A Commentary
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[ 679 A Commentary The New English Weekly, 15 (5 Oct 1939) 331-32 Demant’s The Religious Prospect has already been reviewed in these columns , and what I have to say will therefore not attempt to fulfil the requirements of a review.1 There is every justification for referring again and again to a book of such capital importance that it has inevitably escaped the notice, as it must inevitably outrun the understanding, of reviewers in the more conspicuous places. This is, furthermore, a kind of book which will provoke different trains of useful thought in various minds, or in the same minds at different moments: so it is desirable that everyone who has done any thinking within the author’s field, should at one time or another take it as a text for declarations of his own. I hope therefore that other contributors to the New English Weekly will be moved to express their reflections upon what Fr. Demant has here written. The particular context in which I am impelled to render tribute to the excellence of this book, is that of a brief essay which I had already committedtotheprinters,underthetitleofTheIdeaofaChristianSociety.2 Had I had the opportunity of reading The Religious Prospect, I cannot say with assurance that I would have withheld my essay altogether; but I am sure that I should have felt obliged to re-write it from beginning to end, so sketchy and superficial does my treatment of “Liberalism” now seem. Having made this admission, I have no further need to refer to my own work. It would be misleading to call The Religious Prospect a “topical book,” for that would be to suggest a very limited purpose and application. It is a book which would have been topical, though less intelligible and cogent to most readers, at any time in the last ten years; and it will be topical for many years to come. It is, rather, the kind of book of permanent value from which topical conclusions can be drawn. Though it is definitely and rigorously a work of theology, and not of “Christian Sociology,” it is of the greatest valueinhelpingustoanswerthequestions,“whatisthepresentwarabout?” and “what are we, or what should we be fighting for?” I cannot attempt here to outline Fr. Demant’s argument; I am at the moment only concerned with his view – which I have myself for some time held, but which before Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Public Letters: 1939 680 ] -1— 0— +1— reading this book I did not so well understand – that Liberalism (that combination of “doctrine” and “dogma” which held together during the Nineteenth Century) is something which leads (by what Fr. Demant rather heavily calls enantiodromia)3 to modern totalitarianism, and is indeed a phase without an understanding of which totalitarianism itself cannot be understood. If one accepts this conclusion, to which the author brings us by a very painstaking course of reasoning, it leads us to important reflections on the curious situation in which we find ourselves today. It means that the catchwords of “democracy” versus “totalitarianism” will not serve the purpose today which the equivalent cries served in 1914. It means not merely that we are trying to fight something positive with something negative, but that we are fighting with the weapon of an idea which may turn in our hands. Now, we have to take great care neither to over-estimate nor to under-estimate the importance of ideas; and not to confuse the plane on which only material forces and their intelligent direction count, with the plane on which ideas are important. To mistake the operation of ideas is to provoke the conclusion that they do not matter at all. Furthermore, we must be prepared to recognise the truth of two propositions which seem at first contradictory. The first is the obvious truth that men use ideas; not only that ideas become strangely altered in the process of being used, but that menareseentoemploythemcynicallyintheserviceofmaterialendstowhich these very ideas have first directed them, and to abandon the ideas when they cease to serve these ends. Anyone considering the alteration of behaviour of Hitler and Stalin towards each other, may be tempted to infer that in our present situation there is only a conflict of material forces, and that the idea, in epistemological terms, is only a transient epiphenomenon. But this is only partly true; it is equally true, in the long run, that ideas use men. Such an account of the development of Liberalism and Totalitarianism as Fr...


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