Science in Christian Perspective


Toward An Understanding of the 
f the West

Associate Professor of Sociology
Eastern Mennonite College
Harrisonburg, Virginia

From: JASA 7 (March 1955): 14-24.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This paper was presented at the Ninth Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, Harrisonburg, Virginia, August 24-27, 1954. Almost simultaneously it appeared in the Pamphlet Series entitled "Concern," whose publishers have kindly granted. permission to reprint the paper in somewhat revised form.

The European slant of the paper is explained by the fact that the author was working and studying in Europe at the time the paper was prepared.

The western world was ushered into the present century by the optimistic philosophy of the evolutionary progress of the processes of history. Science and technology had overcome so many of the incongruities of human existence that it seemed to be only a matter of time until the paradise of which men in all ages had dreamed would become reality on earth. What philosophers proclaimed seemed confirmed on every hand by the solid achievements of the human genius. The ascent from the lower to the higher which in the philosophy of medieval scholasticism had required at every transitional stage a transcendent creative intervention was now seemingly being achieved by the pulsations of immanent energy.

Today, at mid-century, that same western world grovels uneasily beneath the ruins of its utopia, trembling with fear or even worse things to come. In Europe this fear seems to have produced among many a- general apathy toward life and the future, while in America one sees symptoms of panic and malaise. The difference in reaction, however, is only that Europe has already progressed further along the road of disillusionment. For the confidence of Europe was shaken already by World War I-indeed she had premonitions before that time of terrible things to come-while only with World War II and the Korean conflict did the terrible truth come home to America. Furthermore, Europe has experienced the catastrophe in her own flesh and blood while America knows it only theoretically in terms of the terror she herself produced at Dresden and Hiroshima. Some European observers detected the first tremors of fear in America between 1945 and 1950 when her conscience showed the first signs of uneasiness because of the bomb she had unleashed and the realization dawned that the achievement of world order lay beyond her powers, a realization that the stalemate of Korea, America's first un-won war, can only deepen.

The spirit of despair found its European prophet already during the interwar period in Oswald Spengler, the despondent German philosopher who published his dirge for western civilization under the title, Der Untergang des Abendlandes-The Decline of the West. His theories gave expression to the despondent feelings of many intellectuals who believed that the culture (civilization) of the West had run its course. World War II has increased the speculation as to the significance of the crisis, particularly in Germany, who out of her own. experience knows perhaps better than any other western nation its dimensions. In widely different circles today's conditions have come to be regarded as the end stage of secularization and dechristianization. By contrast the Middle Ages now appear as the age of faith. People yearn for the security of cultural unity and harmony which medieval times offered, as can be seen in the resurgence of the Catholic Church in many areas and in the pilgrimage into her fold of certain people, particularly European poets and prose writers. Parallel to this is the swing toward orthodox, the rise of a strong liturgical trend, and the self-contradictory reawakening of confessional consciousness in many quarters within the Protestant world. Indeed one can note striking similarities to the restorative and romantic period which followed the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

The interpretation of this crisis in western civilization varies greatly according to the viewpoint of the observer. Catholicism as the exponent of cultural unity under the tutelage of the church naturally regards it as the consequence and the final stage of man's revolt against God, against His church, and against Christ's vicar on earth. Where they are not engulfed in the humanist stream the reaction of the official" Protestant bodies often does not differ greatly from the Catholic, since they too pose as the spiritual guardians of society. The secular humanist* viewpoint arrives at opposite conclusions, for it denies that the Middle Ages were ever as thoroughly Christian as the proponents of Christian culture would have it, and would at any rate never assign religion as important a role in the affairs of men as it is accorded by the religious

*The term, "humanist' is used in this paper to refer broadly to the various modern streams of secular thought, beginning with the Renassance These streams of thought manifest in varying degrees the following characteristics: they repudiate special revelation and/or subordinate its authority to reason and empiricism, and seek to explain man and the universe in terms of immanent energy and processes. Thus in the name of "immanence" they stand in opposition to transcendental or supernaturally revealed truth and are actually "man-centered" or "humanistic."

traditions themselves. A third viewpoint is that of . evangelical" Christians, who find themselves divided, however, between the approach of the Catholics and that of the humanists. Some would agree with the former that-thc process of secularization is responsible for the crisis, but would view the whole in the perspective of an intense eschatological schematization, while others would agree strongly enough with the humanists that medieval society never had been thoroughly Christianized and consequently would feel that today's crisis in a stricter sense is not immediately the secularization of world culture.

It is a common characteristic of all schools of thought, however, to hold that evil forces threaten to reduce to ashes at a single blow the accumulated cultural heritage of painfully progressing centuries " All seem to agree that an old epoch in human history has passed but that a stable foundation for a new one has not yet been laid. Nevertheless the majority of men cling tenaciously to the remnants of the old order, determined to preserve its privileges and unable to face the sacrificial demands of a new unformed era. Indeed no one, whatever his persuasion, can contemplate with -complacency the outbreak of new wars or revolutions. Alone the communist votaries of revolution relish the thought of catastrophe, and in western countries few of them realize what they worship.


It is the purpose of this paper to examine briefly this belief that the West is in a state of decline and to suggest elements essential to a Christian attitude toward the problem. To analyze western history and civilization in this light is a stupendous task, as the widely differing conclusions of men who have spent their lifetime studying it amply testify. I make no pretense of having begun to master the mass of material that needs to be studied, to say nothing of the inscrutability of the ways of God in history. Indeed, preoccupation with questions as these whose larger dimensions lie beyond human comprehension can lead to futile speculation which will deflect the Christian from his main responsibility to live and proclaim the Gospel within history, content to leave the larger meanings to God. It can tempt men to seek for human remedies and to rely on man-made devices, forgetting that human destiny ultimately lies in the hand of God. Furthermore, all historical writing and all cultural analysis is of necessity selective, interpretative, and insofar subjective, so that salient facts may completely escape notice. Finally, one must note the errors which historical consciousness has brought into western thought and even into the church, such as philosophies of history which have defied the process of history itself. But bearing in mind all these and other dangers, we cannot escape the problems which our time thrusts upon us. Without understanding, in some fashion at least, the age in which we live we cannot hope either to survive as vital Christian churches nor yet to fulfill the task of Christian witnessing. This paper, however, is not based on any exhaustive or systematic study; it simply constitutes reflections made along the way, and is offered as a contribution to a discussion which I hope will be continuous and will help to give us the orientation which we need to fulfill the responsibilities of our own generation.

The term, "decline of the West" presupposes a previous level of attainment now in the process of disintegration. The "West" which is here meant is European civilization primarily (Europeans would here prefer the term "culture") but including also its American extension, which civilization is the creation of medieval Catholicism and of Fifteenth-to Twentieth century humanism. While now one, now the other, is given the major credit for the total structure, depending on the viewpoint of the observer, in either case it seems clear that not only the civilization itself but also the presuppositions upon which it rested are threatened. An examination of these 'two great cultural forces will therefore be necessary.

a. Medieval society as the "corpus christianum." Historians have traditionally divided western history into three periods: ancient, medieval, and modern. While the roots of Europe go deep into the ancient past, and consequently have fed on various traditions, particularly the Greek and the Latin, Europe as we know it today is seen as the creation of medieval times. After the ancient empires one after the other were broken up, the Romans emerged shortly before the birth of Christ to achieve the imperial political unity of the Mediterranean world. Local religious and cultures had failed and a great process of eclecticism and synthesization had set in. The failure of the Greek gods to protect the great civilization of Greece had discredited them and led to a decline in the importance of religion as a factor in the affairs of men. Thus Christ brought His message to the world at a time when an optimum of transnational stability had been leached, while the resistance of competing religions was remarkably low.

In the mind of Christian historians, this coincidence of the coming of Christ with a maximum of political stability and a minimum of cultural resistance constitutes in part "the fullness of the time" of which the prophets predicting the coming of Christ had spoken. Nevertheless the tide was soon to turn inasmuch as the religious indifference lasted only several centuries, for not only did the Roman emperors now seek to unify the empire by means of an imperial religion such as Mithraism, but the third and fourth centuries of our era were marked by what Professor Marrou of Paris has called a new religiosity. New credibility was attached to the intervention of the gods in the affairs of men, after several centuries marked by skepticism. But now, once Christianity had gained a real entree among the Mediterranean peoples, demanding as it did the ultimate loyalty of its adherents, a conflict with the absolute demands of the empire and its gods was inevitable. This led to persecutions till Constantine with political astuteness recognized in Christianity the greatest spiritual force in his empire and reversing the policy of suppression, enlisted its support in the imperial achievement.

Constantine is usually regarded as a turning point ,in the history of the church and of the West, but the actual compromise of which he is the symbol was a process that far superseded his span of life, a process in which the church and the empire as universal concepts became coterminous. Nevertheless, when the barbaric storms descended on Rome, Christianity was still a vital force, sufficiently autonomous that when the empire fell, it survived, despite the accusation of pagan Romans to the contrary that it had caused the downfall of the eternal city. As Augustine, who became the leading theologian for the post-Constantine centuries, fended off the pagan accusations he set forth the transcendent civitas dei, and by a slight misinterpretation the Roman church as an institution. identified herself with the civitas, with the millennium of Christ, and for a thousand years medieval Europe lived under the illusion that the millennium could be realized within history.

Until the fall of Rome (A.D. 476) the chief cultural forces at work in the empire had been the Greek, i.e., Hellenist, and Latin traditions, now in interaction with Christianity. The entrance of the Germanic peoples into the Latin world brought the fourth great component of European civilization into the picture. In a remarkable fusion of cultures these uncivilized peoples coming from the north were to inherit & political tradition and responsibility of the empire while at the same time yielding to the cultural superiority of the Mediterranean peoples. It was as the Mediterranean culture, particularly the "Christianized" Latin, was carried northward across the Alps and assimilated by the Germanic tribes that modern Europe was born. The original heirs of the Roman tradition were the Franks who occupied finally the area between the Loire and the Rhine rivers. But on into the heart of modern Germany in thousands of small clearings in the dark Teutonic forests courageous missionary monks planted sanctuaries and slowly chiseled away at the raw blocks of savagery to create eventually the modern European spirit.

The classic theologian of this Europe was Thomas Aquinas. On the skeleton of Aristotelian philosophy he erected a magnificent structure of thought, founded upon the unified authority of natural and revealed theology, embracing the totality of human experience, and able to absorb within itself all the incongruous and contradictory in the world of men. In this great system the lower was only a preliminary stage to the higher. Every line strove forever upward as did architectural lines of the Gothic cathedral which this great culture produced. No state was so lowly, no function so menial, that it had no place in the providence of God, to enhance His eternal glory. On all the disharm6nious, the imperfect, the suffering, the church as the extension of the incarnation radiated bv way of the sacraments the Eternal Presence. Even kings and emperors were thought to have been brought under the reign of Christ and the tension between church and world had disappeared. Day and night monastic voices and the incense of worship ascended in anticipation and imitation of the multitudes that shall assemble around the throne of God to sing His praises eternally. At the head of this great divine-human society stood the vicar of Christ, representing and safeguarding His seamless robe. The corpus christianum was indeed the most magnificent dream ever dreamed by man.

The actual accomplishments of this great system were impressive, both religiously and culturally, and remain so to this day. In the first place, the cults of paganism were successfully eradicated, despite remnants which remain to this day, and monotheism was everywhere established. "Christian" theism became the world view of the West, and the religious consciousness affected profoundly the political concepts of the time. Christian theology, literature, symbols, and liturgy were introduced, and once the Holy Scriptures were in Europe a recurrent eruption of Gospel freshness was assured. In the second place, Christianity brought not only a new religion but a new ethic. However imperfectly its ideals may have been realized in practice, no one in Europe could escape its influence. The religious unrest of the late Middle Ages and the flourishing of mysticism, both of which were the soil from which the Reformation sprang, testify to the success of medieval Catholocism in educating the Germanic conscience. In the third place, the impulse of Christianity as it fused with the undifferentiated genius of northern Europe produced a new culture in some respects superior to any culture previously known. Indeed it was the spirit of Christianity that eventually pulled Europe from the "Dark Ages" which succeeded the collapse of the ancient Roman empire.

Neveretheless the medieval vision, the corpus christianum, was doomed from the outset. In the first place, the Christianity which penetrated north of the Alps was no longer pure. Already the mere fact that it was carried by monks who, despite the Christian heroism that characterized their work, were an aberration of the Gospel ideal, could only mean that a distorted social ethic reached the pagan tribesman. In the very process of evangelism itself important concessions were made to the pagan spirit. So Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) instructed the great Benedictine missionary Augustine, who was sent to the Angles, to simply sanctify by means of holy water the heathen sanctuaries already in existence so as to win the pagans more readily. Even their festivals were to be transformed into Christian feasts; "For if a few outer pleasures are left to them they will be more quickly attracted by the inner joys. For to cut off everything from these hard hearts at one blow is without doubt impossible. He who wishes to scale a high mountain can do so only with slow steps, not by leaps." We cannot here discuss the question of missionary technique with illiterate pagan peoples. It is important only to note the discolored Christian message which reached the Teutonic world. More disastrous than all else, however, was the debasement of Christianity which stemmed from the Constantinian compromise, for nof only had state and church become united, not only was Christianity now falsely captivated by and identified with the culture of the occident, but it had become a mere means to mundane ends. Throughout all human history natural religion has always been the highest cohesive and integrative force in any society and culture, as the numerous studies of "primitive" peoples made in our century have shown. This is precisely what Christianity is not. As Jacob Burckhardt, the great Swiss historian, points out, the Christian religion, in contrast to the polytheistic cults of classical paganismi, "was and is not a cult consecrating a national culture but a transcendent faith in a future redemption. It was hostile to the pagan gods of nature and culture, as it must be hostile to the idols of modern civilization." But empirical Christianity was now no longer primarily the redemptive intervention of God, but a new means to cultural and political ends, subservient to the caprice of the ruling caste.

In the second place, the basic presuppositions of the corpus christianum were false. The Gospel speaks to men who are morally free to reject its claims. Everywhere it recognizes that some will accept while others will reject its message. And while the universality of its intent and of the f inal triumph of Christ is nonetheless upheld, the Gospel nowhere visualizes a permanent peace between "church" and "world," nowhere predicts the final harmonization of all that is incongruous in human experience except eschatologically, and nowhere promises the redemption of this aeon in toto. Thus Jesus had to declare Himself: "I am not come to send peace but a sword." To set up an ecclesiastical and political regime that persupposed that the totality of mankind had been embraced within the Christian community could therefore never correspond with reality.

In the third place, the corpus christianum even as an ideal was possible only as long as the theistic world view was universally acknowledged. Men might not necessarily accept the claims of Christianity existentially-indeed the recognition of supernatural reality is not a uniquely Christian insight-but as long as the mythological world view of medieval man, which was in part a continuation of pre-Christian theologies, persisted, there was no escape from the external demands of the church-dominated society. Once, however, modern discoveries disenchanted or demythologized the world and man began to feel himself autonomous, and free from dependence on deity, the whole structure was undermined. The only recourse open to the Corpus at this point was to suppress coercively every dissent and cultural heterogeneity. But this was a basic contradiction of the essence of the Christian faith which is at heart voluntaristic. Furthermore this confusion of a sort of natural or instictive theism with the revealed Christian faith could only obscure the distinction between the providential and redemptive activities of God.

In the fourth place, the attempt of the church in medieval times to direct the whole of society necessarily plunged her into ethical compromise. The governance of unredeerned men requires measures and means that are fundamentally at variance with the essence of the Gospel. In the position of ethical compromise the Christian "salt" lost its "savour," the church her prophetic otherness that would have enabled her to rebuke and transform the abuses of society. All too soon she became so imbedded in the status quo that those who wished to rise higher came into conflict with her totalitarian claims and were mercilessly dealt with as heretics.

Finally, Christianity in Europe has never been too much more than a veneer, for the true Christians have always been in the minority. Many of the tribes were originally converted (read baptized) en masse. Beneath the new Christian traditions the old pagan stream continued to flow, ever ready to reappear under favorable circumstances. The men of the Third Reich could still establish contact with the old Germanic religions, ridiculous as it may seem. It is remarkable how frequently one finds the religious comprehension of the common people who have been "churched" for centuries limited to a vague, almost naturalistic, theism, which knows God primarily as Providence. Superstition is still widely prevalent, and many smaller traces of paganism still remain, such as certain festivals or practices as runic symbols on farm buildings or local traditions as in Westphalia the "Heidenweck" heathen bread rolls) used on Mardi Gras. That elements of the pre-Christian past should persist is neither surprising nor of itself disastrous. Indeed this demonstrates unmistakably the great task which the Gospel must undertake to transform us poor pagans into true sons of God. The error arose, however, in the assumption that the entire culture could be or had been Christianized, for Christianity now ceased to be prophetic.

b. The modern humanist world view. Despite the great achievements of his society the lot of late medieval man was not a very happy one. Furthermore, by the late Middle Ages the creative force of the corpus christianum had been largely spent and new ideals began to stir his imagination. Whether or not the re-emergence of pagan impulses in the spirit of western man as heralded by the Renaissance is to be attributed, to the failure of the medieval church is not easy to determine and must at any rate remain an open question in the present discussion. In an article published several years ago in the German weekly, "Sonntagsblatt,", published by Bishop Lilje, Nicholas Berdyaev asked: "Why did not the superior religious insights of the Middle Ages, and superior they were to both the ancient and the barbaric traditions, produce a Christian renaissance?" In his answer to his own question be pointed out that Christianity had introduced two principles into the experience of man: (1) the eschatological-messianic principle in which Christ has entered history, thereby ending the concept that history repeats itself in endlessly reproduced cycles, and revealing the purposeful movement of histbry toward a final goal, and, (2) the principle of freedom in history as over against the older idea of determinism. Indeed it is this freedom that makes for movement in history as such. And it was the assertion of this freedom that made the Renaissance possible. Why then did Christianity not achieve a renaissance? Because, according to Berdyaev, Christianity had also introduced a conflict between these two principles, for the Middle Ages tried to realize the kingdom of God by coercion, thus denying to man that very freedom which the Gospel would effect.

The analysis of Berdyaev seems valid, for the doom of nations is always related to the self-betrayal of the people of God. At the same time, proceeding as we are from a voluntaristic concept of Christianity, we can hardly consider the church entirely responsible for the rise or fall of a civilization nor can we assume a priori that the church could have retained the spiritual leadership of the modern scientific movement. To the extent, however, that the church employed non-Christian means in the suppression of dissent and presumed to dictate coercively the conduct of men who had rejected the central presuppositions of Christianity or of her claims, she herself drove men to revolt, once they discovered the hoax. In any event, the rediscovery of the ancients, the expansion of the geographic horizon of the late medieval world, the discovery of scientific experimentation and of certain elementary principles governing the functioning of the universe, which were not known before, introduced a spirit of doubt and inquiry into the western mind that was to grow steadily till the twentieth century, and to destroy the theistic world view to which western civilization originally owed its existence. The full-blown humanist world view, however, in certain respects differed little from the Thomist concept which preceded it. For modern humanism, whatever its particular philosophical expression, likewise visualized the attainment of paradise within history. As larger and larger areas of life were brought under rational control, as the old frontiers of human self-determination receded rapidly, and as humanity (presumably) evolved steadily upward it seemed only seemed to believe that in time everything incongruous in human experience would be resolved and all the disconcent would be harmonized. The difference was that the corpus christianum looked to the transcendent, the supernatural, for fulfillment, the humanist structure relief on the immanent, the natural. For Darwin and Thomas both there was a gradual ascent from the lower forms of life to the higher. But where Thomas held that every transition required a supernatural. creative act Darwin held that transition from the lower to the higher forms would be realized through immanent or innate energy. And if Thomism was far preferable to Darwinism because of its deference to the transcendent, i.e., to God, it shared in part with the latter its fatal misunderstanding of the provisional and contingent nature of the present aeon.

By the early sixteenth century people already dared to appeal to non-Christian authorities in their criticisms of existing conditions, religious as well as secular. Since then the world has become disenchanted. Where medieval man saw demons at work, modern man has discovered bacteria. Where medieval man saw the justice of God striking down the wicked, modern man sees the consequences of the violation of the laws of "nature." Where medieval man wrote off the unknown as lying enshrouded by the supernatural, modern man sees only unexplored vistas of the natural and the physical. Whatever inspiration the modern ideals of human dignity and freedom have drawn from Christian sources, modern man somehow feels that he owes the conveniences and comforts of modem life more to the empiricism of the doubting humanist than to the faith of the believing Christian. The pioneers of the physical sciences as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo were neither impelled by unbelief in their research nor led to it by their discoveries. The opposition of the church, however, both Catholic and Protestant, identified her with the forces of reaction, and more and more men found the Christian faith incompatible with the facts of science. The telling blows or medieval bigotry and religious intolerance were not dealt even by the Reformation to say nothing of Catholicism, but by the secular Enlightenment. It was Voltaire who took up the cause of the persecuted Huguenots and nourished the spirit of tol eration that went into the French declaration of "The Rights of Man and the Citizen." Even if in this particular case the Catholics were persecuting Protestants, the later were no better. In 1541 the Protestant government of Bern sent the nobleman Naegli to Paris to protest against the French government's suppression of the Huguenots at the same time that her own prisons were overflowing with Anabaptists. The reasons for persecution were identical.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and on into the twentieth the humanist stream continued to swell, as emancipated moderns reveled in their new freedom and power Philosophers were busily hewing out new gods in place of the old One who had been left behind. First came the apotheosis of reason, then of evolution and progress, and finally, of science and the machine. And the church, accustomed for a millennium to identify herself with the social regime in power, with the status quo, strove to maintain her privileges, either by political power as in Catholic countries or by adaptation in Protestant countries.

The grandeur of the humanist dream is not to be denied. That modern autonomous man, ostensibly in his own strength, "subdued the earth" to a degree never approached by a culture exclusively devoted to the supernatural gives him an unassailable dignity. And yet when all the accounts are rendered the picture changes profoundly, for not only was the humanist giant far more indebted to Christianity than he ever realized, but he misunderstood the basic human limitations and moral weakness even worse than medieval Catholicism had ever done.

(1) Humanism's indebtedness to Christianity. The modern humanist tradition has often been sternly critical of social injustice to which even Christians had all too often quietly acquiesced. We have already noted that religious tolerance in Europe was more or less a product of the Enlightenment. One might also point to Karl Marx and his associates who proceeding from a militantly materialistic world view drew the attention of the world to the abuses of British industry during the first half of the nineteenth century. And yet a closer examination of the great crusades for social justice reveals, particularly in England, that whatever secular idealists may have had to say about social injustice, the men who actually accomplished the slow and painful tasks of reform drew their inspiration largely from Christian sources. The men who finally killed the English slave trade and who drove the exploitation of woman and child labor from English factories had roots deep in the Methodist revival, many of them being lay preachers or sons of ministers. After World War 11 American labor unions joined the co-ordinating council of American relief agencies which worked in Germany, unions which actually represented millions of workers, but it was the churches who did the main job. In a different way, the same thing might be said of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Continental prophets of human autonomy, whatever their specific philosophic persuasion. It was very often their orthodox or Pietist upbringing that prevented their drawing practical conclusions from their intellectual revolt. Immanuel Kant's ethical sternness is not primarily an organic part of his philosophy. It is much more a philosophic adaptation of a stem Scotch Presbyterian and German Pietist upbringing that had formed his early life.

(2) The misunderstanding of humanism. The basic error of humanism, whatever its philosophic or scientific garb, has been the supposition that the unlocking of the mysteries of the universe, the gradual rationalization of life, and the supposed evolutionary ascent of the race would enable man himself to overcome the incongruities of human existence. It failed to see that technological and scientific or even philosophic progress, even though seemingly unlimited in potential development, could never alter a single strand of man's moral fiber, that, to the contrary, such progress increased the potential for evil as much as the potential for good, that the fact of evil (and not only finitude) lies at the heart of the human enigma, and that consequently civilized man no more possesses the key to Paradise by the mere virtue of his knowledge than did his tribal forefathers.

It took the catastrophic wars of the twentieth century and the revolt of the oppressed to unmask the folly of the humanist dream. Not only did the wars in their external effects destroy the belief that by inherent forces man moved steadily upward, but the monstrosities of the totalitarian states revealed fully the autonomous man who was no longer inhibited as some of his forerunners had been by an inbred piety. The men of Dachau demonstrated in unmistakable terms how the fully autonomous human animal beneath a godless sky conducts himself. And when the nation which ostensibly was the real citadel of Christian virtue, something of a modern counterpart of the corpus christianum, unleashed on a defenssseless city of women and children the first atomic bomb the disillusionment of modem man was well-nigh complete. Meanwhile the theoretical basis of scientisin was equally shaken. The series of discoveries initiated by Albert Einstein's first formulation of the theory of Relativity in 1905 has gradually shattered the scientist's "absolute" laws of causality or detcrminancy, of the spacetime categories, and the concept of the "closed universe" objectively measurable. We have thus witnessed in our generation the default of the humanist dream, a crisis perhaps equal in profundity to the failure of the medieval religious world view at the dawn of the modern era. 


Our discussion to this point has dealt with two world views as having created and informed western man: the medieval Christian and the modern humanist. What has been the contribution of Protestantism? For the average Protestant the Reformation is an event in Christian history second in significance only to the inception of Christianity itself. In terms of potential Christian achievement, of the break-through of the evangelical experience in Europe, of the shattering of Catholicism's false authority, and of the repostulation of the authority of the Word of God and the community of the believers, this viewpoint seems well justifiable. To the Catholic, however, the Reformation appears as an episode in the process of the secularization of modern culture. A good illustration of this viewpoint is Alois Beck's introduction to his Messerklarung (Molding bei Wien, 1949), a German handbook to the Latin mass for the general public (Beck is the initiator of the contemporary Catholic Bible-reading campaign in German-speaking Europe), where he describes the secularization of the west as follows: "For about 500 years the Church has been defending herself against a world which has been becoming increasingly ungodly; the development began with the Nominalism of William of Occam; in the time of the Reformation a part of the Christians said 'No' to the Church and separated itself from the pope; in the time of the Enlightenment there followed a 'No' to Christ, while outwardly men still held to a 'world architect' (Deism, Free Masonry), who was, however, no longer concerned about anything; during approximately the last century this apostasy developed its logical last step: to a 'No' to God, in whose place now some creature was defied: Technology and Progress, Blood and Soil, Power and Gold. Further from God it is not possible to go; we are thus standing at a spiritual turning point,-. the modern age with its rational darkness is dying."

In the realm of culture and social ethics I am increasingly inclined to concur with the Catholic view of the Reformation, though I draw far different conclusions of the case. The Reformation as such is difficult to isolate sufficiently from parallel movements and impulses in secular areas of life to permit an adequate analysis. As we have seen, Beck suggests that its roots lay in the rise of Nominalism, a view shared by many others. It will be remembered that Luther's early theological development lay under the nominalist influence of William of Occam through the latter's disciple, Gabriel Biel of Tubingen. Others have seen the roots of the Reformation primarily in the Renaissance, which was largely true in the case of Zwingli, and quite generally so inasmuch as the humanists introduced the study of Scripture in the original tongues and on the basis of Scripture dared to criticize existing religious conditions even counter to the authoritarian claims of the church. Again one might emphasize the importance of mysticism in late medieval society or the geographic and scientific discoveries which served to weaken the authority of the medieval church.

Whatever we decide about the origin of the Reform, we can regard it as a new and genuine answer to the Gospel by the Germanic conscience no longer able to accept the Catholic evangel. German Protestant scholars tend to regard the Reformation as the "acute Germanization of Christianity," as the release of a new genius within the Christian tradition. And certainly any Protestant would agree that Luther's rediscovery of justification by faith was indeed a triumph of unending significance over centuries of accumulated distortion. The same could be said of the other two cardinal principles of the Reformation-the supreme authority of Scripture and the universal priesthood of believers. The Reform indeed brought a new day for the Christian Church.

Why then is the Protestant claim of the significance of the Reformation not justifiable? To me the simple answer seems to be that it mistakenly identifies the actual development of the Reformation with the personal experience and the ideals of the isolated Luthers. The unique thing about the Reformation was not that Luther's experience was so revolutionarily new-there had been religious awakenings before-but that it coincided with other latent forces, particularly nationalism which needed only the detonator that Luther's message provided in order to be set in motion. Already at the Council of Constance, a century earlier, the seamless robe of Christ had been tent by the new national gods. Now in the sixteenth century that part of the Protestant message which caught the imaginatiton of rulers and people alike was the proclamation of freedom, these from the Roman hegemony, those from the burdens of peasantry. Hence the Reformation can hardly be called a popular revival. On the local level it meant little actual change. Governments had to legislate on matters of simple mortality, sometimes to take the wind out of the sails of the Anabaptists the "left wing" of the Reformation, which demanded a more radical "break" with Catholics, since on the popular level a quickening of the conscience did not result. Luther's later years were enveloped in gloom because the reform had failed to produce the piety and morality among the masses for which he had hoped.

The new spiritual impulses which the Reform actually generated were choked out by the old concept of cultural homegeneity, by the social order of the corpus christianum which persisted and was accepted by the leading reformers. Thus the Reformation failed to sense and to challenge the central error of Catholicism with regard to the essence of the church and her rela tionship to society. Despite new formulations which were designed to remedy some of the evils of the system. the basic presupposition of medieval times-that the borders of the church were coextensive with the entire society, while membership was effected, not by personal decision and commitment but by external coercion and clerically administered sacrament-was too deeply imbedded in the subconscious stream of European thought to be seriously challenged and thus became the basis for the modern Protestant social ethic. In the religious struggles and wars which followed in the century after the Reformation it was not the persecution of believers by the "world "' but the rivalry of two systems both laying claim to inclusive totality. Wilhelm Dilthey, a German philosopher of the turn of view of the cludes that primitive Christianity but rather a further development of the medieval universal ideal. It would be erroneous, of course, to lay the blame for this entire development of the reformers alone, particularly since at points they sensed the problem and were prevented by factors beyond their control from taking appropriate action.

It must be recognized, however, that despite the failure of the Reform to free the church from cultural assimilation, it was by its very nature far more adaptable to the modern world than Catholicism could ever be. Indeed its basic flaws dare not close our eyes to its tremendous service to modern man. It has been the spiritual home of countless millions in many generations who could never have accepted the claims of Catholicism, and has been marked by a spontaneous and genuine piety rarely achieved by the latter. But its real vitality owes largely to subsequent developi-nents such as Pietism and the English revivalist and free church movement, made possible, however, because the control of Catholicism was broken in the sixteenth century. Nevertheless Protestantism's confused and ambiguous social philosophy and social ethic, its divorce of objective justification from subjective transformation, and the absence of a central authority which alone can maintain a (Catholic-like) system of inclusive totality, make it particularly vulnerable to the ravages of humanism. Protestant professors and clergymen were often in the front ranks of the prophets of humanism, sawing off the very lirmb on which the Reformation rested, while Catholicism at least maintained a state of tension with "modernism" and "liberalism," particularly since the publication of the papal "Syllabus" of modern errors in 1864. But precisely this adaptability to the total society was another form of the erroneous attitude of the corpus christianum and has become the Nemesis of Protestantism. Since its attitude toward the world was assimilative rather than prophetic, "responsible" rather than catalytic, it too became imbedded in all the incongruities of the status quo. If we inquire then as to the spiritual blessings of Protestantism we can say they were tremendous, but if we inquire, as in this paper as to its degree of basic Christian restitution, we are driven to the dismal conclusion that it simply failed, at least in its original form, to sense the fatal social error of Catholicism and to effect an essentially renewed approach. In this analysis we are therefore justified in subsuming it under the contribution of medieval Christianity in as far as it remained "orthodox" and under that humanism in as far as it was secularized.

The crisis of the mid-twentieth century, if this analysis is correct, is then to be sought ultimately in the realm of metaphysics. The theistic world view which from the Constantinian period forward had provided the subsoil of western culture was challenged by the fifteenth-century Renaissance and receivcd its first shattering blow in the French Revolution. From this blow it has never fully recovered but has had to give way increasingly to essentially immanentistic world views of humanism, which held out the hope of human fulfillment through the impulsion of innate energy. Today the triumphant humanist dream has in turn likewise defaulted, and has demonstrated unmistakably that it has rested on false premises. This failure or rejection of both the spiritual premises of western civilization constitutes the crisis of our time. To be sure, powerful remnants of both views remain and will be influential in time to come. Indeed it would be most difficult to reduce all western thought into one category or the other in any clear-cut fashion. This essay is merely an attempt to find something of a dominant characteristic in the subconscious presupposition of our time and is not directly concerned with the formal philosophies themselves.

Is the West, then, in a state of decline? If we accept the ideal either of medieval Christianity or of humanism, it seems that our answer must be a gloomy yes. Even if we accept neither, we are driven to the conclusion that the collapse of both the transcendentalist and the immanentistic value systems threatens to pull down the whole civilization with them. The West has lost the cohesive which holds the parts together to construct a meaningful whole. She is like a monster from whom the soul has departed but whose body continues to flail about in madness. The American reaction to the (Russian') Communist challenge is the reaction (e.g., "McCarthyism") of a people uncertain of its own faith. Tt is the reaction of a culture which can return neither to the theism which gave it birth, nor yet to the humanism which nursed it to maturity. Consequently modern man is not in the dilemma of two undesirable possibilities but simply at a dead end. There is of course a political dilemma between East and West, but the struggle between the communist and the western systems is mostly an echo, an Indian summer, of the two world views we have just described, the West of the transcendentistic medieval in as far as she claims to be Christian), and the East in so far as it is Marxist) of the immanentistic modern. But the masses, even when forced to choose one or the other of these two ideologies, sense instinctively the hollowness of both claims. In any event, western culture today needs a new metaphysics which it has not yet found. How and whether a new foundation for our present civilization will be found would be hazardous to predict. Humanly speaking, greater violence than what we have yet experienced seems inevitable. particularly because of similar upheavals of even greater proportions in the Orient. The prospect of a life and death struggle between closed cultural systems as the present alignment of East and West seems to predict is ample cause for men's hearts to fear.


To characterize our time only in terms of "decline" would be to commit anew the errors of the corpus christianum and of humanism. More than this, it would be the sin of unbelieving pessimism, of the faithless steward who buried his talent in a napkin, for the crisis of our day demonstrates once more that the justice of God is tempered with mercy, that out of the marred clav He fashions new vessels. For the collapse of these two great systems of semitruths will enable men to shift their point of departure from within the inclusive natural community to within the (gathered) religious community, to see more clearly than perhaps at any time since the Constantinian compromise that God works redemptively among men by way of the leaven, by the gathering of those who respond to His regenerative overtures, and that the incongruities of human existence and of the social order can reach final solution only as the regenerative process comes to maturity eschatologically. The impossibility of identifying the Christian community with any natural community or culture is being sensed increasingly, and scholars as G. J. Heering and Herbert Butterfield from various viewpoints are beginning to interpret the facts of Christian history accordingly. (See e.g., Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History, London, 1950)

It will be helpful to examine a bit more closely the "decline" of the West in this light. In the first place, it has shattered the myths of inherent progress. While it would be premature to speak of a popular revival, to reckon with transcendent reality is no longer the mark of naivety or bigotry. In the second place, the "decline" of the West and the emergence of the Orient has broken the monopoly which the West has exercised over Christianity for centuries. The failure of the church to domesticate the whole of western culture has forced even the "Volkskirche," the mass or established churches, to become at least to a degree, gathered communities. Hence the West is no longer synonymous with Christianity. Meanwhile the new Christian communities of the Orient have developed a genius of their own and are exercising an increasing influence in the world church. This was brought home to the West with great forcefulness by the presence and voice of the large numbers of Orientals at the ecumenical conferences at Oslo (youth) in 1947 at Amsterdam in 1948, and at Evanston in 1954. Bishop Stephen C. Neill, reported, after a trip to Africa, that it is entirely within the realm of the possible that native African Christians may yet share in a re-evangelization of the West. In short, these developments emphasize in a new way the universality of the church of Christ and her transcendence over particularist cultures and social groupings. In the third place, this cultural disentanglement of the church is ethically salutary. Humanly speaking, a widespread turn to pacifism is hardly in the offing, but nevertheless the incompatibility of war with the Christian ethic is being felt increasingly. The same might be said with regard to divisions in the church. In the fourth place, there are encouraging trends even culturally. In philosophy there is some revival of realism, despite the anscendancy of existentialism, which still belongs to the nominalist tradition. The failure of the scientific structure built on nominalist assumptions is bound to renew and increase the interest in realism. The upper reaches of scientific thought have likewise been profoundly shaken. The discovery that the absolute laws of the physical universe are after all only relative (see above, p. 28) has led scientists to interpret "indetern-inerrancy" as actually meaning "creativity." It was this discovery, a Greek chemistry professor told me recently, that enabled him to accept the doctrine of grace as a new intervention of God outside the "laws" of nature. More familiar to us is the development of neo-orthodoxy in theology, though not a full return to evangelical faith. Its most important feature in this context is its rediscovery of the transcendence of God and of the corresponding inadequacy and dependence of man. While none of these developments alone are likely to turn the tide of the West, they might well become major contributory sources for a genuine renascence.


This general analysis leads to several concrete suggestions as to the Christian course of action in the time ahead.

1. Viewing the "decline" from within the gathered Christian community rather than within the natural community of the corpus christlanuin or of humanism leads to the conclusion that the crisis of the West is to be sought in the dilution of Christianity itself rather than in the secularization of culture in general. The latter is only a consequence of the former. Jesus call ed the Christian the salt of the earth. The non-Christian can know God only within the limits of natural theism. Greater insights come indirectly through his observation of those who know God supremely through revelation, in our own age, through the Christians. It is when God in Christ becomes discredited by the unworthiness of those who confess His name that the God in Nature no longer seems inexorable. When Christians cease to be Christian and to fulfill their role on the plane of redemption, that other minister of God on the plane of preservation, the state, most readily oversteps his bounds. When those who know Him I-10 longer reveal an awareness that "it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God," those who don't know Him need not worry about getting acquainted with Him. Preaching in the "new era" must be pre-eminently Christological and Christocentric. Hand in hand with a rediscovery of the church as a gathered community must go a rediscovery of the distinction between God's work in the realm of providence and His work in the realm of redemption so that the church may be truly the church. Christians dare not confuse pious sentiments arising from experiences of natural theism with a vital faith in Christ. Obviously it is not the Christian task to denounce or judge such experiences but only to promote the truth.

Futhermore, viewing the "decline" of the West from within the New Testament concept of the gathered community, one is led to the conclusion, as we have already noted, that since Constantine the time may never have been more opportune for the church to disentangle herself from worldly alliances. Under the totalitarian powers, earnest Christians have been driven to the catacombs. In the West the forces of secularism have become so powerful and the number of people outside the pale of the church so great that the church can no longer presume to speak for the whole in the sense of the Constantinian compromise. World events will thus drive many Christians and Christian groups to rediscover their true relationship to the world. Admittedly, the opposite seems true in America for the moment, where many see the world struggle developing between the two supposedly opposite forces of Christianity and Communism. This indeed is the great tempfation of American and other western Christians. Yet even this situation will not change the minority position of Christianity in the culture of the West and is at any rate offset by the emergence of vital Christian minorities in other world cultures.

2. Next to evangelism, the most urgent task within the Christian Church-even more urgent than the much more publicized effort for ecumenicity--is the re-articulation of the Christian social ethic, of the relationship of the Christian and the church to the social order. Indeed one might well ask whether that is not essentially the evangelistic task of the day, the proc lamation of a Gospel which reunites in the true New Testament sense, faith and works. The Catholic Church has retained her mistaken medieval vision in that respect, except as tactical modifictaions have become necessary and as we have seen, Protestantism has not developed an adequate and unique social ethic of its own. In theory the "free churches" should be uniquely fitted for such a task of witnessing. But they, too, have often shared in the general decline of Christianity, sometimes in adherence to dead traditions, sometimes in the confusion of religious individualism with political individualism, sometimes in the relegation of religious experience to the realm of private piety. Such an approach of course presupposes a readiness to undergo the pre-Constantinian churchworld tension and conflict.

3. Apologetics should seek to employ the discoveries and developments of science to which we have referred rather than to refight the battles of an earlier liberalism that is on the wane. Evangelical Christianity, based as it is upon God's self-revealing and redemptive acts in history because of man's fallen state, has done too little to relate its message to God's original creative charge to man to "subdue the earth." Too often its defense against the onslaught of militant secularisms or atheisms is conducted from a pre-Copernican platform. The church seldom succeeds in combining her conservatism vis-a-vis the attacks of wordliness with a forward look in the things of time which must change. Too often her fight for the faith degenerates into a reactionary fight for the privileges of the social status quo. The major task of Christian apologetics today is thus the proclamation of the special revelation of God in Christ in all its radical finality, but in terms which recognize empiricism within the realm of nature as being implicit in the divine charge to man to "subdue the earth." But in such an attempt to fight an advanceguard battle in the proper understanding of empirical science, we will need to be on guard constantly lest we fall into a new form of the old error of making science the touchstone of revelation or the still older one of supposing that a mass revival could somehow redeem the entire social order of the present aeon.

4. It appears that particularly in Europe, and to some extent in America, the creative days of the Christian clerical caste and the institutional church are over. Even the real effectiveness of modern mass media of communication in the evangelistic ef fort seems to be diminishing. The Church of Christ is essentially a pneumatic fellowship that expresses itself concretely in the Christian brotherhood, there where the "two or three are gathered." This fellowship is a fellowship of persons and is thus by its very nature what sociologists call a "primary group." The church can never assume the "secondary" character of the depersonalized urban society. It therefore seems clear that evangelism will make real progress among the industrial masses, as well as among other dechristianized groups in our society, only if the church will regain the personal mobile lay character which has characterized all her truly creative periods, above all, the first centuries of the Christian era. The emphasis must be shifted from the salaried professional and the huge Gothic sanctuary to the man to man evangel of the simple self-supporting believer who shares the struggle of the common man.

5. There needs to be a recovery of eschatological comprehension, not speculatively but "existentially." We need to understand anew the ways of God in history. True, men have failed, but even in the midst of that failure the kingdom of God is moving toward fulfillment. Excessive preoccupation with attempts to read the signs of the times regarding future events cannot but dim our understanding of the here and now. Unhealthy speculation about the eschatological calendar can even be a way to bury the talent He has given. On the other hand, we need desperately a recovery of genuine eschatological expectancy, of the secret of the true saints of all ages who have awaited the aeon to come because they were already in it and whose future was illuminated as much by their present possession as was their present experience by their hope of future glory. Only such a faith will fit us to walk among the prophets of a new day that shall dawn, if God will, after the night that is descending upon the West, or to walk among those whose raiment is washed white if the "decline" of the West should be a feature in the final act of the drama of history. Only thus can we say: "Whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's" and "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!"