Open main menu

The New Europe/Volume 1/"Sub specie æternitatis"

< The New Europe‎ | Volume 1

"Sub specie æternitatis."

 

The religious significance of the war is being discussed in all countries, and a whole literature has sprung up on the subject. Since the very dawn of culture and history death has had a significance, not merely ethical, but essentially religious. The altar, we are told, is but a slight transformation of the tomb. Death is the problem of life and of its meaning: it is that central point of light or darkness towards which all our thinking and striving tends; and as this war is a veritable orgy for the grim figure with the scythe, it forces upon us religious meditation. In common honesty we have to confess that the petty details and technicalities of war interest us to such an absorbing degree that only a relatively small part of our time is devoted to philosophic and religious thought. We are all strangely anxious to avoid speaking of death, though we all feel it so nearly. But, after all, this peculiar attitude is not a new one: it has merely been accentuated by the war.

Thoughts of death are intimately connected with the ultimate problems of the meaning and value of the individual life and of the life of communities. Can we detect a plan in the life of the individual or of society, and in the workings of history? Exactly two hundred years have elapsed since the death of Leibniz, one of the greatest thinkers of all times, and the last great modern philosopher who dared to trace out the divine design of the Creation. In his Théodicée this German thinker tried to justify the Logos of life and history. In the universe and in mankind he saw an eternal and predestined harmony: he thus accepted and followed up the noble thought of the Bohemian Comenius.

After Leibniz the philosophers no longer had the courage to attempt a justification of the Divinity: they resigned themselves to a study of historical facts, in the hope of detecting the divine purpose in the development of the nations and of mankind at large. History and the Philosophy of History became the favourite sciences, and still hold their ground to this day. And by a strange destiny it was the German followers of the great philosopher of Universal Harmony who sought to justify the Discord of War. Death on the battlefield has been glorified by them, and the primacy of the German nation and its world-power has been revealed as the destiny for which the nations were waiting. Pangermanism is indeed nothing else than an endeavour to erect a system of the teleography of war and of human death.

The question with which the heartbroken mother greeted the news that her only son had fallen: "Is there, can there be, any God?"—this question is put by the historian and the philosopher, when they inquire into the lawful development of nations and of humanity. To-day this question fills millions with misgiving. The huge armies in the field, the vast army of the fallen, stir our imagination and force us, in anxious terror, to ask the meaning of this Great Death. We turn away with impatient disgust from the politicians, who are unable to take in the universal import of the war, to rise to the grandeur of so historic a moment, or to comprehend the significance of the Great judgment. We all, individuals and nations alike, are standing before the bar of history, before the Great Judge.

The war is a religious problem: it is also a problem of the churches and the theologians. Every day we witness searchings of conscience on the part of the various churches, and we hear them asking how far they are responding to the religious needs of the combatants and of the warring nations as a whole. It is indeed an acute question, but it is in no way new. To my mind, the churches in war are scarcely better adapted to cope with the spiritual needs of the time than they were in former days of peace. The special questions so dear to theological minds, as to whether and how far Christianity sanctions war, whether the teaching of Christ can be reconciled with war, whether the churches should approve of and endorse patriotism and nationality in its prevailing forms—all these and kindred questions do not appeal to men who are fighting in the trenches, and have at least some grasp of the political and strategic situation. There have been many wars before and since the days of Our Lord, and all these questions are very old. To-day we feel that the warm blood of nations, shed in torrents all over Europe, compels all thinking men to face the decisive question: who is guilty of so hideous a crime as the present war? Like all its predecessors, this war is a question of conscience; but in it, as in them, we see the churches each following its own country. They do not lead—they are led. Foolish atheists are never tired of pointing to the fact that one and the same church is praying in Germany for a German, in France for a French victory; but they are as beside the mark as the theologians and scholastics.

Certainly the polemics between French and German Catholics, between Catholic and Protestant, between Catholic and Orthodox, make melancholy and depressing reading. Only in one respect do they deserve to be studied, namely, as a key to the question how far the churches share the responsibility for having brought about this war.

It is easy to understand why politicians and publicists avoid the religious questions of the war. Being all members of distinct parties, and, therefore, the slaves of a partisan outlook, they are afraid of offending the religious sentiments of either side. But it is quite possible to discuss the matter without hurting religious susceptibilities. Indeed, I think that the gravest offence which could be offered to thinking men would be the assumption that they cannot listen to a serious criticism of the churches and their significance in the present struggle.

The churches, as an ethical organisation of society, come into close relations with the State, as its political organisation: the nature of these relations has varied in different periods and stages of culture. In the Middle Ages, Church and State formed a peculiar theocratic unity: its two chief types were the Roman and the Byzantine. In the former, the Church had the upper hand; in the latter, the State. The Reformation put an end to theocratic tendencies, and the State gained in strength—in Protestant countries, through the religious and ecclesiastical revival; in Catholic countries, through the Counter-Reformation. This double process lies at the root of modern State-absolutism. The great Catholic theocracy split up into smaller and more national theocracies, differing from the medieval in creed and organisation. Modern democracy is opposed to theocracy as distinct from religion; but democracy is as yet in its first stages.

It was only to be expected that the various churches would, on the whole, espouse the policy of their own States. For instance, official Austria, so far as it has any idea at all, still relies in every respect upon the Church, tottering, from the force of habit, in the direction given by the counter-Reformation. It is well known that Francis Ferdinand formulated his plans of a Great Austria mainly on ecclesiastical lines, and that religious motives played their part in Vienna's hostility to Serbia and Russia. It was no mere accident that the Jesuits, shortly before the war, constituted a new "Serbian" province in the Balkans. There was a parallel Austrian agitation among the Catholic Albanians. Moreover, the Habsburg Court has always been an enemy of modern Italy; and the Vatican, on its side, feels for Austria-Hungary as the last great Catholic Power.

Austria's ecclesiastical policy is far from finding support among the Slav population, but the Germans—not merely the Clericals, but even the Liberals, despite their hatred of the Church—support it. The Southern Slavs, whose future it affects so vitally, desire the union of Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats and Slovenes, regardless of religious differences. Some official circles in the Russian Orthodox Church are tinged by ultra-conservative views, and hope to protect themselves from Catholicism by keeping the Catholic Slavs at arm's length. They cling to the theory that the Orthodox Church rests on pure Christian doctrine and is not aggressive: whereas Catholicism is purely political. But the national idea among the Southern Slavs and their antagonism to Austria-Hungary is so strong that any attempt to divide them according to religion is foredoomed to failure.

Of special interest is the religious attitude of Germany during the war. Early in its course the leaders of the Catholic Centrum party presented to the Cardinals assembled in Conclave a memorandum directed against Orthodox "Muscovitism," whose victory, they argued, would involve grave injury to Catholicism. The leaders of the Centre praise William II. for his piety and trust in him. In his war speeches, it is true, he never ceases to appeal to God, even if in unguarded moments, he puts God in the second place, after himself. They seem unable to see through the official anthropomorphisrn of Prussia, who uses Protestantism and Catholicism alike for her Pangerman aims.

The fact that Protestant Prussia supports Vienna's Catholic policy is easily understood if we consider Berlin's attitude to the Centrum and to German Catholicism. The Centre, in its turn, makes skilful use of the Protestant Kaiser and of the weaknesses of Austrian Catholicism. The Centre press organs, even during the war, have demanded its reformation in head and members. The Kölnische Volkszeitung even spoke of the Catholic mire in Austria. And they were right. Catholicism in Austria, having crushed the Reformation, especially in Bohemia, is spiritually inert and stagnant, relying completely on the police state of Vienna, and very different from the Catholicism of England, the United States or Germany, which has to face an ecclesiastical, cultural, and political enemy. To some extent Slav Catholicism is also saner, since it has to stand guard against strong Hussite memories and a pronounced anti-clerical (not anti-religious) movement. In Austria clericalism means the misuse of religion for political ends.

In Russia, too, religion plays a decisive part in the war. The great bulk of the nation is devoted to the Church, and regards the struggle with Turkey from the religious point of view, as a conflict of Christianity and Islam. The Russian claim to Constantinople has its religious and mystical side. But just as even Turkey could not rouse the old passion of a Holy War and disappointed German hopes of Panislamism, so, in Russia, the national and political motives overshadow more and more the religious. There are influential circles in Russia which approach the Polish and all other Slav problems from an ecclesiastical angle, and politicians who, like the old "Slavophils" and Dostoievsky, still dream of Russian Messianism. But even these politicians no longer preach a policy of aggression against the West. There is no Russian or Slavonic pendant to Pangermanism, no aggressive Panslavism, no "Slav Danger."

The Pangermans proclaim themselves as the direct successors of the 'Holy Roman Empire of German nation.' They praise the medieval Church for her support of Germany in her 'Drang nach Osten' and in her Germanisation of the Slavs, and they recognise the mediaval Empire as the forerunner of "Mitteleuropa." The French Catholic thesis that German Protestantism, as personified in Luther, Kant and Nietzsche, is the real aggressor, requires modification in the light of the aggressive policy of Catholic Austria. Meanwhile, it is highly amusing to find German Catholic writers accusing the Freemasons of having caused the war. They forget that the Kings of Prussia, and other German princes also, have always favoured Freemasonry, and that it has the fervent support of the Magyars, Prussia's most faithful ally.

The Allies have proclaimed as their aim the reconstruction and regeneration of Europe, and it is evident that this cannot be attained merely by re-shaping the map. Europe's whole mentality must be changed. Her regeneration must be as much moral and spiritual as political. A policy sub specie æternitatis is not merely possible but even necessary, but it can only be worked out on a purely democratic basis. Its foremost demand is true equality—alike in the inward and the outward sphere—an equality which extends to every citizen and to every nation.

 
 


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1937, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.