Tuesday, April 25, 2017

When Society Loses Its Higher Spiritual Ordering

Our own civilization, as Dawson points out, is one which has increasingly ignored the significance of the religious element, whether through prophecy or through the consecration of its social institutions to religious ends. The result is a widespread sense of spiritual dissatisfaction, which leads participants in the culture to look upon it with distrust and hostility. This not only withdraws from society the psychological support which it needs, but also, it leaves society vulnerable to movements of violence against its social structure and the values it embodies. “When the prophets are silent and society no longer possesses any channel of communication with the divine world, the way to the lower depths is still open and man’s frustrated spiritual powers will find their outlet in the unlimited will to power and destruction” (Religion and Culture [London: Sheed & Ward, 1948], 83).

[…] [xxxvii] But while society needs religion for its survival, it cannot return to religious belief simply by an act of the will, as a means of recovering its spiritual roots. This arises from the very nature of religion, from the fact that there is a basic difference between the motivations of religious feeling and those of political purpose. “It is useless to judge a religion from the point of view of the politician or the social reformer. We shall never create a living religion merely as a means to an end, a way out of our practical difficulties. For the religious view of life is opposite of the utilitarian. It regards the world and human life sub specie aeternitatis. It is only by accepting the religious point of view, by regarding religion as an end in itself and not as a means to something else, that we can discuss religious problems profitably” (Christianity and the New Age [London: Sheed & Ward, 1931], 172).

Now this conception of religion is so opposed to the modern attitude that it is difficult for modern man to accept it or appreciate its force. He is always asking whether religion serves this or that purpose, has this effect or that on the social order or on human behavior, as a way of deciding whether its existence is justified. It is man’s will rather than God’s which is taken as a standard, man’s conception of human welfare, not life seen in the light of eternity, which forms the basis for judgments concerning the significance of religion.

Yet this is discernment only on a superficial level; and even history itself testifies how limited and earthbound such ideas of human welfare and human destiny turn out to be. There is, as Dawson points out, an unpredictable character to events and outcomes in history which goes quite counter to rational calculations and makes the standards of a purely human judgment strikingly inadequate. “The real meaning of history is something entirely different from that which the human actors in the historical drama themselves believe or intend” (Religion and the Modern State [London: Sheed & Ward, 1935], 81). As an example of this, Dawson cites the contrast between the expectations of the Liberals concerning the purposes of the French Revolution and the harsh realities of the Revolution itself.


Source: John J. Mulloy, “Preface to the 1978 Edition”, in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xxxvi.

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