1 Living in the Cross of Reality
Man’s life, social as well as individual, is lived at a crossroads between four “fronts”: backward toward the past, forward into the future, inward among ourselves. . . , and outward against what we must fight or exploit. . . . Hence both mental and social health depends on preserving a delicate mobile balance between forward and backward, inward and outward trends. Integration, living a complete and full life, is accordingly not some smooth “adjustment” we can hope to achieve once for all, as popular psychology imagines; it is rather a constant achievement in the teeth of forces which tear us apart on the Cross of Reality.
NORWICH, VERMONT – NOVEMBER 11, 2006 – I sense an uneasy mood on the Dartmouth campus today, much like the one I sensed in the fall of 1940, when I arrived there as a freshman. Exploding airplanes have taken over from dive bombers—and Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan have taken over from Germany, France, and England; but now as then, the campus feels uneasy at the core. My home, on a hill in Norwich, looks down on the campus, only two miles away.
In the fall of 1940, we young students had to live with the possibility that we might soon be drafted to fight the Nazis. So we found it liberating to listen to a former German soldier, one who had survived the slaughter of Verdun, as he lectured to us about what he called the Cross of Reality. This professor, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, liked to ride the two miles from his home in Norwich to the campus—on his horse! A mobilized scholar if there ever was one, he was a philosopher on horseback. Although he taught in the philosophy department, some of his most admired written work was on history and language. He was equally recognized as an innovative Christian thinker and a pioneer in the movement for voluntary service.
What follows is a series of journal notes from the 1940s. They recall how I first met this maverick thinker—and how his ideas quite took possession of me. (I have inserted headings into my journal whenever my notes turn into exposition of particular ideas.)
DECEMBER 15, 1940 – This would be a good time to summarize these last three incredible months at Dartmouth.
Since September, I have joined just about everything at the college: Outing Club, Jack-O-Lantern humor magazine, The Dartmouth newspaper, Dartmouth Christian Union.
In the Christian Union I have met two seniors majoring in philosophy. One is studying Nikolai Berdyaev, an exiled Russian religious philosopher now living in Paris. This senior has loaned me Berdyaev’s book The Origin of Russian Communism. It’s about the antireligious 19th-century Russian intelligentsia and some religious Russian thinkers who opposed them, the Slavophiles, led by Ivan Kireevsky and Alexei Khomyakov. It’s also about Russian philosophy and Russia’s leading religious philosopher, Vladimir Solovyov, a friend of Dostoevsky’s. I have had long conversations with this senior about Solovyov and Russian philosophy. I’m thinking about majoring in philosophy, going to graduate school, and teaching about Berdyaev and Solovyov, as he plans to.
The other senior likes these Russians too, but is more interested in Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a German social philosopher. Prof. Rosenstock-Huessy left Germany when Hitler took power in 1933. My senior friend suggested I try to audit Rosenstock-Huessy’s introductory course, “The Cross of Reality.”
So I did that. I have been going to his class for two months now. He speaks from his heart, and he is a faithful Christian. But the way he understands Christianity is quite contemporary. There is no supernatural, no “other world” beyond this one, no life after death. Life is full of miracles, but they are not ones that run contrary to the laws of nature. Faith does not mean reverence for past tradition, but willingness to live for the future of all humanity.
In fact, he says that Christianity introduced the idea that humankind is working toward a common future—and therefore progress is the fruit of the Christian era. He means social, political, and economic progress, not “progress” associated with advances in science and technology.
It turns out that Rosenstock-Huessy got to know Berdyaev in 1923, soon after he had been expelled from the Soviet Union. In class, Rosenstock-Huessy refers quite enthusiastically to Solovyov, suggesting that we should read his Lectures on Divine Humanity.
A New Model and Method
Rosenstock-Huessy says we all live in a Cross of Reality on which we have to face backward to the past, forward to the future, inward toward our selves, and outward toward the world. He brings this cross image to life, not as an abstract idea, not as his idea, but as a new model of the human reality, a model that he invites us to discover with him. When he diagrams the cross on a blackboard, he makes a horizontal line for its time axis, then a vertical line to represent the space axis. This visual depiction becomes an icon for all his students, an icon of our human predicament—and our potential.
Since each of us lives at the center of this cross, our lives are crucial, not only for ourselves but for all humankind. With regard to the time axis of our lives, we are constantly torn between the need to be true to the achievements of the past and the need to respond to the new callings of the future. Similarly, on the space axis of our lives, we try constantly to relate our personal, subjective inner space to the objective demands of the outer world, the space around us. This model applies not only to each person but to any group, even to a nation.
From the first class in which I saw Rosenstock-Huessy draw this Cross of Reality to last week’s closing lecture, the richness and significance of this model increased week by week. His books reinforced his lectures, showing us how to use this model as a method for understanding and changing ourselves and society. He said that social science, which began about a hundred years ago, had started off on the wrong foot. That is, in the 1840s Auguste Comte founded his special science for the social aspects of life (coining the term sociology), and sought to make it respectable by basing it on the objective and quantitative methods of natural science. These were collectively the methods René Descartes had begun to disclose 200 years earlier. But Rosenstock-Huessy pointed out that scientific objectivity works only for nature, not for history or society. It serves beautifully to analyze the outer world, the space around us, but it is useless for exploring the inner space of the person. And objectivity is equally useless for understanding the times we live in: our present, past, and future.
The Cross of Reality, showing that times are as important as spaces, corrects the scientific subject-object model of reality, which is merely spatial, and enlarges on its limited method. All these relationships seemed crystal clear when Rosenstock-Huessy diagrammed the cross on the blackboard:
It was not only Descartes and Comte whom Rosenstock-Huessy challenged. He said Freud draws a caricature of us by examining the psyche on the basis of our minimum powers, our animal drives, instead of our greatest powers, our gifts of the spirit. He added that upon meeting Jesus, any psychiatrist would have had him locked up.
Rosenstock-Huessy ended his Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man with a call for a new science, a higher sociology, one that would have the Cross of Reality as its method. He further suggested the name metanomics for such a new discipline, meaning that it would go beyond (meta) the laws (nomoi) of the present social sciences.
I was completely smitten by his thought, as were many of his other students. In fact, several recent graduates are so impressed with the social philosophy of “Professor Huessy” that they are now joining with him to form a new institution to embody its principles. This new institution will be called Camp William James in Sharon, Vermont, and will be a volunteer work service program within the Civilian Conservation Corps. Approximately thirty members will come from the regular CCC; about thirty will be college boys from Dartmouth and Harvard. Page Smith, Dartmouth class of 1940, and Frank Davidson, Harvard 1939, are two of its main organizers. It is named after the American philosopher William James because, in his 1906 essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” he proposed that all young people, as part of their education, devote a significant period to an all-out mobilization of their energies, comparable to the all-out commitment a soldier makes in wartime. As James expressed it, if we do not learn how to mobilize ourselves in peacetime, through selfless service that addresses our planet’s ills, “then war must have its way.”
MAY 30, 1941 – I slept very little last night. I sat up in my dorm room trying to decide whether to quit college now to join Camp William James—or to join the army. We are not yet in the war, but we all can feel it coming. France fell just a year ago. It’s hard to see how England can hold out much longer. Throughout Europe men my age are fighting to stem the tide, but it looks as if Adolf Hitler’s “Thousand-Year Reich” is about to begin. The contrast between this Armageddon of the human race and the peaceful atmosphere of classrooms finally became too much for me last night. I had been busy memorizing Virgil’s opening lines in The Aeneid, “Of arms and the man I sing,” while a new Sparta was destroying Athens just beyond our doors.
All spring I’ve been reading books on religion, history, and world affairs—at three times the speed I had ever read before. Not books required in classes, but books I felt compelled to read: such wildly different works as Solovyov’s The Spiritual Foundations of Life and Rosenstock-Huessy’s Out of Revolution. Last night, here in 405 Gile Hall, my fever of concentration came to a head. Just after midnight I had an experience unlike anything I’ve ever had before. It was a clear, distinct vision of brilliant white light—accompanied by an equally clear sense of being addressed.
During that incredible experience I felt myself being “commissioned” to attempt a contemporary restatement of Christianity, not in earlier generations’ words but in my own. To see Christianity beyond the church—as a process in history. To describe the convergence of matter and spirit, the reconciling of science and religion. To show how the Cross of Reality points to that convergence and reconciliation.
So powerful was that experience last night, calling for an immediate response, that I decided to quit college this morning and spend the rest of the year at Camp William James, which has now moved to Tunbridge, Vermont. There I’d try to sort out whether I might be a pacifist, as many of my friends in the Dartmouth Christian Union are planning to be—or whether I should volunteer for the army. Also decided that one day I’ll turn this journal into a book about the Cross of Reality.
At 10 a.m. I saw Dean Strong. He told me I could leave college in good standing, and mentioned that Robert Frost had done the same. Right after that I went to the Dartmouth Bookstore and bought a three-ring binder for this journal. The cover is red, the color for revolution—and for commitment! I decided I needed an epigraph on the first page, something to remember this day. I found these words near the end of Out of Revolution:
The gods pass, when the individual realizes their passing, their unceasing change, he is converted to God—the living God who invites us to obey the unum necessarium, the one thing necessary and timely at every moment.
CAMP WILLIAM JAMES, TUNBRIDGE, VERMONT – AUGUST 15, 1941 Just a year ago I was at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, with the Experiment in International Living. A Russian émigré led our morning reading group as we tackled Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I decided I was Alyosha, who defends his faith against his brother Ivan’s doubts. Afternoons we had a contrasting kind of experience: we dug a new septic system for the college.
Now, here at the camp, I think about Exeter, where I spent my high school years, and recall its motto, Non Sibi, not for oneself. I think that motto helped me decide to join this camp.
All summer I have been so on fire that I’ve written in my journal daily; I call my entries “morning notes,” as I usually write them right after I wake up.
I’ve come to know Professor Huessy as “Eugen,” since I have met with him almost weekly, either here or when I have visited Four Wells, his home in Norwich. Those visits are easy to make because my family moved to Norwich early this month. Fortunately, Mom and Dad like the Huessys; they’ve overcome their suspicions that my professor might be a sort of Svengali who manipulates his students’ minds.
Yesterday was a high point here: Eleanor Roosevelt came to visit us. She has always been a big supporter of the camp, as FDR himself has been. We had good talks with her about our work. I’ll write this up for the Rutland Herald, since I’ve become the camp’s secretary.
I still think that parts of this journal could be used in my book about the Cross of Reality. For example, I might show how that cross explains the importance of our experience in Tunbridge.
First, we came to Camp William James because we heard a calling toward the future. We wanted to create a new institution, a period of all-out service as part of all young people’s education. It would be the CCC plus Dartmouth and Harvard, an entirely new combination. It’s a breaking-away from the ivory tower of academe into the problems and life of a real community. We heard another calling toward the future when we sent a group to Mexico to help rebuild the town of Colima—recently flattened in an earthquake. This second calling makes clearer that we’re engaged in a “moral equivalent of war,” not just planting trees or helping some farmers.
Second, we’re creating our own inner space within the farm building, our headquarters. Of course, it’s also the inner space of our group, the community we have formed here. The fact that most of us have memorized some verses from G. K. Chesterton’s “Ballad of the White Horse” emphasizes the poetic nature of this orientation. In one stanza, Chesterton attacks academic objectivity with these wonderful words:
Not with the humor of hunters
Or savage skill in war,
But ordering all things with dead words,
Strings shall they make of beasts and birds,
And wheels of wind and star.
Third, we have the experience of being connected with past time, with the ongoing life of a rural town whose roots go back for many generations. We go to square dances where the calling is in an Elizabethan style that’s died out in England. Quite a contrast with the rootless suburbs of New York or the slums of New Haven, both places where many of us grew up.
Fourth, we are getting national publicity through stories in the Boston Globe and the New York Times. This makes our little inner group known to the outer world, objectively, with both good and bad consequences. It has helped recruiting, but it’s also what led to our losing federal funding. In Congress we were attacked as just another New Deal boondoggle—and had to close our CCC “side-camp” in Sharon.
To sum up, the camp has provided each of us with a more intense experience of life, a more crucial experience, than we’d get in any ordinary college year. We have come to see that a period of such service, when integrated into one’s education, would show its participants how we all live historically, drawn toward the past and the future.
I think this note about the camp makes clear that the cross is not some elaborate metaphysical concept but simply a commonsense way to interpret any experience. In fact, a person who uses common sense already interprets his or her life and history this way, from the four perspectives that the cross shows us. In other words, the cross simply codifies common sense. Unfortunately, huge numbers of people, probably the great majority—be they ideologues, fascists, or communists (all stuck on the “glorious future” front), fundamentalists (stuck on the past front), sentimentalists and pietists (stuck on the subjective front), or even rationalists (stuck on the objective front)—are not guided by common sense.
Among those who do not perceive the four dimensions of reality are people like Henry Ford who exclaimed that “history is bunk.” Such people have a two-dimensional spatial view of the world; they imagine that their self, their I, is one pole and the world outside them is the other. They can’t see that they also live in the dimensions
The Multiformity of Man
The only text Eugen had us read in his course on the Cross of Reality was his The Multiformity of Man. In it he described how our life in industrial society makes us into interchangeable cogs in the machine, mere objects. In that world we are simply theys, with no more connection to time than the cog. But we actually live in three other worlds. Whenever we join a cause, like the labor movement, we move the human race toward a world of future time. When we marry or adopt some institutional commitment, we enter into a relationship with the world of past time, continuing the story of creation. Finally, we also have the world of our own inner space, where we become conscious of our individual souls.
To dramatize how different these worlds are, Rosenstock-Huessy offered four mathematical equations that describe the four dimensions of each singular person’s life:
- In industry, we are plural, so 3 or more = 1.
- In a cause, like the labor movement, we live toward the future of all humanity, so infinity becomes our symbol, and so ∞ = 1.
- In marriage or any continuing institution, we are a dual, so 2 = 1.
- In our inner self, we are the singular, and so 1 = 1.
His key point was that we are always balancing our roles as plural, all, dual, and singular persons. And a related point is that neither industry nor academe should treat us as one thing. We are manageable and educable only if we are treated as multiform beings, diverse and creative, not simply as replaceable plural cogs or simply as singular minds.
At the beginning of The Multiformity of Man, Rosenstock-Huessy said that Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine paved the road to both Stalin and Hitler. Those Enlightenment thinkers saw man as simply a part of nature, as do today’s social scientists. Such a wrong understanding of man and God has social consequences, ones that can lead to social disasters.
Eugen made this same point in Out of Revolution: “A wrong philosophy must necessarily lead us into a wrong society.”
DECEMBER 7, 1941 – With Pearl Harbor today, we realize the camp will have to fold soon. Real war is replacing its moral equivalent. Pacifism no longer attracts me. I don’t think I’ll wait for the draft. Probably enlist next spring. This next note is a response to our entering the war:
The Dimensions of Time
Perhaps the present war, the most engulfing historical experience of the human race, will show us the need for a post-Cartesian way of thinking, one that admits the dimensions of time. Perhaps we will learn from this experience that being primarily romantic (as we were in the 19th century) or primarily scientific (as we are in the 20th century) was dangerous. A pure romantic, focusing on his inner space, or the pure scientist, objectifying the outer world, is unable to sense the times in which they live and to take timely action to avert disaster.
Under the influence of natural science, we have thought of the future as if it were a mathematical forward projection of time units, of seconds, in the same sense that physical space is an outward projection of space units, of millimeters. But all our contemporary experience of war and revolution exposes that notion as a fallacy. The future is neither caused by the past, nor is it merely what happens as the clock ticks on. The future is not a fact but an act. The acts of Lenin, of Churchill, and Roosevelt, and the acts of all those who have responded to them, are what create the future.
When applied to human beings, therefore, the term future has quite a different meaning from when it is applied to nature. We commit ourselves to the future as an act of faith. Our life in time is just as real and full as our life in space. The experience of the two world wars might give us a deepened understanding of our relation to time, times, and timing; of how we are all children of time, caught up in the sweep of history.
So dominated are we by the slogans of science and technology, it is hard to imagine that we do not enter future time as we advance with our technology. Technology only improves our manipulation of matter, in the space of the natural world.
However, we do enter future time when we reply to the imperatives created in the past by the sacrifices, the prophecies, and the dedication of people who lived before us. We enter the future by living forward toward the unrealized dreams of our race, by taking risks, by waiting for the right time, by being willing to die for our beliefs. What distinguishes the few great revolutions of history from the many minor revolts is the way whole generations cooperated in preparing for them, carrying them out, and then preserving their accomplishments.
SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – June 5, 1944 – We’ve been locked up behind barbed wire in this camp for more than two weeks now, and our friendly American guards have orders to shoot us if we approach the gate out. That’s understandable because we know the time and the place of D-Day, the greatest invasion in history. As a lieutenant, I will be a scout for B Battery of the 110th Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, landing at 9 a.m. tomorrow. My mission is to go in with the Infantry, stake out our gun positions, then meet up with the battery when they land in the afternoon.
Almost every night we’ve gone to religious services. We Protestants often go to both Protestant and Catholic services, just in case. I would be graduating from Dartmouth this June had it not been for the war. By now I’d probably have written some senior paper relating to the Cross of Reality. Instead, all I’ve got is this journal, this record of my struggle to think my way out of theology and science into some more open way of understanding God and man, society, and history. My university in the army has been the reading of three of today’s most insightful interpreters of those subjects: Rosenstock-Huessy, Solovyov, and Berdyaev.
Of course, there have been others, but those three have been my focus. If I survive this war, I’ll certainly fulfill my commitment to turn this journal into a book. It will be the story of my American response to a German and two Russians who have become my spiritual fathers. I don’t think it will be a formal study of their thought. Instead, I think it will be a continuation of these morning notes—as I test them against life in the postwar world.
I’ll be packing this notebook in my field bag for the invasion, along with my little leather-bound New Testament. If I should die tomorrow, they’ll find this journal with me—a sort of last testament. Most of my notes are secular, trying to present the Cross of Reality as a new method for the social sciences. But other notes are religious, since my long-range goal is to show how we can bridge the gap between these two modes of thought. This week’s two notes are both religious, about prayer and about whether there is a life after death. Because it’s quite clear to me that I may not be alive next week.
NORWICH, VERMONT – NOVEMBER 11, 2006 – Sixty-two years later, I still relive what happened to me on D-Day. At 5:00 p.m. June 6, 1944, when I lifted my head from my foxhole on Omaha Beach, a fragment from a German mortar shell sailed through my helmet, almost splitting it in two. Soaked in blood, I thought my skull was fractured—and that I would die in minutes. Then I lay on the beach for 23 hours, half-conscious, before I got any significant medical help. I still have the tiny leather-bound New Testament, full of underlinings that I carried in my backpack. And I still have my two notes on prayer and the afterlife; in fact, I plan to use them later in this book.
Finally, I still have that helmet, and have learned from the Imperial War Museum in London that the hole in it is the largest they have on record for a survivor in either world war. (See Website Pictures, Picture 4.)