A Gospel That ‘Greatly Matters’

October 19, 2018

People will not make a great intellectual adjustment for a Gospel that does not greatly matter. If there is real adventure at the center of the line, the reserves are drawn from the wings almost unconsciously. – Reinhold Niebuhr, Notebook from a Tamed Cynic.


I encountered these words this past summer while reading a collection of Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings that spanned the several decades of his professional lifetime. While I knew in general about Niebuhr, his writings were too theological to have made it into my philosophy and history classes, and probably a bit too political for most of the theology classes of my undergraduate era. Frankly, I wish I had discovered him much earlier.

This quote, from early in Niebuhr’s journey, captured my imagination for many reasons, butin particular as it applies to a residential undergraduate Christian college, and to this moment in our culture.

Just this morning, I met with a student who is serious about his spiritual life by any scale. He was reflecting on which of his studies addressed the world outside himself and which actually made a difference for his inner life. What struck me was his conclusion that most of his studies – including many of the disciplines that the world and higher education would consider important to an educated person – did not really get inside him at all. In the ways that mattered to him, they “did not greatly matter.” (I am not arguing that his evaluation of these disciplines was correct). I am pointing out that as long as they remained out of contact with his basic categories of meaning, appreciation, purpose and value, the knowledge on its own “did not greatly matter” for him. It will probably not show up in his life nor in the impact he will have on others, unless of course he were the sort of person who chose to parade his knowledge as a show of power. He is not. The student went on to lament that students can get so used to being surrounded by opportunities for learning and growth –including spiritual learning and growth –  that they become numb to them. Again, for these students, the opportunities for growth and change “do not greatly matter.”

I think about the quote as it applies to our impact as Christians at this time in our culture. If all we do is carry around a set of theological beliefs or moral standards that do not get inside us and change our lives – that do not send us on a holy adventure that speaks to our own deepest fears or take us to the risky and complex places of our culture where the truths of the Gospel might actually have the power of surprising Good News – why would anyone besides those in the Christian subculture care? If all we do in this moment is seek to defend our religious liberty as an entitlement for ourselves, rather than demonstrate a living, incarnate Gospel that “greatly matters” in a winsome and compelling way for our own lives and the lives of those around us, are we in danger of protecting a ‘Gospel’ that is too small and hardly worthy of the name?

Niebuhr wrote the words of his quote in the first part of the 20th century. They are as relevant today nearly 100 years later. The central conviction of a Christian liberal arts college like Houghton is that the Gospel ought to “greatly matter” for us, not just on Sunday (or whenever we attend church), and not just in a compartmentalized area of our lives that we call spiritual. It is to “greatly matter” in how we treat our families and friends, who we invite to dinner, how we steward our gifts and talents in the world, how we build communities in the neighborhoods around us, how we spend our money, how we walk with others in their suffering and in their celebrating, how we choose to wait in seasons of doubt and uncertainty – and the list could go on.

I pray that today, wherever you find yourself in your journey, you will see anew the power of a Gospel that “greatly matters” and find yourself in the midst of an adventure that others cannot help but want to join.

Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976