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A Voice in the Wilderness

The moderatorial sermon delivered in the High Kirk of Edinburgh on Assembly Sunday, 17th May 1987.

Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. Ephesians 2. v. 12-14

There are few opportunities at a General Assembly when we can meet together to seek a word in season within the public worship of God. I have, therefore, chosen this text so that, as representatives of the national church, we may seek to hear what God is teaching us in our present situation rather than to adopt the more comfortable and easy posture of chiding those outside and telling them how they ought to conduct themselves.

However, at the outset, it is necessary to gain some insight into The Alchemy of Alienation, as the authors of studies on Rilke express this deep social sickness.

The causes of this growing, contagious, communal disease has been known and diagnosed since ancient times and especially among twentieth century philosophers as a result of Marxist theoretical awareness. The fundamental defect in Marx's theory was that he was unclear in his concept of human nature and Jan Milic Lochman, in his critique of the subject, has shown that the biblical understanding of sin is more profound in that it recognised that the victory over human antagonisms cannot be won by simply appropriating private property. A Jugoslave scholar has put the whole matter quite succinctly when he described alienation as a denial of the eternal imperative of self-creation which is an almost inescapable perversion of appropriating nature and turning it into property.

To this can be added the three principal causes of estrangement as listed by Comenius, the religious reconciler of the seventeenth century. First, differences of opinion: we are not able to think of the same things in the same way, second, hatreds: we cannot admit differing opinions about the same things without friendships suffering as a result, and third, open wrongs and persecutions: these are the result of our hates, to our mutual undoing.

But these do not include the most powerful contemporary attitude, prevalent in the remote who manipulate the authoritative mental levers of power within the apparat, which manifests itself in all the impersonal megalithic organisations which have control over vast areas of our lives. This sinful syndrome could be described as the capacity to disregard or discount, the assertiveness to neglect, desert or abandon, but to most it is the smug, disdainful aloofness to ignore. We need not go far to observe the consequent psychological and emotional waste land in which millions find no understanding heart, no answer to their cry. It is the isolated, powerless, ignored of our world, who really experience alienation. Job's terrible isolation has been relived a million times. The alienations within our society are myriad. The massive number in every walk of life who have lost the sense of participation in any creativity and who are counting the days until their retiral from employment. Their vocation to be co-creators with God in his world has been lost. The multitude who find the events of life in television soap opera characters so immediate that greeting cards and even wreaths are sent and the actuality of unreality estranges them from the real world. The integrated and corporate wide circle of community and family of God has been shattered. The millions with aversions to political parties which in theory seek personal involvement and intellectual support but which often give the impression that they do not believe in democracy and operate their machines from the centre and, when speaking, grope for the cliche and the slogan. Thus, there is no expectation of the possibility of a New Israel nor a hope of that time when the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord, the Christ. The majority of viewers and readers who are alienated from intellectual life by the means of mass media which bloats the trivial and trivialises the sources of insight and wisdom. In this way, there is an enslavement to the insignificant that blinds them to the truth which makes one free.

The condition of an individual's alienation is a tortuous state of mind and spirit but the awesome effects which arise are many and disastrous for the whole of the social fabric.

A growing malaise is appearing among those who suffer from continuing social withdrawal pains. There is a massive resignation as the growing weight of estranging, external powers drives the individual into a position of silence, of outward acquiescence and of inner resentment. The failure to recognise the need for a common interdependence, within all sections of communal life, forcefully assists the social disintegration of the nation which is now so apparent. Christ warns us of the inevitable, final state of a people divided against itself.

However, the church is often in no better a state than the world with such antipathies. We to our sorrow have to admit that this distressing social condition owes much to those who profess the Christian faith. Many who have distanced themselves from the Body of Christ have often been more sinned against than sinning. The church has, as a rule, been satisfied to interpret the condition as caused by individuals' sin: a state of social dissension for which it is in no way responsible. Even more saddening is its failure to understand the debilitating effect of the alienations it creates with its own inter-alienations. We have often created an irreconcilability by our spiritual insensitivity, our cultural particularism, our religious preconceptions, our exclusive individualistic piety and our pretentious gentility.

To mention but two areas of concern.

First, great estrangements between the faith and the intellectual are arising and increasing as academic and professional specialisation becomes the inevitable goal of those dedicated to their own ambitions or the immediate needs of society.

Yet, the wiser pose problems and seek insights from other disciplines, either because they see the other's concerns as analogous to their own or because they believe that the inter-relationship of each area of human dedication will eventually interlock and assist in the reintegration of creation.

If this unfolding of a cosmic completeness is slow in appearing, much of the responsibility arises because we Christians, who love the contemplation of God, are often aloof in our stance and deaf to such questioning.

One of the greatest gulfs which now exists between the church and the world is undoubtedly created by the church's failure to relate the gospel to those who have a truthful, intellectual understanding, within a particular competence, of the development of the cosmos in which we live. Except for some who are quite happy to keep a simplistic theological and biblical attitude in a separate compartment, deep questions arise concerning, the Creator God, the Lord of History, the renewing Christ, the End of All Things, and much else.

There is little hostility to the church in such circles but so many of their questions seem to remain unanswered. The role of Christian apologetics appears to have been forgotten. Such thinkers will not be fobbed off by a microcosm of piety nor the emotionalism of old time religion. They look to the church not primarily for a preacher nor a pastor but for someone with a knowledge of God. So often, we forget that we are called to witness to the truth that is within us and we are in danger of allowing our minds to evaporate into a thoughtless spiritual haze which rises ever further from the world of thought which alone can be the spring to action.

Second, the life of the church also manifests itself as a sphere in which its inner unconscious antipathies have produced a barren harvest. Its incapacity to recognise the problem has increased since the time of the Highland clearances and the industrial revolution, accelerated in this century by the slum clearances and the industrial contentions. The alienation of a large proportion of ordinary working people, particularly of working men, has a long history but the church has not been prepared to learn from it. The Reverend James Bruce, The Aberdeen Pulpit and Universities, wrote in 1844, It would be well if the Assembly would enact a law against appointing servants, managers and impudent boys to offices of the church'.

This attitude was common and led to a situation, exacerbated by parochial encroachment of missions and mission Sunday schools run by middle class elders and well-meaning ladies, often of independent means, who were neither members of the community nor prepared to be identified with it. Some of these did not fade away until the 1960s. James Bulloch, that kindest of men, has said, 'Church and Mission were associated but distinct; one gave charity, the other received it. Women and children attended the Mission Hall and self-respecting men were absent'. While quoting from his own experience, 'the wife of a visiting minister once hurriedly put on an old raincoat to attend [a Glasgow Church's] evening service where her husband was preaching. As she was leaving someone said to her, 'We were glad to have you here tonight; but wouldn't you have been more at home in the Mission'. In addition, there was the failure of the courts of the church to ensure that the concept of the church member and above all of the elder living within the parish was the norm for the government of the national church. As new housing areas were built, the elders moving in were encouraged by their ministers to retain a genteel image by remaining on their distant kirk sessions while assessor elders from a middle class congregation exercised an occasional peripatetic ministry in the housing scheme and then could get back to the villa.

What devastation this has left behind! Some of the severest social alienation involving drug dependence and resultant A.I.D.S. has been, in part, a direct consequence of the church failing to take warning from Alan Easton of Pilton as long ago as 1948, while contemporary voices like that of John D. Miller of Castlemilk and John Harvey of Govan describe the present alienation with its roots in the past. These distancings from the faith will not be resolved by consensus nor by the increasing employment of supra-parochial staff. There must be a repentance - ueta voea - to have another mind, to adopt another outlook.

The church must seek to present the profound breadth of the gospel with its all-embracing power. The good news has, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the dynamic to win the central place in a multicultural, multidisciplinary, multilingual world which is so multiplex and yet whose fundamental aspirations cry out for a universal commonwealth.

So often the church's message is itself alien to these half expressed, half understood seekings of the world of the broken heart. Maclntyre, in his useful book, Against the Self Images of the Age, rightly criticises Christianity, as well as Marxism and psychoanalysis, for its failure to express itself in the forms of thought and action which constitute our contemporary social life.

Yet, it will take more than improved communication and definition. The alienations of the church and the world will only be overcome when we realise the costliness of Christ's triumph over such divisiveness demands a deep sacrifice from each of us.

A costly, caring commitment is required, a widening of vision, and a true catholicity.

As Gordon Rupp, that price of preachers, has said, "But the Church is not to be divorced from mankind, as though the plan of salvation were intended for only a favoured few. Church and humanity, as Professor Culmann says, are two concentric circles, of which Jesus Christ is the centre. In Christ all men were created, and for all men Christ died. He is the Head of the whole race. When the Church proves, in her own life, that she can transcend the deep divisions of race, class, nation, culture, then this catholicity is a sign and sacrament to mankind of a divine purpose which embraces all our human solidarities. The Church which fails to overcome these barriers has failed in this solemn vocation and is capitulating to principalities and powers, whatever other splendid achievements we may find in other directions. The Church which by costly and heroic initiative painfully triumphs over such barriers will find new power to speak to suffering mankind".

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