The Rt. Rev. William Phipps, moderator of the United Church of Canada, has set the heather aflame with recent controversial statements. It was his expressed intention to encourage people to think, but already there are ruptures appearing in the fabric of his denomination.
It will not be surprising if some congregations withdraw and if some members seek fellowship elsewhere. The ancient faith is being challenged. Traditionalism and liberalism do not sit well together. It is unfortunate that shoddy thinking seems always to take a heavy toll of religious loyalties.
I do not think it necessary to shield the Gospel from strong ideas. Nor should it be needful for Christians to scorn scholarship, no matter how radical or revolutionary it may be. I no longer remember author or source but I never have forgotten the old prayer, "O God, I offer Thee my heart, In many a mystic mood by beauty led. But now impart that sterner grace To offer Thee my head." We do God no honor when we hide from honest thinking and elude the truth.
I do not share the convictions allegedly expressed by the moderator. He, of course, is free to think as he wishes and, for that matter, so am I. I believe this generation's greatest need is for the personal salvation wondrously and graciously offered by God in Christ crucified, risen and coming again.
Where the moderator has gone astray, it seems to me, is in his apparent failure to grasp the meaning and the use of faith and of reason. He makes the mistake, which has betrayed many theologians and philosophers, of confusing faith and reason. They are not mutually exclusive.
The individual who espouses reason and rejects the exercise of faith runs the risk of confusing the actual with the ideal. What is actual and demonstrable becomes the goal of life and the ideal loses its vitality because, at best, it can be only a dream.
It requires faith to define and pursue that which is ideal. Faith alone is the gateway to the visions and hypotheses, the suggestions and the theories without which progress becomes impossible and reason becomes fruitless.
It seems to me that Mr. Phipps' appeal is to the reason that precludes faith. That is a wrong way to journey in a quest for true religion. A sad consequence is that some people and congregations will choose an opposing position which will be faulted by the same logic.
An inevitable outcome of an appeal to reason as a condition of faith is that it encourages a religion of good works. The so-called Social Gospel becomes a substitute for the mystical element which belongs where there is right religion. True religion, of course, must embrace good works but it also must provide personal salvation, forgiveness and eternal life.
One of my professors in seminary days was Dr. Nels Ferre, a man whose name seems always to draw the ire of conservative-minded religionists. That is something of an irony because he himself was positively conservative in his theological orientation. He was wont to say, "Theologians who are men of faith ... will dare to see the actual world for what it is and yet also the existential claims on it of what eternally is and actually ought to be."
Faith and reason belong together. Again, the words are those of Nels Ferre, "Without faith reason fails in courage and social concern, while without reason faith fails in vision and application."
So I am distressed by what Mr. Phipps has said because I fear many will construe his remarks wrongly and, as a result, the whole church of Jesus Christ will suffer, no part more so than his own denomination.
Faith and reason - both are gifts of the grace of God.
"God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Reason is troubled by that verse; faith is challenged. Separated, they stumble. Together, they point to the rightness of religion in which alone is hope for our sin-sick and troubled world.
- M. Allen Gibson is a Baptist church minister who lives in Chester.
Copyright ©1997 The Halifax Herald Limited