Why Did Liberal Humanism Fail?
by Russell Hittinger
Christianity and the New Age, by Christopher Dawson
Christianity and the New Age was first published in 1931. Sophia Press has republished the book in a handsome new edition, including an introductory essay by John J. Mulloy, specially written for the volume. In this little book, Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) explains why liberal humanism failed in its mission to supplant Christianity as the soul of Western culture, and why its demise threatens not only Europe, but also the world with a new “dark age.” As in many of his other books, Dawson here discusses why a recovery of European cultural order requires a retrieval of its religious foundations—in particular a retrieval of the humanism that was inherited, but squandered, by liberalism.
Dawson explains that liberal humanism failed for two reasons.
- In the first place, liberal humanism severed the spiritual and cultural continuity between itself and the Christian religion. Although modern humanism has roots in the Renaissance “self-affirmation of the free personality,” this incipient phase of humanism was not aggressively hostile to Christianity. It became so over centuries, first as it battled the Reformation’s effort to restore the sov ereignty of faith and the establishment of national churches, and then during the more decisive rupture between revealed religion and Enlightenment theorists. In our own day, liberal humanism has burned virtually every bridge leading back to its religious sources.
- In the second place, liberal humanism failed because it proved incapable of humanizing the sciences. This is an especially bitter development, for the humane project of the modern sciences was the great hope and, in many respects, the great success, of humanism. Today, it is regarded by most humanists as a curse—perhaps due to the distortions of capitalism, which derailed the sciences from their proper utopian role. In any case, modern science has rendered humanism itself culturally obsolescent.
In this light, liberal humanism has suffered from a twofold crisis. On the one hand, it is at war with the religion that nurtured it, and not only cannot make sense of its own history, but also is befuddled even by the “natural” spirituality of man. On the other hand, it has come to loathe the very kind of scientific rationality which it brought into cultural prominence. Against revealed religion, this humanism arrogantly invokes the autonomy of human rationality, while against the sciences it plays the role of a skeptic and a debunker. Having separated faith from reason, it finds both intolerable. Liberal humanism has become an enigma unto itself.
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