“Do we have spiritual capital to export? by Charles W. Gilkey
March 3, 1947
An American professor who spent last summer working on the European continent as part of the American Friends’ Service Committee, since his return received a letter from a German medical student in Cologne which sounded the minds and the consciences of those Americans, and especially those students, with whom it was shared. Here are his relevant sentences:
“Our eyes know that life is worth living. Why? Because we hope to see better times? we place ourselves on the only ground that is laid: Christ. The goals of this youth are not at all political; our concern is the revival of religion. We begin with the interior life which will of course then have its effectiveness on the external situation , because we seek the connection between religion and life.
This is our very task. Knowing this task, we are able to go forward in rebuilding our country and renewing our souls and minds. And what can you do for us to move this process forward? You can give us hope. Because that’s the thing we can’t give ourselves.
You see; youth can suffer, youth can endure, youth can bear all pains, youth can be deprived of all material goods and yet be happy, if youth is not hopeless! We won’t be desperate with your help.
This letter raises deep questions about our own spiritual economy. If the need overseas was simply for machinery or raw materials, coal or capital or credit, we have enough to export them in large quantities: economically we are a producing and crediting nation. If there was only the food starving Europe needs, we would have enough to save a lot – if we had the heart to do so. But do we have hope and faith for export? In these times of apprehension and pessimism, here and there, do we have hope and faith to spare? Current quotes in the conversational market do not seem to indicate that we have a significant surplus of free spiritual capital available for investment where it is most needed.
Beneath the portrait of President Harper in the Memorial Library named after him at the University of Chicago is an inscription from Paul’s Letter to the Romans (15:4) by Dr. Ernest D. Burton when he was librarian :
“All things that were written before were written for our learning…” But even these two well-known biblical scholars could hardly have foreseen the striking relevance to our present situation of the final sentence of Paul’s complete sentence:
“All things that were written before were written for our learning, that through patience and the comfort of the scriptures we might have hope.”
As if to suggest, with two Jewish captivities and with Calvary foremost as historical evidence, that in all dark times a major “scriptural comfort” is their assurance that if we too have the patience to endure and plant the good seed, we can also have hope that from what now looks like tragic evil, God can finally once again produce a final harvest of good.
Even this scriptural assurance, however, is not Paul’s last word on these matters. His last word is a prayer:
“Now the God of hope fills you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). The God who speaks to us through biblical history and witness also speaks to us directly through our own experience; and by his life-giving presence in us awakens and sustains hope and faith in our own hearts. The result becomes what our contemporary jargon would call a spiritual economy of abundance.
There are two distinctive marks of such religious hope, which distinguish it from the hope which is characteristic of youth, or of an optimistic temperament. One of the marks is that religious hope does not depend on the outcome of the event or the situation and refuses to be judged by it. Failure or grief alone cannot dismiss it, nor can success or happiness confirm it. More important than any result is the wisdom and purpose of God, upon which we build our hope, whatever the event. In this will is not only our peace, as Dante said, but our hope.
The other mark of religious hope is that it lives and evolves in a two-way street. Like international trade, spiritual fellowship must travel both ways or it will quickly stop moving at all. While some American liberals questioned whether Martin Niemoeller took his anti-Nazi stance soon enough or abruptly enough, thousands of American Christians were moved by his direct confession of a shared sense of guilt, repentance, and forgiveness by Christ. , for an awakened conviction of their own need, and of the need of repentance and forgiveness of our American churches, and therefore of a deepened sense of ecumenical Christian fellowship. Those who worked in the postwar youth camps of the Netherlands tell us that the chasms between racial and religious groups there are so deep and so wide, that the “mutual understanding” in which we Americans place so much social faith is not there enough: it is only where there is some religious sense of forgiveness and of being forgiven that a bridge to better human relations becomes possible. Our hope in God then becomes the most solid basis of our hope in man and in our human future.
Charles W. Gilkey (1882–1968) received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard in 1903 and 1904, followed by a doctorate from Union Theological Seminary in 1908 and further studies at the universities of Berlin and Marburg (1908–09), United Free DH College Glasgow (1909–10), New College Edinburgh and University of Oxford (1909–10). He also received honorary doctorates from Williams College (1925), Hillsdale College (1925), Yale University (1927), Brown University (1928), Harvard University (1929). and Colby College (1931). In 1910, the Hyde Park Baptist Church ordained Gilkey as pastor and he remained there for 18 years. Gilkey served as a trustee of the University of Chicago from 1919 to 1929. In 1928 he accepted the position of dean of the university’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, which he would serve until 1947. He also served as associate dean of the Divinity School and represented the University as professor of preaching at the University of Chicago. Divinity School at Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Chicago, Toronto, Wellesley, Stanford, Purdue, Harvard, Wellesley and the University of Washington. The University of Chicago also appointed Gilkey as Barrows Lecturer in India (1924-1925). He retired in June 1947.