Religion as the Root of Culture


We have come to take it for granted that the unifying force in society is material interest, and that spiritual conviction is a source of strife and division.

Christopher Dawson is best known as an historian and sociologist who focused on the relation of religion to culture. Though he has many specialized studies of particular events and trends — the French Revolution, for instance, or the Oxford Movement [1] — he is equally a master of "the big picture," and it is on his thesis that religion is the root of culture that I would like to focus here.

"Religion," says Dawson, "is the key of history." [2] In contrast to the academic tendency to reduce religion to an epiphenomenon, a product of various material and psychic forces (the recipe depending for the most part on how much Marxism and how much Freudianism one likes to mix in the intoxicated conversations at Ivy League faculty clubs), Dawson insists on the need to understand a society's religion if one wants to understand the original formation and the successive transformations of any human culture:

In all ages the first creative works of a culture are due to a religious inspiration and dedicated to a religious end. The temples of the gods are the most enduring works of man. Religion stands at the threshold of all the great literatures of the world. Philosophy is its offspring and is a child which constantly returns to its parent. And the same is true of social institutions. Kingship and law are religious institutions and even today they have not entirely divested themselves of their numinous character, as we can see in the English coronation rite and in the formulas of our law courts. All the institutions of family and marriage and kinship have a religious background and have been maintained and are still maintained by formidable social sanctions. [3]

This general thesis Dawson articulates in the first volume of his 1947-1948 Gifford Lectures, Religion and Culture, which is devoted to the comparative study of religion. In the second set of lectures, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, he deals specifically with the religious origins of our own western culture and the patterns of its growth as "a series of renaissances — of spiritual and intellectual revivals which arose independently, usually under religious influences, and were transmitted by a spontaneous process of free communication" [4] to lands other than the locale where they originated. This is a phenomenon we still see at work today in the universal hunger for western science and technology-transfer and in the global hankering after democratic forms of government, even where social preparations for the civil restraint required to make democracy work are not yet sufficiently in place. [5]

But however much the West is admired, openly or with secret jealousy, legitimate concern arises over where we are headed. Will, for instance, the easier access to material goods promised by westernization simply drown thirsty eastern Europe in hedonism? Or, to consider America and western Europe, will the relentless secularization even of religious institutions desiccate the very sources of the cultural life of the west? [6] There is no shortage of prophets of doom who think it already has, and the massive evidence available is compelling.

Our culture certainly does not feel like a religious culture. Even the Catholic sub-culture in which many here in the audience grew up seems to be in shambles. The prevailing wisdom among the most successful, prosperous and lively sectors of our society — the media, the legal and medical professions, the professoriate and the wizards of technology — is that this culture has a fine life of its own and plenty of drive; religion is better left a private matter, available to the superstitious but invariably a bull in a china shop when it enters the arena of public policy discussions. At best, religion is considered an inspiration to the good manners and morals needed in civic life, so there is no harm in paying it lip service, so long as the rhetoric is sufficiently pluralistic and innocuously inclusive.

Bleak as the prospect of restoring the spiritual dimension of our culture any time soon is, there is a more constructive assessment possible than merely gloomy despair. We dare not be naive about this. The irrepressible optimism of the 60s brought many well-intentioned religious leaders to expect no harm to come from exchanging a predominantly eschatological model of religion (concern with saving one's own soul and one's neighbor's) for the social gospel of liberal Protestantism (the reduction of Christianity to part of its ethical and moral teachings). [7] But the reason for hope even amid the current confusion consists in the increasing recognition that the task of the Church is direct evangelization and that the renewal of culture is its hoped for fruit. [8] Like any good apple or peach, the fruit may be what we most directly enjoy, but in the long range perspective of the tree, the moisture and nutriments in the fruit actually help to root the seed in some new ground so it may gradually but sturdily grow, transforming the land and the landscape as it does so.

To appreciate the call to refocus religious energy on direct, one-to-one personal evangelization as a genuine blessing and not a fall-back strategy of desperation requires that we see "the big picture" of the proper relation of religion and culture. In what follows, I would like to develop two points: 1) Dawson's analysis of the distinctive trait specific to the Christian religion as formative of Western culture, and 2) an important shift the Church has been laboring to make in this regard.


Judaism and Christianity constitute the religious pole in the formation of Western culture coordinate with the legal, scientific and philosophical pole of Greece and Rome. While a pragmatist may hold history to be irrelevant and a committed pluralist might explain it away on the grounds that some religious factor or other is a necessary component in the rise of all the other great world cultures, Dawson's point is that the specific type of religious influence Christianity has exerted is unparalleled, and the effect upon Western culture has been unique. By its balance between transcendence and immanence — worship of an utterly transcendent God, creator of a universe wholly other than Himself, and reverence for the world God made and loved so much that the Word became incarnate for its healing and restoration — Christianity has taken a distinctive stance toward the world: it is in the world, but not entirely of it; in the phrases of the Gospel, one must render to Caesar what is Caesar's but to God what is God's. Augustine's doctrine of the Two Cities [9] is a Western political formulation of one of Christianity's non-negotiable principles: genuine interest and love for this world, but always from an unyielding desire to renew the world, whatever degree of cultural progress or regress it finds in a given land at a given time, in order to transform this world in light of a higher love, its religious bond to the Triune God. The cultural result is a flexibility and dynamism that accepts and even encourages the development of new social forms that protect and enhance such characteristically Western ideals as freedom and autonomy.

By contrast, other great world religions have tended to idealize a timeless and unchanging perfection within the world and fashioned their cultures according to some sacred social order, for instance the Confucian state in China or the Indian caste-system. [10] This is why social freedom, change and autonomy are deeply threatening "western values" that have so unsettled these ancient orders, especially when they arrive shorn of the religious orientation in which they were born and in which we find them so fruitful for the spiritual life. How easy it is for us to talk about freedom of worship, faith as a free act of assent, freedom of opportunity to use the goods of this world, popular determination in matters of politics, responsible moral freedom, and the like. But there is no one of us who does not tremble before the perversions to which these notions are put in our own society when proper religious guidance is removed — we need only think of the connotations that such phrases as "freedom of choice" have come to have, or think how often people argue that moral autonomy means that "no one imposes his or her morality on me" without reflecting on the fact that it is only ordered liberty and the social embodiment of certain moral principles in law that guarantees whatever autonomy we exercise.

Islam offers a classic picture of how a religious perspective on life and a set of religious doctrines can entirely change a social way of living. Our closest contact with this influence may be with that portion of the American black community which has become Muslim. But it is important to recall how the social forms and institutions this religion has created have spread across racial and geographical boundaries — from Saudi Arabia and the whole Mideast to the very different situations of nations on the coast of West Africa like Nigeria, the islands of Malaysia, large portions of India, and poor war-torn Bosnia. Once Islam achieves dominance in a region, its social forms become set and remain fixed for centuries, with as simple and clear a design as its single line of creed, Allah alone is God, and Muhammed is his prophet. [11]

By contrast, Western culture is known for its dynamism and constant readiness to change (what Dawson called its "series of renaissances" has become parodied in the American tendency to re-invent ourselves every ten minutes), and yet Western culture only succeeded in avoiding anarchy while championing such broad notions of freedom by retaining both poles, an orientation to the transcendent as well as a concern for the cultivation and manipulation of the material world. There is a cosmic struggle between forces of good and evil for the soul of mankind that is being fought here. Material progress needs to be kept in the service of spiritual freedom and not become, as it often does today, an end in itself. In the following passage from The Judgment of the Nations Dawson links this development of political freedom to spiritual insights about moral responsibility:

Christian freedom combined and transformed the elements of barbaric freedom and classical citizenship into something new.... This sense of Christian liberty... was diffused throughout the whole body of Christendom and formed the spiritual background which from an external point of view often appears extremely hierarchic and authoritarian. In Eastern Europe, owing largely to the Oriental imperialisms, to which it was so long subjected, this background was so far removed from political realities that the Christian social consciousness expressed itself in mystical or apocalyptic terms. In the West, however, the social order was more plastic and more organically related to the beliefs and ideals of the people. In fact, no civilization, not even that of ancient Greece, has ever undergone such a continuous and profound process of change as Western Europe has done during the last 900 years. It is impossible to explain this fact in purely economic terms by a materialistic interpretation of history. The principle of change has been a spiritual one and the progress of Western civilization is intimately related to the dynamic ethos of Western Christianity, which has gradually made Western man conscious of his moral responsibility and his duty to change the world. [12]

Yet in the material success of the West, its sources have been forgotten, or even disparaged. The godlessness of the Humanist Movement today, for instance, belies the religious roots of Humanism in the Renaissance. Although the 15th century version was genuinely a movement of return to nature, especially after the emptiness of philosophical nominalism and the terrifying voluntarism that had been let loose in politics, the vision of the human being which Humanists like Francis Bacon and Thomas More rediscovered was not simply that of the state of nature, but that fashioned by a millennium of Christianity: the human type that had been produced by ten centuries of spiritual discipline and intensive cultivation of the inner life. The great men of the Renaissance were spiritual men even when they were most deeply immersed in the temporal order. It was from the accumulated resources of their Christian past that they acquired the energy to conquer the material world and to create the new spiritual culture. [13]

Even in the darker periods of the 18th century Enlightenment and 19th century imperialism, when the West set out to conquer the world and, for better or worse, to transform it into its own image, it is possible to see, even in its distortion, a distinctive mark this religion brought to bear: the urge to expand one's intellectual horizons and to spread one's own culture. The cynics who so ravaged Columbus during the 1992 quincentennary might be quick to acknowledge this distinctive mark, "Yes, a ruthless quest for domination." But Dawson offers a judicious reminder:

It is easy enough to present the history of this European expansion as a process of imperialistic aggression and economic exploitation. But aggression and exploitation are nothing new in world history, and if they suffice to explain the European achievement, it might have been realized hundreds or thousands of years earlier by any of the world empires that have successively held the stage of history. The peculiar achievement of Western culture in modern times is due to a new element which was not present in the older type of imperialism. [14]

What is this new element present alongside the admitted lust for power and wealth so prominent in European history like every other history? Dawson calls it Western culture's "missionary character":

Even in the darkest periods of the Middle Ages this dynamic principle continued to operate. For what distinguishes Western culture from the other world civilizations is its missionary character — its transmission from one people to another in a continuous series of spiritual movements. [15]

The bulk of Dawson's second set of Gifford Lectures is then dedicated to showing how such distinctively western social institutions as the medieval commune and guild, school and university emerged from this missionary thrust.

The original movement from east to west with the generations of missionaries that sprang from St. Paul and St. Irenaeus laid the foundations of Western Christianity. When the Empire fell, Christians of what had been the western provinces of Rome carried the process of transmission to the barbarian peoples of the north: St. Patrick to Ireland and the agents of St. Gregory the Great to England. In the sixth century the direction was reversed and missionaries of such newly Christian lands as Ireland and England set about the evangelization of Dutch and German pagans and the reform of the Frankish Church, with the attendant cultural fruit of a revival of education and classical learning. [16] Unlike Byzantium, where political power and cultural hegemony coincided, Western culture from this period manifests a dualism that has constantly supported the development of freedom and the dynamic growth of new forms of social organization. The spread of monasteries, for instance, can be traced to a quest for individual perfection and salvation, but without doubt it also made for the renewal of urban culture in the middle ages and eventually for the directly responsive civil government frequently found in the high middle ages. Likewise, monastic reform spread from place to place in the 10th and 11th centuries and spurred the reform of the Church in general. The rise of the universities as centers for research and the dissemination of learning was enabled by the relative ease of communication and participation among those of diverse national origin; to this day, even though most university education is thoroughly secular, the ideal of what a university is continues to bear the marks of seeking the advancement of knowledge and the spread of learning with which this religious culture originally endowed the institution. The participants shared a common culture, but one tolerant of regional diversity and all the more colorful and interesting thereby. This same vitality is evident in the massive cultural effect of the new mendicant orders in the 12th and 13th centuries. The preaching of the Dominicans reinvigorated religiously tepid towns, and the witness to poverty in the very life of the Franciscans made their preaching of the Gospel as credible as it was enchanting.

The period of missionary effort that more easily springs to the mind is the grand effort that followed the discovery of the Americas and the opening of sea routes to the East. Current critics of the genuine abuses all too often practiced upon the peoples native to the lands claimed and conquered by Europeans speedily tar the religious impulse of the missionaries with the same brush, forgetful of the selfless service these missionaries were offering to peoples who had never heard of Christ. If the history of this period is checkered, it is only right to acknowledge the light squares running in the same direction as the dark. In fact, it was precisely reflection on the spiritual liberation from ignorance and sin being promoted by these missionaries that brought intellectuals of the universities to reconsider the moral question of slavery (a practice which students are regularly shocked to learn that an enlightened Greek like Aristotle had no qualms in justifying) and begin the process of its condemnation that took centuries to complete.

Our concern with grasping "the big picture" permits us to forego a rehearsal of further details. Dawson shows us a picture of Western culture dynamic in its social forms as the result of a religion whose mission is to carry the Good News to the ends of the earth. As its believers found their understanding of where those ends of the earth were, so their missionary efforts were directed. At the same time, the vision of human dignity as made in the image and likeness of God continued to develop and required the constant development of social forms worthy of such a being: schools and universities for the training of the mind, for example, or civil and economic organizations that protected the common good and personal labor. The constant danger of such fluidity was the opportunity of interested parties to strive for absolutist solutions, whether from the imperial or papal parties, especially, as Dawson points out, once the centers of reform concentrated in northern Europe were alienated from the principle of spiritual unity located in the Papacy by the worldliness of many a Renaissance Pope. [17] Not even the rending of the religious unity of Christendom broke Western culture's basic dynamism, although by the time of the Enlightenment the resultant quarrelling had occasioned the emergence of the ideal of tolerance as the supreme value in most Western countries and as the proper goal in questions of religion and culture. [18]


A crucial, but often misunderstood aspect of the problem of religion and culture is the idea of "Christendom." Especially given Dawson's interest in the role of Christianity in the formation of Western culture, he could easily be taken as an apologist for the restoration of Christendom. But I do not believe that he was such, and I do not think that this is the direction of opportunity now at hand for the Church. It seems to be necessary to provide a different means for incorporating Christian principles into society than before. But merely to abandon the need for finding some real cultural embodiment of Christian principles is to leave oneself and society open to what has happened in the United States over the past generation. Human beings are social beings and are greatly influenced and affected as much or more by the customs of the society in which they live as by the ideas common to their era. Give up the work of structuring society according to religious principles and you will expose the majority of people to the solicitations of grave evil.

Christendom is a term which suggests a dream long cherished, though always more a dream than a fact, a dream of a thorough integration of religion and politics in some form of theocracy. It was a dream sought in different ways by the competing papal and imperial parties in the era of the Holy Roman Empire and the days of Pope Boniface VIII with his claim to be able to seat and depose temporal rulers. It was a dream enacted for long periods in Spain, where alternate and interlocking authority gave kings the right to nominate bishops for papal appointment and the Church the right to direct the secular arm to work for forced conversions. One might say it was a Western dream that aspired to become like the Eastern Christianity of Byzantium.

But it was a dream that bred a certain amount of violence and forced conversions, a dream thoroughly disavowed by the Second Vatican Council, and not just there but progressively challenged by the Pian Popes in the sometimes reluctant but steady series of steps that have included the ceding of the Papal States and in the articulation of a prophetic social teaching by a series of encyclicals whose high moral road is possible in part because the Church has liberated herself from compromising temporal claims. In The Judgment of the Nations (1942) Dawson quotes at length from Pius XI's "Mit brennender Sorge" precisely on the relations between the common good and personal rights:

The believer has an inalienable right to profess his faith and to practice it in the manner suited to him. Laws which suppress or render difficult the profession and practice of this faith are contrary to natural law. (Mit brennender Sorge 35)

Dawson then comments on the strong affirmation of the right of religious freedom:

This question has proved one of the stumbling blocks in the way of Christian co-operation... since it has been felt that Catholics have failed to recognize this principle. It is however clear from this passage... that on this particular issue there is no difference of opinion between Catholic and Protestant, and each is equally concerned to defend spiritual freedom against what Pius XI calls "the thousand forms of organized religious bondage," "the lack of truthful means and of the normal means of defence," ... which are characteristic of the totalitarian state....

It is clear to me that religious freedom is one of those "principles of human liberty and natural law." ... We must, however, remember that the principles of natural law, essential as they are, are only the minimal basis of common action.... No secular remedy can meet the world's need; no purely moral effort can restore true peace and spiritual order to society. The only final end to which Christian action can be directed is the restoration of all things in Christ. All Catholic teaching on social action during the present century has been based on the doctrine of the Universal Kingship of Christ, which is the Church's answer to the universal claims of the totalitarian systems. But in spite of its tremendous implications this doctrine should not be an obstacle to Christian co-operation: it is a principle of unity, not of division, for insofar as the Kingship of Christ is recognized not as a theological abstraction but as a social reality, the divisions of Christendom will be transcended and the human race will realize its organic unity under its Divine Head. [19]

Twenty years prior to the Vatican II declaration on religious freedom, Dawson sees Pius XI as already articulating the personal right to religious freedom within a larger body of social teaching ("principles of human liberty and natural law") and sees this entire body of social teaching encompassed within the evangelical mission of the Church to work for the Kingdom of Christ. By gaining this perspective, one can transcend the divisions that have torn apart Christendom and see the spiritual force that is the source of true unity — there is no talk of a strategy to reconstitute Christendom politically.

This is to say that our saintly modern Popes have seen the issue to be not the relation of Church and state, but the relation of religion and culture. The relation of Church and State has had special meaning for American politics, where it is a matter of no established or preferred religion (as the Anglican Church had been the Established Church in mother England). In European politics the relation of Church and State suggests the long-fought problem of investiture. But what the Popes have tried to direct attention to is a different issue, the relation of religion and culture, and they have proved ever mindful, as Dawson would put it, of "the intricate and far-reaching network of relations that unite the social way of life with the spiritual beliefs and values which are accepted by society as the ultimate laws of life and the ultimate stands of individual and social behavior." [20]

Whatever the technical problems with some of the specific formulations of Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom, a document like this shows a willingness to accommodate the modern liberal state and to use the language of human rights just as Pius XI did. [21] It is not that this form of social organization is privileged any more than other forms with which the Church has had to deal, or that the Church commits herself to it in preference to other forms yet to be devised. But the document does contain a firm repudiation of earlier insistence on a privileged position for the Church, precisely so as to insist on the complete freedom of the Church to evangelize and the right of individuals to worship God in freedom. Perhaps it is in response to the wars of massive devastation and the swaggering presence of totalitarian regimes for most of this century that prompted the Church at this time to restate her perennial doctrines and aims in terms of human dignity and personal responsibility.

We all know the sorry situation that perplexes the Church when this document is read out of context, when some of its phrases about the rights of the person to seek religious truth according to his or her conscience are treated as if the document were promoting religious indifferentism instead of being rightly interpreted with the Council's comments on evangelization. Some analysts consider the change of emphasis (from "the rights of truth" in Mirari Vos and Lamentabile Anni to "the rights of persons" in Dignitatis Humanae) to be a failure of nerve and a capitulation to the secular ideal of tolerance. Granted, the earlier formulations seem designed to prevent proselytizing among Catholics by non-Catholics; but I wonder if the new formulation was really not the product of far-sighted vision of the pressing need to clear the decks for evangelical work, a call to an evangelization that has still not yet fully found its voice. When we take the long historical perspective that Dawson recommends, the renewal of focus on re-awakening evangelization rather than on re-asserting the claims of Christendom seems to be precisely right. It is 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. Aware that the submerged religious roots of modern culture have been drying up, so much of the American Catholic subculture now dying, and much of the missionary thrust of the Church withering away, the Church has been feeling her way toward taking the right steps and following the pattern of self-renewal that has been her mainstay these two millennia, the renewal of faith that will again animate cultural development.

On darker days one almost feels like asking, Will God permit the Church to die? But the answer is no. He may allow it to die in this or that part of Western culture, as He did in Northern Africa after the glorious patristic age, and that would be a shame. The statistics on church-going in France, for instance, in Holland, or in Scandinavia suggest it is already dead, except for the tiniest sprigs of green such as one sometimes sees on the edge of a tree stump.

But the clarity of the formal pronouncements of recent Popes and the Council on the fundamental dignity of the human person and on the need for direct and vigorous evangelization is corroborated for anyone with eyes to see in the experience of vigorous religious sects like the Mormons and Hispanic Pentecostals. One sees their lively church services, their young people happily committing part of their lives to the sole purpose of preaching and proselyting; yet one also sees their weakness for lack of a principle of unity. There is much energy, but little direction.

Our faith sustains the conviction that the Church will continue in Our Lord's service. But the problem of how best to seek social embodiment of religious principles remains. Given the tremendous power government now has in all aspects of life, how do we resist the secularizing trends? If we stand aside on grounds that we are too pure to be involved in anything so mundane and possibly even as sordid as Church influence upon the State, we see the results in an administration whose very first executive orders were an attack on the unborn. Rather, the question is how our religious influence is to be exercised upon the state. Dawson's remarks from the very end of Progress and Religion may help to provide the necessary historical and sociological perspective:

We have come to take it for granted that the unifying force in society is material interest, and that spiritual conviction is a source of strife and division. Modern civilization has pushed religion and the spiritual elements in culture out of the main stream of its development, so that they have lost touch with social life and have become sectarianized and impoverished. But at the same time this has led to the impoverishment of our whole culture. It has borne fruit in that "plebeianism of the European spirit" which Nietzsche regarded as the necessary consequence of the disappearance of the spiritual power. This, however, is but a temporary phenomenon; it can never be the normal condition of humanity. For, as we have seen, the vital and creative power behind every culture is a spiritual one. In proportion as the spiritual element recovers its natural position at the centre of our culture, it will necessarily become the mainspring of our whole social activity. This does not, however, mean that the material and spiritual aspects of life must become fused in a single political order which would have all the power and rigidity of a theocratic state. Since a culture is essentially a spiritual community, it transcends the economic and political orders. It finds its appropriate organ not in a state, but in a Church, that is to say a society which is the embodiment of a purely spiritual tradition and which rests, not on material power, but on the free adhesion of the individual mind. It has been the peculiar achievement of Western Christianity in the past to realize such an ideal in an organized spiritual society, which could co-exist with the national political units without either absorbing or being absorbed by them. The return to this tradition would once more make it possible to reconcile the existence of national independence and political freedom, which are an essential part of European life, with the wider unity of our civilization, and with that higher process of spiritual integration which is the true goal of human progress. [22]
The crucial insight here, I think, is one that sets Dawson apart from someone like his contemporary, T. S. Eliot. [23] Admittedly, Eliot's earlier writings and his poems, like the Choruses from The Rock, show him to be Christian in his sympathies. But his later letters reveal his admiration for religion merely as a matrix of culture. This reverses their order of importance. It is almost as though he valued Christianity because it produced the kind of culture he admired. Dawson, on the other hand, seems to me to be clearer about the importance of a social embodiment of religious principles so as to serve the genuine aims of religion, the better to allow free persons rightly to order their relations to their God and their fellow creatures.

That Dawson stands for keeping a spiritual force alive and vigorous in culture, and not for a return to Christendom is clear in yet another way from his educational writings, and especially, The Crisis of Western Education. Recognizing as he does the crucial nature of the control of education in the present cultural conflict, he does not urge a defensive fight to re-establish some cherished status quo, even the traditional humanist education in the Latin and Greek classics. Instead he proposes an innovation much in the spirit of his general view of the relation of religion and culture, namely, making the study of Christian culture the center of a curriculum. He envisions this proposal not just as an alternative but an antidote to the "combination of utilitarianism and specialism [which] is not only fatal to the idea of a liberal education, [but] is also one on the main causes of the intellectual disintegration of modern Western culture." Commenting on the increasingly technological cast of our society, Dawson alerts us to a paradox: the promissory character of technological materialism (where the answer to all problems is forever promised in the future by some technical solution, without need for responsible use of our freedom) has had the effect of alienating the great mass of men and women from nature, from one another and even from reality itself. His proposal to make the study of the dynamic relations of religion and culture central to the curriculum seems intended to restore a sense of historical reality over against the hedonistic delusions of postmodern "virtual reality." Without making religion into a rationalized system of conclusions, the historical approach can assist the work of evangelization by providing an organized matrix for study and for asking questions about the importance of spiritual reality in various cultures at various periods of their development.


The optimism that marks Dawson's vision is neither promissory materialism nor the weary old religion of progress, but the virtue of hope. In my judgment, this is the supernatural gift needed for the work toward which a proper understanding of the relation of religion and culture points. Thankfully, there is much evidence that the Church — once again and still, as always — envisions direct evangelization as her most proper task. How and when the fruit will come is not ours to see. But in The Historic Reality of Christian Culture Dawson reminds us of the way this hope succeeds:

The remaking of an old culture by the birth of a new hope was not the conscious aim of the Christians themselves. They tended, like St. Cyprian, to believe that the world was growing old, that the empire was irremediably pagan and that some world catastrophe was imminent. Nevertheless they lived in a spiritual atmosphere of hope, and this atmosphere gradually spread until the climate of the world was changed. The heartless, hopeless Rome which found its monstrous expression in the Colosseum and the gladiatorial games became the Rome of St. Leo and St. Gregory — a city which laid the foundations of a new world while its own world was falling in ruin around it. We see the same process at work in northern Europe during the Dark Ages. The men who converted the warrior peoples of the north and laid the foundations of medieval culture had no conception of the new world they were creating and no belief in the temporal future of civilization. But they were men of hope, as they were men of faith, and therefore their work endured for a thousand years and bore rich fruit in every field of cultural activity, as well as on its own religious level. [24]


  1. Christopher Dawson, The Gods of Revolution: an analysis of the French Revolution, introduction by Arnold Toynbee (NY: Minerva Press, 1972, 1975) and The Spirit of the Oxford Movement (London: Sheed & Ward, 1934). Back to text.
  2. Christopher Dawson, Religion and Culture. Gifford Lectures delivered in the University of Edinburgh, 1947-1948 (London: Sheed & Ward, 1948) 50. Back to text.
  3. Religion and Culture 50. Back to text.
  4. Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. Gifford Lectures delivered in the University of Edinburgh, 1948-1949 (London: Sheed & Ward, 1950; Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1958) 19. Back to text.
  5. In Modern Times: the World from the Twenties to the Eighties (NY: Harper & Row, 1983) Paul Johnson gives repeated examples of the sorry experience of young developing nations which got only a parasitical class of professional politicians who pocketed western funding and appropriated the name "democracy" instead of some actual system of fairness and timely justice and the basic stability needed for economic growth, a vision that has been associated with the ideal called "democracy" that the Third World has found so enticing. Back to text.
  6. See, e.g. Chapter 7, "The Secularization of Western Culture and the Rise of the Religion of Progress" in Christopher Dawson's Progress and Religion (1929, but recently reprinted by Sherwood Sugden & Co., June 1992). Back to text.
  7. This has been noticed by authors in both the conservative and liberal spheres. See Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R., The Reform of Renewal (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990) and Patricia Wittberg, S.C., Creating a Future for Religious Life: a sociological perspective (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1991). For background discussion, see Avery Dulles, S.J., Models of the Church (NY: Doubleday, 1974). Back to text.
  8. Pope John Paul II has repeatedly called for a "new evangelization." Throughout his Pontificate he has sounded the religion and cultural theme, e.g. during his 1982 pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, when he urged Europe to be "the beacon of civilization" (Cf. "The New York Times", Wednesday, November 10, 1992). In 1982 he established the Pontifical Council on Culture to promote his own humanistic theory of culture.
    Back to text.
  9. See Dawson's comments on this doctrine in "St. Augustine and the City of God" in his Dynamics of World History, edited by John J. Mulloy (LaSalle IL.: Sugden, 1978) 294-325. Back to text.
  10. Dawson finds the only prolonged exception to this in Western culture to be the Carolingian Empire, which attempted to impose theocratic rule in oriental style; even as it faltered it gave birth to the Church-State problem that for a thousand years dominated the question of the relation of religion and culture. See Religion and the Rise of Western Culture 62-66, 84-85 and 90-91. For comparison with the theocratic regime in Byzantium, see 104-106. Back to text.
  11. See Religion and Culture 53. Back to text.
  12. The Judgment of the Nations, pp. 22-24. Back to text.
  13. Christopher Dawson, Christianity and the New Age 94-96 of 1931 edition. Back to text.
  14. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture 16-17. Back to text.
  15. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture 18-19. Back to text.
  16. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture 19. For the details, see chapters 2-5. Back to text.
  17. See The Dividing of Christendom (Sheed & Ward, 1965). Back to text.
  18. Cf. The Judgment of the Nations, 64-65: "It was in England in the 17th century that the Christian ideal of spiritual freedom and the medieval tradition of political liberties came together to produce the new liberal ideology which was the main inspiration for Western civilization for more than two centuries and out of which political liberalism in the strict sense finally developed. The failure of liberalism in the course of the last century has been due above all to the failure of the liberal parties to give adequate expression to this ideology and to the still deeper social tradition that lies behind it. The liberal movement in the wider sense transformed the world by an immense liberation of human energies, but liberalism in the narrower sense proved incapable of guiding the forces that it had realized. It became a negative and defensive creed which from the socialist standpoint represented nothing more than class interest." Back to text.
  19. The Judgment of the Nations 166-168. Back to text.
  20. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture 12. Back to text.
  21. Unfortunately, the Christian origins of the theory of human rights is generally neglected by enthusiasts of the Enlightenment. A trustworthy account of the notion of natural rights and its parent notion natural law is to be found in Yves R. Simon's The Tradition of Natural Law: a philosopher's reflections (NY: Fordham University Press, 1965, 1992). While Jacques Maritain can also be credited with trying to bring out the Christian origins of the modern theory of human rights, the subtitle of his masterwork on the subject gives us pause: Integral Humanism: temporal and spiritual problems of a new Christendom, translated by Joseph W. Evans (French original, 1936; Charles Scribner's Sons,1968). Back to text.
  22. Progress and Religion 249-250. Back to text.
  23. See Dawson's essay, "T.S.Eliot on the Meaning of Culture" in Dynamics of World History, pp. 103-110. Back to text.
  24. Christopher Dawson, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, p. 65. Back to text.



Koterski, S.J. Joseph, “Religion as the Root of Culture,” in Christianity and Western Civilization. Christopher Dawson's Insight: Can a Culture Survive the Loss of Its Religious Roots? Papers Presented at a Conference Sponsored by the Wethersfield Institute New York City, October 15, 1993 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 15-35.

Reprinted with permission of the author and the Wethersfield Institute.


Joseph Koterski, S.J., is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University, Bronx, New York.

Copyright © 1993 Ignatius Press

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