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VI: Man in the Universe

VI: Man in the Universe
With this lecture we enter the field of those questions which may be called problems of humanism or the humane. The first of these problems comes from without; it is raised for us by the universe in which we find ourselves. All humanism whether of a Christian or idealistic type draws its life from the conviction that man's position within this Cosmos is a distinctive and indeed a unique one and that man has to vindicate against nature something which belongs to himself alone. All humanism gives man a place over against and somehow outside of nature and elevates him above it. Therefore there is an inescapable either/or between this opposition of man and nature on the one hand and on the other a conception of continuity which ranges man entirely with nature and thus destroys the foundations of humanism. Humanism therefore since it can be destroyed by a complete naturalism of this kind is not a self-evident proposition.

Now it is curious that this nature-continuum which denies the uniqueness of man and thereby sinks the human element in nature stands at the beginning as well as at the end of the human history which we can survey. For the primitive mind there is no demarcation between man and surrounding nature. On the contrary man and nature form one unbroken continuum. This appears primarily in the scheme by which primitive man interprets his relation to the animal. The totems of primitive tribes show that man believes in a real consanguinity between himself and certain animals and thereby in a real descent of man from the animal world. Primitive man is so to speak a pre-scientific Darwinian and the Darwinian of our time by the same token is a scientific primitive if by Darwinism we understand a popular evolutionary philosophy rather than a strictly scientific hypothesis. There is however this considerable difference between the primitive and the modern nature-continuum that in the world of primitive man the continuity is not established entirely at the cost of man. In the same measure that man is akin to the animal the animal in its turn is akin to man. For the primitive mind nature as a whole is somehow human. In this primitive world there are no “natural forces” in the present meaning of the word but only forces which are at once of a personal and in some measure of a spiritual nature. Nature behaves in a way similar to man. You can talk with it and it talks to you. All this is foreign to the conception of the modern Darwinist. Nature for him is conceived of as an object i.e. it is radically non-personal. Nature is primarily a mechanism and this is an idea entirely foreign to the primitive mind. The nature-continuum of modern times is established exclusively at the cost of man. Man has ceased to be something particular within a world which is conceived of in terms of mechanism. Therefore he is himself something like a highly-complicated mechanism. Whilst the primitive mind arrives at its scheme of continuity by the personification of nature the modern mind arrives at it by a depersonification of man. It must now be our task to discover the background of this change in trying to summarise the history of man's thought about his place in the universe.

It is by a slow process that man has overcome the primitive nature-continuum. I would suggest that the best guide for the discovery of the history of human emancipation from nature is plastic art. The continuum is still living in all that mythological art which represents natural forces understood as deities in human shape as well as in animal—such art as we find in India as well as in old Egypt and Babylon. The decisive breach within this continuum happened in two distinct places: in Israel and in Greece. Leaving apart for the moment the Biblical concept of man we may say that it is the unique contribution of the Greek mind to have abolished the animal shape of deity. In the mythological struggle of the Olympic gods against the semi- and totally bestial monsters against the figures of the dark regions there comes to the fore something of this unique inner liberation which takes place within the Greek conception of man. Man rises above the animal world; man becomes conscious of his uniqueness as a spiritual being distinct from a natural world.
But now alongside this emancipation from and destruction of the nature-continuum another process takes place expressing itself again in plastic art namely the rapprochement between deity and humanity which appears in an anthropomorphic deity and in the apotheosis of the human hero. This double process first taking place in the subconscious forms of mythology enters the full light of consciousness in philosophical reflection. Man discovers in himself that which distinguishes him from the animal and nature as a whole and elevates him above it the Nous or the Logos that spiritual principle which underlies all specifically human activity and gives man's work the character and content of human dignity. Now this Nous or Logos is at the same time the principle which links mankind with the divine; the Logos is not merely the principle of human thought and meaningful action but also that divine force which orders the world and makes it a Cosmos. It is the divine spark in human reason by which alone man emancipates himself from nature and places himself above it. It is that same divine spark in his reason in which he experiences the divinity of his innermost being. The continuum then is not broken but shifted. Just as the divine Logos permeates nature and orders it so it also permeates and orders man. But in man this divine principle becomes conscious knowledge. It is in the recognition of himself as partaker in the divine Logos that man becomes conscious of his specific essence and value; his humanity is at the same time divinity. This is the fundamental conception of Greek humanism in its conscious reflected form freed from mythology.
In Biblical revelation the continuum of primitive mind is disrupted in an entirely different manner. A three-fold barrier is erected here: the barrier between God and the world between God and man and between man and nature. God is no more the immanent principle of the world but its Lord and Creator. He the Lord-creator alone is divine. Everything which is not Himself is creature product of His will. Therefore He is opposite the world His essence His divine being is other-than-world He is the Holy One.1 That is why He does not allow Himself to be depicted in any form: “ Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image nor any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth”. But now—and this is the second barrier—it is not merely the nature-image of godhead which is forbidden to man but equally the man-image. By that same character of holiness by which God is distinguished from nature He is also distinguished from and placed opposite to man. Man in spite of every thing he has and is with all his spiritual as well as natural powers is not divine. He is a creature. The barrier which separates God and the world also separates God and man.
All the same in spite of this sharp separation from God man is not placed on the same level as the rest of the world and not seen in continuity with nature.2 Although man is not at all God and God is not at all man man is distinguished from all other creatures and elevated above them by a criterion of a specific kind. Man alone is created in the image of God. This likeness of man to God is the third barrier which is erected here. For man alone is created in the image and to the image of God. And this imago dei is the principle of Christian humanism as distinguished from Greek. At first sight it might appear as if this concept of imago dei meant something similar to the Greek idea that man is raised above the level of nature by his participation in the divine Nous or Logos dwelling in his reason. But the similarity between the two principles of humanism is merely apparent for man's being created in the image of God does not imply any kind of divine spiritual substance in man but only his relation to God. That which gives man his specific place in the Universe and specific dignity is not something which he has in his rational nature but his relation to the Creator. This relation is established by God's calling man to Himself and is realised by man's hearing this call and answering it by his own decision. That is to say between God and man there exists the relation of calling and responsibility founded in the divine Word and man's faith a faith which works through love.
Christian humanism therefore as distinguished from the Greek is of such a kind that the humane character of existence is not automatically a possession of man but is dependent on his relation to God and remains a matter of decision. The humane character of man is not guaranteed in advance like a natural disposition. It realises itself only in that answer of man which corresponds to the divine call. There is a possibility of its not realising itself but of being perverted through a false decision into an untrue inhumane humanity. Even more: not only can this happen but it has actually happened. It is the case that man has made the wrong decision and has thereby lost his true humanity and can regain it only by a new act of creation of God by redeeming grace. However even the man who has lost his true humanity has not altogether lost his distinctive human character. In spite of his wrong decision he still is and remains within that primary relation of responsibility and therefore retains—if not the truly humane content—at least the structure of human being. He is still distinguished from the rest of creation by the fact that he and he alone is a responsible person. Furthermore to this man who has lost his true humane character God by His revelation of divine redeeming love in the God-man Jesus Christ has offered the possibility of reacquiring the true image of God; and lastly to those who accept this offer in obedient faith the perfection and realisation of their eternal divine destiny is promised as the final goal of all history. That in a few words is the basis and content of Christian humanism.
Although the great difference between Christian and idealistic Greek humanism is quite obvious they have at least this in common that in both man is given a pre-eminent position in the Universe and is set over against and above nature on the sub-human level. In both man has a higher destiny lifting him above the natural sphere and functions and making him a partaker of a divine eternal meaning. In both the humanum has a rich content and is distinctly separated from the animal world.
Therefore it is not surprising that where these two great streams of humanism met each other in history they did not merely flow alongside one another but merged into one. Thus there was formed in the first centuries of our era something like a Christian-Greek or a Christian-idealistic humanism a synthesis in which sometimes the classical sometimes the Biblical element was predominant. But these two kinds of humanism were never clearly seen in their specific nature and so distinguished or separated from each other. It was only in the middle of the second millennium that a double-sided process of disentanglement or dissociation took place on the one side from a genuinely Christian or Biblical conception of man on the other side from a renewed classical idealistic humanism. The one we call Reformation the other Renaissance.3 In previous lectures we mentioned the fact that the spiritual history of recent centuries is on the whole characterised by a progressive emancipation from Biblical revelation and hence by a progressive domination of the rational element. The question which we have to answer is why this process led to a complete dissolution of humanism in the naturalist nihilism of our own day.
It is customary to answer this question by pointing to two epoch-making scientific discoveries namely the revolutionary change within the conception of the spatial universe connected with the name of Copernicus and that other no less revolutionary re-establishment of the nature continuum connected with the name of Darwin. There is no doubt that both the destruction of the geo-centric world picture and the expansion of the spatial world into the infinite as well as the doctrine of the descent of man from animal forms of life came as a tremendous shock to the generations which these discoveries took by surprise. But in both cases it has become clear that this shock was of a psychological rather than of a spiritual nature. For if we contemplate these discoveries dispassionately it becomes clear that whilst they were bound to shake the frame of the traditional world-picture they could not by their own truth destroy or even endanger the substance of humanism whether Christian or idealistic.
In defending themselves against unconsidered consequences drawn from these discoveries idealistic and Christian humanism have a common interest. They have to make clear the difference between the results of scientific research and the false interpretation of these results by a naturalistic philosophy. The Copernican destruction of geo-centricism could if I may use the phrase be easily digested both by Christian and idealistic humanism. For after all what has the assertion of the independence and superiority of man over nature to do with the quantitative extension of the spatial world or with the destruction of an astronomical geo-centricism? That man quantitatively considered is a mere nothing in the Universe was known before Copernicus and often found expressed in the language of Homer as well as in that of the Old Testament. To anyone who understands that the human character of existence is no matter of quantities but of quality the multiplication of man's quantitative disproportion with the Universe involved in the new cosmology cannot make any difference. No one has given clearer expression to this fundamental perception than Kant in calling his idealistic philosophy a reversal of the Copernican revolution.4 As the knowing subject man stands above the world which is his object whether it has the lines of the ancient or of the modern picture of the world. In a similar fashion Christian theology knowing that man's eminence is based upon God's call in His revelation understands without difficulty that this revelation is not tied up with an astrophysical geo-centricism. For those to whom it seems difficult to separate these two points of view it may be comforting to hear that modern astrophysics has as Eddington pointed out5 established a new kind of geo-centrism based on the observation that it is highly improbable that there are other celestial bodies besides our earth furnishing the conditions for the development of organic life and therefore of something like human existence. The earth then seems to have an exceptional place even in the modern world-picture. If however one likes to conceive of reasonable beings independent of organic substance it would not be difficult to relate such a view to the Biblical concept of an angelic world. However this may be the Copernican discovery and its enlargement in modern astrophysics cannot legitimately be regarded as a serious danger for any kind of humanism.
The case of Darwinism seems more dangerous. Granted that the hypothesis of the descent of man from animal forms of life has become a scientifically established fact—whether this is the case or not science alone can decide and seems as yet not to have decided definitely—does this not mean that the continuity between man and animal is established and therefore that man has lost any claim to an exceptional position? If this were so this would no doubt mean that humanism has lost its basis. The human would be nothing but a transformation of the animal. There would be no independence or superiority of the spiritual humane element no possibility of speaking of “higher” and “lower” in a qualitative or normative sense. Man would be nothing but a more differentiated animal and ethics nothing but a form of natural instinct for the preservation of the race. But once again dispassionate contemplation of the facts and their implications shows that to draw such a consequence from the zoological data is entirely illegitimate. The specifically human can never be derived from the animal even if it is true that the specifically human element begins to appear in such a minimal form that its distinction from the animal is difficult. After Darwin just as before him there is between man and animal the same unbridgeable gulf included in the concepts of spirit culture responsible personality. A concept is different from associated sensations; a logical or ethical norm is different from a fact of nature; culture and civilisation are something different from satisfying biological impulses; responsible personality is different from affective individuality. If man as zoon is a mere species of the family of mammals he is as humanus different from all animals and from all nature by just those elements which make up the humanum. Man alone produces cultural life: this is the argument of idealistic humanism. Man alone can hear the word of God: this is the argument of Christian humanism. It is not science but an unconsidered and scientifically unsound philosophical speculation which claims to have shattered the pre-eminent position of man within nature by discovering man's animal past. The true scientist experiences his exceptional position as humanus in his own field. It is the privilege of man alone to produce science to investigate truth for the sake of truth regardless of animal appetites and necessities.
If this is true and the basis of humanism has not been shaken by modern science it is all the more surprising that Copernicanism as well as Darwinism have actually produced effects within the course of spiritual history which point in the opposite direction. As a matter of fact Copernicanism in the largest sense of the word as well as Darwinism has contributed to the dissolution of humanism and to the rise of present-day nihilism. Again it is our task to try to understand this process and its causes in order to come to a true understanding of our present spiritual situation. It is to be expected that such an inquiry will produce important results. We ask first why Copernicanism has shaken the Christian Church and theology to such a degree that even in the beginning of the 18th century the government of the canton of Zürich strictly prohibited the discussion of this theory.6 Looking back the answer is not very difficult to find. Copernicanism had this effect because the Church did and had done for centuries what it should not have done. The Church had mixed up truth-of-God with world-truth. It had established and dogmatically canonised the Biblical world-picture of antiquity which because of its origin we call the Babylonian world-picture with its three stories: the flat plate of the earth; above it and on the same axis so to speak the sky or heaven; below it the underworld. This ancient World-picture is merely the vessel in which the divine revelation is given to man but has itself nothing to do with that revelation. The Church and its theology therefore were forced by science to withdraw from a realm which was not theirs. Natural science has helped the Church to understand its own truth and essence better than it had understood them in the course of preceding centuries.
Nevertheless Christian theology was not altogether wrong in its apprehension with regard to Copernicanism. Theology should not have opposed science but it was right in opposing a certain philosophical consequence drawn from the Copernican discovery within the rationalistic humanism of the time. This Renaissance humanism in its turn used the new world-picture as a weapon against the Christian doctrine of revelation as such. It used the Copernican theory as we see it for instance in the example of Giordano Bruno as a foundation of Pantheistic philosophy and mysticism.7 In the humanistic movement of emancipation from Christianity Copernican astrophysics was quite unjustifiably impressed as an ally. Again rational humanism is not alone to blame for having done this. It was the Church which by her mistaken orthodoxy had caused this error on the other side. The blow which the Church struck against Copernicus was warded off by rational humanism with a Copernican blow against the Church. However whilst the Church recognised her error in course of time the philosophy of Enlightenment the heir and successor of Renaissance humanism continued the fight on the same level and does so to this day. In this manner Copernicanism became although per nefas an important element in the formation of a de-Christianised humanism.
The case of Darwinism is analogous. Once again Christian theology confused God-knowledge and world-knowledge and fought fiercely against a strictly scientific hypothesis i.e. the theory of evolution. In particular it was Darwin's idea of man's animal origin which the Christian Church at first misconceived as a death-blow against a central Christian doctrine namely man's being created in the image of God. This error was comprehensible and pardonable because it took some hard thinking to disentangle the faith content of the imago dei doctrine from the traditional anthropological conceptions. But it was an error all the same.8 This mistaken opposition to Darwinism on the part of Christian theology has however a positive side. It was not without reason that the Church was afraid of the false and most dangerous philosophical use that would be made of this scientific discovery—a use which if it became victorious would mean no less than the end of any kind of humanism. This erroneous and in its consequences fatally dangerous exploitation of Darwin's theory took place indeed in the development of an evolutionist system of philosophy in the latter part of the 19th century. The quintessence of this was the thesis that man is nothing but a highly differentiated animal. This “nothing but” theory was indeed the end of any kind of humanism and the beginning of the naturalistic nihilism of our day.
How was this evolutionist pseudo-scientific philosophy possible? It is necessary here to return to something which we have noted in a previous connection namely to that transition from a truly idealist humanism grounded in an idealistic metaphysics to a positivistic anti-metaphysical philosophy. It is best understood if we take Kant as our starting point. From Kant's critical idealism which gave rise to such genuine forms of humanism as that of Humboldt and Schiller two very different philosophical schools developed: the absolute or speculative idealism of Fichte and Hegel on the one side and an anti-metaphysical critical philosophy on the other which led on to positivism. In Auguste Comte's Religion de l'humanité a remainder of ethical idealism survives a reflection so to speak of idealistic light without a source of its own. The same is true in thinkers like John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer. They all hold a kind of ethical idealism cut off from its roots. All these philosophers eagerly and sincerely intend to salvage some kind of humanism but cannot give it any satisfactory theoretical foundation. It was into this philosophical context that the Darwinist theory was launched and by it developed into a system of evolutionism with the essential doctrine that man is nothing but a highly differentiated animal. It is obvious— although there are still many who do not know it—that on such a basis humanism of any kind is impossible. Humanism degenerates if I may use the word into a mere hominism.9 The human becomes a mere natural datum. On such a naturalistic basis it is impossible to distinguish the human from the animal and to vindicate for man any kind of independence against nature. If the nature-continuum is the only reality there can be no spiritual norms no conscience no higher destiny. The talk of “higher” and “lower” is then a mere façon de parler; it simply means biological differentiation which as such has nothing to do with value or norm. It is then easy to understand why in the generation following Comte Mill and Spencer further development of the evolutionary system caused the last remainders of the idealistic humanism of earlier times to disappear. If man is nothing but the highly developed brain-species of the mammal-family ideas such as man's dignity personality the rights of man human destiny lose their meaning. The bankruptcy which theoretically already existed in the generation of Spencer was declared in the following decades; it only remained for the last generation to put it into execution.
The question arises: Was this inevitable and if so why? Our answer is that it was inevitable if the emancipation from Christian faith was to be carried through. We go back to the point at which the double process of dissociation set in in the form of Reformation on the one hand of Renaissance humanism on the other. The Reformation was a tremendous attempt to tear away from the traditional synthesis all those elements which were irreconcilable with a truly Biblical understanding of man and his destiny. That this attempt grand as it was in its beginning was not capable of working itself out on the scale which might have been expected is primarily due to the fact that the genuine Christian element was covered and falsified by a false orthodox absolutism which necessarily provoked the reaction of rationalistic humanism. The philosophy of the Enlightenment is in the first place an unavoidable reaction against petrified Christian orthodoxy. But why did it come about that idealistic humanism degenerated more and more into positivist naturalistic “hominism”? I think the answer must be that the germ of degeneration lies in the very foundation of idealistic humanism itself firstly in its anthropology; secondly in its metaphysics.
Idealism in order to keep its conception of man inevitably splits human personality into two parts: into an animal or sensual and a spiritual or divine part. But what am I this concrete individual man? If according to the principle principium individuationis est materia my individual personality belongs to the lower parts then it has no spiritual foundation and dignity. If however personality belongs to the divine part how then could it be individual and plural? Idealism separates spirit and nature. But am I the spirit or is the spirit my spirit? Since the days of the Stoics the attempt has been made to solve this problem by the idea of a divine spark. Man's mind is a spark of the divine spiritual fire. If that is so its combination with an individual must be a kind of banishment a state of imprisonment according to the old Pythagorean phrase: σωμα σημα (the body is a tomb). This individual spirit then must tend to reintegration in the divine spirit and individual personality is merely a provisional not an essential and definitive state of being. Then I this individual personality am destined to perish my higher part being consumed within the divine spirit my lower part going back to nature. Therefore it is not I this individual person who stand over against the natural world; but there are two general impersonal entities opposite one another the universal divine mind or reason and material nature. But I this individual Ego am destined to vanish into these two universal impersonal entities. I as personal individuality am not superior to nature my individual self is lost either way. What does it matter whether it is lost in the divine mind or in material nature? It is this doubt of the value of individual personality which is inherent in all idealism and this is one of the sources of the further degeneration. What interest can individual man have in a kind of humanism which is so disinterested in the metaphysical value of individual personality?
The second point is closely related to the first. Ancient humanism grew out of ancient religion; its metaphysics was a rational transformation of pre-Christian religion and mythology. Now this religion was destroyed by Christianity and no enthusiasm for classical Greece could revive it. Modern idealistic humanism grew out of the Christian tradition. It was so to speak a rational by-product of Christian theology. In so far as this humanism following its tendency to rationality detached itself from its Christian foundation its metaphysical content became thin and uncertain. True there were some powerful thinkers who were able to develop an idealistic metaphysic as the foundation of this humanism. But these systems were first altogether comprehensible only to a small elite of qualified thinkers and could not affect the large majority. Apart from this such a theoretical idealism was too abstract not to say abstruse to be a plausible solution of the problem of reality. Already in the first half of the 19th century this idealism had played out its rôle. It was as we have already seen only the non-metaphysical idealism which remained and which formed also the transition to that positivist philosophy which was the grave of all true humanism. An idealism which was only capable of holding fast ideal values and postulates without any foundation in being had no power of resistance against the wave of naturalist realism with its causal explanation of everything including man. Thus the emancipation from. Christianity which in the time of the Renaissance was begun with so much enthusiasm ended in a stark crude naturalism within which there was no room for genuine human values.
True Christian humanism is however still an unfinished project in a world hitherto called Christian. It is a debt which the Christian Church owes to the world to this day. Christianity cannot be exculpated from a great share of guilt in the modern attempt to found a rational humanism independent of Church dogma and Church authority. This is not the time however to portion out the guilt of the past but to find the basis of a true humanism. It is the task of the lectures which follow to show why this basis can be found only in Biblical revelation. In this lecture we have been dealing with one aspect of the problem only: man's place in the Universe.
The Christian doctrine of man's being created in the image of God does two things: it places man within nature and at the same time elevates him above it. Like’ all nature man in his totality is a creature. Just as that psalmist who had to teach us such important things about the true perspective of the world was able to reconcile both his being created by God and his origin as an embryo in his mother's womb10 so the truly Christian conception of man does not reject the idea that the human race has its origins in a pre-human realm. And just as the men speaking to us in the Bible always knew that man is as nothing in the God-created Universe a truly Christian conception of man does not exclude the idea that in the spatial Universe there is no above and no below and no middle. At the same time the Christian knows that God has called him to the dominion over all the earth because He has created man and man alone in such a way that he has to execute God's will not in blind dumb and ignorant necessity but in hearing God's word and answering Him by his own decision. In this call he recognises the deepest foundation of his personal being and his elevation over all the rest of creation. It is through this God-given dominion over nature that he is given the power and the right not merely to use natural forces but also to investigate nature by his own God-given reason. But the man who knows himself as bound by the word of the Creator and responsible to Him will not misuse his scientific knowledge of the world by using his reason to raise himself up against the Creator and to emancipate himself from Him by a false pretence of autonomy. He will not become one who detached from God is the prisoner of his own technical achievements. Of that we shall speak later on.
This doctrine of the imago dei does not however stand on its own right but is comprehensible in its deepest meaning only from the centre of divine self-revelation. Behind Christian humanism stands as its basic foundation the faith in that Man in whom both the mystery of God and the secret of man have been revealed in one; the belief that the Creator of the Universe attaches Himself to man; that He in whose creative word the whole structure of the Universe has its foundation has made known as His world purpose the restoration and perfection of His image in man; that therefore not only the history of humanity but the history of the whole Cosmos shall be consummated in God-humanity. It is this aspect of the Christian conception of man that gives him his incomparable and unique place in the Universe.
Nothing that astro-physical science has brought or will bring to light about the structure of this Universe and nothing that biological science has discovered or will discover about the connection between sub-human and human organisms can shake or even touch this truly Christian theanthropocentricism. If it is true that God created man in His image and that this image is realised in Christ's God-manhood—and faith knows this to be true—then nothing either in the sphere of nature or in that of history can uproot this humanism unless it be the loss of this faith. But where this faith is kept where it is alive in the power and purity of its origin in the revelation of the New Testament there Christian humanism does not merely consist of a humanistic conception of man and his place in the Universe but is at the same time a power which must stamp all aspects of daily life as well as cultural life at large with the mark of true humanity.