One of the cornerstones of modern conservative thinking-indeed, of conservative thinking generally-is the critique of utopianism. As we all know, the critique of utopianism states, very simply, that radical efforts to improve society almost always yield evils worse than those that reformers (or revolutionaries) originally set out to cure. From this follow a number of other conservative precepts, including the famous “law of unintended consequences”-i.e., that social policies inevitably produce by-products that their architects neither intend nor desire-stressing the pitfalls of even moderate social reform.
Many classic conservative texts make anti-utopianism their central theme. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, for example, is nothing other than a critique of utopianism-in-action. Of course, the oldest and most canonical such anti-utopian book is also the foundation work of Western political philosophy, Plato’s Republic. In the Republic Socrates paints an imaginary picture of what he stipulates to be the perfectly just city, only to inform his eager young interlocutors that the establishment of such a city would require, in practice, the communism of the women and children (i.e., incest) and the exile of everyone above the age of ten. In short, Socrates merrily elaborates all the many features of this perfectly wonderful place, only to suggest its achievement would require the greatest injustices that a Greek of his day could imagine. In this sense—if we adopt the now widely accepted interpretation of Plato’s work by the late Leo Strauss—the Republic might be considered the world’s oldest and longest (and possibly least humorous) surviving political joke.
Jonathan Swift, another great conservative, produced his own, somewhat funnier, classic of anti-utopian literature in Gulliver’s Travels, closely inspired by Plato. In our own century, there have come, in addition, the two famous “dystopian” works of George Orwell, Animal Farm and 1984-chronicling the horror and illogic of totalitarian utopianism, whose defeat and eradication proved to be the great political challenge of our time.
Christians have their own version of the anti-utopian doctrine, known as original sin (the one Christian teaching, as G. K. Chesterton pointed out, for which there has always been abundant empirical evidence). Though the earliest Christians embraced what amounted to utopian practices (e.g., pacifism, communality of property) and entertained something similar to utopian hopes (i.e., the expectation of imminent parousia, or Christ’s Second Coming), the institutionalized Church after the Edict of Milan quickly made peace with the earthly imperfections of temporal politics.
The classic Christian statement of the necessary tension between Christian moral ideals on the one hand, and the hard exigencies of political life on the other, came early in Church history, with Augustine’s City of God. In this great fifth-century tract, written partly to answer pagan charges about Christianity’s alleged role in the decline of Rome, Augustine famously distinguished between the “earthly city” of politics, which is based on “self-interest” approaching “contempt for God,” and a parallel “heavenly city,” based on “love of God” up to and including “contempt of self.” In other words, politics ran by one set of rules, while Christians were expected to live by quite another. The two might interpenetrate, as when the empire was ruled by a virtuous Christian emperor, but, as Augustine seemed to acknowledge, there were no guarantees. “Nothing in Augustine’s works,” Father Ernest Fortin has written, “indicates that he anticipated the permanent triumph of the city of God on earth through the definitive reconciliation of the spiritual and temporal powers.”
From an early stage, therefore, the Church seems to have accepted as inevitable a certain discrepancy or gulf between true Christian ethics, as defined by Jesus’ almost invariably radical pronouncements, and the necessary imperfections of ordinary political life. Indeed, much of Christian moral theology, especially as it applies to politics, has been occupied with finding an acceptable middle ground between the often seemingly impossible ideals of the heavenly city and the ordinary demands of the earthly one. “Just War” theory is one conspicuous example of the attempt to bridge what might seem an unbridgeable gulf. There is little in the Gospels, to put it mildly, that suggests Jesus approved of or condoned the violence of warfare. Be that as it may, war has been an enduring feature of human life, and churchmen and theologians have had to find some way to deal with it. Hence, the elaboration of certain criteria for a “just” war.
The doctrine of original sin also seemingly left room for a Christian conservatism. At first blush, Jesus’ teachings about love of neighbor and limitless forgiveness toward enemies do not seem to square particularly well with harsh policies toward welfare recipients or bellicose posturing vis-a-vis foreign adversaries. Yet room opens up for a conservative position once it is acknowledged, first, that the ideal set forth by Jesus seems radical almost to the point of impracticality- Reinhold Niebuhr called it an “impossible possibility”-and second, that the Gospel generally has nothing to say as to instrumentality-i.e., whether this or that approach to welfare or, say, military deterrence is more or less effective. In short, the basis for Christian conservatism, as with its secular counterpart, lies in the recognition that we live in an imperfect world. As Niebuhr wrote:
The ethical demands made by Jesus are incapable of fulfillment in the present existence of man. They proceed from a transcendent divine unity of essential reality and their final fulfillment is possible only when God transmutes the present chaos of this world into its final unity.
But is this destined always to be true? Are we to assume that history remains essentially static in relation to good and evil until Christ finally returns in glory to judge the living and the dead? Or is it reasonable to imagine the possibility of social and historical progress- of an evolution of human institutions as well as ethical awareness that permits over time a “kinder, gentler” (i.e., more Christlike) approach even to political problems? Could it be that our responsibilities as human beings evolve over time, and, in particular, that in our own day, when so much of the physical and political harshness that Augustine simply took for granted has gone out of life, the long-standing orthodox guidelines are no longer quite sufficient for a Christian life, that Jesus’ more radical messages take on a fresh relevance?
Anti-utopianism, whether in its secular (classical) or Christian form, is a teaching about the limits of politics. But of course many political limits that the ancients believed to be immutable have already been breached or overcome. For example, Socrates and his students believed that democracy was an inherently unstable form of government. Aristotle thought that republics above a certain very modest size were essentially unmanageable. And all these men took for granted that freedom (for the few) was inconceivable without the institution of slavery to liberate citizens from the rigors of subsistence labor.
All this, thank heaven, is well behind us today. We now have very large, very stable, very prosperous modern democracies (without, heaven forbid, slavery). The limits to politics that Socrates and company saw as absolutes have been transcended through a host of major technological, economic, and political innovations, just as these philosophers’ sorely limited and inaccurate view of the physical universe has been massively expanded and corrected by scientific investigation.
Does this count as progress? Most people would certainly agree that it does. (Of course you will find a tiny minority that continues to insist that our society is greatly inferior to that of the “heroic” Greeks of classical times. But this kind of historical romanticism-hardly new in the life of intellectuals-is difficult to take seriously.)
So it makes little sense today to consider Plato’s Republic, or for that matter Augustine’s City of God, as the last word in politics. Too much has changed. Nonetheless, if the anti-utopian perspective has enjoyed a special attraction in our era, it is partly because of our unlovely experience with actual utopianism. The rise of communism and fascism-the great, abortive utopian undertakings of our century-did much both to cast doubt on the validity of a belief in human progress and to confirm the worst predictions of conservative anti- utopian critics. It was against the harsh background of these developments-including World War II and the Cold War-that, for example, Reinhold Niebuhr developed his unsentimental theology of “Christian realism,” which denied the faith in progress and which strongly argued for qualifying Christian principles of love and kindness when coping with the hard exigencies of the political realm.
The question is: Now that we have seen the end of the Cold War, doesn’t it make sense to reevaluate this perspective? I am particularly struck by the manner in which the Cold War ended-the remarkable nonviolence of the change. This is not something that I, or others like me (all of us dutiful adherents of the secular anti-utopian school), were prepared for. Before 1989 and 1990 most of us would have argued, on good anti- utopian principles, that communism might end all right, but only in a bloodbath. Instead, what we witnessed in 1989-1990, as I remember my late friend Paul Seabury emphasizing to me not long before he died, was the first “peaceful revolution” in the history of the globe-the first sudden relinquishing of power by a ruling class in the absence of violence. Seabury, a past Executive Committee Chairman of Americans for Democratic Action and a Christian realist if ever there was one, was also struck by the change-though I have no idea whether his firm Niebuhrian convictions were thereby shaken. I somehow doubt it.
It is especially interesting to note the large role played by religion and spirituality in this process of peaceful transformation of the Communist world, chronicled in such recent books as Niels Nielsen’s Revolutions in Eastern Europe or George Weigel’s The Final Revolution. Were it not for Poland’s Catholic-inspired Solidarity, were it not for the Lutheran “Revolution of Light” in East Germany, it seems unlikely that communism would have unraveled or that the Berlin Wall would have peacefully collapsed.
Two things about those final moments still seem peculiar. First, there was remarkable-might we say “miraculous”?-interpenetration of the secular and the sacred, of politics and spirituality, at this critical historical turning point. Second, and equally surprising, the good guys won.
This was not the first time in history, of course, that “mere” spiritual conviction and community, expressed as nonviolent protest, had won out over superior military force: think of Gandhi’s experience in India. But of course the major contention of most of us anti-utopians in the 1980s was that it was perfectly useless to try Gandhi’s methods with the likes of the Communists. That was what we kept telling the nuclear pacifists and hands-across-the-globe types while Ronald Reagan rebuilt the American arsenal. I am not now saying that the nuclear pacifists were entirely right or that Reagan and people like me who worked for him on arms control were entirely wrong. Indeed, I am sure we were right about a lot of things, including the need to keep pressure on the Soviets and stand up for what we believed.
What I am suggesting, however, is that the world itself may have changed and may still be changing in ways of which conservatives do not normally dream-and, in particular, that a truly spiritual and truly ethical politics may now be more than a pipedream, may now be within reach. That is one possible meaning of the collapse of communism. I say all of this, I hope, with an appropriate measure of sobriety and caution.
For, on the other hand, there has always been a danger in the Christian realist perspective, of which Niebuhr himself was keenly aware. It is that, in acknowledging the imperfections of the “earthly city,” we become somewhat too ready, not to say eager, to accept them, to set the high jump bar of spiritual challenge in politics and society, as it were, too low. “There have always been orthodox Christians,” Niebuhr noted in his well-known essay “Augustine’s Political Realism,” “who have tended to accept the necessities of politics as practically normative and to elaborate a political ethic not very different from that of the cynics.” Indeed, there are times when one cannot help but feel that certain Christian conservatives-in their harsh, by-your-bootstraps attitudes to the poor, their bitter condemnation of their political and moral opponents, their readiness to consider military action as one “option” among many, even when tens of thousands of innocent lives may be at risk (as in Korea)-have strayed so far from New Testament values as to be practicing something almost unrecognizable as New Testament living. I say this as someone who has held similar views in the past- albeit during a time when I considered myself to be more or less an atheist.
Christianity, if it is to mean anything, must mean something in politics as well as in other realms of human life. Christians ought to be a bit kinder and gentler about people, whether dealt with on an individual or collective basis, as Augustine and even Niebuhr understood. But one can go further, and ask whether conditions are not now fundamentally new, are not now essentially different from those prevailing when Niebuhr, to say nothing of Augustine or Plato, wrote. One may ask whether, in a sense, by helping to relieve us of the burden of the Cold War, the Divine Master has not, as it were, raised the moral high jump bar a bit higher. Now that we no longer face the rigors of a world riven by global conflict, now that the Cold War is over, now that nations are (with some notable exceptions) generally softening and moving toward more cooperative ways of doing business, should we not be expecting more of ourselves and our social policies than the cold calculations focused on elemental survival that so often dominated our thinking during the Cold War era? Should we not be learning to be a little softer with our fellow creatures, both at home and abroad?
The question of progress itself needs to be examined afresh in light of recent events, even from a purely secular point of view. Conservatism is usually based on a disbelief in, or at least a strong suspicion of, the idea of progress. Such disbelief seemed entirely justified for much of this terrible century. But now that Soviet Communism has so peacefully subsided, might we not permit ourselves a bit more optimism? Those who argued at the beginning of this century, and at the end of the last, that mankind was on the verge of a new order where commerce would supersede war, where democracy would inevitably spread, and where abundance would multiply may not have been so wrong after all. It appears that mankind is indeed arriving at this point, albeit after a series of characteristically tragic historical divagations and detours, and perhaps with a few more painful detours to come. Yet I for one have become persuaded that we are indeed living through what Francis Fukuyama (borrowing from Hegel) has called “the end of history”-though this end must be considered not so much a moment as a process.
Of course the “end of history” has a special meaning for Christians, as does “history” itself. The distinguishing feature of both Judaism and Christianity, as is well known, is that they are historical religions, religions with a time line. What is this time line but the story of God’s progressive revelation to, and perhaps in, mankind? From the spiritual perspective, the history of mankind can be considered a work in progress, whereby the values of the “heavenly city” are gradually interpenetrating and shaping the “earthly city,” until that moment when spirit has conquered, or perhaps married, matter, and human life is the perfect expression of incarnation, of God in earthly form. We strive in the earthly city to build the heavenly city, and each century, despite many failures, even despite ourselves, we seem to get a bit closer. The process consists of a refinement and softening of human life and human values. Christ is our great forerunner in this process, the model of conduct and consciousness toward which we are striving, individually and collectively. At the center of this model is the replacement of ego with agape.
We are of course a long way from realizing the kingdom of heaven on earth. But who would deny that our institutions and political assumptions are kinder and more humane today than they were a century ago, let alone three centuries ago? Even ten years ago, to cite just one example, it was possible to stigmatize and exclude the handicapped in a way that is no longer tolerated in advanced societies today. Less than half a century ago in America, racial segregation was taken for granted. Now, mirabile dictu, apartheid has disappeared even from South Africa. Gradually, the egotistical values of the earthly city are yielding to the agape-based values of the heavenly city. The process, though gradual, appears to be accelerating.
If this post-Communist, postmodern age has a special meaning, it may lie in the rapid closing of the gulf between the earthly city and heavenly city. In nearly every realm of human activity, with or without an explicit reference to religion, there is a hint of a new softening, a new kindness, a new emphasis on ethics, values, and spirituality. Today whole businesses-well-known companies like Levi Strauss and Federal Express-are attempting to internalize more altruistic business practices and principles, and enjoying remarkable economic success in the process. Countries, too, are more cooperative, yielding sovereignty for the common good (and individual economic advancement) under such arrangements as the European Union and the North Atlantic Free Trade Area. Increasingly, also, there is a recognition that solution of the hard problems that remain-whether one speaks of welfare, crime, or international criminality-will probably not succeed without some reference to values, spirituality, and even God.
Nations today are facing new challenges, but in contrast to the main challenges of the modern war era, what are being challenged are human capacities for patience and kindness. Wealthy Western Europe has been forced to become its Eastern brother’s keeper, and long-time homogeneous societies such as Germany and Britain are being called upon to assimilate unprecedented numbers of immigrants. America, having focused so long on its burdensome but still rewarding job as world constable, is relentlessly reminded of the gaping wounds in its urban neighborhoods. The meaning of crime in America today is that no citizen, even out of self-interest, can perfectly insulate himself or herself from the task of social uplift that is our collective responsibility. And, finally, as the smoke of the Cold War battlefield clears, the industrial world as a whole will be forced to revisit again the massive problems of development and environment entailed in lifting up humanity at large to decent living standards. As the decades pass, the pressures to find viable alternatives, spiritual and economic, to our present excessive materialism in the West will doubtless increase.
The key to the new era may be an increasingly explicit and comforting recognition of the link between social problems and individual spiritual growth. For a secular-minded person, poverty and crime are nothing more than blemishes on material life. For a Christian, they present an opportunity to do good and to grow back toward God in the process. Of course we will continue to disagree, healthily, politically, about the means of accomplishing our ends. But it seems to me that such old- fashioned, modernist, Cold War distinctions as liberal and conservative must have less meaning in a post-Cold War, postmodern world-particularly among Christians, who must strive, above all else, to be one with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Patrick Glynn, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of Closing Pandora’s Box: Arms Races, Arms Control, and the History of the Cold War (New Republic Books/Basic Books).
Glenn Tinder: Christians and the Lure of Utopia
For many people, utopias are endlessly fascinating. They set before us exciting pictures of human powers and possibilities. Christianity of course casts doubt on such pictures by presenting its own “utopia,” the kingdom of God, as something other than an historical and human possibility: a community to be realized only with the end of history and only on the initiative of God. Yet even for Christians utopianism can be alluring-not so much in the form of a stark statement of an ideal we supposedly can achieve here and now but rather as a vision of perfections to be attained gradually, in the course of history. The former we might call radical utopianism. It consists in the belief that humans can construct a good society in as deliberate and expeditious a fashion as they can a bridge or a building-the belief exemplified classically by Plato’s Republic. The other form of utopianism, which relies less on conscious human mastery than on the supposed beneficence of spontaneous historical tendencies, might be called evolutionary utopianism. Its most familiar expression is the modern doctrine of progress.
Radical utopianism is too manifestly in conflict with Christian eschatology to arouse much interest among orthodox Christians. Evolutionary utopianism, however, is more subtle. Its appeal to Christians is indicated by the fact that it has appeared in at least two Christian forms during the last two centuries: in Hegel’s philosophy of history and in liberation theology-to say nothing of the fact that countless Christians have enthusiastically embraced the common doctrine of progress. Such appeal, moreover, is readily understandable. In the Christian vision, history is governed by God and therefore has meaning; meaning, presumably, is manifest in progress of some kind; finally, progress that is significant by Christian standards must be moral and spiritual. These three steps lead, with an appearance of inevitability, to the idea that Christianity implies moral and spiritual progress-and if progress, why not its culmination in moral and spiritual attainments, and corresponding social perfections, far beyond anything we know today?
Moreover, evolutionary Christian utopianism finds support not only in a certain chain of theological principles but also in plain facts of history. During the past two-and-a-half millennia several kinds of progress have occurred, and most of these, without stretching terms outrageously, can be called moral and spiritual. Modern science is as clear an instance as any. True, science does not tell us about the realities that matter most to us; yet few would deny that it represents a kind of triumph of the human spirit. And its offspring, technology, is not entirely unspiritual either, in spite of its myriad questionable uses; it is a capacity for exercising the dominion God vested in man in the original act of creation. Even the material progress that has resulted from technology, as exemplified in the comfort, convenience, and safety enjoyed by large majorities today in the West, is in some ways true progress in spite of flagrant abuses. It makes possible, without the slavery that so defaced the culture of antiquity, the leisure necessary to civilization; indeed, there is today no material reason why high culture and popular culture cannot be the same.
In addition, there have been forms of political progress of such moment as to give them a spiritual resonance: the development, on the basis of medieval institutions, of modern representative government, permitting democracy over wide areas and providing safeguards against mob rule; the invention by the American framers of federalism, offering possibilities of political unity on a scale far more vast than could be envisaged hitherto except through a commanding imperial center, like Rome; and the evolution, beginning in the ancient world and extending through the Middle Ages, of the modern judicial system-a system that perhaps comes nearer than any other human device to institutionalizing reason and fairness in the settlement of disputes. Closely connected with political institutions are the customs and traditions in which they are set. Even these bear a look of progress. Thus today, to take an obvious example, there is a concern for equal justice, regardless of race and gender, that did not exist even fifty years ago.
The secular doctrine of progress is unacceptable to Christians for a variety of well-known reasons. But why shouldn’t Christians develop a spiritual doctrine of progress-one amounting to an affirmation of evolutionary utopianism? Indeed, if they fail to do so, how can they sustain the principle-so vital to Christian faith because of its roots in the principle of divine sovereignty-that history has meaning? These are distinct questions, and I shall begin with the former. Are there insuperable objections to a Christian version of evolutionary utopianism?
I would suggest that there are. Indeed, they seem rather clear. If Christians have often overlooked them, that may be owing to the power and plausibility of a spiritualized doctrine of progress. One who hesitates before accepting such a doctrine, however, is apt to find reasons for not accepting it crowding about and plucking at his sleeve. Let us note some of the most persuasive of these reasons.
First, evolutionary utopianism presupposes that some generations are born on a higher moral level than others; otherwise, there could be no progress in morality. But such a presupposition is incomprehensible. Although customs and traditions can improve, they cannot lift those who conform with them to a state of greater moral goodness. Abraham Lincoln made observations about the racial problems of his time that any politically correct college undergraduate today would know better than to make. Is the politically correct undergraduate, then, morally superior to Lincoln? Someone might argue that while no one can be born on a higher moral level than anyone else, the refinement of customs and traditions nevertheless makes it possible for some to attain a higher level than those attained by earlier generations. One can agree in part; no doubt refined customs and traditions help some people avoid particular moral missteps. Can they, however, help them achieve goodness? Can we think that the time will come when we can say of someone like Francis of Assisi that he displayed remarkable goodness given the handicaps inherent in his historical time and place but that now many of us can surpass him? Will our standards of sainthood gradually be relativized? Will past saints diminish in stature as we rise to a height that enables us to look down on them?
Second, a parallel argument can be made concerning spiritual insight. Christian revelation cannot be thought of, by a Christian, as progressive. Anyone who denies the once-and-for-all character of Jesus’ life, as set forth and explained in the New Testament, is not a Christian (assuming that we are not free to define Christianity however we please). How, then, can Christians inquire into revelation and deepen their Christian understanding? This is the question Cardinal Newman dealt with in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. If Newman’s conclusions can be summarized in a few words, it might be in the broad statement that the implications of revelation can gradually become clearer in our minds. Thus we achieve a better understanding of the meaning of revelation. But Newman never suggested that the time would come when humans in history will see things unknown to the authors of the New Testament. His very aim was to refute the Protestant charge that the Roman Catholic view of tradition jeopardized the integrity and finality of biblical revelation. He did allow that the development of doctrine might correct errors found in the Church Fathers, as in the case of heretical views put forth by Origen. But again, so far as I am aware, there is no suggestion that later ages might surpass the Church Fathers in Christian wisdom. It is difficult to see how a Christian could dispute Newman’s argument in substance. Doctrine may be refined and amplified through incremental insights into revelation, but the spiritual substance of any one mind or generation of minds cannot grow in like fashion. In other words, the development of doctrine is not the development of the beatific vision. The latter is not an historical occurrence. The last generation of the Christian era, accordingly, cannot be wiser than the first, just as it cannot be morally better. Otherwise, revelation is relativized, along with sainthood.
Third, the Kingdom of God is a symbol of perfect communion, between humans and God and, on that basis, among humans themselves. But such communion is inconceivable in the context of the conditions that give rise to history. We cannot think of history except by thinking of human relations as imperfect and therefore changing. The very concept of history contains within it the concept of human estrangement in some form and, accordingly, of power relations. Hence the notion that perfect communion might be attained within history, or even by means of a gradual transition beyond history, is unthinkable. The Christian idea of life in the presence of God presupposes the end of history and thus an eschatological hiatus. It is of the essence of utopia, however, to deny any such hiatus. One of the most cogent criticisms to be made of utopias is that by reducing humans to the scale of history, they degrade them. To paint utopias in Christian colors, thereby reducing God likewise to the scale of history, would not, to say the least, render the original error less grievous.
Fourth, Christian revelation presupposes an enduring human situation, one constituted fundamentally by the radical and deliberate alienation of the human race from God. The situation is moral and thus is often referred to in connection with the phrase “original sin.” But it is also ontological. This means that humans cannot change it merely by resolving to be better. It can be changed only by God. The very heart of the Christian idea is that this has happened-in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Human beings have been “justified.” This does not mean that they now are righteous. It would be nearer the Christian view to say that they-or at least those who accept their justification through faith-are now in a position to strive toward righteousness. With justification we can begin the journey toward sanctification. These matters of course are handled with differing emphases by Protestants and Cath olics. However, their explanations are not at odds on many-if any- absolutely essential points; they occupy common doctrinal ground. But how could an evolutionary utopian stand on that ground? Are the conditions of justification and sanctification to be fundamentally altered as history progresses? Will humans become steadily less dependent on the act of justification accomplished on the Cross? Will they gradually achieve a sanctity that has no integral relationship with what happened on Calvary? Again, it appears that evolutionary utopianism necessarily becomes involved in a relativization of past ages so sweeping as to be incompatible with the Christian understanding of the historical origins and historical status of Christian truth.
Finally, it must be noted that the kind of reasoning represented in the preceding paragraphs is confirmed by Scripture. All three synoptic Gospels present a vision of the end of history as catastrophic and overwhelming. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.” Can we think that such things will happen to a race that has reached a state of moral and spiritual perfection? On the contrary, the conclusion that there will still, in the last days of history, be much wickedness and spiritual blindness is irresistible. Whatever man’s moral and spiritual accomplishments, history will end inconclusively.
The foregoing objections to evolutionary utopianism are not intended to constitute an exhaustive statement but only to indicate the severity of the difficulties inherent in any Christian version of such utopianism. It remains to say something about the historical record, which is plainly accordant with the argument I have been making. As Reinhold Niebuhr emphasized, history is at once progressive and regressive. It is ambiguous. Thus, even as we enjoy the benefits of such achievements as representative government and judicial rationality, we realize that the wars of the twentieth century have been more destructive than any earlier wars; that the Nazi death camps and the Soviet Gulag probably represent a deeper descent into savagery than seen in any prior historical era; and that twentieth-century totalitarianism is an historically unprecedented exercise in human arrogance and cruelty. And added to all else is the spiritual confusion and emptiness that is evident in perhaps every nation and class in the world. (can intellectual nihilism reach a more extreme development than it has in some of the literature of “postmodernism”?) In spite of all historical advances, this may have been, as Elizabeth Bishop remarked, “the worst century so far.”
These arguments, however, bring us face-to-face with a formidable question: if moral and spiritual evolution is so ambiguous and limited, what meaning can history have? Evolutionary utopianism has not been quite set aside until it is shown that we do not depend on it for our sense that history is not mere sound and fury, without significance. For history must have significance if God is sovereign over his creation. Augustine established this principle fifteen centuries ago in his assault on Manicheism. The question is formidable, however, because any version of historical meaning may, like evolutionary utopianism, threaten to render eternity subordinate to time. Whatever meaning history has, it cannot be such that the absolutes assumed in the Christian concept of revelation are lost among the relativities of history. The dilemma arose when Christians realized that the end of history was not imminent, as the first generation of Christians supposed. What purpose can there be in events not preparing the way for, but following upon, the entry into time of timeless truth?
Something very simple must be said at the outset: We cannot know. One of the most elementary, but indispensable, truths about history was voiced by Albert Camus when he said that history as a totality is nonexistent for man. That is true not only because the future is almost altogether unknown to us. The past, too, is largely unknown; revelation aside, what we know of the past is a tentative reconstruction based on a few fragments of memory-drops, as it were, from the incomprehensible river of all that has occurred. Immanent in history, we are not in a position to speak of history as an object available for examination. Camus’ view is, I think, entirely in accord with Christian doctrine, for at bottom it is simply a recognition of our finitude. We can, to be sure, draw inferences concerning the end of history from revelation. But we cannot, either through revelation or natural knowledge, lay out the patterns or unravel the puzzles of earthly history in its totality. The orthodox Christian view-including that of Augustine, as set forth in The City of God-is fundamentally unlike the view expressed in works such as those of Hegel, Marx, and Comte. Such writers prompt the surmise that it is not so much Christians who are apt to treat history as a known object, thus tacitly denying our finitude, as it is forgetful atheists.
Still, it must be possible to show how, granting all of the objections brought against evolutionary utopianism in this essay, history might have meaning. I shall offer nothing more than a sketchily stated hypothesis, one suggested in Newman’s Essay. Newman likened the development of doctrine to the way in which an idea in someone’s mind may gradually unfold so that the idea, without being essentially changed, comes to be better understood. There is a growing perception of implications. It seems in the spirit of Newman to suggest that the meaning of history may lie in elucidation (a word used by Newman himself to characterize the overall thrust of the Essay) of the truth made manifest in Christ. This is accomplished not only through thought and discourse but also through every event that shows an aspect of humanity hitherto unknown, enabling us to relate ourselves anew to Christ and to the mystery of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. History is a process of articulation and clarification.
To save such an hypothesis from becoming merely another version of evolutionary utopianism, however, it must immediately be linked with two rules of application. The first is at the forefront of Newman’s Essay. Every new insight must be referred back to God’s original act of revelation in Christ, the aim being to assure not merely its harmony with revelation but its implicit presence in revelation. For a Christian, revelation offers infinite depths for exploration. But it cannot be added to or revised. Augustine remarked that we believe in order to understand; we must take care, however, that our understanding does not come into conflict with, or in any way deviate from, our beliefs. This is a matter of keeping watch over the frontiers of Christian wisdom and of guarding the absolute, present in Christ, against the relativities of human thoughts and events.
The second rule needed to assure that the concept of history as elucidation does not threaten the essentials of Christian faith is, I think, in accordance with Newman’s Essay although not explicitly stated therein. It must be remembered that the insights gained in the course of history cannot, while history continues, be gathered together, fully expressed, and comprehended in a single spiritual experience. Doctrine may, as Newman argued, undergo significant development; indeed, it must to remain alive. But, as already noted, the development of doctrine is not the development of the beatific vision. If it were, evolutionary utopianism would be true.
My hypothesis, then, is that the millennia succeeding the life of Christ may be thought of as a course of divine instruction. To advance this hypothesis is not to claim the kind of knowledge claimed by Hegel and Marx; nor is it to suggest that such knowledge will ever be gained in the course of history. There is a sense in which Hegel and Marx did not take history seriously. They assumed-with qualifications in the case of Marx-that humans could rise above history by scientifically comprehending it. Christians, however, see things otherwise. God undertook to instruct the human race, not by lifting them out of history, but by himself entering into history. The hypothesis of history as elucidation, therefore, is nothing more than a mandate to live in history, where God has placed us, and be alert to what we will learn by playing a role in a drama authored by God. The process of elucidation will never provide us with a vantage point above history and will never enable us to take hold of history as an object of knowledge. It will only give us glimpses into the mystery of divine providence.
For Christians this should not be a discouraging conclusion. To take part in history we do not need to comprehend it in its totality but rather to let ourselves be led by God. We do this by lucidly and responsibly inhabiting the historical situations in which God has placed us. The necessities these situations impose on us reflect God’s leading. A perfect illustration of such participation is found in Philip Hallie’s moving book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. During World War II the people of a village situated in Vichy France, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, devoted themselves with a unanimity that seems, in the full Christian sense of the word, miraculous, to saving Jewish refugees from the Nazis. It is estimated that a village of about three thousand people saved the lives of about five thousand Jews. The effort was led by a Christian pastor. There was an SS camp nearby, and Nazis were not hesitant to destroy whole communities that defied them. Le Chambon’s enterprise thus was highly dangerous. But it was carried on, with the cooperation of numberless citizens, throughout the Nazi occupation of France. When interviewed in later years, and asked to explain their willingness to jeopardize their lives and families, the response of the villagers was almost always that they merely did what obviously had to be done. In other words, they were responding to the necessities inherent in their historical moment, and in doing this they were following God. This brings us to a final criticism of evolutionary utopianism.
One of the most serious threats contained in evolutionary utopianism is the encouragement it gives us to think that historical progress will eventually render us independent of divine guidance. As we approach the end of the ages we can guide ourselves. Such a sentiment subverts a proper understanding of man’s relationship with history. If God entered into and took part in history, it is scarcely fitting for human beings to try to transcend history and to grasp and govern it. To acknowledge this is not to give up opportunities to be human but only pretensions to be divine. As participants in history we can guard the traditions and memories left to us by the past-a conservative enterprise-and can seek to improve the earthly state of our fellow human beings-a progressive enterprise. (Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought shows that anti-utopianism is not necessarily, in any narrow sense of the term, conservative.) And occasionally we can gain intuitions of the end of history, as in experiences of beauty, truth, and love. Such possibilities as these are amply allowed for in the traditional, Augustinian view of history. We need not-and, for the sake of the integrity of Christian faith, must not-ask for more.
Glenn Tinder is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and author of The Political Meaning of Christianity.