Walter Rauschenbusch, William Temple, and the Social Gospel (Part 4)

  • The Basic Principles of the Social Gospel

The guiding principles for social life that Rauschenbusch identified in the 1916 Social Teachings of Jesus are strikingly similar to the ones Temple extracted in 1942 in Christianity and Social Order.  This shows a consistency over (an admittedly short) time of the underlying convictions of the social gospel, developed over a period covering both world wars and the interval between them.  It also shows that these principles are recognized in two very different settings of church-state relations:  the national church context of the Church of England, and the official situation of total disestablishment of all denominations in the United States.  Perhaps it is this generalizable quality of social gospel thinking that makes it attractive to committed Christians and to those who, from a non-religious viewpoint, are sympathetic to the aims of justice and peace of God’s reign on earth.

William Temple breaks his Christian social principles into those which are primary, and those secondary derivative principles.  The primary ones are “God and His Purpose”, and “Man:  his Dignity, Tragedy and Destiny”[1].  God’s purpose is love, and the creation of beings which could respond freely (or fail to do so) to that love.  The dignity of the human person is rooted in his or her nature as a child of God; the tragedy is that we live in a society that frustrates the aims of fellowship for which God has destined us.  Rauschenbusch does not so neatly delineate these primary principles; however, both he and Temple express nearly identical programs of derivative social precepts of freedom, social fellowship, and mutual service.[2]

A term that is common to both Rauschenbusch and Temple is the attitude of ‘fellow-feeling’, or ‘fellowship’, between persons of various life situations.  Developing this feeling in the hearts and minds of privileged young adults was a concern for both, but Rauschenbusch’s Social Teachings of Jesus is perhaps the most explicit effort to do so. The premise was that if ‘fellow-feeling’ could take root adequately in a young person’s psyche during the educational process, the attitude would carry forward into a career in later life.  This, in turn, would contribute to the transformation of social institutions.  The affluent classes were the key to effective action of social gospel principles.

For Temple, fellowship was more than just being together and enjoying shared activities (as in the American institution of the church ‘youth fellowship’ groups).  There is room for a great deal of difference, and fellowship involves working toward reducing selfishness:

And fellowship, of course, is not merely the same thing as all getting together and agreeing with one another:  it is compatible with a great deal of disagreement and with a great deal of variety of experience. If you merely get together like-minded people or people with the same dominant interests in life, you don’t get a fellowship, you get a herd, which is a very inferior thing, perfectly familiar in the animal creation.  It’s great fun belonging to a herd—at any rate when it’s hunting or doing something of that sort; but there’s nothing morally excellent about it.  The herd insting is no better in itself—or if you like, the gregarious instinct is no better in itself—tan the self-regarding instinct; it is capable of good and it is capable of bad; and great masses of human beings have banded themselves together to do the most odious things before now; and the mere fact that a great number of people are united in the pursuit of an object is no sort of reason for supposing that it is a good object or that there is any merit in their union.[3]

Indeed, fellowship is much wider than ‘herd’, and for social Christianity, involves a range of opinions, expertise, viewpoints.  It is not enough to be motivated by Christian faith to work toward the Kingdom of God; it also takes practical knowledge and the wherewithal to implement change.  Throughout Christianity and Social Order, Temple puts forth what had been called “middle axioms” (although I cannot locate his ever using the term).  The middle axiom approach, championed by Ronald Preston, is a sort of ‘halfway house between generalities and details of policy,’ bringing

those from different experiences working together on an issue, about the general direction in which Christian opinion should try to influence change, without going into details of policy on the best way to bring it about.[4]

With Temple, more than Rauschenbusch, there is a strong insistence that the Church does not always have the practical expertise to make specific policy decisions for social change.  The Church can say what is and is not compatible with scripture and tradition; but it cannot set monetary policy or make decisions on public health schemes without the input of economists or medical professionals.  And it should not attempt to do so.  An adequate Christian social order involves people from all walks of life, pursuing their professions and occupations from a Christian perspective.  Temple’s famous statement from Christianity and Social Order should be kept in mind here:

Nine-tenths of the work of the Church in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of the official system of the Church at all.[5]

Most of building the Kingdom will happen by lay people, doing ‘secular’ work that is motivated by their vision of Christian society.  It requires the co-operation of non-church forces, such as the banking industry, educational institutions, professional societies, and even the government.  Church officials will make some pronouncements, and especially in the case of an established Church, they will use their position in society to influence policy.  But most of the work will be done by lay people, and so the primary task of the institutional Church is to educate Christian conscience.  For this reason, it is (as mentioned earlier) important to engage the imagination of young adults, especially those who are privileged and educated.

Another key principle for both thinkers is the sacredness of all life, and especially the sacredness of personality.  This is at the heart of respect for a person’s work—and the importance of work that is not only economically sustaining, but is satisfying and expressive of the human being who performs the task. This has been problematic through human history, but the Industrial Revolution and the advent of large-scale mechanized, repetitive labor (including long hours of work in poor conditions, and child labor) emphasized how far lived reality is from the teachings of Jesus.

Rauschenbusch extracted a larger list of principles than Temple did.  The three major ones are listed as follows:

The first was that life and personality are sacred; the second that men belong together; the third is that the strong must stand with the weak and defend their cause.[6]

He is also clear that Jesus did not reject the laws of Moses, but that he expanded them according to the prophetic injunctions to human dignity and equality:

In each case he accepts the law as it stood, but asks for more of the same thing, more respect for personality, more reverence for womanhood, more stability for the home, more truthfulness, more peacefulness, more love.  Thus he combined continuity with progress, conservatism with radicalism.[7]

Conservatism with radicalism.  This is perhaps the great paradox that stands at the heart of effective social gospel theology.  Temple said much the same thing:  “Few radical reformers can hope for great success who are unable to present themselves with perfect honesty as the only true conservatives.”[8]  Nothing upsets the status quo of an economically stratified society quite so much as going back to the original teachings of Jesus as his early followers recorded them.  Without having articulated it explicitly, both Rauschenbusch and Temple recognized that what is most radical (as in radix, at the root of something) must also be conserved:  protected from waste, loss or harm, used and managed wisely.  Inequality, and a disrespect for the sacredness of human life, caused damage to the teachings in which Christianity is rooted, and therefore, does not properly conserve the core of Christian faith and practice.  The radical changes to society called for by the social gospel are, therefore, the most conservative proposals imaginable.

[1] Temple, Christianity and Social Order, pp. 62-66.

[2] Temple, Christianity and Social Order, pp. 67-77.

[3] Temple, The Church Looks Forward (London:  Macmillan, 1944), pp. 147-8.

[4] Ronald Preston, Church and Society in the Late Twentieth Century:  The Economic and Political Task (London:  SCM Press, 1983), p. 107.

[5] Temple, Christianity and Social Order, p. 39.

[6] Rauschenbusch, Social Teachings,  p. 54

[7] Rauschenbusch, Social Teachings, p. 110.

[8] Temple, Nature, Man and God, p. 176.


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