Some years ago in an article entitled “Japan: Three Obstacles to the Gospel” (Christian Century, March 7, 1962), William P Woodard developed the thesis that this Far Eastern land had built-in social and psychological factors that made it essentially non-responsive to the Christian Evangel. This idea—that elements in the psyche of a people either make that people susceptible to the Christian message or cause it to present an indifferent or perhaps hostile face—may be timely for us to consider in relation to the climate of our own nation.
Our Lord commended the builder (mentioned in Luke 14:28) who, if he planned to build a tower, first took note of the cost. The same kind of prudence would suggest to the evangelical that he appraise realistically the climate into which he is to project his message. Such an assessment would not limit the efforts at making Christ known; it does provide guidelines for faith and limits upon expectations.
During the times of protest in our colleges and universities, we heard a great deal about commitment. Youth leaders called upon the rank and file to renounce objectivity and detachment, and to become active in causes—to “get a piece of the action” even if it proved to be costly.
The trend was short-lived. In its place has emerged, in almost cultic fashion, an anti-commitment mood that is creeping over old and young. The rejection of commitment seems to be pervasive enough to be considered a dominant social and intellectual motif. This has to be a source of deep concern to the Christian who takes seriously the central demand of the Lord Christ for total allegiance.
This frame of mind has a certain complexity in that it has roots in both the public psychology and in prevailing philosophical trends. In turn it tends to be reinforced by patterns of societal behavior. When and if such a mood beomes institutionalized, it becomes increasingly visible, and the mood becomes increasingly crucial for the strategy of the Christian Church.
A condition of emotional aridness has crept over our populace, affecting youth most directly but leaving no level of society untouched. The so-called sexual revolution, with its over-emphasis upon emotional experience, has contributed to this. The downgrading of work and of ambition and the resulting mood of “doing one’s own thing” served also to fragment experience, with a consequent sterilization of the inner life.
Contemporary literature, art, and music celebrate random and fragmented episodes and events. Personhood seems no longer to consist in continuity and wholeness. The quest for openness (which is really a flight from commitment) is frequently held to be the only alternative to being exploited. What is not so easily seen is that non-commitment may provide an easy rationalization for the emotional exploitation of others.
We have the media to thank, in good part, for a climate that fosters non-involvement. Having long abandoned our Lord’s dictum, “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things which he possesses,” the organs of public communication on all hands create artificial appetites and inordinate expectations. When persons without spiritual roots expect more than they can possibly achieve, or when the achievement does not bring satisfaction, they may become frustrated.
As a result, multitudes in our society live in a state of mild anger, toward unidentified threats. Commitment now appears to be a threat to what is considered valid personhood. Part of the reaction against permanence in marriage stems from this fear. Alternatives that offer sensory experience severed from involvement appear attractive.
While staying detached and uncommitted may decrease one’s vulnerability, it also exacts a great price. Significantly, in an era in which commitment is a dirty word, there is among psychotherapists a renewed concern with narcissism. This involves not only an inordinate preoccupation with the ego but also a demand for random sensory satisfaction.
Perhaps enough has been said to suggest that the cult of non-involvement has deep roots in today’s culture and in the response of the human psyche to dominant motifs in that culture. There are also moods and movements in philosophy that tend to undermine the kind of responsibility that supports vital commitment. Philosophies that engage the classrooms do filter down into the public mind. And often it is their less desirable tenets that have the sharpest impact upon public thinking.
This seems clearly true of existential forms of thought, with their downgrading of reason, their built-in introversion, and their preoccupation with subjectivity. The net result of this philosophical mood—for it is more a mood than a system—is the fragmentation of experience, the celebration of the off-beat, and above all the atomization of truth.
The latter enables the candidate for ordination or for a position on the faculty of a confessional college or seminary to pledge loyalty to a statement of faith one day and a week later to espouse views that undercut that statement. Commitment on this basis, such as it is, seems to the existentially trained to be limited to the period of time in which the one so pledging “feels that way about it.” To this way of thinking, long-term allegiances seem like bands that constrict intellectual breathing and close promising options.
Similarly, the philosophical movement that has surfaced in some quarters as process theology has had an impact at the popular level. It reaches the public in the form of a downgrading of biblical authority, an insistence upon relativizing the personality and sovereignty of God, and a demand for total openness to new options. As the process theologians suggest, “God” is maturing with his world and is exhilarated by the complete open-endedness of the cosmic process.
The popular outcome of this form of thinking is a frame of mind that rejects all forms of finality. It has no tolerance for system or systems. It demands a form of non-involvement that works against meaningful commitment.
Far from being a cause for pessimistic inaction, the prevalance of the “cult of non-commitment” should afford a two pronged challenge to the evangelical. It should stimulate the messenger to “preach for a verdict,” pressing the gospel summons to the sinner to repent and to commit himself to Christ. It should also deepen the Christian’s reliance upon the ministry of the Holy Spirit as he seeks to bring men and women to yieldedness and committed discipleship.
HAROLD B. KUHN
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