On the Emptiness of our Modern World

Lots of Catholics (and even non-Catholic Christians) have been quoting G.K. Chesteron of late, hailing him as a prophet. And I couldn’t agree more, but Christopher Dawson, a contemporary of Chesterton’s, deserves as much recognition for his keen insight into the reasons for the problems peculiar to our modern Western society.

What’s going wrong with our society? And I mean more than just what the Occupy Wall Street folks are complaining about. There’s something deeper. Our culture has lost its moorings in the Christian Faith. From Dawson’s essay “The Religious Vacuum”:

The real cause of modern irreligion is not intellectual….It is sheer indifference: the practical paganism of people who have never thought deeply on the subject, or perhaps on any subject, and who cannot see that Christianity has any relevance to their lives.

I see this all the time. I’m sure you do as well. “We’re living in the 21st century. Why on earth would we need to believe in God, a children’s fable?”

This “sub-religious” or apathetic attitude so prevalent in our society today is largely a new situation in history. Dawson explains what he thinks is the cause:

I believe it is due above all to the artificial character of modern culture, which is unlike anything that previous ages have experienced. Our modern Western secularized culture is a kind of hothouse growth.

On the one hand, man is sheltered from the direct impact of reality, while on the other hand he is subjected to a growing pressure which makes for social conformity….His whole life is spent inside highly organized artificial units–factory, trade union, office, civil service, party–and his success or failure depends on his relations with this organization.

If the Church were one of these compulsory organizations modern man would be religious, but since it is voluntary, and makes demands on his spare time, it is felt to be superfluous and unnecessary.

More on our disconnect from the reality and the natural world in a moment. But don’t we often feel this way: Church is “one more thing” to have to do, something that doesn’t help me feed my family, that isn’t connected with my life in general. In past centuries the Church was at the center of the community’s life and so also of the family’s life and that of the individual. Not so anymore.

We have to try to convert these “sub-religious” people our society has produced. Which, as Dawson says,

is no easy task, since a completely secularized culture is a world of make-believe in which the figures of the cinema and the cartoon-strip appear more real than the figures of the Gospel;in which the artificial cycle of wage earning and spending has divorced men from their direct contact with the life of the earth and its natural cycle of labor and harvest; and in which, even birth and death and sickness and poverty no longer bring men face to face with ultimate realities, but only bring them into closer dependence on the state and its bureaucracy so that every human need can be met by filling in the appropriate form.

Wow. Can you hear the notes in this passage that Wendell Berry would take up and make into a sonata? We are disconnected from the true cycles of life, the seasons. One reason I look forward to Thanksgiving is that we sing the song Come Ye Thankful People Come at church, hearkening back to our “harvest home.” But like most people, I don’t harvest anything; I work inside at the computer all day making electronic (and seemingly illusory) programs that I don’t even get to see the benefit of, since others down the work chain consume it and then produce the widget for the next guy down.

Think about it. Why do we love pumpkin-spiced lattes this time of year? Thanksgiving is the one holiday we still retain in our secular culture where we eat seasonally. We enjoy autumn because of the colors and the foods and their connection to the natural cycles of life and harvest.

And especially with our current government, how damning is Dawson’s last point about our growing dependence on the state to take care of our needs–filling out a form indeed.

Against this secular society, Dawson saw the Catholic Church standing as the “one great social and spiritual institution,” the “visible embodiment of divine authority and supernatural truth.” But he wondered if the Church could close the gap between it and society, to avoid it becoming something so foreign as to make communication impossible.

Contrasted with the modern dogma of Progress toward utopia, Christianity has no quick fix, but:

It has eternity before it, and it can afford to take its time. But for that very reason a Christian culture is potentially far wider and more catholic than a secular one. It is God-centered, not man centered, and it consequently changes the whole pattern of human life by setting it in a new perspective.

God has outlasted all the brutal regimes of the twentieth century. He’s outlasted nations and empires and political philosophies. He outlasted Nietzsche. And there is something comforting in that. Though the world may crumble around us–in spite of our best efforts–we live for a life that is eternal and so have hope beyond whatever material circumstances we find ourselves in here and now.

4 thoughts on “On the Emptiness of our Modern World”

  1. “If the Church were one of these compulsory organizations modern man would be religious, but since it is voluntary, and makes demands on his spare time, it is felt to be superfluous and unnecessary.”

    Such a tragic philosophy when the pursuit of God is the only pursuit worth anything at all. I pray modern man will hear the words of our Lord, who says:

    “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

  2. Brilliant Devin!

    Here is some wisdom from the Popes:

    If therefore no hope of a happy eternity remains when the body dies, what reason is there for men to undertake toil and suffering here in subjecting the appetites to right reason? The highest good of man will then lie in enjoying life’s pleasures and life’s luxuries. And since there is no one who is drawn to virtue by the impulse of his own nature, every man will naturally lay hands on all he can that he may live happily on the spoils of others. (Leo XIII, Exeunte, 8)

    Once the plastic minds of children have been moulded by godless schools, and the ideas of the inexperienced masses have been formed by a bad daily or periodical press, and when by means of all the other influences which direct public opinion, there has been instilled into the minds of men that most pernicious error that man must not hope for a state of eternal happiness; but that it is here, here below, that he is to be happy in the enjoyment of wealth and honour and pleasure: what wonder that those men whose very nature was made for happiness should with all the energy which impels them to seek that very good, break down whatever delays or impedes their obtaining it. (Benedict XV, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, 15)

  3. The reason why people seem to be indifferent towards religion and God is that
    that God seems to be indifferent to them,like God has better things to do with his
    time,or simply that is simply overworked like everyone else(after all running a Universe
    is work indeed)i think also people are sick and tired of being told how egotistical and self
    centered they are.Besides the defects of character etc…are the results of his shortcomings and not mans.God could if he wanted could made man Sinless (whatever that means,but he chose not,so i say return to the Manufacturer,because he made a
    defective problem,and knew that,now God goes around blaming his creation for
    his screw up.

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