Saturday, June 13, 2009

Dynamics of World History

By Christopher Dawson, ISI Books, 511 pages, $16.95, ISBN 1-882926-78-X.

The late Harvard professor of history, Christopher Dawson, never tried to be impartial or above his culture. Not only did he think it absolutely normal to entrench oneself in one's tradition, he felt that this was vital. Dawson was one of the most authentic thinkers in the humanities at a time – the 1920s until today – when academics have been racing to see who can deconstruct their own tradition the fastest.

His writings therefore offer a unique perspective on history.

Dawson upholds a Catholic view of history without hesitation. He highlights the cultural and spiritual wealth of Catholicism, and ceaselessly points out the shortcomings and falsities of alternatives. Yet he does so without blanket statements and with good reason. He exhibits no Catholic triumphalism.

Thus he notes the near-inevitability of the splintering of Christianity. First, Christian leaders have sometimes been too close to power and politics. When this happened, as in the Eastern countries, vast stretches of ancient Christian lands were lost to Islam, and the Greek and Latin churches split. Then when medieval Latin Christianity became too worldly, the Reformation further fragmented Christianity.

Dynamics of Wold History's sociological insights add greatly to this spiritual and theological sense to history. Dawson sees ethnic and cultural differences as the basis for many theological divisions, as between Greeks and Armenians, and Latin Catholics and Germanic Protestants.

Dawson, however, avoids fatalism. He doesn't believe in the inevitability of these divisions. He stresses that if Christians could only see that a lot of their theological divisions really mask other differences, we could move towards Christian unity. Without an adequate understanding of the sociological fact, we could never get to the theological fact.

Again, regarding the modern spiritual vacuum into which all sorts of monsters have stepped (he was writing in the heyday of European fascism), he also avoids a fatalistic outlook. The Church has a duty, as at all times, to do battle with the world, in the sense of the Augustinian division of the two cities. This same basic spiritual reality for the Christian and the Church has not changed one iota in 2000 years – only the masks change.

He quotes the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz: “Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death – the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.”

Technological and economic progress without spiritual or cultural gain can only lead to emptiness. Here is the Church's vocation in the modern world, then: To give meaning and depth to a world with none. Dawson's words are shockingly up to date because we still have this problem, if not in a bigger dose. We have, he claimed, lost true freedom – the true spiritual freedom of the Middle Ages – in our devotion to equality.

He calls for the same things for which many great spiritual leaders, including Dostoevsky and Pope John Paul II called: “Sooner or later, there must be a revival of culture and reorganization of the spiritual life of Western society.”

But Dawson is such a great read not only because of his range of learning and depth of understanding. He also occasionally lays down the spiritual laws to history. He writes from within Catholic culture and tradition, and sees that vantage point as a great place to be a historian. He thus judges the spiritual direction of the West:

“History has shown that no true solution is to be found in the direction which the eighteenth-century Enlightenment took, i.e., by constructing a purely rational philosophy of religion based on the abstract generalities that are common to all forms of religion. For deism is nothing but the ghost of religion which haunts the grave of dead faith and lost hope.”

Dynamics of World History is a great read because its words are still relevant to the West, which continues to battle the same demons as in Dawson's day.

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