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Happy Birthday, Christopher Dawson!

  • Ben House
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Without distracting the least from the well-deserved honor and holiday of Christopher Columbus’ arrival (or discovery or rediscovery) of the New World, another man also should be honored on October 12. Another Christopher, Dawson in this case, a discoverer of history, was born on that date in 1889 in Wales. Like the big man of 1492, this Christopher had a mission of being a Christ-bearer.

Christopher Dawson’s mission field was the study of history. His contemporaries included such men as G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis. They were more than just contemporaries in a time-spatial sense; they were the intellectual and spiritual peers of Dawson. Together with a host of other writers and thinkers such as Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Hilaire Belloc, they were a part of the m of 1 Corinthians 1:26a (“not many wise … are called” — as opposed to “not any …”). In the post-Christian culture of 20th century Britain, as the sun was setting on the empire, as Matthew Arnold’s sea of faith echoed “its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” the sun continued to blaze brightly on Daniel’s envisioned Kingdom that shall never be destroyed.

Put simply, God converted and commissioned a host of novelists, poets, and intellectuals from among the peoples of Britain. Some produced great novels, poems, and literary essays. Some, and here we think of Chesterton and Lewis, wrote brilliant apologies (defenses) of the Christian faith. Some, and here we think of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, rediscovered Puritan writings, Calvinistic theology, and expository preaching from the Bible. At least one, Winston Churchill, defended Christendom against Teutonic tyranny, the Nazi juggernaut menace, and the Bolshevik menace, and then chronicled the account in an historical epic. And one, Christopher Dawson, restructured a Christian interpretation of history on Europe and the world.

The 20th century was in one sense a time of maturity for the field of history. Universities claimed the field, usurping what had once been the domain of true scholars, that is, men of leisure who read and reflected and wrote. In another sense, the 20th century was a time of adolescent foolishness. Some historians flirted with Hegelian theories of history and saw the state as god marching upon the earth. Before World War I, they were bounding with optimism over the brave new world of the future. After 1918 they despaired of life or history having any meaning or purpose. Some historians courted Marxian theory with its economic determinism and its eschatological vision of a utopian society. More than one account of the gulags and holocausts were needed to break them. Into the late 1980s and 1990s, they still gushed over the brilliant Mikhail Gorbachev and scorned the reactionary Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the foolish Cold Warrior Ronaldus Magnus (President Reagan). Those not quite Marxist courted the equally ugly twin sister — socialism. With a few common grace exceptions, and one thinks of British historian Christopher Hill and American historian Eugene Genovese, the economic determinists added little to our knowledge of history.

The brutal edges of political history cut too sharply for some historians. Hence, they looked at social institutions; they bemoaned the plight of women and the dispossessed classes; they ignored the great men of history in search of the underlying social causes; they exalted environment over rhetoric, chance over destiny, and academic trivia pursuit (leading to dissertations and tenure) over the grand sweeps of history.

And God raised up Christopher Dawson. Nothing new here for God. He had done the same in the 5th century when Augustine’s blockbuster The City of God hit the shelves of the Scrolls-a-Million franchise and stayed on the best-seller list for a millennium. God’s enemies always seem to know that it is not the facts of the event, but the interpretation of the event that matters most. Rome was sacked by barbarians: it was the Christians’ fault, so they said. Until Augustine spoke. But back to Christopher Dawson.

Dawson was quite an unexciting man. He was ordinary looking, but suffered from poor health. He was never an athlete, warrior, or political figure. Sitting in Rome at the same place where Edward Gibbon conceived the notion of compiling what became The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Dawson committed his life and intellectual career to writing about history from a Christian perspective. His life was then devoted to study. He read books, he gave lectures, he wrote essays. Numerous essays by Dawson grew into books.

Dawson’s many works can be reduced down to a key theme or two, the main one being this: the key determining factor in a culture is religion, not politics, not economics, not geography, but religion. All those other things matter, but religion is central. A second key idea in Dawson’s thinking follows: the true religion is Christianity. Hence, a study of European history, what Dawson titled The Making of Europe, is essentially a study of the Christian faith in Europe. The main interpretive principle of education is religious, or more specifically, Christian education. The most apparent divisions of history into epochs or time periods are to be determined by theological, not political, institutions and revolutions. Any hope for civilization is to be found not in technology or evolution or some subjective experience, but in a revival of the Christian faith.

Open almost any book by Dawson, at almost any point, and Dawson will be reiterating these themes. He is not a narrative historian like Churchill or Paul Johnson. His stories will not keep you up late at night, turning pages, gulping coffee, and awaiting the final charges of the cavalry. Dawson is not a storyteller like Herodotus. He analyzes history: he explains the causes, the moving forces, the underlying currents of history. He gives the interpretive framework for the great stories.

At least one quote must be given: “It is hardly too much to say that it is Christian culture that has created Western man and the Western way of life.” “It is hardly too much to say,” and yet with the exception of one faithful Christian history teacher in our local junior college, I never heard it said by my professors. Christianity — or Christian culture, or better yet, Christendom — was ignored, minimized, ridiculed, distorted, or attacked. Christianity was responsible for the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of witches, the suppression of drama, and the oppression of women — so we have all been told.

Yes there is a third key theme to Dawson. Religion is the key, and Christianity is the religion, and the branch of Christianity that Dawson converted to and loved and defended was the Roman Catholic Church. Like Chesterton and Tolkien in Britain, like Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy in America, Dawson was Roman Catholic through and through. So what is the lonely Calvinist (of Richard Tawney’s myth) to do?

Simple, don’t ordain Dawson (or Chesterton or Tolkien, or even Lewis, for that matter) as your pastor, but join him in reciting the Apostles’ Creed, use him for understanding history Christianly, and thank God for raising him up. Practically speaking, many a fine Dawson paragraph is best read by substituting the word “Christian” for “Catholic.” In some cases, bite your tongue, read him respectfully, and disagree.

Joseph Stalin once asked the question, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” It was at the height of World War II; the world was being shaken by Nazism, Fascism, Bolshevism, and Japanese militarism. Technology seemed to be the only thing surpassing ideology as a determiner of events. British development of radar, American productivity, the Russian T-34 tank, and Anglo-American research of nuclear devices turned the tide. Or so it seems. In my mind, a key turning point of World War II was the meeting of Churchill and President Roosevelt in August of 1941 off the coast of Newfoundland. They produced the “Atlantic Charter” which was, in the long run, inconsequential.

On Sunday, the British Prime Minister and the American President joined together in prayers, hymns, and worship to God. We won the war. Hitler and Mussolini, both apostate Catholics, never joined in prayers, hymns, and worship to God. They lost. When Churchill and Roosevelt met with the apostate Georgian and former theology student Joseph Stalin, they did not join in prayers, hymns, and worship. And the Cold War followed. Even at this time, I believe, George Bush’s morning devotionals are more critical to the future of America than his cabinet meetings. In all of this, I think Christopher Dawson would agree. In all of this, I acknowledge my debt to him.


  • Ben House

Ben House is the author of Punic Wars & Culture Wars: Christian Essays on History and Teaching and the the editor of HouseBlog.

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