The Stages of World Religion — part 3


In this continuation of selections from Christopher Dawson illustrating The Stages of World Religion, we present the second part of Stage V. This deals with the way in which the Hebraic monotheism of the Old Testament found its fulfillment in Christianity — and how it also was a factor in the rise of Islam.

Christianity united Hebraic monotheism with the heritage of Hellenic philosophy while rejecting Graeco-Roman religion. The process of incorporation of Greek thought, begun by the Fathers of the Church in the early centuries of Christianity, was not completed until the time of St. Thomas Aquinas. He it was who provided the most complete synthesis of Christianity and Hellenic thought, drawing upon both Aristotle and Plato in order to provide a deeper understanding of the Catholic Faith.

Throughout the whole of this development Christianity had to fight against the dangers of syncretism, which had such a fatal influence on the religions of the Orient, and which would have destroyed the monotheist tradition for which Christianity stood.


Stage V. Divided Course of Development in East and West

B. The West: Development of Hebraic Monotheist Tradition

1. History and Divine Providence

Consequently, to the Jews, history possessed a unique and absolute value such as no other people of antiquity had conceived. The eternal law which the Greeks saw embodied in the ordered movement of the heavens was manifested to the Jews in the vicissitudes of human history. While the philosophers of India and Greece were meditating on the illusoriness or the eternity of the cosmic process, the prophets of Israel were affirming the moral purpose in history and were interpreting the passing events of their age as the revelation of the divine will. For them there could be no question of the return of all things in an eternal cycle of cosmic change, since the essence of their doctrine of the divine purpose in the world was its uniqueness. There was one God and one Israel, and in the relations between these two was comprised the whole purpose of creation. And so when, in the course of history, the Jews were brought into relation with the cosmopolitan culture of the Hellenistic age, they alone preserved their own religious tradition and their own view of the world, and entrenched themselves behind the barrier of an ever stricter observance of the traditional ritual order. It is true that they did not entirely escape the influence of the dominant idea of a cyclic process in the world order, but they reinterpreted this conception in the spirit of their own tradition. The aeon of Jewish apocalyptic is not a true cycle, it is a stage in the development of a single process, which retains its unique value and importance.

It is, however, transferred from the historical to the cosmic plane, or rather transformed into that species of cosmic history which we know as apocalyptic.

2. The Book of Daniel and the World Empires

The new Jerusalem will not be a kingdom like the kingdoms of the Gentiles, but an eternal and universal one, founded on a new spiritual covenant. Israel was destined to be a theophoric people in a fuller sense than when it received the law of Jahweh at Sinai. It was to be the vehicle of divine revelation to the world.

This Jewish interpretation of history finds its most systematic expression in the book of Daniel which formed a model for the later apocalyptic literature. It no longer takes the form of isolated prophecies and denunciations of particular judgments, but of a synthetic view of world history as seen in the series of world empires which occupy "the latter times." Each empire has its allotted time and when "the sentence of the watchers" has gone forth its kingdom is numbered and finished. And at the same time the transcendent character of the Messianic hope is brought out more clearly than before. The Kingdom of God does not belong to the series of world empires, it is something that comes in from outside and replaces them. It is the stone cut out of the mountain without hands that crushes the fourfold image of world empire to powder and grows till it fills the whole world. It is the universal kingdom of the Son of Man which will destroy the Kingdoms of the four beasts and will endure for ever.

3. Apocalyptic Character of the Gospel of Jesus

At first sight there may seem little in common between all this lurid Apocalyptic imagery and the teaching of the Gospels. Nevertheless the same fundamental conceptions underlie both of them. The dualism of the Kingdom and the World in the Gospels and the Epistles is no less uncompromising than that of the two apocalyptic cities. This is especially so in the case of the Fourth Gospel with its insistence on the enmity of the World as the necessary condition of the children of the Kingdom. "I pray not for the world, but for those that thou hast given me." And again — "The prince of this world cometh and in me he has not anything" (John XVII, 9; XIV, 30).

So too the supernatural and catastrophic character of the coming of the Kingdom is insisted on in the Synoptic Gospels no less than in the Apocalypse. There also, in what may be called the apocalypse of Jesus, we find the same prophecies of coming woe and the same conception of a world crisis which is due to the ripening of the harvest of evil rather than to the progress of the forces of good. "And as it was in the days of Noe, so it shall be also in the days of the Son of Man. They ate and drank, they married and gave in marriage until the day when Noe entered into the ark and the flood came and destroyed them all" (Luke XVII, 7).

It does not follow, however, that the faithful are powerless to affect the course of events. It is their resistance that breaks the power of the world. The prayers of the saints and the blood of the martyrs, so to speak, force the hand of God and hasten the coming of the Kingdom. If the unjust judge listens to the importunity of the widow will not God much more avenge his elect who cry to him night and day?

These are the foundations of the Christian view of history as it has been incorporated in the Catholic tradition.

4. The Son of Man in the Gospels

For the Kingdom of the gospels is not a national triumph of Israel over his foes; it is the mystical and spiritual reign of God in humanity. It is already immanent in the present order, which it is destined to transform and supersede — it is a leaven and a seed and a hidden treasure. It is open not to the Jews as such — the children of Abraham — nor to the Scribes and Pharisees, who observe meticulously all the outward prescriptions of the Mosaic law, but to the poor and the meek, the seekers after justice and those who follow the Son of Man in his sufferings and humiliation.


Nothing can be further from the colorless Liberal picture of Jesus as a great moral idealist than the figure of the Son of Man in the Gospels, filled with the consciousness of his Messianic office and inaugurating a new supernatural dispensation by the New Covenant of his voluntary sacrifice.

Nevertheless, the spirituality of the Kingdom does not imply that it was purely internal and individual. It retained the objective social character that it possessed in the prophetic tradition. It was to find its realization in and through a community. But this community was no longer the national church-state of Jewish history; it was a new Messianic society — the "little flock" of which the gospels speak (Luke 12:32). The mission of Jesus consisted essentially in the foundation of this society, not by doctrine alone, but by an act of creative power. Nothing can be further from the colorless Liberal picture of Jesus as a great moral idealist than the figure of the Son of Man in the Gospels, filled with the consciousness of his Messianic office and inaugurating a new supernatural dispensation by the New Covenant of his voluntary sacrifice. All the mythological parallels invoked by rationalist critics from the vegetation cults of primitive peoples and the mystery religions of the Hellenistic world sink into insignificance by the side of the profound spiritual reality of the words of Jesus, "I have a baptism wherewith I am to be baptized and how am I straitened until it be accomplished?", or of that great scene in the Upper Chamber, which only the most arbitrary preconceptions can remove from its place in the most ancient and authenticated documents of primitive Christianity.

Nor is it possible to deny that the actual beginnings of the historic Christian Church were rooted in this doctrine of a new order inaugurated by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus and incorporated in a spiritual society. The outpouring of the Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost was regarded as the fulfillment of prophecy and of the promises of Jesus to His apostles. For the possession of the Holy Spirit was the essential characteristic of the new society. It was, even more than Israel, a theophoric community, since it was the external organ of the Holy Spirit and enjoyed supernatural powers and authority. And at the same time the early Christians preserved the historical associations and the social self-consciousness of the Jewish tradition; they felt them-selves to be a true people, "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation."

5. Jesus as Both Logos and Messiah

But in addition to the social and historical side of its teaching, Christianity also brought a new doctrine of God and a new relation of the human soul to Him. Judaism had been the least mystical and the least metaphysical of religions. It revealed God as the Creator, the Lawgiver and the Judge, and it was by obedience to His Law and by the ritual observances of sacrifice and ceremonial purity that man entered into relations with Him. But the transformation by Jesus of the national community into a new universal spiritual society brought with it a corresponding change in the doctrine of God. God was no longer the national deity of the Jewish people, localized, so to speak, at Sinai and Jerusalem. He was the Father of the human race, the Univeral Ground of existence "in Whom we live and move and are." And when St. Paul appealed to the testimony of the Stoic poet, he recognized that Christianity was prepared to accept the metaphysical inheritance of Hellenic thought as well as the historic revelation of Jewish prophecy.

This is shown still more clearly in St. John's Identification of the Logos and the Messiah in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel. 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 op-position that Philo had vainly attempted to surmount by an artificial philosophical synthesis — finally disappeared before the new revelation of the Incarnate Word. As St. Augustine has said, the Fourth Gospel is essentially the Gospel of contemplation, for while the first three evangelists are concerned with the external mission of Jesus as Messianic King and Savior and teach the active virtues of Christian life, St. John is, above all, "the theologian" who declares the mysteries of the Divine Nature and teaches the way of contemplation (de Consensu Evangelistarum i., cap 3-5). Jesus is the bridge between Humanity and Divinity. In Him God is not only manifested to man, but vitally participated. He is the Divine Light, which illuminates men's minds, and the Divine Life, which transforms human nature and makes it the partaker of Its own supernatural activity.

Hence the insistence of the Fourth Gospel on the sacramental element in Christ's teaching (e.g., John 3:5; 6:32-58), since it is through the sacraments that the In-carnation 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. So far from being an alien magical conception superimposed from without upon the religion of the Gospel, it forms the very heart of Christianity, since it is only through the sacramental principle that the Jewish ideal of an external ritual cult becomes transformed into a worship of spiritual communion. In the great age of creative theological thought, the development of dogma was organically linked with sacramentalism and mysticism. They were three aspects of a single reality — the great mystery of the restoration, illumination and deification of humanity by the Incarnation of the Divine Word.

6. The Fathers and Christian Humanism cannot be too strongly insisted that the victory of the Church in the 4th century was not, as so many modern critics would have us believe, the natural culmination of the religious evolution of the ancient world. It was, on the contrary, a violent interruption of that process...

For it cannot be too strongly insisted that the victory of the Church in the 4th century was not, as so many modern critics would have us believe, the natural culmination of the religious evolution of the ancient world. It was, on the contrary, a violent interruption of that process which forced European civilization out of its old orbit into a path which it would never have followed by its own momentum. It is true that the classical culture and the religion of the city state with which it was associated were losing their vitality, and that nothing could have arrested the movement of orientalization which ultimately conquered the Roman world. But this movement found its normal expression either in the undiluted form which is represented by the different Gnostic and Manichaean sects, or in a bastard Hellenistic syncretism. The religion of the Emperor Julian and his Neoplatonist teachers, in spite of their devotion to the Hellenic past, was actually more impregnated with oriental elements than was that of the Christian Fathers, such as Eusebius of Caesarea, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, Basil and the two Gregories.

For the writings of the latter, in spite of their avowed hostility to the Greek religious tradition, were characterized by a genuine spirit of humanism, for which there was little room in the spiritualistic theosophy of Julian and Maximus of Tyre. Their whole apologetic is dominated by the conception of Man as the center and crown of the created universe. The first book of the Theophany of Eusebius is a long panegyric of humanity, — man the craftsman and artist, the builder of cities and the sailor of ships, — man the scientist and philosopher who alone can foretell the changes of the heavenly bodies and knows the hidden causes of things, — man a God upon earth, "the dear child of the Divine Word."

7. The Humanism of St. Paul and St. Gregory of Nyssa

Now this kind of anti-humanist Christianity is not only contrary to the traditions of Western Christendom which have admittedly been permeated by humanist influence, but is alien from the spirit of Christianity itself.

The real decision was made by the apostolic Church when it turned from the Jews to the Gentiles, from the closed world of the synagogue and the law to the cosmopolitan society of the Roman Hellenistic world. In spite of his apparent anti-intellectualism, St. Paul was by no means unconscious of the value of humane letters in the work of evangelization. In fact he was himself the first Christian humanist and his speech to the Athenians, with its appeal to the Hellenistic doctrines of the unity of the human race, of divine providence and of the natural affinity between the human and divine natures, is the basic document of Christian humanism. All this is much more than a method of apologetic devised for an Hellenistic audience. It is an expression of St. Paul's sense of a certain affinity between Christianity and Hellenism owing to which the Hellenistic cities of the Eastern Roman Empire provided the necessary conditions for the propagation of the new faith.

What was the nature of this affinity? On the one hand Hellenism provided a humane ethos and a philosophy of human nature which were not to be found among other cultures, while on the other hand Christianity is distinguished from other religions by its doctrine of the Incarnate Word, through whom the Divine and Human Natures have been substantially united in the historic person of Jesus Christ, the mediator between God and Man.

It is clear that this essential Christian doctrine gives a new value to human nature, to human history and to human life which is not to be found in the other great oriental religions. The more the latter insist on the transcendence and absoluteness of the Divine Nature, the more they widen the gulf between God and Man, so that they tend either to deny the reality of the material world or to regard it as essentially evil, so that the body is a prison into which the human soul has got caught. These ideas were so powerful in the ancient world that they have often threatened to invade Christianity, and it was only by using the methods of Hellenic culture and with the help of Christian humanists like St. Irenaeus and St. Gregory of Nyssa that the Church was able to vindicate the Christian doctrine of man.

To St. Gregory there is a profound analogy between man's natural function as a rational being — the ruler of the world and the link between the intelligible and sensible orders — and the divine mission of the Incarnate Word which unites humanity with the divine nature and restores the broken unity of the whole creation. The natural order corresponds with the supernatural order and both form part of the same divine all-embracing plan of creation and restoration. The Incarnation restores human nature to its original integrity and with it the whole material creation which is raised through man to a higher plane and integrated with the intelligible or spiritual order.

These doctrines are no doubt fundamentally Pauline, but with St. Gregory of Nyssa they are explicitly related to the tradition of Greek thought and to the Hellenic ideal of humanity.

8. St. Augustine and the City of God

Two loves, he says, built two cities. The love of Self builds up Babylon to the contempt of God, and the love of God builds up Jerusalem to the contempt of Self. All history consists of the evolution of these principles embodied in two societies...

St. Augustine was dominated by that nostalgia of the in-finite which led the thinkers of the oriental world to turn away from the world of experience towards the eternal vision of transcendent Being. Nevertheless he was also a Latin, and his Latin sense of social and historical reality led him to do justice to the social and historical elements that are implicit in the Christian tradition. His ideal was not an impersonal Nirvana, but the City of God, and he saw the spiritual order not as a static metaphysical principle, but as a dynamic force which manifests itself in human society. Two loves, he says, built two cities. The love of Self builds up Babylon to the contempt of God, and the love of God builds up Jerusalem to the contempt of Self. All history consists of the evolution of these principles embodied in two societies, "blended one with another and moving on in all changes of times from the beginning of the human race even to the end of the world" (de Catechizandis rudibus 37).

Consequently the present world is neither a complete static order nor an unmeaning and illusory appearance. It is the birth process of a spiritual creation, the seminal or embryonic activity of a new life. And the actuating principle in this process is the Divine Spirit which manifests itself in the world, outwardly through the sacramental order of the Church, and inwardly in the soul by the operation of the spiritual will. For St. Augustine's emphasis on the weakness of human nature and the omnipotence of divine grace does not imply any under-valuing of the ethical aspect of life. On the contrary, paradoxical as it may seem, it was the importance that he attached to the moral will that led him to depreciate its freedom. The human will is the engine that God employs for the creation of a new world.

Thus while Christianity in the East tended to become a speculative mysticism embodied in a system of ritual, in the West, under the influence of Augustine, it became a dynamic moral and social force.

9. The Religion of Mohammed

Like all Semites he possessed that conception of human unimportance before the absolute and irresponsible divine power, which is perhaps the natural psychological result of the harsh conditions of a desert environment. But the all-powerful divinity of Mohammed was not like the deified powers of nature of the old Arabian religion, it was the God of the new religions — Jewish and Christian — which were making their power felt in Arabia.

The power of the religion of Mohammed rests above all on its absolute simplicity. It is the new type of world-religion reduced to its simplest elements. It rests on the principle of the absolute unity and omnipotence of God and of the all-importance of the life to come. But in spite of its simplicity it is far from being a rational Deism, as some of its modern apologists have conceived it. It is based not on Reason, but on prophetic Revelation in the strict sense of the word, and on the belief in the miraculous interposition of the supernatural powers. The life to come is portrayed in vivid material imagery....

The moral and social teaching of Mohammed is as simple and straightforward as his theology. To the Unity of God corresponds the fellowship of believers, which abolishes all distinctions of race and tribe and social rank. The primary duty is almsgiving: "to ransom the captive, to feed the orphan and the poor that lieth in the dust." Polygamy and slavery are permitted, but otherwise the moral code is puritanical in its strictness and was enforced by corporal punishment.

On the other hand, the moral and doctrinal simplicity of Islam is balanced by an elaborate ceremonial code; the five daily times of prayer with the due number of prostrations, the recitations of the Koran, the severe annual fast of Ramadan, the strict rules concerning ceremonial purity and ablutions, above all the ceremonies of the pilgrimage to Mecca, make the Moslem a race apart from other men, like the Jews, with its centre at Mecca instead of Jerusalem.

10. Mysticism and the Koran

Now the religion of the Koran undoubtedly provides a certain foundation for mysticism. Its first principles are the same as those which the Epistle to the Hebrews lays down as the first conditions of Faith — namely, the belief that God is, and that He is a Rewarder of those that seek Him. Mohammed himself was a visionary with a profound sense of the reality of God, and of the transitory and dependent nature of created things. He lived in a continual meditation of the Four Last Things, and he taught his followers to do the same. But, apart from this, nothing could be less mystical than his religious teaching. It was a religion of fear rather than of love, and the goal of its striving was not the vision of God, but the sensible delights of the shady gardens of Paradise. And this was not simply due to lack of spirituality ; it had a positive theological basis. Man's reward was proportionate to his nature. God was so exalted above creation that any idea of human communion with the Divinity savoured of presumption. The duty of man was not the transformation of his interior life, but the objective establishment of the reign of God on earth by the sword and submission to the law of Islam.

The duty of man was not the transformation of his interior life, but the objective establishment of the reign of God on earth by the sword and submission to the law of Islam.

Thus the religion of Mohammed has more in common with Mandism than with mysticism. It is a militant puritanism of the same type as the modern Wahhabite movement. But it was never a purely external system. Its puritanism was not only that of the warrior, it was also that of the unworldly ascetic who spends his time in prayer and fasting and his goods in almsgiving. From the first there existed in Islam, side by side with the externalism and legalism of the canonists and theologians, a tradition of interior religion, an "Islam of the heart," which showed itself in the simple and unworldly piety of men, like Abu Dharr or Hodhayfah Ibn Hosayl, among the Companions of the Prophet. Such men, however, can hardly be called mystics, as they are by M. Massignon, unless we use the word in a very extended sense.

11. St. Thomas and the Nature of Man

Against the oriental religions of absolute being and pure spirit, with their tendency to deny the reality or the value of the material world, Christianity had undeviatingly maintained the dignity of humanity, and the value of the material element in man's nature.

Hitherto, however, Christian thought had not fully realized the implications of this doctrine. The predominance of oriental influences had led to a concentration on the spiritual side of man's nature; its ideal was "to pass beyond sensible things and to become united to the divine and the intelligible by the power of the intelligence" (S. Athanasius Contra Gentes ii). It was the work of the new philosophy, as represented above all by St. Thomas, for the first time to break with the old established tradition of oriental spiritualism and Neoplatonic idealism, and to bring man back into the order of nature. He taught that the human intelligence is not that of a pure spirit, it is consubstantial with matter, and finds its natural activity in the sphere of the sensible and the particular.

Consequently man cannot attain in this life to the direct intuition of truth and spiritual reality. He must build up an intelligible world slowly and painfully from the data of the senses, ordered and systematized by science, until at last the intelligible order which is inherent in created things is disengaged from the envelope of matter and contemplated in its relation to the absolute Being by the light of the higher intelligence.

Thus, looked at from one point of view, man is so low in the scale of creation, so deeply sunk in animality as hardly to deserve the title of an intellectual being. Even the rational activity of which he is so proud, is a distinctively animal form of intellect, and can only arise where the higher intelligence is veiled and impeded by the conditions of space and time. On the other hand man occupies a unique position in the universe precisely because he is the lowest of all spiritual natures. He is the point at which the world of spirit touches the world of sense, and it is through him and in him that the material creation attains to intelligibility and becomes enlightened and spiritualized.

Man is, as it were, a God upon earth, since it is his function to reduce the unintelligible chaos of the world of phenomena to reason and order. But he is so bound to matter that he is himself in continual danger of being dragged down to the purely animal life of the senses and passions. And since he cannot free himself by transcending the conditions of his nature in an intellectual approach to the world of pure spirit, the Divine Word has manifested itself to man through the sensible and the concrete in a form which is appropriate to the limitations of his intellectual powers. Thus the Incarnation does not destroy or supersede nature. It is analogous and complementary to it, since it restores and extends man's natural function as the bond of union between the material and the spiritual worlds. This is the fundamental principle of the synthesis of St. Thomas. His whole work is governed by the desire to show the concordance in difference of the two orders. Alike in his epistemology, his ethics and his politics, St. Thomas emphasizes the rights and the autonomous character of natural activity, the province of Reason as distinct from that of Faith, the moral law of Nature as distinct from that of Grace, the rights of the State as distinct from those of the Church.

It is true that St. Thomas had no intention of turning men's minds away from the spiritual world to the study of particular and contingent being. His philosophic ideal, as Pere Rousselot has shown, is emphatically an absolute intellectualism, and he regards the science of the sensible world merely as the lowest rung in a ladder which leads the mind step by step to the contemplation of eternal truth. Nevertheless the new appreciation of the rights of nature and reason which his philosophy involved marked a turning point in the history of European thought. The human mind was no longer absorbed in the contemplation of the eternal and the unchanging, it was set free to take up once more its natural task of the material organization of the world by science and law.

12. The Union of Greek and Latin Theology

This combination of the Augustinian tradition with the characteristic doctrine of the Greek Fathers is perhaps the greatest theological achievement of the scholastic period, though it is usually little noticed in comparison with their philosophical synthesis.

In addition to this main stream of Aristotelian and Arabic influence there were also a number of translations of the works of the Greek Fathers which had a direct influence on Western theology. . . . These led the scholastics — above all, St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas — to revise and complete the Augustinian doctrine of grace in the light of the teaching of the Greek Fathers and thus to create a synthesis of the two great theological traditions of the East and the West. While preserving the broad lines of the Augustinian doctrine, they laid a much greater emphasis on the ontological character of the supernatural order. While Augustine conceives grace primarily as an act of divine power that moves the human will, Thomas considers it, above all, under its essential aspect of the new spiritual principle which transforms and renews human nature by the communication of the Divine Life: in other words, the state of deification of which the Greek Fathers habitually speak. It is not merely a power that moves the will but a light that illuminates the mind and transfigures the whole spirit. This combination of the Augustinian tradition with the characteristic doctrine of the Greek Fathers is perhaps the greatest theological achievement of the scholastic period, though it is usually little noticed in comparison with their philosophical synthesis. Although it was not always fully accepted or fully understood by the later scholastics, it became the basis of classical Catholic theology, and when the great theological struggle of the Reformation came it was at once the centre of the Protestant attack and the rallying point of the Catholic defense.

13. The Crown of Centuries of Continuous Effort



Abbreviations: PR - Progress and Religion. Enq - Enquiries into Religion and Culture. RMS - Religion and the Modern State. CNA - Christianity and the New Age. Mak - The Making of Europe. MI - Medieval Essays. RRWC - Religion and the Rise of Western Culture.

Stage V (continued)

B. The West: Development of Hebraic Monotheist Tradition: (1) History and Divine Providence: PR: 154-5. (2) The Book of Daniel and the World Empires: RMS: 76. (3) Apocalyptic Character of the Gospel of Jesus: RMSS: 77-78. (4) The Son of Man in the Gospels: CNA: 74-76. (5) Jesus as Both Logos and Messiah: CNA: 78-80. (6) The Fathers and Christian Humanism: PR: 157-58. (7) The Humanism of St. Paul and St. Gregory of Nyssa: Dublin Review: Winter 1952. (8) St. Augustine and the City of God: PR: 164-65. (9) The Religion of Mohammed: Mak: 140-42. (10) Mysticism and the Koran: Enq: 164-65. (11) St. Thomas and Nature of Man: PR: 173-75. (12) The Union of Greek and Latin Theology: ME: 101-02. (13) The Crown of Centuries of Continuous Effort: RRWC: 234. (14) The Catholic Church as the Mediator between East and West: Dublin Review: July 1928.

The great interest of this synthesis is not its logical completeness, for that was to be found already in a rudimentary form in the traditional curriculum of the earlier medieval schools, but rather the way in which the mind of Western Christendom re-conquered the lost world of Hellenic science and annexed the alien world of Moslem thought without losing its spiritual continuity or its specifically religious values. No doubt all this was questioned by the later critics of scholasticism, like Luther and his contemporaries who maintained that medieval philosophy had abandoned evangelical truth to follow Aristotle and the vain deceits of human wisdom. But in order to maintain this view they were compelled to push their condemnation further, and to condemn the whole tradition of Western Catholicism right back to the age of the Fathers.

But if we look at the development of Western Christendom as a whole, it is clear that the intellectual synthesis of the thirteenth century was not a contradiction but the crown and completion of centuries of continuous effort to achieve an integration of the religious doctrine of the Christian Church with the intellectual tradition of ancient culture. This aim was already set out in a rudimentary form by the encyclopaedists of the sixth and seventh centuries like Cassiodorus and Boethius and Isidore of Seville, but it was not completely achieved until the thirteenth century with the recovery of the full inheritance of Greek philosophy and science, and with the creation of the new intellectual organs of Christendom — the university corporations and the Orders of Friars. (Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, p. 234.)

14. The Catholic Church as the Mediator between East and West

Catholicism and Orientalism stand together against the denial of the higher intellect and of the primacy of the spiritual which is the fundamental Western error.

Nevertheless this is not the whole truth. If Christianity were entirely in conformity with the Oriental spirit, it would be difficult to explain the fact that it failed to maintain itself in its own Oriental homelands. For while Catholicism was advancing triumphantly to the conquest of the West, it was all the time fighting a rearguard action against the pressure of the forces of pure Orientalism, as represented by the Gnostic and Manichean sects, and by Islam. Against the Oriental religions of pure spirit which denied the value and even the reality of the material universe, the Church undeviatingly maintained its faith in an historical revelation which involved the consecration not only of humanity, but even of the body itself. This was the great stumbling-block to the Oriental mind, which readily accepted the idea of an avatar or of the theophany of a Divine aeon, but could not face the con-sequences of the Catholic doctrine of the Two Natures and the full humanity of the Logos made flesh. This conception of the Incarnation as the bridge between God and Man, the marriage of Heaven and Earth, and the channel through which the material world is spiritualized and brought back to unity, distinguishes Christianity from all the other Oriental religions, and involves a completely new attitude to life. Deliverance is to be obtained not by a sheer disregard of physical existence and a concentration of the higher intellect in the contemplation of pure being, but by a creative activity that affects every part of the composite nature of man.

The Oriental view leads to the depreciation of the normal human activity of the discursive reason, and to a contempt for all knowledge of the particular and for the humble but necessary discipline of physical science. The mind which withdraws itself to the heights of pure intelligence leaves the sensible world in a confusion of anarchy, for a practical irrationality is the Nemesis of speculative intellectualism. To the Catholic philosopher, on the other hand, the progressive intellectualization of the material world by reason and science is an essential function of the human mind. In the natural order man occupies a similar position as the bond of union between the spiritual and the material worlds, as that which he holds in the supernatural order by virtue of the Incarnation. The two are analogous and complementary.

Thus the Catholic Church appears Oriental to the West and Occidental to the East. She is a stranger in both camps, and her home is everywhere and nowhere, like Man himself, whose nature maintains a perilous balance between the sensible and intelligible world, to neither of which it altogether belongs. Yet by reason of this ambiguous position, the Catholic Church stands as the one mediator between East and West. She alone possesses a tradition which can satisfy both sides of man's nature, and which brings the transcendent reality of the divine Logos into relation with the tangible and visible facts of human experience.

Christopher Dawson
"The Stages of World Religion — part 1"
"The Stages of World Religion — part 2"
"The Stages of World Religion — part 3"
"The Stages of World Religion — part 4"



Dawson, Christopher. “The Stages of World Religion — part 3.” Dawson Newsletter Vol. V # 2 (Summer, 1986).

Reprinted by permission of Julian Philip Scott, grandson of Christopher Dawson.


Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was most likely the most penetrating student of the relationship of religion and culture who has ever written. "Every culture," he wrote, "is like a plant. It must have its roots in the earth, and for sunlight it needs to be open to the spiritual. At the present moment we are busy cutting its roots and shutting out all light from above." In order to address this situation, he proposed the study of Christian culture. He believed this study to be essential to the secularist and Christian alike, because it is the key to the understanding of the historical development of Western civilization. His lucid analysis of the driving forces of world history, as well as his championing of the contributions of the Christian faith to the achievements of European culture, won him many admirers, including T. S. Eliot and Arnold Toynbee.

Christopher Dawson wrote twenty-two books. Among those currently available are Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, The Making of Europe, Medieval Essays, Dynamics of World History, and Progress and Religion. Also available is A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson written by Christopher Dawson's daughter, the late Christina Scott. All works by Christopher Dawson © Julian Philip Scott, 2003.

Copyright © 2005 Julian Philip Scott

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