It is to our great shame, as well as to our great loss, that Christopher Dawson is no longer a particularly well-known figure, even within the Christendom he so loved, appreciated and understood. He should, in fact, be placed in the same class and category as such champions as G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Ronald Knox – a prophet and a scholar, the sharpest and most accurate critic of the present with an impeccable grasp of the past.
Born in 1889, Christopher Henry Dawson was raised in Yorkshire and educated at Winchester school and at Trinity College, Oxford. He was an Anglo-Catholic as a young man and remained in the Church of England until he was 25 years old, when he became a Roman Catholic. Two years later, he married Valery Mills and they were to have one son and two daughters.
Essentially a cultural historian and sociologist, he soon came to the conclusion that the Catholic church was not merely an aspect of European and world culture, but that the church was at the very centre of Western civilization. Thus, it was not some product of culture, but was the very entity that produced that culture.
Author and journalist Gerald J. Russello put it extremely well when he wrote, “Dawson wrote with two different audiences in mind. He sought both to displace the bankrupt Victorian and Edwardian liberalism of his own day and to shake the complacency of his co-religionists who preferred to bask in the quickly fading light of false medievalism. His carefully crafted prose revealed a nuanced and original understanding of Western history.”
In the years between the First and Second World Wars, he became a major literary and intellectual figure and a significant influence on T.S. Eliot. In 1928, he published the book, The Age of Gods, and the following year, Progress and Religion. The 1930s saw, amongst others works, Christianity and the New Age, Beyond Politics, Enquiries into Religion and Culture and Religion and the Modern State. He edited the Dublin Review in the 1940s and held the Chauncey Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard from 1958 until 1962. His enormously important work, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, appeared in 1950 and then a series of books such as The Gods of Revolution, The Dividing of Christendom and, in 1975, Religion and World History.
He was always impressive, often superb. “As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy,” wrote Dawson. And, “As I have pointed out, it is the Christian tradition that is the most fundamental element in Western culture. It lies at the base not only of Western religion, but also of Western morals and Western social idealism.” And, “If society as a whole abandons all positive beliefs, it is powerless to resist the disintegrating effects of selfishness and private interest.”
Dawson saw history as a narrative, a story of the triumph of Christian truth and morality over all competitors. Men and women can be good without Christ, but humanity can never remain good without Christianity. In other words, history teaches us that whilst individual goodness is not only possible, but perhaps common amongst non-believers, a mass culture cannot maintain its ethical balance without being anchored in Christ Jesus.
Dawson died in 1970 and so did not live to see just how accurate he had been. He predicted future catastrophe by exposing historical failings. Large errors, he always believed, tend to begin with small mistakes. So true. The absurdity of so-called gay “marriage” began not with gay activists demanding revolution, but with the law and body politic allowing two people living together outside of wedlock to be classified as a common-law marriage.
The abortion of millions of unborn children began not with feminist zealots and immoral doctors, but with mainstream Protestant churches in the 1930s accepting contraception as being valid and normal behaviour. Doors were opened, bridgeheads were made, absolutes of right and wrong were said to be fluid and mutable.
It was this ambiguity that Dawson saw in the process of history. Only within Christendom, he wrote, can we know what is godly and aspire to what we know to be true. He saw the rise of Hitler’s Nazism and Stalin’s Communism. The ideologies were opposed at various levels, but shared a hatred for Christianity. Why? It was the permanent wall, the grand mirror reflecting back on them their terror and hatred and violence. No surprise, then, that the National Socialists saw the church as their main enemy and the ideological purists viewed the attack on the Jewish people as a means to destroy the race that gave the world Jesus.
Today, the attacks are less obvious but still relentless. They are not new, however, and would not have surprised Christopher Dawson. “The heartless, hopeless Rome which found its monstrous expression in the Colosseum and the gladiatorial games became the Rome of St. Leo and St. Gregory – a city which laid the foundations of a new world, while its own world was falling in ruin around it. We see the same process at work in northern Europe during the Dark Ages. The men who converted the warrior peoples of the north and laid the foundations of medieval culture had no conception of the new world they were creating and no belief in the temporal future of civilization. But they were men of hope, as they were men of faith, and therefore their work endured for a thousand years and bore rich fruit in every field of cultural activity, as well as on its own religious level.”
It endures still. In all people of hope and faith. Within those who fight against the culture of death and hold tight to the sparkling truths that Christopher Dawson knew and described so well.
Michael Coren is a Toronto broadcaster and journalist.