John H. Hallowell

Some thinkers, adopting a Christian orientation, attributed the crisis of our times to a false confidence in human goodness and the achievements of reason, particularly in the realm of science, and to human beings’ moving away from God. Focusing on the limitations of secular humanism and the reality of sin, they questioned the core values of the liberal tradition.
In 1950, John Hallowell, an American political theorist, published Main Currents in Modern Political Thought, which, written from a Christian perspective, pointed out the deficiencies of modern secular ideologies, including liberalism. In the chapter “The Crisis of Our Times,” Hallowell presented his interpretation of the ills confronting modern Western civilization.

It requires no great seer or prophet to discern today the signs of decadence that are everywhere manifest. Only the most stubborn and obtuse would venture optimistic predictions for the future of the world and its civilization. The complacent optimism of the last century has given way to a deep-rooted despair and men everywhere are gripped by fear and insecurity. Anxiety gnaws at their vitals. Everywhere men tremble, whether they are yet conscious of the cause of their fears, before the judgment of God.

The sickness of the modern world is the sickness 0f moral confusion, intellectual anarchy, and spiritual despair. The revolution of nihilism, born of this confusion and despair, is peculiar not alone to any one country or people but in varying degrees is taking place everywhere. With almost frantic zeal we search for the political or economic panacea that will save us and the world from disaster, not seeing, apparently, that the disaster is already upon us and that for the cure we must examine the state of our own souls. The political and economic crises from which the world suffers are not causes but symptoms of a crisis that is even more profound—a spiritual crisis within the soul of man. Having alienated himself from God, having discredited the reason with which he was endowed by God, unable or unwilling to identify the evil with which the world of man is infected—modern man oscillates between extravagant optimism and hopeless despair. As his optimism is shattered more and more by the force of events he sinks lower and lower into the slough of despondency. In his despondency he is tempted to strike out against the enemy he cannot identify, whose name he does nor know, in desperate action. In his anxiety to escape from utter futility and meaningless existence he is tempted to give up his most priceless heritage—his freedom—to any man who even promises deliverance from insecurity. He is tempted to put his faith in the most absurd doctrine; to submit his will to the most brutal dictator, if only in such a way he can find that for which he longs with all the passion of his being—a meaningful existence, a life worth living, a life worth dying to preserve.

Modern man’s great lack is lack of conviction, particularly the conviction that good and evil are real….

Lulled into complacent self-satisfaction by the liberal positivistic doctrine of the nineteenth century modern man became a blind devotee of the Goddess Progress who, he believed, bestowed her blessings upon man in the form of increased knowledge and control over nature through an automatic and impersonal process, in which man, at best, was but a passive tool of Nature or of History. Where formerly men looked to God for the salvation of their souls, they now looked to science and technology for the gratification of their desires. Paradise on earth was substituted for eternal spiritual salvation as an aspiration worthy of men’s efforts. The method for bringing about this paradise, moreover, had been found to lie within the power of man: paradise on earth waited only upon the proper execution of a plan to be discovered in the truths and with the methods of the natural sciences. It requited no sacrifice on the part of man, no change in his behavior, no moderation of his appetites—it required simply the application of intelligence, directed by science, to social problems. Progress was conceived as automatic, irreversible, and inevitable. Time alone would heal all wounds, cure all evil and solve all problems. In his search for bodily well being and comfort, in his search for economic security and political utopia, modern man appears not simply to have lost his soul but to have forgotten that he has a soul to lose. Everyday in every way, until very recently at least, modern man believed, the world is getting better and better. Through increased knowledge of and control over nature, through education and technology, man through science would overcome all the evil with which the world is infected and live in perpetual peace and harmony with his neighbor. This, at least, was his fervent hope and his faith.

The optimism that characterized the nineteenth century has given way in the twentieth to a deep-rooted despair. The very Science upon which the nineteenth century pinned its hopes for the realization of Utopia has led many individuals in the twentieth century to the brink of meaninglessness. Man is but a chance product of the earth, his aspirations and his ideals products of vain imagination—only a kind of desperate bravado serves to keep him afloat in a sea of meaningless existence,…

Most men today no longer believe that progress is automatic, irreversible, and inevitable though many still cling, if with much less assurance than formerly, to a belief in education, science and technology as the way out of our difficulties. With the invention of the atom bomb modern man realizes that the blessings of science are not unmixed, that science can be used for evil purposes as well as good and that science itself is silent on the question as to what purposes its knowledge should be put. Man’s technical knowledge and capacity has outstripped his moral capacity. Evil has manifested itself so unmistakably in the twentieth century that modern man finds it increasingly difficult to deny its reality, even if he still has considerable difficulty calling it by name.

The liberals of the last century ascribed evil to men’s ignorance and to their faulty political institutions. Evil was to be overcome by education and political reform. Equating evil with intellectual error the liberals were led, as Lewis Mumford points out, “to the flattering conclusion that the intelligent cannot sin and that the mentally adult can do no evil.” The inability or unwillingness of the liberal to recognize the reality of evil lulled him into a false sense of security….

While the liberals denied the reality of evil and ascribed the appearance of evil in the world to faulty political institutions and lack of “enlightenment,” the Marxians explained the appearance of evil in the world to the prevailing capitalistic mode of production, to the institution of private property and to the class conflict engendered by that institution. Evil would disappear, they predicted, inevitably and automatically, with the establishment of a classless society through the medium of revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. With the distribution of material goods in accordance with men’s needs, men would no longer be frustrated in their search for material satisfaction and all evil would disappear.

However profoundly liberalism may differ from Marxism in details and in conclusions both start from the assumption that human nature is essentially good and ascribe whatever evil there is in the world to bad or faulty institutions. But why these institutions, political and economic, should be so bad, and so much in need of reform, if men are essentially good is a question to which neither has a very satisfactory answer. Or why men should believe that they will be able to do in the future what they have never succeeded in doing in the past, namely, to establish a perfect political and economic system, is never explained.

In recent years one of America’s most astute thinkers, Reinhold Niebuhr, has recalled to our consciousness a fact which both liberalism and Marxism have ignored with almost fatal consequences to our civilization. Evil, he points out, is something real and the name for it is sin. Its locus is not in institutions, which are but a reflection of human purposes, but in human nature itself….

The crisis of our times stems from this inability or unwillingness to recognize the evil in the world for what it is, the sin of man. What describes more accurately the evil that is rampant in the world today if it be not the perversion of men’s wills? What describes more realistically the evils we must seek to overcome by God’s grace if nor pride, self-righteousness, greed, envy, hatred, and sloth? What has for centuries brought men to catastrophe if it has not been their attempt to create a god in their own image rather than seeking to make their own image more like that of God? What is the root of all evil if it is not that man seeks to make himself God?...

But if modern man has lost sight of the sinfulness of man he has also lost sight, in his despair, of the image of God in man; and man has become progressively dehumanized. The inhumanity of man to man has manifested itself in varying degrees throughout the ages man has lived but not until modern times has man’s inhumanity to man been pursued as a matter of principle….

An English writer and publisher, Victor Gollancz, believes that we are experiencing something quite new in the history of Western civilization, not simply the rejection of the values traditionally associated with that civilization but something even more ominous—the complete reversal of those values and the glorification of their opposites. This reversal of the values traditionally associated with Western civilization finds its most characteristic expression in the twentieth century in contempt for human personality, in the denial of “the essential spiritual equality of all human beings.” Having lost sight of the fact that God created all men in His image, that God is the Father of all men and that consequently all men are brothers, the modern world has no basis for believing that men are equal. Where individuals still cling to the belief in individual equality it is often without any understanding of the basis for that belief and consequently without any rational means of defending it….

It is in fascism, of course, that contempt for personality reaches its final expression; for it passes beyond contempt, and becomes hatred...

Hitler is dead and Germany is in ruins. But has the horror passed? I do not think so. Nazism was not an isolated phenomenon, it was merely the final expression, so far, of tendencies which had for a long time been growing stronger. Those tendencies are still at work; some of them are more widespread than ever; and even here in England there are disquieting signs that respect for personality, which we have guarded, and in spite of everything still guard, more devotedly perhaps than other people, is growing weaker.