Notes Towards The Definition Of Culture, Chapter 4: Unity and Diversity: Sect and Cult
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19 min read
In the first Chapter I tried to place myself at a point of view, from which the same phenomena appear both religious and cultural. In this chapter I shall be concerned with the cultural significance of religious divisions. While the considerations put forward should, if I n the first Chapter I tried to place myself at a point of view, from which the same phenomena appear both religious and cultural. In this chapter I shall be concerned with the cultural significance of religious divisions. While the considerations put forward should, if worthy of being taken seriously, have a particular interest for those Christians who are perplexed over the problem of Christian reunion, they are primarily intended to show that Christian divisions, and therefore schemes for Christian reunion, should be of concern not only to Christians, but to everybody except those who advocate a kind of society which would break completely with the Christian tradition.
I asserted, in the first chapter, that in the most primitive societies no clear distinction is visible between religious and non-religious activities and that as we proceed to examine the more developed societies, we perceive a greater distinction, and finally contrast and opposition, between these activities. The sort of identity of religion and culture which we observe amongst peoples of very low development cannot recur except in the New Jerusalem. A higher religion is one which is much more difficult to believe. For the more conscious becomes the belief, so the more conscious becomes unbelief: indifference, doubt and scepticism appear, and the endeavour to adapt the tenets of religion to what people in each age find easiest to believe. In the higher religion, it is more difficult also to make behaviour conform to the moral laws of the religion. A higher religion imposes a conflict, a division, torment and struggle within the individual a conflict sometimes between the laity and the priesthood; a conflict eventually between Church and State.
The reader may have difficulty in reconciling these assertions with the point of view set forth in my first chapter, according to which there is always, even in the most conscious and highly developed societies that we know, an aspect of identity between the religion and the culture. I wish to maintain both these points of view. We do not leave the earlier stage of development behind us: it is that upon which we build. The identity of religion and culture remains on the unconscious level, upon which we have superimposed a conscious structure wherein religion and culture are contrasted and can be opposed. The meaning of the terms ‘religion’ and ‘culture’ is of course altered between these two levels. To the unconscious level we constantly tend to revert, as we find consciousness an excessive burden; and the tendency towards reversion may explain the powerful attraction which totalitarian philosophy and practice can exert upon humanity. Totalitarianism appeals to the desire to return to the womb. The contrast between religion and culture imposes a strain: we escape from this strain by attempting to revert to an identity of religion and culture which prevailed at a more primitive stage; as when we indulge in alcohol as an anodyne, we consciously seek unconsciousness. It is only by unremitting effort that we can persist in being individuals in a society, instead of merely members of a disciplined crowd. Yet we remain members of the crowd, even when we succeed in being individuals. Hence, for the purposes of this essay, I am obliged to maintain two contradictory propositions: that religion and culture are aspects of one unity, and that they are two different and contrasted things.
I attempt, as far as possible, to contemplate my problems from the point of view of the sociologist, and not from that of the Christian apologist. Most of my generalisations are intended to have some applicability to all religion, and not only to Christianity; and when, as in what follows in this chapter, I discuss Christian matters, that is because I am particularly concerned with Christian culture, with the Western World, with Europe, and with England. In saying that I aim at taking, as consistently as I can, the sociological point of view, I must make clear that I do not think that the difference between the religious and the sociological point of view is so easily maintained as the difference between a couple of adjectives might lead us to suppose. We may here define the religious point of view, as that from which we ask the question, whether the tenets of a religion are true or false. It follows that we shall be taking the religious point of view, if we are atheists whose thinking is based on the assumption that all religions are untrue. From the sociological point of view, the truth or falsity is irrelevant; we are concerned only with the comparative effects of different religious structures upon culture. Now, if students of the subject could he; lu’atly divided into theologians, including atheists, and sociologists, the problem would be very different from what it is. But, for one thing, no religion can be wholly understood from the outside — even for the sociologist’s purposes. For another, no one can wholly escape the religious point of view, because in the end one either believes or disbelieves. Therefore, no one can be as wholly detached and disinterested as the ideal sociologist should be. The reader accordingly must try, not only to make allowance for the religious views of the author, but, what is more difficult, to make allowance for his own — and he may never have examined thoroughly his own mind. So both writer and render must be on guard against assuming that they are wholly detached.
We have now to consider unity and diversity in religious belief and practice, and enquire what is the situation most favourable to the preservation and improvement of culture. I have suggested in my first chapter that those among the ‘higher religions’ which are most likely to continue to stimulate culture, are those which are capable of being accepted by peoples of different cultures: those which have the greatest universality— though potential universality by itself may be no criterion of a ‘higher religion’. Such religions can provide a ground pattern of common belief and behaviour, upon which a variety of local patterns can be embroidered and they will encourage a reciprocal influence of peoples upon each other, such that any cultural progress in one area may quicken development in another. In certain historical conditions, a fierce exclusiveness may be a necessary condition for the preservation of a culture: the Old Testament bears witness to this.i In spite of this particular historical situation, we should be able to agree that the practice of a common religion, by peoples each having its own cultural character , should usually promote the exchange of influence to their reciprocal advantage. It is of course conceivable that a religion may be too easily accommodated to a variety of cultures, and become assimilated without assimilating 5 and that this weakness may tend to bring about the opposite result, if the religion breaks up into branches or sects so opposed that they cease to influence each other. Christianity and Buddhism have been exposed to this danger.
From this point it is with Christianity alone that I am to be concerned in particular with the relation of Catholicism and Protestantism in Europe and the diversity of sects within Protestantism. We must try to start without any bias for, or against, unity or reunion or the maintenance of the separate corporate identity of religious denominations. We must take note of whatever injury appears to have been done to European culture, and to the culture of any part of Europe, by division into sects. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that many of the most remarkable achievements of culture have been made since the sixteenth century, in conditions of disunity: and that some, indeed, as in nineteenth-century France, appear after the religious foundations for culture seem to have crumbled away. We cannot affirm that if the religious unity of Europe had continued, these or equally brilliant achievements would have been realised. Either religious unity or religious division may coincide with cultural efflorescence or cultural decay.
From this point of view, we may take a moderate satisfaction, which should not be allowed to settle into complacency, when we review the history of England. In a nation in which no tendency to Protestantism appeared, or in which it was negligible, there must always be a danger of religious petrifaction, and of aggressive unbelief. In a nation in which the relations of Church and State run too smoothly, it does not matter much, from our present point of view, whether the cause is ecclesiasticism, the dominance of State by Church, or erastianism, the dominance of Church by State. Indeed, it is not always easy to distinguish between the two conditions. The effect equally may be, that every disaffected person, and every sufferer from injustice, will attribute his misfortunes to the inherent evil of the Church, or to an inherent evil in Christianity itself. Formal obedience to the Roman See is itself no assurance that, in a wholly Catholic nation, religion and culture will not become too closely identified. Elements of local culture — even of local barbarism — may become invested with the sanctity of religious observances, and superstition may flourish under the guise of piety; a people may tend to slip back towards the unity of religion and culture that pertains to primitive communities. The result of the unquestioned dominance of one cult, when a people is passive, may be torpor: when a people is quick and self-assertive, the result may be chaos. For, as discontent turns to disaffection, the anti-clerical bias may become an anti-religious tradition a distinct and hostile culture grows and flourishes, and a nation is divided against itself. The factions have to continue to live with each other; and the common language and ways of life which they retain, far from mollifying animosity, may only exasperate it. The religious division becomes a symbol for a group of associated differences, often rationally unrelated around these differences swarm a host of private grievances, fears and interests; and the contest for an indivisible heritage may terminate only in exhaustion.
It would here be irrelevant to review those sanguinary passages of civil strife, such as the Thirty Years War, in which Catholics and Protestants fought over such an heritage. Explicit theological contentions between Christians no longer attract to themselves those other irreconcilable interests which seek a decision by arms. The deepest causes of division may still be religious, but they become conscious, not in theological but in political, social and economic doctrines. Certainly, in those countries in which the prevailing faith has been Protestant, anti-clericalism seldom takes a violent form. In such countries, both faith and infidelity tend to be mild and inoffensive; as the culture has become secularised, the cultural differences between faithful and infidel are minimal; the boundary between belief and unbelief is vague; the Christianity is more pliant, the atheism more negative; and all parties live in amity, so long as they continue to accept some common moral conventions.
The situation in England, however, differs from that in other countries, whether Catholic or Protestant. In England, as in other Protestant countries, atheism has been mostly of a passive kind. No statistician could produce an estimate of the numbers of Christians and non-Christians. Many people live on an unmarked frontier enveloped in dense fog; and those who dwell beyond it are more numerous in the dark waste of ignorance and indifference, than in the well-lighted desert of atheism. The English unbeliever, of some social status however humble, is likely to conform to the practices of Christianity on the occasions of birth, death and the first venture in matrimony. Atheists in this country are not yet culturally united: their types of atheism will vary according to the culture of the religious communion in which they, or their parents, or their grandparents were reared. The chief cultural differences in England have, in the past, been those between Anglicanism and the more important Protestant sects; and even these differences are far from clearly defined: first, because the Church of England itself has comprehended wider variations of belief and cult than a foreign observer would believe it possible for one institution to contain without bursting; and second, because of the number and variety of the sects separated from it.
If my contentions in the first chapter are accepted, it will be agreed that the formation of a religion is also the formation of a culture. From this it should follow that, as a religion divides into sects, and as these sects develop from generation to generation, a variety of cultures will be propagated. And, as the intimacy of religion and culture is such that we may expect what happens one way to happen the other, we are prepared to find that the division between Christian cultures will stimulate further differentiations of belief and cult. It does not fall within my purpose to consider the Great Schism between East and West which corresponds to the shifting geographical boundary between two cultures. When we consider the western world, we must recognise that the main cultural tradition has been that corresponding to the Church of Rome. Only within the last four hundred years has any other manifested itself; and anyone with a sense of centre and periphery must admit that the western tradition has been Latin, and Latin means Rome. There are countless testimonies of art and thought and manners; and amongst these we must include the work of all men born and educated in a Catholic society, whatever their individual beliefs. From this point of view, the separation of Northern Europe, and of England in particular, from communion with Rome represents a diversion from the main stream of culture. To pronounce, upon this separation, any judgment of value, to assume that it was, a good or a bad thing, is what in this investigation we must try to avoid; for that would be to pass from the sociological to the theological point of view. And as I must at this point introduce the term sub-culture to signify the culture which pertains to the area of a divided part of Christendom, we must be careful not to assume that a sub-culture is necessarily an inferior culture remembering also that while a sub-culture may suffer loss in being separated from the main body, the main body may also be mutilated by the loss of a member of itself.
We must recognise next, that where a sub-culture has in time become established as the main culture of a particular territory, it tends to change places, for that territory, with the main European culture. In this respect it differs from those sub-cultures representing sects the members of which share a region with the main culture. In England, the main cultural tradition has for several centuries been Anglican. Roman Catholics in England are, of course, in a more central European tradition than are Anglicans yet, because the main tradition of England has been Anglican, they are in another aspect more outside of the tradition than are Protestant dissenters. It is Protestant dissent which is, in relation to Anglicanism, a congeries of sub-cultures; or, when we regard Anglicanism itself as a sub-culture, we might refer to it as a congeries of ‘sub-sub-cultures’ — as this term is too clownish to be admitted into good company, we can only say ‘secondary sub-cultures’. By Protestant dissent I mean those bodies which recognise each other as ‘the Free Churches’, together with the Society of Friends, which has an isolated but distinguished history: all minor religious entities are culturally negligible. The variations between the charters of the chief religious bodies, have to some extent to do with the peculiar circumstances of their origins, and the length of the separation. It is of some interest that Congregationalism, which has a long history, numbers several distinguished theologians; whereas Methodism, with a briefer history, and less theological justification for its separate existence, appears to rely chiefly on its hymnology, and to need no independent theological structure of its own. But whether we consider a territorial sub-culture, or a secondary sub-culture within a territory or scattered over several territories, we may find ourselves led to the conclusion, that every sub-culture is dependent upon that from which it is an offshoot. The life of Protestantism depends upon the survival of that against which it protests; and just as the culture of Protestant dissent would perish of inanition without the persistence of Anglican culture, so the maintenance of English culture is contingent upon the health of the culture of Latin Europe, and upon continuing to draw sustenance from that Latin culture.
There is, however, a difference between the division of Canterbury from Rome, and the division of Free Protestantism from Canterbury, which is important for my purposes. It corresponds to a difference presented in the previous chapter, between colonisation by mass migration (as in the early movements westwards across Europe) and colonisation by certain elements separating themselves from a culture which remains at home (as in the colonisation of the Dominions and the Americas). The separation precipitated by Henry VIII had the immediate cause of personal motives in high quarters; it was reinforced by tendencies strong in England and in Northern Europe, of more respectable origin. Once released, the forces of Protestantism went further than Henry himself intended or would have approved. But, although the Reformation in England was, like any other revolution, the work of a minority, and although it met with several local movements of stubborn resistance, it eventually carried with it the greater part of the nation irrespective of class or region. The Protestant sects, on the other hand, represent certain elements in English culture to the exclusion of others: class and occupation played a large part in their formation. It would probably be impossible for the closest student to pronounce how far it is adherence to dissenting tenets that forms a sub-culture, and how far it is the formation of a sub-culture that inspires the finding of reasons for dissent. The solution of that enigma is fortunately not necessary for my purpose. The result, in any case, was a stratification of England by sects, in some measure proceeding from, in some measure aggravating, the cultural distinctions between classes.
It might be possible for a profound student of ethnology and of the history of early settlement in this island, to argue the existence of causes of a more stubborn and more primitive nature, for the tendencies to religious fission. He might trace them to ineradicable differences between the culture of the several tribes, races and languages which from time to time held sway or contested for supremacy. He might, furthermore, take the view that cultural mixture does not necessarily follow the same course as biological mixture and that, even if we assumed every person of purely English descent to have the blood of all the successive invaders mingled in his veins in exactly the same proportions, it need not follow that cultural fusion ensued. He might therefore discover, in the tendency of various elements in the population to express their faith in different ways, to prefer different types of communal organisation and different styles of worship, a reflection of early divisions between dominant and subject races. Such speculations, which I am too unlearned to support or oppose, lie outside of my scope; but it is as well for both writer and readers to remind themselves that there may be deeper levels than that upon which the enquiry is being conducted. If differences persisting to the present day could be established in descent from primitive differences of culture, this would only reinforce the case for
the unity of religion and culture propounded in my first chapter.
However this may be, there are curiosities enough to occupy our attention in the mixture of motives and interests in the dissensions of religious parties, within the period of modern history. One need not be a cynic to be amused, or a devotee to be saddened, by the spectacle of the self-deception, as well as the frequent hypocrisy, of the attackers and defenders of one or another form of the Christian faith. But from the point of view of my essay, both mirth and sorrow are irrelevant, because this confusion is just what one must expect, being inherent in the human condition. There are, certainly, situations in history in which a religious contest can be attributed to a purely religious motive. The life-long battle of St. Athanasius against the Arians and Eutychians need not be regarded in any other light than the light of theology: the scholar who endeavoured to demonstrate that it represented a culture-clash between Alexandria and Antioch or some similar ingenuity, would appear to us at best to be talking about something else. Even the purest theological issue, however, will in the long run have cultural consequences: a superficial acquaintance with the career of Athanasius should be enough to assure us that he was one of the great builders of western civilisation. And, for the most part it is inevitable that we should, when we defend our religion, be defending at the same time our culture, and vice versa: we are obeying the fundamental instinct to preserve our existence. And in so doing, in the course of time we make many terrors and commit many crimes — most of which may be simplified into the one error, of identifying our religion and our culture on a level on which we ought to distinguish them from each other.
Such considerations are relevant not only to the history of religious strife and separation: they are equally pertinent when we come to entertain schemes for reunion. The importance of stopping to examine cultural peculiarities, to disentangle religions from cultural hindrances, has hitherto been overlooked-and I should say more than overlooked; deliberately though unconsciously ignored— in the schemes of reunion between Christiann bodies adopted or put forward. Hence the appearance of disingenuousness, of agreement upon formula to which the contracting parties can give differing interpretations, which provokes a comparison with treaties between governments.
The reader unacquiainted with the details of ‘oecumenicity’, should be reminded of the differences between intercommunion and reunion. An arrangement of intercommunion between two national churches – such as between two national churches – such as the Church of England and the Church of Sweden, or between the Church of England and one of the Eastern Churches, or between the Church of England and a body such as the ‘Old Catholics’ found in Holland and elsewhere on the Continent does not necessarily look any further than what the term implies; a reciprocal recognition of the ‘validity of orders’ and of the orthodoxy of tenets with the consequence that the members of each church can communicate, the priests celebrate and preach, in the churches of the other country. An agreement of inter-communion could only lead toward reunion in one of two events: the unlikely event of a political union of the two nations, or the ultimate event of a worldwide reunion of Christians. Reunion, on the other hand, means in effect either reunion of one or another body having episcopal government, with the Church of Rome, or reunion between bodies separated from each other in the same areas. The movements towards reunion which are at the present time most active, are of the second kind: reunion between the Anglican Church and one or more of the ‘Free Church’ bodies. It is with the cultural implications of this latter kind of reunion that we are here specially concerned. There can be no question of reunion between the Church of England and, let us say, the Presbyterians or Methodists in America; any reunion would be of American Presbyterians with the Episcopal Church in America, and of English Presbyterians with the Church of England.
It should be obvious, from the considerations advanced in my first chapter, that complete reunion involves community of culture — some common culture already existing, and the potentiality of its further development consequent upon official reunion. The ideal reunion of all Christians does not, of course, imply an eventual uniform culture the world over; it implies simply a ‘Christian culture’ of which all local cultures should be variants — and they would and should vary very widely indeed. We can already distinguish between a ‘local culture’ and a ‘European culture’; when we use the latter term we recognise the local differences; similarly a universal ‘Christian culture’ should not be taken to ignore or override the differences between the cultures of the several continents. But the existence of a strong community of culture between various Christian bodies in the same area (we must remember that we here mean ‘culture’ as distinguished from ‘religion’) not only facilitates reunion of Christians in that area, but exposes such reunion to peculiar dangers.
I have put forward the view that every division of a Christian people into sects brings about or aggravates the development of ‘sub-cultures’ amongst that people; and I have asked the reader to examine Anglicanism and the Free Churches for confirmation of this view. But it should now be added, that the cultural division between Anglicans and Free Churchmen have, under changing social and economic conditions, become attenuated. The organisation of rural society from which the Church of England drew much of its cultural strength is in decay; the landed gentry have less security, less power and less influence; the families which have risen in trade and in many places succeeded to territorial proprietorship are themselves progressively reduced
and impoverished. A diminishing number of Anglican clergy come from public schools or the old universities, or are educated at their families’ expense; bishops are not wealthy men, and are embarrassed in keeping up palaces. Anglican and Free Church laymen have been educated at the same universities and often at the same schools. And finally, they are all exposed to the same environment of a culture severed from religion. When men of different religious persuasions are drawn together – by common interests and common anxieties, by there awareness of an increasingly oppressive non-Chiristian world, and by their unawareness of the extent to which they are themselves penetrated by non-Christian influences and by a neutral culture, it is only to be expected that the vestiges of the distinctions between their several
Christian cultures should seem to them of minor significance.
With the dangers of reunion on erroneous or evasive terms I am not here concerned; but I am much concerned with the danger that reunion facilitated by the disappearance of the cultural characteristics of the several bodies reunited might accelerate and confirm the general lowering of culture. The refinement or crudity of theological and philosophical thinking is itself, of course, one of the measures of the state of our culture and the tendency in some quarters to reduce theology to such principles as a child can understand or a Socinian accept, is itself indicative of cultural debility. But there is a further danger, from our point of view, in schemes of reunion which attempt to remove the difficulties, and protect the self-assertiveness, of everybody. In an age like our own, when it has become a point of politeness to dissimulate social distinctions, and to pretend that the highest degree of ‘culture’ ought to be made accessible to everybody in an age of cultural levelling, it will be denied that the several Christian fragments to be re-united represent any cultural differences. There is certain to be a strong pressure towards a reunion on terms of complete cultural equality. Too much account may even be taken of the relative numbers of the membership of the uniting bodies; for a main culture will remain a main culture, and a sub-culture will remain a sub-culture, even if the latter attracts more adherents than the former. It is always the main religious body which is the guardian of more of the remains of the higher developments of culture preserved from a past time before the division took place. Not only is it the main religious body which has the more elaborated theology; it is the main religious body which is the least alienated from the best intellectual and artistic activity of its time. Hence it is that the convert — and I think not only of conversion from one form of Christianity to another, but indeed primarily of conversion from indifference to Christian belief and practice — the convert of the intellectual or sensitive type is drawn towards the more Catholic type of worship and doctrine. This attraction, which may occur before the prospective convert has begun to inform himself about Christianity at all, may be cited by the outsider as evidence that the convert has become a Christian for the wrong reasons, or that he is guilty of insincerity and affectation, livery sin that can be imagined has been practised, and the pretence of religious faith may often enough have cloaked intellectual or aesthetic vanity and self-indulgence; but, on the view of the intimacy of religion and culture which is the starting point of my examination, such phenomena as the progress to religious faith through cultural attraction are both natural and acceptable.
After the considerations now reviewed, I must attempt to link the chapter to the two preceding chapters, by enquiring what is the ideal pattern of unity and diversity between Christian nations and between the several strata in each nation. It should be obvious that the sociological point of view cannot lead us to those conclusions which can properly be reached only by theological premisses and the reader of the previous chapters will be prepared to find no solution in any rigid and unchangeable scheme. No security against cultural deterioration is offered by any of the three chief types of religious organisation: the international church with a central government, the national church, or the separated sect. The danger of freedom is deliquescence; the danger of strict order is petrifaction. Nor can we judge from the history of any particular society, whether a different religious history would have resulted in a more healthy culture to-day. The disastrous effects of armed religious strife within a people, as in England in the seventeenth century or in the German States in the sixteenth, need no emphasis; the disintegrating effect of sectarian division has already been touched upon. Yet we may ask whether Methodism did not, in the period of its greatest fervour, revive the spiritual life of the English, and prepare the way for the Evangelical Movement and even for the Oxford Movement, furthermore, Dissent made it possible for working class Christians though perhaps it might have done more than it has for ‘labouring class’ Christians to play that part, which all zealous and socially active Christians should wish to play, in the conduct of their local church and the social and charitable organisations connected with it. The actual choice, at times, has been between sectarianism and indifference and those who chose the former were, in so doing, keeping alive the culture of certain social strata. And, as I have said at the beginning, the appropriate culture of each stratum is of equal importance.
As in the relation between the social classes, and as in the relation of the several regions of a country to each other and to the central power, it would seem that a constant struggle between the centripetal and the centrifugal forces is desirable. For without the struggle no balance can be maintained and if either force won the result would be deplorable. The conclusions to which we are justified in coming, from our premisses and from the sociologist’s point of view, appear to me to be as follows. Christendom should be one; the form of organisation, and the locus of powers in that unity is a question upon which we cannot pronounce. But within that unity there should be an endless conflict between ideas — for it is only by the struggle against constantly appearing false ideas that the truth is enlarged and clarified, and in the conflict with heresy that orthodoxy is developed to meet the needs of the time; an endless effort also on the part of each region to shape its Christianity to suit itself, an effort which should neither be wholly suppressed nor left wholly unchecked. The local temperament must express its particularity in its form of Christianity, and so must the social stratum, so that the culture proper to each area and each class may flourish; but there must also be a force holding these areas and these classes together. If this corrective force in the direction of uniformity of belief and practice is lacking, then the culture of each part will suffer. We have already found that the culture of a nation prospers with the prosperity of the culture of its several constituents, both geographical and social; but that it also needs to be itself a part of a larger culture, which requires the ultimate ideal, however unrealisable, of a ‘world culture’ in a sense different from that implicit in the schemes of world-federationists. And without a common faith, all efforts towards drawing nations closer together in culture can produce only an illusion of unity.