The Clue to History

A Summary by Michael Edwards

Working Copy: First edition, November 1938, published by Student Christian Movement Press, London, 243 pp.

I The Ambiguity of Christianity
II The Hebrew Consciousness
IIIThe Work of Jesus
1 The Mission to the Jews
2 The Discovery of the Personal
3 The Prophetic Understanding
4 The Interpretation of History
IVThe Progress of Europe
1 The Roman Empire
2 Medieval Christendom
3 The Modern World

The only reference I encountered to this particular work in the respectable academic press was in Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies: Vol. II (1945). And this reference was hostile. (Which has its gentle ironies as I understand Macmurray was instrumental in getting Popper a job when he arrived in England as a refugee!) Popper, after giving Macmurray a pat on the head on p.243 as ‘One of the few who has appreciated [a certain] aspect of science’ goes on to give him a rap over the knuckles on p.273 for being guilty of historicism (like Marx). But I do wonder whether there is any more at stake here than the fact that Macmurray really does believe in God and Popper doesn’t really. But further comment later.

This book attempts at least three things: to explain the essence of Christianity; to demonstrate its truth; and to show how it has affected the development of European history up to the time of publication (1938), and what we can expect in the future. A striking feature is how freshly it reads after more than 60 years.

But to come to the argument of the book itself. There have been three groups of people who have had a major effect upon European culture and civilization: the Greeks (Hellenes), the Romans, and the Jews (Hebrews). These people each had different habits of thought. The Greeks were primarily contemplative, the Romans pragmatic, and the Jews religious. The first two forms of thought are dualistic. Only the third, the religious, is integrative, in that it does not, in its reflective processes, separate thought and action but thinks them together. Man’s fullest reality is understood as being found in action (which necessarily includes thought), not in thought alone.

Macmurray maintains that the traditional habits of life, upon which our civilization is based (i.e. mainly Graeco-Roman ones), give rise to habits of thought and reflection which prevent us from understanding Christianity. Yet Christianity is the motive force behind the development of our civilization. So long as we do not understand Christianity we cannot understand ourselves or what is happening to us.

Chapter I deals with ‘The Ambiguity of Christianity’; the fact that the term ‘Christianity’ can mean different things to different people. Is a man a Christian because he holds the same beliefs that Jesus held? Or perhaps because he belongs to the same institution as the one Jesus founded? Macmurray rejects both of these as adequate criteria and concludes that to define Christianity is to define the historic continuity of an intention. So a man is a Christian if he intends the continuity of the action of Jesus. Macmurray gives an example which illuminates the relationships involved. A man may start out with the intention to cure human disease. During the course of his life as a doctor he may be tempted to break the continuity of this intention in order, for example, to maintain a cherished but ineffective medical theory, or to preserve his professional prestige. So he will have sacrificed the continuity of his intention to preserve either the continuity of his theory or the continuity of his practice. What the action of Jesus was and how we can intend and realise its continuation become clearer as the book unfolds.

It would seem that all primitive societies are religious. Religious societies do not ‘have a religion’. Life is all of one piece. Historically, all other forms of consciousness are derived from the religious. In most societies, as they develop, parts of the religious consciousness split off and become autonomous. So they have a separate art, a separate science, a separate philosophy, a separate economics, and so on. And a separate religion, often remaining quite primitive or conservative in its form. The, apparently unique, achievement of the Hebrews was to develop an elaborate civilization and culture without breaking the religious form of consciousness. This was only possible by a development of religion. The Old Testament is the history of that development. Jesus of Nazareth was firmly in the Hebrew prophetic tradition and his teachings were not alien to it. In him a centuries-long process of development came to full consciousness. His discovery was that human life was personal. Not physical. Not organic. But personal. So the Kingdom of Heaven will have been ushered in upon earth when the whole of mankind forms one community held together by love. Not one empire held together by force and fear. This could be achieved by the Jewish nation completing its development as a community not based on blood and soil but on personal relationship and embracing the whole of mankind. In this way would all the families of the earth be blessed in Abraham.

But at the time of Jesus’ flourishing Palestine was a subject colony of the Roman Empire. Was Rome to be overthrown by armed revolt before the Kingdom of Heaven could be established? Jesus reflected upon this (see his Temptations, especially the third) and concluded that armed revolt was not the way. He had discovered the Law of Self-Frustration. Which is to say that if you form an intention incompatible with God’s will and thus with essential human nature, and then attempt to act upon it, you will achieve the opposite of your intention. ‘They that live by the sword perish by the sword.’ Jesus decided that the Roman occupation should be accepted as the will of God for His people for the time being. The fact of the Roman Empire was to be accepted but not its intention. The Jews were to live in the Roman Empire but with the intention of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let the Kingdom of Heaven grow by God’s ways, like the leaven in the lump, while the Roman Empire destroyed itself by its ways. Hence all those instructions which seem so repulsive to men of spirit if they are regarded as a New Universal Law, to replace the Old Law, to be obeyed by all men at all times under all conditions, i.e. to love your enemies, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give your cloak also. They were not the institution of ‘Christian as Eternal Doormat’ but very practical instructions for the present particular task.

But the Jewish nation did not accept Jesus’ mission; his prophesied destruction of the temple occurred (in 70 AD) and his action was continued by the band of disciples left behind after his death. Christianity spread throughout Europe, by Christian intention, and the Jewish people were spread throughout Europe, against theirs. Eventually Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (330 AD) and thus ruptured itself! This might have been the best thing which could have been achieved by imperfect men in an imperfect world but it did have drawbacks for the Kingdom of Heaven. Dualism was reinforced — between Church and State, between body and soul, between ruling classes and working classes. (The common man now had two sets of rulers, temporal and spiritual!) The Church forced its doctrine through the mincer of dualist, Greek contemplative forms of thought which ‘believers’ eventually had to adhere to on pain of death; and its morality through the mincer of dualist, Graeco-Roman Stoicism, so that to this day what most people think of as Christian morality is really Stoic.

But for all that, the ‘personal’ values of the Kingdom of Heaven, including freedom, equality and fraternity, probably had more scope in Medieval Christendom than they had had under the original Roman Empire. Some progress had been made. And the Church still carried a certain amount of Hebrew Christian infection within itself in spite of itself. And it kept breaking out in Europe. Often under an atheistic, anti-clerical, progressive banner. Macmurray gives a detailed account of how all this was possible. And his account is interesting because it concentrates upon the inner springs of human action. He brings his story up to the time of publication, with Communism being attempted in previously Eastern Orthodox Christian Russia, and Fascism in previously Western Christian (Roman Catholic) Italy and previously Western Christian (Protestant) Germany. And he makes an arresting statement on p.227 (Chap. IV.3):

I need ask for no greater testimony to the truth of the whole thesis of this book than Hitler’s. His inspiration corroborates my own pedestrian reflection. The only difference between us is that … the thought of the triumph of the Jewish consciousness fills me with joyous exhilaration, while it casts Hitler into the depths of despair. For Hitler the Jewish consciousness is a poison … [for me] the Water of Life.

Finally what of Popper’s criticism that Macmurray is merely inviting us to jump on the bandwagon of success? That he is inviting us to believe that through psychological insight we can discover an automatic mechanism which will guarantee the right results (e.g. the destruction of Fascism) no matter what we do? Well, it’s certainly the case that Macmurray thinks Jesus discovered facts about the nature of human beings such that he could say ‘Live this way and you will flourish. Live that way and you will destroy yourselves.’ To hold that such discoveries are impossible to make in principle one would have to hold that there is no such thing as human nature or that it is infinitely malleable (which amounts to much the same thing). There are no doubt people who hold such views but such evidence as we have from science, art and life does not compel us to join them. The views of Macmurray and Jesus are quite rationally respectable. There is a reasonable probability of their truth. We can never, of course, have absolute theoretical certainty about anything but putting one’s trust in such views would not be irresponsible. And they make neither Macmurray nor Jesus ‘blueprint’ men (contrast Marx).

But what of the complaint that our efforts don’t matter if the Kingdom of Heaven will be established automatically, as it were (Popper’s complaint that ‘The law cannot be broken’)? Well, no doubt both Macmurray and Jesus held to the doctrine that God is not mocked. But the Jewish worker God is represented as making an invitation (or even offering a deal) to men: ‘Become co-workers with me and arrive at the Kingdom of Heaven the short way round. Refuse my invitation and be forced to arrive at the Kingdom of Heaven the long way round (with the results of your wrong choices adversely affecting large numbers of your descendants on the way).’ Now it seems that if our human efforts can make the difference between the short and long ways round then that is not to be sniffed at. If men had responded to Jesus’ mission in a fully appropriate manner in 30 AD then we might have been the destruction of the Jewish temple, with its attendant sorrows, in AD70, and the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki 1939-45, ad much in between. Wouldn’t have been a negligible human achievement, that!