return to religion-online

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 11: The Protestant Principle and the Proletarian Situation

From many points of view it would seem that Protestantism and the proletarian situation have nothing to do with each other. The facts support this view almost indisputably. Consider, for instance, the intense struggle of nearly a hundred years between the spokesmen of Protestantism and those who have made the proletarian situation the basis of their thinking; the sociological connection of the Protestant churches in central Europe with the petite bourgeoisie and feudalism, and in western Europe and America with big business and the successful entrepreneurs; the inner opposition of the proletarian masses to the type of life and ideas characteristic of Protestantism; the political alliance of the proletarian parties with the Catholic party and the opposition of the parties supported by Protestant circles to the political representatives of the working classes. A fundamental difference becomes evident in all this. The proletarian situation, in so far as it represents the fate of the masses, is impervious to a Protestantism which in its message confronts the individual personality with the necessity of making a religious decision and which leaves him to his own resources in the social and political sphere, viewing the dominating forces of society as being ordered by God.

This opposition seems to be irreconcilable from the point of view of history, as well as from that of principle. Nor can one overcome the difficulty by distinguishing between socialism and the proletarian situation and then asserting that, although the interpretation and shaping of the proletarian situation was actually accomplished by socialism (though with false means), it could have been better and more successfully dealt with by Protestantism. Such a view leaves unexplained the fact that Protestantism has not actually done this, and that, in its stead, socialist theory and practice have become the fate of the proletariat while Protestantism has remained aloof from it. Socialism and the proletarian situation cannot be separated. They have formed each other. But one thing must be conceded: socialism is not identical with the proletarian situation. The proletarian situation could have been shaped by some other historical force. The relation between socialism and the proletarian situation is one of great tension. But it is not, therefore, a less binding and less fateful relation.

But if it is not possible to separate socialism and the proletarian situation, the dangerous consequence for Protestantism seems to result that there remains one human situation impervious to it. The unconditional and universal character of its message would thus be given up; instead of being a prophetic message for man as man, it would become a religious possibility for only certain groups of men. The fact that almost the entire literature and agitation of socialism reflect this very conviction needs no proof. If this view were correct, the end of Protestantism would be at hand, even if the Protestant churches should actually obtain a temporary increase in power through the intellectual and political energies of the antilabor groups supporting them sociologically. Hence the question concerning Protestantism and the proletarian situation is the most pressing aspect of the more comprehensive question concerning Protestantism and socialism. In so far as socialism is a world view, Protestantism may enter into a more or less fruitful apologetic discussion with it. But in so far as socialism is the expression of the proletarian situation, it poses for Protestantism the question concerning the meaning and the validity of its own unconditional and universal claim.

In view of the strangeness of the proletarian situation to present-day Protestantism, a positive answer to this question can be given only if it is possible for Protestantism to extricate itself from its present status without losing its own inherent character. Only if it is Protestant to give up that sort of Protestantism to which the proletarian situation remains inaccessible can the unconditional and universal character of the Protestant message be maintained. This possibility does, however, exist. It is the possibility that makes Protestantism "Protestant." What makes Protestantism Protestant is the fact that it transcends its own religious and confessional character, that it cannot be identified wholly with any of its particular historical forms. Thus, if there is an incongruity between Protestantism in its present status and the situation of the proletariat, it does not follow that the incongruity belongs in essence to Protestantism. Protestantism has a principle that stands beyond all its realizations. It is the critical and dynamic source of all Protestant realizations, but it is not identical with any of them. It cannot be confined by a definition. It is not exhausted by any historical religion; it is not identical with the structure of the Reformation or of early Christianity or even with a religious form at all. It transcends them as it transcends any cultural form. On the other hand, it can appear in all of them; it is a living, moving, restless power in them; and this is what it is supposed to be in a special way in historical Protestantism. The Protestant principle, in name derived from the protest of the "Protestants" against decisions of the Catholic majority, contains the divine and human protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality, even if this claim is made by a Protestant church. The Protestant principle is the judge of every religious and cultural reality, including the religion and culture which calls itself ‘‘Protestant."

The Protestant principle, the source and judge of Protestantism, is not to be confused with the "Absolute" of German idealism or with the "Being" of ancient and recent philosophy. It is not the highest ontological concept derived from an analysis of the whole of being; it is the theological expression of the true relation between the unconditional and the conditioned or, religiously speaking, between God and man. As such, it is concerned with what theology calls "faith," namely, the state of mind in which we are grasped by the power of something unconditional which manifests itself to us as the ground and judge of our existence. The power grasping us in the state of faith is not a being beside others, not even the highest; it is not an object among objects, not even the greatest; but it is a quality of all beings and objects, the quality of pointing beyond themselves and their finite existence to the infinite, inexhaustible, and unapproachable depth of their being and meaning. The Protestant principle is the expression of this relationship. It is the guardian against the attempts of the finite and conditioned to usurp the place of the unconditional in thinking and acting. It is the prophetic judgment against religious pride, ecclesiastical arrogance, and secular self-sufficiency and their destructive consequences. The Protestant principle in this sense is not strange to the situation of the proletariat in modern society. It is, on the contrary, the exact expression of its religious significance as an outstanding example of man’s situation. The inadequacy of Protestantism in the face of the proletarian situation is, accordingly, the result of the contradiction between the Protestant principle and Protestantism as it actually is. Hence we may divide our discussion into two parts: (1) the vindication of the Protestant principle in the proletarian situation and (2) the failure of historical Protestantism in face of the proletarian situation.

The demands for Protestant action which arise out of the Protestant principle and the proletarian situation will come out of the discussion itself and thus will require only a summing-up in a few concluding remarks.

In the foregoing analysis the definition of the concept of "the proletarian situation" has been presupposed. But a more precise definition of it is necessary before we can approach our subject. The proletarian situation is not to be understood as the situation in which all members of the proletariat live. This would be both too narrow and too broad a conception—too narrow, because not only the proletariat, and too broad because not all of the proletariat, are in the proletarian situation. What is meant by the term "the proletarian situation" is rather the typical situation of a certain group in capitalistic society. It is taken for granted that the proletarian type is seldom, if ever, wholly realized; that it is, as circumstances change, subject to modifications which alter the type; and that it is undergoing changes along with capitalism, which is itself in process of development. But these restrictions which are valid for the definition of any sociological concept, do not preclude the setting-up of such concepts; they determine only their methodological character. The proletarian situation is thus to be understood as the situation of that class within the capitalist system whose members are dependent exclusively upon the "free" sale of their physical ability to work and whose social destiny is wholly dependent upon the turn of the market. This definition presupposes a thoroughly capitalistic system, an exclusive dependence upon the sale of labor, and a complete dependence upon the chances of the market. If these criteria are strictly applied, the merely typical character of what we have called the "proletarian situation" becomes evident, for there is nowhere a fully developed capitalist system. Without taking into account the various periods of capitalism itself, certain precapitalist and postcapitalist conditions always prevent the full development of the system. Furthermore, exclusive dependence upon the sale of physical labor is by no means the most prevalent situation. Either it has not yet developed (even though there is a tendency for the system to develop more and more in this direction), as among those members of the middle class and of the white-collar group who are not fully proletarianized; or it is no longer real, as is the case with highly skilled workers and with labor leaders. Moreover, the full dependence upon the oscillation of the market is not yet reached when a remnant of feudal safeguards is operative, or it is no longer real when labor legislation has created new safeguards. From a logical point of view the concept of the proletarian situation is an evidence of the fact that concepts derived from history are concepts of a representative and typological character. From the point of view of the actual, human situation, however, no justification is needed for using this concept in a time when the fate of millions of unemployed who cannot sell their labor becomes increasingly the fate of a nation and even of a cultural epoch.

II. The Vindication of the Protestant Principle in the Proletarian Situation

The Protestant principle implies a judgment about the human situation, namely, that it is basically distorted. The difficult concept of "original sin" denotes an original self-contradiction in human existence, coincident with human history itself. This cleavage in human nature is not to be interpreted, and thereby justified, as a necessary consequence of the finiteness of creaturely existence. The fateful character of the human situation is not due to finitude as such; nor does finitude provide the basis for guilt and its tragic consequences. Both the fateful character and the guilt of human existence are due rather to the self-assertiveness of the finite being in its pride, concupiscence, and separation from its ground. Not finitude, then, but this perversion of human nature is the fateful element in the human situation. Man alone is in this situation because in him life rises to the level where it is able to determine itself. Man’s power of self-determination carries with it the possibility of a perverted, destructive self-determination. But the possibility of perversion does not explain its reality. For the possibility of self-contradiction is rooted in the self-determination of man, the direction of which cannot be determined beforehand. This basic, underivable cleavage in human existence underlies all human history and makes history what it is.

Such an aspect of the Protestant principle, when seen in the light of the proletarian situation, finds a complete vindication, and, conversely, the proletarian situation becomes ultimately explicable only by means of that element of the Protestant principle just referred to. In the proletarian situation the perversion of man’s nature shows its reality in the social realm. This assertion can be theologically denied only by those who conceive of the relation between God and the world as exclusively a relation between God and the soul. But this is not consistent with either the prophetic message or the Protestant principle. The perversion of human existence is real in social, just as strongly as in individual, distortions and with even more primitive force; and collective guilt is just as real and perceptible as individual guilt; neither can be separated from the other.

From the beginning, the proletarian consciousness has been aware of the perversion and inner contradiction of a society that permits such a thing to exist as a proletarian situation and the breaking-up of society into classes. In this negative moral judgment about man’s actual existence, the socialistic evaluation of the proletarian situation and the Protestant understanding of the universal human situation agree. The universally human reveals itself in the proletarian situation. This involves the theological recognition of the fact that there are situations in which the perversion of man’s essential nature is manifest primarily as a social perversion and as social guilt; and it involves the philosophical recognition of the fact that the proletarian situation, far from being merely a historical accident, represents a distortion of essential human nature and a demonic splitting-up of humanity in general. So the judgments derived from the Protestant principle and from the proletarian situation complete each other. The Protestant judgment becomes concrete, actual, and urgent in its application to the class situation of today; and the socialist judgment becomes universal, profound, and religiously significant if put in the frame of man’s general situation.

The Protestant principle relates its judgment of the human situation to the whole man. It does not interpret the inner contradiction of human nature in terms of a dualism between spirit and body but rather passes its judgment in the same way upon the spiritual as upon the physical existence of man. The body is no "prison" but rather a "temple," and it is not the body that struggles against the spirit but rather "the flesh"—a term that signifies the pride of the spirit as well as the lusts of the body. From this it follows that the whole man is the subject of the religious demand and promise and that the help of man to man must involve the whole man, body and spirit together. The Protestant principle, which exempts no aspect of human existence from the judgment that it is involved in contradiction with itself, considers the whole man, man as a unity of body and soul, in his relationship with the transcendent. This biblical idea was rediscovered by the Reformation in its opposition to the dualistic elements of the Catholic system. But in Protestantism itself this idea has become only partially effective for individual ethics and not at all for social ethics.

The proletarian situation confirms the biblical doctrine; for in this situation there is a unity of both bodily and spiritual distortion of man’s true nature, in the face of which every attempt to save the soul and leave the body to perdition must appear to be frivolous. "Body" is to be understood here as representing the whole vital sphere. The exclusion of it from salvation in some types of Christianity is in itself perversion and guilt.

The distorted character of the vital existence of millions and millions of proletarians in city and country is too obvious to need much description. It is worse in some nations than in others and in some sections of a country than in others. It is worst in periods of unemployment, and it is intolerable—leading to mass explosions—in times of protracted mass unemployment. In view of these facts, it is dishonest to use the instinctively materialistic reaction of the proletariat to its fate as an excuse for discrediting the proletarian struggle. Much so-called "idealism" has its roots in the social and economic security of the upper classes; and Protestantism has just as little reason to praise this bourgeois idealism as it has to condemn proletarian materialism. The philosophical expression of the materialistic reality of the proletarian situation is of only secondary importance. The thing of primary importance is the imposed materialism in the actual life of the proletariat. This actual materialism in the objective proletarian situation is to be taken very seriously; the theory of materialism, however, is to be taken seriously only in so far as it reflects this actual situation. The Protestant principle can interpret this actual materialism inherent in the life of the proletariat just because Protestantism is not in principle allied with bourgeois idealism.

The basic distortion of the human situation involves all men. It is the negative side of the idea of a unified humanity. No one can withdraw himself from this situation. Everyone is bound to it in spite of man’s essential freedom. Of course, self-determination belongs to man as man. It distinguishes him from nature. But in the power of his freedom he can contradict himself, he can estrange himself from himself. And this is not only an individual possibility but also a universal reality. Mankind universally is in the bondage of self-estrangement. Man’s freedom is superseded by his servitude. This is what the Reformation emphasized against the optimistic individualism of humanists like Erasmus. It is a basic element of the prophetic and the biblical message. It is constitutive for the Protestant principle. But this realistic interpretation of human existence as a whole did not prevent the early Christians or the Reformers from attacking every concrete manifestation of the universal evil, individual as well as social. The category of "the universally human" did not lead away from the particular human problem of a definite social situation. The "universal" and "the concretely historical" do not contradict each other. So primitive Christianity challenged the Roman state as a demonic power having the ambiguity of the demonic to be creative and destructive at the same time, establishing order and compelling men to the worship of itself. So Luther saw in the papacy in Rome the "Antichrist" dominating Christendom and attacked it with all his prophetic wrath, although he knew he risked the unity of Christendom.

The proletarian situation compels Protestantism to take a similar attitude, for the proletarian situation is an inescapable consequence of the demonic structure of capitalism. No men in our time, regardless of whether they belong to the bourgeois or the proletarian group, can escape the permanent and essential contradictions of the capitalist system. The most obvious and basic of these contradictions is the class struggle that is going on at every moment, both from above and from below. No one can avoid having a part in it, since in capitalism it necessarily produces the struggle for existence. This does not mean that anyone should or could accept the class struggle as desirable. It is the symptom of a disease, or, symbolically speaking, it is the symptom of a demonic possession in the grip of which modern society lives. Therefore, although the proletariat and its leaders urge the fight against the ruling classes, they do not favor the class struggle—which goes on anyway—they try to encourage the fight for the existence of the proletarians. And they try to do something else; they try to overcome the system as such which, by its very structure, produces the class struggle. This gives the proletarian fight both its universal significance and its dangerous dialectics. Protestantism, in the light of its own principle, should be able to understand this situation, to see its demonic implications and its divine promises.

The Reformation struggled against two ideologies, that is, against two ways of concealing the true human situation, namely, the Catholic and the humanistic ideology. Catholicism claims to offer a secure way of overcoming the separation of man from his divine ground through sacramental graces and ascetic exercises, the efficacy of which is guaranteed by the hierarchy and its sacramental powers. Humanism denies the perverted character of the human situation and tries to achieve essential humanity on the basis of human self-determination. Over against these two ideologies—the religious and the secular—Protestantism must insist upon the unveiled and realistic recognition of the perennial situation of man. Historical Protestantism, however, has not escaped the ideologizing of its own principle. Protestant orthodoxy and Protestant idealism represent the sacramental and the humanistic forms of the old ideologies. In both forms a "man-made God" has been substituted for the true God, a God that is either enclosed in a set of doctrines or is believed to be accessible through morals and education.

In the power of the Protestant principle, Protestantism must fight not only against other ideologies but also against its own. It must reveal the "false consciousness" wherever it hides. It must show how the "man-made God" of Catholicism was in the interest of the feudal order, of which the medieval church was a part; how the ideology of Lutheranism was in the interest of the patriarchal order, with which Lutheran orthodoxy was associated; how the idealistic religion of humanistic Protestantism is in the interest of a victorious bourgeoisie. The creation of these ideologies—religiously speaking, idols—representing man’s will to power, occurs unconsciously. It is not a conscious falsification or a political lie. If this were the case, ideologies would not be very dangerous. But they are dangerous precisely because they are unconscious, and are therefore objects of belief and fanaticism. To reveal these concrete ideologies is one of the most important functions of the Protestant principle, just at it was one of the main points in the attack of the prophets on the religious and social order of their time. Theology, of course, must provide general insight into human nature, into its distorted character and its proneness to create ideologies. But this is not enough. A religious analysis of the concrete situation must unveil concrete ideologies, as Luther and the Reformers did when they unveiled the all-powerful Roman ideology.

The proletarian situation is, objectively, an outstanding instance of an ideology-unveiling situation. Subjectively, this is not always the case. Being a man, the proletarian is not exempt from the human tendency to erect an ideological superstructure over his own interests. He always does it; and, likewise, socialist theory and propaganda, in order to justify the struggle of the proletariat, tend to build up a questionable ideological superstructure. Over against this, however, stands the objective proletarian situation upon which the ideology must suffer shipwreck. The needs of man, of a sociologically homogeneous mass of men, tear away the ideological mask. They provide the criterion for distinguishing what is real from what is merely ideological. Anything that cannot rescue the proletariat from the perversion of existence in the capitalistic order is rejected. This refers to romantic-conservative as well as to progressive-idealistic ideas. This fear of ideological camouflage is the reason for the influence upon socialism of Feuerbach’s criticism of religion. It is on this basis that the churches and their theoretical and practical symbols are criticized. In so far as they ignore the proletarian situation, they are looked upon as ideologies. And so also is a theology that remains aloof from the concrete proletarian struggle. The proletarian situation, in forcing Protestantism to bring to the fore the critical element of its own principle, creates the constant suspicion that Protestantism has itself become an ideology, the worship of a man-made God. For this reason, the proletarian situation provides a fundamental vindication of the Protestant principle and the most serious judgment of historical Protestantism.

The Protestant principle took form in Luther’s fight for justification by grace and through faith alone. "Justification" in this sense is the paradox that man, the sinner, is justified; that man the unrighteous is righteous; that man the unholy is holy, namely, in the judgment of God, which is not based on any human achievements but only on the divine, self-surrendering grace. Where this paradox of the divine-human relationship is understood and accepted, all ideologies are destroyed. Man does not have to deceive himself about himself, because he is accepted as he is, in the total perversion of his existence. But being accepted by God means also being transformed by God—not in terms of a tangible change but in terms of "anticipation." Anticipation is neither having nor not-having. With respect to the empirical objects of the world, one can say that to anticipate something is simply not to have it; it is an anticipation of it in the merely ideal form of an image. But the object of religious anticipation is not an empirical object. It never and nowhere can be possessed in an empirical way. The only way of possessing it is by anticipation. This idea of anticipation received its classic expression in the word of Jesus: The Kingdom of God is at hand. It is here and yet it is not here. The metaphor "at hand" has the same double meaning as the metaphor "anticipation"— the former from the objective, the latter from the subjective, side. The paradox inherent in these concepts indicates the character of the relation of the infinite and the finite in the light of the Protestant principle and the idea of justification: possessing and not possessing at the same time. Anticipation without possession is religiously as impossible as nearness without presence; for nobody can anticipate the ultimate without being touched by it, and nobody can pronounce that the Kingdom of God is at hand who is not already drawn into it. On the other hand, nobody can have the ultimate, nothing conditioned can possess the unconditional. And nobody can localize the divine that transcends space and time.

It is significant that the proletarian situation, just because it is so emphatically anti-ideological, is characterized by a pronounced form of anticipation. It is through anticipation that the proletariat experiences the meaning of its existence. It is through anticipation that the inner contradiction of our epoch becomes evident, just as the anticipation of the early Christians made them aware of the demonic powers which ruled their world. When the proletariat awoke from its stupor under early capitalism and became conscious of itself as proletariat, a new anticipation was thereby brought to birth. Indeed, the one did not happen without the other. The anticipation of the proletariat, in the religious sense of the word, expresses both the nonpossession of what is anticipated, the living in the proletarian situation, and the anticipatory possession of what is hoped for, the creative tension in which the present is potentially overcome. Just because of his anticipation the proletarian is no longer only a proletarian. He becomes aware of the impossibility of his existence, and this consciousness of the evil is a factor in the process of overcoming it. That is the fundamental difference to be seen in the situation of the proletarian before and after it was interpreted and molded by Marxism: whereas previously the perversion of his existence was only objective in character, afterward, because of awareness and anticipation, it became also subjective, and by that very fact its objective power was broken.

The Protestant principle provides the possibility for understanding the paradoxical character of anticipation as it is found in the proletariat, and, besides this, it has the power to guard against a distortion that threatens all anticipation, i.e., utopianism. The attitude of anticipation develops into utopianism if it is allowed to lose its essential dialectical character and is held as a precise and literal intellectual anticipation—an anticipation that at some time in the future is to be replaced by a tangible, objective possession. The thing ultimately referred to in all genuine anticipation remains transcendent; it transcends any concrete fulfillment of human destiny; it transcends the otherworldly utopias of religious fantasy as well as the this-worldly utopias of secular speculation. And yet this transcendence does not mean that distorted reality should be left unchanged; rather it looks forward to a continuous revolutionary shattering and transforming of the existing situation. Thus proletarian anticipation involves a real change in proletarian existence, a real shattering and overcoming of capitalism. But it does not and cannot involve the bringing-about of a situation that is exempt from the threat that always confronts human existence.

Christianity interprets the divine action in history and personal life through the ideas of providence and predestination. In the power of these ideas, human destiny is elevated above the uncertainties of human freedom and self-determination to a level of "transcendent necessity." Since man is in the bondage of existential self-contradiction, he is, according to Christian and Protestant teaching, unable to overcome this situation by himself. The bondage to "demonic structures" can be released only by a bondage to "divine structures." But this bondage, this "transcendent" necessity, is not causal, and even less is it mechanical necessity. It is a dependence which, far from abolishing human freedom, re-establishes it in its essential integrity. Man remains man, whether he is "possessed" or in the state of grace. He never becomes a "thing," a mere object, deprived of his psychological freedom. The unity of these two elements—empirical freedom and transcendent necessity—characterizes all symbols, indicating the relation of the unconditional to the conditioned. Neither determinism nor indeterminism is an adequate description of this relation, which is a matter of basic experience in all great representatives of religion (Isaiah, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Mohammed). Their actual behavior and that of their followers show that the seeming contradiction between empirical freedom and transcendent necessity is not a real contradiction. Those who have emphasized most (and often in a deterministic distortion) the "unconditional dependence" on the divine, as Calvin and the Puritans did, have created the most activistic type of men in all history.

The same tension appears in the attitude of the proletariat toward its own movement. It combines the certainty that the anticipated event is coming with the feeling of responsibility for its coming. Marx’s dialectic has expressed it, but it springs from deeper roots than he knew. It is operative in every great revolutionary movement: the certainty that success is destined to come stimulates the highest degree of activity. Marx gave this original impulse a conceptual form, following Hegel, who, in his philosophy of history, attempted to interpret the arbitrary acts of human self-determination as the bearers of an all-embracing meaningful necessity. This was a philosophical rationalization of the idea of providence. Even in the Marxian dialectic something of the faith in providence is left, a joining-together of universal necessity and historical responsibility. The course of the historical process leads with dialectical (not mechanical) necessity to the emergence of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, to the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, and thence to the abolition of the class society. This necessity does not, however, give to the proletariat the right merely to watch the process but rather makes the demand that the dialectical necessity be materialized by means of revolutionary effort.

The "calling" of the proletariat to overcome the class society is something that the proletariat is always in danger of losing. It must stand the test of struggle. Indeed, according to Marx, the failure of the proletariat and the consequent social chaos are always a possibility. But this possibility of failure does not represent something that invalidates the all-embracing dialectical necessity. The dialectic of history moves on relentlessly to bring to an end the class-conflict phase of human development. Hence, if the proletariat fails in its "calling," mankind must begin again. Even if the proletariat should be replaced by some other instrument of destiny, the fundamental dialectic of history will remain unchanged in character. In Judaism and Christianity the idea of "calling" is very important as an element in the larger concept of predestination. Israel is called, so are the disciples, so is every generation of Christians, so is every special church, so is Protestantism. But he who is called might be rejected if he does not fulfill his calling. Protestantism might miss its calling and be rejected by the judgment of its own principle. And if the proletariat should no longer maintain its role of overcoming the demonic structure of capitalism, it would necessarily be "rejected" by virtue of its own "calling." But the admission of these possibilities does not imply the rejection of either the Protestant principle or the anticapitalistic principle. These principles will arouse new fighters. If Protestantism had had a deeper insight into these aspects of human history, it would have found an approach to the proletarian situation, and it would have been possible for it to give a better interpretation of the proletarian struggle than the socialists, with their hopeless mixture of mechanistic calculation of historical necessities and petty tactics, have provided.

The Protestant principle overcomes the gap between the sacred and the secular spheres, between priesthood and laity. Protestantism demands a radical laicism. There are in Protestantism only laymen; the minister is a layman with a special function within the congregation; and, in addition to possessing certain personal requisites, he is qualified for the fulfillment of this function by a carefully regulated professional training. He is a nonlayman solely by virtue of this training. Just as there is no priest having a special religious function, for everybody is a layman and every layman is potentially a priest, so there is no religion as a special spiritual sphere. Everything is secular and every secular thing is potentially religious. The relation to the unconditional permeates every moment of the daily life and makes it holy. The "holy" is not one value beside others but a qualification, appearing in all values and in the whole of being. Protestantism has not always measured up to the greatness and the radicalism of this idea. On Protestant soil, very soon after Luther’s pronouncement of the universal priesthood of all Christians, a quasi-priesthood of the orthodox doctrine arose, as arrogant as the sacramental priesthood of the Roman church. And often Protestant laymen not only have supported this claim but have also acted as the guardians of obsolete traditions, by defending with pseudo-priestly or pseudo-theological fanaticism, elements of the past which already had been rejected by prophetic or honest theological criticism. This is certainly not the proper function of the Protestant layman. He is supposed to challenge any conscious or unconscious attempt of ministers or theologians to set up a religious sphere as separate from his "secular" life and his "secular" work. He is supposed to tear down this boundary.

The proletarian situation has a completely secular character. Not only does the proletariat lack any priestly group in itself, but in its most radical circles it has also separated itself from every connection with the church. For this reason the representatives of most of the Christian churches have challenged socialism, as anti-Christian, anti-religious, and atheistic. Political alliances between socialist and, for instance, Catholic parties cannot bridge the deep gap between the Catholic system and the socialist movements. This is true also of some Protestant churches—for instance, German Lutheranism. But Protestantism must raise the question as to whether the absence of an expressly religious attitude and the manifestations of an outspoken secularism mean the lack of "religion" in the sense of the Protestant principle. Protestantism must ask whether, under the disguise of a secular theory and practice, socialism does not represent a special religious type, namely, the type that originates in Jewish prophetism and transcends the given world in the expectation of a "new earth"— symbolized as classless society, or a stage of justice and peace, or an era of perfect rationality, etc. It must also be asked, in the light of the Protestant principle, whether the proletarian movement does not represent a kind of lay movement, which, although remote from every theological self-expression, bears witness to the human situation, its distortion and its promise. This is especially worth asking in view of the quasi-religious enthusiasm, the willingness to make every sacrifice, the tremendous forming and uniting power of the early proletarian movements. In any case, Protestantism should ask these questions and should consider an affirmative answer as a possibility. It should be open for the prophetic message which is hidden under proletarian secularism, even under its ardent attacks on the Christian churches generally and on Protestantism especially. Protestantism has the power to accept these attacks, to turn them against itself, and to transform itself according to the standard of its own principle.

These are the main respects in which the Protestant principle can find a vindication in the proletarian situation and the proletarian situation can be viewed in a new way and understood in its importance for Protestantism.

III. The Failure of Historical Protestantism in the Face of the Proletarian Situation

It is the historical fate of Protestantism that it has been driven in a direction which, although understandable in the frame of world history, does not express the possibilities of the Protestant principle and may prove ultimately disastrous. This is especially true of the contact between Protestantism and the proletarian situation. We shall not analyze all the causes of this development but shall rather point out those aspects in which the antiproletarian tendency in Protestantism is most evident.

In the first place we should mention the hardening into dogma which the Protestant principle has undergone in the orthodox period, whereby it has been petrified into a system of doctrine that raises an unconditioned claim to truth. The effect of this development upon the religion and theology of Protestantism is familiar and has been the subject of extensive research. From the point of view of the Protestant principle, it is clear that in this trend a basic element of the principle has been abandoned. It was claimed that man has objective possession of a truth that is identical with the content and letter of an inspired Scripture. The Scripture is in the hands of the church and its theological experts, and it can be used like an untouchable, unfailing, and completely sufficient document of what is true. The critical power of the Protestant principle against any papal authority, be it that of a living man or that of a written paper, was forgotten. A quasi-sacramental dignity was attributed not only to the biblical text but also to the "pure doctrine" as expressed in the Protestant creeds and the official teaching of the church. A truth beyond the biblical truth—for instance, philosophy—is not wanted. The Protestant doctrine is not subjected to the criticism of the Protestant principle.

As a result of this, the Protestant message in its orthodox form is wholly unsuited to reach the proletariat. Even the middle classes have become inwardly estranged from the teaching of the church—in some cases radically so, in others in a compromising way. But, owing to their educational advantages and their familiarity with history, they have had and still have at least the possibility of understanding it or of sympathetic insight into it, and in many cases even of taking it up again. They have often had a real or a feigned respect for the achievements of the past. But it is quite otherwise with the proletarian masses. They have no sense of a historical background; they have neither the capacity nor the desire to understand the achievements of the past or to acquire a sympathetic insight into them; they stand in the most dire need and in the expectation of something new; and they have access only to those concepts that are rooted in the modern industrial world and to those ideas which interpret their needs and justify their anticipations. But, since Protestantism, as a result of its orthodox seclusion, has been unable to interpret these needs and anticipations, its message has remained unintelligible to the masses, even in its most simple and reduced form. A change is possible only if Protestantism, rediscovering its own principle, recognizes that truth transcends all human fixation, even the letters of a sacred book.

Pietism is another factor that is of great significance for the understanding of the relation between Protestantism and the proletariat. Religion as an affair of the purely inner life isolates the individual and limits the relation between God and the world to the relation between God and the soul. The result of this is that the problems of worldly activity do not come within the scope of religion. The inner life, rather than the social sphere, is the place where God and man may enter into relation with each other. There is, so to speak, a direct line reaching upward from every individual. The Kingdom of God is the heavenly realm which the individual soul hopes to reach. Thus the forward-looking eschatological fervor of primitive Christianity is paralyzed, and the world-transforming aspect of the idea of the Kingdom of God disappears. The social sphere is viewed as a place of probation for the individual, but activity in the world as such does not have an intrinsic significance for the ultimate goal. It is obvious that this attitude could only intensify the gap between Protestantism and the proletariat; for it is characteristic of the proletariat that its fervor is directed forward, creating a will to change the world. This is by no means an accidental, capricious tendency. It is rather a necessity inextricably bound up with the class struggle. In the face of the social situation of the proletariat, individual piety has only relative significance and even becomes unimportant. This holds even for questions like those of individual destiny, individual guilt, and even individual death. However effective the presentation of such questions may be, it is very hard to turn the eyes of the proletariat from the forward to the upward direction. Every attempt of this kind is felt as an attempt to divert attention from the political fight and as such is resisted.

The liberal interpretation of the Protestant principle is in accord with the proletarian outlook in so far as it is based on the autonomous attitude which is natural for proletarian thinking. The rigor of the scientific method in its historical research assures to theological liberalism the interest of educated humanists as well as the esteem of the proletariat (in so far as the latter comes into touch with these questions at all).

And yet this type of Protestantism has not become an effective way of bringing together Protestantism and the proletariat. So long as liberalism remains bound to the humanistic ideal of personality, it cannot influence the masses. The ideal of the religious personality is unsuited for the thinking of the proletariat. Protestantism in all its forms has emphasized the conscious religious personality, his intellectual understanding and his moral decisions. It has become a "theology of consciousness" in analogy to the Cartesian philosophy of consciousness. Even religious feeling, as emphasized by pietism and romanticism, remained in the sphere of consciousness. This had a double consequence. The personality was cut off from the vital basis of its existence. Religion was reserved for the conscious center of man. The subconscious levels remained untouched, empty, or suppressed, while the conscious side was overburdened with the continuous ultimate decisions it had to make. It is not by chance that in Protestant countries the breakdown of the conscious personality has occurred on such a large scale that the psychoanalytic return to the unconscious became a social necessity. A religion that does not appeal to the subconscious basis of all decisions is untenable in the long run and can never become a religion for the masses. The other consequence of the emphasis on the "religious personality" is the isolation of the religious individual. It was especially the Calvinistic type of Protestantism that worked in this direction, alienating the masses who need supra-individual symbols and institutions. Catholicism was much more able to satisfy this need and, consequently, to keep proletarian masses under its sway. But more successful than both the Christian churches was Marxism, whose most important function was to give the despairing, chaotic, empty masses of early capitalism symbols that grasped their unconscious as well as their consciousness, institutions that conquered the atomistic solitude of the individual within the mass, and a myth that created faith, hope, and a fighting community. Protestantism, in order to continue this trend in the future mass society, must transform itself in this point more than in any other one.

With the disappearance of the Catholic hierarchy, Protestantism had to depend upon worldly "hierarchies" for its realization. Luther’s decision in connection with the Peasants’ Revolt made it a permanent necessity for Lutheranism to depend upon absolutism and to repudiate democratic revolutionary tendencies. Among the Calvinists matters developed quite differently. Very early there came about an alliance of Protestantism, which was fighting for its existence, with the middle classes, who were struggling for their economic independence. In this way there arose, on Lutheran soil, the connection of Protestantism with the patriarchal form of social life and on Reformed soil its connection with the capitalist-liberal form of society. The former is more characteristic of central Europe and the latter of western Europe and America. But in both forms it produced an antagonism to the proletariat. This was due to the fact that after the breakdown of the episcopal power the churches of the Reformation became dependent either on the absolute state and the political groups that controlled it or on the dominant forces in the bourgeois society. This was unavoidable, but it made an appreciation of the revolutionary proletariat by the Protestant churches practically impossible.

It is extremely difficult for most of the exponents of the Protestant churches to detect this sociological conditioning. They imagine that official or private declarations of neutrality will be sufficient to make the church and the groups supporting the church really neutral; they fail to recognize the power of those social realities that exercise an influence quite contrary to what people may think or wish; these social realities, consciously or unconsciously, condition action as well as thought. The old claim, for example, that the churches have taken a neutral attitude toward the farm-labor problem was pure ideology, a definitely "false consciousness." Every aspect of the farm laborer’s life showed him that this claim was not true and that the church was on the side of the landowners. It was, therefore, only a short step to the complete estrangement of the farm laborers from the church after they became an urban proletariat. The opportunity that arose for German Protestantism after World War I to become detached from the state has not been utilized up to the present. Lutheranism has maintained its old connection with the groups that were in control in the pre-war monarchy. The church has even supported the conservative opposition to a state in which the proletariat had gained certain positions of power. The only change that has occurred is the rise of religious socialism, which, on the whole, has been tolerated by the Protestant churches, albeit with more or less hostility. The religious socialists have set for themselves the goal of freeing Protestantism from the sociological attachments resulting from its antiproletarian past.

Connected with all this is Protestantism’s almost complete surrender to the nationalistic ideology. Only when the pagan basis of nationalism was openly expressed by various groups in recent years did a slight reaction against "the myth of the nation" appear. Yet the old bonds between church and national state are still so strong that Protestantism mostly sides with those groups that have made the name "nationalist" into a party slogan. Only rarely has it been recognized by Protestant leaders to what an extent the name "national" has become an ideology, that is, a conscious or unconscious concealment of the drive for power of certain economic and political pressure groups. This almost unqualified support of the "nationalist" ideology by the Protestant churches obstructs the coming-together of the church and the proletariat.

One basic demand upon Protestantism arises from what has been said above. Protestantism under the stress of the proletarian situation must decide for the Protestant principle as against historical Protestantism. The demand should not be made that Protestants subscribe unconditionally to socialism; rather the demand should be that Protestantism subject all its decisions and activities to the criterion of the Protestant principle in the face of the disturbing and transforming reality of the proletarian situation. Protestantism should take socialism seriously as an expression of the proletarian situation. Not that every individual Protestant should become a socialist, but the individual Protestant should realize that against his will he transforms Protestantism, Christianity, and religion into an ideology; that he serves the "man-made God" of his social group, class, or nation, when he does not take seriously the reality of the proletarian situation as decisive for the future development of Protestantism. The proletarian situation is not something optional to which attention may or may not be given. It is rather the point at which history itself has posed the question to Protestantism, whether it will identify itself with the traditional forms in which it has been realized, or whether it will accept the challenge that confronts it in the situation of the proletarian masses and that calls in question a large part of its present-day life and thought.

Viewed 201084 times.