Christianity and the New Age, by Christopher Dawson (Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 1985)
Christianity and the New Age was first published in 1931. Sophia Press has republished the book in a handsome new edition, including an introductory essay by John J. Mulloy, specially written for the volume. In this little book, Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) explains why liberal humanism failed in its mission to supplant Christianity as the soul of Western culture, and why its demise threatens not only Europe, but also the world with a new “dark age.” As in many of his other books, Dawson here discusses why a recovery of European cultural order requires a retrieval of its religious foundations—in particular a retrieval of the humanism that was inherited, but squandered, by liberalism.
Dawson explains that liberal humanism failed for two reasons. In the first place, liberal humanism severed the spiritual and cultural continuity between itself and the Christian religion. Although modern humanism has roots in the Renaissance “self-affirmation of the free personality,” this incipient phase of humanism was not aggressively hostile to Christianity. It became so over centuries, first as it battled the Reformation’s effort to restore the sov ereignty of faith and the establishment of national churches, and then during the more decisive rupture between revealed religion and Enlightenment theorists. In our own day, liberal humanism has burned virtually every bridge leading back to its religious sources. In the second place, liberal humanism failed because it proved incapable of humanizing the sciences. This is an especially bitter development, for the humane project of the modern sciences was the great hope and, in many respects, the great success, of humanism. Today, it is regarded by most humanists as a curse—perhaps due to the distortions of capitalism, which derailed the sciences from their proper utopian role. In any case, modern science has rendered humanism itself culturally obsolescent.
In this light, liberal humanism has suffered from a twofold crisis. On the one hand, it is at war with the religion that nurtured it, and not only cannot make sense of its own history, but also is befuddled even by the “natural” spirituality of man. On the other hand, it has come to loathe the very kind of scientific rationality which it brought into cultural prominence. Against revealed religion, this humanism arrogantly invokes the autonomy of human rationality, while against the sciences it plays the role of a skeptic and a debunker. Having separated faith from reason, it finds both intolerable. Liberal humanism has become an enigma unto itself.
Today many conservatives, and certainly most members of the resurgent Evangelical churches, would be more than happy to officiate at the funeral of “secular humanism.” Dawson believed in 1931 that it was already moribund. What we are presently dealing with are its destructive effects. The situation is made all the more precarious because, although this humanism was bound to fail, what promises to take its place could be a good deal worse.
Indeed its failure has spawned ideologies, now international in scope, that are worse.
According to Dawson, the failure of liberal humanism has left man culturally stranded between two unacceptable positions: There is an emaciated and trivialized science that has the wherewithal to reshape the material aspects of culture, but fails to satisfy man’s capacity for engaging in higher forms of spiritual order; and there is a sphere of religion and values which, for the past several centuries, has become increasingly more private and fideistic. It likewise fails to satisfy man’s capacity for cultural order. The problem for Christianity in the “new age” is how it might once again become culturally constructive. Yet, a religion that simply invokes faith against science, religion against humanism, or the supernatural against man’s nature, is only recapitulating the destructive pattern that led to the present crisis of modernity.
In Christianity and the New Age, Dawson draws an interesting distinction between primitive and civilized religions:
The essential difference between the religion of the primitive and that of civilized man is that for the latter the spiritual world has become a cosmos, rendered intelligible by philosophy and ethical by the tradition of the world religions, whereas to the primitive it is a spiritual chaos in which good and evil, high and low, rational and irrational are confusedly mingled.
Primitive religion, he adds, is
essentially an attempt to bring man’s life into relation with, and under the sanctions of, that other world of mysterious and sacred powers, whose action is always conceived as the ultimate and fundamental law of life.
It is no secret that Christianity transformed the primitive elements of man as a homo religiosus and undertook the laborious task of building a civilization that was truly international. This required confidence to distinguish between faith and reason, matter and spirit, and even between church and culture. In short, it was precisely because Christianity conceived of the spiritual world as a cosmos that it was able to create a culture that was neither naively homogeneous nor destructively dualistic. For this same reason, liberal humanism failed. As Dawson puts it, liberal humanism lost “any metaphysical conviction” regarding spiritual order. Pathetically, it became an esoteric outpost of the cultured, unable to conceive of spiritual order, much less capable of governing.
What is troublesome about contemporary religion in the West is that it has increasingly come to resemble what Dawson calls primitive religion. The remnants that remain of the liberal cultural order are simply conceded to the secularists, and religion turns its attention to belief in occult powers (the healing ministries on television are quite remarkable in this regard), to an interest in the sub-rational dimension of “feelings,” and to the task of managing the chaotic forces within one’s own psyche. While the so called progressive elements in contemporary religion are fascinated by such things as Jungian archetypes, spiritual warfare between the sexes, and class struggles in the Third World, the “reactionary” elements are interested in being rescued not only from the physical travail of ailments like arthritis but also from the “last days” culture altogether. The fact that millions of Americans participate in such a religion through the sophisticated techniques of telecommunication should not obscure how far it has departed from its earlier cultural mission. Rather than building culture, popular religion tends merely to reflect the anomalies of the secular-humanist society it abhors. Much of contemporary religion is extraordinarily juvenile—psychologically, intellectually, and culturally. Although many of us want to support it against secular humanism, we must face the fact that it is in many respects less developed than the humanism we want to replace.
In his writings Dawson frequently emphasizes that when Christianity is spiritually healthy, it can be expected to run against the grain of culture; cultural progress requires that the status quo not be regarded as definitive. In the history of the Church what first seemed to be a rather primitive movement (for instance, the Friars Minor) often turned out to be the seedbed of religious and cultural reform; hence, the role of religion in cultural progress does not absolutely require that the agent of change be clothed in the raiment of high culture. For this reason it is prudent to be cautious in criticizing the religious movements of our day.
Nevertheless, one who reads this little book by Dawson fifty years after its publication might have reason to doubt whether contemporary Christianity is prepared to pick up the pieces scattered by liberal humanism. Dawson himself firmly believed that only Catholicism has the resources to do the job. In Christianity and the New Age, he writes that in the great civilized world, religions have rested upon a “metaphysical foundation, and if this is removed their moral order falls with it.” Like many other Catholic intellectuals of his generation, he believed that it was the metaphysic of Catholicism (not just as formulas in scholastic textbooks, but as a philosophy in the full sense of the term) that separated it from other species of Christianity. It is this metaphysic that makes Catholicism still capable of restoring cultural order. The best essay that Dawson wrote on this subject is “Rationalism and Intellectualism,” included in Enquiries into Religion and Culture (1933). He was not a professional philosopher, but this essay is one of the truly lucid treatments of the relationship between metaphysics and religion by a twentieth-century Catholic.
It would be interesting to know what sense Dawson would make of the past two decades of Catholicism, during which time the traditional metaphysic has been virtually abandoned in favor of what could be called an “existentialist biblicism.” Not surprisingly, the ordinary moral order of Catholicism has itself fallen into shambles. Has Catholicism become a primitive religion? For Dawson’s generation the problem was ad extram, or how to bring the intellectual and the religious resources of Catholicism to bear upon the decadent culture of the West—a culture that even in its prodigality was viewed as a spiritual son. The Second Vatican Council was convened, among other reasons, to gear up for the missionary task of bringing modernity back within the fold of a sane humanism. Today, it is sad to say, the problem is ad intram. This does not belie Christopher Dawson’s hope, but it does indicate that it is vain to gloat over the demise of liberal humanism. The question now concerns religion itself.