Rediscovering Christopher Dawson | An Interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer, author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson | Carl E. Olson | February 4, 2008
Part Two | Part One
Ignatius Insight: You write about how Dawson's work provoked, at times, quite a bit of controversy, among both scholars and Church censors. Why was that?
Dr. Birzer: Though an excellent writer overall, he had his flaws, and, equally important, he wrote in a variety of styles—ranging from the very popular to the shockingly complex. At times, he wrote assuming his audience had as much knowledge and background about a given subject as he did. This led to some theological confusion. As mentioned earlier, Dawson wrote often of the imagination and poetry as a divine light reflected in the soul, taking this from St. John's Gospel, chapter one, verse 9. In some places he was clear that this light came from the Incarnate Word. At other times, though, he seemed to argue it came from the Holy Spirit, and, at times, its origin was unclear. I'm not sure how seriously one should take this the criticism. A meaningful understanding of the Trinity, far from my very limited spiritual and intellectual experience, seems to be reserved for the deepest of mystics.
Additionally, while Dawson had no love of the Reformation (though he very much preferred Calvin to Luther), he believed Protestantism to be a fact of existence and one that Catholics must accept as simply a part of reality. Bickering among Christians—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—seemed downright silly and counter-productive to Dawson, especially since any Christian had far more to fear from a Nazi, a Communist, or even a secularist than he did from other Christians. Dawson believed strongly that whatever theological differences might exist, branch to branch, Christians had far more in common with one another than they had differences. In his writings, and in his life, Dawson promoted ecumenism. In the 1940s, this was a fairly controversial stand.
Suffering from insomnia, depression, anxiety, and paranoia, Dawson could also be his own worst enemy. His publisher, Frank Sheed, spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to convince Dawson of his personal worth.
Ignatius Insight: Sanctifying the World has a fascinating section about some of the various groups of Catholic intellectuals that existed in the first half of the 20th century. Who were the "Order" men and what was Dawson's involvement with their work? How would you characterize Dawson's relationship with neo-Thomism, especially the work of Jacques Maritain?
Dr. Birzer: Thanks, Carl, this was one of my favorite sections of the book, and I had a blast researching and writing about it. In the first half of the twentieth century, England had a number of groups—groups of friends who wrote and discussed poetry and philosophy—such as Order. Some were ideologically driven, such as the Bloomsbury group, but the best were apolitical, motivated by a love of the humane things. The most influential such group was the Inklings, made up chiefly by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. In the 1920s, Dawson belonged to the "Order" men, men who had lived in the Chelsea neighborhood of London and discussed ideas. They also produced four issues of a journal, entitled Order. It's a stunning, hilarious, and angry journal, written by relatively young men—with ideas based on those of Dawson and Jacques Maritain as well as St. Thomas Aquinas and Edmund Burke—who wanted to reform the world. They believed English Roman Catholics to be too timid, intimidated by the larger Anglican culture. The Order men hoped to wake them up. Therefore, and somewhat ironically, they promoted truth, beauty, and goodness, in an "in your face" sort of way.
The four issues of Order are very hard to find. Collectively, the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and Loras College, in Dubuque, Iowa, have all four issues. The issues offer a lot of insight into English Catholicism in the 1920s and deserve to be reprinted.
Out of the journal Order came Sheed and Ward's justly famous "Essays in Order" series. Whereas Order had attempted to unite English Catholics, "Essays in Order" took this a step further and openly hoped to create a Catholic Republic of Letters, bringing together the best of English and Continental Catholics in one series. Though lasting only sixteen volumes (seventeen if one properly counts A Monument to St. Augustine  as volume 0), the series received high praise from Catholic and non-Catholic presses alike. Its authors included Jacques Maritain, Dawson, Nicholas Berdyaev, Francois Mauriac, E.I. Watkin, Thomas Gilby, and Theodor Haecker. G.K. Chesterton, Martin D'Arcy, Gabriel Marcel, Eric Gill, and Ronald Knox were each listed as authors of future volumes in the series, but the series collapsed before these were published. Regardless, the seventeen volumes offer a wonderful picture of the profundity and sheer diversity of Catholic thought and imagination between the two world wars.
As to Maritain, specifically, Dawson had mixed views. While Dawson thought very highly of Maritain prior to 1936, he believed the post-1936 Maritain too concerned with politics. Sadly, the two never met in person. Dawson, incorrectly, I believe, thought Maritain lacked imagination in his own work and an understanding of imagination as fundamental to the human person. The Maritain of Art and Scholasticism (1924) seemed long gone to Dawson by the late 1930s. Scholars such as Notre Dame's Dan McInerny and the University of St. Thomas's (Houston) John Hittinger have clearly and finally demonstrated the role of imagination in Maritain's thought. Dawson was simply wrong on this issue.
Ignatius Insight: In a 1930 note, Dawson listed five of the most important threats to liberty. In reading them, one of is struck by how up-to-date and contemporary they are. In what ways did Dawson (like Chesterton, it seems to me) anticipate the various ideologies and belief systems that dominate both academic and popular debate today?
Dr. Birzer: Whereas Chesterton prophesized the rise of the ideologues long before their actual appearance during and immediately following World War I, Dawson, a generation after Chesterton, lived through the Fascist, National Socialist, and Communist takeover of much of the world. The results—the conformity and the mass executions—horrified him. Much of what Dawson thought and wrote came from his reaction to the dehumanizing policies of the ideologues of the left and right. As Dawson convincingly wrote, there never existed a right-left spectrum on a horizontal line. Instead, the only real division was vertical—Christ and anti-Christ.
Dawson correctly predicted that democracy, as experienced and understood in America, would produce only more ideological rigidity. He feared that Americans focused too much on what is political and technological, ignoring the cultural and the humane. Toward the end of his career, Dawson made a number of suggestions for a more humane civilization. He specifically hoped some Catholics would create a religious order dedicated to the promotion of the liberal arts and the role of Catholicism in sanctifying the best of the ancient world. He also hoped Catholic liberal arts colleges would arise throughout America, teaching and promoting the best of the western tradition: the seven virtues, the great ideas, and the sacrifice of many (from Socrates to St. Thomas More) for the current generations.
On some days, Dawson was hopeful. On others, he believed western civilization would have to go through numerous trials before it again embraced a humane understanding of the world.
I am confident Dawson would've been shocked by several events after his death: the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989; the confidence and moral arguments of the fortieth American president in helping bring about the fall of communism; the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI; and the vast dissemination of Catholic theology and Christian Humanist belief in the works of his fellow parishioner at St. Aloysius in Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien.
He, however, would not have been shocked by the re-emergence of radical Islam as a threat to the West. Dawson believed Islam a heresy, and he recognized the threat Islam had posed to the West and to Judaism and Christianity since the seventh century.
Ignatius Insight: Like many other great Catholic thinkers (including Benedict XVI), Dawson believed that culture was at the heart of the battle for the minds and hearts of men. What were some of his basic beliefs about culture and how to reform or revive it?
Dr. Birzer: Dawson argued from 1929 forward that the cultus [cult] stood at the heart of culture. Therefore, up until the French Revolution, every people everywhere, as far as the evidence indicates, had worshipped some form of divinity, greater than man. From the cult comes the culture, and from the culture comes language, familial relations, law, economics, etc. Only modern liberal secularists and progressive ideologues had attempted to divorce the cult from the culture. But, to divorce the cult from the culture means to destroy the culture itself.
Because the culture originated in the cult, however, one only need to revive the cult to revive the culture. Dawson considered T.S. Eliot's work, for example, as a model for the revival and reform of culture. Eliot took rather modernist forms in literature and poetry, but he sanctified them. In no place is this truer than in the "Four Quartets," which, in my humble belief, attempts to demonstrate the continuity of Heraclitus's Logos with St. John's Logos.
Such a sanctification of the pagan, according to Dawson, had been one of the great missions of the Christian Church since St. Paul quoted the Stoic poets in Athens. Through imagination, a Catholic, therefore, must discern what is good from what is bad in culture, isolate the good from the bad, and Christianize it.
Ignatius Insight: Why is Dawson still important today? What can we learn from him? For those who have never read his work, where is a good starting point?
Dr. Birzer: Dawson is more important than ever, as he reminds of us what it means to be human and he reminds us to find strength and purpose in faith and in culture. Dawson's best book is his World War II call to arms, The Judgment of Nations. Sadly, it's no longer in print. Catholic University of America Press has been republishing his works, and they're doing an excellent job with them. But, I would start with ISI's version of Dynamics of World History.
Thank you, Carl. It's always a pleasure to talk with you, and it's always a pleasure to talk about someone as meaningful and important as Dawson.
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