Did McLuhan’s Deeply Held Roman Catholic Convictions Bias His Scholarship?

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“He was a very religious man and, as a matter of fact, that was the only thing that helped him through the 15 months after his stroke. That was the core of his being – his religious strength.

– Corinne McLuhan, Marshall’s wife (McLuhan, C. 1988).”

McLuhan’s religious beliefs did not bias his scholarship or restrict him from dealing with certain issues despite what certain critics, who did not know him personally, have suggested. I knew him personally and conducted research with him and I know these claims are spurious and I therefore would like to set the record straight. McLuhan was deeply religious, but his faith was a private matter that did not extend beyond his family and co-religionists. In fact most of his writing appeared in journals devoted to the Catholic faith, in letters to co-religionists (McLuhan, 1999) and as a result if being interviewed on the topic of his religious thought, as was the case of the interviews with Father Pierre Babin republished in The Medium and the Light (ibid., 45-53, 94-104, 141-49, & 201-09).

In the six years that I worked with McLuhan I saw no evidence that his faith biased his scholarship. His son Eric confirms this in the Preface to The Medium and the Light (ibid., xviii):

He carefully kept his private and public life quite separate. For example, he very rarely ventured his private opinion about any matter, such as media, that he was called upon to publicly and professionally. A trained – and immensely learned – critic and observer, he was quite able to detach professional observation from personal feelings.

The only way his religious beliefs ever entered into my work with Marshall was that on our way to lunch we would stop at St. Basil’s Church to attend the 15-minute noon hour mass. McLuhan prayed to his God for his salvation and, being Jewish, I prayed to my God to understand what Marshall had said that morning. It was a peaceful time in which I had a chance to meditate on our morning’s exploration and to frame questions for our lunchtime conversation.

The experience of writing my first article with Marshall illustrated how his deeply held Catholic faith did not influence his scholarship. Our project, “Alphabet, Mother of Invention,” grew out of a conversation we had the very first day that I met Marshall McLuhan. I was organizing a seminar, “The Club of Gnu,” on future studies at New College, University of Toronto in 1974 and recruited Prof. Arthur Porter, the Chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering. He called Marshall to invite him to join us and mentioned my name. McLuhan had heard about my course, “The Poetry of Physics and the Physics of Poetry,” and instructed Porter to send me over to the coach house, where McLuhan had his office, to have lunch with him. I was very excited to be having lunch with such a famous scholar.

We lunched at the faculty cafeteria at St. Michael’s College and as soon as we sat down with our trays, McLuhan immediately asked me what I had learned by teaching “The Poetry of Physics.” I explained that I was fascinated by the problem posed by Joseph Needham in his book the Grand Titration of why abstract science began in the West, despite the fact that so much of technology originated in China. I proposed that since monotheism and codified law were unique to the West, and that together they gave rise to a notion of universal law, that this might explain the Needham paradox. Marshall McLuhan nodded his head in agreement and then asked me pointedly what else did we have in the West that was not present in China. I was totally intimidated by McLuhan, who seemed to be talking to me at 100 miles per hour. I was unable to think and finally I said, “I give up.” He smiled and said, “The alphabet, of course.”

I let out a very loud groan, because I immediately saw where he was going as I recalled that he had showed the connection of the alphabet with abstract science and deductive logic in The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. It all became so obvious – the  alphabet serves as a model for analysis, classification, coding and decoding. To use the alphabet to write one, must analyze each word into its basic phonemes and then represent each phoneme with a meaningless visual sign, a letter of the alphabet. So writing with an alphabet is coding sounds into visual signs and reading an alphabetic text is decoding the visual signs back into sounds. As far as classification goes, the alphabet allows every word and every name to be ordered alphabetically as is the case in a dictionary. The alphabet is totally abstract as there is no connection between the letters representing the word and what the word represents, which is not the case with pictographs or Chinese characters.

Taken altogether the alphabet promotes abstraction, codification, classification and analysis, the basic skills needed for abstract science and deductive logic. Realizing that our independent explanations for the rise of abstract science in the West complemented and reinforced each other, we combined our ideas and developed the hypothesis that the phonetic alphabet, codified law, monotheism, abstract science and deductive logic were ideas unique to the West originally and that they reinforced each other’s development.

All of these innovations, including the alphabet, arose within the very narrow geographic zone between the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the Aegean Sea, and within the very narrow time frame between 2000 B.C. and 500 B.C. We did not consider this to be an accident. While not suggesting a direct causal connection between the alphabet and the other innovations, we would claim, however, that the phonetic alphabet (or phonetic syllabaries) played a particularly dynamic role within this constellation of events and provided the ground or framework for the mutual development of these innovations.

The effects of the alphabet and the abstract, logical, systematic thought that it encouraged explain why science began in the West and not the East, despite the much greater technological sophistication of the Chinese, the inventors of metallurgy, irrigation systems, animal harnesses, paper, ink, printing, movable type, gunpowder, rockets, porcelain, and silk. Credit must also be given to monotheism and codified law for the role they played in developing the notion of universality, an essential building block of science. Almost all of the early scientists, Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras and Heraclitus, were both lawmakers in their community and monotheistically inclined. They each believed that a unifying principle ruled the universe.

Right then and there at our first meeting in the faculty cafeteria, we decided to write up these ideas and publish them as a research article. During this whole conversation I was taking notes while McLuhan was talking. At a certain point in our discussion he said to me, “Please write up these ideas and we can discuss them further.” As soon as I left that luncheon I went home and wrote up the ideas we had discussed. I remember being very nervous as I wrote up our ideas, because I was not sure how McLuhan would take to the notion that the phonetic alphabet had helped the Hebrews to conceive of the notion of monotheism and the existence of God. I was worried this might offend McLuhan’s Roman Catholic sensibilities. I needn’t have worried. He was fine with the idea and basically accepted the paper largely as I had written it. As I read it to him the next day, he would ask me to change a phrase here and a word there. He amplified a couple of points that were being made in the paper, but basically accepted the document as I had read it to him. He also suggested the title, “Alphabet, Mother of Invention” (McLuhan & Logan 1977).

Once he was finished making his suggestions, he asked me to give the hand written manuscript with his additions to his secretary, Marg Stewart, to be typed up. He sent the paper to Neil Postman, who was the editor of Etcetera, the journal of the International Society of General Semantics.  The paper was accepted by Neil Postman, who sent a note declaring it was the best paper McLuhan had written from a left-brain point of view. I had written up our paper that first night after our luncheon discussion as though I was writing a physics paper, hence the left-brain bias.

The fact that McLuhan’s religious beliefs did not bias his scholarship should be no surprise. He often said that his explorations of the effects of media were made without using a particular point of view or making a moral judgment. McLuhan held that “moral and emotional indignation was simply an indulgence on the part of those powerless to either act or to understand” (Marchand 1989, 121).

From time to time McLuhan used his media ecology ideas to make comments about religious matters. Here are some examples of McLuhan through interviews and in letters to Catholic friends where McLuhan makes use of his media ecology distinction between percept and concept to comment on religion, and also examines the effects of the alphabet, the printing press and the electrification of information on the Church and the emergence of the Reformation. We begin with his distinction between percept and concept:

The revelation is of thing, not theory. And where revelation reveals actual thing-ness you are not dealing with concept. The thing-ness revealed in Christianity has always been a scandal to the conceptualist: it has always been incredible. This issue is raised in the Book of Job, where faith and understanding were put at totally opposite poles. Job was not working on a theory but on a direct percept. All understanding was against him; all concept was against him. He was directly perceiving a reality, one revealed to him (McLuhan 1999, 81).

I can say that I do not think of God as a concept, but as an immediate and ever present fact, an occasion for continuous dialogue.” (McLuhan’s letter to James Taylor on January 15, 1969: Molinaro, McLuhan, C. & Toye 1987, 362).

I don’t think concepts have any relevance in religion. Analogy is not a concept. It is resonance. It is inclusive (ibid., 368).

McLuhan sees a strong connection between the alphabet and the emergence of Judaism and Christianity. In our paper, “Alphabet, Mother of Invention,” (McLuhan and Logan 1977), already mentioned, we posited a connection between codified law, alphabet, Hebraic monotheism, abstract science and deductive logic. McLuhan also saw a connection with the alphabet and Christianity and the individualism it encouraged (85). He wrote:

I don’t think that it was accidental that Christianity began in the Greco-Roman culture. I don’t think that Christ would have suffered under Ghengis Khan with the same meaning as under Pontius Pilate. The Greeks had invented a medium, the phonetic alphabet, which, as Eric Havelock explains in his book Preface to Plato, made it possible for men to have for the first time in the history a sense of private identity… Christianity was introduced into a matrix of culture in which the individual had enormous significance: this is not characteristic of other world cultures (McLuhan 1999, 80).

McLuhan attributes the various schisms of Christianity such as the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Protestant Reformation to media ecology effects. The Eastern Church, McLuhan claimed, was too tied to its acoustic roots to accept the visual bureaucratic organization of the Church in Rome. In the case of the Protestants, the opposite was true with the stepping up of the visual with the printing press:

Luther and the first Protestants were ‘schoolmen’ who were trained in literacy. They transposed the old method of scholastic discussion into the new visual order: they used the new discovery of print to dig the trench that separated them from the Roman Church (ibid., 47-48).

McLuhan also studied the visual effects of the printing press on the Catholic Church.

The Roman hierarchy after Gutenberg had acquired a great deal of the organizational chart patterns of specialism and rigidity. Improved written communication made possible the development of a huge Roman bureaucracy, transforming the Roman pontiff into a chief executive (ibid., 51).

He then turned his attention to the effects of the electrification of information on the modern church of the 20th Century.

Further improvement in travel and communication brought the pontiff into more immediate personal relation to his subjects… What therefore is called the de-Romanization of the Roman Church is quite simply its electrification. When things speed up hierarchy disappears and global theatre sets in. The Pope is obsolete as a bureaucratic figure. But the Pope has authority. After all, if there were only three Catholics in the world, one of them would have to be Pope. Otherwise there would be no church at all (ibid., 51).

With electric information another reversal took place, according to McLuhan:

The Pope is obsolete as a bureaucratic figure. But the Pope as a role-player is more important than ever. The Pope has authority. After all, if there were only three Catholics in the world, one would have to be pope. Otherwise there would be no church. There has to be a teaching authority or else no church at all (ibid., 61).

With the advent of electrically configured information the highly visual and individualistic cultural patterns of literacy, especially that of the printing press, flips back to oral or tribal patterns of culture. And therein McLuhan saw a problem for the highly individualistic religion of Christianity.

Christianity definitely supports the idea of a private, independent metaphysical substance of the self. Where technologies supply no cultural basis for this individual, then Christianity is in for trouble. When you have a new tribal culture confronting an individualist religion, there is trouble (McLuhan 1999, 85).

Although McLuhan used his understanding of media ecology to comment on his religion, he never brought in religion to comment on the effects of media, nor did he ever attempt to proselytize or promote his own religious beliefs in his scholastic writings. In fact, in a letter to his fiancée, explaining his personal feelings about his Catholic faith, he explicitly expressed his view that imposing his religious ideas and thoughts on another was completely out of bounds:

Since our free will is the most fundamental character we possess (it being inseparable from the rational nature), I feel the utmost repugnance to influencing another person, except where readiness to inquire, examine or consider is obvious (McLuhan 1999, 28).

McLuhan seldom referred to his religious beliefs in his writing, but when interviewed and asked about his religion, he was happy to share his thoughts with his interviewer, as is the case with the passage below, which Gerald Emanuel Stearn (1967, 50) published in “Conversations with McLuhan.”

One of the consequences of electronic environments is the total involvement of people in people… Here, perhaps, my own religious faith has some bearing. I think of human charity as a total responsibility of all, for all. Therefore my energies are directed at far more than mere political or democratic intent. Democracy as a by-product of certain technologies, like literacy and mechanical industry, is not something that I would take very seriously. But democracy as it belongs very profoundly-with Christianity is something I take very seriously indeed.

One of the interesting points that emerged from the interview was McLuhan’s confession that he was not very familiar with Catholic scholastic thought:

There have been many more religious men than I who have not made even the most faltering steps in this direction. Once I began to move in this direction, I began to see that it had profound religious meaning. I do not think it my job to point this out. For example, the Christian concept of the mystical body – all men as members of the body of Christ – this becomes technologically a fact under electronic conditions. However, I would not try to theologize on the basis of my understanding of technology. I don’t have a background in scholastic thought, never having been raised in any Catholic institution. Indeed, I have been bitterly reproached by my Catholic confreres for my lack of scholastic terminology and concepts.

 Another place in which McLuhan’s knowledge of and faith in Roman Catholicism comes into play is in his literary criticism scholarship. One example of this is his analysis of the poetry of the English Catholic poet John Manley Hopkins, where he wrote,

 He deals sensitively with the commonplaces of Catholic dogma in the order of Faith, and he records a vigorous sensuous life in the order of nature. Since for the agnostic no precision is possible in these matters, and all distinctions are nugatory, he will continue to call both Blake and Hopkins “mystical.” Hopkins looks at external nature as a Scripture exactly as Philo, Judaeus, St. Paul, and the Church Fathers had done (McLuhan, 1944).

Other examples of McLuhan’s literary scholarship that deal with religion include his articles: “Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process” (McLuhan 1951) and “The Ciceronian Program in Pulpit and in Literary Criticism (McLuhan, 1970).

Let me conclude this chapter with some excerpts of McLuhan’s writings that demonstrates that despite his personal beliefs he was not afraid to criticize the bureaucracy of Church or the practice of theology.

I am a Roman Catholic and the Roman Catholic Church is just as befuddled as it was by the Gutenberg age. More so! They are still attempting to look for lines and blueprints, which no longer exist. They are not there. So what do you do? Well we have not discovered the strategies of behaviour or response for a situation in which there are no boundaries. It is like being in total space.

A culture builds itself on the preference of one or the other hemisphere [of the brain] instead of basing itself on both. Our school system, like our Catholic hierarchy is completely dominated by the left side of the brain. Vatican II was a very poor attempt to pass over to the right side. The result was mostly confusion. Ecumenism, too, I suppose, attempts to play both hemispheres equally, but it leaves me perplexed (McLuhan, 1999, 53).

The nineteenth century bureaucrats in charge of implementing Vatican II are quite helpless in the face of a world of instantaneous information. Since we are dealing with these things to ourselves, there is no earthly reason for submitting to them unconsciously or irrationally (ibid., 72).

A bureaucracy has to maintain its function regardless of change, and it always persists long after it’s relevant. As a bureaucracy, the Church today is, in a way, a comic set of hang-ups and is no more relevant in its strategies than Don Quixote was when confronted with Gutenberg.

The church has in various periods consisted of hermits living in very scattered huts and hovels in all sorts of backward territories. It could easily become this again, and in the age of the helicopter I see no reason why the Church should have any central institutions whatever (ibid., 86).

Theology should ideally be a study of thingness, the nature of God, since it is a form of contemplation. But in so far as it is a theoretical construct, it is purely a game, though perhaps a very attractive game (ibid., 82).

The liturgy of the Eucharist now stands in a “vernacular” form ordered by committees whose relation to the English language has much of the dead character of a computer’s. Minus the oral dimension of colloquial idiom and rhythms, the vernacular can be a wasteland and a spiritual desert. The rhythms of the Latin Mass were easygoing and permitted a good deal of meditation; the vernacular pace is more intense with far less opportunity for meditation (ibid., 110).

The final quote that I have collected is very interesting because it affirms McLuhan’s great faith in the Church, but at the same time shows his need to take a swipe at it to improve it:

The Catholic Church does not depend on human wisdom or human strategies for survival. All the best intentions in the world cannot destroy the Catholic Church! It is indestructible, even as a human institution. It may once again undergo a terrible persecution and so on. But that’s probably what it needs (ibid., p. 58).


Marchand, Philip. 1989. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. Toronto: Random House.

McLuhan, Corrine. 1988. A McLuhan Symposium. Antigonish Review 74-75: 118.

McLuhan, Marshall. 1944. “The Analogical Mirrors.” The Kenyon Review, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Summer), pp. 322-332.

_________________1951b. “Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process.” Renascence, 4(1): 3-11 (Fall).

_________________1970c. “The Ciceronian Program in Pulpit and in Literary Criticism.” Renaissance and Reformation 7(1): 3-7.

_________. 1999. The Medium and The Light: Reflections on Religion. Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek (eds). Toronto: Stoddart.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Robert K. Logan. 1977. “Alphabet, Mother of Invention.” Et Cetera 34 (4): 373-83.

Molinaro, Matie, Corrine McLuhan, and William Toye (eds). 1987. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Stearn, Gerald E. 1967. “Conversations with McLuhan.” Encounter, June 1967, pp. 50-57.


Note: Adapted from a presentation given at the McLuhan: Social Media Between Faith and Learning at The University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto September 21, 2012 & September 22, 2012.

(Photo Credit: Public Domain)

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About the Contributor

Robert Logan

Robert K. Logan
Robert K. Logan is a Fellow of the University of St. Michael's College, an emeritus professor of physics still teaching his course The Poetry of Physics and Chief Scientist of the sLab at OCAD University. Bob worked with and published with Marshall McLuhan from 1974 to 1980. 

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