a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media

Donate to Harvard Square Library

Sign Up for Updates
Home » Theology & Philosophy » Betraying the World with a Kiss

Betraying the World with a Kiss

Unitarian Universalist Christian Table of Contents

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 34, Fall/Winter 1993

The James Luther Adams Papers

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993

Part 4: Betraying the World with a Kiss

Jean Paul Sartre’s play No Exit is a classic expression of existential loss of human fellowship. The scene is hell, which is presented as a French drawing room in Second Empire style. The author depicts the inferno of human isolation, the loneliness and despair, the alienation of three souls: a man and two women. They are all three lost and dead, imprisoned and condemned to the eternal torture of keeping each other company. For them there is No Exit from this torture of loneliness even though they are together. They share no common values which can give them dignity either as individuals or as a group locked in their room in hell. The souls in Dante’s Inferno retain human dignity; they seem to be worthy of punishment; but the souls in Sartre’s hell have lost even that dignity. The three people struggle for each other’s attention but do so without believing they have anything worth giving and without believing the others would really esteem anything worth giving anyway. In the end, the man cannot decide whether his own spiritual leprosy allies him more strongly with one woman or with the other one. Nevertheless, all of them are compelled to remain together for eternity without any other companions. Finally, in desperation the man says, “There is no need for hot pokers in this place. Hell is—other people.” That is, hell is other people with whom one may not enter into moral community.

In its emphasis upon alienation, contemporary existentialism finds a place alongside many other criticisms of our society. Sigmund Freud conceived of the discontents of civilization as such as a sickness, a neurosis, a polymorphous separation of person from person. Friedrich Nietzsche viewed the bourgeois society as creating the weakness and mediocrity and loneliness of individualism: “Oh, loneliness,” cries Zarathustra in protest, “Oh Thou my Home, loneliness.”

Karl Marx depicted the bourgeois society as split in two; it is in a state of alienation through the class struggle. Community, sociality, has lost its sacred character. The middle classes find only irresponsible ownership of private property sacred. Bourgeois thinking thus rests society completely on the individual and dissolves society into the natural automatic law of economics. The individual becomes a mass separated from God. Religious and communal ties have been dissolved in a laissez-faire society. In its distress this society appeals to nationalism, our other religion, to create solidarity and to protect itself against allegedly alien ideas.

The sociologist Max Weber describes the same process in similar terms. The development of capitalism and the introduction of an impersonal ethic involved the bringing of calculation into human relations, displacing the old religious relationship. A kind of immoralism is upon us, he says: “The relations between the mortgage creditor and the property which was pledged for debt, or between the endorser and the bill of exchange, would at least be exceedingly difficult if not impossible to moralize.”

In literature, Franz Kafka, the novelist, sees people alienated from each other by their striving for prestige and by the guilt arising from the desire for self-justification. They are also alienated from the center and fount of meaning, what he calls the Castle. Thomas Mann, in The Magic Mountain, symbolizes the bourgeois society by a sanitorium which is nothing but an island on which the sick have landed for a while in order to await their slow death.

At the turn of the century, a German artistic magazine was initiated in protest against a meaningless bourgeois world. The magazine’s title, The Island, symbolizes the artists’ desire to retire to “a beautiful island existence” where a fragile tower of beauty could be built. In their distance, these artists asserted that the modern mass society is only part of a society. Recalling St. Paul’s symbol of a coordinated body, they described contemporary society as only parts of a human being in community with parts of other human beings. Parts of a body or of any object were described and enumerated. “Two legs walk,” they say. “A knee walks lonely through this world.” These characterizations of people remind one of the poet who compared separated people to the empty spaces in a piece of lattice work called civilization.

Consider the principal message of Søren Kierkegaard. When in his retreat from the outer world he believes his alienation from God is overcome, he finds solidarity only in the moment, in the individual. The individual, even the regenerate individual, is alone, having made the flight of the alone to the alone. We may think that Kierkegaard has been properly condemned as a bourgeois pietist by one of our contemporary theologians. We may feel that he has been properly censured for not having developed a concept of the community or of the church, but we cannot deny the existence of the loneliness, the isolation, the alienation, the despair of which he writes. Those who do not see it and feel it in themselves are also isolated. They live on an island where they cannot see that fascism and communism arose out of a demand for Gemeinschaft and comradeship. Those who do not see or feel the isolation may be so isolated that they do not even see what is visible about them: “the people across the tracks.” Not only does “education” protect us from seeing such people even when we look at them, but religion itself has a way of protecting us by its deceptive diverting of attention to the ineffable heights. We do not see the destitute family living in an abandoned building which has been taken over by homeless people. The more people are separated from each other, the less they care about each other, and the less they even recognize their own shabbiness.

Whether we consider human beings from a purely sociological or from a theological-ethical standpoint, they can be understood only in relationship. Our creatureliness and our dignity is understood in relation to the creative source in which we participate. Our creatureliness, like our dignity, is rooted in what the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, calls the deep down freshness of things. I may be a self, but my self is not ultimate. My relation to the creative and re-creative power of the divine is the essence of my human nature. In this relation arises my fate and my freedom, and in my relation to other selves who likewise are supported and judged, I find my responsibility not only for my own inner life but also in my confrontation of the need of my neighbor. My freedom exists in the context of independence and dependence and interdependence. My separateness is the precondition for both freedom and unfreedom, for both companionship and alienation. My dependence is both freedom and unfreedom. My interdependence with others is both freedom and unfreedom. My separation is necessary for both freedom and unfreedom. My freedom and my responsibility before God and among other human beings require the overcoming of alienation in a love and justice that preserve the independence of the self and other selves. Thus my freedom involved a group freedom as well as an individual freedom, a group unfreedom as well as an individual unfreedom, a group responsibility as well as an individual responsibility. This is the great truth long ago envisaged by the Old Testament prophets. God’s covenant is with the group as well as with the individual; guilt and salvation are both individual and social.

Obviously freedom and responsibility require more than the abstract understanding of freedom and responsibility. They require also more than a mere enunciation of the eternal demands of love and justice. Perhaps Jane Addams had this in mind when she said that “we must struggle lest the moral law become a far-off abstraction utterly separated from the active life.”

There is a frustrating alienation that ensues if the Christian does not achieve an application of general principles to a particular situation. This frustration reveals the need for middle axioms or middle principles to mediate between universal, abstract ethical principles and a particular structural situation. This is not the sort of frustration that Jane Addams had in mind. It is rather the frustration that comes from failure actually to make decisions and to take responsibility. Therefore, it is to the need for participation in what we might call middle organizations, and to the alienation that results from the neglect of this participation, that I should like to direct your attention.

The most important responsibility any person has is in the fulfillment of her or his vocation in the narrow sense of that word, but the fulfillment of freedom and responsibility requires more than the performance of one’s vocational duties. This is especially true in a democratic society where mere obedience to the state violates the very spirit and letter of the democratic process. The Christian or the citizen in a democratic state has the responsibility of helping to shape the social policies. It is just the absence of the possibility of this kind of participation that gives a certain provincialism to the New Testament community. Anyone in the democratic society who is content with striving to do vocational work well is not yet a citizen. As an epitaph in an old Puritan burial ground reads:

Here lies John MacDonald
Born a man
Died a grocer.

Freedom and responsibility in a democratic society require disciplines peculiar to that society. Leaving aside the important question as to the nature of the democratic society as such, and leaving aside also the question as to how moral judgments are formed and transformed, we must confront the question as what the disciplines of freedom are in a democracy.

Freedom is primarily related neither to the individual as such nor to the individual in pursuit of a vocation. The work of culture is not done by any community as a whole, nor yet by individuals, but by smaller organized groups, which are organized to integrate the community. These groups, often called voluntary associations, are especially characteristic of American democracy. The point is that we are never in any exclusive sense members of society at large. Rather, we are members of social groups within every society. One of the most important of these groupings in modern society is the business corporation, but the noncommercial or nonprofit organizations which are formed to shape the policy of the society are equally important. One might say that the club and association have tended to become in the noneconomic life of our society what the corporation is to its economic life. Some of these associations are merely adjuncts of business corporations, or they are associations for the maintenance of vocational standards. The associations that are merely adjuncts of business corporations are usually more concerned with affecting the behavior of nonmembers then they are with affecting the life of their own members. These are the pressure groups. The vocational associations exist mainly for the purpose of affecting the members, but the voluntary associations that give the fullest opportunity for expressing freedom and for assuming responsibility are the groups that aim to work for the common welfare and seek to affect the life of all. They seek the rewards of a more harmonious society or of a better government.

One of the ways in which human alienation is continued and aggravated in the world is through the neglect of these middle groupings. This neglect takes two major forms: the neglect that results from a merely general concern with social responsibility and the neglect that takes the form of concern for only direct person-to-person relations. Both of these forms of neglect are characteristic of certain types of religious people, even of people who praise a Kierkegaard for having discovered “the nodal points of the individual’s irrevocable responsibility before God.” This inmost sense of responsibility is the navel-string of creation, but the creation of the good society under the great Taskmaster’s eye will never be brought about by the Kierkegaards alone. They are irresponsible in so far as the navel-string of their responsibility only leads the Christian to will one thing, a more Christlike spirit in person-to-person relations. This to betray the world with a kiss.

St. Paul’s metaphor concerning the body and its parts needs a new exegesis. The parts should be interpreted not only as individuals but also as groups. The New Testament does not directly concern itself with what we have called middle organizations. This fact is understandable if we recall that the voluntary association, like the concept of the professions, is almost entirely a modern idea. The point can be expressed in another way. In earlier and simpler societies the individual usually belonged only to three groups: a community, a church, and a family. Today the individual must work through corporations and through voluntary associations in order to have a workaday vocation and assume responsibility in living with contemporaries. Insofar as Christian ethics does not stress this fact, it creates irrelevance and irresponsibility. It creates a slipping clutch, perhaps a beautifully purring motor but still a slipping clutch. Even people who demand a change in the very structure of society may reflect the bad influence of the church in the direction of irrelevance or irresponsibility if they merely form study groups. Indeed, we should not expect the study of even one hundred best books to contribute to democracy in a responsible way if it does not induce those being educated for freedom to discover group activities as the real centers of responsibility and persuade people to do the hum-drum work of democracy.

It is important to note here that it would be entirely false to suppose that Protestants historically have ignored the middle organizations. Both within the church and outside the church the most significant social changes have been effected by the middle organizations. Actually many of the voluntary associations were brought into being under the influence of Calvinism, pietism, the evangelical awakening, and a host of other Protestant movements. This very fact is a sign of Protestant vitality and a consequence of its radical laicism, its principle of the priesthood of all believers. These voluntary organizations have become the major instruments of modern prophetic religion, whether it is churchly or secular. They have been the means whereby a moral like-mindedness has been created in the citizenry and then been given social expression to the felt demands. They have at once provided fellowship and organized social power for the changing of both church and society.

Here we can see their greatest significance for the Protestant strategy of social change. The Roman Catholic church aims to affect society directly through the established church which uses the secular arm. Operating as a political power, it maintains a world-wide diplomatic corps for directly dealing—on churchly authority—with the state; and, pending restoration of ecclesiastical control over society at large, it establishes Roman Catholic political parties, professional and commercial associations, and even Catholic trade unions.

The Protestant free church strategy calls for no establishment of religion; it calls for no diplomatic corps, no Protestant political party, no Protestant interlocking directorates, no Protestant trade unions. It does not claim to provide the official Christian program. Eschewing official blueprints, it calls upon people to take up the priesthood of all believers by cooperating in the shaping of middle principles to make the Christian ethic relevant and by cooperating with the people in the middle organizations which shape our common life. In the social and political arena, this is the Protestant vocation. It is a vocation that calls for participation in the group process that criticizes and moulds the structures of society. This larger vocation can alone keep meaningful the narrower vocations of daily work, for it alone can create and maintain a society in which there will be work for all and in which work will be worthy of the name of a “calling.”

The commandment to love one’s neighbor calls for a robust, delighted interest in other people, but it calls for more than that. It calls for a robust, delighted interest in the institutions that give body to human responsibility and freedom and that overcome human alienation through human fellowship. This is no time to betray the world with a kiss. As a true wayfaring Christian, John Milton, says to us across the centuries:

“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, but never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.


Series Navigation<< The War of the GodsPerspectives on the Pluralistic Society >>
Tagged with:
Categories: Theology & Philosophy