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I: The Problem of a Christian Civilisation

I: The Problem of a Christian Civilisation
Since Mr. Churchill at a historic hour spoke words which have themselves made history about the survival of Christian civilisation the idea of Christian civilisation and its being endangered in the highest degree has become familiar among the Western nations. We have become conscious of the fact that in the course of some fifteen centuries something like a Christian civilisation has been created and of the other fact that in our days this Christian civilisation is at stake and its survival is questioned. Mr. Churchill's warning has retained its full actuality even now after the battle of Britain has ended in victory. For unfortunately the pressures to which the foundations of this culture were exposed have not decreased since then but rather increased. It is necessary to remember however that this danger must have been acute for some time in the past. Before the world had heard the name Adolf Hitler a solitary thinker unknown till then Oswald Spengler by name had written a startling book with the almost apocalyptic title Der Untergang des Abendlandes1. His ominous prophecy of the end of Western cultural tradition based on his analysis of European history of the last centuries is to be interpreted as meaning that the time is past when spiritual forces and values determine the face and character of the Western world. A new epoch has begun in which the scholar the artist the seer and the saint are replaced by the soldier the engineer and the man of political power; an epoch which is no more capable of producing real culture but merely an outward technical civilisation. But even Spengler was not the first to utter such dismal ideas about the future.

Fifty years before Spengler the great Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt who fifty years after his death is being more and more universally considered as the greatest continental interpreter of the history of civilisation had sketched a picture of the future of the Western world which is not less terrifying.2 This picture like that of Spengler is dominated by the figure of the political military dictator gaining and sustaining his position by means of mass-psychology and extirpating all spiritual culture by his brutal militarism and imperialism. What then was seen by such prophetic minds as a terrible future has become meanwhile an even more gloomy reality although thank God until now merely a partial reality.

The mere fact that more than half a century ago a man thoroughly awake to the character of his time was able to foresee the catastrophe we have experienced indicates that the eruption of inhumanity lawlessness and depersonalisation which we have experienced during recent decades must have had its deep historical roots. True this eruption of anti-spiritual and anti-cultural forces as they appeared first in the Bolshevist then in the Fascist and finally in the National-Socialist revolution came to the rest of the Western world as a complete surprise and left it in utter bewilderment. Still looking back on these events this feeling of complete surprise and horror is not altogether justified in view of the fact that the spiritual evolution during the last centuries was a slow and invisible but none the less indubitable preparation for this outbreak. If we ask as certainly many during these years have asked how all this this inhumanity this lawlessness this collectivist depersonalisation was possible the answer cannot I think be in doubt. The last three centuries seen from the spiritual point of view represent a history in which step by step the central and fundamental idea of the whole Western civilisation the idea of the dignity of man was undermined and weakened.3 For more than a thousand years Western culture had been based on the Christian idea that man is created in the image of God. This central Biblical idea included both the eternal spiritual destiny of every individual and the destiny of mankind to form a free communion. With the Enlightenment this idea on which the whole structure of Western life was rested began to be doubted.
At first the alternative to the Christian idea was still a religious although no longer distinctly Christian theism. Then further from the Christian foundation there came a transcendentalism or idealism which still remained metaphysical although no longer explicitly theistic. In the middle of the last century this idealistic humanism was replaced by a positivist philosophy of freedom and civilisation which acknowledged no metaphysical but merely natural presuppositions. It is not surprising that this positivism in its turn more and more lost its humanistic contents and turned into a naturalistic philosophy for which man was no more than a highly developed animal the cerebral animal and this was a conception of man within which such things as the dignity of man the rights of man and personality no longer had any foundation. Benjamin Constant that noble Christian philosopher of freedom of the early 19th century has comprehended the essence of this whole process of modern history in three words: “De la divinité par l'humanité à la bestialité”. The totalitarian revolutions with their practice of inhumanity lawlessness and depersonalising collectivism were nothing but the executors of this so-called positivist philosophy which as a matter of fact was a latent nihilism and which towards the end of the last and the beginning of this century had become the ruling philosophy of our universities and the dominating factor within the world-view of the educated and the leading strata of society. The postulatory atheism of Karl Marx and the passionate antitheism of Friedrich Nietzsche can be considered as an immediate spiritual presupposition of the totalitarian revolution in Bolshevism on the one hand and National-Socialism or Fascism on the other. That is to say the prevalent philosophy of the Occident had become more or less nihilistic.4 No wonder that from this seed that harvest sprang up which our generation reaped with blood and tears to use once more Mr. Churchill's words.
This sketch of the spiritual history of the last centuries is admittedly a forced simplification of reality but why should it not be? It will suffice if notwithstanding its onesidedness it expresses something essential. I personally should claim that it does more: it does not merely express something essential but the essential. Taken as a whole the Western world has moved in this direction away from a Christian starting point towards a naturalistic and therefore nihilistic goal an evolution which could not but end in the totalitarian revolutions and the formation of totalitarian states of which one of the most powerful has emerged victorious from the battle. The crisis of Western civilisation which became a life-and-death issue in the fight with National-Socialism and which is still a life-and-death issue primarily in view of the victorious totalitarian power in the East is therefore at bottom a religious crisis. Western civilisation is according to Mr. Churchill's word a Christian civilisation whatever that may mean. Therefore the progressive estrangement from Christianity which characterises the history of the last centuries and our time must necessarily mean a fundamental crisis for this whole civilisation. This crisis at bottom is nothing but a consequence of the fact that the deepest foundation of this civilisation the Christian faith has been shaken in the consciousness of European and American nations and in some parts of this world has been more than shaken in fact shattered and even annihilated.
This negative thesis has as its presupposition a positive one which lies in the concept of a Christian civilisation namely that in some indefinite but very real sense Western civilisation was Christian and in so far as it still exists is Christian. It is more pleasant to give the proof or justification for this positive thesis than that for the first negative one although the two postulate each other. Questionable as may be from the point of view of Christian faith any bold and uncritical use of the word Christian culture no one who knows our history can deny that the contribution of Christianity towards the treasury of a specifically Occidental culture has been enormous. Certainly we have to beware of the illusion that there ever was a Christian Europe. If you understand the word Christian in its full meaning as incorporated in the New Testament the true disciples of Jesus Christ as the apostolic teaching presupposes them were a minority in all centuries of European history and within the Western world at large. But it is just a manifestation of the superhuman power and reality of Christian faith and of the New Testament message that they are powerful factors within the cultural world even where life has been only superficially touched by them or where they are present in very diluted and impure manifestations.
It is this which imposes itself as a manifest fact for every one who studies the cultural history of the West: it is not only the Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals dominating the silhouette of many European cities not only the frescoes of Fra Angelico in San Marco and of Michelangelo in the Sistine not only Milton's Paradise Lost Rembrandt's engravings of Biblical stories Bach's passion according to Saint Matthew which are unthinkable without the Bible and without the Church translating conserving and promulgating this Bible. Our democratic state-forms also our public and private charitable institutions the colleges of English and American universities a multitude of the most important concepts of our psychological philosophical juridical and cultural language are directly or indirectly products of Christian tradition and of Christian thinking feeling and purposing. It was not for nothing that during many centuries the Christian Church had the monopoly of education and instruction that the invention of the printing press primarily contributed to the spreading of the Bible that for many centuries the most famous institutions of higher learning were foundations of Christian communities and Churches and were primarily destined for the promotion of Christian knowledge. All that is easily understood if we consider that up to the 19th century every European individual was baptised and instructed by the Christian Church that furthermore at least in a superficial sense the contents of the Bible message were believed by almost everybody and shaped their judgment of what is true and false good and evil desirable and undesirable. Certainly there were always some sceptics doubters heretics. But they could not manifest themselves as such. Certainly there was probably in all ages a large majority of indifferent and lukewarm nominal Christians; but even they stood in an unbroken tradition of doctrine and faith and even their conscience was formed by the commandments of the Bible whether they acted according to their conscience or not. Even towards the end of the 18th century the typical thought of the Enlightenment with its negative or doubting attitude was confined to a decided minority within the higher ranks of society. The masses even the large majority of educated men and women always thought in the categories of Biblical Christian tradition however diluted or mis-shaped and distorted the Gospel may have been in this tradition. It is therefore self-evident that in such a world of nations civilisation was deeply imbued determined and guided by Christian faith its contents its norms its concepts of value. The history of civilisation as Christian has not yet been written. What can be grasped of this history however by every one who has any knowledge of it and who has any share in European culture is sufficient to justify that catch-word “The Christian civilisation of the West” at least in the sense of an undeniable fact however different may be the interpretations of this fact.
It seems necessary to me however to indicate even in this introductory survey of the field not only the facts which may be summarised by the phrase Christian civilisation but also the deep and bewildering problem which is included in this formula. How questionable the concept of a Christian civilisation is can be seen from two sides from that of Christian faith and that of civilisation. Let me start with the first: anyone who approaches the New Testament with the intention of getting instruction about the relation between Christian faith or doctrine and civilisation or culture from the most authoritative source cannot fail to be astonished bewildered and even disappointed.5 Neither the Gospels nor the letters of the apostles neither the teaching of Jesus himself nor that of his disciples seem to encourage us in any way to investigate this relation. Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God and its righteousness about its coming its essence and the conditions of the partaking in it in a way which does not seem to betray any interest in any of those things which we include under the terms civilisation or culture. Quite the contrary. Not only is His own mind unambiguously not to say onesidedly directed towards the one goal which—however it may be expressed—is something totally different from what we understand by civilisation; He also requires from His disciples the same unambiguous uncompromising attitude and orientation. It is true that in the last century the teaching of Jesus about the kingdom of God was often interpreted in a manner which had greater kinship with our social and cultural problems. But this is past. All New Testament scholars nowadays would admit6 that this 19th century interpretation whether we like it or not was a falsification of the historical facts. Whether you understand the kingdom of God more as a present reality or as something to come in either case it is a reality which entirely transcends the sphere of civilisation. Its content is the ἔσχατον the ultimate and absolute the perfect the truly divine distinguished from all human relativity. This Gospel is concerned with man's relation to God in its innermost mystery and with the relation to man in the most personal and intimate sense without any reference to cultural values and social institutions. The teaching of this kingdom of God however is the be-all and the end-all of the Gospel of Jesus; there is no room in it for anything else for all these important but temporal and secular things like art education science social and political order. How then should it be possible for anyone who takes his standards for Christian truth from this Gospel of Jesus to attempt anything like a Christian doctrine of civilisation?
No more encouraging is the picture which we find in the letters of the apostles not to speak of that understanding of Christian life and faith which the last book of the Bible the Apocalypse of John expresses. It is no more explicitly the proclamation of the kingdom of God which focusses the thoughts and feelings of Christians but the preaching of salvation of eternal life in Jesus Christ of the consummation of all things in the παρουσία of Christ the Gospel of forgiveness of sins of redemption of the divine judgment of the working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the faithful and in the Christian community. It is the proclamation of Resurrection of the coming final judgment of the restoration and perfection of all things beyond their historical existence. What has all this to do with the problems and tasks of cultural life? At any rate they never become explicit topics of doctrine. There are a few exceptions to this rule a few short although very important comments on the state on marriage and family on the relation between parents and children masters and slaves but this is about all. And if you take the last mentioned the problem of slavery disappointment becomes even greater; for nothing is said about slavery being an institution which contradicts the principle of human dignity and freedom. On the contrary we find there an exhortation to the slaves to be satisfied with their lot and loyally to obey their masters. Therefore the result of this investigation seems to be entirely negative with regard to a Christian doctrine of civilisation whether you attribute this fact to indifference to the expectation of an imminent end of the world or to some other cause.
A similar result seems to be gained if you view the relation of Christianity and civilisation from the other side from that of civilisation. When we survey the history of civilisation before the entrance of Christianity into world history we have to admit if we want to be fair that the civilisation of the pre-Christian era does not seem to lack an essential element which would be introduced only by Christianity. Civilisation and culture seem to live entirely out of their own resources. Who would deny the grandeur of the old Egyptian Indian or Chinese civilisations? These nations had a magnificent art excellent institutions of law and state splendid systems of education and fine culture without any knowledge of God's revelation in Christ or of the teaching of the prophets in the Old Testament. And what about the classical people of the highest culture the Greeks? Have the achievements of ancient Greece in architecture or sculpture in epic lyric or dramatic poetry ever and anywhere been surpassed? Is there in any later epoch anything comparable to the intensity and universality of the Greek scientific mind? Has there ever been to give one name only a man comparable to Aristotle who could claim to have created and mastered so many different branches of science and led them on in that first impetus to the highest level of classical perfection? Or we may think of those cultural values which are less visible. Have the Greeks been surpassed by any later generation in the development of fine manners of forms of spirited sociability of that humanism which is sensitive to every noble thing? Is not that same Athens which produced the Parthenon and Greek tragedy also the cradle of the oldest democracy of the world? Must not the philosophers of all later generations first become students of Parmenides Plato and Aristotle and remain within their school all their lives if they are to produce something worth while? And all that hundreds of years before Jesus Christ!
This fact confused the first Christian theologians and led them to put forward the hypothesis that the Greek philosophers had learned the best of their philosophy from Moses and the prophets of Israel by some unknown historical mediation. We know to-day that this is not so; we have to content ourselves with the fact that the highest summit of culture and civilisation which history knows developed without any influence of Biblical revelation and we shall have to keep this fact before our eyes whenever we speak about the relation of Christianity and civilisation.7
If now we put together these two results of our consideration on the one hand the intimate connection between Christianity and civilisation in Western history and the fundamental importance of Christianity for our civilisation and on the other the mutual independence and indifference of Christianity and civilisation as it appears from the New Testament as well as from pre-Christian history the problem of Christian civilisation is intensified and deepened in a way that makes anything like a cheap solution appear completely impossible. So much is clear from the start that the synthesis included in the concept of a Christian civilisation is full of problems and that this expression must be used with the greatest caution. From the very outset we are then in the situation of Socrates: we know that we do not know what a Christian civilisation is and can be. We know that we do not have in our hands a ready-made programme which has simply to be applied.
To be sure the practical task indicated in Mr. Churchill's words about the preservation of Christian civilisation exists and claims supreme attention and effort. All Europe uttered a sigh of relief when those words were spoken. But we are no statesmen and our task is not immediately practical but theoretical although certainly not detached from the practical interest. Therefore something is expected from us which cannot be expected from a statesman. And it may be that there are statesmen who are intensely interested in our doing our job which is not theirs.
Therefore I propose in these lectures to follow a path which may appear a very bold one and the difficulties of which are so well known to us that for a long while I hesitated to enter upon it but which seems to be a little more adequate to the depth of the problem than most of the other more familiar ones. Let me try to sketch it in a few words.
If by culture or civilisation—for the present not distinguishing these concepts—we understand the sum of productions and productive forces by which human life transcends the animal or vital sphere of self-preservation and preservation of the species and if we ask by what factors such culture or civilisation is determined it seems that these factors can be subsumed under three heads in such a way that nothing essential is left out. Civilisation is determined first by natural factors like formation of country climate possibilities of maintenance within which as a given frame human life has to develop. Civilisation is determined secondly by the physical and spiritual equipment of men within a given area by their physical and spiritual forces their vitality their energy and their talent. These two complexes we can put together as that which is outwardly and inwardly given. Apart from these given factors which are inaccessible to human determination and freedom there is a third which is just as important for the formation of a certain civilisation in its specific character namely the spiritual presuppositions of a religious and ethical nature which not in themselves cultural we might call the culture-transcendent presuppositions of every culture. This third factor lies within the sphere of historical freedom within that area which is open to the free self-decision of man. Assuming equal natural data and equal physical and spiritual forces two cultures will develop differently if this third factor the culture-transcendent presuppositions is different. It is this third factor which affords the possibility for a spiritual force like Christianity to enter the field of culture and give it a certain direction and character. Once more assuming the natural data and the physical and spiritual forces of two nations to be equal the culture and civilisation within them will greatly differ if the one is dominated by the Christian religion and the other has another religion or an irreligious conception of life forming its culture-transcendent factor. This third factor then is the one within which the Christian faith as distinguished from its alternatives becomes relevant.
Now within this third range there are a number of fundamental basic questions regarding human existence which in any case must be answered and are answered whether in a Christian or in a non-Christian manner. Such questions are the problem of being of truth of meaning and so on. Whether one is conscious of them or not these questions are present; they must be answered and the answer cannot be put off. These culture-transcendent presuppositions are working factors and in their totality they are one of the decisive elements within any given civilisation.
It is just as false to consider these spiritual-elements as the one decisive factor—as has often been done by Christian theologians or idealistic philosophers8 as it is erroneous not to consider them at all or to underrate their importance—as has often been done by naturalist or positivist philosophers. On one hand it must be affirmed that civilisation may be different in two given areas even if both are determined by the same spiritual factor e.g. by Christianity presupposing that the natural conditions and the physical forces and spiritual talents are different. On the other hand it must be said that civilisation may be different in two given areas although the natural conditions physical forces and spiritual talents are the same. That means that each of the three groups of factors is decisive for the face and content of a civilisation. By civilisation we do not merely understand the narrower range of art science and spiritual culture but also economical and political forms and institutions. We therefore reject from the very start both a one-sided spiritualising interpretation which takes account merely of the third factor the culture-transcendent presuppositions and a one-sided naturalistic interpretation which takes account only of the determining factors which are given in nature and man's natural equipment. The justification for this a priori starting point can be given only in the course of these lectures.
One thing however must be said at the start to justify our procedure. This procedure is a bold venture because it ignores all traditional classifications of scientific investigation. To seek out those fundamental questions underlying all human existence seems to be a task for philosophy. At any rate up to now it has been the philosophers who have dealt with them. On the other side we are not primarily concerned with philosophical answers to these questions but with the answers which the Christian faith gives. And this seems to be a task for the theologians. At the same time our investigation will not take place so to say in the empty space of thought but within the concrete world of history and present-day life. For we are not merely interested in general abstract possibilities of a Christian civilisation but in the possibility and the specific character of a Christian civilisation within this given historical world. And though our procedure is theoretical our aim is intensely practical. Therefore I should not be surprised if what I am trying to do here were to be judged unfavourably by theologians as being philosophy by philosophers as being theology combined with a dilettante attempt at what in German is called Geistesgeschichte and Gesellschaftskritik. My reply to this expected criticism is that I am just as much but no more convinced of the shortcomings of this attempt as of its necessity and imperative urgency.
The point of view from which this investigation will be made is that of Christian faith. Again by Christian faith we do not mean something indefinite but the Gospel of the New Testament as it is understood within the tradition of Reformation theology. When therefore we ask what is the Christian answer to those elementary fundamental questions of human existence and what is the characteristic impact which this Christian answer must have for the formation of civilisation we mean by Christian faith what according to this specific tradition the New Testament means. But I want to make it clear from the very start—impossible though it is to justify such a statement here—that this position includes a critical attitude with regard to any fixed dogma and an openness of mind and heart with regard to all Christian tradition and knowledge. Reformation theology truly understood is neither uncritical orthodox Biblicism nor self-assured exclusive confessionalism. It includes on the contrary both the critical and the ecumenical attitudes. I am sorry that the limitations imposed on these lectures do not allow me to expound and prove these assertions which are the result of an extended process of critical theological self-examination.
Let me conclude what has been said by giving a final formulation of our problem. The problem of this first series of lectures is to be stated in three questions: —
  1. What answers does the Christian faith give to certain fundamental questions of human existence which underlie any civilisation as their culture-transcendent presuppositions?
  2. How do these answers compare with other answers to the same questions as they occur in the course of Occidental history?
  3. What is the specific importance of the Christian answers compared with that of the others? The following are the questions which we have in mind or at least some of the most important of them: —
The problem of being.
The problem of truth.
The problem of time.
The problem of meaning.
Man in the universe.
Personality and humanity.
The problem of justice.
The problem of freedom.
The problem of creativity.
In trying to answer these questions we venture to outline in this first part a Christian doctrine of the foundations of civilisation whilst the second part will deal with the more concrete problems of the different areas of civilised life.