The Two Faces of Christianity
from History is on our Side; a contribution to political religion and scientific faith, by Joseph Needham. New York, MacMillan, 1947.
(in its original form a contribution to the Spectator. 1936; reprinted under the title "Common Ground" in the book of essays Christianity and Communism. 1937)
Our attitude to the problem of the position of christianity in the modem world will be to a large extent conditioned by the emphasis which we lay upon the two great historic elements in the christian religion. These may be called Greek Neo-Platonism, and Hebrew Apocalypticism.
Of all the relevant philosophical concepts, the valuation of Time is the most important. If Time is illusory, unimportant or evil, the trend of other-worldliness in christianity becomes fundamental, earthly affairs lose their significance, and the kingdom of heaven is interpreted as a realm of mystical experience unconnected with concrete human relationships. From this point of view, all progress is an absurdity; the world, it holds, was always only a hard school of chastisement for souls, and so will always be. It ends in a Manichaeism which denies value to material things even as symbols, and concentrates its interest on an imaginary blessedness after death.
I suspect that this strain is really Indian in origin and allied to Buddhist philosophy. Religions by which men regulated their lives, theologies in which they formulated their thought, have always been mainly differentiated their valuation of this world. There have been those who, like the ancient Chinese, wringing from the earth a practicable livelihood, and schooled by the effort to bend it their will, became convinced that it is in the long run amenable, plastic, beneficent; that human endeavour can achieve tangible results, that human society can embody justice and love, that progress, even if slow, is a reality and the final perfection of earthly life a legitimate hope. Others, like the ancient Indians, worn out by excessive effort, exhausted by the struggle for existence, those for whom the fight against the jungle with primitive techniques was almost hopeless, felt an insufficiency in all human action, an impossibility in all human dreams and demands; and they proclaimed that only in complete renunciation, only as he emancipates himself from the wheel of things, only as he relinquishes all reliance upon, and all hope for, this world can he attain lasting satisfaction. The Chinese, on the other hand, remained faithful throughout the long history of their philosophy to the belief that man is not to be distinguished from social man, nor social man separated from nature, and that the very foundations of nature contain something congruent with, and favourable to, human social order The Indians, on the other hand, tended always to a pessimistic view of human possibilities, seeking salvation in solitary meditation outside society, and yearning for a deliverance which would take them, were it possible, outside nature also. So, in theology, in the one case, God becomes the embodiment of justice and comradeship, the impersonation of the age-long purpose of his creatures, their elan vital, their indwelling spirit. In the other, he is our supernatural refuge, the antithesis of this world of striving and illusion, the seemingly solid Being behind the seemingly meaningless Becoming, the remote, the impassible, the wholly-other, whose earth has arisen by mistake or rebellion, and being made out of nothing has in any case no inherent value and no significance. Such is the contrast between this-worldliness and other worldliness in religion.
Now Confucian this-worldliness had no influence on western ideas until the eighteenth century, but the current of thought represented by Plato, Plotinus, the Manichees, the Brahmins and the Buddhists, infected christianity from the first few centuries onwards, contending for the mastery, and not unsuccessfully, against the profound this-worldliness of the Hebrew prophetic tradition and its climax in the Gospels.
It seems probable, indeed, that christianity and buddhism had a mutual influence on each other. We know of buddhist missionaries in the near east from Asoka Maurya's time onwards, and they may have helped to divert christian thought from its primitive intention to redeem this world into its later ascetic despair and hieratic resignation. So also the transition from Hinayana to Mahayana buddhism, in which a world-denying philosophy is superseded or overlaid by a system of devotion to a personal saviour, may have been assisted by the example of the great neighbouring religion of the west. In any case, the Neo-Platonists, and the initiators of the main tradition of christian mysticism, certainly acknowledged their Indian inspiration.
Since, as has been suggested above, the hopeless, pessimistic, world-denying type of religion drew its origin from failures of human techniques in the struggle against nature, while the optimistic this-worldly type had a connection with corresponding successes, it need hardly be said that the latter has been justified by the event. For social evolution is an unescapable fact, taking its place, together with cosmic development and biological evolution, in that great rise in level of organisation which we may call the world-process. Thus the prophets of life more abundant, and not the life-denying ascetics, have been justified by all that we know of nature.
It is always in the valuation of Time that the clash within christianity between Hebrew thought, apocalyptically occupied with the future, and Graeco-Indian mysticism, engaged in escaping from the present, can best be seen. Through the christian centuries there has firmly persisted a conviction that Time is important, real, and not evil. The world, human behaviour, the conditions of human life, were different the past, and will be different, given repentance, amendment, and action, better, in the future. The Kingdom of God is no unearthly conceptual realm, but a just and happy social order, a "Magnetic Mountain," existing already in seminal; form, and to exist in time to come in all its fullness, drawing towards it to work for its realisation men and women the most diverse types from all the peoples of the world.
"Somewhere beyond the railheads
Of reason, south or north,
Lies a magnetic mountain
Riveting sky to earth." (C. Day Lewis)
This is in the tradition of Hebrew prophecy.
Associated with such beliefs is the sacramental principle. The eucharistic common meal outwardly and visibly symbolises the distribution of the world's goods in the coming society of free and equal comradeship, and the sacrifice of all who have perished that the Kingdom might come. Moreover, in christianity, however convenient the spirit of world-denying pessimism might be to successive ruling classes, whose interests were deeply engaged against any ideas so inconvenient as the coming of a Kingdom of God on earth, it was never possible to denude christian theology of the Time-principle, since the Incarnation occurred at a definite point in Time. Hence the significance of the Gnostic heresies and the christological controversies; though to-day they may seem to lack all interest and actuality, they record the struggles of christian thinkers against the Platonising tendencies of those who sought to distill from the flesh-and-blood materialism of the Gospels an innocuous and sapid mysticism free from Fact and Event, from Time past, Time present, and Time to come.
Thus it is because these two widely divergent trends, Graeco-Indian and Hebrew, have lain side by side in an uneasy union in the christian religion since the first few centuries, that the following two propositions may both be true: "christianity, is the opium of the people," and "communism is the heir of the christian tradition."
"Apocalyptic" means pertaining to revelation, but specifically those convictions about the future which Isaiah and all the prophets treated as revelations, and for which they found such fiery words. Though John the Theologian described the future of the world in incomprehensible poetry, others among the early christians stated their beliefs about the latter days in much more definite terms, and this was called "millenniarism" or "chiliasm" since God's Kingdom on Earth, for which Jesus prayed, was thought likely to last for a thousand years after the Messiah's return. But as the christian organisation came to compromise more and more with the ruling classes and the civil powers, as christians saw
"Their early agape decline
To a late lunch with Constantine," (W. H. Auden)
so the chiliasts who, longed for the world. to be changed and believed that it could and would be changed became more and more of a nuisance to growing orthodoxy. Cerinthus the Ebionite, for example, believed, in the first century that "the kingdom of Christ would be set up on earth, the flesh would be subject to desires and pleasures, eating and drinking and marrying and festivals"; a this-worldly view which horrified the ascetic and pious Eusebius. Asceticism, pietism, and acquiescence in the governance of the world by the existing powers, became, in spite of protests of such men as Jovinian and Vigilantius, more and more the marks of the devitalized Church. But through the centuries, sometimes within the fold of orthodoxy in east or west but more often taking the form of heresies and schisms, the primitive this-worldly chiliasm of the early christians persisted, until in our times it presided at the birth of socialism and found itself able to fuse with the logical consequences of the evolutionary view of the world developed by modern science.
That there are fairly clear lines of demarcation between civilisations and cultures may be assumed for the present argument. Many feel today that we are standing at a tuning point of history analogous to the first century of our era. Many of us, like Symmachus, are attracted both by the old dispensation and by the new. But those who cry out for a revivification of the old forms in contradistinction to the new and the recognition of the achievements and possibilities of the new seem to be like Julian and Sallustius, who attempted the completely hopeless task of trying to combine christianity and paganism under the forms of paganism. There was obviously at that time, as always in such historic periods, a combination, but it was made by the Fathers, who combined christianity and paganism under the forms of christianity.
To a man of goodwill in the first century who was well acquainted with his Euripides and his Aeschylus, it must surely have seemed that the christians had discovered how to do what the teachers of the past had ineffectively wanted and foreshadowed. The legends of the sibyls bear sufficient witness to the conviction of the early christians that history was on their side, and, too, the beatification of Virgil. There are very many christians today who feel that by its materialist philosophy and its realistic sociological analysis communism has discovered how to do what christianity (in its "Hebrew" form) always powerlessly wished to do.
In the middle ages theologians could curb merchants and even barons or princes, but when during the Reformation period the Church surrendered all control of economic affairs, in catholic no less than in protestant countries, its last association with social justice was lost. With the growth of science and technology the theologians showed themselves more and more incapable of applying the christian doctrine of love of our fellow-men to the real world of business and industry.
England, indeed, can boast a fine record of eighteenth century religious hypocrisy on these issues. The clergy who persecuted the Dorset martyrs well knew where Deism would lead to. Yet it was convincingly argued in the book of essays, Christianity and the Social Revolution, that communism has always been an integral, perhaps the essential element in christianity. The economic significance of the "heresies" has never been explored, but it is likely that many besides the Donatists were as Red as the Church of Jerusalem. Throughout the middle ages there were the movements which culminated in the christian communism of the Hussites and Taborites (1420), the Bundschuh League (1500) and Thomas Munzer's Anabaptists (1520), or here in England the followers of John Ball (1380). In the seventeenth century, with the awakening of the bourgeois class and its rise to power there were already good christians who saw perfectly clearly that political without economic equality could not approach the standard of the Gospels. May it be long before the names of Gerrard Winstanley and John Lilburne, the leaders of the Levellers, are forgotten by Englishmen; or rather, may they soon be remembered, for of the noblest calls to social justice nothing is said in the history books of our schools, designed as they are to support the existing order and to glorify national sovereignty. Then a century later came Jean Meslier, the catholic priest who foreshadowed the communist movement of Baboeuf and others in the French revolution; and Daniel Shays, whose relation to Washington in 1787 was rather like that of Lilburne to Cromwell in 1648. The christian religion, in fact. has always contained communist elements implicit within it, but this life of active apocalyptic has always been smothered by the dead weight of mystical Neo-Platonism so convenient to the possessing class.
Now communism today says clearly that the love of our comrade is meaningless in a world dominated by the spiritual wickedness of class-distinctions and all that that implies of inequality in the distribution of life's good things; agreeable work, happy leisure, health-giving activity of mind and body. In a world constructed on the principle of the exploitation of man by man there is no room for the development off that natural dignity (so movingly discussed by Andre Malraux in La Condition Humaine Paris, 1933), which savages often have and which we should wish our comrades all to have. Christianity, at least theoretically, always set a high value on individual human life, but while capitalism considers such lives simply as "hands," accepting no responsibility for what contacts they may have with machine-technique, fascism thinks of them only as cannon-fodder, man's highest end being a military death on behalf of his tribal state (as for example in Ludendorff's book The Nation at War). Only communism confirms and extends this christian valuation, spreading comradeship and dignity, culture and happiness in the widest possible circles to all working people, citizens some day of the World Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, where each friend will contribute all that is in him and receive all he desires. All save one thing, the domination over other friends. This the Kingdom will not permit, and its education will see to it that the desire does not arise.
In the meantime we live under the shadow of the class-war, in which it is often said that the christian as such can take no part. But the class-war is not so much a doctrine as a simple fact of observation. Neutrality in it is impossible, for inactivity directly aids the existing order, heavily favoured as it already is by the inertia of social systems. The relation, "He that is not with us is against us," is therefore asymmetric.
On the subject of state power, coercion and "totalitarianism" we hear a great deal of nonsense. "An enforced ideal," says Ernest Barker, in a phrase rightly singled out for criticism by another writer later, "is a thing utterly opposed to christianity." Yet few theologians oppose the compulsory enforcement of the ideal that "a citizen should be able to go about his lawful occasions without being knocked on the head," or that every child should receive education. Communism cannot be differentiated from christianity on such tenuous grounds. All ideals must, if dominant, rest ultimately on some form of coercion, whether mental or physical, until such time as they have become so embedded in the natural instincts of the people that their externality is lost. The worship of the God-State, says W. R. Inge, former Dean of St. Paul's (oddly omitting any reference to fascism and nazism), is pure satanism. Yet it would seem logical that the more righteousness, justice, truth, and love are built into the State structure, the less need remains for an independent Church to witness against it. When that which is perfect (the just social order) is come, that which is imperfect (the ecclesiastical institution) shall be done away. Other writers delight in classifying communism with fascism and nazism as totalitarian dictatorships of the same type. From this absurdity Canon Barry is free, however. "My own conviction is," he wrote,2 "that of two evils fascism is the far greater danger to us, and more starkly opposed to christianity, however much it may use religious language, than the communism which calls itself atheistic. We should be too wary to fall into that trap. Moreover, communism does stand for the well-being of the individual-even if wholly material well-being-and is therefore redeemable by ... christianity. But a creed which makes of the State a moral absolute, i.e. which erects into the place of God the de facto majority in a human group, cannot by any logical finesse be reconciled with christian philosophy." And the point has been well put by Aurel Kolnai, when he says:-
"There have always been attempts to expropriate reason and ethics, falsifying them into the will of princes, the aims of nations, the particularism of narrow provinces, or the ecstatic totalitarianism of sects. . . Thus in our own time, bolshevism declared that what ever furthers the class-struggle is 'good'; and similarly in the eyes of nazism, everything is 'good' that agrees with the attainment of a powerful and racially constituted German Empire. But the similarity is only partial. .. The 'proletarian class struggle' refers to the general structure of society, and can be translated, though not without a certain extension of meaning, into terms of humanitarian morals, such as 'justice,' 'equality,' 'emancipation,' 'rationalised production,' 'acquisition of control over economic processes by those most subject to their effects,' etc., etc. But a 'German Fascist state of pure blood' is in its very essence, beyond all mere tactics and technicalities, an ideal of irrational particularity and indissoluble concreteness;-it is absolutely impossible to state it in terms of humanity."
The common ground lies between communism and the spirit of christianity, not its letter. Of the churches as institutions we may have the most melancholy expectations. Dean Inge rejects communism as a movement "based on hatred"; no doubt he regards the scourging of the money changers in the Temple as a passing lapse of good taste. In another lecture he explicitly welcomed Italian fascism as the most christian social order yet devised by man; thus allying himself with the Pope whose melancholy encyclical Quadragesimo Anno committed Roman Catholics to the same view. The Secretary of the World Evangelical Alliance toured Poland to warn the people of the perils of communism, which he described as "godless" without further examination of the questions of immanence and transcendence. F. Buchman (head of the Group Movement) said, "Thank God for Hitler," who is keeping Bolshevism out of Europe. The editors of all Roman Catholic periodicals, whether the Universe or Blackfriars, fulminated against the People's Front in Spain. (I include references such as these only with reluctance. I long ago took to heart the advice the Abbe Huvelin gave to von Hugel-"Ne lisez jamais les journaux religieux; ils vous feront infiniment de mal.") In the Dominican magazine, it is true, Andre Toledano is quoted, "The choice," he said, "is between honest-to-God anti-God, and the not so honest exploitation of God as the State's Big Policeman plus the safeguarding of clerical life and limb and the material possessions of the Church. If the Left will not have God, it does not follow that He is on the Right," The union of the churches, it has also been said, is likely to take place in the last ditch of opposition to world-communism.
The narcotic principle of Time-denying other-worldliness was recognised by that great but too little known prophetic thinker, Gerrard Winstanley, who in the midst of the English Civil War, led the civilian wing of the Leveller movement, organised co-operative farming, and meditated on the relations of religion and politics. Although himself a profoundly religious man, he called theology "divining doctrine" and castigated the clergy for their acquiescence in the class-structure of society. In The True Leveller's Standard Advanced (1649) he wrote, "Every day poor people are forced to work for fourpence a day, though corn is dear, And yet the tithing priest stops their mouth and tells them that 'inward satisfaction of mind' was meant by the declaration 'the poor shall inherit the earth,' I tell you, the Scripture is to be really and materially fulfilled. You jeer at the name 'Leveller'; I tell you Jesus Christ is the Head Leveller,"
Or again, he says, "This divining doctrine which you call 'spiritual and heavenly things' is the thief and the robber that comes to spoil the vineyard of man's peace, and does not enter at the door, but climbs up another way. They who preach this divining doctrine are the murderers of many a poor heart, who is bashful and simple, and cannot speak for himself, but keeps his thoughts to himself. This divining spiritual doctrine is a cheat; for while men are gazing up into heaven, imagining after a happiness, or fearing a hell, after they are dead, their eyes are put out, and they see not what is to be done by them here on earth and while they are yet living. This is the filthy dreamer and the cloud without rain. And indeed the subtle clergy do know that if they can but charm the people by their divining doctrine to look for heavenly riches and glory after they are dead, then shall they easily be the inheritors of the earth, and have the deceived people to be their servants."
Marx and Lenin would, it seems, have been quite at home in seventeenth-century England. But Winstanley's words were swallowed up as if in a void, and more than a century later Edmund Burke could write:-
"Good order is the foundation of all good things To be enabled to acquire, the people, without being servile, must be tractable and obedient. The magistrate must have his reverence, the laws their authority. The body of the people must not find the principles of natural subordination, by art rooted out of their minds. They must respect that property of which they cannot partake. They must labour to obtain what by labour can be obtained; and when they find, as they commonly do, the success disproportionate to the endeavour, they must be taught their consolation in the final proportions of eternal justice."Divining doctrine, a spiritual cheat indeed; the opium of the people.
The conclusion of the whole matter is that what we think of christianity and its prospects depends on what aspect of it we have in mind. If we mean by it the "divining doctrine" of neo-platonist, pietist, "eternalist," other-worldly mysticism, it has no future. If we mean by it the chiliastic social hope of prophetic, temporal, flesh-and-blood religion, it will go over into communist social emotion without essential loss. "The Church must die," as John Lewis wrote, and be born again as the holy spirit of a righteous social order." "Christianity must perish" said Leonhard Ragaz, "so that Christ may live."