Christopher Dawson’s Religion And Culture

Ten years ago, it would have been unimaginable to me that I would read a Catholic historian with great pleasure, or take seriously his thesis that religions were inseparable, indispensable elements of culture. I began this blog describing myself as a “secular humanist,” confident that, though religions may have inaugurated the idea of human dignity I cherished, reason and philosophy and science might prove better guarantors of assuring it into the future. If the past ten years of experience have not yet caused me to relinquish that belief entirely, they nonetheless have badly shaken my prior convictions, and caused me to re-examine some of my foundational beliefs. Outside of a small number of devoted circles, Christopher Dawson has fallen out of favour, but his present obscurity belies his once-great influence. T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien both drew inspiration from his writings, and he is at this very moment being rediscovered by a new generation of thinkers and politicians skeptical of the liberal world order established in the aftermath of the Second World War.

In Religion And Culture, Dawson sketches out his understanding of the symbiotic relationship between the faith of a people and their customs. “All religion,” Dawson tells us, “is based on the recognition of a superhuman Reality of which man is somehow conscious and towards which he must in some way orientate his life.” It is upon that shared orientation that societies are founded, and the art and music and literature that make up its culture likewise revolve around those values. “A social culture is an organized way of life which is based on a common tradition and conditioned by a common environment,” says Dawson at his most anthropological. I was reminded, instantly, of Dostoevsky’s Shatov, who says, in Demons, that,

The aim of all movements of nations, of every nation and in every period of its existence, is solely the seeking for God, its own God, entirely its own, and faith in him as the only true one. God is the synthetic person of the whole nation, taken from its beginning and to its end. It has never yet happened that all or many nations have had one common God, but each has always had a separate one. It is a sign of a nation’s extinction when there begin to be gods in common. When there are gods in common, they die along with the belief in them and with the nations themselves. The stronger the nation, the more particular its God.

Dawson, an Englishman, had many examples of this divergence in mind: “Take a few hundred thousand nineteenth century English and Irish, transplant them to Australia and let them adapt their social habits and organization to this new environment, and in a century you find a new human type which is both physically and psychologically different from that of the parent society.”

Though Dawson believes in the importance of religion to culture, he does not deny that a secular society is possible; indeed, he acknowledges the vital role played by the Enlightenment in Europe:

In fact, during the centuries when Western Christendom was so profoundly divided by controversy and sectarianism, by religious wars and religious persecutions, it was Humanism which was the chief unifying element in European culture, since it provided the only ground on which the members of the different nations and the different churches could meet on equal terms. In other words a common education and a common literary culture took the place of a common faith and a communio sacrorum as the chief remaining bond of European unity.

But he has a warning for those us who believe we can live by reason alone, for any extended period of time – a warning rooted in our hopelessly limited being:

Nevertheless primitive man in his weakness and ignorance is nearer to the basic realities of human existence than the self-satisfied rationalist who is confident that he has mastered the secrets of the universe. The latter has focused all his attention and all his activity on the region which can be explored by human reason and controlled by human will, and has thereby made it wider and more habitable, but he has not changed the fact of its ultimate limitation. In so far as he is content to live within this world of his own creation – the artificially lit and hygienically conditioned City of Man – he is living precariously on a relatively superficial level of existence and consciousness, and the higher he builds his tower of civilization the more top-heavy it becomes. For his nature remains essentially the same as that of primitive man – the nature of a rational animal, limited internally by the conditions of his consciousness and externally by his dependence on non-human forces which transcend his animal existence.

Passages like this resonated with me, living, as I feel I do, so completely in the City of Man, where all but the poorest among us have access to knowledge and physical security beyond the wildest imaginings of our ancestors, and yet the good life we envision for ourselves seems hopelessly base, a mere satisfying of appetites, now and in perpetuity. “When the prophets are silent and society no longer possesses any channel of communication with the divine world,” Dawson warns us, “the way to the lower depths is still open and man’s frustrated spiritual powers will find their outlet in the unlimited will to power and destruction.”

Religion And Culture appeared only in 1948, adapted from a series of lectures, but some of its criticisms seem desperately topical. I am writing now in a time of political division and cultural disunity, when entire countries seem disconnected from their histories and unsure of their futures, and if asked to explain how we arrived at so dire a situation, I could avail myself of Dawson’s writings, more than 50 years ago:

[…] the intellectuals who have succeeded the priests as the guardians of the higher tradition of Western culture have been strong only in their negative work of criticism and disintegration. They have failed to provide an integrated system of principles and values which could unify modern society, and consequently they have proved unable to resist the non-moral, inhuman and irrational forces which are destroying the humanist no less than the Christian traditions of Western culture.

Dawson quite explicitly draws a link between the priests of yesteryear and today’s intellectual classes, arguing that the former gave way to the latter. He likewise draws a parallel between the prophets of the past and artists, both of whom, he argues, have some personal relationship to the transcendent which they then mine for lessons applicable to the wider society. Let me then express the hope, however cautiously, that a prophet-artist will emerge among us, of the eminence of a T.S. Eliot or Tolkien, to remind our fractured societies of its higher values.