Friday, December 03, 2004

To Tear Down and to Build Up: Christianity and the Subversive Forces in Western Civilization

by James Hitchcock

Taken from Christianity and Western Civilization. Christopher Dawson's Insight: Can a Culture Survive the Loss of Its Religious Roots?

Christianity was born when the Roman Empire was at its peak, and it is an appropriate paradox that, as the faith spread throughout the Empire, it both helped to subvert the long Roman hegemony and at the same time to preserve what was best in it. For Christopher Dawson, perhaps the most penetrating student of the relationship of religion and culture who has ever written, this paradox could be taken to sum up the entire role of the Church within history.

In many significant ways the Church simply replaced the Empire as the imperial structure fell away in the West. Bishops like Ambrose in Milan functioned as local leaders of a universal community which was now spiritual in nature rather than political but still offered men a sense of the ultimate unity of the human race. [1] The Church condemned what was sinful in the classical world, struggled to preserve what was valuable, and above all brought about a spiritual recovery which made a new synthesis of religion and culture possible.

In this as in so many other ways, Augustine of Hippo was a theologian whose influence could scarcely be exaggerated, including among other things nothing less than the first real Christian effort to see meaning in history, a discovery which freed Christians from both a nostalgic longing for a dead order and from an escape to a wholly mythical and atemporal world. As the Empire collapsed, the Church wed itself to the future of civilization and gladly accepted the burden of rebuilding. History became the unfolding of the divine plan, governed by a universal order of reason, the beginning of the Kingdom of God which will never be adequately realized on earth. The Church now offered an alternative to the servile state, and it rendered moral freedom possible by depriving the state of its divine character while at the same time undergirding it with religious and moral purpose.

In The Making of Europe, [2] one of Dawson's best known books, which has perhaps been more widely read than any of the others, he summarized the creative role of the Church in a sweeping way never before attempted by any other historian, showing in particular how the Church provided the West with a sense of unity which the Empire had provided only inadequately, including now a strong sense of spiritual purpose.

But this creative role was made possible only by the acceptance of martyrdom, and it was the martyrs' example above all which conveyed to mankind the spiritual power of the Gospel, victory in defeat, strength in weakness. The Church was the only community within the Roman Empire which could not be absorbed by the all-encompassing state, even as it was impervious to the religious syncretism pervasive in the ancient world. The Church was not ultimately implicated in the fall of Rome, no matter how many catastrophes followed on that fall.

The monks, whose vocation was at one time thought of as a kind of bloodless martyrdom, became the most powerful spiritual leaders of the new age, confronting the barbarians — those brutal warriors who had directly subverted the Empire in the most ferocious way possible — with a power they could not fully comprehend but to which they ultimately bowed. St. Boniface in particular united Teutonic initiative and energy with the Roman sense of order, thus laying the foundations for what is now called the Middle Ages.

Although later generations tend to recall the "civilizing" mission of the monks of the Dark Ages, Dawson pointed out that they conceived their mission first of all in terms of judgment, pronouncing the power of God over sinners, and it was this spiritual toughness which made a new civilization possible. The monks themselves, having submitted to the hard discipline of their rule, could manifest to the world examples of viable human communities which were both free and regulated. [3]

The new synthesis which the Church produced from the ashes of the Empire was indeed long-lasting and, despite numerous crises during the Middle Ages, came to an end only with the Protestant Reformation, more than a millenium after Augustine had laid the foundations of Christendom.

The "subversion" by the Reformers was once again overt, involving as it did a direct assault on the spiritual authority of the Church and even a physical assault on the major manifestations of Christian civilization, such as churches and monasteries. Characteristically, Dawson concentrated not so much on formal doctrine as the chief issue of the sixteenth century but on such things as the destruction of religious art and above all the rejection of monasticism, the institution by which the Church had embodied its supernatural character in visible organized form. [4]

Noting that Martin Luther was a man of many books, running to many thousands of pages, while Ignatius Loyola was a man of only one, and that scarcely a book at all, Dawson pointed out how the incisive simplicity of the Spiritual Exercises exactly met the needs of the age for a new kind of Catholicism which was at the same time wholly orthodox. Ignatius began with a program for the spiritual revitalization of individuals, which in time became a program for the recovery of the entire Church. [5]

Throughout there is little theology, and no intellectual discussion. It is a direct appeal to the will, based on one spiritual axiom, and to the imagination stimulated by the contemplation of the life of Christ. But this was sufficient to change men's lives and to bring about far-reaching changes in society and culture. [6]

Above all there could be no question of their [the Jesuits'] orthodoxy. Yet he [Ignatius] was not precisely a reactionary or a traditionalist. He had no prejudice against new methods or new ideas. Indeed he was the first to break with the age-old tradition of the community singing or recitation of the office by religious communities, and similarly all external rules and practices were reduced by him to a minimum. Everything was designed to make the Society of Jesus as flexible and united as possible, so that it would be free to turn its energies in whatever direction they were needed. [7]

But the ultimate recovery of the Church from the low point of the early sixteenth century was in Dawson's view the creation of Baroque culture, which reinvigorated the historic synthesis of classicism and Christianity, gave free rein to the human imagination in the service of God, and countered Protestantism at precisely those points where it had attacked the Church most forcefully — its baptism of culture through the medium of the arts. [8]

It was rather that the whole spirit of the culture was passionate and ecstatic, and finds its supreme expression in the art of music and in religious mysticism....The bourgeiose culture has the mechanical rhythm of a clock, the Baroque the musical rhythm of a fugue or sonata.....the Baroque spirit lives in and for the triumphant moment of creative ecstasy. It will have all or nothing. [9]

The brilliant and devout Baroque culture was itself subverted rather quickly, notably by the French royal court which tamed it and used it for political purposes. This later made possible the Enlightenment, an intellectual subversion of Christianity which in its turn directly prepared the way for the brutal frontal assault on the Church which was the French Revolution. By l800, however, Western Christianity had lost most of its intellectual and artistic creativity, and it experienced a notable revival in the early nineteenth century mainly because of its survival among the common people, who were little affected by Enlightenment ideas and inclined if anything to be affronted by the excesses of the Revolution. Among them too the attractive power of martyrdom was formidable. [10]

The revival of religion which followed the French Revolution was not confined to any one country or to any single Church. It was common to the Latin and Germanic peoples and to Catholic and Protestant countries. Indeed it made itself felt far beyond the limits of organized Christianity and imparted a religious tendency to social and intellectual movements of the most diverse kinds, even though they were apparently in revolt against everything orthodox and traditional, either in the sphere of religion or of morals. Christianity ... was brought back to the court and the salon, and even those who rejected it no longer did so in the contemptuous and cocksure manner of the man of the Enlightenment.

This revival of belief in religion, or at least a respect for religion, is the more remarkable when we contrast it with the external losses which religion had suffered during the preceding period. In sheer material destruction of monasteries and churches, in confiscation of property and abrogation of privileges, the Age of the Revolution far surpassed that of the Reformation; it was in fact a second Reformation, but a frankly anti-religious one.

Yet the very violence of the storm revealed the strength of those religious forces which the eighteenth century had ignored. The persecution itself did much to restore the prestige of religion and of the clergy by investing them with the halo of martyrdom ... Thus the Revolution, which was the child of the Enlightenment, also proved to be its destroyer. [11]

But the religious revival which occured after the defeat of Napoleon also paved the way for perhaps the most seductive subversion which Christianity has yet experienced, a subversion whose process is still operative today, and one which many Christians cannot even recognize. Nineteenth-century liberalism in effect established a new creed, much of it based on the moral teachings of Christianity, even as social custom in the West came to support religion of some vague and bland kind, so that it was possible for the well-meaning individual to regard genuine Christianity as almost synonomous with enlightened citizenship, a temptation rendered all the more attractive by the material prosperity which capitalism created, which was itself ratified by the doctrine of progress, understood now in a wholly secular sense. [12]

Dawson began his intellectual career shortly after the First World War, and by then the collapse of this seductive liberalism had already become apparent. Faith in progress had eroded, and it was no longer possible to believe that science would of itself insure a better future. Liberal idealism was in retreat, having undermined the very moral foundations on which it rested. At the same time Dawson cautioned Christians not to rejoice in the decline of nineteenth-century humanitarianism, since the Church is not indifferent to the movement of history. Much that was good was being lost. [13]

In reality Christianity creates the motive power — spiritual will — on which all true progress must ultimately rest. Without this spiritual foundation all progress in knowledge or wealth only extends the range of human suffering, and the possibilities of social disorder. All the great movements, which have built up modern secular civilization, have been more or less vitiated by this defect ... The only final escape for humanity from this heartbreaking circle of false starts and frustrated hopes is through the conquest of the world by charity — the coming of the Kingdom of God. [14]

The period between the world wars saw the rise of totalitarianisms of both the right and the left, and in some ways this dominated Dawson's formative years as a student of history. In his view such totalitarianism was virtually inevitable once a civilization had lost its soul. [15] Christianity was locked into a struggle with Marxism particularly, because both claimed to understand and to value history. [16]

But the obvious threats which the dictatorships posed to the Church were in some ways less dangerous than those of the democratic states, precisely because of the inconspicuousness of the latter. As early as the l920's Dawson was beginning to see that even the liberal states were moving towards a kind of totalitarianism, which he defined not as dictatorship but as mass consciousness and mass organization. The most dangerous form of this subversion of Christian beliefs had been accepted even by many Christians because it was so taken for granted — the state's monopoly over education. The Church could endure persecution but could not surrender its right to teach, Dawson insisted. Yet the Church was being crushed by the universal welfare state that would absorb all the Church's secondary functions. [17]

One of Dawson's most brilliant insights into the nature of the problem was his l930 analysis of what was later called the Sexual Revolution. The Church, he noted, had reestablished the family in the post-classical age, but had placed it on a far more solid foundation than the Romans had done. In the nineteenth century, however, family life had been all but destroyed by the forces of industrialization. Sex itself had come to be glorified, and had been severed from the idea of procreation. The result was an unthinking popular hedonism, a situation in which the state was able to control and dominate the family, which no longer had a firm sense of its own identity. Dawson, writing before the modern age of officially promoted contraception, even predicted accurately the way in which the older population strains in Europe and America would cease to reproduce themselves and would give way to migrant peoples. [18] In a memorable phrase at another time, Dawson contrasted two different kinds of totalitarianism — castor oil and concentration camps versus free milk and contraceptives. [19]

The true way of spiritualizing sex is not to idealise our emotions and to hide physical appetite under a cloud of sentiment, but rather to bring our sexual life into relation with a more universal reality. The romantic idealization of passion and the rationalist attempt to reduce love to the satisfaction of physical desire, alike fail to create that permanent basis of sexual life which can only be found in a spiritual order which transcends the appetites and the self-will of the individual. It is only when a man accepts marriage as something greater than himself, a sacred obligation to which he must conform himself, that he is able to realize all his spiritual and social possibilities. [20]

As in the waning days of the Roman Empire, the Church was in the paradoxical position, according to Dawson, of seeking to redeem the very society which was subverting its beliefs, and indeed the Church was the only force capable of bringing about such a redemption, through its universalism, its spirituality, and its profound understanding of human nature. [21]

Thus Christianity, more than any other religion, is characterized by its doctrine of spiritual renewal and regeneration. It stands for the restoration or transformation of human nature in Christ — in other words the creation of a new humanity. This great central truth has been obscured and often forgotten by the religious individualism of the last two or three centuries, which conceived salvation as a happy after-life to be attained by pious individuals as the reward of their moral perfection, or their religious practices. But the Christian idea of salvation is essentially social. [22]

At times Dawson believed that the future of Christianity in the West looked optimistic, noting for example the Catholic intellectual revival which seemed to show that the Church was "returning from the desert." [23] Communication between the Church and modern culture was not completely blocked, he thought, and the anti-religious movements might provoke an opposite reaction. [24] The City of God is always stronger than it looks, as the City of Man is weaker. [25] In the world after l945 he detected a return to "corporate" ways of thinking, such as myth and ritual, which might be the basis for a genuine religious revival. [26]

But even in his optimistic moments Dawson was sceptical of some of the obvious ways of rechristianizing culture. There could no longer be such a thing as a Catholic society, he thought, and religiously based political parties were also not a solution. Clerical politics was ill-advised, since historically prelates (Cardinals Wolsey and Richelieu, for example) had been among the worst betrayers of the Church's interests. [27] At the same time the modern popes, especially Pius XII, had outlined a comprehensive theory of society based on the idea of a natural law binding on all peoples across cultural, political, and even religious lines. [28]

Throughout most of his career Dawson's view of the United States was negative, a logical deduction from his diagnosis of unfettered greed and unfettered technology as the causes of most of the problems of the modern world. By the l950's, however, he had begun to notice signs of spiritual vitality in this country, based on its religious heritage and its tradition of religious freedom. Both those traditions had made American religion too individualistic and subjective, however, and American Catholics had failed to use their freedom in effective ways. But the United States remained a society of considerable promise, he finally concluded. [29]

He was led to that judgment partly by closer familiarity with American society, including a term teaching at Harvard University, but even more by his gradual estimate that the best practical solution to the spiritual crisis of the West was the systematic study of "Christian Culture," a task at which even Catholic colleges and universities (most of which were in the United States) had not done well. Such an approach could put students in touch with their spiritual roots, and thus prepare them for a transforming role in society, and could even persuade non-believers to recognize that those roots were indeed Christian and had to be respected. This controversial proposal resulted in one of Dawson's best known and enduring books, The Crisis of Western Education.

To survey today the great sweep of Western Christian history which Christopher Dawson did so much to illuminate is to reach the melancholy conclusion that virtually all the historical factors which served the cause of religion in the past are now absent. The religious orders which served as models of ordered communities in the Dark Ages are now themselves often models of demoralized disorder. There are few missionaries, and some of those have serious doubts about the legitimacy of their calling. Unlike the days of the Roman Empire, the state is not in decline but in fact moves precisely towards the kind of seductive totalitarianism which Dawson predicted. Political prelates remain as unreliable as ever. While there is no absence of Christian martyrs in various parts of the world, their existence seems often an embarrassment to Western Christians, who prefer to keep them out of sight. No great age of cultural creativity like that of the Baroque seems likely, and the masses of ordinary people, far from being repositories of an untroubled faith, are among the first victims of corrosive ideas spread through the mass media.

Yet Dawson, although he never tired of admonishing his fellow Christians to take history seriously and to realize that the Church seeks to transform culture, not to abandon it, also saw that the mystery of faith dictates that Christian fulfillment is often not discernible in history, and he also had words for a pessimistic time.

Even when he expressed belated admiration for American Catholicism, he pointed out that it had come into being almost entirely in the most recent period of church history (post-l850), which had essentially been an age of defeat. [30] Indeed much of Christian history has been lived as defeat, even as the early Christian offered the world "the Cross alone" but thereby called a new world into being. [31] Christians are pioneers of a new movement of world revolution, but its contours are hidden from them. [32] Totalitarianism can only be resisted on religious grounds, and Catholics alone are capable of getting in contact with their spiritual roots. [33] The modern Church is now in a situation like that of the early Church, although it is not at all certain that modern Christians are capable of the same spiritual heroism. [34]

In these grim times it may seem unreal to speak of the prospects of a new Christian order. But if Christianity is not suited to hard times, Christians have no right to speak at all. [35]

Christianity, on the other hand, offers no immediate panacea for the complex malady of the modern world. It has eternity before it, and it can afford to take its time. But for that very reason a Christian culture is potentially wider and more catholic than a secular one. It is God-centered, not man-centered, and it consequently changes the whole pattern of human life by setting it in a new perspective. [36]

The paradox of historic Christianity was that Christians who were indifferent to worldly results often turned out to be the guardians and servants of human life. [37] Christianity makes a difference in the world ultimately because Christians have knowledge of the world to come, which alters the entire focus of their understanding, revealing the end of life itself. [38] Christian principles do not "work" in any empirical sense, and often Christians lack knowledge even of the strategies they must use for the future. Christianity is not social reform but light in a dark place. [39]

Thus at various times in his life Dawson thought that an apocalyptic stance was appropriate, warning that persecution lay ahead [40], and, were he alive today, he would probably judge this to be such a time. The Church does not wait for solid foundations to be laid but sows its seeds broadcast, relying on the will of God in history. [41] Dawson's words at the beginning of World War II are if anything even more compelling fifty years later:

The Spirit blows through the world like wind and fire, driving the kingdoms before it, burning up the works of man like the dry grass, but the meaning of history is found not in the wind or the fire, but in the "small voice" of the Word which is never silent, ... but which cannot bear fruit unless man cooperates by an act of faith and spiritual obedience. This dynamic and prophetic element is an essential part of the Christian tradition, and it is present even in periods when the Church seemed bound to a fixed and changeless order ...

Today Christianity is implicated in history just as much as Israel was in the age of the prophets ... there is already a general realization that social and political issues have become spiritual issues — that the Church cannot abstain from intervention without betraying its mission ... it is not due to the advance of the Christian element in our civilization and the reconquest of the world for God. Quite the contrary. It is due to the invasion of the spiritual by the temporal, the triumphant self-assertion of secular civilization and of the secular state against the Church ... [42]

In the end even the greatest Catholic historian of culture could do no better than to remind us that history is always a tragedy and a failure whose meaning will be known only at the end of time [43], that the world is always ending, each end a rehearsal for the final end. [44]

For though the Church no longer inspires and dominates the external culture of the modern world, it still remains guardian of all the riches of its own inner life and is the bearer of a sacred tradition. If society were once again to become Christian, after a generation or two or ten or twenty generations, this sacred tradition would once more flow out into the world and fertilize the culture of societies yet unborn. Thus the movement toward Christian culture is at one and the same time a voyage into the unknown, in the course of which new worlds of human experience will be discovered, and a return to our own fatherland — the sacred tradition of the Christian past which flows underneath the streets and cinemas and skyscrapers of the new Babylon as the tradition of the patriarchs and prophets flowed beneath the palaces and amphitheaters of Imperial Rome. [45]


1. "St. Augustine and His Age," Enquiries into Religion and Culture (New York: Sheed and Ward, l937), pp. l98-258.
2. (New York: Sheed and Ward, l932.)
3. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (New York; Sheed and Ward, l950), pp. 29, 3l, 33, 43, 5l.
4. The Dividing of Christendom (New York: Sheed and Ward, l965), pp. 119-23.
5. Ibid., pp. l24-5.
6. Ibid., p. l25.
7. Ibid., p. l28.
8. Ibid., pp. l56-65; Progress and Religion (New York: Sheed and Ward, l929), p. l44; "Catholicism and the Bourgeoise Mind," The Dynamics of World History, ed John J. Mulloy (LaSalle, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, l978), p. 207; The Movement of World Revolution (New York: Sheed and Ward, l959), pp. 43-52
9. Dynamics, p. 207
10. Movement, pp. 52, 66; Progress, p l57; Beyond Politics (New York; Sheed and Ward, l939), p. 71; The Gods of Revolution (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, l972), pp. l29-45
11. Gods of Revolution, pp. l29-30, l32
12. Progress, pp. l49, l54, l57; "The End of an Age," The Criterion, IX, XXVIV (Apr., l930), pp. 390, 396; "The New Decline and Fall," The English Review, LIII (June — Dec., l93l), p. 4l6; Religion and the Modern State (New York: Sheed and Ward, l936), p. l33
13. Progress, pp. l72, l74, l78, l88, l93, 263; "General Introduction" to Essays in Order (New York: the Macmillan Co., l93l), Vols. l-3, pp. v, viii, xi; "End of Age," pp. 386, 390; "The Nature and Destiny of Man," Enquiries, p. 343; Religion and the Modern State, p. 64. "Hope and Culture," Lumen Vitae, IX, 3 (July-Sept., l954), pp. 427, 429
14. Enquiries, p. 343
15. "New Decline and Fall," pp. 4l3, 42l; "End of Age," p. 399; Religion and Modern State, pp. l, 8, 44; "Civilization in Crisis," The Catholic World, CLXXXII, l070 (Jan., l956), p. 248
16. Religion and Modern State, pp. 59, 73-84
17. Ibid., pp, 55, 57, l05-9, ll3; Beyond Politics, pp. 28, 68, 78, 92; "Religious Liberty and the New Political Forces," The Month, CLXXXIII, 955 (Jan.,l947), pp. 4l-4; Understanding Europe (New York: Sheed and Ward, l952), p. 24l; "The European Revolution," The Catholic World, CLXXIX, l070 (May, l954), p. 88; "Civilization in Crisis," pp. 25l-2; "The Challenge of Secularism," The Catholic World, CLXXXII, l09l (Feb., l956), p. 326; Movement, pp. 77-8
18. "Christianity And Sex," Enquiries, pp. 259-9l
19. Religion and Modern State, p. l08
20. Enquiries, p. 290
21. "The New Leviathan," Enquiries, p. l7; "General Introduction" to Essays in Order, pp. xvi, xx; "End of Age," p. 399; Religion and Modern State, pp. 97, l03, lll, l38, l40; Beyond Politics, pp. 2l, 23, 88; The Judgment of the Nations (New York: Sheed and Ward, l942), pp. l30, l44; Understanding Europe, pp. 22l, 227; "Spiritual Reconstruction: the Roman Catholic View," The Future of Faith, ed. Percy Carlson (London: Hurst and Blackwell, l942), p. 70
22. Judgment, pp.l30-l
23. "General Introduction" to Essays in Order, p. xvi
24. The Modern Dilemma (New York: Sheed and Ward, l933), pp. 99, l06; "Religion and Life," Enquiries, p. 299
25. Religion and Modern State, p. l52
26. Movement, p. 79
27. Judgment, pp. ll9, 206; Historic Reality of Christian Culture (New York: Sheed and Ward, l960), p. 42; Religion and Modern State, p. l22
28.Religion and Modern State, p. l30; Judgment, p. l64; "Foundations of European Order," The Catholic Mind, XLII, 977 (May, l944), p. 3l5; "Christian Unity and the New Order," The Sword of the Spirit, l3 (Jan. l8, l94l), p. 2; "Restoration of Natural Law," Ibid., 93 (May, l946), p. 2; "Spiritual Reconstruction," p.l.
29. "Christianity and Sex," p. 259; "Religious Liberty and New Forces," p. 45; "Catholics in the Modern World," The Tablet, CXCV, 5740 (May 27, l950), p. 4l9; "Dealing with the Enlightenment and Liberal Ideology," The Commonweal, LX, 6 (May l4, l954), p. l38; America and the Secularization of Modern Culture (Houston: University of St. Thomas, l960), pp. l6, l7, 22; "American Education and Christian Culture," American Benedictine Review, IX, l-2 (Spring-Summer, l958), p. 267; The Crisis of Western Education (New York: Sheed and Ward, l96l), pp. l09-ll
30. Historic Reality, p. 57
31. Religion and Modern State, p. ll9
32. Ibid,, p. l53
33. "Europe and Christendom," The Dublin Review, CCIX, 4l9 (Oct., l94l), p. ll8; Judgment, p. l84; "Foundations of Unity," p. l0
34. "Religious Liberty," p. 4l; "Hope and Culture," p. 430; "The Future of Christian Culture," The Commonweal, LIX, 24 (Mar. l9, l954), p. 598; Historic Reality, p. 85; Crisis of Education, p. l79
35. Judgment, p. l84
36. Crisis, p. l79
37. Historic Reality, p. 66
38. Religion and Modern State, pp. l23, l25
39. "The Tragedy of Christian Politics," The Sign, XVIII, l (Aug., l938), p. 8; Beyond Politics, p. 88; "The Christian View of History," Dynamics, pp. 237, 247, 250; Historic Reality, p. 25
40. "The Outlook for Christian Culture Today," Cross Currents, V, 2 (Spring, l955), pp. l32-3, l35-6; Movement, p. l02; Historic Reality, p. 25
41. "The Remaking of Europe," The Tablet, CLXVIII, 5004 (Apr. 4, l936), p. l46; "The Hour of Darkness," Ibid., CLXXIV, 5l95 (Dec. 2, l939), p. 625; "The Kingdom of God in History," Dynamics, pp. 270, 286
42. Judgment, pp. l52-3
43. "Kingdom of God," p. 286
44. "Tragedy of Christian Politics," p. l0
45. Historic Reality, pp. 29-30

Nature and Grace in the Character of Western Man

by Robert V. Young

Taken from Christianity and Western Civilization. Christopher Dawson's Insight: Can a Culture Survive the Loss of Its Religious Roots?

“I just don’t get it.” These are the plaintive words of syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman, and her chagrin arises from the persistent reports of unseemly sexual antics on the part of Senator Robert Packwood that were making the news toward the end of 1992. “1 don’t understand”, Ms. Goodman moans, “how a senator like Bob Packwood, who used his power to help women succeed as equals in public life, apparently also used his power to take advantage of them in private life.” She is so frustrated that an explanation is sought in amateur neurology: “What synapse misfires in a character who make[s] advances for women and then also makes ‘unwanted sexual advances’ on women? What part of the electrical system simply disconnects?” What is even more unsettling to the columnist is the observation, which she quotes from Constance Buchanan of the Harvard Divinity School, that “good guys do this all the time.” To paraphrase the title of a tawdry novel of some years ago, poor Ms. Goodman is, rather forlornly, looking for Mr. Good Guy. [1]

The status of “good guy” has been conferred upon Senator Packwood and his ilk largely because they are supporters of legalized abortion, although “Any number of women will attest to the fact”, Ms. Goodman avers, “that Packwood was genuinely supportive of their professional success.” Only in the hothouse world of contemporary feminism would anyone assume that a man’s willingness to help women procure abortions or make money would also indicate a tender regard for their dignity and delicacy of feeling. Abortion is, after all, chiefly a means of eliminating the unintended and inconvenient consequences of recreational eroticism; if a woman enjoys sufficient “professional success” to pay for her own—so much the better. Men who are avid supporters of equality for women are all too often little more than equal-opportunity adulterers.

Now the perplexity of an Ellen Goodman over what she perceives as the “contradictions” in the character of a man like Robert Packwood has implications that extend beyond the specific issue of abortion, beyond even the murky controversy over the proper relationship between the sexes. At stake is the nature of individual character and the mode in which it is constituted in relation to culture. The current confusion, not only in the popular media but also in the academy, over what makes a “good guy” grows out of a misapprehension about the interaction of character and culture and about the limits inherent in both. In book after book, Christopher Dawson emphasizes the uniquely dynamic nature of Western culture; that is, the capacity of European Christendom to develop in unforeseen ways and to extend itself throughout the world in recent centuries. “Western civilization has been the great ferment of change in the world,” Dawson writes, “because changing the world became an integral part of its cultural ideal.” [2] This factor of change is both the promise and the peril of Western culture, because it complicates the essential function of any culture as such:

But the real unity of culture is not to be found in blood or soil or economic class and function. Each of these factors has its importance, but none of them suffice[s] to explain the inner nature of a culture. In addition to all these elements of partial community, a culture is also a moral order and involves a community of values and standards which provide its internal or moral principle of unity. [3]

A culture that incorporates “change in the world” as a principle is, therefore, a daunting proposition in view of the central role that it plays in the moral unity of society.

The notion seems even more problematic when Dawson’s concept of the relation between culture and the individual person is taken into account:

Culture is the name which has been given to man’s social inheritance-to all that men have learnt from the past by the process of imitation, education and learning and to all that they hand on in like manner to their descendants and successors. And this involves all that man has and is. For if it were possible to separate an individual altogether from his culture and his social inheritance, he would be an idiot, living in a private world of formless feelings, but lower than the beasts, since he would no longer possess the guidance of instinct which is the basis of animal behavior. [4]

Given the moral idiocy that seems pervasive in the current American scene, one might infer that a mass alienation of individuals from their culture had occurred; and in fact such a description would not be wholly inaccurate. It seems that in contemporary Western society change has become virtually an end in itself, so that we have a kind of “anti-culture”, which negates the unitary purpose of culture as such. The result is that we are all, in some measure, “idiots”-estranged from our fellow citizens, uncertain of how to behave or what to believe, abandoned in a wilderness of meaninglessness.

It may be that we are witnesses to the disintegration of a culture and a moral order two thousand years and more in the making. It is no less true for being a truism that Western civilization represents the convergence of Athens and Jerusalem, of classical philosophy and Judaeo-Christian revelation, of nature and grace. As the privileged heir to this tradition, Western man has, for several centuries, tended to take it for granted and, more recently, to despise it altogether. We now confront a generation for many of whom the traditional culture of the West is simply incomprehensible. The dynamic character of Western culture, noted by Dawson, lies precisely in the nexus of nature and grace: in the transfiguration of what is naturally human by divine favor. The divine half of the equation was put in question by the Reformation and has been increasingly neglected or denied in the wake of the Enlightenment; in our era even human nature has been rendered problematic. As long as some sense of natural norms or standards persists, then at least the possibility of grace is implicit precisely in the inevitable failure of human beings to attain what seems to be the fulfillment of their natural birthright; but once this sense of nature is lost, then there can be no conception of the grace that transcends it. The current dismantling of Western culture can be witnessed in two quite diverse but equally fundamental areas of human life: sex and language. Both instances provide evidence of the reciprocal deleterious effects of the vicious behavior of individuals on the health of a culture and of the moral decline of a culture upon the character of individuals. Christopher Dawson observes, in “The Patriarchal Family in History”, that normative sexuality is necessary to the very existence of civilization: “It is impossible to go back behind the family and find a state of society in which sexual relations are in a presocial stage, for the regulation of sexual relations is an essential prerequisite of any kind of culture.” In this 1933 essay, Dawson proceeds to express alarm over the prospect of a general acceptance of contraception in the Western world and its effect upon the family: “Marriage will lose all of its attractions for the young and the pleasure loving and the poor and the ambitious. The energy of youth will be devoted to contraceptive love and only when men and women have become prosperous and middle-aged will they think seriously of settling down to rear a strictly limited family.” [5] Dawson also maintains that language is an integral feature of human culture: “Culture and language are inseparable aspects of the same process, so that it is impossible to regard one of them as existing without the other.” This linguistic element is the decisive factor in man’s capacity to perceive reality: “Thus a culture and its language taken together”, Dawson continues, “form an autonomous world of meaning and existence which is indeed the only world of which the individual is conscious.” [6] Even with his prescience it seems unlikely that Dawson could have foreseen the extent to which his worst fears would be realized by the 1990s.

In an essay recently published in Crisis, “Judaism’s Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism Rejected Homosexuality”, Dennis Prager takes up Dawson’s theme in specific and absolute terms: “When Judaism demanded that all sexual activity be channeled into marriage, it changed the world. The Torah’s prohibition of non-marital sex quite simply made the creation of Western civilization possible.” [7] Prager emphasizes the radical novelty, the uniqueness of the Judaeo-Christian sexual ethic, ascribing it to the superiority of revealed wisdom over human reasoning. His studies of the pervasiveness of homosexuality have convinced him that heterosexual monogamy is necessarily the fruit of divine revelation: “The Torah is simply too different from the rest of the world, too against man’s nature, to have been solely man-made.” [8]

Prager’s insight is important, but it requires qualification. I am especially bothered by the notion that revelation is simply “against man’s nature”. Much is made of the pervasiveness of pedophilia in ancient Greek culture, and Plato’s attachment to this vice is often cited. Such a view of Plato can come only of a superficial reading, neglectful of his typical genre, which is dialogue not treatise. The Symposium, for example, is an account of a drinking party among a group of artists and intellectuals where all the participants agree to make speeches in praise of Love (i.e., the god, Eros). Except for Socrates all the speakers give elaborate defenses of pederasty, but the speeches are so extravagant that they betray a certain uneasiness on the part of the speakers, and sometimes the underlying disapproval of Athenian society emerges, as in these remarks of the physician, Pausamas:

…one would have thought that, here if anywhere, loving and being kind to one’s lover would have been positively applauded. Yet we find in practice that if a father discovers that someone has fallen in love with his son, he puts the boy in charge of an attendant, with strict injunctions not to let him have anything to do with his lover. And if the boy’s little friends and playmates see anything of that kind going on, you may be sure they’ll call him names, while their elders will neither stop their being rude nor tell them they are talking nonsense (18 3 c) [9]

Much the same tone of vexed superiority is adopted toward ordinary respectable society by many of today’s “gay” spokesmen, and the negative response toward homosexuality, typical even of Athenian society, is reflected by Plato’s Phoedrus in the speech of the sophist Lysias, who admonishes a young man to accept the advances not of a lover but of a “nonlover”, because the latter will keep the sexual relationship secret and avoid the disapproval of the youth’s friends and relatives (232ab, 234b). [10] Of course both dialogues end with speeches by Socrates, exhorting his hearers to rise above physical love altogether and to channel the energy of Eros into the ascent of the ladder of love, which leads to contemplation of the Ideas.

The example of Plato suggests not that man’s nature is simply and unequivocally licentious, but that his idealistic aspirations—the speakers in the Symposium all wish to see love as an exalted spiritual experience—are almost inevitably frustrated and perverted. The Roman poet Catullus provides another compelling witness from classical literature. One of his epithalamia (or wedding hymns) suggests both the indecencies that pagan Rome seems to have taken for granted and also a certain discomfort with such licentiousness. The groom’s boy lover (concubinus) is adjured not to deny nuts to the children upon hearing that his master has abandoned his love (scattering nuts in the wake of the procession was traditional at Roman weddings), and the groom is admonished to overcome his reluctance to surrender the boy’s favors:

It is said, anointed groom,
That you hardly keep yourself
Away from your hairless boys,
But keep away.
We are aware that things
Known to you are only what
Are permitted pleasures,
But the same things are not allowed
To husbands. [11]

To be sure, this passage is Catullus’ imitation of the “Fescennine verses” that were the bawdy abuse of the groom conventional at Roman weddings. Nevertheless, while one is loath to speculate about what pleasures were not permitted, there is a clear sense that the pervasive pederasty was regarded as unseemly and certainly unsuitable for a married man even among the Romans who tolerated it.
The same anguished and divided consciousness is apparent in Catullus’ most famous poems, the love lyrics written to and about one “Lesbia”, which seem to reflect an actual adulterous affair with the disreputable Clodia excoriated in Cicero’s Pro Caelio. The poems blend passionate ardor, withering obscenity and despairing disillusionment: a mixture that a Christian might take as the faint but painful stirring of a woefully unformed conscience. Many of the poems express this agonized ambivalence, but perhaps the following is the most poignant:

Formerly you used to say that Catullus alone
Was intimate with you, Lesbia, that you
Would not have Jove instead of me.
I cherished you then not only as the crowd
Loves a girlfriend, but as a father loves
His sons and sons-in-law. Now I know you:
Hence even if I burn more extravagantly, to me
You are cheaper and looser. How so? you ask.
Because such a wound compels a lover
To love with more desire but less good will. [12]

The poem displays a powerful negative eloquence in revealing the poet’s struggle to express what is for him inexpressible. “The reader can sense Catullus here searching for terms which will give force to the selflessness of the emotion he feels,” writes Gordon Williams, “and here he finds them in the Roman sense of family and the ties that hold it together.” [13] Catullus is determined to regard his affair with Lesbia as something more than a mere adulterous “fling”: his bitterness over her “betrayal”, her refusal to see it in his terms, is a measure of the significance with which the poet seeks to invest his passion. Thus in another poem he prays that gods bring Lesbia the will to maintain “this eternal pact of sacred friendship” (CIX.6: “aeternum hoc sanctae foedus amicitiae”), and in yet another he justifies himself against her because he “has never violated a sacred vow, nor in any pact / abused the power of the gods for deceiving men” (LXXVI-3-4: “nec sanctum violasse fidem, nec foedere in ullo / divum ad fallendos numine abusum homines”).

The kind of mutual love longed for by Catullus, desperately sought through intimacy with a courtesan or another man’s faithless wife, would only become possible with the Christian transformation of marriage. Christopher Dawson points out that the patriarchal family could not survive the cultural disintegration of the classical world known to Catullus:

Conditions of life both in the Greek city state and in the Roman Empire favoured the man without a family who could devote his whole energies to the duties and pleasures of public life. Late marriages and small families became the rule, and men satisfied their sexual instincts by homosexuality or by relations with slaves and prostitutes. This aversion to marriage and the deliberate restriction of the family by the practice of infanticide and abortion was undoubtedly the main cause of the decline of ancient Greece, as Polybius pointed out in the second century B.C.” [14]

The parallels with contemporary postindustrial societies present disturbing prospects for our future, but, as Dawson argues further, the alternative has already been established in Christianity’s elevation of the patriarchal family to a higher plane:

While the patriarchal family in its original form was an aristocratic institution which was the privilege of a ruling race or patrician class, the Christian family was common to every class, even to the slaves. Still more important was the fact that the Church insisted for the first time on the mutual and bilateral character of sexual obligations. The husband belonged to the wife as exclusively as the wife to the husband. This rendered marriage a more personal and individual relation than it had been under the patriarchal system.” [15]

The longing of Catullus, who died half a century before the birth of Christ, was thus fulfilled among a people whom he would have despised had he troubled to notice them.

St. Augustine can hardly be regarded as a liberal, much less as a sentimentalist, about marriage, but he, nevertheless, finds a good in Christian marriage as such that fulfills the longing expressed by Catullus:

It does not seem to me that [the good of marriage] is on account of the procreation of children alone, but also on account of the society natural to the diversity of sexes. Otherwise it could not be called marriage among the aged, especially if they either had lost their children or had generated none at all. But in a good marriage, although of many years, even if the fire of youth has Populared between the man and woman, still the order of charity thrives between the husband and wife.

Even in the time of “youthful incontinence”, St. Augustine continues, “concupiscence of the flesh, which is tempered by parental affection, burns in a somewhat more moderate fashion because it is restrained. For a certain gravity intervenes in the fervid pleasure, when a man and woman cleaving to one another consider being a father and mother.” [16]

What is more, Christianity introduced into the institution the element of sacramental mystery, transcending anything conceived of marriage within pagan culture:

But since out of many souls there is to be one city of those having one soul and one heart in God (Acts 4.32), which will be the perfection of our unity after this pilgrimage, where the thoughts of all will not be hidden from each other, nor among themselves will they be at odds in anything: consequently the sacrament of marriage is in our time confined to one man and one wife. [17]

The ultimate source of Augustine’s view of Christian marriage is the “great mystery” (Sacramentum hoc magnum est) of Ephesians 5:32, by which the wedding of an individual man and woman becomes a sign of the bond between Christ and his Church. It is this great dignity that distinguishes Christian from pagan marriage and makes the former a channel of grace. “The good of marriage among all nations and all men is, then, for the sake of generation and the vow of chastity”, Augustine writes; “however, what also pertains to the people of God is in the holiness of the Sacrament.” [18]

This elevation of marriage is a fundamental element in the development of the character of Western man, and it is a perfect example of the convergence of nature and grace, of Athens and Jerusalem. The proud pagans, Plato and Catullus, had sensed and responded to the emptiness in the human soul, to the failure of Eros: surely that urgent, fiery energy in man’s nature should culminate in something more than the spasmodic conquest of a hairless boy or a faithless woman? The fulfillment of this natural craving, however, comes only in the order of grace: “Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them to little ones” (Mt 11:25). The surrender to grace, to the holiness of the sacrament, the giving of oneself wholly to one other person on the part of the man as well as the woman, is what makes of Christian marriage, in Dawson’s words, “a more personal and individual relation”. Or, as Augustine says, it allows ardor to open into the order of charity. It enables the kind of relationship that Catullus desired, but it requires a different kind of man—a man of patience and humility. And here the influence of Christian culture on the character of Western man is quite apparent.

While sexuality is one element in human life that ties us to the earth and proclaims our kinship with the beasts that perish, language is evidence of our distinctive rationality. The capacity for speech and writing is our most powerful and supple means of apprehending and deploying signs and symbols in the construction of meaning; it is the manifestation and instrument of our self-awareness. For this reason Dawson regards language as “inseparable” from culture: they are coextensive factors in the shaping of human identity both individually and communally. Now as the preeminent sign system, language reveals most clearly the paradox of signification: signs mean what they are not. The result is that knowledge and understanding, mediated by language, abstract and alienate mankind from their objects. The problematic status of language has been increasingly insisted upon as the twentieth century has proceeded, but Plato was aware of the limitations of language, and St. Augustine even more acutely so. [19]

If the problem of language has grown especially troublesome in our age—as sex has—it is because we have, again, neglected the solution that has already been discovered. It is a solution that arises, again, in the convergence of Athens and Jerusalem. As Christopher Dawson points out, “when St. Paul appealed to the testimony of the Stoic poet, he recognized that Christianity was prepared to accept the metaphysical inheritance of Hellenistic thought as well as the historic revelation of Jewish prophecy.” The dilemma of classical philosophy lies in the chasm that opens up between the ideal metaphysical structures of the intellect and the mutable physical realm in which human beings dwell. It is no wonder that Hellenic philosophy is so often tinged with despair and advocates, implicitly or explicitly, a withdrawal from the common earthly existence of mankind. “St. John’s identification of the Logos and the Messiah”, offers, as Dawson observes, a way out of this dilemma:

Jesus of Nazareth 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. Thus the opposition between the Greek ideal of spiritual intuition and the Living God of Jewish revelation—an opposition that Philo had vainly attempted to surmount by an artificial philosophic synthesis—finally disappeared before the revelation of the Incarnate Word . [20]

“Incarnate Word” is a paradox that baffles the unaided, unregenerate human intellect, “a stone (of offense and a rock of stumbling” (1 Pet 2:8: :: “et lapis offensionis, et petra scandali”); but this central Christian paradox is the channel of the grace that binds our errant souls to reality. As our words represent (re-present) the link between our knowledge and our world, so the Word made flesh is the Presence of meaning and order within temporal actuality. Or in the phrasing of Christopher Dawson, drawing upon St. Augustine:

Jesus is the bridge between Humanity and Divinity. In Him God is not only manifested to man, but vitally participated. He is the Divine Life, which transforms human nature and makes it the partaker of Its own supernatural activity.” [21]

The Incarnate Word is thus the poetry of human existence, finding its most powerful manifestation in the Church’s liturgical appropriation of the Psalter. The undoubted excellence of Greco-Roman poetry notwithstanding, there is, Dawson maintains, a unique superiority in the Christian liturgy:

This was new poetry indeed. It expressed what had never been expressed in classical poetry and it expressed it in a new language and a new rhythm. Nevertheless it became immediately popular with the Gentile converts as well as with Jewish Christians. It expressed spiritual things with a much greater intensity and with more intense personal feeling than classical poetry had ever attained, even in a narrower range and on a lower level, it was a poetry which could be applied by the individual Christian to express his own thoughts and feelings, yet it was at the same time the voice of the Church and the voice of Christ ... [22]

I would suggest that the key to the difference between classical and Christian poetry can be found in the word “liturgy”, which ultimately derives from the Greek leitourgia—the performance of public service for the State or the gods. This means that the utterance of the language of the liturgy is not just saying, it is doing; it is a work undertaken and carried out and, as such, plays a part in shaping the character of its participants. “The conscious, fully awakened act of performing the Liturgy”, remarks Dietrich von Hildebrand, “imprints upon the soul the Face of Christ. In taking part in the Liturgy, we make our own the fundamental attitudes embodied in it.” [23]

“Hence the insistence of the Fourth Gospel”, Dawson writes, “on the sacramental element in Christ’s teaching, since it is through the sacraments that the Incarnation of the Divine Word is no longer merely a historical fact, but is brought into vital and sensible contact with the life of the believer.” [24] In the sacraments words do not merely represent; they make present. In the celebration of the Mass, Christians share in the present reality of the divine life, and this develops an altogether new, grace-filled character in the humanity of Christendom. What is more, the supernaturally charged language of the liturgy enables mankind to see the world in terms of a new vision. Language has meaning in a new way because things themselves have meaning in a new way: “Let your spirit wander through the entire creation,” Augustine says, “and everywhere the creation will cry out to you: God made me . [25] And writing on the same verse of the Psalms (26:6), Cardinal Bellarmine remarks, “Therefore the Prophet, exalted through contemplation upon all earthly things, breaks out in admiration of the works of God, and praise of the almighty workman . [26] In other words, the world shaped by the divine Logos of the one God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a different place from a world ruled by an arbitrary and impersonal necessity and haunted by an array of capricious “gods” and demons.

It is faith in the one God, whose only Son is both the informing principle and Redeemer of the world, that has made possible the distinctive character of Western man—a character marked by optimism based ultimately on hope, hope in what we do not see (Romans 8:24-25). The corruption of our nature that results not only in sin but also in failures of vision and confusion of meaning can be purified by grace. It is for this reason that the definitive works of classical literature are tragic, but the greatest work of Christendom is the Divine Comedy. The Enlightenment concept of progress, a debased and secularized version of Christian hope, could only have emerged within a decaying Christendom. With what seems to be the final collapse of the Western world’s belief in material progress, it would seem that our only hope is hope; that is, the theological virtue. “The day of the Liberal Deist compromise is over,” Christopher Dawson pointed out some sixty years ago, “and we have come to the parting of the ways. Either Europe must abandon the Christian tradition and with it the faith in progress and humanity, or it must return consciously to the religious foundation on which these ideas were based.” [27]

It seems rather painfully clear that the Western world, at least as represented by its most influential and prestigious individuals and institutions, has chosen to abandon progress and humanity along with Christianity. There would seem to be no other explanation for the sordid tale that opens this paper. Only breathtaking naivete would find anything surprising in the report that a powerful, affluent man had attempted to use his position to exploit women sexually: we are all acquainted with the stories of David and Bathsheba and Susannah among the elders. What is disturbing is that the Senator has expressed regret, not for a lack of integrity or for immoral conduct, but a misunderstanding—presumably he means that he misjudged the intentions of the women, that adultery would have been acceptable between “consenting adults”. Even more disturbing is the way that Ellen Goodman, who undertakes to speak for the victims, shrugs off the behavior of a scoundrel as a failure in the nervous system and still accords him, however ruefully, the title of “good guy”, because he votes the party line on “women’s issues”. Although she insists that powerful men “have to change”, the change will come, not of improved character, but of increased feminist political pressure.

Christian culture in its essence is a culture of hope; we are witnesses in our generation to its displacement by a culture of despair. Despite the ravages of original sin, the Christian always has hope in the profusion of grace poured out with the blood of Jesus shed on Calvary. Through this grace, the image of God can always be restored in the countenance of fallen man, be it ever so twisted and pock-marked by sin. The history of Christendom, like that of humanity in general, is for the most part shabby: a record of cruelty and violence, shame and vice; but it is recurrently illuminated by unforeseen acts of courage, kindness and decency among ordinary men and women and transfigured by the lives of the saints. Of course such evidence of the work of Christ’s abundant grace and mercy in the world has not ceased, but it no longer counts among our cultural elites and dominant institutions. This state of affairs has been developing for centuries, as Christopher Dawson observes:

So we have the paradox that at the beginning of the Renaissance, when the conquest of nature and the creation of modern science are still unrealized, man appears in god-like freedom with a sense of unbounded power and greatness; while at the end of the nineteenth century, when nature has been conquered and there seem no limits to the powers of science, man is once more conscious of his misery as the slave of material circumstance and physical appetite and death.” [28]

In a recent article in First Things, Robert W. Jensen has suggested that the postmodern world—the cultural void that attends upon the disintegration of modernism—is a world in which stories cannot be true and promises cannot be kept. Promises make no sense in a world without a coherent narrative, without a story; and there can, finally, be no meaningful story without a Storyteller. Postmodernism is merely the culmination of the modern world’s effort to banish God from his creation . [29] At the center of the nihilistic vortex that has whirled through academic life in recent years is the analytic method called deconstruction, which explicitly sets out to drain the meaning out of any text from within by an act of expropriation, by inhabiting it as a parasite. The principal goal of deconstruction, if the term “goal” is appropriate in such a context, is to discredit and dismantle what is called “logocentric metaphysics” or “ontotheology”- in other words, God, especially the Second Person of the Trinity, conceived as the agent of reason, order and meaning in the world. Now deconstruction is a very esoteric theory, and I am routinely assured by colleagues that it is already out of fashion; but I find no solace in such assurances. If deconstruction has truly become passe in the realm of scholarship, that is only because it has made so complete a conquest of popular culture. “We should turn from elite art to the streets of our cities and the classrooms of our suburbs”, Jensen remarks (p. 21).

My own experience in the university classroom tends to confirm this admonition: for vast numbers—perhaps for a majority—of the current generation of college students, sexual intercourse is a negotiable “relationship’ for the purpose of mutual “fulfillment of needs”, music is a stream of shouted threats and obscenities with deafening electronic accompaniment, “Madonna” is only the name of a pop singer whose chief distinction is to behave like a prostitute in various entertainment media, and high art consists largely of films saturated with vulgar cynicism, frenzied violence and sexual perversion. We are, then, witnessing the fulfillment of Dawson’s darkest prophecies:

We have entered a new phase of culture—we may call it the Age of the Cinema—in which the most amazing perfection of scientific technique is being devoted to purely ephemeral objects, without any consideration of their ultimate justification. It seems as though a new society was arising which will acknowledge no hierarchy of values, no intellectual authority, and no social or religious tradition, but which will live for the moment in a chaos of pure sensation.” [30]

Perhaps even Dawson would be astounded to see how rapidly his prediction of “social disintegration” attendant upon such a state of affairs would come to pass. Could even he have envisioned a 25 percent illegitimacy rate despite more than a million and a half abortions per year, soaring rates of rape and child abuse, neighborhoods paralyzed by drug addiction and drive-by shootings, metal detectors at the entrances of high schools and condom distribution to school children by public authorities?

The character of Western man was created by the emergence of Christian culture, and the modern world has lived off the Christian heritage even while repudiating it. The accumulated moral capital now seems wholly squandered, and the world itself has no prospect of renewing it—fallen man is without resources of his own. There is, however, as Dawson points out, an infinite, unfailing source of restoration in the grace of Christ:

Every Christian mind is a seed of change so long as it is a living mind, not enervated by custom or ossified by prejudice. A Christian has only to be in order to change the world, for in that act of being there is contained all the mystery of supernatural life. It is the function of the Church to sow this divine seed, to produce not merely good men, but spiritual men—that is to say, supermen. Insofar as the Church fulfills this function it transmits to the world a continuous stream of spiritual energy. If the salt itself loses its savor, then indeed the world sinks back into disorder and death, for a despiritualized Christianity is powerless to change anything; it is the most abject of failures, since it serves neither the natural nor the spiritual order. [31]

Men and women can become good citizens and good neighbors again only by becoming something more, by recovering the grace of Christ Jesus. By the same token, the Church can influence society in a positive way, not by becoming merely another social service agency or political pressure group, but by proclaiming the gospel and celebrating the sacraments—by serving as a channel of grace. We must remember that nature is never enough, that the world cannot even be itself unless it is infused with heaven. On the realization that civilization is insufficient, the fate of civilization rests.


1. Goodman’s column, “Men in Power Have to Change”, syndicated by the Boston Globe, is quoted from the Raleigh News & Observer, December 4, 1992
2. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950; reprint, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Image, 1958), p. 17
3. Christopher Dawson, The Formation of Christendom (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1967), p.44
4. Ibid., p. 31
5. The Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (LaSalle, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden & Co., 1978), pp. 157-58, 165
6. The Formation of Christendom, pp. 35-36
7. Crisis 11, no. 8 (September 1993), p. 29
8. Ibid., p. 36
9. Trans. Michael Joyce, in Plato: The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 537
10. Trans. R. Hackforth, Collected Dialogues, pp. 48o-82
11. Catullus, Carmina LXI.137-39, 142-44. The translation is made from the Latin text of the Loeb Library edition, ed. and trans. F. W. Cornish, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), pp. 76, 78: “diceris male te a tuis / unguentate glabris, marite, abstinere: sed abstine ... scimus haec tibi quae licent / sola cognita: sed marito / ista non eadem licent.”
12. Ibid., LXXII, p. 152: “Dicebas quondam solum te nosse Catullum, Lesbia, nec prae me velle tenere lovem. / dilexi tum te non tantum ut vulgus amicam, / sed pater ut gnatos diligit et generos. / nunc te cognovi: quare etsi impensius uror, / multo mi tamen es vilior et levior. / qui potis est? inquis. quod amantem iniuria talis / cogit amare magis, sed bene velle minus.”
13. The Nature of Roman Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 80
14. The Patriarchal Family”, The Dynamics of World History, p. 161
15. Ibid., pp. 161-62
16. De Bono Conjugali iii.3, PL 40, 375: “Quod mihi non videtur propter solam filiorum procreationem, sed propter ipsam etiam naturalem in diverso sexu societatem. Alioquin non jam diceretur conjugium in senibus, p[r]aesertim si vel amisissent filios, vel minime genuissent. Nunc vero in bono licet annoso conjugio, etsi emarcuit ardor aetatis inter masculum et feminam, viget tamen ordo charitatis inter maritum et uxorem ... Deinde quia reprimitur, et quodam modo verecundius aestuat concupiscentia carnis, quam temperat parentalis affectus. Intercedit enim quaedam gravitas fervidae voluptatis, cum in eo quod sibi vir et mulier adhaerescunt, pater et mater esse meditantur.” See Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 390
17. Ibid., XViii.21, PL 40, 387: “Sed quoniam ex multis animis una civitas fatura est habentium animam unam et cor unum in Deum (Act. iv,32); qae unitatis nostrae perfectio post hanc peregrinationem futura est, ubi omnium cogitationes nec latebunt invicem, nec inter se in aliquo repugnabunt: propterea Sacramentum nuptiarum temporis nostris sic ad unum virum et unam uxorem redactum est ...
18. Ibid., xxiv.32, PL 40, 394: “Bonum igitur nuptiarum per onmes gentes atque homines in causa generandi est, et in fide castitatis: quod autem ad populum Dei pertinet, etiam in sanctitate Sacramenti ...”
19. See, for instance, Plato, Phoedrus, 274-78; and Augustine, Confessions, IV, 10, XI, 3
20. Christianity and the New Age (1931; reprint, Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Institute Press, 1985), pp. 78-79
21. Ibid
22. The Formation of Christendom, p. 139
23. Liturgy and Personality (1960; reprint, Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Institute
24. Press, 1986), p. I7
25. Christianity and the New Age, pp.79- 8o. Enarrationes in Psalmos XXVI.ii. 12, PL 3 6, 205:-Circumeat animus tuus per universam creaturam: undique tibi clamabit creatura: Deus me fecit.”
26. In Omnes Psalmos Dilucida Explanatio (Brixiae, 1611), p. 124: -Igitur Propheta per contemplationem supra terrena omnia exaltatus, erumpit in admiratione operum Dei, & laudem opificis omnipotentis.”
27. Progress and Religion (1929; reprint, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Image, 1960), p. 192
28. Christianity and the New Age, pp. 9-10
29. “How the World Lost Its Story”, First Things, no. 36 (October 1993), pp. 19-24
30. Progress and Religion, p. 181
31. Christianity and the New Age, p. 103

The Relevance of Christopher Dawson

by Gerald Russello

Taken and copyright from First Things, April 2002.

Not so long ago, before the dot-com bubble-burst and the September 11 terrorist attack, it seemed as if history would deliver all good things. The Dow was continuing its steady rise, and the nation seemingly faced no insurmountable problems. We were living at or near the end of history, with only a little tidying up to do at the rougher edges of the world before all would be permanently well. The events of last September compelled us to reconsider such rosy assumptions.

This pre-September 11 idyll was no anomaly. The belief in a perfect future has been a consistent feature of Western thought, emerging out of Christian hope of salvation in the next world. For the last two hundred years, however, this hope has been expressed usually in political or economic, rather than in religious, terms. This change has been so complete that the common presumption among elites, from the Davos World Economic Forum to the UN, is that this future path will entail the demise of religion. It is thus particularly appropriate that the Catholic University of America Press has reissued Christopher Dawson’s Progress and Religion (originally published in 1929) as part of a planned series of Dawson volumes. Long before Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of history or Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations, Dawson (1889-1970) proposed a very different foundation for the study of human society. With Progress and Religion as well as such other books as The Age of the Gods (1928) and The Making of Europe (1932), Dawson unapologetically placed religion at the center of culture rather than on the periphery.

Dawson is one of those historians everyone should read but few actually do. It was not always so. In his lifetime, Arnold Toynbee and T. S. Eliot, among others, recognized his mastery of comparative history and religion and admired his crisp prose style. Almost alone in the 1920s and ’30s, he contended with those who denied religion any cultural significance. A young convert to Catholicism, Dawson was active for many years in ecumenical efforts in England. This experience had a clear impact on his awareness of cultural differences that is reflected in his sympathetic understanding of other cultures.

Progress and Religion is a direct attack on the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social sciences and their understanding of progress. Now known as the “secularization thesis,” the theory of progress proposes that civilizational development is directly proportional to a decline in religious belief and influence. In three chapters, one each devoted to sociology, anthropology, and history, Dawson examines the thought of such figures as Condorcet, Comte, Frazer, and LePlay. Drawing on their work, the social sciences excluded religion, either through Cartesian rationalism, Spenglerian theories of civilizational life cycles, or supposed general laws of anthropological development. They uniformly neglected “the study of religion in its fundamental social aspects.” In the view of such thinkers, religion was “essentially a negative force like ignorance or tyranny” and so could not be a creative cultural influence.

Dawson overturned this entire way of thinking about culture. In passionate, disciplined prose, he demonstrated that materialist or environmental explanations of religious belief simply did not accord with the evidence. “Modern writers on anthropology and primitive thought have tended to assume that religion is a secondary phenomenon and that man’s earliest attitude to reality was a kind of empirical materialism.” On the contrary, as he wrote in 1925, the “great civilizations of the world do not produce the great religions as a kind of cultural by-product; in a very real sense the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest.” In her introduction to the new edition of the book, the distinguished anthropologist Mary Douglas notes that Dawson “artfully stages a dialogue between the eighteenth-century philosophers, Condorcet, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, and the people they thought of as primitive.” Religious faith takes on a different perspective if examined from the point of view of these people themselves, and not through the prism of anthropological theory. “The thin rationalism [of modern anthropology], which proceeded by arbitrarily separating one level of experience from the next, grossly distorted the subject matter and made a mockery of its pretensions to objectivity.” These thinkers largely ignored the brute fact that “an obscure and confused intuition of transcendent being” was present in and nfluenced both so-called primitive cultures and more advanced ones.

Progress and Religion shows, moreover, that “the religious factor has had a far more important share in the development of human cultures than that which has usually been ascribed to it.” Contrary to the assumptions of the progressive anthropologists, material and cultural progress need not go together. The early Christians in the Roman Empire, for example, created a more dynamic and vibrant culture than the dying, “higher” culture of the pagans. Likewise, Dawson notes peoples such as the Eskimo or Bushmen, whom the theorists of progress considered completely dominated by their physical surroundings. In fact, these cultures are the results “of a free and intelligent activity, and it expresses itself in an art and a folklore far richer and more original than that of many more advanced peoples.” Dawson was no cultural relativist, but his analysis reveals that the secular scale of values simply does not capture the reality of human social life. The lesson he drew was that religious faith is the spark of culture, and external material success will not survive its being extinguished. That lesson is particularly important today, when some continue to describe complex world cultures in simple, undifferentiated terms and understand them using the same imprecise Enlightenment concepts.

Recent anthropological scholarship has confirmed Dawson’s thesis about the religious basis of culture and cast serious doubt on the modern equation of progress with secularism. As such scholars as Rebecca French and David Hollinger have noted, religious ways of seeing the world remain the dominant interpretive tool for most people. Dawson anticipated this transition, insisting that progress “has begun to lose its hold on the mind of society ... because the phase of civilization of which it was characteristic is already beginning to pass away.” While a more positive assessment of religion’s role has gained some ground, most of the academy and the wider circle of intellectuals and writers continue to ignore the formative role of religion, in the West and throughout the world.

Religion is a natural human impulse, and if it cannot be expressed in culture, it will find an outlet in ideology. In Dawson’s time, the great temptations were the ideologies of fascism, communism, and Nazism. Today, our vulnerability is different. Elites in the West have become almost unable to understand religious motivations for conduct, even if the antiquated theory of progress no longer commands the scientific support it once did. This blindness has clear dangers not only with respect to our current efforts to understand Islam, but also in relation to other parts of the world, such as Tibet, and even in the United States itself, where the “culture wars” are largely motivated by a latent progressivism. The recent flare-up about evangelicals being “uneducated and easy to lead,” not to mention the efforts to explain away certain strains of Islam as motivated by economic or other nonreligious factors, are recurring echoes of the problem Dawson originally diagnosed. Despite its claim to universality, the secularization thesis, no less than the “end of history” schema, contributes little to our understanding of the place of religion in the world today.

America, which Dawson did not visit until the late 1950s when he was appointed to the first Stillman Chair in Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard, initially seemed to be his worst-case scenario. The nation regarded itself as the culmination of the project of human freedom, where old loyalties were cast aside in favor of the novus ordo seclorum, and where self-invention was part of the national character. In the 1920s and ’30s, Dawson thought that America could not resist becoming “a purely secular type of culture which subordinates the whole of life to practical and economic ends and leaves no room for independent spiritual activity.” In Progress and Religion, American civilization was the embodiment of technology gone awry: life acquired meaning only through consumption and production, by “more cinemas, motor-cars for all, wireless installations, more elaborate methods of killing people, purchase on the hire system, preserved foods, and picture papers.” (One can only wonder what Dawson would have made of the Internet.)

However, in an important lecture on “America and the Secularization of Modern Culture,” presented in the same year that John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths was published (1960), Dawson set forth a more hopeful view. America’s origins in the dissenting and pluralist tradition of Protestantism had established a realm of personal and communal freedom outside the power of the state. The nation’s individualism clearly bore the imprint of the Christian focus on the sacredness of the person, despite occasional lapses into narcissism. Just as importantly, American culture had developed without the anticlericalism or antireligious character that was common among its European counterparts. Further, America had a clear, if legally unrecognized, role for religion in public life. While Dawson foresaw that the sometimes stark separation of the world of business and politics from that of religious belief threatened to produce what has been called a naked public square, he nevertheless thought that because the nation combined a deep religiosity with enormous material wealth and productivity, there “is great opportunity in America that may never be repeated.”

Because of this heritage, Americans are able to understand religious belief. More importantly, at its best the nation can be a model of how to interpret modern political forms through the eyes of faith. The ability to hold strong religious convictions and to profess democratic principles is America’s great contribution to the world, despite elite opinion about the “separation of church and state” on the one hand or a restricted “Christian America” on the other. This comfort with the modern mix of religion and politics may be of even greater importance in the coming century.

Christopher Dawson - Christ in History

by Gerald Russello

Taken from Crisis Magazine, April 1996.

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 or 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 counter-weight 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 realm. 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.

Select Bibliography

The Age of Gods, 1928
Progress and Religion, 1929
Christianity and the New Age, 1931
The Making of Europe, 1932
The Spirit of the Oxford Movement, 1933
Medieval Religion and Other Essays, 1934
Religion and the Modern State, 1936
Beyond Politics, 1939
The Judgment of the Nations, 1942
Religion and Culture, 1948
Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 1950
Understanding Europe, 1952
Medieval Essays, 1954
Dynamics of World History, 1957
The Movement of World Revolution, 1959
The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, 1960
The Crisis of Western Education, 1961
The Dividing of Christendom, 1967
Mission to Asia, 1966
The Formation of Christendom, 1967
The Gods of Revolution, 1972
Religion and World History, 1975

The Vision of Christopher Dawson

by Araceli Duque

Christopher H. Dawson has been called “the greatest English-speaking Catholic historian of the twentieth century.”1 Despite this, most of his books have been out of print for decades now, and graduate students today are ignorant of his work. A gifted, eloquent and prolific writer, Dawson wrote more than twenty books and numerous articles on the nature of Christian culture. This topic concerned him so deeply that he considered it his vocation to explore the cultural role of religion, the relationship between Christianity and world cultures, and the specific history and institutions of the Christian religion. As a result of this vast research, he emphasized the need to recover the spiritual tradition at the root of the Western European history. A life dedicated to the study of world cultures led him to claim that: “It is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture... A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.”2 Writing against the positivistic and nihilistic attitude of his age, Dawson challenges commonly held assumptions about culture and history, and unmasks Western religion of progress. His contentions have as much relevance today as they had when he wrote them. Dawson brilliantly applies Christian principles to the world of historic events, and sees the inner world of spiritual change “as the dynamic element in history and as a real world-transforming power.”3 It is his vast erudition, coupled with his singular vision and talent to present a coherent and global vision of the different aspects that dominate the changing course of history, that have led some to consider him one of the greatest historians of our age, “more realist and convincing than Spengler or Toynbee.”4

Born in 1889 into an Anglo-Catholic family in Hay Castle, Dawson was an English scholar in the true sense of the word. That is, a man of “leisure” much in the fashion of Joseph Pieper. He studied at Winchester and Trinity Colleges, Oxford, and briefly in Sweden. In 1914, he converted to Catholicism. Much like John Henry Newman, he arrived at Catholicism through the study of history. After marrying Valery Mills in 1916, he settled down to country living and the reading and writing of history. He lectured sporadically and gave conferences in the most prestigious institutions of his country as well as in the United States. We may mention the Forwood Lectures at the University of Liverpool, the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, University College, at Exeter, and the British Academy of London. In 1958 he was invited by Harvard University to hold a Chair of Roman Catholic studies in Divinity School. Having returned to England due to poor health, he died in May 1970, at 81 years of age.

Despite his brilliance and insight, Dawson has been surprisingly ignored in academia and beyond. One of the reasons for this neglect is perhaps his vast erudition, which makes any study of his daunting, if not intimidating. Another reason is perhaps his insistence on drawing from the Middle Ages the key to the unity of Western civilization. Nevertheless, in no case did this contention involve the condemnation of the modern world per se or the return of a historical past.

Having lived both World Wars, Dawson thought that something in Western Europe had gone terribly wrong. “The task,” Dawson thought, “is to bring Western civilization back to the right road…”5 The right road, according to Dawson, means to cultivate the spiritual foundations of society, at an individual level. The way this would be done is, first of all, through the study of culture as a whole, for Europe cannot be understood as a whole by studying its parts. It is by looking back at history that we become freer to choose the path to go. Otherwise we become slaves to past errors. Thus, one of those previous areas we could learn from is the Middle Ages because they were “the outstanding example in history of the application of Faith to Life: the embodiment of religion in social institutions and eternal forms and therefore both its achievements and failures worthy of study.”6 In fact, during the Middle Ages “to the Catholic the church was the kingdom of God on earth—in via—the supernatural society through which and in which alone humanity could realize its true end. It was a visible society with its own law and constitution which possessed divine and indefectible authority.”7

Yet, Dawson did not advocate a return to some ideal past, or the establishment of a Carolingian Imperio Sacro. He studies the Middle Ages as a means to understand the nature of Christian culture. As he says, “we cannot leave this [the study of Christian culture] to the medievalists alone, for they are to some extent themselves tied to the error by the limitations of their specialism. Christian culture is not the same thing as medieval culture. It existed before the Middle Ages began and it continued to exist after they had ended. We cannot understand Medieval culture unless we study its foundations in the age of the Fathers.”8

Insisting upon the need to understand the organic relationship between religion and culture, Dawson contends that it is through this realization that Western civilization is to survive. He was no apologist for laissez-faire Capitalism: “The Truly rich society is not the one that goes on piling up economic wealth as an end in itself, but the one that uses its wealth as the foundation on which to build a rich and many-sided culture…It is a question of how much you live rather than how much you live on.” Dawson wrote many books to explain how and why we lost the vision of these common values and the unity in our civilization. His concern was “how to preserve the spiritual inheritance of Europe and restore a common purpose to Western civilization”9 in a period when the continent was torn by internal divisions, wars and the rise of dictatorships. The world is different today than it was 50 years ago, yet the essential European dilemma he addresses remains the same. As he states, the European problem cannot be solved merely “by a drastic process of economic and political reorganization which would create a federal unity--the United States of Europe-.... Europe owes its unique character to the fact that it is and always been a society of nations, each intensely conscious of its own social personality and its own political institutions and laws, but all united by a common spiritual tradition, a common intellectual culture and common moral values…” It is only by the recovery of these common traditions and values and in the strengthening of them “that Europe can be saved.”10 Only when people have a common moral vision can they rise above the might that makes right or the law of the jungle.

Dawson was not a pessimist. As a profound Christian, he insisted on the need not to abandon hope, for history is not about impersonal forces, but is made up of thousands upon thousands of decisions made by the human person exercising free will. The true makers of history, the great men in history, are in reality the servants of events.

Their masters are the spiritual men whom the world knew not, the unregarded agents of the creative action of the Spirit. The supreme instance of this—the key to the Christian understanding of history—is to be found in the Incarnation—the presence of the maker of the world in the world unknown to the world… The Incarnation is itself in a sense the divine fruit of history—of the fullness of time—and it finds its extension and completion in the historic life of the Church.11

This intrusion of God in history, the Incarnation, marks a turning point. Thereafter man, as part of a community and a culture, is essential to Christianity like no other religion. The task, Dawson insisted, is for individual Christians today to recover historical consciousness in order to contribute decisively to the creation of a new Europe of the spirit. “The great obstacle is the failure of Christians themselves to understand the depth of that tradition and the inexhaustible possibilities of new life that it contains.”12

The work of Christopher Dawson is very relevant to those who want to understand the role of religion in Western history and the Christian roots of European history in particular. As opposed to contemporary views, his work shows how the idea of transcendence infuses history with a wider and richer interpretation of events. “Where faith is absent…man is divorced from reality. He is living in the dark and all his intellectual and political systems become distorted and unreal.”13 Christopher Dawson sheds much light on this obscure aspect of Western scholarship. It is well to remember his contention that: “on the realization that civilization is insufficient, the fate of civilization rests.” Christianity does not consist on a social reform alone but in being a light in the darkness. Civilization is a road that man undertakes, not a house to live in. His real city lies elsewhere.

Dawson’s vast erudition, his historical intuition, his profound understanding of human nature, and his vision of Western culture as a living and dynamic entity, make him an essential starting point in the study--and understanding of--the spiritual tradition at the root of Western culture. Without this, all else that follows in Western history is incomprehensible.

Books by Christopher Dawson:

The Age of Gods, 1928
Progress and Religion, 1929
Christianity and the New Age, 1931
The Making of Europe, 1932
The Spirit of the Oxford Movement, 1933
Medieval Religion and Other Essays, 1934
Religion and the Modern State, 1936
Beyond Politics, 1939
The Judgment of the Nations, 1942
Religion and Culture, 1948
Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 1950
Understanding Europe, 1952
Medieval Essays, 1954
Dynamics of World History, 1957
The Movement of World Revolution, 1959
The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, 1960
The Crisis of Western Education, 1961
The Dividing of Christendom, 1967
Mission to Asia, 1966
The Formation of Christendom, 1967
The Gods of Revolution, 1972
Religion and World History, 1975


1. Daniel Callahan, et al., « Christopher Dawson, » Harvard Theological Review. 66, (1973), p. 167.
2. Christopher Dawson. Progress and Religion (1929; New Jersey: Doubleday Image, 1960)
3. Ibid. Dynamics of World History. (Delaware: ISI Books, 2002), p. 251.
4. Harry Elmer Barnes. The American Historical Review. 1978.
5. The Judgment of the Nations. (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1942), p.71.
6. Medieval Essays. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1959), p. 53f.
7. Dynamics… p. 294.
8. The Crisis of Western Education. (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961), p. 131.
9. Understanding Europe, (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1953).p. 45.
10. Ibid., p. 223.
11. Religion and the Modern State. (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935), p. 97.
12. Understanding Europe, p. 255.
13. Religion and the Modern State, p. 101.

Note about the author:

After receiving MA in history from Villanova University, Araceli Duque is a PhD candidate of European Studies at the University Institute Ortega y Gasset, Madrid, Spain. Her main research interests are modern European intellectual history, history of ideas, philosophy, and Russian literature and history. She currently resides in Seville, Spain.