Christopher Dawson on Sanctifying the Pagan – Bradley J. Birzer

September 25, 2012

The sign of the cross was used as a sacred symbol in one form or another by many pagan peoples, long before the emergence of Christianity. In Paganism this symbol had mythical significance. According to the researchers, the cross had originated among the ancient Babylonians of Chaldea, and was used as a symbol of the pagan god Tammuz. Since the Bronze Era, the sign of the cross was used by many tribes in Europe as a symbol of consecration for the newborns. Also, the symbol of the cross was used among Aryan civilization as a representation of mystical light of the pagan gods or sacred fire and even the sun. The ancient scientists believed that the middle of the universe was where the earth meets the sky, and the four arms of the cross indicated the four cardinal points

While these comments concern Sanctifying the Pagan, they had particular import for me as I struggle to evangelize the gospel to openly hostile derisive anti-theists, those who echo Christopher Hitchens in his book title “God is Not Great” and “Religion ruins everything.” A brief moment of dialogue with one last week as I told her about watching the Republican Convention where I had learned that Mitt Romney had served as a bishop in his Church. I had been impressed by the stories of his works of charity. This was greeted with a snarky snort of disbelief.

I followed up later with an exchange on the work of Catholic priests and their acts of charity. “That’s all bullshit.” I was told. As someone who for most of his life has been imprisoned in selfish ego that rarely thought beyond himself, I am in awe of any work of charity, not the least the mindset that promotes such things. And here was a woman who was telling me that not only did she not believe in it but couldn’t even see it. Redeem this, asshole, the sign said.

I must tell you I love my life or what little sliver I still have of it. The greater error would be to retire and ponder the wonderful thoughts of Christopher Dawson. It would be so easy not to have my home assistant in my life with her cynical liberal ways and “lapsed Catholic” outlooks. I learn a lot from her.


The Christian must redeem not just one person or one culture, but all persons, cultures, times, and places. Christianity must never be exclusive or particular, but instead welcoming and universal. Christianity was, Dawson explained, “not conceived as a human society but rather as a new creation, reborn in Christ and destined to extend beyond the boundaries of Israel to the Gentiles and the whole human race.” [Dawson, Formation of Christendom]

Dawson’s central theological tenet came from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, the first chapter, in which he explains that all things come from the One, and all things must be sanctified and brought back to right order, in conformity with the One. “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church,” St. Paul wrote. For “he is the beginning, the first-born among the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, making peace by the blood of his cross.” [Colossians 1: 17-20]  

Indeed, Dawson argued, only in God exists pure Being. All other being reflects the pure Being of God, in some way, shape, or form. “Thus 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,” Dawson explained in 1930. “The spiritual nature reflects the Divine consciously, while the animal nature is a passive and unconscious mirror.” [Christopher Dawson, "The Dark Mirror," Dublin Review, vol. 187 (1930)]

In these arguments, Dawson significantly resembles his nineteenth-century exemplar, John Henry Newman. “There is in truth a certain virtue or grace in the Gospel which changes the quality of doctrines, opinions, usages, actions, and personal characters when incorporated with it,” Cardinal Newman wrote,and makes them right and acceptable to its Divine Author, whereas before they were either infected with evil, or at best but shadows of the truth.” [John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1960)]

The complete sanctification of the pagan is the end result of the Christianization of the world. As the Christian moves forward, empowered by the Holy Spirit and the sacraments, he takes the pagan and changes the essence not only of the individual pagan, but of the pagan culture itself. Just as the physical person remains the same during baptism, but his soul is purified and the direction of his desires changes, so too with culture. In fact the development of Christian culture and the progress of Christianity in the individual soul are in many ways parallel,” Dawson explained. “For the history of Christianity is essentially that of the extension of the Incarnation; and the study of culture shows the same process at work in history that may be seen in detail in the lives of individuals.” [Dawson, "The Leavening Process in Christian Culture," dated August 7, 1955]

A culture may keep its pre-Christian forms, but the essence of the culture — its stories, myths, symbols, etc. — become Christian meaning and purpose.The cult of the saints and the holy places consecrated the whole historical and geographical context of culture,” Dawson wrote, “and gave every social relation and activity its appropriate religious symbolism.” [Christopher Dawson, "Education and the Crisis of Christian Culture," Lumen Vitae, vol. 1 (1946),] Dawson argued that this was an extension of the `Aristotelian principle of matter and form.” [Dawson to Mulloy, August 27, 1954] Even against and within the modern, totalitarian state, the Spirit can work.

The Church remains what she has always been, the organ of the Divine Word and the channel of Divine Grace. It is her mission to transform the world by bringing every side of human existence and every human activity into contact with the sources of supernatural life. Even the modern State, that new Leviathan, that `King over all the children of pride,’ is not irrelevant to the work of grace nor impenetrable to its influence. If it does not destroy itself, it must be transformed and reconsecrated, as the power of the barbarian warrior became transfigured into the sacred office of a Christian king.
Christopher Dawson, Church, State, and Community: Concordats or Catacombs? Tablet (1937)

Therefore, even in the twentieth century, against the brutal mechanized ideologies, man had a chance to redeem the world through the Spirit, Dawson argued. [See especially his book The Judgment of the Nations (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1942)]

In these beliefs, Dawson follows a long tradition of western theology and especially of the Christian Humanists. In his “On Christian Doctrine,” St. Augustine wrote that if philosophers “have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.” In much of the City of God, St. Augustine uses Cicero and Plato to support his argument that a thriving Christianity was compatible with a stable post-Roman world; “Human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life — we must take and turn to a Christian use.” [St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book II, Chapter 40]

Clement of Alexandria, living in the late second and early third centuries, presaged Augustine’s argument. Pre-Christian faiths, he argued in his Miscellanies, served as a “preparatory teaching for those who [would] later embrace the faith.” Additionally, he speculated that philosophy was given to the Greeks as an introduction to Christianity. For philosophy, Clement concluded, “acted as a schoolmaster to the Greeks, preparing them for Christ, as the laws of the Jews prepared them for Christ.” [Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies] That is, Plato and Aristotle served to prepare the way for Christianity philosophically in a manner similar to the way Abraham and Moses had done so legally and theologically.

The belief in the sanctification of the pagan is undergirded by the belief that one can demonstrate the continuity of time and space, as it has been sanctified by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of the Logos. For truth belongs to God, Dawson argued, whether codified in scripture or nature or even within elements of paganism. With the creation of the world, the natural law reveals much, though certainly not as much as direct revelation.

Natural Law provides a good example of what I mean by the comparative study of values. Our conception of Natural Law is peculiar to our own culture and represents a synthesis of Hellenic and Christian elements. But we can find parallel conceptions in the other cultures — notably in China, where the Confucian concept of nature and law and virtue provides a remarkable analogy. So too in India we have the ancient Vedic concept of rita, which parallels the Hellenic idea of Dike, and the later concept of Dharma, which has points of resemblance with the medieval concept of canon and natural law.
Dawson, “Memorandum,” dated July 25-28,1955

By being the Author of all societies and of the plethora of cults/cultures, Dawson argued, God placed a part of His Truth in each culture. Therefore, as each non-Christian culture encounters Christianity, it has some piece of the larger truth, allowing it to accept the full Truth of Christ’s Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection. Even “primitive religion is essentially an attempt to bring man’s life into relation with and under the sanctions of, that other world of mysterious and sacred powers whose actions is always conceived as the ultimate and fundamental law of life.” Sin, especially, and the need for redemption or purification manifest themselves strongly in primitive cultures, Dawson argued. [Dawson, The Dark Mirror]

Or, as Dawson’s fellow Augustinian, C. S. Lewis, explained with his usual succinctness, “Paganism does not merely survive but first really becomes itself in the v[ery] heart of Christianity.” [Lewis, Magdalen, to Dom Bede Griffiths, November 1, 1956, CSL Letters to Dom Bede Griffiths, Letter Index 36, in Wade Center Inklings Papers, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL] Further, Dawson noted, because history remains such a mysterious thing to man, “we must believe that every period of history and every human race and culture has its part to play in the progressive development of this process of spiritual creation.” [Dawson, "Memorandum," dated August 1, 1955]

Historically, one can find this understanding of paganism throughout the History of Christendom. Cardinal Newman offered several examples in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees; incense, lamps and candles; votive offerings on recovery from illness; holy water; asylums; holidays and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields; sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the East, images at a later date, perhaps the ecclesiastical chant, and the Kyrie Eleison, are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption in the Church.
Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine

Perhaps the best scriptural example of the sanctification of the pagan comes from St. Paul in his attempt to convert the Athenians. While standing on Mars Hill, he congratulated the Athenians for being religious. Specifically, he noted how he was impressed with their statue to the “unknown God” Christ, he told them in no uncertain terms, was their unknown God. All their religion, philosophy, and culture had pointed them to Christ. Paul even quoted approvingly, though sanctifying the meaning, two pagan philosophers and poets, Aratus and Cleanthes, in Acts 17:28: “In him we live and move and have our being” and “For we are indeed his offspring.” [Scriptural commentary and analysis from The Navarre Bible, Gospels and Acts (Princeton, Scepter, 2002),]

Other examples of sanctification, following St. Paul’s attempt at Mars Hill, include St. Augustine’s sanctification of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero in the City of God; St. Thomas Aquinas’s sanctification of Aristotle; and even the Christian; monks who built their monastery on top of the highest mound/temple in Cahokia, Illinois, the former site of the priest-king of a vast Indian Empire. The monks of Cahokia were, themselves, following a very old western tradition, churches throughout Europe and North America sit on formerly sacred pagan sites. They, in essence, baptized the suspect ground, just as Augustine and Aquinas baptized pagan ideas.

Two problems, Dawson noted in his Gifford Lectures, could arise with the sanctification of the pagan. First, the reliance on natural revelation, natural theology, and the natural law may lead one — the human person or an individual culture — astray. One cannot accept natural theology, after all, as guide that is as sure as the truths revealed in scripture or through tradition. At the beginning of his Gifford lectures, for example, Dawson cites William Blake’s apocalyptic poetry approvingly. If man “has not the religion of Jesus he will have the religion of Satan, and will erect the synagogue of Satan, calling the Prince of this World, `God’, and destroying all who do not worship Satan under the name of God….

Deism is the worship of the God of the World by the means of what you call Natural Religion and Natural Philosophy, and of Natural Morality or Self-Righteousness, the selfish virtues of the Natural Heart. This was the religion of the Pharisees who murdered Jesus. Deism is the same, and ends in the same. [Dawson, Religion and Culture]On the following page Dawson wrote, “Religion is feeling and imagination: not reasoning and demonstration.” Dawson’s fear of natural theology also reflects St. Augustine’s fear of embracing too wholeheartedly that which came before Christianity. Many of the ancient gods, the venerable North African argued in the City of God, were actually demons disguised to fool men into making mischief. [Augustine, City of God, Book 2, Chapter 10]

Second, the Christian may fail to sanctify the pagan person, ritual, or culture fully. For Dawson, this became most obvious at the end of the medieval period, when the Church had failed to rid the barbarians (now Germans) of their nationalistic notions. Ultimately, the Germans were left with the choice presented so ably in the Arthurian legends: to choose the Grail or Guinevere, the continuation of the Word Incarnate or the lesser desire of the flesh, to be Galahad or Lancelot. With the Reformation and the destruction of Christian universalism, Dawson argued, Lancelot won. And, as a result, Germanic nationalism reared its frightful head and spread throughout Protestant Europe [Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture]

But no matter the dangers — and all actions in this world are potentially fraught with danger, Dawson believed — one must continue to sanctify the pagan, to redeem the time, and to remake the world for God’s Kingdom. For Dawson, this was the job of the Christian Humanist and the modern saint. As opposed to the Renaissance or secular Humanist, the Christian Humanist recognizes the profundity of Eternity entering Time, the Incarnation and the change in the nature and destiny of man.

Secular humanism seeks to glorify man as the highest being in the universe. “The men of the Renaissance had turned their eyes away from the world of the spirit to the world of color and form, of flesh and blood,” Dawson wrote. “[T]hey set their hopes not on the unearthly perfection of the Christian saint, but on the glory of Man — man set free to live his own life and to realize the perfection of power and beauty and knowledge that was his by right.” [Dawson, Nature and Destiny of Man] The Christian Humanist differs dramatically from the secular humanist. Rather than placing man at the center of the universe, he instead desires to identify the proper place for man in the universe.

The Christian Humanist, therefore, asks two fundamental questions: 1) what is the role of man within God’s creation; and 2) how does man order himself within God’s creation? “Humanism was a real historical movement, but it was never a philosophy or a religion,” Dawson explained. “It belongs to the sphere of education, not to that of theology or metaphysics. No doubt it involves certain moral values, but so does any educational tradition. Therefore it is wiser not to define humanism in terms of philosophical theories or even of moral doctrines, but to limit ourselves to the proposition that humanism is a tradition of culture and ethics founded on the study of humane letters.” [Dawson, Christianity and the Humanist Tradition]

It is, Dawson argued, the combination of Greek and Christian thought, taking the best of Aristotle and showing its continuity in St. Paul. The Church embraced Christian humanism at the Council of Jerusalem in 50 A.D. The real decision was made by the apostolic Church when it turned from the Jews to the Gentiles, from the closed world of the synagogue and the law to the cosmopolitan society of the Roman-Hellenistic world,” Dawson explained. It was St. Paul, though, “the first Christian humanist,” who provided the blueprint for the Church and the sanctification of the pagan at Mars Hill in Athens. “Humanism and Divinity are as complementary to one another in the order of culture, as are Nature and Grace in the order of being,” Dawson concluded. [Dawson, Christianity and the Humanist Tradition. Dawson was significantly influenced by the Russian theologian and philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, and especially his book The Meaning of History]

It is the Spirit, though, that animates all life and culture. “The vital and creative power behind every culture is a spiritual one. In proportion as the spiritual element recovers its natural position at the centre of our culture will necessarily become the mainspring of our whole social activity,” Dawson wrote at the conclusion of his second book, Progress and Religion. “Since a culture is essentially a spiritual community, it transcends the economic political orders. It finds its appropriate organ not in a state, but in a Church. [Dawson, Progress and Religion] The only true progress comes when man recognizes himself as the spirit and flesh, and the culture as the joint product of Divine and human labor. “The process of redemption consists in grafting a new humanity on to the old stock,” Dawson explained, “and in building a new world out of the debris of the old.” [Dawson, Enquiries into Religion and Culture]

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