A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson by Christina Scott (N.J and London: Transaction Publishers, 1991)
Culture comes from cult. But religious skeptics regularly get it all twisted up. Sometimes they rest their case on the assumption of the very point in question, that diverse cultures just naturally produce diverse religions the same way they produce distinctive art and music. But when the compass arrow of historical analysis swings back to point to the religious origins of every known culture, a condescending inclusiveness tends to be invoked, that the roots of enlightened order are forever tangled in the superstitions of the past.
Christopher Dawson’s principal achievement was to show that all civilization arises out of religious belief, that culture comes from cult: The greatest use to which we may put his thought could well be the early identification of the best strategy for the renewal of high culture amid the collapses of order now being experienced in a largely post-Christian era.
But in saying so, we do well to inoculate ourselves against a yet more cynical form of skepticism. Even the agnostic Kant found a place for religion: It was very useful even if we could never know any religion to be true. His Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone promotes a biblical piety and a policy of toleration for widely divergent forms of church polity out of the conviction that it takes religious faith to persuade the masses to live by the moral code which enlightened reason would choose for society. What, after all, is the Golden Rule but the Categorical Imperative in the language of the Gospel? If what we really want is the civilized life of high culture, the civil encouragement of religion is simply the most effective way to bring it about. The current madness of the secular intelligentsia to strip away even the forms of religion from public discourse is but shortsighted arrogance that will spite the real goal of individual freedom amid the peaceful tolerance of all possible differences.
It is also this sort of sophisticated contempt for religion as a mere means to secure cultural advance that Dawson’s lifelong studies of religion and culture expose and challenge. His vast range of historical studies, from concern with the prehistoric in The Age of the Gods (1928) to the posthumously published The Gods of Revolution (1972), an analysis of the French Revolution, brings out again and again a deeper and richer thesis. Religion is the key factor in the formation and the transformation of culture. But this is not to say with the skeptics that high culture is itself the goal and religion a more or less convenient means, pleasing to some while others seem allergic to it. Rather, culture itself has a further purpose: to enable human beings progressively to discover the deepest truth about themselves as human, that their real fulfillment resides in reverence for the Transcendent God in whose image they are made.
That is, in their widely different ways and some more successfully than others, religions form and transform cultures so that cultures can better assist their members to grow and develop in the human dignity that comes with the ennobling humility of recognizing the sovereignty of the Divine and their own creation in the likeness of their Maker. By contrast, Enlightenment ideals never seemed to transcend the idolatrous project of making man a god, and so inevitably provoked the post-modern resentment against the foolishness of that project, whether attempted by technology or by mere rhetoric.
The detailed account of Dawson’s life and times (1889-1970) in this delightful biography by his daughter, Christina Scott, brings out repeated examples of Dawson’s astute cultural vision. His work was that of the historian of ideas rather than that of the apologist who tries by every means to bring about conversion to the one true religion, even though he himself was a convert and entirely convinced that there is one true religion and that genuine human liberation depends on adherence to the worship of the true God. Rather, he took a line far more akin to the patristic policy of regarding much of pagan culture under the rubric of a preparatio evangelica.
Recognition that human dignity is enhanced and not compromised or alienated by the veneration of the Creator can come through a study of how all sorts of cultural progress is made, and not just by the use of history in any narrowly conceived version of apologetics. To show, for instance, in Dynamics of World History (1957), that the introduction of Indian Buddhism and its world-denying via negativa into China was surprisingly one of the main factors in producing the richly artistic Chinese culture of the Tang and Sung periods, helps to make Dawson’s general point about the influence of religion in the formation of a high culture and the elevation of the human spirit thereby. Like wise, to show that the development of marriage rituals produces for human culture a social consecration of biological functions equally present among animals is to trace some of the effects of natural (rather than revealed) religion to fashion a culture and improve the human lot by providing a cosmic context for the promise of marital fidelity.
Even though Dawson never had the chance to develop the skills of a class room teacher, he demonstrates in his writing the well-trained reserve of a mature teacher who can let students draw for themselves the necessary conclusion of the pattern of argument and evidence marshaled. By making so thorough a study of the particular culture he is in vestigating, he often leaves the reader to draw or vainly resist the ultimate conclusion that he himself found inevitable, that there is a true religion that will fully liberate human nature by complete union with the God of revelation, beyond what any philosophical ruminations on natural religion will ever discover but to which the historical study of natural religions recurrently points.
What this biography brings out well is the personal culture that made possible Dawson’s vast learning and deep wisdom. A shy, retiring scholar, he understood and retained most of what he read, producing more than twenty books, hundreds of articles, and file cabinets of learned correspondence. In the only completed portion of the autobiography he planned (“Tradition and Inheritance”), newly appended to this Transaction reprint of the 1984 Sheed and Ward edition, he testifies to the sense of family, loyalty and order he always felt, especially when living in the security of one of his family’s ancestral homes. His father’s library nourished his mind and the stories of his ancestors’ steady devotion to God and country in clerical and military careers settled his soul.
But what is most surprising to learn about such a productive writer and one so enamored with the importance of place is the frequent itinerary of the Dawson home life. While in England he never obtained a professorial post, and every few years the family seemed to pack up and move to another home, preferably in the countryside, and eventually they even came to America, when at age sixty-eight he received a call to become the first Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard. Like the invitation to deliver the 1946-1947 Gifford Lectures, which resulted in Religion and Culture (1948) and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950), the summons to Harvard brought not only academic recognition of his work but also the welcome opportunity to have wider public influence, including a vigorous American lecture tour, until ill health confined him to Cambridge and prompted a return to England in 1962.
The great continuity of his scholarly focus on the relations of culture and religion can be traced to an event on Easter Day, 1909. But twenty years of age, he sat on the grand steps leading up to Santa Maria Ara Coeli in Rome, a church constructed on the ruins of an ancient Roman shrine. Dawson there felt a call to his life’s work, to write a history of culture. He had passed through a period of teenage agnosticism and, newly arrived at Oxford, was feeling the stirrings of the beauty and truth of religion. On those steps, he tells us, he pondered the maxim of Lord Acton, that religion is the key to history, and he pondered the contempt for religion shown by Edward Gibbon, who received his inspiration for The Decline and Fall sitting on those same steps. He made a vow that day to write a history of culture and tells us that he subsequently “had great light on the way it may be carried out. However unfit I may be, I believe it is God’s will I should attempt it.” His 1913 conversion from the Anglican to the Roman communion reminds one of Newman’s conversion some generations before.
Plans for carrying out this vow took various expression over the years, for the work of constructing a history of culture led to monographs on many societies and many time-periods. But as Christina Scott rightly emphasizes, the grand plan is probably clearest in The Crisis of Western Education (1961), the fruit of much of his thinking in the years prior to his 1958 summons to Harvard. Mindful of the centrifugal forces that have been pulling Western culture apart, he argues there for the study of culture as an effective educational remedy. In particular, he calls for the study of the Christian culture of the West. It should be seen both “from the outside” as one of the great world civilizations on which the modern world is founded and “from the inside” in terms of the history of the Christian people as expressed in the thought, the social modes of living, and the great institutions developed over what he calls the six ages of Christian culture.
Many of Dawson’s books can readily be seen to fall within one or another of these six ages: (1) Primitive Christianity (up to the fourth century) which saw the birth of the Church and the subterranean expansion of the Christian way of life beneath the surface of a pagan civilization. (2) Patristic Christianity (to the sixth century) in which the conversion of the Roman-Hellenistic world took place and Byzantine culture began. (3) The formation of Western Christendom (to the eleventh century), the time of the conversion of Northern Europe and the gradual permeation of bar barian cultures by Christian influence even while an older part of the Christian world was lost to Islam. (4) Medieval Christendom (to the fifteenth century), marked by the mature development of artistic, literary, educational, and institutional forms of social life. (5) Divided Christendom (to the eighteenth century) and the rise of nation-states amid internal religious strife and the opportunities for expansion to the New World. (6) Secularized Christendom (up to the present), in which Western culture achieved world hegemony but ceased to be Christian and has seen many of the old institutions of Christian culture swept away by various revolutionary movements.
Dawson’s thought has recently been the subject of a Wethersfield Institute conference and the papers have been published by Ignatius Press as Christianity and Western Civilization: Christopher Dawson’s Insights (San Francisco, 1995). Together with this volume, they make a fine introduction to the reading of Dawson’s own voluminous writings and illustrate the kind of study Dawson energetically promoted, the analysis of the dynamic relations between religion and culture, for the better understanding of the historical forces that shape the world.
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