Bradley J. Birzer, Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson

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While in graduate school I fortuitously encountered the works of Christopher Dawson, who significantly shaped my understanding and subsequent teaching of Western Civilization as meaningful only as a manifestation of the Christian Culture that emerged in the Medieval World.  To him, a providential perspective on the study of history was fully justified:  “‘Whatever else is obscure, it is certain that God is the Governor of the universe and behind the apparent disorder and confusion of history there is the creative action of divine law.”  Committed to this endeavor, he acknowledged that he “had to follow my own line of studies and plough a lone furrow for thirty-five years’” because “‘the subject to which I have devoted myself—the study of Christian culture—has no place in education or in university studies’” (p. 10).

In Sanctifying the World:  The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (Front Royal, VA:  Christendom Press, c. 2007), Bradley J. Birzer, a professor at Hillsdale College, provides us both a biographical study and intellectual analysis of one of the major 20th century thinkers, rightly praised by notables such as T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Etienne Gilson and Thomas Merton.  Standing beside them, witnessing the  upheavals of the 20th century, alarmed at the “‘dark forces that have been chained by a thousand years of Christian civilization . . . have now been set free to conquer the world’” (p. 11), Dawson necessarily assumed the role of a “Jeremiah, prophesying lament and doom as the world followed down the paths of the various ideologues.  But he also played the role of the saint, using his considerable intellectual gifts to demonstrate the necessity of virtue and the light of the Logos to the modern world through his writing, his teaching, and his public speaking” (p. vii).

Born to a distinguished family in 1889 in a Welsh castle, Dawson grew up in a largely pre-mechanical rural world.  “Distrust of urban areas and masses of men would haunt Dawson for his entire life and greatly shape many of his views on culture, politics and society” (p. 20).  Largely educated by private tutors, he largely learned through exploring his family’s estate and extensive personal reading.  Though his family was Anglo-Catholic, he converted to Catholicism in 1914, having embraced an Augustinian philosophy of history while attending Oxford University.  Subsequently he devoted himself, for a decade, to the reading and note-taking necessary for “a writing career as a historian and general man of letters” (p. 28).  Properly prepared, he began publishing a profusion of articles and books—more than a 100 all told—designed to remind his readers of the formative role of Christianity in the making of European civilization.  Though generally disinterested in academic appointments, he accepted (at the age of 69) a position at Harvard University as the first Chauncey Stillman Chair in Catholic Studies, where he taught for four years until poor health demanded his retirement.

Despite this university appointment, however, Dawson generally considered himself a writer committed to describing and explaining the role of Christianity in history.  Thus, following his university years he joined a small circle of thinkers committed to “the Aristotelian/Thomist understanding of order” in society.  They further embraced the position of “Edmund Burke, who had stressed the need for the ‘moral imagination’—the ability to see clearly beyond the here and now into the reality of eternal forms—thus allowing one to order one’s soul, one’s present community, and one’s soul to the eternal community” (p. 50).  Such order, as St. Augustine insisted, could come only as God’s grace restored a fallen world to its divine plan, and the Church was the agency called forth “to sanctify the world, and the individual person—if properly ordered in his soul—plays a vital role in the process of sanctification” (p. 57).

Deeply influenced by St. Augustine, Dawson found powerful parallels between the fifth and twentieth century worlds, and to Aidan Nichols his “work is itself ‘best thought of as a latter-day City of God’” (p. 66).  Both men sought to affirm and advance classical, Christian culture amidst barbarian invasions—Vandals in Augustine’s fifth century world, secularized disciples of the French Revolution, the Deists and doubters and relativists in Dawson’s day.  Both did so with words, which they thought more powerful than swords or plows, rifles or computers.  “With St. John, Dawson proclaimed the importance of the Word to the human person as well as to history and culture.  As ‘little words’—that is, human persons as imago Dei—humans pass on their civilization through the rational use of language” (p. 84).

During the 1930s, Dawson joined like-minded writers seeking to awaken the English to the importance of religious faith and practice, contending that “‘the whole universe is, as it were, the shadow of God, and has its being in the contemplation or reflection of the Being of God’” (p. 110).  He found in the Apostle John’s Logos theology the foundational truth that “Jesus ‘was not only the Christ, the Son of the living God; He was also the Divine Intelligence, the Principle of the order and intelligibility of the created world’” (p. 111).  Discerning His Light we may conform both ourselves and our world to Him.  Thinking thusly, he said:  “‘A Christian only has to be in order to change the world, for in that act of being there is contained all the mystery of the supernatural life’” (p. 112).

During the same decade he spoke out against some of the pernicious ideologies that were enlisting enthusiasts for centralized bureaucratic systems, critiquing not only Stalin’s Soviet Communism and Hitler’s German National Socialism but FDR’s New Deal “as a constitutional dictatorship’” (p. 124).  Indeed, he thought:  “‘It may be harder to resist a Totalitarian state which relies on free milk and birth-control clinics than one which relies on castor oil and concentration camps’” (p. 125).  “The Europe of the 1930s, Dawson believed, faced the same fate as Republican Rome in 43 B.C.  It would either die, or it would remake itself under a centralized government.  In either case, it would never find any meaningful spiritual fulfillment” (p. 136). 

So it was a time, as Pope Leo XIII had earlier declared, for the Church to “‘set up a wall and a bulwark to save human society from falling back into barbarism’” (p. 133).  Barbarism, of course, had been vanquished as Christians patiently shaped European Civilization during the Middle Ages.  Rooted in the cultures of Greece and Rome, Western Christian Culture preserved the best of antiquity.  As Germanic barbarians inundated the Roman Empire, monks and missionaries such as St.  Boniface patiently led them both to Christ and civilization, “creating what we would now recognize as the beginnings of Europe, a synthesis of the classical, Christian, and Germanic” (p. 167).  Equally important, medieval scholars such as Aquinas (best popularized by Dante) understood “grace as a ‘new spiritual principle which transforms and renews human nature by the communication of the Divine Life’” (p. 174).

This medieval synthesis began dissolving in the 14th century, first under assault from nominalist thinkers and nation states and subsequent (16th century) Protestant theologians and princes.  The leading 14th century nominalist, “William of Occam, according to Dawson, played one of the most important roles in the breakup of Christendom and in the growth of nationalism.  As ‘the leading mind of his age,’ Occam ‘was the initiator—the “venerable inceptor”—of the via moderna [nominalism] which took the place of the classical scholasticism of the 13th century—the via antiqua—as the accepted doctrine of the universities for nearly two centuries, down to the time of Luther’” (p. 178).  To his theological nominalism Luther added a staunch nationalism and thus secured an unprecedented alliance between Church and State that tragically divided Europe into warring factions.

Those warring factions flared forth in WWII, a deeply distressing event to Dawson.  During and after the war he continued to write articles and books (best evident in what Birzer considers his best work, The Judgment of the Nations) pleading for a restoration of Western Christian Culture, heeding Pope Pius XII’s “call for a new Crusade, ‘to bring men back from the broken cisterns of national interest to the fountain of Divine justice’ and to promote a new and international understanding of the natural law” (p. 194).  The 20th century witnessed, he wrote, “‘the unloosing of the powers of the abyss—the dark forces that have been chained by a thousand years of Christian civilization and which have been set free to conquer the world.’  Together, these dark forces have ‘the will to power.’  The darkest forces first emerged in the French Revolution, and then re-emerged in the Soviet Union, spreading ‘westward, into the very heart of Europe’” (p. 199).  To do battle, all Christians (Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox) needed, above all, to employ the Sword of the Spirit, for only in His strength could the battles and wars be won.

Following the war, Dawson was honored by being asked to deliver the distinguished Gifford Lectures and appointed a professor at Harvard.  His erudition and insight were rewarded with highly public recognition and an enduring legacy.  Yet in many ways, he was an “oddity” immersed in Catholicism and committed to the Reality and role of God in His world. 

Summing up his fine, exhaustively researched and documented study, Birzer says:  “He offered an Augustinian vision of culture and history to the twentieth century; he encouraged men and women to act like men and women in the best of the western tradition—through the virtue of love; he attacked the ideologues of the left and right as nothing more than false prophets promoting false religions and false gods; and, to revive the world through the imagination , he promoted a new an vigorous understanding of the liberal arts.  . . . .  He desired to sanctify the world, through grace, to embrace truth, beauty, and goodness” (p. 271).

Gerard Reed is a retired professor of history and philosophy, most recently Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is the author of three books-The Liberating Law; C.S. Lewis and the Bright Shadow of Holiness; C.S. Lewis Explores Vice & Virtue- as well as a variety of articles and book reviews.