It is ebbing indeed! And one might speculate about what the author of this passage, which was first published in 1906, would now write if he were revising for a fourth edition to-day. Many reading this article are, of course, familiar with the passage. I have not yet mentioned the author’s name; but, for those who do not know it already, I would say that it is not Alfred Rosenberg; it is Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough, Part IV: ‘Adonis,Attis,Osiris.’ vol.I, pp. 300- 301, third edition, London 1914, Macmillan, preface dated January, 1914). I wonder what that gentle scholar thinks of the latest form in which Europe’s return ‘to native ideals of life and conduct’ is manifesting itself.
Now you will have seen that the most interesting thesis in that passage of Frazer’s in the contention that trying to save one’s soul is something contrary to, and incompatible with, trying to do one’s duty to one’s neighbour. I am going, in the course of this essay, to challenge that thesis; at the moment I merely want to point out that Frazer is at the same time putting Gibbon’s thesis and stating it in explicit terms; and on this point I would give Frazer the answer that I have already ventured to give to Gibbon: that Christianity was not the destroyer of the ancient Greek civilization, because that civilization had decayed from inherent defects of its own before Christianity arose. But I would agree with Frazer, and would ask you to agree with me, that the tide of Christianity has been ebbing and that our post-Christian Western secular civilization that has emerged is a civilization of the same order as the pre-Christian Graeco-Roman civilization. This observation opens up a second possible view of the relation between Christianity and civilization — not the same view in which Christianity appears in the role of civilization’s humble servant.
According to this second possible view, Christianity is, as it were, the egg, grub and chrysalis between butterfly and butterfly. Christianity is a transitional thing which bridges the gap between one civilization and another, and I confess that I myself held this rather patronizing view for many years. On this view you look at the historical function of the Christian Church in terms of the process of the reproduction of civilizations. Civilization is a species of being which seeks to reproduce itself, and Christianity has had a useful but a subordinate role in bringing two new secular civilizations to birth after the death of their predecessor. You find the ancient Graeco-Roman civilization in decline from the close of the second century after Christ onwards. And then after an interval you find –perhaps as early as the ninth century in Byzantium, and as early as the thirteenth century in the West in the person of the Stupor Mundi Frederick II– a new secular civilization arising out of the ruins of its Graeco-Roman predecessor. And you look at the role of Christianity in the interval and conclude that Christianity is a kind of chrysalis which has held and preserved the hidden germs of life until these have been able to break out again into a new growth of secular civilization. That is an alternative view to the theory of Christianity being the destoyer of the ancient Graeco-Roman civilization; and, if one looks abroad through the history of civilizations, one can see other cases which seem to conform to the same pattern.