The Faith of McLuhan vs. The McLuhan of Faith: Understanding His Holy Ground

Written by Michael Giobbe.

From the early 19th century to the present, there has been an enterprise called “The Quest for The Historical Jesus” [Allen, 1998]. It was – and continues to be – an attempt to differentiate the actual, situated “Jesus of history” from the Jesus of religious teaching and worship, the “Jesus of faith.” One of the first to attempt this was Thomas Jefferson, who with a pocketknife excised from the gospel text any passage that had Jesus saying or doing something that Jefferson could not imagine Jesus saying or doing. Specifically, Jefferson’s Jesus said and did nothing remotely supernatural. Naturally, after the edits, the portrait that emerged was more like that of Jefferson himself than like the Jesus of the original texts. Of this and many other attempts, including his own, Albert Schweitzer concluded that the attempt to locate the “historical Jesus” was like a man looking into a deep well: “There is no historical task which so reveals someone’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus.” (Pelikan, 1985, p. 2).

Something similar affects our study of Marshall McLuhan: Media scholars approach McLuhan the media scholar; cultural theorists interpret McLuhan the cultural theorist; and sociology PhDs study McLuhan the sociologist.

Eric McLuhan observes that his father, in the course of his doctoral studies, gained an overview of Catholic doctrine, philosophy, history and theology such as few Catholic theologians ever possess. (McLuhan, 1999, p. xii) Let us therefore state the obvious: McLuhan gained this unusually broad and deep foundation because the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Cambridge in literature overlapped extensively with the fields of theology and church history. And from his studies, McLuhan found reason to become a Catholic himself. True, McLuhan was neither a theologian nor a devotional writer. But to draw from this that his faith was peripheral to his work, and entirely tangential, is to misread that work and to truncate the scope of it. Which is, well, odd.

Here, then, is the accepted read of this other, odd aspect of his life, McLuhan’s faith:

  • McLuhan studied the classical trivium while at Cambridge, working on his dissertation on Thomas Nashe.
  • While earning his doctorate, McLuhan became a Catholic.
  • Thereafter he “left theology to the professionals,” in the Catholic manner. And so his faith was a matter of strong personal conviction, but had no bearing on his work. In his writing, he avoided the topic of religion.

Only he didn’t.

Eric McLuhan observes that his father, in the course of his doctoral studies, gained an overview of Catholic doctrine, philosophy, history and theology such as few Catholic theologians ever possess. (McLuhan, 1999, p. xii) Let us therefore state the obvious: McLuhan gained this unusually broad and deep foundation because the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Cambridge in literature overlapped extensively with the fields of theology and church history. And from his studies, McLuhan found reason to become a Catholic himself. True, McLuhan was neither a theologian nor a devotional writer. But to draw from this that his faith was peripheral to his work, and entirely tangential, is to misread that work and to truncate the scope of it. Which is, well, odd.

Consider: McLuhan had much to say concerning literature and the arts. But McLuhan never therefore became a novelist, poet or sculptor. He did not teach only at art schools and writers’ retreats. And we know that McLuhan’s work has gained a highly interdisciplinary following. This did not lead him to teach only at institutions dedicated to history, economics, anthropology, sociology, or (perhaps especially) communication—all of which his work touches on and reinterprets. He was a scholar of literature: He went to Cambridge as a student of literature, and was a literature professor at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto at his death in 1980. But from his study of the history of the trivium – of the intellectual traditions of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric in the West – he did become a Catholic. And after his conversion in 1937, McLuhan taught exclusively at Catholic colleges and universities.

Much of his Cambridge dissertation, “The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time,” deals with philosophical and hermeneutical issues within the history of the trivium. McLuhan’s dissertation on them overlaps, touches upon and interweaves with church history. Much more so, in fact, than the dissertation deals with Thomas Nashe: After the introduction, Nashe is not mentioned again until two-thirds of the way through the text. The relationship of the history of the classical trivium to the arc of church history is made clear in an observation that Eric McLuhan (McLuhan, 1999) made of his father’s dissertation: “The Protestants, he found in his research, had decided to regard faith in terms of ideas and concepts. Their decision meant that they had, in terms of the trivium, hitched their fortunes to dialectic, and abandoned the old alliance of rhetoric and grammar to which the Church still resolutely adhered” (p. xv).

While the statement above is about the history of the trivium, it is just as clearly about the history of Christianity in the West. McLuhan’s doctoral dissertation focused upon this history nearly as much as upon the trivium. Since most of The Gutenberg Galaxy also directly relates to church history, and of course The Medium and The Light is entirely a media ecology reflection upon theology and church history, we should then admit, at minimum, that church history was a frequent-if-oblique topic in McLuhan’s work. And these examples are only the most obvious.

Walter Ong (1969) wrote, “Professor McLuhan does not treat explicitly of dogmatic or liturgical implications, but leaves open a hundred doors here and there into every aspect of Catholic life. Knowing him as a former member of the English faculty at St. Louis University and as present professor of English at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, we are aware that he does this quite deliberately” (p. 98). Of course, as the quote is taken from Ong’s 1952 review of The Mechanical Bride, it does not necessarily apply to McLuhan’s later books.

Or does it?

Before proceeding further, let us ask the question: As a Catholic, what exactly did McLuhan believe? We are told as we read McLuhan’s January 21, 1939 letter to his then-fiancée Corinne Lewis. From the text of that letter I have taken five propositions and a confession (McLuhan, 1999):

  • “Catholics are taught, and generally recognize, that one man is quite as great a sinner as the next. Knowing himself to be essentially imperfect he readily conceives charity for the imperfections of others” (p.25).
  • More important than any other single difference between Catholic attitudes and others is perhaps that the Catholic does not ‘fear’ God but has every reason to love Him. The first thought that a Catholic has of God is that which a man has for a real friend (p. 25).
  • “More important than any other single difference between Catholic attitudes and others is perhaps that the Catholic does not ‘fear’ God but has every reason to love Him. The first thought that a Catholic has of God is that which a man has for a real friend” (p. 25).
  • “Orthodoxy is intellectual honesty as regards divine things” (p. 26).

[McLuhan then writes, reflecting upon the course of his studies:] “But I came to know so much about orthodoxy that it was impossible to retain my intellectual integrity any longer except by acting” (p. 28).

  • “In the Church, you know, there is a great heightening of every moment of experience, once every moment is played against a supernatural backdrop” (p. 28).
  • [And then a confession:] “I simply can’t bring myself to curry favor among men whom I consider inferior in ability. But I can be utterly congenial with people whom I know to be equal or superior – and with inferiors from whom I expect nothing. Really, Corinne, I’m not boasting about this. It is not, perhaps, entirely creditable to be this way” (p. 29).

We see from the above that McLuhan’s faith, two years after his conversion, was a mature one, both challenging of himself and tolerant of others. And it enabled him to see his own intellectual pride as simply that – pride. (McLuhan says that every Catholic is taught and generally recognizes these things. Here he is being far too generous: If every baptized and confirmed Catholic internalized the faith as McLuhan did, the present situation of the Roman Catholic Church, from both within and without, would be much different.)

So yes, McLuhan was a Catholic. While true, the statement conceals as much as it reveals, and distorts as much as it illuminates: the word “Catholic” itself bears different connotations now than when McLuhan converted in 1937.In order to understand this in context, we must proceed to the next, more fruitful question: “What kind of Catholic was he?”

Here liberal Catholics would claim him as a liberal, while conservative Catholics pronounce him a conservative. But in his native setting, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are virtually meaningless. So then: What was the “native setting” of McLuhan’s faith?

Again we turn to Walter Ong (1967a), who described McLuhan as “[a] sixteenth-century scholar now domiciled in the twentieth century but much given to commuting” (p. 25). As such, I propose that Marshall McLuhan was a monastic Catholic. The more literal-minded might object, since he was married with six children. It is true that he wrote to his brother Maurice in April of 1936: “Had I come into contact with the Catholic Thing, the Faith, 5 years ago, I would have become a priest I believe” (McLuhan, 1999, p. 21). That, of course, never happened.

Let us instead consider McLuhan’s 16th-century habitus. Since the time of Constantine in the 4th century C.E., Catholic Christianity has been practiced in two flavors: Not those of the clergy and the laity, but of the parishes and the monasteries. Christianity is textually based; prior to the decline of the Roman Empire, the Christian community depended on the pedagogy and literacy of Roman culture, never developing its own formal education (Gamble, 1995). From the 1st century C.E. into the 5th, this worked well. As Rome fell, however, that arrangement became untenable. By the time of Gregory I in the 6th century, it was simply impossible: where the Pax Romana once made the empire safe and civil, its absence fostered violence and instability; there was little literate culture left (Tickle, 2008, p. 25). The fall of Rome was, among other things, a media shift.

Gregory I therefore preserved the learning of the Church, based as it was upon the classical trivium, in the monasteries (Tickle, 2008, p. 26), while the practice of the sacraments and the hearing of sermons sufficed for the laity – the largely illiterate. And thus the monastic, literate practice of the faith diverged increasingly from the secular, illiterate practice. This divide – between both the parishes and the hierarchy on one side, and the religious orders on the other – persists even today. Spiritually rich, peaceful, holistic and unitive, the monastic practice of the faith, separated from “the world” in the 4th century C.E., has never been re-integrated into Catholic life. The Catholic Church with which most of us are familiar is the parish practice of the faith – the practice for the illiterate – carried forward sixteen hundred years. (Many of us find it wanting, precisely because we are no longer illiterate.) Marshall McLuhan, in his study of the trivium at Cambridge, had become not only a Catholic, but a Catholic man of letters, a scholar of grammatica and rhetorica, the arts of analogy. He had become a Catholic scholar in the16th-century monastic mode: One who united his prayer life and his scholarly life, well practiced in the ways of acoustic space—and thereby, a practitioner of God’s presence.

From precisely this comes the curious optimism that runs throughout his work. McLuhan notes often that the shift to electronic communication favors the return of grammatica, and entails at the same time a return to acoustic space. This return to acoustic space makes possible once again the real-time experience of God’s presence, in a way that visual space, the worldview of print, does not: As Walter Ong explains, in acoustic space, unlike visual space, it is possible to hear God. This, in turn, makes possible the re-integration of the monastic faith—the practice of listening to God—into parish religious life. And while tens of thousands of Catholics leave the Church every year, often seeking something richer than the religion practiced in their parishes, hundreds and hundreds of highly literate Christians join, seeking a more ancient and whole practice of the faith – which is the monastic, or acoustic space practice. (Let us note that since the visible, physical appearances of these two approaches are virtually identical, it is possible for two individuals to stand next to each other in church on a Sunday, perform the same outward actions, and yet be worlds apart in terms of their understanding and experience of those actions.)

Both Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy and Walter Ong in The Presence Of The Word noted the effect of typography on spiritual sensibility: the epistemological shift entailed in the adoption of typography fostered a growing and acute spiritual deafness. (Ong, 1967b, p. 16). It is one from which we are yet waking. Thomas Jefferson, cited earlier, was himself the high-water mark of this visual space/typographic sensibility — and was thus highly literate, yet spiritually deaf, and so incapable of faith. It is no wonder, then, that Jefferson’s Jesus could work no miracles: The God he spoke of was Himself incapable of speaking: Under typographic conditions, His words lacked divine Presence.

This condition contrasts directly with the practice of Practical Criticism, which McLuhan learned at Cambridge and which became the basis of his teaching style. Eric McLuhan explains,

Practical Criticism demands that the reader perform texts and so find the voice that utters them. In turn, finding the speaker’s tone and feeling leads directly to analyzing the audience and the effect produced. A great deal of stress is thus placed, for the critic, on the training of sensibility and of multisensory critical awareness. The experience of performing a poem or passage supplies the basis of understanding and of analysis, and is never subordinated to the ideas it contains. Consequently the stress is on percepts more than concepts. (McLuhan, 1999, pp. xiv-xv).

In other words, Practical Criticism was an advanced course in acoustic space. Or again, as McLuhan said above of Catholicism, it was “[a] great heightening of every moment of experience, since every moment is played against a supernatural backdrop” (McLuhan, 1999, p. 28). Practical Criticism is participation-in-depth, similar in ways to the monastic practice of lectio divina: It is entry into another world.

David Staines (McLuhan, 2003) recalls one of McLuhan’s lectures on T.S. Eliot:
More than 35 years later, I still remember vividly his lecture on Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” After a brief introduction to the poem, he set out to explore the power of allusion. “April is the cruelest month,” he intoned, and then asked us what poem Eliot was invoking. Following a few moments silence someone answered, “Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.” Pleased with this reply, McLuhan launched into a comparison of Chaucer’s poem with Eliot’s work, pausing at length to recognize the world of Chaucer’s pilgrims and the godless world of Eliot which had no place for a pilgrimage because its inhabitants did not recognize any god or any saints. And so Eliot was invoking Chaucer’s poem, he continued, to create a simultaneous reference point throughout his poem to another world that had the religious figures “The Waste Land” could not embrace. ‘The human city in “The Waste Land” is desiccated and deprived by mechanical repetition, whereas Chaucer’s pilgrims of eternity represent the city in a very different way; they create their city as they go along the highway.

“Breeding lilacs out of the dead land,” he then intoned, and asked us what poem Eliot was invoking. “Walt Whitman’s ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’,” I replied nervously. And McLuhan proceeded to discuss Whitman’s poem, pointing out that his elegy for the dead Abraham Lincoln (“The city of man has been given a great blow by Lincoln’s death”) was a perfect counterpoint to “The Waste Land” for here, too, was no place for political heroes, for figures who could rally their people around a great vision.

Eliot’s poem was, therefore, a modern Canterbury Tales where there was no realm for pilgrims. And Whitman’s was an elegy that “The Waste Land” could not even fathom (pp. 301-302). In so many words, the practice of Practical Criticism was homage to literature’s “great cloud of witnesses.”

Here we return to Ong’s review of The Mechanical Bride, and its hundred doors: McLuhan did not advertise the intertextual, religious content of his writings any more than Eliot did. When for instance he wrote about the long transition from acoustic to visual space, he expected his readers to be aware that this shift formed the basis of the Reformation. When he spoke in the same context about the shift from grammar to dialectic, he was explaining why Catholic piety had lost traction in the Gutenberg era. To read McLuhan’s work for its spiritual significance requires an a priori familiarity with that subject that the average social sciences professor cannot be expected to have. McLuhan does not provide it, and indeed consciously chose not to, since he deemed that his work was already controversial enough. (McLuhan 1999, p. xix) Thus the average media scholar or sociologist is not best qualified to say whether there is or is not a specifically religious content to McLuhan’s writings, as he or she lacks the requisite theological background. (Author’s note: By contrast, when I visited the director of Boston College’s Institute of Medieval Theology and Philosophy in 2009, I discovered that he had read McLuhan’s The Classical Trivium four times.)

The Mechanical Bride was the first and last book wherein McLuhan maintained a specifically moral viewpoint. It was the first and last wherein McLuhan focused on figure and not on ground. And the first and last in which he makes a specific reasoned argument, rather than using a mosaic presentation to foster pattern recognition (though in truth in The Mechanical Bride McLuhan was already showing a tendency toward the mosaic technique). In his later rhetorical approach of mosaic and ground rather than argument and figure, McLuhan is still doing the same thing that Walter Ong observed in his earlier work, but does it in a different manner, consistent with his later, post-Bride style.

He continues to leave open his hundred doors. And throughout, McLuhan celebrates not the Age of Aquarius, but the way of Aquinas (and of Augustine and Abelard, Erasmus and Thomas More, and hundreds of other saints and scholars), subtly recommending it to us as well. Not so that we would share his specific religious views, but that we would experience his epistemology. About this, McLuhan was insistent: Faith is not simply religious sentiment. Faith is a way of knowing.


Allen, C. (1998). The Human Christ: The Search For The Historical Jesus. New York: The Free Press.

Gamble, H. (1995). Books and Readers in the Early Church. New Haven: Yale University Press.

McLuhan, M. (1999). The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion. (E. McLuhan & J. Szklarek, Eds.). Toronto: Stoddart Publishing.

McLuhan, M. (2003). Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews. (S. McLuhan & D. Staine, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ong, W. (1967a). In the Human Grain: Technological Culture and Its Effect On Man, Literature and Religion. New York: Macmillan Company.

Ong, W. (1967b). The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ong, W. (1969). “In a Way the Angels Have a Greater Social Problem than Even Industrialized Man.” In G. E. Stearn (Ed.), McLuhan: Hot and Cool (pp. 92-101). New York: Signet Books.

Pelikan, J. (1985). Jesus Through the Centuries. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tickle, P. (2008). The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.


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