Can Christianity Survive?

IN his recent book, Prospects of Industrial Civilization, in which a brilliant and bitter cynicism begins to betray the inevitable consequences of a ‘ philosophy built on the firm foundations of unyielding despair,’ Mr. Bertrand Russell outlines the future of our civilization and incidentally finds no place for religion in the task of redeeming society. He holds its extinction to be both inevitable and desirable; desirable because its constitutional traditionalism is inimical to social progress, and inevitable because it grew out of primitive man’s conflict with the natural world. This conflict, in which man sought the benevolent intervention of a supernatural ally, has become too remote to influence the thought and life of a citizen of a modern industrial and urban civilization. The ills from which he suffers are obviously the consequence, not of nature’s enmity, but of the cruelty and selfishness of his fellow men. If he wants for bread the cause of his hunger is not the reluctance of the soil to yield him her increase, but the unwillingness of the strong to make an equitable division of the riches which they have pressed from nature’s bosom. In this situation modern men, particularly industrial workers, will become increasingly naturalistic and regard the Christian ethics as a fraud and religious faith as an illusion.

In this analysis Mr. Russell does not take into account that religion is as much the product of man’s conflict with himself as of his battle with nature; nor does he consider that even an urban civilization, in which man is divorced from the soil and freed from the caprice of the elements, cannot finally eliminate the grim hostility of the natural world to everything which man holds dearest and which he will try inevitably to save from nature’s last and most implacable servant — Death. Yet, in the main, much may be said for Mr. Russell’s analysis and prophecy, particularly since our contemporary life already threatens to fulfill the latter.

As a matter of fact religion is not at present a vital factor in our civilization. Its icons still adorn our family hearths and, in circumscribed fields of human conduct, it still influences moral life; but it is not reckoned with in the more complex moral problems and the wider social relationships in which the destiny of our civilization is being determined. If organized religion enjoys a prosperity in America which seems to invalidate Mr. Russell’s argument, that is only because, in our paradise of national security and universal opulence, we have not yet felt the enormity of the sins of greed and violence which are corrupting our civilization and which seem to prove the impotence of religion. In fact, our American situation offers an interesting confirmation of Mr. Russell’s observation that religion may long continue in the life of those classes which benefit, or at least do not suffer, from the limitations of our industrial civilization. These are the very classes which still maintain their loyalty to organized religion in Europe; and if religious sentiment seems more general in America than in Europe that may well be because these classes practically include our whole population.

What is true in Europe, and is becoming increasingly true in America, is that the humble and lowly folk, the world’s burden-bearers, whose religious attitude was once proverbial, are not only alienated from but hostile to religion. This alienation is due not so much to the remoteness of the natural world as to the unwillingness of the dominant classes, who still profess religious faith, to be guided in their social actions by the obvious moral implications of their declared faith. For every person who has renounced religion in our day because it failed to convince his mind, two have renounced it because it outraged their conscience by its tacit support of traditional social wrong. So the sin of hypocrisy has generated the cynicism which is so characteristic of the labor revolt in every country, and the futility of religious idealism in economic life has produced the economic determinism which has become the worker’s creed.

In France religion has never recovered the power which it lost when the Revolution found it in league with feudal reaction. In Germany, the cradle of more than one vital religious movement, the nation is being torn asunder by a violent communism in conflict with an equally extreme nationalism, and the Church survives only as a more or less despised ally of nationalism. In this desperate struggle Catholicism has gained some influence as a conciliatory factor in the conflict, but Protestantism has been rendered practically impotent. In Russia organized religion has survived the Revolution, but the class-conscious workers are its sworn foes. Even in countries which did not suffer from the war, such as Holland, Switzerland, and Denmark, and in which the class struggle is not quite so desperate, there is the same strong drift to cynical economic determinism among the workers. In England alone the situation is somewhat more favorable, for the English Church never lost contact completely with the labor movement; and so the class struggle is tempered with a measure of religious idealism.

Contemporary European history shows quite clearly that any religious interpretation of the universe by which man maintains himself against the hostility of nature cannot survive in the modern world if it does not issue in a social morality which is inspired by a spiritual appreciation of human life. For men do suffer in the modern world more from the cruelties which in their mutual fear and their greed they inflict upon each other than from the hostility of the natural world. If the Christian Church is dying in Europe it is because it has failed to develop the clear moral implications of its faith and has not dared to insist that men are children of God and therefore neither to be used as things nor feared as devils. It has permitted an arrogantly secular industrialism to enslave human beings as tools of its avarice; and it has lacked the imagination to deliver the nations out of the vicious circle of mutual fears and hatreds into which a lack of confidence in human nature betrayed them.

This moral failure of traditional Christianity is regarded as inevitable by the cynics who believe religion to be without moral potency. Though immediate evidence may support their convict ion it ought not to be accepted too readily; for it is quite obvious that a religion which teaches us to trust the universe itself as ultimately good can never completely disavow, though it may be too slow to avow, the moral implications of this faith, and must insist that men are to be trusted and loved. Religious transcendentalism does finally issue in a spiritual morality, and nothing less than a morality buttressed by such a faith can develop the strength to restrain and sublimate the baser instincts of men. Though the apostasy of the Church from the religiously oriented ethics of Jesus runs through its whole history, it has never been so complete and will not remain so general as in our contemporary civilization.

The complete secularization of society is a fairly recent historical development. The Protestant Reformation contributed to it immensely when it centred the moral dynamic of religion upon the drama of the inner life and removed every spiritual restraint from social groups. So Machiavelli’s political philosophy became the creed of nations, and with Adam Smith business joined the State in its defiance of moral law. A soulless economics aggravated a pagan politics, both outraging the spiritual evaluation of human life and defying the moral law which was meant to preserve and protect it. It might be maintained that this secularization of economics and politics is not new, but as old as history, and that neither Christianity nor any other religion has ever really conquered a nation or brought economic relationships under the dominion of its conscience. But the naïve connivance of Protestantism with rampant nationalism and the economics of laissez faire will hardly compare favorably with the best that the Middle Ages accomplished when the Church tried, however qualifiedly, to subject social instincts, which express themselves in political and economic life, to some kind of law.

Thomas Aquinas’s insistence on a ‘just price’ was a potent influence in the commercial life of the Middle Ages, and the modern doctrine that the avarice of producers should be restrained by nothing but the law of supply and demand was a heresy. Whatever may be said of the alloy of personal ambition which entered into the dreams of Hildebrand and the achievements of Innocent III, they did place some wholesome restraints on the capricious self-will of nations. It is only in modern civilization that groups and nations are absolved from obedience to every law except the will to power. Economic and political ruthlessness has been the natural result of this freedom. Any political philosophy which insists that a nation is not subject to moral law is bound to issue in an international diplomacy which operates upon the assumption that nations are not to be trusted. And the political economy of Adam Smith inevitably creates the antithesis of the social philosophy of Karl Marx. The effort of liberalism to preserve peace between warring classes and nations by pitting self-interest against self-interest was bound to fail. It only served to aggravate the fears and hatreds which the groups and nations had for one another. The Great War came to reduce the whole philosophy of unrestrained self-interest and undisciplined power to an absurdity.

Among well-meaning people the hope arose that the war would profit mankind at least to the extent of revealing that absurdity to man’s blindness. But that hope was vain. As the years pass and Europe remains fretted with national fears and class struggles the melancholy conclusion forces itself upon the reluctant mind that the war was an episode and not an epoch in the history of Western civilization. One need only analyze the perfectly hopeless situation between Germany and France, and the deeply ingrained conviction of each that the other is not to be trusted, to realize the anarchic condition of our modern life. It is the perfect fruit of modern paganism. There is neither mutual repentance nor mutual forgiveness and therefore there can be no mutual trust. Wherever national animosities are composed it is only by forces which hope to substitute the class struggle for the national conflicts and to eliminate vertical social divisions that they may create horizontal ones.

It is quite clear that such a world can be saved only by a spiritual ethics which will inspire men to trust human nature as essentially good, and which will make economic and political institutions subservient to human welfare. The Church has such an ethics in the Gospel of one whom it reveres as Master. In the original Gospel, which the Church ostensibly regards as revealed finality, the moral implications of a transcendental conception of the universe are made unmistakably explicit. We are bidden to love even our enemies and to trust our fellow men beyond their immediate ability to validate our trust. But the Gospel of Jesus became diluted with Greek philosophy, and the Church, which was sworn to teach it, became involved with social groups and nations whose interests and instincts ran counter to its ideals; so that in time an emaciated ethics of mere respectability was substituted for real Christian morality. This failure of the Church to insist on its own religion has been disastrous to civilization and to the Church itself. Having become impotent before or in actual league with the forces of economic greed and racial passion which have destroyed our civilization, it must face the scorn of the millions who suffer from the sins of modern society and are beginning to understand the causes of their misery.

There are indications that organized religion is awakening to the challenge which the sorry plight of modern civilization offers to it. The tendency of liberal Christians is to substitute the authority of Jesus for the authority of the Bible and thus to deliver the Church from the futile quietism which it derived from Paul and the barren Puritanism which had its roots in the Old Testament. That is a tremendous gain. Yet Christian liberalism would do well not to be too sure that it is the force which is to vitalize religion and redeem civilization. It lacks the necessary passion for that task. Its position is weak because it was reached by a retreat and not by an advance. Liberalism rediscovered the religion of Jesus because it found the authority of the Bible untenable in the modern day. It was captivated by the theological simplicity rather than by the moral splendor of His Gospel. It was the impatience of our age with theological subtleties and dogmatic absurdities, rather than its sense of moral need, which prompted this development. Having arrived at the religion of Jesus by a strategic retreat, liberalism has lacked the spiritual passion to make a bold advance upon the positions of economic and political paganism which imperil our civilization. In its hands the heroic vigor of the Gospel has frequently been reduced to a few amiable ethical precepts which have no power to match the social iniquities of our day. If it believes that men ought to be loved and trusted it has gained that appreciation of human nature more from the Renaissance than from the genius of its own religion. It consequently fails to understand how evil essentially good men can be. That is why Christian liberalism, particularly in America, is corrupted and vitiated by a facile optimism. It deludes itself in the belief that the monstrous sins which lurk in our economic and political traditions may be overcome by a few well-meaning church resolutions, generally judiciously qualified to soften their rigor.

Spiritually the orthodox pessimism which thinks the world too evil to be saved, and waits for redemption upon a divine receivership for a bankrupt civilization, has many advantages over the fatuous optimism of most current religious liberalism. In Europe, where the forces which are destroying our civilization are less obscured and better understood than among us, a marked asceticism characterizes much religious thought. Even this asceticism, which offers the sensitive soul some way of escape from the sins of the world, is in some respects superior to religions which obscure rather than define the task which confronts modern civilization. Religions which despair of the world or persuade us to flee from it will of course make no great contribution to its redemption; but they have at least the merit of correctly measuring the strength of the forces against which the best in men must contend.

If religion is to be restored as a force in modern life, it must be able to gauge the evil in human life and yet maintain its faith in the spiritual potentialities of human nature. It must be able to deal with the problems of economic and political life in the spirit of scientific realism and offer for their solution the dynamic of a faith that is incurably romantic. Nothing less than a transcendentally oriented religion is equal to this task, but it must be a religion which fearlessly faces the moral implications of its faith.