Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"The dogmas of theology"

“NO doubt it is not easy for modern man to grasp the relevance of Christian principles to modern needs. The Church speaks a different language to that of the modern world, which has lost the very idea of theology. We must face the fact that the world of the Bible and the Fathers, and the dogmas of theology have become a dead language to the majority of men today. And this means that the great fundamental realities—the truths on which everything depends and which are more real than the things we see and touch—are dismissed as words, mere pious formulas that have no relevance to modern life.

“Even from an external and superficial standpoint, it would be a mistake to allow a difficulty of this kind to prevent the comprehension of principles and ideas that have a real bearing on the fundamental issues of our time.”

~Christopher Dawson: in The Judgment of the Nations, Part II, Chap. 2—Christian Social Principles.

Theology (ceiling tondo), by Raffaelo Sanzio.
Fresco, 1509-11; Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican.

The Natural Moral Law

The Law of Nature

WHAT ARE the main principles on which the Christian conception of social order is bound? In the first place there is the principle of the dependence of human life and human society on the Divine order: the idea of a Law of Nature by which all reasonable beings participate in the eternal Reason, the source and bond of the whole cosmic order.

This is a very old idea—so old that it has been treated as a universally accepted principle by lawyers and philosophers and theologians since the beginnings of our civilization. Nevertheless, it is challenged today in a very direct and radical fashion, and it may well be argued that this challenge is the fundamental moral issue of the present war. For the whole Nazi system with its exaltation of lawlessness and successful aggression, its assertion of the rights of the strong at the expense of the weak, and its cynical contempt for international law and treaties, is the denial of the traditional Western conception of Natural Law and is the expression of a diametrically opposite theory.

According to this view law is a political act which merely expresses the will of the community or the state. The state’s will is law, and since the state wills its own self-preservation and its own advantage, the law is not based on “justice” but on the will to power and the will to live. And so we get another “law of nature,” a law which is non-moral because it is the expression of the same irrational life force which makes the wild beasts devour one another and insects thrive on the suffering and destruction of higher organisms.

Everything therefore depends on whether we believe in the existence of a spiritual order of which man is naturally conscious by his knowledge of good and evil, or whether the world runs blind, driven by irrational forces which man must serve if he is to survive.

According to the first alternative it is clear that states and nations no less than individuals are bound by a higher law than self-interest and self-preservation. There is an eternal law that governs all things and is, as it were, the reason of the universe. In this order man participates consciously in so far as he is a rational and moral being, and it is the source from which all human laws derive their ultimate sanction. As St. Augustine says in a famous passage in “The City of God,” “Since God from Whom is all being, form and order has left neither Heaven nor Earth, nor angel nor man, nor the lowest creatures, neither the bird’s feather, nor the flower of the grass nor the leaf of the tree without its due harmony of parts, and without, as it were, a certain peace, it cannot be believed that He should have willed the Kingdoms of men and their government and subjection to be outside the laws of His Providence.”

It is true that St. Augustine recognized only too clearly that man’s history is a black record, and that even the relative peace and order that had been conferred on the ancient world by the Roman Empire had been purchased only by a vast expenditure of blood and human suffering. The empire was, in fact, not the creation of justice, but of the will to power. Nevertheless, in so far as it was not satisfied with power alone, but aspired to rule by law, it recognized the principle of justice which implies the existence of moral principles and of the eternal laws on which they are based.

This is the meaning of Natural Law in the traditional Catholic sense. It is a very simple doctrine since it merely asserts—to use the words of St. Thomas—that “there is in men a certain natural law, which is a participation of the eternal law by which men discern good and evil.” Without this power of moral discernment man would not be a reasonable being. But this does not mean that it provides a ready-made code of rules which everyone everywhere admits. The moral sense varies according to the measure of the understanding, and differences of education and culture and character affect the one no less than the other. Hence St. Thomas admits that the Natural Law may be obscured or perverted by social causes; as an example he quotes Caesar on the Germans who did not “regard robbery as unjust so long as it was carried on outside the frontiers of the State, but rather as a laudable form of youth activity.” (Caesar De Bello Gallico, VI. 25.) But although man’s moral consciousness is limited and conditioned by social factors it is never entirely extinguished; just as man remains a rational being even in a state of barbarism which seems to the civilized man to be little higher than that of an animal. And as every man by his reason has some knowledge of truth, so every man by nature has some knowledge of good and evil, which makes it possible for him to adhere to or deviate from the universal order.

As I said in the beginning, this idea of Natural Law is so fundamental that it was accepted as a self-evident truth by theologians and lawyers alike from the period of the Roman Empire down to modern times. Thus Cicero bases his whole theory of law on the doctrine that human law is nothing but the application of a law which is founded on nature and on the eternal law of God, and which is no more affected by the will of the rulers, the decisions of judges, the will of the people, than is the course of nature. In the same way, 1800 years later Blackstone, the embodiment of English legal traditionalism and commonsense, declares that the “law of nature being coeval with mankind and dictated by God Himself is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding all over the globe in all countries and at all times; no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this.” (Introduction to the Commentaries)

How did this sacred and secular tradition come to be abandoned—by the modern world? Its enemies come from very different camps, yet their agreement on this issue is something more than an accident and corresponds to a very deep cleavage in European thought. On the one hand, it had its origin in one element of Protestant and specifically Lutheran thought, i.e. the doctrine of the total depravity of human nature and the dualism, or, rather, contradiction of Nature and Grace which leaves the former a helpless prey to the powers of evil, until it is rescued by the violent irruption of divine grace. The effect of this dualism is to divorce the moral law from religion, so that it possesses a purely temporal value. As Luther puts it, the law belongs to the earth, the Gospel belongs to heaven, and they are to be kept as far separate as possible. “In civil government we must most rigidly exact and observe obedience to the law, and in that department we must know nothing either of gospel or conscience or grace or forgiveness of sins, or even of Christ himself; but we must know only how to speak of Moses, the law and works. Thus both things, to wit, the Law and the Gospel are to be severed as far as possible one from the other and each is to remain in the separate place to which it appertains. The Law is to remain out of heaven, that is to say, out of the heart and the conscience; on the other hand, the freedom of the Gospel is to remain out of the world, that is to say, out of the body and its members.” (Commentary on Galatians)

The profound pessimism of Luther saw in Nature nothing but the kingdom of death and the Law of Nature as a law of wrath and punishment, and thus his extreme supernaturalism prepared the way for the secularization of the world and the abolition of objective standards.

But the revolt against Natural Law did not only spring from the otherworldliness of Luther and the Reformers. It found an even more powerful support in the worldliness of the Renaissance statesmen and thinkers. Already before the Reformation Machiavelli had produced his Intelligent Man’s Guide to Politics which studies the art of government as a non-moral technique for the acquisition of maintenance of power, thus depriving the state of its religious character as the temporal organ of divine justice and making the interests of the state the supreme law by which all political acts must be judged. This is the source of the “new jurisprudence” which took the place of the common law of Christendom and which as Leo XIII explained in his political encyclicals (e.g. Immortale Dei, and Libertas Praestantissimum)  undermined the moral foundations of Western civilization.

It leaves no room for the consecration of the state to God which is so solemnly and sacramentally expressed by the traditional rite of the coronation of Christian kings. On the contrary, it involved the secularization of the state and the desecration of law and authority. By emancipating the prince from subordination to a higher order, it destroyed both the principle of order and the principle of freedom in the state itself.

This false political realism which denies or ignores spiritual realities is no less fatal to the Christian tradition and no less destructive of Christendom as a social reality than was the false spiritualism of Luther. Indeed, its influence has been wider and deeper, since it has not been restricted to certain countries and peoples, but has influenced the thought of Catholics and Protestants alike, and has grown stronger with the progressive secularizing of our civilization. The thought of Luther belongs to a different world from that in which we live; he was still a man of the Middle Ages, though he was in revolt against medieval Catholicism. But the thought of Machiavelli is still alive in the modern world and finds expression in the words and deeds of modern politicians and dictators. As Pius XII writes in his Encyclical “Darkness over the Earth,” “Today the false views held in earlier times have been amalgamated with new invention and misconception of the human mind. And this perverse process has been pushed so far that nothing is left but confusion and disorder. One leading mistake we may single out as the fountain head, deeply hidden, from which the evils of the modern State itself and, moreover, in the mutual relations of State with State and country with country, the one universal standard of morality is set aside, by which we mean the Natural Law, now buried away under a mass of destructive criticism and neglect.”

~Christopher Dawson: in The Judgment of the Nations.

The Coming of Christ

IN the ancient world its faith in a holy society and in a historical process of redemption distinguished Christianity from all religious rivals and gave it the militant and unyielding quality that enabled it to triumph in its struggle with secular civilization. But this is not sufficient to explain its religious appeal. IN addition to the social and historical side of its teaching, Christianity also brought a new doctrine of God and a new relation of the human soul to Him. Judaism had been the least mystical and the least metaphysical of religions. It revealed God as the Creator, the Law-giver and the Judge, and it was by obedience to His Law and by ritual observances of sacrifices and ceremonial purity that man entered into relations with Him. But the transformation by Jesus of the national community into a new universal spiritual society brought with it a corresponding change in the doctrine of God. God was no longer the national deity of the Jewish people, localized, so to speak, at Sinai and Jerusalem. He was the Father of the human race, the Universal Ground of existence “in Whom we live and move and are.” And when St. Paul appealed to the testimony of the Stoic poet, he recognized that Christianity was prepared to accept the metaphysical inheritance of Hellenic thought as well as the historic revelation of Jewish prophecy.

This is shown still more clearly in St. John’s identification of the Logos and the Messiah in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel. Jesus of Nazareth was not only the Christ, the Son of the Living God; He was also the Divine Intelligence, the Principle of the order and intelligibility of the created world. Thus the opposition between the Greek ideal of spiritual intuition and the Living God of Jewish revelation—an opposition that Philo had vainly attempted to surmount by an artificial philosophical synthesis—finally disappeared before the new revelation of the Incarnate Word. As St. Augustine has said, the Fourth Gospel is essentially the Gospel of contemplation, for while the first three evangelists are concerned with the external mission of Jesus as Messianic King and Saviour and teach the active virtues of Christian life, St. John is, above all, “the theologian” who declares the mysteries of the Divine Nature and teaches the way of contemplation. Jesus is the bridge between Humanity and Divinity. In Him God is not only manifested to man, but vitally participated. He is the Divine Light, which illuminates men’s minds, and the Divine Life, which transforms human nature and makes it partaker of Its own supernatural activity.

Hence the insistence of the Fourth Gospel on the sacramental element of Christ’s teaching, since it is through the sacraments that the Incarnation of the Divine Word is no longer merely a historical fact, but is brought into vital and sensible contact with the life of the believer. So far from being an alien magical conception superimposed from without upon the religion of the Gospel, it forms the very heart of Christianity, since it is only through the sacramental principle that the Jewish ideal of an external ritual cult becomes transformed into a worship of spiritual communion. The modern idea that sacramentalism is inconsistent with the “spiritual” or mystical element in religion, is as lacking in foundation as the allied belief in an opposition between religion and theology. It is only when we reduce theology to religious rationalism and spiritual religion to a blend of ethics and emotion that there is no place left for sacramentalism; but under these conditions genuine mysticism and metaphysical truth equally disappear. Each of them forms an essential element in the historical development of Christianity. In the great age of creative theological thought, the development of dogma was organically linked with sacramentalism and mysticism. They were three aspects of a single reality—the great mystery if the restoration, illumination and deification of humanity by the Incarnation of the Divine Word.

~Christopher Dawson: in Stages in Mankind’s Religious Experience. (1931)

The Institution of the Eucharist, by Joos van Wassenhove.
Oil on wood, 1473-75; Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Rights of Man

By Christopher Dawson

IN THE VICTORY of the American Revolution European liberals saw the justification of their ideals and the realization of their hopes. It turned the current of the Enlightenment in a political direction and infused a revolutionary purpose into the democratic idealism of Rousseau. The young nobles, like Lafayette, who returned from America with the prestige of heroes and apostles; the young bourgeois, like Brissot de Warville, who looked to America as the promised land of liberty and democratic virtue, became the centre of a new patriotic movement which demanded the reform of the French government based on the democratic principle of the rights of men and equal citizenship.

But the opposition to the ancien régime and the demand for a thorough going reform of the French government was by no means confined to this group of young idealists. As de Tocqueville pointed out, the most drastic criticisms of the old order are to be found in the preambles to the decrees of the ministers of Louis XVI, such as Turgot, Necker and Brienne, and before even the Revolution had been thought of the royal government had itself undertaken revolutionary changes, such as the abolition of the Parlements, the Jesuits and the guilds, which had profoundly affected the social and economic life of the country. Ever since the middle of the century the government had been in the hands of the friends of the philosophers such as Choiseul and Turgot and Malesherbes and had been influenced by their ideals. But it was not only the philosophers who were responsible for the change in the spirit of the ancien régime; even more important were the economists, the disciples of Quesnay and Gournay for they were not irresponsible men of letters, but serious administrators and statesmen and good servants of the king. Yet they rivalled the philosophers in their contempt for the Gothic barbarism of the ancien régime and in their unbounded faith in the immediate transformation of society by radical reform.

No eighteenth-century ruler was more conscientious or more well meaning than Louis XVI, no European government possessed better or more intelligent ministers and officials than Turgot and Vergennes, Malesherbes and Necker, Dupont de Nemours and Senhac de Meilhan. Yet their reforming energies were frittered away in a series of false starts each of which helped to discredit the government and bring the ancien régime nearer to ruin. What was lacking was neither good intentions nor intelligence nor wealth (for the nation had never been more prosperous than during the reign of Louis XVI). But all these were vain in the absence of the will and energy necessary to overcome the obstacles which stood in the way of reform. In the days of Louis XIV and Colbert, France was the most powerful, efficient and well organized state in Europe, but the very success of their work was the cause of its undoing. The rambling Tudor edifice of the English constitution could be restored or changed according to the needs of each generation, but the classical structure of French absolutism did not admit of additions and alterations. 



The whole system centered in the person of the monarch, and if the King lacked the will and power to govern, the system ceased to function. Louis XVI had commenced his reign by undoing that one important achievement of his predecessor—the abolition of the Parlements and the reform of the cumbrous and antiquated judicial system—thus rendering the task of further reform almost impossible. For the chief obstacle to financial reform was the resistance of the privileged classes, which found a rallying point and a center of organization in the class of hereditary magistrates of which the Parlements were composed. Every measure of administration or financial reform was opposed by the Parlements in a spirit of blind conservatism which roused the fury of Voltaire. Yet they were always ready to justify their opposition in the name of liberty and the rights of the subject, so that while on the one hand they appealed to the nobility as the defenders of privilege, on the other they appealed to the lawyers and the bourgeoisie as the defenders of constitutional right. It was the very class which stood in the way of reform that was loudest in its criticism of the government and did more than the unprivileged and the oppressed to bring about the Revolution. It is hardly too much to say that if there had been no Parlement there would have been no financial crisis, that if there had been no financial crisis there would have been no States General and if there had been no States General there would have been no Revolution. The ancien régime was destroyed by the lawyers who owed their existence to its power and their wealth to its abuses.

There were, however, deeper sociological causes at work in comparison with which the quarrel between the government and the lawyers sinks into insignificance. At the same time that the revolutionary criticism of the Enlightenment had undermined the religious foundations of the traditional order, the functional basis was being destroyed by economic change. The new financial system and the new capitalist economy were irreconcilable with the hierarchic and authoritative principles of the ancien régime. The nobility had ceased to be the natural leaders of the nation, whose privileges were the reward of their service to the state, as was still the case with the Prussian officer caste. It had preserved its caste spirit and its feudal privileges, while it had lost that control over local administration and agriculture which gave the English aristocracy its power and social prestige. It had become merely a rich leisure class, whose chief social function was to provide a brilliant and expressive setting for the royal court. But since the heavy Baroque pomp of Versailles was no longer in fashion, even this function had become a sinecure, and in the eyes of public opinion the nobles were regarded as social parasites who sucked the life blood of the peasantry and battened on the resources of a discredited and bankrupt state. Above all, they had lost faith in themselves. With the exception of a few eccentrics like the Marquis de Mirabeau and the old guard of zealous Catholics, which had lost its leaders with the dissolution of the Jesuits and the death of Louis XV's eldest son and his pious wife, the nobles were in the forefront of the movement of Enlightenment. They ridiculed the Gothic barbarism of the old order. They applauded the anti-clerical propaganda of the philosophers, the democratic sentiments of Rousseau and Beaumarchais, and the biting satire of Chamfort. As Ségur wrote in an often quoted passage—'they trod lightly on a carpet of flowers towards the abyss'. And when the crash came, some of the ablest and the most exalted of themTalleyrand, the Bishop of Autun, Herault de Séchelles, the Comte de St. Simon, even Philip of Orleans, the first of the princes of the blood, were on the side of the Revolution and assisted in the work of destruction. It was only in the more remote provinces, where the nobility had preserved its traditional relations with the land and the peasants and where the influence of the Enlightenment was nonexistent, that they put up a formidable resistance to the progress of revolution. Elsewhere, the proudest and most ancient aristocracy in Europe, which had its roots deep in history, fell like a rotten tree at the first blast of the storm, and resigned its rights and privileges almost without a struggle.


This triumph of the bourgeoisie over the nobility had been rendered almost inevitable by the economic changes of the last hundred years. As Barnave, the most clear-sighted of the liberal leaders saw, the development of commercial and industrial capital had shifted the balance of power from the noble to the bourgeois, and though the industrial development of France had been less intense than that of England, the eighteenth century had seen an immense increase of prosperity among the middle classes, especially at the great ports like Bordeaux and Nantes, and a great development of capital investment, which already made the French rentier class such a considerable social power that Rivarol could assert that it was the rentiers who made the Revolution. Nevertheless, it was a class which had no direct political power and no recognized social status. Its very existence was inconsistent with the functional corporative structure of the old order which theoretically rejected the principle of interest as usurious and antisocial. Nor was this attitude without practical importance, for even as late as 1762 it was asserted by the economists that a third of the capitalists in France dared not invest their money profitably on account of it. The new capitalist class naturally resented the antiquated ideas and unbusinesslike methods of a government of nobles and priests. They demanded a financial reform which would restore public credit and remove the danger of a default on government loans.

At last the advent to power of Necker in 1781 seemed to give them just what they wanted. For Necker was the very embodiment of the new bourgeois culture and the power of international finance - a Swiss Protestant banker who had made a fortune by successful speculation. But though Necker's administration enriched the financiers it failed to solve the financial problem. In fact the more he applied capitalist methods to government finance, the more sharp became the conflict between the interests of capital and the principles of the ancien régime. And so the bourgeoisie were driven by their interests as well as by their ideals to demand the political and social reforms which would give them control of taxation and a share in the government of the country. "What ought the Third Estate to be?" asked the Abbé Sieyés, 'Everything. What is it? Nothing. What does it demand? To be something.'


What the Bourgeoisie did not realize was that they themselves were a privileged order, and that the lawyers and men of letters who represented the Third Estate in the National Assembly had far more in common with the noblesse de robe or the officials than with the unprivileged massesthe true people—who belonged to a different world.

For the French peasants and workers had not been taught, like the English, to follow their landlords and employers. It had always been the policy of the French government to detach the people from the privileged classes and to maintain direct control of them through the Intendant and the Curé. They lived their own life in their communes and guilds and looked for guidance not to the nobles and the rich merchants but to the ultimate sources of all authority -- the King and the Church. And hence, though they had little class consciousness in the modern sense, they had a strong national consciousness which had found expression hitherto in their loyalty to the King and their devotion to the Church. Now, however, everything conspired to shake their confidence and disturb their faith. Ever since the death of Louis XIV they had seen the higher powers at war among themselves; Jansenists and Jesuits, Church and Parlements, the government and the magistrates; and more recently the continual succession of reforms and counter-reforms, such as the abolition and re-establishment of the Corporations and the changes that produced the rises of prices and periodic crises of unemployment and food shortage, caused an increasing feeling of insecurity and discontent. There were the disorders and the revolutionary agitation of the last two years, the sinister rumors of treachery in high places, and finally the appeal of the King to the nation by the summoning of the States General and the extraordinary democratic forms of election which exceeded the demand of the reformers themselves.

All these factors combined to rouse popular feeling as it had not been roused since the days of the League. The deeps were moved. Behind the liberal aristocrats and lawyers who formed the majority of the States General, there lay the vast anonymous power that had made the monarchy and had been in turn shaped by it, and now it was to make the Revolution. To the liberal idealiststo men like Lafayette and Clermont Tonnerre, to the Abbé Fauchet and the orators of the Gironde, the Revolution meant the realization of the ideals of the Enlightenment, liberty and toleration, the rights of men and the religion of humanity. They did not see that they were on the edge of a precipice and that the world they knew was about to be swallowed up in a tempest of change which would destroy both them and their ideals. `Woe unto you, who desire the day of the Lord. It is darkness and not light. As if a man did flee from a lion and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand upon the wall and a serpent bit him'; they were a doomed generation, fated to perish at first by ones and twos, and then by scores and hundreds and thousands, on the scaffold, in the streets and on the battlefield. For as the Revolution advanced it gradually revealed the naked reality that had been veiled by the antiquated trappings of royalty and tradition—the General Willand it was not the benevolent abstraction which the disciples of Rousseau had worshipped but a fierce will to power which destroyed every man and institution that stood in its way. As de Maistre wrote, the will of the people was a battering ram with twenty million men behind it.

Nevertheless, it would be a great mistake to ignore or to minimize the importance of the intellectual factor in the Revolution, as many modern historians have done, in reaction to the idealist conceptions of Louis Blanc and Lamartine and Michelet. If we are to deny the influence of liberalism on the French Revolution we should have to deny the influence of communism on the Revolution in Russia. In fact the movement of ideas was wider and deeper in France than in Russia and had a far greater influence on the course of events. At every stage of the Revolution, from the Assembly of the Notables in 1787 down to the fall of Robespierre in 1794, the battle of ideas decided the fate of parties and statesmen, and it was carried on not only in the National Assembly and in the meetings of the Clubs and Districts, but in the press, the streets and the cafés.

Arthur Young, who came from his quiet Suffolk village like a visitor from another world into the turmoil and excitement of revolutionary Paris, has left an unforgettable picture of the intense agitation which filled the bookshops and cafés of the Palais Royale with seething crowds both day and night during those early summer days of 1789, and he was amazed at the folly of the government in permitting this boundless licence of opinion without doing anything to counter it by the use of publicity and propaganda. The truth was that the government had to deal not with the opposition of a party but with an immense movement of social idealism which was of the nature of a religious revival. As we see from the writings of Paine and Franklin, it was a real religion, with a definite though simple body of dogmas which aspired totake the place of Christianity as the creed of the new age.

Nor was this new religious unity a purely ideal one. It already possessed its ecclesiastical hierarchy and organization in the Order of Freemasons, which attained the climax of its development in the two decades that preceded the Revolution. The spirit of eighteenth-century Freemasonry was very different from the anticlericalism of the modern Grand Orient or the conservative and practical spirit of English Masonry. It was inspired by an almost mystical enthusiasm for the cause of humanity which often assumed fantastic forms, especially in Germany, where it tended to lose itself in illuminism and theosophy. In France, however, the influence of Franklin and the Lodge of the Nine Sisters inspired the movement with a warm sympathy for the cause of liberty and political reform, which found expression in the foundation of societies like the Société des Amis des Noirs and the Constitutional Club, which were under masonic influence though directly political in aim. At the beginning of the Revolution the influence of Freemasonry permeated the ruling classes from the royal family down to the bourgeoisie, and even the Army and the Church were not exempt. How far this influence contributed to the Revolution is, however, a very controversial question. The leading figure in French Freemasonry, Philip, Duke of Orleans, was the center of a web of subterranean agitation and intrigue which has never been unravelled, and he was certainly unscrupulous enough to use his position as head of the Grand Orient to further his schemes in so far as it was possible.


What is clearer, and also more honorable, is the role of Freemasonry in generating the revolutionary optimism which inspired the aristocratic party of reform in the National Assembly. Men like Lafayette, the Vicomte de Noailles, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, the Duc de Liancourt and the two Lameths saw in the new Revolution the fulfillment of the glorious promise of the Revolution in America. To them, and above all to Lafayette, the essence of the Revolution was to be found not in financial or even constitutional reform but in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which had marked a new era in the history of humanity. They felt like Paine, who writes as Lafayette's spokesman to the English-speaking world, that in the "Declaration of Rights we see the solemn and majestic spectacle of a nation opening its commission, under the auspices of its Creator, to establish a government, a scene so new and so transcendently unequalled by anything in the European world, that the name of a Revolution is diminutive of its character, and it rises into a Regeneration of Man.' "Government founded on a moral theory of universal peace, on the indefeasible hereditary Rights of Man, is now revolving from west to east by a stronger impulse than the government of the sword revolved from east to west. It interests not particular individuals but nations in its progress and promises a new era to the human race."

Thus the French Revolution falls into place as part of a world revolution which would restore to mankind the original rights of which it had been robbed at the very dawn of history by the tyranny of kings and priests. "Political popery, like the ecclesiastical popery of old, has had its day and is hastening to its exit. The ragged relic and the antiquated precedent, the monk and the monarch, will molder together."

This is the same faith which inspired the speculative Freemasonry of the eighteenth century and which expresses itself in a mystical form in the early prophecies of William Blake. The Declaration of the Rights of Man made it the official creed of the French Revolution and gave the political and economic discontent of the French people a philosophical or rather theological basis on which a new social order could be based.

It is this ideological background which gave the French Revolution its spiritual force and its international significance. Without it, the Revolution might have been nothing more than a new Fronde. With it, it changed the world.

The men who did so much to bring the new gospel out of the coulisses of the salons and the masonic lodges on to the stage of history had no idea where their ideals would lead. Their generous illusions blinded them to the dangers in their path and they thought that the Revolution was accomplished when it had hardly begun. But none the less they played an essential part in the revolutionary drama. Lafayette, `the hero of two worlds,' on his white horse posing as a French Washington, seems an absurd or pathetic figure (Cromwell-Grandison as Mirabeau said) in comparison with the men who were to make history, such as Mirabeau, Danton and Bonaparte. Yet had it not been for Lafayette these might never have had the chance to play their part. To the French bourgeoisie in the opening years of the Revolution, Mirabeau and Danton seemed sinister figures who were ready to play the part of a Catiline or a Clodius. And as Mirabeau was not trusted by the bourgeoisie, so neither did he trust the people. He realized the meaning of revolution and the meaning of authority. But he cared nothing for the metaphysical abstractions of the Declaration of Rights, or the moral principles which inspired the liberal idealism of the moderate reformers no less than the Puritan fanaticism of Robespierre and Saint-Just. Lafayette, on the other hand, was a thoroughly respectable person, a man of high character and high principles, a good liberal and a good deist but no enemy of property and religion. And so the bourgeoisie were ready to fall in and march behind his famous white horse in defence of the cause of liberalism against both the forces of disorder and the forces of reaction.

Had it not been for this, the revolt of the Commune in July, 1789 might have ended in a premature explosion which would have ruined the cause of the Revolution; for France was not ripe for democracy, and the moderate elements in the Assembly which formed the great majority saw the work of what Lafayette calls `the infernal cabals' of the Orleanist faction behind the violence of the mob. The action of Lafayette and Bailly, however, brought the nascent revolutionary democracy of Paris into line with the bourgeois liberalism of the National Assembly. The key of the Bastille was presented by Lafayette to Washington by means of Tom Paine and its capture became transformed from an act of lawless violence into a glorious symbol of the triumph of national liberty over feudal despotism. In the same way, with the revolt of the peasants in the following months when against feudalism and social war threatened to plunge the country in a social conflict which would have united the rich against the poor, the situation was saved by the idealism of the liberal aristocrats led by Lafayette's brother-in-law, the Vicomte de Noailles, who spontaneously renounced their feudal rights in an outburst of humanitarian enthusiasm (4 August, 1789). 


Finally, Lafayette managed to secure a triumph for his policy of conciliation in the days of October when the forces of disorder had broken loose even more dangerously than in July. All day long he had argued and threatened and entreated, and at last, looking more dead than alive, he had been forced against his will to set out on the dreary march to Versailles in rain and darkness. Yet next day he returned in the sunlight, amidst cheering crowds and waving branches, with the King at his side and the members of the National Assembly behind him. The crisis that might have ruined him ended in his victory over both the reactionaries and the extremists. The King was forced to rally to Lafayette's program of a democratic monarchy, while Lafayette on his side did his best to strengthen the hand of the government and restore its prestige. Order was restored. The Duke of Orleans and Marat were forced to leave the country. Mirabeau abandoned the Orleanist faction in disgust and began to make advances to Lafayette and the court. The Assembly, supported by Lafayette and the National Guard, and by Bailly and the municipality of Paris, was at last free to devote itself to the reorganization of France and the creation of a new constitution in accordance with the Rights of Man. It seemed as though the Revolution had entered a new phase, and that the alarms and excursions of the first five months would be followed by a period of peaceful consolidation. And in fact the middle period of the Constituent Assembly, from the autumn of 1789 to that of 1790, when the prestige of Lafayette was at its height, gave France a brief period of relative calm, to which liberals like Mme de Staël looked back in later years with longing and regret:

Never [she wrote] has French society been more brilliant and at the same time more serious. It was the last time, alas! that the French spirit showed itself in all its luster. It was the last time, and in many respects also the first that Parisian society could give an idea of that intellectual intercourse which is the noblest enjoyment of which human nature is capable. Those who have lived at that time cannot help recognizing that nowhere at any time had they seen so much life and intellect so that one can judge by the number of men of talent which the circumstances of that time produced what the French would be, if they were called to take part in public affairs under a wise and sincere form of government.

But if it was a time of freedom and hope, it was also a time of illusion. The Constituent Assembly went to work in a mood of boundless optimism without any regard for the facts of history or the limitations of time and place, in the spirit of their arch theorist Sieyès, who said that the so-called truths of history were as unreal as the so-called truths of religion. When their work was finished, Cerutti declared that they had destroyed fourteen centuries of abuses in three years, that the Constitution they had made would endure for centuries, and that their names would be blessed by future generations. Yet before many months had elapsed their work was undone and their leaders were executed, imprisoned or in exile. They had destroyed what they could not replace and called up forces that they could neither understand nor control. For the liberal aristocracy and bourgeoisie were not the people, and in some respects they were further from the people than the nobles and clergy who remained faithful to the old order. On the one hand there were the vast inarticulate masses of the peasantry who were ready to burn the castles of the nobles but who were often equally ready to fight with desperate resolution for their religion. On the other hand there was the people of the communes, above all the Commune of Paris.

For Paris was still at heart the old city of the League and it needed no teaching from America or England to learn the lesson of Revolution. It remembered the night of St. Bartholomew and the killing of Henry III, and its crowds rallied as readily to the preaching of the new Cordeliers and the new Jacobins as to that of their Catholic predecessors who led the mob against the Huguenots and held the city for five years against Henry of Navarre. Already in the days of July the people of Paris had asserted their power in unequivocal fashion and had regained their liberty by force of arms. Henceforward the people of Paris were an independent power, and a power which possessed far more political self-consciousness and revolutionary will than the people whose representatives sat in the National Assembly. It is true that in the first years of the Revolution the municipality was still in the hands of the bourgeoisie, but this was not the case with the assemblies of the districts and sections which were the real centers of political action. Here was democracy in action. Not the representative democracy of liberal constitutionalism, but the direct democracy of the medieval communes and the Greek city statesthe democracy of which Rousseau and Mably had dreamed. It was this new and terrible power which was to undo the work of the aristocratic liberals and remake the Revolution; and already in the days of the Constituent Assembly it had found its leader in Danton, and its philosopher and teacher in Marat.

For the venomous and diseased little Swiss doctor, who was regarded as either a criminal or a lunatic by the respectable politicians of the Assembly, saw more clearly than they the fundamental issues of the Revolution and the bloody road that it was to travel. From the first he denounced the new constitution as the work of a privileged class and he marvelled at the way in which the workers had risked their lives to destroy the Bastille which was not their prison but that of their oppressors. He even warned the Assembly that if the bourgeoisie rejected the political rights of the workers on the ground of their poverty, they would find a remedy in the assertion of their economic rights to share in the possessions of the rich. "How many orators boast thoughtlessly of the charms of liberty. It only has a value for the thinker who has no wish to crawl and for the man who is called to play an important part by his wealth and position, but it means nothing to the people. What are Bastilles to them? They were nothing but a name. Where is the country of the poor?" he writes in November 1789, in reference to the question of conscription. "Everywhere condemned to serve, if they are not under the yoke of a master, they are under that of their fellow-citizens, and whatever revolution may come, their eternal lot is servitude, poverty and oppression. What can they owe to a state which has done nothing, nothing but secure their misery and tighten their chains. They owe it nothing but hatred and malediction."

This is very different from the optimistic liberal idealism which was the prevailing spirit in 1789-90. In fact Marat was anything but a liberal. From the first he had preached the gospel of terror and his political ideal was a popular dictatorship rather than any kind of liberal constitutionalism. But he understood the mind of the people better than Lafayette and the makers of the Constitution of 1791, and it was not liberalism but his creed of revolutionary democracy which became the creed of the Commune, the Jacobins and the Republic, in the decisive years that followed.

Source. The South Atlantic Quarterly, (1955). Reprinted in "The Dawson Newsletter" Winter 1993, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702.

"Not as Nietzsche would have us believe"

“THE development of a historical sense—a distinct consciousness of the essential characteristics of different ages and civilizations—is a relatively recent achievement; in fact it hardly existed before the nineteenth century. It is above all the product of the Romantic movement which first taught men to respect the diversity of human life, and to regard culture not as an abstract ideal but as a vital product of an organic social tradition. No doubt, as Nietzsche pointed out, the acquisition of this sixth sense is not all pure gain, since it involves the loss of the that noble self-sufficiency and maturity in which the great ages of civilization culminate— “the moment of smooth sea and halcyon self-sufficiency, the goldenness and coldness which all things show that have perfected themselves.” It was rendered possible only by the “democratic mingling of classes and races” which is characteristic of modern civilizations. “Owing to this mingling of the past of every form and mode of life and of cultures which were formerly juxtaposed with or superimposed on one another flow forth into use,” so that “we have secret access above all to the labyrinth of imperfect civilizations and to every form of semibarbarity that has at any time existed on earth.” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 224)

“Yet it is impossible to believe that the vast widening of the range and scope of consciousness that the historical sense has brought to the human race is an ignoble thing, as Nietzsche would have us believe. It is as though man has at last climbed from the desert and the forest and the fertile plain onto the bare mountain slopes whence he can look back and see the course of his journey and the whole extent of his kingdom. And to the Christian, at least, this widening vision and these far horizons should bring not doubt and disillusionment, but a firmer faith in the divine power that has guided him and a stronger desire for the divine kingdom which is the journey’s end.” 

~Christopher Dawson: in The Kingdom of God and History. (1938) 

"Education has meant the transmission of culture"

“EVERY form of education that mankind has known, from the savage tribes to the highest forms of culture, has always involved two elements—the element of technique and the element of tradition; and hitherto it has always been the second that has been most important. In the first place education teaches children how to do things—how to read and write and even on a much more primitive level how to hunt and cook, and plant and build. But besides all these things, education has always meant the initiation of the young into the social and spiritual inheritance of the community: in other words education has meant the transmission of culture.”

~Christopher Dawson: in Understanding Europe.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Hour of Darkness

TODAY the enemy is not the humanitarian liberalism which was a kind of secularized version of Christian moral idealism. It is a new power which tramples every human right and ideal under foot. Under the shadow of this new threat the partial conflicts have divided Western culture no longer have the same meaning, and the cause of God and the cause of humanity have become one. The law of charity is not alien to human nature and does not stand in opposition to the ideals of freedom and social progress that have inspired Western culture in modern times. On the contrary, it is the only law that can save mankind from the iron law of power which destroys the weak by violence and the strong by treachery. For the new paganism has nothing in common with the poetical idealization of Hellenic myth by the humanists and classicists of recent centuries: it is the unloosing of the powers of the abyss—the dark forces that have been chained by a thousand years of Christian civilization and which have now been set free to conquer the world. For the will to power is also the will to destruction, and in the last event it becomes the will to self-destruction. 

In these dark times there must be many who feel tempted to despair when they see the ruin of the hopes of peace and progress that inspired the Liberal idealism of the last century, and the perversion of the great achievements of human knowledge and power to serve the devilish forces of destruction. Never, perhaps, has a civilization suffered such a total subversion of its own standards and values while its material power and wealth remained almost intact, and in many respects greater than ever. 

To Christians, however, the shock and the disillusionment should be less severe than to those who have put their faith in the nineteenth-century gospel of secular progress. For the Christian faith never minimized the reality of the forces of evil in history and society, as well as in the life of the individual, and it has prepared men’s minds to face the extreme consequences of the external triumph of evil, and the apparent defeat of good. Yet none the less it is no defeatist philosophy; it is a triumphant affirmation of life—of eternal life victorious over death, of the kingdom of God prevailing over the rulers of this world of darkness.

~Christopher Dawson: in The Judgment of the Nations. (1942)

Monday, October 5, 2015

"The family was itself a religious unit"

"BUT a culture is not merely a community of work and a community of place; it is above all a community of thought, and is seen and known best in its higher spiritual activities, to which alone the name of Culture was first applied. It is impossible to understand or explain society by its material factors alone without considering the religious, intellectual and artistic influences which determine the form of its inner cultural life.

"Even if we consider society in its simplest form—the family—we still find these factors intervening in a decisive way. Not only do the religious and moral beliefs of a society always affect the structure and life of the family, but as in China and in classical antiquity, the family was itself a religious unit and its whole life was consecrated by religious rites and based on religious sanctions.”

~Christopher Dawson: Sociology as a Science. (1934)

"Social planning"

"IF we accept the principle of social planning from the bottom upwards without regard for spiritual values we are left with a machine-made culture which differs from one country to another only in so far as the process of mechanization is more or less perfected. To most people this is rather an appalling prospect, for the ordinary man does not regard the rationalization of life as the only good. On the contrary, men are often more attracted by the variety of life than by its rationality. Even if it were possible to solve all the material problems of life: poverty, unemployment and war and to construct a uniform scientifically-organized world order, neither the strongest nor the highest elements in human nature would find satisfaction in it."

~Christopher Dawson: The Judgment of the Nations. (1942)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

"The need for deliverance"

“TODAY everybody admits that something is wrong with the world, and the critics of Christianity are the very people who feel this most. The most violent attacks on religion come from those who are most anxious to change the world, and they attack Christianity because they think that it is an obstructive force that stands in the way of a real reform of human life. There has seldom been a time in which men were more dissatisfied with life and the more conscious of the need for deliverance, and if they turn away from Christianity it is because they feel that Christianity is a servant of the established order and that it has no real power or will to change the world and to rescue man from his present difficulties. They have lost their faith in the old spiritual traditions that inspired civilization in the past, and they tend to look for a solution in some external practical remedy such as communism, or the scientific organisation of life; something definite and objective that can be applied to society as a whole.”

~Christopher H. Dawson: from Religion and World History: A Selection from the Works of Christopher Dawson.

"The great curse of our modern society"

"THE great curse of our modern society is not so much lack of money as the fact that the lack of money condemns a man to a squalid and incomplete existence. But even if he has money, and a great deal of it, he is still in danger of leading an incomplete and cramped life, because our whole social order is directed to economic instead of spiritual ends. The economic view of life regards money as equivalent to satisfaction. Get money, and if you get enough of it you will get everything else that is worth having. The Christian view of life, on the other hand, puts economic things in second place. First seek the kingdom of God, and everything else will be added to you. And this is not so absurd as it sounds, for we have only to think for a moment to realise that the ills of modern society do not spring from poverty in fact, society today is probably richer in material wealth than any society that has ever existed. What we are suffering from is lack of social adjustment and the failure to subordinate material and economic goods to human and spiritual ones.”

~Christopher Dawson

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Christianity as the Soul of the West

THE modern dilemma is essentially a spiritual one, and every one of its main aspects, moral, political and scientific, brings us back to the need of a religious solution. The one remaining problem that we have got to consider is where that religious solution is to be found.

Must we look for some new religion to meet the new circumstances of the changing world, or does the Christian faith still supply the answer that we need?

In the first place, it is obvious that it is no light matter to throw over the Christian tradition. It means a good deal more to us than we are apt to realise.

As I have pointed out, it is the Christian tradition that is the most fundamental element in Western culture. It lies at the base not only of Western religion, but also of Western morals and Western social idealism. To a far greater extent than science or philosophy, it has determined our attitude to life and the final aims of our civilisation. Yet on the other hand we cannot fail to recognise that it is just this religious element in Western culture that is most challenged at the present day. The majority of men, whatever their political beliefs may be, are prepared to accept science and democracy and humanitarianism as essential elements in modern civilisation, but they are far less disposed to admit the importance of religion in general and of Christianity in particular. They regard Christianity as out of touch with modern life and inconsistent with modern knowledge. Modern life, they say, deals with facts, while Christianity deals with unproved and incomprehensible dogmas. A man can indulge in religious beliefs, so long as he treats them as a private luxury; but they have no bearing on social life, and society can get on very well without them.

Moreover, behind this vague tendency to treat religion as a side issue in modern life, there exists a strong body of opinion that is actively hostile to Christianity and that regards the destruction of positive religion as absolutely necessary to the advance of modern culture. This attitude is most in evidence in Soviet Russia, where, for the first time in the history of the world, we see a great state, or rather a world empire, that officially rejects any species of religion and has adopted a social. and educational policy inspired by militant atheism. But this tendency is not confined to Russia or to the followers of communism. Both in Europe and America there is a strong anti- religious movement that includes many of our ablest modern writers and a few men of science. It seeks not only to destroy religion, but also to revolutionise morals and to discredit the ethical ideals which have hitherto inspired Western society.

This, I think, is one of the most significant features of the present situation. Critics of religion in the past have, as a rule, been anxious to dissociate the religious from the moral issue. They were often strict moralists, like the late John Morley, who managed to clothe atheism in the frock coat and top hat of Victorian respectability. But today the solidarity of religion and morals is admitted on both sides. If Europe abandons Christianity, it must also abandon its moral code. And conversely the modern tendency to break away from traditional morality strengthens the intellectual revolt against religious belief.

At first sight it seems as though the forces of change in the modern world were definitely hostile to religion, and that we are rapidly approaching a purely secular state of civilisation. But it is not so easy to get rid of religion as we might imagine. It is easy enough for the individual to adopt a negative attitude of critical scepticism. But if society as a whole abandons all positive beliefs, it is powerless to resist the disintegrating effects of selfishness and private interest. Every society rests in the last resort on the recognition of common principles and common ideals, and if it makes no moral or spiritual appeal to the loyalty of its members, it must inevitably fall to pieces.

In the past, society found this unifying principle in its religious beliefs; in fact religion was the vital centre of the whole social organism. And if a state did not already possess a common religious basis, it attempted to create one artificially, like the official Caesar-worship that became the state religion of the Roman Empire. And so, today, if the state can no longer appeal to the old moral principles that belong to the Christian tradition, it will be forced to create a new official faith and new moral principles which will be binding on its citizens.

Here again Russia supplies the obvious illustration. The Communist rejection of religion and Christian morality has not led to the abandonment of social control and the unrestricted freedom of opinion in matters of belief. On the contrary, it has involved an intensification of social control over the beliefs and the spiritual life of the individual citizen. In fact, what the Communists have done is not to get rid of religion, but merely to substitute a new and stricter Communist religion for the old official orthodoxy. The Communist Party is a religious sect which exists to spread the true faith. It has its Inquisition for the detection and punishment of heresy. It employs the weapon of excommunication against disloyal or unorthodox members. It possesses in the writings of Marx its infallible scriptures, and it reveres in Lenin, if not a God, at least a saviour and a prophet.

It may be said that this is an abnormal development due to the excesses of the Russian temperament. But it is abnormal only in its exaggerations. The moment that a society claims the complete allegiance of its members, it assumes a quasi-religious authority. For since man is essentially spiritual, any power that claims to control the whole man is forced to transcend relative and particular aims and to enter the sphere of absolute values, which is the realm of religion. On the other hand, if the state consents to the limitation of its aims to the political sphere, it has to admit that its ideal is only a relative one and that it must accept the ultimate supremacy of spiritual ideals which lie outside its province.

This is the solution that Western society has hitherto chosen, but it implies the existence of an independent spiritual power, whether it be a religious faith or a common moral ideal. If these are absent, the state is forced to claim an absolute and almost religious authority, though not necessarily in the same way that the Communist state has done. We can easily conceive a different type of secularism that conforms to the needs of capitalist society: indeed, we are witnessing the emergence of something of the kind in the United States, though it is still somewhat coloured by survivals from the older Protestant tradition.

And so too in Western Europe the tendency seems all towards the development of a purely secular type of culture which subordinates the whole of life to practical and economic ends and leaves no room for any independent spiritual activity. Nevertheless a civilisation that fails to satisfy the needs of man's spiritual nature cannot be permanently successful. It produces a state of spiritual conflict and moral maladjustment which weakens the vitality of the whole social organism. This is why our modern machine-made civilisation, in spite of the material benefits that it has conferred, is marked by a feeling of moral unrest and social discontent which was absent from the old religious cultures, although the lot of the ordinary man in them was infinitely harder from the material point of view.

You can give men food and leisure and amusements and good conditions of work, and still they will remain unsatisfied. You can deny them all these things, and they will not complain so long as they feel that they have something to die for.

Even if we regard man as an animal, we must admit that he is a peculiar sort of animal that will sacrifice his interests to his ideals—an animal that is capable of martyrdom. The statesman sees this when he appeals to the ordinary man to leave his home and his family and to go and die painfully in a ditch for the sake of his country; and the ordinary man does not refuse to go. The Communist recognises this, when he calls on the proletarian to work harder and to eat less for the sake of the Five-Year Plan and the cause of world revolution. But when the soldier comes back from the war, and the Communist has realised his Utopia, they are apt to feel a certain disproportion between their sacrifices and the fruits of their achievements.

Now it is the fundamental contradiction of materialism that it exalts the results of human achievement and at the same time denies the reality of the spiritual forces that have made this achievement possible. All the highest achievements of the human spirit, whether in the order of thought or action or moral being, rest on a spiritual absolute and become impossible in a world of purely economic or even purely human values. It is only in the .light of religious experience and of absolute spiritual principles that human nature can recognise its own greatness and realise its higher potentialities.

There is a world of eternal spiritual realities in which and for which the world of man exists. That is the primary intuition that lies at the root of all religion, even of the most primitive kind. The other day I came upon a very good illustration of this, rather unexpectedly, in a passage in one of Edgar Wallace's novels in which he is describing a religious discussion between a white officer and a West African medicine-man. The former says "Where in the world are these gods of whom you are always talking?" and the savage answers, "O man, know that the Gods are not in the world; it is the world that is in the Gods."

In our modern civilised world this truth is no longer obvious; it has become dim and obscured. Nevertheless it cannot be disregarded with impunity. The civilisation that denies God denies its own foundation. For the glory of man is a dim reflection of the glory of God, and when the latter is denied the former fades.

Consequently the loss of the religious sense which is shown by the indifference or the hostility of the modern world to Christianity is one of the most serious weaknesses of our civilisation and involves a real danger to its spiritual vitality and its social stability. Man's spiritual needs are none the less strong for being unrecognised, and if they are denied their satisfaction through religion, they will find their compensation elsewhere, often in destructive and anti-social activities. The man who is a spiritual misfit becomes morally alienated from society, and whether that alienation takes the form of active hostility, as in the anarchist or the criminal, or merely of passive non-co-operation, as in the selfish individualist, it is bound to be a source of danger. The civilisation that finds no place for religion is a maimed culture that has lost its spiritual roots and is condemned to sterility and decadence. There can, I think, be little doubt that the present phase of intense secularisation is a temporary one, and that it will be followed by a far-reaching reaction. I would even go so far as to suggest that the return to religion promises to be one of the dominant characteristics of the coming age. We all know how history follows a course of alternate action and reaction, and how each century and each generation tends to contradict its predecessor. The Victorians reacted against the Georgians, and we in. turn have reacted against the Victorians. We reject their standards and their beliefs, just as they rejected the standards and beliefs of their predecessors.

But behind these lesser waves of change there is a deeper movement that marks the succession of the ages. There are times when the whole spirit of civilisation becomes transformed and the stream of history seems to change its course and flow in a new direction. One such movement occurred sixteen hundred years ago, when the ancient world became Christian. Another occurred in the sixteenth century with the coming of the Renaissance and the Reformation, which brought the mediaeval world to an end and inaugurated a new age. And the forces of transformation that are at work in the world today seem to betoken the coming of another such change in the character of civilisation, which is perhaps even more fundamental than that of the sixteenth century.

All the characteristic movements that marked the culture of the last four centuries are passing away and giving place to new tendencies. We see this not only in politics and the material organisation of life, but also in art and literature and science; for example, in the tendency of modern art to abandon the naturalistic principles that governed its development from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century in favour of new canons of style that have more in common with the art of Byzantium and of the ancient East.

We are not, indeed, going back to the Middle Ages, but we are going forward to a new age which is no less different from the last age than that was from the mediaeval period.

But if this is so, may it not be that religion is one of the outworn modes of thought that are being abandoned and that the new age will be an age of rationalism and secularism and materialism? This is, as we have seen, the current belief, but then the current beliefs are always out of date. It is difficult to realise how much of current thinking belongs to the past, because it is natural for men's minds to be soaked in the mental atmosphere of the last generation, and it needs a considerable effort to see things as they are and not as other people have seen them. The artist and the philosopher and the scientist, each in his own way, sees life direct, but the majority of men see it at second-hand through the accepted ideas of their society and culture. And consequently, the tendencies that we regard as characteristic of the age are often those that are characteristic of the age that is just passing away rather than of that which is beginning.

Thus in fact the tendencies that are hostile to religion and make for secularism and materialism are not new tendencies. They have been at work in Europe for centuries. The whole modern period from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century was a long process of revolt in which the traditional order of life and its religious foundations were being undermined by criticism and doubt. It was an age of spiritual disintegration in which Christendom was divided into a mass of warring sects, and the Churches that resisted this tendency did so only by a rigid discipline which led to religious persecution and the denial of individual freedom. And this again brought religion into conflict with the spirit of the age; for it was an age of individualism, dominated by the Renaissance ideal of liberty of thought, the Reformation ideal of liberty of conscience, the individualist ideal of economic liberty and the romantic ideal of liberty of feeling and conduct. It was an age of secularism in which the state substituted itself for the Church as the ultimate authority in men's lives and the supreme end of social activity. And finally it was an age which witnessed the triumphant development of scientific materialism, based on a mechanistic theory of the world that seemed to leave no room for human freedom or spiritual reality.

Today this process of revolution has worked itself out, so that there is hardly anything left to revolt against. After destroying the old order, we are beginning to turn round and look for some firm foundation on which we can build anew. Already in social life we are witnessing the passing of individualism and the recovery of a sense of community. In economics for example, the nineteenth-century ideal of unrestricted freedom and individual initiative has given place to an intense demand for social organisation and social control.

Looked at from this point of view, socialism and communism are not purely revolutionary and negative movements. They mark the turn of the tide. Karl Marx was among the first to feel the insufficiency of the liberal revolutionary tradition and the need for a new effort of social construction. And so he built on what seemed to his age to be an ultimate foundation—the bed-rock of scientific materialism. But today we realise that the materialistic theory of the nineteenth century was no more final than the scientific theories that it superseded. Science, which has explained so much, has ended by explaining away matter itself, and has left us with a skeleton universe of mathematical formulae. Consequently the naive materialism that regarded Matter with a capital M as the one reality is no longer acceptable, for we have come to see that the fundamental thing in the world is not Matter but Form. The universe is not just a mass of solid particles of matter governed by blind determinism and chance. It possesses an organic structure, and the further we penetrate into the nature of reality the more important does this principle of form become.

And so we can no longer dismiss mind and spiritual reality as unreal or less real than the material world, for it is just in mind and in the spiritual world that the element of form is most supreme. It is the mind that is the key of the universe, not matter. In the Beginning was the Word, and it is the creative and informing power of the Word that is the foundation of reality.

And if this is true of the world of nature, it is still more true of the world of society and culture. We must abandon the vain attempt to disregard spiritual unity and to look for a basis of social construction in material and external things. The acceptance of spiritual reality must be the basic element in the culture of the future, for it is spirit that is the principle of unity and matter that is the principle of division. And as soon as this truth is admitted, religion will no longer appear as an unessential and extraneous element in culture, but as its most vital element. For religion is the bond that unites man to spiritual reality, and it is only in religion that society can find the principle of spiritual union of which it stands in need. No secular ideal of social progress or economic efficiency can take the place of this. It is only the ideal of a spiritual order which transcends the relative value of the economic and political world that is capable of overcoming the forces of disintegration and destruction that exist in modern civilisation. The faith of the future cannot be economic or scientific or even moral; it must be religious.

This is just where the new artificial manmade religions, like Positivism, fail. They lack the one thing that is necessary, namely, religious faith. It is a complete mistake to think that we can bring religion up-to-date by making it conform to our wishes and to the dominant prejudices of the moment. If we feel that modern society is out of touch with science, we do not call on the scientists to change their views and to give us something more popular. We realise that we have got to give more thought and more work to science. In the same way the great cause of the decline of religion is that we have lost touch with it, either by abandoning religion altogether, or by contenting ourselves with a nominal outward profession that does not affect our daily life and our real interests. And the only way to bring religion into touch with the modern world is to give it the first place in our own thought and in our own lives. If we wish to be scientific, we must submit to the authority of science and sacrifice our easy acceptance of things as they seem to the severe discipline of scientific method. And in the same way, if we wish to be religious we must submit to religious authority and accept the principles of the spiritual order. In the material world, man must conform himself to realities, otherwise he will perish. And the same is true in the spiritual world. God comes first, not man. He is more real than the whole external universe. Man passes away, empires and civilisations rise and fall, the stars grow old; God remains.

This is the fundamental truth which runs through the whole of the Bible. There is, of course, a great deal more than this in Christianity. In fact, it is a truth that Christianity shares with practically all the religions of the world. Nevertheless it is just this truth that the modern world, like the ancient world before it, finds most difficult to accept. You even find people who reject it and still wish to call themselves Christians. They water down religion to a series of moral platitudes and then dignify this mixture of vague religiosity and well-meaning moral optimism with the respectable name of Christianity.


In reality Christianity is not merely a moral ideal or set of ideas. It is a concrete reality. It is the spiritual order incarnated in a historical person and in a historical society. The spiritual order is just as real as the material order. The reason we do not see it is because we do not look at it. Our interests and our thoughts are elsewhere. A few exceptional men, mystics or philosophers, may find it possible to live habitually on a spiritual plane, but for the ordinary man it is a difficult atmosphere to breathe in. But it is the function of Christianity to bring the spiritual order into contact and relation with the world of man. It is, as it were, a bridge between the two worlds; it brings religion down into human life and it opens the door of the spiritual world to man. Its ideal is not a static and unchanging order like that of the other world religions. It is a spiritual society or organism that has incorporated itself with humanity and that takes into itself as it proceeds all that is vital and permanent in human life and civilisation. It aims at nothing less than the spiritual integration of humanity, its deliverance from the tyranny of material force and the dominion of selfish aims, and its reconstitution in spiritual unity.

And thus there are two principles in Christianity which though they sometimes appear contradictory are equally essential as the two poles of the spiritual order. There is the principle of transcendence, represented by the apocalyptic, ascetic, world-denying element in religion, and there is the principle of catholicity, which finds expression in the historic, social, world-embracing activity of the Church. A one-sided emphasis on the former of these leads to sectarianism, as we see in the history of the early Christian sects that refused all compromise with secular civilisation and stood aside in an attitude of negative and sterile isolation. But the Catholic Church rejected this solution as a betrayal of its universal mission.

It converted the ancient world; it became the Church of the Empire; and it took up into itself the traditional heritage of culture that the Puritanism of the sectaries despised. In this way the Church overcame the conflict between religion and secular culture that had weakened the forces of Roman society, and laid the foundations of a new civilisation. For more than a thousand years society found its centre of unity and its principle of order in Christianity. But the mediaeval synthesis, both in its Byzantine and mediaeval form, while it gave a more complete expression to the social function of Christianity than any other age has done, ran the risk of compromising the other Christian principle of transcendence by the immersion of the spiritual in the temporal order—the identification of the Church and the World. The history of mediaeval Christendom shows a continuous series of efforts on the part of orthodox reformers and Catharist and "spiritual" heretics against the secularisation and worldliness of the Church. And, as the wealth and intellectual culture of Western Europe increased, the tension grew more acute.

It was the coming of the Renaissance and the whole-hearted acceptance by the Papacy of the new humanist culture that stretched the mediaeval synthesis to breaking-point and produced a new outburst of reforming sectarianism. It is true that Catholicism met the challenge of the Reformation by its own movement of spiritual reform. But it failed to recover the lost unity of Christendom and was forced to lose touch with the dominant movements in secular culture. Thus Christianity withdrew more and more into the sphere of the individual religious life and the world went its own way. European civilisation was rationalised and secularised until it ceased even nominally to be Christian. Nevertheless it continued to subsist unconsciously on the accumulated capital of its Christian past, from which it drew the moral and social idealism that inspired the humanitarian and liberal and democratic movements of the last two centuries. Today this spiritual capital is exhausted, and civilisation is faced with the choice between a return to the spiritual traditions of Christianity or the renunciation of them in favour of complete social materialism.

But if Christianity is to regain its influence, it must recover its unity and its social activity. The religious individualism of the last age, with its self-centred absorption in the question of personal salvation and private religious emotion, will not help us. The Christianity of the future must be a social Christianity that is embodied in a real society, not an imaginary or invisible one. And this society must not be merely a part of the existing social and political order, like the established churches of the past; it must be an independent and universal society, not a national or local one. The only society that fulfills these conditions is the Catholic Church, the most ancient yet, at the same time, the most adaptable of all existing institutions. It is true that Catholicism has suffered grievously from the sectarian division and strife of the last four hundred years, but it has succeeded in surmounting the long drawn-out crisis that followed the dissolution of the mediaeval synthesis, and it stands out today as the one remaining centre of unity and spiritual order in Europe. If Christianity is necessary to Europe, the Catholic Church is no less necessary to Christianity, for without it the latter would become no more than a mass of divergent opinions dissolving under the pressure of rationalist criticism and secularist culture. It was by virtue of the Catholic ideal of spiritual unity that the social unity of European culture emerged from the welter of barbarism, and the modern world stands no less in need of such an ideal if it is to realise in the future the wider unity of a world civilisation.

But though Christianity is necessary to civilisation, we must not forget the profound difference that there is between them. It is the great paradox of Christianity, as Newman so often insisted, that though Christianity is a principle of life to civilisation even in secular matters, it is continually at issue with the world and always seems on the verge of being destroyed by it. Thus the Church is necessary to Europe, and yet any acceptance of the Church because it is necessary to society is destructive of its real essence. Nothing could be more fatal to the spirit of Christianity than a return to Christianity for political reasons.

But, on the other hand, any attempt to create a purely political or social religion is equally destined to fail. Nothing is more remarkable than the collapse of all the efforts to create an artificial religion to meet "the needs of the age." Deism, Saint-Simonianism, Positivism and the rest have all ended in failure. It is only a religion that transcends political and economic categories and is indifferent to material results that has the power of satisfying the need of the world. As Newman wrote eighty years ago:

"the Catholic Church has accompanied human society through one revolution of its great year; and it is now beginning a second. She has passed through the full cycle of changes in order to show that she is independent of them all. She has had trial of East and West, of monarchy and democracy, of peace and war, of times of darkness and times of philosophy, of old countries and young."

And today she still stands as she did under the Roman Empire, as the representative in a changing world of an unchanging spiritual order. That is why I believe the Church that made Europe may yet save Europe, and that, in the great words of the Easter liturgy:

"the whole world may experience and see what was fallen raised up, what had grown old made new, and all things returning to unity through Him from whom they took their beginning."

~Christopher Dawson: The Modern Dilemma: The Problem of European Unity. (1932)

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