Sitting Still with Christopher Dawson
Eternity in Time: Christopher Dawson and the Catholic Idea of History
reviewed by Adam Schwartz
While lecturing in the United States in the early 1930s, T. S. Eliot was asked which of his contemporaries was the most powerful intellectual influence in Britain. He could have nominated well-known figures like his Bloomsbury friends, Chesterton, Auden, or Shaw; but Eliot selected another: Christopher Dawson. Dawson’s work was similarly praised across the ideological and theological spectra, as the likes of G. K. Chesterton, Barbara Ward, Russell Kirk, Dorothy Day, C. S. Lewis, Arnold Toynbee, and Lewis Mumford all testified to its importance for their efforts.
Yet despite this chorus of applause, Dawson’s writing has suffered, especially since his death in 1970, from what E. P. Thompson called the “condescension of posterity.” In recent years, however, signs of renewed interest in Dawson and his copious reflections on history, culture, and modern society have emerged; this volume of essays is an important contribution to that renaissance.1 Like all such collections, however, its quality is uneven. The best contributions will be studied profitably by both novices and veterans of Dawson; but the weaker offerings illustrate to varying degrees a troubling trend in current Christian scholarship: the treatment of the work of great minds instrumentally rather than analytically.
The details of Dawson’s life (1889–1970) and milieu are not as widely known as those of peers like Eliot, Chesterton, and Lewis. This book’s first two articles, then, will be useful to all readers, particularly to newcomers to his work. Christina Scott’s discussion of Dawson’s vision and legacy is a cogent précis of his career and the main lines of his thought. As such, it both summarizes and supplements her careful 1984 biography of Dawson and should encourage fresh readings and rereadings of that narrative.2 Scott especially stresses here how Dawson’s sense of the relationship between religion and culture and his passion for unity helped integrate his disparate efforts as a scholar and social critic. She notes rightly that this sensibility fostered a precocious and often misunderstood ecumenical attitude, plus a nuanced worldview whose complexity even some admirers fail to comprehend fully.
Fortunately, Aidan Nichols possesses an erudition as subtle as his subject demands. His sketch of Dawson’s Catholic setting is an excellent elucidation of one crucial context in which Dawson worked, as it capsulizes signal figures, trends, and events without oversimplifying often complicated ideas and developments. Nichols argues that the historical significance of the twentieth-century British Catholic revival is its “theology of culture”: “its main claim to the attention of posterity lies in this resolute endeavor to bring a Catholic sensibility to bear on cultural life” (27), one premised on the belief that “art, philosophy and social politics are inextricably interrelated, and that the key to their unity belongs with religion” (39). Nichols demonstrates Dawson’s centrality to this movement, particularly through his participation in the Order Group, a collection of Catholic intellectuals that also included the artist and poet David Jones (whose recondite work Nichols makes accessible without vulgarizing it). He traces its evolution from its heyday in the 1930s, through its response to traumas like the Spanish Civil War and World War II, to its postwar eclipse. Although this essay contains some questionable judgments—particularly its uncharacteristically unrounded rendering of Dawson’s conversion to Roman Catholicism—it is indispensable for tyros in this field, and should also prove piquant for those well read in it.
The Christian View of History
As both Scott and Nichols suggest, Dawson’s religious faith undergirded all his intellectual efforts. He believed that people are naturally religious and, hence, as a historian, concluded (with Lord Acton) that “religion is the key of history.” Yet Dawson also contended that the Christian faith makes the distinctive claim to be an essentially historical religion, one based on belief not just in the general direction of history by Providence, but in “the intervention by God in the life of mankind by direct action at certain definite points in time and place,” culminating in the Incarnation. This “central doctrine of the Christian faith” is hence “also the center of history,” a synergy that, according to Dawson, generated a unique vision of history:
The Christian, then, considers the sacred not just a force within history, but also the source of its significance. Dawson in particular found “a natural affinity and concordance between the spirit of Catholicism and the spirit of history”4 in his day, believing that “Catholicism differs from other forms of Christianity in representing this incarnational principle in a fuller, more concrete, and more organic sense,” due to its rejection of the twin temptations of idealism and liberalism that he was convinced modern Protestantism had succumbed to.5 The majority of the essays under review deal with this view of history, either in Dawson’s work or more generally, although even the best ones seem surprisingly unaware of these theoretical comments by Dawson.
Dermot Quinn and Fernando Cervantes attend more to this outlook’s presence in Dawson’s thought. Quinn’s interpretation of Dawson’s historiography is panoramic, yet not diffuse, as he views it through the lens of Dawson’s concern for unity and integration and demonstrates effectively how Dawson’s Catholicism was his oeuvre’s centripetal principle. Quinn also supplies a good sense of how Dawson’s commitment to this idea of history made him a dissenter from modern scholarly methodologies, while further revealing some striking affinities it has with the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar. His broader remarks about the nature and problems of Catholic history, plus his defense of Dawson’s approach against Hayden White’s criticism of it, however, would have benefited from more specific references to Dawson’s own commentary on the Catholic theology of history.
Cervantes is also interested in how Dawson’s larger concerns shaped his historical scholarship, but his focus is more microscopic, as he undertakes a close reading of Dawson’s The Making of Europe (1932). Cervantes provides a skillful exegesis of this text, disclosing especially the shaping influences of Dawson’s desire to assert the value of tradition in an apparently presentist age and his anxieties about the centrifugal force of modern nationalism. Moreover, Cervantes also notes how Dawson’s argument in this volume that the Dark Ages were actually ages of the dawn of Christendom set his view of the period at odds with received interpretations of it. Indeed, it is unfortunate that Cervantes did not examine the impact of Dawson’s thesis on subsequent historians of this epoch, an enterprise that would have been more profitable than the predictable philippic about the current state of Western culture with which he concludes his otherwise informed and useful presentation of a central Dawson book.
Francesca Murphy and Glenn Olsen deal less with the Catholic idea of history as found in Dawson’s work than with it as a concept, thereby developing themes expressed embryonically in John Morrill’s introduction. Both authors distinguish between two definitions of this model: the first sees Catholic history as history about Catholics or distinctly Catholic topics. Olsen deems this approach at least more honest in foregrounding its principle of selecting material than some secular schemas are, but Murphy eschews it as a form of identity politics.
Each, though, has greater sympathy for a second, more Dawsonian, understanding of Catholic history as a “quality of imagination” (128) that produces interpretations “superior to, more illuminating of, man’s situation in history” (141) than alternative paradigms. Olsen’s explication and defense of this perspective are more thorough, as he specifies its components as a sense of God’s glory, of mystery and an ensuing humility, and of the Fall’s tragic implications, with a corresponding distrust of Progressive ideologies. Both scholars, however, present standpoints essentially in agreement with Dawson’s and thereby provide useful glosses on his outlook, while also illuminating the distinctive challenges confronting current historians who wish to imitate his integration of faith and work.
The Connection Between Religion & Culture
The contributors to this collection are united in agreeing that one of Dawson’s most significant insights was his emphasis on the connection between religion and culture. Just as he asserted that people are naturally religious and that religion is the key of history, so he believed that religion is the basis of culture: “It is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture. The great civilizations of the world do not produce the great religions as a kind of cultural by-product; in a very real sense the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest.” He thus considered the seeming secularization of Western civilization a form of cultural suicide, as “a society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.”6 Yet Dawson did not think this process was irreversible for, as Nichols points out, he and his fellow Catholic thinkers devoted themselves to a “theologically informed program for culture’s Christian revivification” (28).
Similar concerns guide the musings of Michael O’Brien and Stratford Caldecott. O’Brien’s essay is the longest in the book but also the one least concerned with Dawson. While entitled “Historical Imagination and the Renewal of Culture,” it is really more about aesthetics, agreeing implicitly with Gregory Wolfe that beauty will save the modern world. As such, O’Brien’s thesis that the “death of the imagination” (156) in modernity has created “the culture of negation” (181) resonates only tangentially and in the most general way with Dawson’s chief interests; in fact, O’Brien’s preoccupations correspond much more closely to David Jones’s. His survey of art history is skillful and at times eloquent; but, given the paucity of Dawson scholarship, the space reserved for this article would have been better devoted to examining topics more directly linked to his work and primary concerns.
Although Caldecott’s contribution is also not a specific analysis of Dawson’s thought, it does help situate it within a tradition of Catholic cultural criticism. Caldecott’s main text is John Paul II’s Tertio Millennio Adveniente (1994), and his fine close reading of that encyclical offers a bridge connecting Dawson’s views and hopes for cultural conversion with the present pope’s, while noting comparable notions held by Chesterton and von Balthasar in the process. Caldecott’s presentation of these intellectual and theological likenesses could have been more systematic; but depicting Dawson as engaged in a conversation across the ages about modernity’s fate supplements and amplifies Nichols’s description of his contemporary Catholic community of discourse.
A Prophet or a Thinker?
Other members of that company—such as Chesterton—are often dubbed prophets. Dawson, too, has often been so designated, and many of this volume’s contributors characterize him as one. There is danger in so labeling a thinker, however, as attention can be diverted from the intricacies of his thought and devoted instead to assessing its applicability to current issues. Such an approach to subtle worldviews frequently entails a loss of nuance in their understanding and portrayal, and hence creates the misleading impression that their authors are glib, ephemeral thinkers.7 The work of Chesterton and Lewis has been subject to this process of appropriation and distortion, and as interest in Dawson’s has increased, it has not been immune either.
Both Cervantes and O’Brien give in to this temptation to some extent, but Russell Sparkes’s essay exemplifies this tendency best. Although entitled “Dawson and ‘Economic Man’,” Sparkes’s effort is less an analysis of Dawson’s economic views than his own condemnation of classical liberal economics and contemporary capitalism, with Dawson’s writing invoked occasionally to buttress his conclusions. Yet the topics Sparkes takes up and the rhetoric he uses—the Roman Empire as an analog for contemporary society, the relevance of “medieval” ideals for modern times, the connection between Protestantism and capitalism, and a romantic-distributist-style critique of capitalism—are all subjects Dawson addressed and tropes he employed, ones that have received little scholarly treatment. Discussing and contextualizing their presence in his thought would thus have been more productive than presenting extracts that do not convey the richness and depth of Dawson’s social criticism: his thought is too textured to serve polemical purposes without forfeiting its profundity. Sparkes’s intentions are good, and he is hardly alone in so regarding Dawson’s thought. But Dawson’s reputation will rest ultimately not on his works’ ability to solve the problems of a particular period, but on its expression of the permanent things in a distinctive voice. Christina Scott’s admonition cannot be commended too highly: “his writings should never be used as a handle in current theological [or political] issues” (16).
Most of the contributors to Eternity in Time, however, have kept their eyes on the long run, when we will all be dead, but the writings of authors like Dawson and thoughtful commentary on them will live on. In so limning his life, ideas, and some of the contexts in which he worked, they continue that gradual, yet finally rewarding process of restoring Dawson’s reputation to its rightful stature as one of twentieth-century Christianity’s leading lights. Efforts like Eternity in Time, and those that may be inspired by it, make it increasingly difficult for posterity to continue condescending to Christopher Dawson. His permanent wisdom transcends the exigencies of any era, making every age eligible to learn from it. But that knowledge and its implications can only be gleaned through patient study: rushed attempts to redeem the time lack that vision without which even the best-intentioned plans perish. Learning to sit still with those dead who give us life is also learning to hope.
As Eliot put it,
1. A further harbinger of a possible Dawson revival and an excellent complement to this volume is Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson, ed. Gerald J. Russello (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998). Russello’s preface to this book is the best single introductory essay on Dawson’s work yet composed.
2. Christina Scott, A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson (London: Sheed & Ward, 1984). [See the review of this title in Touchstone, Summer 1987, pp. 12–14. —Ed.]
3. Christopher Dawson, “The Christian View of History” (1951), in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Peru, Illinois: Sherwood, Sugden & Co., 1978), pp. 234, 235.
4. Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Modern State (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935), p. 82.
5. Christopher Dawson, “The Kingdom of God and History” (1938), in Dynamics of World History, p. 284.
6. Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion (1929; reprint, Peru, Illinois: Sherwood, Sugden & Co., 1992), p. 233.
7. The seminal work on this topic is John Rodden, The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of “St. George” Orwell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Adam Schwartz is Assistant Professor of History at Christendom College.
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