Whence Social Reform?

East to Eden? Religion and the Dynamics of Social Change, by Charles Corwin (Eerdmans, 1972, 190 pp., $2.95 pb), is reviewed by Robert Brow, rector, Anglican Parish of Cavan, Millbrook, Ontario.

The title suggests a fascinating question. When our counter-culture turned to Eastern forms of mysticism, did it get back to the Garden of Eden? Actually the question Corwin poses is quite different: “Are the dynamics for social reform to be found in Eastern Religion or in Christian radicalism?”

From a too brief history of religion in India and an excellent account of social change in modern China and Japan, the author concludes that Eastern philosophies “were not dynamic forces for modern social reform in Asia.” The explanation for this is that Hindu “ultimacy” is “out there,” traditional Chinese “ultimacy” was in a hierarchical order, and Japanese “ultimacy” is what the individual feels, or attains by intuition. Improved social conditions in these countries are mainly by-products of Christian missionary work.

This leads Corwin to ask why Christianity “has served as a catalyst for Asian social reform.” The type of Christian faith that he assumes was so successful in effecting social change he calls “Radical Christianity.” He sets it out in terms borrowed from John Macquarrie’s An Existential Theology. He makes no attempt to show that this was in fact the theology of missionaries like Carey, Marshman, Ward, Amy Carmichael, and Hudson Taylor, or even of Japanese Christians like Kagawa, whom he selects as effective agents of social change.

There is a fatal flaw in the argument: (1) Social change is a good thing; (2) Christianity produces social change; (3) other religions do not produce it; therefore Christianity is good. Logically this argument is valid, but it is unsound for all religions that deny the first premise. Feudal Christianity, Hindu Monism, Zen, Confucianism, Taoism, and the religious elements of our counter-culture all agree in viewing social change as harmful or unimportant. A large part of the interest in Eastern religion is due to a rejection of our modern scientific, educational, and medical technocracy.

Corwin notes on one page, but fails to give a satisfactory answer to, another difficulty: if social change is the highest good, surely Communism is a far quicker way of effecting it.

Any convincing apology for the Christian faith must let each alternative system speak for itself in terms of its own inner consistency. Only then can we ask which of these systems is true in the sense of being God’s truth, God’s highest good for man.

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Beyond Salvation?

A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, by Gustave Gutierrez (Orbis, 323 pp., $7.95, $4.95 pb), is reviewed by Harold O. J. Brown, associate editor, CHRISTIANITY TODAY.

Roman Catholic theology has traditionally understood itself as wisdom, i.e., as true teaching about God and the other subjects of revelation. As such it sought to achieve orthodoxy, i.e., rightness in doctrine. Gutierrez’s goal is what he calls orthopraxis, i.e., rightness in acting; for him theology today is or ought to be “critical reflection on ‘praxis,’ ” by which he means the action of the Church and others in the world. This reflection is to be done “in the light of the Word.”

Practical behavior used to be dealt with by the discipline of ethics, a branch of theology; Gutierrez is substituting a part for the whole, and thus is in great danger of distorting theology beyond recognition. Theology, as he conceives it, is first and foremost a rationale for liberation, which he defines as “the inescapable moment of radical change which is foreign to the concept of [gradual] development.

Gutierrez frequently speaks of the Word of God as his standard, but in the light of his “affirmation of an ever more autonomous world,” he seldom has recourse to biblical teaching. His stated goal is to overcome the divorce between the religious and the social. He sees the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, formerly living “in a ghetto” and on the side of the “oppressors,” as swinging more and more into the camp of “the poor and oppressed.” He sees these “poor and oppressed” as God’s best-loved class, and beyond this, as his instruments for ending poverty and oppression.

Gutierrez speaks of fruitful contact with Marxists, of stimulation by the Marxist view of history, of socialism as the only way of liberation, and of the necessity that Latin America overthrow the dominance of the rich capitalistic countries, especially the United States.

From these remarks, the reader will be able to form a reasonably accurate impression of the general tenor of Gutierrez’s political prescriptions. But how does he manage, in a “theology of liberation,” to devote virtually all his attention to his formula for ending economic and political oppression, while saying next to nothing about sin and death? He does this by accepting the premise of universal salvation. He introduces this theme in somewhat ambiguous language, and does seem to allow a slight chance that some, doubtless only a few, will never renounce selfishness and seek to create an authentic brotherhood among men and hence will eventually be lost.

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Although the poor and oppressed are his heroes, Gutierrez does not seem to recognize villains, and he seems to be blissfully unaware that in Marxist states it is often the Christians (perhaps only those with an old-fashioned concern for orthodoxy) who are impoverished and oppressed. His failure to designate anyone as a real villain is consistent with his assumption of universal salvation (based, he tells us, on “the desire to expand the possibilities of achieving salvation”), but it is a little odd in a scenario calling for liberation by radical social change. For him, evangelism, of course, is, or ought to be, a thing of the past, because it assumes a separation between the Church and the world.

Gutierrez makes no attempt to give a biblical basis to his concepts of salvation or liberation; indeed, he could not. Those who are familiar with life in Marxist-ruled countries may wonder at the childish confidence he voices in Marxists as collaborators in the liberation of humanity. Nevertheless, R. McA. Brown of Stanford, a noted United Presbyterian, says that the book “may well be the most important book of the year, or of the decade.” Brown notes, more plausibly, that it is “a treasure trove of documentation” and offers “extraordinary bibliographical resources.” In fact, it consists in large part of footnotes.

In his dust-jacket puff, Avery Dulles says the book “sheds valuable light on a phenomenon that Christians in the United States cannot afford to overlook.” Indeed not.

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