The Roots of Western Culture. Introduction
8 min read
8 min read
On May 12, 1945, the Dutch National Movement [Nederlandse Volksbeweging] made an appeal to the Dutch people in a manifesto which decisively rejected the Christian antithesis – the opposition between belief and unbelief – as a principle of demarcation for political party formation in the postwar period. It stated this conviction:
The second world war signifies the close of an old era and the dawn of a new for all nations. Economically, socially, politically, and spiritually the world has changed profoundly and confronts the individual and the community with new demands.
In order to promote their own national community and to maintain a worthy place among the nations, the people of the Netherlands need above all a spiritual renewal nourished by the wellsprings of Christianity and humanism, which have always been our sources of strength.
Fundamental to this striving for renewal ought to be respect and responsibility for man, who can unfold only in the service of a strong, just, and inspired community (personalistic socialism).
Every area of human life is bound by absolute norms, such as charity, justice, truth, and neighbourly love. According to the gospel, these norms are rooted in the will of God. However, they are also grounded in convictions other than Christian. From this follows an unconditional rejection of nation, state, race, or class as the highest corporate good, and likewise of all spiritual coercion as an instrument for the formation of community.
The manifesto particularly stressed this matter:
The greatest possible consensus among the various religious and political groups is necessary at this time, in order to alleviate our desperate needs, to repair what was laid waste, to stamp out all corruption, to set production in motion again, and especially to base governmental authority upon new confidence … Our national political life must move along paths different from those of before 1940. Specifically, the Christian antithesis and the Marxist class struggle are no longer fruitful principles for the solution of today’s social problems … A time of open discussion is urgently needed, so that spiritual renewal will become visible also in the political arena.
The appeal was signed by representatives of the most diverse viewpoints and beliefs. Their names alone guaranteed the sincerity and earnestness of this attempt.
One can assume that the manifesto gave expression to the aspirations of many in the country who wish to break down the old barriers that kept our nation divided, a wish stirred most powerfully by the deep distress of a people under enemy occupation. These hopes and aspirations required formulation. The appeal of the Dutch National Movement has indeed given them a specific form. Instead of an antithesis between the Christian and humanistic views of life, the appeal recommended a synthesis. It called for unification rather than absolute opposition, so that the Dutch national strength, which had been nourished by the spiritual traditions of both Christianity and humanism, might be drawn together again in national unity.
The manifesto indicated that “personalistic socialism” should be the way toward spiritual renewal of our nation. The old antithesis, it argued, must be bridged by the principle that human solidarity and responsibility develop only in the service of a strong, just, and inspired community. According to the appeal, Christians and humanists alike can find themselves in agreement on this common basis. The assumption was that neither the Christian antithesis nor the old marxist-socialist dogma of class struggle can serve any longer as a fruitful foundation for the solution of today’s social issues.
Anyone who would claim the contrary for the Christian antithesis would therefore have to prove that the Christian religion does indeed draw a permanent dividing line of essential significance not only for one’s personal faith but for one’s whole view of society. Specifically, he would have to demonstrate the meaning of this spiritual antithesis for the solution of the acute postwar problems.
This burden of proof will not be an easy matter for those who continue to take their stand on the basis of the antithesis. There are two ways open for them. They could revert the burden of proof back to the Dutch National Movement, and ask it to explain how its new principle forms a fruitful foundation for the solution of social problems and at the same time eliminates the long-standing conflict between Christianity and humanism. But this is not a healthy attitude. One cannot hide behind the position of one’s opponent when one must demonstrate the value of one’s own principle in practical life.
Rather, one must show that since the days of Groen van Prinsterer [1801-1876] and Abraham Kuyper [1837-1920] the principle of the christian antithesis has been a vital spiritual force. One must make clear to both allies and opponents that Christians have not simply relied on the authority these leaders exercised, but have worked productively with their spiritual heritage. For if the spirit that moved Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper is no longer alive among their present followers, then a theoretical appeal to the principles they confessed is of no avail. Then we are confronted with a spiritless canonization of tradition which fearfully guards against the budding of new shoots on the trunk of the past. Perhaps the slogans and terms remain the same, but those who voice them are no longer inspired. He who listens cannot fail to detect that the slogans no longer embody any spiritual reality for their advocates.
What then are we to say? Amidst the ruins of our nation’s existence and the rubble of western civilization, it is hardly fitting for us to beat the drums. Surely, this is not the time for the proponents of the antithesis to sound the battle cry. The antithesis can only be confessed, as always, in recognition of the complete solidarity of Christian and nonchristian alike in the sin and guilt of mankind, the same sin and guilt which recently led the world to the brink of destruction.
We acknowledge that the antithesis cuts right through the Christian life itself. Everywhere, in personal life, in the life of the Christian family, in Christian organizations and political groups, even in the Christian church there has been gratifying evidence of genuine vitality. But there have also been alarming symptoms of apostasy, discord, and schism. These are signs of the turbulent spirit of darkness which wages war in the most revolting forms against the spirit of Christ.
The antithesis is therefore not a dividing line between Christian and nonchristian groups. It is the unrelenting battle between two spiritual principles that cut through the nation and through all mankind. It has no respect for the secure patterns and lifestyles built by Christians.
If the Christian idea of the antithesis is rooted in man, then it is an invention of satan and a source for hypocrisy and pharasaic pride. But if the impact of the antithesis can still be felt as the battle between the spirit of God and the spirit of darkness, then we must humbly thank God every day for the grace of his continued dealings with the world and confess that Christians themselves are not particularly responsible for it.
For surely, the Christian principle is not the permanent possession of a select few who can manipulate it as if it were a collection of magical formulas! On the contrary. It is a dynamic, spiritual force that cannot be halted. Those who enclose it within the fixed boundaries of tradition are irrevocably left behind. Those who claim to be led by the Christian principle are placed directly before the face of God who knows our hearts and consumes every insincerity in the fire of his anger. Today the Christian principle fills us above all with a deep concern for the spiritual and physical distress of our nation and of the entire world which passed through the fire of God’s judgment.
How wide is the scope of the antithesis? Is it limited to the secret regions of the human heart, or does it also draw a principal demarcation line in temporal life? Is it limited to the individual or does it also penetrate temporal society in science, culture, politics, and economics? And if the latter is true, is the antithesis then limited to a few “specifically Christian areas,” or is its significance fundamental and universal?
In other words, shall we agree with the Dutch National Movement that the Christian antithesis is no longer a fruitful principle, at least for the solution of contemporary societal problems? Shall we agree that its significance for political and social life has been transient and historical? This is the crucial question.
This is the decisive issue concerning which we will initiate an open discussion with the Dutch National Movement in a series of articles, hopefully for the benefit of the entire Dutch nation. Taught by experience, we have decided to pursue a path different from the ones generally followed in a dialogue of this kind. We hope that the Dutch National Movement will follow us on this path for the sake of the discussion, for we believe that our way allows no other alternative. Since this issue is of fundamental importance for the spiritual development of the nation, more than ever before, the Dutch people have the right to expect clear and explicit answers from those who claim to be able to give spiritual guidance.
The antithesis was not invented by Groen van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper. Anyone who lives the Christian religion and understands the scriptures knows that. Still, even among those who confess Jesus Christ no agreement prevails as to the thrust of the antithesis for temporal life. Even worse, it appears that no way has yet been found to uncover the form of disagreement in the discussion about this fundamentally important problem.
Surely, then, the first question is this: what should we expect from a discussion about the meaning of the antithesis? Should we merely expect that two opinions are put forward and that each participant is given the opportunity to advance a number of arguments in favour of his point of view? Should we leave the reader with the impression that apparently something can be said for either standpoint? It seems to me that in this way little or nothing is gained. This kind of debate remains superficial. The arguments from both sides only seemingly touch each other, because the deeper starting points that determine the argument remain hidden. As long as these starting points themselves are not placed in sharp and clear light in confrontation with each other, real contact is simply out of the question. It is even conceivable that those who defend their views are not aware of their own deeper points of departure. In that case certainly the whole discussion never moves toward dialogue, and the listener is left in the dark as to the basic principles at stake.
Genuinely fruitful communication is possible only when both points of view are developed jointly and when both sides try to penetrate to the root of their differences. Then the discussion will exhibit the character of a dialogue in which persons truly cooperate to achieve a mutual clarification of the principles at stake. Only then can the reader begin to reflect on the fundamental question as to which side to join.
The second question can be raised in the form of an objection: is this type of discussion not far too difficult for the average reader? Is it not more appropriate for a scientific discussion than for a popular exposition meant for everyone?
Whoever argues in this way is still the victim of a fatal misunderstanding that constituted one of the greatest obstacles to real contact among the various spiritual currents in our nation before the war. It is quite wrong to think that the quest for the deepest source of our differences about the antithesis is fitting only in a scientific inquiry. The deepest source of our view on life’s fundamental issues does not lie in scientific theory but in the religious direction of our life. This is a matter which concerns every human being and which certainly cannot be delegated exclusively to the theoretical sphere of scholarship.
It may be true that a segment of the reading public prefers not to concern itself with the deepest motives in life and seeks discussion for the sake of entertainment instead of insight. But this attitude is hardly a criterion for distinguishing readers with scientific training from those who have little or none. It is a fact that among scientists too there are those who would rather escape from themselves and find some kind of “diversion.” Indeed, experience tells me that many in academic circles belong to this class. Unfortunately, many view the realm of science as a haven where they think they can escape from themselves by means of the “diversion” of theoretical inquiry which in their opinion is quite unrelated to the deepest root of their life. And precisely the opposite situation is often found among those who are not scientifically schooled; they put the shallowness of the educated to shame.
Whatever the case may be, “spiritual renewal” has become a slogan for the postwar period. We will readily adopt it. If we are to take it seriously, however, we must not be content with superficiality but must look for renewal in depth. If the postwar “dialogue” is to contribute to the spiritual renewal of our nation, it must penetrate to that depth dimension of human life where one can no longer escape oneself. It is precisely there that we must unveil fdemasquer] the various views regarding the significance and scope of the antithesis. Only when men have nothing to hide from themselves and from their counterparts in the discussion will the way be opened for a dialogue that seeks to convince rather than repel.
Anyone who seriously desires to start out along this path will not quickly dismiss my discussion under the pretext that it is too “heavy” to digest for the ordinary reader. If this is the only way that ultimately promises results, then no effort necessary for a truly mutual understanding of the various standpoints should be considered too great. This road is indeed accessible to every serious reader and not merely to a select company of “intellectuals.” It is the way of self-examination and not the way of abstract theoretical inquiry.