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Christopher Dawson on Language and Myth – Bradley J. Birzer

September 24, 2012

The Pieta by Michelangelo. The structure is pyramidal, and the vertex coincides with Mary’s head. The statue widens progressively down the drapery of Mary’s dress, to the base, the rock of Golgotha. The figures are quite out of proportion, owing to the difficulty of depicting a fully-grown man cradled full-length in a woman’s lap. Much of Mary’s body is concealed by her monumental drapery, and the relationship of the figures appears quite natural. Michelangelo’s interpretation of the Pieta was far different from those previously created by other artists, as he sculpted a young and beautiful Mary rather than an older woman around 50 years of age. The marks of the Crucifixion are limited to very small nail marks and an indication of the wound in Jesus’ side. Christ’s face does not reveal signs of The Passion. Michelangelo did not want his version of The Pieta to represent death, but rather to show the “religious vision of abandonment and a serene face of the Son”, thus the representation of the communion between man and God by the sanctification through Christ.

While Dawson dealt with the issue of culture in all of his major writings, beginning in his first book, The Age of The Gods, a study of primitive religions’ and cultures, Dawson offered his most developed understanding of culture in his Harvard University lectures. Published in part in the mid-1960s as The Formation of Christendom, Dawson drew on his own lifetime of scholarly thought and research and embraced a solidly Aristotelian view of the social, world. Aristotle had famously written in his Politics that man is by nature a social animal, meant to live in community. To leave community, a man must become either a beast or a god, but he can no longer remain human.

A man’ may not live outside his cultural inheritance, Dawson wrote, paraphrasing Aristotle, without becoming an “idiot, living in a private world of formless feelings, but lower than the beasts.”[Dawson, Formation of Christendom] Not even offering the Aristotelian alternative of becoming a God, Dawson further noted that culture is the means by which “men have learned from the past” through “the process of imitation,” education and learning and to all that they hand on in like manner to their and successors.” .”[Dawson, Formation of Christendom]

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. Language allows human societies to inherit and then transmit what is known and what is believed. Against those who see war as the great precipitator of cultural evolution, Dawson claimed all true progress comes from the proper use of language. “The word,” he wrote, “not the sword or the spade, is the power that has created human culture.”[Dawson, Formation of Christendom] The sword protects the word, Dawson claimed, and the spade supports the word. ,lust as God spoke the universe into existence, man, created in His image, speaks culture into existence, tying the generations within time, but simultaneously also across time. Only through language can man store wisdom and understanding, building upon what was learnt and uncovered by previous generations, passing it on to future generations. “Language is the foundation of social life,” Dawson wrote. [Dawson, "Culture and Language”]

An intimate relationship, of course, exists between language, tradition, and reason. “Language, which is essential to Reason,” Dawson explained, “is itself essentially traditional, and I should say that it is in the creation of tradition, unless indeed it is a miraculous gift or invention,” an idea which Dawson would not dismiss. [Dawson, "Memorandum," dated July 11, 1959]Language provides a framework for reason. Specifically, God communicates through tradition, a gift that proves “inaccessible to Reason.” In addition, argued Dawson, “the individual who denies the authority of language and the other fundamental forms of human culture is thereby debarred from the use of reason, which is essentially bound up with communication. He is,” Dawson concluded, “an idiot.” Further, as

[L]anguage 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 Word of Man. The Spirit is the Interpreter as well as the verifier.
[Dawson, "Memorandum," dated July 11, 1959]

Throughout history, one finds a correlation between God’s revelation and man’s development of language. Dawson therefore concluded that the order of grace and the order of nature are intimately connected. [Dawson, "Memorandum," dated July 11, 1959] Following Aquinas, Dawson argued that grace remakes and perfects nature. “The Christian concept of Revelation does not simply involve the intelligibility of a spiritual reality but a change in the nature of the creature which renders divine communication possible,” he argued in 1959. [Dawson, Correspondence to Ruth Anshen, November 7, 1959]

Because each culture and person represents a singular image of God and God’s revelation, reason unaided can never be universal, but, instead, must be culturally specific. “In every culture men possess the power of reasoning as they possess the power of speech, but the content of their reasoning is different as the knowledge that they possess depends on the culture to which they belong,” Dawson argued. [Dawson, The Relation of Philosophy to Culture, dated September 7, 1955]

Language also enables man to wield his most powerful tool for survival as a species, that is, through the imagination of the culture and the individual human person, as best expressed in myth. “I believe the old myths are better not only intrinsically, but because they lead further and open a door into the mind as well as into the past,” Dawson noted in his autobiographical writings, entitled “Tradition and Inheritance.” Myth, Dawson forcefully argued, “was the old road which carries us back not merely for centuries but for thousands of years; the road by which every people has traveled and from which the beginnings of every literature have come.” [Christopher Dawson, Tradition and Inheritance: Reflections on the Formative Years (St. Paul, MN: Wanderer Press, 1970)]

When discussing the best historiographical methods to understand pre-Norman England, for example, Dawson argued in favor of giving the Celtic legends their due. “It is true that considerable difference of opinion exists as to the date and historical value of the oldest Welsh poetry, but even if we put them at the lowest, there can be no doubt that they embody an ancient and genuine folk tradition which had its origin in the dark age of post-Roman Britain,” he wrote in a critical book review. “These relics of a submerged tradition are no less worthy of our historical study than the remains of Saxon cemeteries and village sites, and I the more so in that they are a faint but living voice from a lost world, which brings to us an echo of the impression that the events of the age of conquest left in the memory of the British people.” [Christopher Dawson, The Making of Britain, Tablet (1936]

If archeological evidence allows one to study the material side of man’s nature, the mythological allows one to comprehend, at least in substantial part, his spiritual nature. Myth, properly defined, is simply the supernatural working in history. Additionally, myth is a universal truth that repeats itself in some form or particular variation for every people and every time. History, Dawson conceded, is “not a flat expanse of time, measured off in dates, but a series of different worlds.” Each world possesses its “own spirit and form and its own riches of poetic imagination.” [Christopher Dawson, Backgrounds and Beginnings, A.D., vol. 1]

One should not be surprised, Dawson concluded, that the British people chose Arthur, not Alfred or Harold, as “the central figure of national heroic legend.” [Dawson, The Making of Britain] After all, Dawson believed, the British love lost causes and extreme opposition in the face of doing what is right; it remains a fundamental part of their national character.

One sees the importance of myth and language not just in stories, but in names and in the naming of things. In Genesis, for example, God gives man Alone the ability to name things on this earth, to categorize, and to serve as a steward over creation. From a Jewish or Christian perspective, naming is synonymous with controlling. One also finds this outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In many primitive religions, for example, especially among Native Americans, shamans usually considered the knowledge of names as equivalent to the control over the things named. In fact, such an understanding of names can be found in almost every culture throughout world history.

Language also serves as the unifier not only of a people over time, but also for an immediate and generational community as well. Hellas provides a good example in the larger abstract understanding of the importance of language as a unifier. It was through language that the Mediterranean became Hellenized, adopting Greek culture, art, philosophical abstractions, and cultural symbols. Jesus of Nazareth, the Word Incarnate in Christian theological terms, was born into this language and culture. But it was also a culture of many cultures, in flux.

As a Jew, Jesus lived in a world controlled militarily and dominated economically by the Roman Empire, itself significantly Hellenized. Even the name `Jesus” was a Greek name, for example, the equivalent of the Aramaic, Joshua. Jesus’ most traveled disciple, St. Paul, walked safely on Roman roads and spoke Greek, spreading the new religion throughout the Mediterranean, specifically in the Greek isles and throughout the Roman boot. When St. John wrote his Gospel, he used the Stoic concept, the Logos, the burning fire, love, or word, at the heart of all things, to describe the Divine Savior. In a letter discussing the implications of the Protestant Reformation and its dislike of the (reek and Roman inheritance, Dawson wrote:

It is certainly desirable that we should learn to know more about the ancient philosophical systems of China and India, but this does not mean that we should try to undo the work of the Fathers and of St. Thomas by divesting the original Hebrew thought of Our Lord of its rationalist `Greek dress’. For where are we to begin? The Church used the categories of Greek thought to define the dogmas of the Faith and the Gospel itself has been transmitted to the world in a’Greek dress.’ It is the mission of the Church to teach all nations, but she cannot disavow her own part and start her mission all over again. That was the great error of the Protestant Reformation, which attempted to abolish a thousand years of Catholic development and to construct a new model of evangelical Christianity on exclusively scriptural foundations.
Dawson, Hermitage, to unknown recipient, January 6, 1956

Therefore, the informed Christian must think beyond the mere Hebraic. To limit the Christian inheritance to the Jews and the Jews alone would be to retard the true development and very purpose of Christendom. “We do not believe, like the Protestants (or some Protestants) that the Bible is the only record of these dealings,” Dawson wrote. “On the contrary, the whole history of Christendom is a continual dialogue between God and man, and every age of the Church’s life, even the most remote and obscure, has some important lesson for us today.” [Christopher Dawson, Communications: Christian Culture, Commonweal, vol. 61 (April 1, 1955)]

No one person or generation — or even all persons and generations combined — has a full understanding of God’s purpose or of the Divine Economy. Yet each manifestation of God’s grace offers a new piece of the puzzle worth studying. Each person is a new and unique reflection of God, and each culture — as a network of minds — is a reflection of the Logos and the power of imagination. Each new created thing reveals more about the nature and Being of God. Not just the Jews, but the Greeks, Romans, and all other peoples are worth studying, as they, in their finite ways, reveal some singular aspect of the Infinite.

The Catholic understanding of the Divine Economy “is the acceptance of an organic world of spiritual realities into which man obtains entry not b his own right, but by `grace,” Dawson wrote in 1933. As a member of the Church, the Christian sees only the historic manifestation of Christ’s grace, Beyond the physical, earthly Church is the much greater part, not visible to our eyes. Hence, Roman Catholicism “attaches such immense importance to the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, the solidarity of the living and the dead in the common life of the One Body,” Dawson continued. [Christopher Dawson, The Future Life: A Roman Catholic View, The Spectator, vol. 151 (1933)] The; dead share in the communion with the living. “The men who died for the; faith in third-century Rome or sixteenth-century Japan are still partners in the common struggle, no less than those who are the leaders of Christian’s thought and action in our own days,” Dawson explained. [Christopher Dawson, Christian Culture: Its Meaning and Its Value, Jubilee, vol. 4 (1956)]

A negation or attenuation of this belief of continuity would also destroy the concept of mystery — intimately related to poetry, art, myth, and literature — which is central to the continued viability of any culture. Indeed, the first fruits of any proper culture are music and poetry. [Christopher Dawson, Education and the Crisis of Christian Culture (Chicago, IL: Henry Regenery Company, 1949] Poetry, especially, “is in its origins inseparable from prophecy, and among every people we find the figure of the inspired mantic poet at the threshold of its literary tradition.” [Dawson, Religion and Culture]

Though art often appears as abstract, Dawson claimed, a scholar can learn far more about a society and a people through a study of its arts than by all the economic statistics available. Quantifying is nothing more than a conglomeration of raw, disinterested, dry numbers and figures. And yet humans are diverse, unique, full of zest and passion. “We can learn more about mediaeval culture from a cathedral than from the most exhaustive study of constitutional law,” Dawson wrote, adding that “the churches of Ravenna are a better introduction to the Byzantine world than are all the volumes of Gibbon.” [Dawson, Dynamics of World History]

Even the farmer had traditionally been an artist. There is, after all, an “intimate communion of human culture with the social in which it is rooted,” and this becomes manifest “in every aspect of material civilization — in food and clothing, in weapons and tools, in dwellings and settlements, in roads and methods of communication.” [Dawson, Progress and Religion]To cultivate” and “agriculture” obviously have their roots in the culture. We moderns, though, Dawson feared, have become so used to a fragmented world that we see art as something high and high alone, to be placed in galleries, separated from work and ordinary life. It is therefore difficult for present-day scholars to conceive of art as anything more than exploitation and leisure for the elites. [Dawson, Dynamics of World History]

Education through myth, poetry, and art into one’s culture traditionally has provided an initiation into the divine mysteries, especially of the Divine Economy and the communion of the living and the dead. “It is only in the poetic imagination which is akin to that of the child and the mystic that we can still feel the pure sense of mystery and transcendence which is man’s natural element. [Dawson, Religion and Culture] Such a religious ordering, alone, allows us to order “life as a whole — the molding of social and historical reality into a living spiritual unity.” [Christopher Dawson, "Introduction," in Carl Schmitt, The Necessity of Politics: An Essay on the Representative Idea in the Church and Modern Europe (London: Sheed and Ward, 1931)]

It forces man to recognize that something greater than himself exists. It forces man to realize that he is a creature, not the Creator. It necessarily humbles man. Traditionally, the best means of Christian education and initiation has come through the liturgy, which combines the myth, poetry, and art of the Church into a drama, presented before the members of the Body of Christ.

In Christianity, on the other hand, the liturgy was the center of a rich tradition of religious poetry and music and artistic symbolism. In fact, the art of Christendom in both its Byzantine and medieval phases was essentially a liturgical art which cannot be understood without some knowledge of the liturgy itself and its historical origin and development. And the same is true to a great extent of popular and vernacular culture. The popular religious drama, which had such an important influence on the rise of European drama as a whole, was either a liturgical drama in the strict sense, like the Passion plays and Nativity plays, or was directly related to the cult of the saints and the celebration of their feasts. For the cult of the saints, which had its basis in the liturgy, was the source of a vast popular mythology, and provided a bridge between the higher ecclesiastical and literary culture and the peasant culture with its archaic traditions of folklore and magic.
[Christopher Dawson, The Institutional Forms of Christian Culture, Religion in Life, vol. 24 (1955)]

The other means, almost as important as liturgy, was monasticism, in which “religion and culture attain their complete fusion.” [Christopher Dawson, The Institutional Forms of Christian Culture, Religion in Life, vol. 24 (1955)]

Dawson, therefore, argued that the Protestant overemphasis on the Ju daic inheritance was dangerous on many levels. It focused too much on the worldly and on a non-complicated linear history, thus attenuating the level of hierarchy and mystery in Creation. It centered us too much in time. The Judaic was vital, of course, but so was the Greek and the Roman. “The history of the Jews is bound up with the history of the world, not with that of any single political or territorial unit,” Dawson understood, speaking before a largely Jewish audience at Brandeis University. “In every age they have had a particular task to perform, but this task is to be seen in relation to the world situation rather than as part of a continuous national tradition.” [Christopher Dawson, On Jewish History, Orbis, vol. 30]

But the earliest council, the Council of Jerusalem, presided over by Archbishop James, and the discussions of St. Paul in his letters to the earliest Christian churches, prove the need to move beyond the merely Jewish origins of Christianity and to embrace and sanctify all cultures. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Galatia. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Galatians 3:27-28 (RSV).] Following these new, universal teachings, Christianity very quickly moved away from Jerusalem and a Jewish culture base.

In the West early Christian culture was predominately Greek. The Latin Christian culture was largely the creation of Africa — Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine. Here as in Asia Minor, there was a strong undercurrent of oriental culture (Punic) which was only extinguished by the growth of Christian culture, but in this case it was Latin not Greek that became the dominant element. So too in Gaul, the vernacular Celtic language of the Christian writers like Irenaeus. It was not till the Fifth century that Gallic Latin culture produced its characteristic literature, and by that time the Germanic peoples had become the ruling race, so that the Latin Christians in Gaul (and Spain) were in somewhat the same sociological position as the Syriac speaking Christians in the East. [Dawson to Mulloy Correspondence, June 20, 1960]

Further, the Jewish revolts of 66-70, 115-117, and 132-135 eroded the historic and theological ties between Judaism and Christianity. Christianity, then, does not just proceed from Judaism in some direct line; it explodes from Judaism, becoming universal.

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