Commentary Magazine

Faith and History, by Reinhold Niebuhr; and Meaning in History, by Karl Lowith

The Slaughter-Bench of History

Faith and History.
By Reinhold Niebuhr.
Scribners. 257 pp . . $3.50.

Meaning in History.
By Karl Löwith.
University of Chicago Press. 257 pp. $4.00.


Judaism is tormented by the fact that the Messiah has not come, while the gas chambers have. Christianity is tormented by the fact that the Messiah did come, almost two thousand years ago, and what difference did it make? Hegel spoke of the “slaughter-bench of history” to which mankind was delivered as part of the “cunning of reason,” that is, as part of the larger scheme of historical providence; thus did he nobly synthesize, as only an academic sage could, radical suffering with radical optimism. But the majority of men are too undisciplined to submit to such a theodicy, and they persist in asking with Job: why, why? It is with the stubborn endurance of unredeemed history that these two books by Protestant theologians are concerned.

Reinhold Niebuhr has earned an enviable reputation both as man and thinker; but that does not prevent each of his successive books from being progressively less interesting. He is not saying anything he has not said before, and he seems to be less concerned with thinking problems through than with convincing others of truths with which he is well satisfied. So earnest is he in his persuasion, so American in his need to convince his countrymen, that his theology, often accused of being pessimistic, actually has a pervasive “uplifting” tone: he has been enticed by the democratic ethos into representing ideas in their public relations, rather than in their important, private ones.

The themes, then, of Faith and History are not unfamiliar. The modern secular notion of progress is shown to have substituted a faith in history for a faith in Christ, or to have even identified history, as being itself redemptive, with the Christ. Evil is rooted in man’s liberty, which tends to self-centeredness and which introduces “provisional meaninglessness” into history; “ultimately this rebellion of man against God is overcome by divine power.” (But this crucial term, “ultimately,” is never explicated.) Paganism, on the other hand, is rather cavalierly accused of not having properly appreciated the ability of human freedom to direct the natural course of affairs, and thus it was fated to be shattered by Christianity; moreover, now that a sense of meaningful history has been won, there is supposedly no return possible to a paganism which regards history as but a natural repetition of events. The ultimate ambiguities of human existence can no longer simply be endured, but “must” be overcome.

Yet the crucial question—what does this “meaningful history” mean?—is evaded. Of the “second coming” of Christ there is hardly a whisper in these pages. Niebuhr seems to say at times that redemption is not for history itself, but only for individuals who confess their perpetual rebelliousness against God. Here the “meaning” of history is completed by contrition: “The final revelation of New Testament faith . . . gives life a final meaning without promising the annulment of history’s moral obscurities.” But Niebuhr cannot really deliver history over to godlessness or blind faith: though he admits there is no Christian philosophy of history which is intellectually compelling, he believes he can “prove its relevance” by showing that those theories which hold history to be rationally intelligible end in self-contradiction and paradox.

This last is important for what it reveals about Niebuhr’s method: where he can show that rational analysis leads to a paradox, he feels that he has ended in the truth. But that the human intellect is thwarted in trying to answer the last questions of “why?” does not in itself sanction a Christian answer, or any religious answer for that matter. The contradictions of human reason and human existence may have to be endured rather than overcome; that they exist does not prove that they “must” be overcome. To point to “a depth of reality where mystery impinges on meaning” is to point to a mystery—and not necessarily to God.

It is not so much a personal incapacity of Niebuhr that is involved here, as it is an intrinsic dilemma of Christianity on which he is impaled. For the modern age has broken down Christianity into its original elements—Judaism and Hellenism—and the compound cannot regain its stability. Writes Niebuhr: “With the Greeks modern culture does not require the Gospel to make life intelligible; and with the Jews it does not require the Gospel to make history meaningful.” It is possible to believe that the Messiah will come, as do the Jews, who are his witnesses, and who suffer and hope and lean on the Torah. It is also possible to believe that he will not come, as did the Greeks, who resigned themselves rationally to fate while seeking to ascend to a realm of eternal truths beyond time and history. But to insist that the Messiah has come—how then does one go on living at the “slaughter-bench of history”?



This Christian dilemma is frankly confronted by Karl Löwith in his Meaning in History: “To the critical mind, neither a providential design nor a natural law of progressive development is discernible in the tragic human comedy of all times.” He suggests an alliance between Christian faith and philosophical scepticism, in that neither sees any proof or disproof of the existence of God in “the wasteful economy of history”: “The human result, though not the motivation, of scepticism and faith in regard to the outcome of history is the same: a definite resignation, the worldly brother of devotion, in the face of the incalculability and unpredictability of historical issues.” Temporal events are of no consequence to a Christian faith in God “as revealed in Christ and hidden in nature and history.” (My italics.)

Meaning in History tries to show that the modern notion of history has its roots in the Jewish-Christian eschatological pattern and culminates in the secularization of that pattern, so that the modern age is “Christian by derivation and anti-Christian by consequence.” The plan of the book works backwards, with essays on Burckhardt, Marx, Hegel, Proudhon, Voltaire, Vico, Bossuet, Joachim of Flores, Augustine, Orosius, and the Bible. In its origins, Christianity was not a philosophy of history but, on the contrary, an announcement of the imminent end of history and of the fundamental antagonism between the kingdoms of men and the Kingdom of God. That is why the very phrase “Christian civilization,” or “Christian society,” is a contradiction in terms, for “Christianity is the very opposite of a religion fit for the world.” Löwith goes on to write: “The mere fact that Christianity interprets itself as a New Testament, superseding an old one and fulfilling the promises of the latter, necessarily invites further progress and innovation, either religious or irreligious and antireligious . . . .” So, with the defeat of the original hope that the “end of days” was at hand, there began the historical adventures of Western eschatology in which the religious and anti-religious innovations spent themselves—through ecclesiastical obscurantism, medieval messianism, French Enlightenment, German Idealism and Marxism, and modern nihilism. Which brings us to our own day, no longer Christian, not Jewish, not pagan, but whistling in the dark.



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