Christopher Dawson: The Twofold Nature of Christian History, by Gerald J. Russello

Christopher Dawson wrote with two different audiences in mind. He sought both to displace the bankrupt Victorian and Edwardian liberalism of his own day and to shake the complacency of his coreligionists who preferred to bask in the quickly fading light of false medievalism. His carefully crafted prose revealed a nuanced and original understanding of Western history.
To combat “scientific” theories of progress, Dawson argued that every civilization relies on those who most fully represent its ideals and shape the culture through their actions. Dawson maintained that “history is at once aristocratic and revolutionary. It allows the whole world situation to be suddenly transformed by the action of a single individual.” It is this dynamic historical process that is fatal to a secular understanding of religious approaches to history. In the words of Edmund Burke that Dawson quoted with approval, at times a “common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn have changed the face of the future and almost of Nature.” To the Christian, this understanding of historical development permits interpretation of past events in the light of divine will and spiritual forces that may be unknown even to the actors themselves.

Dawson set out for himself the task of explaining the twofold nature of Christian history: while the Christian faith embodies eternal values and the teachings of God, it nevertheless transforms utterly the cultures it contacts. When the Christian faith enters into a culture, as when it first burst upon an overcivilized and jaded Rome, it begins a spiritual regeneration that affects not only the material, external culture, but the interior constitution of its members. In an essay entitled “The Christian View of History,” Dawson wrote:

For the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is not simply a theophany—a revelation of God to Man; it is a new creation—the introduction of a new spiritual principle which gradually leavens and transforms human nature into something new. The history of the human race hinges on this unique divine event which gives meaning to the whole historical process.

This new, world-transforming history overthrows its rivals, whether the Greek idea of an endless series of repeating cycles or the spiritless homogeneity of the “postmodern” era. The Incarnation gives shape to history and supplies a beginning, a middle, and an end: “the Christian view of history is a vision of history sub specie aeternitatis, an interpretation of time in terms of eternity and of human events in the light of divine revelation.” This concentration on the physical substance of the Christian faith was a conscious counterweight to overly aesthetic theories of Christianity, such as the “super-Christianity” of Matthew Arnold, for example, which reduced the force of religious belief to a set of humanistic nostrums.
The figures whom Dawson chose to study highlight his interest in the transformative power of the Christian faith: St. Augustine, who formed Christian thought out of the ruins of the old world order; St. Thomas Aquinas, whose reception of the Greek-Arabic body of scientific knowledge created a new movement in Western thinking without compromising its integrity; and St. Ignatius Loyola, who inaugurated a new spirituality to confront the challenges of the Reformation. Dawson saw the present age as one similar to that of Augustine or Ignatius, and in need of saints who have the vision to lead the faithful into the next era. The Western world, he thought, was facing another of its “cultural discontinuities” that displace the old order and usher in a new social reality. The question that remained, for Dawson as for Eliot, was whether this new era was to be Christian or a “new civilization which recognizes neither moral laws nor human rights.”
Dawson wished first to reassert the importance of a millennium of Christian belief to modern history. It is not necessary to be a Christian to recognize that Christianity has played a profound role in shaping European culture and that “there is no aspect of European life which has not been profoundly affected” by that faith. Dawson sought to counter the skeptics of his day who saw in Christianity at best a series of moral tales (and at worst mere pretexts) that had no lasting influence on Western social practice or political arrangements. This aspect of his writings won him many admirers, including T. S. Eliot and Arnold Toynbee.
Read the complete article in The Imaginative Conservative

Ten Conservative Books Revisited, by Gerald J. Russello

In 1986, Russell Kirk gave a lecture titled “Ten Conservative Books” in which he identified ten important books that distilled or expressed conservative principles, from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France to T. S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, the book Kirk pressed upon the hapless Richard Nixon. The essay is worth reading not only for the book suggestions but also for what Kirk has to say about the role of books in the culture; as a bookish person himself, Kirk valued tomes highly, and having been in his library—a converted factory near his ancestral Piety Hill home—there is no question that Kirk was a bibliophile.

Yet Kirk recognized that “It is possible for books to comment upon custom, convention, and continuity; but not for books to create those social and cultural essences. Society brings forth books; books do not bring forth society.” Cultural renewal must occur at the level of the person, family, and community; books can help that process, but wise books come from societies that value and reflect upon wisdom; rarely the other way round.

With that in mind, there is some merit in supplementing Kirk’s list a quarter century on, so herewith my choices for ten conservative books.

1. Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. In his list, Kirk abjured fiction, although in passing he recommended some authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Radetzky March covers the period leading up to the dissolution of the old European Order before, and as a result of, World War I. Like Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Roth is clear-eyed about the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its many flaws, but equally clear-eyed about what he calls the “bestial” promise of an order that had ripped aside its traditions.

2. Patrick Leigh-Fermor, A Time for Gifts. Leigh-Fermor, who died recently, was in some sense the highest product of the tradition whose destruction Roth lamented. A polymath, courageous soldier (he led a British commando unit in occupied Crete during World War II), and elegant writer, Leigh-Fermor as a young man walked through Europe to Constantinople, just as Nazism was rising on the Continent. This book, the first volume of two covering the journey, describes a pre-Internet, pre-EU Europe of deeply local customs and perspectives, a collage of nations that is almost impossible for us to imagine; almost, because Leigh-Fermor’s prose makes such imagination possible.

3. Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. The Europe Roth and Leigh-Fermor describe was a disparate set of people bound together by a common faith. How that faith—which itself came from outside Europe, bearing with it the markings of Israel and the Near East—came to shape Europe is described in this book, written by one of the twentieth century’s greatest Christian historians.

4. John Lukacs, Last Rites. After Dawson Lukacs is perhaps the historian every conservative should read. Lukacs—a Hungarian refugee to the United States—has written a series of books articulating a defense of European and specifically Anglo-American civilization. He is no mindless defender of right-wing orthodoxy—far from it. But his perspective on patriotism and the moral nature of history, among many other subjects, makes this book—a follow up to his amazing first volume of memoirs, Confessions of an Original Sinner—a perfect introduction to his other works, including the indispensable Historical Consciousness, which explodes every progressive myth about historical thinking you can imagine.

5. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind. Although Kirk did not include his own works in his listing, now, some five decades on, his masterpiece, The Conservative Mind, needs to be read by anyone seeking to understand the conservative tradition. As David Frum once wrote, Kirk as much created as discovered the conservative intellectual tradition, which he traced from Edmund Burke to Eliot. And it is that tension between preservation and innovation that lay at the heart of Kirk’s project, a tension that Kirk navigated through reverence for the past but also the consistent application of imagination to the problems of the present

Read the complete article in The University Bookman


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