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
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
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".