Conference (like Spurgeon’s “committee”) is a collective noun that means many—but not much. Yet conferences innumerable go on, and conference must be had, so it seems.
One bitter night, in North Russia, during the war, I asked a lone sentry what most he dreaded in our isolation, and he said, “I miss bein’ shoulder to shoulder on the march—we never march.” The value of conference is in comradeship; and its perils lie in the implication that plans and programs can take the place of work; we need “to march.”
But what are the marching orders? No one appears to know. At least there seems to be divided council. Here again is the disadvantage of conference. So many questions are asked, so much discussion develop, such differences of opinion, so little unanimity of thought, a dozen different emphases, and in every conference group one or two brethren who have positive opinions on every last subject: (but are not able to convince their confreres.)
Is there wisdom in a multitude of counselors? Walter Lippman seems to doubt it, in the political field, and I agree, as to the religious. But, as I have intimated, conference does mean fellowship, and fellowship means strength for our souls and for our cause. Not programs, but more brotherliness will strengthen the church. Friendliness is a good beginning and in days of mistrust and bickering these ought to be, among ministers, camaraderie and understanding. Somehow or other the world outside rather expects a minister to be a gentleman—and brotherly! To forge a brotherhood, to weld a fellowship, is the first business of a conference.
Discussion is valuable, and interchange of ideas. A great number of questions will be propounded. (Most men who ask questions will at least suggest an answer, so I say “propounded,” not “asked.”) Suppose we list some of the contemporary interrogations. It would run like this: Have you read “Re-thinking Missions?” What about it? (These are among the first.) What about the Oxford movement? (Whether the quester says “Bookman” or “Buckman,” will, subtly, indicate his own feelings.) What do you know about Karl Barth? Is the proper emphasis on worship or on the sermon? What is the best book of the contemporary flood? How do you balance your budget? (“I don’t,” comes the answer.) The ethics of Jesus—do you preach them now? Socialism, communism, bolshevism and not the first queries, but their shadow is thrown over all. And then (toward the end)—prohibition?
Where shall the emphasis be placed? Where are our leaders? The soldiers are ready. What of the march? (Haig latterly, Napoleon formerly, is credited with the opinion that there are no poor soldiers, only poor colonels.) And the colonels are in conference!
One (lieutenant) colonel has come to the following conclusions after many conferences, participated in, listened to, and conducted. And these “findings” are colored by the opinion and feeling of a hundred of his brothers, if he has been able to interpret words—and “feelings.”
First and foremost among the younger clergy there is a desire to follow Christ if they can ascertain His will. They are not strong for theology, many of them, but they take Jesus seriously, as few generations of Christians ever have. Over their ministry I would write the text, “Why call me Lord, Lord and do not the things that I say?”
Many have ceased to look for Leadership or to talk about it. When leaders appear they are not always recognized. They do their work, give their message, and pass on. Then men awake and recognize their quality. Moreover, when a man has the qualities of leadership he seldom knows it. And, surely, he never talks about it. Like the blue-bird, it comes unsought. No Federal Council pronouncement, no denominational-headquarters-ukase, none of the old dynamite will stir us now. It has “frozen” and cannot be detonated. (One of my first jobs as a Labrador missionary, years ago, was to thaw the giant powder over the forge fire, so that it could be exploded.)
From the point of view of a parish minister in a denomination that has no bishop (in name at least); in a Protestantism that has no pope (for better or for worse); I have determined on a few and simple things that, God helping me, shall characterize my ministry from this time forward. (And this slowly formed decision has been molded by many conferences and much fellowship with the brethren.)
I am done with labels. Men of goodwill are everywhere and except for these all abide in the ship we cannot be saved. Time has done some things even with my non-scholar’s mind and I know some of the tricks of the party-labeled protagonists; they “walk in blinders” as Scott (Ernest F.) says.
So Variety is my first word. From anyone who has knowledge I am willing to learn. My brethren will differ with me on all sorts of things, and we will agree to differ. I love them still and hope that they will at least respect me. The pattern is too complicated for any one man to know everything.
Then I must Simplify. Technology will hit the rocks; it carries too much sail. People need a few truths, simply stated, but beautifully clothed in life. For example; whatever elevates human life, dignifies it and makes it meaningful is for me RIGHT. Whatever degrades life is WRONG. This is simple—and inclusive. (Edwin Lewis says it emphatically, and more at length. I acknowledge the debt, but the principle I learned long ago.) For me, quite arbitrarily, if you please, this is the criterion. A philosophy that belittles life is wrong. A science that degrades life is wrong. An ethic that cheapens life is wrong. Art, education, literature, drama (movies included), whatsoever heightens the value of life is right and whatsoever debauches or besmirches life is wrong—arbitrarily or eternally wrong—(just as you please). There I stand.
Another simplification (most difficult to practice) might be characterized as “brotherhood” (there are many synonyms). Charles Kingsley avowed that we ministers use “brethren” because we don’t mean “brothers.” The practice of this virtue would solve most, if not all, of our social problems. “Every problem is a problem in personnel.” Effective conferences of all sorts could be built around this principle. It is called Love in the New Testament, but, as Moffat points out, it has a vigorous ethical, never a romantic, connotation. It works in the family; it works in a church—sometimes. It always works if it is worked. Race, creed, color, all will yield to it. It is our only hope. All the problems of international politics apparently must come back to this simple practice. It is a long road but a sure road. To simplify.
Dr. Lynn Hough has told us, in a variety of ways, that we need more great thinking. Many smart and some great thinkers we have, but great undergirding thought is lacking. (Here is the reason for the welcome to Karl Barth: Will he stand the test?) I read the brilliant epigramist, the caustic critic, the Menken, whoever he may be, in his particular line (and religion has its brilliant exponents, too). They leave me burned out. Some system, some simple but profound principles that will tie thoughts into the bundle of thought—these, I need, and the times need. (The first books I ever bought with my own money were Calvin’s Institutes. Long since they went on the top shelf; I knew too much. They have come down. I need a system. I find, too, that Augustine’s “City of God” has been dusted off. A gesture of desperation? Have your way. And Hocking, rather than Wieman, gets attention in a study hour. I am becoming a sturdy Theist.)
Yes, after a quarter century of tasting and testing there seem to be emerging some Certainties for me. And people are saying to me (and my brother ministers), as Helen Keller said to Phillips Brooks, “Tell us what you KNOW about God.” With Carlisle I determine to consume my own smoke. Such as I have I’ll give. Without apology, in congenial thought forms, I’ll try to convey my conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord. With Pearl Buck I’m sometimes tired of preaching, but as preaching is needed, the living-preaching, I will try and “carry on.” With Dr. Fosdick, sometimes, at least, I will try to “debunk the debunkers.” Cynicism, and agnosticism and atheism are not entirely new. I ought to have known it. This is not the first generation to question. Plato’s teacher taught him to question rather drastically. There is a wisdom not of today: (A lot of it is in the Bible).
Yes, I should have known it. My teachers often said so. For example; one day in preceptorial, when the talk had wandered from politics to philosophy, and an enthusiastic student was expounding the Riddle of the Universe after Haeckel’s formula, Woodrow Wilson turned to another student, who was majoring in philosophy, and said, “Tell us about Democritus.” Materialism is not new; that was the implication—and the truth.
Variety, Simplification, Certitude—these three I now covet, having learned much from my brethren and some things from experience.