The former Ambassador to Russia and former chairman of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff was asked to keynote the recent undergraduate conference “Christianity Re-examined” with a statement of his personal beliefs. This was his reply:

When Mr. Kennan delivered the keynote address in December opening the annual Christian conference eon the relevance of religious belief to problems of everyday living, his remarks were specifically off the record. Undergraduate response was so enthusiastic that Mr. Kennan reconsidered, and the Weekly publishes his address now in only slightly shortened form.

There is no heavier question that you can put to a man in middle age in our troubled time than to ask him what he really believes; but it is a fair question, and deserves answer whenever it is respectfully placed, particularly when it is placed by the younger to the older. It is, in fact, very good for people to be asked this and to be compelled to search their hearts about the answer.

A complete answer is, I fear, impossible. The question strikes to the heart of one’s entire philosophy of life. Very few of us would be able to state our entire philosophy of life in any direct form and particularly not in fifty minutes. In my own case – and I suspect in many others – it is an example of what some one once said: “We have chaos, but not enough to make a world.”

I am, as you probably know, a Christian – even a Presbyterian. If you ask me why I am, and mean by that that you expect me to give you a rational argument for my Christian belief, I must disappoint you. Reason is, of course, a noble human faculty; and when it is combined with a sense of conscience, with sympathy for other people, and with a feeling for the tragedy and comedy of life, it becomes one of the means by which men transcend themselves and lend greatness to the human spirit. But it is not the only noble quality of man, nor necessarily the most noble of his qualities. In any case, it does not seem to me that reason alone is adequate as a source of man’s understanding of his relationship to himself and to the cosmos. If man were only a spectator at the unfolding of human history, reason might be sufficient to this purpose. But man, you must remember, is both a participant and an observer – an actor as well as part of the audience. What is involved here is not just the detached examination of an external phenomenon: what is involved is in part the understanding of self; and where that is involved, qualities other than just the faculty for rational thought have to play a part – such things as will and courage and the capacity for skepticism about one’s self and, above all, the sense of humor.

And so, if you ask me why I am a Christian, I can only reply by pointing to one or two things that I would classify as facts rather than arguments.

The first of these is that I am conscious of what the Christian religion has meant to the civilization of which I am a part…The second is simply this: that I, like a great many other people, am susceptible to feelings of sympathy and affection and concern for a number of other people. I believe that whoever has this susceptibility stands, whether he knows it or not, within the field of relevance of the Christian faith. Whoever is so constituted that he cannot help but put himself at times outside of himself, cannot help but share in the trials and experiences of other people and feel for them and suffer for them in those trials and experiences, is to that extent, whether consciously or otherwise, following in the Judaic-Christian tradition.

Now before I speak of the relevance of these things to some of our problems of everyday life, I should like to indicate to you what seem to me to be certain extremely important realities about man’s condition on this planet. We all know that we human beings, whatever virtues and elevation of spirit we may be able to show on occasion, do have an animalistic background which is an indispensable and important component of our nature. We cannot free ourselves wholly from this background. We all have bodies, with their inevitable and uninspiring physical needs. Not only that, but – as modern psychology has brilliantly demonstrated – we all have a subconscious emotional makeup that was apparently developed for the purpose of guiding and protecting us in the fierce competition of savage existence, and has now clung to us as a sort of an atavistic appendage. It has been in many ways both disciplined and repressed, but by no means tamed, by man’s long experience in civilization. What between these demands of the body and the fierce protective egoism of our subconscious emotional selves (and the two are very closely allied, almost to the point of identity), we are all of us afflicted by a sort of built-in selfishness, an instinct of self-protection and self-advancement, an instinct essentially primitive and chaotic in nature, and one that fits ill with the restraints of civilization. This is what Reinhold Niebuhr has aptly called the egoistic corruption of man’s freedom. Whatever may be the moral possibilities of the human mind and spirit, they are always associated in the human individual with a physical and emotional constitution beholden to two great laws of nature: the law of survival and the law of the propagation of the species. Man’s most powerful instincts derive from these two laws. I believe that this is essentially what is involved in the ancient Christian concept of “original sin”; and when I speak of these limitations under which man suffers, those of you who are accustomed to this religious usage can, if you like, substitute that term to understand my meaning.

The Tragic Conflict

It must never be forgotten that this inner nature of man has always been, is today, and presumably will continue to be for many ages, in a state of conflict with his effort to lead a highly organized and civilized social existence. This conflict is really of a tragic nature, which does not mean that it cannot be quite comical at times – on the contrary, comedy is usually only tragedy as seen from a distance or tragedy in its less fateful forms. This conflict is tragic in the sense that it is profound and incurable – incurable, at least, in terms of our own time and our own capabilities. It pervades all of man’s relations with other people, personal as well as social and political. It produces the classic elements of conflict in personal relationships: the love-hate complexes, the jealousies, the aggressiveness, the constant association of intimacy with antagonism. It twists and corrupts political life. And in this way, man’s activities here on earth become always subject to a peculiar sort of strain and difficulty, flowing from his own dual nature – a condition from which he cannot hope wholly to free himself. Sigmund Freud gave to one of his books the title “Das Unbehagen in der Kultur,” which I might translate as “The Discomfort of Man in the Civilized Context.” This title is exactly what I have in mind. In attempting to lead the civilized life, in attempting to act according to principles that take into account the interests of other people as well as of his individual self, man is pitting his mind and will against the other side of his nature – and by so doing he is making of himself, his soul and his physical frame, the battleground of conflicting forces. By the violence of this battle, sweeping back and forth across his personality, he himself is being constantly to some degree battered and devastated, sometimes crushed and defeated, sometimes immensely refined and ennobled…

I stress these observations, and they may seem to you to be rather gloomy ones, because to me they have some bearing on the relevance of the Christian faith to the problems of secular life. I think, you see, that Christ, in teaching as He did, must have had in mind these things I’ve been talking about, though He saw them with a clarity far greater than we ourselves can muster. I think He was sorry for man in this plight, had compassion for him in all his bewilderments and dilemmas. I think He realized that man would not only never be able to save himself and emerge successfully from this struggle with his own nature, but would actually end up by destroying his environment and himself, unless he could be taught to see himself and other men as Christ saw them – that is, with understanding and pity and compassion. The essence of Christ’s teaching, to me, lies in the realization that man is not going to “solve” these dilemmas I have been talking about – that is, he will never wholly resolve the conflicts within his own makeup, never produce the wholly uncomplicated human being or the perfect human society, but that he can learn to live tolerably with himself and his problems and with other people, and can even elevate the human experience to a new and more hopeful plane, in the degree that he is able to overshadow his own selfishness by learning to feel for others, to take responsibility for them, to acknowledge toward them the obligation of father to son, as illustrated in the Christian example. Christ, in other words, realized that man must learn to become a father to himself, a father to his species, if this conflict between nature and spirit was not finally to end in disaster to the human race. He saw man’s hell, as we see it today, in the denial of Christian love; and He saw man’s possible redemption, and has taught us to see it, in man’s ability to experience the feeling of sympathy and concern for those around him.

To me, the relevance of the Christian faith to the life we lead flows largely from these reflections. Let us take first the field of personal life. A multitude of problems are involved here. Let me mention only what seem to me to be the leading ones – all of them ones involving our relations with other people.

I put first the sexual urge, because I suspect it to be the greatest single source of personal discomfort and trouble in our civilization. I am speaking of it here first as a physical phenomenon, leaving aside for the moment the emotional and romantic overtones. Of all the facets of man’s physical nature, none, it seems to me, is harder to reconcile with the discipline of civilized life than the sexual instinct. It is essentially selfish and anarchic. It knows no law but that of the prolific multiplication of the species. Allowed to run completely uncurbed, it not only has consequences irritating and burdensome to society (I am thinking of course of children for whom there is no adequate framework of parental responsibility) but it can easily lead to various forms of degradation, brutality, demoralization, and even decadence. Yet if it is curbed too drastically and unwisely, it can produce emotional and psychic disturbances in the individual that can also be quite troublesome both for the individual and for society.

The Sin of Intolerance

Now, I hope that nobody will think that in making the observations I am about to make I am exhorting the student body to immorality. I can assure you that there will be room enough for virtue and self-denial even under my philosophy. But I would like to say that I think we Protestant Christians have had, over the centuries, a tendency to relate the concept of sin too exclusively to what we have conceived to be sexual derelictions and to forget that there are other transgressions of Christian duty that may be no less unsightly, and perhaps much more important, in the eyes of God. I suspect that the Biblical injunctions about these matters, drawn up as they were for a Levantine society of the early Christian or pre-Christian era, may not be wholly relevant to our own society, where the organization of family life (and particularly the position of women) is so different. I suspect that in applying these Biblical criteria to our own lives, there is room for a certain extremely cautious but reasonable adaptability, designed to retain their spirit, their wisdom, their immense disciplinary value, but not to distort their meaning by relating them literally to situations that could never have been envisaged when they were first evolved.

It is not that I don’t think that there are important obligations that rest upon us individually in the matters of sex. I am persuaded that there are. I think that precisely because these matters are tremendously delicate and often painful, with great possibilities for mischief and misunderstanding, it is incumbent upon us to make a particular effort, in dealing with them, not to bring needless suffering to other people. I say needless, because I fear that some suffering and strain is almost inevitably involved in the sexual relationship – if only because of the different needs of men and women and the different ways that such a relationship affects the external aspects of their lives. Similarly, we have an obligation not to do violence to people, and particularly in the case of young people, not to debauch them or to bring emotional disorientation and demoralization into their lives. Finally, we have an important obligation to ourselves. We owe it to ourselves, and to those who care for us, not to mess up our own lives more than we need to, not to dissipate our physical and emotional strength, not to detract from our own ability to contribute to the life around us.

But once these rather obvious obligations have been recognized and given their due, it seems to me that the greatest sin to which Christians are susceptible in questions of sex is really the sin of intolerance and lack of charity. Whoever makes other people’s personal problems more bitter and more hopeless by forgetting the cruelty of the conflict and by holding those people up to ignominy and censure for their failures and stumblings – he, in my opinion, is the man whose conscience should really burn him. He is the man who has the most to fear for the safety of his soul. He is guilty of the deadly sin of pride, and I suspect that there is none deadlier in the eyes of our Maker.

The Holier-than-Thous

In these obscure problems of sexual life, which are all the more anguished in most cases because of the difficulty of discussing them with others, few of us indeed ever find a real or perfect solution. In the idealized and stereotyped vision of American life that flows from our mass media, from the cover pictures of great popular magazines, the American male knows only one sexual object in life, namely the female with whom, at an appropriate age, he falls romantically and delightfully in love, whom he then marries and with whom he lives happily ever after. At no other time does the rude and indelicate impulse of sex assail him; or if it does, then he is somehow reprehensible and to be blamed. Really, gentlemen, when you think of this preposterous mythology you ask yourself: “How silly can people get?” In any case, you can look around you, among those of us who are your elders and your teachers, and I think you will not find one in a thousand of us who has met these touching and idyllic standards. And for this reason I think we do ourselves and those around us a great injustice by permitting ourselves to feel that unless we have found some total and perfect solution, fully compatible with the “American dream,” we have in some way failed. What is important is not that life should be without conflicts. What is important is that each of us should learn to live satisfactorily with this problem, striving always for balance and maturity, avoiding the dissipation of his physical and emotional powers, contriving to bring as little as possible of pain and tragedy into other people’s lives, making the compromises that have to be made, learning to bear with dignity whatever humiliations and limitations of freedom these compromises may involve, and avoiding – above all – the sin of intolerance. Let us, for the love of God, keep out of the ranks of the finger-pointing holier-than-thous – the people who sublimate their own sex urge in the peculiarly nasty and sadistic practice of snooping on others and exploiting the failures and embarrassments of others in this most excruciating and difficult of problems. In particular, let us not fall into the sort of immature philistinism that seems to have taken possession of our Government in its latter-day preoccupation with the morals of the public servant. What has gone on in Washington in these recent months int his regard has brought the greatest dismay and disgust to many of us older civil servants, not only because it seems to rest on a very faulty understanding of human nature, but because it implies the existence in our midst of a race of angels, disguised as security officers, equipped to pass judgment on the sinful remainder of mankind. Surely, nothing could be more un-Christian than this.

Now I have spoken of sex here primarily in its physical aspects. It would be a great mistake to leave it there.

Precisely because it does involve instincts so violent, because it is so replete with possibilities for conflict and anguish, the sexual association can be a healthy and adjusted and reasonably enduring one only where there is a relationship of real friendship and confidence and affection between the parties concerned. Where these things are absent, it soon turns to hatred and cynicism and exploitation. For that reason the most important requirements for a reasonably successful life in this respect are precisely the qualities that lend happiness and richness to human associations in general: namely, the gift for personal intimacy, the ability to feel real friendship and devotion to other people…

In the Land, a Great Evil

I have spoken at length about personal life and I have little time left for the application of religious belief to public life. But I think you will find operable here some of the same principles that I have just mentioned.

This is not an easy time to talk about our public life, and particularly not for a person in my position. Many of us have come a long way from the day when we could have certainty about political questions, when we could feel sure that America had the best of all possible political institutions, when we could believe that we in this country had discovered the secret of human progress. For many of us, these are profoundly troubled times, and I would be doing you no service if I attempted to conceal from you how seriously I view what is going on before us in this country at this time. In my opinion, there is a real evil abroad in this land – an evil so great that it casts a certain shadow over all the hopes that men have held over the decades for this American society and tis role in world history. We are confronted today with so frightening an ignorance, with political ambitions so ruthless and reckless, with a view of human affairs so shallow and childish, above all with an intolerance so savage, that I cannot be complacent either about the causes or the effects of these phenomena. What is involved here is not just the demagoguery of individual politicians. What is important is the echo they produce in broad masses of the American public. And I find it insufficient to explain this tolerantly by saying that our people are impatient with the present frustrations in foreign affairs, or that many of them consider themselves to have been betrayed by FDR and the New Deal, and this is the revenge. These things all have substance, but behind these reactions there lies a more serious bewilderment and a forgetfulness. These symptoms could only have been occasioned by deep deficiencies in educational preparation and environmental influence, by a failure on the part of many people to understand the first principles of the American society to which they belong, by a failure to react truly and alertly to tendencies incompatible with these principles.

All this being the case, I cannot encourage you to pour your enthusiasm uncritically into the vessel of public life, any more than I have encouraged you to pour it uncritically into the possibilities for personal happiness. But lest you think that for this reason I am expounding to you a pessimistic and hopeless philosophy, I hasten to add that I do not think any of this means that life is lacking in worthwhile purposes or possibilities, or that it should be faced in any other way than with confidence and good humor. I have simply told you where I think you should not look for certain sorts of satisfaction and self-fulfillment. Now let me tell you some of the places where I think you might find these things.

First of all, there is the extraordinary phenomenon of life that we call beauty. Don’t underrate it. Don’t underrate what it means for us all. I am not speaking here only of esthetics. I don’t mean just sitting in an armchair and listening to symphonies on the record player or just going to museums to see pictures that somebody else painted. I mean these things; but in addition to them I mean the possibility of actual participation in the creation of beauty, and all the excitement and sense of satisfaction that comes with it. If you have ever built things with your hands that had – or seemed to you to have – enduring value to yourself and perhaps to others, either for their beauty or their utility (and the two things are usually closely connected), you will know what I mean. I know of no satisfaction in this life more solid than the feeling that you, by your efforts, have left the cultural fund of this world a little richer, or its physical equipment a little more attractive and dignified and useful, than when you found it. This applies no less to science and scholarship than to art. An increase in human understanding is a form of creativeness, and even – in its way – of beauty; and it brings the same sort of satisfaction to the creator.

Next to that, and again closely connected with it, there is the possibility of association with nature…I attach such great importance to this question of our relation to nature that if you were to ask me to expound to you my own political philosophy – that is, what schemes and purposes might usefully be pursued by political society – I would be inclined to talk to you about the relationship between man and nature, between human activity and natural resources, and I might detail to you a dream of a civilization in which there would be no dreary urban deserts, no wastes of stone and steel and dust and filth, no people living and working day in and day out in cubicles of concrete and metal, no over-population, no desolation and plundering of natural resources, no individual human life that did not stand in close association with the plants and animals to whose world we still in part belong. I suspect that this animalistic nature of ours that I talked about earlier is uglier and more problematical for us all for the very reason that we have removed it so far from its own natural environment. I suspect that we would all be healthier and better people if we resided closer to the mysteries of nature, if again we were conscious of the moon and the stars and the passing of the seasons, if again we were privileged to observe around us, as the farmer of the woodsman does, the miracle of growth and the wonderfully cheerful and healthy and innocent way in which the primitive animal accepts the realities of life and death. I have less confidence in a society that has removed itself too far from all these things. I would like to see a political program dedicated not to winning the dubious emoluments of political office for one group or another of professional politicians over a period of a few years, but dedicated to the overcoming of the disease of urbanism. It is a disease marked by the greedy, reckless consumption of our natural resources and the devastation of our natural environment, and its evils seem to me to be far more important than those of industrialization itself.

A Socratic Mean

Finally, I would point out to you what I might call the dialectic nature of all pleasure and satisfaction in this world of ours. By that I mean the fact that pleasure exists only by way of contrast to pain. Enjoyment consists only in the overcoming of tension in some way or another. It is unthinkable without the tension that had to be overcome. The pleasures of eating come only from hunger. Water is enjoyable only when there is thirst. Warmth becomes a luxury only when you have been cold. And so throughout life, the sense of achievement and satisfaction is unthinkable without the obstacles that are to be overcome.

From this standpoint, I think there is a certain richness to be derived in life from the preservation of a proper balance between the demands one permits to be placed upon one’s self and the possibilities that one has of reacting to them. If these things are well adjusted, life will be found to have meaning and to be worth living. If they are poorly adjusted, it may not. If we surfeit ourselves with indulgence of the physical appetites, we soon enjoy nothing. If, on the other hand, like the ancient ascetics, we mortify the flesh to the point where its desires are never really satisfied, we are equally poor.

The same applies in the realm of the spirit. It is terribly important that we should not ask too much or too little of ourselves. It may be good to say, from the standpoint of civic rights and obligations, that all men are created equal; but in the intimate sense of the ability of people to react to life, to contribute to the world around them and to absorb from it, this is nonsense. Everyone of us is different. Everyone of us has his own peculiar talents and capabilities. For everyone of us, there were things we were meant to do, and things we would be well advised not to try to do.

What is important to us, I think, and to that sort of satisfaction in the experience of life which we misleadingly call human happiness, is not whether our talents are great or small, whether we have much to contribute or little to contribute in the eyes of society. What is important is that we should recognize our possibilities, whatever they are, for what they are, and should live them out to the full. It is good that each of us should ask himself from time to time what he was put on this earth for, what sort of contribution he was supposed to make, what his value was supposed to be in the table of human abilities. He should then remember that whether that value is great or small in human eyes, it is no greater or no smaller than any other value in the eyes of God because it is only relative to himself and his talents. And the question that he has to answer to his God, as a religious man, is only whether he has met that value and realized it to the best of his abilities.

And therefore the only real word of counsel I would like to leave with you (and it is one in the truth of which I earnestly and fully believe) is that whatever you do, whether it be in personal life or in public life or in your creative effort, make sure that you are not being something less than yourselves. And having made sure of that, do not spend too much time brooding about whether life is worthwhile. You might forget to live it. And that, I promise you, would be a shame.

This was originally published in the February 12, 1954 issue of PAW.