This story is featured in the winter 2020 issue of Lumen.
The topic for my Master’s essay was conceived in what should have been the most mundane of situations – a parent-led committee at my children’s public charter school. That year, however, this committee on “School Climate” became the center of an emerging battle in that season of the interminable culture wars. The school was equipped with the full apparatus of liberal democratic society for dealing with controversy: committees, boards, elections, public comment, parliamentary procedures and so forth. We were supposed to be able to engage in rational discourse and work toward compromise. But there was no reasoning, and there was no compromise, because there was no common moral vision or vocabulary with which to engage these difficult questions together. Even appeals to such ostensibly shared ideals as dignity, truth, equality and justice were less a call to a unifying vision of the school’s purpose than an ode to the righteousness of one’s own side and its absolute demands. And as we sat through months of meetings and listening sessions and public comment periods, I found myself thinking again and again, “I don’t think this works.”
What “this” was and why it didn’t “work” only began to crystallize for me the next year in the Catholic studies graduate course Catholic Social Thought, in which I encountered the work of the English historian Christopher Dawson on the phenomenon of secularization. Dawson’s entire intellectual project was marked by a conviction about the intrinsic relationship between religion and culture. While this relationship varied in many particulars, he observed that across time and place, from the most primitive tribes to the greatest civilizations, religion always provided culture with two vital elements: order and unity. Order, because the culture was anchored, morally and spiritually, to higher realities, and unity, because all people stood on common ground underneath a greater mystery. Yet religion also served as a dynamic force, as it opened up the imagination of a people to realities and aspirations beyond the temporal and material.
A culture may cut itself off from that world of spirit, as ours has, but that does not mean that the human need for higher things will cease to compel us.
What happens, then, when a civilization embarks on a project, entirely novel in human history, to excise all metaphysical claims from the heart of the culture and fence them off into the private realm? For most of Dawson’s contemporaries in the modern West, the answer was obvious: progress happens! The common assumption, then as now, was that secularization is the natural end of any human culture as sophisticated and complex as ours. Dawson was a notable dissenter from this conventional wisdom, because he knew that no human civilization could ever “progress” beyond what he called the “nature and destiny of man,” which was to be “a bridge between two worlds, the world of sense and the world of spirit.” A culture may cut itself off from that world of spirit, as ours has, but that does not mean that the human need for higher things will cease to compel us. Rather, it means that that we will turn in on ourselves to find what we are no longer permitted to seek outside of ourselves, and the hollow place at the center of our common life will be filled by all that is left, that is, human will and human power. In the secular society, all politics become totalitarian politics in one form or another.
This is a gloomy picture, to say the least. But I must say that I find Dawson to be the source of a kind of bracing hope. Not in the form of a comprehensive strategy for de-secularizing Western culture – Dawson was a historian, and his primary work was to describe, not prescribe. What he offers us instead is the keen perception that what the Church has to offer our materialistic age is actually its most dire need. When faced with the crises of our time, our impulse is often to try to repair the world on its own terms, to search for a policy or a structure or a leader to bring healing. And of course, we should seek to use those temporal tools for the good if we can. Yet Christians cannot help but be formed by the culture of which we are a part, and we have to resist within ourselves the modern reflex to dismiss the transcendent as fundamentally less “real” than the political and technological mechanisms that appear to drive our world. Dawson reminds us that what our world needs above all is the eyes to see beyond itself, to catch a glimpse of the ultimate reality from whom we come and for whom we are made.
When faced with the crises of our time, our impulse is often to try to repair the world on its own terms, to search for a policy or a structure or a leader to bring healing. … [W]e have to resist within ourselves the modern reflex to dismiss the transcendent as fundamentally less ‘real’ than the political and technological mechanisms that appear to drive our world.
Dawson encapsulates this vision of hope amid crisis in the conclusion of his essay on “Christianity and Politics”: “When our Lord spoke of the future He gave His disciples no optimistic hopes, no visions of social progress; He described all the things that we are afraid of today and more – wars, persecutions, disasters and the distress of nations. But strange to say He used this forecast of calamity as a motive for hope. ‘When you see these things,’ He said, ‘look up and lift up your heads for your redemption is at hand.’ That may seem a strange philosophy of history, but it is the authentic philosophy of Christ, and if the prospect of these things causes us to hang down our heads instead of lifting them up, it shows that there is something wrong with our point of view. I know we are apt to feel this does not apply to us – that it merely refers to the end of the world. But to the Christian the world is always ending, and every historical crisis is, as it were, a rehearsal for the real thing.”