SANCTIFYING THE WORLD: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson
By Bradley J. Birzer
Christendom Press, 2007
300 pages, $30
To order: isibooks.org
by CARL E. OLSON
“Though precious few remember him now, Christopher Dawson stood at the very center of the Catholic literary and intellectual revival throughout the four decades preceding Vatican II.” With that, Bradley Birzer, professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan, introduces readers to the English historian. As Birzer argues persuasively, Dawson should not only be rediscovered for what he did during those 40 years, but also be considered for his many insights into the nature of man and the relationship between religion and culture that provide helpful light for the future.
Born in 1889 into an upper middle-class Anglican household, Dawson developed an early love for Dante and as a teenager read the novels of Catholic convert Robert Hugh Benson.
Very important for Dawson on his journey to the Catholic Church (which he entered in 1914) was the influence of St. Augustine, “from whom Dawson derived his most original thoughts, including his entire philosophy of history and his theology of culture …”
Dawson’s approach to history was quite different than that of most other historians. He was a “metahistorian,” concerned not just with dates, names and events, but with the greater meaning and purpose of history. This approach was rooted in his conviction that religion shapes culture, and it is culture that helps form and upholds man’s morals, language and family structures. He believed a culture that attempts to exist while rejecting its religious roots will merely substitute an ideology — communism, fascism, secular humanism — for its discarded faith. These basic premises are found in the titles of some of Dawson’s key works: Religion and the Modern State, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture and Progress and Religion.
From the 1920s until 1962, when poor health forced him to leave his teaching post at Harvard, Dawson was widely recognized among Catholics and non-Catholics alike as an original and provocative thinker.
Birzer’s admiration for Dawson’s work is obvious, but he is quick to point out some of Dawson’s flaws (he was given to depression and even paranoia). This book is, in its own way, “Dawsonian”: a mixture of biography, history, culture and theology, which means that some passages may seem a bit academic for non-specialists.
Dawson, notes Birzer, “was an oddity in the 20th century. This scholar of culture and history was one of the most counter-cultural of all intellectuals.” The historian was unashamed of his Catholic beliefs, Birzer writes. In fact, Dawson believed they were essential for making sense of the mystery of time and the tapestry of history: “He desired to sanctify the world, through grace, to embrace truth, beauty and goodness.”
Perhaps Dawson’s greatest years of influence lie not in the past, but in the future.
Carl E. Olson is based
in Eugene, Oregon.