Chapter 1: The Sickness of Civilization
We are living today under the sign of the collapse of civilization. The situation has not been produced by the war; the latter is only a manifestation of it.
In the year 410 A.D. Alaric and his Goths sacked the city of Rome. This event was of vast importance in the ancient world, not so much because of its direct effect on political or economic organization, but because of its effect on the minds of men and women who shared in the Mediterranean civilization. The sack was not the most terrible of visitations, but it was a profound shock, and it was likewise a revelation. For centuries men had thought of Rome as a stable feature of civilized existence. She had been intact from the invader for nearly a thousand years. Provinces might revolt and provinces might be pacified, but Rome was the Eternal City. She was the assurance of order, and men had come to believe, without argument, in the dependability of that order. But the shock of invasion revealed to men throughout the Mediterranean theater the inadequacy of that on which they had depended with such implicit faith. The consequence was that they were forced to question the entire civilization on which they had relied. We see evidence of the enduring effect of this shock throughout the structure of St. Augustine’s great work, The City of God, which was not finished until sixteen years after the event that precipitated its writing. The whole book is a monumental attempt to speak to the condition of men and women suffering from a profound intellectual and spiritual shock. Augustine’s arguments show clearly the questionings and probings in men’s minds. They all recognized that the trouble was more than superficial and that 410 represented more than an isolated military defeat. The fall of Rome was, not the cause of the decay of their culture, but rather a symptom of that decay. The decay, they realized, must have been much further advanced than was generally recognized.
What was the cause of the decay? Did it come, as some supposed, from disloyalty to their old pagan faiths, or were there other and far different reasons for failure? What could events teach them concerning the foundations on which civilization might be rebuilt?
We have now a counterpart of the ancient situation. Much as men lived for years under the shadow of 410, we shall live for years under the shadow of 1940. The chief problems we face are not the problems of the war, great as these are. If they were, they would end when the war ends, but they go too deep for that. The shadow of 1940 will not be removed by the technical conclusion of military hostilities nor by the organization of a peace conference. This is because the war is only a symptom of the sickness of our civilization and not the primary cause of that sickness.
The vast importance of 1940 in our time lies in the fact that the weakness of an entire system in which we had great faith was then revealed to civilized mankind. The fall of France, though only one item in this historical situation, has been the most striking and the most shocking. France was a symbol of an entire kind of life that we had come to take for granted in the Western world. It represented the urbanity, the individualism, the humaneness, the intelligence that we had come to prize. Frenchmen were internationally minded, Frenchmen were relatively free from race prejudice, Frenchmen were thrifty, Frenchmen believed in freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of worship. Here, it seemed, was the quintessence of Western civilization, which we had taken for centuries as our standard of comparison, and suddenly we realized that the new Rome was no more a match for the barbarian than the ancient Rome had been. In short it was demonstrated, in such a manner that all could see, that Western civilization lacked the security which we, in our innocence, had attributed to it.
The spiritual crisis engendered by this shock could by no means be limited to Europe, but was bound to affect the entire life of man on the planet. In the fall of Rome it was chiefly Mediterranean civilization that was at stake, while other areas of the globe were largely unaffected. The civilization of Christendom, on the other hand, has so penetrated all parts of the world that all are affected by what happens to us.
The civilization of the West, that is to say, the Christian civilization, is only one of several concurrent civilizations. It is a mistake to regard our society as identical with civilized mankind and all others as “natives” of territories that they inhabit by sufferance.(See Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol. I, p. 33. Toynbee holds that there are at least four other living societies of the same species as ours.) The white man’s burden is not that heavy. But, though our civilization is only one civilization among others, the relationships between civilizations is now such that our civilization involves all others in its own predicament. There are two major reasons for this. First, the development of modern technology is such that all parts of the planet are close to all other parts in time and in the consequent impossibility of isolation. In the words of Mr. Willkie’s inspired title, ours is really One World in the technical sense. Any new flood is bound to cover the entire earth.
The second reason for the inclusion of all in our predicament is the fact that Christian culture has penetrated other cultures much more than they have penetrated ours. Western man has penetrated all parts of the globe educationally, industrially, and religiously. Our predicament is not a local matter, but a matter of planetary concern because Western man, partly through his aggressiveness, though chiefly through his technical prowess, is the dominant man on the planet.(The fact that this dominance is now being challenged does not alter the truth of this observation. It is the titleholder who is challenged.) The predicament, therefore, is not merely the predicament of Western man, but of man.
The recognition that something has gone wrong with our civilization is now so widespread as to be almost universal. Much of this has arisen from the obvious discrepancy between the promises and the achievements of our age. There is no doubt that faith in a more or less automatic progress was widespread a generation ago, when it was assumed that the fruits of our cleverness would be good fruits. The increase of science, many supposed, would ensure a brave new world. Science was to unify the world (which it has) and bring in a day of universal brotherhood (which it has not). Characteristic of this pathetic faith is the following conclusion of F. S. Marvin, whose words were widely read twenty years ago:
And now, of all consolidators, science is showing its supreme fitness and its kinship with the sense of a common humanity. It would be a fascinating and untrodden path, to follow in the ancient world the extension of scientific knowledge and note its coincidence with the growth of a more humane spirit in religion, in poetry, and in law. We believe the agreement would be close and that it is more than a mere coincidence. But here the evidence would be slighter and less conclusive: in the modern world the case is clear. Side by side with the growth of science, which is also the basis of the material prosperity and unification of the world, has come a steady deepening of human sympathy, and the extension of it to all weak and suffering things. . . . Science, founding a firmer basis for the co-operation of mankind, goes widening down the centuries, and sympathy and pity bind the courses together.(F.S. Marvin, The Living Past, Oxford, 1923, pp. 270, 271)
This hope, by no means rare, is now seen to be utterly unjustified. At the precise time when our vaunted education comes to mature development we see all about us the outbreak of man’s inhumanity to man in such fashion that our faith is shaken. We are not so gullible as we were. How can we be so sure that Western civilization is really better than any of its alternatives, if we are to judge it by its fruits after years of opportunity? After all, the epidemic has broken out, not in some primitive area, but in the supposed heart of Christendom.
This seems to be the chief ground of the often-mentioned lack of enthusiasm on the part of our people. Whereas the Germans, especially the youth, have entered the conflict with fanatical zeal, comparable with that of those who extended Islam with the sword, our people are extremely shy about any emotional appeal. The Axis propagandists are able to arouse their countries to a furious crusade, but the few who try to arouse us in a similar way are met with a quizzical look. The band-playing hilarity of leave-takings, which the fathers knew, is quite unknown to the sons. For the most part the struggle goes on as a sober, hateful business, with little romance and with few illusions. It may be that we are too dull and businesslike today, but at least we are safe from the kind of disillusionment that occurred so disastrously before, when romantic idealism was followed by general cynicism. If we experience a revolt this time, it will have to be a revolt in the other direction.
We cannot, of course, expect so much suffering without the emergence of skepticism, but the skepticism of one period is not the same as the skepticism of another. The mood in which we find ourselves may be accurately termed the “New Skepticism.” Those to whom men turned for spiritual counsel in the earlier struggle were forced to deal with skepticism about God. “Why,” men asked repeatedly, “would God allow this terrible calamity? Why does God permit His children to destroy each other?” Today, however, this inquiry is seldom heard. In place of it there has come another kind of inquiry, which represents a deep skepticism about mankind. Instead of asking, “Why does God allow it?” thousands now ask, “How could man have made such a mess of things?”
The change in popular sentiment is great though not sufficient. The chief ways in which this change appears are the rejection of the belief in the essential goodness of man and the twin belief in automatic progress. We have not arrived at a sufficient substitute, but in any case we have escaped from the chief dangers of optimism.
It is hard to tell how much of the present skepticism about the worth of our human civilization has come as a result of revealing experience and how much has come as a result of published thought on the subject. In any case it is true that many thoughtful people had already arrived at grave doubts about the true value of our boasted culture when the great majority appeared to have no doubts at all. Now the public has caught up with the prophets, so far as their pessimism is concerned.
The men who began to challenge the sense of security of our age arrived at their conclusions on various grounds. Thus Henry Adams, believing in the universal applicability of the second law of thermodynamics, predicted necessary cultural decline in The Degradation of Democratic Dogma, while Spengler espoused a theory of cycles that was neither democratic nor Christian. Later there appeared several independent thinkers who began to reveal the sickness of our civilization in the light of Christian theology.
Twenty-one years ago Albert Schweitzer said, “It is clear now to everyone that the suicide of civilization is in progress. What yet remains of it is no longer safe. It is still standing, indeed, because it was not exposed to the destructive pressures which overwhelmed the rest, but, like the rest, it built upon rubble, and the next landslide will very likely carry it away.”(Albert Schweitzer, The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, London, 1923, p. 3.) Of course, this was not clear to everyone. The amazing thing is that it was already clear to this lonely man, living, not in Europe, but on the edge of the African jungle. Many of his contemporaries were wholly convinced that man had come into a new time, a time of general prosperity and of happiness through abundance. One hot night that summer President Harding died in San Francisco, and Calvin Coolidge became head of the nation. With him came added prosperity, and who then cared about a philosophical doctor in Africa?
Nikolai Berdyaev was already expressing, at the same time, a similar skepticism. His book, The End of Our Time, was written when most people appeared to think we were both safe and sound. Spengler’s Decline of the West had been taken seriously by a few, but not by the masses. The surprising fact is that so many prophets saw the weakness of our civilization when it seemed strongest. Just as we were ridding the world of Kaiser and Czar, Spengler predicted the rise of Caesarism. The prophets, writing in 1922 and 1923, sensed that the Armistice was only an armistice. The uniting conviction of a number of advanced theologians was the notion that the war was really a revelation. It revealed, said Berdyaev, “the superficiality of the process of humanization and how thin was the layer of human society which had really been affected by the humanizing forces.”(Nikolai Berdyaev, The Fate of Man in the Modern World, p. 9)
An important fact, which we do not sufficiently realize, is that Adolf Hitler was one of these prophets writing two decades ago. His conclusions were poles apart from those of Schweitzer and Berdyaev, but he was in full agreement with these men about the decay of the received culture. His error, as we see it now, lay not in his quick perception of a profound trouble, but in the false simplicity of his diagnosis of causes and in his prescribed cure, which did so much to heighten the existing fever. He knew that the breakdown of a world view was far more important than the breakdown of an economic or political structure and that we must go beyond the outward sickness to the inner causes. “All those symptoms of decay,” wrote Hitler in 1924, “are in the last analysis only the consequences of the absence of a definite, uniformly acknowledged philosophy and the resultant general uncertainty in the judgment and attitude toward the various great problems of the time.” The defeat of Germany, he maintained was not an isolated catastrophe, but wholly reasonable and wholly deserved. “It is only the greatest outward symptom of decay amid a whole series of inner symptoms, which perhaps had remained hidden and invisible to the eyes of most people, or which like ostriches people did not want to see.”(Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, translated by Ralph Manheim, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943, pp. 266, 229, 230.)
The point is that the world has now caught up with Hitler and Berdyaev and Schweitzer. We now know that the disease of Western civilization was much further advanced than it appeared to be when attention was paid to superficial symptoms. It took a prophet to know that the First World War was a revelation instead of a mere war, but the common citizen knows that the present struggle is far more than a war. The old fashioned “war” now seems a relatively decent affair, in which most of those who were killed were in the army and in which psychological warfare was not the dominant phase. If there had been no “war,” i.e., if the Munich idea had succeeded and Hitler had been able to pose as a man of “peace,” there would be just as many symptoms of the fundamental sickness as there are now. Perhaps there would be more!
The sickness is all one sickness, but it was at a far more advanced stage in 1939 than it was in l914. Indeed, the sickness was so much further advanced that it produced radically new symptoms or old symptoms so altered and so heightened that they appeared in new ways. All through the autumn of 1938 we tried to persuade ourselves that the disease was not so bad as it seemed. After the Ides of March, 1939, we knew just how serious the malady was, and there has been little doubt since.(The author was in England during the critical days of 1939 and was able to note the great change in public opinion that came with the open violation of the Munich Agreement on March 15. For many the strain was gone. At last they knew how serious the situation was and how long the road to peace might be.) Man’s life on this planet has never been a bed of roses, and a certain amount of physical suffering we naturally expect, but a great part of the suffering of our time is of the mind. The worst ravages have not happened to men’s houses or even to their bodies. There is no record in history of such widespread violence and anxiety as mark our time.
The emphasis on the sickness is very important because only through accurate diagnosis is there a chance of successful recovery. For one thing, the recognition that we are enduring more than a war keeps us from dividing the world neatly into two camps, ourselves and our enemies. We are not free from the basic trouble ourselves. If what we had on our hands were merely a war, we might expect to have a reasonably secure future, by means of treaties and the like, if and when we gain the victory. But treaties are superficial remedies indeed when the trouble is as deep as ours now is. Neither political nor economic re-arrangements will suffice. Just as the difficulty lies deeper than we at first supposed, so the path of recovery will lie along deeper lines than we have realized.
It is obvious that there must be a peculiar combination of factors which have produced the present crisis. We cannot account for the present series of calamities merely by reference to the natural depravity of the human heart, however great it may be, for that is presumably a constant factor and there are aspects of the present situation which are by no means constant. Since the phase of man’s life which makes modern man’s situation most obviously different from that of all his ancestors is technical or mechanical achievement, it is reasonable to suspect that our predicament is associated, in some way or other, with this development.
The human crisis involves a combination of factors that is paradoxical in the extreme, and much of the paradox lies in the relationship between the means and ends of our culture. The means of our culture, i.e., our technics, are developed wonderfully by rational experimental and precise thought, but the ends have not kept pace. The technical progress, though it makes for dehumanization, involves the great hope of universalism, since it provides the means of making mankind physically one. It is our technical progress that now brings any one spot on the globe within a few hours’ travel of every other spot, which makes it possible to send messages to all the earth at once and which makes no spot safe or secure against aggression.
The awful truth is that our wisdom about ends does not match our ingenuity about means, and this situation, if it continues, may be sufficient to destroy us. Just at the moment of history when the technical conditions for the oneness of the globe have finally appeared, we are woefully lacking in the moral conditions that are required if this situation is to be a blessing. It is not merely that this contrast removes us from a fortunate situation; it actually produces a situation far more evil than any formerly known. Because of lack of moral direction, what might have been a blessing becomes a terrible curse.
The moral failure to match the technical achievement is seen in three different ways in three different groups. It is seen first in Japan, a country that has taken over the instruments of Christendom without the moral and religious principles of Christendom. It is seen second in Germany, and to some extent in Russia, where the moral and religious conceptions of Christendom have been deliberately rejected, after having long been known. It is seen, in the third place, in the Western democracies, where we still pay lip service to the moral and religious principles of Christendom but have actually lost a great part of this heritage.
The gravity of our situation in regard to means and ends becomes clearer when we realize that the present combination of means and ends is the worst of all possible combinations. The contemporary contrast in the relative development of engineering and ethics is the most dangerous that could be. If we have regard to the factors unifying or dividing mankind, there are four possible combinations, as follows:
(1) Divisive purposes served by inadequate instruments. This, we suppose, was the situation throughout most of human pre-history and much of human history. The leaders of the clan may seek the destruction or harm of all outside the clan, but the tools available are such that these purposes remain unaccomplished for the most part.
(2) Unifying purpose served by inadequate instruments. This has been the situation of most of the dreamers of world brotherhood. Their desire for the general welfare of mankind has been baffled, not only by the opposite desires of their contemporaries, but also by the lack of technical ability to accomplish desired ends.
(3) Divisive purposes served by potent instruments, i.e., universalizing instruments. This is the actual situation in many parts of the present world and the potential situation everywhere. The possible blight which might come to the human spirit if a minority of wholly ruthless men should achieve a monopoly on the instruments of power that make the world all one province, technically, is a reasonable cause for fear.
(4) Unifying purposes served by potent instruments. This situation, which has never yet appeared in any large way, would be the most conducive to the flowering of the human spirit that we can imagine. If our ends sought were as rational and as catholic as our technology is, man would still have his evil impulses but the world would be such that most of us would be glad for the chance to live in it. It is the situation we earnestly seek.
We are now in the tragic third possibility inasmuch as man has been more successful in making engines than in achieving the will and wisdom to use his engines for humane purposes. This is the predicament of Western man. He has built up a complex civilization, but he may lose it because, in his proud hour of achievement, he has so largely lost or never developed the inner resources that are needed to keep a possible boon from becoming a calamity.
It is important to make it abundantly clear at this point that the crucial problem is the spiritual problem, and we here mean by spiritual that area which is the object of attention in philosophy and theology as against that area in which the object of attention is mechanical contrivance. The fact that our life is so gravely threatened in the brightest day of technical achievement is not a criticism of the engineers qua engineers, but it is a criticism of all of us as men. The paradox of failure at the moment of success is by no means a condemnation of technical progress, for such progress is morally neutral. It gives the surgeon’s knife, and it gives the gangster’s weapon. Our predicament is a commentary, not on instruments and instrument makers, but on the human inability to employ both scientific knowledge and technical achievement to bring about the good life and the good society. Man is an animal who is peculiarly in need of something to buttress and to guide his spiritual life. Without this, the very capacities that make him a little lower than the angels lead to his destruction. The beasts do not need a philosophy or a religion, but man does.
When we say that the most urgent problem of our time is the spiritual problem we are opposing directly the popular opinion. Most people do not believe it. It is curious to note the way in which our world calamity has destroyed some of our comfortable delusions, but not others. Thus we have been pretty well emancipated from the dogma of automatic progress and even from faith in the goodness of man. In these matters we have shown some ability to be taught by experience. But we have not been equally emancipated from the belief that economic and technical reconstruction are enough. We suppose, quite naïvely, that the problem of spiritual reconstruction will take care of itself or that it can be left to the experts as a departmental matter.
The lesson of our time is that this delusion is no better than any other delusion. The problem will not take care of itself. Unless the spiritual problem is solved, civilization will fail; indeed, we already have a foretaste of that failure in many parts of the world. Man’s sinful nature is such that he will use instruments of power for evil ends unless there is something to instruct him in their beneficent uses. Without the conscious and intelligent buttressing of what has been demonstrated as precious, human society goes down.
It ought to be clear to us that such a task is so amazingly difficult that we should employ our greatest single effort in this direction. If we had even the beginning of wisdom, we should encourage our brightest men and women to devote themselves to the task of spiritual reconstruction. We should put our best thought into the elaboration and promulgation of an adequate faith rather than into some new machine.
How far we are from doing this is obvious. In our public schools we teach our children many things about our modern world, such as our system of manufacture and distribution, but we make almost no effort to give them a living knowledge of the spiritual sources of our civilization. We deliberately cut them off from their heritage. In America we actually work, in many states, on the preposterous theory that it is illegal to teach our children the faith on which our democracy rests. The public school teacher can tell all she likes about Nero, but she cannot tell about his distinguished contemporary, St. Paul. In any case she cannot tell what the open secret of St. Paul’s life was. In most of our universities there are hundreds of young men devoting themselves to careful preparation in engineering or the natural sciences as against one devoting himself to careful preparation in philosophy or theology. A similar unbalance is shown in university curricula and budgetary allotments.
The sober truth is that, as a people, we do not believe we are engaged in a race with catastrophe. We are not aware of the dangers we face, and consequently we are doing relatively little to meet them. If we could put the same keen intelligence and careful judgment into the revival of faith and the discovery of the proper objects of faith that we now put into the production of magnificent machines, man’s life on this earth might come into a new and glorious day. We fail to do this because we do not read the signs of the times or listen to our prophets. The situation, which would appear alarming if only men were apprised of it, is stated by one of these prophets as follows:
If you allow the spiritual basis of a civilization to perish, you first change, and finally destroy it. Christianity and Hellenism are the spiritual bases of our civilization. They are far less powerful today than fifty years ago. Therefore, we are losing that spiritual basis, and our civilization is changing and on the way to destruction, unless we can reverse the process.(Sir Richard Livingstone, The Future in Education, Cambridge University Press, 1943, p. 113.)
“Unless we can reverse the process” — there is the heart of the problem. Perhaps we cannot do so; perhaps we are dealing with a wave of the future or a renewed wave of the past that is already bearing us forward in frightening or eventually heartening ways. But until we know this is the case, our task is to make every effort to build our society as free men.
The two most striking examples of how human life may be guided, so far as our tradition is concerned, are seen in Greek philosophy and the Christian religion. In ancient Greece there was a widespread popular teaching of philosophy, with Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans preaching a rule of life. Eventually this gave way to the Christian faith, which has been the dominant spiritual force in the West through most of the succeeding centuries. Even fifty years ago, in our English-speaking countries it was still effective. Nearly everyone read the Bible and engaged in public and private prayer, as well as family prayer, and great numbers heard, once each week, sermons that expounded the gospel. Once a week there was a day that reminded all people of a dimension of their lives other than those of the surface.
Now most of this is gone. Philosophy today touches only a tiny class of people who happen to take courses in universities or read an occasional book. The Christian faith has lost much of its hold. Of course, it is still possible to present impressive census figures showing that the number of church members in this country is the largest in relation to the total population that it has ever been, (There are now 67,327,7l9 church members in the United States of America according to the Yearbook of the Churches) but these figures are not convincing. Nearly all the membership rolls are padded, since, in many churches, all baptized persons are included in membership. Everyone knows that great numbers of these are totally dissociated from the influences of public worship.
The signs of the decay of the Christian faith are so great on every side that only wishful thinking can deny it. Convenient illustrations are the contemporary ignorance of the Bible, the decline of the observance of a day of worship, and the loosening of the marriage tie. It is possible that Christianity is now lingering very much as paganism lingered on into the Christian era. Those men in Rome who supposed their woes came from disloyalty to the pagan gods were fighting a hopeless battle, and the same may be true of the contemporary apologist for the Christian faith.
We continue to call our era the Christian Era, but this may be for no better reason than the difficulty of changing a frame of temporal reference when it has once been established all over the world. Mussolini’s attempt to introduce his own system of dating from the beginning of the Fascist Era, referring to his own definitive speeches of the year Twelve (Benito Mussolini, The Corporate State, Florence, 1938, XVI, p. 62) seems to most of us merely ridiculous, but he might be nearer right than we think. The truth is that we still have not decided which century this is. We do not really know whether it is the twentieth century or the first. There are few more important questions that man can ask.
Regardless of the personal position he takes, it is not possible for a thoughtful person to view lightly the apparent crumbling of the Christian pattern. Whether for good or ill, such a development is momentous. If Western man, who has long been the dominant man on the planet, should now lose those ultimate convictions which have been partly regulative for at least fifteen centuries, the change would be enormous. Temporarily, at least, the change has already occurred, and this change has been more crucial than any battle or other external event. It is the chief event that has occurred. A change in the meaning of truth or of justice is far more important than a change in the government of any given territory. “The Axis powers would not have initiated the crisis in civilization or forced this war on the world if they had not repudiated these values in advance.” (H. G. Wood, Christianity and Civilization, p. 5.)
The greatness of the possible change becomes clear when we realize the degree to which the civilization of the West has been the civilization of Christendom. It is far more Christian than Greek or Roman, since classic culture contributed to modern culture, not directly, but only as assimilated by Christianity. The late Professor Bosanquet, who had drunk deeply from classic sources, saw this so clearly and expressed it so tersely that his dictum is here repeated: “Christianity is the form in which the progressive civilization of Greece and Rome expressed its tendencies when time and experience had partly matured them.’’(Bernard Bosanquet, The Civilization of Christendom, London, 1893, p. 75. See also Walter Horton, Can Christianity Save Civilization? p. 67 n.) Greece and Rome did not survive as cultural entities; instead, they contributed to that which did survive; and that which did survive is Christianity.
The magnitude of our possible revolution becomes clearer when we think of the degree to which the gospel has permeated the unargued groundwork of our culture. This permeation is shown by the reasons people give for what they do and especially in the excuses they give for their moral failures. The ultimate appeal is usually made to the welfare of others rather than to the capricious desire of the person whose actions are under consideration. The ideological leaders of the Fascist and Nazi revolutions have tried to alter this form of ultimate appeal, but even they have had difficulty in maintaining a consistent rejection of the ethical presuppositions of Western civilization. Mussolini himself, perhaps in a weak moment, defended the conquest of Ethiopia on grounds that he owed more to the New Testament than to the neo-paganism which he claimed to preach. “Italy,” he wrote, “is conquering territory in Africa, but in doing so she is freeing populations who for thousands of years have been at the mercy of a few bloodthirsty and rapacious chieftains.’’(Op. cit., p. 86) Of course, if he had been consistent, the writer would have extolled the bloodthirstiness and rapacity of these chieftains, seeing in them models of the new and strong morality, but it is hard to be consistent all the time. It is especially hard when one is dealing with fundamental presuppositions that have influenced human judgments for so many centuries.
Now it is these particular presuppositions that are in jeopardy. The West has turned against its own genius. We have seen it break down before our eyes in the huge and terrifying object lesson that Central Europe provides. What frightens all reasonable people is the fact that we see about us, in our own neighborhoods, some of the same factors which, existing in greater degree, made that object lesson actual. How can we keep the evil from spreading? Certainly the mere defeat of the Axis Powers will not be sufficient to prevent this. Our greatest menace is not from Germany, great as this has been, but rather from the same mood that gripped Germany so powerfully and so destructively.
We are superficially safe in the Western democracies so long as the war lasts, but the danger will be enormous when the fighting ends. A host of new problems will arise, bringing new temptations. We must remember that, after the First World War, the epidemic broke out first in Italy and then in Germany because these patients were weaker. The germs are everywhere, and we shall be weaker later. Epidemics, like empires, often move West.
Now the problem is this: What is going to buttress our spiritual life in this time of unparalleled danger, when the ancient supports are gone? What are the modern equivalents of the philosophies of the ancient world and the Christian faith of our fathers? Is it the gospel of “freedom” in the sense of rejection of all limitations on private whim? Is it some dark revival of paganism? Is it some general talk about the democratic way of life? These are among the most important questions that a man can ask.
Our problem is not to save Western culture, in the sense of merely keeping something from the past. Much of what we have had we do not wish to see restored, because it is bad. What we are concerned with in Western civilization is not its restoration, but the achievement of the promise that has long been implicit within it. In any case, the ideal is clear. What we seek is a situation in which we so combine scientific and technical skill with moral and spiritual discipline that the products of human genius shall be used for the welfare of the human race rather than their harm and destruction.
Since the practical task now is the spiritual task, as we have defined it, we must consider the genuine alternatives before us. These are essentially three, (1) the new gospel of power culture, which rejects our historic faith; (2) some effort to keep the fruits of our culture apart from its religion; or (3) a reaffirmation of the Christian faith. It is conceivable that, apart from such a reaffirmation, there is no possibility of a really civilized life on the global scale that modern conditions require. But this is a question that we must decide on the basis of the available evidence. In the succeeding chapters of this book we shall examine some of the available evidence, beginning with the first major alternative and following the argument wherever it leads.