Thank God for the Atom Bomb by Paul Fussell

Paul Fussell in Paris, May 1945

Many years ago in New York I saw on the side of a bus a whiskey ad I’ve remembered all this time. It’s been for me a model of the short poem, and indeed I’ve come upon few short poems subsequently that exhibited more poetic talent. The ad consisted of two eleven-syllable lines of “verse,” thus:

In life, experience is the great teacher.

In Scotch, Teacher’s is the great experience.

For present purposes we must jettison the second line (licking our lips, to be sure, as it disappears), leaving the first to register a principle whose banality suggests that it enshrines a most useful truth. I bring up the matter because, writing on the forty-second anniversary of the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I want to consider something suggested by the long debate about the ethics, if any, of that ghastly affair. Namely, the importance of experience, sheer, vulgar experience, in influencing, if not determining, one’s views about that use of the atom bomb.

The experience I’m talking about is having to come to grips, face to face, with an enemy who designs your death. The experience is common to those in the marines and the infantry and even the line navy, to those, in short, who fought the Second World War mindful always that their mission was, as they were repeatedly assured, “to close with the enemy and destroy him.” Destroy, notice: not hurt, frighten, drive away, or capture. I think there’s something to be learned about that war, as well as about the tendency of historical memory unwittingly to resolve ambiguity and generally clean up the premises, by considering the way testimonies emanating from real war experience tend to complicate attitudes about the most cruel ending of that most cruel war.

“What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?” The recruiting poster deserves ridicule and contempt, of course, but here its question is embarrassingly relevant, and the problem is one that touches on the dirty little secret of social class in America. Arthur T. Hadley said recently that those for whom the use of the A-bomb was “wrong” seem to be implying “that it would have been better to allow thousands on thousands of American and Japanese infantrymen to die in honest hand-to-hand combat on the beaches than to drop those two bombs.” People holding such views, he notes, “do not come from the ranks of society that produce infantrymen or pilots.” And there’s an eloquence problem: most of those with firsthand experience of the war at its worst were not elaborately educated people. Relatively inarticulate, most have remained silent about what they know. That is, few of those destined to be blown to pieces if the main Japanese islands had been invaded went on to become our most effective men of letters or impressive ethical theorists or professors of contemporary history or of international law. The testimony of experience has tended to come from rough diamonds–James Jones’ is an example–who went through the war as enlisted men in the infantry or the Marine Corps.

Anticipating objections from those without such experience, in his book WWII Jones carefully prepares for his chapter on the A-bombs by detailing the plans already in motion for the infantry assaults on the home islands of Kyushu (thirteen divisions scheduled to land in November 1945) and ultimately Honshu (sixteen divisions scheduled for March 1946). Planners of the invasion assumed that it would require a full year, to November 1946, for the Japanese to be sufficiently worn down by land-combat attrition to surrender. By that time, one million American casualties was the expected price. Jones observes that the forthcoming invasion of Kyushu “was well into its collecting and stockpiling stages before the war ended.” (The island of Saipan was designated a main ammunition and supply base for the invasion, and if you go there today you can see some of the assembled stuff still sitting there.) “The assault troops were chosen and already in training,” Jones reminds his readers, and he illuminates by the light of experience what this meant:

What it must have been like to some old-timer buck sergeant or staff sergeant who had been through Guadalcanal or Bougainville or the Philippines, to stand on some beach and watch this huge war machine beginning to stir and move all around him and know that he very likely had survived this far only to fall dead on the dirt of Japan’s home islands, hardly bears thinking about.

Another bright enlisted man, this one an experienced marine destined for the assault on Honshu, adds his testimony. Former Pfc. E. B. Sledge, author of the splendid memoir With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, noticed at the time that the fighting grew “more vicious the closer we got to Japan,” with the carnage of Iwo Jima and Okinawa worse than what had gone before. He points out that

what we had experienced [my emphasis] in fighting the Japs (pardon the expression) on Peleliu and Okinawa caused us to formulate some very definite opinions that the invasion . . . would be a ghastly bloodletting. It would shock the American public and the world. [Every Japanese] soldier, civilian, woman, and child would fight to the death with whatever weapons they had, ride, grenade, or bamboo spear.

The Japanese pre-invasion patriotic song, “One Hundred Million Souls for the Emperor,” says Sledge, “meant just that.” Universal national kamikaze was the point. One kamikaze pilot, discouraged by his unit’s failure to impede the Americans very much despite the bizarre casualties it caused, wrote before diving his plane onto an American ship “I see the war situation becoming more desperate. All Japanese must become soldiers and die for the Emperor.” Sledge’s First Marine Division was to land close to the Yokosuka Naval Base, “one of the most heavily defended sectors of the island.” The marines were told, he recalls, that

due to the strong beach defenses, caves, tunnels, and numerous Jap suicide torpedo boats and manned mines, few Marines in the first five assault waves would get ashore alive—my company was scheduled to be in the first and second waves. The veterans in the outfit felt we had already run out of luck anyway…. We viewed the invasion with complete resignation that we would be killed—either on the beach or inland.

And the invasion was going to take place: there’s no question about that. It was not theoretical or merely rumored in order to scare the Japanese. By July 10, 1945, the prelanding naval and aerial bombardment of the coast had begun, and the battleships IowaMissouriWisconsin, and King George V were steaming up and down the coast, softening it up with their sixteen-inch shells.

On the other hand, John Kenneth Galbraith is persuaded that the Japanese would have surrendered surely by November without an invasion. He thinks the A-bombs were unnecessary and unjustified because the war was ending anyway. The A-bombs meant, he says, “a difference, at most, of two or three weeks.” But at the time, with no indication that surrender was on the way, the kamikazes were sinking American vessels, the Indianapolis was sunk (880 men killed), and Allied casualties were running to over 7,000 per week. “Two or three weeks,” says Galbraith.

Two weeks more means 14,000 more killed and wounded, three weeks more, 21,000. Those weeks mean the world if you’re one of those thousands or related to one of them. During the time between the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb on August 9 and the actual surrender on the fifteenth, the war pursued its accustomed course: on the twelfth of August eight captured American fliers were executed (heads chopped off); the fifty-first United States submarine, Bonefish, was sunk (all aboard drowned); the destroyer Callaghan went down, the seventieth to be sunk, and the Destroyer Escort Underhill was lost. That’s a bit of what happened in six days of the two or three weeks posited by Galbraith. What did he do in the war? He worked in the Office of Price Administration in Washington. I don’t demand that he experience having his ass shot off. I merely note that he didn’t.

Likewise, the historian Michael Sherry, author of a recent book on the rise of the American bombing mystique, The Creation of Armageddon, argues that we didn’t delay long enough between the test explosion in New Mexico and the mortal explosions in Japan. More delay would have made possible deeper moral considerations and perhaps laudable second thoughts and restraint. “The risks of delaying the bomb’s use,” he says would have been small—not the thousands of casualties expected of invasion but only a few days or weeks of relatively routine operations.” While the mass murders represented by these “relatively routine operations were enacting, Michael Sherry was safe at home. Indeed when the bombs were dropped he was going on eight months old, in danger only of falling out of his pram. In speaking thus of Galbraith and Sherry, I’m aware of the offensive implications ad hominem. But what’s at stake in an infantry assault is so entirely unthinkable to those without the experience of one, or several, or many, even if they possess very wide-ranging imaginations and warm sympathies, that experience is crucial in this case.

In general, the principle is, the farther from the scene of horror the easier the talk. One young combat naval officer close to the action wrote home m the fall of 1943, just before the marines underwent the agony of Tarawa: “When I read that we will fight the Japs for years if necessary and will sacrifice hundreds of thousands if we must, I always like to check from where he’s talking: it’s seldom out here.” That was Lieutenant (j.g.) John F. Kennedy. And Winston Churchill, with an irony perhaps too broad and easy, noted in Parliament that the people who preferred invasion to A-bombing seemed to have “no intention of proceeding to the Japanese front themselves.”

A remoteness from experience like Galbraith’s and Sherry’s and a similar rationalistic abstraction from actuality, seem to motivate the reaction of an anonymous reviewer of William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War for The New York Review of Books. The reviewer naturally dislikes Manchester’s still terming the enemy Nips or Japs, but what really shakes him (her?) is this passage of Manchester’s:

After Biak the enemy withdrew to deep caverns. Rooting them out became a bloody business which reached its ultimate horrors in the last months of the war. You think of the lives which would have been lost in an invasion of Japan’s home islands—astaggering number of Americans but millions more of Japanese— and you thank God for the atomic bomb.

Thank God for the atom bomb. From this, “one recoils” says the reviewer. One does, doesn’t one?

And not just a staggering number of Americans would have been killed in the invasion. Thousands of British assault troops would have been destroyed too, the anticipated casualties from the almost 200,000 men in the six divisions (the same number used to invade Normandy) assigned to invade the Malay Peninsula on September 9. Aimed at the reconquest of Singapore, this operation was expected to last until about March 1946—that is, seven more months of infantry fighting. “But for the atomic bombs,” a British observer intimate with the Japanese defenses notes, “I don’t think we would have stood a cat in hell’s chance. We would have been murdered in the biggest massacre of the war. They would have annihilated the lot of us.”

The Dutchman Laurens van der Post had been a prisoner of the Japanese for three and a half years. He and thousands of his fellows enfeebled by beriberi and pellagra, were being systematically starved to death, the Japanese rationalizing this treatment not just because the prisoners were white men but because they had allowed themselves to be captured at all and were therefore moral garbage. In the summer of 1945 Marshal Terauchi issued a significant order: at the moment the Allies invaded the main islands, all prisoners were to be killed by the prison-camp commanders. But thank God that did not happen. When the A-bombs were dropped, van der Post recalls, “This cataclysm I was certain would make the Japanese feel that they could withdraw from the war without dishonor, because it would strike them, as it had us in the silence of our prison night, as something supernatural.”

In an exchange of views not long ago in The New York Review of Books, Joseph Alsop and David Joravsky set forth the by now familiar argument on both sides of the debate about the “ethics” of the bomb. It’s not hard to guess which side each chose once you know that Alsop experienced capture by the Japanese at Hong Kong early in 1942, while Joravsky came into no deadly contact with the Japanese: a young combat-innocent soldier, he was on his way to the Pacific when the war ended. The editors of The New York Review gave the debate the tendentious title “Was the Hiroshima Bomb Necessary?” surely an unanswerable question (unlike “Was It Effective?”) and one precisely indicating the intellectual difficulties involved in imposing ex post facto a rational and even a genteel ethics on this event. In arguing the acceptability of the bomb, Alsop focuses on the power and fanaticism of War Minister Anami, who insisted that Japan fight to the bitter end, defending the main islands with the same techniques and tenacity employed at Iwo and Okinawa. Alsop concludes: “Japanese surrender could never have been obtained, at any rate without the honor-satisfying bloodbath envisioned by … Anami, if the hideous destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not finally galvanized the peace advocates into tearing up the entire Japanese book of rules.” The Japanese plan to deploy the undefeated bulk of their ground forces, over two million men, plus 10,000 kamikaze planes, plus the elderly and all the women and children with sharpened spears they could muster in a suicidal defense makes it absurd, says Alsop, to “hold the common view, by now hardly challenged by anyone, that the decision to drop the two bombs on Japan was wicked in itself, and that President Truman and all others who joined in making or who [like Robert Oppenheimer] assented to this decision shared in the wickedness.” And in explanation of “the two bombs,” Alsop adds: “The true, climactic, and successful effort of the Japanese peace advocates … did not begin in deadly earnest until after the second bomb had destroyed Nagasaki. The Nagasaki bomb was thus the trigger to all the developments that led to peace.” At this time the army was so unready for surrender that most looked forward to the forthcoming invasion as an indispensable opportunity to show their mettle, enthusiastically agreeing with the army spokesman who reasoned early in 1945, “Since the retreat from Guadalcanal, the Army has had little opportunity to engage the enemy in land battles. But when we meet in Japan proper, our Army will demonstrate its invincible superiority.” This possibility foreclosed by the Emperor’s post-A-bomb surrender broadcast, the shocked, disappointed officers of one infantry battalion, anticipating a professionally impressive defense of the beaches, killed themselves in the following numbers: one major, three captains, ten first lieutenants, and twelve second lieutenants.

David Joravsky, now a professor of history at Northwestern, argued on the other hand that those who decided to use the A-bombs on cities betray defects of “reason and self-restraint.” It all needn’t have happened, he says, “if the U.S. government had been willing to take a few more days and to be a bit more thoughtful in opening up the age of nuclear warfare.” I’ve already noted what “a few more days” would mean to the luckless troops and sailors on the spot, and as to being thoughtful when “opening up the age of nuclear warfare,” of course no one was focusing on anything as portentous as that, which reflects a historian’s tidy hindsight. The U.S. government was engaged not in that sort of momentous thing but in ending the war conclusively, as well as irrationally Remembering Pearl Harbor with a vengeance. It didn’t know then what everyone knows now about leukemia and various kinds of carcinoma and birth defects. Truman was not being sly or coy when he insisted that the bomb was “only another weapon.” History, as Eliot’s “Gerontion” notes,

… has many cunning passages, contrived corridors

And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,

Guides us by vanities. . . .

Think

Neither fear nor courage saves us.

Unnatural vices

Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues

Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.

Understanding the past requires pretending that you don’t know the present. It requires feeling its own pressure on your pulses without any ex post facto illumination. That’s a harder thing to do than Joravsky seems to think.

The Alsop-Joravsky debate, reduced to a collision between experience and theory, was conducted with a certain civilized respect for evidence. Not so the way the scurrilous, agitprop New Statesman conceives those justifying the dropping of the bomb and those opposing. They are, on the one hand, says Bruce Page, “the imperialist class-forces acting through Harry Truman” and, on the other, those representing “the humane, democratic virtues”—in short, “fascists” as opposed to “populists.” But ironically the bomb saved the lives not of any imperialists but only of the low and humble, the quintessentially democratic huddled masses—the conscripted enlisted men manning the fated invasion divisions and the sailors crouching at their gun-mounts in terror of the Kamikazes. When the war ended, Bruce Page was nine years old. For someone of his experience, phrases like “imperialist class forces” come easily, and the issues look perfectly clear.

He’s not the only one to have forgotten, if he ever knew, the unspeakable savagery of the Pacific war. The dramatic postwar Japanese success at hustling and merchandising and tourism has (happily, in many ways) effaced for most people the vicious assault context in which the Hiroshima horror should be viewed. It is easy to forget, or not to know, what Japan was like before it was first destroyed, and then humiliated, tamed, and constitutionalized by the West. “Implacable, treacherous, barbaric”—thosewere Admiral Halsey’s characterizations of the enemy, and at the time few facing the Japanese would deny that they fit to a T. One remembers the captured American airmen—the lucky ones who escaped decapitation—lockedfor years in packing crates. One remembers the gleeful use of bayonets on civilians, on nurses and the wounded, in Hong Kong and Singapore. Anyone who actually fought in the Pacific recalls the Japanese routinely firing on medics, killing the wounded (torturing them first, if possible), and cutting off the penises of the dead to stick in the corpses’ mouths. The degree to which Americans register shock and extraordinary shame about the Hiroshima bomb correlates closely with lack of information about the Pacific war.

And of course the brutality was not just on one side. There was much sadism and cruelty, undeniably racist, on ours. (It’s worth noting in passing how few hopes blacks could entertain of desegregation and decent treatment when the U.S. Army itself slandered the enemy as “the little brown Jap.”) Marines and soldiers could augment their view of their own invincibility by possessing a well-washed Japanese skull, and very soon after Guadalcanal it was common to treat surrendering Japanese as handy rifle targets. Plenty of Japanese gold teeth were extracted—some from still living mouths—with Marine Corps Ka-Bar Knives, and one of E. B. Sledge’s fellow marines went around with a cut-off Japanese hand. When its smell grew too offensive and Sledge urged him to get rid of it, he defended his possession of this trophy thus: “How many Marines you reckon that hand pulled the trigger on?” (It’s hardly necessary to observe that a soldier in the ETO would probably not have dealt that way with a German or Italian—that is, a “white person’s”— hand.) In the Pacific the situation grew so public and scandalous that in September 1942, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet issued this order: “No part of the enemy’s body may be used as a souvenir. Unit Commanders will take stern disciplinary action. . . .”

Among Americans it was widely held that the Japanese were really subhuman, little yellow beasts, and popular imagery depicted them as lice, rats, bats, vipers, dogs, and monkeys. What was required, said the Marine Corps journal The Leatherneck in May 1945, was “a gigantic task of extermination.” The Japanese constituted a “pestilence,” and the only appropriate treatment was “annihilation.” Some of the marines landing on Iwo Jima had “Rodent Exterminator” written on their helmet covers, and on one American flagship the naval commander had erected a large sign enjoining all to “KILL JAPS! KILL JAPS! KILL MORE JAPS!” Herman Wouk remembers the Pacific war scene correctly while analyzing ensign Keith in The Caine Mutiny: “Like most of the naval executioners of Kwajalein, he seemed to regard the enemy as a species of animal pest.” And the feeling was entirely reciprocal: “From the grim and desperate taciturnity with which the Japanese died, they seemed on their side to believe that they were contending with an invasion of large armed ants.” Hiroshima seems to follow in natural sequence: “This obliviousness of both sides to the fact that the opponents were human beings may perhaps be cited as the key to the many massacres of the Pacific war.” Since the Jap vermin resist so madly and have killed so many of us, let’s pour gasoline into their bunkers and light it and then shoot those afire who try to get out. Why not? Why not blow them all up, with satchel charges or with something stronger? Why not, indeed, drop a new kind of bomb on them, and on the un-uniformed ones too, since the Japanese government has announced that women from ages of seventeen to forty are being called up to repel the invasion? The intelligence officer of the U.S. Fifth Air Force declared on July 21, 1945, that “the entire population of Japan is a proper military target,” and he added emphatically, “There are no civilians in Japan.” Why delay and allow one more American high school kid to see his own intestines blown out of his body and spread before him in the dirt while he screams and screams when with the new bomb we can end the whole thing just like that?

On Okinawa, only weeks before Hiroshima, 123,000 Japanese and Americans killed each other. (About 140,000 Japanese died at Hiroshima.) “Just awful” was the comment on the Okinawa slaughter not of some pacifist but of General MacArthur. On July 14, 1945, General Marshall sadly informed the Combined Chiefs of Staff—he was not trying to scare the Japanese—that it’s “now clear . . . that in order to finish with the Japanese quickly, it will be necessary to invade the industrial heart of Japan.” The invasion was definitely on, as I know because I was to be in it.

When the atom bomb ended the war, I was in the Forty-fifth Infantry Division, which had been through the European war so thoroughly that it had needed to be reconstituted two or three times. We were in a staging area near Rheims, ready to be shipped back across the United States for refresher training at Fort Lewis, Washington, and then sent on for final preparation in the Philippines. My division, like most of the ones transferred from Europe, was to take part in the invasion of Honshu. (The earlier landing on Kyushu was to be carried out by the 700,000 infantry already in the Pacific, those with whom James Jones has sympathized.) I was a twenty-one-year-old second lieutenant of infantry leading a rifle platoon. Although still officially fit for combat, in the German war I had already been wounded in the back and the leg badly enough to be adjudged, after the war, 40 percent disabled. But even if my leg buckled and I fell to the ground whenever I jumped out of the back of a truck, and even if the very idea of more combat made me breathe in gasps and shake all over, my condition was held to be adequate for the next act. When the atom bombs were dropped and news began to circulate that “Operation Olympic” would not, after all, be necessary, when we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all. The killing was all going to be over, and peace was actually going to be the state of things. When the Enola Gay dropped its package, “There were cheers,” says John Toland, “over the intercom; it meant the end of the war.” Down on the ground the reaction of Sledge’s marine buddies when they heard the news was more solemn and complicated. They heard about the end of the war

with quiet disbelief coupled with an indescribable sense of relief. We thought the Japanese would never surrender. Many refused to believe it. . . . Sitting in stunned silence, we remembered our dead. So many dead. So many maimed. So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past. So many dreams lost in the madness that had engulfed us. Except for a few widely scattered shouts of joy, the survivors of the abyss sat hollow-eyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war.

These troops who cried and cheered with relief or who sat stunned by the weight of their experience are very different from the high-minded, guilt- ridden GIs we’re told about by J. Glenn Gray in his sensitive book The Warriors. During the war in Europe Gray was an interrogator in the Army Counterintelligence Corps, and in that capacity he experienced the war at Division level. There’s no denying that Gray’s outlook on everything was admirably noble, elevated, and responsible. After the war he became a much-admired professor of philosophy at Colorado College and an esteemed editor of Heidegger. But The Warriors, his meditation on the moral and psychological dimensions of modern soldiering, gives every sign of error occasioned by remoteness from experience. Division headquarters is miles—miles—behind the line where soldiers experience terror and madness and relieve those pressures by crazy brutality and sadism. Indeed, unless they actually encountered the enemy during the war, most “soldiers” have very little idea what “combat” was like. As William Manchester says, “All who wore uniforms are called veterans, but more than 90 percent of them are as uninformed about the killing zones as those on the home front.” Manchester’s fellow marine E. B. Sledge thoughtfully and responsibly invokes the terms drastically and totally to underline the differences in experience between front and rear, and not even the far rear, but the close rear. “Our code of conduct toward the enemy,” he notes, “differed drastically from that prevailing back at the division CP.” (He’s describing gold-tooth extraction from still-living Japanese.) Again he writes: “We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines . . . ,” even, he would insist, to men as intelligent and sensitive as Glenn Gray, who missed seeing with his own eyes Sledge’s marine friends sliding under fire down a shell-pocked ridge slimy with mud and liquid dysentery shit into the maggoty Japanese and USMC corpses at the bottom, vomiting as the maggots burrowed into their own foul clothing. “We didn’t talk about such things,” says Sledge. “They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans…. Nor do authors normally write about such vileness; unless they have seen it with their own eyes, it is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane.” And Sledge has added a comment on such experience and the insulation provided by even a short distance: “Often people just behind our rifle companies couldn’t understand what we knew.” Glenn Gray was not in a rifle company, or even just behind one. “When the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came,” he asks us to believe, “many an American soldier felt shocked and ashamed.” Shocked, OK, but why ashamed? Because we’d destroyed civilians? We’d been doing that for years, in raids on Hamburg and Berlin and Cologne and Frankfurt and Mannheim and Dresden, and Tokyo, and besides, the two A-bombs wiped out 10,000 Japanese troops, not often thought of now, John Hersey’s kindly physicians and Jesuit priests being more touching. If around division headquarters some of the people Gray talked to felt ashamed, down in the rifle companies no one did, despite Gray’s assertions. “The combat soldier,” he says,

knew better than did Americans at home what those bombs meant in suffering and injustice. The man of conscience realized intuitively that the vast majority of Japanese in both cities were no more, if no less, guilty of the war than were his own parents, sisters, or brothers.

I find this canting nonsense. The purpose of the bombs was not to “punish” people but to stop the war. To intensify the shame Gray insists we feel, he seems willing to fiddle the facts. The Hiroshima bomb, he says, was dropped “without any warning.” But actually, two days before, 720,000 leaflets were dropped on the city urging everyone to get out and indicating that the place was going to be (as the Potsdam Declaration had promised) obliterated. Of course few left.

Experience whispers that the pity is not that we used the bomb to end the Japanese war but that it wasn’t ready in time to end the German one. If only it could have been rushed into production faster and dropped at the right moment on the Reich Chancellery or Berchtesgaden or Hitler’s military headquarters in East Prussia (where Colonel Stauffenberg’s July 20 bomb didn’t do the job because it wasn’t big enough), much of the Nazi hierarchy could have been pulverized immediately, saving not just the embarrassment of the Nuremberg trials but the lives of around four million Jews, Poles, Slavs, and gypsies, not to mention the lives and limbs of millions of Allied and German soldiers. If the bomb had only been ready in time, the young men of my infantry platoon would not have been so cruelly killed and wounded.

All this is not to deny that like the Russian Revolution, the atom-bombing of Japan was a vast historical tragedy, and every passing year magnifies the dilemma into which it has lodged the contemporary world. As with the Russian Revolution, there are two sides—that’s why it’s a tragedy instead of a disaster—and unless we are, like Bruce Page, simple-mindedly unimaginative and cruel, we will be painfully aware of both sides at once. To observe that from the viewpoint of the war’s victims-to-be the bomb seemed precisely the right thing to drop is to purchase no immunity from horror. To experience both sides, one might study the book Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors, which presents a number of amateur drawings and watercolors of the Hiroshima scene made by middle-aged and elderly survivors for a peace exhibition in 1975. In addition to the almost unbearable pictures, the book offers brief moments of memoir not for the weak- stomached:

While taking my severely wounded wife out to the river bank . . ., I was horrified indeed at the sight of a stark naked man standing in the rain with his eyeball in his palm. He looked to be in great pain but there was nothing that I could do for him. I wonder what became of him. Even today I vividly remember the sight. I was simply miserable.

These childlike drawings and paintings are of skin hanging down, breasts torn off, people bleeding and burning, dying mothers nursing dead babies. A bloody woman holds a bloody child in the ruins of a house, and the artist remembers her calling, “Please help this child! Someone, please help this child. Please help! Someone, please.” As Samuel Johnson said of the smothering of Desdemona, the innocent in another tragedy, “It is not to be endured.” Nor, it should be noticed, is an infantryman’s account of having his arm blown off in the Arno Valley in Italy in 1944:

I wanted to die and die fast. I wanted to forget this miserable world. I cursed the war, I cursed the people who were responsible for it, I cursed God for putting me here … to suffer for something I never did or knew anything about.

(A good place to interrupt and remember Glenn Gray’s noble but hopelessly one-sided remarks about “injustice,” as well as “suffering.”)

“For this was hell,” the soldier goes on,

and I never imagined anything or anyone could suffer so bitterly I screamed and cursed. Why? What had I done to deserve this? But no answer came. I yelled for medics, because subconsciously I wanted to live. I tried to apply my right hand over my bleeding stump, but I didn’t have the strength to hold it. I looked to the left of me and saw the bloody mess that was once my left arm; its fingers and palm were turned upward, like a flower looking to the sun for its strength.

The future scholar-critic who writes The History of Canting in the Twentieth Century will find much to study and interpret in the utterances of those who dilate on the special wickedness of the A-bomb-droppers. He will realize that such utterance can perform for the speaker a valuable double function. First, it can display the fineness of his moral weave. And second, by implication it can also inform the audience that during the war he was not socially so unfortunate as to find himself down there with the ground forces, where he might have had to compromise the purity and clarity of his moral system by the experience of weighing his own life against someone else’s. Down there, which is where the other people were, is the place where coarse self-interest is the rule. When the young soldier with the wild eyes comes at you, firing, do you shoot him in the foot, hoping he’ll be hurt badly enough to drop or mis-aim the gun with which he’s going to kill you, or do you shoot him in the chest (or, if you’re a prime shot, in the head) and make certain that you and not he will be the survivor of that mortal moment?

It would be not just stupid but would betray a lamentable want of human experience to expect soldiers to be very sensitive humanitarians. The Glenn Grays of this world need to have their attention directed to the testimony of those who know, like, say, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher, who said, “Moderation in war is imbecility,” or Sir Arthur Harris, director of the admittedly wicked aerial-bombing campaign designed, as Churchill put it, to “de-house” the German civilian population, who observed that “War is immoral,” or our own General W. T. Sherman: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” Lord Louis Mountbatten, trying to say something sensible about the dropping of the A-bomb, came up only with “War is crazy.” Or rather, it requires choices among crazinesses. “It would seem even more crazy,” he went on, “if we were to have more casualties on our side to save the Japanese.” One of the unpleasant facts for anyone in the ground armies during the war was that you had to become pro tern a subordinate of the very uncivilian George S. Patton and respond somehow to his unremitting insistence that you embrace his view of things. But in one of his effusions he was right, and his observation tends to suggest the experimental dubiousness of the concept of “just wars.” “War is not a contest with gloves,” he perceived. “It is resorted to only when laws, which are rules, have failed.” Soldiers being like that, only the barest decencies should be expected of them. They did not start the war, except in the terrible sense hinted at in Frederic Manning’s observation based on his front-line experience in the Great War: “War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a peculiarly human activity. To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime.” Knowing that unflattering truth by experience, soldiers have every motive for wanting a war stopped, by any means.

The stupidity, parochialism, and greed in the international mismanagement of the whole nuclear challenge should not tempt us to misimagine the circumstances of the bomb’s first “use.” Nor should our well-justified fears and suspicions occasioned by the capture of the nuclear-power trade by the inept and the mendacious (who have fucked up the works at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, etc.) tempt us to infer retrospectively extraordinary corruption, imbecility, or motiveless malignity in those who decided, all things considered, to drop the bomb. Times change. Harry Truman . . . knew war, and he knew better than some of his critics then and now what he was doing and why he was doing it. “Having found the bomb,” he said, “we have used it. … We have used it to shorten the agony of young Americans.”

The past, which as always did not know the future, acted in ways that ask to be imagined before they are condemned. Or even simplified.

The New Republic

August 1981

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Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: That Which Holds the World Together – The Pre-political Moral Foundations of a Free State

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Historical developments are moving more and more quickly in today’s world, and I believe that two factors in particular typify this acceleration of a process that began only slowly in the past. First, we have the formation of a global community in which the individual political, economic, and cultural powers become increasingly dependent on one another, touching and intersecting each other in their various existential spheres. Secondly, we have the development of human possibilities, of the power to make and to destroy, that poses the question of legal and ethical controls on power in a way that goes far beyond anything to which we have yet been accustomed. This lends great urgency to the question of how cultures that encounter one another can find ethical bases to guide their relationship along the right path, thus permitting them to build up a common structure that tames power and imposes a legally responsible order on the exercise of power.

The fact that Hans Küng’s proposal of a “world ethos” interests so many people shows at any rate that this question has in fact been posed; and this remains a valid point, even if one agrees with Robert Spaemann’s acute critique of this project.1 This is because we must add a third factor to the two mentioned above. In the process of encounter and mutual penetration of cultures, ethical certainties that had hitherto provided solid foundations have largely disintegrated. The question of what the good is (especially in the given context of our world) and of why one must do the good even when this entails harm to one’s own self—this fundamental question goes generally unanswered.

It seems to me obvious that science as such cannot give birth to such an ethos. In other words, a renewed ethical consciousness does not come about as the product of academic debates. On the other hand, it is equally indisputable that the fundamental transformation of the understanding of the world and of man that has come about thanks to the growth in scientific knowledge has played a major role in the collapse of the old moral certainties. And this means that science does have a responsibility vis-à-vis man qua man. In particular, it is the responsibility of philosophy to accompany critically the development of the individual academic disciplines, shedding a critical light on premature conclusions and apparent “certainties” about what man is, whence he comes, and what the goal of his existence is. To make the same point in different words: philosophy must sift the non-scientific element out of the scientific results with which it is often entangled, thus keeping open our awareness of the totality and of the broader dimensions of the reality of human existence—for science can never show us more than partial aspects of this existence.

  1. Power and law

It is the specific task of politics to apply the criterion of the law to power, thereby structuring the use of power in a meaningful manner. It is not the law of the stronger, but the strength of the law that must hold sway. Power as structured by law, and at the service of the law, is the antithesis of violence, which is a lawless power that opposes the law. This is why it is important for every society to overcome any suspicion that is cast on the law and its regulations, for it is only in this way that arbitrariness can be excluded and freedom can be experienced as a freedom shared in common with others. Freedom without law is anarchy and, hence, the destruction of freedom. Suspicion of the law, revolt against the law, will always arise when law itself appears to be, no longer the expression of a justice that is at the service of all, but rather the product of arbitrariness and legislative arrogance on the part of those who have power.

This is why the task of applying the criterion of the law to power leads to a further question: How does law come into being, and what must be the characteristics of law if it is to be the vehicle of justice rather than the privilege of those who have the power to make the law? It is, on the one hand, the question of the genesis of the law, but, on the other hand, the question of its own inherent criteria. The problem that law must be, not the instrument of the power of a few, but the expression of the common interest of all, seems—at first sight—to have been resolved through the instruments whereby a democratic will is formed in society, since all collaborate in the genesis of the law. This means that it is everyone’s law; it can and must be respected, precisely because it is everyone’s law. And as a sheer matter of fact, the guarantee of a shared collaboration in the elaboration of the law and in the just administration of power is the basic argument that speaks in favor of democracy as the most appropriate form of political order.

And yet it seems to me that one question remains unanswered. Since total consensus among men is very hard to achieve, the process of forming a democratic will relies necessarily either on an act of delegation or else on a majority decision; depending on the importance of the question at issue, the proportion of the majority that is required may differ. But majorities, too, can be blind or unjust, as history teaches us very plainly. When a majority (even if it is an utterly preponderant majority) oppresses a religious or a racial minority by means of unjust laws, can we still speak in this instance of justice or, indeed, of law? In other words, the majority principle always leaves open the question of the ethical foundations of the law. This is the question of whether there is something that can never become law but always remains injustice; or, to reverse this formulation, whether there is something that is of its very nature inalienably law, something that is antecedent to every majority decision and must be respected by all such decisions.

The modern period has formulated a number of such normative elements in the various declarations of human rights and has withdrawn these from subjection to the vagaries of majorities. It is of course possible for the contemporary consciousness to be content with the inherent obviousness of these values. But even such a self-limitation of the act of questioning has a philosophical character! There are then, let us say, self-subsistent values that flow from the essence of what it is to be a man, and are therefore inviolable: no other man can infringe them. We will have to return later to the question of the extent to which this idea can be sustained, above all because the obviousness of these values is by no means acknowledged in every culture. Islam has defined its own catalogue of human rights, which differs from the Western catalogue. And if my information is correct, although it is true that today’s China is defined by a cultural form, namely Marxism, that arose in the West, it is asking whether “human rights” are merely a typically Western invention—and one that must be looked at critically.

  1. New forms of power and new questions about how these are to be mastered

When we are speaking of the relationship between power and law and about the sources of law, we must also look more closely at the phenomenon of power itself. I do not propose to try to define the essence of “power” as such. Instead, I should like to sketch the challenges that emerge from the new forms of power that have developed in the last fifty years.

The first phase of the period after the Second World War was dominated by fear of the new destructive power that the invention of the atomic bomb had placed in the hands of men. Man suddenly realized that he was capable of destroying both himself and his planet. This prompted the question: What political mechanisms are necessary in order to prevent this destruction? How can such mechanisms be discovered and made effective? How can we mobilize the ethical energies that give birth to political forms of this kind and make them work? Then, for a long period, it was the competition between the opposing power blocs, and the fear that the destruction of the other side would lead to one’s own destruction, that preserved us de facto from the terrors of a nuclear war. The mutual limitation of power and the fear for one’s own survival proved powerful enough to save the world.

By now, however, we are afraid, not so much of a large-scale war, as of the omnipresent terror that can make itself felt and can strike anywhere. We now see that mankind does not need a large-scale war in order to make the world uninhabitable. The anonymous powers of terror, which can be present anywhere, are strong enough to pursue everyone into the sphere of everyday life. And all the time, there is the specter of criminal elements gaining access to weapons of mass destruction and unleashing chaos in the world, independent of the established political structures. This has shifted the question about law and ethos. We now ask what are the sources on which terror draws. How can we succeed in eliminating, from within, this new sickness of mankind? It is shocking to see here that, at least in part, terror offers a moral legitimation for its actions. Bin Laden’s messages portray terror as the response of the powerless and oppressed peoples to the arrogance of the mighty and as the righteous punishment for their arrogance and for their blasphemous high-handedness and cruelty. Clearly, for people in certain social and political situations, such motivations are persuasive. In part, terrorist actions are portrayed as the defense of religious tradition against the godlessness of Western society.

At this point, another question arises, to which we must return later. If one of the sources of terrorism is religious fanaticism—and this is in fact the case—is then religion a healing and saving force? Or is it not rather an archaic and dangerous force that builds up false universalisms, thereby leading to intolerance and acts of terrorism? Must not religion, therefore, be placed under the guardianship of reason, and its boundaries carefully marked off? This, of course, prompts yet another question: Who can do this? And how does one do it? But the general question remains: Ought we to consider the gradual abolishment of religion, the overcoming of religion, to be necessary progress on the part of mankind, so that it may find the path to freedom and to universal tolerance? Or is this view mistaken?

In the meantime, yet another form of power has taken center stage. At first glance, it appears to be wholly beneficial and entirely praiseworthy. In reality, however, it can become a new kind of threat to man. Man is now capable of making human beings, of producing them in test tubes (so to speak). Man becomes a product, and this entails a total alteration of man’s relationship to his own self. He is no longer a gift of nature or of the Creator God; he is his own product. Man has descended into the very wellsprings of power, to the sources of his own existence. The temptation to construct the “right” man at long last, the temptation to experiment with human beings, the temptation to see them as rubbish to be discarded—all this is no mere fantasy of moralists opposed to “progress”.

If we have noted the urgent question of whether religion is truly a positive force, so we must now doubt the reliability of reason. For in the last analysis, even the atomic bomb is a product of reason; in the last analysis, the breeding and selection of human beings is something thought up by reason. Does this then mean that it is reason that ought to be placed under guardianship? But by whom or by what? Or should perhaps religion and reason restrict each other and remind each other where their limits are, thereby encouraging a positive path? Once again, we are confronted with the question how—in a global society with its mechanisms of power and its uncontrolled forces and its varying views of what constitutes law and morality—an effective ethical conviction can be found with sufficient motivation and vigor to answer the challenges I have outlined here and to help us meet these tests.

  1. Presuppositions of the law: Law – nature – reason

Our first step is to look at historical situations comparable to our own, insofar as there is anything genuinely comparable. In any case, it is worth taking a very brief glance at ancient Greece, which also experienced an Enlightenment in which a divinely based law lost its obviousness, and it became necessary to look for deeper justifications of the law. This led to the idea that in the face of a positive law that can in reality be injustice, there must be a law that derives from the nature, from the very being, of man himself. And this law must be discovered, so that it can act as a corrective to the positive law.

Closer to our own times, we have the double rupture of the European consciousness that occurred at the beginning of the modern period and made necessary a new fundamental reflection on both the contents and the source of law. First, we have the exodus from the boundaries of the European world, the Christian world, that happened when America was discovered. Now, Europeans encountered peoples who did not belong to the Christian structures of faith and law, which had hitherto been the source of law for everyone and which had given this structure its form. There was no legal fellowship with these peoples. But did this mean that they were outside the law, as some asserted at that time (and as was frequently the case in practice)? Or is there a law that transcends all legal systems, a law that is binding on men qua men in their mutual relationships and that tells them what to do? In this situation, Francisco de Vitoria developed the already-existing idea of the ius gentium, the “law of the nations”; the word gentes also carries the association of “pagans”, “non-Christians”. This designates that law which is antecedent to the Christian legal form and is charged with ordering the right relations among all peoples.

The second rupture in the Christian world took place within Christianity itself through the division in faith that led to the disintegration of the one fellowship of Christians into a number of distinct fellowships, some of which were directly hostile to each other. Once again, it was necessary to elaborate a law, or at least a legal minimum, antecedent to dogma; the sources of this law then had to lie, no longer in faith, but in nature and in human reason. Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, and others developed the idea of the natural law, which transcends the confessional borders of faith by establishing reason as the instrument whereby law can be posited in common.

The natural law has remained (especially in the Catholic Church) the key issue in dialogues with the secular society and with other communities of faith in order to appeal to the reason we share in common and to seek the basis for a consensus about the ethical principles of law in a secular, pluralistic society. Unfortunately, this instrument has become blunt. Accordingly, I do not intend to appeal to it for support in this conversation. The idea of the natural law presupposed a concept of nature in which nature and reason overlap, since nature itself is rational. With the victory of the theory of evolution, this view of nature has capsized: nowadays, we think that nature as such is not rational, even if there is rational behavior in nature. This is the diagnosis that is presented to us, and there seem to be few voices today that are raised to contradict it.2 This means that, of the various dimensions of the concept of nature on which the earlier concept of the natural law was based, only one remains. Ulpian summed this up in the early third century after Christ in the well known words: “Ius naturae est, quod natura omnia animalia docet.”3 But this is not an adequate answer to our question, since we are interested, not in that which concerns all the animalia, but in those specifically human tasks that the reason of man has created and that cannot be resolved without the reason.

One final element of the natural law that claimed (at least in the modern period) that it was ultimately a rational law has remained, namely, human rights. These are incomprehensible without the presupposition that man qua man, thanks simply to his membership in the species “man”, is the subject of rights and that his being bears within itself values and norms that must be discovered—but not invented. Today, we ought perhaps to amplify the doctrine of human rights with a doctrine of human obligations and of human limitations. This could help us to grasp anew the relevance of the question of whether there might exist a rationality of nature and, hence, a rational law for man and for his existence in the world. And this dialogue would necessarily be intercultural today, both in its structure and in its interpretation. For Christians, this dialogue would speak of the creation and the Creator. In the Indian world, this would correspond to the concept of Dharma, the inner law that regulates all Being; in the Chinese tradition, it would correspond to the idea of the structures ordained by heaven.

  1. The intercultural dimension and its consequences

Before I attempt to draw conclusions, I should like to widen the perspective I have indicated up to this point. If we are to discuss the basic questions of human existence today, the intercultural dimension seems to me absolutely essential—for such a discussion cannot be carried on exclusively either within the Christian realm or within the Western rational tradition. Both of these regard themselves as universal, and they may perhaps be universal de iure. De facto, however, they are obliged to acknowledge that they are accepted only by parts of mankind, and that they are comprehensible only in parts of mankind—although the number of competitors is of course much smaller than an initial glance might suggest.

The most important point in this context is that there no longer exists any uniformity within the individual cultural spheres, since they are all marked by profound tensions within their own cultural tradition. This is very obvious in the West. Although the secular culture is largely dominated by the strict rationality of which Jürgen Habermas has given us an impressive picture, a rationality that understands itself to be the element that binds people together, the Christian understanding of reality continues to be a powerful force. The closeness and the tension between these two poles varies: sometimes they are willing to learn from each other, but sometimes they reject each other to a greater or lesser degree.

The Islamic cultural sphere, too, is marked by similar tensions. There is a broad spectrum between the fanatical absolutism of a Bin Laden and attitudes that are open to a tolerant rationality. The third great cultural sphere, that of India—or, more precisely, the cultural spheres of Hinduism and Buddhism—is likewise marked by similar tensions, although these take a less dramatic form (at least to our eyes). These cultures, too, experience the confrontation with the claims of Western rationality and the questions posed by the Christian faith, since both Western rationality and the Christian faith are present there; they assimilate one or the other in various ways, while still trying to preserve their own identity. We can round off the picture by mentioning the tribal cultures of Africa and the tribal cultures of Latin America that have been summoned to new life by various Christian theologies of liberation. In many ways, these seem to call Western rationality into question; and this means that they also call into question the universal claim of Christian revelation.

What are the consequences of all this? The first point, I believe, is that although the two great cultures of the West, that is, the culture of the Christian faith and that of secular rationality, are an important contributory factor (each in its own way) throughout the world and in all cultures, nevertheless they are de facto not universal. This means that the question put by Jürgen Habermas’ colleague in Teheran seems to me not devoid of significance—namely, the question of whether a comparative study of cultures and the sociology of religion suggest that European secularization is an exceptional development and one that needs to be corrected. I would not necessarily reduce this question to the mood of Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, and Levi Strauss, that is, to a situation in which Europeans have grown weary of rationality.

At any rate, it is a fact that our secular rationality may seem very obvious to our reason, which has been formed in the West; but qua rationality, it comes up against its limitations when it attempts to demonstrate itself. The proof for it is in reality linked to specific cultural contexts, and it must acknowledge that it cannot as such be reproduced in the whole of mankind. This also means that it cannot be completely operative in the whole of mankind. In other words, the rational or ethical or religious formula that would embrace the whole world and unite all persons does not exist; or, at least, it is unattainable at the present moment. This is why the so-called “world ethos” remains an abstraction.

  1. Conclusions

What, then, ought we to do? With regard to the practical consequences, I am in broad agreement with Jürgen Habermas’ remarks about a postsecular society, about the willingness to learn from each other, and about self-limitation on both sides. At the end of my lecture, I should like to summarize my own view in two theses.

  1. We have seen that there exist pathologies in religion that are extremely dangerous and that make it necessary to see the divine light of reason as a “controlling organ”. Religion must continually allow itself to be purified and structured by reason; and this was the view of the Church Fathers, too.4 However, we have also seen in the course of our reflections that there are also pathologies of reason, although mankind in general is not as conscious of this fact today. There is a hubris of reason that is no less dangerous. Indeed, bearing in mind its potential effects, it poses an even greater threat—it suffices here to think of the atomic bomb or of man as a “product”. This is why reason, too, must be warned to keep within its proper limits, and it must learn a willingness to listen to the great religious traditions of mankind. If it cuts itself completely adrift and rejects this willingness to learn, this relatedness, reason becomes destructive.

Kurt Hübner has recently formulated a similar demand. He writes that such a thesis does not entail a “return to faith”; rather, it means “that we free ourselves from the blindness typical of our age, that is, the idea that faith has nothing more to say to contemporary man because it contradicts his humanistic idea of reason, Enlightenment, and freedom”. Accordingly, I would speak of a necessary relatedness between reason and faith and between reason and religion, which are called to purify and help one another. They need each other, and they must acknowledge this mutual need.

  1. This basic principle must take on concrete form in practice in the intercultural context of the present day. There can be no doubt that the two main partners in this mutual relatedness are the Christian faith and Western secular rationality; one can and must affirm this, without thereby succumbing to a false Eurocentrism. These two determine the situation of the world to an extent not matched by another cultural force; but this does not mean that one could dismiss the other cultures as a kind of quantité négligeable. For a Western hubris of that kind, there would be a high price to pay—and, indeed, we are already paying a part of it. It is important that both great components of the Western culture learn to listen and to accept a genuine relatedness to these other cultures, too. It is important to include the other cultures in the attempt at a polyphonic relatedness, in which they themselves are receptive to the essential complementarity of reason and faith, so that a universal process of purifications (in the plural!) can proceed. Ultimately, the essential values and norms that are in some way known or sensed by all men will take on a new brightness in such a process, so that that which holds the world together can once again become an effective force in mankind.

Notes

1 R. Spaemann, “Weltethos als ‘Projekt’ ”, Merkur, no. 570/571 (1996): 893-904.

2 This philosophy of evolution, which still remains dominant despite corrections on individual points, is most consistently and impressively expressed by J. Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (New York, 1971). On the distinction between the de facto results of the investigations of the natural sciences and the philosophy that accompanies these, R. Junker and S. Scherer, eds., Evolution: Ein kritisches Lehrbuch, 4th ed. (Giessen, 1998), is helpful. On the debate with the philosophy that accompanies the theory of evolution, see my Glaube—Wahrheit—Toleranz (Freiburg im Breisgau, 2003), pp. 131-47 (English trans.: Truth and Tolerance: Christianity and World Religions [San Francisco, 2004]).

3 “The law of nature is that which nature teaches all sentient beings”—On the three dimensions of the medieval natural law (the dynamism of Being as a whole; the orientation of that nature which is common to men and animals [Ulpian]; and the specific orientation of the rational nature of man), see the information in the article by P. Delhaye, “Naturrecht”, in Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 2nd ed., vol. 7, cols. 821-25. The concept of natural law found at the beginning of the Decretum Gratiani is noteworthy: “Humanum genus duobus regitur, naturali videlicet iure, et moribus. Ius naturale est, quod in lege et Evangelio continetur, quo quisque iubetur, alii facere, quod sibi vult fieri, et prohibetur, alii inferre, quod sibi nolit fieri” (The human race is governed by two things, namely, the natural law and customs. The natural law is that which is contained in the law and in the gospel, whereby each one is commanded to do to another what he wishes to be done to himself and is forbidden to inflict on another what he does not wish to be done to himself).

4 I have attempted to set this out in greater detail in my book Glaube—Wahrheit—Toleranz (see n. 2 above). See also M. Fiedrowicz, Apologie im frühen Christentum, 2nd ed. (Paderborn, 2001).

 

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Reflections on Europe

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

What is Europe? What can and should it be in the overall framework of the historical situation in which we find ourselves at the beginning of the third Christian millennium? After the Second World War, the search for a common identity and a common goal for Europe entered into a new phase. After two suicidal wars, which during the first half of the twentieth century had devastated Europe and involved the entire world, it had become clear that all European states were losers in that terrible drama and that something had to be done to avoid any further repetition of it. In the past, Europe had always been a continent of contrasts, agitated by multiple conflicts. The nineteenth century had then brought the formation of nation-states, whose clashing interests had given a new dimension to the destructive opposition. The work of European unification was defined essentially by two motives. As opposed to the divisive nationalistic movements and hegemonic ideologies that had radicalized the conflict in World War II, the common cultural, moral, and religious heritage of Europe was supposed to shape the conscience of its nations, thus revealing the way of peace as the common identity of all its peoples and a common path toward the future. They were seeking a European identity that would not dissolve or deny the national identities, but rather unite them at a higher level of unity into one community of peoples. Their common history would have to be employed to advantage as a peacemaking force. There is no doubt that among the founding fathers of European unification the Christian heritage was considered the nucleus of this historical identity—of course, not in its denominational forms; what is common to all Christians, however, seemed to be discernible beyond the denominational boundaries as a unifying force for action in the secular world. It did not even appear to be incompatible with the great moral ideals of the Enlightenment, which had given prominence, so to speak, to the rational dimension of the Christian reality and, transcending all the historical oppositions, certainly seemed to be compatible with the fundamental ideals of the Christian history of Europe. This general intuition has never been made quite clear in all its particular details with supporting evidence; in that sense there are still some problems here that require deeper study. At the time when the movement first began, nevertheless, the conviction that the major components of the European heritage were compatible was stronger than the problems that existed in that regard.

Besides this historical and moral dimension at the beginning of European unification, there was also a second motive. European dominion over the world, which had been expressed above all in the colonial system and in the resulting economic and political ties, was finished forever with the conclusion of the Second World War. In this sense Europe as a whole had lost the war. The United States of America set up camp now on the stage of world history as the ruling power, but even defeated Japan became an economic power, and finally the Soviet Union, together with its satellites, constituted an empire on which the third-world nations in particular sought to rely, as opposed to America and Western Europe. In this new situation the individual European states could no longer present themselves as dialogue partners of equal status. The unification of their interests in a common European structure became necessary if Europe were to continue to have any weight in world politics. The national interests had to join together in a common European interest. Along with the search for a common identity derived from their history that would foster peace came an affirmation of common interests; then there was the will to become an economic power, which is of course the prerequisite for political power. Over the course of the developments in the last fifty years, this second aspect of European unification has become ever more dominant, indeed, almost exclusively influential. The common European currency is the clearest expression of this orientation in the work of European unification: Europe appears as an economic and monetary union, which as such participates in the formation of history and lays claim to a space of its own.

Karl Marx proposed the thesis that religions and philosophies are merely ideological superstructures for economic relationships. This does not entirely correspond to the truth; one would have to speak instead about a reciprocal influence: spiritual attitudes determine economic behaviors; then economic situations in turn retroactively influence religious and moral ways of seeing the world. In the building of the economic power Europe—after the initial movement, which had a more ethical and religious orientation—the determining factor was, more and more exclusively, economic interest. But now it is becoming ever more evident, nonetheless, that the building of economic structures and enterprises is accompanied by cultural decisions as well, which at the start are present in an unreflective way, so to speak, but then urgently demand explicit clarification. The big international conferences, such as those recently in Cairo and Beijing, are the expression of such a search for common criteria for action; they are something more than an airing of problems. One could describe them as a sort of council for world culture, during which common certitudes are supposed to be formulated and raised to the status of norms for the life of mankind. The politics of withholding or granting economic aid is one way of imposing such norms; in this regard the main preoccupation is with controlling world population growth and with making the methods devised for this purpose obligatory everywhere. The ancient ethical norms for the relation between the sexes, such as were in force in Africa in the form of tribal traditions and in the great Asian cultures as rules derived from the cosmic order and in the monotheistic religions according to the standard of the Ten Commandments, are being dissolved by a system of norms that, while based on complete sexual freedom, still consists fundamentally of a world-population quota and the technological means suited to that end. A similar trend can be found in the big conferences on climate change. In both cases what drives the participants to search for norms is their fear when faced with the limitations of the world’s resources. In both cases it is a matter, on the one hand, of defending freedom in mankind’s relation with reality, yet, on the other hand, it is a question of stemming the consequences of a limitless freedom. The third type of big international conference, the meeting of the leading economic powers in order to regulate what has become the global economy, has become the ideological battleground of the post-Communist era. While technology and the economy are still understood as vehicles for the radical freedom of mankind, their omnipresence, along with their inherent rules, is now regarded as a global dictatorship and is combated with an anarchic fury, in which the freedom to destroy is presented as an essential element of human freedom.

What does all this mean for the problem of Europe? It means that the project, which is unilaterally oriented toward the construction of an economic power, in fact automatically produces a sort of new system of values that must be tested in order to find out its ability to last and to create a future.

The European Charter that was recently approved could be described as an attempt to find a middle way between this new canon of values and the classical values of the European tradition. As an initial signpost it will certainly be helpful. Ambiguities at important points, nevertheless, demonstrate very clearly the problematic nature of such an attempt at mediation. A thoroughgoing discussion of the underlying questions cannot be avoided. That is not possible, naturally, within the framework of this talk. I would just like to state a little more precisely the problems that will have to be addressed. The fathers of European unification after the Second World War—as we have seen—took as their point of departure a fundamental compatibility between the moral heritage of Christianity and the moral heritage of the European Enlightenment. In the Enlightenment the biblical concept of God had been changed in a twofold direction under the influence of autonomous reason: God, the Creator and upholder of all, who continually sustains and guides the world, had become the one who had simply started up the universe. The concept of revelation had been abandoned. Spinoza’s formula Deus sive natura [God or nature] could be considered under many aspects as typical of the Enlightenment vision. It still means, though, that people believed in a sort of nature that had been designed by God and in man’s ability to understand that nature and also to appreciate it as a rational standard.

Marxism, on the other hand, introduced a radical break: the present world is a product of evolution without any rationality of its own; man alone must make a reasonable world emerge from the irrational raw material of reality. This vision—combined with Hegel’s philosophy of history, the liberal dogma of progress, and the interpretation thereof in socio-economic terms—led to the attempt to establish a classless society, which was supposed to appear in the progress of history as the final product of the class struggle. In this way moral norms were ultimately reduced to one idea: Whatever promotes the coming of that state of happiness is good; whatever is opposed to it is bad.

Today we find ourselves in the midst of a second Enlightenment, which has not only left behind the motto Deus sive natura but has also unmasked as irrational the Marxist ideology of hope. In its place it has proposed a rational goal for the future, which is entitled the New World Order and is now supposed to become in its turn the essential ethical norm. It still shares with Marxism the evolutionary idea of a universe brought forth by an irrational event and formed by its intrinsic rules, which however—unlike the provisions of the ancient idea of nature—cannot contain within themselves any ethical direction. The attempt to derive from the rules of the evolutionary game the rules for the game of human life as well, and hence a sort of new ethics, is in reality rather widespread but not very convincing. There are more and more voices of philosophers such as Singer, Rorty, and Sloterdijk telling us that man now has the right and the duty to construct a new world on a rational basis. The new world order, the necessity of which cannot be doubted, they say, ought to be a world order of rationality. Thus far they are all in agreement. But what is rational? The criterion of rationality is drawn exclusively from experiences of technological production on scientific foundations. Such rationality exists in the sense of functionality, efficiency, increase in the quality of life. The exploitation of nature that is connected with it increasingly becomes a problem because of environmental hazards, which are becoming dramatic.

Meanwhile, the manipulation of man by man is proceeding apace with even greater impudence. The visions of Huxley are definitely becoming a reality: the human being must be no longer begotten irrationally but rather produced rationally. But man as a product is at the disposal of man. The imperfect specimens are discarded, so as to develop the perfect man by way of planning and production. Suffering must disappear; life must be nothing but pleasant. Such radical visions are still isolated instances, for the most part attenuated in many ways, but more and more often the principle of behavior is affirmed that states that it is permissible for man to do everything he is capable of doing. Possibility as such becomes a criterion that is sufficient unto itself. In a world that is understood in an evolutionary way, it is also self-evident that there cannot be any absolute values, things that are always bad or things that are always good; instead, the weighing of goods is the only way to discern moral norms. This, however, means that higher purposes, for example, presumed experimental results for the cure of diseases, justify even the exploitation of man, provided that the anticipated good appears sufficiently great.

But in this way new forms of oppression are born, and a new ruling class arises. Ultimately the destiny of other men is decided by those who have scientific power at their disposal and those who manage the finances. Not remaining behind in research becomes an obligation from which there is no escape and which itself determines the direction of it. What advice can be given to Europe and the world in this situation? A specifically European feature in this situation today appears to be precisely the separation from all ethical traditions and the exclusive reliance on technological reasoning and its possibilities. But will not a world order with these foundations become in reality a horrific utopia? Does not Europe perhaps need, does not the world perhaps need precisely some corrective elements derived from its great tradition and from the great ethical traditions of mankind? The inviolable nature of human dignity ought to become the fundamental, untouchable pillar of ethical regulations. Only if man recognizes that he is an end [and not a means], only if the human being is sacred and inviolable, can we have confidence in one another and live together in peace. There is no weighing of goods that can justify treating man as experimental material for higher ends. Only if we see here something absolute, situated above all attempts to weigh goods, do we act in a truly ethical manner and not by means of calculations. The inviolability of human dignity means also that this dignity is valid for everyone, that it has a human face and belongs biologically to the human race. Criteria of functionality cannot have any validity here. Even the human being who is suffering, disabled, or not yet born is a human being. I would like to add that this must be joined also to respect for the origin of the human being from the communion of a man and a woman. The human being cannot become a product. He cannot be produced; he can only be begotten. And for this reason protection for the special dignity of the communion between man and woman, on which the future of mankind is based, must be numbered among the ethical constants of every human society. But all this is possible only if we acquire also a new sense of the dignity of suffering. Learning to live also means learning to suffer. Therefore respect for the sacred is demanded, too. Faith in God the Creator is the surest guarantee of man’s dignity. It cannot be imposed on anyone; but since it is a great good for the community, it can make the claim to respect on the part of nonbelievers.

It is true: rationality is an essential hallmark of European culture. With it, from a certain perspective, it has conquered the world, because the form of rationality developed first of all in Europe informs the life of every continent today. Yet this rationality can become devastating if it becomes detached from its roots and exalts technological feasibility as the sole criterion. The bond between the two great sources of knowledge—nature and history—is necessary. These two areas do not simply speak on their own, but the two together can provide some indication of what path to take. The exploitation of nature, which rebels against an indiscriminate use, has prompted new reflections on the signposts provided by nature itself. Having dominion over nature, in the sense of the biblical story of creation, does not mean the violent utilization of nature but rather the understanding of its intrinsic possibilities, and thus it requires that careful form of utilization in which man places himself at the service of nature and nature at the service of man. The very origin of man is a process that is both natural and human: in the relation between a man and a woman the natural element and the spiritual element are united in what is specifically human, which cannot be despised without causing harm. And so the historical experiences of man, too, which are reflected in the great religions, are permanent sources of knowledge, of directions provided by reason, which are of interest even to someone who cannot identify with any of these traditions. To deliberate while bracketing them off and to live without taking them into consideration would be a presumption that would ultimately leave man disoriented and empty.

All this gives no conclusive answer to the question about the foundations of Europe. We simply wanted to sketch the contours of the task that lies ahead. It is urgent that we get to work.

 

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Europe: Its Spiritual Foundation: Yesterday, Today and in the Future

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Europe – what is it exactly? This question was asked again and again, expressly, by Cardinal Józef Glemp in one of the language circles of the Synod of Bishops on Europe: Where does Europe begin, and where does it end? Why, for example, does Siberia not belong to Europe, even though it, too, is inhabited by Europeans, whose way of thinking and living is, furthermore, quite European? And where do the frontiers of Europe disappear to the south of the community of peoples called Russia? And along what line of demarcation does its boundary run in the Atlantic Ocean? Which islands are Europe, and which ones are not, and why not? In those meetings it became perfectly clear that Europe is a geographical concept only in a way that is entirely secondary. Europe is not a continent that can be comprehended neatly in geographical terms; rather, it is a cultural and historical concept.

  1. The rise of Europe

This becomes quite clear if we try to go back to the origins of Europe. Those who speak about the origin of Europe usually cite Herodotus (ca. 484-425 B.C.), who was no doubt the first to be acquainted with Europe as a geographical concept; he defines it as follows: “For Asia, with all the various tribes of barbarians that inhabit it, is regarded by the Persians as their own; but Europe and the Greek race they look on as distinct and separate.”1 The boundaries of Europe itself are not specified, but it is clear that lands which today are the nucleus of modern Europe lay entirely outside of the area considered by the ancient historian. Indeed, with the establishment of the Hellenistic states and the Roman Empire, a continent had been formed that became the basis for later Europe, although it displayed entirely different boundaries: these were the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, which by virtue of their cultural ties, by dint of trade and commerce, and by reason of their common political system formed all together a true and proper continent. Only the triumphant advance of Islam in the seventh and at the beginning of the eighth century drew a boundary across the Mediterranean and, so to speak, cut it in half, so that all that had been one continent until then was thenceforward subdivided into three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe.

In the East the transformation of the world of antiquity took place more slowly than in the West: the Roman Empire with Constantinople as its center held out there—although under increasing pressure on its frontiers—until the fifteenth century.2 Whereas around the year 700 the southern part of the Mediterranean fell completely outside of what had hitherto been a cultural continent, one notes at the same time an ever more vigorous extension toward the north. The limes, which until then had been a continental boundary line, disappears and opens up toward a new historical space that embraces Gaul, Germany, Britain as lands forming a true and proper nucleus, and it extends ever farther toward Scandinavia. In this process of displacing boundaries, the conceptual continuity with the preceding Mediterranean continent, although measured geographically in different terms, was assured by a theological interpretation of history: in connection with the Book of Daniel, the Roman Empire—renewed and transformed by the Christian faith—was considered to be the final and permanent kingdom in the history of the world in general, and therefore the association of peoples and states that was taking shape was defined as the permanent Sacrum Imperium Romanum [Holy Roman Empire].

This process of a new historical and cultural definition was completed quite deliberately during the reign of Charlemagne, and here the ancient name of Europe emerged once again, in a significant variation: this term was now used precisely to designate the kingdom of Charlemagne, and it expressed simultaneously the awareness of the novelty and the continuity with which the new association of states presented itself as the political power in charge of the future. In charge of the future because it considered itself to be in continuity with the history of the world thus far and ultimately to be rooted in what lasts forever.3

Expressed in the self-understanding that was developing in this way was an awareness of being definitive and at the same time an awareness of having a mission.

It is true that the concept of Europe almost disappeared again after the end of the Carolingian rule and was preserved only in the language of the learned; it passed into the popular language only at the beginning of the modern era—no doubt in connection with the threat from the Turks, as a means of self-identification—and it became generally accepted in the eighteenth century. Independently of this history of the term “Europe”, the establishment of the kingdom of the Franks, as the Roman Empire that had declined and was now reborn, signifies, indeed, a decisive step toward what we mean today when we speak of Europe.4

Of course we cannot deny that there is also a second root of Europe, of a non-Western Europe: as already noted, the Roman Empire in Byzantium had effectively resisted the storms of migrating peoples and of Islamic invasion. Byzantium always understood itself to be the true Rome; here, in fact, the empire had never declined, which was why it continued to assert a claim in its disputes with the other, western half of the empire. This eastern Roman Empire, too, extended farther to the north, until it reached the Slavic world, and it created its own Greco-Roman world, which differs from the Latin Europe of the West in its liturgy, its ecclesiastical constitution, its alphabet, and by its renunciation of Latin as the language of the learned.

To be sure, there were still sufficient unifying elements to make one continent out of these two worlds: in the first place, their common heritage of the Bible and of the early Church, which in both worlds, furthermore, referred beyond itself to a place of origin that now lay outside of Europe, namely, in Palestine; then the same idea of empire, their common basic understanding of the Church, and hence also the common fund of ideas concerning law and legal instruments; finally, I should mention also monasticism, which among the great movements of history had remained the essential guarantor not only of cultural continuity, but above all of fundamental religious and moral values, of man’s awareness of his ultimate destiny; and as a force prior and superior to political authority, it became the source of the rebirths that were necessary again and again.5

At the very heart of this common and essential ecclesial heritage, there was nevertheless a profound difference between the two Europes. Endre von Ivánka in particular has underscored its importance: in Byzantium the empire and the Church appeared to be identified with each other; the emperor was the head of the Church as well. He understood himself as the representative of Christ, and in connection with the figure of Melchizedek, who was at the same time a king and a priest (Gen 14:18), he bore the official title of “king and priest” from the sixth century on.6 Due to the fact that, starting with Constantine, the emperor had departed from Rome, it was possible in the old capital of the empire for the bishop of Rome to develop an autonomous position as the successor of Peter and supreme pastor of the Church. As early as the beginning of the Constantinian era, a duality of powers was taught there: in fact, the emperor and the pope had separate powers; neither one had complete authority. Pope Gelasius I (492-496) formulated the Western view in his famous letter to Emperor Anastasius and even more clearly in his fourth treatise, in which, contrary to the Byzantine typology of Melchizedek, he emphasized that the union of the powers was found exclusively in Christ: “He, indeed, because of human weakness (pride!), separated the two ministries for the following ages, so that no one might become proud” (chap. 11). For matters concerning eternal life the Christian emperors needed the priests (pontifices), and the latter, in turn, abided by the imperial ordinances in the course of temporal affairs. In worldly matters, the priests had to follow the laws of the emperor who had been placed in office by a divine decree, whereas he had to submit to the priest in sacred matters.7 Thereby a separation and distinction of powers was introduced, which became extremely important in the subsequent development of Europe and which laid the foundations, so to speak, for what is distinctively typical of the West.

Since the totalitarian impulse always remained alive in both parties, despite this distinction, along with the desire to place one’s own power above the other, this principle of separation also became the source of infinite sufferings. The correct way of seeing and applying it, politically and from a religious perspective, still remains a fundamental problem for the Europe of today and tomorrow.

  1. At the turn of the modern era

If on the basis of what has been said here we can consider the rise of the Carolingian Empire, on the one hand, and the continuation of the Roman Empire in Byzantium and its mission to the Slavic people, on the other, as the true and proper birth of the continent of Europe, the beginning of the modern era meant a turning point for both Europes, a radical change that concerns both the nature of this continent and its geographic contours.

In 1453 Constantinople was conquered by the Turks. O. Hiltbrunner comments laconically on this event: “The last . . . scholars emigrated . . . to Italy and transmitted to the humanists of the Renaissance their knowledge of the original Greek texts; but the East sank into an absence of culture.”8 This statement is formulated in a way that is a bit too harsh, for in fact even the reign of the Ottoman dynasty had its culture; but it is true that the Greco-Christian, European culture of Byzantium came to an end. Thus one of the two wings of Europe was in danger of disappearing as a result, but the Byzantine heritage was not dead. Moscow declared itself to be the Third Rome and now founded its own patriarchate based on the notion of a second translatio imperii [transfer of the seat of the empire] thus presenting itself as a new metamorphosis of the Sacrum Imperium [Holy Empire], as a distinct form of Europe, which nonetheless remained united with the West and was increasingly oriented to it, until Peter the Great attempted to turn it into a Western country. This displacement of Byzantine Europe toward the north brought with it the development that now the boundaries of the continent, too, began to move extensively toward the east. Determining the Ural Mountains as the boundary is completely arbitrary; in any case the region to the east of them became more and more a sort of substructure of Europe, being neither Asia nor Europe, substantially shaped by the acting subject Europe, without participating itself, however, in its subject character; instead it was an object and not responsible for its own history. Perhaps that describes, in summary form, the nature of a colonial state.

With regard to Byzantine (not Western) Europe at the beginning of the modern era, therefore, we can speak of a twofold development: on the one hand, there was the dissolution of ancient Byzantium in its historical continuity with the Roman Empire; on the other hand, this second Europe obtained in Moscow a new center and expanded its borders to the east, so as to set up finally in Siberia a sort of preliminary colonial structure.

During that same period we can note in the West also a twofold process with a remarkable historic significance. A large part of the Germanic world separated itself from Rome; a new, enlightened form of Christianity arose, so that henceforth a line of demarcation ran through the West, which clearly formed another cultural limes, a boundary between two different ways of thinking and interrelating. Of course, within the Protestant world there was a break, in the first place between Lutherans and the Reformed churches (which includes Methodists and Presbyterians), while the Church of England attempted to devise a middle way between Catholics and Evangelicals; to this was added later the difference between Christianity in the form of a State church, which became typical of Europe, and the free churches that found refuge in North America—a subject to which we will have to return in our discussion.

For now, let us examine the second event, which is essential to the character of the modern era, as opposed to the situation in what at one time was Latin [that is, Western] Europe: the discovery of America. To the expansion of Europe toward the east, thanks to the progressive extension of Russia toward Asia, corresponds the transplanting of Europe outside of its geographical boundaries in the world beyond the Atlantic Ocean, which is now called America. The subdivision of Europe into a Latin-Catholic half and a Germanic-Protestant half was transferred to this part of the earth occupied by Europe and had its repercussions there. America, too, became at first an extension of Europe, a colony, but it established its own character as an acting subject at the time of the uprising in Europe that resulted from the French Revolution. From the nineteenth century on, America, although profoundly shaped by its European origins, nevertheless has stood opposite Europe as a distinct subject.

In our attempt to discover the deeper, more interior identity of Europe through this historical survey, we have looked now at two fundamental turning points in history: first, the disintegration of the old Mediterranean continent under the influence of the continent of the Sacrum Imperium, located farther to the north, in which Europe took shape beginning with the Carolingian period as a Latin and Western world; alongside this was the continuation of the old Rome in Byzantium, with its extension toward the Slavic world. The second transition that we have observed was the fall of Byzantium and, on the one hand, the subsequent movement of the Christian idea of empire toward the north and the east and, on the other hand, the internal division of Europe into two worlds, one Germanic and Protestant and the other Latin and Catholic, and furthermore the emigration to America, to which this division was transferred and which ultimately established itself as an independent historical subject that stood opposite Europe. Now we must take into consideration a third turning point, for which the French Revolution was the signal light seen around the world. It is true that the Holy Roman Empire, as a political reality, was already thought to be falling apart from the late medieval period on and had become increasingly fragile, even as a valid and unquestionable interpretation of history, but only now [in the late eighteenth century] did this spiritual framework go to pieces formally as well—that spiritual framework without which Europe could not have been formed. This was a process of considerable importance, both from the political and from the conceptual point of view. In the realm of ideas, this meant that the sacred foundation for history and for the existence of the State was rejected; history was no longer gauged on the basis of an idea of a preexistent God who shaped it; the State was henceforth considered in purely secular terms, founded on reason and on the will of the citizens.

For the very first time in history, a purely secular State arose, which abandoned and set aside the divine guarantee and the divine ordering of the political sector, considering them a mythological world view, and it declared God himself to be a private affair, that did not play a role in public life or the formation of the popular will. The latter was seen now solely as a matter of reason, by which God did not appear to be clearly knowable; religion and faith in God belonged to the realm of feelings and not to that of reason. God and his will ceased to be relevant in public life.

In this way a new type of schism arose at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, the seriousness of which we now perceive more and more clearly. There is no German word for it, because in that part of Europe it spread more slowly. In the Romance languages it is described as a division between Christians and secular persons [Italian, laici, French, laïcs: “laymen”]. This rift ran through the Latin nations during the last two centuries as a deep breach, whereas Protestant Christianity at first had no trouble allowing room within itself for liberal and Enlightenment ideas, without that necessarily destroying the framework of a broad, basic Christian consensus. The former idea of power disappeared, yielding to a political realism consisting of a recognition of the fact that now nations and states had become identifiable as such through the formation of uniform linguistic regions and that these appeared as the unique and true subjects of history and therefore attained a status higher than they had had previously. The subject of history was now plural, and the explosive and dramatic consequences of this are evident in the fact that the great European nations considered themselves entrusted with a universal mission, which necessarily led to conflicts among them, the deadly impact of which we have painfully experienced in the century that just ended.

  1. The universalization of European culture and its crises

Finally we must also consider here a later process by which the history of the last several centuries clearly crossed over into a new world. Whereas the two halves of the old Europe, before the modern era, had known essentially only one opponent that it had to confront in a life-or-death battle, namely, the Islamic world, and whereas the advent of the modern era had brought the expansion toward America and toward parts of Asia that did not have their own large autonomous cultural units, now emigration began toward the two continents that until then had been only marginally affected: Africa and Asia, and now there was likewise an attempt to turn them into annexes of Europe, into colonies. To a certain extent this, too, was successful, inasmuch as Asia and Africa today follow the ideal of a world shaped by technology and material comforts, so that there, too, the ancient religious traditions are facing a crisis, and strains of purely secular thought are dominating public life more and more.

But there is also a contrary effect: the rebirth of Islam is not only connected with the new material wealth of Islamic countries; it is also nourished by the awareness that Islam is capable of offering a valid spiritual basis for the life of the peoples, a basis that seems to have slipped out of the hands of old Europe, which thus, notwithstanding its continued political and economic power, is increasingly viewed as a declining culture condemned to fade away.

The great religious traditions of Asia, too, especially its mystical element, which finds expression in Buddhism, are rising as spiritual powers in contrast to a Europe that is denying its religious and moral foundations. The optimism concerning the triumph of the European way that Arnold Toynbee was still able to maintain at the beginning of the 1960s today seems strangely outdated: “Of the twenty-eight cultures that we have identified . . . eighteen are dead and nine of the ten left—i.e., all except our own—appear to be mortally wounded.”9 Who would repeat those same words today? And what, in the first place, is this culture of ours that has remained? Is European culture perhaps the civilization of technology and commerce that has spread victoriously through the entire world? Or maybe that was born, instead, from the end of that ancient European culture as a post-European phenomenon. I see here a paradoxical coincidence: with the triumph of the post-European technological-secular world, with the globalization of its way of life and its manner of thinking, one gets the impression everywhere in the world, but especially in the strictly non-European worlds of Asia and Africa, that the very world of European values—the things upon which Europe bases its identity, its culture and its faith—has arrived at its end and has actually already left the scene; that now the hour has come for the value systems of other worlds, of pre-Columbian America, of Islam, of Asian mysticism.

Europe, precisely in this hour of its greatest success, seems to have become hollowed out, paralyzed in a certain sense by a crisis of its circulatory system, a crisis that endangers its life, which depends, so to speak, on transplants, which then, however, cannot help undermining its identity. This interior dwindling of the spiritual strength that once supported it is accompanied by the fact that Europe appears to be on the way out ethnically as well.

There is a strange lack of will for the future. Children, who are the future, are seen as a threat to the present; it is thought that they take away something of our life. They are perceived, not as a hope, but rather as a limitation on the present. This invites a comparison with the decline of the Roman Empire: it was still functioning as a great historical context, but in practice it was already living off of those who would eventually break it up, because it no longer had any vital energy of its own.

With that we have arrived at the problems of the present day. Concerning the possible future of Europe there are two contrasting diagnoses. On the one hand, there is the thesis of Oswald Spengler, who thought that he could ascertain among the great civilizations a sort of natural law: there is the moment of birth, the gradual growth, then the flowering of a culture, its slow decline, aging and death. Spengler illustrates his thesis in an impressive manner, with documentation taken from the history of various cultures, in which one can glimpse this law of natural development. His thesis was that the West has arrived at its final epoch, which runs inexorably toward the death of this cultural continent, despite all efforts to avert it. Naturally Europe can hand on its gifts to a new, emerging culture, as has already happened in preceding instances of the decline of a culture; but as a subject with its own identity, its heyday is already past.

This thesis, which was labeled “biologistic”, met with impassioned opposition in the period between the two world wars, especially in Catholic circles; it was impressively countered by Arnold Toynbee, who relied, however, on presuppositions that do not find much of a hearing today.10 Toynbee highlights the difference between material and technological progress, on the one hand, and real progress, on the other, which he defines as spiritualization. He admits that the West—the Western world—is in the midst of a crisis, the cause of which he sees in the fact that it has fallen from religion to the worship of technology, of the nation, of militarism. Ultimately the crisis for him is one of secularism.

If we know the cause of the crisis, it is possible also to show the way to a cure: we have to reintroduce the religious factor, which comprises, in his opinion, the religious heritage of all cultures, but especially “what has remained of Western Christianity”.11 In contrast to the biologistic view, he proposes a voluntaristic view that places its bets on the powers of creative minorities and on exceptional individuals.

The question that arises is: Is this diagnosis correct? And if so, is it within our power to reintroduce the religious element, in a synthesis of residual Christianity and the religious heritage of mankind? Ultimately the question of who was right—Spengler or Toynbee—remains open, because we cannot see into the future. But independently of that debate, we are obliged to ask ourselves what can guarantee the future and what is capable of keeping alive the intrinsic identity of Europe through all the historical metamorphoses. Or to put it even more simply: What is there, today and tomorrow, that promises human dignity and a life in conformity with it?

To find an answer, we must turn our attention once again to the present day and at the same time keep in mind its historical roots. In the preceding discussion we stopped at the French Revolution and the nineteenth century. At that time two new European models in particular had developed. In the Latin nations [that is, where the Romance languages were spoken] there was the laicist model: the State was quite distinct from the religious organizations, which were relegated to the private sphere. The State itself renounced any religious basis and claimed to be founded solely on reason and on its own intuitions. When confronted with the frailty of reason, these systems have proved to be fragile and have easily fallen victim to dictatorships; they survive, actually, only because parts of the old moral consciousness continue to exist, even without the previous social foundations, making possible a basic moral consensus. On the other hand, in the Germanic [and Anglo-Saxon] world, there were different models of Church and State, derived from liberal Protestantism; in them an enlightened Christian religion, essentially understood as morality—together with forms of worship guaranteed by the State—assured a moral consensus and a broad religious foundation, to which the faiths other than the State religion had to conform. This model in Great Britain, in the Scandinavian states, and at first even in Germany ruled by the Prussians, for a long time assured national and social cohesiveness. In Germany, however, the collapse of the Christianity of the Prussian State created a void, which then also left room for a dictatorship. Today State churches everywhere have suffered from attrition: religious bodies derived from the State no longer provide any moral force, whereas the State itself cannot create moral force but rather must presuppose it and build upon it.

Somewhere between these two models we find the United States of America, which, on the one hand—formed on the basis of free churches—started out from a rigid dogma of [Church—State] separation. On the other hand, beyond the particular denominations, the nation was shaped nonetheless by a basic Protestant Christian consensus that was not hammered out in doctrinal-confessional terms but was associated with a special awareness of its mission, in its dealings with the rest of the world, as a religious example and thus gave significant public weight to the religious factor, which as a pre-political and suprapolitical force managed to have influence on political life. Of course we cannot overlook here the fact that in the United States, too, the disintegration of the Christian heritage advances unceasingly, while at the same time the rapid increase of the Hispanic population and the presence of traditional religions from all parts of the world complete the picture. Perhaps we should observe here, too, that certain circles in the United States are giving plenty of support to the Protestantization of Latin America and thus promoting the break-up of the Catholic Church by means of free church structures; they are convinced that the Catholic Church is not in a position to guarantee a stable political and economic system and hence is incapable of functioning as a teacher of nations, whereas it is expected that the model of the free churches will make possible a moral consensus and a democratic formation of the public will, similar to those found in the United States. To complicate the picture further, it must be admitted that today the Catholic Church constitutes the largest religious community in the United States and that in her life of faith she stands up resolutely for her Catholic identity; yet with regard to the relationship between Church and politics, American Catholics have accepted the traditions of the free churches, in the sense that it is precisely a Church unaffiliated with the State that best guarantees the moral foundations of the whole society, so that promoting the democratic ideal appears to be a moral duty that is profoundly in keeping with the faith. In such a position we have good reason to see a continuation, adapted to the times, of the model of Pope Gelasius, of whom I spoke earlier.

Let us turn to Europe. To the two models about which I spoke before, a third was added in the nineteenth century, namely, socialism, which soon subdivided into two different paths, the totalitarian and the democratic. Starting from its initial premise, democratic socialism was able to become part of the two existing models, as a salutary counterbalance to the radical liberal positions, enriching and correcting them. It proved, furthermore, to be something that transcended denominational affiliations: in England it was the party of the Catholics, who could not feel at home either in the Protestant-conservative camp or among the liberals. In Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm, too, many Catholic centrists felt closer to democratic socialism than to the rigidly Prussian and Protestant conservative forces. In many respects democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine; in any case, it contributed considerably toward the formation of a social consciousness.

The totalitarian model, in contrast, was associated with a rigidly materialistic and atheistic philosophy of history: history was understood deterministically as a process of advancement that passed through a religious and then a liberal phase so as to arrive at the absolute and definitive society, in which religion becomes a superfluous relic from the past and the business of material production and trade is able to guarantee happiness for all. The scientific appearance of this theory conceals an intolerant dogmatism: spirit is the product of matter; morals are the product of circumstances and must be defined and practiced according to the goals of society: everything that fosters the coming of that final state of happiness and morality. Here the values that had built Europe are completely overturned. Even worse, there is a rupture here with the complex moral tradition of mankind: there are no longer any values apart from the goals of progress; at a given moment everything can be permitted and even necessary, can be “moral” in a new sense of the word. Even man can become an instrument; the individual does not matter. The future alone becomes the terrible deity that rules over everyone and everything.

Meanwhile the Communist systems have foundered, above all because of their false economic dogmatism. But too often people ignore the fact that the more fundamental reason for their shipwreck was their contempt for human rights, their subjection of morality to the demands of the system and to their promises for the future. The real catastrophe they left behind is not of an economic sort; it consists, rather, in the drying up of souls, in the destruction of moral conscience. I see as an essential problem in our day, for Europe and for the world, the fact that the economic failure is never disputed, and therefore the former Communists have become economic liberals almost without hesitation, whereas the moral and religious problem, which was really at stake, is almost completely dismissed. Nevertheless, the complex problems left behind by Marxism continue to exist today. The loss of man’s primordial certainties about God, about himself, and about the universe—the loss of an awareness of intangible moral values—is still our problem, especially today, and it can lead to the self-destruction of the European consciousness, which we must begin to consider—independently of Spengler’s vision of decline—as a real danger.12

  1. What point have we reached today?

Thus we find ourselves facing the question: Where do we go from here? In the violent upheavals of our time, is there a European identity that has a future and to which we can commit ourselves with all our might? I am not prepared to enter into a detailed discussion of the future European Constitution. I would just like to note briefly the foundational moral elements that in my opinion should not be missing from it.

The first element is the “unconditional character” of human dignity and human rights, which must be presented as values that are prior to any governmental jurisdiction. These fundamental rights are not created by the legislator or conferred upon the citizens, “but rather they exist in their own right; they must always be respected by the legislator and are given to him previously as values of a higher order.”13 This validity of human dignity, prior to any political action or decision, is ultimately derived from the Creator: only God can establish values that are based on the nature of man and are inviolable. The fact that there are values that cannot be manipulated by anyone is the real guarantee of our liberty and of human greatness: Christian faith sees in this the mystery of the Creator and of the status that he has conferred upon man as the image of God.

Now today almost nobody will deny outright the precedence of human dignity and fundamental human rights over any political decision; the horrors of Nazism and of its racist theory are still too recent. But within the pragmatic sphere of so-called progress in medicine there are very real threats to these values: whether we think of cloning or of the preservation of human fetuses for the purpose of research and organ donation or of the whole field of genetic manipulation—no one can mistake the gradual atrophy of respect for human dignity that threatens us here. Added to this is a burgeoning traffic in human persons, new forms of slavery, and trafficking in human organs for transplantation. Good ends are always adduced to justify the unjustifiable.

In summary: to establish in writing the value and dignity of man, of liberty, equality, and solidarity, along with the fundamental declarations of democracy and of a state governed by law, implies an image of man, a moral option, and a concept of law that are by no means obvious but that are actually fundamental factors in the identity of Europe. These constitutive elements, along with their concrete consequences, ought to be guaranteed in the future European Constitution; certainly they can be defended only if a corresponding moral consciousness is continually formed anew.

A second area in which the European identity appears is marriage and the family. Monogamous marriage, as a fundamental structure of the relation between man and woman and at the same time as the basic cell in the formation of the larger community, was modeled on the basis of biblical faith. This gave Europe, both in the West and in the East, its particular face and its particular humanity, also and especially because the pattern of fidelity and self-denial depicted there had to be won again and again, by many toils and sufferings. Europe would no longer be Europe if this fundamental cell of its social edifice were to disappear or if its nature were to be changed. We all know how marriage and the family are threatened—on the one hand, by the voiding of its indissolubility as a result of increasingly easy forms of divorce and, on the other hand, through a new kind of behavior that is becoming ever more widespread: the cohabitation of a man and a woman without the legal form of marriage. In tawdry contrast with all that is the demand for domestic partnerships between homosexuals, who now paradoxically are demanding a legal form that would have to be equated more or less with marriage. This trend departs completely from the moral history of mankind, which, despite all the diversity in the legal form of marriage, nevertheless always recognized that said marriage, by its very nature, is the exclusive association of a man and a woman that is open to children and thus to the family. Here we are dealing, not with discrimination, but with the question of what the human person is, as man or as woman, and of how the common life of man and woman can acquire a legal form. If, on the one hand, their living together becomes increasingly detached from juridical forms and, on the other hand, homosexual unions are seen more and more as having the same status as marriage, then we are confronted with a disintegration of the image of man, which can only have extremely serious consequences.

My final point is the religious question. I do not wish to enter here into the complex discussions of the last few years. I would like instead to highlight just one aspect that is fundamental to all cultures: respect for what is sacred to someone else and, in particular, respect for the sacred in the more exalted sense, for God, something we are allowed to expect even in a person who is not disposed to believe in God. Where this respect is violated, something essential in a society is lost. In our society today, thank God, anyone who dishonors the faith of Israel, its image of God, or its great personages is censured. Anyone who insults the Qur’an and the fundamental beliefs of Islam is censured, too. On the other hand, where Christ and what is sacred to Christians are concerned, suddenly freedom of opinion appears to be the highest good, and to limit it would be to endanger tolerance and freedom in general or to destroy them outright. Freedom of opinion, however, discovers its limit in the fact that it cannot destroy the honor and the dignity of someone else; denying or destroying human rights is not freedom.

Here we notice a self-hatred in the Western world that is strange and that can be considered pathological; yes, the West is making a praiseworthy attempt to be completely open to understanding foreign values, but it no longer loves itself; from now on it sees in its own history only what is blameworthy and destructive, whereas it is no longer capable of perceiving what is great and pure. In order to survive, Europe needs a new—and certainly a critical and humble—acceptance of itself, that is, if it wants to survive. Multiculturalism, which is continually and passionately encouraged and promoted, is sometimes little more than the abandonment and denial of what is one’s own, flight from one’s own heritage. But multiculturalism cannot exist without shared constants, without points of reference based on one’s own values. It surely cannot exist without respect for what is sacred. Part of it is approaching with respect the things that are sacred to others, but we can do this only if what is sacred, God himself, is not foreign to us. Of course, we can and must learn from what is sacred to others, but given this encounter with others and precisely for those others it is our duty to nourish within ourselves a respect in the presence of what is sacred and to manifest the face of God who has appeared to us: the God who has compassion on the poor and the weak, on widows and orphans, on the stranger; the God who is so humane that he himself became man, a suffering man, who by suffering together with us gives dignity and hope to pain.

If we do not do this, we not only deny the identity of Europe, but we also deprive others of a service to which they have a right. For the cultures of the world, the absolute secularity that has been taking shape in the West is something profoundly foreign. They are convinced that a world without God has no future. And so multiculturalism itself calls us to come to our senses and to look deep within ourselves again.

We do not know how things will go in Europe in the future. The Charter of Fundamental Rights [of the European Union] may be a first step, a sign that Europe is consciously looking again for its soul. In this regard we must say that Toynbee was correct, that the destiny of a society always depends on creative minorities. Believing Christians should think of themselves as one such creative minority and contribute to Europe’s recovery of the best of its heritage and thus to the service of all mankind.

Notes

1 Herodotus, History I, 4, quoted from The History of Herodotus, trans. George Rawlinson, Great Books Series, vol. 5 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1990), 1-314, citation at page 2.

2 An incisive and wide-ranging look at the formation of Europe, both in the geographic sense and as a system of values, is found in Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).

3 Cf. H. Gollwitzer, “Europa, Abendland”, in J. Ritter, ed., Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, vol. 2 (Basel: Schwabe, 1971), 824-26; F. Prinz, Von Konstantin zu Karl dem Grossen (Düsseldorf: Artemis und Winkler, 2000).

4 Cf. Gollwitzer, “Europa, Abendland”, 826.

5 From the wealth of literature on monasticism, I cite here only these: H. Fischer, Die Geburt der westlichen Zivilisation aus dem Geist des romanischen Mönchtums (Munich: Kösel, 1969); F. Prinz, Askese und Kultur: Vor- und frühbenediktinisches Mönchtum an der Wiege Europas (Munich: Beck, 1980).

6 E. von Ivánka, Rhomäerreich und Gottesvolk (Freiburg and Munich: K. Alber, 1968).

7 Primary sources and secondary literature can be found in U. Duchrow, Christenheit und Weltverantwortung (Stuttgart: Klett, 1970), 328ff. There is a wealth of material on this subject in Hugo Rahner, Church and State in Early Christianity, trans. Leo Donald David (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992). Stephan Horn brought to my attention an important passage by Leo the Great contained in a letter dated May 22, 452, from the Pope to the Emperor, in which he refutes the famous canon 28 of Chalcedon (concerning the primatial position of Constantinople vis-à-vis Rome, based on the presence of the seat of the empire in the former city): “Habeat sicut optamus Constantinopolitana civitas gloriam suam, et protegente Dei dextera diuturno clementiae vestrae fruatur imperio, alia tamen ratio est rerum saecularium alia divinarum, nec praeter illam petram quam Dominus in fundamento posuit stabilis erit ulla constructio” (LME II [37] 55, 52-56; cf. ACO II/IV, p. 56) [We wish that the city of Constantinople may have its proper glory and, under the protection of God’s right hand, might enjoy the perpetual rule of your clemency; nevertheless, the scheme of worldly things is different from that of things divine, nor will there be any lasting building apart from that rock which the Lord placed as the foundation]. On this problem, see also A. Michel, “Der Kampf um das politische oder petrinische Prinzip der Kirchenführung”, in A. Grillmeier and H. Bacht, Das Konzil von Chalkedon, vol. 2, Entscheidung um Chalkedon (Würzburg: Echter, 1953), 491-562; and the essay by Thomas O. Martin on canon 28 of Chalcedon in the same volume (433-58).

8 O. Hiltbrunner, Kleines Lexikon der Antike (Bern and Munich: Francke, 1950), 102.

9 Arnold Joseph Toynbee, A Study of History, vol. 2, Geneses of Civilizations (London: Oxford Univ. Press, H. Milford, 1934); quoted from the German edition, Der Gang der Weltgeschichte II: Kulturen im Übergang (Zürick, Stuttgart, and Vienna: Europa-Verlag, 1958), p. 370, as cited in J. Holdt, Hugo Rahner: Sein geschichtstheologisches Denken (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1997), 53. In particular, Holdt’s section entitled “Philosophische Besinnung auf das Abendland” [Philosophical Meditation on the West] (52-61) furnishes important materials for the question concerning Europe.

10 O. Spengler, The Decline of the West, authorized translation with notes by Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Knopf, 1939). On the debate surrounding his thesis, see the chapter “Die abendländische Bewegung zwischen den Weltkriegen” [The Western movement between the World Wars], in Holdt, Hugo Rahner, 13-17. Confronting Spengler’s thought was also a recurring theme in the work of fundamental moral philosophy written during the period between the two wars by T. Steinbüchel, Die philosophische Grundlegung der katholischen Sittenlehre (Düsseldorf: Schwamm, 1938; 3rd ed., 1947).

11 Cf. Holdt, Hugo Rahner, 54.

12 In this regard we must cite the following words by E. Chargaff: “Where everyone is free to take the lion’s share, for example in the free market, the result is the society of Marsia, a society of bloody corpses” (E. Chargaff, Ein zweites Leben: Autobiographische und andere Texte [Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1955], 168).

13 G. Hirsch, “Ein Bekenntnis zu den Grundwerten” [An affirmation of fundamental values], in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, October 12, 2000.

 

Myth Became Fact by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

My friend Corineus has advanced the charge that none of us are in fact Christians at all. According to him historic Christianity is something so barbarous that no modern man can really believe it: the moderns who claim to do so are in fact believing a modern system of thought which retains the vocabulary of Christianity and exploits the emotions inherited from it while quietly dropping its essential doctrines. Corineus compared modern Christianity with the modern English monarchy: the forms of kingship have been retained, but the reality has been abandoned.
All this I believe to be false, except of a few “modernist” theologians who, by God’s grace, become fewer every day. But for the moment let us assume that Corineus is right. Let us pretend, for purposes of argument, that all who now call themselves Christians have abandoned the historic doctrines. Let us suppose that modern “Christianity” reveals a system of names, ritual, formulae, and metaphors which persists although the thoughts behind it have changed. Corineus ought to be able to explain the persistence.
Why, on his view, do all these educated and enlightened pseudo-Christians insist on expressing their deepest thoughts in terms of an archaic mythology which must hamper and embarrass them at every turn? Why do they refuse to cut the umbilical cord which binds the living and flourishing child to its moribund mother? For, if Corineus is right, it should be a great relief to them to do so. Yet the odd thing is that even those who seem most embarrassed by the sediment of “barbaric” Christianity in their thought become suddenly obstinate when you ask them to get rid of it altogether. They will strain the cord almost to breaking point, but they refuse to cut it. Sometimes they will take every step except the last one.
If all who professed Christianity were clergymen, it would be easy (though uncharitable) to reply that their livelihood depends on not taking that last step. Yet even if this were the true cause of their behavior, even if all clergymen are intellectual prostitutes who preach for pay ‐ and usually starvation pay – what they secretly believe to be false, surely so widespread a darkening of conscience among thousands of men not otherwise known to be criminal, itself demands explanation? And of course the profession of Christianity is not confined to the clergy. It is professed by millions of women and laymen who earn thereby contempt, unpopularity, suspicion, and the hostility of their own families. How does this come to happen?
Obstinacies of this sort are interesting. “Why not cut the cord?” asks Corineus. “Everything would be much easier if you would free your thought from this vestigial mythology.” To be sure: far easier. Life would be far easier for the mother of an invalid child if she put it into an institution and adopted someone else’s healthy baby instead. Life would be far easier to many a man if he abandoned the woman he has actually fallen in love with and married someone else because she is more suitable. The only defect of the healthy baby and the suitable woman is that they leave out the patient’s only reason for bothering about a child or wife at all. “Would not conversation be much more rational than dancing?” said Jane Austen’s Miss Bingley. “Much more rational,” replied Mr. Bingley, “but much less like a ball.”(1) In the same way, it would be much more rational to abolish the English monarchy. But how if, by doing so, you leave out the one element in our state which matters most? How if the monarchy is the channel through which all the vital elements of citizenship loyalty, the consecration of secular life, the hierarchical principle, splendor, ceremony, continuity – still trickle down to irrigate the dust bowl of modern economic statecraft?
The real answer of even the most “modernist” Christianity to Corineus is the same. Even assuming (which I most constantly deny) that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern. Corineus wants us to move with the times. Now, we know where times move. They move away. But in religion we find something that does not move away. It is what Corineus calls the myth that abides; it is what he calls the modern and living thought that moves away. Not only the thought of theologians, but the thought of antitheologians. Where are the predecessors of Corineus? Where is the Epicureanism of Lucretius,(2) the pagan revival of Julian the Apostate? (3) Where are the Gnostics, where is the monism of Averroes,(4) the deism of Voltaire, the dogmatic materialism of the great Victorians? They have moved with the times. But the thing they were all attacking remains: Corineus finds it still there to attack. The myth (to speak his language) has outlived the thoughts of all its defenders and of all its adversaries. It is the myth that gives life. Those elements even in modernist Christianity which Corineus regards as vestigial, are the substance: what he takes for the “real modern belief” is the shadow.
To explain this we must look a little closer at myth in general, and at this myth in particular. Human intellect is incurably abstract. Pure mathematics is the type of successful thought. Yet the only realities we experience are concrete – this pain, this pleasure, this dog, this man. While we are loving the man, bearing the pain, enjoying the pleasure, we are not intellectually apprehending Pleasure, Pain or Personality. When we begin to do so, on the other hand, the concrete realities sink to the level of mere instances or examples: we are no longer dealing with them, but with that which they exemplify. This is our dilemma – either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste – or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind because we are outside it. As thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think. You cannot study pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyze the nature of humor while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things? “If only my toothache would stop, I could write another chapter about pain.” But once it stops, what do I know about pain?
Of this tragic dilemma myth is the partial solution. In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction. At this moment, for example, I am trying to understand something very abstract indeed ‐ the fading, vanishing of tasted reality as we try to grasp it with the discursive reason. Probably I have made heavy weather of it. But if I remind you, instead, of Orpheus and Eurydice, how he was suffered to lead her by the hand but, when he turned round to look at her, she disappeared, what was merely a principle becomes imaginable. You may reply that you never till this moment attached that “meaning” to that myth. Of course not. You are not looking for an abstract “meaning” at all. If that was what you were doing, the myth would be for you no true myth but a mere allegory. You were not knowing, but tasting; but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely.
When we translate we get abstraction ‐ or rather, dozens of abstractions. What flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality (truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is), and, therefore, every myth becomes the father of innumerable truths on the abstract level. Myth is the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley; in hac valle abstractionist (5) Or, if you prefer, myth is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with that vast continent we really belong to. It is not, like truth, abstract; nor is it, like direct experience, bound to the particular.
Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens ‐ at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.
A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it. The modernist ‐ the extreme modernist, infidel in all but name ‐ need not be called a fool or hypocrite because he obstinately retains, even in the midst of his intellectual atheism, the language, rites, sacraments, and story of the Christians. The poor man may be clinging (with a wisdom he himself by no means understands) to that which is his life. It would have been better that Loisy (6) should have remained a Christian: it would not necessarily have been better that he should have purged his thought of vestigial Christianity.
Those who do not know that this great myth became fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied. But Christians also need to be reminded – we may thank Corineus for reminding us – that what became fact was a myth, that it carries with it into the world of fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there ‐ it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic ‐ and is not the sky itself a myth ‐ shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: perfect myth and perfect fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.

Notes:

  1. Pride and Prejudice, ch. xi.
  2. Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99-55), the Roman poet.
  3. Roman emperor, A.D. 361-3
  4. Averroe (1126-98), of Cordova, believed that only one intellect exists for the whole human race in which every individual participates, to the exclusion of personal immortality.
  5. “In this valley of separation.”
  6. Alfred Loisy (1857-1940), a French theologian and founder of the Modernist Movement.

 

Poison of Subjectivism by C. S. Lewis

One cause of misery and vice is always present with us in the greed and pride of men, but at certain periods in history this is greatly increased by the temporary prevalence of some false philosophy. Correct thinking will not make good men of bad ones; but a purely theoretical error may remove ordinary checks to evil and deprive good intentions of their natural support. An error of this sort is abroad at present. I am not referring to the Power philosophies of the Totalitarian states, but to something that goes deeper and spreads wider and which, indeed, has given these Power philosophies their golden opportunity. I am referring to Subjectivism.

After studying his environment man has begun to study himself. Up to that point, he had assumed his own reason and through it seen all other things. Now, his own reason has become the object: it is as if we took out our eyes to look at them. Thus studied, his own reason appears to him as the epiphenomenona which accompanies chemical or electrical events in a cortex which is itself the by-product of a blind evolutionary process. His own logic, hitherto the king whom events in all possible worlds must obey, becomes merely subjective. There is no reason for supposing that it yields truth.

As long as this dethronement refers only to the theoretical reason, it cannot be wholehearted. The scientist has to assume the validity of his own logic (in the stout old fashion of Plato or Spinoza) even in order to prove that it is merely subjective, and therefore he can only flirt with subjectivism. It is true that this flirtation sometimes goes pretty far. There are modern scientists, I am told, who have dropped the words truth and reality out of their vocabulary and who hold that the end of their work is not to know what is there but simply to get practical results. This is, no doubt, a bad symptom. But, in the main, subjectivism is such an uncomfortable yokefellow for research that the danger, in this quarter, is continually counteracted.

But when we turn to practical reason the ruinous effects are found operating in full force. By practical reason I mean our judgement of good and evil. If you are surprised that I include this under the heading of reason at all, let me remind you that your surprise is itself one result of the subjectivism I am discussing. Until modern times no thinker of the first rank ever doubted that our judgements of value were rational judgements or that what they discovered was objective. It was taken for granted that in temptation passion was opposed, not to some sentiment, but to reason. Thus Plato thought, thus Aristotle, thus Hooker, Butler and Doctor Johnson. The modern view is very different. It does not believe that value judgements are really judgements at all. They are sentiments, or complexes, or attitudes, produced in a community by the pressure of its environment and its traditions, and differing from one community to another. To say that a thing is good is merely to express our feeling about it; and our feeling about it is the feeling we have been socially conditioned to have.

But if this is so, then we might have been conditioned to feel otherwise. “Perhaps,” thinks the reformer or the educational expert, “it would be better if we were. Let us improve our morality.” Out of this apparently innocent idea comes the disease that will certainly end our species (and, in my view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed; the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its “ideology” as men choose their clothes. Everyone is indignant when he hears the Germans define justice as that which is to the interest of the Third Reich. But it is not always remembered that this indignation is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective sentiment to be altered at will. Unless there is some objective standard of good, overarching Germans, Japanese, and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours. If “good” and “better” are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring. For the same reason it is useless to compare the moral ideas of one age with those of another: progress and decadence are alike meaningless words.

All this is so obvious that it amounts to an identical proposition. But how little it is now understood can be gauged from the procedure of the moral reformer who, after saying that “good” means “what we are conditioned to like” goes on cheerfully to consider whether it might be “better” that we should be conditioned to like something else. What in Heaven’s name does he mean by “better”?

He usually has at the back of his mind the notion that if he throws over traditional judgement of value, he will find something else, something more “real” or “solid” on which to base a new scheme of values. He will say, for example, “We must abandon irrational taboos and base our values on the good of the community” – as if the maxim “Thou shalt promote the good of the community’ were anything more than a polysyllabic variant of ‘Do as you would be done by’ which has itself no other basis than the old universal value judgement that he claims to be rejecting. Or he will endeavor to base his values on biology and tell us that we must act thus and thus for the preservation of our species. Apparently he does not anticipate the question, ‘Why should the species be preserved?’ He takes it for granted that it should, because he is really relying on traditional judgements of value. If he were starting, as he pretends, with a clean slate, he could never reach this principle. Sometimes he tries to do so by falling back on “instinct.” “We have an instinct to preserve our species”, he may say. But have we? And if we have, who told us that we must obey our instincts? And why should we obey this instinct in the teeth of many others which conflict with the preservation of the species? The reformer knows that some instincts are to be obeyed more than others only because he is judging instincts by a standard, and the standard is, once more, the traditional morality which he claims to be superseding. The instincts themselves obviously cannot furnish us with grounds for grading the instincts in a hierarchy. If you do not bring a knowledge of their comparative respectability to your study of them, you can never derive it from them.

This whole attempt to jettison traditional values as something subjective and to substitute a new scheme of values for them is wrong. It is like trying to lift yourself by your own coat collar. Let us get two propositions written into our minds with indelible ink.

1)The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of planting a new sun in the sky or a new primary colour in the spectrum.

2)Every attempt to do so consists in arbitrarily selecting some one maxim of traditional morality, isolating it from the rest, and erecting it into an unum necessarium.

The second proposition will bear a little illustration. Ordinary morality tells us to honour our parents and cherish our children. By taking the second precept alone you construct a Futurist Ethic in which the claim of “posterity” are the sole criterion. Ordinary morality tells us to keep promises and also to feed the hungry. By taking the second precept alone you get a Communist Ethic in which “production,” and distribution of the products to the people, are the sole criteria. Ordinary morality tells us, ceteris paribus, to love our kindred and fellow citizens more than strangers. By isolating this precept you can get either an Aristocratic Ethic with the claims of our class as sole criterion, or a Racialist Ethic where no claims but those of blood are acknowledged. These monomaniac systems are then used as a ground from which to attack traditional morality; but absurdly, since it is from traditional morality alone that they derive such semblance of validity as they possess. Starting from scratch, with no assumptions about value, we could reach none of them. If reverence for parents or promises is a mere subjective by-product of physical nature, so is reverence for race or posterity. The trunk to whose root the reformer would lay the axe is the only support of the particular branch he wishes to retain.

All idea of “new” or “scientific” or “modern” moralities must therefore be dismissed as mere confusion of thought. We have only two alternatives. Either the maxims of traditional morality must be accepted as axioms of practical reason which neither admit nor require argument to support them and not to “see” which is to have lost human status; or else there are no values at all, what we mistook for values being “projections” of irrational emotions. It is perfectly futile, after having dismissed traditional morality with the question, ‘Why should we obey it?’ then to attempt the reintroduction of value at some later stage in our philosophy. Any value we reintroduce can be countered in just the same way. Every argument used to support it will be an attempt to derive from premises in the indicative mood a conclusion in the imperative. And this is impossible.

Against this view the modern mind has two lines of defence. The first claims that traditional morality is different in different times and places – in fact, that there is not one morality but a thousand. The second exclaims that to tie ourselves to an immutable moral code is to cut off all progress and acquiesce in stagnation. Both are unsound.

Let us take the second one first. And let us strip it of the illegitimate emotional power it derives from the word ‘stagnation’ with its suggestion of puddles and mantled pools. If water stands too long it stinks. To infer thence that whatever stands long must be unwholesome is to be the victim of metaphor. Space does not stink because it has preserved its three dimensions from the beginning. The square on the hypotenuse has not gone moldy by continuing to equal the sum of the squares on the other two sides. Love is not dishonored by constancy, and when we wash our hands we are seeking stagnation and “putting the clock back,” artificially restoring our hands to the status quo in which they began the day and resisting the natural trend of events which would increase their dirtiness steadily from our birth to our death. For the emotive term ‘stagnant’ let us substitute the descriptive term ‘permanent.’ Does a permanent moral standard preclude progress? On the contrary, except on the supposition of a changeless standard, progress is impossible. If good is a fixed point, it is at least possible that we should get nearer and nearer to it; but if the terminus is as mobile as the train, how can the train progress towards it? Our ideas of the good may change, but they cannot change either for the better or the worse if there is no absolute and immutable good to which they can recede. We can go on getting a sum more and more nearly right only if the one perfectly right is “stagnant”.

And yet it will be said, I have just admitted that our ideas of good may improve. How is this to be reconciled with the view that “traditional morality” is a depositum fidei which cannot be deserted? The answer can be understood if we compare a real moral advance with a mere innovation. From the Stoic and Confucian, “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you”; to the Christian, “Do as you would be done by” is a real advance. The morality of Nietzsche is a mere innovation. The first is an advance because no one who did not admit the validity of the old maxim could see reason for accepting the new one, and anyone who accepted the old would at once recognize the new as an extension of the same principle. If he rejected it, he would have to reject it as a superfluity, something that went too far, not as something simply heterogeneous from his own ideas of value. But the Nietzschean ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error and then to put ourselves in a position where we can find no ground for any value judgements at all. It is the difference between a man who says to us: “You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?” and a man who says, “Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.” Real moral advances, in fine, are made from within the existing moral tradition and in the spirit of that tradition and can be understood only in the light of that tradition. The outsider who has rejected the tradition cannot judge them. He has, as Aristotle said, no arche, no premises.

And what of the second modern objection – that the ethical standards of different cultures differ so widely that there is no common tradition at all? The answer is that is a lie – a good, solid, resounding lie. If a man will go into a library and spend a few days with the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics he will soon discover the massive unanimity of the practical reason in man. From the Babylonian Hymn to Samos, from the Laws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the Analects, the Stoics, the Platonists, from Australian aborigines and Redskins, he will collect the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery, and falsehood, the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty. He may be a little surprised (I certainly was) to find that precepts of mercy are more frequent than precepts of justice; but he will no longer doubt that there is such a thing as the Law of Nature. There are, of course, differences. There are even blindnesses in particular cultures – just as there are savages who cannot count up to twenty. But the pretence that we are presented with a mere chaos – though no outline of universally accepted value shows through – is wherever it is simply false and should be contradicted in season and out of season wherever it is met. Far from finding a chaos, we find exactly what we should expect if good is indeed something objective and reason the organ whereby it is apprehended – that is, a substantial agreement with considerable local differences of emphasis and, perhaps, no one code that includes everything.

The two grand methods of obscuring this agreement are these: First, you can concentrate on those divergences about sexual morality which most serious moralists regard as belonging to positive rather than to Natural Law, but which rouse strong emotions. Differences about the definition of incest or between polygamy and monogamy come under this head. (It is untrue to say that the Greeks thought sexual perversion innocent. The continual tittering of Plato is really more evidential than the stern prohibition of Aristotle. Men titter thus only about what they regard as, at least, a peccadillo: the jokes about drunkenness in Pickwick, far from proving that the nineteenth-century English thought it innocent, prove the reverse. There is an enormous difference of degree between the Greek view of perversion and the Christian, but there is not opposition.) The second method is to treat as differences in the judgement of value what are really differences in belief about fact. Thus human sacrifice, or persecution of witches, are cited as evidence of a radically different morality. But the real difference lies elsewhere. We do not hunt witches because we disbelieve in their existence. We do not kill men to avert pestilence because we do not think pestilence can thus be averted. We do “sacrifice” men in war, and we do hunt spies and traitors.

So far I have been considering the objections which unbelievers bring against the doctrine of objective value, or the Law of Nature. But in our days we must be prepared to meet objections from Christians too. “Humanism” and “liberalism” are coming to be used simply as terms of disapprobation, and both are likely to be so used of the position I am taking up. Behind them lurks a real theological problem. If we accept the primary platitudes of practical reason as the unquestioned premises of all action, are we thereby trusting our own reason so far that we ignore the Fall, and are retrogressively turning our absolute allegiance away from a person to an abstraction?

As regards the Fall, I submit that the general tenor of scripture does not encourage us to believe that our knowledge of the Law has been depraved in the same degree as our power to fulfil it. He would be a brave man who claimed to realize the fallen condition of man more clearly than St. Paul. In that very chapter (Roman 7) where he asserts most strongly our inability to keep the moral law he also asserts most confidently that we perceive the Law’s goodness and rejoice in it according to the inward man. Our righteousness may be filthy and ragged, but Christianity gives us no ground for holding that our perceptions of right are in the same condition. They may, no doubt, be impaired; but there is a difference between imperfect sight and blindness. A theology which goes about to represent our practical reason as radically unsound is heading for disaster. If we once admit that what God means by “goodness” is sheerly different from what we judge to be good, there is no difference left between pure religion and devil worship.

The other objection is much more formidable. If we once grant that our practical reason is really reason and that its fundamental imperatives are as absolute and categorical as they claim to be, then unconditional allegiance to them is the duty of man. So is absolute allegiance to God. And these two allegiances must, somehow, be the same. But how is the relation between God and the moral law to be represented? To say that the moral law is God’s law is no final solution. Are these things right because God commands them or does God command them because they are right? If the first, if good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the “righteous Lord.” If the second, then we seem to be admitting a cosmic dyarchy, or even making God himself the mere executor of a law somehow external and antecedent to His own being. Both views are intolerable.

At this point we must remind ourselves that Christian theology does not believe God to be a person. It believes Him to be such that in Him a trinity of persons is consistent with a unity of Deity. In that sense it believes Him to be something very different from a person, just as a cube, in which six squares are consistent with unity of the body, is different from a square. (Flatlanders, attempting to imagine a cube, would either imagine the six squares coinciding, and thus destroy their distinctness, or else imagine them set out side by side, and thus destroy the unity. Our difficulties about the Trinity are of much the same kind.) It is therefore possible that the duality which seems to force itself upon us when we think, first, of our Father in Heaven, and, secondly, of the self-evident imperatives of the moral law, is not a mere error but a real (though inadequate and creaturely) perception of things that would necessarily be two in any mode of being which enters our experience, but which are not so divided in the absolute being of the superpersonal God. When we attempt to think of a person and a law, we are compelled to think of this person either as obeying the law or as making it. And when we think of Him as making it we are compelled to think of Him either as making it in conformity to some yet more ultimate pattern of goodness (in which case that pattern, and not He, would be supreme) or else as making it arbitrarily by a sic volo, sic jubeo (in which case He would be neither good nor wise). But it is probably just here that our categories betray us. It would be idle, with our merely mortal resources, to attempt a positive correction of our categories – ambulavi in mirabilibus supra me. But it might be permissible to lay down two negations: that God neither obeys nor creates the moral law. The good is uncreated; it never could have been otherwise; it has in it no shadow of contingency; it lies, as Plato said, on the other side of existence. It is the Rita of the Hindus by which the gods themselves are divine, the Tao of the Chinese from which all realities proceed. But we, favoured beyond the wisest pagans, know what lies beyond existence, what admits no contingency, what lends divinity to all else, what is the ground of all existence, is not simply a law but also a begetting love, a love begotten, and the love which, being these two, is also imminent in all those who are caught up to share the unity of their self-caused life. God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.

These may seem fine-spun speculations: yet I believe that nothing short of this can save us. A Christianity which does not see moral and religious experience converging to meet at infinity, not at a negative infinity, but in the positive infinity of the living yet superpersonal God, has nothing, in the long run, to divide it from devil worship; and a philosophy which does not accept value as eternal and objective can lead us only to ruin. Nor is the matter of merely speculative importance. Many a popular “planner” on a democratic platform, many a mild-eyed scientist in a democratic laboratory means, in the last resort, just what the Fascist means. He believes that “good” means whatever men are conditioned to approve. He believes that it is the function of him and his kind to condition men; to create consciences by eugenics, psychological manipulation of infants, state education and mass propaganda. Because he is confused, he does not yet fully realize that those who create conscience cannot be subject to conscience themselves. But he must awake to the logic of his position sooner or later; and when he does, what barrier remains between us and the final division of the race into a few conditioners who stand themselves outside morality and the many conditioned in whom such morality as the experts choose is produced at the experts’ pleasure? If “good” means only the local ideology, how can those who invent the local ideology be guided by any idea of good themselves? The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law. But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his creation.

Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish. If we do, we may live, and such a return might have one minor advantage. If we believed in the absolute reality of elementary moral platitudes, we should value those who solicit our votes by other standards than have recently been in fashion. While we believe that good is something to be invented, we demand of our rulers such qualities as “vision,” “dynamism,” “creativity,” and the like. If we returned to the objective view we should demand qualities much rarer, and much more beneficial – virtue, knowledge, diligence and skill. ‘Vision’ is for sale, or claims to be for sale, everywhere. But give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up his facts, and who has learned his job.

Charles Krauthammer: A Social Conservative Credo

It is an axiom of the conservative revolution sweeping Washington that the growth in size and power of the welfare state is a primary cause of the decline of society’s mediating institutions – voluntary associa­tions, local government, church, and, above all, the family, the single most important instrument of social cohesion and val­ues transmission. Whether by design or inadvertence, the nanny state has taken over the house.

Welfare policy, for example, creates social chaos by means of governmental incentives that are almost comically perverse. Every teenage girl in the country is told: Have a child, make sure it is out of wedlock, make sure you have no job or prospects, and Washington will then guarantee you a monthly check, free medical care, and years of job training and child care, also free. After 35 years of this, the illegitimacy rate goes from 5 percent to 30 percent. Surprise.

Liberals are confounded by the fact that the great expansion of their social programs coincides with the dramatic rise of most every index of social breakdown – divorce, illegitimacy, violence, crime, drug abuse, suicide, untreated mental illness (disguised as homelessness). Lacking any new theory to ex­plain this unfortunate association, they prescribe the only therapy their worldview allows: more social programs.

President Clinton, in his 1995 State of the Union Address, for example, embraced a Charles Murray premise when he declared that “the epidemic of teen pregnancies and births where there is no marriage” is “our most serious social problem.” His conclusion, however, is distinctly un-Murray-like: yet another federal program. After drivers ed. and drug ed., we shall now have preg ed. – a few minutes of classroom time to urge young girls and boys not to do precisely what the entire welfare system allows, indeed encourages, them to do: indulge in irresponsible childbearing.

The Limits of Structural Reform

The conservative response is equally clear: not a new gov­ernment intervention to mitigate the catastrophic consequences of the old intervention but withdrawal of government inter­vention in the first place. The contraction of the welfare state is the single most important theme of the current conservative revolution. It imbues practically every item on the Republi­cans’ political agenda. And it promises a rosy future: Pare back the welfare state and the mediating institutions will once again have the space to flower, reclaiming their rightful place at the center of a revitalized civil society.

It is a rosy scenario. It is unlikely to materialize. Social disintegration is not a reversible chemical reaction. It is far easier to reduce a complex, cohesive social structure to its barest elements of atomized individuals and fractured families than to reassemble these atoms and fractions into a new whole. Institutions so displaced and broken, particularly the family, may not be capable of spontaneous reintegration.

This is not to say that one should flinch from trying. But in, say, abolishing the current welfare entitlement, one should not assume that this in and of itself will solve the conundrum of intergenerational illegitimacy. Abolition is the first step, because without it there is no way back from where we are. But it is only a first step. And, if it is the only step, the current conservative revolution will surely fail.

That is the case because looking at the effect of govern­ment on society is too limited an analysis. The intrusions and expropriations of the welfare state have, generally speaking, created the sustaining conditions that allow the breakdown of families and other mediating institutions. They establish a struc­ture that underwrites self-destructive and antisocial behavior. But they do not create the wants and the values that find their expression in such behavior. The epidemic of teen preg­nancy, for example, is fueled by the desire of boys for preda­tory and casual sex, the acquiescence (often encouragement) of girls, and the contempt of both for the bourgeois norm of settled, married parenthood. Where do these attitudes come from? The AFDC check permits their realization. But it hardly creates them. What does?

Cultural Causes of Decay

The single greatest shaper of these wants and values is not government but culture. Mass culture is a very recent phenomenon. As an engine of social breakdown, it is vastly underappreciated by those who might be called structural con­servatives. Those who believe, for example, that changing the tax structure of the inner city (through enterprise zones) will effect a radical transformation of its social dynamics are miss­ing the larger reality. Never in history have the purveyors of a degraded, almost totally uncensored, culture had direct, un­mediated access to the minds of a society’s young. An adolescent plugged into a Walkman playing “gangsta rap” represents a revolutionary social phenomenon: youthful consciousness almost literally hardwired to the most extreme and corrupting cultural influences.

Two hundred years ago these influences might reach a thin layer of the upper classes, classes well insulated by education, social code, and sheer wealth from the more baleful consequences of cultural decay. Today these influences reach every­ one. Particularly vulnerable are those in communities where the authority structure has disintegrated because of absent or incompetent parents and where there is no power or money or codes to mediate the culture’s influence or cushion its effects. In such a milieu in particular – everywhere to some extent – mass culture rules. The results are plain to see.

We have, for example, a quarter century of psychological research on the relationship between exposure to television violence and aggressive behavior. The findings are summa­rized by the 1972 Surgeon General’s Commission report, the 1982 National Institute of Health Ten Year Follow-Up, and the 1992 report of the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Media in Society. To quote Leonard Eron, a longtime student of media and its psychological effects, on the question of the relation between television and increased violence, “the scientific debate is over.” One could, of course, have done without the social science and simply reasoned, as Irving Kristol did in 1971, that if the unquestioningly held view that good art can elevate is true, then it must be equally true that bad art can degrade.

The defenders of the culture argue that their art merely reflects already existing social changes. One could, for the sake of argument, concede that point and still note that, by constantly validating and confirming disintegratory social trends, these cultural purveyors are legitimizing them and establishing a feedback system that only serves to reinforce, amplify, and accelerate the chaos.

Mainstream films aimed at young people, for example, specialize not just in glorifying violence but in trivializing it. Cruelty as camp is a staple of the PG-13 movie. MTV is a festival of misogyny, a sourcebook on the degradation and objectification of women. And ordinary prime-time television is a laboratory of “alternative lifestyles.” It has been pointed out, for example, that the typical sitcom family (with one or two notable exceptions) is what in the 1950s was called a broken home. And these homes – Murphy Brown’s, most famously – are not generally depicted as unfortunate accommodations to the sadder consequences of social disintegration but as self-affirming choices worthy of not just admiration but celebration. What is forgotten about the Murphy Brown episode is that real, live television anchors from NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN went on the show to toast Murphy’s motherhood.

Dan Quayle’s attack on the breezy, brazen amorality at play here restarted the current national debate about the cultural causes of social decay. Even the most established liberal voices had been coming to grudging acknowledgment of the fact that much of the rampant deviancy in society is learned, and learned mostly from the mass media. Take, for example, the National Commission on Children, chaired by Senator Jay Rockefeller, liberal Democrat from West Virginia, and generally given to the standard establishment analyses and recommendations. It acknowledged that “pervasive images of crime, violence, and sexuality expose children and youth to situations and problems that often conflict with the common values of our society,” and even ceded that “the media, especially television” might actually be “a cause” of “our society’s serious problems.”

The Medicalization of Vice

Liberals have a serious difficulty dealing with this reality, however. It is hard for them-note the commission’s pinched, bureaucratic formulation – to say the obvious: the culture’s art is bad, its messages morally wrong. Why? Because having promoted “value-free” education and a self-validating moral relativism, they have forfeited the language of morality.

Accordingly, they have had to resort to a substitute language: medicine. Medicalized morality has the twin advantages of appearing authoritative and value-free. Liberalism can now address the problem of cultural decay thus: We cannot say what’s right or wrong, good or bad, but we can say what is harmful. Hence, sexual promiscuity is to be eschewed not because it is wrong but because it is “risky,” a risk to limb and life, as is drug abuse and the like. The right sex is safe sex. Teen violence is a “public health emergency.” And the man to lead the fight against teen pregnancy is a doctor, the Surgeon General. He did such a good job with smoking. Why not with sex?

To be sure, some liberals have so rejected the connection between morality and social breakdown that they are reluctant to apply even the smoking model to allegedly immoral behavior. President Clinton’s first Surgeon General, Jocelyn Elders, was so sanguine about teen sex that she wanted it taught. (“We’ve taught children in driver’s ed. what to do in the front seat of a car but not what to do in the back seat of the car.”) She was so reconciled to drug use that she spoke favorably of legalization. But she was, at the same time, a ferocious enemy of tobacco. She was quite reconciled to kids having sex in the back seat of a car, it seems, so long as they did not light up afterwards.

But such views are no longer politically sustainable, even in a Democratic administration. Accordingly, in making Dr. Henry Foster his subsequent choice for Surgeon General, Clinton played the neo-liberal, promoting Foster as just the man to fight teen pregnancy.

This is an advance, a recognition that teen pregnancy and illegitimacy are social pathologies in need of a campaign to change behavior and attitudes. But, by assigning the job to doctors, by framing the issue in terms of public health, by confusing morality with hygiene, the point is missed.

Yes, the victims of teen violence, promiscuity, drug abuse, and suicide end up in the emergency room. But so do the victims of hurricanes and war. Hurricanes and war are many things, but they are not medical problems. Neither are teen violence, promiscuity, drug abuse, suicide, and the other indices of social decay. Moreover, when you appeal to the vulnerable young to avoid these behaviors on the purely self-regarding health grounds that they are risking damage to them­ selves, you are preaching to a constituency that is not apt to buy your cost-benefit calculations.

Virtue’s return

The medicalization of vice – the campaigns for safe this and safe that – has gone as far as it can go, and that is not very far. The result is that we are seeing a “remoralization,” if not of society, at least of language. Encouraged by such books as William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The De-Moralization of Society, and James Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense, the frank use of the old-fashioned language of virtue is making a comeback.

Establishment discourse has been forced to readmit moral categories into the debate about social decay and deviancy. The change is visible and rapid. One can almost chart it by comparing the reception accorded Dan Quayle’s 1992 assault on Murphy Brown and that given Bob Dole’s on Time Warner and Hollywood just three years later. Quayle was pummeled by establishment media. The response to Dole was: Why aren’t the Democrats saying this too?

This represents a significant advance in two respects. First, it legitimizes the use of frankly moral language in public dis­ course. Second, it legitimizes the deployment of that language against the purveyors of culture and the holding of them to certain standards of decency.

This engagement in the cultural war is a necessary complement to the “structural” conservative attempts to rein in the welfare state. Reining in the state creates civil space open to new influences. But the cultural agenda – and particularly the attempt to force the mass media to clean up their act and alter their message – will crucially determine what gets to fill that space.

In the Absence of Religion

But even that will not be enough. Culture wars, however satisfying and necessary, are not sufficient. If there is to be a remoralization of society, it will have to occur at the level not just of supply but of demand. Getting the culture producers to limit the toxicity of their products will not be that difficult. Even without overt government censorship, political and popular pressure are quite capable of inducing the culture creators to self-censorship.

In a free-market society, however, such supply-side changes are not enough. The failure of the war on drugs should have taught us that. The producers of culture may accede tempo­rarily to political demands for self-censorship out of fear or regard for public relations. But a more enduring change in the cultural market, as in any other, awaits a fundamental change in demand. The customer has to stop buying the stuff.

And where does that come from? We now leave the realm of governmental reform and media self-censorship and enter entirely new territory, religious territory. Irving Kristol has written about the current and coming religious revival as an echo of earlier Great Awakenings. There certainly is a reli­gious revival under way, and it does establish a basis for a most fundamental reversal of social decay. But I have my doubts about the firmness and permanence of this fin de siecle awakening.

This is an age of advanced science and material abundance. Science and abundance offer invitations to skepticism and plea­ sure that are hard to refuse. It is difficult for me to believe that in such an era, a self-abnegating religious revival will prevail.

I hope I am wrong. If I am, the conservative revolution will unfold in and of itself, with near-Marxist historic inevitability. It is the task of the political strategist, however, to prepare for the possibility that the Great Awakening is not at hand. In which case the arrest of social decay, the revitalization of civil society, is a far more difficult and chancy proposi­tion. It must then depend upon the more coercive and less reliable agency of politics – a politics crucially capable of articulating cultural with structural reform. Neither alone will suffice.

 Public Interest, Fall 1995

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Biblical Aspects of the Theme of Faith and Politics

 

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

This homily was given on November 26, 1981, during a liturgy for Catholic representatives to the Bundestag [the Lower House of the German Federal Republic] in the Church of Saint Winfried [Saint Boniface] in Bonn. The readings, 1 Peter 1:3-7 and John 14:1-6, were prescribed by the Church’s liturgy for that day. At first they seemed unsuited to the subject, but, on second thought, after closer inspection, they proved to be unexpectedly rich material for this meditation.

The reading and the Gospel that we have just heard stemmed from a situation in which Christians were not a self-organizing subject of the state but were rather outcasts being persecuted by a cruel dictatorship. They themselves were not allowed to share the responsibility for their state; they could only endure it. Theirs was not the privilege of shaping it as a Christian state but was rather the task of living as Christians in spite of it. The names of the emperors who reigned during the period to which tradition dates both texts are enough to make the situation clear: Nero and Domitian. And so the First Letter of Peter, too, calls the Christians in such a state strangers or “exiles” and the state itself “Babylon” (5:13). In doing so, it very emphatically indicates the political position of the Christians of that time, which corresponded roughly to the position of the exiled Jews living in Babylon, who were not the subject but rather the objects of that state and therefore had to learn how they could survive in it, since they were not allowed to learn how to build it. Thus the political background of today’s readings is fundamentally different from ours. Nevertheless, they contain three important statements that have significance also for political action among Christians.

1. The state is not the whole of human existence and does not encompass all human hope. Man and what he hopes for extend beyond the framework of the state and beyond the sphere of political action. This is true not only for a state like Babylon, but for every state. The state is not the totality; this unburdens the politician and at the same time opens up for him the path of reasonable politics. The Roman state was wrong and anti-Christian precisely because it wanted to be the totality of human possibilities and hopes. A state that makes such claims cannot fulfill its promises; it thereby falsifies and diminishes man. Through the totalitarian lie it becomes demonic and tyrannical. The abolition of the totalitarian state has demythologized the state and thereby liberated man, as well as politicians and politics.

But when the Christian faith falls into ruins and faith in mankind’s greater hope is lost, the myth of the divine state rises again, because man cannot do without the totality of hope. Although such promises pose as progress and commandeer for themselves the slogans of progress and progressive thinking, viewed historically they are nevertheless a regression to an era antedating the novum of Christianity, a turning back along the scale of history. And even though their propaganda says that their goal is man’s complete liberation, the abolition of all ruling authority, they contradict the truth of man and are opposed to his freedom, because they force man to fit into what he himself can make. Such politics, which declares that the kingdom of God is the outcome of politics and twists faith into the universal primacy of the political, is by its very nature the politics of enslavement; it is mythological politics.

To this, faith opposes Christian reason’s sense of proportion, which recognizes what man really can accomplish in terms of a free social order and is content with that, because it knows that mankind’s greater expectations are safe in God’s hands. To renounce the hope of faith is at the same time to renounce political reason and its sense of proportion. Abandoning the mythical hopes of an authority-free society is not resignation but honesty, which sustains man in hope. The mythical hope of a self-made paradise can only drive man into inescapable anxiety—into fear of the failure of the illusory promises and of the immense emptiness that lurks behind them; into fear of his own power and of its cruelty.

Thus the first service to politics rendered by the Christian faith is that it liberates man from the irrationality of political myths, which are the real threat of our time. Taking a stand for sobriety, which does what is possible and does not cry with an ardent heart after the impossible, is of course always difficult; the voice of reason is not as loud as the cry of unreason. The cry for the grandiose project has the cachet of morality; restricting oneself to what is possible, in contrast, seems to be the renunciation of moral passion, mere faint-hearted pragmatism. But, as a matter of fact, political morality consists precisely of resisting the seductive force of the big words for which humanity and its chances are being gambled away. The moral thing is not adventurous moralism, which tries to mind God’s business, but rather honesty, which accepts man’s limits and does man’s work within them. Not the uncompromising stance, but compromise is the true morality in political matters.

2. Although the Christians were being persecuted, they did not have a negative view of the state in principle, but rather they still recognized in it the state qua state and did what was in their power to build it up as a state; they did not try to destroy it. Precisely because they knew that they were in “Babylon”, they applied to themselves the guidelines that Jeremiah had written to the children of Israel who had been exiled to that place. The letter of the prophet that is recorded in chapter 29 of the Book of Jeremiah was by no means an activist’s manual calling for political resistance and the destruction of the slave state, as understandable as that would have been; it is rather an instruction on how to preserve and strengthen what is good. Thus, it is a lesson in surviving and at the same time in preparing for better days and new prospects. In that sense, this morality of exile also contains basic elements of a positive political ethos. Jeremiah urges the Jews not to persist in contradiction and denial but rather to “build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their produce. . . . Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:5-7). We can read a very similar admonition in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, which tradition dates to the time of Nero, where it says to pray “for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (1 Tim 2:1-2). Along the same lines, the First Letter of Peter itself admonishes the readers to “maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (2:12). “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (2:17). “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God” (4:15).

What does this mean? The Christians were by no means fearful, gullible people who were taken in by the authorities and did not know that there can be a right to resistance and even a conscientious duty to resist. The very last sentence shows that they recognized the limits of the state and did not bow to it in matters where they were not allowed to bow to it because it opposed God’s will. Even more importantly, the fact remains that they still did not attempt to destroy that state; rather, they tried to build it up. Amorality is fought by morality, and evil by a determined adherence to the good, and in no other way. Morality—doing good—is the true resistance, and only the good can be a preparation for a turn for the better. There are not two kinds of political morality: a morality of resistance and a morality of ruling. There is only one morality: morality as such, the morality of God’s commandments, which cannot be temporarily suspended in order to bring about a change in the status quo more quickly. One can build up only by building up, not by destroying—that is the political ethics of the Bible from Jeremiah to Peter and Paul. The Christian always supports the state, in this sense: he does the positive, the good things that hold states together. He has no fear that he will thereby favor the power of the wicked, but he is convinced that evil can be dismantled and the power of evil and of evil men can be diminished only by strengthening what is good. Anyone who accepts the killing of the innocent and the destruction of other people’s property as part of the bargain cannot appeal to the faith. The words of Saint Peter are quite explicitly against such methods: “Let none of you suffer [condemnation] as a murderer, or a thief” (4:15)—and at that time he was speaking also against this sort of resistance. The true, Christian resistance that he is demanding occurs only in the situation where the state demands the repudiation of God and of his commandments, where it demands evil, against which good is still commanded.

3. A final point follows logically from this. The Christian faith destroyed the myth of the divine state, the myth of the earthly paradise or utopian state and of a society without rule. In its place it put the objectivity of reason. But that does not mean that it brought an objectivity devoid of values, the objectivity of statistics and mere social dynamics. True human objectivity involves humanity, and humanity involves God. True human reason involves morality, which lives on God’s commandments. This morality is not a private matter; it has public significance. Without the good of being good and of good action, there can be no good politics. What the persecuted Church prescribed for Christians as the core of their political ethos must also be the core of an active Christian politics: only where good is done and is recognized as good can people live together well in a thriving community. Demonstrating the practical importance of the moral dimension, the dimension of God’s commandments—publicly as well—must be the center of responsible political action.

If we act in this way, then even in the midst of confusion and adversity we can understand the words from today’s Scriptures as a reliable promise addressed to us personally: “Let not your hearts be troubled” (Jn 14:1). “By God’s power [you] are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed” (1 Pet 1:5). Amen.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Feeling of Things, Contemplation of Beauty

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Message to the Communion and Liberation Meeting at Rimini (24-30 August 2002)

Every year, in the Liturgy of the Hours for the Season of Lent, I am struck anew by a paradox in Vespers for Monday of the Second Week of the Psalter. Here, side by side, are two antiphons, one for the Season of Lent, the other for Holy Week. Both introduce Psalm 44 [45], but they present strikingly contradictory interpretations. The Psalm describes the wedding of the King, his beauty, his virtues, his mission, and then becomes an exaltation of his bride. In the Season of Lent, Psalm 44 is framed by the same antiphon used for the rest of the year. The third verse of the Psalm says: “You are the fairest of the children of men and grace is poured upon your lips”.

Naturally, the Church reads this psalm as a poetic-prophetic representation of Christ’s spousal relationship with his Church. She recognizes Christ as the fairest of men, the grace poured upon his lips points to the inner beauty of his words, the glory of his proclamation. So it is not merely the external beauty of the Redeemer’s appearance that is glorified: rather, the beauty of Truth appears in him, the beauty of God himself who draws us to himself and, at the same time captures us with the wound of Love, the holy passion (eros), that enables us to go forth together, with and in the Church his Bride, to meet the Love who calls us.

On Monday of Holy Week, however, the Church changes the antiphon and invites us to interpret the Psalm in the light of Is 53,2: “He had neither beauty, no majesty, nothing to attract our eyes, no grace to make us delight in him”. How can we reconcile this? The appearance of the “fairest of the children of men” is so wretched that no one desires to look at him. Pilate presented him to the crowd saying: “Behold the man!“, to rouse sympathy for the crushed and battered Man, in whom no external beauty remained.

Augustine, who in his youth wrote a book on the Beautiful and the Harmonious [De pulchro et apto] and who appreciated beauty in words, in music, in the figurative arts, had a keen appreciation of this paradox and realized that in this regard, the great Greek philosophy of the beautiful was not simply rejected but rather, dramatically called into question and what the beautiful might be, what beauty might mean, would have to be debated anew and suffered. Referring to the paradox contained in these texts, he spoke of the contrasting blasts of “two trumpets”, produced by the same breath, the same Spirit. He knew that a paradox is contrast and not contradiction. Both quotes come from the same Spirit who inspires all Scripture, but sounds different notes in it. It is in this way that he sets us before the totality of true Beauty, of Truth itself.

In the first place, the text of Isaiah supplies the question that interested the Fathers of the Church, whether or not Christ was beautiful. Implicit here is the more radical question of whether beauty is true or whether it is not ugliness that leads us to the deepest truth of reality. Whoever believes in God, in the God who manifested himself, precisely in the altered appearance of Christ crucified as love “to the end” (Jn 13,1), knows that beauty is truth and truth beauty; but in the suffering Christ he also learns that the beauty of truth also embraces offence, pain, and even the dark mystery of death, and that this can only be found in accepting suffering, not in ignoring it.

Certainly, the consciousness that beauty has something to do with pain was also present in the Greek world. For example, let us take Plato’s Phaedrus. Plato contemplates the encounter with beauty as the salutary emotional shock that makes man leave his shell and sparks his “enthusiasm” by attracting him to what is other than himself. Man, says Plato, has lost the original perfection that was conceived for him. He is now perennially searching for the healing primitive form. Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest; beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer. In a Platonic sense, we could say that the arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him and in this way gives him wings, lifts him upwards towards the transcendent. In his discourse in the Symposium, Aristophanes says that lovers do not know what they really want from each other. From the search for what is more than their pleasure, it is obvious that the souls of both are thirsting for something other than amorous pleasure. But the heart cannot express this “other” thing, “it has only a vague perception of what it truly wants and wonders about it as an enigma”.

In the 14th century, in the book, “The Life in Christ” by the Byzantine theologian, Nicholas Cabasilas, we rediscover Plato’s experience in which the ultimate object of nostalgia, transformed by the new Christian experience, continues to be nameless. Cabasilas says: “When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desire and are able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound” (cf. The Life in Christ, the Second Book, 15).

The beautiful wounds, but this is exactly how it summons man to his final destiny. What Plato said, and, more than 1,500 years later, Cabasilas, has nothing to do with superficial aestheticism and irrationalism or with the flight from clarity and the importance of reason. The beautiful is knowledge certainly, but, in a superior form, since it arouses man to the real greatness of the truth. Here Cabasilas has remained entirely Greek, since he puts knowledge first when he says, “In fact it is knowing that causes love and gives birth to it…. Since this knowledge is sometimes very ample and complete and at other times imperfect, it follows that the love potion has the same effect” (cf. ibid.).

He is not content to leave this assertion in general terms. In his characteristically rigorous thought, he distinguishes between two kinds of knowledge: knowledge through instruction which remains, so to speak, “second hand” and does not imply any direct contact with reality itself. The second type of knowledge, on the other hand, is knowledge through personal experience, through a direct relationship with the reality. “Therefore we do not love it to the extent that it is a worthy object of love, and since we have not perceived the very form itself we do not experience its proper effect”.

True knowledge is being struck by the arrow of Beauty that wounds man, moved by reality, “how it is Christ himself who is present and in an ineffable way disposes and forms the souls of men” (cf. ibid.).

Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.

Starting with this concept, Hans Urs von Balthasar built his Opus magnum of Theological Aesthetics. Many of its details have passed into theological work, while his fundamental approach, in truth the essential element of the whole work, has not been so readily accepted. Of course, this is not just, or principally, a theological problem, but a problem of pastoral life, that has to foster the human person’s encounter with the beauty of faith. All too often arguments fall on deaf ears because in our world too many contradictory arguments compete with one another, so much so that we are spontaneously reminded of the medieval theologians’ description of reason, that it “has a wax nose’: in other words, it can be pointed in any direction, if one is clever enough. Everything makes sense, is so convincing, whom should we trust?

The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgement and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true”. The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared.

In a rich way Pavel Evdokimov has brought to light the interior pathway that an icon establishes. An icon does not simply reproduce what can be perceived by the senses, but rather it presupposes, as he says, “a fasting of sight”. Inner perception must free itself from the impression of the merely sensible, and in prayer and ascetical effort acquire a new and deeper capacity to see, to perform the passage from what is merely external to the profundity of reality, in such a way that the artist can see what the senses as such do not see, and what actually appears in what can be perceived: the splendour of the glory of God, the “glory of God shining on the face of Christ “(II Cor 4,6).

To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.

Now however, we still have to respond to an objection. We have already rejected the assumption which claims that what has just been said is a flight into the irrational, into mere aestheticism.

Rather, it is the opposite that is true: this is the very way in which reason is freed from dullness and made ready to act.

Today another objection has even greater weight: the message of beauty is thrown into complete doubt by the power of falsehood, seduction, violence and evil. Can the beautiful be genuine, or, in the end, is it only an illusion? Isn’t reality perhaps basically evil? The fear that in the end it is not the arrow of the beautiful that leads us to the truth, but that falsehood, all that is ugly and vulgar, may constitute the true “reality” has at all times caused people anguish. At present this has been expressed in the assertion that after Auschwitz it was no longer possible to write poetry; after Auschwitz it is no longer possible to speak of a God who is good. People wondered: where was God when the gas chambers were operating? This objection, which seemed reasonable enough before Auschwitz when one realized all the atrocities of history, shows that in any case a purely harmonious concept of beauty is not enough. It cannot stand up to the confrontation with the gravity of the questioning about God, truth and beauty. Apollo, who for Plato’s Socrates was “the God” and the guarantor of unruffled beauty as “the truly divine” is absolutely no longer sufficient.

In this way, we return to the “two trumpets” of the Bible with which we started, to the paradox of being able to say of Christ: “You are the fairest of the children of men”, and: “He had no beauty, no majesty to draw our eyes, no grace to make us delight in him”. In the Passion of Christ the Greek aesthetic that deserves admiration for its perceived contact with the Divine but which remained inexpressible for it, in Christ’s passion is not removed but overcome. The experience of the beautiful has received new depth and new realism. The One who is the Beauty itself let himself be slapped in the face, spat upon, crowned with thorns; the Shroud of Turin can help us imagine this in a realistic way. However, in his Face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love that goes “to the very end“; for this reason it is revealed as greater than falsehood and violence. Whoever has perceived this beauty knows that truth, and not falsehood, is the real aspiration of the world. It is not the false that is “true”, but indeed, the Truth. It is, as it were, a new trick of what is false to present itself as “truth” and to say to us: over and above me there is basically nothing, stop seeking or even loving the truth; in doing so you are on the wrong track. The icon of the crucified Christ sets us free from this deception that is so widespread today. However it imposes a condition: that we let ourselves be wounded by him, and that we believe in the Love who can risk setting aside his external beauty to proclaim, in this way, the truth of the beautiful.

Falsehood however has another strategem. A beauty that is deceptive and false, a dazzling beauty that does not bring human beings out of themselves to open them to the ecstasy of rising to the heights, but indeed locks them entirely into themselves. Such beauty does not reawaken a longing for the Ineffable, readiness for sacrifice, the abandonment of self, but instead stirs up the desire, the will for power, possession and pleasure. It is that type of experience of beauty of which Genesis speaks in the account of the Original Sin. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was “beautiful” to eat and was “delightful to the eyes”. The beautiful, as she experienced it, aroused in her a desire for possession, making her, as it were, turn in upon herself. Who would not recognize, for example, in advertising, the images made with supreme skill that are created to tempt the human being irresistibly, to make him want to grab everything and seek the passing satisfaction rather than be open to others.

So it is that Christian art today is caught between two fires (as perhaps it always has been): it must oppose the cult of the ugly, which says that everything beautiful is a deception and only the representation of what is crude, low and vulgar is the truth, the true illumination of knowledge. Or it has to counter the deceptive beauty that makes the human being seem diminished instead of making him great, and for this reason is false.

Is there anyone who does not know Dostoyevsky’s often quoted sentence: “The Beautiful will save us”? However, people usually forget that Dostoyevsky is referring here to the redeeming Beauty of Christ. We must learn to see Him. If we know Him, not only in words, but if we are struck by the arrow of his paradoxical beauty, then we will truly know him, and know him not only because we have heard others speak about him. Then we will have found the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems. Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.

 

Marcel Proust: Death of Cathedrals – A Consequence of Briand Bill on Separation of Church and State

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Marcel Proust, 1895

Suppose for a moment that Catholicism had been dead for centuries, that the traditions of its worship had been lost. Only the unspeaking and forlorn cathedrals remain; they have become unintelligible yet remain admirable.

Then suppose that one day scholars manage, on the basis of documentary evidence, to reconstitute the ceremonies that used to be celebrated in them, for which men had built them, which were their proper meaning and life, and without which they were now no more than a dead letter; and suppose that for one hour artists, beguiled by the dream of briefly giving back life to those great  and now silent vessels, wished to restore the mysterious drama that once took place there amid chants and scents—in a word, that they were undertaking to do what the Félibres have done for ancient tragedies in the theatre of Orange.

[1st-century ancient Roman theatre of Orange had been restored in the 19th century under the aegis of the Félibres, a Provençal cultural association. A yearly summer theatre festival (the “Chorégies”) started there in 1902, two years before this article.]

Is there any government with the slightest concern for France’s artistic past that would not liberally subsidize so magnificent an undertaking? Do you not think that it would do what it did in the case of  Roman ruins for these cathedrals, which are probably the highest, and unquestionably the most original expression of French genius? After all, one may well prefer the literature of other peoples to ours, prefer their music to ours, their painting and sculpture to ours, but it is in France that Gothic architecture created its first and most perfect masterpieces.  All other countries have done is to imitate our religious architecture without ever matching it.

 

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Amiens Cathedral

 

And so, to return to my hypothesis, here come scholars who have been able to rediscover the cathedrals’ lost meaning. Sculptures and stained-glass windows recover their significance, a mysterious odor once again wafts in the temple, a sacred drama is performed, and the cathedral starts to sing once more.  When the government underwrites this resurrection, it is more in the right than when it underwrites the performances in the theaters of Orange, of the Opéra-Comique, and of the Opéra, for Catholic ceremonies have an historical, social, artistic, and musical interest whose beauty alone surpasses all that any artist has ever dreamed, and which Wagner alone was ever able to come close to, in Parsifal—and that by imitation.

Caravans of swells make their way to the holy city (whether it is Amiens, Chartres, Bourges, Laon, Rheims, Rouen, Paris, or whatever town you please, we have so many sublime cathedrals!), and once a year they experience the feeling they once sought in Bayreuth and in Orange: enjoying a work of art in the very setting that had been built for it. Alas, here as in Orange, they can only ever be curious dilettantes; try as they might, the soul of times past does not dwell within them. The artists who have come to perform the chants, the actors who play the role of priests may be learned, they may have imbued themselves with the spirit of the texts, and the Secretary of Education will lavish medals and compliments upon them. Yet, in spite of it all, one cannot help but think “Alas! How much more beautiful these feasts must have been when priests celebrated the liturgy not in order to give some idea of these ceremonies to an educated audience, but because they set the same faith in their efficacy as did the artists who sculpted the Last Judgment in the west porch tympanum or who painted the stained-glass lives of the saints in the apse. How much more deeply and truly expressive the entire work must have been when a whole people responded to the priest’s voice and fell to its knees as the bell rang at the elevation, not as cold and stylized extras in historical reconstructions, but because they too, like the priest, like the sculptor, believed. But alas, such things are as far from us as the pious enthusiasm of the Greeks at their theater performances, and our ‘reconstitutions’ cannot give a faithful idea of them.”

 

Chartres Cathedral

 

That is what one would say if the Catholic religion no longer existed and if scholars had been able to rediscover its rites, if artists had tried to bring them back for us. But the point is that it still does exist and has not changed, as it were, since the great century when the cathedrals were built. For us to imagine what a living and sublimely functioning thirteenth-century cathedral was like, we need not do with it as we do with the theater of Orange and turn it into a venue for exact yet frozen reconstitutions and retrospectives. All we need to do is to go into it at any hour of the day when a liturgical office is being celebrated. Here mimicry, psalmody, and chant are not entrusted to artists without “conviction.” It is the ministers of worship themselves who celebrate, not with an aesthetic outlook, but by faith—and thus all the more aesthetically. One could not hope for livelier and more sincere extras, since it is the faithful  that take the trouble of unwittingly  playing their role for us. One may say that thanks to the persistence of the same rites in the Catholic Church and also of Catholic belief in French hearts, cathedrals are not only the most beautiful monuments of our art, but also the only ones that still live their life fully and have remained true to the purpose for which they were built.

Now because of the French government’s break with Rome debates on Mr. Briand’s bill and its probable passing are imminent. Its provisions indicate that after five years churches may, and often will, be shut down; not only will the government no longer underwrite the celebration of ritual ceremonies in the churches, but will also be enabled to transform them into whatever it wishes: museums; conference centers, or casinos. As for you, Monsieur André Hallays! You go about repeating that works of art lose life as soon as they no longer serve the ends for which they were created, that furniture becomes so many knick-knacks and that a palace turned museum grows icy, can no longer speak to our heart, and ends up dying—I hope that you will stop for just one moment condemning the variously  clumsy restorations that daily threaten the towns of France that you have taken into your care, and that you will rise to your feet, speak up, even harass Monsieur Chaumié if you have to, indict Monsieur de Monzie if need be, join Monsieur John Labusquière, and call a meeting of the Commission for Historical Monuments. Your clever zeal has often been effective; surely you will not let all the churches of France die in one fell swoop.

 

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Bourges Cathedral

 

Today there is not one socialist endowed with taste who doesn’t deplore the mutilations the Revolution visited upon our cathedrals: so many shattered statues and stained-glass windows! Well: better to ransack a church than to decommission it. As mutilated as a church may be, so long as the Mass is celebrated there, it retains at least some life. Once a church is decommissioned it dies, and though as an historical monument it may be protected from scandalous uses, it is no more than a museum. One may say to churches what Jesus said to His disciples: “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you” (Jn 6:54). These somewhat mysterious yet profound words become, with this new usage, an aesthetic and architectural axiom. When the sacrifice of Christ’s flesh and blood, the sacrifice of the Mass, is no longer celebrated in our churches, they will have no life left in them. Catholic liturgy and the architecture and sculpture of our cathedrals form a whole, for they stem from the same symbolism. It is a matter of common knowledge that in the cathedrals there is no sculpture, however secondary it may seem, that does not have its own symbolic value. If the statue of Christ at the Western entrance of the cathedral of Amiens rests on a pedestal of roses, lilies, and vines, it is because Christ said: “I am the rose of Saron”;  “I am the lily of the valley”;  “I am the true vine”.

If the asp and the basilisk, the lion and the dragon and sculpted beneath His feet it is because of the verse in Ps 90: Inculcabis super aspidem et leonem. To his left, in a small relief, a man is represented dropping his sword at the sight of an animal while a bird continues to sing beside him. This is because “the coward hasn’t the courage of a thrush”: indeed the mission of this bas-relief is to symbolize cowardice, as opposed to courage, because it is set under the statue that is always (at least in earliest times) to the right of the statue of Christ, that is, under the statue of St. Peter, the Apostle of courage.

 

Laon Cathedral

 

And so it goes for the thousands of statues that adorn the cathedral.

Now the ceremonies involved in worship participate in the same symbolism. In an admirable book to which I should like eventually to pay a full tribute, Emile Male analyzes the first part of the feast of Holy Saturday according to William Durandus, Rational of the Divine Offices.

“Morning starts with all the lights being put out to indicate that the Old Law, which used to light up the world, is now abrogated.

Then the celebrant blesses the new fire, a figure of the New Law. He brings it out of the flint, to recall that Jesus Christ is, as Saint Paul says, the keystone of the world. At this point the bishop and the deacon make their way to the choir and stop before the Paschal candle.

William Durandus tells us that this candle is a threefold symbol. When it is unlit it symbolizes the dark pillar that guided the Hebrews by day, the Old Law, and the body of Jesus Christ. Once lit it signifies the pillar of light that Israel could see by night, the New Law, and the glorious body of the Risen Christ. The deacon alludes to this triple symbolism when he recites the Exultet before the candle.

 

Facade, looking northeast

Reims Cathedral

 

But it is especially the resemblance between the candle and the Body of Jesus Christ that he emphasizes. He recalls that the spotless wax was produced by the bee, a creature both chaste and fruitful, like the Virgin who gave birth to the Saviour. To bring out to the sense of sight the likeness of the wax to the divine body, he presses five grains of incense into the candle; these recall both the five wounds of Jesus Christ and the spices that the Holy Women bought to embalm him. Lastly he lights the candle with the new fire and all lamps throughout the church are lit to represent the new Law in the world.

Someone will say: ‘But all this is only an exceptional feast.’ Here is the interpretation of a daily ceremony: the Mass. You will see that it is no less symbolic.

“The deep and sorrowful chant of the Introit opens the ceremony: it proclaims the expectation of the patriarchs and prophets. The clergy are in choir, the choir of the saints of the old Law who yearn for the coming of the Messias and do not see Him. Then the bishop enters and appears as the living image of Jesus Christ. His arrival symbolizes the Advent of the Lord that the nations await. On great feast days, seven torches are born before him to recall that, as the prophet says, the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost rest upon the head of the Son of God. He processes under a triumphant canopy whose four bearers may be likened to the four Evangelists. Two acolytes walk to this right and left and represent Moses and Elias, who appeared at Mount Tabor on either side of Christ. They teach that Jesus held the authority of the Law and of the Prophets.

 

Notre-Dame Cathedral

 

The bishop sits on this throne and remains silent. He seems to take no part in the first part of the ceremony. His behavior contains a teaching: his silence recalls that the first years of the life of Christ were unknown and recollected. Meanwhile the subdeacon reaches the pulpit and reads the Epistle aloud towards the right. Here we catch a glimpse of the first act in the drama of our Redemption.

This reading of the Epistle is the preaching of Saint John the Baptist in the desert. He speaks before the Saviour has begun to make Himself heard, but he speaks only to the Jews. For this reason, the subdeacon, an image of the Precursor, turns to the North, the direction of the Old Law. Once the lesson is read, he bows before the bishop, just as the Precursor bowed before Jesus Christ.

The chanting of the Gradual follows the reading of the Epistle. It, too, refers to the mission of Saint John the Baptist: it symbolizes the exhortation to penance he directed towards the Jews on the eve of the new era.

At last the celebrant reads the Gospel. This is a solemn moment, for this is where the Messias’s active life begins: for the first time, His voice is heard in the world. The reading of the Gospel is the very figure of his preaching.

The creed follows the Gospel, just as the faith follows the proclamation of the truth. The twelve articles in the creed refer to the call of the Apostles.

“The very clothing the priest wears to the altar” and the objects used in worship amount to so many symbols, M. Male adds. “The chasuble, worn on top of the other garments, is charity, which is above all the commandments of the Law and is itself the supreme law. The stole, which the priest puts over his neck, is the  light yoke of the Lord, and since it is written that every Christian must cherish this yoke, the priest kisses this yoke when he puts it on or takes it off. The bishop’s two-pointed miter symbolizes the knowledge he must have of each of the Testaments; two ribbons are attached to it to recall that Holy Scripture is to be interpreted both literally and spiritually. The bell is the voice of the preachers and the timber from which it hangs is a figure of the Cross. Its rope, woven from three twisted threads, points to the threefold understanding of scripture, which must be interpreted according to the threefold sense, i.e., historically, allegorically, and morally. When one takes the rope in hand to set the bell ringing, one symbolically expresses  the fundamental truth that the knowledge of Scripture must lead to acts.”

 

Rouen Cathedral

 

And in this way everything down to the least of the priest’s gestures, down the stole he wears, comes together to symbolize Him with the deep sentiment that gives life to the whole cathedral and which is, as M. Male puts it so well, the genius of the Middle Ages itself.

Never has a sight comparable to such a giant mirror of knowledge, of the soul, and of history as this been presented to man’s eyes and understanding.  The same symbolism clutters even the music heard in the immense vessel. Its seven Gregorian tones are the figure of the seven theological virtues and the seven ages of the world. One may well say that a production of Wagner at Bayreuth does not amount to much next to the celebration of High Mass at the Chartres cathedral.

Doubtless only those who have studied the religious art of the Middle Ages are able to analyze the beauty of such a spectacle fully. That alone would suffice for the State to have to see to its preservation. This is precisely how the State underwrites the lectures at the Collège de France, even though they are only intended for a small number of people and, if compared to the total resurrection of a Solemn Mass in a Cathedral, they seem like cold dissections; compared to the performance of such symphonies, the productions of our equally subsidized theaters answer to quite paltry literary demands. But let us hasten to add that the people who can read medieval symbolism fluently are not the only ones for whom the living cathedral, that is to say the sculpted, painted, singing cathedral is the greatest of spectacles, as one can feel music without knowing harmony.  I am well aware that Ruskin, when he was demonstrating what spiritual reasons explain the arrangement of chapels in cathedral apses, declared: “Never will you be able to delight in architectural forms unless you are in sympathy with the thinking from which they arose.” Still, we all know the ignorant man, the simple dreamer, who walks into a cathedral without any effort at understanding yet is overwhelmed by his emotions and receives an impression which, though perhaps less precise, is certainly just as strong. As a literary witness to this state of mind, admittedly quite different to that of the learned person of whom we were speaking a moment ago and who walks in a cathedral “as in a forest of symbols who gaze on him with familiar glances,” yet which allows for a vague but powerful emotion in a cathedral during the liturgy, I shall quote Renan’s beautiful text The Double Prayer:

 

Beauvais Cathedral Exterior 1, Picardy, France - Diliff.jpg

Beauvais Cathedral

 

“One of the most beautiful religious spectacles one can still contemplate today (and which one may soon no longer be able to contemplate, if the House of Representatives passes the Briand bill) is that which the ancient cathedral of Quimper presents at dusk. Once darkness has filled the vast building’s side aisles, the faithful of both sexes gather in the nave and sing evensong in the Breton language with a simple and moving rhythm.  The cathedral is lit only by two or three lamps. In the nave, the men are on one side, standing; on the other side, the kneeling women form a motionless sea of white headdresses. The two halves sing in alternation, and the phrase that one of the choirs begins is finished by the other. What they sing is quite beautiful.  As I heard it, I felt that with a few changes it might be fitted to every state of humanity. Above all it made me dream of a prayer which, with a few variations, might suit men and women equally.”

There are many gradations between between this reverie, which is not without its charm, and the religious art “connoisseur’s” more conscious joys. Let us bear and keep in mind the case of Gustave Flaubert, who studied—albeit with a view to interpreting it within a modern outlook—one of the most beautiful parts of the Catholic liturgy:

“The priest dipped his thumb in the holy oil and began to anoint his eyes first . . .  then his nostrils, so fond of warm breezes and of the scents of love, his hands that had found their delight in sweet caresses . . . lastly his feet, which had been so swift in running to satisfy his desires, and which now would walk no more.”

 

Tours Cathedral Saint-Gatian.jpg

Tours Cathedral

 

There is therefore more than one way of dreaming before this artistic realization—the most complete ever, since all of the arts collaborated in it—of the greatest dream to which humanity ever rose; this mansion is grand enough for us all to find our place in. The cathedral, which shelters so many saints, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, kings, confessors, and martyrs that whole generations huddle in supplication and anxiety all the way to the porch entrances and, trembling, raise the edifice as a long groan under heaven while the angels smilingly lean over from the top of the galleries which, in the evening’s blue and rose incense and the morning’s blinding gold do seem to be “heaven’s balconies”—the cathedral, in its vastness, can grant asylum both to the man of letters and to the man of faith, to the vague dreamer as well as to the archeologist. All that matters is that it remain alive and that France should not find herself transformed overnight into a dried-up shore on which giant chiseled shells seem marooned, emptied of the life that once lived in them and no longer able even to give to an ear leaning in on them a distant rumor from long ago, mere museum pieces and icy museums themselves. “It is not too late,” André Hallays wrote some years ago, “to bring up a gruesome idea which, they say, was hatched in the brains of a few citizens of Vézelay. They wanted the church of Vézelay to be decommissioned. Such is the silliness that anticlericalism inspires. Decommissioning that basilica amounts to taking away what little soul it has left. Once the little lamp that shines deep in the sanctuary has been snuffed out, Vézelay will become no more than an archeological curiosity. The tomb-like odor of museums is all that will give breath in it.” Things keep their beauty and their life only by continuously carrying out the task for which they were intended, even should they slowly die at it. Does anyone believe that, in museums of comparative sculpture, the plaster casts of the famous sculpted wooden choir stalls of the Cathedral of Amiens  can give an idea of the stalls themselves in their august yet still functional antiquity? Whereas a museum guard keeps us from getting too close to their plaster casts, the pricelessly precious stalls, which are so old, so illustrious, and so beautiful, continue to carry out their humble task in the cathedral of Amiens—which they have been doing for centuries to the great satisfaction of the citizens of Amiens—just as those artists who, while having become famous, yet still keep up a small job or give lessons. This task consists in bearing bodies even before they instruct souls, and that is what, folded down and showing their upper side, they humbly do during the offices. More than this: these stalls’ perpetually worn wood has slowly acquired, or rather let seep through, that dark purple that is so to speak its heart and which the eye that has once fallen prey to its charm prefers to everything else, to the point of being unable even to look at the colors of the paintings which, after this, seem rough and plain. Then one experiences something like ebriety as one savors, in the wood’s ever more blazing ardor, what is so to speak the tree’s sap overflowing in time. The naïf figures sculpted in it receive something like a twofold nature from the material in which they live. And generations have variously polished all of these Amiens-born fruits, flowers, leaves, and vegetation that the Amiens sculptor sculpted in Amiens wood, thus bringing out those wonderful contrasting tones in which the differently colored leaf stands out from the twig; this brings to mind the noble accents that Mr. Gallé has been able to draw out of the oak’s harmonious heart.

 

Strasbourg Cathedral Exterior - Diliff.jpg

Strasbourg Cathedral

 

The cathedral, if Mr. Briand’s bill were passed, would not find itself closed and unable to provide the Mass and prayers just for the canons who perform the services in those stalls whose armrests, misericords, and banister tell of the Old and New Testaments, nor only for the people filling up the immense nave. We were just saying that nearly every image in a cathedral is a symbol. Yet some are not. Such are the painted or sculpted pictures of those who, having contributed their pennies to the decoration of the cathedral, wished to keep a place in it forever, so that they might silently follow the services and noiselessly participate in prayer from a niche’s balustrade or the recess of a stained glass window, in saecula saeculorum. we know that since the oxen of Laon had christianly drawn the construction materials for the cathedral up the hill from which it rises, the architect rewarded them by setting up their statues at the feet of the towers. You can see them to this day as, in the din of the bells and the pooling sunlight, they raise their horned heads above the colossal holy arch towards the horizon of the French plains—their “inner dream.” That was the best that could be done for beasts: for men, better was granted.

They went into the church.  There they took their place, which would be theirs after death and from which, just as during their lifetime, they could go on following the divine sacrifice. In some cases, leaning out of their marble tomb, they turn their heads slightly to the  Gospel or to the Epistle side and are able to glimpse and feel around them, as they can in Brou, the tight and tireless interlacing of crest flowers and initials;  sometimes, as in Dijon, they keep even in their tombs the bright colors of life. In other cases,  from the recess of a stained glass window,  in their crimson, ultramarine, or azure cloaks that catch the sun and blaze up with it, they fill its transparent rays with color and suddenly let them loose, multicolored and aimlessly wandering in the nave, which they tinge with their wild and lazy splendor, with their palpable unreality. Thus they remain donors, who, for this very reason, have deserved perpetual prayers.  And all of them want the Holy Ghost, when He will come down from the Church, really to recognize his own. It is not just the queen and the princes who wear their insignia, their crown, or their collar of the Golden fleece: money changers are portrayed proving the title of coins; furriers sell their furs (see Male for reproductions of those windows); butchers slaughter cows; knights wear their coat of arms; sculptors cut capitals. Oh! all of you in your stained glass windows in Chartres, in Tours, in Bourges, in Sens, in Auxerre, in Troyes, in Clermont-Ferrand, in Toulouse, ye coopers, furriers, grocers, pilgrims, laborers, armorers, weavers, stonemasons, butchers, basket makers, cobblers, money changers, o ye, great silent democracy, ye faithful obstinately wanting to hear the office, who are not dematerialized but more beautiful than in your living days now in the glory of heaven and blood that is your precious glass: no longer will you hear the Mass you had guaranteed for yourselves by donating the best part of your pennies to building this church. As the profound saying goes, the dead no longer govern the living. And the forgetful living stop fulfilling the wishes of the dead.

 

Cathedrale metz 2003.jpg

Metz Cathedral

 

But let the ruby coopers and the rose and silver basket makers inscribe the backdrop of their stained glass with the “silent protest” that Mr. Jaurès could so eloquently give us and which we beg him to bring to the ears of the representatives. Leaving aside that innumerable and silent people, the ancestors of the electors for whom the House has such little concern, let us at last summarize:

First: safeguarding the most beautiful works of French architecture and sculpture, which will die on the day that they no longer serve the worship for which they were born, which is their function just as they are its organs, which explains them because it is their soul, makes it the government’s duty to demand that worship be offered in the cathedrals in perpetuity, while the Briand bill authorizes it to turn the cathedrals into whatever museums or conference halls (in the best of cases) it pleases after a few years, and even if the government does not undertake to do so, it authorizes the clergy (and, since it will no longer be subsidized, compels it) no longer to celebrate the offices in them if it finds the rent too high.

Second: the preservation of the greatest historic yet living artistic production imaginable, for the reconstruction of which, if it did not already exist, no one would shrink from spending millions, namely the cathedral Mass, makes it the government’s duty to subsidize the Catholic Church for the upkeep of a worship that is far more relevant to the conservation of the noblest French art (to continue our strictly worldly perspective) than the conservatories, theaters, concert-halls, ancient tragedy reconstitutions at the theater of Orange, etc. etc., all of which enterprises have doubtful artistic aims  and which keep up many weak works (how do Le JourL’Aventurière, or Le Gendre de M. Poirier stand up to the choir of Beauvais or the statues of Rheims?), whereas the masterpiece that is the medieval cathedral, with its thousands of painted or sculpted figures, its chants, its services, is the noblest of all the works to which the genius of France has ever risen.

 

Cathédrale de Toul-Façade.JPG

Toul Cathedral

 

And so far in this article we have mentioned only the cathedrals, in order to present the consequences of the Briand bill in their most striking form, the form most apt to shock the reader’s mind.  But obviously this distinction between cathedral churches and others is quite artificial, since it sufficed, on a feast day, to erect the bishop’s cathedra in a church to turn it into a cathedral for a day. What I have said about the cathedrals applies to all the beautiful churches of France, and it is a matter of common knowledge that there are thousands of them. On the French road “so beautiful” among sainfoin fields and apple orchards lining up on either side to let it through, with nearly every step you will see a steeple rising against stormy or peaceful horizons. On mixed days of rain and sun, it is set across a rainbow which, as a mystical halo reflected in the nearby heaven within the half-open church, juxtaposes its rich and distinct stained-glass colors on the sky. With nearly every step you see a steeple rising above the earth-gazing houses as an ideal, soaring amid the bell’s voices with which, if you come near, the birds’ song mingles. Well: you may often positively state that the church above which it rises contains beautiful and grave sculpted and painted thoughts, as well as other thoughts which, since they are not called to the same distinct life, have remained more vague, in a state of beautiful architectural lines that are more obscure yet also more powerful, as well as able to carry our imagination away in their upwards flight or to enclose it entirely within the curve of their pitch. There, from a Romanesque balcony’s charming bannisters or the mysterious threshold of a half-open Gothic porch that unites the sun, sleeping in the shade of the grand trees all around, to the church’s illumined obscurity within, we must go on to see the procession coming out of the multicolored shade falling from the stone trees of the nave and follow, as if in the countryside among the squat pillars and their flowery and fruited capitals, those paths regarding which one may say, as the prophet said of the Lord: “All of his paths are peace.” Finally, we have only mentioned an artistic interest in all of this. This is not to say that the Briand bill does not threaten other interests, or that we are indifferent to them. This, however, is the point of view we wanted to take. The clergy would be mistaken if it refused support from artists. For when one sees how many representatives, once they have finished passing anticlerical laws, go off on a tour of the cathedrals of England, of France, or of Italy, bring back an old chasuble for their wife to turn into a coat or a door-curtain, draw up secularization plans in offices where hangs a photographed version of the Entombment, haggle over an altar-piece volet with an antique dealer, go out into the countryside to fetch church stall fragments to serve as umbrella stands in their parlors, and, on Good Friday, “religiously”, as they say,  listen  to the Missa Papae Marcelli at the “Schola Cantorum” if not at Sainte-Geneviève, one may think that once we persuade all persons of good taste of the government’s duty to subsidize worship, we shall have found allies, and raised against the Briand bill, any number of representatives, even anticlerical ones.

Le Figaro, August 16, 1904

Translated by Prof. John Pepino for Rorate