Marshall McLuhan, Religion & Faith

18Feb13
The extent to which Marshall McLuhan’s ideas on media and communication were influenced by his Catholic religion is a matter of some dispute and disagreement. On the one hand, his son Eric McLuhan, who certainly should know, says “not at all … they are very different things”, in the interview below. On the other hand, some scholars and commentators, apparently mostly Catholics themselves, seem determined to enlist him among the ranks of major Catholic thinkers, arguing that his faith must have influenced his intellectual thought. Is it necessary to understand Catholic ideology to understand and appreciate McLuhan’s ideas on media and communication, what he is remembered for? In a word – no, and most non-Catholics consider that any major thinker’s religion is beside the point, except for scholars interested in matters of sources and intellectual influences.
© The Estate of Yousuf Karsh. All Rights Reserved
Broadcast: Saturday 19 May 2012 5:05PM by Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Radio

Marshall McLuhan was a committed Christian. How did he come to his faith and did it influence his ideas? And has his work any meaning for the Church today?

Producer: Margaret Coffey

This program was first broadcast on 17th July 2011.

Nina Sutton: Would you call yourself a very religious man?

Marshall McLuhan: I don’t know. I am I hope a very real, practising, believing Christian, I try to be.

Margaret Coffey: Marshall McLuhan, the man himself, on ABC Radio National’s Encounter – and here he’s a man of faith, and of religion.

Marshall McLuhan: I have no problems incidentally about being religious – no, I don’t find any conflicts.

Margaret Coffey: I’m Margaret Coffey, welcoming you to the program.

The Medium Is the Massage: Electric circuitry has rudely thrust us into a world that is quite unusual and quite unlike any previous world and for which no previous model of perception will serve.

Margaret Coffey: We’re marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man who made it popular to think about the effect of the media on our lives, either as individuals and in societies.

The Medium Is the Massage: The new feeling that people have about guilt is not something that can be privately assigned to some individual but is rather something shared by everybody in some mysterious way.

Margaret Coffey: And he was a man of whom it is also said:

Michael W. Higgins: It is difficult actually to identify him as either conservative Catholic or liberal Catholic. If they think of him at all as Catholic which is not largely the case I think and that is most unfortunate I think because it is to miss one of the major components of his thinking and is constitutive of his life, they tended to think of him as conservative: regular practising Catholic of the old way, fairly conventional, came into the church as he says himself in his twenties on his knees…

Marshall McLuhan: I had no religious yearnings or needs of any sort but I was quite aware of the claims of the church and I wanted to know what the claims were about.

Margaret Coffey: This Encounter shifts McLuhan out of that confining box, to complicate things, not to simplify them. And it’s necessary. At the big Barcelona McLuhan fest in May, no-one talked about McLuhan’s faith. Sociologist Chiara Giaccardi was there from the Catholic University of Milan.

Chiara Giaccardi: I was quite impressed to notice that McLuhan’s Catholic identity was not mentioned at all. And I think this is a very crucial point for the misunderstanding of McLuhan’s thought, because faith for McLuhan is the ground against which the figure of the work can be understood.

Margaret Coffey: Thirty-five years ago Marshall McLuhan was speaking to a journalist:

Nina Sutton: Nina Sutton. I’m an Anglo-French journalist.

Margaret Coffey: Nina Sutton is speaking from Paris…

Nina Sutton: My encounter with Marshall McLuhan took place in the fall of ‘75. I’d published a book in French about the Watergate scandal – my publisher was eager to have another book by me. He suggested, because that was all the rage at the time, that I do what we called a book interview with someone. You would do an in-depth interview and write the book in the first person and then the person interviewed would sign it. So I said Marshall McLuhan.

The Medium Is the Massage: If you take a sentence like the medium is the message which is very misunderstood..

Nina Sutton: …because the guy was very famous then – the man who had said the media is the message…

The Medium Is the Massage: The medium is the message, the medium is the message, right. From his little office in Toronto he had taken a whole generation by the scruff of the neck and said look at this problem …

Nina Sutton: And I flew to Toronto and spent a month there.

The Medium Is the Massage: …just made a certain kind of awareness…

Nina Sutton: And then, instead of finding the flashy media guru I was expecting I am met by this totally serious, tweed clad, English looking, professor of literature.

Marshall McLuhan: I have no problems incidentally about being religious – no, I don’t find any conflicts.

Margaret Coffey: Marshal McLuhan speaking out of the Canadian National Library and Archive.

Nina Sutton: You have no problem in belonging to the church?

Marshall McLuhan: None whatever. No. But you see I am a convert.

Nina Sutton: I myself had been trained at the Sorbonne and I was a pure product of French university teaching: I was rational, ideological, committed, certainly leaning to the left if not the ultra-Left.

Marshall McLuhan: By the way, converts come in through the back door of the church. Coming in through the back door is coming in through the effects of the church, and not through its teachings. When you come in the front door you have first to swallow all the doctrines and all the teachings, which is what happens to the kids you see in school.

Nina Sutton: Meanwhile there was a constant stream of visitors from all over the world because he was incredibly famous. So he would give seminars and lectures – I attended some, not all of them because my rational mind had great time coping.

Marshall McLuhan: I had learnt my religion at the upper level before I found anything down there at all. I had no religious yearnings or needs of any sort but I was quite aware of the claims of the church and I wanted to know what the claims were about. I became aware that the church had had an enormous effect in shaping Western man. I became aware of what the church claimed to be.

Nina Sutton: He had converted to Catholicism a long time before we met and he was a real true believer. And we discussed several times. And coming from a very Catholic country I had some very definite ideas about you know the unpleasant role that the church could play in a country etc.

Marshall McLuhan: Now I had no religious belief at that time at all. I was an agnostic. But I finally decided that if the church is what it says it is, you are also told how to test that hypothesis and you are told to knock and knock and knock and demand to be shown.

Nina Sutton: But then that last encounter really moved me. I don’t know whether you can picture him now, but he was easily flippant, pretending to not mind, and to not think you know. Suddenly that last day we were sitting in that little office, attic shaped sort of little office that he had at the top of his institute.

Marshall McLuhan: …you are told to knock and knock and knock and demand to be shown…

Nina Sutton: And he actually believed in grace you see.

Marshall McLuhan: …that, if it is what it says it is, it also says that you will be given the means of knowing.

Nina Sutton: So for about an hour, without admitting to it, he tried to convince me to knock on God’s door.

Marshall McLuhan: …if it is what it says it is, it also says that you will be given the means of knowing.

Nina Sutton: …all you have to do Nina is knock and he will answer. And I was absolutely moved because it was so uncharacteristic and it came from such a deep place in him.

Margaret Coffey: Nina Sutton. Here’s a missing piece from a common McLuhan image.

Michael W. Higgins: My name is Michael W. – William – Higgins. I am the vice-president for mission and Catholic identity of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. I am the past president of two Canadian universities…

Margaret Coffey: Michael Higgins is talking to me from New Brunswick, Canada. He met McLuhan in the seventies, when he was a post-grad student.

Michael W. Higgins: Mass was held at the collegiate Church at the University of St Michael’s College which was known as St Basil’s. [Note: St Michael’s is a Catholic College, part of the University of Toronto. McLuhan taught in Catholic institutions throughout his academic career].And Mass would be held every day at 12.10 and sometimes he would abbreviate his class or he would leave immediately after his class because the Eucharist meant a lot to him.

He saw it as largely undamaged by the shift from a visual world, a Gutenbergian world, to an electric world, an acoustic world, that so many other things changed and were in flux but there was something about the nature of the Mass… He was a daily communicant. It was like Teilhard’s notion of the Mass as the centre of the world or the great writings of David Jones, the artist, who understood the centrality of the Eucharist.

The Medium Is the Massage: And so on and so on and so on.

You know the most favourable moment to seize a man and influence him is when he is alone in the Mass. Where is A, it precedes B, B follows A and precedes C. Writing was an embalming process that froze language. It eliminated the art of ambiguity and made puns the lowest form of wit.

Michael W. Higgins: I also encountered him on several occasions subsequently. He was a lector at Mass at Holy Rosary Parish – he lived in Wychwood Park which is a kind of an exclusive enclave in downtown Toronto and this was his local parish. One of the things which struck me there was his remarkable and quite predictable ability at mispronouncing every name in the English language. This great communications guru would often would often get the name wrong, mispronounce it, if he was reading the first lesson he would read the second lesson, thereby driving the priest crazy or he would read the Gospel, thereby confounding the liturgy for the day. I was always quite struck by this.

Margaret Coffey: It seems Marshall McLuhan made a point of confounding expectation, or at least evading the drawing pin ….it keeps people writing and talking about him…and ABC McLuhan exploring – on digital radio and online!

Jeet Heer: My name is Jeet Heer.

Margaret Coffey: He edits the Canadian literary journal The Walrus.

Jeet Heer: Growing up in Canada it is hard not to become familiar with him because he is one of the few intellectual exports that we have. But I think it is partially because as university student I was very interested in popular culture, in things like movies and comic books and the like, and McLuhan was one of the major kind of theorists of these things. And he lived a little bit before the internet but a lot of his theories would apply to what we are familiar now with, with the World Wide Web and email.

Margaret Coffey: So he’s part of the Canadian cultural heritage?

Jeet Heer: Yes very much so. They have these TV commercials devoted to like major figures like the hockey player Rocket Richard or Prime Minister Trudeau and they have a little moment, a one minute commercial showing Marshall McLuhan sitting in his library and he comes up with the idea of the medium is the message.

Margaret Coffey: Jeet Heer has written about the way from the very beginning McLuhan inspired extreme responses.

Jeet Heer: I mean I don’t think it has really changed very much since he died. From the time he started to think and publish he had a sort of cohort of followers who thought that this is someone who has really novel insight into the modern world and what’s happening but there were always detractors who thought he was a charlatan or a fraud and who used very strong language against him. I mean a lot of the hostility towards McLuhan came from people with a literary background – people who had invested their entire lives in first of all learning how to read and then becoming writers and who were very vested in a literary tradition. And they saw McLuhan coming along who was talking about you know how the age of print will be supplanted by the age of the electronic medium and they thought that well this is a man who is basically saying that our whole life is worthless. And people thought that because McLuhan was describing these things that he was advocating these things.

Margaret Coffey: But it’s curious isn’t it that alongside that kind of literary foundation for the critique that from the very beginning his Catholicism also played a part in establishing those extreme reaction?

Jeet Heer: Yes that’s very much the case. One of his most prominent critics of McLuhan was a British intellectual named Jonathan Miller who wrote a little book about McLuhan where he basically said that all of McLuhan’s thoughts amounted to nothing more than a system of lies. A running theme of that book was that McLuhan was not really a serious social scientist – that he was in fact a kind of Catholic apologist and that Catholic social themes were a covert message of McLuhan’s writing and there were a lot of other people who felt the same way. An American intellectual named Thomas Edwards said that a lot of the critiques of McLuhan hearkened back to the anti-Catholicism of the Reformation when there was a lot of fears of people like Guy Fawkes and a Popish plot and Edwards believed that there was this widespread sense that McLuhan and his Catholic colleagues were covertly trying to smuggle in Catholic dogma into media studies.

Margaret Coffey: It is amusing though isn’t it to read Jonathan Miller there – he is at his most protestant view of conspiratorial Catholicism – mentioning Thomas Aquinas is enough to lay bare the plot! [Note: Jonathan Miller, born into a Jewish family, didn’t as he said go the whole – Jewish – hog.]

Jeet Heer: That’s right, yeah but I think that looking back on it in some ways Jonathan Miller, his position is not unlike that of more recent intellectuals like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens – that there is this strong tradition in British intellectual life of a fear of religion, and not just of religion but particularly of Catholicism. There is a strong tradition of defining intellectual life in opposition to Catholicism. So in some ways to be a British intellectual at least in the tradition of Miller and Dawkins and Hitchens is to be anti-Catholic.Margaret Coffey: There is another strain which is slightly different and that’s the strain which describes him as a sort of covert fascist – it’s allied to the view of Catholicism but it has a touch difference about it, don’t you think?

Jeet Heer: Yes, that’s right, as you say it is related but it is distinct. It has a kind of basis in fact in that McLuhan is very much a man of the political right and especially when he was young in the 1930s he admired Franco. That was a period where he converted to Catholicism and he shared the view of some of his co-religionists that the European fascist dictators were a necessary bulwark against communism and anarchism. Now later in life McLuhan was much more cagey about politics and would not speak his political views so there were people who were suspicious because they knew in the past he had these views and later he very much admired the sort of southern agrarian tradition that held up the American south as a bulwark of tradition and so they thought that this is really the covert message of his work – that when he is denigrating print culture and celebrating the return of oral culture through technology he is really making a very reactionary, conservative point of view, denigrating reason, rationality, science and celebrating tribal culture. I think what it misses is the way that McLuhan himself evolved over time and the way the Catholic Church itself evolved. I think a big problem with all this discussion is that people have a very static view of Catholicism but if you actually look at things closely the Catholic Church went through a huge evolution in the middle of the twentieth century and a lot of Catholic intellectuals evolved and there was a sea shift from the sort of position that a Marshall McLuhan would have had in the 1930s to a position that started in the 1940s and fifties to take a much more positive view of democracy and coupled with that to take a much more positive view of technology and McLuhan was by no means alone in this. There was a lot of other Catholic intellectuals like Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson and the ultimate impact of these thinkers can be seen in the early sixties in Vatican 11. So I think that the view of McLuhan as a sort of covert fascist ignores the sort of real evolution of his thinking and more importantly ignores the way the Catholic Church itself was evolving during these years. [Note: Here is a journal article with an interesting interpretation of what lay behind the emergence of the Second Vatican Council. A seminal work to consult is A History of Vatican 11: v.1: Announcing and Preparing Vatican Council 11 – Towards a new era in Catholicism, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo; English ed edited by Joseph Komenchak. Orbis/Peeters, 1996]

Margaret Coffey: Which allows you to describe his achievement – I’m quoting you – as a mature thinker – I liked that – you know there’s a sense that one can develop as a thinker.

Jeet Heer: That’s right – I think that is one of the interesting things about McLuhan, that he wasn’t static. If you trace out his books, he was constantly trying to come up with new ideas and reacting to the world around him.

Margaret Coffey: Which must have been how Marshall McLuhan got to read Maritain and Gilson and Chesterton – they were writers of the moment when he was in his twenties.

Marshall McLuhan: Well I was reading Chesterton, and Dawson and Maritain and those people. That’s how I came in.

Margaret Coffey: That’s G. K. Chesterton, and Christopher Dawson and Jacques Maritain…

Marshall McLuhan: I had no instruction even from clergy at any time but there was a friend of mine who said well since you don’t believe in Christianity – I was an agnostic – he said you could pray to God the Father. So you pray to God the Father and simply ask to be shown. And so I did.

And I didn’t know what I was going to be shown, all I said was show me, and I didn’t ask to be relieved of any problems. I had no problems. I had no belief and no problems.

Well I was shown in a quite amazing way and a quite unexpected. I was arguing about religion with a whole group of grad students one night at Wisconsin and one of them said to me suddenly why aren’t you a Catholic and I shut up because I didn’t know. Up to that moment it had never occurred to me that I would ever become a Catholic. But I was suddenly caught. I became a Catholic at once within a few days.

Michael Higgins: To some degree of course it is Newman, and it’s Newman’s elative sense and the accumulative power of argument to assent and then giving in to God’s grace. It’s interesting the degree that you can make some comparison with Thomas Merton. I wrote a book in 1978 called Heretic Blood and it’s the spiritual geography of Thomas Merton and I study Merton through the lens of William Blake who was the most important influence in Merton’s life. There is a marvellous point in his own autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, in 1948, when he recounts his own conversion which is not unlike McLuhan’s. [Note: This book was published in England as Elected Silence .] Merton’s conversion is around 1936, he’s sitting at his desk, he’s working on his doctoral dissertation on Gerard Manley Hopkins, he suddenly has this overwhelming sense that he now has to give in, he has to assent, and this seems not dissimilar to McLuhan’s which would have been one year later.

Marshall McLuhan: But there was no trauma.

Jeet Heer: That’s an aspect of his Catholicism that might distinguish him from other sort of converts who were in some ways attracted to the Church because of a darker vision of sin. For McLuhan really came out of his reading of G. K. Chesterton and there is a sense in which Chesterton has this like very positive happy vision of Christianity where Christianity is a happy story, it’s a comedy rather than a tragedy because it ends with the story of the redemption of the world.

I think of McLuhan as a great sponge, you know, he’s always absorbing things. And one of the sources of his creativity is that he would absorb someone like Chesterton and then also absorb a polar opposite like James Joyce or =””>Jacques Maritain. And so in some ways that prevented McLuhan from becoming ossified or stuck in a repetitive mode of thinking.

Margaret Coffey: Jeet, how have you come to be so familiar with all of these figures and with this discussion?

Jeet Heer: It’s partially growing out of my work as an academic because I write about popular culture and I found McLuhan to be a very rich and kind of inspiring source for this. I mean it is a bit odd because I was born in India and I am a Sikh. So the amount of time I spend reading Catholic theology is a bit unusual. But I like to tell my friends that I am as positive about Catholic theology as it is possible for a Sikh to be.

Margaret Coffey: On Radio National you are listening to Encounter.

Was McLuhan a moralist? Because that seems to be the underlying theme of some of the rejection of McLuhan as Catholic.

Jeet Heer: That’s a tough question to answer. As I tried to emphasise before he tried to separate his own personal feelings about things from his analysis, to try to have an analysis that could be accepted by people who didn’t necessarily share his theological or political background. But having said that it’s not like he didn’t have moral points of view, but it’s more like he tried to create an analytical framework that could be suggestive and provocative and rich for anyone’s point of view. I think a good example of this is the issue of abortion where he was very much of the anti-abortion position of his church and he would never backtrack from that position or deny it. But when he was asked to comment on abortion one of the things he would do is try to bring his own analytical framework to it and so his analysis of abortion dealt with technology and disincarnation that we were talking about earlier, that he felt that abortion was easier to perform in a culture where bodies were alienated by technology, where the notion of incarnation has weakened.

Margaret Coffey: Jeet Heer. His essay on Marshall McLuhan is available online – you’ll find a link at =””>Romano Guardini for one, and in the English speaking world Chesterton – even though Chesterton dies even before the beginning of the Second World War, never mind the Second Vatican Council, he is now seen as the paragon of orthodoxy and if we could just get back within the Chesterton parameters, the old church would be reclaimed, the ancien regime would be restored, the excesses of the Council would be gone. He had no interest in doing any of those things. I think what interested him enormously in Chesterton was his deftness of mind, his agility as a writer, his ability to think in not just pre-modern but post-modern terms and that approach is not an approach largely shared by or even understood by those who have hi-jacked Chesterton.

Margaret Coffey: The thing is – what has all this rather in-house Catholic stuff got to do with Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about the media? In Barcelona, Chiara Giaccardi told us, where the focus was on understanding those ideas about the media, and up-dating them, no-one was interested in McLuhan’s Catholicism. And that’s reasonable, in the mind of Eric McLuhan, the son who has developed his father’s legacy.

Eric McLuhan: How much influence did McLuhan, my father’s religious leanings and religious beliefs, how much did these influence his work on media. And I can say pretty certainly not at all. They are very different things. That is, he could apply the techniques of study that he was using to matters concerning religion and religious developments in the world today, but he didn’t derive his media study from his religious beliefs at all. And I am very happy to put the lie to that one.

Margaret Coffey: That sounds like a strategy, in the circumstances.

Michael Higgins: Well it would be glib that it is largely due to the academy’s supple, sometimes extremely insidious, but rarely upfront anti-Catholicism. His faith in so many ways is constitutive of his thinking that it is kind of shocking that scholars and commentators, particularly in the year of his one hundredth anniversary, would look at various and several aspects of his life but would somehow look at his faith as if it were marginal or decorative. We had a similar thing here in Canada on the occasion of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Trudeau in many ways is a kind of McLuhanesque politician, and a great jurist, political philosopher, and a man of enormously deep and reflective Catholic principles and an active spiritual life and a practising Catholic, and you know all the commentaries, all the biographies either put it on the margin or ignore it or see it as a eccentricity. The fate of Trudeau seems in no small way also the fate of McLuhan on this point.

Margaret Coffey: Chiara Giaccardi has a different approach: in her mind, McLuhan’s religious beliefs were the ground of his freedom to see – rather than simply something different or indeed his ideological straitjacket.

Chiara Giaccardi: I think it is exactly the opposite because he is anti-ideological because he is also very critical against the church, against many aspects of [the] Catholic institution and he is very, very close to the core of the message, which is the person in fact. And I think he is very free because he can adopt a stance towards culture, towards technological innovation which is again a counter-environmental stance. He was able to foresee a lot of things that happened many, many years later because of this freedom.

Margaret Coffey: McLuhan’s ideas, she says, have the freedom that allow a critical look at world – like the ideas that emerged when he played with the world of tribal man and the magical thinking that linked everything in this world – and then made a connection with television as producing a new magic turn.

Chiara Giaccardi: I’m fascinated by the idea of magic because McLuhan opened up a world by talking about the magic in the tribal era. Television in a way produced a neo-magic turn but also there is a danger because magic is about voice, and is about instantaneity, because things happen suddenly, with the right spell. There is a risk that for ordinary people life is not built anymore but we hope to find the right spell to make things happen suddenly – to fall in love with the right person, to become millionaires overnight and so on. This is a very false way of thinking about life but also in Italy it is particularly evident. Magic can also be a way to acquire power because there are people that McLuhan called emperors of the tribal world who can master the media and can become the new shamans of presence. They can make people see things and so they can have a great power and this is particularly evident in the Italian situation but is everywhere. And the global village brought about by television at the risk of the new magic turn which is not as in the tribal world a world of resonance but a way to survive individually in a difficult and risky world.

Margaret Coffey: Jeet Heer, writing for Canada’s literati in The Walrus journal (and you can find it online), Jeet had a slightly different take. He attends to McLuhan’s language.

Jeet Heer: When I read McLuhan it is hard for me not to see a strong element of Catholicism in his work, especially just in the very vocabulary that he talks about things. For example, when he is talking about the impact of things like the telephone or computers there is a way these things remove the body from experience – so when you are talking to someone on the phone you can hear their voice but their body is not present – and McLuhan’s term for that is disincarnation and he sees a lot of modern technology as disincarnating experience. Now the term ‘incarnation’ is very heavily loaded theologically. It really does come out of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.

And also I think nature, the way in which nature is a crucial issue for McLuhan can’t be separated from the Catholic tradition of natural law and there’s a way in which a lot of Catholic theology most prominently in the work of Aquinas deals with the question of what is natural – and McLuhan wants to problematise that issue or he sees that issue of what is natural as becoming more complicated because of technology, because technology itself changes nature. There’s many ways in which McLuhan’s characteristic concerns grow out of the concerns of the Catholic Church. Read the rest at http://tinyurl.com/azcmd6a .

Photo of Trinity St Basil’s Church, St Michael’s College, Toronto, where McLuhan worshipped

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