In the aftermath of the Second World War, an Oxford-based scientist wrote a short and moving book examining the truths of the Christian faith in a “scientific way.” The work is little known now, but the ideas explored in Frank Sherwood Taylor’s Two Ways of Life are remarkably relevant to our present situation in the post-Christian West.
Taylor examines two ways of life – the Christian and the Materialist – by asking what the discernible impact of each philosophy is upon the individual and society. A simple approach, admittedly, but one that can shed light on issues in every age, and on the truths of the Faith. As Christ himself said, “ye shall know them by their fruits.”
Our interior life impacts everything and everyone. The Christian knows the purpose of his life: To serve God, and to save his soul. As guides along this path, he has the life and teachings of Jesus, the wisdom and insights of Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church. His whole life is marked by various loves, which come, in Dante’s words, from the “Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” He desires to imitate Our Lord, an aim gloriously high.
In the Christian framework, a child is welcomed into the world as a gift, not a burden. He is baptized as a creature of God. He soon learns of Christ and the momentous nature of the Incarnation.
He is taught that you cannot serve both God and Mammon, that power in this life should not concern him, and that suffering – should it come – is to be welcomed as means of entering into the divine life. He sees the beauty of creation in all things. He tries to put love at the center of his life. If he fails in this, he seeks forgiveness. When death comes it is not the end. He prays that he will enter beatitude.
The materialist, on the other hand, must start from a position of purposelessness. Free will is impossible. Everything happens by necessity, and the idea of choice is a sad illusion. How does someone live who has rejected purpose in the cosmos?
He fills his life with various aims and concerns. Anything to avoid pondering the meaninglessness of the void. In Sherwood Taylor’s words, “those who reject a belief in the spirit must strive to forget the darkness of the endless grave by playing with their toys.” What are these toys? Money, pleasure, power – the usual diversions.
Of course, in themselves such things can only result in emptiness. While the Christian knows that “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee,” the materialist is aware of a gnawing internal emptiness. Sherwood Taylor quotes Goethe’s Faust to illustrate this point:
I feel, indeed, that I have made the treasure
Of human thought and knowledge mine, in vain:
And if I now sit down in restful leisure
No fount of newer strength is in my brain,
I am no hair’s-breadth more in height,
Nor nearer to the Infinite.
Many materialists do, of course, seek the good – often, however, through forms of altruism that stem from the dying embers of Christian societies. Not many materialists seem to publicly support pre-Christian attitudes toward the poor and disabled, for example. A rational defense of materialistic altruism is a very difficult undertaking.
In the materialist framework, a child is fortunate when allowed to emerge from the womb. If he does, he soon imbibes the currently fashionable morality, which lacks an objective basis. He is told that actions are simply “clearly right or wrong.” He comes to understand that unless he commits murder he is probably a “good person,” whatever that means.
He learns that prosperity is something of the highest importance, that sex is separable from love and marriage, and that he lives in a time of great freedom and progress. He aims to fill his life with comforts. At the end, he faces the void alone. He is simply a mere “bundle of atoms,” of no importance in a vast and uncaring universe. Is it any wonder that the elderly and the “economically useless” are cast off in our progressive societies?
At a societal level, the Christian and materialist philosophies propose strikingly differing visions of the ideal state and its relation to the human person. Sherwood Taylor notes that the Christian is concerned with society as composed of individuals, while the materialist with society as a mass.
The Christian is called to love his neighbor as himself, his “neighbor” being whoever he encounters. He knows he is responsible before God for his actions towards others, especially the poor and the downtrodden. “For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat.” The contemporary materialist, meanwhile, is concerned with abstract concepts and interest groups. Hence, the growth of particular “communities” and “identities,” which require social intervention and the intrusion of the state into every facet of life.
Human beings become mere numbers for the state bureaucracy to meddle with in its quest for an earthly utopia. In this schema, the individual exists for the benefit of the state. The state becomes a new God, with politics the religion. Political opponents are evil incarnate, and faux moral outrage displaces sane political discourse.
Sherwood Taylor’s analysis is incredibly powerful. Of course, the impact of this or that philosophy of life does not give us complete certainty over its truthfulness. It can, however, indicate a great deal. Since Sherwood Taylor’s time we have seen great moral change in the West. The casting off of the Christian moral code has not resulted in an emancipated, rational populace. On the contrary, it has resulted in a terrible and sad confusion in both public and private life. What does this tell us?
*Image: Jesus Ministered to by Angels by J.J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]