Christopher Dawson, Master Historian

In 14 Book Corner on 2011/10/20 at 11:11 PM

Christopher Dawson was a unique historian, a meticulous scholar who possessed the imagination to present history in a rich and lively manner.  The author of an unbelievable number of books, he is perhaps the last in the line of the great “true” historiographers.

In the late 1950’s, I had the tremendous privilege of taking a graduate course entitled “THE SIX AGES OF CHRISTENDOM” presented by Christopher Dawson’s associate and editor, John J. Mulloy.  Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was Harvard’s first Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Studies. This course had a significant impact on my 36-year professional career of teaching college and high school history courses and echoed into my retirement career where I am still  teaching history from a Christian perspective.

Dawson’s  goal was to make us see that religion and religious belief are the cradle of all civilizations. His ideas are being recognized today as sound and essential to our understanding of our current realities.

Dawson traced the influence of religion on culture and civilization. His great concern was for the impact of Christianity in the development of Christendom (only recently replaced by the term Europe), and he was extremely aware of the advancing philosophy of secularization.

Dawson’s works echo his central belief that the Incarnation is the most important event in human history. The Christian needs to see history in terms of the Divine Will in order to interpret past events correctly. Dawson sought to have us see all events in their entire setting and in their proper relationship to each other.

Dawson wrote in his essay “The Christian View of History” that “for the Christian the doctrine of the Incarnation is not simply a theophany — a revelation of God to Man; it is a new creation — the introduction of a new spiritual principle which gradually leavens and transforms human nature into something new. The history of the human race hinges on this unique divine event which gives meaning to the whole historical process.”

Particularly in the class “Fathers, Doctors, Popes and Founders of Religious Orders”, I sought to highlight the same figures Dawson chose to demonstrate the power of the Christian faith to transform: St Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  To that list, I added now Blessed John Henry Newman.  These men are models whom we need today in order to pass on the cultural heritage of Catholic Christendom to future generations.

Dawson presented Europe as a Christian creation. He wrote: “The essential thing is not to cram students with a complete knowledge of the history of Christian culture, but to introduce them to the subject, so that they will at least realize the existence of the whole, before they are irretrievably committed to a specialized study of the parts or of a particle of the part.”

Santayana wrote: “Those who do not know history are condemned to relive it.”  Dawson was clearly concerned about the Europeans’ loss of memory as well as the distortions of Christianity into totalitarian systems.

The fragmentation of Europe and the loss of the power of historical memory was already beginning it’s own steady tempo like that of Ravel’s “Bolero.” He was concerned that more and more Christians would discard their religious past and accept falsehoods, oversimplifications and distortions.

Dawson wrote: “I believe that the study of Christian culture is the missing link which it is essential to supply if the tradition of Western education and Western culture is to survive, for it is only through this study that we can understand how Western culture came to exist and what are the essential values for which it stands.”

In studying Dawson’s works, I recognized that the average Christian lacked knowledge of the Roman persecutions, the Muslim tsunami, the real richness of the Middle Ages, the politically profitable division of Christendom called the Reformation.  In addition, they lacked an understanding of the domino effect of discarding  first authority, then faith, and, finally, reason and with it the natural moral code implanted by the Creator in the soul of  every man.  So, with Dawson as my “mentor”, I also wanted Christians to know their past.  This was/is the task of my life as a professional historian.

In his essay “The Christian View of History ” Dawson states: “The Christian view covers the whole life of humanity on this planet and it ends only with the end of this world and of man’s temporal existence. It is essentially a theory of the interpretation of time and eternity: so that the essential meaning of history is to be found in the growth of the seed of eternity in the womb of time. For man is not merely a creature of the economic process– a producer and a consumer. He is an animal that is conscious of his mortality and consequently aware of eternity.”

The religious, moral, temporal and political histories revealed in Western Culture are a heritage of Western culture for every person.  No one can ignore traditions, yet understand the problems of today.

This brilliant convert to Catholicism wrote shortly before his death:  “We are living in a world that is far less stable than that of the early Roman Empire. There is no doubt that the world is on the move again as never before and that the pace is faster and more furious than anything that man has known before. But, there is nothing in this situation which should cause Christians to despair. On the contrary, it is the kind of situation for which their faith has always prepared them and which provides the opportunity for the fulfillment of their mission.”

Just as Christianity is essential to Europe, so the Catholic Church is essential to Christianity.  As the Roman Empire disintegrated, it was the Catholic Church that preserved the culture, and as we see the current disintegration of our world, it is no less crucial.  Today, there is a full-fledged rebellion against the moral principles of Western culture with the elevation of the individual’s conscience as opposed to the needs of society.  We must preserve Christian values, the dignity of the human person and the freedom of the individual from the “I am god” mentality, which rejects objective moral values as a guide.

Dawson, like Pope Benedict today, stressed the need for the Church to use the technological changes in the world for evangelization.  Dawson wrote in “The Movement of World Revolution” that all Christians need to advance the Church’s “universal mission to bring the Gospel of Christ to all nations.” The Catholic Church is the only body today in the world that defends human rights and the dignity of the human person, both essential factors in the preservation of our God-given Christian heritage.

On May 30, 2011 Pope Benedict addressed those members of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization who will be holding a Synod in 2012.  He told them: “The crisis we are living through carries with it signs of the exclusion of God from peoples’ lives, a general indifference to the Christian faith, and even the intention to marginalize it from public life.”

This is a message that we as Christians must carry with knowledge, understanding and conviction and express it with courageous action in the evangelization of an apathetic modern society.

Recommended books by Christopher Dawson:

Christianity and European Culture

Christianity and the New Age

Dividing of Christendom

Dynamics of World History, edited by John J. Mulloy

Medieval Essays

Formation of Europe

Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History of European Unity

Modern Dilemna: The Problem of European Unity

Progress and Religion

Religion and Culture, the Gifford Lectures

Religion and the Rise of Western Culture

Understanding Europe   

See also: Dawson/Recommended Reading List in this same category (Book Corner) 


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