Saturday, November 19, 2016

"The forces of destruction"

“OUR generation has been forced to realize how fragile and unsubstantial are the barriers the separate civilization from the forces of destruction. We have learnt that barbarism is not a picturesque myth or a half-forgotten memory of a long-passed stage of history, but an ugly underlying reality which may erupt with shattering force whenever the moral authority of a civilization loses its control.”

~Christopher H. Dawson: Gifford Lectures, 1948: Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"Christians have allowed civilization to become secular”

“IF the Christian faith contains such vast sources of spiritual energy and power, if the Church is the divine organ of world transformation and the seed of a new humanity, how has it come about that the world—above all the Christian world—has fallen into its present plight? From the Christian point of view it is easy to understand persecution and external adversity and failure, but it is far harder to face the failure of Christianity on the spiritual plane. For it is not simply that modern civilization has become secularized, it is that Christians have allowed civilization to become secular.”

~Christopher H. Dawson: The Judgment of the Nations, Part II, Chap. 4.—Return to Christian Unity.

Monday, August 8, 2016

"The profound pessimism of Luther"

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 secularisation of the world and the abolition of objective standards.

But the revolt against Natural Law did not only spring from

Martin Luther
the other worldliness 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 and 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 Leo XIII explained in his political encyclicals* undermined the moral foundations of Western Civilization.

Niccolo Machiavelli

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 this 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 derive their origin. Both in private life and in the 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 H. Dawson: The Judgment of the Nations, Part II, Chap. 2—Christian Social Principles. (1942)

* Leo XIII: Immortale Dei, and Libertas Praestantissimum.

The Judgment of the Nations

"Common principles and common ideals"

“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.”

~Christopher H. Dawson

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"Desecularisation of modern civilisation"

“The desecularisation of modern civilisation is no easy matter; at first sight it may seem a hopeless task. But we can at least prepare the way for it by desecularising our intellectual outlook and opening our eyes to the existence of the spiritual forces that create and transform civilisation.”

~Christopher H. Dawson: Enquiries into Religion and Culture, Intro.

“The great fault of modern democracy"

“The great fault of modern democracy ─ a fault that is common to the capitalist and the socialist ─ is that it accepts economic wealth as the end of society and the standard of personal happiness....

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 H. Dawson

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

"The traditional forms of the family"

“The peoples who allow the natural bases of society to be destroyed by the artificial conditions of the new urban civilisation will gradually disappear and their place will be taken by those populations which live under simpler conditions and preserve the traditional forms of the family.”

~Christopher H. Dawson: Enquiries into Religion and Culture.

The goal of civilization

THE end of civilisation is no longer found in intellectual culture, but in material well-being, and it is no longer limited to a single class, but is the common aim of every member of the society. The economic functions are no longer despised; in fact, it is the non-economic functions that are in danger of being neglected, since they offer no material rewards and are no longer surrounded by a halo of social prestige. It is true that for the ordinary man life has become more enjoyable and richer in opportunities that it ever was before. He owns his wireless set and his motor-bicycle, palatial cinemas and dancing halls are built for his amusement, and he has much the same standard of education and intellectual culture as his employer. But against this we must set a loss of spiritual independence, of which the average man himself is probably unconscious. However harsh and narrow was the existence of the European peasant, he still possessed the liberty to be himself—a liberty which flowered in a rich diversity and an intense vitality of character and personality. But to-day, if a man is to enjoy the material benefits of the new mass-civilisation, he must put off his individuality and conform himself to standardized types of thought and conduct. And this extends also to the details of taste and personal habits. As M. Romier writes: “Such and such a way of dressing, furnishing the home, feeding, amusing oneself, once advertised to the public and successfully ‘launched,’ becomes entrenched and defended through the solidarity of manufacturers, workers, wholesalers, shopkeepers, salesmen, all banded together in quest of profits they will share in common.”

For an individual to escape the pressure of this mass-movement is almost impossible. For “he who would escape from the fixed morals or modes set by standardisation must pay a fearful price; he must undergo a kind of penance.” And, consequently, the springs of creative originality are stopped at the source. The artist and the thinker are no longer the leaders of culture; they have become exiles and outlaws from the general body of society, which is governed more and more by purely external forces. Humanity has become the servant of the economic mass.

It is in the United States that this new type of civilisation has reached its fullest development. For the conditions of American life allowed full play to the new forces, which were here unfettered by social traditions and political complications. In M. Romier’s words: “This enormous social organism, in which under an iron-handed police the most novel as well as the most traditional forms of human activity are carried on at amazing speed and on a colossal scale, has been built up as of at one stroke and without any serious attention to either political ideals or theories of civil administration.”

~Christopher Dawson: "The New Leviathan." (in Enquiries into Religion and Culture

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"The work of St. Augustine remains an inalienable part of our spiritual heritage"

"IT was in this age of ruin and distress that St. Augustine lived and worked. To the materialist, nothing could be more futile than the spectacle of Augustine busying himself with the reunion of the African Church and the refutation of the Pelagians, while civilisation was falling to pieces about his ears. It would seem like the activity of an ant which works on while its nest is being destroyed. But St. Augustine saw things otherwise. To him the ruin of civilisation and the destruction of the Empire were not very important things. He looked beyond the aimless and bloody chaos of history to the world of eternal realities from which the world of sense derives all the significance which it possesses. His thoughts were fixed, not on the fate of the city of Rome or the city of Hippo, nor on the struggle of Roman and barbarian, but on those other cities which have their foundations in heaven and in hell, and on the warfare between ‘the world-rulers of the dark aeon’ and the princes of light. And, in fact, though the age of St. Augustine ended in ruin and though the Church of Africa, in the service of which he spent his life, was destined to be blotted out as completely as if it had never been, he was justified in his faith. The spirit of Augustine continued to live and bear fruit long after Christian Africa had ceased to exist. It entered into the tradition of the Western Church and moulded the thought of Western Christendom so that our very civilisation bears that imprint of his genius. However far we have travelled since the fifth century and however much we have learnt from other teachers, the work of St. Augustine remains an inalienable part of our spiritual heritage."

~Christopher Dawson: Enquiries into Religion and Culture.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

"The ethos of the Gospels is sharply opposed to the economic view of life"

The spirit of the Gospel is eminently that of the “open” type which gives, asking nothing in return, and spends itself for others. It is essentially hostile to the spirit of calculation, the spirit of worldly prudence and above all to the spirit of religious self-seeking and self-satisfaction. For what is the Pharisee but a spiritual bourgeois, a typically “closed” nature, a man who applies the principle of calculation and gain not to economics but to religion itself, a hoarder of merits, who reckons his accounts with heaven as though God was his banker? It is against this “closed,” self-sufficient moralist ethic that the fiercest denunciation of the Gospels are directed. Even the sinner who possesses a seed of generosity, a faculty of self-surrender, and an openness of spirit is nearer to the kingdom of heaven than the “righteous” Pharisee; for the soul that is closed to love is closed to grace.

In the same way the ethos of the Gospels is sharply opposed to the economic view of life and the economic virtues. It teaches men to live from day to day without taking thought for their material needs. “For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things which he possesses.” It even condemns the prudent forethought of the rich man who plans for the future: “Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee, and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?”

Thus so long as the Christian ideal was supreme, it was difficult for the bourgeois spirit to assert itself. It is true, as Sombart insists, that the bourgeois class and the bourgeois view of life had already made its appearance in medieval Europe, but powerful as they were especially in the Italian cities, they always remained limited to a part of life and failed to dominate the whole society or inspire civilization with their spirit. It was not until the Reformation had destroyed the control of the Church over social life in Northern Europe that we find a genuine bourgeois culture emerging. And whatever we may think of Max Weber’s thesis regarding the influence of the Reformation on the origins of capitalism, we cannot deny the fact that the bourgeois culture actually developed on Protestant soil, and especially in a Calvinist environment, while the Catholic environment seemed decidedly unfavourable to its evolution.

~Christopher H. Dawson: Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind. (1935)

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

English Catholicism and Victorian Liberalism

THE hundred years that have elapsed since the restoration of the English Hierarchy [in 1850] have been a time of slow but uninterrupted progress for English Catholicism. There have been no spectacular triumphs and no catastrophic defeats, but step by step the Church has been gradually recovering her lost position in the life of the nation. And this is no small achievement when one considers how completely the face of the world has changed during the last century: how the old European order and the new liberal order that aspired to take its place have both alike been swept away by new forces that were hardly perceptible in 1850, so that Europe itself and the millennial tradition of Western civilization are now in process of dissolution.

In 1850 English Liberalism, having surmounted the crisis of Chartism, was settling down to enjoy the fruits of the new order that it had created. The collapse of the old regime on the Continent in 1848 and the failure of the revolutionary movements to establish a stable democratic order had combined to strengthen the prestige of English institutions and ideals, not only in our own eyes but in those of Europe. Consequently, it is not surprising that the restoration of the Hierarchy and the reappearance of Catholicism as a living power in nineteenth-century England should have been regarded as a challenge to the spirit of the age, an act of "papal aggression." For the liberal rationalist and the conservative Protestant alike, the Papacy seemed the embodiment of those forces of reaction against which the modern world was in revolt.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 marked the final achievement of the Victorian compromise in which all the leading elements of English society found their place. High Tories like the Duke of Wellington, cosmopolitan pacifists like John Bright, Christian idealists and scientific rationalists, artisans and capitalists, all came together under the leadership of the Queen and the Prince Consort to celebrate the triumphs of science and industry and the dawn of a new era of universal peace and enlightenment. But there was no place for the English Catholics in this festival of national and international unity. The unpopularity of the Oxford conversions combined with that of Irish Nationalism and that of the Papal Government caused Catholics to be regarded with hostility and suspicion by Liberals and Conservatives alike. In their attitude to Catholicism there was nothing to choose between Liberals like Lord John Russell and Tory extremists of the type of Newdegate and Sir Robert Inglis.

Yet in spite of all this, the deeper intellectual tendencies of the age were far less hostile to Catholicism than one would suppose from the expression of popular opinion in Press and parliament. The great writers of the Victorian age, such as Carlyle and Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, were as a rule highly critical of the optimism and self-complacency of Victorian liberalism.

The romantic interest in the Middle Ages which was so characteristic of the nineteenth century affected moralists and historians no less than poets and artists, and produced a new appreciation of medieval Catholicism which did much to destroy the deeply-rooted inherited prejudices of Protestant England. Here, at last, there was common ground on which Protestant men of letters like Ruskin, Anglican scholars like S.R. Maitland, Catholic converts like Kenelm Digby and continental Catholics like Montalembert and Rio could meet and fraternize. The extent to which these influences penetrated English culture is to be seen not so much in its more obvious manifestations ─ in the Oxford Movement, in Young England, or in the Pre-Raphaelites ─ as in a change in the climate of opinion which made the rabid anti-Catholic prejudices of 1850 a thing of the past. Never since the Reformation have Catholics played such a large part in English public life or possessed such close relations with the leaders of public opinion as in the second half of the nineteenth century under the social leadership of Manning and the intellectual leadership of Newman. The conversion of an elder statesman like the first Marquess of Ripon and the political activity of Catholics like the Duke of Norfolk, Lord Emly (William Monsell) and Lord Russell of Killowen, show what a remarkable change had passed over English society during the generation that followed the restoration of the Hierarchy. 


These changes did not involve any weakening of the Victorian compromise; on the contrary, they strengthened it by broadening its basis and liberating it from religious intolerance. In its essentials the Victorian compromise outlasted the Victorian age and endured until the first world war destroyed its social and economic foundations. It was this unbroken period of peaceful continuity which distinguishes the English development from that of the continent, where the second half of the nineteenth century had proved no less revolutionary than the earlier period ─ where kingdoms and empires were being created and destroyed by war and revolution and where political liberalism was an anticlerical force which threatened the very existence of the Church.

But in England, although the leaders of the Catholic revival ─ Newman no less than Manning ─ were fully aware of the dangers of religious or ideological liberalism, there was never any tendency to identify religious with political Liberalism. On the contrary, the political affinities of the Victorian Catholics were Liberal rather than Conservative, and many of the leading Catholic figures, like Ripon, Acton, Monsell, and Russell of Killowen, were themselves strong Gladstonian Liberals. Thus English Catholicism developed in an atmosphere which was singularly free from political disturbances, and the traditional continental pattern of ideological conflict between Left and Right, between anti-Christian revolutionaries and Catholic reactionaries, remained almost entirely foreign to English life and thought.

Even the catastrophic changes of the last thirty-five years have not changed this situation so much as one might have expected. During the present century English Catholicism has continued to develop along the lines that were laid down in the later nineteenth century. The place of Catholicism in English society, which had been won for a favored few in the age of Manning, has gradually been extended to the rank and file of the Catholic body, so that there is no longer any sphere of national life from which Catholics are excluded. And this has been achieved without political conflicts through the gradual leavening of English society by the independent activity of Catholics in every class and profession.

Yet throughout this period the secularization of English culture has proceeded almost without a check, so that our position today is no longer that of a Catholic minority in a Protestant society, but that of a religious minority in a secular or neo-pagan civilization. We have become so accustomed to this change that we are apt to forget its tremendous implications. During the last hundred years English Catholicism has developed under the protection of the Victorian compromise. We have accepted the Victorian principles of individual freedom, religious toleration and the limited character of the State as elementary conditions of existence which hardly needed to be defended. But, in proportion as civilization becomes secularized, all these principles and rights lose their political expression in totalitarian States. 


Today all the basic liberties which were formerly regarded as essential conditions of modern civilization are everywhere questioned and often completely abolished, and the new secularist ideologies are establishing themselves as exclusive dogmatic anti-religions which demand the total surrender of the mind and will. It is true that this country is still relatively immune. A feeble gas-jet of freedom still flickers in the dilapidated Victorian basement. But it is obvious that English Catholicism cannot rely on the continuance of the conditions which prevailed during the first century of its restored existence. Sooner or later it must come up against the same forces that prevail in the rest of the world. No doubt this will involve great changes in our apologetic, which, like so much else, is an inheritance from the Victorian age, and which has been dominated for a century by the long-drawn-out controversy with Anglicanism. Today these familiar controversies are overshadowed by the world debate between Christianity and atheism, and we have to deal not with the validity of Anglican orders but with the existence of the human soul and the ultimate foundations of the moral order. This is a tremendous task, since the gulf which separates the world of Newman's "Loss and Gain" or that of Mrs. Wilfred Ward's novels from the world of George Orwell's "1984" or Koestler's "Darkness at Noon" is not one that can be measured in terms of years or generations.

But this change is not necessarily unfavorable to Catholicism. When the secularists themselves are forced to acknowledge "the mystery of injustice" and to see modern civilization sliding into the abyss, it is surely the time for Catholics to make the present age realize the claims of the Church as the City of God and the one hope of humanity.

A hundred years ago, at the time of the restoration of the Hierarchy, it was hard to make Englishmen realize the relevance of these tremendous claims amidst the confused babel of the sects and in face of the complacent optimism of Victorian Liberalism. For even men who were not influenced by Protestant prejudices, like Thackeray or Matthew Arnold, viewed the Church with patronizing tolerance as a picturesque survival from the dead past. 


Today the babel of tongues is becoming silent, and Western man has lost faith in himself and in his future. But the Church still stands as she stood fifteen hundred year ago, as the one earthly representative of an eternal order which survives the fall of empires and civilizations: and the darker become the prospects of secular culture, the more clearly does the Church stand out as a city of refuge for humanity. Now the history of the Church in England during the last century has been a preparation for this new situation. From the beginning of the modern epoch English Catholicism has been a minority movement which has had to depend on its own internal resources and not to look for support to the State and the traditional social order. The very period which has seen the secularization of modern culture has also been an age of Catholic rebirth and restoration in this country.

Consequently, though we have hitherto been protected by the peculiar conditions of an insular national culture, and the persistence of liberal traditions, from the impact of total secularization, we are perhaps in a better position to withstand that attack than are those societies which have possessed a continuous tradition of Catholic culture and the protection of a Catholic State. But we can only do so if we accept the full consequences of the new situation and prepare to face the new issues which this situation involves. These issues are not altogether new; they are, indeed, very similar to those that confronted the Church under the Roman Empire, but they are as remote from those of the Victorian age as those of the Apocalypse are from Newman's "Difficulties of Anglicans."

~Christopher Dawson

Source: "The Dawson Newsletter" Fall 1993, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702.

On Jewish History

A Yemenite Jew, 1914
ANYONE who, like myself, has devoted himself to the study of the history of civilizations or of Western culture cannot go far in it without becoming aware of the importance of the Jews. Yet we have to travel a long way before we begin to understand the significance of Jewish history. We are accustomed to study the history of peoples and cultures as massive entities continues in time and space. They appear and disappear, and if they reappear it is with a different name, a new consciousness and cultural tradition. As the English poet, William Blake [Rudyard Kipling], had written:

"Cities and Thrones and Powers
Stand in Time's eye, 
Almost as long as flowers 
Which daily die.

But as new buds put forth,
To glad new men,
Out of the spent and unconsidered Earth
The Cities rise again."

This is not the case with Jewish history. The Jews are always there, but they are never wholly there. I mean that at no time (at least during the last 1,900 years) has a completely Jewish culture dominated its social environment, as Arab or Persian or Chinese cultures have done. There has been a discontinuous series of Jewish cultures, each of which has produced a rich intellectual harvest, but none of which has been an independent sociological and political whole.

Now it seems to me that this series of cultures has never been adequately studied ─ not that the material is lacking or that there has been any lack of Jewish historians, but that historians have been too much inclined to imitate the nineteenth century pattern of historical nationalism and to write the history of the Jews as though they were a political and territorial unit like the ordinary modern nationality.
But if we do this, we contradict the genuine Jewish tradition, which always set Israel against and apart from "the nations."

The history of the Jews is bound up with the history of the world, not with that of any single political or territorial unit. In every age they have had a particular task to perform, but this task is to be seen in relation to the world situation rather than as part of a continuous national tradition.

Hence it seems to me that Jewish history, unlike all other histories, involves two different studies or enquiries. In the first place we have to study the four or five Jewish cultures or cultural ages as distinct entities, trying to understand each of them by its own standards and values without reference to external criteria. Secondly, we need to compare them all in order to find how far they follow a common pattern or line of development and how they are related to one another, either by direct influence and tradition or by the parallel development of common principles and institutions manifesting themselves in different cultural environments.

This second study is of course by far the more difficult one, and I doubt whether it has yet been adequately dealt with except in an encyclopedic fashion. Moreover, in the first and simpler task the tendency has been to follow the tradition of secular national historiography, as I have said ─ to write the history of the Jews in the Roman Empire, or in the Russian Empire, or in a particular period rather than to follow the different culture. But for the study of cultures the vital factor is not the political but the linguistic one. It is only by following the linguistic clue that we can trace the true line of development of the successive periods of Jewish culture.

Using this criterion, we have at least four Jewish cultures or cultural ages in post-exilic times: First, Hellenistic Judaism, the culture of the Septuagint and Philo and the Ptolemaic world. Second, East Aramaic Judaism, the culture of Babylonia and the Talmud. Third, the Jewish culture of medieval Spain, a culture both Arabic and Spanish, by means of which Greek and Arab science and philosophy penetrated medieval Europe. Fourth, the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which, although it was German or Yiddish in language, had its center in Po-land and Lithuania, and spread east and south into Russia and Rumania in modern times.

This last is the age of Jewish culture least well known to the non-Jewish world. The great cooperative works of general history, like the Cambridge Modern History, hardly refer to it at all. Yet it was of lasting importance both for the history of the Jews themselves and for that of the modern world. Its influence is with is today, for it was the main source from which modern American Jewish culture was derived.

Now when we compare these four cultures, we shall find that they have a number of common sociological features. They are all ─ or at any rate the last three ─ essentially frontier cultures, which grew up on the border line between two different civilizations and acted as intermediaries between them. Thus the Judaism of Babylonia developed on the frontier between the Persian and Roman empires, Spanish Judaism developed on the frontier between Christendom and Islam, and East Europe ─ and Judaism on the frontier between Western and Eastern Christendom ─ between Poland and Russia.

In each case there was a gap between the hostile civilizations, and the Jewish cultures flourished most where the situation had become stabilized and the rival civilizations had attained a precarious balance of power. But as soon as this equilibrium had been seriously disturbed, and one of the rivals achieved permanent superiority, the Jewish culture tended to share the fate of the defeated civilization. It might indeed survive for a considerable period ─ sometimes for centuries ─ but only on condition that it accepted the circumstances of cultural and social inferiority. Yet even under these unfavorable conditions the periods of cultural decline often produced remarkable intellectual and spiritual fruits. Above all, these periods saw the spreading of Jewish culture from its old center to the other provinces and regions of the Jewish Diaspora, as in the case of the expansion of Spanish Jewish culture to Holland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and back to the East ─ to the Turkish Empire ─ in the same period.

Thus in the beginning the Jewish culture of Spain had been the great agent in the introduction of Arabic science and culture into Western Europe, and at the end it became the means by which Western culture was introduced into Turkey and Mediterranean culture was diffused in Northern Europe.

But the most distinctive feature of all the great ages of Jewish cultures was their multilingual character. There have been many bilingual cultures in history ─ in fact, most of the great world cultures have been bilingual. But these Jewish cultures of which I speak were trilingual, which is unusual and possibly unique. Thus in the Hellenistic world the languages were Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; in Mesopotamia they were Hebrew, Aramaic and, after the Moslem conquest, Arabic; in Spain, Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish; and in Eastern Europe, Hebrew, German (or rather Yiddish) and Polish.

In every case the classical language ─ the sacred language ─ is the same, i.e., Hebrew, which held a position in the successive Jewish cultures equivalent to that of Sanskrit in India, classical Arabic in Islam, and Latin in Western Christendom. But the position of the other two languages is anomalous. They might be looked on as alien vernaculars, as they were by Ibn Gabirol in the eleventh century when he censured the Jews of Saragosa, half of whom spoke the language if Edom (Spanish) and half the obscure tongue of Kedar (Arabic). But in time one of these might be adopted as a seminational language, occupying an intermediate position between the sacred Hebrew and the language of the outside world, so that we have a threefold hierarchy of languages. This was the case above all with Aramaic, which was introduced into the liturgy itself through the Targums, with the result that the "interpreter" or translator ─ a "methurgeman" ─ came to hold a regular office in the synagogue.

In the same way Spanish became the language of the southern Sephardic Jews and German that of the northern Ashkenazim, and though neither of these was so fully assimilated as Aramaic, they both occupied an intermediate position between the sacred language and the vernacular. But properly speaking, these intermediate languages were for the Jews the true vernacular (the language of cradle and home), between Hebrew (language of school and synagogue) and the third language which was that of the streets and the countryside.

Now the result of this threefold linguistic relation was to make the Jew a natural interpreter ─ a "Methurgeman" or dragoman between the two alien cultures with which he was in contact. The intensive philological study that has always been emphasized in Jewish education ─ especially in the Spanish period ─ laid the foundation for this development, so that in an age or ages when a large proportion of the population was illiterate, the Jews held a unique position as the one superliterate people, skilled not only in many languages but in different scripts, and also in different literary and philosophic traditions. 


This function of Jewish culture as the transmission channel between two civilizations attained its highest importance in Spain in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when Jewish translators were the chief agents through which the scientific and philosophic tradition of Arabic and Greek learning was imparted to the West and when Jewish philosophers like Ibn Gabirol were accepted as authoritative by Western scholastic thought. Nor was this the only important aspect of the Spanish age of Jewish culture. It was a creative age in many different fields, especially perhaps as the golden age of Jewish religious poetry.

This was not the case in the following period. In eastern Europe the Jews occupied a similar sociological position between two rival cultures, but they were unable to act as interpreters and intermediaries on the higher cultural level owing to the backwardness of the peoples with whom they were brought in contact ─ the Lithuanians, the White Russians and the Ukrainians. Thus they were obliged to fulfill the functions of a middle class in lands that as yet possessed no middle class culture. And this led directly to one of the greatest disasters in Jewish history. For this position as middlemen between the Polish and Lithuanian landlords and the Ukrainian and White Russian peasants made them the chief victims of the violent Cossack revolt of 1648. The massacres of 1648-1658 were serious enough, but they were far less destructive to Jewish society than the economic effects of the forced migration of the Jewish population west and south into Poland and Moldavia at a time when Poland itself was undergoing an acute political and economic crisis. Although the progressive impoverishment of Polish and Lithuanian Judaism, which went on for centuries, did not destroy the continuity of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe, as the expulsion of Jews in 1492 had done in Spain, in the long run it probably caused more suffering on a more massive scale because of the larger Jewish population in the East. Indeed, the fact that Polish and Lithuanian Judaism still retained its social autonomy and its independent social institutions ultimately proved harmful, since the prevailing system of taxation and assessments transformed the organs of self-government into instruments of oppression.

It is not surprising that this long period of unbroken depression produced a spirit of profound discouragement and aversion from the traditional patterns of intermediate cultures which had played such an important part in Jewish history for more than 2,000 years. Even today, I think the commonly accepted view of these cultures is based not on fifteenth-century Poland, or twelfth-century Spain or third-century Mesopotamia, when they were most prosperous and creative, but on the life of the East European ghetto in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In that age many Jews, perhaps the majority, turned away from the old intellectual culture toward the ideals of Messianic revolution or mystical pietism. The typical figures of the period were not the learned rabbis, such as Jehiel Halperim of Minsk (1670-1746) or the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797), but charismatic leaders, like the pseudo-Messiahs Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) and Jacob Frank (1726-1791), or the wonder-working Zaddiks who became the leaders of the hasidim, a mystical sect founded in Poland about 1750.


But these were not the roads that Jewish history was to travel. They were rather signs of the end of an age and the exhaustion of a cultural tradition. Already during the eighteenth century there were indications of the coming of a new spirit, and during the nineteenth century Jewish society and culture underwent a profound change. For the first time in history Jews and Gentiles met on equal terms within a common culture, the culture of the Enlightenment which inspired the movement of political, economic and philosophic Liberalism both in Europe and America. No doubt these ideas were anathema to orthodox Jews, as they were to conservative Christians, but it was difficult for Jews to remain aloof from a movement that offered the hope of emancipation, the abolition of the ghetto and all its restrictive laws and customs, and the opening of the universities and professions to all men of talent. Moreover there was an element of Messianic idealism in the creed of the Enlightenment that appealed to the Jewish temperament and is partly responsible for the position of Jewish thinkers and politicians in modern movements of reform and revolution.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the influence of Liberalism generally declined before the growing power of nationalism. At first the two movements were closely allied, as we see in the case of the Italian patriot Mazzini, and in Germany where the liberals were foremost in supporting the cause of national unity. Nevertheless in Eastern and Central Europe it was almost inevitable that nationalism should have also allied itself with endemic anti-Jewish prejudices. The German national Liberals were the originators of modern anti-Semitism, while the Slavophile nationalists in Russia inherited and reinforced that country's traditional anti-Semitism ─ which constituted a solid bloc of religious prejudice hardly touched by the influence of the Enlightenment.

This nationalist and racialist reaction against the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe did not weaken the Enlightenment's influence on Jewish culture; on the contrary, this influence grew throughout the 1800's and reached its culmination in the early years of the present century with the foundation of the Liberal Jewish movement by Claude Montifiori. But the reaction did change the course of Jewish history. It provided the motive for the mass exodus of the Jews of Eastern Europe to the West. Thus, in a single generation ─ circa 1885-1914 ─ America became one of the great centers of Jewish population and the foundations were laid for a new English-speaking Jewish culture which has grown steadily stronger and more influential during the last fifty years.


Nevertheless the rise of Jewish nationalism, which has been the most epoch-making event in modern Jewish history, was not directly connected with this vast movement of population that was to transfer the center of Jewish culture from Eastern Europe to America. Jewish nationalism developed in reaction to the sudden wave of anti-Semitism which was aroused by the Dreyfus case in 1894 and swept France during the next few years.

There was no country where the Jews had been so thoroughly assimilated as in France, and this sudden resurrection of almost forgotten racial and religious prejudices caused a profound shock to opinion. The poet Charles Peguy, who himself played no small part in the affair, has described the consequence in the unforgettable pages he wrote in honor of Bernard Lazare, his friend and leader whom he regarded as one of the prophets of Israel. To the secular historian, he wrote, the Dreyfus affair was a small matter ─ the vindication of an officer from an unjust accusation and the rehabilitation of an innocent individual. Yet it became a turning point in world history. It signified the ending of the hundred-years truce that had accompanied the Enlightenment and the era of emancipation, and the launching of a new exodus which was to bring Israel back to the desert and finally to the Promised Land.

The men who led this spiritual exodus were, for the most part, representative of the Enlightenment and the assimilationist tradition: Bernard Lazare in France, J. Max Nordau in Austria, Israel Zangwill in England, and Justice Brandeis in the United States. Above all, this was the case with Theodore Herzl, who founded the modern Zionist movement. Herzl was by training and environment a typical product of assimilationist culture, a free-thinking Liberal journalist from Vienna who was in Paris as the correspondent of the "Neue Freie Presse" and who covered the Dreyfus case in the normal course of his duties. But the shock of the Dreyfus trial changed his whole outlook. Henceforward he dedicated his life to the creation of a national Jewish state, and his leadership was so dynamic that he succeeded almost immediately in establishing the worldwide Zionist movement, which held its first congress at Basel in 1897. A few days after this event he wrote in his diary: "If I were to sum up the Basel Conference in a word, it would be this: at Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I were to say this today, I should be met by universal laughter. In five years perhaps and certainly in fifty, everyone will see it. The State is already founded in essence in the will of the people to the State."

Never has the prediction of a political reformer or revolutionary been so completely fulfilled as in Herzl's case. The opposition among his own people, among the orthodox Jews and the anti-political Zionists, seemed alone sufficient to ensure his defeat. But in spite of his numerous disappointments and his premature death in 1904, it was his program and his ideal of Jewish political nationalism that were realized by the creation of the modern state of Israel. The establishment of the Jewish national home in Palestine, made possible by the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, was the direct result of Herzl's propaganda which was able to rally Jews from every intellectual tradition and from every part of the world to cooperate toward this common end.

But the vital factor in the success of Zionism was the catastrophic disaster that overwhelmed the Jewish culture of Central and Eastern Europe in the twelve years of the Nazi terror and intensified the demand for a radical, national solution of the Jewish problem. The proclamation of Israel as a sovereign national state in 1948 represents the total realization of the Zionist ideal and the beginning of a new era in Jewish history and world politics. It marks the end of the European age of Jewish culture which had characterized both the Spanish and the East European phases of Jewish history and, even more, the end of that unique function which Jewish culture has fulfilled for 2,000 years as intermediary and link between two opposing civilizations.

It is true that the new culture of Israel stands on the frontier of two worlds between East and West. But it is no longer a bridge between them: it is a fortified stronghold in a hostile world, a crusading state such as the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was eight centuries ago.


The modern Jewish world has a double axis. It has one center in Israel and the other in America, and its future development depends on how these two centers can be interrelated and integrated. The problem is a difficult one, for the violent destruction of European Judaism has not weakened the divergent tendencies in Jewish culture that manifested themselves during the age of Enlightenment. The purely political and nationalist solution of the Jewish problem, which was the primary force in Zionism, has not been completely accepted even in Israel. Judaism always has been three things: a people or a nation, a culture or a way of life, and a world religion or a spiritual ideal. Any attempt to identify it with one of these to the exclusion of the others has invariably led to a reaction and restoration of the neglected aspect. Even today, even in the little land of Israel, we have political Zionism, cultural Zionism and religious Zionism coexisting without coalescing. It is obvious that if Zionism is conceived in purely nationalist and political terms, the triumph of Zionism in Israel would lead to the triumph of assimilationism or liberal Judaism in America.

In the past the strength of both religious Judaism and cultural Judaism in Europe was a common factor that helped to unite America and Israel. Now that the Judaism of Eastern Europe, with its ancient tradition of culture and its deep religious life, has been destroyed, America and Israel will have to find a closer and more direct bond of union. Justice Brandeis, speaking some years before the European catastrophe ─ I think in 1915 ─ suggested that the problem could be solved on exactly the same lines as those followed by the other national groups in the United states, since the relation of American Jewry to the future state in Palestine would be "exactly the same as is the relation of people of other nationalities all the world over to their parent home." But it is obvious today that the relation of Israel to the Dispersion must be entirely different from the relations of Portugal to Brazil or of the Irish Free State to the Irish of the United States. Whatever view we take of Zionism, we can hardly deny that Jewish history transcends politics and that the Jewish people still has, as it always has had, a world mission. That is the one point on which the cultural Zionists like the late Asher Ginsberg and the religious Zionists like the Misrachi are agreed; even the political Zionists themselves do not altogether deny it. For it is obvious that if Zionism is conceived in terms of a purely political nationalism, it can no longer claim to represent the whole Jewish tradition and becomes merely a new and more sophisticated form of assimilationism.

Hitherto, throughout the successive ages of Jewish history Israel has held fast to this idea of universal mission: it has served as a unifying factor through the vicissitudes of centuries and in all the different forms of Jewish culture. The present generation may not easily see what expression it will find in the future under the altered conditions of the new age. But it has not been brought to an end by the creation of the political state of Israel. Somehow, it still has to be fulfilled, and Israel and America ─ or American Jewry ─ each have to make their contribution to it.

~Christopher Dawson

Source: Brandeis University lecture, 1959, "Orbis" magazine Winter, 1967. Reprinted in "The Dawson Newsletter" Fall 1993, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702

Thursday, February 25, 2016

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 man made 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 H. Dawson


From The Modern Dilemma (Sheed & Ward, 1932). Reprinted by "The Dawson Newsletter" Winter 1995, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702.

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