X: The Christian Idea of Civilisation And Culture
We have spoken so far in the first series of these lectures about the foundation of civilisation and in the earlier lectures of this series about some spheres of civilised or cultural life. We now go back to the question with which we started: what is a Christian civilisation? We have seen how problematic this concept is. We have stated that there never was in a strict sense a Christian civilisation and that what is usually called by that name is a compromise between Christian and non-Christian forces. We have now come to the point where it may be possible to sketch something like the Christian idea of civilisation or culture. By the two terms civilisation and culture we understand something typically and exclusively human; man alone is capable of producing it. Whatever astonishing analogies may be found in the life of animals—the beaver-dam the state of the ants the so-called language and games of the animals—they are mere analogies and not beginnings of cultured and civilised life because they are all tied to biological necessities as nourishment procreation and shelter. Man alone can transcend these necessities by his creative imagination and by the idea of something which is not yet but ought to be; by the ideas of the good of justice beauty perfection holiness and infinitude. It is true that even human civilisation and culture are related to biological necessity and have their basis within natural organic life which is common to us and the animals. But even where man is tied to biological necessity he acts in a way which transcends mere utility and gives his doings a human stamp. He does not “feed” like the animals he eats; he ornaments his vessels his instruments his house he establishes and observes fine customs he explores truth irrespective of utility he creates beautiful things for the sheer joy of beauty. He orders his relations according to ideas of justice and liberty. He masters power by law he sacrifices time energy and life for ideas and ideals. All this is civilisation and culture. Therefore we can define them as that formation of human life which has its origin not in mere biological necessity but in spiritual impulses. Wherever spirit transcending the physical urge enters the scene of life as a formative force there civilisation and culture comes into existence.
These spiritual impulses and formative forces are of the most varied kinds. The impulse to create the beautiful to realise justice to know the truth to preserve the past to enter into spiritual communication to invent the new to extend the range of human intercommunion to share the sufferings and joys of others; the impulse to submit the totality of life to ultimate directives and give it a meaning unity and intelligibility and finally to place everything under the divine will and receive it from the hands of God—all these are impulses out of which culture and civilisation arise.
All the same we should not idealise culture and civilisation as is done so often. These spiritual motives although transcending biological necessity are mixed with egoism lust for power and ambition. They are in competition with each other one motive trying to displace the others and to monopolise life. Artistic or scientific impulses can be mixed with irresponsibility inhuman hardness and brutality. The scientist can be blind to art the artist to science and both can be indifferent to moral or religious truth. Religion can become fanatical and cruel it can hamper or even cripple art science technics community by its prejudices. Although all these spiritual elements transcend the biological urge none of them as such is a guarantee of true full humanity. Everyone of them can become a parasite in relation to the others or an idol or a caricature. The intensity and height of cultural achievement therefore is no sure mark of a truly human life. Intensity can be in conflict with harmony or totality. And this conflict can assume the most evil and ugliest forms of the struggle for life. Spiritual energy combined with lust for power and egoism gives the animal instincts a demoniac power unknown in the animal realm. The means which technics and organisation planning and association give to the human will can produce a kind of civilisation which although it is still characteristic of man can lead into catastrophes that may amount to a suicide of humanity.
All these dark aspects belong to the character of human civilisation which is the civilisation of sinful men. Civilisation and culture then are not in themselves the opposite of evil and depravity. They can become the very instruments of evil and negative forces as they have always been to a certain extent. Culture and civilisation although they belong exclusively to man are not in themselves the truly human. True without culture and civilisation man cannot be human but in themselves they do not guarantee the truly human character of life. That is what we have called in a previous connection the formal character of civilisation. Wherever spirit expresses itself there is civilised life; but what kind of a spirit creates that civilisation or culture is another question. Culture is an expression of the spirit a formation by spiritual impulse but this spiritual impulse can originate from the most different sources and therefore is no guarantee of inner unity.
The question then arises whether there exists a spiritual impulse capable of relating all the other impulses in the right proportions and unifying them in such a way as to produce a truly human life. Does there exist an understanding of man which gives to all the elements of human life—the biological economic technical scientific artistic individual social and communal—their full chance and which at the same time subdues all of them to that which guarantees true humanity? Furthermore is this understanding of man if it exists of such a kind that it is capable of functioning as an organising dynamic so that it is not a mere idea but a directing power? As a result of our investigations we can give a positive answer to these questions. This conception of man is implicit in the Christian faith in its New Testament purity and dynamic.
The Christian faith alone views man as a spiritual-bodily unit whose powers and impulses originating from his physical nature and from his spiritual disposition are all co-ordinated in such a way that they are subordinated to a human destiny which transcends both the natural and the spiritual life and is directive of both. “All are yours and ye are Christ's and Christ is God's.” “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat”—only from the tree in the middle of the garden the tree of the divine mystery by reservation of the holy God man shall not eat. All that is creature is in a specific way subordinated to man but he himself with all his life and powers is subordinated to God who is holy love and who destines men for communion with Himself and with each other. Man is created to subdue and have dominion over all creation but “whether you eat or drink or whatsoever you do do all to the glory of God”. This is the programme of life given to men by the Creator: free development of all their powers free use of all the means under the dominion of the One who gives all and ordains all to Himself.
Now before we go on to enlarge this Biblical idea of culture some questions have to be taken up which obtrude themselves from the standpoint of history. As we have seen in our first lecture the New Testament shows very little interest in the specific tasks of civilisation and culture. How then can faith which seems so indifferent to culture be its basis? Our answer is twofold. First it is true that the main concern of the New Testament message is not culture or civilisation not the temporal but the eternal not the earthly but the heavenly life. The Gospel is not focussed on culture but on the world-to-come. “This world passes away” and with it civilisation. Christian faith indeed is alive only where the life with God in Christ and the eternal kingdom of God is the centre of interest. “Seek ye first His kingdom and His righteousness.” The kingdom of God is not human civilisation. It stands above both the physical and the cultural life. That is the first thing which has to be said. The second point however which must be repeated is that this perspective of the kingdom of God does not alienate men from their temporal life. Faith in the kingdom and in eternal life does not make men indifferent to the tasks which earthly existence lays upon them. On the contrary the Christian is summoned to tackle them with special energy and his faith gives him the power to solve these problems better than he could without faith. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God \… and these things shall be added unto you.” It is precisely the man whose first concern is not culture but the kingdom of God that has the necessary distance from cultural aims and the necessary perspective to serve them in freedom and to grasp that order which prevents the various sections of civilisation from monopolising the totality of life. Only from beyond civilisation can its order and harmony come.
It is a humanistic superstition to believe that the man to whom culture is everything is the true bearer of culture. The opposite is true. Culture necessarily degenerates where it is made God. Culture-idolatry is the sure road to cultural decay. If culture is to become and to remain truly human it must have a culture-transcending centre. Man is more than his culture. Culture is means and tool but not the essence of human life. It is not culture that gives man his humanity but it is the human man that creates a human culture. That is why it is a grave error to think that the Christian faith is the enemy of culture or at least indifferent to it because it so emphatically accentuates the culture-transcending centre of life.
But what is the verdict of history? I think that correctly interpreted it confirms what has just been said. It is true that there have been Christian movements showing a kind of cultural asceticism that there have been times when faith and theological interest absorbed men to such a degree that they neglected their cultural obligations. It is true that the Christian Church has sometimes obstructed the development of science or other cultural functions. While we are not justified in taking these negative facts too lightly we are obliged on the other hand to beware of rash inferences. We have always to make sure first whether it is really Christian faith that acts and secondly whether it is really cultural values that are at stake. In Occidental history so many things have usurped the name of “Christian” which were only half Christian or pseudo-Christian. On the other hand so many things have been postulated in the name of cultural necessity that were pseudo-cultural. Because it is of the nature of sin that one branch of life wants to develop at the cost of another equally important and because it is a temptation for the cultured man to idolise culture and thereby deprive it of its truly human character it must always be the foremost interest of the Christian to proclaim faith and love as the source and norm of all true humanity. By doing this he does in the long run the best service to culture.
Finally there is always a certain tendency in cultural humanism to understand spirit and culture in such a way that so-called “higher” culture becomes detached from every-day life from marriage and family from civic order and from social obligations. Such a humanism is inclined to forget that the soundness of family life is the basis of all true civilisation that justice and freedom in public life are necessary presuppositions of all higher culture. There is a certain aristocracy of spirit which has little interest in popular education or in the task of giving a real meaning to the work of the ordinary man and which focusses all its interest on science art and so-called higher culture. Such an attitude proves detrimental to real culture. It is at this point that the importance of the Christian view of life becomes particularly obvious. All this makes the question of the relations between historical Christianity and civilisation so complicated that it is hardly possible to reach a final judgment. On one point however we can speak without reserve: the history of civilisation during the last hundred years has made clear beyond any doubt that the progressive decline of Christian influence has caused a progressive decay of civilisation. But even that may remain doubtful to one who personally has no understanding of what Christian faith means.
These preliminaries being settled we can now proceed to develop a little further the Christian idea of culture and civilisation. We start from the statement that human culture presupposes human man. It is not culture that makes man human but it is human man who makes culture human. This order of things is given with the Christian faith. Man comes first not civilised life. Man becomes human not by culture and civilisation but by understanding his human destiny. In the Christian revelation the destiny of man is love. The measure of culture is personality; more exactly person-in-communion. Creative individuality is no equivalent of personal life in community. God is love—that is the centre of the Christian message and this doctrine is exclusively Christian. Love is the first and the last the ultimate reality being the very essence of God. Love is not one amongst others not one virtue alongside other virtues; love is no virtue at all: it is true humanity as it is the essence of God. This love agapé in the New Testament sense is no natural disposition. It is acquired by faith. Man is created for this love: that is why he has a longing for it. But in spite of this natural longing man does not have it by birth he has to receive it as a supernatural gift. By this his eternal destiny man is culture-transcending. The meaning of his life is not in culture; on the contrary it is his task to express and to realise this culture-transcending destiny in his cultural life. Culture then is means expression tool of true humanity but not its origin and aim.
The first consequence of this conception of life is that the most important thing in life is the relation between man and man. Therefore it is not impersonal spiritual activity it is not spiritual creation as such but it is the formation of truly personal social relationships which is the basis of true culture. There is more real culture in a truly human family life without art and science than in the highest achievements of art and science on the basis of neglected family life and degenerate sex-relations.
The second consequence of Christian anthropology is the acknowledgment of man's bodily-spiritual unity. In contrast with idealistic humanism Christian faith does not despise the body and the bodily needs. The Christian doctrine of incarnation obliges the Christian to take the body and its needs seriously and gives him the double task of incorporating the spirit and spiritualising the bodily life. Spirituality detached from the concerns of the body contradicts the Biblical doctrine of creation and produces an abstract kind of culture. The Christian understanding of corporal-spiritual unity has two consequences. First it places the body under the direction of the spirit. Second it takes seriously the problems of manual work economy and material property. From this point of view a decent and meaningful order of every-day life and healthy economic conditions are important criteria of true civilisation. A well-ordered estate with dignified houses of simple beauty and a carefully-managed farm is a surer indication of true culture than a marvellous university a famous academy of art in the midst of a peasant or industrial proletariat. The Christian ethos has—paradoxical as this may appear—a strongly bourgeois trait if we understand this word in its original sense of well-ordered citizenship. In the New Testament eschatology—which certainly is the very opposite of anything bourgeois—is combined with a sober and earnest ethic of work and an intention to equalise social conditions. One might say with Kierkegaard that this bourgeois element is the necessary outward incognito of the essentially anti-bourgeois heart and mind of the Christian.
The primacy of personal relations as distinguished from purely abstract spiritual creativity has another important consequence. In the Christian conception of sin it is not sensuality but egoism and pride which hold the first place. That is why those dangers which come from lust of power are taken most seriously and why a high premium is placed upon good government and public justice. Social relations cannot be in accordance with human dignity if this lust for power is not kept within firm barriers in economic as well as in political life. To lead a truly human life man must have an intangible sphere of freedom guaranteed by law. For this reason the Cnristian must regard civic order security and a certain homogeneity in the sphere of economics as an important criterion of cultural soundness. Wherever public institutions give evidence of the will to form human life as a community of free personalities there is culture.
From the same source derives the high valuation of tradition and social custom. These conservative forces which limit the freedom of the individual however are not without strong counter-weights originating from the Christian hope of a new world. It may be said perhaps that in the Christian view of a good life the conservative elements are stressed so much because otherwise the eschatological perspective of the Christian faith might lead to an illusionist revolutionary attitude. On the other hand tradition and social custom are an expression of the sense of responsibility and mutual obligation. They represent the element of solidarity and loyalty helping the individual—if they are not stressed too much—to acquire mature independence.
One of the most obvious contributions of Christianity to civilised life is its pre-eminent interest in education and instruction. Again the Christian view of education is characterised by its personalism. It is not knowledge and ability which stand in the first rank but education of responsible personality and social training. Wherever Christian tradition has been alive it has influenced the educational life of the nations in this direction. In contrast with it the dechristianisation of Continental Europe as the result first of an abstract spiritualism of a humanistic type and later on of materialistic utilitarianism have resulted in an almost complete neglect of the personal and social element in education and in the preponderance of abstract educational aims such as knowledge and professional ability. Pestalozzi's idea of education deeply rooted in the Christian understanding of life and therefore putting responsible personality and love in the first place has been entirely misunderstood or neglected in spite of its fame.
It is only in the last place in a Christian programme of civilisation that we find what in the humanistic programme comes first: the so-called higher culture embracing the purely spiritual elements such as science and art. The expression “higher culture” is justified in so far as in this realm the activity of the spirit is most remote from animalic urge and biological necessity. It is also and for the same reason the field of a spiritual élite. It is the realm of spiritual creativity. While in principle everyone can be good only a few can be creative; the creative genius is the exception and it is he who produces the works of which we mostly think when speaking of culture. It is however characteristic of the Christian conception of culture and civilisation to give these peak manifestations less importance than does idealistic humanism for it is not science art and spiritual activity which give life its truly human content but love.
This specific order of values however does not prevent the Christian from giving art and science as well as so-called higher education a characteristic aim and meaning. Science as the search for truth and art as the creation of the beautiful are given the highest possible meaning: divine service. Wherever truth is known something of the mystery of creation is revealed. The true scientist is a servant of God. To know and to acknowledge God is not a hindrance but on the contrary a help in the search for truth. It keeps us from false absolutism and relativism from idolatry of reason and from sceptical despair. The scientist working like Kepler under highest command and for the honour of God is free from mean ambition and jealousy. The same is true of the artist. There is nothing which ennobles and purifies his creative powers so much as the conviction that he is a servant of God called to praise the Creator and to manifest the secret which unites spirit and nature. It need not be proved because it is proved already by history that art can never rise higher than the point where the artist takes his highest inspiration devoutly as a gift of the Creator. There alone art is safeguarded from false aestheticism and idolatry of genius as well as from that formalism and barbarism which lead to the ruin of art.
The second direction which Christian faith gives to the higher culture is service of man. To be sure science remains sound only where it is not dominated by the principle of utility. Art degenerates if it becomes subservient to any aim outside of itself. Purpose-free science and purpose-free art are identical with true science and true art. All the same if this is taken as the last word a perilous dualism results; somewhere there must be a unity between truth and beauty on the one side and the good life on the other. This connection however must be very high if it is not to degrade art and science. This highest unity is God. God is the origin of truth and beauty as well as the Creator of nature and the body and the source of the moral order. Apart from God there is no possibility of uniting the principle of service with the principle of disinterested search for truth and beauty. God alone theonomy is the guarantee that such disinterested quest such “autonomy” of science and art does not contradict ethical standards.
It is not at all necessary that art in order to honour God must be “religious” art or Church art; neither is it necessary that science should be subordinated to theology. Science and art serve men best if they remain true to their own laws. They must be “autonomous”. But if this autonomy is ultimate final it cannot but degenerate into sterile inhuman intellectualist “scientism” and into l’art pour l’art aestheticism. If however their autonomy is understood as theonomy they keep their independence and yet are united to natural life and ethical principles by a unity standing above all of them. This is not mere theory but historical experience. It is what we have learnt from the greatest men of science and of art. Filled with reverence for God the ultimate source of truth and beauty they remained true to the immanent law of truth and beauty. And in doing so they served their fellow men much better than by any direct subordination to moral or utilitarian requirements. That is to say the different spheres of higher culture have their autonomy but at the same time they are linked with each other not directly not horizontally but vertically communicating with each other only by reference to the same source of their autonomy.
One last characteristic trait of the Christian idea of civilisation and culture relates to these two words as such. Why do we need two words and which should take precedence? As everyone knows there is a remarkable difference again between the German use of the words on the one hand and the English and French use on the other. In German it has become customary to think of Zivilisation
as something much lower than Kultur
meaning primarily the technical aspect of what the English and French call civilisation. This degradation of “civilisation” is the result of that onesided idealistic spiritualisation which puts the purely spiritual things in the first place calling them “higher” culture. The French and particularly the English use of words however is based on the high estimate of the civic element in all civilisation the social and political element of justice and freedom without which no true culture can exist. We need not repeat what has already been said in favour of this latter conception. It is a Christian heritage. Because in the Christian conception of man the relation between man and man is more important than the so-called “higher” culture the problems of social and political order and above all those of marriage family and education are basic in the Christian conception of civilisation and culture. We cannot put so-called higher culture in the first place and therefore we cannot agree that civilisation be subordinated to culture. If we had to use one word only we would rather use the word civilisation than the word culture as we have done so far.
Having thus sketched the Christian idea of civilisation in rough outline we can now in conclusion turn back to the very beginning of our lectures to the question: What are the chances of a Christian civilisation in our age? The prospect seems to be very bad indeed and we should not in closing make ourselves guilty of a false and facile optimism. Yet pessimism cannot be our attitude either. There is a German proverb: Des Menschen Verlegenheiten sind Gottes Gelegen-heiten.1
The terrible perspectives which are placed before us by the dechristianisation of the world during the past two centuries have opened the eyes of many of our contemporaries to the true foundations of civilisation and to the importance of the Christian tradition. It is not only the physicists and technicians terrified by their latest results that have become conscious of the imminent peril of human civilisation and are looking out for a new spiritual basis of life but also the jurists the sociologists the psychologists and—last not least—the artists and poets. The lowest point of secularisation seems to be behind us. In all spheres of civilised life there is a new search for the foundation of a really human civilisation and in this search the Christian tradition is rediscovered. I do not prophesy an epoch of general return to Christianity any more than I accept the myth of the Christian culture of the past. If I did I should be guilty of a new kind of determinism mistaking for predictable necessity what is a matter of decision. Mankind is confronted with a decision of incomparable consequence. All we can say is this: the decision may
be made in the right sense there is nothing impossible about it; but whether it will
be taken in the right sense nobody can know. It is sufficient that everyone who sees it should do what is required of him.