Introduction

Christopher-Dawson
Christopher Henry Dawson.

During the last twenty years modern civilization has been undergoing a series of shocks which has almost destroyed the old complacency and self-confidence that marked the pre-war world. In those days it seemed as though nothing could shake the stability of our civilization, and the average man was content to take it for granted and to concentrate his attention on securing a good place for himself in it, and appropriating as many as possible of the advantages that it had to offer.

To-day the world is on the move again, and no one can tell where it is going or what will happen next: whether our civilization is going to recover its stability or whether it will collapse in ruins. Men can no longer help realizing that something very serious is the matter, and that unless something is done about it, and done quickly, we shall all find ourselves in a desperate plight.

And human nature being what it is, it is only natural that people should look for some simple and straightforward remedy for their difficulties, and that they should tend to put the blame on some particular set of individuals-whether it be bankers or Bolsheviks, or nationalist politicians or international financiers. We see the result of that state of mind in Germany to-day; but it is far from being limited to Germany, in fact one may say that it is almost a universal phenomenon, and that it only becomes more accentuated as the situation becomes more serious.

Now I do not wish to deny that the present situation does involve particular responsibilities, and does call for immediate practical remedies. But we have to consider whether it is enough to find a satisfactory temporary solution of our immediate difficulties, or whether these are not superficial symptoms of something profoundly wrong in our civilization which must be cured before modern civilization can become really healthy. Otherwise, even if our present difficulties are solved, they will recur again in some new form before very long.

There are very many to-day who accept this second alternative, and who believe that our civilization requires very drastic and radical treatment if it is to survive. But they are by no means in agreement as to the nature of that treatment. There are, on the one hand, those who believe that what is wanted is an overhauling of the machinery of our civilization. They believe that our present social mechanism is antiquated and defective, and that if we could replace it with something more efficient and more up to date all would be well. And on the other hand, there are those who believe that what is wrong is the spirit of our civilization, and that so long as that spirit is unchanged no improvements in social or economic machinery will help us in the long run.

This is a very fundamental difference of opinion, and one that has its roots deep in human history. It is the difference between the secular reformer and the religious reformer-between secular opinion and religious opinion-between the Christian point of view and what used to be called the pagan point of view, but is now more commonly known as the modern point of view. Christianity has never shut its eyes to the reality of the burden of inherited evils that weigh down human history, and for that reason it has been condemned as pessimistic and reactionary by the optimists who believe that human nature is thoroughly good, and that history is the record of a movement of continual progress towards a fuller and more perfect civilization.

But even if we admit that civilization is advancing, and that we are wiser and happier than our ancestors, still it is impossible to deny that the path of progress has been a bloody one, and every step forward has involved a heavy cost in human suffering.

Fifteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine in his famous book, The City of God, looked back on the history of a great civilization which was just about to pass away, and attempted to sum up its meaning. He saw that Rome had done great things for the world: that it had given men peace and material prosperity, and had united the nations by a common language and a common law. Yet these benefits had only been purchased by war and slavery and the oppression of the weak. And when they had been won, they had been used for evil rather than for good: to serve the senseless luxury of the rich and the brutal passions of the mob that crowded to the amphitheatre to watch the gladiatorial shows. Moreover, even the peace which Rome had established was only relative; it did not prevent the incessant recurrence of civil wars and disturbances within the empire which were a cause of greater misery than the old wars of conquest. And so he concludes, it is impossible for anyone with a sense of humanity to consider these things, and to see all these extremes of bloodshed and suffering, without feeling that nothing is sufficient to explain or justify them.

Now it is sometimes argued that all this was true of the past, but that it no longer holds good of the modern world. In ancient civilization human knowledge and human resources were so limited that mankind was always at the mercy of war and famine and disease. But now that the age of science has come, we have gained control over Nature and we are no longer at the mercy of circumstances. Modern machinery makes it possible to do without slavery, and modern scientific development makes it possible to abolish poverty and disease. Unfortunately, we see to-day that the new world of science and machinery is at the mercy of the same human forces which ruled the old world, and that it is these rather than any material factor which are the real cause of social evils. Science has not prevented war; it has even added fresh horrors to it and increased man’s powers of destruction. The weaker and more backward races have suffered more during a century of expansion of modern scientific civilization than they had ever done before in the world’s history. Moreover, we have seen how the progress of industry and technique has led to new forms of economic exploitation, and has given new occasions of friction and rivalry between classes and nations.

No doubt it may argued that this is due to the maintenance of the old forms of social and economic organization in a world that has outgrown them. But the real cause of the evils of industrialism was not so much individualism in itself as the spirit which sacrificed the individual to the economic process, and it remains to be seen whether the same spirit will not manifest itself in a new form even under a different system. At the present time the old forms of individualism are everywhere passing away before the pressure of the modern State; but although this destroys some social injustices, it also creates others and contains the possibility of a new and more serious menace to spiritual freedom. And this tendency is not confined to a single country or to any one particular political or social system. It may, I think, even be argued that Communism in Russia, National Socialism in Germany, and Capitalism and Liberal Democracy in the Western countries are really three forms of the same thing, and that they are ll moving by different but parallel paths to the same goal, which is the mechanization of human life and the complete subordination of the individual to the state and to the economic process. Of course I do not mean to say that they are all absolutely equivalent, and that we have no right to prefer one to another. But I do believe that a Christian cannot regard any of them as a final solution of the problem of civilization, or even as a tolerable one. Christianity is bound to protest against any social system which claims the whole of man and sets itself up as the final end of human action, for it asserts that man’s essential nature transcends all political and economic forms. Civilization is a road by which man travels, not a house for him to dwell in. His true city is elsewhere.

Yet for all that Christianity does not maintain, like some oriental religions, that life has no meaning-that man is caught in an endless round of time and change, like a mouse in a wheel. It asserts that there is a purpose in history and that this purpose is a social one. Against the cities and empires of man which are founded in violence and injustice and have no end but their own power and wealth, it stands for a spiritual society, a divine commonwealth, which is founded in faith and built up in charity, until it realizes all spiritual possibilities that are latent in the life of humanity.

The revelation of this divine purpose in history, and the promise of this spiritual society, formed part of the inheritance which Christianity received from the religion of Israel, and the record of this development is to be found in the Old Testament. That record is in itself a remarkable refutation of the materialist interpretation of history. All the other great religions are linked with some great civilization: Hinduism with the civilization of India, Confucianism with that of China, Zoroastrianism with that of Persia. Even Greece, small as it was, had inherited the great and ancient tradition of Aegean culture. Israel alone had no great tradition of material culture behind it. It was an insignificant people that occupied a territory no larger than Wales; a people that was neither rich nor powerful nor highly civilized. And yet it produced the greatest spiritual revolution that the world has known, and has had far greater influence on history than the powerful empires which surrounded it and seemed again and again about to destroy it. Hitherto the prosperity and strength of a people had been regarded as a proof of the power of its gods. The forces that dominated the world were divinized and worshipped, whether they were good or bad. In Israel for the first time we find this idea reversed. The servants of Jehovah, the God of Israel, are called “the poor,” while His enemies are the kings of the earth.

Nothing, in fact, could seem more opposed to any idea of a moral government of the world, or a divine purpose in history, than the world in which the Hebrew prophets lived. They were faced with the spectacle of the triumph of brute force in its most repulsive form, and with an apparently aimless process of war and destruction. One after another the surrounding kingdoms came down in blood and ruin. Israel itself was conquered and its inhabitants deported. Then the conquering power of Assyria itself collapsed, but instead of this bringing relief, it proved to be only the prelude to the destruction of Judah and the sack of the holy city of Jerusalem. The temple was destroyed and the people were led into captivity. Through all this age of suffering and destruction the prophets of Israel carried out their mission. They saw the catastrophes as the judgment of God on a civilization that was in revolt against the Divine Law-whether that revolt was shown in the pride and violence of the Gentile world power, or in the opposition of the poor and the social injustice of Israel itself. They taught that the purpose of God was not to be fulfilled by material power, but by suffering and obedience. This defeated people, “despised of man, the servant of rulers,” was to be the source of a universal kingdom which should unite all nations in a reign of spiritual truth and social justice. Other prophets and thinkers in different ages may have dreamt of the coming of a perfect state, like the Stoic Cosmopolis and the City of the Sun. But the prophetic conception of the Kingdom of God differs from such imaginations by its objective and historical character. It is founded on the tradition of a real people, an actual society with its own laws and institutions which claimed divine sanction. And consequently while the Platonic and Stoic ideal was simply an intellectual influence which coloured men’s thoughts about the State, the Jewish tradition was an historical reality which preserved its social identity when all the surrounding nations had become merged in the cosmopolitan unity of a world civilization.

This tradition was accepted and developed by Christianity-in fact the Christian Gospel was essentially the announcement of the coming of that Kingdom which had been foretold by the prophets. Nevertheless, Christianity was more than a fulfillment; it was also a beginning. It claimed to be a new creation, the birth of a new humanity, and the inauguration of a new spiritual order. This is the doctrine which runs through the New Testament and finds its full expression in the letters of St. Paul. In the words of a great religious teacher of the last century: “Christ came to make a new world. He came into the world to regenerate it in Himself, to make a new beginning, to be the beginning of the creation of God, to gather together in one and to recapitulate all things in Himself…. The world was like some fair mirror, broken in pieces and giving back no one uniform image of its Maker. But He came to combine what was dissipated, to recast what was shattered, in Himself. He began all excellence, and of His fullness have we all received.”

This principle of spiritual renewal was actualized in the life of the Christian community, which regarded itself not as a religious sect, but as a true society which carried on the historic tradition of the Jewish people. As Israel had stood against the kingdoms of the Gentiles, so the Church stood against the world. Secular civilization, embodied in the Roman State, ruled the present age by its own law, which the law of force. The Church was the society of the world to come. It was its function to permeate mankind like a hidden leaven, to separate the living elements from the dead, and to reorganize them in a spiritual order which should be the foundation of a new world . To contemporaries primitive Christianity must have seemed an absurd attempt on the part of a handful of oriental fanatics to defy the forces of civilization and progress. It had against it all that was strongest in the ancient world – the power and authority of the Roman State, Greek science and culture, the civic life of the ancient city and the religious traditions of the ancient East. Nevertheless, these mighty forces were powerless to resist the spiritual energy of the new society. Christianity conquered. It actually created a new world. It supplied the spiritual impulse which was the formative element in European culture. The new peoples of the West were baptized into Christ and became members of the Christian society. For a thousand years and more Europe was Christendom, and all that was most vital in European culture received the imprint of the Christian spirit.

Nevertheless, the old conflict between the Church and the world still continued. The permeation of European civilization by Christianity was never complete, and in proportion as the Church became embodied in the social order it tended itself to become secularized and to be absorbed by the world. Consequently, when the State became once more conscious of its power, and attempted to vindicate its sovereignty over the whole of social life, it was supported not only by the politician and the business man, but by the religious reformer who wished to restore the spiritual liberty of the Church and to free it from secular influences.

Religion gradually retreated into man’s inner life, and left social and economic life to the State and to a civilization which grew steadily more secularized. A man’s debt to religion was paid by an hour or two in church on Sundays, and the rest of the week was devoted to the real business of life-above all, the making of money.

Such a division of life into two compartments-and very unequal ones at that- was not the Christian solution, nor could it be permanently successful. If religion loses its hold on social life, it eventually loses its hold on life altogether. And this is what has happened in the case of modern Europe. The new secularized civilization is not content to dominate the outer world and to leave man’s inner life to religion’ it claims the whole man. Once more Christianity is faced, as it was at the beginning, with the challenge of a world which will accept to appeal from its judgment, and which recognizes no higher power than its own will. Indeed it would almost seem as though the prospect to-day was even darker than it was at the beginning. Then, at least, Christianity was a new thing in the world, and its possibilities were untried; but now that Christianity has been in the world for nineteen centuries the modern world regards it as a thing of the past-as a system that has been tried and found wanting, and that no longer has anything to offer to modern man.

No doubt European civilization, even when secularized, still retains the mark of its spiritual origins. The new social ideals and secular forms of cultures themselves represent partial and one-sided survivals of the Christian social tradition. Nevertheless, the spiritual forces that owe their existence to Christianity have turned against it and have become the centres of Christian revolt. Nationalism owes to Christianity its high and almost mystical conception of the nation as a spiritual unity-a sacred community for which the individual will gladly sacrifice his life; yet, divorced from Christianity, this conception becomes a principle of hatred and destruction. Liberalism and democracy owe to Christianity their humanitarian idealism and their faith in progress; yet this idealization of humanity has become a substitute for the Christian faith in a divine order, and has made it possible to regard secular civilization as man’s final end. Socialism derives from both Christianity and Judaism its passion for social justice, and for the rights of the poor and the disinherited; yet this passion has become the driving force of the Communist attack on Christianity, and the basis of a social atheism which leaves no room for human rights and spiritual freedom.

This secularization of Western culture was already almost complete in the last century, but its full implications were obscured by the dominance of Liberalism which tended to minimize the power and importance of the State. It is early to-day when Liberalism is everywhere giving way to Collectivism and Totalitarianism that we are beginning to realize the significance of the change. The modern State, not only in Russia and Germany, but throughout the world, claims to dominate and control the whole life of society and of the individual. Consequently the old conception of the relation between Church and State are no longer relevant to the new situation and we are forced to reconsider the whole problem from this new standpoint. This is what I have attempted to do in the following chapters.

-“Introduction”, Religion and the Modern State, Christopher Dawson, pages xi-xxii

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