by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
Lloyd Douglas believed that Christian faith ought to be centered on Christ himself. (Note: in the passage I’m about to quote, he uses the word “hypothecated.” He may have meant “predicated,” or perhaps he was thinking about some form of the words “hypothesis” or “hypothetical.” Or maybe he knew exactly what he was doing but the word isn’t used like that anymore; if so, I haven’t found a dictionary that supports his use of that word.) At any rate, as he told his Akron congregation:
You will remember that I have attempted to preach the gospel of a Jesus who presents an ideal portrait of perfect living. I have not hypothecated his divinity on any biological miracle which—instead of distinguishing him—would merely assign him to a place alongside the populous list of saviors whose origins were thought to have been had through miraculous generation. I have not requested you to believe—as actual, veridical facts—the traditional nativity stories. I have preached that he offered himself as our example. And, to be an example for us humans, he would—one thinks—have to live under much the same conditions which surround us.
You have been given full liberty to believe as much or as little as you liked about the magical and mystical element in his recorded career.
If you wanted to believe that he turned water into wine—actually—and thought better of him as a worker of such magic, that was your right, and I hoped you found him greater and more lovable, in your esteem, for having done this strange thing. If you wanted to believe that this was just a poet’s way of singing that Jesus’ personality was so altogether lovely and healing and comforting and comradely, that when he came to their table it was as if the water in their cups had turned to wine—if you wanted to believe that, I saw no reason why you shouldn’t.
If you wanted to believe that he quieted the winds and waves on Galilee, I wanted you to do so—and find your Christ a peace-inspiring power thereby. If you preferred to believe that the magic words he spoke were addressed rather to the troubled hearts of these fishermen, so potently that they became, under his command, greater than their fears, I wanted you to think that!
But I did insist that the Galilean gospel—the Inasmuch declaration [Mt 25:40, 45], the Golden Rule [Mt 7:12], the whole Sermon on the Mount [Mt 5-7]—deserved your full attention and attempted practice.Lloyd C Douglas, “Five Years of Akron,” in The Living Faith (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1955)
This was the most important part of Douglas’s theology: his insistence on knowing and following the things Christ taught. On his view, Christians weren’t just people who believed in the biblical accounts of Christ’s miracles. Professing that Jesus was a miracle worker did not imply that anyone would go on to become Christ-like. If one had to choose between the stories about Jesus and the things Jesus taught, then Douglas was on the side of Jesus’ teachings. (It’s debatable whether such a choice has to be made, but Douglas clearly thought so. He said that the miracles distracted us from the really important thing about Jesus: that his words lead to life.)
In fact, Douglas believed that the entire history of Christianity, and especially of the splintering of denominations, was rooted in creeds and formulas that tried to explain who Jesus was. The focus was entirely on talking about Jesus, not on knowing and doing the things he taught.
Douglas saw it as his mission to turn the tide. He wanted to educate his Akron congregation in what he called “Spiritual Culture”: a way of life based on the teachings of Jesus. He believed that this was how people could find God and have, as a permanent possession, the presence and peace and power of God available in every moment of their lives.
He also believed that this way of life was consistent with the modern (and especially scientific) frame of mind. I’ll tell you about that in the next post.
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