Before World War I, PSR students were an optimistic lot. They were the Progressive Era generation. One of them, W. C. Allen, wrote,
Our growing civilization has not yet outgrown the social message of Jesus. We are growing into it. The passing centuries are not taking us away from our prophet, – we are more nearly approaching the significance of his message with our expanding social needs. And there is yet more truth to break forth from his words. He is fast leading the nations onward to disarmament and international arbitration.
They were reading Social Gospel thinkers such as Shailer Mathews, Walter Rauschenbusch, Jane Addams and Washington Gladden. These thinkers looked into the depths of the industrial economic system of their day and urged Christian people to apply the teaching of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets to the situation of workers living in poverty. Their work is worth reading again because it is still relevant.
The optimism of the students who followed their line of thought seems quaint though from the perspective of a hundred years. Somehow what looked so clear did not turn out to be so easy. The nations where Christians were most numerous did not follow the lead of Jesus after all. They did not disarm, they did not cooperate in arbitrating their disputes, they did not seek to address the expanding social needs of the poor.
Shailer Mathews was known for his interest in what the paradigm of evolution could do for understanding the Bible and how to live out the Christian faith. He imagined an ongoing process God was always working out toward a goal of peace and social justice for all. We are evolving toward the fulfillment of the plan of God he argued.
Today in the UCC, my denomination, we say, following John Robinson’s admonition that “God has yet more light and truth to break forth from His Word,” that “God is still speaking,” that what we believe we understand today of what God is doing should properly be marked by a comma rather than a period or full stop. This is because we do not know and cannot be sure – even if we can discern rightly for our time and place what we read in the Bible, or perceive through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This discernment is limited and always will be.
In the Pacific Coast setting of Pacific School of Religion, this optimism of PSR in 1910, may be quaint but it is also an ongoing characteristic of our students. Maybe it is the role of the young to be optimistic – I belong to a generation like that of 1910, optimistic and idealistic at the same time. We took sides with confidence and still do. Reading these student papers serves as a warning I think – that it is not so simple. The problem is that other powers in the world are still speaking also, still creating the world toward their own desires. The desire for power and wealth, and the effort to maintain power and wealth, evolve also toward ever more effective structures for preserving and achieving them. Anyone of us who works at or attends Pacific School of Religion is already participating in these structures and I do not know how we might disentangle our selves.
Reading these papers from 1910 reminds me that we still need to do some hard ethical and theological thinking if we really want to participate in the evolution of what God is speaking into being, otherwise what we think we discern will look a lot like what Power and Wealth are still speaking into being.