Alternative to Futility

Elton Trueblood on the Quaker experiment: a continuous ferment

By Monsieur d’Nalgar

(Note: this is adapted from an email to my pastor written in July 2006.)  About a week ago, I found a small book (or it found me) by Elton Trueblood.  Written in 1948, it was titled “Alternative to Futility.”  I met Dr. Trueblood in the mid-1970s when he spoke at our college.  I don’t remember many details now, but he sought me out afterwards and asked me why I had a silly grin on my face during his entire 90-minute lecture.  I didn’t know I was grinning and that hour and a half flew by in what seemed like minutes.  He was in his 70s then and is probably the only Quaker I have ever met.

Anyway, the book was written in the aftermath of WW2, at a time when overt hostilities had been replaced by a colder, but no less lethal war.  Among intellectuals, it was widely acknowledged that the blame for the rise of Nazism and Communism lay squarely upon the social and cultural failures of the West.  When the end of the war failed to bring about peace, but simply evolved into a different type of even deadlier war, there was a great sense of despair in this country and England.  Hence the title of the book.

It’s an interesting contrast to our present situation, where leaders and demagogues try to portray tragic military adventures as a titanic clash between the West and those who hate the West.  Somewhere, somehow, since 1948 the West has fully recovered its lost self-esteem and is once again flipping its suspenders as the best thing to happen to human civilization since white bread.  And of course, it sells well in Peoria (just as it did in Berlin in the 1930s).  What Trueblood was trying to do with his little book was stir a bit of fire into the dying embers of a complacent, increasingly sidelined Church.  Here are a few excerpts, nuggets of gristle to gnaw on:

Bad as alcoholism may be, it is not the worst that can occur in a society suffering from a sense of futility.  The deepest danger in this connection is war.  In our efforts to build enduring peace, people of good will often go on the gratuitous assumption that most people hate war and wish to remove it from the world.  We ought to be able to see that this is a serious error in judgment.  Actually most of us like war better than we like peace.  We like it because it saves us from boredom, from mediocrity, from dullness.  It is instructive to note that great numbers of people in Britain say openly that they look back to 1940-41 with nostalgia.  Those were the days in which they really lived!  There was the constant danger of invasion and all the resultant horror; there was the bombing; but there was more.  People stood shoulder to shoulder, united by a common pride.  They were sustained by great rhetoric and great deeds.  Life had significance.  Now all is different.  Now there is no danger, but only a constant round of petty restrictions; life has become commonplace and humdrum. (pages 16-17)

The basic defect of the Protestant churches lies not in their divided condition but in their insipidity.  They show so little imagination.  The same kind of dull and lifeless service is repeated endlessly, whatever the occasion.  We are in a time of crisis when we need a dynamic fellowship to turn the world upside down; what we are offered is a stereotype.  A man, having become convinced that we are in a race with catastrophe, may seek the very bread of life, but in practice he is forced to sing sentimental songs with words he does not mean, listen to comforting platitudes and finally shake the minister’s hand at the door because there is no other way of escape.  In short, this kind of church illustrates Professor Whitehead’s famous dictum perfectly.  It is in full decay because it lacks the element of adventure.  It is not the adventurous fellowship which can redeem society.  It is something else.  (pages 42-43)

The chief value of an experiment is that we can learn from it, both in its successes and in its failures.  The Quaker experiment can teach something to all adventurers in that it shows (1) how it is possible to keep a sense of direct immediacy without the sterility of isolated individualism and likewise (2) how to combine the advantage of a living ministry with the advantages of a lay religion by taking seriously the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer.  Furthermore it shows (3) how to combine the deep reverence of quiet worship with intense activity in social reconstruction that is best expressed by the sacred word “concern.”  On the other hand, the Quaker experiment involves many failures which should serve us as warnings.  The chief failure has lain in the willingness to become one denomination among others, instead of a continuous ferment among all. (page 57)

The fundamental insight of Blaise Pascal, that faith is not supine acceptance of dogma, but rather something in the nature of a gamble, has been accepted by almost all subsequent thinkers.  Religion, as many of us understand it, is not the acceptance of conventional standards of behavior and it is not primarily an effort to save our own puny souls; it is the exciting venture of faith in which we bet that God really is, that this is His world, and that He is like Jesus Christ.

It is the essence of the gamble that the gambler either wins or loses; he is either right or wrong.  There is no middle ground.  So it is with our supreme gamble.  Our faith is either true to reality or it is a horrible delusion.  If it is not true, it is an evil.  (pages 61-62)


Those who make up the nameless order are not united by their virtue, for they are not virtuous; neither are they united by their superior intelligence or piety.  Their only bond is their concern.  This is the early Christian pattern, according to which we learn that “not many wise men … , not many mighty, not many noble” were called.  In spite of all its failures the Church of Jesus Christ has kept much of this spirit to this day, so that, in contrast to secular societies, a sense of unworthiness is the prime condition of entrance.  Nobody has said this better, in recent times, than has Charles Clayton Morrison in his justly famous Beecher Lectures:  “The Christian church is not a society of integrated personalities, nor of philosophers, nor of mystics, nor even of good people.  It is a society of broken personalities, of men and women with troubled minds, of people who know they are not good.  The Christian church is a society of sinners.  It is the only society in the world, membership in which is based upon the single qualification that the candidate shall be unworthy of membership.”  (page 64)


Photograph of Friends (Quaker) church in Dead Ox Flat, Malheur County, Oregon, by Dorothea Lange, October 1939.


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1 comment

    • Cliff Jackson on April 9, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Most interesting! I saw a Quaker Church in Austin, TX Friday while visiting my daughter. I wish there were one here in Hot Springs.

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