While in graduate school I fortuitously encountered the works of Christopher Dawson, who significantly shaped my understanding and subsequent teaching of Western Civilization as meaningful only as a manifestation of the Christian Culture that emerged in the Medieval World. To him, a providential perspective on the study of history was fully justified: ‘”Whatever else is obscure, it is certain that God is the Governor of the universe and behind the apparent disorder and confusion of history there is the creative action of divine law.” Committed to this endeavor, he acknowledged that he “had to follow my own line of studies and plough a lone furrow for thirty-five years'” because “‘the subject to which I have devoted myself—the study of Christian culture—has no place in education or in university studies'” (p. 10).
In Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, c. 2007), Bradley J. Birzer, a professor at Hillsdale College, provides us both a biographical study and intellectual analysis of one of the major 20th century thinkers, rightly praised by notables such as T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Etienne Gilson and Thomas Merton. Standing beside them, witnessing the upheavals of the 20th century, alarmed at the ‘”dark forces that have been chained by a thousand years of Christian civilization . . . have now been set free to conquer the world”‘ (p. 11), Dawson necessarily assumed the role of a “Jeremiah, prophesying lament and doom as the world followed down the paths of the various ideologues. But he also played the role of the saint, using his considerable intellectual gifts to demonstrate the necessity of virtue and the light of the Logos to the modem world through his writing, his teaching, and his public speaking” (p. vii).
Born to a distinguished family in 1889 in a Welsh castle, Dawson grew up in a largely pre-mechanical rural world. “Distrust of urban areas and masses of men would haunt Dawson for his entire life and greatly shape many of his views on culture, politics and society” (p. 20). Largely educated by private tutors, he largely learned through exploring his family’s estate and extensive personal reading. Though his family was Anglo-Catholic, he converted to Catholicism in 1914, having embraced an Augustinian philosophy of history while attending Oxford University. Subsequently he devoted himself, for a decade, to the reading and note-taking necessary for “a writing career as a historian and general man of letters” (p. 28). Properly prepared, he began publishing a profusion of articles and books—more than a 100 all told—designed to remind his readers of the formative role of Christianity in the making of European civilization.
Though generally disinterested in academic appointments, accepted (at the age of 69) a position at Harvard University as the first Chauncey Stillman Chair in Catholic Studies, where he taught for four years until poor health demanded his retirement. Despite this university appointment, however, Dawson generally considered himself a writer committed to describing and explaining the role of Christianity in history. Thus, following his university years he joined a small circle of thinkers committed to “the Aristotelian/Thomist understanding of order” in society. They further embraced the position of “Edmund Burke, who had stressed the need for the ‘moral imagination’—the ability to see clearly beyond the here and now into the reality of eternal forms—thus allowing one to order one’s soul, one’s present community, and one’s soul to the eternal community” (p. 50). Such order, as St. Augustine insisted, could come only as God’s grace restored a fallen world to its divine plan, and the Church was the agency called forth “to sanctify the world, and the individual person—if properly ordered in his soul—plays a vital role in the process of sanctification” (p. 57).
Deeply influenced by St. Augustine, Dawson found powerful parallels between the fifth and twentieth century worlds, and to Aidan Nichols his “work is itself ‘best thought of as a latter-day City of God”‘ (p. 66). Both men sought to affirm and advance classical, Christian culture amidst barbarian invasions—Vandals in Augustine’s fifth century world, secularized disciples of the French Revolution, the Deists and doubters and relativists in Dawson’s day. Both did so with words, which they thought more powerful than swords or plows, rifles or computers. “With St. John, Dawson proclaimed the importance of the Word to the human person as well as to history and culture. As ‘little words’—that is, human persons as imago Dei—humans pass on their civilization through the rational use of language” (p. 84).
During the 1930s, Dawson joined like-minded writers seeking to awaken the English to the importance of religious faith and practice, contending that ‘”the whole universe is, as it were, the shadow of God. and has its being in the contemplation or reflection of the Being of God'” (p. 110). He found in the Apostle John’s Logos theology the foundational truth that “Jesus ‘was not only the Christ, the Son of the living God; He was also the Divine Intelligence, the Principle of the order and intelligibility of the created world'” (p. 111). Discerning His Light we may conform both ourselves and our world to Him. Thinking thusly, he said: ‘”A Christian only has to be in order to change the world, for in that act of being there is contained all the mystery of the supernatural life'” (p. 112).
During the same decade he spoke out against some of the pernicious ideologies that were enlisting enthusiasts for centralized bureaucratic systems, critiquing not only Stalin’s Soviet Communism and Hitler’s German National Socialism but FDR’s New Deal “as a constitutional dictatorship'” (p. 124). Indeed, he thought: ‘”It may be harder to resist a Totalitarian state which relies on free milk and birth-control clinics than one which relies on castor oil and concentration camps'” (p. 125). “The Europe of the 1930s, Dawson believed, faced the same fate as Republican Rome in 43 B.C. It would either die, or it would remake itself under a centralized government. In either case, it would never find any meaningful spiritual fulfillment” (p. 136). So it was a time, as Pope Leo XIII had earlier declared, for the Church to ‘”set up a wall and a bulwark to save human society from falling back into barbarism'” (p. 133).
Barbarism, of course, had been vanquished as Christians patiently shaped European Civilization during the Middle Ages. Rooted in the cultures of Greece and Rome, Western Christian Culture preserved the best of antiquity. As Germanic barbarians inundated the Roman Empire, monks and missionaries such as St. Boniface patiently led them both to Christ and civilization, “creating what we would now recognize as the beginnings of Europe, a synthesis of the classical, Christian, and Germanic” (p. 167). Equally important, medieval scholars such as Aquinas (best popularized by Dante) understood “grace as a ‘new spiritual principle which transforms and renews human nature by the communication of the Divine Life'” (p. 174).
This medieval synthesis began dissolving in the 14th century, first under assault from nominalist thinkers and nation states and subsequent (16th century) Protestant theologians and princes. The leading 14 century nominalist, “William of Occam, according to Dawson, played one of the most important roles in the breakup of Christendom and in the growth of nationalism. As ‘the leading mind of his age,’ Occam ‘was the initiator—the “venerable inceptor”—of the via modema [nominalism] which took the place of the classical scholasticism of the 13th century—the via antiqua—as the accepted doctrine of the universities for nearly two centuries, down to the time of Luther'” (p. 178). To his theological nominalism Luther added a staunch nationalism and thus secured an unprecedented alliance between Church and State that tragically divided Europe into warring factions.
Those warring factions flared forth in WWII, a deeply distressing event to Dawson. During and after the war he continued to write articles and books (best evident in what Birzer considers his best work, The Judgment of the Nations) pleading for a restoration of Western Christian Culture, heeding Pope Pius XIPs “call for a new Crusade, ‘to bring men back from the broken cisterns of national interest to the fountain of Divine justice’ and to promote a new and international understanding of the natural law” (p. 194). The 20th century witnessed, he wrote, ‘”the unloosing of the powers of the abyss—the dark forces that have been chained by a thousand years of Christian civilization and which have been set free to conquer the world.’ Together, these dark forces have ‘the will to power.’ The darkest forces first emerged in the French Revolution, and then re-emerged in the Soviet Union, spreading ‘westward, into the very heart of Europe'” (p. 199). To do battle, all Christians (Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox) needed, above all, to employ the Sword of the Spirit, for only in His strength could the battles and wars be won.
Following the war, Dawson was honored by being asked to deliver the distinguished Gifford Lectures and appointed a professor at Harvard. His erudition and insight were rewarded with highly public recognition and an enduring legacy. Yet in many ways, he was an “oddity” immersed in Catholicism and committed to the Reality and role of God in His world. Summing up his fine, exhaustively researched and documented study, Birzer says: “He offered an Augustinian vision of culture and history to the twentieth century; he encouraged men and women to act like men and women in the best of the western tradition—through the virtue of love; he attacked the ideologues of the left and right as nothing more than false prophets promoting false religions and false gods; and, to revive the world through the imagination , he promoted a new an vigorous understanding of the liberal arts. …. He desired to sanctify the world, through grace, to embrace truth, beauty, and goodness” (p. 271).
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The Gifford Lectures, devoted to the subject of Natural Theology, in some ways resemble the Nobel Prize for thinkers in the history and philosophy of religion. So Christopher Dawson was honored to be invited to deliver the lectures in 1947. He began with an anthropological and sociological analysis later published under the title Religion and Culture (London: Sheed & Ward, 1948). To explain his approach to Natural Theology he noted that until modern times it was simply a familiar aspect of Christian theology. Since the Renaissance, however, it has increasingly become a facet of humanism, with its scientific presumptions, rather than traditional faith-based reason.
As an historian Dawson insists we broaden our vision and take in the totality of human experience, acknowledging that from the beginning recorded history “we can never find a time or place where man was not conscious of the soul and of a divine power on which his life depended” (p. 41). Rightly understood, “All religion is based on the recognition of a superhuman Reality of which man is somehow conscious and towards which he must in some way orientate his life. The existence of the tremendous transcendent reality that we name GOD is the foundation of all religion in all ages and among all peoples” (p. 25). Thus Natural Theology was rooted in the basic human awareness “that man has only to look out and to look up in order to see the manifest proofs of Divine power and wisdom” (p. 30).
Discerning this Divine Reality, people developed cultures in accord with it. Consequently, Dawson insists: “Religion is the key of history” (p. 50). “Religion and art are older than agriculture and industry. In the beginning was the word, and man was a seer and an artist before he was a producer” (p. 132). Above all we are by nature homo religiosus, and “every great historic culture, viewed from within through the eyes of its members, represents a theogamy, a coming together of the divine and the human within the limits of a sacred tradition” (p. 54). Furthermore, “every culture, even the most primitive, seeks, like the old Roman civic religion, to establish a. jus divinum which will maintain the pax deorum, a religious order which will relate the life of the community to the transcendent powers that rule the universe.
The way of life must be a way of the service of God” (p. 62). Discerning the divine Design are prophets; propitiating the divine Power are priests; ordering society in accord with the divine Order are kings. “The Prophet is the organ of divine inspiration, the King is the organ of sacred power, but the Priest is the organ of knowledge—the master of sacred science” (p. 102). With enormous erudition—an encyclopedic knowledge of human history—Dawson illustrates the importance of religion in vibrant cultures. In sum: “It is the traditional teaching of Natural Theology that the elements of religious truth are common to the human race and accessible to every rational creature—that the Divine Being is the transcendent end towards which all the different ways of life converge and the divine law the universal norm by which all the different patterns of human behaviour can be co-ordinated” (p. 211).
Tragically, to Dawson, a “new scientific culture [that] is devoid of all positive spiritual content” has gained control of much of the world” (p. 214). What emerged in the 20th century could hardly be considered a culture at all! Given the tyrannies and bureaucracies and nihilism everywhere evident in the West following WWII, our culture “may become the enemy of human life itself (p. 215). Consequently: “We are faced with a spiritual conflict of the most acute kind, a sort of social schizophrenia which divides the soul of society between a non-moral will to power served by inhuman techniques and a religious faith and a moral idealism which have no power to influence human life. There must be a return to unity—a spiritual integration of culture—if mankind is to survive” (p. 217).
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The cultural integrity needed for mankind to survive was resplendently evident, Christopher Dawson argued, in the Christian Culture of the High Middle Ages. He articulated this case in one of his best books. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1958; c. 1950 by Sheed & Ward), the second volume of his Gifford Lectures, delivered in the University of Edinburgh, 1948-1949. He declared (citing Lord Acton) that “‘Religion is the key of history'” (p. 15). The energy and creativity that have distinguished the West can only be explained in light of a spiritual vigor “independent of political power or economic prosperity” (p. 18). “The beginnings of Western culture,” Dawson says, “are to be found in the new spiritual community which arose from the ruins of the Roman Empire owing to the conversion of the Northern barbarians to the Christian faith” (p. 26). The missionary nature of Christianity shines forth in the patient work of monks and priests, soldiers and scholars, slowly making Europe Christian. They did so not with the intent of civilizing barbarians or orchestrating “social progress, but with a tremendous message of divine judgment and divine salvation. …. Only by way of the Cross and by the grace of the crucified Redeemer was it possible for men to extricate themselves from the massa damnata of unregenerate humanity and escape from the wreckage of a doomed world” (p. 35). Calling sinners to salvation, however, involved means whereby they could be sanctified. Thus liturgical worship and uplifting architecture and proper education were emphasized.
The men who made the West during the Medieval Era were mainly monks, doing the Opus Dei (work of God) by daily reciting “the divine liturgy of prayer and psalmody” (p. 48). Through them “religion exercised a direct formative influence on the whole cultural development of these centuries” (p. 44). Luminaries such as St. Boniface, the missionary “Apostle of Germany,” and Alcuin of York, who established Charlemagne’s school of the palace, bear witness to the grandeur of Medieval monks. They were “the watchmen or guardians who ‘kept the walls’ of the Christian City and repelled the attacks of its spiritual enemies” (p. 45). In addition to praying the monks worked—oro et labore. “It was the disciplined and tireless labour of the monks which turned the tide of barbarism in Western Europe and brought back into cultivation the lands which had been deserted and depopulated in the age of the invasions” (p. 53).
While Irish and Benedictine monks effectively converted the barbarians and established the Church in the West, equally effective representatives of Byzantium converted Magyars and Bulgars and Slavs and others in the East, dealing with “a series of Asiatic barbarian empires, which constituted a continual threat to the Balkan provinces and the capital itself (p. 104). Especially important, radiating from Kiev following the conversion of Vladimir in 988, a vigorous Russian Orthodox community expanded and flourished. Indeed “the conversion of Russia opened a new channel by which Christian culture could penetrate the pagan North, so that the whole continent seemed about to become a Christian orbis terrarum” (p. 114). The Mongolian invasions, along with the Islamic Turks’ assault on Byzantium, profoundly thwarted this possibility, but successful missionary endeavors of both Eastern and Western Christians in the Middle Ages certainly laid the foundation for Europe.
However externally successful, the Church constantly needed internal reform. Monasteries lost their integrity, bishops neglected their calling, priests flaunted their vows, and princes violated the central precepts of God’s law. To read reformers, such as St. Odo ofCluny in the 10th century, the Church had lost her way and needed the radical renewal evident in the High Middle Ages—the feudal world of chivalry, cathedrals and crusades, of universities and mendicant monastic orders, of saints and scholars such as St. Francis ofAssisi and St. Thomas Aquinas. Dawson surveys and documents the rich cultural life of this Medieval world, arguing (much like Henry Adams in Mont St. Michel and Chartres) that it was one of the finest epochs in human history. “It finds an almost perfect literary expression in Dante’s epic, and it was embodied in visible form in the great French cathedrals. But, above all, it found supreme expression in the philosophic systems of the thirteenth century—those great ‘cathedrals of ideas’, as Professor Gilson has called them, in which all the acquisitions of Aristotle and Arabic science have been organically incorporated with the Christian tradition in an intelligible unity” (p. 197). And it was fueled by fervent religious faith—a faith. Henry Adams declared, more powerful than the 19th century’s electric dynamos. Inevitably, the rich cultural synthesis in the Medieval World declined and dissipated. Reforming orders lost their zeal and wandered into the labyrinth of “ecclesiastical power politics” (p. 215).
Scholasticism lost its intellectual resiliency amidst overly rational speculation and increasingly skeptical nominalism. “This tragic crisis of the medieval spirit,” Dawson says, “is reflected in the greatest literary achievement of that age, the Divina Commedia of Dante. Nowhere can we find a more perfect expression of the power and the glory of the medieval cultural achievement which reached from Heaven to Hell and found room for all the knowledge and wisdom and all the suffering and aggressiveness of medieval humanity in its all-embracing vision of judgment. Yet at the same time it is a most drastic indictment of the medieval Church” (p. 216).
To Dawson, the grandeur of Western Culture, best displayed in the Medieval World, “is not to be found in the external order they created or attempted to create, but in the internal change they brought about in the soul of Western man—a change which can never be entirely undone except by the total negation or destruction of Western man himself (p. 224). Most importantly, that world exemplified “moments of vital fusion between a living religion and a living culture are the creative events in history, in comparison with which all the external achievements in the political and economic orders are transitory and insignificant” (p.224).