Christians are distinguished by our belief in the supernatural. Christians in America, however, far too often forget that we are also supernational. In part II of our series on the life and insights of Dietrich von Hildebrand, we will take a closer look into how the awareness of our supranationalism can protect us from falling for the false idol of nationalism.
Having served as an assistant to a surgeon in Germany during WWI, Dietrich von Hildebrand experienced the political turmoil within his country in the wake of their defeat. While we can only look back on this time in history with a clear view of Hitler as a demagogue who brought turmoil across Europe and the world, those who lived through his rise to office did not have that advantage. Early on, Hitler did not look like the Hitler we now know. But Dietrich quickly saw through his schemes to what would become a destructive course of action by this man, and became a vocal opponent of Hitlerism. As many people, even Christians, missed these early signs and eventually allowed Hitler to rise to power, it is good for us to learn from what Dietrich was able to discern.
During his collegiate studies, he met Philosophy Professor Max Scheler, whose thoughts and life influenced Dietrich in becoming a Christian. Their talks also opened Dietrich’s mind to the underlying flaws in utopian visions of government:
“Through his discussions with Scheler, he now perceived clearly the danger of an earthly messianism and of the shallow (but tempting) belief that state laws can bring about a transformation of this earth and solve all its problems. It became clear to him that this transformation can be accomplished only through the purification of every single individual, a purification that, as he saw more and more clearly as time went by, can be achieved only by grace…”*** pg 75
Although a young believer, Dietrich had a keen mind, and along with his studies in philosophy he was able to separate the grand promises from the depraved idealism which Hitler was promoting in Germany in the early 1920’s.
“From the outset of the Nazi movement, he had perceived not only its insanity (for the racist principles on which Nazism was based were obviously without foundation), but also its insidious malignity. The Nazi movement was thoroughly perverse, and it incorporated an ani-Christian ethos, which he opposed with his every skill. It was not a question of ‘right’ or ‘left.’ It was a question of truth versus error; goodness verses crime and corruption.”*** pg 194
Hitler made many appeals to the struggling country’s desire to restore the glory of Germany. He used impassioned speeches to build up a vision of a racially superior Aryan population which deserved to take over power from the rest of Europe.
“We do not want any other god than Germany itself. It is essential to have fanatical faith and hope and love in and for Germany.” (As quoted in A History of National Socialism, Konrad Heiden, A. A. Knopf  p. 100)
“I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.” Adolf Hitler (https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/a/adolf_hitler.html)
Yet von Hildebrand saw that the solicitation of racism and of nationalism among Christians made no sense:
“Since his conversion, Dietrich had found it difficult to understand how people who have been privileged to receive the plenitude of revealed truth could be so tepid, so impressed by ‘public opinion,’ so infected by nationalism. To be a Catholic was, to his mind, to live in a continual state of gratitude for the unmerited gifts of faith, the sacraments, and the guidance of Holy Church. To be a Catholic meant to see ‘temporal events in the light of eternity.’ To be a Catholic meant to keep in mind a hierarchy of values – never to allow earthly concerns to overshadow the faith.
How could one be a nationalist when the Church was so gloriously supranationalist? Dietrich himself felt much closer to a pious and faithful Italian or Frenchman than to a German whose religious views were either crippled or non-existent.
Dietrich often gave expression to this grief, the intensity of which was to increase during the 1920’s. Discovering how many otherwise good people had been infected by totalitarian views (which they did not recognize as such), he decided to write a new work in order to shed light on the Catholic view of the relationship between the individual and the community. It was to develop into an important work, one on which Siegfried Hamburger collaborated closely – Metaphysics of Community. This book offered Germany an antidote to the poison spreading throughout the country, namely, the glorification of the state and the metaphysical denigration of the individual.”*** pg 226-7
Shortly after the publication of this book, Dietrich had the opportunity to speak at a conference. The title of his talk was, “Individual and Community.”
“It proved convincingly that any attempt to create community at the expense of the individual person was not only radically erroneous but would lead necessarily to a complete misunderstanding of the very nature of community.” It pointed to the horror of both anti-personalism and totalitarianism and to the incompatibility of these ideologies with Roman Catholicism. It unmasked errors rampant in certain Hegelian formulation that placed the state above the individual, and forcefully argued that the opposite is true. Not only does the individual – rather than the community – deserve to be called a ‘substance,’ in the fullest sense of the term, but only he has an immortal soul destined to an eternal union with God, whereas all human communities will one day disappear with the end of the world. On the other hand, Dietrich emphasized the dignity and value of a true community, thereby also condemning liberal individualism.”*** pg 228-9
of or relating to a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.*****
Just this past week, Dr. Mark Yarhouse, Professor of Psychology at Regent University posted on his Facebook page the following quote from the Epistle to Diognetus (written sometime between 130 A.D. and late 2nd c.), which contains a description of some of the earliest Christians:
“Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle….While they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.
They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are ‘in the flesh,’ but do not live ‘according to the flesh.’ They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.” (Chapter 5)
Nationalism puts false confines around who we are as followers of Christ. The Lord operates across all boundaries to reach into the lives of individuals – He respects no boarders. He is a supranational God. When we become Christians, we become inhabitants of a new Kingdom, and are expatriates from the very land on which we stand. We bring the “admittedly unusual character” of our own citizenship with us wherever we go.
John Mark Yeats, in his article “A Question of (Alt) Right and Wrong,” puts it this way in regards to racial divisions:
“But this concept is often missed by many in America. The Gospel destroys our broken and sinful concepts of race! Jesus’ victory on the cross ended the hostility between Jew/Greek, male/female, black/white/Hispanic/Asian. It doesn’t erase our ethnic heritage or unique attributes – this is not an ‘I don’t see race’ proclamation. Instead, it is a new vision that despite these differences, we are placed into a new family where we become one because of Christ.
Can you imagine the powerful image of a room full of people from every nation, every socio-economic bracket and every generation crying out to God? This is when we begin to defy expectations since there is no other reason for all of us to gather save for the shared hope we have in Christ! The early church recognized this reality and even referred to themselves as the ‘third race.’ They still came from places of difference, but willingly abandoned those cultural markers to embrace an identity in Christ Alone!”****
Alice von Hildebrand points out in her biography of Dietrich that, “Von Hildebrand always made a sharp distinction between ‘patriotism’ (a legitimate love for one’s country) and ‘nationalism’ (an illegitimate feeling – an expression of a person’s inflated ego.)”*** note on pg 241 He saw that the answer was not to disparage Germany, but to protect it from the abhorrent madness Hitler was rapidly bringing with his rise to power:
“[Dietrich and his new friend Klaus Dohrn]…saw that it [Nazi ideology] was waging war on what was best and noblest in Germany. Hitler was the country’s deadliest enemy. To love Germany and hate Hitlerism were two facets of the same thing. Both men agreed that a true German patriot had to do everything in his power to oppose this evil and liberate his country.”*** pg 251-2
Indeed, there is a place for patriotism, but it is a conception which thrives only when brought under the reign and authority of our eternal King and when we measure our country by the standard of His Kingdom. Without care, the fondness one has for their homeland can become misplaced worship. Tucked away in the conclusion to C.S. Lewis’ sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” is a reminder of the temporary nature of all countries:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, and civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals that we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, and no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence, which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat —the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”
C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” – First given at Oxford University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, June 8, 1941 (Emphasis mine.)
No earthly nation will achieve eternal redemption, and no civilization will surpass the Kingdom. Being a citizen of a good society will not save us, but the salvation found when we put our faith in Jesus will bring each of us into a transcendent Godly society that will never end.
***Alice von Hildebrand, The Soul of a Lion (page references in the text above)