Christianity, and the Thought of Christopher Dawson
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
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
Q: What is the relevance
of the thought of Christopher Dawson today?
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
In books such as Progress and Religion , 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
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  and Religion and the
Rise of Western Culture , 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?
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
Q: According to Dawson,
what is the historical basis of European unity?
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?
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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
This interview was conducted in New York on September 15, 2003.
Reprinted with permission from Zenit - News from Rome. All rights reserved.