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10. What is Secularization?

Quite naturally, our story has brought us back to the starting point, to the questions and concerns of our own time. The present lecture, the last of the first series, is to be devoted to a consideration of what we have learnt on our way through history.

First of all, I must say what this lecture is not meant to be.

To begin with, it raises no claim to provide any sort of therapy for the dangerous sufferings of the modern world. It is meant to be a contribution towards a diagnosis. Let me dwell on this medical metaphor for a moment. Therapy and diagnosis stand in a characteristically complementary relationship to each other. In therapy, the doctor must frequently make hasty decisions and carry them through with a firm hand; the sickness does not slacken its progress, and the patient is usually a weak man, who needs a halt to be made. Diagnosis, on the other hand, is hardly ever finished. It demands constant observation, imagination, self-criticism and unwearying patience, as the human organism is immensely complicated. It is unprincipled to begin therapy without having made the best possible diagnosis. But the best possible diagnosis at one moment is often enough not the final diagnosis; the diagnostic work must continue during therapy and often benefits decisively from the reactions of the sick man to therapy.

If humanity is the patient and its sickness consists in the crisis of the life of an epoch, no individual can be the doctor. Many try their hand at the cure.

Anyone who takes part in this attempt, alone or in a group, must know that therapy is only possible through resolute, clear and perspicacious action. This is true no matter whether the action be concerned with the education of the individual, the creation of advantageous social conditions, or high politics. If I may once again speak more personally here than is perhaps usual in academic lectures, I would say that such action seems to me to be absolutely necessary, and that I, together with other likeminded people, have been and continue to be ready for it. But it is not the aim of these lectures to suggest possible ways and means.

On the other hand, however, these lectures have not been given out of a purely theoretical interest, but out of just that pragmatic concern which is hinted at in the word diagnosis. How often have I found in educational, social and political groups and theories, engaged in furious disputes with one another, a sincere good-will, a deep concern for our whole future, and a readiness to give a great deal of active help, as well as the inevitable human weaknesses, on both sides. This observation once again confronts anyone who has once begun to free himself from the prejudices of his own group, with the horrifying question: “In that case, who has made the right diagnosis?” Further observation often enough shows that the competing diagnoses indeed contradict each other in formulation, but not so much in structure, and that each party in the dispute fails to understand not only the opposing party, but also itself, with any degree of accuracy. With this observation, the disputing parties themselves become patients instead of ostensibly being doctors: the diagnosis of their own condition becomes vitally important. Why can the doctors of our own age so seldom help themselves? Why do they not recognize their own illness? Considerations of this kind have moved me to the questions which I will put in this last lecture.

It therefore follows, secondly, that this lecture does not even claim to give the correct diagnosis of our age. Indeed, its immediate effect must be precisely the opposite; if it should have any truth in it, it can at first only make the putting forward of diagnoses more difficult. It seeks to recognize at a new level of reflection the common strengths and common weaknesses of those diagnostic modes of thought which deserve to be taken most seriously to day, namely, to use catch-phrases, the ecclesiastical, the liberal and the Marxist modes of thought. The hint that there is possibly such a plane of knowledge must suffice as our present aim.

The practical significance of this knowledge will not consist in the final establishment of the correct diagnosis in place of the false ones. It is much more likely that it could loosen the dependence of our therapeutic exertions on one-sided diagnostic theories, i.e. the dependence of our social and political attitudes on dogmatically maintained doctrines. Perhaps, however, I may be permitted to prepare the way in the present lecture for a completely different trend, not the trend towards practical work, indispensable though it is, but that towards a stricter kind of theory. The second series of these lectures is in fact meant to give not a historical, but a systematic examination of the basic concepts of modern science.

Finally, just one remark on the form of the lectures. As the even flow of a historical narrative, only occasionally flavoured with reflection, is now giving way to a more abstract train of thought, I am attempting to make the division of this and later lectures clearer by sub-titles and résumés of the content. The main theme of the present lecture is that of secularization. This will be introduced in section (A), and in section (B) applied to modern political revolutions as being the most important example of it. In (C), the ambivalence which we already discovered in the first lecture to be a mark of our contemporary faith in science will turn out to be a characteristic feature of secularization in general. I will follow it right back into early Christian history and rediscover it particularly in the Christian idea of chiliasm, the belief in a coming thousand-year reign of Christ on this earth. Section (D) will look for the chiliastic features in the modern belief in progress. The attempt to understand Marx will bring us to Hegel, who sketched out a basic pattern of historical understanding as a whole. This pattern, discussed in section (E), is ambiguous for us to a special degree: on the one hand it contains ideas which even our own analysis simply cannot abandon; on the other hand, it seems to be as it were the summit of that modern Titanism of which the faith in science of our days might almost be said to be just a harmless offspring. From this background in (F) I attempt to understand Marx, and in (G) once again return to the ambivalence of the success of the modern age.

Finally, in (H) I take advantage of this description of secularization to reflect one last time on its significance, on the one hand with the means of Christian theology, on the other in the light of modern science. This reflection should then clarify the philosophical significance of the transition to the systematic problems of natural science, as it shows how little it is possible to make any historical position, even if it be the position of the very science in which we ourselves believe, the unassailable starting point of all speculation.

A The concept of secularization

Let us first remind ourselves of the main stages in the course of these lectures up till now.

I began with the question “What does science mean for our time?” In connection with this question, I formulated two theses, which I now repeat for reconsideration:

  1. Faith in science plays the rôle of the dominant religion of our time.
  2. The relevance of science for our time can, at least today, only be evaluated in concepts which express an ambiguity.

I then proposed, as a limited contribution to the diagnosis of our time, a study of the historical origin of this faith in science. This was to centre on a special example, for which I selected the history of the concepts of creation and cosmogony.

First, I spoke of mythical cosmogonies which were at the same time theogonies. I attempted to show how they united two elements which seem to us to be essentially different: a well-considered narrative of the physical origin of all things and the expression of an understanding of human existence. As the gods changed, so the two aspects of cosmogony changed. The God of the Jews taught his people to make a sharp distinction between good and evil, that is between life and death. Greek philosophy made a distinction between true and false, that is between being and non-being. I attempted to show how the Jewish and Greek ideas of the beginning of the world corresponded to the understanding of life and truth among both peoples. Then Christianity transformed pre-Christian nature: but the world which it had built was again transformed by modern reality. In modern times, scientific research took the place of an interpretation of the world by traditional symbols. I pursued the growth of a scientific cosmogony. This cosmogony ends, if it is expressed with scientific prudence, in open questions. This was evident in the case of the development of life, which we shall not really understand until we can give a better answer to the two questions, “What is life?” and “What is physics?” It was evident in the sphere of astronomy, where the infinity of space and time itself became an unsolved question. At the same time, however, we discovered that many people in our time hold quite firm convictions about these open questions, and we had occasion to assume that these convictions of theirs had their roots in their specific understanding of human existence. Precisely in its unresolved questions, cosmogony is evidently still a symbol of the way in which we understand the basic problems of human life. One of these interpretations is faith in science. Have we understood it better at the end of our course than we did before?

In the first lecture, I narrowed the scope of questions to make it more tractable. Now I must take the opposite step of making it more general. I shall no longer be asking about cosmogony, but about that of which it is merely a symbol. I must of necessity go about this generalizing without attempting a proof. History is too complicated to allow the strict proof of general assertions. I venture this generalizing as a diagnostic hypothesis.

I take up the two initial theses and replace them with more special ones:

  1. The modern world can largely be understood as the result of a secularization of Christianity.
  2. Secularization is an ambiguous word which describes an ambivalent process.

First of all, I must explain the words used in these sentences.

The word “secularization” derives from the Latin word saeculum, which means century. In traditional Christian language, saeculum means the time in which we are actually living today, as opposed to God’s eternity: hence it also means everything which belongs to this world and which to that extent does not belong directly to God. Secularization was for a long time a juristic concept which designated the transference of ecclesiastical goods into secular hands. Thus men talked of a secularized monastery. In our century, many authors have begun to use the word secularization in a more general way as a description of the process by which the modern world has developed. This use of the word implies certain conceptions which I will discuss in detail; I will begin with some negative remarks.

If the modern world is the product of a process of secularization, it is not a religious world in the strict sense of the word. It is neither properly a Christian world nor is it the world of a new religion, replacing Christianity. It would, however, be equally impossible to describe it as a world totally devoid of any relationship with a religious world. A secularized monastery is the same building as before; its rooms still have the structure of monastic cells, a refectory and a chapel, even if they are now used for other purposes. Similarly, the modern world still has the structure of a Christian world; the drawing of the picture is as it were still Christian, even if all the colours have changed, even if black has changed into white and white into black, as in a photographic negative. If this is so, however, the process can only be ambivalent and the concepts in which we express it must necessarily have an ambiguous sound. For the problem is: Are we to stress the Christian structure, or the non-Christian use of it?

After this explanation of the terminology, I will give examples for the new theses.

One example is the origin of modern science, as we encountered it, for example, with Galileo. In the sixth lecture, I asserted that the concept of strict and generally valid laws of nature could hardly have arisen without the Christian concept of creation. Matter in the Platonic sense, which must be “prevailed upon” by reason, will not obey mathematical laws exactly: matter which God has created from nothing may well strictly follow the rules which its Creator has laid down for it. In this sense I called modern science a legacy, I might even have said a child, of Christianity. But then I had to show how science lost contact with its parental home. Children can experience the death of their parents.

We have already seen in Galileo’s conflict with the Church the ambiguity of any concept which describes this process of secularization. Was Galileo right, when he read the greatness of God in the book of nature, in thinking that he was fulfilling God’s will that men should read this book? Was the Church right in thinking that this would distract men from the will of God which stands written in the book of redemption? Using the categories of our century we could describe the positions as being equally ambivalent. If we leave aside the violent means which the Church used wrongly, and, in the long run, used unsuccessfully precisely because they were wrong—did the Church want to hinder the progress of knowledge, or did it require a wider field of vision than that of the fanatical specialist?

The concept of infinity offers another example. The majority of pre-Christian world-views knew only of a finite world. For Christian philosophy, the world was similarly finite, but God was infinite. In modern times, the world takes over this attribute of God: infinity becomes secularized. Under this aspect it is most remarkable that our century has begun to doubt the infinity of the world. I believe that in our time a critical examination of secularization is beginning at exactly the same time as secularization is achieving a consistency hitherto unknown.

B The political revolutions

In order to see the full weight of secularization, however, we should not limit ourselves to theories. Instead we should speak, for example, of politics. I therefore take up the thread where I let it go at the end of the fifth lecture. There I pointed to the Christian background of three modern phenomena: military obedience, ordered government and political revolution. Allow me now to develop the last of these three themes further.

At first glance, the political revolutions of Europe display many differences, and that should not surprise us, as history never repeats itself. I have spoken of the English Puritan revolution of the 17th century and of the French grande révolution of the 18th century. One difference is that the first of the two interpreted its aims in strictly Christian terms, whereas the second even went through a stage of militant opposition to Christianity. These two revolutions were not notably successful: the revolutionary governments collapsed, and in each case an age of restoration followed. As movements akin to them, which were at first sight more successful, I should mention the American revolution of the 18th century and the Russian revolution of the 20th: both erected systems of government which have lasted down to our time. These systems of government again differ from each other; anyone asserting that one was like the other in any essential feature would in fact win little political sympathy either in the western or in the eastern world. Despite everything, however, I regard it as historically true that all these revolutions, and similarly all the political systems which they set up, either immediately, or after several apparently abortive beginnings, have a great deal in common with each other, and I hope to trace just this common modern element in them. It is the ambivalence intrinsic to modern civilizations which in my view makes it easy for these systems to regard themselves as being so different: each of them allows of opposed interpretations, each of which contains a good deal of truth.

In speaking in this way, I must, however, make my own standpoint quite clear. I belong to the western world. I share the western conception of political freedom and the rights of man. My remarks would be misunderstood were one to find in them a tendency to obliterate differences in approach to questions in which right and wrong is at stake. A decision is necessary, even if we see what is false on our side and what is true on the opposite side. But I fear that we squander the good consequences of such a decision if we allow the necessary decision, once made, to make us blind to the common feature of all modern systems. We are directed to live with one another in one world. Just when we rightly and passionately hope that systems hostile to our own will develop to the standards of humanity which we hold to be the only permissible ones, just at this point, we may not identify these standards with our own historical prejudices and with our own highly ambiguous actions. If self-control is a prerequisite of any ordered conduct in human life, those at least who possess the necessary gifts of understanding and factual knowledge ought to exercise this intellectual self-control in their views about the side which they have chosen as their own in the present historical struggle. This attitude is not only a requisite of good taste: there could come moments in which survival depended on our being capable of it.

I am thus putting forward the supposition that revolutions have very much in common. Let me take the slogans of the French Revolution as a starting point: Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood. If I see it rightly, these words express a common aspiration of all these different revolutionary movements. The distribution of emphasis may have varied. Perhaps Cromwell’s Ironsides tried above all to obtrude their understanding of brotherhood, Robespierre’s Jacobins their understanding of freedom, and Lenin’s Bolsheviks their understanding of equality on their fellow men. But as soon as we take the three concepts as seriously as they deserve, they do not allow of separation. Can we speak of true freedom as long as it rests on the servitude of part of society? If not, freedom also demands equality. Can we maintain equality by brute force? If not, equality rests on brotherhood. Can I honestly call my neighbour my brother if I do not accord him the freedom I claim for myself? If not, brotherhood demands that a fellow man be permitted his freedom.

C The Christian background to the modern ambivalence

The brief analysis of the three basic revolutionary concepts which I have just given was, I think, a Christian analysis. In this sense all modern revolutions have sought to realize Christian demands. But why have they then so forgotten their Christian background that in the most recent of these revolutions it has been felt impossible for the same man to be both a Communist and a Christian at the same time?

If I see things correctly, this progressive amnesia on the part of revolutions corresponds to a quite similar forgetfulness on the part of official Christianity. In the fifth lecture, I spoke of the intrinsic ambivalence of Christian history itself, and sought to describe it by means of the concepts of radical and conservative Christianity. The earliest Church was radical, but not in a political sense. As the success of Christianity brought political life within the purview of Christians, there gradually developed the medieval Church, which in a comprehensive, a catholic way embraced both the radical and the conservative elements.

This catholicism did not mean peace: it meant the incessant strife of the opposed tendencies within the Church, and this strife means life. In modern times the strife has torn apart the catholic unity. The Reformation divided the Church into disputing churches, and secularization divided the world into an official Christianity which tends towards pure conservatism and a non-Christian world whose radicalism no longer understands itself in the light of the Gospel.

If we consider in detail the steps which have led here, today’s conditions must seem to be the natural consequence of a necessary development. It is to make that quite clear that I have devoted so many lectures to an extremely specialized problem. But if we look back from our present position to the beginnings of Christianity, the result must seem paradoxical, self-contradictory to the point of absurdity. Let me analyze these self-contradictions.

The Church preserves this most revolutionary document of human history, the Gospel, the truth of which is slowly slipping from the consciousness of the citizen of our modern world. As the Church knows that what it preserves is the truth, it allows itself to be led into the attitude which is assumed by all who preserve supreme good against the changing trends of the day: it allows itself to be seduced into conservatism. At least we will hand down uncorrupted to future generations the good with which we have been entrusted! Laudable as this conservative attitude is, the facts of life force it towards a position which is not so very different from the equally laudable and equally inadequate position of the Scribes and Pharisees. And as usual this is seen much more easily from outside than from within. The Christian concept of the Pharisee, applied to the Church itself, might easily be the last Christian concept the modern world forgets.

Even the person who sees this from the inside cannot ipso facto alter it. Despite many still wonderful works and achievements of Christians throughout the world, and despite some hectic exertions on the part of Church officials to keep pace with modern times, the Church has for several centuries no longer been leading the historical process; it can hardly still follow it. The most profound thought possible within Christian conservatism is therefore probably that the Church should not in any way lead the process of history; indeed it should not even follow it, as this process is self-destructive, or at least alien to the Gospel. Where this voice has a genuine ring we may not ignore it. But I fear that even it expresses only one side of the truth, and not the complete truth. I feel that it too remains within the sphere of ambivalence, and the consequence of an undetected ambivalence in one’s own attitude is blindness to the facts.

The modern world, however, is no less blind. Take one more look at the revolution. La révolution dévore ses enfants. We know how blind violent insurgents are to what they really achieve. Did the Ironsides bring brotherhood? Did the Jacobins bring freedom? Did the Bolsheviks bring equality? I give no answer to these questions, not even a negative one, as even this straightforwardness, judged by the later course of history, would probably be an exaggeration. I would, however, ask: Why this ambivalence of revolutions? Has it perhaps something to do with an age-old dilemma, well known from Christian history, that of violence and non-violence?

The aim of the three revolutions of which I have just spoken was a state of society in which rule by force would no longer be necessary, whether this state of society was given the name of the Fifth Monarchy, the Age of Reason or the classless society. But the way taken by the revolution to this supersession of force is, in fact, force. Of course the thoughtful leaders of the revolution will argue that the ruling power can never be overthrown except by force. Here the leaders of the revolution are expressing a well-known conservative view of human nature. In all previous history those men have ruled who were ready and able to defend their rule by force. It is perhaps the most revolutionary idea of revolutions that this need not always be so. This idea derives from Christian eschatology. But is the revolution that fights for this idea the sole power in history that is justified in using force? Or does it thereby sacrifice its aim to the devilry of the means which it regards as necessary?

This dilemma of revolutions seems to me to throw a special light on the thesis of the mutual blindness of Christianity and the modern world. Christianity does not recognise its own concern in revolutions and is thrown on a fruitless defensive. But revolution sees Christianity only as the guardian of what must perish and therefore forfeits the possibility of understanding its own concern with the aid of concepts which reach deeper than those which it can itself offer. I am therefore attempting once again to portray the dilemma here as it has revealed itself in Christian history—which must be regarded as pre-history to modern revolutions.

In Christianity, the relationship between the end and the means is less simple than in its pagan precursors. In Christian terms, paganism divinized human nature and along with it its intrinsic tendency to use force: this can be seen even in so spiritual a creation as Plato’s model state and in a form of government as rooted in ethics as that of the Stoic emperors of the 2nd century. Christ completely rejected the divinization of our natural habits. In the coming kingdom of heaven the rule of these demons will be broken. But, asked the following Christian era, how will the kingdom of God come? It does not come through our efforts: it comes of its own power. This thought contains a deep insight into human existence, which finds its application in daily life. If the demons are conquered, they do not succumb to our efforts of will, but to an operation which we can experience only as a gift of grace. This, however, does not in the least dispense us from any exertion of our will at all. Grace is the answer to our longing for grace, and this longing is not in earnest unless it leads to the most determined personal effort. It is a well-known doctrine that man cannot give himself grace but that he can squander the grace that is offered. This is in accord with the teaching of the Fourth Gospel, that judgment takes place in this life. Should things be otherwise in the great course of world history? But what would this mean for world history?

The final victory over the rule of force is the Last Judgment, the Second Coming of Christ. The orthodox Christian teaching was that no human action could influence the time of his Second Coming. In the present span of time, in which we live in this expectation, we should attempt to live as citizens of his coming kingdom. How this was to be done in practice was, however, the question which produced the tension between radical and conservative Christianity, and I expressed the view that this very tension was the driving force of world history in the Christian era.

This tension has at times expressed itself in a subtle point of dispute within the Christian theology of history. The Revelation of St. John speaks of a thousand-year kingdom of Christ and his saints before a new heaven and a new earth are finally made. What did this millennium represent? The present era of the Christian Church? Could this confused time be regarded as a rule of Christ and his saints? Or was the thousand-year kingdom yet to come, perhaps soon, perhaps still within the lifetime of the present generation? Did its coming perhaps still depend on our acting rightly? This belief, that it would come soon and that we ought to act accordingly, was called chiliasm (chilia ete = a thousand years); the Church regarded it as heresy, but many social revolutionaries of the late Middle Ages and early modern times took it over. But chiliasm itself revealed the dilemma: How then should we act to help to bring in the kingdom? Will the rule of non-violence be brought about by non-violence or by violence?

Only a few have at any time attempted really to live according to the Sermon on the Mount. For a long time, the recognised form of this attempt was the life of the monk. In a characteristic fashion, the great prophet of chiliasm in the early 13th century, Joachim of Fiore, taught that there were three Churches following one after the other: the Church of the patriarchs in the Old Testament, founded on Abraham; the Church of the priests from the time of Christ’s first coming, founded on Peter, and the Church of the monks, now beginning, founded on John. Alien as this way of speaking is to us today, it is the spiritual tradition in which the European revolutions still live. Joachim expected the coming of the new kingdom through God’s rule over history; but man had to live according to this kingdom if he and the brothers who would be reached by his voice and his example were to share in it and not fall into damnation. For this hope, the “Spirituals” of the Franciscan order, among others, deeply influenced by Joachim, made any sacrifice, including that of their lives. Later, in the Protestant world, the natural form of the attempt to live strictly after Christ’s commandment was the sect. The most splendid example of what a life lived according to the unqualified Sermon on the Mount can achieve, and one that is most visible to modern eyes, is that of the Quakers. The Church was indeed often right in the face of the exalted expectations and fantastic scriptural interpretations of the “enthusiasts”, but any glance at the past or the present will show that “enthusiast” is also an eminently convenient formula for doing down those who attempt to take Christianity seriously.

When I said that the European revolutions still lived in the spiritual tradition of chiliasm, I did not primarily have to think of those who renounced a violent contribution to the coming of the kingdom, but of the chiliastic social revolutionaries. Important as this distinction is, however, belief in an imminent radical change in world history is common to both sides. A secularized form of this belief governs the stormy course of modern history.

D Belief in progress

The one tenet of faith which the western world today shares with Communism—and, moreover, with the nationalist movements of non-European countries—is a belief in progress. This is a recent idea in history. Neither European antiquity nor the great cultures of the East understand history as a field of progress. For the Christian Church, there was only a progress in history which had already taken place, the first coining of Christ, and a second progress in the future, the end of history in his coming again. But chiliasm allowed a transposition of this otherworldly salvation of history into the history in the midst of which we live. From a historical point of view, I regard belief in progress as a secularized chiliasm. Of course modern man would understand chiliasm in the opposite way, as a dawn of the belief in progress, still verging on the mythical. Be this as it may, only the religions of the Judaeo-Christian tradition seem to have the concept of an unrepeatable history of our world, and I would not regard it as fortuitous that the modern concept of history has arisen in a Christian culture. Were I to return to the philosophical problems, I would at this point have to investigate the Christian and the modern concepts of time. I hope I might be able to make it probable that our concept of history is not less, but to a still greater degree, a legacy of Christianity to the modern world than is our concept of the law of nature. But that would take me too far afield today. I will now investigate the particular understanding of progress in various modern political systems.

The western world understands its own scale of values to be one which preserves what was good in the Christian tradition; it therefore finds little difficulty in linking its belief in progress with Christian conceptions. The central political idea of the West is the freedom of the individual, and without doubt Christianity has taught us to take any living human being seriously as a person, no matter to what class, race or nation he or she belongs. Liberalism might well claim for itself that it took Christian convictions seriously in advancing this respect for the person in the political sphere as well, often against the resistance of conservative Christians. Even technical progress can, at least by way of the natural science depicted in these lectures, be linked with Christianity: technical science can understand its work as the fulfilment of the commandment “subdue the earth under you”. The problems of the modern world, with which I began in the first lecture, can then well be understood as a consequence of the ambiguity of a secularized Christian world. But this thought itself contains an ambiguity which I must investigate in detail at the end. Before this, however, I must turn to the apparently expressly anti-religious doctrines of Marxism. If we are to do them justice, we must allow ourselves to be led on to a new plane of historical understanding.

I would express and advocate the by no means original view that in some very important points Marx was nearer to Christianity than the committed Christians against whom he turned. I can only develop this view in two stages. Marx is only to be understood as one who trod a way opened by Hegel. I must therefore turn first to Hegel, as much for his own sake as for his significance for Marx and Marxism.

E Hegel

I am not concerned here with Hegel’s perhaps all too artificial and untenable particular theses. The time in which we had to fight our way free of Hegel’s influence, natural scientists, philosophers and theologians alike, is past. I should like to show which way of thought was only made possible by Hegel’s approach to the question of philosophy. One can call Hegel the first philosopher who regarded history as a philosophical problem. The central theoretical problem can easily be elucidated by a retrospective glance at these lectures. When I spoke of views of the origin of the world, I had always two simultaneous questions in mind: “Why did men believe this or that in this or that phase of human history? and, Which of these views has shown itself to be true? If we take both questions equally seriously, we are brought into a confusing situation. We ourselves live in a particular phase of history. My present theme, that of secularization, may be described by the question “Why has our own age the views which it in fact has?” But if I thus make our own views historically comprehensible, where is our naive faith in the truth of these views? And if I make a radical reduction of truth to historical relativities, what do I mean when I declare my own views, e.g. just this historical relativism, to be true? It is indeed so easy to show how well historical relativism fits the thought-pattern of modern times; i.e. it is so easy to explain it itself in the frame of historical relativity. In this morass of historical relativities, where can we still take a firm step? Hegel was the first thinker to understand this question, and he sketched an answer. Perhaps I may indicate this answer in simplified expressions, beginning by leaving aside an explicit use of Hegel’s central concept of the Absolute. According to Hegel, truth is not real otherwise than in the form of historical positions following one another: each of these positions is to some extent the truth. But it is only the truth to some limited extent. The dialectical process of history is maintained by each position showing itself to be one-sided once it has prevailed. Therefore truth itself now demands a new, contradictory, position, which supersedes the previous one only to suffer the same fate after its own victory. In this constant change, the truth which was there in previous stages is at the same time both superseded and preserved; to use Hegel’s intentionally ambiguous expression, it is “taken up”1 in the later stages. If we keep to this quite general understanding of Hegel’s, and leave on one side his artificial systematization of history (instructive as it is in individual points), we shall have described what is probably the only way that we too can follow. I have in fact constantly used this mode of thought in the previous lectures. I believe that it can also be applied consistently to our own position in history. Even this application I hint at here only in a somewhat superficial way, but one which will perhaps be sufficient to use for the moment. As far as certain ideas reveal themselves inescapably to our honest, self-critical urge towards the truth, as being true, we shall be justified in using them as a basis for our judgments. Should the future set them aside,2 we can do nothing about it: but we may trust that the element of truth in them will be preserved. Otherwise a man who has recognized that he stands in the midst of history could hardly pass judgment on his own thought.

But this last remark compels us at one, equally well known, point to criticize Hegel, at least to criticize the picture which his philosophy presented and had to present to his time. His own thought claims to be a system, and it must be so, intending to think the Absolute. But “the absolute is the result”; Hegel did not at least stand in the way of the impression that it is Hegel’s philosophy which is this absolute result of the history of the spirit. Understood in this way, his philosophy appears as the most titanic chiliasm there has ever been. The word chiliasm is in place here. Hegel understood his philosophy as the genuine understanding of Christianity: this problem of understanding Christianity was his starting point in his youth. The definitive understanding of Christianity is, however, the millennium. Thus, even in Hegel’s political philosophy, the early 19th century state was not to be distinguished from the millennium with complete clarity. (It is, however, unjust to ascribe this view to him in the particular case of the Prussian state in which he lived for his last years; he was not uncritical of this state, though careful in his expressions, and one might more accurately call him a philosopher of the French Revolution.)

F Marx

Here we reach the point at which Marx criticized Hegel. Marx was a real Hegelian. He believed, perhaps in the last resort more literally than Hegel himself, in a final stage of history. But this stage had not been achieved—how could people assert its presence when one thought of the fearful social conditions which the beginning of the industrial revolution brought with it? And it was to be achieved, not by further thought, but by action. Hegel seemed to have dissolved history into a charade of spirits, called ideas. To describe the complete reversal of thought which is necessary for philosophy, he coined the somewhat mysterious maxim that the philosopher must learn to walk on his head. Marx boasted that while philosophy itself had been standing on its head in Hegel’s writings, he had once again set it on its feet. The feet are Marx’s economic ideas. Now whatever may have been ill-considered or false in the details of Marx’s economic theory, he stressed a most important and, I would say, a most Christian truth. One of Jesus’ terrifying remarks is that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.3 Marx understood the truth from which this remark derives. He understood it in secularized form and may have exaggerated it, but he understood it. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”;4 that is the irrefutable truth behind Marx’s conviction that history is guided by economic conditions and that anyone who would alter the life of man must alter economic conditions. How many committed Christians understand this truth? In the question of the appropriate means of bringing about economic and social changes, however, it seems to me that Marxism was open to the ambivalence that is my theme. Marx himself was somewhat ambiguous in this respect. On the one hand, he believed in the necessity of history; he believed in the inevitable coming of the classless society in the same way as Christians believe in the inevitable coming of the Last Judgment. Perhaps one can even say that his teaching gained so many adherents because he offered a positive, though secularized, eschatology at a time when Christians no longer believed firmly in their own eschatology and thus aroused the justifiable impression that the foundations of their faith were affected with doubt. In contrast, Marx preached action; he did not expect history to progress otherwise than through men themselves. The question of the right means of action led to the division of the International Socialist Movement into those who believed in an evolution within the framework of parliamentarian democracy and those who felt it was necessary for the existing order of society to be overthrown by force. Decisions about the means do not remain without influence on aims. Today, the gulf separating communism from western Socialism is hardly less deep than that separating it from pure capitalism. Whether these two gulfs can ever be closed if the ambivalences in the present attitudes of all sides are better realized, we cannot decide today.

G The ambivalence of success

I leave the ambiguities of the aims and means of revolutions and turn once again to the ambivalence of their success. Earlier, I distinguished revolutions which were immediately successful from those which were not. On closer investigation, this turns out to be a superficial distinction. In one sense, all revolutions achieve their aims. The restoration of the Stuarts and the Bourbons lasted just long enough to make it clear that the past would never return. In another sense none of these revolutions achieved its aim. The final result of the English revolution was not the kingdom of God, but representative democracy. Neither Rousseau’s return to nature nor the Age of Reason developed from the French and American revolutions, but the irrational dynamic of the civilization of the industrial age. Communism has so far brought into being not the classless society, but a highly successful hierarchy of functionaries and specialists. Modern competitive societies are much nearer each other in their actual conditions than in their programmes. Henry Ford’s well-known view that the solution of the social question lies in increased production appears today as the practical doctrine of salvation of the Russian communists, while in capitalist countries a managerial class is tacitly suppressing independent entrepreneurs. Human life is planned to an unprecedented extent. Full employment, a free week-end, technical appliances and amusements for all are generally the sought-after ideals, industrialization and birth control the pressing problems, nuclear war, 1984 and the Brave New World the nightmares of this society. And its prevailing common faith is, as I said in the first lecture, faith in science. But this faith is deeply ambiguous. If it keeps to the truth, as according to its own basic doctrine it must, it must concede that it has not understood man’s nature and that it does not know where progress will take us.

H What is secularization?

We have come full circle; we find ourselves back at the starting point. We will attempt some final reflections on the results.

I chose a strong expression for the ambiguities of our time in saying that while the Church was blind to the true nature of modern times, the modern world was equally blind to its own nature. Both are blind to the significance of secularization. I said that the modern world was the result of a secularization of Christianity. That means that the modern world in certain respects is, and in certain respects is not, a Christian world. Contrary to the beliefs of many Christians and all secularists, I tend to the view that the modern world owes its uncanny success to a great extent to its Christian background. If the men who think that Christianity rests on the deepest insight into human nature which has yet been revealed to us in history are right, this view should not surprise us. To repeat it in traditional Christian language: the gods of nature have been vanquished by the God whom Christians call Our Father; therefore man, as God’s son, has received power over nature. As he is son and not servant, he is free, and his freedom includes the freedom to act against the will of his Father, the God of love. He can now subject the world to himself, and secularism does precisely this. (In these last sentences I have followed as faithfully as possible Friedrich Gogarten’s theology of secularization.)

But these thoughts need expansion. We must go one stage further in their Christian interpretation and then we must consider them once again from the modern side.

It may be helpful for a Christian theologian to imagine secularism as a Christian heresy. According to the theological definition, heresy (hairesis) is to take (hairein) a partial truth from the whole of the Christian truth and to make this part absolute. A heretic is a Christian, but an erring Christian. Different varieties of secularism select different aspects of Christianity; I will refrain from going into the details of these aspects. All select the truth that this world is to be changed, a truth which Jesus elucidated in his parables by such different examples as that of the grain of mustard-seed growing into a tree in which many birds can build their nests and that of the all-consuming fire. The modern world is a tree in which many birds build their nests, and it is an all-consuming fire. It is, I say once again, ambivalent. But it is heretical, i.e. blind to the other side of the truth, because it is blind to its own ambivalence. Belief in progress is a half-truth. Jesus clearly described the inevitability of ambivalence in the parable of the wheat and the tares, which grow together and will only be separated at the end. I have never seen a clearer description of modern times than this growing corn-field, in which the tares unavoidably grow up alongside the wheat. But he who sees the fact of this ambivalence has taken the first step away from it; he is forsaking the error that made him a heretic. Anyone, on the other hand, who does not see the ambiguity has fallen a hopeless victim to it.

Now I must turn the tables once again. It is not sufficient to call secularism a Christian heresy. One usually thinks of a heresy as the selection of part of a recognized totality of truth. The theologian who speaks of heresy is generally convinced that the Church possesses the all-embracing (“catholic”) truth. This conception probably does not even describe the celebrated heresies of the past at all accurately. As a rule, the heretics stressed a side of Christianity which the Church had not taken seriously enough. Many of the Church’s dogmatic decisions were called forth by heresies, and I think that the best dogmatic decisions of ancient times had a truly paradoxical character because they incorporated a truth brought to light by heresy in a thought-system which was using an apparently contradictory language. Be this as it may, secularization forces us to attempt a new interpretation of the Christian faith. This new interpretation has been going on for centuries, but it is by no means completed.

I have been at pains throughout these lectures to take account of this new interpretation. True, I have attempted to speak of ancient times in their own language, but I have also attempted to make it clear on each occasion that this was a language of times long gone by, a language which could perhaps express truths which many of us have forgotten or never learnt, but not a language which we moderns can honestly speak of as our own. I have treated many time-honoured religious views as myths or legends and have not attempted to conceal my agnosticism in the case of others. But my concern was not what is often called in modern theology the “demythologizing” of Christianity. As I myself have spent the greater part of my life in surroundings influenced more by natural science than by the Church, I feel the battle of demythologizing to have been decided long ago, perhaps in Galileo’s days: it only remains for us to be honest in its consequences. Science has come into being and will, to judge by human standards, endure; in face of it there remains only the task of interpreting Christianity in a way credible to a thought schooled in it. I have attempted this task just as many other modern thinkers inside and outside theology have attempted it. What really concerns me is another question.

I touched on this question in my remarks about Hegel, and I must now outline it more precisely. Modern thought expresses itself most coherently in science. But we have no occasion to take science itself as an absolute truth. This holds in every detail. It is indeed virtually the most imposing feature of science that it requires of its disciples that they should be ready at every moment to re-examine even the most generally accepted scientific doctrines. The life of true science is a life of constant self-correction. This must be true still more in respect of the scientific attitude to the wide areas of human life in which science, as we know, does not, at least today, have the answer to the burning questions. And how sure are we of the general philosophical background to science?

If the views of secularization advanced here are correct, they give us additional information which at first sight will not lessen our embarrassment. If these views are correct, modern science would not perhaps have been possible without Christianity. In that case, we are evidently moving in a circle. We explain Christianity in concepts which are to be comprehensible to scientific thought: a thought which for its part is found itself to be a product of Christianity. But any thought which has become conscious of the relevance of history must move in a circle of this sort. Today we can reach a stage of consciousness at which the historical naivety of those who identify their own standpoint with absolute truth must vanish away. Once we have understood this, we are none the worse for it, for no one will be expected to base his judgments on anything but what he can know. We now understand only our task of constant self-correction better than before. If we are philosophers, of course, we shall have a concept of truth which accords with this stage of consciousness.

A philosophy which tries to achieve what is required by this stage of consciousness will presumably have to describe the circle of the mutual dependence of our concepts more than once. Perhaps I may be allowed to remark here that in my earlier lectures on the history of nature I attempted to describe a semicircle of this movement. There I took the concepts of natural science for granted and attempted to show how human history grows out of the history of nature. In the series of lectures now ended I have described a second semi-circle. Here I have taken for granted the concepts of human history and attempted to show how modern natural science has grown out of human history. In the following series of lectures I shall venture on the first semi-circle for the second time. There, my theme will again be scientific statements about nature. But I shall not then simply accept them: I shall analyse their significance in the light of what we have learnt in the first semi-circle. That means that we must return to completely abstract questions. I am sorry about that, as I feel, as I am sure you do, that the now so frequently mentioned human problems are the burning ones. But one may not neglect analysis, and I would not feel myself up to any further analysis of the history of our time if I had not first made a critical examination of the concepts of our science, the tools in the workshop of modern rationality.

  • 1.

    German: aufgehohen. The verb can mean “take up”, “preserve” or “abolish”; it is impossible to reproduce the word-play in English.

  • 2.

    aufheben, see note 1.

  • 3.

    Mark 10. 25.

  • 4.

    Luke 12. 34.

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