This post completes my notes on the second part of Dawson's book "Progress and Religion". In the New Year I will post giving some final comments on the text and, hopefully, listing in summary the basic elements and factors that Dawson speaks of.
The major religions can indeed be criticised today. Intellectual absolutism, a focus on the metaphysical, and a preoccupation with the Eternal, have all tended to turn men’s minds away from the material world and to devalue natural knowledge. Today’s culture wants a religion which leads to social action and development.
Whether or not we set Christianity aside today in favour of the new movement of evolutionary vitalism, what is present in our culture is firstly, moral idealism. This is the fruit of an age of religious faith and spiritual discipline. Secondly, humanitarianism. This is the fruit of a society that has worshipped the Incarnation – the Divine humanity of Jesus Christ. But if dogmatic Christianity is rejected, this humanitarianism will be divorced from its foundation, and it will not then continue to exist in the same way.
A created, non-organic religion will be neither truly religious nor completely rational, and so it will fail. The West then, has two choices; either to abandon Christianity, and with it faith in progress and humanity, or embrace anew moral idealism and humanitarianism. Whichever takes place the religious impulse needs to be expressed openly and not in furtive ways. Yes, it is true that a religion without Revelation is still attractive, but this is also a religion without history. But one of the great characteristics of Christianity is that it is historical, and is not merely an unprogressive metaphysic, as in Eastern religions. Nor is Christianity purely rational. The discursive reason is arid ground for a dynamic religion; metaphysics is necessary if reason and religion are to meet. On the other hand, the religious impulse finds rich soil in historical reality. All religions, even Oriental ones, need something of this. In Christianity, the historical element is identified with the transcendent and gives humanity its value. Christianity is, in fact, the Religion of Progress. What flows out of Christianity is not an abstract idea, but spiritual values in history. With Christianity something new has entered into history and has created a new order of creative, spiritual progress. This is not grasped by Reason, a faculty which organises the past, but is grasped by Faith, which is the promise of the future.
Christianity is also the source of that movement which genuinely nurtures humanity. A real humanitarianism needs the support of a positive religious tradition. The desire for a just social order, which was once the vision of classical Liberalism (whose root is a religious impulse), will diminish if it is not reinforced by spiritual conviction. In the past society was given moral force by Christianity, enabling it to grapple with and dominate its circumstances. Science does not have that influence; it cannot organize and transform human existence alone. It needs a moral purpose to drive it.
Oriental religions tend to deny the importance of the material world, and thus support the view that religion is incompatible with science. Christianity is different; it does not see the material world as evil. It does not reject nature, but rather, seeks its ennoblement. The way in which Western science and law has organized nature is not alien to Christianity, but is analogous to the progressive spiritualization of human nature by Christianity. The future of humanity depends upon the harmony and co-ordination of these two processes.
Today, the West is absorbed in the task of material organization, to the detriment of moral and spiritual unity. Yet, these two elements – science and religion – have given Europe its distinctive character.
Without religion, society becomes a neutral force – for aimless material activity – which can tend towards either, militarism or economic exploitation, or towards serving humanity in a genuine way.
Without science, society becomes immobile and unprogressive.
Europe has never possessed the natural unity of the other great cultures. A spiritual foundation, rather than a political one, was the uniting factor. And in being that foundation we see that the Church was a much nobler institution than the State.
Today, we take it for granted that it is materialism that unifies society, and that religion is a source of division. However, the marginalization of religion has led to the impoverishment of our culture. The state of society today is an anomaly and is not the normal condition of humanity.
Culture is essentially a spiritual community, which transcends economic and political orders. The genuine organ of culture is the Church, not the State.
The Church is the embodiment of a spiritual tradition, resting not upon a material power (the State), but on the free adhesion of the individual. In the past, the Church co-existed with multiple States, without absorbing or being absorbed by them. This co-existence enabled both material independence and political freedom, and it gave rise to the wider unity of our civilization. This process of spiritual integration is the true goal of human progress.