Remembering Christopher Dawson

Fr. Arthur Madigan, S.J.
Fr. Arthur Madigan, S.J.

by Fr. Arthur Madigan, S.J.


Fr. Arthur Madigan, S.J. is a Professor of Philosophy. He specializes in Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle. Over the years, Fr. Madigan has translated works from Aristotle and has contributed to numerous journals and essay collections. He previously served as Chair of the Philosophy Department at Boston College.


The English historian of culture Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) is all but forgotten, even among historians, even among Catholics.


Dawson belonged to a cohort of twentieth-century historians who converted to Catholicism. (For more on this remarkable group, see Chapter XI of Patrick Allitt’s, Catholic Converts:  British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome.) In an era when history meant mainly political history, Dawson pioneered the historical study of culture. In a period when materialist interpretations of history were in vogue, he insisted that the history of cultures can only be understood through the religions that animated those cultures. At a time when the influence of Christianity appeared to be on the wane, or perhaps was on the wane, he published The Historic Reality of Christian Culture.


There are reasons why Dawson is all but forgotten.  He was a master of grand narrative (The Making of Europe, Progress and Religion), but grand narratives are out of fashion. In his own day, he stood apart from the popular Catholic apologetics of Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton. Later on, he was lionized by Catholics who thought of themselves as conservative, but criticized by some Catholics who thought of themselves as liberal. As with many Catholic thinkers who wrote before Vatican II, his work was swallowed up in the flood of new thinking and new writing that followed the council. His defense of the study of Western culture can sound decidedly old-fashioned or perhaps nostalgic.


And yet Dawson is, I think, a man for our season: if not for the details of his history, or for his grand narratives, then for his historian's insight into the mystery of Christ and the mystery of Christian life. Here is a sample from "Christianity and Contradiction in History." Dawson is meditating on the apparent failure of Jesus of Nazareth.

"The Christian order is a supernatural order. It has its own principles and its own laws which are not those of the visible world and which may often seem to contradict them. Its victories may be found in apparent defeat and its defeats in material success.  We see the whole thing manifested clearly and perfectly once and once only, i.e. in the life of Jesus, which is the pattern of the Christian life and the model of Christian action.  The life of Jesus is profoundly historical; it is the culminating point of thousands of years of living historical tradition. It is the fulfilment of a historical purpose, towards which priests and prophets and even politicians had worked, and in which the hope of a nation and a race was embodied. Yet, from the worldly point of view, from the standpoint of a contemporary secular historian, it was not only unimportant, but actually invisible. Here was a Galilean peasant who for thirty years lived a life so obscure as to be unknown even to the disciples who accepted his mission. Then there followed a brief period of public action, which did not lead to any kind of historical achievement but moved swiftly and irresistibly towards its catastrophic end, an end that was foreseen and deliberately accepted . . . .


"Now the life of Christ is the life of the Christian and the life of the Church. It is absurd for a Christian who is a weak human vehicle of this world-changing force to expect a quiet life. A Christian is like a red rag to a bull—to the force of evil that seeks to be master of the world and which, in a limited sense, but in a very real sense, is, as St. John says, the Lord of this world. And not only the individual but the Church as an historic community follows the same pattern and finds its success and failure not where the politician finds them, but where Christ found them."


That is not nostalgia.


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