Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. By Christopher Dawson.
(Sheed & Ward. 15s.).
Reviewed by MICHAEL DE LA BEDOVERE
ONE can only regret that Christopher Dawson's latest book reaches the general public with the words "The Gifford Lectures of 1948 " op the jacket and title-page. Nothing sounds so off-putting as a lecture, even allowing for the spate of lectures which the B.B.C. and the new education offers our deluded and disillusioned countrymen. Let us then forget all about the " lecture" part, and recognise that these 280 pages contain the most thrilling and important lesson in history that this generation is likely to receive, written in a style of cornplete ease, perfect lucidity and not a little charm.
Mr. Dawson has been at it before —in fact he has been at it all his life; but never, I think, with the force and clarity of this fine distillation of a lifetime's close and brilliant study. His teaching is really that our erudite scholars have got it all wrong. They view—or viewed—religion as a "special subject," if they allowed it any real importance at all. Dawson, as an historian and a sociologist, believes that religion has all the time been the heart of the matter. We Catho
lies, as Catholics, naturally believe this because the Catholic faith would make nonsense if it it were not so. But it is quite a different thing to demonstrate a posteriori from the scientific study of peoples and cultures that religious beliefs have proved to be the truly dynamic factor in human destiny, that man has moved, changed, progressed according to his religious vitality, or stagnated and declined according to religious enfeeblement.
In this book, we are given the full demonstration, the show piece, as it were, of the general thesis, since he is concerned with " what made Europe tick "—to have recourse to a ghastly, but effective. Americanism— Europe wherein the full force of the Christian revelation and values was playing from the Roman Empire until the Renaissance. Having read Dawson, it is almost incredible that scholarship once took it for granted that religion was a negative, if not a positively regressive, factor in the making of Western Culture.
"The importance of. these centuries of which I have been writing," Dawson concludes, " is not to be found in the external order they created or attempted to create, but in the internal change they brought about in the soul of Western mane change which can never be entirely undone except by the total negation or destruction of Western man himself."
As I said, most of us as Catholics broadly recognise this and are prepared for Dawson's general thesis ; but the special excitement of this amazingly " well digested" book, if I may so put it. lies in the new details, the discovery of unexpected examples of how the general truth seemed to fulfil itself.
For example the role of the saints in the still barbarian world. " The barbarians could understand and accept the spirit of the new religion only when it was manifested to them visibly in the lives and acts of men who seemed endowed with supernatural qualities. . . The lives of the saints and ascetics impressed the mind of the barbarians because they were the manifestation of a way of life and a scale of values entirely opposed to all that they had hitherto known and accepted.' Work that out, and a flood of light is thrown on the function of the otherwise rather improbable-seeming saints of the period. The role of the liturgy in preserving the pattern of Christian life in dark days is admirably shown. Few will have realised the enormous role played by these Islands (including of course Ireland) in the whole Wiry and the falsity of the generalisation that culture was delimited by the frontiers of Latin Christendom.
In passing we read of the J.Oth century " marxism " of St. Odo who wrote : " If we judged by realities we should give honour not to the rich for the fine clothes they wear but to the poor who are the makers of such things."
Dawson also argues : "It is usual to date the coming of this new element from the Renaissance and the revival of Greek studies in the 15th century, but the real turning point must be placed three centuries earlier in the age of the universities and the communes."
Such are merely haphazardly chosen treasures taken from the general argument, the illuminating analysing and fusing of the diverse forces which made our Western culture, a thesis that flows so limpidly as to seem deceptively easy to work out. In fact it is the brilliantly painted canvas, the masterpieee of the artist who has laboured to the fullest advantage for a lifetime among the complexities and puzzles of a most difficult period of history.