Elton Trueblood on Sin, Moralism, and Jesus


The following paragraphs are from Elton Trueblood’s The Predicament of Modern Man, chapter 3: The Impotence of Ethics. You can access the entire work here. Isn’t it amazing how there is nothing new under the sun? Especially note the paragraph in blue, it is simply beautiful.

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“We understand much of the distinction between religion and other phases of our lives when we sense the profound difference between faith and belief. Faith is closer to courage than it is to intellectual assent. Faith is easily understood by the gambler as both Blaise Pascal and Donald Hankey knew because the gambler stands to win or lose by his play. This was brought out in Kirsopp Lake’s now classic definition, “Faith is not belief in spite of evidence, but life in scorn of consequences.” Faith, as the plain man knows, is not belief without proof, but trust without reservations.

The lesson of history is that those lacking such a faith are no match for those inspired by such a faith, whatever its object. The fearful aspect of the present situation is that those who have inherited the major tradition of the West now have an ethic without a religion, whereas they are challenged by millions who have a religion without an ethic. The former group will win the war, because they have the preponderance of men and resources, as well as a fortunate alliance with Russia, but that is by no means the end of the story. We should be gullible indeed if we supposed that mere military victory would end the powerful threat of the faith which is proposed as a successor to the religion of the West.

Little do we know what evil faith may grip our people when the war is over. Since men cannot live long without a faith, the choice is always a choice between competing faiths. The only practical alternative to an evil faith is a better faith. Though this is the lesson of history, we are now trying the utterly precarious experiment, in which the odds are against us, of attempting to maintain our culture by loyalty to the Christian ethic without a corresponding faith in the Christian religion that produced it.

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An ordinary man, merely in and of himself, is not of so great worth and may be a very poor creature. We shall not make an effective answer to the apostles of blood and soil by pointing to him. But there is something else to which we can point, as the late William Paton said in a memorable paragraph:

But if this humble and obscure man is in reality one whom God has made, whom He has made in love, so that he shall never know peace except in loving God in return; if this man is one to whom God speaks; if this man is the object of a Divine solicitude so great that the Word became flesh for his salvation, the Son of God died for him — if this be true, then this humble and obscure man has a link with eternity, with the creative love that made the world. He cannot then be rightly treated as a cog in a machine, or a sample of a racial blood-stream, or one of the individual atoms that make up a nation.(Paton, op.cit.,pp. 150, 151)

It is especially in our Christian tradition that we find the power which is so conspicuously lacking in mere moralism. We must not forget that, in the Roman Empire, Christ won, and won against tremendous odds. He won because the faith in Christ really changed the lives of countless weak men and made them bold as lions. He has taken poor creatures who could not even understand the language of moral philosophy and shaken the world through them. [My emphasis.]

This has been said brilliantly by John Baillie:

Christ did not come to earth to tell us merely what we ought to do; He came to do something for us. He came not merely to exhort but to help. He did not come to give us good advice. That, if it were no more than that, was possibly not a thing of which we stood greatly in need, for there are always plenty of people who are ready with their advice. Advice is cheap, but what Christ offered us was infinitely costly. It was the power of God unto salvation. (John Baillie, Invitation to Pilgrimage, p. 51.)

It is easy enough to hate Hitler, but what is it that we propose as an alternative to his proposal for mankind? We now have a good opportunity to know, since we see suggestions daily in our propaganda sheets and even more in the expensive advertisements that so many large commercial firms are using for the building of morale, now that they have nothing to sell to the average reader. They all say about the same thing. We are to oppose the new paganism in the name of humanity, liberty, brotherhood, the sacredness of the individual soul. These are all very fine, but the question is whether they go far enough. John Baillie’s analysis is so good that his words should be cited again:

These indeed are the ideals of the Christian ages, or some of them, or at least they sound very like them, but in the Christian Ages they were all deeply rooted in something bigger and grander, in something that was no mere ideal but an eternal reality. They were rooted in the love of God as manifest in Jesus Christ our Lord . . . . It was Christ who taught us the indefeasible value of the individual soul. It was Christ who taught us of fraternité when He said, ‘One is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren’; and St. Paul when he said that ‘we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one member one of another.’ Hence the doubt that keeps raising itself in my mind when I read these fine pronouncements about our ideals . . . is whether these ideals have sufficient strength of conviction in them, or sufficient power of survival, in face of so powerful a contrary force, when they are no longer allowed to breathe their native air or draw daily sustenance from their original source.(Ibid., pp. 125. 126)

Moralizing cannot stand against a burning faith, even when that faith is an evil and perverted one. It is almost as ineffective as an umbrella in a tornado. The only way in which we can overcome our impotence and save our civilization is by the discovery of a sufficient faith. Goodness we must have, but the way to goodness is to find our peace in the love of God who, as the Source of goodness, makes us know that, even at best, we are not really good. This is the peace that passes understanding, though it is not a peace that negates the understanding.

Some of the hardest problems of our day are moral problems; rather than economic or political ones; but, moral problems as they are, many of them cannot be solved except on a religious basis. One example of this is provided by the problem of racial antipathy, a problem that has been accentuated rather than diminished in the recent development of our civilization. So great is the hold of race prejudice on men’s minds that it must be counteracted by something powerful and revolutionary. Men do not transcend the prejudice and hatred based on race by physical proximity or even by the reasonable evidence that all need each other. What is needed is a genuine conversion, striking at the roots of the sinful pride on which race hatred thrives. The great known examples of history in which this kind of animosity has been really overcome have been chiefly religious examples, like that of John Woolman. In all honesty we are compelled to state that religion does not have this effect universally, but that we should hardly expect, knowing what we do about the ability of the human heart to keep its cherished hatreds. What we can honestly state is that the religious approach is more likely to be successful in our particular culture than is any other. The reason for the greater probability of the success of the religious approach is that the problem is fundamentally a religious problem. Race hatred comes, primarily, not from ignorance, but from sin. We will not accept all men as brothers until we are really humble, and we are not really humble until we measure ourselves by the revelation of the Living God.

Soli Deo Gloria!



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