Culture and True Reform

More from the Timeless Essay Series at The Imaginative Conservative, this one by Dr. Bradley Birzer:

One of Christopher Dawson’s greatest contributions to intellectual thought was his understanding of the rise and meaning of cultures. In one of his last books, Mr. Dawson wrote:

Culture, as its name denotes, is an artificial product. It is like a city that has been built up laboriously by the work of successive generations, not a jungle which has grown up spontaneously by the blind pressure of natural forces. It is the essence of culture that it is communicated and acquired, and although it is inherited by one generation from another, it is a social not a biological inheritance, a tradition of learning, an accumulated capital of knowledge and a community of ‘folkways’ into which the individual has to be initiated.

Ultimately, then, culture came from the cultus, the group of people, usually based on kinship, who banded together to worship the same deity or deities. Once a common worship and understanding of theology had developed or been discovered, a culture developed. From the culture, then, derived economics, politics, and law. American man of letters, Russell Kirk, significantly influenced by Mr. Dawson, explained it well:

From what source did humankind’s many cultures arise? Why, from cults. A cult is a joining together for worship—that is, the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power. It is from association in the cult, the body of worshipers, that community grows…. Once people are joined in a cult, cooperation in many other things becomes possible. Common defense, irrigation, systematic agriculture, architecture, the visual arts, music, the more intricate crafts, economic production and distribution, courts and government—all these aspects of a culture arise gradually from the cult, the religious tie.

Consequently, a loss of religious faith results in the eventual destruction of the culture. Though, as T.S. Eliot argued, such decline may be slow in coming. “A culture may linger on,” Mr. Eliot wrote in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, “and indeed produce some of its most brilliant artistic and other successes after the religious faith has fallen into decay.”

The implications of Mr. Dawson’s understanding of culture are nothing short of profound. For if one is to change society, he or she must do so by changing the culture. To attempt to change society through law, economics, or politics will ultimately prove futile, as these things are merely manifestations of a particular culture, itself, at least originally, based on the cultus. Equally impossible would be to change the fountainhead of the culture, God, for He is movable by His Will alone. Hence, all true reform comes from a reordering of the culture, not from man-made ideologies, which Mr. Dawson rightly recognized as secular religions. The new totalitarianism—found in 1939 Germany, Italy, and Russia—is “more like a Church than a State, since its membership is based on the profession of a creed or ideology and on faith in the gospel of the leader rather than on citizenship.”

 

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