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The Protestant Era by Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. The Protestant Era was published by The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois in 1948. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock<

Chapter 3: Kairos

The ideas here set forth present a summons to a thinking that is conscious of history, to a consciousness of history whose roots reach down into the depth of the unconditional, (The term "unconditional" which is often used in this book points to that element in every religious experience which makes it religious. In every symbol of the divine an unconditional claim is expressed, most powerfully in the command: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind." No partial, restricted, conditioned love of God is admitted. The term "unconditioned" or the adjective made into the substantive, "the unconditional," is an abstraction from such sayings which abound in the Bible and in great religious literature. The unconditional is a quality, not a being. It characterizes that which is our ultimate and, consequently, unconditional concern, whether we call it "God" or "Being as such" or the "Good as such" or the "True as such," or whether we give it any other name. It would be a complete mistake to understand the unconditional as a being the existence of which can be discussed. He who speaks of the "existence of the unconditional" has thoroughly misunderstood the meaning of the term. Unconditional is a quality which we experience in encountering reality, for instance, in the unconditional character of the voice of the conscience, the logical as well as the moral. In this sense, as a quality and not as a being, the term is used in all the following articles.) whose conceptions are created from the primordial concerns of the human spirit, and whose ethos is an inescapable responsibility for the present moment in history. The form of this summons will not be that of a sermon; it will not be propaganda or romanticism or poetry but serious intellectual work, striving for a philosophy of history that is more than a logic of the cultural sciences and yet does not lag behind it in sharpness and objectivity. It would be a meaningless beginning to wish to undertake such a task in the brief limits of an essay if more were intended than to bring one concrete conception into a sharp light, a conception that, if it alone has been made to stand out clearly, can be illuminating for many others—the conception of "kairos." A summons to a consciousness of history in the sense of the kairos, a striving for an interpretation of the meaning of history on the basis of the conception of kairos, a demand for a consciousness of the present and for action in the present in the spirit of kairos—that is what is intended here.


It was a fine feeling that made the spirit of the Greek language signify chronos, "formal time," with a different word from kairos, "the right time," the moment rich in content and significance. And it is no accident that this word found its most pregnant and most frequent usage when the Greek language became the vessel for the dynamic spirit of Judaism and primitive Christianity—in the New Testament. His "kairos" had not yet come, is said of Jesus; and then it had once at some time or other come, en kairo, in the moment of the fullness of time. Time is an empty form only for abstract, objective reflection, a form that can receive any kind of content; but to him who is conscious of an ongoing creative life it is laden with tensions, with possibilities and impossibilities, it is qualitative and full of significance. Not everything is possible at every time, not everything is true at every time, nor is everything demanded at every moment. Various "rulers," that is different cosmic powers, rule at different times, and the "ruler," conquering all the other angels and powers, reigns in the time that is full of destiny and tension between the Resurrection and the Second Coming, in the "present time," which in its essence is different from every other time of the past. In this tremendous, most profoundly stirred consciousness of history is rooted the idea of the kairos; and from this beginning it will he molded into a conception purposely adapted to a philosophy of history.

It is no superfluous undertaking if a summons to a consciousness of history is made, for it is by no means obvious to the human mind and spirit that they are historical; rather, a spiritual outlook that is unaware of history is far more frequent, not only because of dullness and lack of spirit—these we have always had and always will have—but also because of deep instincts of a psychic and metaphysical kind. This outlook that is unconscious of history has two main roots. It may be rooted in the awareness of what is beyond time, the eternal. This type of mentality knows no change and no history. Or it may be rooted in the bondage of all time to this world, to nature and to her eternally recurrent course and change, to the ever continuing return of times and things. There is a mystical unawareness of history which views everything temporal as a transparent cover, as a deceptive veil and image of the eternal, and which wants to rise above such distractions to a timeless contemplation of the timeless; and then there is what we may call a naturalistic unawareness of history, which persists in a bondage to the course of nature and lets it be consecrated in the name of the eternal by priest and cult. For wide areas of Asiatic culture mystical unawareness of history is the basic spiritual attitude. In contrast to this, consciousness of history is relatively rare. In principle, it is a characteristic element in the development of the Semitic-Persian and Christian-occidental outlook. But even there it appears only at those times when a new vitality has emerged, in the supreme moments of the creative apprehension of the world. All the more important is it for the whole development of mankind at large that this consciousness should in the Occident again and again emerge in full vigor and depth. For one thing is certain: Once it has definitely emerged, it will by degrees bring all nations under its spell; for an action conscious of history can be countered only by an action conscious of history; and if Asia in proud self-consciousness because of an age-old possession defends itself against the Occident, then, to the extent in which this opposition takes place consciously, it is already transported to the soil of historical thinking, and therefore it is by virtue of the very struggle itself brought into the domain of historical consciousness.

But in the Occident itself an opponent has risen against historical thinking, an opponent issuing from the mystical view of the world, nourished by the naturalistic attitude, and shaped by the rational, mathematical method of thinking—the technical-mathematical explanation of the world by means of natural science, the rational conception of reality as a machine with eternally constant laws of movement manifest in an infinitely recurring and predictable natural process. The mentality that has produced this conceptual framework as its creation has, in turn, come so much under its spell that it has made itself into a part of this machine, into a piece of this eternally identical process. It has so surrendered itself to its own creation that it has considered itself as a mechanism and has forgotten that this machine was created by it. This is a great threat to occidental culture. It means the loss of a precious possession, a greater catastrophe than that of never having had it. These words are directed to the materialistically minded among the socialists, and they are needed in order to reveal the contradiction in which the socialists stand if, as heirs of a powerful philosophy of history and as bearers of the present consciousness of history, they turn to worship a philosophy that excludes meaningful history and accepts a meaningless natural process. A "materialistic interpretation of history" would be a contradiction in itself, if it were meant to be anything other than an "economic" interpretation of history or if it were meant to have anything to do with metaphysical materialism. Unfortunately, the word has here often become a deception, hiding the actual situation. No system has a better right to raise a protest against the late bourgeois materialism that has no consciousness of history than does socialism, a movement that is unprecedently aware of history. The stronger it raises this protest and the more it gives evidence of the kairos, the further it gets away from all metaphysical materialism, and the more clearly it reveals its belief in the creative power of life.


The first great philosophy of history was born out of a keen sense of duality and conflict. The struggle between light and darkness, between good and evil, is its essence. World history is the effect of this conflict; in history the entirely new occurs, the unique, the absolutely decisive; defeats may be suffered on the way, but in the end comes the victory of the light. Thus did Zarathustra, the Persian prophet, interpret history. Jewish prophecy brought into this picture the ethical drive of its God of justice. The epochs of the struggle are the epochs of history. History is determined by supra-historical events. The most important period is the final one, that of the struggle for the ultimate decision, an epoch beyond which no new epoch can be imagined. This type of historical consciousness thinks in conceptions of an absolute character: the absolute opposition between light and darkness, between good and evil; the final decision; the unconditional "No" and the unconditional "Yes" which are struggling with each other. It is an attitude toward history which is moved by a tremendous spiritual tension and by an ultimate responsibility on the part of the individual. This is the great, early expression of man’s historical consciousness: the philosophy of history expressed in absolute terms.

It can take on two basic forms. The first form of the absolute philosophy of history is defined by a tense feeling that the end of time is near: the Kingdom of God is at hand, the time of decision is imminent, the great, the real kairos is appearing which will transform everything. This is the revolutionary-absolute type. It sees the goal of history in the "kingdom from above" or in the victory of reason within this world. In both cases an absolute "No" is pronounced upon all the past, and an absolute "Yes" is pronounced upon the future. This interpretation of history is fundamental for all strong historical consciousness, as is the interpretation in which the conception of the kairos was first grasped.

The second form of the absolute philosophy of history can be called a conservative transformation of the revolutionary form as it was achieved by Augustine in his struggle against the chiliastic revivals of the early Christian belief in the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God in history. The background of this type is the same as that of the revolutionary type: the vision of a struggle between two forces in all epochs of history. But, according to the conservative type, the decisive event has already happened. The new is victoriously established in history, although it is still attacked by the forces of darkness. The church in its hierarchical structure represents this new reality. There are still improvements, partial defeats, and partial victories to be expected and, of course, the final catastrophe, in which the evil is destroyed and history will come to an end. But nothing really new can be expected within history. A conservative attitude toward the given is demanded.

The dangerous element in both forms of the absolute philosophy of history, in the conservative as well as in the revolutionary form, is the fact that a special historical reality is set up as absolute, whether it be an existing church or the expected rational society. This, of course, brings a continuous tension into the historical consciousness; but, at the same time, it depreciates all other historical realities. In the Augustinian interpretation, which in principle corresponds with the inner feeling and self-consciousness of all predominantly sacramental churches, only the history of a special church is, in the strict sense, significant for the philosophy of history. Her inner conflicts and their resolution, her fights against external enemies—these are the viewpoints under which all other events are envisaged and estimated. The fight for God and against the world, which is the present historical task, means, in practice, a fight for the church, for a pure doctrine, for a hierarchy. Against this ecclesiastical interpretation of history we must conceive of the kairos in universal terms, and we must not limit it to the past but raise it to a general principle of history, to a principle that is also relevant to the present.

Again and again sectarian revolutionary impulses have opposed the ecclesiastical-conservative mentality, in religious or in secular terms. Whether the great revolution is thought of as from beyond and is expected through the action of God exclusively, or as prepared for by human action, or as being a creation of the human spirit and an act of political revolution; whether the utopias are based on ideas of natural law, such as democracy, socialism, and anarchism (heirs of the religious utopias) or on a transcendent myth, the consciousness of the kairos is equally strong and equally unconditional in all of them. But, in contrast to the conservative interpretation, the kairos in this view lies in the present: "The kingdom is at hand." This excitement, however, about the present and the exclusive orientation toward the future in the revolutionary movements blinds them with respect to the past. The sects are opposed to the ecclesiastical traditions, the bourgeoisie destroys the aristocratic forms of life, socialism fights against the bourgeois heritage. The history of the past disappears in the dynamic thrust toward the future. This is the reason why a strong historical consciousness has often accompanied ignorance about past history—for instance, in the proletarian masses—and this is the reason why, on the other hand, a tremendous amount of historical knowledge has not overcome an attitude of detachment and misapprehension with respect to the present moment of history, for instance, in the bourgeois historians of the last decades (in contrast to the great bourgeois historians of the eighteenth century, with their revolutionary visions). For these scholars history was an object of causal explanation or of exact descriptions, but it did not concern them existentially. It was not a place of actual decisions (in spite of their great achievements in historical research). But oppressed and ignorant people, and those few from the educated classes who identified themselves with the people, created the revolutionary-absolute interpretation of history. So it was in early Christianity, in most of the medieval sects, and in our own period. But the lack of a sense of tradition was also the reason for the strong elements of utopianism in all these movements. Their ignorance of the past betrayed them into the feeling that the period of perfection had already started, that the absolute transformation was only a matter of days or of a few years, and that they were its representatives and bearers.

Both forms of an absolute philosophy of history are judged by the absolute itself. The unconditional cannot be identified with any given reality, whether past or future; there is no absolute church, there is no absolute kingdom of reason and justice in history. A conditional reality set up as something unconditional, a finite reality to which divine predicates are attributed, is antidivine; it is an "idol." This prophetic criticism, launched in the name of the unconditional, breaks the absolute church and the absolute society; conservative ecclesiasticism and revolutionary utopianism are alike idolatry.

This is the message of the so-called "theology of crisis," represented by Karl Barth in his powerful commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. No finite reality can claim an absolute status. Everything conditioned is judged by the unconditional in terms of "Yes" and "No." There is a permanent crisis going on in history, a crisis in the double sense of the Greek word: judgment and separation. No moment of history is without this tension, the tension between the unconditional and the conditional. The crisis is permanent. The kairos is always given. But there are no outstanding moments in history with respect to the manifestation of the unconditional (except the one moment which is called "Jesus Christ" and which has a supra-historical character). History as such loses its absolute significance; hence it loses the tremendous weight it has in the revolutionary interpretations of history. From the absolute point of view, history becomes indifferent. A third type of absolute philosophy of history appears in this doctrine of "crisis," the "indifference" type. It is indifferent to the special heights and depths of the historical process. A kind of "divine humor" toward history is praised, reminding one of romantic irony or of Luther’s understanding of history as the realm of God’s strange acting. In this attitude the concept of crisis has no actuality; it remains abstract, beyond every special criticism and judgment. But this is not the way in which the crisis can be effective and the negative can be overcome. The latter is possible only by a new creation. Not negation but affirmation conquers the negative. The appearance of the new is the concrete crisis of the old, the historical judgment against it. The new creation may be worse than the old one which is brought into crisis by it; and, whether better or worse, it is subjected to judgment itself. But in the special historical moment it is en kairo ("at the right time") while the old creation is not. In this way history receives the weight and seriousness which belong to it. The absolute—to vary a famous saying of Hegel—is not so impotent as to remain in separation from the relative. It appears in the relative as judgment and creation. This leads to the description of relative interpretations of history.


We may distinguish three types in the relative form of philosophy of history: the classical, the progressive, and the dialectical type. The common characteristic of relative interpretations of history is their relativizing attitude toward historical events and, accordingly, the loss of absolute tensions. Instead of absolute judgments, there appears a uniform and universal evaluation of all phenomena on the basis of a historical understanding which is able to have an intuitive feeling for the meaning of every single phenomenon. Thus the relative interpretations comprehend the richness and abundance of historical reality, and they offer the possibility of integrating it into a universal philosophy of history.

The classical philosophy of history can be subsumed under the motto that "every epoch is immediately under God." In every epoch human nature develops the fullness of its possibilities; in every epoch, in every nation, an eternal idea of God is realized. History is the great process of growth of the tree of mankind. This is the vision of people like Leibniz, Goethe, and Ranke. But epochs and nations are not revelations of human nature in the same way in all times. There are differences between blossom and decay, between creative and sterile periods; the vitality of the creative process is the criterion according to which the various periods are judged. This links the classical interpretation of history to the nonhistorical naturalism of the Greeks, as is especially obvious in Spengler’s physiognomy of the cultural cycles. Here every culture is a tree by itself with a thousand-year span of life and a final disappearance. History is torn into separate processes originating in different geographical areas and having nothing to do with one another. Crisis is in a rather negative sense the transition from the creative to the technical period of development, which leads to inescapable self-destruction. In spite of this relationship between the classical and the naturalistic interpretation of history, they are different in their basic attitude. The modern form of the classical philosophy of history belongs to Christian humanism and betrays its Christian background in spite of its longing for the Greek way of life. In contrast to the tragic pessimism of the ancient world, it maintains the independent meaning of history.

This is the point of contact which it has with the progressive-relative philosophy of history. Just as the religious enthusiasm of early Christian (and many sectarian) expectations of the end became weakened after the continuous delay of the end and the establishment of the church in the world (or of the sect as a large denomination), so also the secular revolutionary movements become relativistic after their political victory and after the necessary disappointment about the gap between expectation and reality. At this moment "crisis" becomes restricted criticism, radical change becomes slow transformation, the ideal is projected into a remote future, the enthusiasm is replaced by the clever calculation of possibilities, the belief that the turning-point has arrived is exchanged for the certainty of a continuous progress. The religious idea of a history of revelation in several stages is secularized into the idea of a progressive education of the human race (Lessing).

The progressive-relative attitude can emphasize the restricting elements of the idea of progress. Then it tends to become more and more conservative, defending the status quo, clinging to the given, praising the positive against the negative and critical, developing a positivistic behavior and philosophy. If, on the contrary, progressivism emphasizes the negative-critical element of the idea of progress, two ways are open to it. Either it becomes an attitude of, so to speak, professional criticism which is unable to accept anything positive and to express any affirmation—an empty, often cynical, often oversophisticated, often desperate criticism. Or it becomes an attitude of an intensive will to create something new, not to accept the "positively given." In this case it easily loses its relative character and becomes absolute and revolutionary. The consciousness of a kairos becomes possible. Thus the ambiguity of the progressive interpretation of history is its danger and its power.

A connecting of the classical with the progressive interpretation of history results in the dialectical interpretation: this is the highest type of the relative interpretations. It operates in three forms, the theological, the logical, and the sociological, each depending in many respects upon the others.

The theological form is anticipated in the proclamation of the three eras of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit by the Abbé Joachim of Floris in the twelfth century; it is taken up in the idea of the three ages expounded by the leaders of the Enlightenment and of German idealism; and it appears again in the three stages (the theological, the metaphysical, and the positivistic stages) of Comte’s philosophy of history. The logical form of the dialectical philosophy of history is so typically and impressively represented by Hegel that it is sufficient merely to mention him, while the sociological form is represented in the French socialistic romanticism with its distinction between the critical and the organic periods and, above all, in the economic interpretation of history by Karl Marx.

A common element in these three forms of the dialectical interpretation of history is their positive valuation of all periods. Every period is more than a transitory moment in the historical process. It has a meaning of its own, an eternal significance. But, besides its relation to the absolute, it is related to the other periods. It is more or less perfect in relation to them. There is "immediacy" with respect to the unconditional, and, at the same time, there is progress with respect to other periods in every period of history. The classical and the progressive philosophy of history are united in the dialectical method.

The dialectical interpretations of history (theological, logical, and sociological) betray an ambiguity similar to that of the progressive interpretation. They can be understood in absolute and in relative terms. According to Joachim, Hegel, Marx, and Comte, the last period of history is "at hand." It can already be recognized in the womb of the present period. (For Hegel his own philosophy is the moment of its birth.) The epoch of the Holy Spirit, the stage of perfect self-consciousness, the classless society, the foundation of the religion of positive science, are final stages; they are kairoi in the absolute sense. A revolutionary impulse is visible in all these dialecticians of history, even in Hegel, in his principle of negation. From this side of their thinking they belong to the revolutionary-absolute interpreters of history. Joachim and Marx were so esteemed by their revolutionary followers. But there is another side to the picture. Dialectical thinking subjects every moment of time to its "Yes and No." It does not negate the past unconditionally, and it does not affirm the future unconditionally. The period of the Spirit, in Joachim’s vision, is prepared for by the periods of the Father and the Son. But what prevents the history of salvation from preparing something new in the womb of the period of the Spirit? The Germanic nations, according to Hegel, are the last bearers of the process in which the absolute idea actualizes itself. But why should the principle of negation be impotent in face of the Germanic peoples alone? The alternation of organic and critical periods in French socialism gives a high valuation to the Middle Ages. But why should the next organic period, socialism, be protected against a new "critical" period? And why should the period of positive sciences, which is an offspring of religion and metaphysics, not produce another higher period?—a question directed to Comte. And why, finally, should the classless society, which Marx expects, be the end of historical dialectics? Why should the proletariat, after its victory, not succumb to cleavages similar to those experienced by the victorious bourgeoisie? An absolute stage as the end of the dialectical process is a contradiction of the dialectical principle. It is an idea taken from the revolutionary-absolute interpretations of history. In this ambiguity the limits of the dialectical interpretation of history become manifest: either it must stop the dialectical process arbitrarily, or it must fall back to a doctrine of infinite repetition.


The last considerations have shown us the struggle for an interpretation of history which is in accord with the meaning of the kairos. We have described and schematized the different interpretations in order to draw from them the demands that the idea of kairos poses for any interpretation of history. There are, first of all, two demands that can be derived from the two main groups of interpretations of history. From the absolute types we derive the demand for an absolute tension in the historical consciousness; from the relative types we derive the demand for a universal historical consciousness; from the relative types we derive the demand for a universal historical thinking. We reject any attempt to absolutize one historical phenomenon over against all the others, challenging, at the same time, the leveling of all epochs into a process of endless repetition of relativities. A twofold demand may therefore be made upon a philosophy of history that is aware of the kairos. The tension characteristic of the absolute interpretation of history must be united with the universalism of the relative interpretations. But this demand contains a paradox. What happens in the kairos should be absolute, and yet not absolute, but under judgment of the absolute.

This demand is fulfilled when the conditioned surrenders itself to become a vehicle for the unconditional.

The relation of the conditioned to the unconditional, in individual as well as in social life, is either an openness of the conditioned to the dynamic presence of the unconditional or a seclusion of the conditioned within itself. The finite life is either turned toward the infinite or turned away from it toward itself. Where there is an acceptance of the eternal manifesting itself in a special moment of history, in a kairos, there is openness to the unconditional. Such openness can be expressed in religious as well as in secular symbols as the expectation of the transcendent Kingdom of God, or the thousand years of the reign of Christ, or the third epoch of world history, or the final stage of justice and peace. However different the historical consciousness involved in the use of the one or the other of these symbols may be, the consciousness of the kairos, of the outstanding moment in history, can express itself in each of them.

Openness to the unconditional, turning toward it, receiving and bearing it, are metaphors that all express the same reality. But they express it only in a highly abstract way and require a much more concrete interpretation of their meaning. An age that is open to the unconditional and is able to accept a kairos is not necessarily an age in which a majority of people are actively religious. The number of actively religious people can be greater in a so-called "irreligious" than in a religious period. But an age that is turned toward, and open to, the unconditional is one in which the consciousness of the presence of the unconditional permeates and guides all cultural functions and forms. The divine, for such a state of mind, is not a problem but a presupposition. Its "givenness" is more certain than that of anything else. This situation finds expression, first of all, in the dominating power of the religious sphere, but not in such a way as to make religion a special form of life ruling over the other forms. Rather, religion is the life-blood, the inner power, the ultimate meaning of all life. The "sacred" or the "holy" inflames, imbues, inspires, all reality and all aspects of existence. There is no profane nature or history, no profane ego, and no profane world. All history is sacred history, everything that happens bears a mythical character; nature and history are not separated. Equally, the separation of subject and object is missing; things are considered more as powers than as things. Therefore, the relation of them is not that of technical manipulation but that of immediate spiritual communion and of "magical" (in the larger sense of the word) influence. And the knowledge of things has not the purpose of analyzing them in order to control them; it has the purpose of finding their inner meaning, their mystery, and their divine significance. Obviously, in such a situation, the arts play a much greater role than in a scientific or technical age. They reveal the meaning of the myth on the basis of which everybody lives. In the same way social and political acts cannot be imagined without the powers of the divine sphere. The individual is entirely surrounded and carried by this all-penetrating spiritual substance out of which blessedness (and also curse) comes to him. He cannot escape it. Only in extreme cases of vocation or revolt can the individual extricate himself from the whole to which he belongs. Merely individual religion, individual culture, individual emotional life, and individual economic interests are impossible in such a social and spiritual situation. We shall call such a situation "theonomous," not in the sense that in it God lays down the laws but in the sense that such an age, in all its forms, is open to and directed toward the divine. How could such a stage of history disappear? What has destroyed primitive theonomy? The answer is the always present, always driving, always restless principle of "autonomy." Just as theonomy does not mean a situation in which God gives laws, so autonomy does not mean lawlessness. It means the acceptance of the structures and laws of reality as they are present in human mind and in its structures and laws. Autonomy means obedience to reason, i.e., to the "logos" immanent in reality and mind. Autonomy operates in the theoretical, as well as in the practical, spheres of culture. It replaces mystical nature with rational nature; it puts in the place of mythical events historical happenings, and in the place of the magical sense of communion it sets up technical control. It constitutes communities on the basis of purpose, and morality on the basis of individual perfection. It analyzes everything in order to put it together rationally. It makes religion a matter of personal decision and makes the inner life of the individual dependent upon itself. It releases also the forces of an autonomous political and economic activity.

Autonomy is always present as a tendency; it acts under the surface of every theonomy. "The secret impressionist that lives in every true artist" (Hartlaub) is the model for the secret astronomer in every true astrologer, and the secret physician in every true medicine man. The power of scientific and technical needs, in war and in industry and agriculture; the rationalizing energy inherent in the centralization of religion and government; the individualizing power of all strong piety; the struggle of ethical as against ritualistic "holiness"—all these forces are at work every moment, and they try to break through the bonds of the theonomous situation. The outcome of this struggle varies greatly. The theonomous situation can be so strong that autonomy cannot even start, as in many primitive cultures. Or it can achieve a certain degree of rationalization, at which point it comes to a standstill, and the forms thus created receive a final sanction, as, for example, in China. Or the rationalization can pierce directly through the finite world and become an all-devouring principle, as in Indian mysticism. Or autonomy can remain in the religious realm, as in Protestantism. Or it can achieve a complete victory, as in ancient Greece and in the modern Enlightenment. Or it can, after a victorious period, be partly conquered again, as at the end of the ancient world and in the anti-autonomous attitudes of Protestant orthodoxy and of the Counter Reformation. Each of these events is a turning-point in history. It was felt so by the contemporaries, and it appears as such in the historical tradition. Each of them can be called a "kairos," an outstanding moment in the temporal process, a moment in which the eternal breaks into the temporal, shaking and transforming it and creating a crisis in the depth of human existence.

Autonomy is the dynamic principle of history. Theonomy, on the other hand, is the substance and meaning of history. How are they related to each other? First of all, it must be stated that autonomy is not necessarily a turning-away from the unconditional. It is, so to speak, the obedient acceptance of the unconditional character of the form, the logos, the universal reason in world and mind. It is the acceptance of the norms of truth and justice, of order and beauty, of personality and community. It is obedience to the principles that control the realms of individual and social culture. These principles have unconditional validity. Obedience to them is obedience to the logos-element in the unconditional. The difference, however, between autonomy and theonomy is that in an autonomous culture the cultural forms appear only in their finite relationship, while in a theonomous culture they appear in their relation to the unconditional. Autonomous science, for instance, deals with the logical forms and the factual material of things; theonomous science deals, beyond this, with their ultimate meaning and their existential significance. Autonomy is not "irreligious," although it is not a vehicle of religion. It is indirectly religious through the form; it is not directly religious. The humility of the scientific empiricist is religious, but it does not appear as such; it is not theonomous. The heroism of Stoic self-control is religious, but it is not theonomous. The mystery of Leonardo’s "Mona Lisa" is religious, but it does not show that it is. If both theonomy and autonomy are related to the unconditional, can we choose between them according to our taste, our psychological inclination, or our sociological tradition? This question is itself its own answer. Where it can be raised, theonomy already has been lost. As long as theonomy is in power, no alternative is open. If its power is broken, it cannot be re-established as it was, the autonomous road must be traveled to its very end, namely, to the moment in which a new theonomy appears in a new kairos

A new theonomy is not the negation of autonomy, nor is it the attempt to suppress it and its freedom of creativity. For such attempts, which often have been made, with or without success, we use the term "heteronomous." Heteronomy imposes an alien law, religious or secular, on man’s mind. It disregards the logos structure of mind and world. It destroys the honesty of truth and the dignity of the moral personality. It undermines creative freedom and the humanity of man. Its symbol is the "terror" exercised by absolute churches or absolute states. Religion, if it acts heteronomously, has ceased to be the substance and life-blood of a culture and has itself become a section of it, which, forgetting its theonomous greatness, betrays a mixture of arrogance and defeatism.

Theonomy does not stand against autonomy as heteronomy does. Theonomy is the answer to the question implied in autonomy, the question concerning a religious substance and an ultimate meaning of life and culture. Autonomy is able to live as long as it can draw from the religious tradition of the past, from the remnants of a lost theonomy. But more and more it loses this spiritual foundation. It becomes emptier, more formalistic, or more factual and is driven toward skepticism and cynicism, toward the loss of meaning and purpose. The history of autonomous cultures is the history of a continuous waste of spiritual substance. At the end of this process autonomy turns back to the lost theonomy with impotent longing, or it looks forward to a new theonomy in the attitude of creative waiting until the kairos appears.

Kairos in its unique and universal sense is, for Christian faith, the appearing of Jesus as the Christ. Kairos in its general and special sense for the philosopher of history is every turning-point in history in which the eternal judges and transforms the temporal. Kairos in its special sense, as decisive for our present situation, is the coming of a new theonomy on the soil of a secularized and emptied autonomous culture.

In these concepts and their dialectical relations the answer is given to the basic question of the philosophy of history: How can the absolute categories which characterize a genuine kairos be united with the relativity of the universal process of history? The answer is: History comes from and moves toward periods of theonomy, i.e., periods in which the conditioned is open to the unconditional without claiming to be unconditioned itself. Theonomy unites the absolute and the relative element in the interpretation of history, the demand that everything relative become the vehicle of the absolute and the insight that nothing relative can ever become absolute itself.

This solution concedes a limited truth to the interpretations of history discussed before.

The conservative-absolute philosophy of history is right in tracing the fight for and against theonomy, the "struggle between belief and unbelief," as it has been called, through all history. But it is wrong in identifying theonomy with a historical church.

The revolutionary-absolute philosophy of history is right in emphasizing the absolute tension toward absolute fulfillment, experienced in every kairos. In each kairos the "Kingdom of God is at hand," for it is a world-historical, unrepeatable, unique decision for and against the unconditional. Every kairos is, therefore, implicitly the universal kairos and an actualization of the unique kairos, the appearance of the Christ. But no kairos brings the fulfillment in time.

The warning against the idolatrous elevation of one moment in history, given by the indifferent-absolute philosophy of history, has a decisive influence on the solution: Everything can be a vessel of the unconditional, but nothing can be unconditioned itself. This, however, does not produce indifference toward history; it creates an attitude that takes history absolutely seriously.

The classical-relative philosophy of history is right in its idea of humanity as a whole, in its emphasis on autonomy, and in its recognition of the national, regional, and traditional differentiations within mankind. It understands the universality and individuality of human history and the special conditions of each kairos; but it fails in not accepting the absolute categories and absolute decisions connected with the experience of the kairos.

In every transforming activity a belief in progress is implied. Progressivism is the philosophy of action. Acting out of the kairos means acting in the direction of theonomy. And there is progress from what is not yet or no longer true theonomy toward its realization. In this the progressive-relative philosophy of history is right. But it is wrong in making the law of acting a law of being, for there is no law of universal progress. The fight between theonomy and its foes always goes on and grows more refined and more disastrous, the more the technical progress changes the surface of the earth, binding together all nations for common creation and common destruction at the same time.

The philosophy of the kairos is closely related to the dialectical interpretations of history. Theonomy, autonomy, and heteronomy are dialectically related to one another, since each of these ideas drives beyond itself. But there are some important differences. There is, in the doctrine of the kairos, no final stage in which dialectics, against its nature, ceases to operate. There is, in the doctrine of the kairos, not only the horizontal dialectic of the historical process but also the vertical dialectic operating between the unconditional and the conditioned. And, finally, there is no logical, physical, or economic necessity in the historical process, according to the doctrine of the kairos. It moves through that unity of freedom and fate which distinguishes history from nature.


We are convinced that today a kairos, an epochal moment of history, is visible. This is not the place to give reasons for this conviction, although we should refer to the ever growing literature that is critical of our culture and to movements in which the consciousness of the crisis has taken a living form. These may not be proofs that are objectively convincing; proofs of that sort cannot exist. Indeed, the consciousness of the kairos is dependent on one’s being inwardly grasped by the fate and destiny of the time. It can be found in the passionate longing of the masses; it can become clarified and take form in small circles of conscious intellectual and spiritual concern; it can gain power in the prophetic word; but it cannot be demonstrated and forced; it is deed and freedom, as it is also fate and grace.

The movement most strongly conscious of the kairos seems to us today to be socialism. "Religious socialism" is our attempt at interpreting and shaping socialism from the viewpoint of theonomy, from the vision of the kairos. It proceeds from the presupposition that in present-day socialism there are certain elements that are incompatible with the idea of the kairos, that are "untimely elements" in which originally creative ideas are perverted or corrupted. Religious socialism for that reason energetically carries on the cultural criticism characteristic of all socialism and seeks to lead the latter to its own real depth, while directing this criticism also against socialism itself.

In present-day socialism are brought together the revolutionary-absolute type in the this-worldly form and the dialectical-relative type in the form of an economic interpretation of history. But a balancing of the two has not been achieved. The unconditional is not grasped in its positive and negative power. It is not grasped in its positive significance as the principle of theonomy, judging and transforming all sides of our industrial civilization, including economics and politics. And the negative power of the unconditional is not appreciated, which brings the bearers of the crisis under judgment along with those who are criticized by them, and which judges also every future state of society. The reason for this twofold failure is that socialism, in spite of all its criticism of the bourgeois epoch, has been unable to keep itself free from its negative element, namely, its attempt to exclude the unconditional from the spheres of thought and action and, accordingly, to create the new epoch merely through technology and strategy. Socialism was not aware that precisely in this fashion it was prolonging the old epoch. Socialism saw the kairos, but it did not see its depth; it did not recognize the extent to which it stood itself under the crisis. When it fought against "bourgeois" science, it did not see how it itself shared the basic presupposition of this science, the purely objectifying relationship to the world, to spirit, and to history; and it did not see how, in spite of a different basic impulse, it was fettered within the bonds of that attitude. When it rejected the aesthetic aristocratic practice of art, it was not aware of the fact that, in its promotion of an art determined by its content and oriented to a particular type of ethics and politics, it stood simply at the other pole of the same axis. If in its theory of education it made its focal point the "enlightenment" and the technical discipline of intellect and will for the purpose of an economic and political acquisition of power, it did not realize that it was thereby adopting the basic attitude of its enemies or that it was trying to resist them by the very weapons with the help of which their enemies had deadened the souls of men and had made their bodies into mere cogs in a machine. If it made the highest possible increase of economic welfare into the all-determining and foremost aim, it did not see that it became thereby a mere competitor of capitalism, which believed that it could better accomplish the same thing through social welfare and technical progress. If socialism intended to deprive the spiritual and religious life of its intrinsic value, considering it as a mere ideology, it did not sense that it thereby strengthened the attitude toward economics and life in general that is characteristic of materialistic capitalism. When socialism viewed the atomistic individual as an ultimate reality and then tried to unite him with others through the solidarity of mere interests, it was not aware of its dependence upon the decomposition of "liberal" society and upon the false assumption that human groups may be ultimately motivated by the "struggle for existence." If socialism fought against religion in its ecclesiastical and dogmatic forms, and for that purpose took over all the means of combat and the slogans of the old liberal struggle against the churches, it did not see that it thereby came into the danger of cutting off the roots out of which alone enthusiasm, consecration, "holiness," and unconditional devotion can flow into it: the unconditional "Yes" to the unconditional, regardless of what its forms or symbols might be.

In all these things religious socialism is willing to push the criticism further, to carry it through deeper, to bring it to its ultimate and decisive point. It strives to be more radical, more revolutionary, than socialism, because it wishes to reveal the crisis from the viewpoint of the unconditional. It wishes to make socialism conscious of the present kairos.

With this aim, it follows that religious socialism is always ready to place itself under the criticism of the unconditional. By far the greatest danger for the religious-socialist movement seems to me to be where "religion" is used as a matter of strategy. Here the bourgeois element which socialism drags along with it is in a fateful way encouraged. A merging between the present-day socialism and the churches of our day impedes the coming of the kairos by mutually strengthening the very elements that must be eliminated. Religious socialism must not, for the present, become either a church-political movement or a state-political party, since it loses thereby the unrestricted power to bring both the churches and the parties under judgment.

Religious socialism should, in any case, avoid considering socialism as a religious law, by appealing to the authority of Jesus or to the primitive Christian community. There exists no direct way from the unconditional to any concrete solution. The unconditional is never a law or a promoter of a definite form of the spiritual or social life. The contents of the historical life are tasks and ventures of the creative spirit. The truth is a living truth, a creative truth, and not a law. What we are confronted with is never and nowhere an abstract command; it is living history, with its abundance of new problems whose solution occupies and fulfills every epoch.

One question may still be raised, and we offer a brief answer to it: "Is it possible that the message of the kairos is an error?"

The answer is not difficult to give. The message is always an error; for it sees something immediately imminent which, considered in its ideal aspect, will never become a reality and which, considered in its real aspect, will be fulfilled only in long periods of time. And yet the message of the kairos is never an error; for where the kairos is proclaimed as a prophetic message, it is already present; it is impossible for it to be proclaimed in power without its having grasped those who proclaim it.

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