Europe, Christianity, and the Thought of Christopher Dawson

GERALD RUSSELLO

A European Constitution that lacks any reference to the continent's Christian roots would be a sign of a dangerous historical blindness, warns a devotee of Catholic historian Christopher Dawson.

Dawson (1889-1970), an Englishman who strongly believed in the importance of religion's influence on society, wrote in 1938: "A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture."

Here, the editor of Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson (CUA Press), Gerald Russello, shared his ideas with ZENIT on the modern importance of Dawson's thought. Russello is an attorney in New York.

Q: What is the relevance of the thought of Christopher Dawson today?

Russello: Christopher Dawson remains the most important Catholic historian of the 20th century. The contemporary value of his work is in his recognition of the abiding importance and influence of religious belief, and its enduring ability to shape culture.

In books such as Progress and Religion [1929], Dawson demonstrated that materialist or environmental explanations of religious belief did not accord with the evidence. As he wrote in 1925, "Modern writers on anthropology and primitive thought have tended to assume that religion is a secondary phenomenon and that man's earliest attitude to reality was a kind of empirical materialism."

A growing body of sociological evidence confirms the relationship Dawson saw between religion, culture and the health of a society. Current events in the Middle East and around the world further testify to Dawson's central insight that religious belief is essential to understanding culture.

Therefore, Dawson speaks to us not only as a world historian who had great respect for the religious and philosophical traditions of medieval Islam, China and the great Hindu epics but in particular as a scholar of Christendom. Through books such as The Making of Europe [1932] and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture [1950], Dawson inaugurated a fresh way of understanding Christian culture.

Christian culture is a spiritual society as much as a political one, and modern Europe's neglect of its religious past was a call to investigate further the true sources of European unity and achievements.

Dawson's writing combined deep knowledge and scholarship with a broader vision, which even non-Catholics came to appreciate. It was these qualities that caused T.S. Eliot to call him one of the most influential writers in England.

Q: Dawson wrote that the passing of a religion is not a sign of progress but a token of social decay. Is the absence of Christianity in the draft of the European Constitution evidence of that decay?

Russello: The absence of references to Christianity from the European Constitution is a matter of great concern. That Christianity shaped Europe more than any other set of practices or beliefs is a simple fact of history. It is everywhere evidenced in the traditions, art, modes of thought and languages of Europe.

Indeed, by its very interest in maintaining political unity and its concern for individual rights, the European Constitution bears at least an indirect relationship to the Christian foundations of Europe. Any attempt to deny this historical and continuing relationship presents the history of Europe in a misleading way, which can only harm the chances for real and lasting unity.

For Dawson, the history of Europe is incomprehensible without understanding the role Christianity has played in creating it just as understanding Islam is crucial to understanding the history of Muslim nations. In that light, the reluctance to acknowledge Christianity's influence is a sign of a dangerous historical blindness.

Q: According to Dawson, what is the historical basis of European unity?

Russello: The historical basis of European unity is Christianity and the forms it took throughout Europe, in institutions such as the monastic orders, the tradition of chivalry, the cult of the saints and martyrs, and above all the international structure of the Catholic Church.

Unlike other great cultures, Europe was a "society of peoples," split geographically, ethnically and linguistically. This caused a juxtaposition of practices and ideas that propelled Europe to world power, but it was not sufficient to create a Western "culture."

That was provided by Christianity, which, Dawson stressed, was in its teachings "neither Eastern nor Western but universal." Because Christianity was not native to Europe, it was able to exist separately from individual European people even as it molded European culture as a whole.

Christianity provides a spiritual unity to Europe but not primarily a political one. Its great political contribution was its contention that Christians belonged not only to a temporal society, but were also citizens of an eternal society. The dual citizenship of the Christian had dramatic political effects that remain important to this day in the political self-conception of the West and its preservation of freedom.

Indeed, it is the failure to recognize the Christian roots of this freedom that has rendered the West vulnerable to those who would destroy it. The West carved out a political sphere that was able to remain connected with the religious basis for Western culture, yet was still able to govern its own affairs.

The existence of an autonomous spiritual realm, however, also protected individuals from being considered as mere pawns by the state. The combination proved extremely successful in political, economic and religious terms.

Dawson hoped to see a supranational entity created that would embrace Europe's tradition of regional autonomy as well as its overarching spiritual unity and respect for the inviolable spiritual nature of the human person.

Q: What role did the Church play in fostering Christian unity [in Europe] in the past, and what can it do to promote it now?

Russello: The Church has been the central institution of Christian unity. As I explained earlier, for Dawson [1889-1970] the Church united the disparate people of Europe into a spiritual whole. The Church's mission is to unite all things in Christ, and so therefore its temporal goals must mirror its eternal one.

As a convert, Dawson had an acute sense of the need for the Church to be an active agent of Christian unity. Dawson worked with an ecumenical organization called the Sword of the Spirit, which had been formed to resist totalitarianism and to place Christian values at the center of a new European civilization.

Dawson believed that Catholics must play a central role as instruments of Christian unity and in re-imagining Christian culture. If Catholics choose to remain passive, as Dawson wrote for the Catholic Herald in 1947, "they prove false to their own temporal mission, since they leave the world and the society of which they form a part to perish."

As in 1947, Dawson would have seen the Church's role as an instrument of unity even more critical today.

Q: Why does Dawson highlight the importance of religion and its formative role in society?

Russello: For Dawson, religion was "the key to history." Culture is directly related to cult, with the organized practice of religious worship. Every culture has a religion at its core; the two rise and fall together.

As he wrote in 1938: "A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture." Seeing modern Europe after the destruction of two World Wars, Dawson was concerned that the rise of secularism would mean the destruction of the unique achievements of Western culture.

Dawson wrote at a time when elite opinion considered religion merely as an explanation used by primitive people for things they could not understand, or something that would fade as scientific reasoning and economic progress occurred.

To the contrary, as Dawson argued that "the religious factor has had a far more important share in the development of human cultures than that which has usually been ascribed to it."

Dawson reminds us that cultural or spiritual progress is not the same as political power or economic wealth.

"The fact is," as Dawson wrote in an essay entitled "The Eclipse of Europe," "that the fate of civilization is not determined solely, or even predominantly, by political and economic causes. The decline of the Roman Empire was also an age of spiritual rebirth, which prepared the way, not only for the coming of mediaeval Christendom, but also for the civilizations of Byzantium and Islam."

This process of rebirth was not always peaceful; the Christians presented a challenge to pagan Rome and were slaughtered as martyrs for the Faith.

Similarly with our time, amid great economic and military powers there is much spiritual emptiness. Persecution of Christians increases throughout the world, and the secular nations of the West discourage public expressions of religious belief.

But there are also signs of spiritual awakening and resistance to secular pressures. It is this spiritual activity that Dawson finds to be the surest creator and sustainer of culture.

Q: What points in common are there between Pope John Paul II's view of culture and Christianity and Dawson's thought?

Russello: The greatest point of similarity between Dawson and the Pope John Paul II is that both are philosophers of culture. They both believe that the longings of humanity are answered not by material progress, but by a deep spiritual life expressed throughout the life and institutions of a culture.

Dawson shares with John Paul II an appreciation of some achievements of modernity, as well as its limitations. Dawson wrote: "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 it had released."

Dawson devoted much of his work to trying to reintegrate the achievements of modern society with its religious and spiritual foundations, in an effort to protect and further the spiritual dimension of human life. I believe Pope John Paul II, in encyclicals such as Centesimus Annus, expresses a similar point.

Both saw in the rise of the consumer culture a strong challenge to traditional Christian morals. What John Paul II has called "the culture of death" was very much in Dawson's mind as he wrote in the 1950s and 1960s when the totalitarian threat of Nazi Germany had passed.

Although Communism remained a threat, Dawson was convinced that the internal dissolution of Christian culture from the pressures of economic and moral liberalism was a graver threat. Because liberalism dispenses with acknowledging spiritual values, it becomes vulnerable to appeals to economic utility or political power.

Both Dawson and Pope John Paul would agree, I think, that these cannot substitute for a religious faith that expresses eternal truths and a rich spiritual life. ZE03091622

Christopher Dawson
(1889-1970)

Christopher Dawson 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.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

ZENIT is an International News Agency based in Rome whose mission is to provide objective and professional coverage of events, documents and issues emanating from or concerning the Catholic Church for a worldwide audience, especially the media.

This interview was conducted in New York on September 15, 2003.

Reprinted with permission from Zenit - News from Rome. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2003 Zenit




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