Spiritual History 101: How Did We Get to the Edge?

PETER KREEFT

The story of our civilization can be told from different viewpoints. The history books usually tell it from only one point of view, and not the most important one at that.


The story of our civilization can be told from different viewpoints. The history books usually tell it from only one point of view, and not the most important one at that. What makes headlines to the historian is not necessarily what makes headlines to God. He reads hearts while we read appearances.

Furthermore, God knows the meaning of history better than the historians do because history is “his story”. He is its Author and we are its characters. It is true that human free choices move history, but so does God; just as Captain Ahab moves the plot of Moby Dick, but so does Melville.

We cannot fully possess God's point of view, of course, but we can seek it and approach it, rather than ignore it. We can also pay attention when God reveals some clues to it. So let's try to write a short summary of the spiritual history of Western civilization, a history not of its body but of its soul.

Its overall structure will look like a lazy H.

Think of two rivers emerging from a swamp, joining, parting again, and reentering the swamp. The steps along the way in this story are the ten key periods of our spiritual history:

 

  1. The period of myth
  2. The dawn of self-consciousness, the “axial period”
  3. Hebraism: virtue in practice
  4. Hellenism: virtue in theory
  5. The medieval Christian synthesis
  6. The Renaissance: the return to Hellenism
  7. The Reformation: the return to Hebraism
  8. Classical modernity: Enlightenment rationalism, Hellenism secularized
  9. Antimodernity: Romantic irrationalism, Hebraism secularized
  10. The postmodern period, the present: a new axial period?

1. MYTH

For well over go percent of the time that our species has lived on this Planet, we have thought and lived by myth. Yet we know and care less about this long and formative period of time than about any other, probably because of our chronological snobbery.

The word myth means “story”. Myths are moving pictures that arise from the imagination, that great, creative, unconscious well of wisdom within us that psychologists are just beginning to explore in this century. These stories and images that bubble up in myths still move us profoundly on the unconscious level, especially in art, most especially in the cinema, that great waking dream-machine. Jungian psychologists could have a field day with MTV videos; they are chockfull of archetypes, mythic images.

Myth is immediate and spontaneous. It has beauty but not truth, except the truth of beauty itself. It may sound profound to say with Keats that “beauty is truth, truth beauty”, but it is really confusion. To say this is no disrespect for beauty, which is one of God's three great prophets in the human soul, the other two being goodness and truth. Beauty is known by the imagination; goodness, by conscience; and truth, by reason (in the large, ancient sense of wisdom, no just cleverness; understanding, no just calculation; reason, not just reasoning). All three converging streams of prophets — Jewish moralists, Greek philosophers, and pagan myth-makers — point us to the Messiah. (See Figure 4.)

Myth does not ask for or give either reasons or laws. It neither questions nor commands. It is not for explanation or morality. True, myths attempt to explain the origins of things, but this explanation does not survive rational questioning. Myths are not meant to be rational. Nor are they meant to be moral, although myths often direct people to do things, such as self-torturing to prove one's manhood, or speaking magic words to obtain the help of the local gods to defeat the enemy. But this is not morality. In the myth's societies morality came not from the priests but from the philosophers. The exception is the Jews, who alone among ancient peoples were not dominated by myth, and who alone identified the one Object of religious awe and worship with the source of moral conscience and law. The innate sense of morality, or conscience, is quite different from the innate sense of awe, wonder, worship, and transcendent mystery (“the numinous”) that is expressed by myth.

Worship and morality existed side by side in paganism for thousands of years. Only one people joined them together, and their own records claim that it was not they but God who did it. Their claim to be God's “chosen people” was really the humblest of possible explanations for their genius.

2. THE AXIAL PERIOD

Karl Jaspers uses this term for the sixth century B.C. because in this century human consciousness all over the world began turning, as if it were on its axis, and facing itself. Consciousness became self-conscious, or reflective. This happened independently at approximately the same time all over the world. It was either a coincidence or a plot, either chance or divine providence. The more we look, the less it looks like chance.

In China, for instance, we find the two great figures of Confucius and Lao-Tzu. Confucius substituted deliberate tradition for “traditional tradition”, and Lao-Tzu substituted the individual mystical experience of the Tao, or cosmic life-force, for the authoritarian and impersonal fortune telling of the I Ching, in his little masterpiece, the Tao Te Ching.

In India, Gautama the Buddha abandoned the books and authority of the Brahmins to seek nirvana deliberately and told the world that anyone could do the same: “Be ye lamps unto yourselves.”

In Persia, Zoroaster substituted prophetic and moralistic religion for animism, tribalism, and nature-worship

In Greece, philosophers and scientists began the revolutionary act of asking questions of the world and life, questions that the poets and myth-makers could not answer.

In Israel, the great prophets demanded personal and social justice and holiness, not just ritual observance.

Everywhere, in different ways, human consciousness was making new, inward demands, becoming aware of its own powers and responsibilities. In a sense modern man was born twenty-six centuries ago. Each of the subsequent events in our spiritual history is dependent on this event, in this new context.

3. HELLENISM

This is Matthew Arnold's name for the Greek spirit. Even when political Hellas (Greece) died, its spirit was preserved in a Roman body, so that we can meaningfully use the single term “classical” for both Greek and Roman culture.

The Greeks, to put it very simply, thought and talked more than anyone else. Luke, writing Acts, has to explain to his non-Greek audience this strange Greek behavior: “All the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (17:21). The most important word in their language was logos, which meant (among other things) “word, language, discourse, thought, reason, or intelligible truth”. Thus John begins his Gospel with the astonishing claim that the logos which the Greeks searched for, the Truth, existed as God and with God “in the beginning” and “became flesh” as Jesus, the Jesus who said, “I AM the Truth.”

The kind of truth these thinking, talking, and searching Greeks thought, talked, and searched the most about was the truth about virtue. Socrates, the greatest of them, one of the two or three men in the history of this planet who made the greatest difference and the greatest contribution to all subsequent ages, thought about almost nothing else. Each of his dialogues is a quest for the truth about some particular virtue.

We can contrast the Hellenic and the Hebraic minds as Matthew Arnold does, by contrasting theory with practice, intellectualism with voluntarism, the centrality of thought with the centrality of will, choice, and action. The Greeks represented virtue in theory, thinking about virtue; the Hebrews represented virtue in practice. For Socrates and Plato, right thinking is virtue. Virtue is knowledge and knowledge is virtue. If we only know what is good, we will do it. The will, choice, and action necessarily follow thinking. We always choose what we think is profitable to us. If our thoughts are right, our choices will be right. Thus philosophical wisdom is the prescription for a moral utopia, as Plato set out in his Republic.

4. HEBRAISM

Two crucial categories of human existence were missing from the Greek scheme, if we take the Hebrew and Christian perspective: sin and faith, the categories of relationship with God. They are religious categories, not just ethical ones. The religious includes the ethical but goes beyond it. The religious Jew and Christian are to be ethically virtuous, of course, but also religiously faithful. Of the two great commandments, the first is religious (to love the Lord with the whole heart), the second is ethical (to love neighbor as self).

For Hebraism, faith (fidelity) is first; virtue, second; and knowledge, third in importance. The knowledge of God and virtue is not prior to the practice of them, as it was for the Greeks. Rather, it is embedded in or dependent on the practice. Thus Jesus gives the perfectly Hebraic answer to the question: “How can we know your teaching, whether it is from God or not?” when he says: “If your will were to do the will of my Father, you would know my teaching, that it comes from him” (Jn 7:17). For the Greek, head judges heart: “Live according to reason.” For the Jew, heart judges head: “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life” (Pr 4:23 KJV). (Heart in the Bible means “will”, not “sentiment”. Hebraism is practical, not sentimental.)

5. THE MEDIEVAL CHRISTIAN SYNTHESIS

Christian virtue is not fundamentally different from Hebrew virtue, because not only Jews and Christians but nearly everyone innately knows what is right and wrong (religions do not differ much in their ethics, but in their theology) and because Jews and Christians believe in the same God, the author of the moral law.

But Christianity, unlike Judaism, is a proselytizing religion. It sent missionaries out into the Greco-Roman world to convert it, and the “it” that was there to be converted included Greek notions of virtue.

There were from the beginning three different attitudes on the part of Christians to the pagan world in general and to pagan notions of virtue in particular: (1) uncritical synthesis, (2) critical synthesis, and (3) criticism and antisynthesis. Different Christian thinkers accepted either (1) all, (2) some, or (3) none of the Greek ideals of virtue. The greatest and mainstream Christians, like Augustine and Aquinas, took the second way and have been criticized by extremists of both wings right up to the present day. They are labeled fundamentalists by the modernists and modernists by the fundamentalists.

Perhaps synthesis is the wrong word for the great tradition forged in the thousand years of the Middle Ages. It was rather a profound Christian reinterpretation of Greek philosophy and Greek morality. It was not like gluing a rabbit onto a carrot but like a rabbit's eating and digesting a carrot.

6 and 7. THE RENAISSANCE AND THE REFORMATION

Two forces separated the strands of the rope that the Middle Ages tied together. We no longer live in the Middle Ages, mainly because of the Renaissance and the Reformation.

The Renaissance tried to return to the Greco-Roman classicism and humanism minus the medieval additions of scholastic philosophy and theology. The Reformation tried to return to a simpler, premedieval, New Testament Christianity, a Christianity minus the additions of Greek rationalism and Roman legalism and institutionalism which the reformers thought had corrupted the Catholic Church. From our vantage point today we call the Renaissance and the Reformation progressive movements because they led out of the Middle Ages into the modern world. However, thinkers in those times saw themselves as part of nostalgic or returning movements, purifying movements: the Renaissance returning to Hellenism, the Reformation to Hebraism.

The dichotomy is still with us. Hebraism and Hellenism, heart and head, will and reason, are still separated. Nietzsche's unsuccessful attempt to find the unifying center of these two forces (which he called the “Dionysian” and the “Apollonian” after the Greek gods of earth and sky, darkness and light, vegetation and the sun) drove him insane. Along the road to madness, brilliance was thrown off, like sparks from a destructive fire. All this is true for our whole civilization as well as for Nietzsche. I am not glorifying a madman, but Nietzsche was a prophet and a mirror to the madness of our own civilization, and we can learn much from him.

8. THE ENLIGHTENMENT

The term is ironic; for spiritually the eighteenth century was the darkest ever. Scientism and rationalism replaced faith; the human heart narrowed and hardened in conformity with its own gods, the inventions of its own hands. G. K. Chesterton was profoundly right about the three eras of our history — ancient, medieval, and modern (pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian) — when he summarized all of Western history in three sentences: “paganism was the biggest thing in the world; and Christianity was bigger; and everything since has been comparatively small.”

Enlightenment rationalism cut the top off of Greek ideals and kept the bottom, cut off wisdom and kept logic, transformed reason into reasoning. With this new, streamlined tool, the world could be conquered. The scientific method became the tool for the new summum bonum, the new meaning of life: 66 man's conquest of nature”. Alexander Pope summarized the faith of the Enlightenment in two lines:

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night; God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

9. ROMANTICISM

Nineteenth-century Romanticism and its philosophical child, Existentialism, was the reaction against Enlightenment rationalism, the reaction of heart against head. But just as the Enlightenment's head was a trimmed-down and secularized head, Romanticism's heart was a trimmed-down and secularized heart. It was sentiment instead of will, and it was in relationship to nature rather than to God.

10. THE PRESENT

Where do we go from here? Nearly everyone agrees that we are standing at the end of an age, perhaps at a new axial period. We have left modernity behind almost as surely as we have left antiquity behind. We are “postmodern”. But we do not yet know what that means.

From our unique experiment in living without a set of objective values, only two roads lie open: return or destruction. Once the sled is on the slippery slope leading to the abyss, we either brake or break; and no amount of rhetoric about “progress” can alter that fact. Crying “progress” as we die will not raise us from death.

Yet our diagnosis gives us reason to hope. We came from a place closer to home; therefore it is possible to return. Our illness is not wholly hereditary. There is, of course, a far deeper illness in us that is hereditary. It is called “Original Sin”, and for that a remedy far deeper than philosophy is needed, and in fact has been provided, and that is “the greatest story ever told”.

But there is also a cure, a hope, a home to return to on the natural level. It is our own human nature. The four cardinal virtues, which we shall explore in chapter four, are the heart of natural morality, and they lie embedded and ineradicable in our very nature. That nature is weakened and perverted by sin, but it is not obliterated. Natural virtue cannot save our souls, but it can save our civilization, and that is no mean feat. But it can save us only if we both know it and practice it.

On the supernatural level there is also hope because there too is a home from which we came — Paradise — though the road back is only by grace. Since we were once home, there is home and thus a hope, a possibility of return — or even something better. The road to Paradise is supernatural virtue, the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity and the blessedness, or beatitude, that flows from them.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Kreeft, Peter. “Spiritual History 101: How Did We Get to the Edge?” Chapter three in Back to Virtue (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 47-56.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Back to Virtue - ISBN 0-89870-442-7.

THE AUTHOR

Peter Kreeft has written extensively (over 25 books) in the areas of Christian apologetics. Link to all of Peter Kreeft's books here.

Peter Kreeft teaches at Boston College in Boston Massachusetts. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 1986 Ignatius Press


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