Anybody familiar with the Catholosphere is also familiar with the concept of the “New Evangelization.” Usually what comes to mind with the term is a sometimes more or less foggy sense of reintroducing society to Christ, the Gospel, and the Church in such a way that will transform lives individually and, by extension, the wider culture. You might even know that this dynamic has some connection to the use of new “ardor, methods, and expression,” in order to communicate the Gospel in a way which is resonant with the experience and interests of contemporary men and women, without watering-down or changing its essential content.
All of this is accurate (as far as it goes), but vagueness in theory always begets confusion in praxis, and sometimes I wonder if our enthusiasm and labors in this area are not misspent because we haven’t considered sufficiently the factors in play. So, I thought it might be helpful to make a little foray into history, cultural anthropology, and theology to help clarify some concepts in our efforts to “restore all things in Christ.” Incidentally, this won’t be an article about the New Evangelization per se, but a meditation on our present cultural milieu with reflections on how this should inform our ambitions and approach. To do this, our dialogue partner will be a master of Christian cultural anthropology - Christopher Dawson, with contributions from some other authors. I’m breaking this essay up into smaller, more easily readable parts.
Here is our basic thesis: we live in “western civilization,” which is considered to be post-Christian insofar as it has largely, in effect, abandoned the intrinsically Christian principles and social structures which were at one time so characteristic of it as to be its heartbeat. To understand what a “New Evangelization” must entail, we must understand where the “old” one has come off the rails.
I. The Cult and Culture
Let’s define terms: what does it mean to speak of a “culture” anyway (let alone a Christian one)? Dawson is pleasantly straight-forward in his introduction of these concepts.
So, a “culture” is any social organism with some basically stable form, while a “civilization” is what happens when a culture develops in socio-political complexity. Useful enough. What is the soul, or elemental animating principle of a culture though? Dawson comments: “No culture is so low as to be devoid of some principle of moral order. Indeed, I think we may go further than that and say that a culture is essentially a moral order..." (2). By “moral,” he refers to the Latin sense of mores, or what might be called “habits of relating.”
Dawson explains that what is characteristic of every form of culture (until recently), is a fundamental synergy between the legal, religious, and personal dimension of life such that one’s relation to the established social authority, to God, and to neighbor, overlapped, informed, and augmented one another. A culture is internally consistent because its application of its most basic principles (what we might call a “worldview” today) is also consistent across the board. This can be seen easily by a glance at societies like the Jews -where the Torah legislates nearly every aspect of personal, communal, and ritual life; the ancient Chinese and the pervasive influence of Confucianism; the Japanese and Zen, and others. Every area of life carries with it an established set of customs or rituals which manifest the application of the most basic worldview to a particular situation. Because of this fundamental unity, to transgress a custom in one area reflects badly on the others, such that one who is rude, or refuses to pay his taxes, or lacks piety, is in some respect not just an unpleasant acquaintance or a bad citizen, but a bad person.
You’ll notice also that each “worldview” cited above is a religious, as well as a moral and legal code, which is to say implicitly that all ordering of social life is in one way or another derived from some given perspective on the cosmic order, to such a degree that one cannot make reference to a civilization without at least an implicit reference to its religion - they are fundamentally linked at their most rudimentary level. In other words, the “cult” is the basic genetic code of the “culture.” If this is true, then it is not surprising to see that Dawson is of the persuasion that the basic “worldview” of western civilization has been (until recently) the Gospel.
Dawson goes on to explain that one can distinguish between a society’s operative worldview (that is, its religion) and its moral/ethical institutions, but it is impossible to separate them from one another altogether. This was the project of the “Enlightenment” (though which was largely started by the Protestant Reformation, the ensuing religious wars of Europe, and the birth of Renaissance humanism) where the attempt was made to maintain the content of the social and philosophical fabric while jettisoning the apparently outmoded and irrelevant religious framework that undergirded it. Kant’s relegating the existence of God to the status of a simple postulate of “pure reason” and the reduction of the Church simply to a vehicle ensuring moral/ethical homogeneity; Hume’s dumping of metaphysics altogether; Hegel and the preeminence of the purely social organism... What must inevitably happen is the gradual disintegration of the form of society because the soul (Christianity) has left the body. Nietzsche understood this and raged at such naive cultural and philosophical puppeteering no less than at the nominal, bourgeois Christianity of his time, and thus did he lament the death of western civilization and begin the construction of an entirely new one. Dawson summarizes the basic stages:
This phenomenon is, as mentioned, what is known today as “secularization.” In the next sections, we’ll look closer at the peculiarly Christian quality of western civilization, as well as the nature and causes of secularization, and sketch some reflections for recovering Christendom.
1.Dawson, Christopher. “What is a Christian Civilization?” Found in Christianity and European Culture, edited by Gerald Russello. CUA Press. 1998. 21.
2. Ibid. Emphasis added.
3. Dawson, Christopher. “The Outlook for Christian Culture.” Ibid. 9.