You are here

X: Christian Faith and History

X: Christian Faith and History
Christianity and History according to H. Butterfield. The Existentialist Interpretation of History and Eschatology.

(1) When we look back into the history of historiography and the different ways of understanding history we see a many-coloured picture. Indeed history can be understood as political history as well as economic or social history as the history of mind or ideas as well as the history of civilisations. All these views are legitimate but they all are one-sided and the question is whether there is a core of history from which history ultimately gains its essence and its meaning and becomes relevant. Otherwise it remains a meaningless play or a mere spectacle.

Now we have seen that the question about meaning in history cannot be answered when we ask for the meaning of history as the entire historical process as though it were like some human undertaking whose meaning we can recognise when we can survey it in its entirety. For meaning in history in this sense could only be recognised if we could stand at the end or goal of history and detect its meaning by looking backwards; or if we could stand outside history. But man can neither stand at the goal nor outside of history. He stands within history. The question about meaning in history however can be put and must be put in a different sense namely as the question about the nature the essence of history. And this brings us again to the question: What is the core of history? What is its real subject?
The answer is: man. We have already seen that this is the answer of Jacob Burckhardt: the historian has to deal with man as he is and was and ever shall be. We have seen moreover that Toynbee's valuation of religion leads of itself to the inference that the real subject of history is man. And the understanding of history by Dilthey by Croce and by Collingwood points in the same direction. Finally this answer is implicitly contained in the often repeated definition of history as the field of human actions. For to live in actions is the very essence of man.
We usually distinguish between history and nature. The course of both passes within time. But the difference is clear for history is constituted by human actions. ‘Action is distinguished from natural events in so far as it does not merely happen but has to be expressly performed borne and animated by some kind of consciousness.’1 History as the field of human actions cannot however be cut off from nature and natural events. Geographical and climatic conditions are relevant for civilisations. The historical character of peoples is although not determined nevertheless still influenced by the cold or hot climate by abundance or scarcity of water by whether they live inland or on the coast and so on. Natural events such as change of climate can bring about historical movements such as migrations or wars. The reason for such events can also be the increase of population. And from this point of view even eating and drinking belong indirectly to history although they are not historical actions as Collingwood rightly stresses. Particular events in nature such as natural catastrophes can also become of historical importance for instance when they call forth inventions. Or we may remember the thunder-clap which drove Luther into the monastery.
All these conditions and events within nature so far as they are relevant for human life and history may be called encounters (in German: ‘Widerfahrnisse’) in contrast to human actions. Indeed not only human actions but also human sufferings belong to history; in a certain sense they are also actions in so far as they are reactions.2
(2) Now when we reflect about human actions and when we consider that human actions are caused by purposes and intentions then it becomes clear that human life is always directed towards the future. As long as man lives he is never content with his present but his intentions his expectations his hopes and his fears are always stretched into the future. He can never like Goethe's ‘Faust’ say to the moment: ‘Stand still thou art so beautiful’. That means: the genuine life of man is always before him; it is always to be apprehended to be realised. Man is always on the way; each present hour is questioned and challenged by its future. That means at the same time that the real essence of all that man does and undertakes in his present becomes revealed only in the future as important or vain as fulfilment or failure. All actions are risks.
But the fact that man can either gain his genuine life or miss it includes the fact that this very thing which he is really aiming at genuineness of life is at the same time demanded from him. His genuine willing is at the same time his being obliged. The realisation of his genuine life stands before him as obligation as well as intention. The good which everyone aims at—as Socrates already saw—is at the same time the ethical law which he has to obey.
The concrete form of the demand is always determined by the present situation. Historicism is perfectly right in seeing that every present situation grows out of the past; but it misunderstands the determination by the past as purely causal determination and fails to see it as leading into a situation of questions of problems. It does not understand the present situation as the situation of decision—a decision which as our decision over against our future is at the same time our decision over against our past concerning the way in which it is to determine our future. For our past has by no means one meaning only; it is ambiguous. In consequence of its misunderstanding of the present historicism also misunderstands the future as determined by the past through causality instead of being open.
The concrete possibilities for human actions are of course limited by the situation arising from the past. Not all things are possible just as we wish them at every time. But the future is open in so far as it brings the gain or the loss of our genuine life and thereby gives to our present its character as moment of decision. Historicism in its traditional form overlooks the dangerous character of the present its character of risk. The relativity of each present moment rightly seen by historicism is therefore not relativity in the sense in which any particular point within a causal series is a relative one but has the positive sense that the present is the moment of decision and by the decision taken the yield of the past is gathered in and the meaning of the future is chosen. This is the character of every historical situation; in it the problem and the meaning of past and future are enclosed and are waiting as it were to be unveiled by human decisions.
Croce and Collingwood saw rightly that the relativity of every moment and every historical phenomenon has a positive meaning. But in understanding mind as acting reason Croce does not take into account what I have called the encounters. According to him the historian has not to deal with the irrational with sufferings catastrophes and evils or only in so far as they are occasions incitements for human activity. But he does not see that reaction is a specific kind of action that to suffer is not a purely passive kind of behaviour but that it becomes activity in so far as it means to tolerate to endure. To this extent it is an evidence of will and belongs to historicity. Croce ignores this because according to him the very essence of man is reason not primary will. But though human will is in general not without reason the will is to be esteemed as the determining factor if it is correct that human life is lived through decisions. When Collingwood calls the actions which the historian has to deal with thoughts it is not in the one-sided manner of Croce. As we have seen thought for him includes purpose and intention; he recognises the unity of willing and thinking.3 But he fails to draw all the consequences of his conception. He rightly recognises that history is the history of problems and that every historical situation contains problems whose solution is the task of the responsible present. But as with Croce his view is directed only to the problem of actions not to the problem of encounters of suffering.
In looking back to Croce and especially to Collingwood we can say that the problem of historicism is solved that the embarrassment into which historicism had led is overcome. First history is understood as the history of man. It may well be said that history is the history of mind. But mind is not realised otherwise than in human thoughts and human thoughts are ultimately intentions of individuals. The subject of history is therefore humanity within the individual human persons; therefore it may be said: The subject of history is man. Secondly the relativity of every historical situation is understood as having a positive meaning.
Modern historicism as we have seen understood the historicity of man in. such a way that it saw man bound by the historical conditions of the time in question. In this way it had the merit of awaking anew the question of the meaning of history for just this question became urgent for the individual who was taught that he is at the mercy of history. Historicism has also the merit of itself showing the way in which it is to be overcome. It has destroyed by implication the conception of the relation between historian and history as the relation between subject and object. The historian cannot see history from a neutral stand-point outside history. His seeing of history is itself a historical event. So historicism prepared the way for the deeper conception of historicity developed by Croce and Collingwood. Historicity now gains the meaning of responsibility over against the future which is at the same time the responsibility over against the heritage of the past in face of the future. Historicity is the nature of man who can never possess his genuine life in any present moment but is always on the way and yet is not at the mercy of a course of history independent of himself. Every moment is the now of responsibility of decision. From this the unity of history is to be understood. This unity does not consist in a causal connection of events nor in a progress developing by logical necessity; for the historical process falls to the responsibility of men to the decisions of the individual persons. In this responsibility as responsibility over against the past as well as over against the future the unity of history is grounded. In this sense it may be said as Croce did following the intention of Hegel that humanity is always a whole in each epoch and in each human being.
(3) But does it follow from this that the entire course of history is a field without heights and depths? That there are no differences in the historical phenomena persons and thoughts? Are we not allowed to make distinctions because the Sophists in Athens were human beings as well as Socrates and Plato? Or Cesare Borgia as well as Luther? Or an average author as well as Milton or Goethe? Or because a Gothic cathedral and a railway station in Gothic style are both expressions of human thought? By no means.
Collingwood states clearly that the re-enactment of past thought is a matter of evaluating and criticising precisely because of our responsibility.4 The events of the past cannot be established by neutral perception as facts and events in nature can be. Historical facts and events are not to be perceived but to be understood and understanding means at the same time evaluating.
But there remains one point which has not yet been considered at any rate explicitly either by Croce or by Collingwood. They are right in saying that knowledge of history is at the same time self-knowledge. Both of them understand this self-knowledge as the knowledge of oneself as historical and this means the knowledge of one's situation and of the problems the tasks and the possibilities which are contained within it. This formal definition of self is certainly correct but I do not think it is sufficient. The human person is not completely recognised so long as it is not explicitly taken into account that in the decisions of the individual there is a personal subject an I which decides and which has its own vitality. This does not mean that the I is a mysterious substance beyond or beside the historical life. Life is always within the historical movement; its genuineness stands always before it in the future. But the subject of the ever-new decisions is the same namely the I as an ever-growing and becoming an ever-increasing improving or degenerating I. Signs of this identity of the I within the flow of decisions are memory and consciousness and the phenomenon of repentance.
And we may also ask whether the decisions through which life runs are solely decisions demanded by historical situations and historical tasks. Decisions within personal encounters decisions of friendship and love or of indifference and hatred—can these be called answers to historical problems? Gratitude or personal fidelity are they answers to historical problems? Choosing a career of life prepared by one's gifts and personal encounters can that be called decision about a historical problem? Certainly all these decisions and kinds of behaviour may have consequences for history but they are not in themselves decisions over against historical problems in the sense in which Croce and Collingwood speak about historical problems. Neither are patience and endurance in sufferings or joy in beauty answers to the questions of historical situations. Self-knowledge arising from one's personal destiny may concern blessings or distresses or the threatening nearness of death but is this the same thing as the self-knowledge arising from historical reflection described by Croce and Collingwood?
It seems to me that the self in question has a further dimension which Croce and Collingwood neglect. We may call this the dimension of Personality. Its existence is recognised in my opinion by Dilthey when he tries to detect the experiences of the soul as the origin of historical works.5 And this is perhaps also intended by Jaspers when he seeks for the individual a stand-point beyond history.6 Following the hints of Dilthey Heidegger says in his analysis of the human being as temporal-historical that the human being chooses its genuine existence by resolution and is thereby brought into the simplicity of its destiny.7 Butterfield also seems to have personality in mind but does not see clearly the historicity of the human being.
For it must be stressed that what we call personality is also temporal-historical and is constant only as a possibility which is ever to be realised. Personality is not a substance behind the decisions a substance in relation to which the concrete historical decisions are only accidents. My self-understanding as personality depends on my decisions which may for the most part be unconscious made without reflection. As I have already said the I is an ever-growing ever-becoming ever-increasing entity. Personality experiences its own history within the frame of universal history and interwoven within it but nevertheless as a history which has its own meaning and is not merged into universal history.
This is the justification of autobiography which plays no rôle either in Croce or in Collingwood. In autobiography the author gives an account of the personal history of his life. Certainly autobiographies may gain an extraordinary importance for universal history as for instance the ‘Confessions’ of Augustine or of Rousseau. But this clearly shows that history has a dimension not included in the concept of it as the history of problems favoured by Croce and Collingwood. History is also moved by the personal self-understanding of the persons who are acting in history. Such personal self-understanding usually finds its expression in so-called world-views (‘Weltanschauungen’) and religions. Therefore history can also be viewed as the history of ‘Weltanschauungen’ and Dilthey is justified in distinguishing types of ‘Weltanschauungen’.
Now there can be no doubt that there is a reciprocal interaction between the so-called ‘Weltanschauungen’ and the history of problems which Croce and Collingwood have in view especially between ‘Weltanschauung’ and science. At the basis of Greek science and philosophy lies a self-understanding of man which is in turn shaped by science. In Greek tragedy this self-understanding is questioned most of all by Euripides and it eventually broke down at any rate for a great mass of people in Gnosticism. In connection with Gnosticism and at the same time in opposition to it Christianity arose.
It seems to me one cannot explain such changes purely from the viewpoint of the history of problems any more than the changes from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to the Enlightenment to Idealism and Romanticism although in all these changes the history of politics economics and science was also relevant. This explanation is impossible because all these ‘Weltanschauungen’ and religions are permanent possibilities of human self-understanding which once they have found expression in history remain as ever-present possibilities coming to life at different times in different forms. For fundamentally they are not answers to special historical problems in definite historical situations but are expressions of personal self-understanding of personality however they may be stimulated by special historical situations.
But now one may ask whether the consequence is a complete relativism whether all ‘Weltanschauungen’ and religions are expressions of possible self-understanding. The question of truth seems to disappear as in fact happens in Dilthey. Naturalistic theories then offer themselves to explain the peculiarities of the different ‘Weltanschauungen’ and religions by reducing them to geographical and general-historical conditions.
But this conclusion is not justified. From the fact that there are different possibilities of self-understanding it does not follow that they are all equally right. On the contrary the view of the different possibilities raises the question of legitimate self-understanding. How have I to understand myself? May there not be an inadequate self-understanding? May self-understanding not go astray? Can the risk of human life be escaped by possession of a ‘Weltanschauung’?
In fact the personal history of the individual clearly shows that this history has not always one consistent meaning one straight direction. It may go through repentance through doubt yes through despair. There are breaks mistakes and conversions. A so-called ‘Weltanschauung’ is genuine when it originates ever anew within changing historical situations and encounters. It cannot become an assured possession as can a result of scientific research. Mostly it is misconceived as scientific theory which can solve all the riddles of life. But it is then cut off from the ground from which alone it can grow from the personal life. In this misconception ‘Weltanschauung’ is in reality a flight from historicity.
But with this we have gained a criterion for a legitimate human self-understanding. A ‘Weltanschauung’ we may say is the more legitimated the more it expresses the historicity of the human being. Self-understanding is the more astray the more it fails to appreciate historicity and flees from its own history. Gnostic self-understanding failed in this way and so did Stoicism so far as the Stoic ideal of life was consistently conceived namely as the behaviour of the man who shuts himself off from all encounters good as well as evil in order to preserve the calm of his interior and who understands freedom only negatively as being untouched by all encounters instead of as freedom for responsible acting.
I do not intend to review the different ‘Weltanschauungen’ to discover in what measure the personality of man and his historicity is understood by them. But there can be no doubt that the radical understanding of the historicity of man has appeared in Christianity the way being prepared in the Old Testament.8 This is proved by the fact that real autobiography arose for the first time within Christianity. From this origin the understanding of the human being as historical became effective in the West and it remained vivid even when it was divorced from Christian faith and secularised as in the modern philosophy of existence which finds its extreme form in Sartre.
(4) But we have to ask: What is the peculiarity of Christian faith besides the fact that it understands the human being as historical? Christian faith believes that man does not have the freedom which is presupposed for historical decisions. In fact I am always determined by my own past by which I have become what I am and of which I cannot get rid of which in the last resort I am unwilling to be rid although unconsciously. For everyone refuses to give himself up without reservation. Certainly everyone can be conscious of his responsibility and has a relative freedom in the moments of decision. But if he recognises that this freedom is only a relative one that means that his freedom is limited by himself as he is coined by his past. Radical freedom would be freedom from himself. The man who understands his historicity radically that is the man who radically understands himself as someone future or in other words who understands his genuine self as an ever-future one has to know that his genuine self can only be offered to him as a gift by the future. Usually man strives to dispose over the future. And indeed his very historicity misleads him to this attempt because his historicity includes responsibility for the future. His responsibility awakes the illusion of having power of disposal. In this illusion man remains ‘the old man’ fettered by his past. He does not recognise that only the radically free man can really take over responsibility and that he is not allowed to look round for guarantees not even the guarantees of a moral law which take off or lighten the weight of responsibility as it is expressed in Luther's famous words: pecca fortiter. Man has to be free from himself or to become free from himself. But man cannot get such freedom by his own will and strength for in such effort he would remain ‘the old man’; he can only receive this freedom as gift.
Christian faith believes that it receives this gift of freedom by which man becomes free from himself in order to gain himself. ‘Whoever will save his life shall lose it but whoever will lose his life shall find it.’ The truth of this statement is not yet realised when it is only comprehended as general truth. For man cannot say this word to himself it must be said to him—always individually to you and to me. Just this is the meaning of the Christian message. It does not proclaim the idea of the grace of God as a general idea but addresses and calls man and imparts to him the grace of God which makes him free from himself.
This message knows itself to be legitimated by the revelation of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. According to the New Testament Jesus Christ is the eschatological event the action of God by which God has set an end to the old world. In the preaching of the Christian Church the eschatological event will ever again become present and does become present ever and again in faith. The old world has reached its end for the believer he is ‘a new creature in Christ’. For the old world has reached its end with the fact that he himself as ‘the old man’ has reached his end and is now ‘a new man’ a free man.
It is the paradox of the Christian message that the eschatological event according to Paul and John9 is not to be understood as a dramatic cosmic catastrophe but as happening within history beginning with the appearance of Jesus Christ and in continuity with this occurring again and again in history but not as the kind of historical development which can be confirmed by any historian. It becomes an event repeatedly in preaching and faith. Jesus Christ is the eschatological event not as an established fact of past time but as repeatedly present as addressing you and me here and now in preaching.
Preaching is address and as address it demands answer decision. This decision is obviously something other than the decisions in responsibility over against the future which are demanded in every present moment. For in the decision of faith I do not decide on a responsible action but on a new understanding of myself as free from myself by the grace of God and as endowed with my new self and this is at the same time the decision to accept a new life grounded in the grace of God. In making this decision I also decide on a new understanding of my responsible acting. This does not mean that the responsible decision demanded by the historical moment is taken away from me by faith but it does mean that all responsible decisions are born of love. For love consists in unreservedly being for one's neighbour and this is possible only for the man who has become free from himself.
It is the paradox of Christian being that the believer is taken out of the world and exists so to speak as unworldly and that at the same time he remains within the world within his historicity. To be historical means to live from the future. The believer too lives from the future; first because his faith and his freedom can never be possession; as belonging to the eschatological event they can never become facts of past time but are reality only over and over again as event; secondly because the believer remains within history. In principle the future always offers to man the gift of freedom; Christian faith is the power to grasp this gift. The freedom of man from himself is always realised in the freedom of historical decisions.
The paradox of Christ as the historical Jesus and the ever-present Lord and the paradox of the Christian as an eschatological and historical being is excellently described by Erich Frank: ‘… to the Christians the advent of Christ was not an event in that temporal process which we mean by history today. It was an event in the history of salvation in the realm of eternity an eschatological moment in which rather this profane history of the world came to its end. And in an analogous way history comes to its end in the religious experience of any Christian “who is in Christ”. In his faith he is already above time and history. For although the advent of Christ is an historical event which happened “once” in the past it is at the same time an eternal event which occurs again and again in the soul of any Christian in whose soul Christ is born suffers dies and is raised up to eternal life. In his faith the Christian is a contemporary of Christ and time and the world's history are overcome. The advent of Christ is an event in the realm of eternity which is incommensurable with historical time. But it is the trial of the Christian—that although in the spirit he is above time and world in the flesh he remains in this world subject to time; and the evils of history in which he is engulfed go on.… But the process of history has gained a new meaning as the pressure and friction operate under which the Christian has to refine his soul and under which alone he can fulfil his true destiny. History and the world do not change but man's attitude to the world changes.’10
In the New Testament the eschatological character of the Christian existence is sometimes called ‘sonship’. F. Gogarten says: ‘Sonship is not something like an habitus or a quality but it must be grasped ever and again in the decisions of life. For it is that towards which the present temporal history tends and therefore it happens within this history and nowhere else.’ Christian faith just ‘by reason of the radical eschatological character of the salvation believed in never takes man out of his concrete worldly existence. On the contrary faith calls him into it with unique sobriety.… For the salvation of man happens only within it and nowhere else.’11
We have no time to describe how Reinhold Niebuhr in his stimulating book Faith and History (1949) endeavours to explain the relation between faith and history in a similar way. Nor have we time to dispute with H. Butterfield's thought developed in his book Christianity and History. Although I do not think he has clearly seen the problem of historicism and the nature of historicity his book contains many important statements. And I agree with him when he says: ‘Every instant is eschatological’.12 I would prefer however to say: every instant has the possibility of being an eschatological instant and in Christian faith this possibility is realised.
The paradox that Christian existence is at the same time an eschatological unworldly being and an historical being is analogous with the Lutheran statement simul iustus simul peccator. In faith the Christian has the standpoint above history which Jaspers like many others has endeavoured to find but without losing his historicity. His unworldliness is not a quality but it may be called aliena (foreign) as his righteousness his iustitia is called by Luther aliena.
We started our lectures with the question of meaning in history raised by the problem of historicism. We have seen that man cannot answer this question as the question of the meaning in history in its totality. For man does not stand outside history. But now we can say: the meaning in history lies always in the present and when the present is conceived as the eschatological present by Christian faith the meaning in history is realised.13 Man who complains: ‘I cannot see meaning in history and therefore my life interwoven in history is meaningless’ is to be admonished: do not look around yourself into universal history you must look into your own personal history. Always in your present lies the meaning in history and you cannot see it as a spectator but only in your responsible decisions. In every moment slumbers the possibility of being the eschatological moment. You must awaken it.

From the book: