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Dawson’s Contributions by Bradley J. Birzer

August 12, 2011

Dr. Bradley J. Birzer

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“I have had to follow my own line of studies and plough a lone furrow for thirty-five years,” Dawson told an audience in the early 1950s, “solely because the subject to which I have devoted myself — the study of Christian culture — has no place in education or in university studies. Attempting to fulfill the purpose that he believed God had for him, Dawson wrote almost two hundred books and articles during his lifetime. His more famous books include The Age of the Gods; Progress and Religion; The Making of Europe; Medieval Essays; Medieval Religion; The Judgment of the Nations; Religion and Culture; Religion and the Rise of Western Culture; Religion and the Modern State; The Division of Christendom; and The Formation of Christendom.

While never the stylist that his American counterpart Russell Kirk was, Dawson always wrote with a verve and a purpose that has a charm all of its own. Stylistically, though, one should regard Dawson as the master of the conclusion, as his conclusions are as rhetorically persuasive as they are intellectually sound. Dawson also believed that his Roman Catholicism gave him a special purpose in writing. As the second world war took shape, Dawson wrote that as “the heirs and successors of the makers of Europe — the men who saved civilization from perishing in the storm of barbarian invasion and who built the bridge between the ancient and modern worlds,” Catholics had a specific and unique purpose, given to them by God.

In an Augustinian fashion, Dawson argued, Catholics always transcend the politics and ideologies of the day, representing, instead, the eternal supernatural realities which are “more organically united than any political body which possesses an autonomous body of principles and doctrines on which to base their judgments.” So armed and commanded, Catholics must “maintain and strengthen the unity of Western culture.” The forces arrayed against them desire nothing less than the total subversion and destruction of all that is True, Good, and Beautiful.

Even if the forces waging the battle on behalf of Christendom fail, they will still serve a vital purpose, as “any Catholic who is intellectually alive and is at the same time obviously convinced of the truth of his religion administers a shock to [an ideologue's] preconceived ideas.” He must not expect to “convert them,” for they are entrenched in their own subjective realities. But by stating openly one’s own beliefs and demonstrating one’s faith publicly, the Catholic will certainly shake “their confidence in the inevitability of the secularist outlook and in the stupidity of the religious view of life.”

Much of this was autobiographical for Dawson. In a speech delivered at a celebration for his seventieth birthday, Dawson revealed the reasons behind leis decision to teach at Harvard and why he considered it the culminating moment of his scholarly life. “All my life for fifty years I have been writing on one .reject and for one cause,” he told those celebrating with him, “the cause of ;Christendom and the study of Christian culture.”

Dawson held a very broad vision of the West. “I am still profoundly convinced of the importance of the need for the defense of the West,” he wrote in 1942, “though it is important not to understand the expression in too narrow a political and geographical sense, as is often done. In my view the West is a cultural tradition like that of Hellenism and one which has an even wider and more universal mission.”

For example, Dawson believed the Spartan defense of Hellas at Thermopylae hid a serious spiritual significance, not just a military or a geopolitical significance. Such a Greek proto-spiritualism and patriotism anticipated the true spiritualism of medieval Catholic Europe. And, by the time the world had reached the twentieth century, the true spiritualism had moved outside of and beyond Europe into the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The West’s mission, properly understood, was truly universal. Indeed, Dawson argued the mission of the West is synonymous with the mission of the Church.

Things looked bleak during Dawson’s own life. With the destruction wrought by the first and second world wars, the Cold War, the rise of nationalism, communism, fascism, the holocaust camps, the gulags, the killing fields, and the sheer mechanization and overwhelming destruction of human lie in the twentieth century, western citizens wanted answers about the purpose of life and the necessity of the good life. Dawson willingly called western culture back to what he believed were first principles and right reason.

With the world collapsing into ideological and mass democide, Dawson feared the “unloosing of the powers of the abyss.” Indeed, he believed, “the dark forces that have been chained by a thousand years of Christian civilization…have now been set free to conquer the world.” The abyss competed with grace, and men and women began taking the easy route, the path of least resistance. At least, it seemed easy to them in the short run. In the long run, their poor choices would catch up with them, and the abyss would rule them, making them little more than pathetic slaves. Rather than celebrate the diversity of human persons created in the infinite image of the Creator, men instead seemed to be recreating a Babylon and imposing a strict, gray conformity.

Sadly, western civilization had entered the ‘Age of the Cinema’ — in which the most amazing perfection of scientific technique is being devoted to purely ephemeral objects, without any consideration of their ultimate justification.” Mechanical and created things had taken on a life of their own, and they were becoming the standard by which all of life was living. “It seems as though a new society was arising which will acknowledge no hierarchy of values, no intellectual authority, and no social or religious tradition,” Dawson lamented, “but which will live for the moment in a chaos of pure sensation.”

The world, then, had to be sanctified, and Dawson believed in true Augustinian fashion that one could do that only by choosing to drain one’s will, allowing God’s grace to fill the vacuum and remake the person. Put another way, “the creative element in human culture is spiritual, and it triumphs only by mortifying and conquering the natural conservatism of man’s animal instincts.” Indeed, history is nothing more than “the cumulative results of a number of spiritual decisions — the faith and insight, or the refusal and blindness, of individuals.” Man finds himself best through a non-mechanized order, a strong community (family and beyond), and the inculcation of the seven pagan and Christian virtues — prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and love.

As Dawson understood it, the Holy Spirit played the key role in his life as well as in his vision of history. He argued unceasingly that “the forces of evil cannot be successfully resisted without the power of the Spirit.” The human person, then, exists as a potential vessel of grace — a noble and unique instrument — to reclaim the world for God.

The Church exists as the “embryo” of the Kingdom of Christ. “The Church is the divine organ of the Spirit in the world and the guardian and interpreter of the word of God,” Dawson wrote in 1944. The Church’s mission “is a universal mission to the whole human race, and it is therefore also her mission to enlighten and super-naturalize civilization.” Grace perfects nature through “the new creation which is the historic Church.” Dawson put this in philosophic terms in private, undated notes, entitled “Traditionalism and Rationalism.”

As language is essential to Reason, so the Word of God is essential to Faith. Granted the fact of Revelation, Reason is still insufficient as the vehicle of its transmission. For this it is necessary to have the Sacred Word of Scripture and the sacred society of the Church which is the bearer of the Sacred Tradition. The Holy Spirit in the Church is to the Word of God what human Reason in the tradition of culture is to the World of Man. The Spirit is the Interpreter as well as the verifier.

For the Church to consider an alliance with secularism, therefore, would be a terrible betrayal of its mission, an almost pure “act of apostasy.”

One of the most important gifts offered by the Holy Spirit is the gift of creativity and imagination. “It is the nature of grace to be gratuitous, prevenient [vocab: Coming before, preceding. Hence expectant; anticipatory], and creative,” Dawson wrote in 1955. “In this, it only carries on the process of natural creation.” The human person, made as imago Dei, must also act as a creator, but only to glorify God and creation.

Only by allowing the Holy Spirit to work old truths into new forms — what John Henry Cardinal Newman called the “illative sense” and what T. S. Eliot called the “moral imagination” — could the world hope to overcome the ideologues, their false visions, and their massacres. Only the transcendent and a proper understanding of the economy of grace could renew the face of the earth. “It is a creative spiritual force,” Dawson wrote, “which has for its end nothing less than the re-creation of humanity.

The Church is no sect or human organization, but a new creation — the seed of the new order which is ultimately destined to transform the world.” Far from considering the imagination a hindrance to rationality or understanding, Dawson wrote, the Church “has always used Imagination as the normal means of transforming the notional assent into a real one.” Importantly, imagination “becomes a channel of the life of the spirit like the other powers of the soul.” Only the creativity of the Spirit will save Civilization before it succumbs to self-destruction.

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