Project Canterbury

The End of Our Era
by W.G. Peck

New Tracts for the Times, Number 2.
Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1933.

"But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."—ST. MATTHEW 6:33.

IT IS THE VOICE OF GOD in Galilee, calling to the sons of men in all times and of all races, announcing the meaning of their existence upon this planet earth. The day draws ever nearer when it will become clear to all who wish to think straight, that the Christian view of Man's nature is the only ultimate guarantee of human decency and dignity: that here is light, and everywhere else there is, at last, nothing but darkness and doubt.

We are living in what is probably one of the supreme crises in human history. [I can assure you that it is with no light sense of my responsibility that I speak to you at this time, upon the basic issues of human life.] The profoundest thought now in the world is persuaded that we have reached the end of the modern experiment. The spiritual springs of what we have called the modern world are exhausted. Its driving force has gone. The economic breakdown is but the outer symbol of a deep-seated collapse of the human spirit. And that is why those people who fondly imagine that we are experiencing no more than a specially severe example of a periodic trade slump are dangerously deceiving themselves. There is going to be no such industrial revival as will restore for us the old, comfortable life upon the old foundations. Economically we have reached what my friend Fr. Demant calls one of the major crises in man's history.

It is not for me, a stranger and a foreigner, to offer public opinions upon the stupendous efforts which your own country is putting forth to solve its problems. I will say that I think you have shown in some ways more courage and wisdom than any other nation; but this is not saying very much. And before any nation actually solves the problem which now vexes all nations, there will have to be an escape from the moral and spiritual presuppositions which are responsible for the condition of the world today.

Our Lord assures us that the true ordering of our life in the economic sphere depends upon the end to which our activities are directed. He says that if we desire reasonable assurance about the necessities of our physical life we must shape our whole activity in such a manner that it all looks toward the Kingdom of God as its final end. That is to say Man, in his commercial and industrial life, must act as a person whose nature and destiny are immortal and spiritual. It means that his social intercourse upon every field must be regarded as having for its true explication the Divine Society.

The modern world has increasingly abandoned that conception of human life. The modern world, in its positive activity, has been increasingly a secular world. It has sought the motives and the resources of its life increasingly in this world alone. It has not built its economic structure, or its international intercourse, or its manners and morals, upon the assumption that Jesus Christ was the Revelation of Ultimate Reality.

Its chief and most dangerous heresy has been that it has relegated religion to the sphere of private taste, along with a liking for golf or the hobby of collecting postage stamps, and has virtually said that what may be true in religion has nothing to do with the way we conduct our practical business. Well, the world has now an excellent opportunity of learning that if you are going to run your business and politics as if God and His idea of man did not matter, your business and your politics are going to come to confusion and collapse. The secular life of the modern world is falling to pieces because it has no purpose which can satisfy the inner life of man. It cannot minister to manhood conceived as spiritually significant. And the time is passing when men will say that that does not matter. For manhood conceived as having no meaning beyond this world is manhood that is bound to come to despair, to horror of existence, to shame, and to disaster.

In this age, the supreme and immense question before us is precisely a question of the meaning and value of our human existence. The secular answer has been given. And it has been found out. It cannot support man's adventure beneath the sun. If there is nothing else, then we return to barbarism. We come to the finish of the human chapter, so far as that is supposed to have any meaning in it.

True, there are still some intellectuals both in England and in this country who continue to look toward a secular triumph of humanity. Some of these men achieved great reputations before the contemporary collapse became manifest, and the public mind has not yet sufficiently grasped the nature of the situation to realize the futility of their doctrines. But to those who have made themselves acquainted with the living issues, to those who have read the writings of men who have delved deeply into the sources of our trouble, writers like Jacques Maritain, the French thinker, or Nicholas Berdyaev the Russian, or Ortega y Gasset, the Spaniard, these optimistic secularists, these unsophisticated worldlings, are already obsolete. They are unaware of what is happening in the world today.

What is happening is that man has reached a point of departure. He has to turn from the idols he has been worshipping with increasing solemnity for many generations, for he begins to realize that if he does not they will most assuredly devour him. What is happening is that the human race has come to the parting of the ways. Either a world shaped to become the Kingdom of God, or pandemonium; either humanity seeking a supernatural self-realization, or the face of man obliterated. It is the meaning and destiny of our manhood that is now at stake; it is mankind as of supreme spiritual worth that is now threatened. And let me declare to you, who own the Christian name, that never before has there been so vast an opportunity for the Gospel in the world as the immediate future is going to present. So far from being obsolete, the Christian Faith is the one solid and certain thing left standing in a world where all other landmarks are rapidly being submerged. Believe me, all the little people who are running about, remarking that Christianity is played out and that in the future men will have no need of religion, are themselves full of stale, second-hand ideas. It is they who are obsolete. It is they who cannot read the signs of the times. For what is now being brought to the point of demonstration is that man without God cannot continue to be man. What is now coming to the pitch of certainty is that the Christian Faith is the one sure bulwark of man's self-respect. It is the only defense of humanism. Humanism without Christ is in the end dust and ashes.

The words of our Lord to which I am asking your attention were spoken with very definite intention, with reference to a particular human problem. They come at the end of His discourse upon the tendency of men to become consumed with anxiety about the material means of life. Now you will observe that Jesus never for one moment suggested that those things were of no moment. He never said that they were unnecessary. He never asked men to believe that their sole business in life was to get out of this world as quickly as possible. His teaching assumes that the world is to be accepted and employed for a divine purpose. And He says most distinctly that God our Father knows well enough that we have physical needs, and has made adequate provision for them.

But He saw that men were worried and anxious. We know, as a matter of historical fact, that it was a period of great economic strain. Taxation was extremely heavy. Crushing burdens were placed upon the backs of the people. And the fate of those who fell seriously into debt was terrible, for it might mean either imprisonment or slavery. I remember a remark made some years ago by an American student, to the effect that the social background of our Lord's teaching is one of "business depression, panics, and poverty." Have you ever observed how large an element in the background of the Gospel narratives is this financial and economic stress? You find debtors going to prison and creditors discounting bills. A man tries to build a tower, but cannot get the necessary capital to complete it. One woman has for her whole living only two mites.

In one of the parables everybody except the king is bankrupt. People were desperately anxious about food and clothing. A woman loses a small piece of silver, worth about 15c, and she has no peace till she finds it again. The parable of Dives and Lazarus tells us what is confirmed by other evidence, that there was great inequality in the distribution of wealth. Debtors might languish out their lives in prison; or they might be sold into slavery, in which state they were liable to suffer cruel treatment and the worst indignities.

You SEE how this kind of thing bulked very largely in our Lord's view of His own time and place. When He spoke about men's anxieties concerning the physical necessities of life He was addressing Himself to a real situation. Palestine had been drawn into the rush and sweep of a world life which had for its principles and aims very similar assumptions and objectives to those with which the modern world has been all too familiar. Men were frightened about money and food and clothes because the world had turned the means into the end. The world had worshipped Mammon. And the worshippers of Mammon always finish by becoming the helpless slaves of Mammon. That, as we shall see in a moment, is precisely what has taken place in the modern world.

Jesus has the most profound and searching economic truth to offer for our acceptance, if we will but see what is wrong with us. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God." I ask you to consider those words. You will perceive that they assume and indicate that, although mankind is situated in a world in which he is bound to require material means, yet his true nature is to employ those means for an end which transcends them. Our Lord asserts that man is intended for a supernatural destiny. That is the first point upon which I ask you to dwell.

The modern period of history has admittedly been characterized by the purpose of finding the whole effective meaning of human life in this world. Since Professor Eucken, the German philosopher, wrote his books between twenty and thirty years ago, there has been a growing chorus of agreement that this is the dominant feature of Western life and thought since the Renaissance. And that glorification of man apart from God has resulted in that stultification and enslavement of man which we see today. This period has seen the rise of theories of the origins of man in the world which frankly treat him as a biological specimen and nothing more. The purpose of sustaining his physical life in this world had been alleged to explain all his thought and activity.

Some writers have accepted the purely naturalistic doctrine of human origins, and have yet attempted to show that human life can create spiritual values.

But this is a hopeless line, because if God is not the cause and origin of our existence then there is no guarantee that what we consider values are really values at all. There is no means of estimating the worth of the human endeavor. There is no telling what is the meaning of life, because "meaning" itself is an idea which is supposed to have arisen in the course of man's struggle for life in this world, and is to be entirely explained by that fact.

HERE THEN, is modern man, disposed to treat himself as a denizen of this world and nothing more. What is the huge and patent result? Well, it is plain enough. He begins to work and strive exclusively for an object in this world. The purpose of his work is not the reasonable satisfaction of human needs in order that the spiritual destiny of man may be achieved, but the accumulation of material power, prestige, gain. And man himself becomes the servant, the slave of this process. The end of human activity is no longer a human end, but something inhuman. Man is not to be regarded as the master and ruler of the world process. He has banished God, he has banished the eternal meaning from his politics and economics, but it is not his humanity that is allowed to supply the meaning. And it must be so. For in turning from God he turned from himself. In starting a non-religious civilization he impoverished his own manhood, and stood, a poor defenseless organism of dust, before the mighty forces which he had unchained but could no longer control.

See if this is not so. Let us take three brief considerations. They are all plain and palpable enough in the world of our times. They are here in America, as they are bestraddled across the countries of the old world. They all alike exhibit man's imprisonment. They all alike declare that at present he is become the mere means to ends which threaten to deface and obliterate his humanity:

We have in the first place the stark and staring fact that the economic organization of the world is not ministering to the welfare of mankind. It is misrepresenting the actual facts of the human situation, and is thereby putting the human race in a prison of parsimony and penury. Here, on the one hand, is the wealth of the world, made a thousand times more available than ever before by the instrumentation of modern science. All the classical economic theories were based upon the assumption of scarcity, and our Communist friends have followed that classical but entirely obsolete assumption. The fact is that we have in our hands a possibility of production so immense that both the orthodox sociology and Communism alike are baffled by it. Here, then, is the teeming wealth of the world. And here is mankind, full of need, suffering in a thousand ways, because his worldly motive dictates that he shall approach the task of employing the earth's resources only for the motive of accumulating a profit which can be expressed ultimately in terms of gold. When this cannot be done, man must starve and rot.

The modern world has worked not for the satisfaction of human need but for the accumulation of a false wealth. And man has become the slave of a purpose which is now demonstrably an anti-human purpose. If we were to listen for a moment to our blessed Lord, we should learn that you cannot run the world for the ends of the Devil, and remain free men. This great land of yours, in which was once lighted a beacon of liberty, must learn that that light can be nourished only from heavenly sources by Him whose stars light the heavens and by whose stripes we are healed. You can have liberty, you can have manhood, only so long as you are seeking the true human end.

And the true human end is not the worship of money, but the kingdom of God. But if you are going to seek the kingdom of God, you must see that the proper end of daily work, of the whole world's work, is the welfare of men who are God's children, and the potential material of His kingdom. You will see that to speak of the unemployed as superfluous is an insult to the Word made flesh, to the God who took our manhood. You will see that to allow men, women, and children to starve in the neighborhood of food which an insane system will not allow to be used to save them is an idiotic defilement of the creation.

BUT I must pass on. There is a second consideration to which I would draw your attention.

When I left Europe there was a whispering undercurrent of sound to be heard everywhere. In 1914 we were assured that we were entering upon the War for one purpose alone, and that was to make any future war impossible. Well, already they are talking about the next war. True, they are also talking about the reduction of armaments. I ask you to believe me, that the vast majority of the people of Europe, and certainly of the people of England, fervently desire peace. Nobody is now thirsting for glory. The man in the street knows pretty well by this time that in the next war the street will probably be an extremely dangerous place. People do realize that the next war, from which God in His mercy save us, if it comes will be an appalling human calamity. It may well mean the final obliteration of our civilization. Yet they are talking of war. They are seeking to insure themselves against it by the lunatic method of developing the instruments of war. And what is the reason of it all?

It is fundamentally due to the fact that we have an organization of industry and commerce and finance, now world-wide, which forces each nation to seek to sell its surplus of commodities abroad, while keeping out the surplus commodities of other nations as the only means of keeping going. Each nation has its thousands of poor and underpaid and half-starved people; but we are not working for men, we are working for money. And that is the chief reason why the nations are brought into conflict at the present time. It is because we worship Mammon that we are in danger of being swept from the face of the earth in some catastrophic and bedlam struggle in which we shall simply wipe each other out.

You see what I mean, then, when I say that it is the objective of the kingdom of God which alone can preserve our humanity. You see what I mean when I assert that man is enslaved by inhuman ends until humanity itself is endangered.

But I come to the third consideration. The organization of human life in America and Europe, directed toward material things under the symbol of money, has brought about wide changes in human conditions. The outlook suggested to us by our modern environment, the habits stimulated by our environment, are all affected by the dominant fact that the whole order of our life is not religious in its aims. It is not directed toward fitting us for membership in God's Kingdom. And we observe that change of human habit has now deeply penetrated the sphere of morals. I need not pretend that I think the American people are specially innocent or specially guilty in this respect. Most modern Western nations are undergoing serious modifications in their ethico-social life—and, as I think, changes most decidedly for the worse. I am thinking specially of questions of the relation of the sexes, marriage, and the home.

BUT THE most significant and the most dangerous fact is that those who defend and applaud those changes tell us that they are made necessary by the conditions of modern life. That is the terrible thing—that people who imagine themselves to be the liberators of mankind from old-fashioned taboos should explain that man must alter his life, change the deeply rooted convictions of centuries, discard the plain precepts of the Christian religion, because of nothing more than conditions! Are conditions made for men, or men for conditions? Are we going to sit down while conditions demoralize us, and dehumanize us, and reduce us to the unguided, un-chartered dominance of mere desire? Here in this modern world is man going to throw away his crown, and become the helpless slave of the wild forces his folly has unloosed? Is his ethical sense to wait upon the dictates of an environment which has been shaped and molded by Mammon?

There, again, is the supreme danger! It is that we shall so forget God, that we have no foundation left for our humanity. We walk in perilous ways today. And it becomes more and more certain as each year passes that there is but one Guide, one Saviour of the modern man—and He is the Saviour of the centuries. The new thinkers in Europe who are not Christians are pessimists almost to a man. They see no final glory or victory for the human race. All the gay humanism which supposed that man was his own sufficient God is stale and dead. There is no Swinburne nowadays to exclaim,

"Glory to man in the highest,
For man is the master of things."

Those who have not the hard Christian dogma of man have only despair.

There is but one source of hope. It is in the religion of Him who declared that the kingdom of God was the only true end and aim of human effort. It is that aim which has to be restored throughout every field of life. Only as we recover it will our economics resume sanity. Only as we recover it shall we build up a sweeter human world. To that effort, to that purpose, I would summon you, but I cannot tell you if the sky will brighten with the signs of victory in our time. We do not know. All we know is that if we drift with the streams and tendencies of our age, then the doom of our time is more certain.

"The night grows darker yet,
And the sea rises higher."

But it is God who calls us, from the manger of Bethlehem, where He was once a child, and from the Cross of Calvary where He, scorned and defeated and disgraced, did the impossible thing, and overcame the world.

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