Friday, December 03, 2004

Nature and Grace in the Character of Western Man

by Robert V. Young

Taken from Christianity and Western Civilization. Christopher Dawson's Insight: Can a Culture Survive the Loss of Its Religious Roots?

“I just don’t get it.” These are the plaintive words of syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman, and her chagrin arises from the persistent reports of unseemly sexual antics on the part of Senator Robert Packwood that were making the news toward the end of 1992. “1 don’t understand”, Ms. Goodman moans, “how a senator like Bob Packwood, who used his power to help women succeed as equals in public life, apparently also used his power to take advantage of them in private life.” She is so frustrated that an explanation is sought in amateur neurology: “What synapse misfires in a character who make[s] advances for women and then also makes ‘unwanted sexual advances’ on women? What part of the electrical system simply disconnects?” What is even more unsettling to the columnist is the observation, which she quotes from Constance Buchanan of the Harvard Divinity School, that “good guys do this all the time.” To paraphrase the title of a tawdry novel of some years ago, poor Ms. Goodman is, rather forlornly, looking for Mr. Good Guy. [1]

The status of “good guy” has been conferred upon Senator Packwood and his ilk largely because they are supporters of legalized abortion, although “Any number of women will attest to the fact”, Ms. Goodman avers, “that Packwood was genuinely supportive of their professional success.” Only in the hothouse world of contemporary feminism would anyone assume that a man’s willingness to help women procure abortions or make money would also indicate a tender regard for their dignity and delicacy of feeling. Abortion is, after all, chiefly a means of eliminating the unintended and inconvenient consequences of recreational eroticism; if a woman enjoys sufficient “professional success” to pay for her own—so much the better. Men who are avid supporters of equality for women are all too often little more than equal-opportunity adulterers.

Now the perplexity of an Ellen Goodman over what she perceives as the “contradictions” in the character of a man like Robert Packwood has implications that extend beyond the specific issue of abortion, beyond even the murky controversy over the proper relationship between the sexes. At stake is the nature of individual character and the mode in which it is constituted in relation to culture. The current confusion, not only in the popular media but also in the academy, over what makes a “good guy” grows out of a misapprehension about the interaction of character and culture and about the limits inherent in both. In book after book, Christopher Dawson emphasizes the uniquely dynamic nature of Western culture; that is, the capacity of European Christendom to develop in unforeseen ways and to extend itself throughout the world in recent centuries. “Western civilization has been the great ferment of change in the world,” Dawson writes, “because changing the world became an integral part of its cultural ideal.” [2] This factor of change is both the promise and the peril of Western culture, because it complicates the essential function of any culture as such:

But the real unity of culture is not to be found in blood or soil or economic class and function. Each of these factors has its importance, but none of them suffice[s] to explain the inner nature of a culture. In addition to all these elements of partial community, a culture is also a moral order and involves a community of values and standards which provide its internal or moral principle of unity. [3]

A culture that incorporates “change in the world” as a principle is, therefore, a daunting proposition in view of the central role that it plays in the moral unity of society.

The notion seems even more problematic when Dawson’s concept of the relation between culture and the individual person is taken into account:

Culture is the name which has been given to man’s social inheritance-to all that men have learnt from the past by the process of imitation, education and learning and to all that they hand on in like manner to their descendants and successors. And this involves all that man has and is. For if it were possible to separate an individual altogether from his culture and his social inheritance, he would be an idiot, living in a private world of formless feelings, but lower than the beasts, since he would no longer possess the guidance of instinct which is the basis of animal behavior. [4]

Given the moral idiocy that seems pervasive in the current American scene, one might infer that a mass alienation of individuals from their culture had occurred; and in fact such a description would not be wholly inaccurate. It seems that in contemporary Western society change has become virtually an end in itself, so that we have a kind of “anti-culture”, which negates the unitary purpose of culture as such. The result is that we are all, in some measure, “idiots”-estranged from our fellow citizens, uncertain of how to behave or what to believe, abandoned in a wilderness of meaninglessness.

It may be that we are witnesses to the disintegration of a culture and a moral order two thousand years and more in the making. It is no less true for being a truism that Western civilization represents the convergence of Athens and Jerusalem, of classical philosophy and Judaeo-Christian revelation, of nature and grace. As the privileged heir to this tradition, Western man has, for several centuries, tended to take it for granted and, more recently, to despise it altogether. We now confront a generation for many of whom the traditional culture of the West is simply incomprehensible. The dynamic character of Western culture, noted by Dawson, lies precisely in the nexus of nature and grace: in the transfiguration of what is naturally human by divine favor. The divine half of the equation was put in question by the Reformation and has been increasingly neglected or denied in the wake of the Enlightenment; in our era even human nature has been rendered problematic. As long as some sense of natural norms or standards persists, then at least the possibility of grace is implicit precisely in the inevitable failure of human beings to attain what seems to be the fulfillment of their natural birthright; but once this sense of nature is lost, then there can be no conception of the grace that transcends it. The current dismantling of Western culture can be witnessed in two quite diverse but equally fundamental areas of human life: sex and language. Both instances provide evidence of the reciprocal deleterious effects of the vicious behavior of individuals on the health of a culture and of the moral decline of a culture upon the character of individuals. Christopher Dawson observes, in “The Patriarchal Family in History”, that normative sexuality is necessary to the very existence of civilization: “It is impossible to go back behind the family and find a state of society in which sexual relations are in a presocial stage, for the regulation of sexual relations is an essential prerequisite of any kind of culture.” In this 1933 essay, Dawson proceeds to express alarm over the prospect of a general acceptance of contraception in the Western world and its effect upon the family: “Marriage will lose all of its attractions for the young and the pleasure loving and the poor and the ambitious. The energy of youth will be devoted to contraceptive love and only when men and women have become prosperous and middle-aged will they think seriously of settling down to rear a strictly limited family.” [5] Dawson also maintains that language is an integral feature of human culture: “Culture and language are inseparable aspects of the same process, so that it is impossible to regard one of them as existing without the other.” This linguistic element is the decisive factor in man’s capacity to perceive reality: “Thus a culture and its language taken together”, Dawson continues, “form an autonomous world of meaning and existence which is indeed the only world of which the individual is conscious.” [6] Even with his prescience it seems unlikely that Dawson could have foreseen the extent to which his worst fears would be realized by the 1990s.

In an essay recently published in Crisis, “Judaism’s Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism Rejected Homosexuality”, Dennis Prager takes up Dawson’s theme in specific and absolute terms: “When Judaism demanded that all sexual activity be channeled into marriage, it changed the world. The Torah’s prohibition of non-marital sex quite simply made the creation of Western civilization possible.” [7] Prager emphasizes the radical novelty, the uniqueness of the Judaeo-Christian sexual ethic, ascribing it to the superiority of revealed wisdom over human reasoning. His studies of the pervasiveness of homosexuality have convinced him that heterosexual monogamy is necessarily the fruit of divine revelation: “The Torah is simply too different from the rest of the world, too against man’s nature, to have been solely man-made.” [8]

Prager’s insight is important, but it requires qualification. I am especially bothered by the notion that revelation is simply “against man’s nature”. Much is made of the pervasiveness of pedophilia in ancient Greek culture, and Plato’s attachment to this vice is often cited. Such a view of Plato can come only of a superficial reading, neglectful of his typical genre, which is dialogue not treatise. The Symposium, for example, is an account of a drinking party among a group of artists and intellectuals where all the participants agree to make speeches in praise of Love (i.e., the god, Eros). Except for Socrates all the speakers give elaborate defenses of pederasty, but the speeches are so extravagant that they betray a certain uneasiness on the part of the speakers, and sometimes the underlying disapproval of Athenian society emerges, as in these remarks of the physician, Pausamas:

…one would have thought that, here if anywhere, loving and being kind to one’s lover would have been positively applauded. Yet we find in practice that if a father discovers that someone has fallen in love with his son, he puts the boy in charge of an attendant, with strict injunctions not to let him have anything to do with his lover. And if the boy’s little friends and playmates see anything of that kind going on, you may be sure they’ll call him names, while their elders will neither stop their being rude nor tell them they are talking nonsense (18 3 c) [9]

Much the same tone of vexed superiority is adopted toward ordinary respectable society by many of today’s “gay” spokesmen, and the negative response toward homosexuality, typical even of Athenian society, is reflected by Plato’s Phoedrus in the speech of the sophist Lysias, who admonishes a young man to accept the advances not of a lover but of a “nonlover”, because the latter will keep the sexual relationship secret and avoid the disapproval of the youth’s friends and relatives (232ab, 234b). [10] Of course both dialogues end with speeches by Socrates, exhorting his hearers to rise above physical love altogether and to channel the energy of Eros into the ascent of the ladder of love, which leads to contemplation of the Ideas.

The example of Plato suggests not that man’s nature is simply and unequivocally licentious, but that his idealistic aspirations—the speakers in the Symposium all wish to see love as an exalted spiritual experience—are almost inevitably frustrated and perverted. The Roman poet Catullus provides another compelling witness from classical literature. One of his epithalamia (or wedding hymns) suggests both the indecencies that pagan Rome seems to have taken for granted and also a certain discomfort with such licentiousness. The groom’s boy lover (concubinus) is adjured not to deny nuts to the children upon hearing that his master has abandoned his love (scattering nuts in the wake of the procession was traditional at Roman weddings), and the groom is admonished to overcome his reluctance to surrender the boy’s favors:

It is said, anointed groom,
That you hardly keep yourself
Away from your hairless boys,
But keep away.
We are aware that things
Known to you are only what
Are permitted pleasures,
But the same things are not allowed
To husbands. [11]

To be sure, this passage is Catullus’ imitation of the “Fescennine verses” that were the bawdy abuse of the groom conventional at Roman weddings. Nevertheless, while one is loath to speculate about what pleasures were not permitted, there is a clear sense that the pervasive pederasty was regarded as unseemly and certainly unsuitable for a married man even among the Romans who tolerated it.
The same anguished and divided consciousness is apparent in Catullus’ most famous poems, the love lyrics written to and about one “Lesbia”, which seem to reflect an actual adulterous affair with the disreputable Clodia excoriated in Cicero’s Pro Caelio. The poems blend passionate ardor, withering obscenity and despairing disillusionment: a mixture that a Christian might take as the faint but painful stirring of a woefully unformed conscience. Many of the poems express this agonized ambivalence, but perhaps the following is the most poignant:

Formerly you used to say that Catullus alone
Was intimate with you, Lesbia, that you
Would not have Jove instead of me.
I cherished you then not only as the crowd
Loves a girlfriend, but as a father loves
His sons and sons-in-law. Now I know you:
Hence even if I burn more extravagantly, to me
You are cheaper and looser. How so? you ask.
Because such a wound compels a lover
To love with more desire but less good will. [12]

The poem displays a powerful negative eloquence in revealing the poet’s struggle to express what is for him inexpressible. “The reader can sense Catullus here searching for terms which will give force to the selflessness of the emotion he feels,” writes Gordon Williams, “and here he finds them in the Roman sense of family and the ties that hold it together.” [13] Catullus is determined to regard his affair with Lesbia as something more than a mere adulterous “fling”: his bitterness over her “betrayal”, her refusal to see it in his terms, is a measure of the significance with which the poet seeks to invest his passion. Thus in another poem he prays that gods bring Lesbia the will to maintain “this eternal pact of sacred friendship” (CIX.6: “aeternum hoc sanctae foedus amicitiae”), and in yet another he justifies himself against her because he “has never violated a sacred vow, nor in any pact / abused the power of the gods for deceiving men” (LXXVI-3-4: “nec sanctum violasse fidem, nec foedere in ullo / divum ad fallendos numine abusum homines”).

The kind of mutual love longed for by Catullus, desperately sought through intimacy with a courtesan or another man’s faithless wife, would only become possible with the Christian transformation of marriage. Christopher Dawson points out that the patriarchal family could not survive the cultural disintegration of the classical world known to Catullus:

Conditions of life both in the Greek city state and in the Roman Empire favoured the man without a family who could devote his whole energies to the duties and pleasures of public life. Late marriages and small families became the rule, and men satisfied their sexual instincts by homosexuality or by relations with slaves and prostitutes. This aversion to marriage and the deliberate restriction of the family by the practice of infanticide and abortion was undoubtedly the main cause of the decline of ancient Greece, as Polybius pointed out in the second century B.C.” [14]

The parallels with contemporary postindustrial societies present disturbing prospects for our future, but, as Dawson argues further, the alternative has already been established in Christianity’s elevation of the patriarchal family to a higher plane:

While the patriarchal family in its original form was an aristocratic institution which was the privilege of a ruling race or patrician class, the Christian family was common to every class, even to the slaves. Still more important was the fact that the Church insisted for the first time on the mutual and bilateral character of sexual obligations. The husband belonged to the wife as exclusively as the wife to the husband. This rendered marriage a more personal and individual relation than it had been under the patriarchal system.” [15]

The longing of Catullus, who died half a century before the birth of Christ, was thus fulfilled among a people whom he would have despised had he troubled to notice them.

St. Augustine can hardly be regarded as a liberal, much less as a sentimentalist, about marriage, but he, nevertheless, finds a good in Christian marriage as such that fulfills the longing expressed by Catullus:

It does not seem to me that [the good of marriage] is on account of the procreation of children alone, but also on account of the society natural to the diversity of sexes. Otherwise it could not be called marriage among the aged, especially if they either had lost their children or had generated none at all. But in a good marriage, although of many years, even if the fire of youth has Populared between the man and woman, still the order of charity thrives between the husband and wife.

Even in the time of “youthful incontinence”, St. Augustine continues, “concupiscence of the flesh, which is tempered by parental affection, burns in a somewhat more moderate fashion because it is restrained. For a certain gravity intervenes in the fervid pleasure, when a man and woman cleaving to one another consider being a father and mother.” [16]

What is more, Christianity introduced into the institution the element of sacramental mystery, transcending anything conceived of marriage within pagan culture:

But since out of many souls there is to be one city of those having one soul and one heart in God (Acts 4.32), which will be the perfection of our unity after this pilgrimage, where the thoughts of all will not be hidden from each other, nor among themselves will they be at odds in anything: consequently the sacrament of marriage is in our time confined to one man and one wife. [17]

The ultimate source of Augustine’s view of Christian marriage is the “great mystery” (Sacramentum hoc magnum est) of Ephesians 5:32, by which the wedding of an individual man and woman becomes a sign of the bond between Christ and his Church. It is this great dignity that distinguishes Christian from pagan marriage and makes the former a channel of grace. “The good of marriage among all nations and all men is, then, for the sake of generation and the vow of chastity”, Augustine writes; “however, what also pertains to the people of God is in the holiness of the Sacrament.” [18]

This elevation of marriage is a fundamental element in the development of the character of Western man, and it is a perfect example of the convergence of nature and grace, of Athens and Jerusalem. The proud pagans, Plato and Catullus, had sensed and responded to the emptiness in the human soul, to the failure of Eros: surely that urgent, fiery energy in man’s nature should culminate in something more than the spasmodic conquest of a hairless boy or a faithless woman? The fulfillment of this natural craving, however, comes only in the order of grace: “Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them to little ones” (Mt 11:25). The surrender to grace, to the holiness of the sacrament, the giving of oneself wholly to one other person on the part of the man as well as the woman, is what makes of Christian marriage, in Dawson’s words, “a more personal and individual relation”. Or, as Augustine says, it allows ardor to open into the order of charity. It enables the kind of relationship that Catullus desired, but it requires a different kind of man—a man of patience and humility. And here the influence of Christian culture on the character of Western man is quite apparent.

While sexuality is one element in human life that ties us to the earth and proclaims our kinship with the beasts that perish, language is evidence of our distinctive rationality. The capacity for speech and writing is our most powerful and supple means of apprehending and deploying signs and symbols in the construction of meaning; it is the manifestation and instrument of our self-awareness. For this reason Dawson regards language as “inseparable” from culture: they are coextensive factors in the shaping of human identity both individually and communally. Now as the preeminent sign system, language reveals most clearly the paradox of signification: signs mean what they are not. The result is that knowledge and understanding, mediated by language, abstract and alienate mankind from their objects. The problematic status of language has been increasingly insisted upon as the twentieth century has proceeded, but Plato was aware of the limitations of language, and St. Augustine even more acutely so. [19]

If the problem of language has grown especially troublesome in our age—as sex has—it is because we have, again, neglected the solution that has already been discovered. It is a solution that arises, again, in the convergence of Athens and Jerusalem. As Christopher Dawson points out, “when St. Paul appealed to the testimony of the Stoic poet, he recognized that Christianity was prepared to accept the metaphysical inheritance of Hellenistic thought as well as the historic revelation of Jewish prophecy.” The dilemma of classical philosophy lies in the chasm that opens up between the ideal metaphysical structures of the intellect and the mutable physical realm in which human beings dwell. It is no wonder that Hellenic philosophy is so often tinged with despair and advocates, implicitly or explicitly, a withdrawal from the common earthly existence of mankind. “St. John’s identification of the Logos and the Messiah”, offers, as Dawson observes, a way out of this dilemma:

Jesus of Nazareth was not only the Christ, the Son of the Living God; He was also the Divine Intelligence, the Principle of the order and intelligibility of the created world. Thus the opposition between the Greek ideal of spiritual intuition and the Living God of Jewish revelation—an opposition that Philo had vainly attempted to surmount by an artificial philosophic synthesis—finally disappeared before the revelation of the Incarnate Word . [20]

“Incarnate Word” is a paradox that baffles the unaided, unregenerate human intellect, “a stone (of offense and a rock of stumbling” (1 Pet 2:8: :: “et lapis offensionis, et petra scandali”); but this central Christian paradox is the channel of the grace that binds our errant souls to reality. As our words represent (re-present) the link between our knowledge and our world, so the Word made flesh is the Presence of meaning and order within temporal actuality. Or in the phrasing of Christopher Dawson, drawing upon St. Augustine:

Jesus is the bridge between Humanity and Divinity. In Him God is not only manifested to man, but vitally participated. He is the Divine Life, which transforms human nature and makes it the partaker of Its own supernatural activity.” [21]

The Incarnate Word is thus the poetry of human existence, finding its most powerful manifestation in the Church’s liturgical appropriation of the Psalter. The undoubted excellence of Greco-Roman poetry notwithstanding, there is, Dawson maintains, a unique superiority in the Christian liturgy:

This was new poetry indeed. It expressed what had never been expressed in classical poetry and it expressed it in a new language and a new rhythm. Nevertheless it became immediately popular with the Gentile converts as well as with Jewish Christians. It expressed spiritual things with a much greater intensity and with more intense personal feeling than classical poetry had ever attained, even in a narrower range and on a lower level, it was a poetry which could be applied by the individual Christian to express his own thoughts and feelings, yet it was at the same time the voice of the Church and the voice of Christ ... [22]

I would suggest that the key to the difference between classical and Christian poetry can be found in the word “liturgy”, which ultimately derives from the Greek leitourgia—the performance of public service for the State or the gods. This means that the utterance of the language of the liturgy is not just saying, it is doing; it is a work undertaken and carried out and, as such, plays a part in shaping the character of its participants. “The conscious, fully awakened act of performing the Liturgy”, remarks Dietrich von Hildebrand, “imprints upon the soul the Face of Christ. In taking part in the Liturgy, we make our own the fundamental attitudes embodied in it.” [23]

“Hence the insistence of the Fourth Gospel”, Dawson writes, “on the sacramental element in Christ’s teaching, since it is through the sacraments that the Incarnation of the Divine Word is no longer merely a historical fact, but is brought into vital and sensible contact with the life of the believer.” [24] In the sacraments words do not merely represent; they make present. In the celebration of the Mass, Christians share in the present reality of the divine life, and this develops an altogether new, grace-filled character in the humanity of Christendom. What is more, the supernaturally charged language of the liturgy enables mankind to see the world in terms of a new vision. Language has meaning in a new way because things themselves have meaning in a new way: “Let your spirit wander through the entire creation,” Augustine says, “and everywhere the creation will cry out to you: God made me . [25] And writing on the same verse of the Psalms (26:6), Cardinal Bellarmine remarks, “Therefore the Prophet, exalted through contemplation upon all earthly things, breaks out in admiration of the works of God, and praise of the almighty workman . [26] In other words, the world shaped by the divine Logos of the one God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a different place from a world ruled by an arbitrary and impersonal necessity and haunted by an array of capricious “gods” and demons.

It is faith in the one God, whose only Son is both the informing principle and Redeemer of the world, that has made possible the distinctive character of Western man—a character marked by optimism based ultimately on hope, hope in what we do not see (Romans 8:24-25). The corruption of our nature that results not only in sin but also in failures of vision and confusion of meaning can be purified by grace. It is for this reason that the definitive works of classical literature are tragic, but the greatest work of Christendom is the Divine Comedy. The Enlightenment concept of progress, a debased and secularized version of Christian hope, could only have emerged within a decaying Christendom. With what seems to be the final collapse of the Western world’s belief in material progress, it would seem that our only hope is hope; that is, the theological virtue. “The day of the Liberal Deist compromise is over,” Christopher Dawson pointed out some sixty years ago, “and we have come to the parting of the ways. Either Europe must abandon the Christian tradition and with it the faith in progress and humanity, or it must return consciously to the religious foundation on which these ideas were based.” [27]

It seems rather painfully clear that the Western world, at least as represented by its most influential and prestigious individuals and institutions, has chosen to abandon progress and humanity along with Christianity. There would seem to be no other explanation for the sordid tale that opens this paper. Only breathtaking naivete would find anything surprising in the report that a powerful, affluent man had attempted to use his position to exploit women sexually: we are all acquainted with the stories of David and Bathsheba and Susannah among the elders. What is disturbing is that the Senator has expressed regret, not for a lack of integrity or for immoral conduct, but a misunderstanding—presumably he means that he misjudged the intentions of the women, that adultery would have been acceptable between “consenting adults”. Even more disturbing is the way that Ellen Goodman, who undertakes to speak for the victims, shrugs off the behavior of a scoundrel as a failure in the nervous system and still accords him, however ruefully, the title of “good guy”, because he votes the party line on “women’s issues”. Although she insists that powerful men “have to change”, the change will come, not of improved character, but of increased feminist political pressure.

Christian culture in its essence is a culture of hope; we are witnesses in our generation to its displacement by a culture of despair. Despite the ravages of original sin, the Christian always has hope in the profusion of grace poured out with the blood of Jesus shed on Calvary. Through this grace, the image of God can always be restored in the countenance of fallen man, be it ever so twisted and pock-marked by sin. The history of Christendom, like that of humanity in general, is for the most part shabby: a record of cruelty and violence, shame and vice; but it is recurrently illuminated by unforeseen acts of courage, kindness and decency among ordinary men and women and transfigured by the lives of the saints. Of course such evidence of the work of Christ’s abundant grace and mercy in the world has not ceased, but it no longer counts among our cultural elites and dominant institutions. This state of affairs has been developing for centuries, as Christopher Dawson observes:

So we have the paradox that at the beginning of the Renaissance, when the conquest of nature and the creation of modern science are still unrealized, man appears in god-like freedom with a sense of unbounded power and greatness; while at the end of the nineteenth century, when nature has been conquered and there seem no limits to the powers of science, man is once more conscious of his misery as the slave of material circumstance and physical appetite and death.” [28]

In a recent article in First Things, Robert W. Jensen has suggested that the postmodern world—the cultural void that attends upon the disintegration of modernism—is a world in which stories cannot be true and promises cannot be kept. Promises make no sense in a world without a coherent narrative, without a story; and there can, finally, be no meaningful story without a Storyteller. Postmodernism is merely the culmination of the modern world’s effort to banish God from his creation . [29] At the center of the nihilistic vortex that has whirled through academic life in recent years is the analytic method called deconstruction, which explicitly sets out to drain the meaning out of any text from within by an act of expropriation, by inhabiting it as a parasite. The principal goal of deconstruction, if the term “goal” is appropriate in such a context, is to discredit and dismantle what is called “logocentric metaphysics” or “ontotheology”- in other words, God, especially the Second Person of the Trinity, conceived as the agent of reason, order and meaning in the world. Now deconstruction is a very esoteric theory, and I am routinely assured by colleagues that it is already out of fashion; but I find no solace in such assurances. If deconstruction has truly become passe in the realm of scholarship, that is only because it has made so complete a conquest of popular culture. “We should turn from elite art to the streets of our cities and the classrooms of our suburbs”, Jensen remarks (p. 21).

My own experience in the university classroom tends to confirm this admonition: for vast numbers—perhaps for a majority—of the current generation of college students, sexual intercourse is a negotiable “relationship’ for the purpose of mutual “fulfillment of needs”, music is a stream of shouted threats and obscenities with deafening electronic accompaniment, “Madonna” is only the name of a pop singer whose chief distinction is to behave like a prostitute in various entertainment media, and high art consists largely of films saturated with vulgar cynicism, frenzied violence and sexual perversion. We are, then, witnessing the fulfillment of Dawson’s darkest prophecies:

We have entered a new phase of culture—we may call it the Age of the Cinema—in which the most amazing perfection of scientific technique is being devoted to purely ephemeral objects, without any consideration of their ultimate justification. It seems as though a new society was arising which will acknowledge no hierarchy of values, no intellectual authority, and no social or religious tradition, but which will live for the moment in a chaos of pure sensation.” [30]

Perhaps even Dawson would be astounded to see how rapidly his prediction of “social disintegration” attendant upon such a state of affairs would come to pass. Could even he have envisioned a 25 percent illegitimacy rate despite more than a million and a half abortions per year, soaring rates of rape and child abuse, neighborhoods paralyzed by drug addiction and drive-by shootings, metal detectors at the entrances of high schools and condom distribution to school children by public authorities?

The character of Western man was created by the emergence of Christian culture, and the modern world has lived off the Christian heritage even while repudiating it. The accumulated moral capital now seems wholly squandered, and the world itself has no prospect of renewing it—fallen man is without resources of his own. There is, however, as Dawson points out, an infinite, unfailing source of restoration in the grace of Christ:

Every Christian mind is a seed of change so long as it is a living mind, not enervated by custom or ossified by prejudice. A Christian has only to be in order to change the world, for in that act of being there is contained all the mystery of supernatural life. It is the function of the Church to sow this divine seed, to produce not merely good men, but spiritual men—that is to say, supermen. Insofar as the Church fulfills this function it transmits to the world a continuous stream of spiritual energy. If the salt itself loses its savor, then indeed the world sinks back into disorder and death, for a despiritualized Christianity is powerless to change anything; it is the most abject of failures, since it serves neither the natural nor the spiritual order. [31]

Men and women can become good citizens and good neighbors again only by becoming something more, by recovering the grace of Christ Jesus. By the same token, the Church can influence society in a positive way, not by becoming merely another social service agency or political pressure group, but by proclaiming the gospel and celebrating the sacraments—by serving as a channel of grace. We must remember that nature is never enough, that the world cannot even be itself unless it is infused with heaven. On the realization that civilization is insufficient, the fate of civilization rests.


1. Goodman’s column, “Men in Power Have to Change”, syndicated by the Boston Globe, is quoted from the Raleigh News & Observer, December 4, 1992
2. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950; reprint, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Image, 1958), p. 17
3. Christopher Dawson, The Formation of Christendom (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1967), p.44
4. Ibid., p. 31
5. The Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (LaSalle, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden & Co., 1978), pp. 157-58, 165
6. The Formation of Christendom, pp. 35-36
7. Crisis 11, no. 8 (September 1993), p. 29
8. Ibid., p. 36
9. Trans. Michael Joyce, in Plato: The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 537
10. Trans. R. Hackforth, Collected Dialogues, pp. 48o-82
11. Catullus, Carmina LXI.137-39, 142-44. The translation is made from the Latin text of the Loeb Library edition, ed. and trans. F. W. Cornish, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), pp. 76, 78: “diceris male te a tuis / unguentate glabris, marite, abstinere: sed abstine ... scimus haec tibi quae licent / sola cognita: sed marito / ista non eadem licent.”
12. Ibid., LXXII, p. 152: “Dicebas quondam solum te nosse Catullum, Lesbia, nec prae me velle tenere lovem. / dilexi tum te non tantum ut vulgus amicam, / sed pater ut gnatos diligit et generos. / nunc te cognovi: quare etsi impensius uror, / multo mi tamen es vilior et levior. / qui potis est? inquis. quod amantem iniuria talis / cogit amare magis, sed bene velle minus.”
13. The Nature of Roman Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 80
14. The Patriarchal Family”, The Dynamics of World History, p. 161
15. Ibid., pp. 161-62
16. De Bono Conjugali iii.3, PL 40, 375: “Quod mihi non videtur propter solam filiorum procreationem, sed propter ipsam etiam naturalem in diverso sexu societatem. Alioquin non jam diceretur conjugium in senibus, p[r]aesertim si vel amisissent filios, vel minime genuissent. Nunc vero in bono licet annoso conjugio, etsi emarcuit ardor aetatis inter masculum et feminam, viget tamen ordo charitatis inter maritum et uxorem ... Deinde quia reprimitur, et quodam modo verecundius aestuat concupiscentia carnis, quam temperat parentalis affectus. Intercedit enim quaedam gravitas fervidae voluptatis, cum in eo quod sibi vir et mulier adhaerescunt, pater et mater esse meditantur.” See Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 390
17. Ibid., XViii.21, PL 40, 387: “Sed quoniam ex multis animis una civitas fatura est habentium animam unam et cor unum in Deum (Act. iv,32); qae unitatis nostrae perfectio post hanc peregrinationem futura est, ubi omnium cogitationes nec latebunt invicem, nec inter se in aliquo repugnabunt: propterea Sacramentum nuptiarum temporis nostris sic ad unum virum et unam uxorem redactum est ...
18. Ibid., xxiv.32, PL 40, 394: “Bonum igitur nuptiarum per onmes gentes atque homines in causa generandi est, et in fide castitatis: quod autem ad populum Dei pertinet, etiam in sanctitate Sacramenti ...”
19. See, for instance, Plato, Phoedrus, 274-78; and Augustine, Confessions, IV, 10, XI, 3
20. Christianity and the New Age (1931; reprint, Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Institute Press, 1985), pp. 78-79
21. Ibid
22. The Formation of Christendom, p. 139
23. Liturgy and Personality (1960; reprint, Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Institute
24. Press, 1986), p. I7
25. Christianity and the New Age, pp.79- 8o. Enarrationes in Psalmos XXVI.ii. 12, PL 3 6, 205:-Circumeat animus tuus per universam creaturam: undique tibi clamabit creatura: Deus me fecit.”
26. In Omnes Psalmos Dilucida Explanatio (Brixiae, 1611), p. 124: -Igitur Propheta per contemplationem supra terrena omnia exaltatus, erumpit in admiratione operum Dei, & laudem opificis omnipotentis.”
27. Progress and Religion (1929; reprint, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Image, 1960), p. 192
28. Christianity and the New Age, pp. 9-10
29. “How the World Lost Its Story”, First Things, no. 36 (October 1993), pp. 19-24
30. Progress and Religion, p. 181
31. Christianity and the New Age, p. 103

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