Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The Study of Christian Culture

by Christopher Dawson


An interesting article by Christopher Dawson on higher education.

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Publisher & Date

The America Press, Winter 1960

Vision Book Cover Prints

One of the chief causes of the weakness of religion in the modern world has been the general neglect of religious studies in higher education. In the past in Europe, and to some extent in America also, "religious education" meant teaching a child his catechism, and in Protestant countries teaching him to read the Bible and perhaps teaching him to read the New Testament in Greek. But anything more than that was regarded as only necessary for the clergy. Consequently the division between lay and clerical studies was a very sharp one, especially in Catholic countries, where the candidates for the priesthood underwent a specialized training from a very early age in les petits seminaires. And it was this state of things which was largely responsible for the anticlericalism of lay opinion in Catholic Europe during the nineteenth century.

But in this country there has been a different tradition, and Catholic colleges and universities have devoted considerable effort and thought to religious teaching and to the integration of Catholic theology and philosophy in the college curriculum. Yet even here the results have been disappointing—for this education has not produced many outstanding Catholic religious thinkers or philosophers. Consequently we are today in the midst of an active process of self-criticism in educational matters, especially with regard to higher education.

The same process is also going on in non-Catholic education. Indeed, many of the problems are common to both systems and are the result of the immense expansion of the educational system and the democratic attempt to give every young man and woman a college education and to provide an almost unlimited choice of specialisms and vocational courses. Higher education has tended to become an anarchy of competing specialisms and no longer possesses any principle of unity.

In this situation, which affects Catholic as well as non-Catholic colleges, we have been led to ask whether there is not room for the study of Christian culture and whether such a study might not provide a bond of integration which would unite the higher and more abstract principles of theology and philosophy with the specialized courses which prepare the student for his future profession or vocation. But this suggestion has encountered considerable opposition from two sides. To the reformer or "the liberal," it seems too reactionary— too bound up with dogmatic Catholic presuppositions—while to the conservative it seems to be a revolutionary threat to the classical studies which have been the basis of the Liberal Arts curriculum in the university.

Now it is certainly true that the study of Christian culture does involve a break with that exclusive concentration on the Greek and Latin classics which dominated Western education in the past. For centuries higher education has been so identified with the study of one particular historic culture—that of ancient Greece and Rome— that there was no room for anything else. Even the study of our own particular national culture, including both history and literature, did not obtain full recognition until the nineteenth century, while the concept of Christian culture as an object of study has never been recognized at all.

The great obstacle to this study has not been religious or secularist prejudices but strictly cultural. It had its origins in the idealization of classical antiquity by the humanist scholars and artists who rediscovered the Hellenistic concept of Paideia and in the corresponding depreciation of the education of the medieval schools. And it followed from this view that the period that intervened between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance offered the historian, as Voltaire says, "the barren prospect of a thousand years of stupidity and barbarism." They were "middle ages" in the original sense of the word— that is, a kind of cultural vacuum between two ages of cultural achievement which, to continue the same quotation, "vindicate the greatness of the human spirit."

This view, which necessarily ignores the achievements and even the existence of Christian culture, was passed on almost unchanged from the Renaissance to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and from the latter to the modern secularist ideologies. And though today every instructed person recognizes that it is based on a completely erroneous view of history and very largely on sheer ignorance of history, it still continues to exert an immense influence, both consciously and unconsciously, on modern education and on our attitude to the past.

It is therefore necessary for educators to make a positive effort to exorcise the ghost of this ancient error and to give the study of Christian culture the place that it deserves in modern education. We cannot leave this to the medievalists alone, for they are to some extent themselves tied to the same error by the limitations of their specialism. For Christian culture is not the same as medieval culture. It existed before the Middle Ages began and it continued to exist after they had ended. The term "the middle ages" is itself derived from the false view of history of which I have been speaking—the view that there was a kind of cultural vacuum of a thousand years or more between two isolated peaks of creative achievement. And no less misleading is the opposite view of the Catholic romantics who identified Christian and medieval culture and concentrated their attention on a single century, usually the thirteenth, and a single part of Christendom, usually France or Germany, as the perfect example of Christian civilization.

But Christian culture is far more than this. It has been one of the four great world cultures on which the civilization of the modern world has been built. And in particular it is the historic basis of our own civilization, since it was through this Christian culture that the peoples and nations of the West were brought together and acquired a common consciousness and a sense of cultural and spiritual unity. Hence it is clear that without some understanding of this great cultural tradition which molded the life and thought of our ancestors for ten to fifteen centuries, we cannot understand our past and we shall become progressively alienated from our own spiritual inheritance, as in fact so much of our population is today. By the study of Christian culture we become conscious of our spiritual roots and integrated into the continuing life of the historic community of culture.

One of the weaknesses of our education in the past has been due to our ignoring this historical dimension of Christian culture. Thus while the student may receive a thorough grounding in the principles of Thomist theology and ethics, there is a danger that this knowledge will remain in the sphere of theory and of textbooks, unless he is able to make some study of how these doctrines and these ethical values have in fact affected or failed to affect the way of life of Christian men and societies.

Of course the study of Christian culture presupposes that such influences have in fact existed throughout the course of history, a supposition which I have always believed to be generally accepted. But in fact I have found to my great surprise that it is just on this ground that Catholic educationalists have based their opposition to the idea of Christian culture and to the possibility of its study.

These objections have been very vigorously expressed by Professor J. G. Lawler of St. Xavier College, Chicago, in his recently published book. The Catholic Dimension in Higher Education,[1] and since he represents in many ways the views of the avant garde of American Catholic educationalists, I think it is necessary to make some reply to his criticisms.

Now Professor Lawler questions the use of the expression "Christian Culture," on account of the disassociation or fissure which has existed between Christian teaching and the practice of Christians, for he believes that we should not apply "the attribute Christian to any human undertaking not directly sanctioned by revealed truth or religious authority."[2] Professor Lawler justifies this drastic rejection of the possibility of any Christian culture by appealing to Newman's denial of the possibility of a Christian literature in his Discourse on the Duties of the Church towards Knowledge. Here Newman himself is stating an extreme position but Professor Lawler is not content with this. He rewrites the whole passage, substituting the word "culture" for "literature" so as to make Newman responsible for his repudiation of Christian culture. This is hardly fair to the memory of a great Catholic who devoted his life, as he himself said, to resisting the religious Liberalism which denied the bond between religion and society and was destroying all over Europe the Christian character of "that goodly framework of society which is the creation of Christianity."

But the fact is that Professor Lawler is quite unaware of Christian culture as a living historical reality. He conceives it as an intellectual ideal—the idea of a perfect Christian society—and since such a society has never existed, he is indignant with anyone who professes to find such an ideal in the bloody and barbarous past.

For my part, I have always attempted to make it perfectly clear in my writings that I use the word "culture," not as an intellectual ideal, but in the sense in which it is defined and used by the social sciences and especially by anthropology—that is to say, a culture is essentially a social process which may be studied historically or sociologically. It is the way of life of a society or a group of societies—not merely their economics and their technology, but even more a moral order, for what holds a society together are the common values, the common standards and the common laws which make them in some sense a spiritual community.

A Christian culture is this, but more than this. It is a Christian way of life—a spiritual order by which the Christian faith and Christian morality leaven human society. With Christianity a new dynamic principle enters the life of humanity and reorganizes it round a new spiritual center and toward a new supernatural end. This principle is social as well as individual. It is embodied in the life of an organized community—the Catholic Church—and it extends its influence to every aspect of human life and every form of social activity. The elements of human society—family, economic association, city and state—remain the same, but in proportion as they come under the influence of the higher spiritual order, they are directed to new ends.

Thus the contribution of Christianity to culture is not merely the addition of a religious element; it is a process of re-creation which transforms the whole character of the social organism. It breaks down the closed self-centered world of secularist culture and gives human society a new spiritual purpose which transcends the conflicting interests of individual and class and race. Thus it provides the psychological motive for the creation of a genuinely universal culture from which no class or race is excluded.

If this is so, it may be asked. How does the study of Christian culture differ from the life of the Church? Clearly the two studies are intimately related, and it may even be said that they deal with the same subject from different points of view. But while the theologian studies it from above in the light of revelation—ex parte Dei—the student of Christian culture studies it from below in the light of history—ex parte hominis. The theologian studies the whole economy of redemption and shows how human nature is restored and transfigured by the action of divine grace through the Church and the Sacraments. The student of Christian culture studies this leavening process on the human plane. He is concerned not so much with the inner nature of the Christian way of life as with its external expression: not that the two can be completely separated, any more than we can separate the performance of the liturgy from the spirit of prayer or from the sacrament. But the student of Christian culture is primarily concerned with the human material which is subjected to the leavening process.

This material already possesses cultural form, so that the student of Christian culture is also obliged to study the pre-Christian or non-Christian cultures with which it is intermingled. Thus he has three different levels or fields of study: (1) the Christian way of life, which is the field of study he shares with the theologian; (2) the preexisting or co-existing forms of human culture, which is the field he shares with the anthropologist and the historian; and (3) the interaction of the two which produces the concrete historical reality of Christendom or Christian culture, which is his own specific field of study.

Christendom, the historical reality of Christian culture as a world movement, was created by the conversion of Hellenistic Roman culture to Christianity and its diffusion to the peoples of the West. Thus, it was a kind of "super-culture" which absorbed and overlaid a large number of cultures of various degrees of importance. In order to understand it, we must first study the Jewish-Christian tradition which is the specific study of theologians, but which must here be seen historically and dynamically as the development of the spiritual tradition of the Old and New Testaments, which contains the sacred history of the People of God—the old and the new Israel.

The study of the first community, through the Old Testament and the history of Judaism, is of great value in that it provides a classical example of a pure religious culture in which all the aspects of culture —sociological, political, legal, moral, ritual, and theological—are united in one all-embracing sacred order. It is of course easy to find other examples of this unification of standards in primitive cultures, but they are remote from our own historical experience, whereas in the case of the religion of Israel, it is directly related through the biblical tradition of our own Christian culture, which is the object of our study.

This kind of historical relativism or "relatedness" is very valuable as against the metaphysical relativism which denies all transcendent values to theology and philosophy. Unfortunately, neither the theologians nor the sociologists seem to recognize this vital distinction. Thus there is a great danger in the United States that while secular education is being pushed toward an extreme metaphysical relativism by sociology and psychology. Catholic education is being pushed in the opposite direction toward a metaphysical absolutism so that you will get two mutually exclusive and incomprehensible universes of discourse.

What is so dangerous about this particular kind of metaphysical education is that it leaves so little room for criticism. The student is bound to take Thomism largely on faith since there is no competition of rival schools, as in the medieval university, and so one is in danger of having a solid monolithic structure of infallible knowledge which includes philosophy as well as theology and treats the two as coequal, so that Catholic education becomes identified with an authoritarian ideology, like Marxism. Thus the distinction between theology and ideology becomes blurred. It may not be so in practice, but it may become a real danger unless students have a deep grounding in culture, either literary or historical.

Now as anthropology and literature are the studies which offer a means of understanding on the secular side, the study of Christian culture could perform a similar function for Catholics, if only we had the teachers to develop it. Therefore the first priority must be to find a number of individuals who are interested in culture studies, and to enlist their support for the development of the study of Christian culture.

Since theology and philosophy are considered the basic principles of unity for Catholic higher education in America, the kind of Christian culture study here proposed may meet with opposition from theologians and philosophers as well as from specialists and utilitarians. I certainly do not wish to reduce the role of theology in education. One must remember, however, that systematic theology has hitherto been, in Europe, exclusively a clerical subject—a specialized discipline for priests, and that the layman received his theology at second hand from the priest in the church, not from the university. My idea has been that a theological element can be introduced on this level through the study of Christian culture and of the theological and spiritual literature of the age which is being dealt with.

At the same time the theology or religious instruction course, which forms part of the Catholic college curriculum in America, would be strengthened and enriched by the study of positive theology, which is an essential part of the Christian culture program. The systematic study of Christian doctrine only stands to gain by the insight imparted by a study of the historical development of Christian culture. Of course no one would suggest that you can teach an undergraduate religious doctrine without any positive theology. He must at least know something about the Bible, the liturgy, the creeds, and the church councils, and the great figures such as Athanasius and Augustine and Thomas. But the study of Christian culture would extend this element very considerably and would also give the student some notion of other possibilities and movements of which the ordinary student learns nothing at present. This is surely pure gain for the religious educator. It would enable him to assume a certain level of positive knowledge in his students and it would give him more time to devote to systematic theology and to apologetics. The latter especially will gain enormously by the higher standard of historical knowledge which the student of Christian culture will possess.

Thus Christian culture study is additional to and not in substitution for the professional and systematic study of theology. After all, this has been the Catholic educational tradition hitherto. Theology was the crown of the system, not the foundation, and the liberal arts had an independent origin, being in fact taken over bodily from the old classical education.

It must be clear from what I have already said that there can be no question of confining the study of Christian culture to a single period, for it extends over the whole course of Christian history—and even behind it, to its historic and providential preparation in the Old Testament.

The culture of the later Middle Ages was only one of the five or six successive ages of Christian culture, each of which had its own mission and vocation and deserves to be studied for its own sake as I have explained at greater length in my essay on "The Six Ages of the Church."[3] Of course it is not possible, or hardly possible, for the student to study all of these. He can choose whichever of them is best adapted to his own needs and interests. But each of them provides an equally good field for study—not because they are equal from the point of view of material and intellectual culture—but because in each we see how Christianity has extended into vital relations with some particular social world and has changed it by creating a new pattern of Christian life according to the conditions of this particular age and society. Each has its own record of achievement and failure and each has played its part in the world mission of the Church, the progressive transformation of humanity by the new principle of divine life which was brought into the world by the Incarnation and which will continue its work through the whole course of human history until the end of time.


1 The Newman Press, 1959.

2 Op. cit., pp. 211, 215.

3 In The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (Harper & Bros., 1960), pp. 47-59.

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