As one of the premier Catholic historians in this century, Christopher Dawson sought to rehabilitate both the history of salvation and religion in Europe. Strongly embraced by conservatives today, Dawson was considered an innovative scholar among his peers. Even after Dawson’s conversion in 1919, his interdisciplinary approach to history stirred controversy among Catholic scholars. Dawson drew on the emerging disciplines of anthropology and sociology to construct a fresh interpretation of the Christian past and incorporated popular culture and art into his historical analysis.
Dawson wrote with two different audiences in mind. He sought both to displace the bankrupt Victorian and Edwardian liberalism of his own day and to shake the complacency of his coreligionists who preferred to bask in the quickly fading light of false medievalism. His carefully crafted prose revealed a nuanced and original understanding of Western history.
To combat “scientific” theories of progress, Dawson argued that every civilization relies on those who most fully represent its ideals and shape the culture through their actions. Dawson maintained that “history is at once aristocratic and revolutionary. It allows the whole world situation to be suddenly transformed by the action of a single individual.” It is this dynamic historical process that is fatal to a secular understanding of religious approaches to history. In the words of Edmund Burke that Dawson quoted with approval, at times a “common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn have changed the face of the future and almost of Nature.” To the Christian, this understanding of historical development permits interpretation of past events in the light of divine will and spiritual forces that may be unknown even to the actors themselves.
Dawson set out for himself the task of explaining the twofold nature of Christian history: while the Christian faith embodies eternal values and the teachings of God, it nevertheless transforms utterly the cultures it contacts. When the Christian faith enters into a culture, as when it first burst upon an over-civilized and jaded Rome, it begins a spiritual regeneration that affects not only the material, external culture, but the interior constitution of its members. In an essay entitled “The Christian View of History,” Dawson wrote:
For the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is not simply a theophany—a revelation of God to Man; it is a new creation—the introduction of a new spiritual principle which gradually leavens and transforms human nature into something new. The history of the human race hinges on this unique divine event which gives meaning to the whole historical process.
This new, world-transforming history overthrows its rivals, whether the Greek idea of an endless series of repeating cycles or the spiritless homogeneity of the “postmodern” era. The Incarnation gives shape to history and supplies a beginning, a middle, and an end: “the Christian view of history is a vision of history sub specie aeternitatis, an interpretation of time in terms of eternity and of human events in the light of divine revelation.” This concentration on the physical substance of the Christian faith was a conscious counterweight to overly aesthetic theories of Christianity, such as the “super-Christianity” of Matthew Arnold, for example, which reduced the force of religious belief to a set of humanistic nostrums.
The figures whom Dawson chose to study highlight his interest in the transformative power of the Christian faith: St. Augustine, who formed Christian thought out of the ruins of the old world order; St. Thomas Aquinas, whose reception of the Greek-Arabic body of scientific knowledge created a new movement in Western thinking without compromising its integrity; and St. Ignatius Loyola, who inaugurated a new spirituality to confront the challenges of the Reformation. Dawson saw the present age as one similar to that of Augustine or Ignatius, and in need of saints who have the vision to lead the faithful into the next era. The Western world, he thought, was facing another of its “cultural discontinuities” that displace the old order and usher in a new social reality. The question that remained, for Dawson as for Eliot, was whether this new era was to be Christian or a “new civilization which recognizes neither moral laws nor human rights.”
Dawson wished first to reassert the importance of a millennium of Christian belief to modern history. It is not necessary to be a Christian to recognize that Christianity has played a profound role in shaping European culture and that “there is no aspect of European life which has not been profoundly affected” by that faith. Dawson sought to counter the skeptics of his day who saw in Christianity at best a series of moral tales (and at worst mere pretexts) that had no lasting influence on Western social practice or political arrangements. This aspect of his writings won him many admirers, including T. S. Eliot and Arnold Toynbee.
A more basic issue for Dawson was the nature of the history to be taught once the importance of Christianity to Western history became established. In 1960 Dawson noted the rise during the previous decades of an extreme nationalism among the nations of Europe, a development that led “every European people to insist on what distinguished it from the rest, instead of what united it with them.” This undue stress on national differences has been coupled with a denial of the spiritual foundations of European unity. We do not need to look far to see that nationalist and ethnic violence continue to threaten Europe and that the “wall of separation” remains as high as ever in the nations of the West.
Dawson’s commitment to recover the moral basis of Christian society is an ambitious one. In a late work, Understanding Europe, Dawson describes the task in this way:
If we are to make the ordinary man aware of the spiritual unity out of which all the separate activities of our civilization have arisen, it is necessary in the first place to look at Western civilization as a whole and to treat it with the same objective appreciation and respect which the humanists of the past devoted to the civilization of antiquity.
In contrast to a nation centered view of European history, Dawson advocated the study of Europe as a cultural whole, united by a common faith and moral standards. He focuses on Europe, but includes the other non-Western Christian societies, such as North Africa and the Orthodox churches. His point, in essence, is a simple one. One cannot understand the whole by studying only the parts, and if the whole is forgotten or explained away as unimportant, we condemn ourselves to ignorance. Dawson saw much of Europe’s difficulty arising either out of a loss of historical memory, as in Dawson’s own England, or from the Nazi and communist attempts to make Christianity into a stage along the road of Aryan domination or the classless society.
Dawson contended that it was precisely the gap between Christian principles and their realization that provides the drama of European history, a position that caused some tensions with more traditional Catholic historians. Drawing on St. Augustine, Dawson saw the conflict between the City of God and the City of Man in every age, from the simple dualism between Christian civilization and barbarism in the pages of Bede to the sharp inner tensions seen in the writings of Pascal. Although recognizing its divisiveness, Dawson had kind words for the reformers’ zeal for the Gospel, as it provided an impetus for a reinterpretation of the Catholic faith that gave rise to the Baroque era and the great works of the counterreformation.
In a passage evocative of contemporary problems, Dawson described the fundamental challenge to Christian culture as “the revolt against the moral process of Western culture and the dethronement of the individual conscience from its dominant position at the heart of the cultural process.” The medieval insight concerning the central importance of the rationality and freedom of the individual personality, an insight that is a hallmark of Western thought, is in danger of being overwhelmed by a reabsorption of the individual person to a collective identity, whether it be based upon nationality, ethnicity, or gender.
When Western society no longer emphasizes moral effort and personal responsibility, Dawson questions the very survival of civilization as Christendom has known it for a thousand years. Modernity is not merely a return to a pre-Christian paradise, as some New Age adherents would claim; rather, it is a sudden wrenching of the course of history. Instead of a slow reversal of the past millennium, Dawson says, “Neo-paganism jumps out of the top-story window, and whether one jumps out of the right-hand window or the left makes very little difference by the time one reaches the pavement.”
It was the Christian synthesis of freedom and community that made modern democracy and political liberty possible, a relation that was not well understood by the dominant Whig school of history in his day nor by the various critical theories of our own. Glenn Olsen has pointed out that Dawson’s position implies that some components of Catholic thought came to fruition only after the Middle Ages, which was a sure departure from his contemporary Catholic history.
Dawson’s understanding of the achievement of Christianity in creating a stable social structure based upon free membership in a spiritual supranational community is crucial. The extensive treatment of other cultures and their relationship with Christianity provided by Dawson is a model of a proper “multicultural” approach. As James Hitchcock has noted, it is ironic that the Catholic intellectuals who showed a deep respect for and sensitivity toward other cultures have been largely forgotten in this post–Vatican II age.
Dawson wrote a number of important essays and studies of these non-Western and non-Christian cultures and their relationship with the West. Dispensing with the simplistic notion of Western superiority that he thought marred the work of other historians, Dawson chose to dwell instead on the historical record. Put simply, it was the process of European exploration and discovery that shattered the relative isolation of the other world cultures and that brought every people into an international community of nations. This is a reflection of Europe’s missionary character, a character that arises out of a sense of itself as the bearer of a universal and timeless message. Dawson does not dispute the baser reasons for Europe’s expansion, but states that critics of colonialism and economic exploitation cannot “deny the existence of the Western missionary movement as a real factor in colonial expansion, nor even [can they] identify the two elements and regard the missionary as an agent of capitalism.”
In his statements on colonialism and the relations of the West to the world, we see again Dawson’s dual strategy. To other Europeans who seek to diminish the force of the Christian faith in the West, he presents the full historical record to give Christianity its due. To his fellow Catholics, Dawson supplies the reminder that there has been no perfect “Christian” society, only societies more or less devoted to the principles of the Gospel.
The contemporary value of Dawson’s work lay in this recognition and explication of the continuing mission of the Church to use the present world situation of increased communication and ease of travel to bring about a new evangelization and to fill the great spiritual need that exists alongside of great wealth and technological advances. As Dawson wrote in The Movement of World Revolution (1959), they must fulfill the Church’s “universal mission to bring the Gospel of Christ to all nations.” He would be in full agreement with Pope John Paul II’s call to build a “Civilization of Love” and would perhaps recognize in the pope a present-day Augustine or Aquinas attempting to develop a new synthesis between the immense growth in human knowledge in the past century and Christianity.
During his own lifetime, Dawson supported the social teaching of the Church, which altered the traditional European tension between Church and state to the more important relationship between religion and culture. As Father Joseph Koterski, S.J., has written, the efforts of the papacy, as represented in a document like Dignitatis Humanae, are “an effort to ready the Church for the struggles of the next century and the new millennium, with a better vision than any current political regime or national culture shows.” As early as 1942, Dawson discerned this shift in papal emphasis and himself announced a commitment to religious freedom as an essential step to the restoration of all things under the universal kingship of Christ.
The Church, by pressing ahead of secular regimes—even those of the West—in its defense of human rights and the inherent dignity of the human person, is preparing for a new stage of Christian culture, with new forms of Christian life. The body of work produced by Christopher Dawson gives us a glimpse of the possibilities.