Who Trusts in God
Albert Cook Outler
Spiritual life is a much ignored topic in today’s Christian world —or rather, our view of the spiritual life has been reduced to the one shallow statement, “obey God out of gratitude.” Is there something more to the Christian life than using the Scriptures as a rule book? What are we to make of the prophecies of God, promises of things to come? Should we ignore these because, after all, there’s no way to “obey” a promise? These questions should lead us on a quest to find a more fulfilling, more complete, idea of what being a Christian is all about. This book, originally published in 1968, is one attempt to resolve the question.
Outler starts with a solid examination of the problem at hand, a spiritual malaise that attacks all we do without mercy. His conclusion? That we are self centered to the extreme.
We have noticed the rising tide of passion in our time that mankind shall come into its own, into the full measure of all that goes with being human—freedom, love, community, etc. We know ourselves now as the agents of our own culture and our own secular well-being. At this level, there is no Santa Claus, no cosmic Red Cross. But we’ve been at this experiment of “going it alone” long enough now to begin to suspect that there is something tragically wrong with the prescription of radical autonomy, that the secular city (civitas terrena) is what St. Augustine said it was—“a society motivated chiefly by self-love”—and, consequently, inherently inhumane. The emancipation of men from their bondages in nature and authoritarian societies of various sorts has now had time enough for preliminary testing of those heady promises of the prophets of autonomy as to what man could make of man if only he had the freedom and the challenge. -Page 54
From here he goes on to accurately describe the intrusion of Christianity into the pagan world, and how the new God would likely just be treated as yet another “magic genie,” albeit a more powerful one, with which a deal could be cut. The tale of Simon the Magi shows us the reality of this attitude in a compact form; this must have been a common occurrence as Christianity spread. While the author doesn’t address it, the reality is that this mode of thinking about God has never left us —it is still present in the modern day “name it and claim it,” gospel.
The author next addresses God’s providence, which he sees as the root of human history, and the solution to the problem of malaise caused by our self centered treatment of God. And here Outler slips into what can only be considered open theology of a sort. He argues that providence is not to be seen as God’s control of history in an active sense, but rather in a reactive sense. That God’s providence is his continual turning of man’s bad decisions into ultimate good, that God is forever slipping back into some “plan B,” to rescue man from himself.
Outler recovers somewhat in the following chapters, passing back into the realm of modern belief, and its impact not only on the way we live our lives, but also the way in which we see government, and even the way we see God himself. His prescription for the world is faith in God as an outside agent who knows better than we do, as the Lord who can control history towards the best ends. He places this control in the “plan B,” category, but of course, these same statements could be placed within the context of a life of faith in God’s promises (or his prophecies, if you prefer).
With the exception of the one bad definition of providence, Outler does a good job of appraching the topic of Christian living through the negative lens of the modern, humanistic, self-centered worldview. The prose is solid and easy to read, and the conclusions worth listening too, even if there are seeds you must spit out along the way.