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The Challenge of Secularism

by Christopher Dawson


The challenge of secularism must be met on the cultural level, asserts Christopher Dawson, noted Catholic historian. Christianity can never compete with the mass culture of commercialized amusements or political propaganda on their own ground. The challenge must be met in higher education, and it is the task of Christian education first to recover our own cultural inheritance, and secondly to communicate it to a sub-religious or neo-pagan world.

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The Catholic World



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The Paulist Fathers, February 1956

It is no accident that the introduction of universal compulsory state education has coincided in time and place with the secularization of modern culture. Where the whole educational system has been dominated by a consciously anti-religious ideology, as in the Communist countries, the plight of Christianity is desperate, and even if there were no persecution of religion on the ecclesiastical level, there would be little hope of its survival after two or three generations of universal Communist education. Here however the totalitarian state is only completing the work that the liberal state began, for already in the nineteenth century the secularization of education and the exclusion of positive Christian teaching from the school formed an essential part of the program of almost all the progressive, liberal and socialist parties everywhere.

Unfortunately, while universal secular education is an infallible instrument for the secularization of culture, the existence of a free system of religious primary education is not sufficient to produce a Christian culture. We know only too well how little effect the Catholic school has on modern secular culture and how easily the latter can assimilate and absorb the products of our educational system. The modern Leviathan is such a formidable monster that he can swallow religious schools whole without suffering from indigestion.

But this is not the case with higher education. The only part of Leviathan that is vulnerable is his brain, which is small in comparison with his vast and armored bulk. If we could develop Christian higher education to a point at which it meets the attention of the average educated man in every field of thought and life, the situation would be radically changed.

In the literary world something of this kind has already happened. During my lifetime Catholicism has come back into English literature, so that the literary critic can no longer afford to ignore it. But the literary world is a very small one and it does not reflect public opinion to anything like the degree that it did in Victorian times. The trouble is that our modern secular culture is sub-literary as well as sub-religious. The forces that affect it are in the West the great commercialized amusement industries and in the East the forces of political propaganda. And I do not think that Christianity can ever compete with these forms of mass culture on their own ground. If it does so, it runs the danger of becoming commercialized and politicized and thus of sacrificing its own distinctive values. I believe that Christians stand to gain more in the long run by accepting their minority position and looking for quality rather than quantity.

This does not mean that Catholicism should become an esoteric religion for the learned and the privileged. The minority is a religious minority and it is to be found in every class and at every intellectual level. So it was in the days of primitive Christianity and so it has been ever since.

The difference is that today the intellectual factor has become more vital than it ever was in the past. The great obstacle to the conversion of the modern world is the belief that religion has no intellectual significance; that it may be good for morals and satisfying to man's emotional needs, but that there is no such thing as religious knowledge. The only true knowledge is concerned with material things and with the concrete realities of social and economic life.

This is a pre-theological difficulty, for it is impossible to teach men even the simplest theological truths, if they believe that the creeds and the catechism are nothing but words and that religious knowledge is not really knowledge at all. On the other hand, I do not believe that it is possible to clear the difficulty away by straight philosophical argument, since the general public is philosophically illiterate and modern philosophy is becoming an esoteric specialism.

The only remedy is religious education in the widest sense of the word. That is to say a general introduction to the world of religious truth and the higher forms of spiritual reality. By losing sight of this world, modern secular culture has become more grievously impoverished than even the non-Christian cultures, for those cultures agreed in recognizing the existence of a higher supernatural or divine world on which human life was dependent.

Now the Christian world of the past was exceptionally well provided with ways of access to spiritual realities. Christian culture was essentially a sacramental culture which embodied religious truth in visible and palpable forms: art and architecture; music and poetry and drama, philosophy and history were all used as channels for the communication of religious truth. Today all these channels have been closed by unbelief or choked by ignorance, so that Christianity has been deprived of its natural means of outward expression and communication.

It is the task of Christian education to recover these lost contacts and to restore contact between religion and modern society — between the world of spiritual reality and the world of social experience. Of course this is not what is usually meant by education, which is usually confined within the narrow limits of schools and examinations. But instruction cannot achieve much unless it has a culture behind it, and Catholic culture is essentially humanist in as much as there is nothing human which does not come within its sphere and which does not in some way belong to it.

Thus Christian culture is a very rich and wide culture: richer than modern secular culture, because it has a greater spiritual depth and is not confined to a single level of reality; and wider than any of the oriental religions because it is more catholic and many-sided. For the average modern man, however, it is more or less a lost world and one from which even the modern Catholic has been partially estranged by his secular environment and tradition.

Thus we have a double task, first to recover our own cultural inheritance and secondly to communicate it to a sub-religious or neo-pagan world. I do not believe the second of these is as difficult as it appears at first sight, because people are becoming more and more aware that something is lacking in their culture: and there are many who are still far from positive religious belief but who possess a good deal of intellectual curiosity about religion which may become the seed of something more.

But the other condition is more difficult to fulfill, for even the Catholic minority, which is conscious of its traditions has very few opportunities for the study of Catholic culture. On the one hand we have the highly specialized studies of the ecclesiastical seminary; on the other a wide range of university studies in which isolated scraps of Christian culture can be acquired through history and literature but which gives no opportunity for any general inclusive or synthetic study of Christian culture as such.

It seems to me that the time has come when the universities should consider whether it is not possible to do more for Christian studies. The Christian culture of the past was an organic whole. It was not confined to theology; it expressed itself also in philosophy and literature, in art and music, society and institutions; and none of these forms of expression can be understood completely unless they are seen in relation to the rest. But under existing conditions this is impossible. You can study some parts of the whole in detail but never the whole itself.

To understand the development of Christian culture it must be studied in all its three phases—Ancient, Medieval and Modern; Patristic, Scholastic and Humanist; Byzantine, Gothic and Baroque. At the most it is possible to study one of the first two parts of these triads in isolation from the rest, while the third cannot be studied at all. The result of this situation is that we tend to view Christian culture exclusively in one of its phases only. And the effect has been to narrow our whole conception of the subject so that we fail to see how it transcends the limitations of any particular age or social environment.

Of course it may be objected that the subject is too vast a field to be studied as a whole. But the same may be said more or less of any great culture—such as Hellenism or Islam or the civilization of China— yet in those cases any specialized study of the past must be accompanied by a general study of the whole.

It is true that Christians do not always recognize this. There are many, especially among the Protestants and the sectarians, who look on Christianity and culture as alien from one another and who regard the world of culture as part of "this world," the world that lies in darkness under the dominion of evil. In their extreme forms such views are irreconcilable with Catholicism. Nevertheless there is a kind of Catholic Puritanism, which separates itself as far as possible from secular culture and adopts an attitude of withdrawal and intransigency. Now this attitude of withdrawal is perfectly justified on Catholic principles. It is the spirit of the fathers of the desert and of the martyrs and confessors of the primitive Church. But it means that Christianity has become an underground movement and that the only place for Christian life and for Christian culture is in the desert and the catacombs. Under modern conditions, however, it may be questioned if such a withdrawal is possible. Today the desert no longer exists and the modern state exerts no less authority underground in the subway and the air raid shelter than it does on the earth and in the air. The totalitarian state —and perhaps the modern state in general—is not satisfied with passive obedience; it demands full cooperation from the cradle to the grave.

Consequently the challenge of secularism must be met on the cultural level, if it is to be met at all; and if Christians cannot assert their right to exist in the sphere of higher education, they will eventually be pushed, not only out of modern culture, but out of physical existence. That is already the issue in Communist countries, and it will become the issue here also, if we do not use our opportunities while we still have them. We are still living internally on the capital of the past and externally on the existence of a vague atmosphere of religious tolerance, which has already lost its justification in contemporary secular ideology. It is a precarious situation, which cannot be expected to endure indefinitely and we ought to make the most of it while it lasts.

I believe that it is the field of higher education that offers the greatest opportunities; first on the ground of economy of effort, because a comparatively small expenditure of time and money is likely to produce more decisive results than a much greater expenditure at a lower level. And secondly because this is the sphere where there is most freedom of action and where the tradition of intellectual and spiritual freedom is likely to survive longest. Moreover the need for action is especially urgent in this field, because the social changes of the last half-century have extinguished the old tradition of independent private scholarship to which historical studies owed so much in the past. Most of all, perhaps, was this tradition strong among Catholics, where men like Lingard and Acton and Edmund Bishop gave their lives to the study of Christian history and culture without academic position or economic reward. But today the disappearance of the leisure class makes this kind of unorganized individual scholarship impossible. Either the Church or the universities must carry on the tradition and make themselves responsible for the maintenance of studies in the culture of Christendom, or the work will not be done at all.

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