From the Nov/Dec, 2015 issue of Touchstone
culture history catholic Spiritual Bread & Culture by Daniel Matthys


Spiritual Bread & Culture

The Evangelization of Society Can Benefit from the Spiritual Vision of Christopher Dawson
by Daniel Matthys

It is often said that Christians should engage the culture that surrounds them. This seems to be a laudable aim. If Christians are to remain true to the biblical mandate to evangelize, then this evangelization must have a broadly cultural as well as a personal aspect. If the Christian faith is truly universal, then it must embrace all aspects of human life and experience—public as well as private. In short, Christianity cannot be confined to an artificial sphere of personal belief but must claim as its natural domain the arts, values, ideas, beliefs, and interests of society at large.

The problem seems to be that in spite of a conscious desire among Christians to engage in a cultural apostolate, their efforts do not appear to be yielding much fruit. Few believers would claim that contemporary society is becoming more and more Christian. Rather, the "culture warriors" of our day appear to be fighting a long retreat against an increasingly secular society.

In these times, many of the claims and sensibilities of Christianity have become archaic to our cultural discourse. In most settings, it would sound strange to frame a conversation in terms of sin and redemption, faith and despair, or even in acknowledgment of the existence of objective truth, beauty, and goodness. But this situation is not due so much to the fact that the spiritual dimensions of life are being rejected as that they are being ignored. Even the so-called new atheists are arguably as estranged from mainstream culture as are devoted Christians.

Broadly speaking, society is equally uncomfortable with both the explicit rejection of God and the explicit acceptance of him. God's existence and his nature, though fundamental queries of the human heart, are not questions that, by and large, people today are comfortable airing in public. They are not the concerns that preoccupy them.

Spiritual or Earthly?

The concerns that have replaced God in our society are at least as old as the New Testament. They are encapsulated in the three temptations delivered to Jesus during his forty days of fasting in the desert. They also sit at the center of the parable of "The Grand Inquisitor" told by Ivan Karamazov in Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. "These questions," these "brief human sentences," says the Grand Inquisitor to Christ in the parable, express "the whole future history of the world and of mankind." He then poses this challenge to Christ: "Do you know that more centuries will pass and men of wisdom and learning will proclaim that there is no such thing as crime, that there is therefore no sin either, that there are only hungry people?"

This challenge strikes at the heart of what it means to be human. Are we essentially spiritual beings? Or are our spiritual yearnings secondary to our essentially earthly nature? "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread," says Satan to Christ. Christ refuses, saying that man does not live by bread alone. But the Grand -Inquisitor responds to the quest for heavenly bread by asking, "What will happen to the millions who are too weak to forgo their earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly?"

The Grand Inquisitor also sees Christ's response to the other two temptations as an upturning of human priorities. Christ's refusal to accept Satan's offering of the kingdoms of the world and his refusal to prove without a doubt his divine identity are both at discord with the apparent needs of humanity.

The offer of political power over the whole world would include power to assuage its evils and sufferings. The aspiration to such power—even to the extent of establishing a one-world government—remains prominent today. Much of the rationale behind organizations like the United Nations is that large-scale government bodies can bring the full organizational power of humanity to bear against the world's problems. Likewise, for God to offer incontrovertible proof of his existence appears, to the Grand Inquisitor, to be the most logical request humanity could make. If God would only prove to us his existence, we could accommodate ourselves to his will.

But the Christian way, as the inquisitor sees it, is to ignore these questions, these basic needs. In their place, man is offered "heavenly bread," the very existence and need of which are in doubt.

Material Aims Predominant

In today's culture, more than a century removed from the era of Dostoevsky's novel, striving for bread and contending for political power are still uppermost among men's concerns, but they are not seen as directly related to concern over the existence or non-existence of God. Thus, our society is quite happy to allow an individual, in his private capacity, to be religious—or irreligious—provided his theological concerns do not distract him from the fundamental question, which is how to construct a comfortable material existence. This is the aim (which we must remember is good in itself) that has become the primary concern of our civilization.

Given this paradigm, it is not surprising that, when people make an effort to bring religious questions to bear on public matters, the challenge often thrown at their feet is the question of religion's social utility. Does religion alleviate wars and conflict, or does it create them? Can religion feed the poor? Where does religion stand with respect to new technologies that promise to free us from many of the hazards and inconveniences of life? The answer seems to be ambivalent. Even if our society believes that religion can assist in providing a comfortable life, it shows more faith in science and technology to address the material needs of the world. Spiritual aims, such as joy and peace, have been replaced with the material goal of physical comfort.

This is not a new phenomenon; indeed, the tension between spiritual and material concerns is an enduring one in humanity. More specific to our day, however, the triumph of material aims can be traced, at least in part, to the consequences of the Wars of Religion in sixteenth-century Europe. The breakdown of an explicitly religious unity into warring factions caused a cultural shift.

The English historian Christopher Dawson (1889–1970) defined culture as the shared moral order of a people, its shared sense of values and priorities. As Christianity fragmented, it could no longer be looked to as the source of a moral order common to all. But if people could no longer agree on what would make them spiritually happy, perhaps they could concur on what would make them materially comfortable. And so the spiritual side of man was slowly subordinated to the physical. In today's society, a cultural relativism has compounded this shift, placing the shared quest for material comfort squarely at the center of our cultural discourse.

Spiritual Longings Persistent

It would not do, however, to regard this shift as now settled permanently. Humans, whether they recognize it or not, are spiritual as well as physical beings. Beneath the quest for material comfort, spiritual longings are still very much at work. Ironically, some of the clearest examples of this truth can be found among adherents of overtly materialistic ideologies, the most ardent of whom pursue their causes with a zeal that belies the purely naturalistic worldview they espouse.

Of all the spiritual yearnings of the human heart, four are particularly prominent: the need for meaning beyond oneself; the urge towards self-sacrifice; belief in the existence of objective good and evil; and a desire to construct a society that will embody the good. Marxism, nationalism, and fascism each offered its answer to these human desires. In response, the followers of each sacrificed their own material comfort, and indeed their lives, on battlegrounds across Europe in the twentieth century. There is something at once illogical and triumphantly human in the Marxist revolutionaries who forsook a comfortable existence in pursuit of their utopia.

In contemporary society, these fundamental desires are still very much in play, even if their existence is ignored in mainstream cultural discourse. Hence, if Christians are to engage the culture successfully, it is here that the battle must be fought. Before we can expect our society to engage with Christianity, we must awaken its spiritual yearnings by calling attention to them in terms that people will recognize.

G. K. Chesterton's novel The Ball and the Cross illustrates this. In the novel, a duel is fought between an atheist and a Catholic. The duel is not fought over money, a woman, or even respect—causes that people could understand—but over the most fundamental question of all: the existence of God. As a result, the duel turns society on its head. All the apparatus of the modern state is mobilized to put a stop to the "madness" of the duellists.

This is Chesterton's whole point. The very thought of fighting a duel over religion was as alien to his own time as it is to ours. Indeed, the reaction of much of the Western world to Islamic terrorism shows a similar lack of comprehension regarding the power of the spiritual dimension of mankind. To secular Western eyes, the Arab Spring was a benign and even welcome movement as long as it was understood as a struggle against tyrannical dictators. It became both incomprehensible and terrifying when the religious motivations of the combatants were asserted. This is not, of course, to justify the religiously motivated violence. Nor is it to deny that material objectives often inspire similar violence. It is simply to observe that one form of violence is explainable, even mundane, to our culture and the other is not.

Dawson & Metahistory

How, then, might Christians initiate a broader recognition of the spiritual side of man? The answer obviously does not lie in violence, but in discourse. Nor is it helpful or healthy to ignore the material side of man. Indeed, it is only through the physical that the spiritual can be apprehended. The great progress our society has made in understanding our bodies and the physical world around us must be fully embraced. One would hardly wish to revert to an ancient understanding of mental illness, for example, yet it would be equally disastrous to assume that mental illness is separate from the spiritual life of a person.

It is also important to stress that our generation is hardly the first to confront the difficult task of engaging with a culture uninterested in the Christian claim. The construction of a Christian culture is, as Christopher Dawson put it, a task that "must be renewed every fresh generation." Dawson's own work contributed to the building of a Christian culture marked by an emphasis on humanity's essential religiosity.

To describe Dawson as a historian is technically correct, but the term "metahistorian" might be more accurate, for it is his work in metahistory that is most significant. Dawson himself describes metahistory as "concerned with the nature of history, the meaning of history and the cause and significance of historical change." It is a study of the philosophical, spiritual, and theological beliefs that inevitably underpin all historical works and, fundamentally, a historian's concept of man.

Dawson's metahistorical approach to history is a broad one, for he believed that history shared its object of study—the social life of mankind—with other emerging disciplines among what are today termed the social sciences. He saw archaeology, anthropology, and sociology, for example, as having their own perspectives to add to this common field of study. And so, he believed, did philosophy and theology.

Le Play's Communities Plus One

One danger Dawson saw was that any one of these disciplines might claim to be the sole and comprehensive mode of studying and explaining man's social life. The acceptance of any such claim would inevitably result in a disastrous narrowing of the philosophical conception of man—his purpose, morals, and meaning. By the time Dawson had entered the discussion, sociology in particular was susceptible to this danger, and indeed the influence of poor sociological thought upon the disastrous ideological movements of the twentieth century substantiate Dawson's fears.

The way to forestall this danger was to encourage robust communication among the various disciplines that shared social life as their object of study. History proper could be used as a reservoir of empirical data against which the claims of the new sciences could be tested.

Dawson drew from the work of the French sociologist Frederick Le Play in defining social life as the interaction of three communities: a community of folk, a community of place, and a community of work. To stress any single community as the defining feature of the social life of mankind would, for Dawson, represent a retardation of thought. In his own lifetime, nationalization, an over-emphasis on place; fascism, an over-emphasis on folk; and communism, an over-emphasis on work, would all present a perverted picture of human activity, with devastating consequences.

But even when taken together, Dawson found, Le Play's threefold conception still failed to encompass all the spheres of man's social life because it failed to acknowledge appropriately the spiritual side of man. So to the three communities mentioned above, he added a fourth—a community of thought. It is this community, one that for most of human history has been grounded in religious belief, that provides the dynamic element in human relations. Here is where the spiritual dimension enters history, and here is where man's free will can affect the communities of folk, place, and work—communities that would otherwise be entirely deterministic.

Thus Dawson's vision of history is a profoundly Catholic one, firmly rooted in a belief in spiritual realities as well as in the material world. His eagerness to engage with sociological and anthropological methods and theory was motivated by a respect for the role of material factors in social life and a belief in the legitimacy of science as a means of explaining these factors. Concurrently, his belief in the fundamental importance of philosophical and religious beliefs in human societies acknowledges the profound impact of spiritual yearnings and realities in the history of humanity.

The Defining Role of Culture

Though careful never to overstate the influence of ideas over physical conditions, Dawson is nonetheless adamant on the defining role culture plays in human life. The source of culture and ideas for much of human history was to be found not merely in the physical conditions of man's environment but, more importantly, in the religious and spiritual impulses of humanity. "Behind every civilization is a vision" Dawson writes,

a vision which may be the unconscious fruit of ages of common thought and action, or may have sprung from the sudden illumination of a great prophet or thinker. . . . A people which has heard thrice a day for a thousand years the voice of the muezzin proclaiming the unity of God cannot live the same life or see with the same eyes as the Hindu who worships the life of nature in its countless forms, and sees the external world as a manifestation of the interplay of cosmic sexual forces.

Moreover, the decline of organized religion in the West did not, in Dawson's view, result in a culture devoid of the influences of religious thinking. As we have already seen, the spiritual nature of humanity remains a powerful driving force whether or not it is acknowledged or even recognized. Dawson thought that religious belief was the key to understanding culture, and that culture—the dynamic element of human societies—determined the different and extraordinary ways in which man interacts with his physical environment. Thus, for Dawson, the rise of secularism represented the triumph of a new religious belief in eternal progress via humanity's scientific and rational faculties.

Interpreters of a Living Tradition

So much, then, for Dawson's thought as it applies to the past. The aspect of his thought that has the most relevance to the current question of how Christians are to engage the culture has to do with his vision of education. Addressing this was the great task of his last public years, when he held the chair for Roman Catholic studies at Harvard University and published his vision of education in a work entitled The Crisis of Western Education.

As we have seen, Dawson saw ideas, particularly ideas that become imbued and transmitted by a culture, as of paramount importance to the social life of man. And he saw formal education as the new primary vehicle through which ideas are disseminated to and accepted by the culture at large. But modern education in the West, being predominantly secular, fails to transmit a religious conception of man. Since education is also mandatory, the culture it produces is one in which religious belief is not so much rejected as repressed; it is treated with indifference and comprehended in ignorance.

The solution for Dawson is not merely to preach Christian beliefs. Separated from a worldview that -comprehends how religion fulfils a fundamental need of mankind, abstract doctrines will bear no relevance to the experience of typical listeners. They will understand the dogmas of the faith only in a manner consistent with the dominant Zeitgeist, which is to say they will find them devoid of meaning.

So Dawson suggests that Christians act as interpreters of the Christian tradition as it has existed as an integrated whole. This tradition makes for a valuable study in its own right, for it is not a dead tradition but one that still profoundly affects the world we live in. More importantly, this tradition presents Christian beliefs in a context in which their essential meaning and importance may be properly comprehended. In other words, it is only by presenting a living tradition that contextualizes and explains the spiritual side of humanity that we can hope to engage our society in a dialogue over the essential questions.

Man is not merely a glorified animal, nor is he a pure spirit. The three temptations of Jesus present an enduring challenge to Christians seeking to engage the wider society. Dawson offers a new approach to understanding and representing the fundamental needs of humanity. Rather than insisting that our society view the Christian claim through the lens of contemporary cultural priorities, Dawson advocates that Christian beliefs be presented through the lens of Western culture, which in its long and ongoing tradition has adopted and incorporated Christianity into its art, literature, and philosophy.

Nor do we need to look far to find examples of how to do this. We can look to authors like J. R. R. Tolkien, whose fantasy embodies a Christian worldview and explains it through the history and mythology embedded in his stories. Dawson thought that more could be accomplished through a sympathetic study of Dante's Divine Comedy and the medieval worldview it encompasses than through weeks of catechesis. The Christian today who wishes to engage the culture must first recognize the priorities and language of mainstream cultural discourse, and then offer a tradition that demonstrates and contextualizes the spiritual side of man.

In 1926, G. K. Chesterton commented, "The madness of tomorrow is not in Moscow, but much more in Manhattan." The overt atheism of communism, Chesterton saw, was less insidious than the de facto agnosticism of Western materialism. Even in the 1920s, the cultural dialogue of Western civilization had, despite still containing explicit references to God and Christianity, definitively shifted to prioritizing material ends for society. But beneath the cultural dialogue, the essential nature of man remains unchanged. We are spiritual beings whether we recognize the fact or not. The first task of Christians today is to awaken a recognition of the spiritual longings of the human heart. 

more on culture from the online archives

20.7—September 2007

Retaking Mars Hill

Paul Didn’t Build Bridges to Popular Culture by Russell D. Moore

20.8—October 2007

Aliens in Zion

on Why I Can’t Be Just Another Earthman by Louis Markos

30.6—Nov/Dec 2017

The Greatness Commission

Christ, Individualism & the Meaning of Cultural Diversity by Anthony Esolen

Not a subscriber? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of content!
Options Below:

personal subscriptions

Online Subscription

Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives including pdf downloads for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!

Purchase Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!

gift subscriptions

Online Subscription

Give a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives including pdf downloads for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!

GIVE Print &
Online Subscription

Give six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!

Transactions will be processed on the secure server of The Fellowship of St. James website, the publisher of Touchstone.

kindle subscription

OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)

Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.

more from the online archives

31.5—September/October 2018

Pastoral Realism

on the Congregation as a Wilderness by Paul Gregory Alms

24.2—March/April 2011

Our Numbered Days

Certain Death & the Last Lectures of Socrates & Jesus by Randall B. Smith

18.3—April 2005

Book Worms

on Textbook Publishers Who Lie About Islam by Terry Graves

Touchstone is published by

All content The Fellowship of St. James — 2018. All rights reserved.
Returns, refunds, and privacy policy.