Monday, February 13, 2017

Only Voluntary suffering can save us, Burkhardt's call for an ascetic revolution.

Photo : Church bombed in Syria resulting in 200 deaths

Remarkable and prophetic words from Karl Löwith on the 19th century historian Jacob Burckhardt:

"At a time which appears to us as having still enjoyed stability, security, and freedom, Burckhardt considered himself already an uprooted refugee. 'Set thy house in order,' he warns a friend in the prosperous Germany of 1870; that 'is the wisest thing to do for us in all of central Europe,' for everything will radically change. Hence his deep understanding of that classical period of disintegration in which the followers of Christ opposed the pleasures and vices of a decaying society and conquered the souls of men. 

While the world and all worldly powers were corrupt, the Christian church spread charity, discipline, and asceticism, and even men and women of the Roman nobility gave away their possessions for the sake of the poor and resolved to live in the world without being of it.... 

Likewise, Burckhardt's only hope for the future of Europe was in 'ascetic men,' i.e., in austere characters with the courage to abstain and to renounce, instead of getting along and ahead. In the face of Europe's progressive industrialization and vulgarization, it was Burckhardt's fundamental conviction that 'the new, the great, and the liberating' can come forward only in contrast to power, wealth, and business. 'It will need its martyrs. It must be a something which by its nature can keep its head above water in all catastrophes, political, economic, and otherwise. ....Burckhardt thought that no liberal education will be able to save us from the great violation of the human soul which is now going on, but only religion, 'for without a transcendent urge which outweighs all the clamor for power and money, nothing will be of any use.'

To Burckhardt the model case for this prophetic vision was the rise of Christianity. In his view genuine Christianity is essentially 'ascetic' because of being otherworldly, since its hope and expectation are in another world. With regard to the ways of this world, Christianity is a religion of suffering and renunciation. 

....he held that a Christianity reduced to morality and deprived of its supernatural and doctrinal foundations is no longer a religion. Modern man cannot solve this perplexity by a sheer will to believe, for genuine faith is not only a commitment but also an overwhelming power which has to be experienced. Nor can he solve it by reducing the Christian ideal of the saint to that of (Christian) gentleman.' He felt keenly that a Christianity which is watered down to a humanitarianism in which the priest is 'first of all a Gebildeter,' a man of the educated class, then a philosophizing theologian, and eventually a little bit of a timid man.

... he saw no prospects for a genuine revival because the modern spirit of unrestricted worldliness, of labor, business, and acquisitiveness, is unconcerned with personal salvation in a world to come and is decidedly hostile to any form of spiritual practice and pure contemplation. Morality is now emancipated from its religious foundation in a supernatural faith. 'The modern mind aims at solution of the supreme enigma of life independent of Christianity.' A striking instance of this separation of secular morality from religion is modern philanthropy because it is motivated by optimistic and activistic premises. While Christianity taught unconditional charity by depriving one's self of one's possessions, modern philanthropy is far more 'a concomitant of the money-making spirit,' endeavoring to foster activity and to help man along to a better adjustment in his earthly career. 

Mundane life and its interests now outweigh all other considerations.
Primitive and genuine Christianity stands in complete contrast to the standards of the world. ...'The humble surrender of self and the parable of the right and the left cheek are no longer popular.' People want to maintain their social sphere and respectability; they have to work and to make money; hence they cannot but allow the world to interfere in many ways with their traditional religion. 'In short, for all their religiosity, people are not disposed to renounce the advantages and benefits of modern culture.' ...To modern man Christianity is not a stumbling block and foolishness but—if he is not hostile to it—a wholesome element of secular civilization.

Modern Christendom wants to forget that Christianity has always been at its best and most influential when it maintained its divergence from worldly culture..... the Christian religion was and is not a cult consecrating a national culture but a transcendent faith in a future redemption. .... It would be undone if it were to forget that it is a faith in the glory of the Cross, a victorious religion of suffering, a faith for those who suffer. 

[The] achievement of a Christian culture, however, was possible not because the church taught the world what the world knows already more clearly by itself, but because the church impressed on the world the otherworldly distinctness of a transcendent faith.

At a time when liberal optimistic Protestantism was in full sway on the Continent, Burckhardt called the nineteenth-century optimism 'atrocious' and predicted its evaporation, while he insisted on the invincible strength of a genuine faith over against the principalities of the world. 'In the twentieth century those amazing caricatures of so-called reformed pastors will no longer endure, for all this agitation will scatter like dust as soon as people fall into real distress.' On the other hand, persecuting governments 'might meet with a resistance of the strangest sort from Christian minorities who would not fear even martyrdom.'

... Burckhardt discerned in 'modern' Christianity a contradiction in terms, because the evil genius of modern life, its... striving for power and gain, is downright opposed to voluntary suffering and self-surrender.

From Löwith's 'Meaning in History')

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