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Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Loss of an Ideal's Ideal Character

It has often been pointed out that no ideal can be incorporated without the loss of some of its ideal character.  When liberty gains a constitution, liberty is compromised; when fraternity elects officers, fraternity yields some of the ideal qualities of brotherhood to the necessities of government.  And the gospel of Christ is especially subject to this sacrifice of character in the interest of organic embodiment; for the very essence of Christianity lies in the tension which it presupposes or creates between the worlds of nature and of spirit, and in its resolution of that conflict by means of justifying faith.  It demands the impossible in conduct and belief; it runs counter to the instinctive life of man and exalts the rationality of the irrational; in a world of relativity it calls for unyielding loyalty to unchangeable absolutes.  Clothe its faith in terms of philosophy, whether medieval or modern, and you lose the meaning of its high desires, of its living experience, reducing these to a set of opinions often irrelevant, sometimes contrary, to the original content.  organize its ethics... and the free spirit of forgiving love becomes a new law, requiring interpretation, commentary, and all the machinery of justice -- just the sort of impersonal relationship which the gospel denies and combats.  Place this society in the world, demanding that it be not of the world, and strenuous as may be its efforts to transcend or to sublimate the mundane life, it will yet be unable to escape all taint of conspiracy and connivance with the worldly interests it despises.

- H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: Meridian Books, 1957), 4-5.

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