The Little Gate to God   4 comments

Little Gate to God

Above:  Part of Rauschenbusch’s Text, from Pilgrim Hymnal (1935)

Image Source = Kenneth Randolph Taylor

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Those who know me well are aware of the fact that I collect hymnals, especially old ones.  I have begun to explore a Christmas present, a copy of the 1916 Episcopal Hymnal, to great delight.  And the line of Pilgrim Hymnals interests me.  I have copies copyrighted 1912, 1935, and 1958.  Archive.org provides a method of obtaining a free electronic copy of the 1904 version.

Pilgrim Hymnals

Above:  The 1912, 1935, and 1958 Pilgrim Hymnals

Photograph Dated December 28, 2013 Common Era

Image Source = Kenneth Randolph Taylor

All of these hymnals stand in the worship lineage of the United Church of Christ (UCC) (1957-), which adopted and authorized The New Century Hymnal in 1995.  As of yesterday, when I checked the UCC website most recently, the church publisher sold not only the 1995 hymnal and a Spanish-language hymnal, but The Hymnal of the United Church of Christ (1974), Pilgrim Hymnal (1958), and The Hymnal (1941) of the former Evangelical and Reformed Church (1934-1957).

Hymnals

Above:  The 1941, 1958, 1974, and 1995 Hymnals

Photograph Dated December 28, 2013 Common Era

Image Source = Kenneth Randolph Taylor

Of these volumes The Hymnal (1941) is the most impressive and Pilgrim Hymnal (1958) is also quite good.  The other two are regrettable books.  That is this Episcopalian’s opinion.

Pilgrim Hymnal 1935 Title

Above:  Part of the Title Page of Pilgrim Hymnal (1935)

Image Source = Kenneth Randolph Taylor

Pilgrim Hymnal (1935) is a revision of Pilgrim Hymnal (1931).

Pilgrim Hymnal 1935 Copyright

Above:  The Copyright Notice in Pilgrim Hymnal (1935)

Image Source = Kenneth Randolph Taylor

This fact causes me to ponder the economics of hymnal revision, especially during the Great Depression.  I do recall that 1931 was the year the National Council of Congregational Churches of the United States (1871-1931) merged with the General Conference of the Christian Church (1890-1931) to form the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches (1931-1957).  My surmise, then, is that the 1935 revision was not an overhaul of the 1931 volume.  I find a hint of this in the Preface to the 1958 Pilgrim Hymnal:

This book was first conceived as a revision of the Pilgrim Hymnal of 1931, but the recent developments in hymnody, in church life, and in world history have made it necessary to plan our work in larger terms.

–page v

Pilgrim Hymnal 1958 Copyright

Above:  The Copyright Notice in Pilgrim Hymnal (1958)

Image Source = Kenneth Randolph Taylor

I have read online that the 1935 Pilgrim Hymnal contains the greatest concentration of Social Gospel hymns.  I, being a skilled hair splitter, wonder if the authors of those remarks have distinguished between the Social Gospel and Neo-Orthodoxy, both of which prioritize addressing and correcting societal ills.  Yet my study of the 1935 book does reveal many hymns about societal responsibility–especially on a national level.  And my study of the 1904 and 1912 predecessors reveals that those volumes were Social Gospel (defined narrowly) publications.

The theological orientation of the 1935 Pilgrim Hymnal becomes clear before hymn #1, “Holy, Holy, Holy!  Lord God Almighty.”  Opposite that hymn one finds a text by Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), the great theologian of the Social Gospel:

In the castle of my soul

Is a little postern gate,

Whereat, when I enter,

I am in the presence of God,

In a moment, in the turning of a thought,

I am where God is.

This is a fact.

—–

The world of men is made of jangling noises.

With God is a great silence.

But that silence is a melody

Sweet as the contentment of love,

Thrilling as a touch of flame.

When I enter into God,

All life has a meaning.

Without asking I know;

My desires are even now fulfilled,

My fever is gone

In the great quiet of God.

My troubles are but pebbles on the road,

My joys are like the everlasting hills.

So it is when I step through the gate of prayer

From time into eternity.

When I am in the consciousness of God,

My fellowmen are not far off and forgotten,

But close and strangely dear.

Those whom I love

Have a mystic value.

They shine as if a light were glowing within them.

—–

So it is when my soul steps through the postern gate

Into the presence of God.

Big things become small, and small things become great.

The near becomes far, and the future is near.

The lowly and despised is shot through with glory.

God is the substance of all revolutions;

When I am in him, I am in the Kingdom of God

And in the Fatherland of my Soul.

Several aspects of that text perk up my theological ears.  The affirmation of the image of God in others is a timeless and sadly necessary message to repeat.  Today, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, is an especially appropriate time to do so.

The recognition of being in the Kingdom of God in the heightened state of awareness of being in the presence of God rings true with me.  To the writing and theology of Rauschenbusch I add the subsequent work and thought of C. H. (Charles Harold) Dodd, who explained Realized Eschatology in The Founder of Christianity (1970):

God, the Eternal, the omnipresent, can hardly be said to be nearer or farther off at this time or that.  If he is king at all, he is king always and everywhere.  In what sense his kingdom does not come; it is.  But human experience takes place within a framework of time and space.  There are particular moments in the lives of men and in the history of mankind when what is permanently true (if largely unrecognized)  becomes manifestly and effectively true.  Such a moment in history is reflected in the gospels….

–pages 56 and 57 of the 1970 paperback edition

The contextualization of one’s circumstances in the presence of God, paired with due awestruck humility (the fear of God, in traditional language) is a healthy spiritual attitude.

And the attachment to others in God is a profoundly Biblical attitude.

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we say you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

–Matthew 25:37-40, The New Revised Standard Version

The reverse situation is not happy, however:

Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

–Matthew 25:45, The New Revised Standard Version

There is also this from the Letter of James:

What good is it, my friends, for someone to say he has faith when his actions do nothing to show it?  Can that faith save him?  Suppose a fellow-Christian, whether man or woman, is in rages with not enough food for the day, and one of you says, “Goodbye, keep warm, and have a good meal,” but does nothing to supply that their bodily needs, what good is that?  So with faith; if it does not lead to action, it is by itself a lifeless thing.

–James 2:14-17, The Revised English Bible

Rauschenbusch understood these lessons well in the context of his Baptist congregation in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, New York.  He knew that the fact that tenements were such substandard housing was a sin, one which required correction.  He grasped the communal roots of Christianity and lived accordingly.  He was, however, overly optimistic about how much people could do to change the world.  Yet Rauschenbusch, despite his insufficient theology of sin–which Reinhold Niebuhr corrected–did call necessary and proper attention to the fact that the church has societal duties.  To those who would rebuff this idea, I quote the late Reverend Sherwood Eliot Wirt, a long-time associate of Billy Graham:

James was not wrong when he demanded that Christians show their faith by their works.  Jesus Christ was not wrong when he told his listeners in effect to stop sitting on their hands and to get to work doing God’s will.  He did not come to earth to split theological hairs, but to minister to a world in need and to save men out of it for eternity.  It is time the air was cleared.  To pit social action against evangelism  is to raise a phony issue, one that Jesus would have spiked in a sentence.  He commanded his disciples to spread the Good News, and to let their social concerns be made manifest through the changed lives of persons of ultimate worth.

The Social Conscience of the Evangelical (New York, NY:  Harper & Row, 1968), page 154

And is it not evidence of a changed life, for example, to oppose the exploitation and endangerment of people who have to live in substandard housing?  Should not all human housing meet certain basic standards?  Rauschenbusch understood this point well.

The unfortunate acceptance of the Roman social order–complete with slavery–which we find in much of the New Testament reflects the human authorship of those texts and the widespread expectation of the temporal proximity of the Second Coming of Jesus.  If one thinks that Christ will return soon and wipe away the social structures, problems, and injustices, focusing on individual spiritual preparation is a logical decision.  Yet nearly 2000 years have passed and many of my heroes of Christian faith have challenged and/or changed social systems for the better.  They have been salt and light, the hands and feet of Christ.

In contrast to those go-along-and-get-ready-for-Jesus parts of the New Testament I find others with a different message.  Revelation 18 and 19 come to mind immediately.  Babylon (read:  the Roman Empire, based on slavery, military conquest, and economic exploitation) has fallen.  Heaven rejoices.  Yet certain kings and merchants of the earth lament this change, for they have benefited from the vanquished political and economic arrangements.  Good news for the oppressed is bad news for the oppressors.  And God is the substance of that revolution.

So, O reader, are you one in a position to rejoice or to lament when contemporary Babylons–based on violence and/or economic and other forms of exploitation–fall?  And is your understanding of Christian responsibility overly individualistic?

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

DECEMBER 28, 2013 COMMON ERA

THE FOURTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS:  THE FEAST OF THE HOLY INNOCENTS

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