The Modern Heresy
Faith and History. By Reinhold Niebuhr. (Nisbet. 16s.) THIS book is a fully developed exposition of Dr. Niebuhr's challenge to those non-Christian philosophers who profess to solve the problem of human destiny. He divides them into two main groups —those who, like many classical and Oriental thinkers, attempt to escape from history by separating the rational from the material ; and those who, maintaining that the world is steadily advancing towards perfection, put their faith in the growth of man's freedom and power and so give history "an idolatrous centre of meaning." But we cannot escape from history ; and growth is not necessarily equivalent to progress, nor increase in freedom and power to increase in virtue, though this heresy has the support not only of the two main political creeds in the modern world but also of some Christian apologists. It has led to a complacency which the events of the past decades are rapidly undermining, and to a series of conflicting ideologies, founded in part upon the conviction that the most recent cultural or political theory must needs be the profoundest, and partly upon pride and self-seeking. "Ideology," says Dr. Niebuhr, "is a compound of ignorance and dishonesty."
The main error both of the classical solution and of the modern heresy lies in regarding man as a purely rational being. The Greek philosophers (disregarding the fundamental truths expressed in Greek tragedy) rejected the realm of the historical and so imperilled the wholeness and unity of man. Modern philosophers, on the other hand (and Dr. Niebuhr quotes any number of them), believe that man will ultimately think his way through his troubles and so become the master of his fate. This theory becomes every year harder to maintain, and the failure of man to make good use of his freedom and his obvious readiness to misuse his extended power are leading to general cynicism and despair. The Christian faith does not otfer any alternative ready-made solution to the mystery. Indeed it regards the mystery as insoluble inside history, since the human self "operates both in the stuff of historical progress and in the mind which is called upon to master it." But it is not therefore defeated ; for it regards history, in spite of its problematic nature, as instinct with meaning. Christianity makes sense of history, where other philosophies either make false sense of it or destroy the sense of it altogether. Moreover, in contrast to the Iviessianism which laid the foundations of our faith and eventually gave way to it, it does not look for that sense into an indeterminate future but in a definite historical event, wherein God's purposes were revealed. Christians base upon this event their belief that there is a moral meaning in history. Even though (as the author says) "the execu- tion of moral judgements in history is inexact because of its necessary relation to the morally irrelevant fact of power," yet "they sense a divine judgement above and beyond the rough and inexact historical judgements"
Dr. Niebuhr explicitly disavows the intention of converting men by argument, since he believes the Christian interpretation to be rooted in a faith prompted by repentance. But his book should make a considerable impact upon all whose minds are not obsessed by false values and false ideas of success, and who do not reject what many (including some "Christians ") would regard as a defeatist view of God's will for men. At the worst these heretics look upon themselves or their institutions as authorised instruments of the Divine will ; at the best they cling to the pathetic hope that if only goodness is perfect enough its ultimate earthly triumph will be assured. But the true Christian faith derives from the utter defeat (inside history) of perfect love, believing that even though history remains ambiguous to the end it is full of endless possibilities of rebirth and renewal.
A most timely book. Though at times repetitive and somewhat heavy in style, it is packed with penetrating criticism and fine constructive thought. It must be either accepted or answered ; it