Saturday, January 31, 2015

Christianity and the Humanist Tradition

By Christopher Dawson
The Dublin Review, Winter, 1952

THE PRESENT AGE has seen a great slump in humanist values. After dominating Western culture for four centuries humanism today is on the retreat on all fronts, and it seems as though the world is moving in the direction of a non-humanist and even an anti-humanist form of culture. This tendency is most clearly visible in the totalitarian states. In the world of concentration camps and mass purges and total war, there is no room for humanist values, and it is difficult to realize that they have ever existed. Man is a means and not an end, and he is a means to economic or political ends which are not really ends in themselves but means to other ends which in their turn are means and so ad infinitum. Man who raised himself above nature and became lord of the world has become reabsorbed into the endless cycle of material change as the blind servant of the economic process of production and consumption.

But even outside the totalitarian state in the democratic world the situation of humanism has become precarious in spite of our insistence on political liberty and our Charters of Human Rights. Here also man has become the servant of the process of economic production, in spite, and partly because of, the increase of wealth and material prosperity. And the advance of technology and scientific specialism has steadily reduced the prestige and influence of humanism in education.

At the same time Western culture has lost its faith in Man. All the old idealism and, above all, humanist idealism have become discredited, and there has been a marked tendency in Western literature and art─in America no less than in Europe─towards irrationalism, primitivism and the rejection of all the humanist values.

What is the attitude of Christians towards this anti-humanist tendency? Clearly there are certain values which are common to Christianity and humanism, and to a considerable extent the enemies of humanism are also the enemies of Christianity. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the anti-humanist reaction has affected Christians as well as non-Christians, and in some cases Christians have joined in the attack on humanism and have welcomed its downfall.


The most striking example of this is to be seen in the neo-Calvinist movement of Karl Barth and his school which reasserts the traditional Protestant doctrine of the total corruption of human nature. No doubt these theologians are primarily concerned with Liberal Protestantism rather than with humanism, but since they go further than Calvin himself in their denial of human values, the values of humanism must go down the drain with the rest.

But the Christian reaction against humanism is not confined to the Barthians. It has become so contagious that it is now often taken for granted by public opinion. For example, I recently read an article in the New Statesman by a well-known historian on Professor Butterfield's book, "Christianity and Social Relations," in which the writer criticizes Professor Butterfield's rejection of moral judgment in history. And he goes on:

The explanation is not far to seek. Christianity and humanism are incompatible. Mr. Butterfield believes in God, therefore he does not believe in man. He holds, no doubt correctly, that only Christians can be judged according to the rules of Christianity; and so he does not judge others at all. He does not discriminate among unregenerate mankind: or rather the only judgment he makes is that some men are cleverer than others.

No doubt this is a somewhat extreme view and there are still plenty of Christians who are prepared to defend the humanist position. Notably, there is M. Jacques Maritain who has written a well-known book in defence of the ideal of Christian humanism. But when Maritain talks about humanism he is clearly using the word in a very different sense from that of Professor Butterfield and his reviewer. So before discussing the problem it is essential to clarify our ideas and to define the real nature of humanism. For "humanism" is one of those words like "democracy" that has been used so loosely during the last fifty years that it can mean almost anything. If we neglect this task of definition and begin talking about Integral Humanism or Scientific Humanism or any of the other rival forms of humanist theory, we are apt to become involved in a fog of ideological controversy which has little relation to any historical reality.

Humanism was a real historical movement, but it was never a philosophy or a religion.  It belongs to the sphere of education, not to that of theology or metaphysics. No doubt it involved certain moral values, but so does any educational tradition. Therefore it is wiser not to define humanism in terms of philosophical theories or even of moral doctrines, but to limit ourselves to the proposition that humanism is a tradition of culture and founded on the study of humane letters.

At first sight this does not carry us very far. It will not satisfy the philosophers like Maritain who says that "whoever uses the word [humanism] brings into play at once an entire metaphysic." Nevertheless it is, for all that, the authentic humanism of the humanists─the historic movement that has perhaps done more than anything else to establish the norms of modern European culture during the three centuries between the Renaissance and the Revolution.

Thus although the definition appears to reduce humanism from a philosophy to a form of education, it was a form of education which formed the mind of Western Europe for more than 300 years without distinction of philosophy or creed. Whatever we may think about the relations between Christianity and humanism as a philosophy or metaphysic there can be no question or conflict between the tradition of humanist education and the tradition of theological orthodoxy. For the humanist education was also the education of the theologians. It was practically the only education that Europe knew, and it was common to all parties and all creeds with a few insignificant exceptions.

This is not to say that the humanist culture of the post Reformation world was one and the same in every part of Europe. Religious differences had an important influence on its development, so that although Catholics and Protestants were both alike influenced by their humanist education, it produced different fruits in art and culture and life in the different spiritual environments.


In the South the union of humanism and Catholicism gave birth to the Baroque culture which was the dominant form of European culture in the first half of the seventeenth century and which maintained its influence in Austria and Germany and Spain and South America far into the eighteenth century.

In the North the unity of the Protestant culture is less obvious owing to the absence of religious unity as between the Lutherans and the Calvinists. Nevertheless the influence of humanism on the culture of Northern Europe is no less important than in the South, and it contributed no less than Protestantism to the formation of the new bourgeois culture in Holland and England and Scotland which was destined to have such an immense influence on the future of Western civilization.

Nevertheless Protestant culture was by no means completely humanist. The educated classes had all undergone the discipline of a humanist education, but they derived their ethical ideals both from the philosophers and the humanists but directly from the Bible and above all from the Old Testament. This element of Hebraism was strongest among the Puritans who have often been regarded, e.g., by Matthew Arnold, as responsible for the anti-humanist or Philistine character of the culture of the middle classes in England and America.  But the popular conception of the Puritan as an illiterate Philistine is a gross caricature. Both in England and New England the Puritans were very much alive to the value of humane letters and humanist culture, and some of the most remarkable types of Christian humanism in England are to be found among the chaplains of Oliver Cromwell like Peter Sterry and John Goodwin and Jeremy White.

It was rather in the Protestant underworld─among the lesser sects which kept alive the traditions of medieval heresy─that the anti-humanist element was strongest, and though these sects seldom emerged into the light of history, they nevertheless had a considerable influence on the religion and life of the English-speaking world. They survive today above all in the United States, in the Corybantic excesses of Protestant revivalism and in the obscurantism of traditional sectarianism.

These extravagances are very remote from the authentic Puritan tradition. Nevertheless, we must admit that in Puritanism as a whole apart from the small group of Puritan humanists above whom I have mentioned, there is a hard core of unassimilated Hebraism which, even in a man like Milton, produced a sharp dualism between religion and culture and led him to use his mastery of the humanist style against the humanist tradition itself, as in his denunciation of classical literature and philosophy in the fourth book of "Paradise Regained."

It was this dualism of religion and culture which prevented the development of religious drama and religious art in seventeenth-century England and destroyed the medieval unity of religion and social life.

In Catholic Europe it was not so. The Baroque culture was far more deeply penetrated by humanist influences than the culture of the Protestant world, since they were not confined to the scholars and the men of letters, but affected the life of the people as a whole through religious art and music and drama which continued to play the same part in the Baroque world that they had performed in the Middle Ages.

Thus there was not that same sharp division or antagonism between religion and culture that we find in Northern Europe. For instance, the drama, instead of being banned by the Church, was used deliberately as a means of popular religious instruction, so that in Spain religious and secular dramas were composed by the same authors, performed by the same actors, and applauded by the same audiences. In the same way, there was no sharp dualism in Catholic Europe between humanist and Christian ethics. The synthesis between Christian and Aristotelian ethics which was perhaps the most important of the achievements of St. Thomas remained the basis of the Catholic teaching and it provided an ideal foundation for the construction of a Christian humanism which could integrate the moral values of the humanist tradition with the super-naturalism of Christian theology.

It may be objected that by bringing in Thomism, I am doing just what I objected to do in the ideologists of humanism. But apart from the fact that Aristotle and Plato have always been included in the study of humane letters, the "Nicomachaen Ethics" embody the essential principles of humanist ethics and have an incomparable importance in the history of humanist education.

We must remember that "the study of humane letters" was never confined to literature and philology. It was understood in the widest possible sense, as including the whole realm of classical culture. Thus the tradition of humanism takes us back eventually to the tradition of Hellenism which was the real source alike of the humanist values and of the humanist system of education.

Consequently humanism represents something much wider than the movement with which the name is primarily associated─I mean than the Renaissance of classical studies in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It stands for a continuous tradition which accompanies the whole course of Western culture from its beginnings in ancient Greece down to modern times. In some ages it has been weakened and obscured, and these are what the humanists called Dark Ages. But as E.R. Curtius has recently shown in his great book on European literature and the Latin Middle Ages, the continuity is much greater than is generally realized; and though the Italian scholars of the Renaissance were the first to be known as humanists, we have no right to deny the title to John of Salisbury and the scholars of Chartres in the twelfth century or even to some of the Carolingian scholars in the ninth century, like Theodulf of Orleans and Walafrid Strabo. It is this continuous tradition that makes the unity of European literature and European thought, so that, as E.R. Curtius insists, it is hopeless to try to study any of the modern European literatures as though it were an autonomous whole, since they all form part of a greater unity and are only fully intelligible when they are related to the common tradition of Western humanism.

And the same can be said about the different European cultures. Culture does not arise spontaneously from the soil, it is an artificial growth which has been diffused from its original source in the Eastern Mediterranean by a complex process of transplantation and has been gradually made to bear fruit in a new soil by a long process of careful cultivation. Drama and prose are like the vine and the olive, and they are derived from the same homelands. The difference is that they have spread farther and changed more.


This, however, is only one side of Western culture. The mistake of the humanists of the Renaissance and the men of the eighteenth century, and to some extent of modern scholars, is that they have regarded the humanist tradition as the only creative and formative element in Western culture and have shut their eyes to the existence of other elements or else have condemned everything else as barbaric, irrational and inhuman. In reality there is another tradition which is even more important then humanism in the development of European culture─the Christian tradition. This, like the tradition of humanism, has come into Western Europe from outside and has become acclimatized and assimilated by a thousand years of spiritual labour. It is a more recent importation than the other, but on the other hand it has gone much deeper, since it has not been limited to the educated and leisured classes, but has penetrated to the roots of society─to the peasants─and has deeply influenced the life and thought of the common people.

First as rivals, then as mistress and servant, then as rivals again, but sometimes as friends and coadjutors, these two great traditions have together been the conscious spiritual and intellectual sources of Western culture.

Today both of them are threatened, and threatened on the whole by the same enemies, but both still exist, and as long as they exist Europe still survives.

Nevertheless this situation does not necessarily lead to a closer understanding and cooperation between Christians and humanists. There are many Christians who take an extremely pessimistic view of the prospects of Western culture. They believe that Europe is done for and that the future of Christianity lies elsewhere. As Canon Vidler has written:
"Generally speaking, Christians see the European breakdown as the culmination and disintegration of the tremendous experiment that began at the Renaissance. That is, the experiment of European man to build a civilization with himself at the center and independently of God and his sovereign rule." "Secular Despair and Christian Faith," p. 82.
From this point of view there can be no question of an alliance between Christianity and Humanism, or rather the de facto alliance that does in some sort exist is a compromising one from which Christians must disentangle themselves as quickly and as completely as possible. And yet this process of disentanglement is not so simple as it seems at first sight. After 1800 years of intercourse there has been so much mutual interpenetration that all kinds of patterns of thought and behavior have been formed which have become a second nature to us, and the average Christian does not realize how much his moral outlook is conditioned by humanist influences.


Take the case of humanitarianism. No doubt humanitarianism is on the decline in the modern world, but it is still strong and nowhere is it stronger than among English and American Christians. Yet humanitarianism is not a purely Christian movement any more than it is a purely humanist one. It is a typical example of the impact of the humanist tradition on Christianity and vice versa. Certainly we cannot regard the humanitarian achievements of the last two centuries as secure today, but in this matter at least the secular humanists and the Christians are very closely united─much more closely united, I think, than the different Christian bodies are in their defence of the rights of the Church against the secular state. And if today there was any question of reviving the practice of judicial torture or the reintroducing of public executions, there is no doubt that the very Christians who are most critical of humanism would be loudest in their protests.

The fact is that very few people have a clear idea of what a strictly non-humanist Christianity would be like. Of course they are aware of the existence of that type of extreme sectarianism which is content to be as "ignorantas a mule" but I am sure that is not the kind of thing they want. It is no doubt possible to find examples of non-humanist Christianity that are more admirable than this, but they are a long way away. Perhaps the best example I can quote is that of the Archpriest Avakkum who was burnt alive in 1682 for his opposition to the reform of the Russian liturgy and whose autobiography is one of the classics of Russian literature. Now in some respects the religion of Avakkum seems just what is wanted if Christianity is to survive in a non-humanist totalitarian order, for he succeeded in existing and bearing witness to his faith under conditions which make the ordinary concentration camp seem like a kindergarten. But on the intellectual side his Christianity has no contact with ordinary rational life. He was a kind of Christian witch-doctor who could meet the Siberian shamans on their own ground but whose religion was as narrow as theirs. His lack of any humanist culture or ethic made him entirely dependent on a rigid observance of ritual order, such as crossing oneself with three fingers instead of with two. The latter seemed to him an act of apostasy far worse than any mere crime or act of immorality.

Now this kind of anti-humanist Christianity is not only contrary to the traditions of Western Christendom which have admittedly been permeated by humanist influence, but it is alien from the spirit of Christianity itself.


The real decision was made by the apostolic Church when it turned from the Jews to the Gentiles, from the closed world of the synagogue and the law to the cosmopolitan society of the Roman Hellenistic world. In spite of his apparent anti-intellectualism, St. Paul was by no means unconscious of the value of humane letters in the work of evangelization. In fact he was himself the first Christian humanist and his speech to the Athenians, with its appeal to the Hellenistic doctrines of the unity of the human race, of divine providence and of the natural affinity between the human and divine natures, is the basic document of Christian humanism. All this is much more than a method of apologetic devised for an Hellenistic audience. It is an expression of St. Paul's sense of a certain affinity between Christianity and Hellenism owing to which the Hellenistic cities of the Eastern Roman Empire provided the necessary conditions for the propagation of the new faith.

What was the nature of this affinity? On the one hand Hellenism provided a humane ethos and a philosophy of human nature which were not to be found among other cultures, while on the other hand Christianity is distinguished from other religions by its doctrine of the Incarnate Word, through whom the Divine and Human Natures have been substantially united in the historic person of Jesus Christ, the mediator between God and Man.

It is clear that this essential Christian doctrine gives a new value to human nature, to human history and to human life which is not to be found in the other great oriental religions. The more the latter insist on the transcendence and absoluteness of the Divine Nature, the more they widen the gulf between God and Man, so that they tend either to deny the reality of the material world or to regard it as essentially evil, so that the body is a prison into which the human soul has got caught. These ideas were so powerful in the ancient world that they have often threatened to invade Christianity, and it was only by using the methods of Hellenic culture and with the help of Christian humanists like St. Irenaeus and St. Gregory of Nyssa that the Church was able to vindicate the Christian doctrine of man.

To St. Gregory there is a profound analogy between man's natural function as a rational being─the ruler of the world and the link between the intelligible and sensible orders─and the divine mission of the Incarnate Word which unites humanity with the divine nature and restores the broken unity of the whole creation. The natural order corresponds with the supernatural order and both form part of the same divine all-embracing plan of creation and restoration. The Incarnation restores human nature to its original integrity and with it the whole material creation which is raised through man to a higher plane and integrated with the intelligible or spiritual order.

These doctrines are no doubt fundamentally Pauline, but with St. Gregory of Nyssa they are explicitly related to the tradition of Greek thought and to the Hellenic ideal of humanity. Moreover, St. Gregory of Nyssa with his brother, St. Basil, and their friend, St. Gregory Naziansen, were also humanists in the more technical sense─great students and lovers of humane letters who had a decisive influence on the development of the culture of Orthodox Christendom. Today there is a tendency to view Eastern Christianity through Russian eyes and to stress those elements in the Byzantine tradition which are most remote from the humanist tradition, as we see it, for example, in Avakkum and Khomiakoff and Dostoevsky. But these represent the spirit of Russia rather than the Byzantine tradition. The real founders of the Byzantine culture were the great Cappadocian fathers of whom I have spoken, and behind all the later developments of Eastern Orthodoxy which found so many different expressions in different ages and peoples, there lies this Christian Hellenism of the fourth century, which was also a Christian humanism.

It is true that there is another element in Orthodox Christianity which is neither Western nor humanist─I mean the tradition of the monks of the desert. But whereas the Byzantine culture was able to incorporate and Hellenize this tradition, thanks largely to St. Basil himself, the purely Oriental element in monasticism as represented by the leaders of Egyptian monasticism like Bgoul and Schenouti became unorthodox as well as non-humanist and was one of the driving forces behind the religious revolt which separated Egypt and Syria from the Orthodox Church.


It is therefore no accident that this great Orientalist reaction against Hellenic culture should have found its theological justification in a doctrine which denied the full humanity of Christ. Nor did the Oriental reaction stop at this point. For Monophysitism is only the first step in a far-reaching movement which carried the East away from Christianity and found its final expression in the uncompromising unitarian absolutism of Islam which rejects the whole idea of Incarnation and restores an impassable gulf between God and Man.

And thus while it is easy enough to conceive of an Oriental Christianity which has no affinity with any form of humanist culture, we must admit that it is very difficult in practice for such a Christianity to hold its own against the various forms of unorthodox or non-Christian spirituality─Manichean, Moslem or Monophysite─which make such a profound appeal to the Oriental mind.

No doubt there is the Christianity of Abyssinia which is Monophysite more by historical accident than by theological necessity and which has held its own for a thousand years against the pressure of Islam. And even in the case of Abyssinia we must not forget how much the national revival in the sixteenth century owed to the stimulus of Western culture and Western Christianity.

It is true that Christianity is not bound up with any particular race or culture. It is neither of the East or of the West, but has a universal mission to the human race as a whole. Nevertheless it is precisely in this universality that the natural bond and affinity between Christianity and humanism is to be found. For humanism also appeals to man as man. It seeks to liberate the universal qualities of human nature from the narrow limitations of blood and soil and class and to create a common language and a common culture in which men can realize their common humanity. Humanism is an attempt to overcome the curse of Babel which divides mankind into a mass of warring tribes hermetically sealed against one another by their mutual incomprehensibility. If this only means that humanism is attempting to build a new tower of Babel─a city of Man founded on pride and self will in ignorance and contempt of God─then no doubt humanism is anti-Christian. But this is not the only kind of humanism. As man needs God and nature requires grace for its own perfecting, so humane culture is the natural foundation and preparation for spiritual culture. Thus Christian humanism is as indispensable to the Christian way of life as Christian ethics and a Christian sociology. Humanism and Divinity are as complementary to one another in the order of culture, as are Nature and Grace in the order of being.  

~Christopher Dawson                                    

"The center of history"

“THE doctrine of the Incarnation which is the central doctrine of the Christian faith is also the center of history, and thus it is natural and appropriate that our traditional Christian history is framed in a chronological system which takes the year of the Incarnation as its point of reference and reckons its annals backwards and forwards from this fixed center.” 

~Christopher Dawson: The Christian View of History.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"The elements of religious truth are common to the human race"

“IT is the traditional teaching of natural theology that the elements of religious truth are common to the human race and accessible to every rational creature—that the divine Being is the transcendent end towards which all the different ways of life converge and the divine law the universal norm by which all different patterns of human behavior can be coordinated.”

~Christopher Dawson: Gifford Lectures, 1947; Religion and Culture.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Significance of Bolshevism

THE economic crisis over the last two years has proved a godsend to the Bolsheviks. The years of the new Economic Policy in Russia and off the post-War boom in the West were a  time of disappointment and trial for the leaders of the Communist Party. Fortunately for them the launching of the second Communist offensive in Russia—the Five-Year Plan—coincided with the apparent collapse of the capitalist system in the West and has revived the hopes of world revolution which for a time had been abandoned. Above all, these hopes are concentrated on the approaching dissolution of the British Empire, which the Bolsheviks regard not without reason as the chief element of cohesion in the divided ranks of their enemies. Today Trotsky writes:

Only a blind man could fail to see that Great Britain is headed for gigantic revolutionary earthquake shocks in which the last fragments of her conservatism, her world domination, her present state machine, will go down without a trace.”

These hopes are encouraged by the mood of fatalism and despair that is so common in Western countries. Professed Communists may be few enough, but everywhere we find intellectuals who are fascinated by the grandiose projects of Communist state planning and who feel that the social and economic system of Western Europe neither deserves nor is able to survive its present crisis.

What is the reason for the success—even though it be only a relative success—of Bolshevism; for the way in which it has maintained itself essentially unchanged through all the vicissitudes of the Revolution and the Civil War, the New Economic Policy and the Five-Year Plan; above all, for the attraction that it seems to exercise not only for the discontented and the disinherited proletarian, but also for the disinterested ideologist? This is a question that a young German sociologist, Dr. Waldemar Gurian, has attempted to answer in an important book that has been recently translated into English[1] and he has succeeded better than any other writer that I know in getting to the root of the matter and revealing the essential nature of the Bolshevik régime. For Bolshevism is not a political movement that can be judged by its practical aims and achievements, nor is it an abstract theory that can be understood apart from its historical context. It differs from other contemporary movements above all by its organic unity, its fusion of theory and practice, and by the way in which its practical policy is bound up with its philosophy. In a world of relativity and skepticism it stands for absolute principles; for a creed that is incarnate in a social order and for an authority that demands the entire allegiance of the whole man. The Bolshevik ideology, writes Dr. Gurian,

has been transformed from a philosophy consciously learned and imposed on life from without into a concrete living force, a national outlook, which unconsciously, implicitly, and spontaneously determines and moulds all men’s judgments and opinions.”

These revolutionaries are not simply politicians satisfied with the possession of power. They regard themselves as bearers of a gospel which shall bring to humanity the true redemption from its suffering, the imperfections of its earthly existence.

It is precisely in this respect that Bolshevism is superior to the skeptical, relativist and purely opportunist political and social attitude so common in the outside world. It claims to represent immutable principles. Though it regards earthly existence, the economic and social organisation, as the final end of human life, it follows this belief with a zeal and a devotion that give it the appearance of a religion, in comparison with which the frequent panegyrics of man’s spiritual freedom and dignity which carry with them no practical obligation appear worthless and hollow. It is therefore impossible to combat Bolshevism with arguments of a purely opportunist kind.

And, in the same way, the Communist party has little resemblance to a political party in the ordinary sense of the word. It is a voluntary organization only in the same sense as is a religious order. Its members are bound by a rigid and impersonal discipline, but they are not the servants of the state, for the state itself is their instrument. It is true that they regard themselves as the representatives and trustees of the proletariat, but it would be a great mistake to suppose that they think it their business to obey the wishes of the working class, as the democratic politician fulfils the mandate of his electors. The proletariat they serve is a mystical entity—the universal church of the Marxian believer—and the actual populace is an unregenerate mass which it is their duty to guide according to the principles of the true faith. The Communist is not a representative of the people: he is the priest of an idea.

Consequently the triumph of Bolshevism was not the triumph of the popular will over Tsarist tyranny, or of revolutionary enthusiasm over conservative order. It was the victory of authority and discipline over democratic idealism and individualism. As we see clearly enough in the first volume of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, it was the victory of a few men who knew what they wanted and allowed nothing to stand in the way over a vast majority that was driven to and fro by the uncertainty of the politicians and the passions of the mob. It was, above all, the victory of one man—Lenin—the most remarkable personality that the age produced.

The age of the great war was an age of iron, but it gave birth to no military genius and no great statesman; its political leaders were men of paper. The one man of iron that the age produced arose from the most unlikely quarter that it is possible to conceive—from among the fanatics and revolutionary agitators who wandered about the watering places of Switzerland and Germany conspiring ineffectually and arguing with one another. To the practical politicians, even those of the Socialist party, Lenin was nothing but an ineffective visionary. Kerensky himself at first seems to have regarded him with condescending tolerance as a man who “knew nothing, who had lived apart from the world and viewed everything through the glasses of his fanaticism”.

Certainly Lenin was a fanatic, but he was a fanatic who had no illusions about himself or others and who was as ready to learn from experience as the most opportunist of practical politicians. Nothing could be more unlike the popular idea of a revolutionary leader than this simple and even commonplace man who derided idealism and hated fine phrases, and who, in his own words, “always kept a stone in his pockets” in dealing with his fellow-men. He was the complete antithesis of Trotsky, the man of words, and it shows his power of self-suppression that he should have worked so long with a man whose nature was so utterly alien to his own, because he was a useful asset to the revolutionary cause.

But Lenin’s cynicism and hatred of “idealism” must not lead us to suppose that he undervalued ideas. He was above all a man of theory and he differed from the average Socialist leader, both among the Bolsheviks and outside the party, in his insistence on the philosophical absolutism of the communist creed. “We must realize”, he wrote in 1922, “that neither the natural sciences nor even a materialism that lacks solid philosophical foundations is capable of carrying on the struggle against the onslaught of bourgeois ideas and preventing the re-establishment of the bourgeois Weltanschauung. If this contest is to be waged victoriously, the scientist must be a materialist of our time, that is to say, a conscious adherent of the materialism represented by Marx: in other words a dialectical materialist.” And even Marx himself was not enough, since he held that without Hegel Marx’s Kapital is unintelligible. Hegel and Marx are the Old and New Testaments of the Bolshevik dispensation, and neither of them can stand without the other. No amount of practical success can justify the sacrifice of a jot or a tittle of this revelation, and it is better to postpone the immediate realization of Communism as a working system (as Lenin actually did by the New Economic Policy), rather than to imperil the orthodoxy of the picked minority that forms the spiritual foundation of the whole system.

Thus the Communist system, as planned and largely created by Lenin, was a kind of atheocracy, a spiritual order of the most rigid and exclusive type, rather than a political order. The state was not an end in itself, it was an instrument, or, as Lenin himself puts it, “simply the weapon with which the proletariat wages its class war—a special sort of bludgeon, nothing more”.

Nothing could be more characteristic of Lenin’s inhuman simplicity and directness than this sentence: for, unlike his Western admirers, Lenin was never afraid to call a bludgeon a bludgeon.

To the western mind such an attitude may seem shocking or inconceivable, just as the Bolshevik conception of law and the judiciary system as a weapon to be wielded by the dictatorship for political ends. But it must be recognized that it has roots deep in Russian history. Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great also regarded the state as a bludgeon and dealt with the Boyars and Old Believers as mercilessly as Lenin dealt with the bourgeois and the Kulaks. It seems as though it were the fate of the vast, slow-moving masses of the Russian people to be periodically bludgeoned into activity by the ruthless energy of their rulers. Trotsky himself fully recognizes this feature of the Russian development. “A backward culture”, he writes, “is forced to make sudden leaps under the whips of external necessity”; and his first chapter is a commentary on those words of Vico: “The Tsar of Muscovy, although a Christian, rules over a lazy-minded people.”

But all this does not explain the attraction of the Bolshevik experiment for certain elements in the West. If it were simply a question of catching up with the capitalist Europe, as Trotsky almost seems to suggest, Western Europe has no more reason to disturb itself than it did in the past. After all, nobody in the West thought of idealizing Ivan the Terrible or even Peter the Great. The fact is that while Bolshevism is in the concrete a Russian phenomenon, its theoretic basis and its absolute claims have given it a much wider significance than any purely national revolution could have. It reflects in the distorted and exaggerated medium of Russian society a crisis in common to the whole of the modern world. As primitive peoples succumb more easily than white men to the diseases of civilization, so the spiritual maladies of European civilization become more deadly in a simpler social environment. The influence of revolutionary ideas, the loss of spiritual order, the substitution of private interests for public authority and of individual opinions for social beliefs are factors common to the modern world, but the Western peoples have been in some degree immunized by two centuries of experience and they have hitherto been able to preserve their social stability in spite of the prevalence of subversive ideas. In Russia, however, this was not the case. The Russian bourgeoisie possessed in an exaggerated form all the weaknesses of their Western counterparts. They were a source of weakness rather than of strength to the social order, which they undermined spiritually at the same time that they exploited it economically. They showed a platonic sympathy for every kind of subversive ideal, and even the Bolsheviks themselves received financial support from prominent industrialists, such as Sava Morosov. Above all, it is in Russia that we can study in its purest form the phenomenon of an intelligentsia—that is to say, and educated class—that is entirely detached from social responsibilities and that provides a seed bed for the propagation if revolutionary ideas. It was not from the ranks of the lesser nobility and the bourgeois intelligentsia that the leaders of the revolutionary and terrorist movement arose from the time if Herzen and Bakunin to that of Lenin himself.

Hence it is not surprising that the dame society that has seen the most extreme development of the subversive elements in bourgeois culture should also produce the most extreme type of reaction against culture. The disintegration of bourgeois society has worked itself out to its logical conclusion and has given place to a movement in the reverse direction. The futility and emptiness of Russian bourgeois existence as described, for instance, by Chekhov, or still earlier in Goncharov’s Oblomov, is such that any régime which offers a positive and objective end of life becomes attractive. Man cannot live in a spiritual void; he needs some fixed social standards and some absolute intellectual principles. Bolshevism at least replaces the spiritual anarchy of bourgeois society by a rigid order and substitutes for the doubt and skepticism of an irresponsible intelligentsia the certitude of an absolute authority embodies in social institutions. 

It is true that the Bolshevik philosophy is a poor thing at best. It is philosophy reduced to its lowest terms, a philosophy with a minimum of spiritual and intellectual content. It impoverishes life instead of enriching it, and confines the mind in a narrow and arid circle of ideas. Nevertheless, it is enough of a philosophy to provide society with a theoretical basis, and therein lies the secret of its strength. The lesson of Bolshevism is that any philosophy is better than no philosophy, and that a régime which possesses a principle of authority, however misconceived it may be, will be stronger than a system that rests on the shifting basis of private interests and private opinions.

And this is the reason why Bolshevism with all its crudity constitutes a real menace to Western society. For although our civilization is stronger and more coherent than that of pre-War Russia, it suffers from the same internal weakness. It needs some principle of social and economic order and yet it has lost all vital relation to the spiritual traditions on which the old order of European culture was based. As Dr. Gurian writes:

Marxism, and therefore Bolshevism, does but voice the secret and unavowed philosophy of the bourgeois society when it regards society and economics as the absolute. It is faithful, likewise, to its morality when it seeks to order this absolute, the economic society, in such a way that justice, equality and freedom, the original war cries of the bourgeois advance, may be the lot of all. The rise of the bourgeois and the evolution of the bourgeois society have made economics the centre of public life.”

And thus:

Bolshevism is at once the product of the bourgeois society and the judgement upon it. It reveals the goal to which the secret philosophy if that society leads, if accepted with unflinching logic.” 

At first, this criticism of the bourgeois society seems unjust, in view of the great services that it has rendered to civilization during the last two centuries. It may be plausibly argued that the faults of the bourgeois are no greater than those of the leading classes in other ages, while his virtues are all his own. But the fact remains that the typical leaders of bourgeois society do not arouse the same respect as that which is felt for the corresponding figures in the old régime. We instinctively feel that there is something honourable about a king, a noble, or a knight which the banker, the stockbroker or the democratic politician do not possess. A king may be a bad king, but our condemnation of him is a tribute to the prestige of his office. Nobody speaks of a “bad bourgeois”, the Socialist may indeed call him a “bloody bourgeois”, but that is a set formula that has nothing to do with his personal vices or virtues.

This distrust of the bourgeois is no modern phenomenon. It has its roots in a much older tradition than socialism. It is equally typical of the mediaeval noble or peasant, the romantic Bohemian and the modern proletarian. The fact is that the bourgeoisie has always stood somewhat apart from the main structure of European society, save in Italy and in the Low Countries. While the temporal power was in the hands of the kings and the nobles and spiritual power was in the hands of the Church, bourgeoisie, the Third Estate, occupied a position of privileged inferiority which allowed them to amass wealth and to develop considerable intellectual culture and freedom of thought without acquiring direct responsibility or power.[2] Consequently, when the French Revolution and the fall of the old régime made the bourgeoisie the ruling class in the West, it retained its inherited characteristics, its attitude of hostile criticism towards the traditional order and its enlightened selfishness in the pursuit of its own interests. But although the bourgeois now possessed the substance of power, he never really accepted social responsibility as the old rulers had done. He remained a private individual—an idiot in the Greek sense—with a strong sense of social conventions and personal rights, but with little sense of social solidarity and no recognition of his responsibility as the servant and representative of a super-personal order. In fact, he did not realize the necessity of such an order, since it had always been provided for him by others, and he had taken it for granted.

This, I think, is the fundamental reason for the unpopularity and lack of prestige of bourgeois civilization. It lacks the vital human relationship which the older order with all its faults never denied. To the bourgeois politician the electorate is an accidental collection of voters; to the bourgeois industrialist his employees are an accidental collection of wage earners. The king and the priest, on the other hand, were united to their people by a bond of organic solidarity. They were not individuals standing over and against other individuals, but parts of a common social organism and representatives of a common spiritual order.

The bourgeoisie upset the throne and the altar, but they put in their place nothing but themselves. Hence their régime cannot appeal to any higher sanction than that of self interest. It is continually in a state of disintegration and flux. It is not a permanent form of social organization, but a transitional phase between two orders.

This does not, of course, mean that Western society is inevitably doomed to go the way of Russia, or that it can find salvation in the Bolshevik ideal of class dictatorship and economic mass civilization. The Bolshevik philosophy is simply the reductio ad absurdum of the principles implicit in bourgeois culture and consequently it provides no real answer to the weaknesses and deficiencies of the latter. It takes the nadir of European spiritual development for the zenith of a new order.

The bourgeois culture in spite of its temporary importance is nothing but an episode in European history. This is why the current Socialist opposition of Communist and bourgeois society is in reality a false dilemma. Western civilization is not merely the civilization of the bourgeois; it is the old civilization of Western Christendom that is undergoing a temporary phase of disorganization and change. It owes its strength not to its bourgeois politics and economics, but to the older and more permanent elements of its social and spiritual tradition. In no country, save perhaps the United States, does the bourgeois culture exist in the pure state as a self-subsistent whole. England, above all, which seems at first sight to be the most thoroughly bourgeois society of all, has in reality never possessed a bourgeoisie in the true sense. Its ruling class down to modern times was agrarian in character and incorporated considerable elements of the older aristocratic tradition. Ever since Tudor times it was the aim of the successful merchants to “found a family” and leave the city for the country, and even the city man remained to a great extent a countryman at heart, as we see as late as the Victorian period in Surtees’s Jorrocks. The English Noncomformists did indeed possess a tradition of cultural separatism analogous to that of the continental bourgeoisie; but even they were not pure bourgeois, since the basis of their social unity was religious and not an economic one.

In the same way the government of England has never been completely transformed by the bourgeois revolution, but still preserves the monarchical principle as the centre of national solidarity and order.

And the same state of things exists in varying degrees in every Western state. Even France, which politically is an almost pure type of bourgeois culture, is sociologically far from simple and owes its strength to the delicate equilibrium that it has established between two different social types—the peasant and the bourgeois—and two opposite spiritual traditions—that of the Catholic Church and that of the Liberal Enlightenment.

Consequently, it is impossible to solve the problem of Western society by disregarding the social and spiritual complexity of European civilization. Bourgeois civilization is not the only European traditions, and Rousseau and Marx are not the only European thinkers. The new order must be conceived not in terms of bourgeois exploiter and exploited proletarian, but as a unity that incorporates every element in European culture and that does justice to the spiritual and social as well as to the economic needs of human nature. In Russia such a solution was impossible owing to the profound gulf that divided the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia with their imported Western culture from the governmental tradition of Byzantine autocracy and Orthodoxy and the peasant culture of a semi-barbaric peasantry. But Western civilization is still fundamentally homogenous. Our intelligentsia has not entirely lost its roots in a common spiritual order, and our bourgeoisie is not entirely divorced from social responsibility. It is still not too late to restore the integrity of European culture on the basis of a comprehensive and Catholic order. We must go back to an older and more fundamental social tradition and to a wider and more perennial philosophy, which recognize the depth and complexity of human nature and the existence of a moral order that must govern political and economic relations no less than private behavior. As Dr. Gurian says, Bolshevism itself is an unintentional and therefore most impressive witness to the existence of such an order, since its attempt to treat society as a closed and self-sufficient order has led not to Utopia but to tyranny. Man is first mutilated by being deprived of some of his most essential activities, and this maimed and crippled human nature is made the standard by which civilization and life itself are judged.

~Christopher Dawson
Published in The American Review, April 1933, pp. 36-49.


1. Bolshevism: Theory and Practice, translated by E.I. Watkin; Sheed & Ward.

2. The same condition obtained in a highly accentuated form in the case of the Jews, who are so to speak, bourgeois par excellence, and this explains how it is that the East European Jew can adapt himself so much more rapidly and successfully than his Christian neighbor to modern bourgeois civilization.

[Formatting: Additional paragraph breaks and italicization were inserted here for slightly easier reading.]

Friday, January 23, 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 arc 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.

A Concrete reality

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: From The Modern Dilemma: The Problem of European Unity. (Sheed & Ward, 1933)

"The Middle Ages"

“THE Middle Ages were not the ages of faith in the sense of unquestioning submission to authority and blind obedience. They were ages of spiritual struggle and social change, in which the existing situation was continually being modified by the reforming energy and the intellectual activity that were generated by the contact between the living stream of Christian tradition and the youthful peoples of the west.”

~Christopher Dawson: Medieval Essays. (1930)

"The scientific order"

“In a Christian civilization the scientific order would no longer offer, as it does at present, the tragic spectacle of vast resources of power and intelligence devoted to producing unsightly and unnecessary objects and to endowing mankind with the new means of self-destruction; it would become an instrument for the realization of man’s true destiny as the orderer of material things to spiritual ends. And so, too, with regard to the international aspects of our civilization. Without spiritual order the cosmopolitan of modern culture does not make for peace; it merely increases the opportunities of strife. It destroys all that is best and most distinctive in the local and national cultures, while leaving the instincts of national and racial hostility to develop unchecked. It unites mankind in the common enjoyment of the cinema and the Ford car and the machine gun without creating any spiritual unity. The recovery of the Christian idea of order would give a spiritual expression to the universality of modern culture. It’s material unification would become subservient to the ideal of the spiritual unity of mankind in justice and charity, an ideal that has a very real attraction for the modern mind, but which secular idealism is powerless to achieve.” 

~Christopher Dawson: Christianity and the New Age, Chap. IV.


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