Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed the ad to the right about an old book for which I have written a new introduction: Enquiries Into Religion and Culture – a volume in The Collected Works of Christopher Dawson being reprinted under Don Briel’s editorship by the Catholic University of America Press. The series already includes Progress & Religion, with an introduction by Mary Beard, and Understanding Europe with an introduction by George Weigel. I call your attention to this project not because I am involved in it; I am involved in it because it deserves the attention of readers who do not know or may have forgotten the man who was the greatest Catholic historian of the twentieth century.
Let me explain why. Then I want to tell you about another projected series of books, Catholic Family Classics, and invite you to nominate titles to be included.
Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was an English convert to Catholicism and an independent writer who never really held an academic post until he was named for just a couple of years to the Chauncey Stillman Chair in Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard near the end of his life. When he was only nineteen and not yet a Catholic, during a trip to Rome he was looking out over the Roman Forum on the same spot where, more than a century earlier, Edward Gibbon had conceived the idea of writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Dawson felt moved to undertake an equally ambitious project: a comprehensive history of culture. Later, he wrote in his journal of “a vow made at Easter in Ara Coeli,” and that, since the initial inspiration, he had received “great light on the way it should be carried out. However unfit I may be, I believe it is God’s will I should attempt it.”
Years of quiet but intense preparation elapsed before his first book, The Age of the Gods (1928). But once he began publishing, he was immediately recognized as a major cultural voice. T.S. Eliot, a tough critic, thought him “the most powerful intellectual influence in England” and for the next thirty years he was celebrated, even outside Christian circles, as among the very greatest living historians. Had his work not been overtly Catholic and had he followed the usual academic career, he might have been as prominent a figure as Arnold Toynbee in shaping the way world history came to be written during the middle of the twentieth century. As it was, he made a significant contribution all the same.
Dawson’s Catholicism was different from that of other great English converts such as G.K. Chesterton and cradle Catholics like Hilaire Belloc. They tended to look to the middle ages as the great period. In this, they were following the rediscovery of all things medieval starting in the early nineteenth century (Parliament burned to the ground at that time and was rebuilt in self-consciously medieval style, partly to remind the English that their liberties had medieval roots.) Dawson deeply appreciated medieval Catholicism, but he embraced the then-dominant baroque Catholicism as the living tradition of the Church and, possessing a mind of wide vision and power, sought to include everything down to modern times in a Catholic perspective on history.
You may think that this is a somewhat exotic enterprise when we face so many dire challenges. But reflect a moment. The most powerful anti-Christian myth in our culture, which is imposed on children in American and European schools, characterizes everything between ancient Greece and Rome on the one hand, and the rise of modern science on the other – all the Christian centuries – as darkness and superstition, crusades, inquisitions, religious wars, intolerance, and intellectual blindness. In my own book The God That Did Not Fail, I tried to show in compressed fashion how this crude cartoon version of Christian history clashes with what scholars, secular and not alike, know about those Christian centuries today. Dawson reaches much further: from the Stone Age (The Age of the Gods) to the twentieth century, with great sophistication and erudition, but also an easy readability.
Enquiries into Religion and Culture begins: “The great fact of the twentieth century is the definite emergence of a new type of civilization different from anything that the world has known hitherto.” Dawson dives deep into many features of modernity to plumb the meaning of our new civilization: Communism, the passing of tradition, industrialization and technology, rationalism, morals, sex, and the overall significance of religion to life, among many other things.
Lots of what he said then is vital for us today. But the discerning reader will also imbibe a certain spirit reading this wise and astute man, a spirit encouraging all of us to recover continuity with the tradition that has been broken by modernisms, both secular and religious. But a spirit that also recognizes that there is no going back: the new civilization requires us to undertake the same efforts in our time that figures like Dawson did in their own, and make them potent in the public realm.
I mentioned that I would ask for your suggestions about another project. Michael Novak and Ralph McInerny, regular columnists for The Catholic Thing, have reached an agreement with Transaction Books to begin bringing out a new series: Catholic Family Classics. We have been discussing obvious titles such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and others necessary for any Catholic to be conversant with our tradition. These works should be for a general audience, or occasionally a little more ambitious. To suggest titles, go here.
As I told you in our inaugural column for this site, I believe Catholicism has the richest cultural tradition in the world. That would be quite evident if Catholics made the effort to know it better – and to live it. We have the means. All we need is the will.