He was among the brightest students I have taught. We had just finished talking about how and why Freudian or Marxists interpretations of reality are suffocating in their reductionistic interpretations. The conversation moved to the writings of Christopher Dawson that are happily being reprinted by Catholic University Press of America. As our discussion meandered, he questioned, “Why are Freudian and Marxist ideologies reductionistic, but Dawson’s assertion that ‘religion is the key to history’ not reductionistic?” Bravo, I thought, a marvelous question. Now we were onto a grand quest. My first response was that religion, as understood by Dawson, is not a mere accident of human nature, but an essential characteristic or quality of the human condition that manifests itself throughout culture. Additionally, human cultures as envisioned and developed by various people through history act back upon and shape our religious impulse.
Having read most of Dawson’s works after I was blessedly introduced to them in graduate studies by an aging professor who declared, “more people need to read him and hopefully we will one day see a resurgence of interest in his writings,” I can confirm the wisdom of the desire of my professor. My wise old professor did not live to see the rebirth of admirers, but he would have been encouraged more by the truth of the occurrence than his prediction.
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 the work of modern historians and cultural scholars. Dawson asserted in various ways that religion is the key to truly understanding human history and human cultures. In truth and practice, with growing secularization comes increased disdain and hostility toward religious reality and social expressions of that reality. There is no need to look any further than the rhetorical expressions of fundamentalist atheism. Dawson warned about those who practice “any so-called science of comparative religion which treats its subject in terms of psychopathology or economic determinism is sterile and pseudo-scientific.” Instead, he called for an openness to “the science of religious truth.”
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. He also called for examining religion as a unique manifestation of human experience. Unlike many modern critics, Dawson examined rituals, practices, superstitions, and mystical experiences as these are part of understanding humans and religious expression. Transcendence and human consciousness should not be separated in analysis. The reason that observers of cultural change give attention to religion is because, “a culture is a spiritual community which owes its unity to common beliefs and common ways of thought.”
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. His stress on the “spiritual culture—the training of the mind in the way of divine law”—and even a rebellion of that way, is most important toward a proper interpretation of culture: “Thus the scientific revolution has been almost inseparable from movements of social and political revolution and with a far-reaching secularization of social life which produces a new type of conflict between religion and culture.” 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, 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 that in turn affects the daily habits of people. Dawson’s analysis of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution make similar observations. 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.
The wide world of scholarship is not likely to rise up and say, “Dawson was right about religion and culture and we were wrong.” Despite the astonishing discoveries at Gobekli Tepe and what should be a universal rethinking of the ways religion shapes culture and not the other way, it is not probable, with the trendiness of the new atheists, that religion will get proper respectful attention anytime soon. However, if Dawson is right—and the sense from many is that he is right—religious reality and our “transcendent intuition” provide cultural manifestations all around us.
Back to the astute student who asked, why is Dawson’s assertion that “religion is the key to history” not reductionistic? Unlike others who commit the all too common metaphysical fallacy of “nothing but,” Dawson did not say culture is nothing but religion. He keenly observed that in human history, religion was key to human culture. Dawson offered an expansive lens, not a reductionistic lens, for understanding religion and culture.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared on Musings of a Christian Humanist (December 2013) and is republished here with permission.