In 1939, the historian Christopher Dawson penned the essay ” Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind ,” a call for resistance to the bourgeois mentality. Dawson set a hostile tone almost immediately by declaring that it is difficult to deny that there is a fundamental disharmony between . . . the mind of the bourgeois and the mind of Christ. Dawsons is no Marxist analysis, however. A bourgeois mentality is not reducible to a particular class. Its anti-type is the man of desire.”
The bourgeois mentality turns out to be a particular approach to life, initially associated with a medieval class that emerged behind the walls of developing urban centers but now embodied in a culture that dominates the modern landscape.
For Dawson, the bourgeois mind exhibits an urbanism that divorces humanity from nature. It turns the peasant into a minder of machines and the yeoman into a shopkeeper, until ultimately . . . the very face of nature is changed by the destruction of the countryside. Just two years after Tolkien reminded Britain of a time of hobbits and a verdant Shire, Dawson declared that the bourgeois was an enemy of the peasant.
But this is not all. A bourgeois mentality destroys the artisan by decoupling and depersonalizing the relationship between goods and creators of goods. It is when economic ends become the sole motivator of existence, not because of some disguised desire to accumulate wealth, but rather because virtuous behavior has become the equivalent of market behavior. The bourgeois turns out to be the enemy of the artist whose craftwork emanates from the bubbling forth of passion and desire.
Dawsons bourgeois closely resembles the late Neil Postmans technocratic expert. The bourgeois mentality is quantitative. It is the mechanistic manipulation of life in the service of mass production for mass consumption. Isn’t this maximizing the good for all? To be rational turns out, on this view, to be a detached planner who thinks that what one needs is more precise calibration—-a more elegant equation to explain life, a more advanced mechanism to tame it. As with the Architect in the Matrix trilogy, utopia is a perfectly ordered world of highly efficient programs, even if such a world carried the seeds of its own destruction. The god of the bourgeois is the blind watchmaker, invented by that corpuscular philosophy that Samuel Taylor Coleridge both lamented and despised.
Dawsons analysis of a bourgeois mentality highlights a contradiction at the center of postmodern life. On the one hand, there is an emerging back-to-nature movement with its urban gardens, whole foods, and environmental stewardship. The postmodern person craves an organic connection to creation in the same way that Willa Cathers Alexandra in O Pioneers! set her face toward the land with love and yearning . . . . Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her.
On the other hand, there is a headlong rush to subdue nature, to bend it to the will of technology. In the name of freedom, the organic union so central to creation is being severed such that bodies are made to fit souls and children become an assemblage of DNA, products of rational planning rather than the offspring of mutual love. Its effects amount to an effort to reverse the fundamental rhythms of shalom. Mary Shelley warned us about this “Modern Prometheus.”
If the anti-type of the bourgeois is the man of desire, then Dawson concludes that the Christian ethos is essentially antibourgeois, since it is an ethos of love. He contrasts the baroque spirit with the bourgeois spirit where the former revels in the erotic movement of creative ecstasy. The bourgeois culture has the mechanical rhythm of a clock, the Baroque the musical rhythm of a fugue or a sonata. And I would add, the spontaneous bursts of Jazz improvisation that form a kind of exitus-reditus movement reflected in the congregational call and response of a holiness or Pentecostal worship setting.
Dawson’s Catholic sensibilities at times prompt him to draw the contrast too sharply, such as when he suggests that Reformed Protestantism provided fertile soil for bourgeois culture. I think better of my Reformed brothers and sisters than this, although I must confess that I find the Reformed tradition strongly tempted to equate the rational, the confessional, and the mechanical in the same way that the Pentecostal drifts toward the experiential. In Reformed theology the mystical vision of a Frances ceases to be an exemplar of the beatific vision and is replaced by the system more often than not. It takes the herculean efforts of an Edwards to pull it back to the mystical waters that feed the passionate and the ecstatic.
Dawson privileges the mystical element in Christianity as the center of its life. He calls for a replacement of the bourgeois by another type of humanity, a great lover whose burning for union with the infinite thrusts him back into the everyday realities of finite existence. I confess glimpses of this humanity in the rustic smells of the camp meeting and the cries, shouts, and dancing of the people, all of whom are pressing in for a deeper communion, a desire but to taste, to touch, and to see that the Lord is good one more time. I have caught it in the fragrance of the incense as the chanters voice ebbs and flows with the drama of the liturgy while we all behold with unveiled faces the glory of God and his saints symbolized in the iconostasis.
I find this same impulse in Benedict XVIs Deus Caritas Est when he speaks of the ecstatic ascent of eros and the corresponding descent of agape without which eros would unleash its darts to manipulate other lovers. It would devolve into the mechanistic world of the bourgeois mentality in which the mystery of love is no more than the mindless monotony of the pornographic. Surely Lewis was correct that the Triune God of love finds such monochromatic desires too weak, not too strong. The bourgeois are at the gates, but we cannot let them take the city.