Editor's note:

The real­ly big idea in this essay of Temple’s is that the social order is to be influ­enced and shaped by a Chris­t­ian eth­i­cal and moral envi­ron­ment. This is to be done by a clear artic­u­la­tion of Chris­t­ian prin­ci­ples rather than through a spe­cif­ic polit­i­cal agenda.

And what are these Chris­t­ian prin­ci­ples? Let me list a sam­pling: the suprema­cy of the law of love, the real­i­ty of orig­i­nal sin, the infi­nite val­ue of all human life. It is easy to see how these, along with oth­ers, could help shape life in the pub­lic square.

—Richard J. Foster
Renovaré Founder

Excerpt from Devotional Classics

1. The Church’s Impact upon Society

The method of the Church’s impact upon soci­ety at large should be twofold. First, the Church must announce Chris­t­ian prin­ci­ples and point out where the exist­ing social order is in con­flict with them. Sec­ond, it must then pass on to Chris­t­ian cit­i­zens, act­ing in their civic capac­i­ties, the task of reshap­ing the exist­ing order in clos­er con­for­mi­ty to the principles. 

At this point, tech­ni­cal knowl­edge and prac­ti­cal judg­ments will be required. For exam­ple, if a bridge is to be built, the Church may remind the engi­neer that it is his oblig­a­tion to pro­vide a safe bridge, but is not enti­tled to tell him how to build it or whether his design meets this requirement. 

A par­tic­u­lar the­olo­gian may also be a com­pe­tent engi­neer, and in this case he may be enti­tled to make a judg­ment on its safe­ty. But he may do so because he is a com­pe­tent engi­neer, and not because he is a the­olo­gian. His the­o­log­i­cal skills have noth­ing what­so­ev­er to do with it.

2. Chris­t­ian Principles 

This is a point of first-rate impor­tance, and it is fre­quent­ly mis­un­der­stood. If Chris­tian­i­ty is true at all, it is a truth of uni­ver­sal appli­ca­tion; all things should be done in the Chris­t­ian spir­it and in accor­dance with Chris­t­ian principles. 

Then,” say those who want reform, pro­duce your Chris­t­ian solu­tion for unem­ploy­ment.” But there nei­ther is nor could be such a thing. The Chris­t­ian faith does not by itself enable its mem­bers to see how a vast num­ber of peo­ple with­in an intri­cate eco­nom­ic sys­tem will be affect­ed by a par­tic­u­lar eco­nom­ic or polit­i­cal idea. 

In that case,” say those who want to uphold the sta­tus quo, keep off the turf! By your own con­fes­sion you are out of place here.” Here the Church must reply, No; I can­not tell you what is the rem­e­dy. But I can tell you that a soci­ety with chron­ic unem­ploy­ment is a dis­eased soci­ety. If you are not doing all that you can to find the rem­e­dy, you are guilty before God.” 

The Church is like­ly to be attacked from both sides if it does its duty. It will be told that it has become polit­i­cal” when in fact it has mere­ly stat­ed its prin­ci­ples and point­ed out when they have been breached. The Church will be told by advo­cates of par­tic­u­lar poli­cies that it is futile because it does not sup­port theirs. If the Church is faith­ful to its com­mis­sion, it will ignore both sets of com­plaints and con­tin­ue as far as it can to influ­ence all cit­i­zens and per­me­ate all parties. 

3. In the Cen­ter of Our Own World 

We are deal­ing here with Orig­i­nal Sin, the least pop­u­lar part of tra­di­tion­al Chris­tian­i­ty. It may be expressed in sim­ple terms as fol­lows: Our stan­dard of val­ue is the way things affect us. Each of us takes our place in the cen­ter of our own world. But I am not the cen­ter of the world, or the stan­dard of ref­er­ence between good and bad. I am not, but God is. 

In oth­er words, from the begin­ning I put myself in God’s place. This is my orig­i­nal sin. I was doing it before I could speak, as has every­one else. I am not guilty” on this account because I could not help it. But I am in a state, from birth, in which I shall bring dis­as­ter on myself and every­one else unless I escape it. 

Edu­ca­tion may make my self-cen­tered­ness less dis­as­trous by widen­ing my hori­zons. But this is like climb­ing a tow­er which widens the hori­zons of my vision while leav­ing me still the cen­ter of ref­er­ence. The only way to deliv­er me from my self-cen­tered­ness is by win­ning my entire heart’s devo­tion, the total alle­giance of my will to God — and this can only be done by the Divine Love of God dis­closed by Christ in his life and death.

4. No Such Thing as a Chris­t­ian Social Ideal 

Polit­i­cal issues are often con­cerned with peo­ple as they are, not with peo­ple as they ought to be. Part of the task of the Church is to help peo­ple to order their lives in order to lead them to what they ought to be. Assum­ing they are already as they ought to be always leads to disaster. 

It is not my belief that peo­ple are utter­ly bad, or even that they are more bad than good. What I am con­tend­ing here is that we are not whol­ly good, and that even our good­ness is infect­ed with self-cen­tered­ness. For this rea­son, we are exposed to temp­ta­tion as far as we are able to obtain power. 

The Church’s belief in Orig­i­nal Sin should make us intense­ly real­is­tic and should free us from try­ing to cre­ate a Utopia. For there is no such thing as a Chris­t­ian social ide­al to which we should try to con­form the soci­ety we live in as close­ly as pos­si­ble. After all, no one wants to live in the ide­al soci­ety” as depict­ed by any­one else. 

More­over, there is the des­per­ate prob­lem of get­ting there. When I read a descrip­tion of the Ide­al Soci­ety and think how we might begin trans­form­ing our own soci­ety into it, I am remind­ed of the Eng­lish­man in Ire­land who asked an Irish­man, Which way to Roscom­mon?” Is it Roscom­mon you want to go to?” said the Irish­man. Yes,” said the Eng­lish­man, that’s why I asked the way.” Well,” said the Irish­man, if I want­ed to go to Roscom­mon, I wouldn’t be start­ing from here.” 

Although Chris­tian­i­ty sup­plies no ide­al, it does sup­ply some­thing of far more val­ue, name­ly, prin­ci­ples on which we can begin to act in every pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion. It is to these prin­ci­ples I now want to turn our attention. 

5. Not with Man, but with God 

All Chris­t­ian think­ing must begin not with man, but with God. The fun­da­men­tal con­vic­tion is that God is the cre­ator of the world which could not begin or con­tin­ue except by his will. The world is not nec­es­sary to God in the same way God is nec­es­sary to the world. If there were no God, there would be no world; if there were no world, God would still be what he is (pre­sum­ably about to make the world). For God is impelled to make the world because of his love. The world is not nec­es­sary to God, but it results from his love. 

In mak­ing the world he brought into exis­tence vast num­bers of things, like elec­trons which always have to obey his law for them and do so. But he made crea­tures — men and women — who could dis­obey his law for them and often do so. He did this in order that among his crea­tures there might be some who answer his love with theirs by offer­ing to him a free obedience. 

This involved a risk in that they would nat­u­ral­ly take the self-cen­tered out­look on life, and then, increas­ing­ly become hard­ened in that self­ish­ness. This is what has hap­pened. To win them out of this, he came on earth and lived out the divine love in human life and death. He is increas­ing­ly draw­ing us to him­self by the love thus shown. 

Lord Acton, who knew more his­to­ry than any oth­er Eng­lish­man of the last gen­er­a­tion, delib­er­ate­ly declared: The action of Christ who is risen on mankind whom he redeemed fails not, but increas­es.” But this task of draw­ing all peo­ple to him­self will not be com­plete until the end of his­to­ry. The king­dom of God is a real­i­ty here and now but can be per­fect only in the eter­nal order. 

6. Our True Value 

The fun­da­men­tal facts about human beings are two: first, we are made in the image of God”; and sec­ond, that image has been stamped upon an ani­mal nature. Between these two there is con­stant ten­sion result­ing in per­pet­u­al tragedy. 

Our dig­ni­ty is that we are chil­dren of God, capa­ble of com­mu­nion with God, the object of the love of God — dis­played to us on the Cross — and des­tined for eter­nal fel­low­ship with God. Our true val­ue is not what we are worth in our­selves, but what we are worth to God, and that worth is bestowed upon us by the utter­ly gra­tu­itous love of God. 

All of our lives should be ordered and con­duct­ed with this dig­ni­ty in view. The State must not treat us as hav­ing val­ue only in so far as we serve its end as total­i­tar­i­an States do. The State exists for its cit­i­zens, not the cit­i­zens for the State. But nei­ther must we treat our­selves, or con­duct our lives, as if we were our­selves the cen­ter of our own val­ue. We are not our own ends. Our val­ue is our worth to God, and our end is to glo­ri­fy God and enjoy him forever.” 

7. The Image of Holi­ness and Love 

We are self-cen­tered, but we always car­ry with us abun­dant proof that this is not the whole truth about our nature. We have to our cred­it both capac­i­ties and achieve­ments that could nev­er be derived from self-inter­est alone. 

The image of God — the image of holi­ness and love — is still there, though defaced. It is the source of our aspi­ra­tions. It is even — because of its deface­ment — the source of our per­ver­si­ties. It is capa­ble of response to the Divine Image in its per­fec­tion. It enables us to see the light of the knowl­edge of the glo­ry of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” and so with unveiled face, reflect­ing as a mir­ror the glo­ry of the Lord,” we may be trans­formed into the same image from glo­ry to glory.” 

That is our des­tiny. And our social life, so far as it is delib­er­ate­ly planned, should be ordered with that des­tiny in view. We must be treat­ed as what we actu­al­ly are but always with a view to what in God’s pur­pose we are des­tined to become. For the law, the social order, is our school­mas­ter to bring us to Christ. 

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Excerpts tak­en from Devo­tion­al Clas­sics: Select­ed Read­ings for Indi­vid­u­als and Groups (Richard J. Fos­ter & James Bryan Smith, Edi­tors. Harper­Collins, 1993.) Orig­i­nal­ly from Chris­tian­i­ty and Social Order pub­lished in 1942.

Originally published December 1941