To Tear Down and to Build Up: Christianity and the Subversive ForcesJAMES HITCHCOCK
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.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.  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,  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. 
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. 
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. 
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. 
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. 
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. 
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. 
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. 
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. 
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. 
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. 
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. 
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.  Christianity was locked into a struggle with Marxism particularly, because both claimed to understand and to value history. 
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. 
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.  In a memorable phrase at another time, Dawson contrasted two different kinds of totalitarianism castor oil and concentration camps versus free milk and contraceptives. 
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. 
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. 
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. 
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."  Communication between the Church and modern culture was not completely blocked, he thought, and the anti-religious movements might provoke an opposite reaction.  The City of God is always stronger than it looks, as the City of Man is weaker.  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. 
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.  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. 
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. 
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.  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.  Christians are pioneers of a new movement of world revolution, but its contours are hidden from them.  Totalitarianism can only be resisted on religious grounds, and Catholics alone are capable of getting in contact with their spiritual roots.  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. 
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. 
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. 
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.  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.  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. 
Thus at various times in his life Dawson thought that an apocalyptic stance was appropriate, warning that persecution lay ahead , 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.  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....
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 , that the world is always ending, each end a rehearsal for the final end. 
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. 
Hitchcock, James, “To Tear Down and to Build Up: Christianity and the Subversive Forces in Western Civilization,” 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), 57-71.
Reprinted with permission of the author and the Wethersfield Institute.
James Hitchcock is a widely published author on many topics and Professor of History at St. Louis University. James Hitchcock is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 1993 Ignatius
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