The Outlook for Christian Culture

CHRISTOPHER DAWSON

In spite of the increasing secularization of culture both in the West and in the world at large, I feel that the outlook for Christian culture is brighter than it has been for a considerable time -- perhaps even two hundred and fifty years.

There is always a danger in speaking of so wide and deep a question as that of Christian culture that we may be speaking at cross-purposes. It is therefore just as well to start by defining our terms. When I speak of culture I am not thinking of the cultivation of the individual mind, which was the usual sense of the word in the past, but of a common social way of life — a way of life with a tradition behind it, which has embodied itself in institutions and which involves moral standards and principles. Every historic society has such a culture from the lowest tribe of savages to the most complex forms of civilized life. And every society can lose its culture either completely or partially, if it is exposed to violent or far-reaching changes.

What then do we mean by a Christian culture? In fact the word Christian is commonly used in two different senses. There is a sense in which it is identified with certain forms of moral behavior which are regarded as typically or essentially Christian, so that a Christian society may mean an altruistic and pacific society, and an unchristian society or form of behavior is taken to mean one that is aggressive and acquisitive.

Whether this use of the word is justifiable or not, it is certainly different from the traditional use of the word. Thus if we judge by the utterances of statesmen and the programs of government and political parties, there has never been an age in which society concerned itself more with the welfare and conditions of life of the common people than our own. Yet though this concern is wholly consonant with Christian ideals and may even owe its ultimate inspiration to them, it does not suffice to make our society Christian in a real sense; and the tendency to put exclusive emphasis on this aspect of the question will be a serious cause of error, if it leads us to a confusion of Christianity with humanitarianism.

The only true criterion of a Christian culture is the degree in which the social way of life is based on the Christian faith. However barbarous a society may be, however backward in the modern humanitarian sense, if its members possess a genuine Christian faith they will possess a Christian culture — and the more genuine the faith, the more Christian the culture.

And so when we talk of Christian culture, we ought not to think of some ideal pattern of social perfection which can be used as a sort of model or blueprint by which existing societies can be judged. We should look first and above all at the historic reality of Christianity as a living force which has entered into the lives of men and societies and changed them in proportion to their will and their capacity. We see how it has been spread broadcast over the world by the grace of God and the accidents of historical necessity. Often it has fallen on stony ground and withered away, often it has been choked by the secular forces of a civilization, but where it has taken root, we see again and again the miracle of divine creativity and a new spiritual harvest springing from the old soil of human nature and past social tradition.

This flowering of new life is Christian culture in the highest sense of the word, but every believing Christian society already has in it a living seed of change which is bound to bear fruit in due time, even if its growth is hidden or hindered by the many other growths which are so deeply rooted in the soil of human nature that they can never be eradicated. We cannot measure spiritual achievement by cultural achievement, since the two processes lie on different planes; but though the former transcends the latter it may also find in it its means of expression and outward manifestation. But there is always a time lag in this process. The spiritual achievement of today finds its social expression in the cultural achievements of tomorrow, while today's culture is inspired by the spiritual achievement of yesterday or the day before.

If we take the case of the first introduction of the Christian faith in Europe, we see how complex and profound is the process that we are attempting to understand. When St. Paul sailed from Troy in obedience to a dream and came to Philippi in Macedonia, he did more to change the course of history and the future of European culture than the great battle which had decided the fate of the Roman Empire on the same spot more than ninety years before. Yet nothing that he did was notable or even visible from the standpoint of contemporary culture. He incurred the hostility of the mob, he was sent to prison and he made at least three converts: a business woman from Asia Minor, a slave girl who was a professional fortuneteller, and his jailer. These were the first European Christians — the forerunners of uncounted millions who have regarded the Christian faith as the standard of their European way of life.

All this took place, as it were, underneath the surface of culture. The only people who seem to have realized the importance of what was happening were the half-crazed slave girl and the hostile mob at Philippi and Salonica, the riffraff of the market place, who attacked St. Paul as a revolutionary, one who turned the world upside down and taught there was another king than Caesar — one Jesus.

Yet at the same time St. Paul himself was very much alive to the significance of culture. He was a Roman and a Jew and he was proud of both traditions; but he was always careful to adapt his teaching to the cultural background of his audience, whether they were simple, peasant-minded Anatolians or skeptical Athenians or supercilious Roman administrators. So that when one turns from St. Paul's own utterances to the writings of his learned contemporaries, one feels that one is going down in the cultural scale, descending from a rich and vivid vision of reality to a stale and superficial repetition of platitudes and rhetorical commonplaces which belonged to a spiritual order that had had already lost its vitality.

At first sight the problem of modern culture is entirely different from that of the Roman world. The latter was living in the tradition of the pagan past, and Christianity came to it as a new revelation and the promise of a new life. But today it is Christianity that seems to many a thing of the past, part of the vanishing order of the old Europe, and the new powers that are shaping the world are non-Christian or even anti-Christian.

It is no wonder that the conscience of Christians is uneasy. On the one hand there are those who still retain an internal bond with the Christian culture of the past, and a deep love and reverence for it; and in that case they must feel that something in the nature of a national apostasy has occurred and that they must bear some of the guilt. And on the other hand there are those who have lost contact with that social tradition and who know only the new secularized world. These are likely to feel that the Christian culture of the past failed because it was not really Christian and that is for us and our successors to discover or create for the first time a new way of life that will be truly Christian.

I believe both these points of view are fundamentally true. They represent the two aspects of the problem of Christian culture in our time, and they are wrong only in so far as they are one-sided. I do not think it is possible to deny the fact of Christian culture, as an objective social reality. It is hardly too much to say that it is Christian culture that has created Western man and the Western way of life. But at the same time we must admit that Western man has not been faithful to this Christian tradition. He has abandoned it not once, but again and again. For since Christianity depends on a living faith and note merely on social tradition, Christiandom must be renewed in every fresh generation, and every generation is faced by the responsibility of making decisions, each of which may be an act of Christian faith or an act of apostasy.

No doubt it is very seldom that a society is clearly conscious of what is at stake. The issues are complicated by all kinds of social, economic and political influences, so that the actual decision usually takes the form of a compromise.

Now, as I have pointed out with reference to the origins of Christianity, the creative society which is the essence of the Christian life takes place far below the visible surface of culture; and the same thing is true of the spiritual failures and apostasies which are the other side of the picture. But this does not mean that religion and culture are two separate worlds with no relation to each other. The assumption of such a separation has been the great error of the Western mind during the last two centuries. First we have divided human life into two parts — the life of the individual and the life of the state — and have confined religion entirely to the former. This error was typical of bourgeois liberalism and nowhere has it been more prevalent than in the English-speaking countries. But now men have gone further and reunited the divided world under the reign of impersonal material forces, so that the individual counts for nothing and religion is viewed as an illusion of the individual consciousness or a perversion of the individual craving for satisfaction.

This is the typical error of Marx and Engels and of the totalitarian mass state in all its forms.

But to the Christian the hidden principle of the life of culture and the fate of nations and civilizations must always be found in the heart of man and in the hand of God. There is no limit to the efficacy of faith and to the influence of these acts of spiritual decision which are ultimately the response of particular men to God's call, as revealed in particular historical and personal circumstances. Burke wrote very truly and finely that the so-called laws of history which attempt to subordinate the future to some kind of historical determinism are but the artificial combinations of the human mind. There always remains an irreducible element of mystery. "A common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn have changed the face of the future and almost of Nature."

But to Christians the mystery of history is not completely dark, since it is a veil which only partially conceals the creative activity of spiritual forces and the operation of spiritual laws. It is a commonplace to say that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, yet what we are asserting is simply that individual acts of spiritual decision ultimately bear social fruit. We admit this in the case of the Church and we have admitted it so long that is has become a platitude. But we do not for the most part realize that it is equally true in the case of culture and history.

For the great cultural changes and the historic revolutions that decide the fate of nations or the character of an age are the cumulative result of a number of spiritual decisions — the faith and insight, or the refusal and blindness, of individuals. No one can put his finger on the ultimate spiritual act which tilts the balance and makes the external order of society assume a new form. In this sense we may adapt Burke's saying and assert that the prayer of some unknown Christian or some unrecognized and unadmitted act of spiritual surrender may change the face of the world. No doubt any great change of culture, like the conversion of the Roman world or the secularization of Western Christendom, is a process that extends over centuries and involves an immense variety of different factors which may belong to different planes of spiritual reality. The secularization of Western Christendom, for example, involved first the loss of Christian unity, which was itself due not to secularism but to the violence of religious passion and the conflict of rival doctrines. Secondly it involved the abdication by Christians of their responsibilities with regard to certain fields of social activity, so that we may say the nineteenth-century England was still a Christian society, but a Christian society that had diverted its energies to the pursuit of wealth. And finally it involved a loss of belief, which was to a certain extent involuntary and inevitable, since the stability of faith had already been undermined by the two processes which I have mentioned.

To state the problem in a simplified form, if one century has destroyed the unity of Christendom by religious divisions, and a second century has confined the Christian way of life to the sphere of individual conduct and allowed the outer world of society and politics to go its own way, then a third century will find that the average man will accept the external social world as the objective standard of reality and regard the inner world of faith and religion as subjective, unreal and illusory.

Thus the process of secularization arises not from the loss of faith but from the loss of social interest in the world of faith. It begins the moment men feel that religion is irrelevant to the common way of life and that society as such has nothing to do with the truths of faith. It is important to distinguish this secular separation between religion and society from the traditional opposition between the Church and the World — or between the present world and the world to come — which has always been so deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. It is often difficult thus to differentiate, since what is described as the "other worldly" type of religion is in some cases directly connected with the divorce between religion and culture which I have spoken. In other cases the opposition springs from the Christian dualism which finds expression not only in St. Augustine, or in the later mystics, but in all ages of the life of the Church from the New Testament to the twentieth century. Indeed it is this vital tension between two worlds and two planes of reality which makes the Christian way of life so difficult but which is also the source of its strength. To live for eternal truths, to possess the first fruits of eternal life, while facing every practical responsibility and meeting the demands of the present moment and place on their own ground — that is the spirit by which a Christian culture lives and is known. For Christian culture involves a ceaseless effort to widen the frontiers of the Kingdom of God — not only horizontally by increasing the number of Christians but vertically by penetrating deeper into human life and bringing every human activity into closer relations with its spiritual center.

The return from a secular civilization to a Christian way of life no doubt involves a reversal of many historical forces that transcends the limits not only of our personal experience but even of our particular society. But in spite of the modern totalitarian tendency to control the development of culture by the external methods of legislation and international organization and the control of parties and political police, it is still the individual mind that is the creative force which determines the ultimate fate of cultures. And the first step in the transformation of culture is a change in the pattern of culture within the mind, for this is the seed out of which there spring new forms of life which ultimately change the social way of life, and thus create a new culture. I do not, of course, mean to assert that new ideas are more important than new moral action and new spiritual initiative. Knowledge and will and action are inseparable in life, and the soul is the principle of all life. But I do believe that it has been on the plane of ideas that the process of the secularization of culture began, and that it has only by a change of ideas that this process can be reversed. It has always been the weakness of the Anglo-Saxon tradition to underestimate the influence of ideas on life and of contemplation on action, and the result of this error has been that many Christians in England and America never realized the existence of culture until the culture of the age had ceased to be Christian.

That was the situation a hundred years ago. It is true that there were several religious minority movements that were aware of the issues — on the one hand the Christian Socialists, such as F.D. Maurice; on the other hand, there was the idealization of the ages of faith which characterized the Catholic revival and the Oxford movement. But for the most part Victorian England was dominated by the attitude of Protestant Philistinism which was the object of Matthew Arnold's denunciations. Now it is true, as Mr. T.S. Eliot has recently pointed out, that Arnold's view of culture is vitiated not only by its individualism but even more seriously by its implicit assumption that intellectual culture is itself a sort of sublimated religion which is a substitute for tradtitional Christianity. But, for all that, he still deserves to be read, for no one has shown more clearly and mercilessly the effects of the divorce between religion and culture on English society and the English way of life; and since our present predicament is the direct result of this cleavage, his work is a historical document of the first importance for the inner history of the English culture of the nineteenth century.

Moreover, Arnold's main criticism of the religion of his day is not invalidated by his misconceptions concerning the nature of religion and the nature of culture. The burden of his complaints is always that religious people would not think — that they made religion a matter of strong emotion and moral earnestness so that it generated heat and not light. And that at the same time they were complacent and uncritical in their attitude to their own bourgeois culture: so long as men went to church and read the Bible and abstained from gambling and drunkenness and open immorality, it did not matter that they were at the same time helping to turn England into a hideous and disorderly conglomeration of factories and slums in which the chapel and the gin palace provided the only satisfaction for man's spiritual and emotional needs.

The reaction against this degradation of Christian culture has carried us very far in the opposite direction. And the improvement of social conditions — one might almost say the civilizing of our industrial society — has coincided with the secularization of English culture.

This secularization has been the great scandal of modern Christendom. For the Christian cannot deny the crying evils of that nineteenth-century industrial society from which the ordinary man has been delivered by the social reforms of the last fifty or one hundred years: while at the same time he is forced to reject the purely secular idealism which has inspired the new culture. Nevertheless this has been a salutary experience for Christians. It has made us examine our conscience to see how great has been our responsibility for this decline of Christian culture and for the conversion of our society to a new kind of paganism.

But we ought not to concentrate our attention on the failures of nineteenth-century Christianity. Today we are faced with a new situation and an entirely different range of problems. The modern world is in a state of violent confusion and change, and it is not the traditional Christian culture of the past but the secularized culture of the present which is being tried and found wanting. The material security and the confidence in the future which have long been characteristic of Western civilization have suddenly disappeared. Nobody knows where the world is going. The course of history has suddenly been changed from a broad, placid river into a destructive cataract.

Christianity is not left unaffected by this change, for it threatens all the values and traditions which the liberal secularism of the last age still respected and preserved. Yet this catastrophic element in life which had been temporarily exiled from the nineteenth-century world is one that is very familiar to Christians. Indeed, in the past it formed an integral part of the original Christian experience and the changes of the last forty years have confronted us with a situation which is not essentially different from that the primitive Church faced under the Roman Empire. The eschatological aspect of Christian doctrine, which was so alien to the Edwardian age, has once more become relevant and significant. For even though we may not believe in the imminent end of the world, it is hardly possible to doubt that a world is ending. We are once more in the presence of cosmic forces that are destroying or transforming human life, and therefore we have a new opportunity to see life in religious terms and not merely in terms of humanism and social welfare and political reform. Arnold's ideal of culture as a "general harmonious expansion of those gifts of thought and feeling which make the peculiar dignity, wealth and happiness of human nature" obviously belonged to an age and a class which could reckon on social security. For that age the four last things — Death and Judgement and Heaven and Hell — had become remote and unreal. But today they are real enough even for the unbeliever who knows nothing about the Christian hope of eternal life. The Christian way of life has indeed become the only way that is capable of surmounting the tremendous dangers and evils that have become a part of the common experience of modern man. No doubt, as the Gospel says, men will go on eating and drinking and buying and selling and planting and building, until the heaven rains fire and brimstone and destroys them all. But they do this with only one part of their minds: there is another part of their minds which remains uneasily conscious of the threat that hangs over them; and in proportion as they realize this, they feel that something should be done and they seek a way of salvation, however vaguely and uncertainly.

In a sense this has always been so, and men have always been partially conscious of their spiritual need. But there has been during the last generation a fundamental change in the nature of their anxiety. During the last few centuries the appeal of Christianity has been largely personal. It has been an appeal to the individual conscience and especially to the isolated and introverted types. It is the experience which finds a classical expression in Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress, which is all the more classical because it was also popular. But today the appeal is greatest to those who have the strongest sense of social responsibility, and it is no longer merely a question of individual salvation but of the salvation of the world — the deliverance of man in his whole social nature from the evils that express themselves in political and social forms, in anonymous mass crimes and criminal instincts which nevertheless are not less opposed to the Christian spirit than are the sins of the individual. This is the reason why the chief rivals to Christianity at the present are not different religions but political ideologies like Communism, which offers man a social way of salvation by external revolution, by faith in a social creed and by communion with a party which is a kind of secular church.

Nor is it surprising that these secular counter-religions should tend to produce the very evils from which men are seeking to be delivered. For this is just what the early Church experienced with the pagan counter-religions which tried to satisfy the spiritual needs of the ancient world in opposition to the Christian way of salvation.

And the anti-Christian character of the forces which are making an attempt to conquer the world is also another sign of the relevance of Christianity to the problems of the present age. Religion is ceasing to be a side issue — it is no longer regarded as belonging to a private world remote from the real world of business and politics and science. It is once more felt to be a vital issue even by its enemies who are determined to destroy it.

Consequently, in spite of the increasing secularization of culture both in the West and in the world at large, I feel that the outlook for Christian culture is brighter than it has been for a considerable time — perhaps even two hundred and fifty years. For if what I have been saying about spiritual changes and their cultural fruits is true and if the changes of the last forty years have the effect of weakening the barrier between religion and social life which was so strong a century ago, then the new situation opens the way for a new Christian movement of advance.

This is no excuse for facile optimism. For even if the change has begun, it must go a long way before it can affect the structure of social life and bear fruit in a living Christian culture: and meanwhile things must grow worse as secular culture undergoes the inevitable process of corruption to which it is exposed by its nature. From all that we can see, and from the experience of the past, it is practically certain that the period of transition will be a time of suffering and trial for the Church. Above all we have little or no knowledge of how Christians are to meet the new organized forces with which they are confronted. However much these forces may have misused the new techniques that science has put into their hands, these techniques cannot be ignored and they are bound to become an integral part of the civilization of the future, whether it is Christian or anti-Christian. So long as it is only a question of material techniques — of the machine order and all that it implies — Christians are ready enough to accept the situation, perhaps almost too ready. But what of the social and psychological techniques on which the totalitarian state relies and which may almost be said to have created it? All these methods of mass conditioning, social control by centralized planning, the control of opinion by propaganda and official ideologies, the control of behavior by methods of social repression are not restricted to defending society from the evil-doer but are directed against any type of minority opinion or activity. Most of these things have been rejected and condemned by Western opinion, whether Christian or secular, yet many of them are already invading and transforming Western society, and they are likely to become more and more a part of the modern world. Seen from this point of view, the Nazis and the Communists are not the only totalitarians, they are only parties which have attempted to exploit the totalitarian elements in modern civilization in a simplified and drastic way in order to obtain quick results.

The whole tendency of modern life is toward scientific planning and organization, central control, standardization and specialization. If this tendency was left to work itself out to its extreme conclusion, one might expect to see the state transformed into an immense social machine, all the individual components of which are strictly limited to the performance of a definite and specialized function, where there could be no freedom because the machine could only work smoothly as long as every wheel and cog performed its task with unvarying regularity. Now the nearer modern society comes to this state of total organization, the more difficult it is to find any place for spiritual freedom and personal responsibility. Education itself becomes an essential part of the machine, for the mind has to be completely measured and controlled by the techniques of the scientific expert as the task which it is being trained to perform.

Therefore the whole society has to move together as a single unit. Either it may be a Christian unit which is governed by spiritual standards and directed toward spiritual ends, or it is wholly secular — a power machine, or a machine for the production of wealth or population.

As I have said, this is an extreme conclusion, and at the present time even the most totalitarian forms of society are not and cannot be as totalitarian as this. Nevertheless the modern world is moving steadily in this direction, and the margin between the old forms of liberal or social democracy and this new Leviathan is growing narrower every year. Hence we can hardly doubt that when ultimately a conflict takes place between the new state and the Christian church, it will be far more severe in character than anything that has been known before.

Here again the trends of events is following the same pattern as in the early days of Christianity. Nothing was clearer to the Christians of that age than the imminence of a tremendous trial, in which the mystery of inequity that was already at work in the world would come out into the open and claim to stand in the place of God himself. It was with the constant awareness of this coming catastrophe that the new Christian way of life took form, and it was this that made the Christian belief in a new life and in the coming of a new world, not an expression of other-worldly pietism, but an active preparation for vast and immediate historical changes. There is no need to idealize their behavior. At times the actual outburst of persecution was followed by wholesale apostasies, as in the time of Decius in the year 250. Yet in spite of such failures, throughout the long periods of persecution and semipersecution a gradual change was taking place beneath the surface until finally, after the last and fiercest persecution of all, the world suddenly awoke to find that the Empire itself had become Christian.

We today are living in a world that is far less stable than that of the early Roman Empire. There is no doubt that the world is on the move again and that the pace is faster and more furious than anything that man has known before. But there is nothing in this situation which should cause Christians to despair. On the contrary it is the kind of situation for which their faith has always prepared them and which provides the opportunity for the fulfillment of their mission.

It is true that we do not know where the world is going. We cannot say it must go toward a Christian culture any more than toward destruction by atomic warfare. All we know is that the world is being changed from top to bottom and that the Christian faith remains the way of salvation: that is to say, a way to the renewal of human life by the spirit of God which has no limits and which cannot be prevented by human power or material catastrophe. Christianity proved victorious over the pagan world in the past, because Christians were always looking forward while the secular world was looking back. This note of hope and expectation is one of the characteristic notes of Christianity: it runs through the New Testament from beginning to end. One of the most striking expressions of this is to be seen in St. Paul's last letter to his first European converts — the Philippians — written during his captivity and trial, yet making even his trial a ground of encouragement, since it was providing a means to spread the knowledge of the faith in the Roman praetorium and the palace of Caesar. And after describing all his gains and all his losses, he concludes:

"Not that I have already reached fulfillment. I do not claim to have attained. But this one thing I do. Forgetting all that is completed and reaching out to the things that lie before, I press on to the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."

This attitude of detachment and confidence in the future which St. Paul expresses in such an intensely personal, vivid way is also the social attitude of the Church as a whole, and it is this which gives Christianity such a great power of spiritual renewal.

Nevertheless, though Christianity is prepared to accept every external change, though it is not bound to the past in the same way as a particular form of society tends to be, it has its own internal tradition which it maintains with the most scrupulous fidelity and which it can never surrender. Looked at from the secular standpoint, the primitive Church might have seemed to lack everything that the educated Roman regarded as culture. Yet in reality it was the representative of a cultural tradition older than that of Greece and Rome. To the Christian, the people of God was a real historical society with its own history and literature and its perennial philosophy of divine wisdom. And when eventually the world became Christian, this specifically religious culture-tradition came to the surface and was accepted by the new world as the source of the new Christian art and literature and liturgy.

The same tradition exists today, for though the Church no longer inspires and dominates the external culture of the modern world, it still remains the guardian of all the riches of its own inner life and is the bearer of a sacred tradition. If society were once again to become Christian, after a generation or two or after ten or twenty generations, this sacred tradition would once more flow out into the world and fertilize the culture of societies yet unborn. Thus the movement toward Christian culture is at one and the same time a voyage into the unknown, in the course of which new worlds of human experience will be discovered, and a return to our own fatherland — to the sacred tradition of the Christian past which flows underneath the streets and cinemas and skyscrapers of the new Babylon as the tradition of the patriarchs and prophets flowed beneath the palaces and amphitheaters of Imperial Rome.


 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Dawson, Christopher. "The Outlook for Christian Culture." Chapter I in The Historic Reality of Christian Culture: A Way to the Renewal of Human Life (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1960), 13-30.

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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