Christianity Beyond Civilisation
The gospel of the redemption and salvation of the world in Jesus Christ is not meant to be a programme for any kind of civilisation or culture. Civilisation and culture even at their best are temporal; they belong to this earthly life. The gospel however is the revelation of eternal life. Civilisations and cultures come and go just as man in his visible appearance comes and goes. But man as a person is not meant to pass away; he is destined by the Creator for eternity. That is why he is more than any culture or civilisation. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the revelation of this his destiny beyond and above historical life. To believe in this gospel means to be incorporated into the invisible world which is “beyond” and “above” the visible that world the full manifestation of which will be the end of this visible historical world with all its civilisations and cultures.
That is why the first and main concern of the Christian can never be civilisation and culture. His main concern is his relation to God in Jesus Christ that life which is “hid with Christ” his sharing in God's forgiving mercy in the fellowship with those who also like himself have become participants of God's revelation and redemption and of his firm hope in the fulfilment of God's promise of the eternal kingdom. This Christian faith therefore cuts across all forms of historical life with their different forms of civilisation good and bad. It is not identical with any of them and none of them can ever be thought of as its adequate expression All the differences between forms of civilised and cultural life are relative whilst their distance from the eternal kingdom of God is absolute.
The Christian then and the fellowship of the Christians are ultimately independent of all the changes—for good or evil—within the sphere of civilisation. They stand on a rock which no historical changes can move. Even the most terrifying anticipations for the further development of civilisation cannot—ultimately—shake neither can any progress towards good confirm—ultimately—their faith in the final goal which God has set for all his universe and all mankind. The things of civilisation and culture even their best belong to “the flesh which cannot inherit immortal life”. The Christian Church knows that no progress in the sphere of civilisation and culture can reach that goal of history beyond history and that no setbacks not even the complete destruction of civilised life can deflect history from that ultimate goal which is beyond itself. In this sense then the Christian faith is indeed “other-worldly” and the Church should not be ashamed of saying so.
It is by this other-worldliness that true Christianity is “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”. It is by its independence of the course of history that it can best serve the cause of a truly human civilisation and culture. It is by her very other-worldliness that the primitive Church of the first centuries gave the impulses for the best of those new forms of life which with caution may be called Christian civilisation. It is the paradox of the Christian existence that its other-worldliness proves to be the strongest force of renewal and preservation in the different domains of cultural life. Why this is so and how we have tried to show in these lectures. God wants us to be in this world and to do our best in humanising and personalising its life. But we can render this service only when we know that this is not our primary but only our secondary task as we keep ourselves free from all illusions of universal progress and of despair in sight of general degeneration and dissolution. Utopias are poor substitutes for real hope and despair is their almost necessary concomitant. In all times of Christian history it was those Christian men and groups of men who did not believe in progress who did the most to move the world in real progress. This creative and constructive contribution of Christianity to civilisation is so to speak a mere by-product of real Christian faith but it is a necessary by-product by which its deeper reality can be gauged.
The problems of our present-day civilisation are so grave and pressing that even Christians may think it their duty to make them their primary concern and to consider belief in eternity as a kind of luxury. They are utterly wrong. The problems of our day have become so incomparably complicated and difficult just because people do not believe in eternal life any more. They are seized by a kind of time-panic. Not believing in the eternal Kingdom they try to make this world a paradise and by doing so they create a state of things which is more akin to hell than to heaven. The loss of real hope i.e. hope in eternal life creates utopias and utopias may be considered as one of the main roots of our present-day chaos. If man loses the real hope he has to choose between illusions and despair and mostly he vacillates between the two in a spiritual condition which the psychiatrists describe as “depressive-maniac”.
The real Christian is sober in his expectation for and from this temporal world. He knows that it cannot transcend its limits of death and sin. He knows also that it is the place where God can do marvellous things. He feels himself called upon by his Lord as His instrument by Whom he wants to do those things which man without the divine faith love and hope cannot do. Still he knows that by all his doings the most he can achieve is to “salt” and to “leaven” the world but not to save it from death and sin. And if he is a real Christian he always is deeply conscious of his own shortcomings.
The Christian faith and hope in eternal life has been discredited not without reason during the last century through having been used as a cheap substitute for justice and social responsibility. We cannot blame the Marxists for calling religion an “opium for the people” because that is what they all too often found it to be. There is indeed a false Christian other-worldliness which has done more harm to the cause of Christ than most other vices of Christian individuals and groups. But abusus non tollit usum
. The false understanding of other-worldliness does not make the true other-worldliness false. Christianity which is no more other-worldly has ceased to be Christian. This other-worldliness is the root of true realism which hopes and works in and for this world without illusion and without despair.
God has created man for both this world and the world to come. He therefore made him capable of creating civilisation and culture and gave him the final destiny beyond them. It is the knowledge of this final destiny which makes Christianity capable of giving civilisation and culture an element which otherwise they do not have the element of radical personalism and communalism which are at bottom the same thing. A civilisation and a culture as it would grow out of a truly Christian community would be characterised by personalism and communalised creativity. But this very personalism and communalism is entirely the outcome of that faith and hope which have their roots as well as their aim beyond history.