Is the Church too Western?

CHRISTOPHER DAWSON

It is impossible for us to understand the Church if we regard her as subject to the limitations of human culture. For she is essentially a supernatural organism which transcends human cultures and transforms them to her own ends.

If nationalism — whether in the East or the West — denies the right of the Church to exist as a universal autonomous spiritual society, it is a challenge to the law of God and the kingship of Christ. But this does not mean that the Church is essentially Western. On the contrary, the same principle that forbids us to make the Church a national organization also prevents us from identifying it with a particular civilization. The mission of the Church is essentially universal and it is common to all nations and races — to those of the East equally with those of the West.

We must however distinguish between this ideal universality and the practical limitations imposed by history on the circumstances of the Church's apostolate. By the nature of the case, the missionary is in some sense a stranger to the nation and the culture that he evangelizes. He comes from outside bringing a new doctrine and initiating men into a new society. But however supernatural is his mission, he is a human being who has been born and educated in some particular society and brings his own cultural traditions with him, and hence in some degree his native habits and prejudices. In this sense it is true the missionary tends to be too Western, so that it is his duty to divest himself of his natural prejudices and become assimilated to an alien environment and culture. As he must translate the Christian Gospel into a new language and speak with strange tongues, so too he must learn to think in terms of an alien culture and accept its social standards and values.

Yet this is not the real point at issue. For when men talk, as they do today, about the Church's being too Western they are not thinking of this inevitable but accidental dependence of the missionary on his particular cultural background; they mean rather that the Church herself has become occidentalized: that her philosophy and theology, her liturgy and devotion have been so deeply influenced by fifteen hundred years of association with Western culture that she has become estranged from the Oriental world and no longer speaks to it in terms that the peoples of Asia can understand.

Before we consider what grounds there are for such an assertion it is necessary to determine what we mean by the word "Western." On the one hand there is our modern Western civilization, which has spread so rapidly through the world during the last century. This civilization is indubitably Western, since it owes its distinctive features to the revolutionary changes which originated in Northwestern Europe and North America during the last two centuries. On the other hand there is the ancient tradition of the Catholic Church, which may also be described as Western, in so far as it is the tradition of the Western Church and looks to Rome, the ancient metropolis of the West, as its center and head. Nevertheless it is also a universal tradition, since it first arose at the point where East and West met and it derived its inheritance from them both. And if we look at the Catholic tradition in detail we shall see how this duality runs through all the different aspects of its life.

The Church itself, though it bears a Greek name, Ecclesia, derived from the Greek civic assembly, and is ordered by the Roman spirit of authority and law, is the successor and heir of an Oriental people, set apart from all the peoples of the earth to be the bearer of a divine mission.

Similarly the mind of the Church, as expressed in the authoritative tradition of the teaching of the Fathers, is neither Eastern nor Western but universal. It is expressed in Western languages — in Greek and Latin — but it was in Africa and Asia rather than in Europe that it received its classical formulation. Greek theology was developed at Alexandria and Antioch and in Cappadocia, while Latin theology owes its terminology and its distinctive character to the African Fathers — Tertullian, Cryprian, and above all St. Augustine.

While these men wrote in Latin, it was not the Latin of the Romans; it was a new form of Christian Latin which was developed, mainly in Tunisia under strong Oriental influence.

And the same is true of the new Christian Latin poetry and of the Latin liturgy itself. No doubt the Roman rite which has outlived and absorbed the other Latin rites bears an indelible mark of the Roman spirit in its simplicity, its severity and its concision. But this does not mean that it is only adapted to the worship of modern Western man, or that its spirit is alien from that of the East. On the contrary it gives it a classical, universal and supertemporal character which is accentuated by its music, which is so remote from the modern West. For what has the Mass to do with Western culture? It is the eternal offering of an eternal priesthood — "without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life, but like the Son of God, continuing a priest for ever" (Heb. 7:3)

It is impossible for us to understand the Church if we regard her as subject to the limitations of human culture. For she is essentially a supernatural organism which transcends human cultures and transforms them to her own ends. As Newman insisted, the Church is not a creed or a philosophy but an imperial power, a "counter kingdom" which occupies ground and claims to rule over those whom this world's governments had once ruled without rival. But if the Church is an objective social reality she is not bound to conform herself to cultural divisions. She can take whatever forms and institutions she needs from any culture and organizes them into a new unity which is the external expression of her spirit and the organ of her mission to the world. If this is the case, the question we have to ask is not whether the particular elements of this unity are derived from East or West — but whether they are fit instruments of the Church's supernatural purpose. If so, they are entirely transcend the sphere of political nationalism and national culture.

Let us take the case of typical Catholic institution — a religious order for example; here the original institution of Christian monasticism was of purely Oriental origin and came into existence in the Egyptian desert in the fourth century. Almost immediately, however, the Church accepted this new way of life as an essential expression of the Christian spirit and spread it East and West from the Atlantic to the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf. And as it grew it adapted itself to the life of the different peoples amongst whom it came, though it remained fully conscious of its origins and of the continuity of its tradition.

It was, however in the West that this development of monasticism produced the most remarkable fruits. It was here, in the course of the Middle Ages, that there arose the idea of the religious Order as a specialized organ of the Church, dedicated to the performance of some particular spiritual task — preaching or study or the care of the poor and the sick, or the redemption of captives. Since these Orders are specialized some of them are more adapted to one culture than to another, and it may well be that an Order that has been founded to fulfill some special task in medieval Italy or modern America is "too Western" for India or China. But this is not necessarily the case. The essential principle of the Western religious Order has become part of the common tradition of the Church and is capable of being applied to the special circumstances of the East, no less than the West.

There is therefore no need to undo the work of the Christian past and to attempt to create a new type of oriental monasticism modeled on Hindu or Buddhist patterns, for East and West already coexist on the tradition of Christian monasticism, and the same tradition can bear new fruits wherever it is planted: The vital point is not the nationality or the cultural background of the founders but the timeless ideals of prayer and contemplation and the universal spirit of the apostolate for which they are founded.

This I think is the secret if the whole matter. The Church as a divine society possess an internal principle of life which is capable of assimilating the most diverse materials and imprinting her own image upon them. Inevitably in the course of history there are times when this spiritual energy is temporarily weakened or obscured, and then the Church tends to be judged as a human organization and identified with the faults and limitations of its members. But always the time comes when she renews her strength and once more puts forth her inherent divine energy in the conversion of new peoples and the transformation of old cultures. At no time can we expect this work to be unopposed, for the very fact that the Church represents something entirely different — the intervention of a supernatural principle and the coming of a divine kingdom — must inevitably arouse the fierce apposition of all those human societies and powers which claim absolute power over man and refuse to admit a superior or rival. One of the strongest and most aggressive of these forces in the modern world is nationalism, and here Christians cannot expect to avoid a conflict. But the conflict is not really one between East and West: it is the old conflict between the spiritual and temporal powers, which was formerly confined largely, to the Western world and has now emerged as a burning question in the East, largely owing to the introduction of the political ideologies of the West into Asia and Africa. But East or West, it is basically the same conflict, and alike in East and West the Church stands neither for East or West but for the universal spiritual society which is destined to embrace them both: "And the nation as shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory and honor into it" (Apoc. 22:24).

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Dawson, Christopher. "Is the Church too Western?" from The World Crisis and The Catholic, 1958.

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 © 2004 Julian Philip Scott




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