Friday, 14 August 2015

Values in a Time of Upheaval

The following is an excerpt from Values in a Time of Upheaval, a collection of essays by (as he was then) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. I think the section on politics and morality is fascinating, as it illuminates some of the discussions I have seen recently on the conflict between tradition and liberal progressive ideals. 




Politicians of all parties take it for granted today that they must promise changes—naturally, changes for the better. The once mythical radiance of the word “revolution” has faded in our days, but far-reaching reforms are demanded and promised all the more insistently. This must surely mean that there exists in modern society a deep and prevailing sense of dissatisfaction precisely in those places where prosperity and freedom have attained hitherto unknown heights. The world is experienced as hard to bear. It must become better. And it seems that the task of politics is to bring this about. So since the general consensus is that the essential task of politics is to improve the world, indeed to usher in a new world, it is easy to understand why the word “conservative” has become disreputable and why scarcely anyone views lightly the prospect of being called conservative, for it appears that what we must do is not preserve the status quo but overcome it.


This fundamental orientation in the modern conception of politics (indeed, of life in general) is in clear contrast to the views of earlier periods, which considered the great task of political activity to be precisely the preservation and defense of the existing order, warding off threats against it. Here, a small linguistic observation may shed light on this matter.

When Christians in the Roman world were looking for a word that could express succinctly and comprehensibly what Jesus Christ meant to them, they discounted the phrase conservator mundi (“conserver of the world”), used in Rome to indicate the essential task and highest service performed in human society. The Christians could not apply this exact title to their Redeemer, nor did they wish to do so, since it was inappropriate as a translation of the words “Messiah / Christ” or as a designation of the Savior of the world. From the perspective of the Roman Empire, the preservation of the ordered structure of the empire against all dangers from within and without had to necessarily be regarded as the most important task of all, because this empire embodied a sphere of peace and law in which it was possible for people to live in security and dignity. And, as a matter of fact, Christians—even as early as the apostolic generation—were aware of the high value of this guarantee of law and peace that the Roman Empire gave them. In view of the looming chaos heralded by the mass migration of peoples, the Church Fathers too were most certainly interested in the survival of the empire, its legal guarantees, and its, peaceful order.

Nevertheless, Christians could not simply want everything to remain exactly as it was. The book of Revelation, which certainly stands on the periphery of the New Testament with its view of the empire, nevertheless made it clear to everyone that there were things that must not be preserved, things that had to be changed. When Christ was called salvator rather than conservator, this had nothing to do with revolutionary political ideas. Yet it did point to the limitations of a mere praxis of preservation and showed a dimension of human existence that went beyond the political functions of maintaining peace and social order.

Let us attempt to move from this snapshot of one way of understanding the essential task of politics onto a rather more fundamental level. Behind the alternative that we have glimpsed somewhat unclearly in the antithesis between the titles conservator and salvator, we can in fact discern two different visions of what political and ethical conduct can and ought to do. Here it is not only the relationship between politics and morality that is viewed differently but also the interlocking of politics, religion, and morality.

On the one hand, we have the static vision that aims to conserve. It is seen perhaps most clearly in the Chinese understanding of the universe: the ordering of heaven, which always remains the same, prescribes the standards for behavior on earth too. This is the Tao, the law of existence and reality that human beings must recognize and that must govern their conduct. The Tao is both a cosmic and an ethical law. It guarantees the harmony between heaven and earth and, thus, also harmony in political and social life. Disorder, the disturbance of peace, and chaos arise where people resist the Tao, living in disregard of it or even opposition to it. In response to such disturbances and destructions of societal life, the Tao must be reestablished so that the world can once again be livable. The vital issue is to remain aware of the constant ordering of things or to return to it if it has been abandoned.

The Indian concept of dharma expresses something similar. This term designates cosmic as well as ethical and social ordering to which human beings must adapt if life is to be led aright. Buddhism relativized this vision—which is at the same time cosmic, political, and religious—by declaring the entire world to be a cycle of suffering; salvation is not to be sought in the cosmos but by departing from it. But Buddhism did not create any new political vision, since the endeavor to attain salvation is nonworldly, orientated to nirvana. No new models are proposed for the world as such.

The faith of Israel takes a different path. In the covenant with Noah it does indeed recognize something akin to a cosmic ordering and the promise that this will be maintained. But for the faith of Israel itself, the orientation to the future becomes ever clearer. It is not that which abides perpetually, a “today” that is always the same, that is seen as the sphere of salvation, but rather a “tomorrow,” the future that has not yet arrived. The book of Daniel, probably written in the course of the second century before Christ, presents two great theological visions of history that were to play a very significant role in the further development of political and religious thinking. In the second chapter, we have the vision of the statue that is part gold, part silver, part iron, and, finally, part clay. These four elements symbolize a succession of four kingdoms, all of which are ultimately crushed by a stone that, untouched by human hands, breaks off from a mountain and grinds everything completely to dust so that the wind carries off all that remains, and no trace of the kingdoms can be found. The stone now becomes a high mountain and fills all the earth—the symbol of a kingdom that the God of heaven and earth will establish and that will never pass away (2:44). In the seventh chapter of the same book, the sequence of the kingdoms is depicted in a perhaps even more impressive image as the succession of four animals who are finally judged by God, portrayed as the “Ancient of Days.” The four animals—the four mighty empires of world history—had emerged from the sea, which is a metaphor for the power of death to pose a forceful threat to life. But after the judgment comes the human being (the “son of man”) from heaven, to whom all peoples, nations, and languages will be handed over to form a kingdom that is eternal and imperishable, never to pass.

While the eternal orderings of the cosmos play a role in the conceptions of the Tao and dharma, the idea of “history” is wholly absent. In the here and now, however, “history” is perceived as a genuine reality that is not reducible to the cosmos. With this anthropological and dynamic reality, which had never been glimpsed in an earlier period, “history” offers a completely different vision. It is clear that such an idea of a historical sequence of kingdoms as gluttonous animals in more and more terrible forms could not have developed in one of the dominant peoples. Rather, it presupposes for its sociological driving force a people that is itself threatened by the greed of these animals and that has also experienced a succession of powers that called into question its very right to existence. This vision belongs to the oppressed, who are on the lookout for a turning point in history and cannot have any desire for the preservation of the status quo. In Daniel’s vision, the turning point of history is not the work of political or military activity, for the quite simple reason that the human forces necessary for the task do not exist. It is only through God’s intervention that things are changed: the stone that destroys the kingdoms is detached from a mountain “by no human hand” (2:34). The Church Fathers read this as a mysterious prediction of the birth of Jesus from the Virgin, which was the work of God’s power alone. In Christ they see the stone that ultimately becomes a mountain and fills the whole earth.

The cosmic visions simply see the Tao or dharma as the power of the divine, as the “divine” itself. But the new element now is not only the appearance of the reality of a “history” that is not reducible to the cosmos, but also this third element—which is also the first, namely, an active God in whom the oppressed put their hope. We see as early as the books of Maccabees, roughly datable to the same period as Daniel’s visions, that the human person must also take God’s cause into his own hand by means of political and military action. In parts of the Qumran literature the merging of theological hope and human action becomes even clearer. Later on, the struggle of Bar Kochba signifies an unambiguous politicization of messianism: to bring about the turning point in history, God makes use of a “messiah” whom he commissions and empowers to bring in the new order of things by means of active political and military conduct. The “sacred empire” of the Christians, in both its Byzantine and its Latin variants, could not adopt such ideas, nor did it wish to do so. Rather, the primary aim was, again, the preservation of the order of the world, now explained in Christian terms. At the same time, they believed that they were now living in the sixth age of the world, its old age, and that one day the other world would come. This, God’s eighth day, was already running alongside history and would one day definitively replace it.


Apocalypticism—with its refusal to accept the dominant powers of the world and its hope for healing through the overthrow of those powers—never disappeared completely. It reemerged, independent from religion or in opposition to it, from the eighteenth century onward. We encounter its radical form in Marxism, which can be said to follow Daniel to the extent that it offers a negative evaluation of all previous history as a story of oppression and presupposes as its sociological subjects the class of the exploited, both the industrial workers who long enjoyed very few rights and the dependent agricultural laborers. In a remarkable transposition, the reasons for which have not yet been sufficiently reflected on, Marxism became increasingly the religion of the intellectuals, while reforms gave the workers rights that made revolution—that great breaking away from the contemporary form of history—irrelevant. Workers no longer needed the stone that would destroy the kingdoms; they set their hopes rather on Daniel’s other image, that of the lion that was set upright on its feet like a human being and received a human heart (7:4). Reform replaced revolution: if the lion has been given a human heart and has laid aside its feral character, then one can live with it. In the world of the intellectuals, most of whom were well off, the rejection of reform became all the louder, and revolution increasingly took on a divine quality. They demanded something completely new; reality as it was evoked a strange feeling of surfeit (and here too we might profitably reflect on the reasons for this feeling).

After all the disappointments prompted in recent years by the collapse of “real socialism,” positivism and relativism have now undeniably gained the upper hand. In place of Utopian dreams and ideals, today we find a pragmatism that is determined to extract from the world the maximum satisfaction possible. This, however, does not make it pointless to consider once again the characteristics of the secular messianism that appeared on the world stage in Marxism, because it still leads a ghostly existence deep in the souls of many people, and it has the potential to emerge again and again in new forms.

The foundation of this new conception of history rests, on the one hand, on the doctrine of evolution, transferred to the historical sphere, and, on the other hand (linked with that), on a Hegelian belief in progress. The connection to the doctrine of evolution means that history is seen in biologic, indeed in materialistic and deterministic terms: it has its laws and its course, which can be resisted but not ultimately thwarted. Evolution has replaced God here. “God” now means development, progress. But this progress—here Hegel makes his appearance—is realized in dialectical changes; in the last analysis, it too is understood in deterministic terms. The final dialectical move is the leap from the history of oppression into the definitive history of salvation—to employ Daniel’s language, we might call this the step from the animals to the “son of man.”

The kingdom of the “son of man” is now called the “classless society.” Although the dialectical leaps occur of necessity, like events in nature, they are made concrete through political means. The political equivalent to the dialectical leap is revolution, which is a concept antithetical to that of reform. One must reject the idea of reform, because it suggests that the animal has been given a human heart, and one need no longer fight against it. Reforms destroy revolutionary enthusiasm, and this is why they are opposed to the inherent logic of history. They are “involution” instead of evolution and, hence, ultimately the enemies of progress. Revolution and Utopia—the anticipation that reaches out to grasp the perfect world—belong together. They are the concrete form taken by this new political and secular messianism. The future is an idol that devours the present; revolution is an idol that obstructs all rational political activity aimed at the genuine amelioration of the world. The theological vision of Daniel, indeed of apocalypticism in general, has been transmuted into something at once secular and mythical, since these two fundamental political ideas—revolution and Utopia—present a thoroughly antirational myth when they are combined with evolution and dialectics. Demythologization is urgently needed so that politics can carry on its business in a genuinely rational way.

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