Christopher Dawson, though he never earned the doctorate nor held a permanent university post, was recognized in his day as one of Europe’s most profound thinkers. He delivered the Gifford Lectures in 1947, he served as editor of the Dublin Review, and he held the Stillman Chair for Catholic Studies at Harvard University. But Dawson’s standing today, a half-century after his death in 1970, speaks more of the state of contemporary culture and religion—the two chief focuses of his work—than of his dozens of books and countless essays. Among those who have no interest in religion or the spiritual forces within culture, Dawson is a nonentity, forgotten with the passage of time. By contrast, among certain types of Catholics who long for a more religion-friendly society, Dawson is a hero who articulates a vision dear to their hearts.
But Dawson’s vision is far too broad and too deep to be enlisted for sectarian or partisan battles. This fact is another reason for many to forget Dawson: since both his vision and his style of historiography transcend typical categories and myopic specializations, it is easier to throw him to the side rather than engage his formidable ideas.
How Dawson—who wrote history shaped by sociological, anthropological, and metaphysical insights—developed his vision of culture as the reflection of peoples, and of religion as the heart of culture, is the subject of Joseph T. Stuart’s meticulously researched and carefully organized book Christopher Dawson: A Cultural Mind in the Age of the Great War. Stuart labels his work a “biographical study” that probes how Dawson came to think about culture, which he understood “simply as the common way of life of a people, including their vision of reality.” Dawson possessed a “cultural mind,” which Stuart characterizes as looking “at the world through the lens of culture, connecting ideas and social ways of life” in order to see the many facets of history in light of their whole. The culture of a given time, place, and people anchored Dawson’s historiography. He never once wrote a history that turned on a national or political axis.
Stuart’s focus on how Dawson first formed and later applied his cultural mind is his unique contribution to the field of Dawson studies, which have to date focused primarily on the man and his work. By showing how Dawson’s books and essays came to be, Stuart not only illuminates the enduring value of Dawson’s insights, but he also makes the case for how and why culture should serve as an essential component of historical thinking.
Dawson’s cultural mind, Stuart argues, was shaped by the cultural fallout of the Great War. Acutely aware of how the war and its subsequent years of political and societal turmoil “seemed to unmoor the present from the past,” Dawson “saw the crisis of the modern world as the result of the denial of spiritual reality, the loss of contact between religion and culture, the loss of the humanist tradition,” and the unmooring of human society from nature. While other thinkers turned to theology, philosophy, or literature for answers, Dawson turned to the new fields of anthropology and sociology, academic territory into which Catholics had not ventured before him.
Dawson was convinced that studying culture with the help of these new social sciences was the best approach for the historian. He rejected Arnold Toynbee’s multi-volume A Study of History because, in Stuart’s image, it employs the telescope to study civilizations rather than the microscope needed to understand cultures. As Dawson wrote,
The higher civilizations usually represent a fusion of at least two independent traditions of culture…. [T]he essential basis of the study of history must be, not just a comparative study of the higher civilizations, but a study of their constituent cultures, and here we must follow, not the grand synoptic method of the philosophers of history, but the more laborious and meticulous scientific technique of the social anthropologists.
Stuart breaks new ground in tracing how Dawson came to the fields of sociology, anthropology, and comparative religions, and how he meshed what he learned from them with eternal metaphysical and theological truths to form his “science of culture.” Critically, Dawson balanced two “modes” of cultural thinking. Stuart calls the first the “socio-historical” mode that is descriptive of cultures as phenomena unique to themselves; in this way, Dawson worked as a sociologist offering analysis in the style of Durkheim and Weber to show “how cultures are.” He calls the second mode “humanistic,” and it is prescriptive in nature, seeking the truths of “how culture should be.”
The two modes gave Dawson a perspective that few share. Dawson’s “transdisciplinary thinking” worked symphonically because of the discipline engendered by the “four rules of the cultural mind”—an “intellectual architecture” that situates new knowledge and facts in light of a broader whole; “boundary thinking” that sees both the integrity and the limits of different disciplines; “intellectual bridges” that form the intellectual architecture by bringing together what boundary thinking distinguishes; and “intellectual ascetism” that connects “factual fastidiousness, ideological restraint, and English reserve to clear writing” that did not serve “Catholic triumphalism or pedantry or political ideology.”
One crucial attribute that the two modes of cultural thinking and the four rules gave Dawson was what Stuart terms a “moderate cultural relativism,” which helped him see that, when studying culture, “‘universal’ and ‘particular’ present a false dichotomy.” For Dawson, the field of comparative religion links theological truths with local manifestations of belief so that the two are not antagonistic, but complementary.
It is with the book’s second part, the “application of a cultural mind,” that we clearly see Dawson’s continued relevance to contemporary historiography, culture, and politics. This relevance stems largely from Dawson’s sociological thinking, which is brilliantly analyzed by Stuart. Dawson, he explains, adapted Patrick Geddes’s environmental sociology that studied how human populations both affect and are affected by their geographic and economic situations. People, economics, and geography, rendered with the shorthand “FWP” (“folk, work, place”) are also heavily influenced by ideas, Dawson argued, and the key idea animating every culture is its dominant religion. “The spiritual faith and ideals of a man or a society—their ultimate attitude toward life—colour all their thought and action and make them what they are,” Dawson wrote in 1920. Religion, in other words, is “the key of history.” Hence Stuart summarizes Dawson’s “environmental sociology” with a schema that took a giant leap past that of Geddes: I/FWP, with the “I” being “ideas.”
This sociological framework is the key ingredient, Stuart argues, for Dawson’s penetrating insights into Europe’s post-war totalitarian movements that became “political religions,” that is, “movements ascribing ultimate values to the political realm…that take on some of the functional apparatus of religion.” In fact, the “secularization” that is used to describe the West’s slow rejection of Christianity “fosters conditions conducive to the sacralization of temporal realities.” These political religions have changed their smells and bells in the ensuing decades, but, from Communism to Wokeism, they have maintained a similar creed. Because he penetrates to the essential motives and claims of political religions, Dawson’s analysis reads as if it were written yesterday.
Stuart’s most provocative chapter considers the second application of Dawson’s cultural mind: the educational plan of “Christian studies” he developed for American schools and universities in the 1950s. Here Stuart himself applies Dawson’s cultural mind and I/FWP sociological schemata to explain how and why Dawson’s plan, which called for an integration of knowledge within a broader vision of Christian culture and a balancing of theological and philosophical studies with courses in the social sciences, was rejected by the pre-conciliar American Catholic establishment. To American Catholics finally integrating into public life, Dawson’s Christian culture “seemed a throwback to an older cultural pattern derided as the ‘ghetto’ by the rising Catholic middle class seeking to leave all that behind.”
In a theory that will rankle staunch supporters of Catholic universities’ former commitment to multiple courses in philosophy and theology, Stuart argues that had American Catholics adopted Dawson’s educational ideas and “moderate cultural relativism,” they would have prevented the social and institutional Catholic collapse that followed Vatican II but was already afoot with intellectual and sociological changes occurring in American Catholicism in the 1950s. “[W]ithout grounding in history and a moderate cultural relativism informing an understanding of doctrinal development in the church,” philosophy and theology taught as ahistorical universals led to “a reaction among the younger generation, and naiveté about enculturating the next generation.” Today, in the wreckage of Christian culture in America, few Catholic universities offer this former course of studies. But an increasing number of universities, including Stuart’s own University of Mary, offer Dawson-inspired Catholic studies programs that include philosophy courses within a larger sequence of courses in the humanities and social sciences.
Today, with many Catholic universities indistinguishable from their secular counterparts, with the humanities captive to ideological thinking, and with increasing scholarly focus that seeks to transcend disciplinary limits, Dawson’s idea of culture, concludes Stuart, offers “an itinerary for coordinating research in consideration of the whole, human picture” and “is capable of connecting to permanent things, normative outlooks, and life-guiding values.”
In other words, Dawson teaches us that culture is the measure of all things, and we would be foolish not to invite Dawson to help us measure.
Christopher Dawson: A Cultural Mind in the Age of the Great War
By Joseph T. Stuart
Catholic University of America Press, 2022
Paperback, 448 pages
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