It is one of the measures of a man that your friends accuse you of name-dropping when you refer to him in some personal way, as if you were “in” enough to have him among your friends. So let it be said of Gene Blake, a friend of mine otherwise known as Eugene Carson Blake. He is the only one in the whole list of my friends who has ever been on the cover of Time magazine, and that’s good enough for me.
It is also the measure of a man that legends begin to grow in his lifetime. In one week I heard that the F.B.I. was investigating Gene Blake because he was being considered for an embassy post, and that the World Council of Churches was deciding whether he was the right man for the post to be vacated by Visser’t Hooft.
I could find these reports believable, because I think the man has enough ability for either post. What puzzles me is how people know all these things. In a day in which sophisticated communications media abound, it is still surprising what we can pick up on the bongo drums.
What is even more striking in the case of Gene Blake is the number of unbelievable stories that are circulating. I remember Jay McCarthy, who worked with me in a summer camp in 1938. We awoke one morning only to discover that it was raining pitchforks and that we were in for a long soaking day with a campful of raucous boys. Jay stood in the doorway of the cabin, looking at the rain and meditating upon the dismal day, and said, “That Roosevelt again.” Good, bad, or indifferent, everything was blamed on Roosevelt. So it is with Blake.
I think Gene Blake is very intelligent and very ingenious, but I can’t imagine how he could have dreamed up all the things people give him credit for or blame him for. You can be having a quiet conversation with a few preachers in Christmas Wreath, Arkansas, about something going on in Uncum Pahgre Presbytery, and they will think either that Gene Blake did it or that he refused to do it or that he should be consulted before anyone else does it.
Arthur Schlesinger’s book, A Thousand Days, has just had a long, encouraging treatment in Time. It was a delight to discover that between the academic treatment Schlesinger gave Jackson in The Age of Jackson and his experience on the inside of the Kennedy administration, he learned that, although there might be some truth in a “conspiracy” view of history, there is probably more in the “confusion” view of history. Reading events after the fact, when nothing else can be clone, is one way of understanding history, and it is not hard to see or make up cause-effect relations. It is easy to believe that when things turned out right, our heroes planned it that way.
Schlesinger discovered that this was not quite so when he was writing history from the inside. It was not that he was too close to his material but that he was close enough to understand that decisions are always made in highly ambiguous situations. I am sure that Gene Blake does some very sustained thinking in planning events in the church and among the churches. But I am also sure that the decisions he makes sometimes have to be made in the midst of great confusion and with faith and courage.
In his autobiography, Lincoln Steffens tells of a conversation he had with his great friend Woodrow Wilson. They were discussing a decision Wilson had to make that was crucial for our country. “But can’t you see,” said Steffens, “this other possibility?” “Of course,” said Wilson, “I can see both sides of the question. But the decision has to be made today.”
Many people in our church fail to see that millions and millions of dollars arc involved in the operation of the church. Many skilled persons arc employed on every level every day, and things simply have to move. The plays have to be called. It is to the credit of Gene Blake that he is able to make decisions that have to be made, that he has the courage to stand by them, and that to a truly remarkable extent he will not go to the level of the carping criticism he has to put up with.
So why all this talk on Eugene Carson Blake in “Current Religious Thought”? Because it is a very current and, I presume, a very religious thought that he is now front man for the top position in the World Council of Churches. I for one think that he has all the right gifts for the job.
There is no question whether Gene Blake is ecumenically minded. This is probably the touchstone of everything he does, and whatever be his long-range plans, this must be in the forefront of his thinking.
His ecumenical spirit allows him to move more easily with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches than do most Presbyterians—or indeed, most Protestants. He is one of the few men I can think of who is a Christian statesman and would be acceptable behind the Iron Curtain. Long before the church was ready for it, he was taking leadership in moving behind the Iron Curtain to see whether any conversations could be begun. He can certainly understand that Christians behind the Iron Curtain might well be facing the kinds of questions Christians first met in trying to operate under the pressure of Roman emperor-worship.
Theologically, his views are broad, and this is necessarily truer as his ecumenism increases. In the Blake-Pike proposal he had no uneasiness with the theological opinions of Pike, which have the Episcopal Church very uneasy indeed. He obviously believes in the Blake-Pike proposal for a church that includes Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, the Church of Christ, and others, and is convinced that it is possible for such a union to be catholic, reformed, and evangelical. (I for one very much doubt it.) “Reformed” in his vocabulary has to do, not with such a position as, for example, that of the Westminster Divines, but rather with a “reformed principle,” which means that the church is constantly reforming its doctrinal position in order to meet the problems, attitudes, and vocabularies of every new day.
What the head of the World Council of Churches needs, Eugene Carson Blake has. And while I am at it, I might just point out that no one in the Presbyterian Church came up with any man to replace him the last time he was elected, and that when he was elected, the General Assembly gave him a unanimous standing ovation. Apparently those who stood up to be counted at that assembly did not include his critics!
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