Modern Pioneers: Christopher Dawson
When noted eighteenth-century scholar Edward Gibbon studied the history of civilization, he concluded, "As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear, without surprise or scandal, that the introduction, or at least the abuse, of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire."
When Christopher Dawson examined the same subject about 150 years later, in Progress and Religion: An Historical Inquiry, he came to the opposite conclusion: "The secularization of a society involves the devitalization of that society. …[T]he passing of a religion is not a sign of progress but a token of social decay."
Dawson became one of the twentieth century's most forceful defenders of Christianity and western culture. In response to sentiments like William Butler Yeats's famous quote, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold," Dawson offered a vision of transcendent unity through faith—specifically the faith of the Roman Catholic church.
Henry Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was born into a pious Anglo-Catholic family whose roots rested securely in the English gentry. Following a childhood plagued by illness and a year or so at the great public school at Winchester, he was placed under the tutelage of an Anglican parson for university preparation. During this period, Dawson met Edward Watkins, another high church Anglican, who entered Trinity College, Oxford, with him and whose personal religious pilgrimage would greatly influence Dawson's own.
While at Oxford, Dawson regularly attended Anglo-Catholic religious services, even though he was not a member of the "spikes" (university slang for high churchmen). Then Watkins converted to Roman Catholicism, and Dawson made a cultural pilgrimage to Italy. Around the same time, Dawson fell in love Valery Mills, a Catholic. All of these experiences conspired to seal his own conversion to Catholicism in 1909.
Physically unfit for active service in World War I, Dawson served in the Admiralty Intelligence Division. He worked briefly for the Conservative Party and continued his education in Sweden under a prominent economist.
In 1916 Dawson married Mills, with whom he had three children. He settled down to country living and the writing of history. He received some financial support from his family, and he periodically gave lecture series at universities, but Dawson was one of a rare breed of scholars who make a living without being tethered to an academic institution.
When Dawson visited Rome, on Easter Sunday, 1909, he conceived the idea of writing a great cultural history. "I believe it is God's will I should attempt it," he wrote in his diary.
In 1928, he fulfilled his Easter pledge with his first major work, The Age of the Gods. In the 1930s he published St. Augustine and His Age, Christianity and the New Age, The Making of Europe, Enquiries into into Religion and Culture, Religion and the Modern State, and other studies of religion, history, and culture.
During World War II he wrote for several journals, including the prestigious Dublin Review and T.S. Eliot's The Criterion.
At the close of the decade, he published two of his best books, Religion and Culture and Religion and the Rise of the West. In 1958, his scholarly prestige peaked when he was invited to become the first Stillman Guest Lecturer of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard. Two books, The Formation of Christendom and The Dividing of Christendom, were gleaned from these lectures.
While in America, he attempted to initiate a course of study in Christian culture at Notre Dame, but his health was declining. He returned to England, where he died on the feast of St. Bede (May 25) in 1970.
The center holds
Dawson's theory that religious culture lies at the heart of civilization is based on his intense belief in the innate spiritual intuition of human beings—an instinct for the divine that is universal among our species. Indeed, history is the product of the interaction between man and God, that subtle communion in which we apprehend spiritual truth and attempt to integrate it into our material and imperfect world.
"In all ages the first creative works of culture are due to religious inspiration and dedicated to a religious end," Dawson wrote. All religions struggle toward spiritual truth, but only Christianity has achieved the ultimate breakthrough in understanding. The purpose of redemption is to reclaim not just the individual, but all of history: "it is a universal, cosmic change—the life of the world to come."
Dawson's thought centers on the Incarnation, God's personal entrance into history to redeem and perfect his creation, and on the Resurrection. He wrote, "The history of the human race hinges on this unique divine event which gives spiritual unity to the entire historical process."
As a Roman Catholic, Dawson placed great value on spiritual continuity. He believed that there must be an uninterrupted agent of the divine in history. Also, like many medievalists, he had great difficulty when he arrived at the twin disruptions of Martin Luther and John Calvin.
Dawson dismisses Luther as a theological lightweight and a tool of German nationalism. Calvin, on the other hand, he takes seriously as an intellectual and the founder of a new "iron discipline" that follows a logical, if incorrect, vision of human history.
Dawson deemed Protestant culture sincere, but impoverished when compared with Catholicism: "The sermon took the place of the liturgy. Bible reading took the place of religious art and symbolism; the communal character of the medieval festivals and pilgrimages was replaced by an individualistic type of piety, which was, however, very different from that of the medieval hermit and ascetic."
Of his many contributions to Christian History, Dawson's observations on his own times may be the most useful. He consistently identified nationalism, secularism, and materialism as the enemies of Christian culture. Thus he decried not only Marxism, but also bourgeois capitalism, and declared that if Communism had failed as a replacement for the Christian vision of history, then so had classical liberalism.
His refusal to embrace the modern secular state and its capitalist order made it difficult for many American conservatives to embrace him, although he was, beyond question, the ultimate cultural conservative.
In spite of his doubts about modern society, Dawson's thought is hopeful, because the kingdom of God continues its unfolding. Invested in a real communion of saints in heaven and on earth, the relationship between man and God proceeds toward its glorious fulfillment in this world and beyond.
Caroline T. Marshall is professor of history at James Madison University.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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