Threatened Christendom
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 22 Feb 1962, p. 182-194
Neill, Bishop Stephen, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Then and now, sixty years on. A review of how things were 60 years ago, when the "so-called Christian West calmly assumed that its domination of the world was a law of nature." How this has changed. Looking carefully at the various threats to "Christendom." The threats, with a discussion of each, include: the existence of the communist-controlled world; the emergent nations; the threat from within. The way to recovery. Four Christian convictions on which the speaker bases his argument that we must turn back to our origins and make them effective as the basis of society. Some concluding remarks, including a refusal to despair of the future.
Date of Original
22 Feb 1962
Language of Item
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
Empire Club of Canada
Agency street/mail address:

Fairmont Royal York Hotel

100 Front Street West, Floor H

Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
An Address by BISHOP STEPHEN NEILL General Editor, World Christian Books
Thursday, February 22, 1962
CHAIRMAN: The Third Vice-President, Mr. Arthur J. Langley.

MR. LANGLEY: My Lord, distinguished guests and gentlemen. Seldom is it our pleasure to be addressed by a speaker of outstanding stature who is so well known as an authority on such subjects as the Eucumenical Movement and the outreach of the Church in the contemporary world. As visiting Professor to Wycliffe College for the spring term of 1962, the announcement of his lecture courses at Wycliffe is attracting wide attention and interest.

Bishop Neill is a Graduate in Theology, with First Class Honours, from Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was elected a Fellow of that College. In 1924 he went as a missionary to India where he served the Church brilliantly for nearly twenty years. He was Principal of Bishop's Theological College, India. In 1946 he became Assistant to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He has made a great contribution to Christian thought as a creative writer, and his many works are familiar throughout Christendom.

There are few people more competent to address us on the subject "Threatened Christendom" than Bishop Neill -author, scholar and missionary statesman. BISHOP NEILL: THEN AND NOW. Sixty years on! Would any intelligent observer, looking forward sixty years from 1902, have made one single correct guess as to the state in which the world would find itself in 1962? Those were the days in which the so-called Christian West calmly assumed that its domination of the world was a law of nature, and that nothing remained to be done except to develop and strengthen that domination, where it was not already firmly established. The scramble for Africa had come to an end. Every part of the continent except Ethiopia was under the control of the European powers; Germany's anxious thrust for colonies had been appeased by considerable concessions in the East and West and South-west. South and South-east Asia were safely in the hands of Britain, France and Holland. The great powers had decided not to divide up China between them: it was easier to control the monster through subtly balanced spheres of influence, but in effect China's independence was hardly as much as nominal. The one notabel exception to the rule was Japan. Japan by an immense effort of national reconstruction had emerged out of the twilight of her middle ages into the full light of modernity. This little problem was ingeniously solved by electing Japan as an honorary member of the select club of dominant nations.

Within how short a period all this has changed! What Mr. K. M. Panikkar has neatly called the Vasco de Gama period of history has come to an end. In 1498 Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, liberated Europe from the restrictions imposed by Muslim domination of trade routes by land and sea, and exposed the rest of the world to the expansion of "Christendom," the Christian world-powers. For more than four centuries the initiative was in the thands of the West. It was taken for granted that Western civilization was civilization-there was no other. The ancient cultures of the East were interesting archaeological survivals, but there was really no future for them. So the West imposed its political ideas, its economic systems, its educational practices, its languages: and through Christian missions went a long way towards introducing its religious outlook and habits. On the whole, Africa and the East were glad to have it so. The West came in with all the prestige of its military power and its technological accomplishment; much of what it brought appeared to be good, and many in the Eastern nations were prepared to grasp with both hands what was offered to them. What we now face is the massive reaction of the East to four centuries of Western aggression.

It is not possible to fix an exact date at which the Vasco da Gama epoch came to an end. Some would place the decisive turning point in 1905, when for the first time an Asian nation, Japan, defeated a Western power, Russia. Others would fix on 1914, the outbreak of that first war which fatally injured Western prestige throughout the world; yet others on :1917, the outbreak of the Russian revolution. Mr. Panikkar himself, naturally as an Indian, sees 1947 and the declaration of Indian independence as the great turning point. It does not matter which point we select; the establishment of the domination of the West was a process which took a number of years; it is not surprising if its reduction was also a process which lasted for more than a generation. What is clear is that it has now decisively come to an end.

The West,.which was once all-powerful, except in so far as it weakened itself by its own inner schisms, is now a threatened entity. What is happening in the United Nations does represent the reality of the world situation. The possession of the veto by some of the great Western powers enables them to some extent to hide from themselves the stark facts of the changed situation; but it is just the fact that at no point can the West be sure that its voice will be heard or that its will will prevail. It is faced by three major groups which are not willing to accept Western dictation-the Communist bloc, the Afro-Asian bloc and the Latin-American bloc. These do not stand together, and adroit manipulation may at points produce a majority in favour of a Western proposal; but this cannot be counted on, and again and again the West finds itself on the defensive.

It is only common sense to look carefully at the various threats to "Christendom", that world which has grown up out of the Christian tradition, which has sometimes incautiously identified the cause of Christ with its own- causes,and which to some extent at least is regarded by the nonChristian world as "The Christian West."

THE FIRST GREAT THREAT. The most obvious threat, and that which immediately comes to our minds, arises from the existence of the communist-controlled world.

We would all probably agree that it is good that we should talk to our friends the other side of the Iron Curtain as long as they are prepared to talk. As long as the talking goes on, the shooting is less likely to start. We welcome every indication of a lowering of the temperature in the cold war. But we merely deceive ourselves if we imagine that we are engaged in anything less than total war. There has been no change whatever in the Communist conviction that the revolution must go forward until it has prevailed over the whole surface of the earth. Capitalism has shown a greater vitality than the early Marxists expected; yet it is bound, so the Communist believes, in the end to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions and to yield to the new and better system.

The Communist has every reason for confidence. The Communists were the only real victors in the second world war. They succeeded in extending their dominion over ten and a half countries, which otherwise might have continued to be part of the free world. Since then they have added China. They continue to press at every point, like wise strategists looking for the soft spots. They are taking a new and unprecedented interest in Africa. They play the game of politics with ingenuity and remorseless persistence.

What has the West so far offered in the way of real argument against this threat? It seems to me that on the whole both the Churches and the secular propagandists have done a remarkably poor job. We have tended to parade our economic strength against an alleged economic weakness of the Communist countries. One constantly meets affirmations that the American workman can buy a new pair of shoes after seven and a half hours of work, or whatever it may be, whereas the Soviet workman has to put in thirty hours of work, or whatever it may be. But is this valid? Mr. Khrushchev has affirmed that by 1970 the Soviet Union will have reached level with the United States, and will then pass it in production and economic prosperity. I think that he is unduly hopeful, and that the change will take longer than he thinks. But suppose that the time does come when the Communist-controlled countries have gone ahead of us in wealth and economic power, and suppose that we have rested our defence principally or solely on our economic superiority, what argument is then left to us? The real battles are all fought out in the realm of ideas. The Communist has a clear idea of what he wants, based on what he believes to be a scientific understanding of man and of the laws by which human society is governed; unless we can meet him with something equally clear, more deeply thought out, and actually better related to the reality of the human situation, we shall inevitably go down in disaster. I see few signs that we are really girding ourselves to the effort of hard thought that is demanded of us.

THE SECOND GREAT THREAT. The second great threat comes from the emergent nations, those numerous peoples that in the last twenty years have cast off colonial dependence and are asserting their claim to a place in the sun. The number of them is astonishingly large, and the part they will play in the life of the world will certainly increase for many generations.

Now the independence of these peoples does not in itself constitute any threat to us. It does constitute a threat, if the values on which our life has been built up are denied, and other values are defended in their place. It had generally been assumed that the new nations would adopt democratic forms of government, more or less on the European or American model. We have already seen that this was a pathetically optimistic assumption; several of the new nations-Pakistan and the Sudan, for instance-have transformed themselves into military dictatorships; in others the liberties of the subject, as these have developed since Magna Carta, have been gravely infringed. The basic assumptions of the liberal period of Western development are questioned at every turn.

We have to face the fact, I think, that nationalism as it grows in these various countries is likely to take on a totalitarian form. We have been accustomed to the separation of Church and State, a division of life between sacred and secular, and to a large extent the separation of religion from politics. Traditionally these ancient peoples have never accepted or admitted such a division. Life has been experienced as a whole, and the Western fragmentation of it has been felt as something alien and uncomfortable. Traditionally, race, language, culture, political organization and religion have gone together in one single unbroken whole; in some at least of the new countries we see a conscious, or at least partly conscious, will to restore this broken unity; the alliance between nationalism and religion, not unknown among ourselves, is a potent factor in the contemporary world situation.

The country from which most is to be learned is Ceylon. Just because it is an island, Ceylon like Britain has a certain given unity of its own. A large section of the people of that island seem to wish to develop a unity in which every part of life will be comprehended. Buddhism is the religion of the majority; therefore Buddhism must be accepted as the national religion, as the symbol of the desired unity. What is Buddhist is Ceylonese, and what is truly Ceylonese is Buddhist. Sinhalese is the traditional language of Buddhism; therefore Sinhalese alone must be recognized as the national language. All education must be controlled by the government, since it is one of the first duties of a government to protect the young from divisive influences.

The course of this campaign has not been easy. Ceylon has large Hindu and Christian minorities, which for the most part speak Tamil or English. As all Canadians know, people are extraordinarily sensitive to any encroachment on the autonomy of their language. Yet the Ceylonese nationalists have been prepared to press their case to a point at which it endangers the basic unity of their country, by driving the Tamil minority in the north into a state of permanent rebellion. This is the extreme case; but similar phenomena are observable in for instance such Muslim countries as Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia.

My own field of special interest is the revival of the ancient religious in alliance with nationalism. A century ago Christian missionaries thought that these ancient religions would collapse under the joint influence of Western science and the preaching of the Gospel. The expected has no thappened; these ancient religions are very much alive, and all appear to be undergoing a renaissance. Just how far this is a religious renewal, it is hard to say; but the fact of the renewal cannot be gainsaid.

Under the first shock of encounter with the West, these religions were thrown on the defensive, and for a period suffered from a sense of inferiority. But they have pulled themselves together, rallied their forces, and now present an uncompromising challenge to the West. The first step was the establishment of a claim to spiritual equality with Christianity. Here the decisive year was 1893, when at the Chicago Parliament of Religions, the eloquent Brahman Swami Vivekananda, made a profound impression on the assembly by the vividness and power of his presentation. The spiritual East was present in person to throw out a challenge to the materialism of the West.

Since those days the ancient religions have progressed further, and now claim superiority to Christianity on its own ground. Islam claims to be practically superior. Jesus was an idealist whose teachings are very wonderful; but who lives by them (a comment that Christians find painfully difficult to answer); Muhammed was the practical reformer, who knew what men are capable of, and gave them rules which it is expected that they should obeyand to a remarkable extent do obey. Hinduism claims to be philosophically superior to Christianity. A doctrine of incarnations is all very well for man on a simple level of intellectual existence; it is only in the ancient Hindu wisdom, with its doctrine of the unity of all being in the impersonal One, that the true spiritual wisdom is to be found. Buddhism claims to be ethically superior to the Gospel. Christians have had control of the world for fifteen centuries; what have they done but produce one war after another, each more destructive than the last? (Again, a criticism to which the Christian answer is not obvious.) Give the Buddhist a chance, and he will show the world that he has the true and effective gospel of peace.

It is in the light of their conviction of superiority that we are to understand the missionary activity of these ancient religions of the East. The all have their missionaries throughout the West; the number of converts is perhaps not large; yet many modern men seem to find attractive these forms of ancient wisdom, with their appeal to man to be his own saviour, and to give up what they represent as the cringing attitude of the Christian who must look for salvation outside himself.

THE THIRD GREAT THREAT. The most serious threat always comes from within. So it is with us. If the West has lost faith in itself and in its own values. To a considerable extent this seems already to have happened to us; perhaps the greatest of all the successes of the Marxist is that he has made the West anxious and doubtful of the validity of its own claims.

Just after the first world war, the mood of cynicism and reaction against the established order was naturally very strong. After all, our fathers had brought the war upon the world; how was it possible to believe any longer in their intelligence or virtue? They were certainly wrong; it was possible that something else might be right. The Marxist Gospel presented itself to many as the thing that might possibly be right. A surprisingly large number of the most promising young intellectuals in Britain went to fight on the Marxist side in the Spanish Civil War, "to strike a blow for freedom." Some died; others came home disillusioned by what they saw; many have remained sadly nostalgic in a world in which there no longer seems of be a cause worth fighting for.

The same attitude was fairly widespread in the United States. The group of leftist writers of that time included a number of notable names. During the bad days of Senator McCarthy, I fancy that a large part of the American intelligentsia felt extremely uncomfortable at the thought of what might be dug up about the past.

The second world war popularized, if it did not produce, existentialism. Here there was no new Gospel, though some existentialists flirted with the Russian cause. There was rather a sense of the supreme unreality and futility of life. "Value" is a bourgeois concept, related to the maintenance of the status quo. Man must realize his own individuality and freedom, with no deep conviction that they are worth winning after all. And at no point will he admit himself to be indebted to society, or responsible to serve it. Some in the younger generation still find that the nihilism of Sartre speaks to their condition; but I believe that existentialism has passed its peak, and that we are passing into a different and, in its own way, equally dangerous situation.

As one gets older, it is increasingly difficult to keep in touch with the thought of younger people. But I have the impression that a great many in the younger generation today are marked by an uncritical and rather cynical acceptance of what is just because it is. We don't talk any more about good and evil, right or wrong. It is unfashionable to be too enthusiastic about any cause. The bomb may go off, and that will finish everything. In the meantime, we have only one life to live, and we had better live it as pleasantly and comfortably as we can, in what after all is not too bad a world for those who have brains and a certain amount of money. Many observers have remarked that the coming generation does not seem to be much interested in politics; there is a turning away from great issues to the merely practical job of finding and keeping a way of earning one's living.

If this is true then we are face to face with the greatest threat to our existence. Causes only live as long as men and women are prepared to die for them. Any Communist is prepared at any moment to die for the furtherance of the cause. Ask the average American or Canadian student what he is prepared to die for; his immediate reaction may not be to treat the question seriously; if he can be persuaded to take it seriously, he may find himself perplexed as to the answer that he should give. We find ourselves faced once more by the possibility that the West as we know it may not survive.

"That would be a good thing" will be the comment of the Marxist. "That wouldn't really matter" chip in our friends in Asia and Africa, who, after all, include a good deal more than half the human race; "we shall get on perfectly well without you, and our ancient religions will serve as the basis of other and perhaps better civilizations." "That wouldn't really matter" adds our Western cynic; "things are so bad in the West that a change could only be for the better." As a Christian, I am perfectly prepared from one point of view to say, "That wouldn't matter at all." It is at our peril that we identify God's cause with ourselves. The centre of gravity of Christianity has shifted several times already. Christianity began as a Middle Eastern religion. It became a religion of the northern Mediterranean. With the Reformation, the centre shifted to the Atlantic seaboard. It has now temporarily moved westwards to the American continent. But God could perfectly easily decide to start again in Africa, and show us that He can get on very well without us. His cause will not fail; but we might cease to be the instrument through which His cause could move forward.

Yet I do not really think that it would be a good thing if the West collapsed. I believe that some of our values are genuine values, that some of our ideals of freedom and justice are of universal validity, and are not likely to survive outside the frame of reference in which we have lived, that we do hold in trust certain good gifts for the whole of mankind. But I am sure that we cannot play our part in the world unless there is a great recovery of the sense of what that part is, and what is the task that we are called responsibly to fulfil.

THE WAY TO RECOVERY. I have called my talk "Threatened Christendom." I believe that the West can survive only if it takes seriously the fact that it is, however imperfectly, the Christian West. The Christian faith has been our cradle. This has been the maker of our nations, the guide of our prophets, the framework within which we have learned to think and to feel. This is perhaps more evident to those outside than it is to ourselves. We are well aware how little serious Christianity there is in the West today, and how deeply we have been penetrated by alien spirits. But anyone from Asia or Africa who wants to understand us at all finds at once that he has to make a serious study of the Christian faith. If he wishes to understand English literature, he must acquaint himself with the Bible. Our democracy is a tragically imperfect thing; but what is good in it remains unintelligible unless it is seen in relation to the Christian conviction of those who were its pioneers.

We may forget our cradle and deny our origins; it is not so easy to be wholly rid of them. And I, of course, as a Christian, am convinced that we cannot survive unless we turn back to those origins, glory in them and make them effective as the basis of society. Christendom in the true sense is happily much wider today than the traditionally Christian West. But my title was not chosen at random. I am speaking in the main in traditional terms, and of that part of the world in which the greater part of the Christian forces, and of Christian vitality, are to be found. I would single out just four Christian convictions as basic to my argument.

l. I spoke of the conflict of ideas in which we are engaged with the Marxist. The heart of our disagreement is with regard to the doctrine of man. Traditionally the West has found the reality of man's being in his dependence on God. The Marxist denies God; he therefore cannot but deny man. We must recover the sense of this dependence; only so can the rights of the individual be protected against the growing anonymity of our society. The boasted equality of all men is only equality in the sight of God; in no other way are men equal, neither in intelligence, nor in attractiveness, nor in usefulness to society. It is their equal relatedness to God that makes them equal. The Christian holds that man is truly man only as he lives consciously in this relatedness and this dependence. Failing this, it is so easy to lose the genuinely human dimension, as we have seen so frightfully in Nazi Germany. When this relationship is distorted, every other relationship, of man to the world in which he lives, of man to himself, of man to his neighbour, is also twisted out of shape.
2. We have to recover the sense of right and wrong, and to inculcate it in the young. There are constants in the life of men in society, just as there are constants in nature (you see, I have carefully avoided the use of the word "laws"). The discovery and analysis of the former is a far more difficult task than the discovery and analysis of the latter; it is not surprising that we have made much less progress in our moral than in our physical understanding of the universe. Yet we neglect the moral constants at our peril, just as any disregard of the physical constants is certain to be followed by disaster; you cannot play fast and loose with the universe without something going gravely wrong. And where are the moral constants to be found? The ten commandments are not a bad starting-point. They give a picture of the way in which men can live peacefully and responsibly in society. We may well want to go beyond them to refine and to elucidate. Yet if all men lived in accordance with these simple ancient rules, our jails would be more than half empty, our magistrates would be looking round for work and half our psychiatrists would be out on the street.
3. We must bring back to honour the sense of duty. "Freely ye have received, freely give" was said in a religious context. But surely it is the basic motto for the whole of life. Patriotism is not a very popular virtue these days; and in its exaggerated forms, it can be the source of countless evils. Yet, in its true sense of regard for the past and recognition of our own indebtedness to those who have lived before us, is it not an admirable thing? Out of a sense of responsibility to the past because of all that it has brought us grows readily a sense of responsibility for the future. This is what the Christian would call "stewardship" -the making available of all that a man has for the service of God and man.
4. The Christian, being a realist, acknowledges the fact that not much will happen in society unless men and women are actuated by the spirit of self-sacrifice. Every reform, every advance, has to be paid for. It just will not come about unless enough people are prepared to pay the price-in vision, in labour, and probably also in financial sacrifice or loss. This doctrine is highly unpopular in our acquisitive and competitive society; but it is just because our society is acquisitive and possessive that it seems likely to go on the rocks. Christian doctrine is centred in the life itself for the sake of the men that He came to serve; and in this the Christian sees the image of the love of God; for love in the New Testament means redemptive action which sets no limit at all to the price that may have to be paid. The doctrine of the Cross is always unwelcome to men. Yet it has been found in practice to have redemptive power. It is more than anything else the message that the West needs to hear today. Is there any place, other than in the Christian Gospel, where it is to be heard?

CONCLUSION. I do not take a very rosy view of the West and its chances. If we are to present even a moderately respectable front to the rest of the world, a gigantic effort of national renewal and recovery is needed, both in Church and State. Countless evident evils-unemployment, juvenile delinquency, social inequality, inadequate and misdirected education, social maladjustment, mental ill-health and any number of others-have to be tackled. The very foundations have to be strengthened. The spirit of the West needs to be renewed. If you ask whether I find, among statesmen and churchmen, clear awareness of our predicament, commanding vision and sensible practical plans to put in hand even a few of the things that need to be done, I must answer that I see very little of it. The hour is very late; it may already be too late. Do I then regard the recovery of the West as impossible? To this I must answer, "With God all things are possible." I am, as you see, a somewhat hardheaded realist. But I am also a Christian and, as a Christian, I absolutely refuse to despair of the future.

THANKS OF THE MEETING were expressed by Dr. Ernest M. Howse.

Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.


Threatened Christendom

Then and now, sixty years on. A review of how things were 60 years ago, when the "so-called Christian West calmly assumed that its domination of the world was a law of nature." How this has changed. Looking carefully at the various threats to "Christendom." The threats, with a discussion of each, include: the existence of the communist-controlled world; the emergent nations; the threat from within. The way to recovery. Four Christian convictions on which the speaker bases his argument that we must turn back to our origins and make them effective as the basis of society. Some concluding remarks, including a refusal to despair of the future.