Christianity and Contradiction in History

Christopher Henry Dawson.

Is history a reasonable process or is it essentially incalculable and irrational? It seems to me that the Christian is bound to believe that there is a spiritual purpose in history – that it is subject to the designs of Providence and that somehow or other God’s will is done. But that is a very different thing from saying that history is rational in the ordinary sense of the word. There are, as it were, two levels of rationality, and history belongs to neither of them. There is the sphere of completely rationalized human action – the kind of rationality of an architect or an engineer. And there is the higher sphere of rationality to which the human mind attains, but which is not created by it – the high realities of philosophy and abstract truth.

But between these two realms there is a great intermediate region in which we live, the middle earth of life and history; and that world is submitted to forces which are both higher and lower than reason. There are forces of nature in the strict sense and there are higher forces of spiritual good and evil which we cannot measure. Human life is essentially a warfare against unknown powers – not merely against flesh and blood, which are themselves irrational enough, but against principalities and powers, against “the Cosmocrats of the Dark Aeon,” to use St. Paul’s strange and disturbing expression; powers which are more than rational and which make use of lower things, things below reason, in order to conquer and rule the world of man.

Of course if we were pure spirits, the whole process of history and human life might be intelligible and spiritually transparent. We should be like a man in calm weather on a clear tropical lagoon who can look down and see the lower forms of life in their infinite variety and the powers of evil like the sharks that move silently and powerfully through the clear water, and who can also look up and see the ordered march of the stars.

But this is not given to man. The actor in history is like the captain who sees nothing but clouds above and waves below, who is driven by the wind and the current. He must trust in his chart and his compass, and even these cannot deliver him from the blind violence of the elements. If he makes a mistake, or if the chart fails him, he dies in a blind flurry of dark water and with him the crew who have no responsibility except to obey orders and to trust their officers.

It is true that the theologian and the philosopher aspire to the spiritual state but they only attain to it partially and momentarily; for the rest of their lives, outside their science, they belong to the world of other men. But the politician and the man of action are like the sailor, and the State is like the ship which may be wrecked by an error of a single man; and it makes no difference whether the ship is sailed by the owner or whether the captain is chosen by the officers and the officers by the crew.

It seems the very nature of history that individuals and apparently fortuitous events have an incalculable effect upon the fortunes of the whole society. As Burke wrote: “It is often impossible to find any proportion between the apparent force of any moral cause or any assigned, and their known operation. We are therefore obliged to deliver up their operation to mere chance, or more piously (perhaps more rationally) to the occasional interposition and the irresistible hand of the Great Disposer. The death of a man at a critical juncture, his disgust, his retreat, his disgrace, have brought innumerable calamities on a whole nation. A common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn have changed the face of the future and almost of Nature.”

This has always been so, but it is seen in the most striking way when it comes to a question of moralizing politics or realizing ideals in practice. It is here that we see most clearly and tragically the contradiction between human aims and historical results and the way in which fate seems to bring so much that is best in social endeavour to sterility and disaster. Take two examples from the period of modern history connected with the French Revolution. First frustration of social idealism. The great Revolution a hundred and fifty years ago was a deliberate attempt to moralize political relations and to create a new order based on moral principles which would vindicate the human rights of every individual whatever his economic or social position. Under the guidance of men who believed most wholeheartedly these ideals, it led nevertheless to as complete a subversion and denial of those rights as it is possible to conceive. It led to the denial of freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion; it led to terrorism and wholesale judicial murder, until every man of principles, whatever his principles were, had been exterminated or outlawed, and society returned with gratitude and relief to the absolute dictatorship of an unscrupulous military despot. For Bonaparte appeared to his contemporaries as an angel of light in comparison with the idealists and the social reformers who, instead of creating a Utopia, had made a hell on earth.

In the second place, to take an example from the opposite side, there is the case of the war in La Vendee which brings up both the question of the just war and of the conscientious objector. The men of La Vendee had every justification for their resistance to the revolutionary government, since it had clearly violated the rights of freedom of opinion and religious liberty that were laid down in the constitution, and since the latter expressly admitted the right of the citizen to resist the government in such cases. The actual occasion of the rising was moreover the question of military service in defence of the revolution against which the men of La Vendee had a direct and simple conscientious objection. Hence the war in La Vendee was at once a just war if ever there was one and a case of spontaneous popular resistance to compulsory service in what they considered an unjust war.

Yet what was the result? Instead of sending 12,000 conscripts to the army, of whom a small proportion would have been killed or wounded, the whole population was involved in the most desperate struggle that any people ever experienced: a struggle which is said to have cost nearly a quarter of a million lives, which caused practically every town and village and farm to be destroyed, and which contributed largely, if indirectly, to the horrors of the Reign of Terror in the rest of France. And so their desire to keep out of a war they did not approve of caused another war of a far more atrocious kind, and their determination to vindicate their just rights led to every kind of injustice and cruelty.

These are extreme instances, but all through history we find plentiful evidence of the same non-moral and irrational tendency which causes idealists and humanitarians to despair. And at the present day humanitarianism and moral idealism have become so much a part of our tradition that Christians often unconsciously or even consciously accept the same point of view and are tempted to despair by the failure of their Christian ideals to work out in practice.

Actually, however, Christianity has never accepted these postulates, and the Christian ought to be the last person in the world to lose hope in the presence of the failure of the right and the apparent triumph of evil. For all this forms part of the Christian view of life, and the Christian discipline is expressly designed to prepare us to face such a situation.

Christianity, to a far greater degree than any other religion, is a historical religion and it is knit up inseparably with the living process of history. Christianity teaches the existence of a divine progress in history which will be realized through the Church in the Kingdom of God. But at the same time it recognizes the essential duality of the historical process – the co-existence of two opposing principles, each of which works and finds concrete social expression in history. Thus we have no right to expect that Christian principles will work in practice in the simple way that a political system may work. The Christian order is a supernatural order. It has its own principles and its own laws which are not those of the visible world and which may often seem to contradict them. Its victories may be found in apparent defeat and its defeats in material success.

We see the whole thing manifested clearly and perfectly once and once only, i.e. in the life of Jesus, which is the pattern of the Christian life and the model of Christian action. The life of Jesus is profoundly historical; it is the culminating point of thousands of years of living historical tradition. It is the fulfillment of a historical purpose, towards which priests and prophets and even politicians had worked, and in which the hope of a nation and a race was embodied. Yet, from the worldly point of view, from the standpoint of a contemporary secular historian, it was not only unimportant, but actually invisible. Here was a Galilean peasant who for thirty years lived a life so obscure as to be unknown even to the disciples who accepted his mission. Then there followed a brief period of public action, which did not lead to any kind of historical achievement but moved swiftly and irresistibly towards its catastrophic end, an end that was foreseen and deliberately accepted.

And out of the heart of this catastrophe there arose something completely new, which even in its success was a deception to the very people and the very race that had staked their hopes on it. For after Pentecost – after the outpouring of the Spirit and the birth of the infant Church – there was an event as unforeseen and inexplicable as the Incarnation itself, the conversion of a Cicilian Jew, who turned away from his traditions and from his own people so that he seemed a traitor to his race and his religion. So that ultimately the fulfilment of the hope of Israel meant the rejection of Israel and the creation of a new community which was eventually to become the State religion of the Roman Empire which had been the enemy of Jew and Christian alike.

If you look on all this without faith, from the rationalist point of view, it becomes no easier to understand. On the contrary it becomes even more inexplicable, credo quia incredible.

Now the life of Christ is the life of the Christian and the life of the Church. It is absurd for a Christian who is a weak human vehicle of this world-changing force to expect a quiet life. A Christian is like a red rag to a bull – to the force of evil that seeks to be master of the world and which, in a limited sense, but in a very limited sense, is, as St. John says, the Lord of this world. And not only the individual but the Church as an historic community follows the same pattern and finds its success and failure not where the politician finds them, but where Christ found them.

The Church lives again the life of Christ. It has its period of obscurity and growth and its period of manifestation, and this is followed by the catastrophe of the Cross and the new birth that springs from failure. And what is most remarkable is that the enemies of the Church – the movements that rend and crucify her – are in a sense her own offspring and derive their dynamic force from her. Islam, the Protestant Reformation, the Liberal Revolution, none of them would have existed apart from Christianity – they are abortive or partial manifestations of the spiritual power which Christianity has brought into history: “I have come to cast fire on the earth and what will I, but that it be kindled.”

It is easy to give way to the dominant tendency to surrender to the spirit of the age and the spirit of the world by shutting our eyes to the errors of public opinion and the evils and injustice of popular action; it is the same temptation which in the past made religious men flatter the pride of the great and overlook the injustice of the powerful. But it is also easy, and it is a more insidious temptation, to adopt an attitude of negative hostility to the spirit of the age and to take refuge in a narrow and exclusive fanaticism which is essentially the attitude of the heretic and the sectarian and which does more to discredit Christianity and render it ineffective than even worldliness and time-serving. For the latter, are to speak, external to the Church’s life, whereas the former poisons the sources of its spiritual action and causes it to appear hateful in the eyes of men of good will.

It is the nature of heresy to sacrifice Catholic truth and Christian unity by concentrating its attention on the immediate solution of some pressing contemporary problem of Christian thought in action. The heretic goes astray by attempting to take a short cut owing to a natural human impatience at the apparent slowness and difficulty of the way of pure faith. But the Church also has to take the difficult way of the Cross, to incur the penalties and humiliations of earthly failure without any compensating hope of temporal success. She is not an alternative and a rival to the State, and her teaching does not take the place of political needs and ideologies; yet she cannot disinterest herself in the corporate life of the community and confine her attentions to the individual soul. The Church is no human society, but she is the channel by which the divine life flows into human society and her essential task is the sanctification of humanity as a whole in its corporate as well as in its individual activities.

Human society today is in a state of rapid change. The life is going out of the old political and juridical forms and a new community is being created whose appearance marks a new epoch in history. It is not the Church’s business to stop this great social change, and she could not if she would, but neither can she abdicate her essential mission, which remains the same in the new circumstances as of old. The new social forms offer new opportunities – new openings for the action of grace.

We are perhaps too much inclined to look to authority to lay down beforehand a programme of action when the initiative must come in the first place from the spontaneous personal reaction of individuals to circumstances of the moment. Even in the natural sphere the statesmen and organizers of this world do not know what is going to happen from one day to another.

But whereas this obscurity and incalculability is inevitably a source of discouragement to the statesman, whose whole business is to achieve temporal success, it should be of no great importance to the Christian who sees the end of history as dawn and not as night.

When Our Lord spoke of the future He gave his disciples no optimistic hopes, no visions of social progress. He described all the things that we are afraid of today and more – wars, persecutions, disasters and the distress of nations. But strange to say He used this forecast of calamity as a motive for hope. “When you see these things,” He said, “look up and lift up your heads for your redemption is at hand.”

That may seem a strange philosophy of history, but it is the authentic philosophy of Christ, and if the prospect of these things causes us to hang down our heads instead of lifting them up, it shows that there is something wrong with our point of view. I know we are apt to feel this does not apply to us – that it merely refers to the end of the world. But to the Christian the world is always ending, and every historical crisis is, as it were, a rehearsal for the real thing.

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