Civilization in Crisis

CHRISTOPHER DAWSON

We have become accustomed to take the secular character of modern civilization for granted. We have most of us never known anything else and consequently we are apt to think that this is a natural and normal state of things. Actually of course this state of things is far from being normal.

We have most of us never known anything else and consequently we are apt to think that this is a natural and normal state of things, so that whatever our own beliefs may be, we do not expect modern civilization to pay much attention to religion, still less to be based upon a religious conception of existence.

Actually of course this state of things is far from being normal; on the contrary it is unusual and perhaps unique. If we look back and out over the world and across the centuries, we shall see how exceptional and abnormal it is. It is hardly too much to say that all civilizations have always been religious – and not only civilizations but barbarians and primitive societies also – for in the past man's social life was never regarded as something that existed in its own right as a law to itself. It was seen as dependent on another more permanent world, so that all human institutions were firmly anchored by faith and law to the realities of this higher world.

No doubt human life in the past was more insecure than it is today; more precarious and more exposed to violence and to the catastrophic accidents of famine and pestilence. But on the other hand, this world of disorder and suffering was also a part of reality. It was balanced and compensated by the larger, more permanent world from which man came and to which he returned; and these two worlds or aspects of reality were bound together by a visible fabric of institutions and laws, and by objective conceptions of justice and authority which gave them validity.


As I have shown in Religion and Culture and elsewhere, all the great civilizations of the ancient world believed in a transcendent divine order which manifested itself alike in the cosmos, in the moral law and in religious ritual; and it was only in so far as society was co-ordinated with the divine order by the sacred law of ritual and sacrifice that it had the right to exist and to be considered a civilized way of life.

Today this ancient wisdom is forgotten. Civilization has cut adrift from its old moorings and is floating on a tide of change. Custom and tradition and law and authority have lost their old sacredness and moral prestige. They have all become the servants of public opinion and of the will of society. They have become humanized and secularized and at the same time unstable and fluid. As civilization becomes materially richer and more powerful, it becomes spiritually or religiously weaker and poorer.

For a long time in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and to some extent in America today, this state of things was welcomed as a positive achievement. Individual freedom, political democracy and economic progress were regarded as ends in themselves, which would provide their own solutions to the problems that they created. It was believed that the secularization of culture was favorable to human freedom, since men would be freed from the incubus of authority in Church and State, and the functions of the latter would be reduced to those of a neutral guardian of order and security.

In fact, however, the progress of scientific technique has led to the increasing concentration of power. Even the weakest and the mildest of modern governments possesses a universal power of control over the lives of its citizens which the absolute monarchies of the past never dreamed of.

Nevertheless this enormous concentration of power which is to be seen alike in politics and economics and scientific technique does not produce moral prestige as in the past. The politician and the civil servant do not possess the mane of the barbarian chief or the sacred majesty of ancient kingship, and it is the same with the industrialist and the scientific technologist. They are all regarded as ordinary men who have happened to succeed in their professions and have climbed to the top of the tree.

It is questionable whether this state of things can last, for there is a glaring disproportion between the terrifying reality of power and the fragility and unimportance of the men who control it. And in fact, during the last generation, we have seen a violent reaction against the liberal ideology of the nineteenth century. First in Russia and then in Western Europe and in Eastern Asia, we have seen a series of attempts to unite the new forces of technology and scientific control with political absolutism and ideological orthodoxy. In this new totalitarian order, individual freedom has been sacrificed, criticism has been outlawed and science and technology have been forced to serve the will of authority and to justify the doctrines of the dominant ideology.


How does this affect the problem of secularization? Obviously its immediate direct effect is to cause an intensification of the process, since it makes it practically impossible for religious minorities to preserve their cultural autonomy or even to exist. The official ideology of the totalitarian state is itself completely secular and it is imposed compulsorily on the whole society, not only by party propaganda but by the convergent pressure of government action in every field of cultural and educational activity.

Indirectly and in the long run, all this may have a very different effect from that which was originally envisaged by the politicians. For when a revolutionary ideology is transformed from a minority protest into an official orthodoxy, it changes its nature and acquires many of the psychological characteristics of a religion.

Seen from this point of view its real raison d'etre is not to carry on the process of secularization, but to provide a substitute for religion, to stop modern civilization from drifting aimlessly and to anchor it again securely to absolute immutable principles which are beyond the reach of criticism.

It is difficult for us in the West to consider this aspect of totalitarianism dispassionately, since as Christians our objection to totalitarianism as a counter religion is even greater than our objection as Westerners to the totalitarian suppression of individual liberty and the right of criticism. Nevertheless the sweeping victories of Communism in Asia and the growing unpopularity there of the Western democratic ideology makes it a matter of life and death to understand the real nature of the totalitarian appeal, whether we call it religious or anti-religious.

We must face the fact that Western political ideals – democracy, liberty, equality and the like – are the product of a particular cultural tradition and represent the experience and achievement of certain privileged peoples and classes – the citizen class in ancient Greece, the free estates of medieval Christendom, and the bourgeoisie and free Churches of modern Europe and America. The greater part of the world has never known these things. In Asia and Africa life has been short and hard and uncertain. Constitutional government and individual political rights have been unknown and there has been no appeal or legal protection from the decrees of arbitrary power. The only alternative has been that between a paternal despotism which protects the peasant in his life and his labor and a ruthless exploitation which leaves him at the mercy of the tax gatherer and the money lender.

In such a world the evils of totalitarianism which shock the Western mind – its denial of personal liberty, of freedom of opinion and free enterprise – are less apparent than the mass evils of misgovernment and the oppression of class by class which it professes to cure. From the Oriental standpoint Communism represents the return to a familiar pattern – the traditional order of authoritarianism and mass responsibility.

A faith of this kind is a religion in the subjective sense – a way of salvation for man, though it is not a religion in the objective theological sense.


But, it may be asked, if Communism is viewed in this light, why should it prove so attractive to Asiatics who are already well provided with real theological religions? The answer, I think, is that the great Oriental religions are no longer culturally active and that they have become divorced from social life and from contemporary culture. This explanation is borne out by a remarkable passage in the last volume of Mr. Koestler's autobiography in which he describes an interview he had when he was traveling in Central Asia twenty years ago with a blind Afghan immigrant into the USSR. I will quote it in full, as it gives a first-hand account of the impact of Communism on a completely un-Westernized Asiatic:

"Do we all come from the same place? No. – We come from many places and many tribes and one did not know of the other who was coming. Some are from the Chilchigi and some from Afridi and some others from other tribes. We did not know of each other, but of the new religion and of the chasing away of the Beys and the Mullahs everyone knew in Afghanistan. Some say it is a good thing, and some say it is a bad thing, but they all speak about it, although it is forbidden.

"No, I could not read, even when I had eyes, but I took much thought when I heard about this new religion – for I had much time to think during the famine, though it is forbidden to speak about these sacred matters. And now I will tell you the result of my thinking:

"A fertile womb is better than the loveliest lips.

"A well in the desert is better than a cloud over the desert.

"A religion that helps is better than a religion that promises.

"And this secret which I found will spread over there where we come from, and more and more will understand it and follow our way. But others will stay where they are and embrace the new religion and preach it to the ignorant." (A. Koestler. The Invisible Writing, p. 135).

I have no reason to doubt the genuineness of this report (though of course it may have been touched up in the course of translation and retranslation). And if it is authentic, it shows convincingly how a completely anti-religious secular ideology may take on the aspect of a new religion and may compete successfully with the established faiths of the ancient East. And it succeeds not because of its ideological truth but because of its immediate appeal. It is a new gospel in the elementary sense – good news of salvation here and now.

This appeal is not so strong in the West, because the situation here is so much less simple. The distinction between religion and politics is much more obvious and we are less inclined to accept the enormous claims of the totalitarian state as a matter of course. Nevertheless the success of the totalitarian ideologies in Germany and Central and Southern Europe has been sufficiently formidable to show that we are not immune from indoctrination and that in Western Europe also there are plenty of people who desire certainty and authority more than freedom. Certainly there is no doubt that the old nineteenth century liberal ideology has become generally discredited and is no longer the ruling faith of our civilization.


Where then does Christianity stand today? At first sight the prospects seem highly favorable, for its old enemy, the anti-religious secularism of the liberal rationalists, has lost its power and its new enemy, the anti-religious ideology of the Communists, has not yet taken its place. There is a spiritual vacuum and Christianity seems the only spiritual form that can fill it.

Now if Christianity was embodied in a living culture, as it was in the past, or if it was the living faith of modern Western culture, there is little doubt that it would be able to take advantage of this opportunity. But the situation is not so simple as this. For centuries now there has been a divorce between Christianity and Western culture which has led to that process of secularization to which I referred at the beginning of this article. This has not destroyed our religion, but it has left it in a position of weakness and social isolation.

No doubt the Communists attack Christianity as the ally of the capitalist system, but in actual fact no such alliance exists. Christians are isolated between two rival forms of secularism, one of which is openly hostile while the other is indifferent or negatively hostile. In fact we are fighting a war on two fronts, each of which requires its own tactics and strategy.

The conflict with Communism (and the other totalitarian ideologies also) is by far the easiest to understand, owing to the fact that their opposition to Christianity is clear, consistent and complete. They have a creed and a dogma, they have an ideology and a social philosophy, and a code of ethics and moral values. Finally they form a secular Church, a community of believers with its own very highly organized hierarchy of institutions and authorities.

But the other and liberal form of secularism has none of these characteristics. It does not possess any formulated creed and its raison d'etre is to be undogmatic and antiauthoritarian. (There was a time – two hundred years ago or rather less, during the period of the Enlightenment – when Freemasonry attempted to create a sort of liberal Church, but the attempt broke down about the time of the French Revolution, and since then liberal secularism has been an unorganized and amorphous movement.) Nevertheless it does possess a sort of ideology and social philosophy and a set of moral ideals if not a consistent system of ethics.


In the past this liberal ideology and moral idealism has exerted a very powerful influence on the Western mind, and though its principles are now regarded as platitudes, they continue to be repeated on a thousand platforms and in hundreds of thousands of publications, so that they have become part of the democratic way of life, something in the atmosphere which millions of men inhale every day when they read the newspapers or partake in political discussions.

This is a difficult situation for Catholics to deal with. They know where they are when they are faced with the aggressive challenge of Communism, but they have no clear idea of where they stand with regard to this other type of secularism. They are quite ready to join with their fellow citizens in democratic states to affirm their allegiance to general principles like the Four Freedoms, yet when they do so they are using words in a different sense to non-Catholics. There is an unresolved misunderstanding on general principles. I think it is true to say that the average English or American Catholic shares the general atmosphere of modern secularized Western culture and feels no difficulty about it until he is suddenly brought up sharply by some concrete issue, such as religious education, contraception, divorce and so on.

The result is that the secularist regards the Catholic as illiberal and intolerant. Possibly the best known example of this secularist reaction is the work of Mr. Paul Blanshard and his comparison of Catholicism and Communism as two different forms of totalitarianism. Of course, if it is totalitarian to claim authority over the whole of human life, then Christianity is totalitarian and so are all the other world religions. But this is a misuse of terms, for totalitarian is essentially a political concept and implies a totalitarian state, whereas the fundamental distinction which Catholics make between Church and State and spiritual and temporal authority is the opposite of totalitarian and is perhaps the only ultimate defense of man's spiritual freedom against the totalitarian challenge and the growing pressure of the secular state.

And this is especially true of the issue with which Mr. Blanshard is concerned. For in claiming the right to maintain separate schools and to teach its own principles to its own people, the Church is the champion of freedom in the most vital matter, and even the liberal democratic state is becoming totalitarian when it asserts the principle of the single school and claims a universal monopoly of teaching.

It is in this field that the secularist danger is most formidable. In politics Catholicism can accommodate itself to any system of government and can survive under the most severe forms of despotism and autocracy. And in the same way it is not bound to any economic system and has in the past existed and expanded in a world of slavery as well as in a world of freedom, under feudalism and capitalism and state socialism. But if it loses the right to teach it can no longer exist. The situation was entirely different in the past when most people were not educated and when Church and Chapel provided the only channel of popular instruction. But today, when the whole population of every civilized country is subjected to an intensive process of schooling during the most impressionable years of their lives, it is the school and not the Church that forms men's minds, and if the school finds no place for religion, there will be no room left for religion elsewhere.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Dawson, Christopher. “Civilization in Crisis.” from Civilization in Crisis (New York Sheed & Ward, 1956).

Reprinted by permission of Julian Philip Scott, grandson of Christopher Dawson.

THE AUTHOR

Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was most likely the most penetrating student of the relationship of religion and culture who has ever written. "Every culture," he wrote, "is like a plant. It must have its roots in the earth, and for sunlight it needs to be open to the spiritual. At the present moment we are busy cutting its roots and shutting out all light from above." In order to address this situation, he proposed the study of Christian culture. He believed this study to be essential to the secularist and Christian alike, because it is the key to the understanding of the historical development of Western civilization. His lucid analysis of the driving forces of world history, as well as his championing of the contributions of the Christian faith to the achievements of European culture, won him many admirers, including T. S. Eliot and Arnold Toynbee.

Christopher Dawson wrote twenty-two books. Among those currently available are Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, The Making of Europe, Medieval Essays, Dynamics of World History, and Progress and Religion. Also available is A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson written by Christopher Dawson's daughter, the late Christina Scott. All works by Christopher Dawson © Julian Philip Scott, 2003.

Copyright © 2003 Julian Philip Scott




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