Saturday, May 01, 2010

Towards a Mutual Understanding

I was first introduced to Christopher Dawson while reading a delightful essay written by Dermot Quinn in The American Conservative. I thus decided to pick up The Dividing of Christendom. If this book is any indication Quinn is correct: Dawson ought to be read more readily.

One should be aware of two things before reading this book. First, although it is concerned with Christendom's division, less than half of the book is devoted to a narration of its principle cause, namely the Reformation. Indeed, much of the work focuses on the tremendous effects of Luther's call to revolt, from the rise of Baroque culture, to the colonization of America, up to the Enlightenment, with which the book concludes. This is not meant as criticism, but a reader who is expecting a general history of the Reformation itself should look elsewhere.

The second point is related to the first: although the book is rather short, it is packed with ample density of thought. Dawson will not weigh one down with tendentious academic prose—thank heavens—but his book requires critical engagement, as well as a modicum of knowledge of history

As a Catholic, and perhaps especially as a convert, Dawson is concerned with the disunity of Christendom. While recognizing the importance of theological controversies, he writes: "as an historian, I am convinced that the main sources of Christian division and the chief obstacle to Christian unity have been and are cultural rather than theological." In this sense, The Dividing of Christendom could be considered a work of apologetics, but I think this misunderstands his book, as well as underrates Dawson's power as an historian.

He notes that neither the ecclesiastical historians—who study the theological origins of the schism—nor the secular historians have "paid much attention to the development of the new forms of religious culture which took the place of the old common culture of medieval Christendom." With the rise of secularism, we look to the State and its agents as the supreme actors of history. Any problem which confronts us can be solved by appeal to its authority. But Dawson understands what Alexis de Tocqueville discovered while visiting America: culture is more important than politics. Consequently, Dawson's learned discussions of cultural developments from the Reformation to the French Revolution are well worth one's study.

One of the most important observations in this book is made near the end. Dawson writes: "For a generation—during the last third of the 18th century—the Religion of Nature became a real religion and no mere ideological fantasy, a faith in which men believed with their whole souls and for which they were prepared to die." But then, "the present spiritual crisis of our culture is due not so much to the loss of the traditional faith in Christianity, which had already occurred by the time of the French Revolution, as to the collapse of this new religion which has occurred in the [twentieth] century, especially after two world wars."

The Reformation was made possible because medieval Christianity was sick, and proved incapable of healing itself before it was divided. Whatever one's opinion of the Reformation, in many respects, at least for a time, divided Christendom seemed to lack this sickness. If it often warred amongst itself—as medieval Christianity did—it also produced spectacular works of art and made prodigious industrial advancements. But it cannot be denied that our present civilization is sick, sicker even than the medieval society which Luther sought to reform. After surveying the wreckage of the Reformation, the prospects of unity look bleak. But the alternatives look bleaker still.

Dawson believed that a greater understanding of cultural differences was a necessary prerequisite for cultural unity. Those who share his hopes for unity would do well to foster the understanding which his book so richly provides.


Darren said...

Its interesting that you cite the cause of Christendom's disunity as the reformation when, in historical context, the great east-west schism was probably a bigger deal than the reformation.

Anonymous said...

There are now well over 30,000 different Christian denominations, sects and sub-sects. All of which are essentially businesses competing for market share in the "religious" market place.