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The Predicament of Modern Man by Elton Trueblood

Elton Trueblood is Professor at Large at Earlham College (1944). He is the author of more than twenty books, including The People Called Quakers and The Lord’s Prayers. Published by Harper and Row in 1944, New York, N.Y. 10016, this material was prepared for Religion-Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 3: The Impotence of Ethics

Here is no water but only rock.
Rock and no water and the sandy road.
T. S. Eliot

We have inherited, in the Western world, a cluster of ideas which we regard as precious and about which there is more agreement than superficially appears. Apart from a conscious rejection of these ideas, such as is described in the previous chapter, it is generally agreed throughout the West that human individuality is precious and that things must be used for the sake of man rather than man for the sake of things. When it comes to actual practice, we may depart from this standard rather markedly, but there is little argument about the principle. Furthermore, we hold that the state, being only a human device for the benefit of man, is not an object of absolute loyalty and ought not to be. The state exists for man, not man for the state. Most of us give hearty consent to Edmund Burke’s dictum that "all political power which is set over men ought to be in some way or other exercised ultimately for their benefit." Acceptance of these ideas constitutes, in general, what we call humanism; and, whatever else we are, most of us are humanists in this broad sense.

Another part of the cluster of ideas, to which general assent is given, concerns human equality. We hold that there is no favored race and no nation which ought to be dominant. Consequently, racial discrimination and all forms of slavery are believed to be wrong. We assert this proposition with a bit more hesitation than might be expected of those who mean what they say, but in any case we are ashamed to deny it.

A third part of this precious cluster is the concept of peace as the desirable condition for mankind. Very little of the Western world is pacifist in the extreme sense of refusal to participate in war after war is declared, but large portions of the Western world are pacifist in the sense that they hate war and all its works, and they participate in it only with troubled consciences and heaviness of heart. It is generally agreed amongst us that war is a sorry necessity at best, always a means to an end, and that the end is peace. We do not glory in war or maintain that it is needed as a stimulus to the heroic in man. We fight when we must to clear away the barriers to peace, and we make peace as rapidly and as securely as our conditions permit. War, in the Western mind, is an unfortunate interlude and nothing more.

On all this, we say, there is substantial agreement. This agreement has come not merely from the judgment of the rank and file, but even more strikingly from our moral philosophers who have given their lives to critical inquiry. Though our moral philosophers have differed in many details, especially in regard to the sources of moral judgment, they have agreed amazingly in regard to what men ought to do. Thus there is very little disagreement with Kant’s famous dictum: "So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only." Since this cannot be a genuine basis of conduct unless it depends, in turn, on a true experience of personal fellowship, the one permanently valid form of the categorical imperative, so Western man believes, is "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Most thoughtful members of our Western society will give hearty assent when the highest official of the Church of England says that "the essence of morality is personal fellowship or respect for persons as persons.’’(William Temple, Nature, Man and God, p. 254.)

Precious as this heritage is, there is grave question whether it can be made either to continue or to prevail. How can anything so mild be maintained in open competition with Blut und Boden? The problem is vastly accentuated by the fact that great numbers who accept this Western creed accept it halfheartedly and conventionally, while those who espouse a creed of blood or soil or race or nation or class usually espouse it with fanatical zeal. We take our creed for granted; we have little interest in how it came to be; and we assume uncritically that it will naturally survive. This is the pathetic faith of Western man in the middle of the twentieth century, a faith utterly unjustified by experience.

We can take no comfort from the fact that the pseudo paganism, which we have described under the category of power culture, is perverse and fundamentally decadent. The barbarism is, indeed, synthetic, as Reinhold Niebuhr has told us, but it is not weak. "For the first time in history," writes Niebuhr, "the barbarisms which threaten civilization have been generated in the heart of a decadent civilization. The barbarism which threatens us is ‘synthetic’ rather than genuine." (Reinhold Niebuhr, Christanity and Power Politics, New York, 1940, p. 118.) But, synthetic as it is, it is far too strong an adversary for the easygoing Westerner who says, complacently, that he has worked out a "philosophy" which is personally satisfactory to him and that he believes in being kind.

As we have already pointed out, the system of power culture must eventually fall because of its inner contradictions, and in this we can take comfort, but our sense of comfort is premature if we suppose the failure of one evil system means the reinstitution of that which sensitive men have most prized. Evil structures are indeed precarious, but evil structures are not automatically followed by something better.

One of the most disturbing of the parables of Jesus is the parable of the empty house.(Matthew, 12:43-45) The house, we are told, was emptied of the unclean spirit that had occupied it and was swept and garnished. But it could not remain empty. Not only did the original evil spirit return, but seven other devils, worse than the first, accompanied him. We have already seen this development in parts of our culture, and we shall see it in other parts unless we follow a more intelligent course of action. The empty condition, spiritually, is a condition of the greatest danger.

The danger of emptiness is seen vividly in the desire for unity and community. With the breakdown of legitimate bases of solidarity, men, and especially young men, could not remain satisfied with the amorphous heterogeneity of atomistic individualism. They longed to belong to something, and thus arose the new solidarities, which are of so perverted a kind as to menace the future of the human race.

Here, then, is our predicament: We have inherited precious ethical convictions that seem to us to be profound, central, and essential. But they have a curious inefficacy. They are noble, but they are impotent. We are amazed, by contrast, at the power that an alternative creed can engender. It is clear that something more is needed, that moral convictions, while necessary to the good life, are not sufficient. Perhaps an analysis of recent experience will give us our clue as to what this "something more" is.

Most careful observers agree that the two systems of life which have recently inspired the youth of Germany and of Russia are quasi-religious. They are much more than economics, and they are much more than politics. They are undoubtedly inadequate as religions, and in large measure false religions, but they have the effect that only religion can have. Millions now dying on both sides of the eastern front are dying for a faith. When we say that the system of which Adolf Hitler has been the prophet (and that, to an increasing degree, is his rôle) is fundamentally religious, we mean that it includes the element of absolute commitment which is everywhere the distinguishing mark of religion. The sad truth is that this commitment can be given to base objects more easily than it can be given to the Living God.

We understand much of the distinction between religion and other phases of our lives when we sense the profound difference between faith and belief. Faith is closer to courage than it is to intellectual assent. Faith is easily understood by the gambler as both Blaise Pascal and Donald Hankey knew because the gambler stands to win or lose by his play. This was brought out in Kirsopp Lake’s now classic definition, "Faith is not belief in spite of evidence, but life in scorn of consequences." Faith, as the plain man knows, is not belief without proof, but trust without reservations.

The lesson of history is that those lacking such a faith are no match for those inspired by such a faith, whatever its object. The fearful aspect of the present situation is that those who have inherited the major tradition of the West now have an ethic without a religion, whereas they are challenged by millions who have a religion without an ethic. The former group will win the war, because they have the preponderance of men and resources, as well as a fortunate alliance with Russia, but that is by no means the end of the story. We should be gullible indeed if we supposed that mere military victory would end the powerful threat of the faith which is proposed as a successor to the religion of the West.

Little do we know what evil faith may grip our people when the war is over. Since men cannot live long without a faith, the choice is always a choice between competing faiths. The only practical alternative to an evil faith is a better faith. Though this is the lesson of history, we are now trying the utterly precarious experiment, in which the odds are against us, of attempting to maintain our culture by loyalty to the Christian ethic without a corresponding faith in the Christian religion that produced it.

The characteristic intellectual, at least in English-speaking countries, is much influenced by the Christian ethic. He is brave and kind, he tries to obey the Ten Commandments, or in any case the last six, and he gives full intellectual assent to the Golden Rule. If he thinks seriously about the Hebrew Decalogue, he thinks that the ancients put the commandments in the wrong order. He would put the moral commandments first and the strictly religious ones last. (A large class in an American university was asked, recently, to regroup the commandments in order of importance. More than 90 per cent of the students put the first two commandments last.) He would seldom be aware that, in this regrouping, his judgment is in sharp opposition to the judgment of Jesus on the same subject.

The average Western intellectual appears to think of himself not merely as a humanist, which we all are, but as a humanist and no more. As such he is not necessarily antagonistic to religion, since there is obviously no contradiction between interest in human values and faith in God. Indeed, the main historic tradition in humanism has been Christian humanism, consciously refreshed at Christian sources. But, though the modern humanist does not oppose religion, he usually does something worse -- he ignores it. He acts in practice as though God does not exist and, without arguing the matter, assumes rather uncritically that religion is something outgrown. The result is that much of our current humanism is atheistic in practice, though not in theory. It is supposed that the fruits of the ancient faith can be enjoyed without attention to its roots.

Since the fashionable humanism of our day does not lack for able and eloquent spokesmen, we can select representatives with ease. They were numerous in pre-Hitler Germany, and they are numerous in the democracies now, though they are not so numerous as they were before the storm broke. If we were writing in England, it would be suitable to use as representative the writings of Julian Huxley or C. E. M. Joad. In America, an equally suitable representative is Alexander Meiklejohn, whose brilliant career as a philosopher and public servant entitles his words to respect. Meiklejohn has recently published a book called Education between Two Worlds, in which he espouses the creed of ethics minus religion with great clarity and discrimination. The reviews have shown that his following is great, especially in educational circles.

Though Meiklejohn is representative of the current tendency in one way, there is another way in which he is not representative. He is representative in the content of his belief or unbelief, but he is unrepresentative in his expression of it. He is an excellent spokesman who says clearly what so many think, but think in a confused or truncated manner. In particular, he sees, better than does the average man, the dangers of the position he champions. Most of the atheism of our time is unconscious, unargued, and unexplicit, whereas Meiklejohn’s atheism, while it is unargued, is at least conscious and explicit:

The cosmos as a whole, out of which human life emerges, gives no evidence of being, or wishing to be, intelligent. The human spirit is alone in an otherwise non-human, nonspiritual universe. Whatever it has, or may ever have, of sensitiveness, of wisdom, of generosity, of freedom, of justice, it has made, it will make, for itself.(Alexander Meiklejohn, Education between Two Worlds, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1942, p. 200)

The confidence with which such a sweeping statement is made surprises us, especially in view of the brilliant contemporary studies that do show evidence of Mind outside our little planet, (See Temple, op. cit., Chapter V) but perhaps it has not occurred to writers of this type that there might be exciting new thinking in contemporary theology. It is to Meiklejohn’s credit that he has some idea of the gravity of the human problem which such a change in conviction entails. "If we can no longer believe in God," he asks, "can we maintain, can we carry on, the civilization which was founded on that belief?"

Perhaps no question of this kind is ever permanently answered, but it is important to point out that there is a great body of evidence which suggests a negative answer to Meiklejohn’s question. And the chief evidence is to be found in the actual experience of men, especially in our part of the twentieth century. Since there is so much evidence of the moral decay that follows a loss of theistic conviction and so little evidence of the maintenance of civilization apart from this conviction, the burden of proof is on the person who answers Meiklejohn’s question in the affirmative. For the most part he has nothing more than speculation to offer as against the actual logic of events.

It must be remembered that there were many people in Germany who, during the time that Hitlerism was rising, accepted the benevolent and humane creed which Meiklejohn champions. But their humane creed was impotent in conflict with the narrow doctrine of race. The country seemingly was divided between those who embraced a humane creed with no enthusiasm and those who embraced the dogma of synthetic barbarism with abounding enthusiasm. Wherever this situation occurs, the crude doctrine will win. The excellence of humane sentiments is no guarantee of success, at least in the short run. If men are told the Golden Rule, they listen and give assent and do nothing. If they are told they belong to a master race, they proceed to demonstrate the truth of the statement.

The notion that an atheist is an evil man has little justification in experience. A pragmatist like John Dewey is often good and kind. The chief criticism to be leveled at the atheistic moralist is not that he is wicked, but that he is naïve. His assumption that the kind of life he prizes can stand up rootless against the contemporary storm has nothing to commend it in the actual experience of men. The impotence of contemporary moralism arises from the fact that "we are trying to maintain a political valuation of man which had roots in a religious understanding of him, when that religious understanding has been forgotten." (William Paton, The Church and the New Order, Student Christian Movement Press, London, 1941, p. 152.)

The cluster of ideas that we prize in our Western culture has been with us so long that we often forget how these ideas first came into the world. We owe a great deal, of course, to the classic cultures of Greece and Rome, but we tend to read back into the ancient literature conceptions that the classic authors did not really hold. Not until the rise of Christianity did the ancient world discountenance infanticide; likewise, it was Christianity "that ended the scandal of taking human life for sport," (H. G. Wood, Christianity and Civilization, p. 11. Professor Wood’s other examples are instructive.) and altered the status of women. Humanitarian ideals existed in classic culture, but the humanitarianism we prize in the West owes most of its original impetus to the gospel. It is interesting to note that this is the conclusion to which Alfred Loisy came, on the basis of his immense scholarship.

The best thing in present-day societies is the feeling for humanity which has come to us from the gospel and which we owe to Christianity. You will object that we have made this Christianity ourselves or at least perfected it. That is true, but it is not under the predominant influence of Greece and Rome that we have perfected it; it is by lending an ear to the voice of Jerusalem to which the ancient world finally listened, finding that it could not continue morally, humanely, by its own wisdom.(Alfred Loisy, La Morale humaine, p. 251.)

Even Meiklejohn, who makes no claim to being a Christian, appreciates perfectly what the source of so many of our humane ideals is, and he is especially clear about this in regard to the principles of education. In his account of the influence of Comenius, he points out that the advanced educational notions of Comenius came directly as applications of his Christian faith. His faith in God, as revealed by Christ, made him support a double universalism, the unity of knowledge and the unity of mankind. The strength of the educational idealism of Comenius came from the fact that it had roots. "Comenius believes in God," writes Meiklejohn. "Therefore he is a democrat. Therefore the unified study of the world is for him a normal part of the healthy living of every human being."(Meiklejohn, op. cit., p. 27)

The terrible danger of our time consists in the fact that ours is a cut-flower civilization. Beautiful as cut flowers may be, and much as we may use our ingenuity to keep them looking fresh for a while, they will eventually die, and they die because they are severed from their sustaining roots. We are trying to maintain the dignity of the individual apart from the deep faith that every man is made in God’s image and is therefore precious in God’s eyes. Certainly we cannot maintain this if we accept a metaphysical doctrine that refuses to admit any difference in kind between a living mind and a mechanical structure. We do not reverence a mechanical structure -- we use it. We are trying to keep the notion of freedom, especially freedom of speech, while we give up the basic convictions on which freedom depends. Freedom of research, for example, loses all its point unless there is an objective truth to which the scientist is loyal. Freedom of moral action likewise loses its point unless there is an objective right that the individual seeks to follow, whatever the personal cost. But belief in objective truth and belief in objective right are part of what we mean by belief in God.

If there is any suspicion that our standards are of our own making, weakness is bound to set in. Those who make can also set aside. What we need in order to give power is not an assertion of our own ideals, but contact with the eternally real. The ideal may be our own imaginary construction, wholly devoid of cosmic support. What men need, if they are to overcome their lethargy and weakness, is some contact with the real world in which moral values are centered in the nature of things. This is the love of God, for which men have long shown themselves willing to live or to die. The only sure way in which we can transcend our human relativities is by obedience to the absolute and eternal God.

Our major tradition is one in which men have had the courage to be free and to uphold the sacredness of individual personality because of their religious convictions. The appeal of democracy is not very great if we are concerned merely with democracy. It is easy, then, to make democracy seem ridiculous, as the apologists of totalitarianism have already done so effectively. But democracy has great attractive power if its appeal is derivative, if it is the practical application of profound convictions about God and man as it was for so many of the founding fathers of both British and American democracy in the seventeenth century.

The trouble with so many of our fine ideals is that they tend to be abstract. What, actually, do we mean when we speak of the love of humanity? We certainly do not mean that we love all the existent miserable people in the world, most of whom we have never seen. The abstract duty of being humane is not such as to dominate men’s lives, but there is something else which can dominate them. We get a hint concerning what this is when we note that Jesus apparently said nothing about "the indefeasible value of the individual," but He did say that not a sparrow "shall fall without your Father,’’(Matthew, 10:2) and "take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones. . . ." (Matthew 18:1.) Here is concreteness that gives power.

An ordinary man, merely in and of himself, is not of so great worth and may be a very poor creature. We shall not make an effective answer to the apostles of blood and soil by pointing to him. But there is something else to which we can point, as the late William Paton said in a memorable paragraph:

But if this humble and obscure man is in reality one whom God has made, whom He has made in love, so that he shall never know peace except in loving God in return; if this man is one to whom God speaks; if this man is the object of a Divine solicitude so great that the Word became flesh for his salvation, the Son of God died for him -- if this be true, then this humble and obscure man has a link with eternity, with the creative love that made the world. He cannot then be rightly treated as a cog in a machine, or a sample of a racial blood-stream, or one of the individual atoms that make up a nation.(Paton, op.cit.,pp. 150, 151)

It is especially in our Christian tradition that we find the power which is so conspicuously lacking in mere moralism. We must not forget that, in the Roman Empire, Christ won, and won against tremendous odds. He won because the faith in Christ really changed the lives of countless weak men and made them bold as lions. He has taken poor creatures who could not even understand the language of moral philosophy and shaken the world through them.

This has been said brilliantly by John Baillie:

Christ did not come to earth to tell us merely what we ought to do; He came to do something for us. He came not merely to exhort but to help. He did not come to give us good advice. That, if it were no more than that, was possibly not a thing of which we stood greatly in need, for there are always plenty of people who are ready with their advice. Advice is cheap, but what Christ offered us was infinitely costly. It was the power of God unto salvation.(John Baillie, Invitation to Pilgrimage, p. 51.)

It is easy enough to hate Hitler, but what is it that we propose as an alternative to his proposal for mankind? We now have a good opportunity to know, since we see suggestions daily in our propaganda sheets and even more in the expensive advertisements that so many large commercial firms are using for the building of morale, now that they have nothing to sell to the average reader. They all say about the same thing. We are to oppose the new paganism in the name of humanity, liberty, brotherhood, the sacredness of the individual soul. These are all very fine, but the question is whether they go far enough. John Baillie’s analysis is so good that his words should be cited again:

These indeed are the ideals of the Christian ages, or some of them, or at least they sound very like them, but in the Christian Ages they were all deeply rooted in something bigger and grander, in something that was no mere ideal but an eternal reality. They were rooted in the love of God as manifest in Jesus Christ our Lord . . . . It was Christ who taught us the indefeasible value of the individual soul. It was Christ who taught us of fraternité when He said, ‘One is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren’; and St. Paul when he said that ‘we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one member one of another.’ Hence the doubt that keeps raising itself in my mind when I read these fine pronouncements about our ideals . . . is whether these ideals have sufficient strength of conviction in them, or sufficient power of survival, in face of so powerful a contrary force, when they are no longer allowed to breathe their native air or draw daily sustenance from their original source.(Ibid., pp. 125. 126)

Moralizing cannot stand against a burning faith, even when that faith is an evil and perverted one. It is almost as ineffective as an umbrella in a tornado. The only way in which we can overcome our impotence and save our civilization is by the discovery of a sufficient faith. Goodness we must have, but the way to goodness is to find our peace in the love of God who, as the Source of goodness, makes us know that, even at best, we are not really good. This is the peace that passes understanding, though it is not a peace that negates the understanding.

Some of the hardest problems of our day are moral problems; rather than economic or political ones; but, moral problems as they are, many of them cannot be solved except on a religious basis. One example of this is provided by the problem of racial antipathy, a problem that has been accentuated rather than diminished in the recent development of our civilization. So great is the hold of race prejudice on men’s minds that it must be counteracted by something powerful and revolutionary. Men do not transcend the prejudice and hatred based on race by physical proximity or even by the reasonable evidence that all need each other. What is needed is a genuine conversion, striking at the roots of the sinful pride on which race hatred thrives. The great known examples of history in which this kind of animosity has been really overcome have been chiefly religious examples, like that of John Woolman. In all honesty we are compelled to state that religion does not have this effect universally, but that we should hardly expect, knowing what we do about the ability of the human heart to keep its cherished hatreds. What we can honestly state is that the religious approach is more likely to be successful in our particular culture than is any other. The reason for the greater probability of the success of the religious approach is that the problem is fundamentally a religious problem. Race hatred comes, primarily, not from ignorance, but from sin. We will not accept all men as brothers until we are really humble, and we are not really humble until we measure ourselves by the revelation of the Living God.

A second relevant example of a problem which is essentially insoluble except on the religious level is that provided by our sense of national destiny. In many ways the democratic nations will be in greater danger after the war than those nations which have been more obviously guilty. What if we should begin to feel like a Herrenvolk, sure of our superior virtue as well as of our superior power? Since we shall not have the sobering experience of defeat, what is there to keep us steady? One of our major debts to the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr is at precisely this point. "There is no cure," writes Niebuhr, "for the pride of a virtuous nation but pure religion. The pride of a powerful nation may be humbled by the impotence which defeat brings. The pride of a virtuous nation cannot be humbled by moral and political criticisms because in comparative terms it may actually be virtuous." (Reinhold Niebuhr, "Anglo-Saxon Destiny and Responsibility," Christianity and Crisis, October 4, 1943, Vol. III, No. 16, P. 3)

The only experience we know that is revolutionary enough both to support the downcast nation and to chasten the victorious nation is the sense of existing under the eternal Providence of the Living God. In this, as Lincoln discovered in the tragic days of the Civil War, we find a level of experience which does the seemingly impossible of making us firm in the right, "as God gives us to see the right," but also humble because we are conscious that "the Almighty has his own purposes." It is religion and religion alone that does this for men. For this reason we can never have a real civilization without it.

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