christianity's virtues. The supposition operative throughout seems to be that a quick distinction between the Church (institutional and subject to historical and sociological critique) and Christianity (in the sense of an acceptance of Christian tradition) will minimize the embarrassment of institutional defection and collapse. This gambit, tempting as it may be, appears however to work only for those who are already committed to the tradition but are panicked by its inability to respond effectively to the turmoil of today. For critics outside the tradition, the bankruptcy of the institution—long apparent to them—merely reflects the primary insolvency of the tradition. This puts the burden of proof on Poling and his fellow critic-believers to demonstrate that the tradition can indeed pay dividends, in terms of effecting both justice and revolutionary change. Nothing less will pass for legal tender these days.

But this illusory tactic is not the worst of Poling's miscalculations. He seems to know nothing of that feeling of the worthlessness of the tradition which is experienced by the very people who try hardest to implement traditional teachings. Thus, the man who abandons all in order to follow Jesus for the reconstruction of society sooner or later meets others who share his deepest desires for justice and social change but who not only do not share his faith but frequently reject it. He discovers that what he regarded as his source of motivation and legitimacy can be jettisoned with no ill effect. With faith or without faith, he can maintain his stance of concern.

This is the real weight of the challenge of secularism and, because Poling misses it, it becomes all too easy for him to strike out wildly in all directions. He takes pages to put down The Gospel According to Peanuts when a sentence would have done as well. He is clearly shocked by Tom F. Driver's favorable reception of Genet's Miracle of the Rose, which (along with the James Bond craze) Poling advances as an example of the secular evisceration of Christianity. These are but two examples of how a serious subject becomes corrupted by jejune fixations. As for the maiden aunts, there is much here to which they can give a nod of agreement, even as they gird their souls to live out the last years of the Church.


Martin Marty's The Search for a Usable Future also focuses on the secularization of religion. A professional historian, Marty brings his specialized skill to bear in an attempt to clarify the situation of religion in modern life, and to test its viability for the future. He supplies a sorely needed perspective on recent theologizing, a body of thought that has been fractured by the contrasting views of such men as Harvey Cox, Paul M. Van Buren, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Thomas J. J. Altizer, Jurgen Moltmann, and others.

Marty begins—with that care and insight one associates with his best work—by analyzing the common denominator of contemporary dissent: the rejection of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition as bequeathed by the past in the form of history. His group-by-group analysis (blacks, New Left, student activists, etc.), made with unflinching honesty and penetration, gets beyond silly prattle about Vatican II and the empty chest-thumping of the ecumenical movement, whose achievements in his view are “minimal, marginal, and beside the point.” Indeed, Marty has seen just how beside the point are the often clumsy attempts of the churches to get with the modern temper. Yet he utters a caveat:

The thoughtful and reflective person knows that people cannot and do not start from scratch in history. Sooner or later, after the rejection [of the past experienced as useless], they begin to rebuild. Once again, they have to turn to some sort of past for their materials. Those for whom the act of rejecting has become pathological are not able to participate. They remain alienated, they experience frustration or drift, they express resentment or rage.

Recent pronouncements concerning the future have tended to predict the approach either of Utopia or of Armaggedon. Both tendencies are flawed, Marty shows, because like all philosophies of history “they devise an outlook which assumes a kind of knowledge of the outcome of history.” Since that outcome is in fact unknown, the only point of view from which man can project a future remains man himself, “suffering, striving, doing, as he is and was and ever shall be.” This means that one “bets on the human venture, and judges well those who allow for fully free and open, fully intelligent and human development.”

Such a view of the future, because its metaphysic is minimal, envisions no inevitable human fulfillment. For the religious man this view would entail acknowledging the possibility of a godless future. Like everyone else, he can plan for the future only by making an imaginative projection of it: if I have this or that belief and wish to create this or that possibility, then I act in such and such a way. Without paradigms from the past, it would be impossible to make such a projection, and in the case of the believer, part of the paradigmatic past is his faith, or tradition, which yields the material for his “script for the future”—a script he knows may have to be revised or scrapped altogether.

Marty finds the worldly or secular theology of the 60's deficient in precisely the same way non-theological philosophies are deficient, for concealed in secular theology is a view of history which claims to know what man will be at the end of history. This is equivalent to claiming to know the whole of man's essence, a metaphysical assertion which stands the secular theologians on their heads since they expressly reject metaphysics. Thus their script for the future can be faulted too, along with all utopian or dys-utopian philosophies. The only view which does justice to all the phenomena of the modern past and present is that of Paul Ricoeur: “The modern world can be viewed under the two-fold sign of a growing rationality along with a growing absurdity.” Evidence from both sides must be considered in projections about the future. Only a view of such expansiveness forestalls the frustration of a failed Utopia or the certainty of a fated Armageddon.

Nevertheless, if it can be said that secular theology conceals a philosophy of history, it can be said with equal justice that Marty's view of history conceals a theory of man. The trouble with Marty's thought (as religious thought) lies in its lack of integration with Christian theological tradition, which appears in this work to be merely tacked on to the scaffolding of his theory; the religious façade could easily be removed without damaging the framework. His difficulties are intensified when we come to his adumbrated but fundamental theory of human nature. At least twice in The Search for a Usable Past he says that man is best understood as an indeterminate being. This means that all theories of man which oversimplify human motivations by handing man over to some all-explaining instinct or drive (sexuality, the territorial imperative, or whatever) must be rejected. It also entails taking the broadest possible view of man's capacity for social education and overall perfectibility while considering his destructive and aggressive tendencies not as some ontological datum but as expressions of a more generalized drive toward self-realization. This is clearly a more satisfying ontology than the generally instinctivist and determinist theories now common, but Marty does not indicate how he would integrate this ontology of indeterminate man with some basic elements of Christian tradition—the themes of grace, sin, and justification, for example. No doubt he would reply that his thought, by freeing the Christian from the ontological bogey-men of the useless theological past (Original Sin?), minimizes the exaggerated self-concern which believers often exhibit and impels action in a changing order. Marty's is a theology of action, although how God is related to man in this theology is not discussed.

This slighting of the “God question” in a book which was clearly written to encourage and direct His faithful is, I suppose, symptomatic of the times. Marty allows that we cannot prove God's existence or give a satisfying answer to the problem of evil. Very contemporary, that. But he does not say that in a godless universe there is no “problem” of evil. He does not show why the point of view he champions, shorn of its theological trappings—what difference does God make, anyway?—cannot be espoused by thoroughly atheistic humanists.

The chapter on revolution, as useful, level-headed, and sympathetic a treatment as one is likely to find, illustrates the difficulties inherent in the attempt to graft the fruit of human concern to the trunk of faith. Marty would have the church participate in the modern revolution or, as Marty prefers to say, in “innovation,” which he acknowledges may require a resort to violence. At the same time the church must remain “disengaged” so as to be able to maintain a critical stance vis-à-vis the ethical quality and effectiveness of the means employed to further the revolution, as well as to insure the survival of a body which, should the revolution prove successful, might stand up against the new status quo. This sounds like a position any intelligent group of citizens might adopt. But the appeal to God as “absolute future,” as a way of suggesting that man may have to look beyond revolution for the final resolution of history, seems to me an overly complicated device for anchoring common sense in theological speculation. It is simply not necessary.


Though in an infinitely more subtle manner, Marty finally makes the same mistake as Poling. He points to elements of the Christian past which act as directives for future action. He describes a theory of action, notable for its love of justice and careful appraisal of complexities. But the connection between tradition and the theory of action is tenuous at best. The points at which tradition touches action are so general and marginal to the usual doctrinal structure of most Christian denominations that one is made to feel safe in rejecting the greater part of that structure. Christian action (innovation), in short, appears to be independent of Christian doctrine. By participating in the great innovative movements of our time, we may even find ourselves, if we are honest, driven to retain only those elements of tradition which happen to coincide with our motivations—the prophets' thirst for justice, Jesus's eschatological sermon in Matthew, etc. The rest we can do without.

It is simply not sufficient to point out, as Marty does, that certain widespread cultural motifs have their historical origins in religion. It is necessary, rather, to show that they still depend on religion for their continued existence. One hopes that Marty, or someone, will write another book clarifying why man needs some fraction of traditional Christian doctrine or theology to live a life of “innovation.” Without that clarification, that work which will integrate doctrine with action, we are stuck with a wait-and-see theology that has discarded the useless past but has made no provision for a usable future.

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