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Christianity and Civilization

Arnold Toynbee

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From Civilization on Trial, Oxford University Press, 1948.

As i was re-reading my notes for this essay during the last few days, there floated into my mind the picture of a scene which was transacted in the capital of a great empire about fourteen hundred years ago, when that capital was full of war-not a war on a front but a war in the rear, a war of turmoil and street fighting. The emperor of that empire was holding council to decide whether he should carry on the struggle or whether he should take ship and sail away to safety. At the crown council his wife, the empress, was present and spoke, and she said: 'You, Justinian, can sail away if you like; the ship is at the quay and the sea is still open but I am going to stay and see it out, because κáλλιον εντáφιον η βασιλεíα: "Empire is a fine winding sheet." I thought of this passage and my colleague, Professor Baynes, found it for me; and, as I thought of it, and also thought of the day and the circumstances in which I was writing, I decided to emend it; and I emended it to κáλλιον εντáφιον η βασιλεíα του Θεοú: 'a finer winding-sheet is the Kingdom of God'-a finer because that is a winding-sheet from which there is a resurrection. Now that paraphrase of a famous phrase of Greek comes, I venture to think, rather near to the three Latin words which are the motto of the University of Oxford; and, if we believe in these three words Dominus Illuminatio Mea and can live up to them, we can look forward without dismay to any future that may be coming to us. The material future is very little in our power. Storms might come which might lay low that noble and beloved building and leave not one stone upon another. But, if the truth about this university and about ourselves is told in those three Latin words, then we know for certain that, though the stones may fall, the light by which we live will not go out.

Now let me come by a very easy transition to what is my subject in this essay — the relation between Christianity and civilization. This is a question which has always been at issue since the foundation of the Christian Church, and of course there have been a number of alternative views on it.

One of the oldest and most persistent views is that Christianity was the destroyer of the civilization within whose framework it grew up. That was, I suppose, the view of the Emperor Marcus, as far as he was aware of the presence of Christianity in his world. It was most emphatically and violently the view of his successor the Emperor Julian, and it was also the view of the English historian Gibbon, who recorded the decline and fall of the Roman Empire long after the event. In the last chapter of Gibbon's history there is one sentence in which he sums up the theme of the whole work. Looking back, he says: "I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion." And, to understand his meaning, you have to turn from the middle of Chapter LXXI to the opening passage of Chapter I, that extraordinarily majestic description of the Roman Empire at peace in the age of the Antonines, in the second century after Christ. He starts you there, and at the end of the long story he says "I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion," meaning that it was Christianity as well as barbarism which overthrew the civilization for which the Antonines stood.

One hesitates to question Gibbon's authority, but I believe there is a fallacy in this view which vitiates the whole of it. Gibbon assumes that the Graeco-Roman civilization stood at its height in the age of the Antonines and that in tracing its decline from that moment he is tracing that decline from the beginning. Evidently, if you take that view, Christianity rises as the empire sinks, and the rise of Christianity is the fall of civilization. I think Gibbon's initial error lies in supposing that the ancient civilization of the Graeco-Roman world began to decline in the second century after Christ and that the age of the Antonines was that civilization's highest point. I think it really began to decline in the fifth century before Christ. It died not by murder, but by suicide; and that act of suicide was committed before the fifth century B.C. was out. It was not even the philosophies which preceded Christianity that were responsible for the death of the ancient Graeco-Roman civilization. The philosophies arose because the civic life of that civilization had already destroyed itself by turning itself into an idol to which men paid an exorbitant worship. And the rise of the philosophies, and the subsequent rise of the religions out of which Christianity emerged as the final successor of them all, was something that happened after the Graeco-Roman civilization had already put itself to death. The rise of the philosophies, and a fortiori that of the religions, was not a cause; it was a consequence.

When Gibbon in that opening passage of his work looks as the Roman Empire in that age of the Antonines, he does not say explicitly — but I am sure this was in his mind — that he is also thinking of himself as standing on another peak of civilization and looking back towards that distant peak in the past across a broad trough of barbarism in between. Gibbon thought to himself: "On the morrow of the death of the Emperor Marcus the Roman Empire went into decline. All the values that I, Gibbon, and my kind care for began to be degraded. Religion and barbarism began to triumph. This lamentable state of affairs continued to prevail for hundreds and hundreds of years; and then, a few generations before my time, no longer ago than the close of the seventeenth century, a rational civilization began to emerge again." From his peak in the eighteenth century Gibbon looks back to the Antonine peak in the second century, and that view — which is, I think, implicit in Gibbon's work — has been put very clearly and sharply by a writer of the twentieth century, from whom I propose to quote a passage somewhat at length because it is, so to speak, the formal antithesis of the thesis which I want to maintain.

"Greek and Roman society was built on the conception of the subordination of the individual to the community, of the citizen to the state; it set the safety of the commonwealth, as the supreme aim of conduct, above the safety of the individual whether in this world or in a world to come. Trained from infancy in this unselfish ideal, the citizens devoted their lives to the public service and were ready to lay them down for the common good; or, if they shrank from the supreme sacrifice, it never occurredd to them that they acted otherwise than basely in preferring their personal existence to the interests of their country. All this was changed by the spread of Oriental religions which inculcated the communion of the soul with God and its eternal salvation as the only objects worth living for, objects in comparison with which the prosperity and even the existence of the state sank into insignificance. The inevitable result of this selfish and immoral doctrine was to withdraw the devotee more and more. to concentrate his thoughts on his own spiritual emotions, and to breed in him a contempt for the present life, which he regarded merely as a probation for a better and eternal. The saint and the recluse, disdainful of earth and rapt in ecstatic contemplation of heaven, became in popular opinion the highest ideal of humanity, displacing the old ideal of the patriot and hero who, forgetful of self, lives and is ready to die for the good of his country. The earthly city seemed poor and contemptible to men whose eyes beheld the City of God coming in the clouds of heaven. Thus the centre of gravity, so to say, was shifted from the present to a future life, and, however much the other world may have gained, there can be little doubt that this one lost heavily by the change. A general disintegration of the body politic set in. The ties of the state and the family were loosened: the structure of society tended to resolve itself into its individual elements and thereby to relapse into barbarism; for civilization is only possible through the active co-operation of the citizens and their willingness to subordinate their private interests to the common good. Men refused to defend their country and even to continue their kind. In their anxiety to save their own souls and the souls of others, they were content to leave the material world, which they identified with the principle of evil, to perish around them. This obsession lasted for a thousand years. The revival of Roman law, of the Aristotelian philosophy, of ancient art and literature at the close of the Middle Ages, marked the return of Europe to native ideals of life and conduct, to saner, manlier views of the world, The long halt in the march of civilization was over. The tide of Oriental invasion had turned at last. It is ebbing still."

It is ebbing indeed! And one might speculate about what the author of this passage, which was first published in 1906, would now write if he were revising for a fourth edition to-day. Many reading this article are, of course, familiar with the passage. I have not yet mentioned the author's name; but, for those who do not know it already, I would say that it is not Alfred Rosenberg; it is Sir James Frazer.1 I wonder what that gentle scholar thinks of the latest form in which Europe's return 'to native ideals of life and conduct' is manifesting itself.

Now you will have seen that the most interesting thesis in that passage of Frazer's in the contention that trying to save one's soul is something contrary to, and incompatible with, trying to do one's duty to one's neighbour. I am going, in the course of this essay, to challenge that thesis; at the moment I merely want to point out that Frazer is at the same time putting Gibbon's thesis and stating it in explicit terms; and on this point I would give Frazer the answer that I have already ventured to give to Gibbon: that Christianity was not the destroyer of the ancient Greek civilization, because that civilization had decayed from inherent defects of its own before Christianity arose. But I would agree with Frazer, and would ask you to agree with me, that the tide of Christianity has been ebbing and that our post-Christian Western secular civilization that has emerged is a civilization of the same order as the pre-Christian Graeco-Roman civilization. This observation opens up a second possible view of the relation between Christianity and civilization — not the same view in which Christianity appears in the role of civilization's humble servant.

According to this second possible view, Christianity is, as it were, the egg, grub and chrysalis between butterfly and butterfly. Christianity is a transitional thing which bridges the gap between one civilization and another, and I confess that I myself held this rather patronizing view for many years. On this view you look at the historical function of the Christian Church in terms of the process of the reproduction of civilizations. Civilization is a species of being which seeks to reproduce itself, and Christianity has had a useful but a subordinate role in bringing two new secular civilizations to birth after the death of their predecessor. You find the ancient Graeco-Roman civilization in decline from the close of the second century after Christ onwards. And then after an interval you find — perhaps as early as the ninth century in Byzantium, and as early as the thirteenth century in the West in the person of the Stupor Mundi Frederick II — a new secular civilization arising out of the ruins of its Graeco-Roman predecessor. And you look at the role of Christianity in the interval and conclude that Christianity is a kind of chrysalis which has held and preserved the hidden germs of life until these have been able to break out again into a new growth of secular civilization. That is an alternative view to the theory of Christianity being the destroyer of the ancient Graeco-Roman civilization; and, if one looks abroad through the history of civilizations, one can see other cases which seem to conform to the same pattern.

Take the other higher religions which are still living on in the world of today side by side with Christianity: Islam, Hinduism, and the Mahayana form of Buddhism which now prevails in the Far East. You can see the role of Islam as a chrysalis between the ancient civilization of Israel and Iran and the modern Islamic civilization of the Near and Middle East. Hinduism, again, seems to bridge a gap in the history of civilization in India between the modern Hindu culture and the ancient culture of the Aryas; and Buddhism, likewise, seems to play the same part as a mediator between the modern history of the Far East and the history of ancient China. In that picture the Christian Church would be simply one of a series of churches whose function is to serve as chrysalises to provide for the reproduction of civilizations and thus to preserve that secular species of society.

Now I think there is perhaps a chrysalis-like element in the construction of the Christian Church — an institutional element that I am going to deal with later — which may have quite a different purpose from that of assisting in the reproduction of civilizations. But, before we accept at all an account of the place and role of Christianity and of the other living higher religions in social history which represents these religions as being mere instruments for assisting in the process of the reproduction of civilizations, let us go on testing the hypothesis by examining whether, in every instance of the parent-and-child relation between civilizations, we find a chrysalis-church intervening between the parent civilization and the daughter civilization. If you look at the histories of the ancient civilizations of South-Western Asia and Egypt, you find there a rudimentary higher religion in the form of the worship of a god and a related goddess. I call it rudimentary because, in the worship of Tammuz and Ishtar, of Adonis and Astarte, of Attis and Cybele, of Osiris and Isis, you are very close to the nature-worship of the Earth and her fruits; and I think that, here again, you can see that this rudimentary higher religion, in each of its different variants, has in every case played the historical role of filling a gap where there was a break in the continuity of secular civilization.

If, however, we complete our survey, we shall find that this apparent 'law' does not always hold good. Christianity intervenes in this way between our own civilization and the Graeco-Roman one. Go back behind the Graeco-Roman one and you find a Minoan civilization behind that. But between the Minoan and the Graeco-Roman you do not find any higher religion corresponding to Christianity. Again, if you go back behind the ancient civilization of Aryan India, you find vestiges of a still more ancient pre-Aryan civilization in the Indus Valley which have only been excavated within the last twenty years, but here again you do not seem to find any higher religion intervening between the two. And if you pass from the Old World to the New and look at the civilization of the Mayas in Central America, which, again, has had daughter civilizations born from it, you do not find, here either, in the intervening period, any trace at all of any higher religion or church of the same species as Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or Mahayanian Buddhism; nor again is there any evidence of any such chrysalis bridging the transition from primitive societies to the earliest known civilizations to what we might call the first generation of civilizations; and so, when we complete our view of the whole field of civilizations, as we have now done in a very summary way, we find that the relation between religions and civilizations seems to differ according to the generation of the civilization with which we are dealing. We seem to find no higher religion at all between civilizations of the first and those of the second generation and those of the third generation that the intervention of a higher religion seems to be the rule, and here only.

If there is anything in this analysis of the relation between civilizations and higher religions, this suggests a third possible view of that relation which would be the exact inverse of the second view which I have just put before you. On that second view, religion is subsidiary to the reproduction of secular civilizations, and the inverse of that would be that the successive rises and falls of civilizations may be subsidiary to the growth of religion..

The breakdowns and disintegrations of civilizations might be stepping-stones to higher things on the religious plane. After all, one of the deepest spiritual laws that we know is the law that is proclaimed by Aeschylus in the two words Ueae iUeio — 'it is through suffering that learning comes — and in the New Testament in the verse 'whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth; and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth.' If you apply that to the rise of the higher religions which has culminated in the flowering of Christianity, you might say that in the mythical passions of Tammuz and Adonis and Attis and Osiris the Passion of Christ was foreshadowed, and that the Passion of Christ was the culminating and crowning experience of the sufferings of human souls in successive failures in the enterprise of secular civilization. The Christian Church itself arose out of the spiritual travail which was a consequence of the breakdown of the Graeco-Roman civilization. Again, the Christian Church has Jewish and Zoroastrian roots, and those roots sprang from an earlier breakdown, the breakdown of a Syrian civilization which was a sister to the Graeco-Roman. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah were two of the many states of this ancient Syrian world; and it was the premature and permanent overthrow of these worldly commonwealths and the extinction of all the political hopes which had been bound up with their existence as independent polities that brought the religion of Judaism to birth and evoked the highest expression of its spirit in the elegy of the suffering Servant, which is appended in the Bible to the book of the prophet Isaiah. Judaism, likewise, has a Mosaic root which in its turn sprang from the withering of the second crop of the ancient Egyptian civilization. I do not know whether Moses and Abraham are historical characters, but I think it can be taken as certain that they represent historical stages of religious experience, and Moses' forefather and forerunner Abraham received his enlightenment and his promise at the dissolution, in the nineteenth or eighteenth century before Christ, of the ancient civilization of Sumer and Akkad — the earliest case, known to us, of a civilization going to ruin. These men of sorrows were precursors of Christ; and the sufferings through which they won their enlightenment were Stations of the Cross in anticipation of the Crucifixion. That is, no doubt, a very old idea, but it is also an ever new one.

If religion is a chariot, it looks as if the wheels on which it mounts towards Heaven may be the periodic downfall of civilizations on Earth. It looks as if the movement of civilizations may be cyclic and recurrent, while the movement of religion may be on a single continuous upward line. The continuous upward movement of religion may be served and promoted by the cyclic movement of civilizations round the cycle of birth, death. birth.

If we accept this conclusion, it opens up what may seem a rather startling view of history. If civilizations are the handmaids of religion and if the Greco-Roman civilization served as a good handmaid to Christianity by bringing it to birth before that civilization finally went to pieces, then the civilizations of the third generation may be vain repetitions of the Gentiles. If, so far from its being the historical function of higher religions to minister, as chrysalises, to the cyclic process of the reproduction of civilizations to serve, by their downfall, as stepping-stones to a progressive process of the revelation of always deeper religious insight, and the gift of ever more grace to act on this insight, then the societies of the species called civilizations will have fulfilled their function when once they have brought a mature higher religion to birth; and, on this showing, our own Western post-Christian secular civilization might at best be a superfluous repetition of the pre- Christian Graeco-Roman one, and at worst a pernicious back-sliding from the path of spiritual progress. In our Western world of to-day, the worship of Leviathan — the self-worship of the tribe — is a religion to which all of us pay some measure of allegiance; and this tribal religion is, of course, sheer idolatry. Communism, which is another of our latter-day religions, is, I think, a leaf taken from the book of Christianity — a leaf torn out and misread. Democracy is another leaf from the book of Christianity, which has also, I fear, been torn out and, while perhaps not misread, has certainly been half emptied of meaning by being divorced from its Christian context and secularized; and we have obviously, for a number of generations past, been living on spiritual capital, I mean clinging to Christian practice without possessing the Christian belief — and practice unsupported by belief is a wasting asset, as we have suddenly discovered, to our dismay, in this generation.

If this self-criticism is just, then we must revise the whole of our present conception of modern history; and if we can make the effort of will and imagination to think this ingrained and familiar conception away, we shall arrive at a very different picture of the historical retrospect. Our present view of modern history focuses attention on the rise of our modern Western secular civilization as the latest great new event in the world. As we follow that rise , from the first premonition of it in the genius of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, through the Renaissance to the eruption of democracy and science and modern scientific technique, we think of all this as being the great new event in the world which demands our admiration. If we can bring ourselves to think of it, instead, as one of the vain repetitions of the Gentiles — an almost meaningless repetition of something that the Greeks and Romans did before us and did supremely well — then the greatest new event in the history of mankind will be seen to be a very different one. The greatest new event will then not be the monotonous rise of yet another secular civilization out of the bosom of the Christian Church in the course of these latter centuries; it will still be the Crucifixion and its spiritual consequences. There is one curious result of our immense modern scientific discoveries which is, I think, often overlooked. On the vastly changed time-scale which our astronomers and geologists have opened up to us, the beginning of the Christian era is an extremely recent date; on a time-scale in which nineteen hundred years are no more than the twinkling of an eye, the beginning of the Christian era is only yesterday. It is only on the old-fashioned time-scale, on which the creation of the world and the beginning of life on the planet were reckoned to have taken place no more than six thousand years ago, that a span of nineteen hundred years seems a long period of time and the beginning of the Christian era therefore seems a far-off event. In fact it is a very recent event — perhaps the most recent significant event in history — and that brings us to a consideration of the prospects of Christianity in the future history of mankind on Earth.

On this view of the history of religion and of the civilizations, it has not been the historical function of the Christian Church just to serve as a chrysalis between the Graego-Roman civilization and its daughter civilizations in Byzantium and the West; and, supposing that these two civilizations, which are descended from the ancient Graeco-Roman one, turned out to be no more than vain repetitions of their parent, then there will be no reason to suppose that Christianity itself will be superseded by some distinct, separate, and different higher religion which will serve as a chrysalis between the death of the present Western civilization and the birth of its children. On the theory that religion is subservient to civilization, you would expect some new higher religion to come into existence on each occasion, in order to serve the purpose of tiding over the gap between one civilization and another. If the truth is the other way round — if it is civilization that is the means and religion that is the end — then, once again, a civilization may break down and break up, but the replacement of one higher religion by another will not be a necessary consequence. So far from that, if our secular Western civilization perishes, Christianity may be expected not only to endure but to grow in wisdom and stature as the result of a fresh experience of secular catastrophe.

There is one unprecedented feature of our own post-Christian civilization which, in spite of being a rather superficial feature, has a certain importance in this connection. In the course of its expansion our modern Western secular civilization has become literally world-wide and has drawn into its net all other surviving civilizations as well as primitive societies. At its first appearance, Christianity was provided by the Graeco-Roman civilization with a universal state, in the shape of the Roman Empire with its policed roads and shipping routes, as an aid to the spread of Christianity round the shores of the Mediterranean. Our modern Western secular civilization in its turn may serve its historical purpose by providing Christianity with a completely world-wide repetition of the Roman Empire to spread over. We have not quite arrived at our Roman Empire yet, though the victor in this world may be the founder of it. But long before a world is unified politically, it is unified economically and in other material ways; and the unification of our present world has long since opened the way for St. Paul, who once traveled from the Orontes to the Tiber under the aegis of the Pax Romana, to travel on from the Tiber to the Mississippi to the Yangtse; while Clement's and Origen's work of infusing Greek philosophy into Christianity at Alexandria might be emulated in some city of the Far East by the infusion of Chinese philosophy into Christianity. This intellectual feat has indeed been partly performed already. One of the greatest of modern missionaries and modern scholars, Matteo Ricci, who was both a Jesuit father and a Chinese literatus, set his hand to that task before the end of the sixteenth century of the Christian era. It is even possible that as, under the Roman Empire, Christianity drew out of and inherited from the other Oriental religions the heart of what was best in them, so the present religions of India and the form of Buddhism that is practiced to-day in the Far-East may contribute new elements to be grafted onto Christianity in days to come. And then one may look forward to what may happen when Caesar's empire decays — for Caesar's empire always does decay after a run of a few hundred years. What may happen is that Christianity may be left as the spiritual heir of all the other higher religions, from the post-Sumerian rudiment of one in the worship of Tammuz and Ishtar down to those that in A.D. 1948 are still living separate lives side by side with Christianity, and of all the philosophies from Ikhnaton's to Hegel's; while the Christian Church as an institution may be left as the social heir of all the other churches and all the civilizations.

That side of the picture brings one to another question which is both always old and always new — the question of the relation of the Christian Church to the Kingdom of Heaven. We seem to see a series of different kinds of society succeeding one another in this world. As the primitive species of societies has given place to a second species known as the civilizations within the brief period of the last six thousand years, so this second species of local and ephemeral societies may perhaps give place in its turn to a third species embodied in a single world-wide and enduring representative in the shape of the Christian Church. If we can look forward to that. we shall have to ask ourselves this question:Supposing that this were to happen would it mean that the Kingdom of Heaven would then have been established on Earth?

I think this question is a very pertinent one in our day, because some kind of earthly paradise is the goal of most of the current secular ideologies. To my mind the answer is emphatically 'No,' for several reasons which I shall now do my best to put before you.

One very obvious and well-known reason lies in the nature of society and in the nature of man. Society is, after all, only the common ground between the fields of action of a number of personalities, and human personality, at any rate as we know it in this world, has an innate capacity for evil as well as for good. If these two statements are true, as I believe them to be, then in any society on Earth, unless and until human nature itself undergoes a moral mutation which would make an essential change in its character, the possibility of evil, as well as of good, will be born into the world afresh with every child and will never be wholly ruled out as long as that child remains alive. This is as much as to say that the replacement of a multiplicity of civilizations by a universal church would not have purged human nature of original sin; and this leads to another consideration: so long as original sin remains an element in human nature, Caesar will always have work to do, and there will still be Caesar's things to be rendered to Caesar, as well as God's to God, in this world. Human society on Earth will not be able wholly to dispense with institutions of which the sanction is not purely the individual's active will to make them work, but is partly habit and partly even force. These imperfect institutions will have to be administered by a secular power which might be subordinated to religious authority but would not thereby be eliminated. And even if Caesar were not merely subordinated but were wholly eliminated by the Church, something of him would still survive in the constitution of his supplanter; for the institutional element has historically, up to date, been dominant in the life of the Church herself in her traditional Catholic form, which, on the long historical view, is the form in which one has to look at her.

In this Catholic form of the Church, I see two fundamental institutions, the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Hierarchy, which are indissolubly welded together by the fact that the priest, by definition, is the person with the power to perform the rite. If, in speaking of the Mass, one may speak, without offense, with the tongues of the historian and the anthropologist, then, using this language, one may describe the Sacrifice of the Mass as the mature form of a most ancient religious rite of which the rudiments can be traced back to the worship of the fertility of the Earth and her fruits by the earliest tillers of the soil. (I am speaking here merely of the mundane origin of the rite.) as for the hierarchy of the Church in its traditional form, this, as one knows, is modeled on a more recent and less awe-inspiring yet nevertheless most potent institution, the imperial civil service of the Roman Empire. The Church in its traditional form thus stands forth armed with the spear of the Mass, the shield of the Hierarchy, and the helmet of the Papacy; and perhaps the subconscious purpose — or the divine intention, if you prefer that language — of this heavy panoply of institutions in which the Church has clad herself is the very practical one of outlasting the toughest of the secular institutions of this world, including all the civilizations. If we survey all the institutions of which we have knowledge in the present and in the past, I think that the institutions created, or adopted and adapted, by Christianity are the toughest and the most enduring of any that we know and are therefore the most likely to last — and outlast all the rest. The history of Protestantism would seem to indicate that the Protestant act of casting off this armour four hundred years ago was premature; but that would not necessarily mean that this step would always be a mistake; and , however that may be, the institutional element in the traditional Catholic form of the Church Militant on Earth, even if it proves to be an invaluable and indispensable means of survival, is all the same a mundane feature which makes the Church Militant's life different from that of the Kingdom of Heaven, in which they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are as the angels of God, and in which each individual soul catches the spirit of God from direct communion with Him — 'like light caught from a leaping flame,' as Plato puts it in his Seventh Letter. Thus, even if the Church had won a fully world-wide allegiance and had entered into the inheritance of the last of the civilizations and of all the other higher religions, the Church on Earth would not be a perfect embodiment here on Earth of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Church on Earth would still have sin and sorrow to contend with as well as to profit by as a means of grace on the principle of Ueae iUeio, and she would still have to wear for a long time to come a panoply of institutions to give her the massive social solidity that she needs in the mundane struggle for survival, but this at the inevitable price of spirituality weighing her down, On this showing, the victorious Church Militant on Earth will be a province of the Kingdom of God, but a province in which the citizens of the heavenly commonwealth have to live and breathe and labour in an atmosphere that is not their native element.

The position in which the Church would then find herself is well conveyed in Plato's conceit, in the Phaedo, of the true surface of the Earth. We live, Plato suggests, in a large but local hollow, and what we take to be the air is really a sediment of fog. If one day we could make our way to the upper levels of the surface of the Earth, we should there breathe the pure ether and should see the light of the Sun and stars direct; and then we should realize how dim and blurred had been our vision down in the hollow, where we see the heavenly bodies, through the murky atmosphere in which we breathe, as imperfectly as the fishes see them through the water in which they swim. This Platonic conceit is a good simile for the life of the Church Militant on Earth; but the truth cannot be put better than it has been by Saint Augustine.

" It is written of Cain that he founded a commonwealth; but Abel — true to the type of the pilgrim and sojourner that he was — did not do the like. For the Commonwealth of the Saints is not of this world, though it does give birth to citizens here in whose persons it performs its pilgrimage until the time of its kingdom shall come — the time when it will gather them all together."2)

This brings me in conclusion to the last of the topics on which I am going to touch, that of the relation between Christianity and progress.

If it is true, as I think it is, that the Church on Earth will never be a perfect embodiment of the Kingdom of Heaven, in what sense can we say the words of the Lord's Prayer: 'Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in Earth as it is in Heaven'? Have we been right, after all, in coming to the conclusion that — in contrast to the cyclic movement of the rises and falls of civilizations — the history of religion on Earth is a movement in a single continuous upward line? What are the matters in which there has been, in historical times, a continuous religious advance? And have we any reason to think that this advance will continue without end? Even if the species of societies called civilizations does give way to a historically younger and perhaps spiritually higher species embodied in a single world-wide and enduring representative in the shape of the Christian Church, may there not come a time when the tug of war between Christianity and original sin will settle down to a static balance of spiritual forces?

Let me put forward one or two considerations in reply to these questions.

In the first place, religious progress means spiritual progress, and spirit means personality. Therefore religious progress must take place in the spiritual lives of personalities — it must show itself in their rising to a spiritually higher state and achieving a spiritually finer activity.

Now, in assuming that this individual progress is what spiritual progress means, are we after all admitting Frazer's thesis that the higher religions are essentially and incurably anti-social? Does a shift of human interests and energy from trying to create the values aimed at in the civilizations to trying to create the values aimed at in the higher religions mean that the values for which the civilizations stand are bound to suffer? Are spiritual and social values antithetical and inimical to each other? Is it true that the fabric of civilization is undermined if the salvation of the individual soul is taken as being the supreme aim of life?

Frazer answers these questions in the affirmative. If his answer were right it would mean that human life was a tragedy without a catharsis. But I personally believe that Frazer's answer is not right, because I think it is based on a fundamental misconception of what the nature of souls or personalities is. Personalities are inconceivable except as agents of spiritual activity; and the only conceivable scope for spiritual activity lies in relations between spirit and spirit. It is because spirit implies spiritual relations that Christian theology has completed the Jewish doctrine of the Unity of God with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is the theological way of expressing the revelation that God is a spirit; the doctrine of the Redemption is the theological way of expressing the revelation that God is Love. If man has been created in the likeness of God, and if the tue end of man is to make this likeness ever more and more like, then Aristotle's saying that 'man is social animal' applies to man's highest potentiality and aim — that of trying to get into ever closer communion with God. Seeking God is itself a social act. And if God's love has gone into action in this world in the Redemption of mankind by Christ, then man's efforts to make itself liker to God must include efforts to follow Christ's example in sacrificing himself for the redemption of his fellow men. Seeking and following God in this way, that is God's way, is the only true way for a human soul on Earth to seek salvation. The antithesis between trying to save one's own soul by seeking and following God and trying to do one's duty to one's neighbor is therefore wholly false. The two activities are indissoluble. The human soul that is truly seeking to save itself is as fully social a being as the ant-like Spartan or the bee-like Communist. Only, the Christian soul on Earth is a member of a very different society from Sparta or Leviathan. He is a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and therefore his paramount and all-embracing aim is to attain the highest degree of communion with, and likeness to, God Himself; his relations with his fellow men are consequences of, and corollaries to, his relations with God; and his way of loving his neighbour as himself will be to try to help his neighbour to win what he is seeking for himself — that is, to come into closer communion with God and to become more godlike.

If this is a soul's recognized aim for itself and for its fellow souls in the Christian Church Militant on Earth, then it is obvious that under a Christian dispensation God's will will be done in Earth as it is in Heaven to an immeasurably greater degree than in a secular mundane society. It is also evident that, in the Church Militant on Earth, the good social aims of the mundane societies will incidentally be achieved very much more successfully than they ever have been or can be achieved in a mundane society which aims at these objects direct, and at nothing higher. In other words, the spiritual progress of individual souls in this life will in fact bring with it much more social progress than could be attained in any other way. It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it. This is the meaning of the fable in the Old Testament of Solomon's Choice and of the saying in the New Testament about losing one's life and saving it.

Therefore, while the replacement of the mundane civilizations by the world-wide and enduring reign of the Church Militant on Earth would certainly produce what to-day would seem a miraculous improvement in those mundane social conditions which the civilizations have been seeking to improve during the last six thousand years, the aim, and test, of progress under a truly Christian dispensation on Earth would not lie in the field of mundane social life; the field would be the spiritual life of individual souls in their passages through this earthly life from birth into this world to death out of it.

But if spiritual progress in time in this world means progress achieved by individual human souls during their passages through this world to the other world, in what sense can there be any spiritual progress over a time-span far longer than that of individual lives on Earth, and running into thousands of years, such as that of the historical development of the higher religions from the rise of Tammuz-worship and the generation of Abraham to the Christian era?

I have already confessed my own adherence to the traditional Christian view that there is no reason to expect any change in unredeemed human nature while human life on Earth goes on. Till this Earth ceases to be physically habitable by man, we may expect that the endowments of individual human beings with original sin and with natural goodness will be about the same, on the average, as they always have been as far as our knowledge goes. the most primitive societies known to us in the life or by report provide examples of as great natural goodness as, and no lesser wickedness than, the highest civilizations or religious societies that have yet come into existence. There has been no perceptible variation in the average sample of human nature in the past; there is no ground, in the evidence afforded by History, to expect any great variation in the future either for better or for worse.

The matter in which there might be spiritual progress in time on a time-span extending over many successive generations of life on Earth is not the unregenerate nature of man, but the opportunity open to souls, by way of the learning that comes through suffering, for getting into closer communion with God, and becoming less unlike Him, during their passage through this world.

What Christ, with the Prophets before Him and the Saints after Him, has bequeathed to the Church, and what the Church, by virtue of having been fashioned into an incomparably effective institution, succeeds in accumulating, preserving, and communicating to successive generations of Christians, is a growing fund of illumination and of grace-meaning by 'illumination' the discovery of revelation or revealed discovery of the true nature of God and the true end of man here and hereafter, and by 'grace,' the will or inspiration or inspired will to aim at getting into Him. In this matter of increasing spiritual opportunity for souls in their passages through life on Earth, there is assuredly an inexhaustible possibility of progress in this world.

Is the spiritual opportunity given by Christianity, or by one or other of the higher religions that have been forerunners of Christianity and have partially anticipated Christianity's gifts of illumination and grace to men on Earth, an indispensable condition for salvation — meaning by 'salvation' the spiritual effect on a soul of feeling after God and finding Him in its passage through life on Earth?

If this were so, then the innumerable generations of men who never had the chance of receiving the illumination and grace conveyed by Christianity and the other higher religions would have been born and have died without a chance of the salvation which is the true end of man and the true purpose of life on Earth. This might be conceivable, though still repugnant, if we believed that the true purpose of life on Earth was not the preparation of souls for another life, but the establishment of the best possible human society in this world, which in the Christian belief is not the true purpose, though it is an almost certain by-product of a pursuit of the true purpose. If progress is taken as being the social of Leviathan and not the spiritual progress of individual souls, then it would perhaps be conceivable that, for the gain and glory of the body social, innumerable earlier generations should have been doomed to live a lower social life in order that a higher social life might eventually be lived by successors who had entered into their labors. This would be conceivable on the hypothesis that individual human souls existed for the sake of society, and not for their own sakes or for God's.But this belief is not only repugnant but is also inconceivable when we are dealing with the history of religion, where the progress of individual souls through this world towards God, and not the progress of society in this world, is the end on which the supreme value is set. We cannot believe that the historically incontestable fact that illumination and grace have been imparted to men on Earth in successive installments, beginning quite recently in the history of the human race on Earth, and even then coming gradually in the course of generations, can have entailed the consequence that the vast majority of souls born into the world up to date, who have had no share in this spiritual opportunity, have, as a result, been spiritually lost. We must believe that the possibilities, provided by God, of learning through suffering in this world have always afforded a sufficient means of salvation to every soul that has made the best of the spiritual opportunity offered to it here, however small that opportunity may have been.

But, if men on Earth have not had to wait for the advent of the higher religions, culminating in Christianity, in order to qualify, in their life on Earth, for eventually attaining, after death, the state of eternal felicity in the other world, then what difference has the advent on Earth of the higher religions, and of Christianity itself, really made? The difference, I should say, is this, that, under the Christian dispensation, a soul which does make the best of its spiritual opportunities will, in qualifying for salvation, be advancing farther towards communion with God and towards likeness to God under the conditions of life on Earth, before death, than has been possible for souls that have not been illuminated, during their pilgrimage on Earth, by the light of the higher religions. A pagan soul, no less than a Christian soul, has ultimate salvation with its reach; but a soul which has been offered, and has opened itself to, the illumination and the grace that Christianity conveys, will, while still in this world, of the narrower opportunity here open to it. The Christian soul can attain, while still on Earth, a greater measure of man's greatest good than can be attained by any pagan soul in this earthly stage of its existence.

Thus the historical progress of religion in this world, as represented by the rise of the higher religions and by their culmination in Christianity, may, and almost certainly will, bring with it, incidentally, an immeasurable improvement in the conditions of human social life on Earth; but its direct effect and its deliberate aim and its true test is the opportunity which it brings to individual souls for spiritual progress in this world during the passage from birth to death. It is this individual spiritual progress in this world for which we pray when we say 'Thy will be done in Earth as it is in Heaven.' It is for the salvation that is open to all men of good will — pagan as well as Christian, primitive as well as civilized — who make the most of their spiritual opportunities on Earth, however narrow these opportunities may be, that we pray when we say 'Thy Kingdom come.'

NOTES

  1. Frazer,Sir J.G.: The Golden Bough, Part IV: 'Adonis, Attis,Osiris.' vol. I, pp. 300-301 (third edition, London 1914, Macmillan, preface dated January, 1914).
  2. Saint Augustine: De Civitate Dei, Book XV, chap.i

Posted: 15-Jul-2009



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