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The Persistence of Christian Signs in a Secularized Society


The End of the Modern World, 1992

Always bearing in mind the reservations dictated by the nature of our meditation at large, we are now in a position to extend our observations into the religious character of the future order. First let us take a backward glance again.

During the Middle Ages life was interwoven with religion at every level and in every ramification. For all men the Christian Faith represented the generally-accepted truth. In some manner everything was stamped by Christianity and the Church: the social order, legislation, the ethos governing public and private life, the speculations of philosophy, artistic endeavors and the historic climate within which all ideas moved. Even while including all these things, we do not begin to indicate the cultural values won for the personality of man through this mingling of the cultural and the religious. Even injustice itself stood measured and condemned by Christianity. Although the Church had grown up in intimate union with the State, although Emperor and Pope or Prince and Bishop were often at odds - accusing and heaping abuse upon one another - men never questioned the church herself.[1]

In time, man began to doubt the truth of Christian Revelation, and the doubt deepened as the medieval period drew toward its end. As an absolute standard claiming the right to measure the direction and conduct of human life, Revelation was enduring more and more vigorous attack. The new culture taking shape in Europe bred an outlook which thrust into prominence the increasing opposition to the Church. European man was adopting as self-evident truth the point of view which gave to politics, economics, government, science, art, philosophy and education principles and criteria immanent to themselves. In doing so men planted the seeds of non-Christian, even anti-Christian, ways of life in the soil of Europe. The old insistence that life be ordered by Revelation was taken as an encroachment by the Church, so completely had the new mind seized the power over men's imaginations. Even the faithful came to accept this state of affairs, accepting as normal the new order which said that matters of religion belonged in one sphere of life and secular matters in another. The individual man was left adrift to decide to what extent he would live in both of them.

As a consequence an autonomous secular order came into existence, uninfluenced by any direct Christian principles, while a new Christian order grew up by imitating the secular bent toward "autonomy" to a remarkable degree. In a parallel manner, science developed as pure science, economics as pure economics, politics and pure politics; similarly a religious religiosity was developed. Religion increasingly lost direct contact with the realities of life as it empties itself of the secular and limited itself to "purely religious" doctrine and practice. For many men religion retained significance only in its formal aspects - in dedicating or sanctifying the crucial events of life such as birth or marriage or death.

At many points in our study we have noted how this non-Christian culture commenced its growth at the very outset of the modern age. At first, the attack upon Christianity was directed against the content of Revelation. It was not made against those ethical values, individual or social, which had been perfected under the inspiration of the Faith. At the same time modern culture claimed those very values as its own foundation. Due largely to its changes in historic study, the modern world dedicated itself to the theory that it had discovered and developed ethical values. It is true, indeed, that the modern age did further the intrinsic worth of personality, of individual freedom, of responsibility and dignity, of man's inherent potentiality for mutual respect and help. These human values began their development, however, during earliest Christian times, while the Middle Ages continued their nurture by its cultivation of the interior and religious life. But the modern era suffered the invasion of consciousness by personal autonomy; human perfection became a cultural acquisition independent of ethics or of Christianity. This point of view was expressed in many ways by many groups, pre-eminently in the voicing of "the Rights of Man" during the French Revolution.

In truth, all human values find their root in Revelation; everything immediately human is related uniquely to Revelation. Man is related to God through Faith, but Faith is the effect of divine grace freely given and it draws the substance of all things human into itself. As a result, a Christian Order of life could come into existence in which "natural" human powers would be freed for full development, a development impossible outside a Christian Order. Man might then become conscious of values which, although evident in themselves, only take on visible manifestation under the aegis of Revelation. Those who maintain that these values and cultural attitudes are simply one with the autonomous development of human nature misunderstand the essential role of a Christian economy of Revelation, Faith and Grace. In fact the misunderstanding leads - permit me to speak plainly - to a kind of dishonesty which, as anyone who takes a clear-eyed view can see, is integral to the contemporary world itself.

Personality is essential to man. This truth becomes clear, however, and can be affirmed only under the guidance of Revelation, which related man to a living, personal God, which makes him a son of God, which teaches the ordering of His Providence. When man fails to ground his personal perfection in Divine Revelation, he still retains an awareness of the individual as a rounded, dignified and creative human being. He can have no consciousness, however, of the real person who is the absolute ground of each man, an absolute ground superior to every psychological or cultural advantage or achievement. The knowledge of what it means to be a person is inextricably bound up with the Faith of Christianity. An affirmation and a cultivation of the personal can endure for a time perhaps after Faith has been extinguished, but gradually they too will be lost.

A similar loss reveals itself in contemporary man's feeling that personal values inhere in special talents or social position. Gone is that reverence toward the person qua person, toward his qualitative uniqueness which cannot be conceptualized or repressed for any man even if he has been typed and measured in every other respect. A kindred loss is found in the exercise of human freedom. Instead of allowing for the full development of the existent self, freedom has been restricted to the psychological advantage or social privilege; it has ignored man's right to choose, to possess his won act while possessing himself in that act. As well, human love has been stifled, resting content with sympathy, a willingness to serve or with social duties, but seldom affirming the "though" of the other even as it must accept the obligations of an "I." Not one of these attitudes can be viable, unless the Christian concept of the person is vigorously maintained. As soon as the true value of the person is lost, as soon as the Christian faith in the God-man relationship pales, all related attitudes and values begin to disappear.

Modern man's dishonesty was rooted in his refusal to recognize Christianity's affirmation of the God-man relationship. Even as the modern world acclaimed the worth of personality and of an order of personal values, it did away with their guarantor, Christian Revelation. This parallel affirmation and negation can be illustrated in modern history in the case of German classicism. Carried forward by truncated attitudes and values, German classicism was noble, humane and beautiful, but it lacked the final depth of truth. It had denied Revelation although it drew everywhere upon its effects. By the next generation the classical attitude toward man had also begun to fade, not because that generation did not occupy an equally high plane, but because an uprooted personal culture is powerless against the breakthrough of positivism. Thus the process of dissolution gained momentum. Suddenly the "value system" of the last two decades broke into history. In its sweeping contradiction of the whole modern tradition it proved that culture to have been only an apparent culture. That vacuum, however, had been crated long before; now it was made evident to all men. With the denial of Christian Revelation genuine personality had disappeared form the human consciousness. With it had gone that realm of attitudes and values which only it can subsume.

The coming era will bring a frightful yet salutary preciseness to these conditions. No Christian can welcome the advent of a radical un-Christianity. Since Revelation is not a subjective experience but a simple Truth promulgated by Him Who also made the world, every moment of history which excludes that Revelation is threatened in its most hidden recesses. Yet it is good that modern dishonesty was unmasked. As the benefits of Revelation disappear even more from the coming world, man will truly learn what it means to be cut off from Revelation.

The question of the temper of the religious sensibility of the new age remains before us. Although the content of Revelation is eternal, its historical realization, its incarnation in man, varies with the passage of time. We could offer many implications about the religious temper of the new man, but it is necessary to restrict our meditations.

The rapid advance of a non-Christian ethos, however, will be crucial for the Christian sensibility. As unbelievers deny Revelation more decisively, as they put their denial into more consistent practice, it will become the more evident what it really means to be a Christian. At the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies. He must learn to exist honestly without Christ and without the God revealed through Him; he will have to learn to experience what this honesty means Nietzsche has already warned us that the non-Christian of the modern world had no realization of what it truly meant to be without Christ. The last decades have suggested what life without Christ really is. The last decades were only the beginning.

A new paganism differing from that of earlier ages will appear in the new world. Again contemporary man labors under illusory attitudes. In many cases, the non-Christian today cherishes the opinion that he can erase Christianity by seeking a new religious path, by returning to classical antiquity from which he can make a new departure. He is mistaken No man can retrace history. As a form of historic existence classical antiquity is forever gone. When contemporary man becomes a pagan he does so in a way completely other than that of the pre-Christian. Even at the height of their cultural achievement the religious attitudes of the ancients were youthful and naïve. Classical man only lived before that crisis which was the coming of Christ. With the advent of Christ man confronted a decision which placed him on a new level of existence. Sören Kierkegaard made this fact clear, once and for all. With the coming of Christ man's existence took on an earnestness which classical antiquity never knew simply because it had no way of knowing it. This earnestness did not spring from a human maturity; it sprang from the class which each person received from God through Christ. With this call the person opened his eyes, he was awakened for the first time in his life. This the Christian is whether he wills it or not. This earnestness prevailed, springing from the historic realization of the centuries that Christ is Being. It springs from man's common experience, frightful in its clarity, that He "knew what is in man," from the awareness in men of all the ages of that superhuman courage with which He mastered existence. When men deny this awareness we gain an impression that they suffer an immaturity, one common to the anti-Christian faiths of the ancient world.

Just as the renewal of the ancient classic myths against early Christianity was lifeless, so was the attempted rejuvenation of the Nordic myths. Seldom was either of those renewals the camouflage for a drive for power as it was with National Socialism. Nordic paganism had existed prior to the decision man had to make before God's call through Christ, as had classical paganism. On the other hand, whichever way contemporary man decides, he must enter the depths of the person as revealed in Christ, leaving behind the secure but static life of immediate existence with its false rhythms and images.

This exact judgment must be made against all those attempts which would create a new myth through secular affirmation of the truth Christian vision. Consider what happened in the later poetry of Rilke for instance. Basic to Rilke's [2] poetry is the will to shed the transcendence of Revelation and to ground existence absolutely on earth. Rilke's desire reveals its utter powerlessness when we note its total lack of harmony with the world now dawning. His attempts to adjust himself to the new world have a moving helplessness in a poem like the " Sonnette an Orpheus ," an alienating helplessness in the " Elegien ." In respect to French existentialism, too, its negation of an intelligible existence is so violent that it seems to be an especially despairing kind of Romanticism made possible by the convulsions of the last decades.

A totally different realism would be needed to maneuver human attitudes before they could contradict Christian Revelation or build a fortress out of the world fully independent of Revelation. It remains to be seen to what extent the East can develop this other realism and to what exigencies man will be subjected as a consequence.

The Faith of Christian men will need to take on a new decisiveness. It must strip itself of all secularism, all analogies with the secular world, all flabbiness and eclectic mixtures. Here, it seems to me, we have solid reasons for confidence. The Christian has always found it difficult to come to an understanding of modern attitudes, but we touch an issue here which needs more exact consideration. We do not mean that the Middle Ages was an historic epoch fully Christian in nature, nor de we mean that the modern world was an age fully un-Christian. Such assertions would resemble those of Romanticism, which have caused enough confusion. The Middle Ages were carried forward by forms of sensibility, thought and action which were basically neutral to the question of Faith, insofar as one can say such a thing at all. Similarly the modern world was carried by neutral forms. Within the modern era Western man created as his own an attitude of individual independence, yet that attitude said nothing about either the moral or the religious use which he made of his independence.

To be a Christian, however, demands an attitude toward Revelation; this demand can be found in every era of Western history. As far as this Christian attitude was concerned, Revelation remained equally near and equally distant for each epoch. Thus the Middle Ages contained its share of unbelief at every stage of decision; similarly the modern world demonstrated its share of full Christian affirmation. The modern Christian differed in character from his medieval ancestor, since he was forced to incarnate his faith within an historic situation which espoused individual independence, but he often succeeded as well as did the man of the Middle Ages. Indeed, the modern Christian faced obstacles which made it difficult for him to accept his age in the simple way that the medieval Christian could accept his. The memory of the revolt made against God by the modern world was too vividly impressed on the modern Christian. He was too aware of the manner in which his age had forced all cultural values to contradict his Faith. He knew too well the dubious and inferior position into which the world had forced that Faith. Besides these indignities there remained that modern dishonesty of which we have spoken, that hypocrisy which denied Christian doctrine and a Christian order of life even as it usurped its human and cultural effects. This dishonesty made the Christian feel insecure in his relation to the modern age. Everywhere within the modern world he found ideas and values whose Christian origin was clear, but which were declared the common property of all. How could he trust a situation like that? But the new age will do away with these ambivalences; the new age will declare that the secularized facets of Christianity are sentimentalities. This declaration will clear the air. The world to come will be filled with animosity and danger, but it will be a world open and clean. [3] This danger within the new world will also have its cleansing effect upon the new Christian attitude, which in a special way must possess both trust and courage. Men have often said that Christianity is a refuge from the realities of the modern world, and this charge contains a good measure of truth, not only because dogma fixes the thought of a Christian on an objective, timeless order and creates a life which survives the passing of ages but also because the Church has preserved a full cultural tradition which would otherwise have died. The world to come will present less basis for objecting to Christianity as a refuge.

The cultural deposit preserved by the Church thus far will not be able to endure against the general decay of tradition. Even when it does endure it will be shaken and threatened on all sides. Dogma in its very nature, however, surmounts the march of time because it is rooted in eternity, and we can surmise that the character and conduct of coming Christian life will reveal itself especially through its old dogmatic roots. Christianity will once again need to prove itself deliberately as a faith which is not self-evident; it will be forced to distinguish itself more sharply from a dominantly non-Christian ethos. At that juncture the theological significance of dogma will begin a fresh advance; similarly will its practical and existential significance increase. I need not say that I imply no "modernization" here, no weakening of the content or of the effectiveness of Christian dogma; rather I emphasize its absoluteness, in its unconditional demands and affirmations. These will be accentuated. The absolute experiencing of dogma will, I believe, make men feel more sharply the direction of life and the meaning of existence itself.

In this manner, the Faith will maintain itself against animosity and danger. At the forefront of Christian life, man's obedience to God will assert itself with a new power. Knowing that the very last thing is at stake, that he has reached that extremity which only obedience could meet - not because man might become heteronom but because God is Holy and Absolute - man will practice a pure obedience. Christianity will arm itself for an illiberal stand directed unconditionally toward Him Who is Unconditioned. Its illiberalism will differ from every form of violence, however, because it will be an act of freedom, an unconditional obedience to God; nor will it resemble an act of surrender to physical or psychic powers which might command one. No, man's unconditional answer to the call of God assumes within that very act the unconditional quality of the demand which God makes of him and which necessitates maturity of judgment, freedom and choice.

Here too we dare to hope. This trust is not based at all upon an optimism or confidence either in a universal order of reason or in a benevolent principle inherent to nature. It is based in God Who really is, Who alone is efficacious in His Action. It is based in this simple trust: that God is a God Who acts and Who everywhere prevails.

If I am right in my conclusions about the coming world, the Old Testament will take on a new significance. The Old Testament reveals the Living God Who smashes the mythical bonds of the earth, Who casts down the powers and the pagan rulers of life; it shows us the man of faith who is obedient to the acts of God according to the terms of the Covenant. These Old Testament truths will grow in meaning and import. The stronger the demonic powers the more crucial will be that "victory over the world" realized in freedom and through Faith. It will be realized in the harmony between man's freedom freely returned to God from Whose own Creative Freedom it was gained. This will make possible not only effective actions but even action itself. It is a strange thing that we should glimpse this holy way, this divine possibility, rising out of the very midst of universal power as it increases day by day.

This free union of the human person with the Absolute through unconditional freedom will enable the faithful to stand firm - God-centered - even though placeless and unprotected. It will enable man to enter into an immediate relationship with God which will cut through all force and danger. It will permit him to remain a vital person within the mounting loneliness of the future, a loneliness experienced in the very midst of the masses and all their organizations.

If we understand the eschatological text of Holy Writ correctly, trust and courage will totally form the character of the last age. The surrounding "Christian" culture and the traditions supported by it will lose their effectiveness. That loss will belong to the danger given by scandal, that danger of which it is said, "it will, if possible, deceive even the elect" (Matt 24:24).

Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world (Matt 23:12), but the more precious will that love be which flows from one lonely person to another, involving a courage of the heart born from the immediacy of the love of God as it was made known in Christ. Perhaps man will come to experience this love anew, to taste the sovereignty of its origin, to know its independence of the world, to sense the mystery of its final why? Perhaps love will achieve an intimacy and harmony never known to this day. Perhaps it will gain what lies hidden in the key words of the providential message of Jesus: that things are transformed for the man who makes God's will for His Kingdom his first concern (Matt 6:33).

These eschatological conditions will show themselves, it seems to me, in the religious tamper of the future. With these words I proclaim no facile apocalyptic. No man has the right to say that the End is here, for Christ Himself has declared that only the Father knows the day and the hour (Matt 24:36). If we speak here of the nearness of the End, we do not mean nearness in the sense of time, but nearness as it pertains to the essence of the End, for in essence man's existence is now nearing an absolute decision. Each and every consequence of that decision bears within it the greatest potentiality and the most extreme danger.

1 Guardini is referring to the world-wide Goethe Bicentennial. -Ed.

2 The expression "non-human" is quite inappropriate, and the reactions to both the first editions of this work justified my fear that the term would be taken to mean the "inhuman." I can find no better term, however, and I can only ask the reader to understand it was it is used in the exposition of my thesis.

3 The endeavor here involved may be an approach to an abstract art, insofar as abstract art is really "art" and not simply naked experimentation or distorted reproduction.

R. Guardini, The End of the Modern World  (Delaware: ISI Books, 1992), pp. 95-110, translated by J. Theman, H. Burke and E. Briefs.