by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
During his pastorate at the First Congregational Church of Akron, Lloyd Douglas first began describing his view of history and of our place within it. Later, in his novel Green Light, he would call it “The Long Parade,” but in 1926 he described it this way:
I have taught that humanity is on the way up, by the grace of God, toward some exalted destiny.
You have been encouraged by me to believe in evolution—not the kind of evolutionary theory which the untutored think resolves itself into a mere question of whether or not our ancestors were simians; but a theory of evolution which describes a vast physical, mental, moral, and spiritual pilgrimage through the ages—increasingly marking man’s rise, on the stepping-stones of his dead self, to higher things; a hope and quest he still pursues without much more certainty of his ultimate goal than John conceived when, out of the mystical faith that distinguished his radiant soul, he wrote: ‘Beloved, we are the children of God. It doth not yet appear what we shall become, but we know that when we shall see Him, and know Him as he is, we shall be found to be like Him’ [I John 3:2].Lloyd C Douglas, “Five Years of Akron.” In The Living Faith (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1955), p. 91.
It may seem strange to us now, to hear a minister saying that the process of evolution is part of God’s plan and that the end goal is for us all to become Christlike, but this was not such an odd thought in the 1920’s. In fact, John M Coulter, who was Chair of the Department of Botany at the University of Chicago, was saying similar things in The Christian Century during those years. He said them in books, too. For example, John M Coulter and Merle C Coulter, Where Evolution and Religion Meet (New York: Macmillan, 1925), is mostly about evolution, but in the final chapter, the authors say, “Religion is now known to be a universal impulse…. Any universal impulse must have some function…. It seems obvious that the function of the religious impulse is… to bring man to the highest expression of his being…. We realize that everything that is finest in human character and conduct is in response to the stimulus of love. Our conclusion is that the most effective ideal for the religious impulse is love stimulating service. This is the ideal of the Christian religion, and it makes scientific men choose it as the only religion with a scientific approach…” (pp. 103-104).
A lot of things have changed in the past hundred years!
At any rate, Douglas was hearing this kind of thing from professors in the state universities who still called themselves Christians and still believed in going to church even though the churches, by and large, were turning against “Darwinism.” Like them, Douglas was inspired by the fact of evolution and saw it as part of an upward-driving “impulse.” He himself was an optimist by nature, and as he scanned the history of the earth and its various forms of life, he believed the trend was destined to keep heading upwards.
He thought the world was getting better, but he didn’t think it was inevitable. He believed that it was individuals working together (rather than political or social systems) that improved society in each successive generation. Therefore, much of his preaching focused on this very thing: finding the way or ways in which you yourself can make the world a better place.
And that leads directly to his unorthodox views about immortality, which I’ll tell you about in the next post.
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