Category Archives: Christopher Dawson

From the conclusion of “The Relation Between Religion and Culture”

Great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest

This is part 10, the last part, of my notes on the thoughts and ideas of Christopher Dawson. (In brackets the page numbers of each quote from TRBRAC, unless another book mentioned. “PwG” refers to my own thoughts.)     

Dawson: “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. A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.” (271, my emphasis) (Progress and Religion, 1937)

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On Christianity and International Order

Religion is the only power that can meet the forces of destruction on equal terms

This is part 9 of my notes on the thoughts and ideas of Christopher Dawson. (In brackets the page numbers of each quote from TRBRAC, unless another book mentioned. “PwG” refers to my own thoughts.)     

Dawson proposes not a League of Nations but a Confederation, a league of federations, that would unite the nations of the world. (p. 245)

Dawson states that such a federation would work only if it were based on some spiritual force, and he believes that we should look to Christianity to supply this spiritual force. Just as Christianity, in the past, was the basis of unity in Europe, so too, can it bring about world unity. (p. 245)

(PwG:) This is of course the total counter-vision to secular world government.

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On the return to Christian unity and the predicament Christianity is in now

It has been replaced by "State-inspired public opinion and by the mass organisation of society on a purely secular basis"

This is part 8 of my notes on the thoughts and ideas of Christopher Dawson. (In brackets the page numbers of each quote from TRBRAC, unless another book mentioned. “PwG” refers to my own thoughts.)     

Dawson: “Either Europe must abandon the Christian tradition and with it the faith in progress and humanity, or it must return consciously to the religious foundation on which these ideas were based.” (p. 225)

Dawson: “true foundation of European unity is to be found not in political or economic agreements, but in the restoration of the spiritual tradition on which that unity was originally based.” (p. 227, my emphasis)

Totalitarianism and the totalitarian state [are] a force that impedes the restauration of the Christian tradition in Western Culture. (p. 227)     

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On natural science

Does it inevitably lead to secularization?

This is part 7 of my notes on the thoughts and ideas of Christopher Dawson. (In brackets the page numbers of each quote from TRBRAC, unless another book mentioned. “PwG” refers to my own thoughts.)     

Since the time of the Renaissance, natural science . . . was based on a mechanistic view of nature that destroyed the old spiritual unity of medieval Europe, and it failed to establish a real basis for unity in European culture. (p. 215)  

Dawson: “Thus as I have suggested, the progress of Western civilisation by science and power seems to lead to a state of total secularization in which both religion and freedom simultaneously disappear.” (p. 218)

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On the industrial revolution

It was built on the foundation of Christian revivals

This is part 6 of my notes on the thoughts and ideas of Christopher Dawson. (In brackets the page numbers of each quote from TRBRAC, unless another book mentioned. “PwG” refers to my own thoughts.)     

[I]n England, they attempted to steer a middle course between traditional Christianity and the new ideas, and simultaneously devoted themselves to practical utilitarian activity. They put the new science into practical use, and at the same time developed a new social type, the hard-working, conscientious, abstemious man of business, who considered his work a kind of religious vocation. The “narrow and intense spirit of Puritanism,” remarks Dawson, “permeated the whole movement, and gave English middle-class society the moral force to carry out the vast material labour of the Industrial Revolution.” (p. 212)

(PwG:) Vishal Mangalwadi, in his magnificent book “The Book That Made Your World – How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization”, published 2011, argues that, without the Christian revivals in the UK and the American colonies (later the US), these regions would have been much more strongly influenced by the French Revolution than they were. That is why the Industrial Revolution started in Britain and the US, and not in continental Europe. 

On the Enlightenment as a “Religion of Progress”

The French Revolution is still ongoing

This is part 5 of my notes on the thoughts and ideas of Christopher Dawson. (In brackets the page numbers of each quote from TRBRAC, unless another book mentioned. “PwG” refers to my own thoughts.)     

Out of this rationalistic current of ideas [the Enlightenment in France and Deism in England] developed the idea of Progress or human perfectibility that became the religion of many of the intellectuals of Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (p. 208)

Dawson: “while the God of the Deists was but a pale abstraction, a mere deus ex machina, the belief in Progress was an ideal capable of stirring men’s emotions and arousing a genuine religious enthusiasm. Nor was it limited to the followers of the French philosophic rationalism. It played an equally important part in the formation of German Idealism and English Utilitarian Liberalism.” (p. 209)

Dawson: “the French Revolution was not so much a revolt against misgovernment and oppression, as an attempt to restore the unity of European society on the foundation of new ideas.” (p. 210)

(PwG:) That last comment is interesting in the modern context, for this attempt is still ongoing.

On Lutheranism and Calvinism

The former promoted a passive attitude towards the state, the latter was a revolutionary force

This is part 4 of my notes on the thoughts and ideas of Christopher Dawson. (In brackets the page numbers of each quote from TRBRAC, unless another book mentioned. “PwG” refers to my own thoughts.)     

Direct quote from Dawson: “Lutheranism and Calvinism . . . produce totally different social attitudes and have become embodied in opposite political traditions. For while Lutheranism almost from the beginning adopted a passive attitude towards the state and accepted a highly conservative and even patriarchal conception of political authority, Calvinism has proved a revolutionary force in European and American history and has provided the moral dynamic element in the great expansion of bourgeois culture from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.” (p. 204/205, my emphases)

Direct quote from Dawson: “Calvinism [is] . . . much nearer to Catholicism in its conception of the relation of Church and State and in its assertion of the independence and supremacy of the spiritual power.” (p. 205)

However:

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On the Renaissance

In began with a sense of godlike freedom, but lead to a sense of misery and weakness

This is part 3 of my notes on the thoughts and ideas of Christopher Dawson. (In brackets the page numbers of each quote from TRBRAC, unless another book mentioned. “PwG” refers to my own thoughts.)     

“In Southern Europe, the Renaissance developed as a reaction against medieval culture. On this point Dawson says:

              It was a true national awakening. Men saw the revival of classical learning as a recovery of a lost inheritance. The revolted against the mediaeval culture not on religious grounds but because it was alien and uncivilized. They entered on a crusade to free the Latin world from the yoke of Gothic barbarism.” (p. 200)

Dawson quote: “[In the Renaissance] Life was regarded not as a pilgrimage towards eternity, but as a fine art in which every opportunity for knowledge and enjoyment was to be cultivated.” (p. 200)

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On religion and medieval science

The church should have a say in what should be done, and what shouldn't

This is part 2 of my notes on the thoughts and ideas of Christopher Dawson. (In brackets the page numbers of each quote from TRBRAC, unless another book mentioned. “PwG” refers to my own thoughts.)     

“Dawson recognizes that the Western thinkers [of the Middle Ages] were aided by the Arabs and the Jews of the Western Mediterranean world.” (p. 183)

Connor quotes Dawson: “But if the scholars of the West had a great deal of ground to make up, they lost no time in doing so.” (p. 183)

“The introduction of the new science into Europe constituted a danger to the Christian religion, even as it did so to Judaism and to Islam.” (p. 183)

“Nevertheless, the task of reconciling the Aristotelian science with the teachings of the Christian religion was not abandoned: it found able and successful protagonists amongst some of the greatest minds of the Church. . . . it was St. Thomas of Aquin who actually accomplished the reconciliation.” (p. 184)

“[Medieval English philosopher and Franciscan friar Roger] Bacon realized the possibilities of science; he believed that it should be controlled by the Church and directed along lines that would enhance the spiritual power and prove socially beneficial.” (p. 187, my emphasis)

Dawson: “When Bacon sings the praises of experimental science that can create automobiles and flying machines and devices that will destroy a whole army at once, he is the prophet of modern science, nor can we, in these days of mechanized warfare and mechanized production, afford altogether to despise his warnings of the danger of allowing these vast forces to escape moral direction and social control.” (p. 188, my emphasis) (from: Mediaeval Religion, 1935)

(PwG:) In other words: The fact that we can do something doesn’t imply that we should. The church is the one institution that should and could play a much stronger role in the discussion as to what science should and shouldn’t do. We need God’s guidance not so much on what to discover, but on what to put into use. However, nowadays nothing is discovered “by chance” anymore. The “lab leak” theory of the Covid virus indicates that research was and is going on about how to change features of viruses to make them more dangerous/deadly to humans. The churches should ask the question, loudly: What’s the point? And excommunicate politicians, scientists, engineers etc. involved in such research. (On the force of excommunication nowadays I hope to post another text in future.)

On the beginnings of “Europe”

The foundations of the modern world were laid in 11th and 12th centuries

This is part 1 of my notes on the thoughts and ideas of Christopher Dawson. (In brackets the page numbers of each quote from TRBRAC, unless another book mentioned. “PwG” refers to my own thoughts.)     

In the 11th century Europe finally emerges from the “Dark Ages”: “But with the eleventh century a movement of progress begins which was to continue almost without intermission down to modern times.” The foundations of the modern world were laid then “by the creation of institutions that were to remain typical of our culture” and “by the formation of that society of peoples which, more than any mere geographical unit, is what we know as Europe.” (159, my emphasis)

My (PwG) thought on this: Today, governments around the world are replacing those institutions with ones that conform more to their will to power. And in Europe specifically, the nation states, which weakened the church, are now trying to recreate the unity of the continent that previously this church had formed, in particular in the 13th century.  

A reviewer called Edward I. Watkin wrote about some of Dawson’s work, saying that it provided a kind of counternarrative to a secular interpretation of the history of mankind, as e.g. exemplified by the work of H.G. Wells, and writes: “Every step of human progress is shown to be directly or . . .  indirectly the result of a religious attitude to life, every culture a religious culture. In the service of the Mother Goddess men invented agriculture, in the name of Christ the Church built up the civilisation of Western Europe from the ruins left by the fall of Rome.” (163/64, my emphasis)

(PwG:) Here, Rodney Stark’s work provides a lot of supplementary information. See in particular his “The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (2005)”

(PwG:) “Every culture is a religious culture”: That leads to the question: What “religion” underlies the current culture? Because it certainly ain’t Christianity. Our current culture may include some fading remnants of Christianity, but that’s about it.

Should we “go back” to the middle ages? No, says Dawson: “We cannot of course regard the mediaeval civilisation as the model of what a Christian civilisation should be – as an ideal to which modern society should conform itself. It is admirable not so much for what it achieved as for what it attempted – for its refusal to be content with partial solutions, and for its attempt to bring every side of life into vital relation with religion.” (172/73, my emphasis)

(PwG:) This smacks a little of totalitarianism. However, there are at least two differences between the medieval attempt at a comprehensive “living out” of a religion and today’s attempt to subjugate and unify everyone and everything under one ruling narrative. One: It was done openly and honestly, not incrementally. Two: It was done under the lived-out faith in a creator God ruling above even the most powerful worldly leaders. Today’s creed is imposed manipulatively, incrementally, and under the deceptively and dishonestly used term of “diversity”. And any faith in a creator God is mocked and derided. Instead, (wo)man is elevated into a god-like position, either individually or collectively, with disastrous results. So obvious are those disasters, that people are now looking for another god, and hoping to have found it in the Earth as “mother goddess”. A sign of regress, not progress.     

“In the early thirteenth century, it seemed as though the foundations were being laid in Europe for a unitary religion-culture, but the second half of the century marks a turning-point and a moment of crisis. The medieval ideal of a unified Christian civilization was destroyed by the rising power of the territorial secular state.” (178)

(PwG:) Unfortunately, no explanation is given in TRBRAC as to why the secular state arose there and then. Connor only quotes Dawson at this point, saying essentially the same thing. When I go to the source (Christopher Dawson: “Religion and the Rise of Western Culture”) I find that, at the time, there was some “intense political conflict” between the Popes and the Hohenstaufen, who had taken over the “Holy Roman Empire” after Emperor Frederick II (1194–1250) had died. This conflict ended victoriously for the Papacy, “but with a serious loss of moral prestige”. (p. 215/16 of “Religion and the Rise …”) “This crisis of the reforming movement and the decline of the unifying energy of medieval culture found outward expression in the two great external catastrophes of Dante’s generation – the end of the crusading states [in the Middle East] and the destruction of the great crusading Order.” “The destruction of the Templars by Philip IV [of France], … was far more serious, since it marked the complete victory of the temporal power of the new monarchy over the international elements in medieval society.” (p. 216/17 of “Religion and the Rise …”) At the same time, “the region between the Mediterranean and the Iranian plateau which had been the focus of world civilization for four thousand years lost its position of cultural leadership and became stationary and decadent . . . Now for the first time Europe is forced to follow untrodden ways and to find new goals, and at the same time becomes conscious of its own powers, critical of accepted traditions and ready for new ventures.” (p. 217 of “Religion and the Rise …”)

(PwG:) It appears ironic, and even providential, that this new role for the West started at exactly the time when the culturally unifying force of Christianity first began to fade.