Thursday, August 28, 2014

"Christianity has been progressively losing its hold on Western culture"

“THE whole spiritual inheritance of European civilization is based upon Christianity, and even today whatever there is of religious life and spiritual aspiration in the West still draws its vitality from Christian sources.

“Nevertheless it must be admitted that for centuries Christianity has been progressively losing its hold on Western culture, and both its doctrines and its moral ideals have fallen into discredit. The cause of this state of things lies deep in that process of humanization and rationalizing of Western culture which I described in the earlier parts of this essay. Ever since the Renaissance the centrifugal tendencies in our civilization have destroyed its spiritual unity and divided its spiritual forces. The Western mind has turned away from the contemplation of the absolute and the eternal to the knowledge of the particular and the contingent. It has made man the measure of all things and has sought to emancipate human life from its dependence on the supernatural. Instead of the whole intellectual and social order being subordinated to spiritual principles, every activity has declared its independence, and we see politics, economics, science and art organizing themselves as autonomous kingdoms which owe no allegiance to any higher power.”

~Christopher Dawson: Christianity and the New Age.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"The humiliation of humanity"

“WE have the paradox that at the beginning of the Renaissance, when the conquest of nature and the creation of modern science were still unrealized, man appears in godlike freedom with a sense of unbounded power and greatness; while at the end of the nineteenth century, when nature has been conquered and there seem no limits to the powers of science, man is once more conscious of his misery and weakness as the slave of material circumstance and physical appetite and death. Instead of the heroic exaltation of humanity which was characteristic of the naturalism of the Renaissance, we see the humiliation of humanity…. Man is stripped of his glory and freedom and left as a naked human animal shivering in an inhuman universe.”

~Christopher Dawson: Christianity and the New Age.

"Some sign of divine purpose"

“THERE are moments when the obscurity of history seems to be suddenly illuminated by some sign of divine purpose. There are moments of crisis in the literal sense of the word—times if judgment when the powers of this world are tried and condemned and when the course of history suddenly flows into a new channel. Such was the age of the Hebrew prophets, such was the age of St. Augustine, and such is the age in which we have the privilege and the misfortune to live today. For the present century has been an apocalyptic age—a time of judgment in which the established powers and authorities of the world have been put through the fire and destroyed or renewed, and when civilizations that have endured for thousands of years are being forced into a new mold.”

~Christopher Dawson: The Movement of World Revolution. (1959)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Challenge Of Secularism

IT is no accident that the introduction of universal compulsory state education has coincided in time and place with the secularization of modern culture.

Where the whole educational system has been dominated by a consciously anti-religious ideology, as in the Communist countries, the plight of Christianity is desperate, and even if there were no persecution of religion on the ecclesiastical level, there would be little hope of its survival after two or three generations of universal Communist education. Here however the totalitarian state is only completing the work that the liberal state began, for already in the nineteenth century the secularization of education and the exclusion of positive Christian teaching from the school formed an essential part of the program of almost all the progressive, liberal and socialist parties everywhere.

Unfortunately, while universal secular education is an infallible instrument for the secularization of culture, the existence of a free system of religious primary education is not sufficient to produce a Christian culture. We know only too well how little effect the Catholic school has on modern secular culture and how easily the latter can assimilate and absorb the products of our educational system. The modern Leviathan is such a formidable monster that he can swallow religious schools whole without suffering from indigestion.

But this is not the case with higher education. The only part of Leviathan that is vulnerable is his brain, which is small in comparison with his vast and armored bulk. If we could develop Christian higher education to a point at which it meets the attention of the average educated man in every field of thought and life, the situation would be radically changed.

In the literary world something of this kind has already happened. During my lifetime Catholicism has come back into English literature, so that the literary critic can no longer afford to ignore it. But the literary world is a very small one and it does not reflect public opinion to anything like the degree that it did in Victorian times. The trouble is that our modern secular culture is sub-literary as well as sub-religious. The forces that affect it are in the West the great commercialized amusement industries and in the East the forces of political propaganda. And I do not think that Christianity can ever compete with these forms of mass culture on their own ground. If it does so, it runs the danger of becoming commercialized and politicized and thus of sacrificing its own distinctive values. I believe that Christians stand to gain more in the long run by accepting their minority position and looking for quality rather than quantity.

This does not mean that Catholicism should become an esoteric religion for the learned and the privileged. The minority is a religious minority and it is to be found in every class and at every intellectual level. So it was in the days of primitive Christianity and so it has been ever since.

The difference is that today the intellectual factor has become more vital than it ever was in the past. The great obstacle to the conversion of the modern world is the belief that religion has no intellectual significance; that it may be good for morals and satisfying to man's emotional needs, but that there is no such thing as religious knowledge. The only true knowledge is concerned with material things and with the concrete realities of social and economic life.

This is a pre-theological difficulty, for it is impossible to teach men even the simplest theological truths, if they believe that the creeds and the catechism are nothing but words and that religious knowledge is not really knowledge at all. On the other hand, I do not believe that it is possible to clear the difficulty away by straight philosophical argument, since the general public is philosophically illiterate and modern philosophy is becoming an esoteric specialism.

The only remedy is religious education in the widest sense of the word. That is to say a general introduction to the world of religious truth and the higher forms of spiritual reality. By losing sight of this world, modern secular culture has become more grievously impoverished than even the non-Christian cultures, for those cultures agreed in recognizing the existence of a higher supernatural or divine world on which human life was dependent.

Now the Christian world of the past was exceptionally well provided with ways of access to spiritual realities. Christian culture was essentially a sacramental culture which embodied religious truth in visible and palpable forms: art and architecture; music and poetry and drama, philosophy and history were all used as channels for the communication of religious truth. Today all these channels have been closed by unbelief or choked by ignorance, so that Christianity has been deprived of its natural means of outward expression and communication.

It is the task of Christian education to recover these lost contacts and to restore contact between religion and modern society — between the world of spiritual reality and the world of social experience. Of course this is not what is usually meant by education, which is usually confined within the narrow limits of schools and examinations. But instruction cannot achieve much unless it has a culture behind it, and Catholic culture is essentially humanist in as much as there is nothing human which does not come within its sphere and which does not in some way belong to it.

Thus Christian culture is a very rich and wide culture: richer than modern secular culture, because it has a greater spiritual depth and is not confined to a single level of reality; and wider than any of the oriental religions because it is more catholic and many-sided. For the average modern man, however, it is more or less a lost world and one from which even the modern Catholic has been partially estranged by his secular environment and tradition.

Thus we have a double task, first to recover our own cultural inheritance and secondly to communicate it to a sub-religious or neo-pagan world. I do not believe the second of these is as difficult as it appears at first sight, because people are becoming more and more aware that something is lacking in their culture: and there are many who are still far from positive religious belief but who possess a good deal of intellectual curiosity about religion which may become the seed of something more.

But the other condition is more difficult to fulfill, for even the Catholic minority, which is conscious of its traditions has very few opportunities for the study of Catholic culture. On the one hand we have the highly specialized studies of the ecclesiastical seminary; on the other a wide range of university studies in which isolated scraps of Christian culture can be acquired through history and literature but which gives no opportunity for any general inclusive or synthetic study of Christian culture as such.

It seems to me that the time has come when the universities should consider whether it is not possible to do more for Christian studies. The Christian culture of the past was an organic whole. It was not confined to theology; it expressed itself also in philosophy and literature, in art and music, society and institutions; and none of these forms of expression can be understood completely unless they are seen in relation to the rest. But under existing conditions this is impossible. You can study some parts of the whole in detail but never the whole itself.

To understand the development of Christian culture it must be studied in all its three phases — Ancient, Medieval and Modern; Patristic, Scholastic and Humanist; Byzantine, Gothic and Baroque. At the most it is possible to study one of the first two parts of these triads in isolation from the rest, while the third cannot be studied at all. The result of this situation is that we tend to view Christian culture exclusively in one of its phases only. And the effect has been to narrow our whole conception of the subject so that we fail to see how it transcends the limitations of any particular age or social environment.

Of course it may be objected that the subject is too vast a field to be studied as a whole. But the same may be said more or less of any great culture — such as Hellenism or Islam or the civilization of China — yet in those cases any specialized study of the past must be accompanied by a general study of the whole.

It is true that Christians do not always recognize this. There are many, especially among the Protestants and the sectarians, who look on Christianity and culture as alien from one another and who regard the world of culture as part of "this world," the world that lies in darkness under the dominion of evil. In their extreme forms such views are irreconcilable with Catholicism. Nevertheless there is a kind of Catholic Puritanism, which separates itself as far as possible from secular culture and adopts an attitude of withdrawal and intransigency. Now this attitude of withdrawal is perfectly justified on Catholic principles. It is the spirit of the fathers of the desert and of the martyrs and confessors of the primitive Church. But it means that Christianity has become an underground movement and that the only place for Christian life and for Christian culture is in the desert and the catacombs. Under modern conditions, however, it may be questioned if such a withdrawal is possible. Today the desert no longer exists and the modern state exerts no less authority underground in the subway and the air raid shelter than it does on the earth and in the air. The totalitarian state — and perhaps the modern state in general — is not satisfied with passive obedience; it demands full cooperation from the cradle to the grave.

Consequently the challenge of secularism must be met on the cultural level, if it is to be met at all; and if Christians cannot assert their right to exist in the sphere of higher education, they will eventually be pushed, not only out of modern culture, but out of physical existence. That is already the issue in Communist countries, and it will become the issue here also, if we do not use our opportunities while we still have them. We are still living internally on the capital of the past and externally on the existence of a vague atmosphere of religious tolerance, which has already lost its justification in contemporary secular ideology. It is a precarious situation, which cannot be expected to endure indefinitely and we ought to make the most of it while it lasts.

I believe that it is the field of higher education that offers the greatest opportunities; first on the ground of economy of effort, because a comparatively small expenditure of time and money is likely to produce more decisive results than a much greater expenditure at a lower level. And secondly because this is the sphere where there is most freedom of action and where the tradition of intellectual and spiritual freedom is likely to survive longest. Moreover the need for action is especially urgent in this field, because the social changes of the last half-century have extinguished the old tradition of independent private scholarship to which historical studies owed so much in the past. Most of all, perhaps, was this tradition strong among Catholics, where men like Lingard and Acton and Edmund Bishop gave their lives to the study of Christian history and culture without academic position or economic reward. But today the disappearance of the leisure class makes this kind of unorganized individual scholarship impossible. Either the Church or the universities must carry on the tradition and make themselves responsible for the maintenance of studies in the culture of Christendom, or the work will not be done at all.

~Christopher Dawson: The Challenge Of Secularism (Catholic World, 1956).

Friday, August 15, 2014

"Technological culture"

“I think an entirely technological culture would be an entirely barbarous culture. No one believes that civilization can carry on without some element of higher spiritual culture….

“The coming of age of technology only makes the need for Christian culture (or some alternative religious or humanist culture) more imperative. Even if, per impossible, all the spiritual traditions of culture could be temporarily suppressed, it could only lead to a nihilist revolution which would destroy the technological order itself, as I have pointed out many times in my writings. Orwell’s 1984 is a good picture of a pure technological order and the only fault I find with it is that he seems to believe it is a possibility.”

~Christopher Dawson: Letter of Jan. 29, 1955. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

America and the Secularization of Modern Culture

The Annual B. K. Smith Lecture in History, University of Saint Thomas, Houston, TX. 1960.

THE SECULARIZATION of modern culture is a world wide phenomenon and in the most advanced societies it permeates the whole social structure and affects the life of the masses no less than the ruling element.  But it is not a uniform movement.  It takes at least two forms.  In the East, in Russia and China, it is linked with the aggressive intolerant ideology of Communism which is imposed by force and spread by organized propaganda.  In the West it is associated with democracy and the ideals of political and intellectual liberty.  No one is forced to be a secularist.  He is free—more or less free in the various countries—to follow his own religion or to adopt a purely secular philosophy of life.  Here there is no official ideology—at least in theory—although in practice, as we shall see, this is not altogether the case.

Nevertheless it was in the West that the process of secularization began and Western civilization was the creator of that technological order which is now the real basis of secular culture.  Indeed the Eastern development is due to a great extent to the imitation of Western technological culture and its violence and intolerance is partly due to its desire to “catch up with” the West and carry through in a generation the changes which took a century or more to develop in the West.

Where does America stand in this development?  America is the most Western of Western countries, and it is in America that the technological order has achieved its greatest triumphs.  In Europe the influence of the past is still strong and one is everywhere conscious of the existence of the pre-technological order, even though culture may seem to be completely secularized.  It is not until we come to America that we realize visually and experimentally what the technological civilization means in terms of human life.  No one from the Old World can land at New York without being immediately impressed by this spectacle of gigantic material power, and if one sees the city at night from the air, outlined in lights, it is almost more impressive.  There is nothing like it in Europe or I think anywhere else.  It seems to mark the coming of a new age and a new civilization.

Yet at the same time we cannot help being struck by a certain disproportion between means and ends.  For when one asks what is the real end for which all this majestic array of power exists, the answer is a disappointing one.  The towers and temples of Manhattan are just business offices, and the language of illuminated signs which make the nights of New York so brilliant only proclaim the quality of some commercial product.  This is so familiar to us that we take it for granted as the normal way of life.  But viewed in the perspective of history it is a very strange and surprising thing.  The ancient Egyptians built pyramids that were even greater than the skyscrapers of New York, in terms of human effort expended, but they were for the tombs of God-Kings.  The relatively poverty stricken peoples of medieval Europe erected vast cathedrals and abbeys, but these were the expression of their common faith and their hopes for eternity.  But to-day we build temples greater than the Egyptian pyramids or the Gothic Cathedrals and they are dedicated to toothpaste or chewing gum or anything that anyone wants, so long as enough people want it.

There is no denying that this is an impressive witness to the democratic character of the American way of life, but it is also a sign of the secular and materialistic values that dominate the new civilization.  We may congratulate ourselves that this expression of power is not subservient to the power of an autocrat or the absolute will of a totalitarian state, but to the service of the Common Man, but we cannot congratulate ourselves that the recognition of the Common Man has left no place for spiritual values or that all this power is devoted to our own material satisfaction—and not to the glory of God.

But is it right to identify this glorification of material values with the American way of life and to conclude that the civilization of modern America is essentially secularist?  There is surely something to be said for the other side.  It is true that the secularization of American culture is more obvious because it finds such a striking expression in the new technological forms while the inheritance of the past is not so easy to discover at first sight.  But American culture possesses a historical tradition of its own just as European culture does, and this tradition is also a Christian one.  It is certain that the founders of America had no intention of creating a secularist culture.  All of them—Catholics in Maryland, Anglicans in Virginia, Puritans in New England, and Quakers in Pennsylvania—were at one in their desire to create a Christian commonwealth.  Some came to escape persecution, some to find freedom for the social expression of their religious ideals, some just to find a better way of life for themselves and their families.  But whatever they left behind them in the Old World, it was not their religion.  They were conscious—sometimes too conscious—that they were planting a new Christendom in the New World, and even though we may regard some of them as narrow minded sectarians, we must admit that they valued their religion—which they regarded as the true Christian faith—beyond all earthly things, and made it the center of their lives.

And the same thing is true of the other colonial movements that contributed to the settlement of what is now the United States.  If the Spaniards came in search of gold, they also had a very genuine missionary or crusading ideal of extending the knowledge of the faith and the Kingdom of Christ, and if the French opened up the West from Canada in pursuit of the fur trade and the struggle for empire, they also were devoted Catholics who carried their religion with them wherever they went and spread the faith far and wide in the Western wilderness.

Thus everywhere throughout North America the influence of religion on society was strong and the New World was indeed a new Christendom.  But it was a Christendom without unity, which reproduced all the differences and divisions that existed in the churches and sects of Europe.  There was, however, one important difference, in Europe these sects were regarded as Dissenters or Nonconformists—i.e., departers from an established norm—whereas in America, they were the norm and each of them claimed full rights of citizenship in the societies that they helped to found.  Consequently, when the states achieved their independence and their federal union, there could be no question of any common religious establishment.  The freedom of religion and the strict abstention of the federal authority from any interference with the churches was an essential condition of the American political system and the American way of life.  This did not mean that religion was neglected.  In New England and Pennsylvania the church of the religious congregation was the center of the life of the community, and in the settlement of the West, the churches were the chief, and often the only, organs of culture.

But at the same time the new forms of religion that were characteristic of America in the early days of the 19th century had little direct influence on the new American civilization which was being built up then.  They represented an extremely individualistic type of Protestantism that was concerned, above all, with the individual conscience and the private experience of religious conversion.  Indeed, the religious history of this time is that of a series of great waves of religious emotion that were kindled by some new religious leader or some local revivalist movement and then died down again as quickly as they had arisen. 

Thus American religion was detached from the objective world which was the domain of business and politics and focused on the subjective world of religious feeling—above all the intense experience of religious conversion.  This, I believe, has left a permanent mark on the American mind, so that, as several Americans have remarked to me, they find some difficulty in relating the two concepts of religion and civilization since these seem to belong to two quite distinct orders of existence.  And hence the problem of the secularization of culture has not really been felt as an urgent one, since the two worlds of private religion and public social order do not touch one another.  This was a possible situation in the 19th century which was an age of individualism in which the family functioned as an independent social organism and where the function of the state was strictly confined to its own limited field, but with the coming of industrialism and the new technological order, it has gradually ceased to correspond with realities.  Our modern technological society has become so highly organized that it absorbs almost the whole life of the individual and controls his activities and even his thoughts.  It is becoming almost impossible for the individual to stand out against the mass pressure which makes for conformity.

We see the results of this most clearly in the totalitarian states, like Russia and China, where the organization of the mass society is deliberately planned from above, and where there is no room for liberty of the individual or any kind of spiritual freedom.  But the same forces are at work in the modern democratic state, though their action is milder and more benevolent.  For it is in the very nature of the technological order that there is no room for independent centers of action: everything has to be geared to one all-embracing system.  Education and science and technology, industry and business and government, all are coordinated with one another in a closed organization from which there is no escape.

Thus modern American civilization is faced with a dilemma.  It has gone further than any other Western society—in some ways, further even than the Eastern totalitarian states—in the creation of the technological order, so that there is nowhere in the world where a man has to conform more rigidly to a pattern of behavior imposed on him by impersonal mechanical forces than in a great American city.  To take a small example, consider the problem of parking and the way in which so much of the work of the police consists in serving tickets on delinquent citizens.  It is hard to realize that 150 years ago there were no police in London or, I suppose, in New York either.  And this increase of governmental regulation and decrease of individual freedom is to be found everywhere in small nations and in great ones.

But how is this tendency to be reconciled with the principle of individual liberty which is deeply embedded in American institutions and traditions?  This was the ruling principle which dominated every other consideration in the Declaration of Independence and the forming of the Constitution.  It was with this principal in mind that they separated the executive and legislative powers and set the judiciary above them both.  It was for this that they divided sovereignty itself between Federal and State governments.  Everywhere they tried to reduce government to a minimum and to leave the individual American free to carry on his own life in his own way.  Nothing was further from their minds than the creation of a vast centralized state like the U.S.A. in which the states are no more than provinces and the individual is no more than a subject, submitted to restrictions and regulations from the cradle to the grave.

No doubt this growth of centralized political power would have occurred in any case and has its own roots in American political history, but the fact that it has coincided with the growth of the technological order has brought them together into the same orbit and each has reinforced the other in the pressure that they exert on the life of the individual.  In either field the individual is powerless to resist the steady advance of organized power, which has nothing to do with men’s political opinions or their legal rights but is the necessary result of the growing complexity and specialization of the techniques themselves.

Modern Western man is like Frankenstein who created a mechanical monster which he became unable to control so that it came to threaten his life.  In the same way Western man has created the technological order, but he has not discovered how to control it.  It is beginning to control him; but if it does, there seems no way of preventing it from destroying him.

Our dilemma is most obvious in the new techniques of warfare.  These have become so efficient that they make the path to self destruction, mass destruction, and even world destruction, a short and easy one.  Yet the technological order offers us no techniques of international relations by which this might be avoided.

In the field of diplomacy and peace and international law, we still have to depend on the older humanistic techniques which are based on the assumption that man is a reasonable being, and consequently they are techniques that can only be applied in exceptionally favorable circumstances.  It is as though we were in a ship that was guaranteed to go ten times faster than any other, but which can only be navigated safely in a dead calm.

To-day the international waters are as calm as they are ever likely to be.  Yet there is a kind of war existing between Israel and the Arab Republic and between China and Formosa, and nearer home there is only the fragile protection of Senor Castro’s sanity standing in the way of a war between Cuba and the U.S.A.

We all realize in our rational moments that the world has become one community, yet all over the world the forces which make the strongest appeal are those racialist and nationalist movements that deny this principle and which would gladly sacrifice the rest of the world to the interests and passions of their paranoic group-consciousness.  And this applies also to the political ideologies that are non-racial, like Communism, at least in its Stalinist form.  Indeed one cannot find a more extreme example of this group paranoia than the extraordinary History of the Communist Party for which Stalin was personally responsible.

No doubt it will be said that these things are exceptional and that there is enough sanity in the world to master them, as it mastered Hitler’s paranoia though at what a cost!  Unfortunately there seems reason to believe that this disorder permeates the whole modern civilization and that it exists under the surface (or near the surface) on our society and in every society.  The more the technological order advances, and the greater the pressure it exerts on the individual, the stronger is the emotional reaction by which the forces that have been suppressed find release.  In the pre-technological order, the craftsman or the manual laborer tended to release their psychic tensions in the exercise of their work.  But in the technological order this is not so, the man who drives a truck or minds a machine has to subordinate himself to the discipline of the machine.  His emotions find no expression in his work, or if they do he is a bad workman.  They must find an outlet outside his working—his free time—occasionally by violent action, but more usually by the contemplation of the patterns of violent action that are provided by the mechanized industries that cater to this need.  But this is not a real solution.  It is only a temporary palliative, and the fundamental emotional needs remain unsatisfied.

But this problem is not only one for the manual worker.  It also affects the intellectuals and the specialists without whom the technological order could not be maintained.  They also suffer from a sense of frustration and take a gloomy view of the prospects of civilization.  But there is no need to develop this point, as you can study it for yourselves in current literature.

The fact is that a technological civilization which is devoted to purely secular and material ends inevitably tends to reduce man to an automaton by subjecting him to the dominion of vast impersonal forces.  Thus it contradicts not only the doctrines of personal liberty which inspired the creative period of American culture but also the more universal spiritual principles which are common to Western civilization as a whole.

This is clear enough to us when it is a case of a totalitarian state like the USSR, but in a democratic society it is much less obvious, since we are not the servants of an all powerful state, but are more or less free to choose our own jobs and to get a fair share of the increasing wealth that the technological order brings.  Consequently we hardly notice that the system is continually encroaching on our freedom and our leisure, so that eventually there may be no room for them at all.

But coming from Europe where the technological development is more backward, one is very conscious of the growing pressure that the system exerts on human nature.  It is true that in theory the system will provide an ever increasing margin of leisure.  But in practice one finds that this leisure is also submitted to technical organization so that the individual is made to conform to regulated patterns of leisure.  Moreover, though the technological order frees man from the old forms of manual labour, it exacts a much higher toll from his nervous energies.  The same process is at work all through the technological system—in the higher ranks of business management as well as lower down—everywhere the system exacts more and more from its human instruments.  And what is the use of even the highest financial rewards, if the recipient dies of over-tension when he is in his ‘50’s, and never attains the goal of leisured retirement?

And what is the end of it all?  In the totalitarian world the answer is clear—the state gains what the individual loses.  But in the democratic world the technological order is its own end—it is increasing all the time in scale and power but there is no final purpose which justifies this vast expenditure of energy.  Hence even on the lowest ground, it seems that there is an urgent need to protect the human personality against the pressure of these impersonal forces that threaten to enslave it.

But that is only the first step.  If democratic society is to survive the pressure of the technological order and the challenge of Communism and the other totalitarian ideologies, it is essential that Western civilization should recover a sense of spiritual purpose or spiritual order.  The technological order can only be made tolerable to human nature by being subordinated to some principle which is higher than individual profit or mass power.  But is this conceivable?  Does any such principle exist?

It certainly existed in the past.  For every great civilization that has ever existed recognized the existence of an objective spiritual order to which both the appetites of the individual and the power of the community or the state were subject.  This was true of Western civilization as a whole—of America no less than of Europe, for as I have pointed out earlier the American principle of the separation of Church and State in no sense implied a denial of the place of religion in American culture, but was designed to protect the freedom of religion from state interference or control.

But during the last hundred years this universal acceptance of a higher law or a transcendent spiritual principle has gradually been fading out of the public consciousness.  As the Protestant bishop of North West Germany, Dr. Lilje, was saying the other day at New York at the Union Theological Seminary, “the scenery for Christianity has changed in our times more deeply and more fundamentally than most church people realize.”  We do live, for all practical purposes, in a non-Christian world.  The term should be used in its precise meaning.  It is not an anti-Christian age—we live in a non-Christian period.  “The mentality of modern man is colored by an all pervading atheism—not anti-theism but non-theism.  There is just no more room for the concept of God and therefore none for the Christian faith.”

This is the ultimate issue for modern civilization—a question of life or death.  For I believe that it is only by the recovery of this lost spiritual element in our culture that we can make it strong enough to withstand the disintegrating and dehumanizing influences of technology.  And this alone can provide a principle of coordination which will preserve the balance between the liberty of the human personality and the impersonal regulation of the technological order. 

No doubt there are many who will say that it is impossible to recover this lost spiritual dimension of culture, that the progress of science which created the technological order has at the same time made the conception of a spiritual order inconceivable.   But this is a fallacy which was plausible enough in the 19th century, but which was then based on a philosophy which is no longer accepted.  The secularization of culture that actually occurred was due to the one-sided character of modern culture—to the fact that modern man has concentrated his attention on and directed his energy to the discovery and exploitation of a new world—the world of science and technology and has turned his face away from the spiritual world.  But as soon as he comes to realize—as he is doing today—that this one-sided development of culture has become a threat to its survival and is contrary to the real interests of man and society, there is nothing except habit and prejudice to prevent a return to the spiritual order.

No doubt it will require serious thought and continuous effort and the reeducation of public opinion.  But these are problems for the future.  At the present moment the important thing is to make people realize the predicament in which our modern civilization stands and the danger of allowing it to drift, leaving the mighty forces of technology undirected and uncontrolled.

In the past our civilization—and indeed every civilization that is known to us in history—has recognized the existence of a moral order which is derived not from conflicting individual interests or from the collective will of the state but from a higher spiritual order.  This great and ancient truth, as Edmund Burke wrote, is the ultimate foundation of human society, and no society which denies it or loses sight of it, can endure.

~Christopher Dawson

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Western Christendom and the new learning

WE have seen how, during the Dark Ages, the Western Mediterranean had been separated from Christian Europe and had been the centre of a brilliant cultural development derived from the Islamic East. And it was here, rather than in the crusading state of Syria and the Latin Empire of Constantinople, that the East and West came into contact with one another, and the vital process of cultural transmission and adaptation took place.

The process began in Southern Italy, where in the second half of the eleventh century an African monk of Monte Cassino, Constantine, initiated the work of translation, and the school of Salerno became a meeting-place of reek, Arabic and Jewish influences, at least in medical studies. But it was in Spain that the main work of translation took place, above all at Toledo, where the Archbishop, Raymond of Sauvetat (1126-51) established a school of translators which continued its activity through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, so that Toledo for a time became equal to Paris and Bologna as a factor in medieval culture. The scholars of Toledo not only translated into Latin the whole Aristotelian corpus in its Arabic form, they also produced versions of the principal works of the great Moslem and Jewish philosophers and men of science: Al Kindi, Al Farabi, Al Battani, Avicenna Ibn Gebirol and Al Ghazali. Finally there were the original thinkers, like Domingo Gonzalez, the Archdeacon of Segovia, who first attempted to make a new synthesis between the philosophy of Avicenna (itself a synthesis of the Aristotelian and Neo-platonic traditions), with the Augustinian tradition of Latin Christianity.

The most striking thing about this movement was its cosmopolitan character. Jews and Arabs and Greeks co-operated with Spaniards and Italians and Englishmen. Already at the beginning of the twelfth century an English scholar, Adelard of Bath, who had been educated in the cathedral schools of Northern France, was travelling in Spain, Southern Italy and the Near East and translating the works of Euclid and the ninth-century mathematicians and astronomers of Central Asia such as Al Khwarizmi and Abu Ma’shar of Balkh. To Adelard and his successors—the Italians Plato of Tivoli and Gerard of Cremona, and the Englishmen Robert of Chester, Daniel of Morley and Alfred of Sereschel—this was like the discovery of a new world, and they called on their compatriots to leave their elementary studies and their barren arguments, and set themselves to school with the Arabs and the ancient Greeks who alone possessed the genuine tradition of scientific and philosophic knowledge.

One might well have supposed that the Mohammedan and pagan origins of the new learning would have prevented its acceptance by Western Christendom, but in spite of the opposition of conservatives and the suspicions of the guardians of orthodoxy the new teaching made its way with remarkable rapidity into the rising universities, so that by the middle of the thirteenth century the works of Aristotle were being studied and commented and discussed at Paris and Oxford and Toulouse and Cologne.

At Paris the main effort of the numerous summas and commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard was directed to the interpretation of theology in terms of Aristotelian metaphysics and their mutual integration. At Oxford, on the other hand, under the influence of Robert Grosseteste and the Franciscan school, it was the scientific and mathematical aspects of the new learning that were most studied and gave the school at Oxford its original character.

Finally, the Aristotelian tradition was represented  in its purest and most uncompromising form by the teaching of the Spanish Moslem Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 11-26-98), whose works were translated after 1217 by Michael Scot (d. 1232), the court astrologer of Frederick II, and found enthusiastic disciples in Siger of Brabant and his followers in the university of Paris from 1270 to 1280, and at Bologna and Padua in the fourteenth century.

The result if this great influx of new knowledge and new ideas was to provide the universities and the international society of scholars and teachers who frequented them with the materials from which to construct a new intellectual synthesis. The dialecticians were no longer compelled to masticate and remasticate the old scholastic commonplaces. They had at last something solid to get their teeth into. And for a hundred years there was, in consequence, such a development of philosophical studies as the world had not seen since the great age of ancient Greece. The effect on the general culture may be seen in a unique form in the Divina Commedia of Dante, the great literary achievement of the Middle Ages, in which every aspect of life and every facet of personal and historic experience is illuminated by a metaphysical vision of the universe as an intelligible unity. And behind the Divina Commedia there is the work of St. Thomas and St. Albert and a hundred lesser men, all of them devoted to the building up of a great structure of thought in which every aspect of knowledge is co-ordinated and subordinated to the divine science—Theologia—the final transcendent end of every created intelligence.

The great interest in this synthesis is not its logical completeness, for that was to be found already in a rudimentary form in the traditional curriculum of the earlier medieval schools, but rather the way in which the mind of Western Christendom reconquered the lost world of Hellenic science and annexed the alien world of the Moslem thought without losing its spiritual continuity or its specifically religious values. No doubt all this was questioned by later critics of scholasticism, like Luther and his contemporaries who maintained that medieval philosophy had abandoned evangelical truth to follow Aristotle and the vain deceits of human wisdom. But in order to maintain this view they were compelled to push their condemnation further, and to condemn the whole traditions of Western Catholicism right back to the age of the Fathers.

But if we look at the development of Western Christendom as a whole, it is clear that the intellectual synthesis if the thirteenth century was not a contradiction but the crown and completion of centuries of continuous effort to achieve an integration of the religious doctrine of the Christian Church with the intellectual tradition of ancient culture. This aim was already set out in a rudimentary form by the encyclopaedists of the sixth and seventh centuries like Cassiodorus and Boethius and Isidore of Seville, but it was not completely achieved until the thirteenth century with the recovery of the full inheritance of Greek philosophy and science, with the creation of the new intellectual organs of Christendom—the university corporations and the Orders of Friars.

~Christopher Dawson: Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Chap. X. ‘The Medieval City: School and University.’

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

“Economic conquest and exploitation”

The following excerpt is from Christopher Dawson’s essay, The Evolution of the Modern City:

THUS it is useless to seek to understand the rise of the industrial city by looking for internal processes of development, such as we can find in the history of the Greek or mediaeval city. The new towns were not self-conscious and self-determining societies; they were the organs of a nationalist-imperialist movement in economic expansion. And as the great age of Roman imperial expansion brought with it the decay of the old municipal life and a terrible degradation of slave labour, so, too, the industrial movement in eighteenth-century England brought with it a similar deterioration, alike in the civic life of the town and in the status of the wage-labourer. The same spirit that manifested itself in the ruthless daring and harsh discipline of the eighteenth-century navy, caused the sacrifice of the amenities of life in the new cities to the national wealth. At the cost of two or three generations of pitiless toil on the part of the people, and of the demoniac energy on the part of the organizers and employers, England established her position as the work-shop of the world.

The true character of this movement has been obscured by the false diagnosis of the economists. For a century after Adam Smith, the preachers of Free Trade and laissez faire in industry gave a liberal and individualistic interpretation to a process which was essentially due to half a century of disciplined national effort. The economic freedom that English trade and industry had secured for themselves was not the abstract liberty of the eighteenth-century philosophers, it was the freedom of a young giant who strips himself of the armour of antiquated restrictions in order to wrestle more freely with his opponents. The real note of the period was not the liberty, but economic conquest and exploitation. England possessed an almost complete monopoly in the new industrial methods and her naval and mercantile power enabled her to find an opening for the new products in all the markets of the world—even in those of India and West Africa—while her potential rivals were still hampered by the old economic restrictions or by the pre-occupation of war and revolution. The economists failed to see that this advantage was essentially temporary. They attributed it to necessary working out of economic laws; and, as they believed in the providentially established harmony between individual gain and national welfare, it was natural for them also to suppose that the British industrial monopoly was ideally adapted to the true needs of humanity in general.

Finally, towards the middle of the nineteenth century, the new system achieved its consummation by revolution of the means of transport and communication and by the consequent realization in the practice of the economists’ ideal of the world market. This change, while bringing an enormous accession of force to the industrial movement generally, had a special importance in the development of the industrial city. All the ancient limitations in the size of a city were removed, and the last links that bound the industrial town to its rural environment were broken. The city now lived entirely for and by the world market. It drew its food from one continent, the raw materials for its industries from another, and exported the finished product, perhaps, to a third.

Thus it was no longer in any sense a part or servant of its own region, nor was it organized primarily as a place for its own citizens to live in. It was a cosmopolitan ergastulum for the production of wealth. The desire for gain, which was the creative force behind this new city-development, showed itself in every aspect of its life. Thus the interests alike of the producer and the consumer were subordinated to those of the middleman, the class of financiers, bankers, brokers and merchants, which represented the vital principle of this order in the same way that the knight and the ecclesiastic represented that of the mediaeval state. And the same spirit governed the actual construction of the industrial town: it was built neither for beauty nor for convenience, but for the immediate profit of the ground landlord and the speculative builder. The exploitation ethos, the spirit of Dickens’ Gradgrind and Matthew Arnold’s Mr. Bottles, was a very real force during the nineteenth century, and in its time it moulded civilization in England no less effectually than did the militarist ethos in Prussia.

The typical cities of the industrial age—the Lancashire cotton town of a century ago, the Pittsburgh or Chicago of the last generation or the new Russian factory towns of 1914—were like the great mining camps which grew up on the California and Australian goldfields; not cities, but fortuitous collections of individuals drawn together to exploit the new source of wealth, and one another, and living in chaotic disorder and discomfort without any thought beyond the gain of the moment. And, as the mining camps gave place in time to a comparatively settled and orderly town, so we can see the industrial order gradually passing into something different.        

Saturday, August 2, 2014

How sacred things were turned to sacrilegious account

“THREE forms of activity—the consecration of place, the consecration of work, and the consecration of the social bond itself—are the main channels through which religion finds social expression and acquires a sociological form….But our own culture…has been growing progressively more secular….The three main substitutes for religion in the modern age, Democracy, Socialism, and Nationalism…are each of them based on one of these fundamental errors. Democracy bases its appeal on the sacredness of the People—the consecration of Folk; socialism on the sacredness of Labour—the consecration of work; and nationalism on the sacredness of the Fatherland—the consecration of Place. These concepts still arouse a genuinely religious emotion, though the emotion has no basis transcendent in religious values or sanctions. It is a religious emotion divorced from religious belief. Social activities are…as it were consecrated to themselves and elevated into substitutes for the ends to which they were formerly subjected.”

~Christopher Dawson: Prevision in Religion.   

Christopher Dawson: The Historian of the Twentieth Century

by Bradley J. Birzer

Looking back over the vast ruins and wastelands of the twentieth-century, one can find many exemplars of the human condition, many of them devout Roman Catholics who understood clearly that when man forgets God, the killing fields begin. One of the most important Roman Catholic converts of the past century, Christopher Dawson, may have been arguably THE historian of the twentieth century. While the claim may at first seem extreme, there is every reason to at least make him a viable contender.

Reared in an upper middle-class Protestant family, Mr. Dawson first learned to respect the Roman Catholic church from his father, an open-minded and intellectually-oriented British army officer. Other important influences on Mr. Dawson’s eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism were St. Augustine, from whom Mr. Dawson derived many of his most original thoughts, John Henry Newman, the lives of the saints and mystics, his wife (a cradle Catholic), and his closest friend, E.I. Watkin. Perhaps equally important, on Easter 1909, Mr. Dawson had a profound religious experience while visiting, of all places, Rome.

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