There is a popular series of books entitled, “Eat This, Not That.” The premise of the series is that of all the foods out there, some are healthier for you than others or some are not as unhealthy as others. We can classify this essay as a “Read This, Not That.” With the growing number of published works by fundamentalist atheists, let me suggest when trying to think through the complex issues of religious reality and human cultures, one should read Christopher Dawson and not the venomously ill-informed works of those who seem driven primarily by profit and not generous, well informed scholarship.
Historically speaking, as a humane discipline, History and all of its variant emphases experienced decline when the mind of the modern inquirer into the past was clouded by the myopia of enlightenment consciousness of the 18th century. Those blinded by the narrow Enlightenment lens could feel little interest and no spiritual sympathy for transcendent reality and its religious manifestations.
Christopher Dawson had the unique ability to look at the fullest view of an era or time as being more than a mere continuation or break from the previous one, but was able to see it in relationship to a former cultural expression or one that would follow while discerning the uniqueness of a given culture.
It has been recounted that Christopher Dawson would at times spend, on average, an intense and uninterrupted five hours each day in his reading, writing, and research. There are also those who speak of Dawson having, at any given time, twenty some books open in front of him as he was making his way through the various material.
Distinct from the tendency of modernist social sciences to pervert and distort a social era by the reductionistic and mechanistic impulses of modernism inherited ideologies from the Enlightenment and Industrial revolutions, Dawson would rather use the analogy of a living organism to examine the way culture comes into being and the way cultures develop. With this in mind, this is why one will always encounter in the writings of Christopher Dawson the tendency to expand and integrate one aspect of the culture with another and not the atomistic fragmentation common today.
While Christopher Dawson would frequently examine the specifics and particulars of history, it is clear that Dawson himself could be classified as a meta-historian. While this notion has come to be a great shame in the modern world of specialization, Dawson himself wanted to protect history from the dividing, subdividing, and even more narrow dividing specialist. Indeed Christopher Dawson is a historian who was able to see both the trees and the forest.
In essence, it could be said that Christopher Dawson had an incarnational view of history. Dawson recognized that culture is embodied in religion, and that as such, you can understand a great deal about a culture by looking intently at the religion of that culture. It seems that Dawson recognized something that very few understand, including some Christian historians, and that is every culture has its roots, it’s very foundation, in religious sensitivities and reality.
Among the many things that attracts those who would understand Western cultural history, Christopher Dawson was willing to look at and discuss issues of meaning and continuity throughout the ebb and flow of human history. Dawson saw this as being a key theme that he was willing to examine and that others frequently neglected.
Christopher Dawson’s “style” as a historian was much more like that of one who would explore than who would analyze. Dawson was certainly not into selecting various polemical issues and making those the main issue. This is best represented in the way in which Christopher Dawson, a brilliant Catholic historian, spoke of the Protestant Reformation. He did not do so by having hammer pounding out the errors, flaws, and the unintended cultural consequences of the Reformation. There are even occasions where he spoke of the Reformation as a detached historian seeing some of the value that came to cultural change within the Reformation.
Dawson defended passionately against the various ways which academic disciplines bring unique insights into the human condition. And while he saw that different disciplines can assist other disciplines in their research, there should not be a gross territorial encroachment. One such case is how Dawson was influenced by the insights of sociology and anthropology, while not buying all the goods of these disciplines, he appreciated the value, but also questioned and refuted some ideas expounded by say Emile Durkheim. Durkheim believed that fundamentally religion was a projection toward a group of the deep human need to provide meaning for the individual. Dawson, a much more astute student of history and ancient cultures, saw that religion was not an inward movement, but was an outward movement toward the world and primarily a recognition of the spiritual reality that under-girds all of physical reality.
Dawson’s way of doing history does, in many ways, represent a transition from the perceived role of the discipline of history. He himself embodied what we often talk about in the nature of history and historical and cultural change. He learned well from the ways in which the social sciences could offer some assistance and understanding to intellectual history. His realization that historical eras, moments and people have a social context was ground breaking. In other words, not only do ideas have consequences, but ideas have embodiment in social institutions and cultural artifacts. Dawson was essentially, in the best sense of the term, an old-school humanist engaged in humane studies.
Where Dawson is most distinct from other historians, including cultural historians, is that he often is observant of both the religion and theology of a given time, as he examines the philosophy, economics, and the relationship between religion and culture. Additionally, it is not uncommon for Dawson to consider the science and literature of an era. With the aid of sociological insights, he examines the whole social working of that time.
The simple definition of culture within Dawson’s writings is that it culture requires a community of work, community of ideas, a community of place, and a community of kinship. All four of which will interact in mutually deepening ways in most healthy of societies. Additionally, each one acts on the other to shape them all in an organic manner. Essentially, culture is a fundamental social unity. Culture is a “tradition of knowing the way in which things are accumulated.” It is what modern sociologists recognize at the core of norms and folkways manifested in human artifacts and institutions. Of the cultural expressions, Dawson gave special attention to educational institutions.
Dawson wrote extensively about the interplay between religion and culture. Better stated, he examined the interdependence of religion and culture as a subject that is sorely absent from modern historians and cultural scholars. In truth and practice, with growing secularization comes increased disdain and hostility toward religious reality and social expressions. There is no need to look any further than the rhetorical expressions of a fundamentalist atheism.
In addition to writing extensively about the interplay between religion and culture, Dawson was also intrigued and somewhat taken with the ways in which culture transitions from one movement to another or from being one thing into being something else.
Whether analyzing ancient primitive cultures or the high culture of Christendom during the Carolingian renaissance, Christopher Dawson recognized the intricate and profound relationship between life and religion. Between the acts of worship associated with religious practices and the beliefs themselves that stem from religious practices and worship. As with all things, Dawson saw a keen connection that few others have noted. While most of Christendom (especially Protestants and even more so Evangelicals) focus solely on ideas (a rather gnostic impulse) there is much more to understanding society and culture than disembodied ideas. In a sense, Dawson was using the insights of the sociology of knowledge, found in Durkheim, before it became standard among cultural historians. Simply put, sociology of knowledge is the recognition that there is keen interplay between the way people think and the social context of that thinking, and the way such thinking influences that very same society. It is the recognition that the way of thinking is as important as what is being thought. Where many stress the particular ideas, this approach stresses the manifestations of these ideas in habits, actions, and institutions. One contemporary sociologist employing this tool noted that “the microwave generation cannot understand the virtue of patience.” The genius of this example is that it recognizes the technological ingenuity which produced a device in turn affects the daily habits of people. These same people do not realize how their new “instant” culture is counter to the habit of deliberative contemplation and the essential good of being hesitant before engaging in some actions.
Within the collected writings of Christopher Dawson, we see that the study of culture as a whole is the best plan of action yielding the greatest insights and the wisest conclusions. Any piecemeal approach will most assuredly end in distortions and perversions. Additionally, there is an intimate relationship between religion and social expressions clearly apprehended when ideological bias is replaced with open examination. Among the many stunning and counter-post Enlightenment assertions is that even the most “other-worldly” religions have a connection to culture and demonstrate a keen influence on culture and a strong shaping by culture.
At it’s very best relationship between religion and culture, culture can bear religious truths or culture can represent religious truths. The truth is that culture shapes religion and religion shapes culture. It would be worth the consideration to examine the religious in the most expressly non- or anti- religious cultures or social institutions. In other words, hints of religion may be present; think Peter Berger’s signals of transcendence or George Steiner’s wagers of transcendence.
There are too numerous brilliant insights from Christopher Dawson to list. Constantly being exposed to keen observations or beneficial connections rank among the great pleasures of reading his writings. It is worth noting though that Dawson did recognize some patterns, and he was a sound observer of his own time. As we look to the writings of Dawson and our own moment we can learn one very important lesson. Totalitarian government, in any form, usually occurs when the momentum of the culture is in decline. In other words, the state becomes surrogate religion and source of all meaning when we see a decline in society as a whole.
Another insight that Dawson brings to the study of cultural history is the recognition that when one is looking at a civilization, say ancient Egyptian, Sumaria, or medieval Christendom, one is also looking at a culture in the fullest sense. While examining these civilizations (cultures) the astute reader can ask parallel questions of our own civilization (culture).
Dawson as a historian did what few others were able to do. He combined in the most intriguing manner the analytical and synthetic skills that are almost never found within the same intellectual figure. Again, on the Renaissance, one point that profoundly separated Dawson from other historians of his day and even of this day is that Dawson did not see the Renaissance as being primarily pagan or the seeds of secularized society. Rather, he saw that what occurred in the Renaissance was a continuing influence of the Christian faith from its inception through and beyond the Renaissance.
There are numerous examples of the interplay between religious convictions and earthly engagement, but possibly none more impressive in the west than the learned, religious, and cultural men of the Renaissance. For Dawson, it was their connectedness with the temporal order, their Christian heritage, and their tacit awareness of their cultural and intellectual heritage that led to a rebirth of a new spiritual culture called the Renaissance. Here it is helpful to remember that Jarslov Pelikan observed how the very notion of rebirth among numerous Renaissance authors, has its fountain in the rebirth mentioned in John chapter three. Dawson, more so than most, saw that the Renaissance never would have occurred had it not been for the profoundly spiritual Carolingian Renaissance.
Long before the theory of secularization became an item where entire volumes were dedicated, Christopher Dawson recognized the process of secularization as being one where anyone could observe the diminishing influence of the Christian faith on social institutions, particularly educational institutions and that this shaping force has been in decline as Western civilization “progresses” to our collapse.
Books by Christopher Dawson may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.