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Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 3, No. 1. (Winter, 1969) © World Wisdom, Inc.


Dear Sir,

John Sanderson in his letter raises questions which go to the very root of today's problems, touching on the aimlessness and sense of loss that seem such an essential component of modern society at all levels. He suggests that the destructive effects of western civilization in its contacts with the ancient traditions arise from the deliberately anti-traditional intention with which modern science, technology and industry are promoted, but also from the fact that they are not compatible with these traditions. "Christianity, on the other hand, is compatible with whatever is positive in them (Western science and technology) . . . it is possible to conceive of a Christian technological society in which human activities are sanctified by the intention with which they are performed rather than by any explicit ritual".

First, I am not sure whether Mr. Sanderson is suggesting that Christianity is in some way essentially different, and so superior to, other traditional societies. Such an idea would not be, in the strictly etymological sense of the word, traditional. Secondly, in the society he conceives the sacred symbolism that permeates manual activities in all truly traditional societies is completely lost. Professor Jean Servier (L'Homme et L'Invisible, p. 66,1964) gives a very vivid example of this: Among the most humble homes in North Africa, the mistress of the house has a loom constructed of two rollers held together by two upright supports. The higher roller is called the roller "of the sky", the lower, "of the earth". These four components between them represent the universe. When the loom is set up the same offerings to friends and passers by are made as on a wedding, since weaving is a marriage of heaven and earth. The threads of the weft form two layers crossing each other at six points where reeds hold them in place. The points at which they cross are the spirits of the cloth and the reeds make the spirits corporeal. When the cloth is finished the threads are cut with the same prayer given when the umbilical cord is cut. Weaving is a work of creation, of begetting, and everything occurs as if weaving translated into simple language some deep mysteries of man's nature.

All this will be surprising only to those who regard weaving as nothing more than the construction of a piece of cloth, and who would regard Plato's analogy of cloth and bodies in the Phaedo as a merely dialectical device.

The traditional use of symbolism is a constant reminder of the ideal forms whose existence is quite independent of man, forms of which we on earth have only rather vague memories. It is this constant echoing of the good and the beautiful in every-day life that distinguishes the traditional society from today's. In all traditional activities sacred symbolism is omnipresent: every step is pregnant with metaphysical meaning at the same time as it is a step towards the fulfillment of a material achievement. Modern technology is not only completely devoid of higher content, but by its very nature suggests the opposite. Could anyone by any stretch of the imagination regard the construction of an internal combustion engine as a work of begetting, as expressing some deep mystery about man's nature? Or does it even suggest something impersonal, inhuman, and above all, quite undivine? A man who fills his work with machinery is more likely to think and live mechanically in his leisure hours, just as one whose each and every act contains hidden meaning sooner or later stumbles across it. Even if he never realises this meaning fully it will affect his whole life at every level.

Of course it is possible to come closer to God if your work is done in His name, and a mechanic whose work is done out of love will undoubtedly sanctify his whole life through his intention and his labour in realising it. But how much more direct his path to sanctification had his profession continually reinforced his intuition instead of reminding him constantly of the meaningless repetitiveness of it all. At best his work would be irrelevant to his life, instead of being an intimate part of it, since any other work done in God's name would serve as well. Most people's work today must be of this nature: a hindrance to the growth of the spirit which can only be overcome with a deliberate and conscious effort of will that only a few can make, since only a few know it must be made.

The question then arises, can a traditional society be built where most of its members must make a considerable spiritual effort to overcome the actively negative aspects of their work? If a traditional society is one "in which every aspect and action of human life has a ritual character opening possibilities of spiritual development to members of the tradition", and if, in a mechanical and technological society most people's principal activity, their work, does not help them to find or even positively inhibits them from finding these possibilities, it would seem that modern technology itself is in some way essentially false, and so evil. At any rate, technology, science and industry as we know them in the West would clearly be meaningless from a spiritual point of view, and so are incompatible with a truly traditional society.

It is a truism to say that objects constructed with modern machinery, while more numerous, are of lower quality. It is not so widely understood that the construction of objects produced in this way is determined entirely by the need to be as cheap as possible. For instance, the desire to make as many tables as possible leads to the choice of a particular shape for the table tops, so that the greatest number of these for a given surface area may be cut from a piece of wood. Instead of constructing the table in a symbolic shape, it is cut in a convenient one, which, instead of reminding us of the good and the beautiful reminds us of the slick and the sleazy. This, with the help of skilful advertising becomes an established style which is incidentally, or perhaps even deliberately, anti-traditional. Such products could not be used in any truly traditional society, since their construction and use, however much dedicated to God, are not symbolic.

This in turn suggests that what Mr. Sanderson meant by "a Christian technological society in which human activities are sanctified by the intention with which they are performed", is one in which evil or false works, or at the very best works of completely neutral colouring, are dedicated to God. Of course work done in this spirit will bring us nearer to God (witness the legend of St. Christopher). Still, such a society is certainly not a traditional society, nor perhaps a very stable one. It is precisely because the Church has been content with aspiring towards a "Christian technological society" that there are grounds for grave concern: a truly Christian society must be a truly traditional one, and therefore it cannot be a technological one. And perhaps the truly traditional societies destroyed by contact with Western technology were destroyed, not because they could not, but because they would not, compromise as Christianity has. It is in such compromises that the path to destruction lies, as is shown by the increasingly de-Christianised, de-Mythologised un-Godly society which has grown in direct measure with our increasing interest in purely material prosperity.

Tidmarsh, Berks., 9.2.69.