The Outward Bound
by Vernard Eller

2. Faith or Calculation?

In the next chapter, we are going to identify the church's having switched its basic interest from "fidelity" to "success" as the root of its identity crisis. However, we will be in better position to understand that matter if we can see that lying behind it is an even more fundamental confusion, one between "faith" and "calculation." What most people understand as "faith" perhaps should more accurately be called "calculation."

At least for me, the insight has been most clearly revealed in a poem by Robert Browning, entitled "Bishop Blougram's Apology." The poem itself is much too long and, as with a great deal of Browning's work, much too obtuse to be of direct help. Consequently, I will condense, paraphrase, and interpret Browning to fit our purposes. The title of the poem, by the way, uses "apology" in the sense of "defense, explanation, or rationale" rather than "saying you're sorry." The bishop will be obeying the biblical injunction to give a reason for the hope (faith) that is in him - though this is not to say that his faith is a proper one.

This work is an example of what Browning did best; his "dramatic monologues" are poems spoken entirely by one character. The speaker is in conversation, intending to communicate one thing but accidentally revealing his true character in the process. Thus the listener hears something entirely different from what the speaker thought he was saying. Undoubtedly the same thing often happens in real life.

The setting of the poem is the nineteenth century (Browning's own day). A Roman Catholic bishop, Sylvester Blougram, invites a young, aspiring journalist, Mr. Gigadibs, into his quarters. Blougram discerns (probably correctly) that Gigadibs is a non-Christian humanist who is totally dedicated to the ideals of truth, honesty, and justice, and whose great dream is to become a world-renowned author who promotes these ideals. Blougram also knows that Gigadibs thinks that he, the bishop, is a shyster. And Blougram's idea is to toy with Gigadibs a bit, match wits with him, establish the superiority of the bishop's own philosophy of life, puncture the young man's idealistic naivete, and put him in his place.

Throughout the poem, the bishop sees himself as both a representative and an exemplar of the Christian faith. What we (and Gigadibs) discover is that, in reality, the bishop represents only self-serving calculation. And the difference between these two qualities is absolute. Browning leaves it to his readers to define "faith." But to do it for him, faith can be defined as concentrated, unqualified choice, total commitment, radical venture in the face of all risk, going all out and burning your bridges behind you. Blougram's "calculation," on the other hand, shows up precisely as figuring percentages, playing it smart, minimizing risks, keeping options open, and always looking for the advantage.

Early on, Blougram introduces his own basic premise in a parable that will prove to be the key to the poem as a whole:

A simile!
We mortals cross the ocean of this world
Each in his average cabin of a life;
The best's not big, the worst yields elbow-room.
Now for our six months' voyage--how prepare?

Gigadibs with his idealistic dreams, the bishop suggests, would try to bring with him on the voyage Persian rugs, a piano, a whole library of books, a marble bathtub--everything a person could desire. And the captain, then, would meet him saying, "Six feet square! If you won't understand what six feet means, and compute and purchase stores accordingly, well, then, you won't be allowed to bring on anything!"

The bishop, on the other hand, being above all a practical man, is willing to settle for much less, though actually coming off with much more. He has figured out the optimum way of outfitting a cabin--going for what is possible, achieving it, and then enjoying it. There is certainly nothing to criticize in that, is there?

But where do faith and Christianity come in?

Just here: Blougram first argues that by nature there is no such thing as a total and true "believer" (as he himself appears to be); we all have some points of doctrine upon which we are nagged by lingering doubts. But neither, he adds, is there by nature any such thing as a total "unbeliever" (as Gigadibs claims to be). Gigadibs must be bothered by possibilities that Christianity might be true as much as Blougram is bothered by possibilities that it might not be true. This means, then, that the evidence does not automatically compel anyone to be either a believer or non-believer. In his own mind and experience, each person has grounds for going one way as well as the other. How one makes the choice is determined by something other than the evidence itself.

Well obviously, Blougram concludes, in such a case what else is there to do but to use the old noggin, figure the odds, and go with the choice that best promises to pay off? Which is the better furniture piece for a ship's cabin--belief or unbelief? And on that basis, Blougram maintains, the only possible choice is clearly Christian belief.

And if it is smart to assent to Christian belief, the bishop proceeds, then it is doubly smart to adhere totally to that Christian belief--decisiveness beats indecision every time. Indeed, one advantage of his own Roman Catholicism, the bishop says, is that the church has defined down to the finest detail everything a Christian should or should not believe. And so, in Blougram's case, if the church says there is a cathedral somewhere with a statue of the Virgin that cries real tears on occasion, the bishop believes that this is so--without question.

Oh, sure, he is quick to admit that he has doubts at times. But he is smart enough to keep things to himself and confine them to dreams at night--a much better move than Gigadibs' taking his doubts into the daylight and making them the basis of his public stance.

And look at the results! Because he is a true believer of the Christian faith, Blougram has become a bishop. He always has had a love of power, a need to dominate and control others. Now he can do it without having to be an inelegant, brutal tyrant. Instead, people now come to him--a man a man of God--on their knees, pleading for him to tell them what to do and where to go. Also, he can enjoy nice clothes without any fear of being accused of vanity. In fact, the people will give him robes and jewels to accent his spiritual standing and responsibility.

So, Bishop Blougram has both the unthinking masses and his own ecclesiastical colleagues starry-eyed in their adoration of his Christian faith and his finesse in using it. But, Gigadibs would probably ask, what about the truly smart people, the intellectuals who know that this Christianity stuff is all a bunch of jazz? Where does Blougram stand with them?

Blougram claims that he has solved this problem, too. He plays his role so well that intellectuals simply will not be able to decide whether he stands with the idiot masses, believing all that they do, or whether he actually is one with the intellectuals themselves, intelligent enough not to believe but also smart enough to act as though he did. Why, even the bishop's enemies must admire him for being so shrewd in working things so as to come out on top, whether or not the faith is true. Indeed, Blougram thinks that Gigadibs himself will finally be forced to take this view of the matter.

The bishop then cites a couple of historical examples to show how completely he has covered his bases. Blougram's model is Martin Luther. Luther chose to be a man of great Christian faith, started a whole new church movement, and won not only the love and following of the masses, but also a secure place of honor in world history. The sad thing is that Luther did the new Christian movement bit without allowing Blougram a shot at it.

Yet over against Luther put a nineteenth-century scholar named David Friedrich Strauss, a skeptic who set out to prove that the Gospels' portrayal of Jesus was a false one. This, in Blougram's opinion, was a completely stupid move; there is no percentage in attacking the faith. Even for those who agreed with Strauss, there was no particular reason for them to admire, follow, or honor him. He could never hope for the sort of lasting reputation that Luther had.

Old Blougram thought of everything; consider this one: Suppose--it's an outside chance--but just suppose Christianity is right about there being a life after death. Luther lost no advantage in this life by believing that there was. And if, at death, it turned out that he was wrong and there was no afterlife, he was no worse off than he would have been anyway. But if it turned out that he was right and there is an afterlife, one certainly could do worse than to go in as Martin Luther, the great believer could. (And it wouldn't hurt to go in as a Roman Catholic bishop, either.)

But then consider poor David Friedrich Strauss. Even if he was right that there is no life after death, believing so gained him no advantage for this life. Neither did he gain any advantage in death. And if Strauss was wrong and there is an afterlife, going in as a skeptic and unbeliever is hardly a propitious move. No, Luther definitely has the better of Strauss. Refusal to believe cannot carry any advantage however one looks at it. Willingness to believe carries all the advantage, no matter what the truth proves to be.

Of course you are remarking all this time
How narrowly and grossly I view life,
Respect the creature-comforts, care to rule
The masses, and regard complacently
"The cabin," in our old phrase. Well I do.
I act for, talk for, live for this world now,
As this world prizes action, life and talk:
No prejudice to what next world may prove,
Whose new laws and requirements, my best pledge
To observe then, is that I observe these now,
Shall do hereafter what I do meanwhile.
Let us concede (gratuitously though)
Next life relieves the soul of body, yields
Pure spiritual enjoyment: well, my friend,
Why lose this life i' the meantime, since its use
May be to make the next life more intense?

Finally, the bishop winds up his argument with a decisive demonstration of how absolutely superior his achievement through faith is to what Gigadibs represents. He dares (indeed, he invites) Gigadibs to write up and publish whatever he pleases concerning what Blougram has said. Nobody would believe it. Blougram's own people, of course, would take Gigadibs for a liar, knowing that their beloved bishop would never say anything of the sort. But even the bishop's enemies would not believe Gigadibs because they know that Blougram certainly is not foolish enough to say such things to a newspaper reporter.

Go write your lively sketches! be the first
"Blougram, or The Eccentric Confidence"
Or better simply say, "The Outward Bound"
[in reference, of course, to the metaphorical cruise in the ship's cabin].

Though we must be struck by the wrongness of it all, Blougram has posed an argument that is very difficult to rebut. Our first inclination, I am sure, is to say, "But Blougram doesn't really believe!" Yet Blougram insists that he does, that he has deliberately chosen to believe (and don't we all believe by choosing to?). What evidence is there that he is not telling the truth? The poem carries no hint that there is anything in the bishop's life that is inconsistent with his profession of faith.

And yet Browning (as was his custom) closes the poem with a brief, nine-line hooker that effectively cuts Blougram off at the knees and exposes his error:

He [Gigadibs] did not sit five minutes. Just a week
Sufficed his sudden healthy vehemence.
Something had struck him in the "Outward-bound"
Another way than Blougram's purpose was:
And having bought, not cabin-furniture
But settler's-implements (enough for three)
And started for Australia there, I hope,
By this time he has tested his first plough,
And studied his last chapter of St. John.

Gigadibs had suddenly seen the truth and thus the fatal flaw upon which the bishop had based his entire philosophy. It has to do with the parable of the ocean voyage.

From the outset Blougram assumed that the voyage of this life is a cruise, that is, a going whose only purpose is to enjoy the activity of going, not necessarily arriving anywhere in particular. And on that assumption, the bishop is right; on a cruise, play things so as to get maximum satisfaction from the cruise itself. But what if it should be, as Gigadibs sees in his sudden healthy vehemence, that life is migration toward a port? Then priorities are immediately reversed. Whether or not the cabin is comfortable is now only a minor consideration. All that counts is that one be carrying whatever is necessary for life in the new homeland--"settler's- implements," if you will.

Even though Browning names Australia as Gigadibs' destination, it is not necessary to think of this as a voyage through space, which is headed toward a pearly-gated city somewhere. I am virtually certain that the New Jerusalem is not in Australia. But if we understand this voyage as a voyage through time taking our cue from Jesus' suggestion that "Thy kingdom come" is "Thy will being done on earth" then it seems plain that Australia will have its place in the kingdom of God. Yet, with Australia in or out, the kingdom of God (his will being done on earth) is the destination of this world's life and existence. The New Testament makes that clear whether Browning does or not.

That Gigadibs takes implements "enough for three" may mean that he plans to start a family or it may mean only that he will be there for some time. In either case, we have a symbol of permanence, of a true destination, over against the obvious transiency of Blougram's cruise, during which one uses each moment for what one can get out of it. Gigadibsians are caravaners and not cruisers; "they are seeking a homeland, the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Heb. 11:8-16).

I see the reference to Gigadibs' testing of his first plough as a reminder of Jesus' words, "No one who puts a hand to the plough and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Lk. 9:62). How could Browning's point be stated any better? The Christian life is to be lived exclusively with a vision of the end, with eyes fixed solely on the kingdom, and precisely not, like Blougram, looking back and around to catch all the angles and to figure all the odds.

Gigadibs' study of the last chapter of St. John would seem to point us to John 21, where Jesus says to Peter:

"Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me."
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?" When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, "Lord, what about him?" Jesus said to him, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me." (Jn. 21:18-23)

Blougram is the youngster who is his own man, picking his own shots, going his own way. But Gigadibs is committed; he has made the venture that leaves him no option but to follow Jesus, whether the course meets his preferences or not, whether it be pleasant or hard. And for such expediti, there is no looking back either to worry about or wait for Blougrams, beloved disciples, or anyone else. To take the Precursor of the Kingdom at his word and to follow him is enough for a Gigadibs.

Unbeknownst to Browning, a contemporary German pastor, Christoph Blumhardt, stated in a word the different orientation of a Blougram and a Gigadibs.

"And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."< (Mt. 28:20)

The Savior's being with us has reference to the end of the world [i.e., its goal or destiny], not its continuance.... Jesus is not with a person who spends his days for the sole purpose of sustaining his earthly life. The Lord does not wish to spend too much effort on the ongoing of the world. After all, it is all corruptible, and there is nothing left to be done but to wait the wearing out of the decaying structure and the creating of a new one. For the time being we must do the best we can with what we have.

[But] in all our work let us be careful to fix our eyes not on the continuance of the world, but on its end.

And unbeknownst to you, after our run through this chapter we have arrived back at home plate, as it were. For what sort of church continually refers to the kingdom and to our journey there except a "caravan" church? And what sort of church assumes and exploits the continuance of this world and of its own cruise in this world except a "commissary" church? The one looks beyond the present to its transcendent end; the other finds its end within the present. Browning's distinctive contribution has been to show that these two different orientations foster two entirely different concepts of "faith."

We characterized Gigadibsian faith (true Christian faith) as "radical venture in the face of all risk." This corresponds to what, in a later chapter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer will call "costly grace." And the reason the believer is quite willing to face risk and take the cost, is that he has a goal and a priority that far overshadows present benefits and satisfactions, namely, the achievement of the coming kingdom of God. Such faith refers to the end of the world rather than to its continuance. On the other hand, we characterized Blougramian faith (which actually is nothing more than shrewd calculation) as "figuring the odds so as to minimize all risk." It corresponds to what Bonhoeffer will call "cheap grace." Its horizon of reality is confined to the present and to that future which must itself be described as simply a continuance of the present. It expects no more from the future than man himself will be able to create out of present possibilities. But because it is confined within such a horizon, this faith cannot have any other purpose or goal than the reaping of present benefits.

There is another important distinction between these two "faiths" which may not be inherent in the concepts themselves but which certainly is involved as soon as Christianity is introduced. Gigadibsian faith is fundamentally a person-to-person relationship--commitment to and trust in Another. The believer can willingly caravan into a risky future over which he has no control, only because he is following a Leader-Lord whom he knows and trusts, and because he has placed himself in the hands of a loving God.

Blougramian calculation, on the other hand, can never constitute a true person-to-person relationship even if the "believer" does profess the existence of God and Christ. Being interested in another person because of what he can do for you, forming a relationship for what you can get out of it, is nothing truly personal. It is to treat the other as an object and not as a person. Indeed, with Bishop Blougram, although it is plain that belief in God (or at least the reputation of belief in God) is crucial to his "faith," nevertheless, it is questionable whether the existence or nonexistence of God would affect that "faith" one way or another. (And, we might note, the same could be said for some modern theologians.)

But now that we have the distinction, where do we go with it?

In order to make his point, Browning had to present an exceptionally blatant and crass example, yet I am ready to suggest that our churches are full of Blougrams. The difference may be that these people are not as honest in stating their faith as Blougram was--or more likely, that they do not have his self-knowledge in recognizing their faith for what it is. To this extent, they may be more innocent than he was--though it may be that the word should be spelled "n-a-i-v-e."

In any case, how many contemporary Christians have accepted Christ as Lord and Savior without having given any thought to making sacrifices for his sake, to venturing with him in the face of all risk, to dying with him? The extent of their interest and the result of their calculation are that he is the answer. He is the miracle worker. He is the source of both material and spiritual blessings. Christ exists only to make life in this world as comfortable and as satisfying as possible, and to guarantee glory in the next world.

And how many contemporary Christians have become members of churches without any serious thought of serving the church or God in and through his church, but simply because a particular congregation holds the promise of providing an interesting group of people with whom to identify, of presenting interesting and exciting programs, of offering various services to assist their efforts in becoming beautiful persons? By what rationale should such motivations be identified as "Christian faith" rather than "Blougramian calculation"?

Now, of course, the church itself bears some responsibility for this state of affairs because it proclaims the gospel of cheap grace and seeks to attract members by catering to their Blougramian self-interests. Yet it is not at this level where I have my deepest concern (nor are we being most germane to the topic of this book). The sadder situation is that the church itself plays the Blougram more thoroughly and more blatantly than individual Christians do. Blougram provides a better picture of the church than of any individual or group of individuals within the church. Individuals actually very amateurish in calculating how to play Christianity to their own advantage; congregations do it professionally and scientifically.

The church (and by that, of course, I always mean "by and large," not "totally") understands itself to be a "commissary," and a commissary, we have said, is essentially an institution. Just how much of the church's effort and emphasis is directed toward ensuring its institutional success in the world - at perpetuating its quantification, efficacy, power, influence, and popularity? Not only do its strategies assume the continuance of the world, it has committed its own institutional existence to the continuance of that world, as being part and parcel of it.

This, indeed, is what the church-growth movement is all about: sociological calculations as sharp as those of Blougram though much more scientific--calculations regarding organization, management, marketing, advertising, public relations, propaganda, and so forth--and all of it directed precisely at working the angles, figuring the odds, and minimizing the risks so as to ensure the church's institutional success.

But enough of this. I am already into the next chapter where we will pursue this argument at greater length. However, before moving to that chapter, allow me to interject an important thought that needs to stand as a qualifier both of what has been said in this chapter and what will be said in the next.

My purpose has not been to deny the legitimacy of any and all efforts at church growth, any more than I would deny that accepting Jesus does bring personal blessings or that it is proper for church membership to afford particular social satisfactions. I would not try to deny the truth of everything Bishop Blougram had to say.

No, even if the church were the very caravan God has called it to be, it would still be also an institution. Even if its eyes were fixed on the end of the world, it still has to live for the present within the continuance of the world. As Blumhardt himself said, "For the time being we must do the best we can with what we have"--which implies the appropriateness of an interest and concern in the church's institutional well being.

The key to the matter, then, lies in a statement of Jesus': "Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well " (Mt. 6:33). Now Scripture nowhere so much as hints that the kingdom is to come through the institutional triumph of the church. In fact, the book of Revelation (particularly in chapter 11) leads up to the coming of Jesus and the achievement of the kingdom by recounting the church's martyr-death and its resurrection by God. Thus, the pursuit of institutional success can in no way be identified as setting your mind on God's kingdom. Such success, then, must belong to the other side of the equation, an item from among the "all the rest" which, according to God's good pleasure, may or may not come to you as well.

The one command for the caravan church is to seek God's kingdom; the rest you are simply to let come as it will. There is no telling what all may come to the church as well: perhaps sharp sociological calculations, church growth, bishop's robes, and institutional success. But once the church begins to seek these first, it becomes Blougramite.

Copyright (c) 1980