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Christianity and the Meaning of History, Progress, Ambiguity, Hope

Author(s): Paul Ricur


Source: The Journal of Religion, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct., 1952), pp. 242-253
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1200105
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CHRISTIANITY AND THE MEANING OF HISTORY
PROGRESS, AMBIGUITY, HOPE
PAUL RIC(EUR*

IT WOULDindeedbe pretentious
to at- to those of progress and mystery. In
tempt an all-inclusiveanswer to the showing that history lends itself to sev-
problem of the meaning of history; eral levels of interpretation,we shall see
for such an attempt it wouldbe necessary that the notions of progressand mystery
to have the trainingof a historian,a so- do not exist on the same level. The idea
ciologist, and a theologian. The pur- of progress comes into being only when
pose of this study is to clarify the prob- one eliminatesfrom history all that can-
lem by showing that there are several not be consideredas the accumulationof
levels of interpretationof history; con- experience.(We shall see that this first
sequently there are also, perhaps,several level is that of tools, in the largest sense
answers on different levels to the ques- of this word: material tools, cultural
tion of the meaning of history; a Chris- tools, tools of knowledge,and even tools
tian interpretationof the problemof his- of conscience and of the spirit.) But at
tory should be founded on other inter- this level there is no drama;and there is
pretations which remain valid within no drama because we have left mankind
their limits. out of the picture in order to consider
The archetype of false problem which only the soullessgrowth of the machine.
confronts us as we start is the conflict (All this will, I hope, become clearer
between Christian eschatology and the when we discuss it in detail; for the mo-
concept of progress. Religious contro- ment it suffices to indicate the over-all
versy too often bogs down in this im- aspectsof the problem.)
passe; certainly it is true that the no- But there is a second level of inter-
tion of spontaneousand continuoushu- pretation on which history does appear
man progress is the result of a seculari- as a drama, with its decisions, its crises,
zation and, in truth, of a rationalistcor- its periodsof growth,its periodsof decay;
ruption of Christian eschatology; how- we move here from an abstracthistory
ever, nothing is more deceptive than op- which reflects only the works of man,
posing the notions of progressand hope the visible signs of his passage on earth,
* Paul Ricoeur is a
rising French Protestant in to a concretehistory in which eventstake
the fields of philosophy and social thought. His place. This entire analysis will tend to
books include La philosophie de Karl Jaspers and show that it is within the
Le volontaire et l'involontaire, an essay on phe-
frameworkof
nomenology. He is a frequent contributor to both this second interpretation of history,
Le Christianisme social (Protestant) and Esprit and not the first, that a Christianvision
(Catholic) and serves on the editorial committee of of
each. Along with Protestant and Catholic writers he history begins to come into being.
has contributed to the symposium Les chretiens et la The principaldifficulty,therefore,will
politique. He is professor of philosophy at the Uni- be to state in what sense a Christian is
versity of Strasbourg and a member of the faculty
in the Martin Buger Institute. The translation is by justified in an all-inclusive interpreta-
Diana Lockard. tion of that history which comprehends
242

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AND THE MEANINGOF HISTORY
CHRISTIANITY 243
decisions and events, in brief, in estab- the machine-does not sum up the in-
lishing a groundfor Christianhope in re- strumental world of man. In its fashion
lation to this open, uncertain, ambigu- knowledgeis also a tool or, let us say, an
ous adventure. instrument:all that man has learned,all
Three words have been used which that he knows-all that he can think,
will stake out the boundariesof our in- feel, and do-all of that is "acquired";
vestigation: progress, ambiguity, hope. knowledge becomes stratified, deposits
They represent three stages in the flux of knowledgeaccumulate,as do tools and
of history, three ways of comprehending the products of tools. Concretely, it is
its meaning, three levels of interpreta- writing and, in a more telling fashion,
tion: the abstract level of progress, the printing which have given permanent
existential level of ambiguity, the mys- form to man's knowledge and fostered
teriouslevel of hope. its accumulation. Knowledge is there,
in books and libraries,somethingaccessi-
I. ON THE LEVEL OF PROGRESS
ble, a part of the world of instruments
It seems to me that the problem of (furthermore,machines themselves be-
progresscan be seen in a new light if we long to the world of tools and to the
first of all ask the questions: In what world of concrete symbols). Thanks to
field can there be progress? What is this deposit, the search for knowledge,
there that is capable of progress? as the search for new techniques, is ir-
If man has so evidently cut himself off reversible; all new thought uses the
from nature, from the endless repetition thought of the past as a tool and thus
of animalways, if man has a history, it is carrieshistoryforward.
first of all becausehe worksand he works "The successionof all men in time,"
with tools. With the tool and the prod- said Pascal in Fragmentd'un traiti du
ucts and by-productsof the tool we touch vide, "must be consideredas the history
on a remarkablephenomenon: the tool of one man who continues to live and
and the productsof the tool are preserved learn." The history of techniquesand in-
and accumulate. (The preservation of ventions is one single history, the prod-
the tool is even, in the eyes of the paleon- uct of the collaboration of individuals
tologist, one of the unequivocalsigns of and peoples of varied talents who come,
the passageof man.) We have here a gen- lose themselves, and are absorbedin its
uinelyirreversiblephenomenon.Although flux. Truly the singlenessof this history
man himself is transient, his tools and is emphasizedby the fact that the per-
his works do not perish. The tool leaves sonality of the inventor is effaced by his
a tracewhichgives to the epoch of man- invention when it becomes part of our
to the epoch of the arts-a continuing common history; even the history of the
foundation, an epoch of works. It is discovery, the unique drama which each
within this epoch of works that there discovery meant for some individual,
can be progress. is, as it were, put in brackets,in orderto
But, before examining in what sense contribute to the anonymous course of
the tool entails not only growth but human power and knowledge;and when
progress,we must realize the full mean- the history of techniques,of the sciences
ing of the word "tool." The technical and of knowledgein generalis coloredby
world in the narrow sense--that is to the memory of crises of method and their
say, material tools with their extension, solution, it is not to illustrate the exist-

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244 THE JOURNALOF RELIGION
ence of the men who gave themselves to cannot "repeat" Socrates, Descartes,
the search for these solutions; those Da Vinci;our knowledge is greater than
crises are rememberedfor their bearing theirs, our memory of human history
on methodology and not for their exis- richerthan theirs, that is to say, at the
tential content; they are rememberedon- same time vaster and moresubtle. (What
ly as the modificationof priorknowledge we do about it, existentially,is quite an-
by the acceptance of a new general hy- other question.)
pothesis in which all previously known It was necessary, therefore, to take a
facts are assimilated. There is no place sufficiently large view of history as the
here for the story of a radical loss, of accumulationof human traces,as the de-
work done in vain; thus there is no real posit of the worksof man, separatedfrom
drama. their creators, as a capital which is at
Let us go even further: not only the our disposal. This provisional analysis
search for knowledge but the searchings gives an important role to the notion of
of the consciencefall within the large do- progressand shows at the same time its
main of the instrument.Moralreflection, limits: an important role, because the
self-knowledge, understanding of the instrumental world is much more vast
human condition, accumulate, from a than what we ordinarily call the tech-
certain point of view, as instrumentsfor nical world and includes in addition our
living. There is a moral and spiritualhu- knowledgeand our culturaland spiritual
man "experience" which is stored up heritage;a limited role, because progress
like treasure.Works of art, monuments, is concernedonly with the anonymous,
liturgies, books of culture, spiritual with the abstract, distilled from the life
books, books of piety, form a "world" of man, from the dynamism of man's
within our world and are, just as much works, torn from the concrete drama of
as material objects, a guarantee of sup- individual striving and suffering, and
port from something outside ourselves. from the rise and fall of civilizations.
Of course it is necessary to distinguish That is why there is on this level no
here more than anywhere else between conclusive comparisonpossible between
the level of the decisions, of the events, "the Christian interpretation of his-
of the moments when man always be- tory" and this anonymousaccumulation.
gins again from scratch, when individ- Christianity burst into the Hellenic
uals, dying, take their experience with world bringing with it a concept of a
them, when civilizations die of hunger time which contained events, crises, de-
alongside their sources of spiritualnour- cisions. Christian revelation scandalized
ishment-and the level of visible traces, the Greeksby its recountingof "sacred"
of works left behind, of tradition:it is by events--the creation, the fall, alliances,
eliminating decisions, events, and acts prophetic utterances-and, more radi-
that we isolate the movement of tradi- cally, of "Christian" events--the in-
tion, a sort of historic motivation which carnation, the cross, the empty tomb,
is always growing larger, a cumulative the birth of the church at Pentecost.
phenomenon; an impetus which can be In the light of these exceptional events
interruptedonly by great cosmic or his- man became aware of those aspects of
toric catastrophes-earthquake or in- his own experience which he had over-
vasion-which destroy the material ba- looked. His own years on earth were
sis of the experience. This is why we made up of events and decisions and

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CHRISTIANITY
AND THE MEANINGOF HISTORY 245
were marked in their course by impor- What does Christianity say on this
tant choices: to revolt or be converted, point? In contrast with Greek wisdom
to lose one's life or to gain it. At that mo- it does not condemn Prometheus: the
ment history took on meaning, but as a "sin of Prometheus"for the Greeksis to
concrete history in which something have stolen fire, the fire of technical
happens, in which peoples also have a skills and the arts, the fire of knowledge
personality to be lost or saved. and conscience;the "sin of Adam" is not
That is why any observationon prog- the sin of Prometheus;his disobedience
ress, because of its abstract, depersonal- lies not in his possession of technical
ized character, still falls short of the knowledgeor wisdom, but in his having
level on which a comparisonwith "the broken, as he followedhis mortalcourse,
Christian interpretation of history" is the vital link with the divine; this is why
possible. This does not mean that no the first manifestationof that sin is the
verification at all is possible on this crime of Cain, sin against one's brother
level: we have omitted one characteris- and not sin against nature, sin against
tic of this anonymoushistory, this epoch love, not sin against an animal existence
of the works of man without man. It is whichhas no history.
just this whichpermitsus to speakof prog- But if Christianitydoes not condemn
ress and not simply evolution, change, Prometheus and, indeed, recognizes in
or even growth;to affirmthat the growth him a creative intention, it is not funda-
of the machine,of knowledgeand of con- mentally concernedwith this anonymous
science, is progress is to say that this abstract aspect of history, that of tech-
"'more"is a "better" and to admit that niques and of arts, of knowledge and of
this anonymous, faceless history is of conscience. It is concerned with what
positive worth. men are doing for their own perdition or
What does that mean, and what bear- salvation. In the end, the value of prog-
ing does "the Christianinterpretationof ress remains an abstract value even as
history" have on this affirmation? It progressitself is abstract; Christianityis
seems to me that the value of this level of concernedwith the whole man in his en-
interpretationlies in the conviction that tirety with the whole of existence. Here
man fulfilshis destiny throughthis tech- is the reasonwhy discussionson progress
nical, intellectual, cultural, spiritual ad- are in the final analysis rather sterile;on
venture, yes, fulfils his role as an indi- one side it is wrongto condemnevolution,
vidual when, breakingwith the ceaseless but on the other, little is gained by eulo-
repetition of nature, he takes his place gizing it.
in history, integratingnature herselfinto Actually this same collective epic
his history, embarkingon the enormous which has positive worth if one is think-
enterpriseof the humanizationof nature. ing in termsof the whole destiny of man,
It would not be difficult to demonstrate the development of the human species,
in detail how technical progress, in the becomes much more ambiguous if one
narrowest and most material sense of tries to relate it to man in the concrete.
the term, accomplishesthis goal of man: In each age what we know and what we
it is this progresswhich has lightened the are able to do is in the end a matter of
burden of the working man, multiplied chanceand a risk; the same technicalad-
human contacts, and initiated the reign vance which lightens man's burdens
of man over all creation. And that is good. multiplies his contacts with other men

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246 THE JOURNALOF RELIGION
and gives furtherproof of his domination clearly defined,and in any, its vital cen-
over objects, also inauguratesnew evils: ters, its areas of influence,etc. A certain
overspecializationof work, the bondage shared body of rememberedhistory and
of consumersto the materialproductsof a certain unity of purpose both gather
our civilization,total war, the impersonal men together in the frameworkof time
injustice of bureaucracy.The same am- and group them on a certain terrain of
biguity would be found in relation to civilization. Thus the heart of a civiliza-
what we have termed the progress of tion is a commonwill to survivaland way
knowledge or of conscience. This am- of life; and this will to survivalis animat-
biguity forces us thereforeto move from ed by judgments and values. Naturally
one level to another, from the level of a we must beware of reducing concrete
depersonalizedprogress to that of the judgments to an abstract table of values
historical adventure of the individual (as when we say that the eighteenth cen-
man. It is on this level that Christianity tury has bequeathedus the idea of toler-
really comes to grips with our interpre- ance, of equality before the law, etc.).
tation of history. These values have been lived and acted
II. ON THE LEVEL OF AMBIGUITY
upon, and they must be understood
throughconcreteactionsin a way of living
One might think that in leaving the and working,of owning and distributing
level of an anonymous progress we are goods, of being bored, of having a good
abandoning all historical considerations time. (Huizinga gives us a remarkable
to immerse ourselves in the solitude of example of this historicalunderstanding
the individual.Nothing of the kind; it is in The Waning of the Middle Ages.')
precisely here that there is a concrete The best proof that it is not enough to
history, that is to say, a form which re- think of history only in terms of imple-
veals the whole, a meaningful pattern ments (even in the broadestsense of the
created by the actions and reactions of term) in order to understandit, is that
men. We are going to seek certain mani- there is no inherentmeaningin these im-
festations of this concrete history and plements. Their meaning derives from
through them recognize the actual his- the fundamental attitudes taken by a
toricalcategories(by historicalcategories given civilization toward its own tech-
I mean those ideas which permit men to nical possibilities (there are groups who
think historically:crisis, apogee, decline, dislike the idea of industrialization,the
period, epoch, etc.). peasant class, artisans, the lower bour-
1. One of the first indications of this geoisie, who resist modernization; in
new historicaldimensionis the fact that 1830-32 there was an obvious reaction
there are severalcivilizations. From the against technicaladvance on the part of
point of view of progressthere is one sole the workingclass; in this connectionsee
race of men; from the viewpoint of the Schuhl in Philosophyand the Mechanical
history of civilizations there are several. Age).2Thus the tool is not even useful if
These two interpretationsare not mutu- it is not valued; there is, then, a more
ally exclusive but in a sense are super- profound conceptionof history than the
imposedone on the other. history of techniques,which is only a his-
Of what does each of these racesof men tory of means;our concretehistorywould
consist? A historical-geographical com- be that of ends and of means, a history of
plex which has its boundaries, albeit not the purposes of man in their entirety; a

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CHRISTIANITYAND THE MEANING OF HISTORY 247

civilizationis a temporalfashionof mak- will mean survivalor not, it can stagnate,


ing concretea way of life and certainde- feed on its outwornvalues, and fall into
sires of man. decadence. Thus there are moments of
With this first characteristicof con- slumber and of revival, renaissanceand
cretehistory-with these civilizingstyles, decadence,the searchfor a new way and
let us say-we see categories of history resistanceto it, solutionand survival.
appear which the notion of progressdid Any historian employs most of these
not reveal. The first brutal fact: civiliza- words at one time or another;usually he
tions rise and fall. Humanity endures does not examinethem,he only makesuse
through civilizations that perish; it is of them; or if he definesthem, it is clear
therefore possible to have at the same that they do not belong to the samechain
time a cyclical conception of historical of ideas as ideas of progress; here the
periodsand a linear conception of prog- worst is alwayspossible.
ress; the two conceptionsare on different Such a conception of history is obvi-
levels, the first on a more "ethical" one, ously much closer to the idea of history
the second on a more "technical"one. Tn which Christianitypresupposes,with its
the same way that the phenomenonof decisionsand its crises.
progressis connected with the accumu- 2. We must now correctthis still over-
lation of historicalexperienceand the de- simplified point of view: a civilization
positing of acquiredknowledge, the life does not move forward all at once or
and death of civilizationsare connected stagnate in every respect. It is made up
with the idea of the "crisis."This point of several courses which we can follow,
was cogently demonstrated by Arnold in a sense, longitudinally:the course of
J. Toynbee in A Study of History3 (it is industrialequipment,the courseof social
not by accident that it was a historianof integration, that of authority and public
civilizations who came to reorganizeour power, the course of arts and sciences
concepts of history in terms of categories (of certainarts and certainsciences),etc.
which cannot be reducedto the technical Along each of these coursesthereappear
level but are more closely allied to the moments of crises, of growth, of repres-
life of the conscienceand of the will). sion, etc., which do not necessarilycoin-
Each civilization seems to him to be cide with one another. A wave does not
characterizedby situations which chal- break at the same moment all along that
lenge its existence (the challengeof cold, shore which is the life of a people.
of the enormous size of a continent, of Further, we should define "crisis,"
overpopulation,of religious division, of "decadence,""solution,"for each one of
linguisticdivision,of class warfare,etc.); these courses of history; one speaksof a
each challengeis like the question of the mathematical"crisis,"an economic"cri-
Sphinx: answer or you will be eaten. A sis," a ministerial"crisis";the word does
civilizationis the sum total of answersto not have the same meaningin each case.
these challenges. As long as there are What is remarkableis that the "crises"
creativenuclei which "answer,"the civi- of one social or cultural category have
lization lives; when it repeats its former their own motivationand their own reso-
answers and does not devise new solu- lution; thus the mathematicalcrisisin the
tions to meet new situations, it dies. So time ofPythagorasis in largepartautono-
the destiny of a civilization is always un- mous vis-4-vis general history; it is an
certain; it can invent the solutions which internal challenge in the field of mathe

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248 THE JOURNAL
OF RELIGION
matics (to discover the irrationalityof a aissance)metaphysics,and thus different
diagonal in relation to the side of a historiesinvolve each other in every way
square); and that crisis found a wholly to such an extent that all interpretive
mathematical solution; the later stagna- systems are naive and premature. The
tion of this Euclidean science for the al- conscience of an epoch is the confused,
gebraists of the Renaissancehas no vital massive synthesisof these interconnected
relationshipwith other historical devel- factors; it is affectedby the zone of stag-
opments. In the same way, the same pe- nation, by zones of vitality, and by dis-
riod can bring an advance in the fieldof continuous challenges that it does not
politics and atrophy in the field of art, as see as a theoretical system of problems
the French Revolution, or an advance but as disparate "difficulties" (in the
in the realm of art and atrophy in the sense that one speaks of academic diffi-
realm of politics, as the Second Empire. culties, of colonialdifficulties);it feels lo-
A "great century," a great epoch-they calized advances in certain areas of its
are those where there is a simultaneous collective life. The generalaspect is more
attainment of maturity in almost all akin to a vague feeling than to a clearly
fields, as the centuryof Pericles,the thir- defined concept; this is why it is usually
teenth century, the Renaissance. very difficultto say where a civilization
What do these things show? They is "going."
showthat historywhichis a unity in terms 3. A further sign of this concrete life
of instrumentalprogressis in many ways in history is the irreduciblecharacterof
a multiplicity;it is divided not only into significanthistoricaleventsand personali-
civilizationsand periods,in space and in ties. We know that the old-fashioned
time, but is still furtherdivided into lines historical method put undue emphasis
of development,each with its own prob- on the history of battles, dynasties,
lems, its own crises, its own solutions. marriages,successions,partition;history
The total resultant which would form becamelost in the arbitrary,the acciden-
"integral" history eludes us; in some tal, the irrational.It was good that his-
cases we are privileged and we discover tory be seen from a loftier level, in
the not-too-confusedcausalities;and the sweeping geographical classifications
man who believes in systems comes up (Brandel's recent book The Mediterra-
with heavy-handedclassificationsand the nean in the Time of Philip II4 is a suc-
thought succession of dialectics. But cessful attempt to organize material in
the longitudinal motivations unique to this fashion), in terms of technicalprog-
each category and the transversalinter- ress, of social forces, of broad trends.
ferences of one category with another But, on the other hand, there is a danger
form a fabric so tightly woven that they in pushing too far this tendency, which
exceed the simple"dialectics"with which remains, however, the only way to ex-
we seek to define and inclose them. For plain history in terms of causes and in-
example, in a sense it is true that condi- tentions; for, pushed to extremes, in
tions in the domainof techniquesgovern making history intelligibleit causes his-
all socialadvance,but they dependon the tory to cease to be historical by elimi-
sciences, and in particular on mathe- nating the actors who play in it and
matics, which in turn have been linked creating a history where nothing hap-
throughouthistory to the great Pythago- pens, a history without events.
rean, Platonic, neo-Platonic (in the Ren- History is historical because there are

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AND THE MEANINGOF HISTORY
CHRISTIANITY 249

outstanding actions traced upon it and in large part accidentsof power, such as
others which leave no trace; men who revolutions and defeats (we saw in
leave their mark, others who leave none; 1944-45 that the whole of the Nazi way
a battle lost, a leader dead too soon--or of life was jeopardizedonly by the defeat
too late-and the course of history is of the countrywherethe will towardthis
changed. Certainly fascism abused this way of life was concentrated).Finally, if
"dramatic"vision of history in the sense we set these remarksin the context of
of its popularizationof Nietzschism and our first analysis of the movement of
its fundamental irrationality; but this civilizationswhich are born and die, it is
abuse must not blur the importanceof in the political stratum of these civiliza-
the history of events which is in the final tions that challenges, crises, sweeping
analysis the history of men themselves; choices,areembedded.
throughit man is glimpsed "in process." Of course we must not carry to ex-
In the same way phraseslike "the home- tremes the identificationof the "dramat-
land in danger,""publicsafety," phrases ic," "event-filled"aspect of history with
embeddedin the very heart of our revo- its political aspect. We have set a limit
lutionary history, attest to this quality, to this line of thought in the preceding
in some sort existential,of fate or, better, analysis of the multiple rhythms of his-
of destiny, which characterizesthe con- tory which influenceone another though
crete history of man. their critical or creative periods do not
4. Still another characteristicof this coincide.The artsand scienceshave a des-
concrete history is the prominent place tiny which does not often coincide with
it accords to "politics." The preceding the important historical events of the
remarkson the role of so-called"histori- political world. History is always richer
cal" events and men lead naturally to than our definition of it in our philoso-
this new point of view, for there is a close phiesof history.
connection between the political aspect But the scope of the "crises"whichwe
of history and its aspect as a medium in can call political in the broad sense is
whichevents take place. twofold: First, they are concernedwith
It is necessaryto understandthe word the physical fate of civilizationsas well as
"politics": it signifies the whole of the their intention. They are related to life
relationshipsof men in connectionwith and death just as the maladiesof individ-
power: seizing of power,exerciseof pow- uals are to their intellectual develop-
er, preservationof power, etc. Power is ment or their religiousconversion;in this
the centralquestion in politics: who is in
command? over whom? within what respect these "crises,"if not all-envelop-
limits? under what restrictions?It is in ing, have at least a radical influence.
the activities which concern power, Furthermore,they bringto the surfacein
whether on the part of those who retain the very heart of history a fundamental
it or of those who submit to it, defy it, or human trait: culpability. Around power
scheme to seize it, that the destiny of a springup the most deadly of humanpas-
people is enmeshedand comes to its de- sions: pride, hate, and fear. This sinister
nouement. It is through power, directly trio bears witness that where the great-
or indirectly, that "great men" have ness of man is, there also is his weakness.
their principal influence on the course of The greatness of empires is also their
events; and these events are themselves weakness; this is why their downfall can

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250 THE JOURNALOF RELIGION

always be interpreted as their punish- But if we must restore to history its


ment. meaning as crisis to give a meaning to
Here this analysis of history as event, the notion of error,it must be stated in-
as decision, as drama-in brief, as "cri- versely that a theology of culpabilitycan
sis"-opens into a theology of history. make us aware of and sensitive to this
It opens up in this way not exclusively dramaticaspectof historywhichcan ever
but principallybecauseof the culpability be lost or won, an open, uncertainhistory
of man. Let us study again the Prophets where opportunitiesand dangersare in-
of Israel and the Psalms. We will find terwovenand can be at fault. A creature
there, too, this theme of the pride of na- of nature cannot be guilty; only a crea-
tions, the hatred of the wicked, the fear ture existing in history can become so.
of the helpless. Egypt and Assyria, her We touch here on one of the points
powerful neighbor kingdoms, bore evi- where the existential characterof things
dence in the eyes of Israel to historical and their theological aspect meet. A
error;and Israelwas at fault in the meas- dramatic vision of history has a much
ure that she wanted to imitate their greater affinity with Christian theology
dreamsof glory. Mary sings in the Mag- than the rationalismof the "Enlightened
nificat: "He has dispelled the schemes Century," or that of Hegel and Marx,
which the haughty nurtured in their which eliminates the very ground in
hearts. He has driven the powerfulfrom which theology can take root--the
their thrones and has elevated the hum- ground of ambiguity.
ble."
I think that one of the tasks of the III. ON THE LEVEL OF HOPE

theology of history would be, in the But the Christian interpretation of


light of our presentknowledgeabout the history is not fully evokedby referenceto
state and about our concentrationary decisionsand crises,to the mixtureof hu-
worldand with the resourcesof psycholo- man grandeurand culpability. First, be-
gy and the psychoanalysisof man's pas- cause sin is not the central point of the
sions available to us, to return to this Christian credo, it is not even a part of
biblical judgmentof those in power. But the Christiancredo. We do not believein
the greatest danger would be to ignore sin, but in salvation.How can ourhope of
the relationshipbetween greatness and salvation be reconciled to our interpre-
culpability,which is as the piling of am- tation of history, our human fashion of
biguity on historical ambiguity. living in history? What new dimension
We see how essential it is in order to does it add to our vision of history?
preparethe way for theology to restoreto Two words sum up the few points
its place that dimensionof history which which we can make on this final level of
considersthe schemes of man, his deci- reflection: "meaning"- "mystery"; two
sions, his moments of crisis. Culpability words which in a way cancel each other
appearsin history only wherethere is the out, and yet taken together they are the
possibility of dreams of grandeur. The contrasting language of hope. Meaning:
concept of progressremainson the level there is a unity of meaning;it is the basis
of the tool, which is in itself morallyneu- of the courage to live in history. Mys-
tral; it is good, even, in so far as it stands tery: but this meaningis hidden; no one
for the destination of man in creation; can define it, rely on it, draw assurance
this is why a legitimate optimism is part from it against the perils of history; we
of thinking concerned with progress. must infer it from such visible indica-

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CHRISTIANITYAND THE MEANING OF HISTORY 251
tions as we find. But this mysterious treasureof a sacredhistorywhose"mean-
meaning does not annul the ambiguity ing" he understands and with the inti-
which we discoveredon the secondlevel, mations of a personal history where he
nor does it mingle with the rational discerns the relationship between cul-
meaningthat we found on the first. pability and redemption. The Christian
What justifies a Christianin speaking interpretationof history is then a hope
of meaning even as he takes refuge in that profane history is also part of that
mystery? What justifies him in going meaning which is revealed in sacredhis-
beyond the notion of ambiguity where tory, that in the final analysis there is
history succeeds or fails, where civiliza- only onehistory,that all historyis sacred.
tions that come to life and perish can But this interpretationof history re-
weave a thread into the fabric of prog- mains an article of faith. As progress
ress? Does this have an all-inclusive representswhat is rationalin history and
meaning? ambiguity representswhat is irrational,
It is faith in the Lordship of God the meaningof history in terms of hope
which for the Christian dominates his is a surrationalone, in the same way
whole vision of history. If God is the that one speaks of surrealism. The
Lord of individual lives, he is also the Christian says that this interpretation
Lord of history; God is the centerof his- is eschatologic,meaning that his life un-
tory in all its uncertainty,its immensity, folds in this time of progress and ambi-
and guilt. To speak more precisely,I be- guity without his glimpsing this higher
lieve that that Lordship constitutes a meaning, without his being able to dis-
meaning and not a supreme farce, a cover the relationship between sacred
monstrous fantasy, an absurdity, be- and profanehistory, or, to use the words
cause the tremendousevents which I be- of Augustine, the relationship between
lieve to be the Revelation are a whole the Two Cities. He hopes that in the end
fabric, form an entirety, are not utter the unity of meaning will become clear,
discontinuity;there is an aspect charac- that he will see that all exists in Christ,
teristic of the Revelation, an aspect how the history of empires,of wars and
which does not seem absurd to us, since revolutions, of inventions, of the arts,
we discern in it a certain pedagogic in- of ethics and philosophies-across gran-
tention through the Old and New Cove- deur and culpability-are summedup in
nants, since the great Christianevents- Christ.
death and resurrection-form a rhythm To conclude, I should like to show
which can be comprehendedby what what attitudes such a faith implies. We
Paul calls "the intuitionof faith." can relatethem to two words:meaning-
That which permits the Christian to but hiddenmeaning.
go beyond the discontinuity of human First, the Christian would be he for
history, the apparent absurdity of that whomthe ambiguityand perils of history
history which very often seems to be "a are not a source of fear and despair.
tale told by an idiot," is the fact that "Fear not!" is the biblical commandin
this history is intersected by another the presenceof history. Even more than
history whose meaning cannot be com- fear it is despair that is exorcisedhere;
prehended in terms of the former but for the true opposite to hope is not
which can be understood.Thus the Chris- progress but, on the same level, des-
tian is he who lives in the ambiguity of pair, "hopelessness," that hopelessness
profane history but with the precious summed up in the blasphemous title,

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252 THE JOURNALOF RELIGION

The Twenty Fifth Hour5 ("the twenty- says to me: Look for a meaning, try to
fifth hour-the moment when all effort understand. It is exactly at this point
to salvage something becomes futile. that Christianity breaks away from ex-
Even the coming of a Messiah would istentialism. For existentialism, this
solve nothing. The precise time of west- ambiguity is the last word: for Chris-
ern society, the present time, the exact tianity, it is true, it is lived by, but
moment"). it is the next-to-last word. This is why
The Christian hope, which is also the Christian, strong in his faith, tries
hopefor history, is first the exorcisingof in the name of his belief in a hid-
this false prophesying. And I insist on den meaning to search out compre-
the present characteristicof this appella- hensive explanations, to embrace at
tion; Gheorghiu's book crystallized in least as a hypothesis some parts of the
France all the "catastrophism," I philosophy of history. In this respect
wouldeven say all the latent defeatismof Christianitywould be nearerto Marxism
a public opinion exhausted by war and than to existentialism, if Marxism suc-
trying to rationalize its flight from the ceeds at least in remaininga method of
problems of the modern world. What is investigation without becoming dog-
involved here is the a priori credenceor matic.
lack of credencewhich we accord to this But here it is necessaryto speak of
history; yes, a priori, for confronted the other side of this hope in theory and
with the whole of history we cannot in action. Hope says to me: There is a
reckon up the balance; we should have meaning; look for the meaning. But she
to be on the sidelines to see the game in also tells me: The meaning is hidden.
its entirety; it would have to be declared Having confrontedthe absurd, she now
finished by a disinterested spectator. confronts the systematic. Christianity
That is why the meaningof the whole of has an instinctive distrust of systematic
history is an article of faith; it is not an philosophiesof history which would put
article of reason, as is instrumental in our hands the key of intelligibility.
progress, for it is the global interpreta- We must choose between mystery and
tion made by the pattern which is being system. Historical mystery puts me on
createdby the acts of men; this meaning my guard against fanaticism, in theory
can be neitherverifiednor concluded;its and in practice, in intellectual life and
revelation can only be waited for as a in politicallife.
gift of that grace which is powerful It is easy to grasp the implications;
enough to turn to the glory of God all from the mythological point of view,
that is vile and vain. Starting out with
this sense of the systematic makes one
this faith, let us hurry to the forefrontof
carefulto view history from several van-
life! I think that there will always be
something to do, tasks to be accom- tage points, to correctone interpretation
in the light of another in order to keep
plished, thus always opportunitiesto be
seized upon! one's self fromhaving the last word. It is
The theoretical consequencesare no here that the Christian, it seems to
less important than the practical ones. me, avoids Marxist habits of dogmatic
Hope speaks to me of submergence in thought: Can all historical phenomena
absurdity; hope surveys the ambiguity, be classified by recourse to elementary
the uncertainty, manifest in history and dialectic? Does the historical experience

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CHRISTIANITY
AND THE MEANINGOF HISTORY 253
of the proletariatalone shape the mean- suspect; it is perhaps "detached"litera-
ing of history? Is not history richerand ture whichwill have best expressed,be-
more complexthan that? cause more subtly, more radically, the
It is not a bad idea, in order to keep needs of men in a given era than any
one's self fromfalling into fanaticism,not literature which is trying to convey a
only to view history from several ex- "message" and to have an immediate
planatoryperspectivesbut also to bearin influenceon its time. Perhaps it will only
mind the fact of the discontinuityof have expressedthe most superficial,the
problems;it is not certain that the diffi- most banal, the most stereotypedaspect
culties, the "challenges,"of the modem of the mindof its era.
world form a single system, consequently Faith in a meaning, but in a hidden
that they are open to solution by one po- meaning of history, is therefore the
litical strategy. The Americansand the courageto believe in the profoundsignifi-
Communistswould like to bind us down cance of our most tragic history and
to their radical and oversimplifiedsolu- thereforea sense of confidenceand sur-
tions; let us complicate, complicate ev- rendereven in the heart of the battle-
erything, shuffle their cards; Mani- and at the same time a certain rejection
chaeism in history is stupid and wicked. of the systematic and the fanatic, a sort
Finally, it is important to bear in of open-mindedness.
mind, always rememberingour sense of It is not bad that hope be always in-
mystery, the fact of the plurality of terlocked with the dramatic troubling
historicalvocations, as much for civiliza- aspect of history. It is precisely when
tions as for individuals;for example, we hope is no longer the hidden sense of an
must not always try to attribute a visible apparent non-sense, when it is stripped
usefulness to art and literature; let the of all ambiguity, that it once more be-
artist be more careful to grasp the in- comes part of a rational and reassuring
terior problemsof his art than to "serve progress, that it becomes focused on a
society"; he will serve her without know- lifeless abstraction.This is why we must
ing it if he is himself true to his own remain aware of the existential concept
line of development;for the sum total of of historicalambiguitywhichlies between
the meaning of an era is deeper than so- the rational concept of progressand the
cial and political utilitarianismwill ever surrationalconcept of hope.

NOTES
1. Johan Huizinga (London:E. Arnold& Co., 4. Fernand Brandel, La M~diterranieet le
1924). mondem&diterranden PhilippeV (Paris:
d l'4poque
2. Pierre Schuhl, Mkchanismeet philosophie Colin,1949).
(Paris:F. Alcan,1938). 5. HerbertBest (New York:RandomHouse,
3. 6 vols.; London: Oxford University Press: 1940).
1945-46.

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