Saturday, May 2, 2009

Dynamics of World History, by Christopher Dawson

ISI Books, 511 pages, $16.95.

The late Christopher Dawson, former professor at Harvard University, took a Catholic view of the past. God's breaking into human history makes history history. Without this action, humans would tend towards a belief in reincarnation.

Though Dynamics of World History, a collection of Dawson's writings, focuses mainly on Western civilization and Christianity, his sweeping understanding of the spiritual and psychological forces of the past parallel the writings of the great American mythologist Joseph Campbell who, though raised Catholic, never saw his subject matter through Catholic lenses.

Dawson, writing in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, attributed the military and political violence of his day to the spiritual vacuum in Western history since the Enlightenment. Spiritual decay led unavoidably to all sorts of violence.

Technological and economic progress thus present problems because they have come at the expense of culture and spirituality. We have more than ever materially, yet we are empty spiritually. Interestingly, while Dawson wrote many decades ago, these thoughts apply just as well today.

We have yet to solve the basic conundrum that issues from societies putting all their energies into wealth creation and technological development, and nothing into spirituality and the higher arts. This is precisely the place where the Church has its most important role to play today – to fill this spiritual and artistic vacuum.

Dawson also took a sacred view of the Church, believing that Catholicism has been fighting the same noble, spiritual battle throughout history, and that facing distortions and enemies were a normal part of its vocation. Sometimes the greatest enemy of the Church is within:

“Wherever the Church has seemed to dominate the world politically and achieves a victory within the secular sphere, she has had to pay for it in a double measure of temporal and spiritual misfortune. Thus the triumph of the Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire was followed first by the loss of the East to Islam and then by the schism with the West.”

He also claimed that the Church's historical opponents, including Protestantism and the “Liberal Revolution would not have existed apart from Christianity – they are abortive or partial manifestations of the spiritual power which Christianity has brought into history.”

These writings cover a very large area of history and sociology. Dawson attributed religious schism, as between the Latin and Greek churches, and between Rome and Protestant churches, to ethnic and sociological differences. These nationalistic and cultural tensions invaded the theological arena, so that the Irish remained Catholic, for instance, just as much out of their hatred for England – which had become Protestant/Church of England - as out of their faithfulness to Rome.

Dawson applied the same Catholic, spiritual view to art, literature, history, and every other aspect of Western civilization. A big thinker, he noted: “[T]he essence of history is not to be found in facts but in traditions.” Contrary to the claims of modern historians, he never tried to transcend culture and be totally objective.

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