History occupies a different position in the modern world than it once did. Since roughly the French Revolution, large swaths of the West have made liberation from the past a conscious project. And because out civilization depends heavily on technology, we have grown accustomed to the notion that what is old—bursts of nostalgia notwithstanding—is gone beyond recall. If you bought your computer, for instance, just a few years ago, it probably crashes more often than not and refuses to run the programs you most need. The human past, of course, is a far different thing. But through some deep affinity, the spirits of liberation and technology have functioned for more than a century to make it appear that what comes to us from our forbears is to be debunked and overcome rather than understood and cherished.
Disentangling the real achievements of the modern from its dangerous destructiveness is not an easy task. None of us would want to go back to the material poverty, medical practices, or authoritarian governments of the not-so-distant past. In that sense, we have taken definite steps forward and may hope that such progress will continue. But in terms of the essential human things—our sense of right and wrong, our relationship with God and nature, and our ongoing effort to create a more human community—we are probably on a lower level than our grandparents and great-grandparents. We do not leave behind Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, or St. Theresa of Avila. Their achievements are so great that we turn to them again and again, because few people in human history reach such heights.
The Saint Austin Press in England has just reissued Christopher Dawson’s The Spirit of the Oxford Movement together with the brief essay “Newman’s Place in History,” which, in its own way, tries to sort out some of these questions. Dawson, of course, was a very sophisticated and powerful Catholic historian, who still has a passionate following among people who know that ideas have real-world consequences. But he never ran to the opposite extreme of thinking that the past was merely to be preserved against all contemporary forces or to be mined in order to defend certain things in the present. We turn to the past for what it has to say in itself, he argues, and often enough it reveals to us riches that we cannot find in our immediate surroundings: “Thus history is not unlike Dante’s journey through the other world. If we enter deeply into a spiritual epoch like that of the Oxford Movement, we find ourselves in the presence of men whose spirits still live and have the power to move us.”
The Spirit of the Oxford Movement deals with a now little-known episode in Anglican history: the attempt by a gifted group of English Christians to rescue their church from the growing forces of theological liberalism, which would lead, as they foresaw, to apostasy from the classical understanding of the faith. Largely under John Henry Newman’s leadership, they began issuing “Tracts for the Times” in an effort to galvanize a public movement against modernizing trends in the Anglican Church. Some of the “Tractarians,” like Newman, ended up in Rome; others found ways to justify their ongoing commitment to classical Anglicanism.
Dawson drew deeply on Newman in his own advance toward conversion, and there is a rich mingling of spirits in this text, which was written in 1933 for the centenary of the Oxford Movement. The historian was both by temperament and style deeply akin to his great predecessor. Somehow he is able to be both gentle and fair to all parties, while remaining incisive about everything he touches. To follow Dawson through this thicket of men and movements is to come into contact with a remarkably deep and capacious spirit. Not surprisingly, Dawson thought of this work as among the very few he was most proud of having written.
This history deliberately stops in the middle of the story, at the point where the main outlines of the movement have been clearly drawn and before some of the many actors depart for Catholicism. Dawson’s ability to discern the different temperaments and gifts of the various players in the story is remarkable in itself, but his capacity to see the various positions—Protestant and Catholic—in the larger sweep of intellectual and social history is nothing short of dazzling.
The main figures of the movement—John Keble, Hurrell Froude, Newman, and Pusey—were divided over various matters. Froude, an energetic and charismatic man, was attracted to medievalism and Rome. Keble and the early Protestant Newman, though much influenced by Fronde, thought that both Rome and the Reformers had departed from the true faith; in their view, Catholicism had added to the gospel, while Protestantism had subtracted from it. Their solution was to turn to the early Church fathers and the great early Anglican divines as offering a middle way—the Via Media. But although this compromise satisfied the essentially pietist mind of a man like Keble, who had refused an Oxford career to remain loyal to the living Christianity of his own family, for Newman the middle way turned out to be no way at all.
Yet while the great leaders of the Oxford Movement were divided on many matters, they were united on some central issues, Dawson says: “They all stood for Authority and Tradition against Liberalism, for Supernaturalism against Rationalism and Naturalism.” Dawson sums this up in some broad and brilliant strokes reminiscent of the great Oxfordians themselves. At stake, he believed, was the “spiritual identity of Christianity,” which was starting to be watered-down by political attempts to invite as many people into the state church as possible and by sheer modernist rebellion: “To the true Modernist, man is the measure of all things and the spirit of the age is the spirit of God.”
The battle at Oxford is all the more remarkable, Dawson says, because it anticipated what was to come later on the continent: “For the Tractarians the enemy was already within the camp, seventy years before the same thing occurred within the Catholic Church.” In their own way, Keble and Froude were saying in the 1830s what Pius IX would assert in the 1860 Syllabus of Errors.
The Oxford Movement succeeded in reforming Anglican liturgy but failed in its larger task of reinvigorating authentic belief—as today’s Church of England amply demonstrates. In some ways, their defeat was inevitable. When we look at all the forces arrayed against the faith in the modern world—the now-established traditions of utilitarianism and liberalism that appear to block any attempt to turn to the perennial truths of the gospel—the future may look quite bleak.
But like John Paul II, Dawson regards these challenges as offering opportunities—and the history of Christian reaction from the Oxford Movement to the rebirth of Catholicism that began with Leo XIII gives reason for hope: “It is clear that Catholicism possessed a principle of life and spiritual development of which the world had been completely unaware, and it was not until the Church was brought into sharp opposition with the spirit of the age and was increasingly threatened by the domination of a completely secular culture that its intrinsic power of regeneration and growth was manifested.”
That living display of hope is one reason we turn to good history.