Jesus Christ came to reveal to men that they have no enemies but themselves.– Pascal
It is this vital tension between two worlds and two planes of reality which makes the Christian way of life difficult but which is also the source of its strength.– Christopher Dawson
My college education was unusual. In the early nineties, when most college students were learning the typical narrative of Christianity as a tool of Western imperialism, I was learning how Christianity was the source of Western culture’s greatest personal and cultural achievements. While they were coming to believe that Christianity produced little but inquisitors, conquistadors, and benighted Galileo-bashing prelates, I was being shown how it provided the creative inspiration and spiritual capital behind the Gothic cathedrals, Palestrina, and the Divine Comedy. While they saw the legacy of the Christian West in misogyny, homophobia, and smug eurocentrism, I was coming to see it in monasticism, martyrdom, and sanctity. While they learned identity politics, I was discovering Christian humanism. While they were learning the Borgias, Richelieu and Cortes, I was meeting St Francis, St Ignatius, and St Teresa of Avila. In short, I was educated into the conviction that Christianity is far more solution than problem. For this, the credit, or blame (depending on one’s point of view) goes largely to Christopher Dawson.
I somehow stumbled into the “Humanities and Catholic Culture” major as a sophomore at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in 1992. Clueless and lacking direction, I decided to pay a visit to the office of my admired history professor, James Gaston, to investigate this strange program I had read about in the university course catalog. On a grim November afternoon, Gaston barraged me with information about why Christopher Dawson, whose vision underlies the major, was basically the most brilliant and enlightened historian of the twentieth century, and the man with many of the answers. I did not even know the questions; but no matter, that is now beside the point. Gaston spoke with great zeal and passion of Dawson’s ideas of Christianity as the soul of Western culture. Regretfully, I probably understood all of about ten percent of what he said. Thankfully, it was enough to intrigue me and, in the end, convince me. Happily, I signed up. Thus began a trajectory which is still bearing fruit in my life today.
The rest of this essay is an attempt to explain some of what I learned, why it is important, and how it can continue to help us.
“Vital tension” is a phrase used in the writings of Christopher Dawson to describe the unique source of creative spiritual energy which has inspired the great personalities and achievements of Western culture.
Dawson was an intellectual and cultural historian of the 20th century whose life work was dedicated to studying the relationship between religion and culture. He insisted that behind every culture is a religion, and that behind Western culture is Christianity. While aware of the baggage of Christianity so scorned by secular critics, Dawson demonstrated the overwhelmingly positive creative force Christianity has been overall as the driving religious ideal behind Western culture.
Christianity helped transform the deadly violent tension of tribalism and ideological strife, transferring it inward to a vital moral and spiritual tension played out in the realm of personal responsibility, conscience, conversion, and, ultimately, love. This had very positive and creative implications over the course of Western cultural history. The pattern of accuse others/excuse self was reversed, as followers of the way of Jesus sought to first get the “plank” out of their own eye rather than the “speck” from their neighbor’s eye.
The condemnation of “those people” was replaced by the new command of Jesus to go and make disciples of all nations, gathering all into oneness under the headship of Jesus. Self-assertion was replaced with self-emptying. Domination was replaced by service. Revenge was replaced by forgiveness. The first centuries of Christianity saw the church grow through the sacrificial death of the martyrs and the love of its adherents toward one another and even toward their enemies. In imitation of Jesus, the early Christians helped establish the church by shedding their own blood, not that of others.
Dawson sought to demonstrate that history is a dynamic spiritual process whose best fruits are the result of concentrated personal and collective moral and spiritual effort. And, correlatively, its worst fruits are the result of the abandonment of this process.
Dawson drew from the tradition of the Gospels and St Paul, with their teachings on personal repentance and conversion. The spirit and the flesh are two opposing principles of the will (a moral, not a metaphysical distinction), and through the grace of the Holy Spirit comes the real possibility of personal and societal renewal. A careful study of Western culture provides an accumulation of evidence and examples, to which Dawson’s lifetime body of scholarly work testifies.
Dawson especially drew on St Augustine’s development of this tradition and his idea of the two cities: the city of God, characterized by love of God to the contempt of self; and the city of man, characterized by the love of self to the contempt of God. This was a moral, rather than metaphysical, distinction. It occurs beneath the surface of events, beginning in the hidden realm of personal existential choice. The unfolding of history is a playing out of these two opposing moral principles, beginning in the heart of each person.
More recent times, with shrinking notions of the moral and spiritual (though not scientific and technical) possibilities of humanity, have seen a reversion from“vital tension” back to the external tensions played out in the realm of post modern ideologies. From the scandalous wars between religions following the Reformation in the 17th century, through the revolutions of the 18th and19th century, through the fascist and communist scourges of the 20th century, and into the current era of Al Qaeda and the “clash of civilizations,” or the many lesser clashes played out between red state-blue state, 99%-1%, etc. We see the pattern playing out time and again, in more and less bloody forms but nevertheless, charged with acrimony and volatility.
Much of the strife of recent centuries, argues Dawson, can be linked to the abandonment of the Christian ideal of vital tension which was the chief source of creative spiritual energy for so many centuries since the coming of Christ. What we are seeing in its progressive abandonment is a reversion to the blood feud, played out ideologically. The pre-existent psychological pattern of moral dualism, the fruit of Christianity, is abandoned and instead sublimated and transferred outward again into new and more sophisticated forms.
Dawson argued for a return to the vital tension which always was the main source of strength for Christianity. Ongoing conversion, denial of self for the sake of God and others, and the way of love of God and neighbor through the following of Christ in the Holy Spirit—these are what make Christianity difficult but also a creative force for culture.
In more recent times, Pope Benedict XVI has written that Christianity is not primarily about morality or doctrine. Christianity is about the encounter with an event, a Person, Jesus Christ, who gives life a new horizon and decisive direction. The move toward this new horizon and new direction involves a willingness to follow, to be uneasy with one’s own evil, to embrace growth, to be in a continual state of becoming. In a word, a willingness to live the vital tension “which makes the Christian way of life difficult but which is also the source of its strength.”
These days it seems that the neo-tribalisms of ideologies are multiplying and gaining force. Even Christians are susceptible. Moralism and rationalism (among others) are Christian forms of ideology which seek refuge from the vital tension in favor of moral and intellectual systems. Everyone is susceptible. We’re all guilty. They are a dead end, personally and societally. They originate in man, not God. They end in sadness and anger and dis-engagement with others. They are not creative. They are not vital.
We need a renewal of vital tension. The world needs it. History needs it. The following is an attempt to map out more thoroughly Dawson’s vision and proposals, based on the conviction that he has something of value to offer today.
Modern man is a spiritual failure.
This is the provocation with which Christopher Dawson begins the first chapter of Understanding Europe, written in 1952. It is a theme that runs throughout his works. Why is modern man a spiritual failure? Because he has proven unable to control the new forces he has created. Educated, economically shrewd, technologically advanced, materially successful… none of these have been enough to hold at bay the centrifugal, de-unifying tendencies unleashed by the abandonment of the Christian ideal of personal conversion and a universal spiritual society. Evidence of these tendencies is seen in the trajectory of history for especially the past four or five centuries, up through today’s postmodern era of widespread alienation and division and global volatility, and in the nihilism and despair which stifle and censor serious attempts at higher meaning and authentic human aspiration, at least in the developed, post-industrial Western world.
The coming of God as man into history through the Christ event, and the subsequent new way of life this event generated, Dawson insisted, introduced a dynamic and creative spiritual process into the consciousness and history of Western culture which is the source of its greatest accomplishments and achievements, both personal and collective. European culture, in the best sense of the term, “is the external expression of a dynamic spiritual process”—rather than the accomplishment of political, national, racial, or tribal interests, conflicts or rivalries. Christianity provided the inspiration for the internal combat against the darkness within through the grace and power of Christ—rather than the old pagan dualistic pattern of external combat against tribal enemies. Its ideal is the “perfection” of the Father revealed and embodied in his Son sent to earth, as articulated in the call to repentance and the Sermon on the Mount:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
Dawson, himself a Christian and early twentieth-century English convert to Catholicism, spent his life’s work studying and discussing the relationship between religion and culture. A central thesis of his work is that religion is the soul of culture, its chief animating principle; and that a culture’s neglect or abandonment of its religious ideals leads to the decline of that culture. Dawson insisted and sought to demonstrate continually through his works that Christianity was the soul of Western culture.
A defining feature of the Christian religion was, according to Dawson, the “dynamic spiritual process” of conversion and spiritual regeneration through the new life of grace lived within the context of the universal spiritual community of the city of God, manifested most concretely in the Church as love. Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Logos, was the originator of this spiritual process, and Dawson credits St Paul with first articulating the process theologically through a coherently Christian doctrine of man; though the thinker Dawson cites most frequently as perhaps its most ardent and eloquent proponent was St Augustine of Hippo, especially in his idea of the “two cities.”
Early in the fifth century, as the last remains of the great Roman Empire crumbled under barbarian invasion, St Augustine wrote his masterpiece “The City of God.” In it, he formulated one of the great distinctions of Western culture, and also one of the great interpretations of the meaning of history. Two loves built two cities: the city of God, characterized by the love of God to the contempt of self; and the city of man, characterized by the love of self to the contempt of God. The historical tension between these two cities frames the drama of salvation history; indeed, the drama of all world history. For Augustine, a recovering Manichean, this distinction was the product of a long and arduous inner journey. For the genius and originality of Augustine’s “two cities,” insists Dawson, is the distinction between two wills: a moral, not a metaphysical distinction. The two cities are divided by a most basic and primal existential choice: self-assertion vs. self-emptying for the sake of an Other (and, by extension, an other). And as the drama of the two cities has its roots within man himself, Dawson maintained that “Christianity transfers the meaning of history from the outer world of historic events to the inner world of spiritual change.”
According to Dawson, Augustine with his “two cities” was, at least from the perspective of Western intellectual history, perhaps the chief and most influential articulator of this conception of history as a dynamic spiritual process. Dawson, as Augustine, recognized that there was often a wide gap between these two cities of man and God, with much grey area in between. While the city of man clamors loudly, the city of God exists in a more hidden but no less real and powerful way, as a “seed of eternity within the womb of time,” as Dawson once put it. It is incarnated in most concentrated form through the great creative spiritual and moral geniuses of each age which tradition has called saints. Nevertheless, most of us are not saints, and our own experience teaches us that the dividing line between these two cities is not as clear-cut as we might often like to think. Within the course of a lifetime, a year, or even a day, people of all persuasions, including Christians, can find themselves fluctuating between the two. And we also know that, ultimately, the dividing line between the two cities, like the dividing line between good and evil, runs, as Solzhenitsyn once said, down the middle of every human heart.
The interplay between these two cities, and the spiritual and moral (not military and political) efforts to overcome the city of man with the city of God, both on a personal and societal level, formed for Dawson the basis of the “vital tension” which actually became, through Christianity, the creative cultural force behind Western civilization. Discussing Augustine, Dawson referred to this struggle in terms of a “moral dualism.”
The word “dualism” is problematic, since the term is most commonly associated with the gnostic or Manichean world-view which divides the world into matter and spirit, as the respective principles of evil and good. This idea is what we might call “metaphysical dualism,” and posits a domain of inherent evil, typically associated with the body, but historically played out in practice as us vs. them, with the evil “them” ascribed to rival ideologies/tribes/races. The idea is unacceptable to traditional orthodox Christian theology, incompatible as it is with the idea of creation by a good and benevolent God. Traditional Christianity insists that all creation is the product of a good God, while evil is a privation, lack, perversion, or disorder originating in the will.
Milder forms of dualism have been adopted, at least on a practical level, in some branches of post-Reformation Christianity, which posit such radical harm to creation through the “fall” as to bring about a virtually irredeemable natural order impenetrable to grace—and hence ultimately autonomous, hence the road to secularization.
Dawson’s “moral dualism” (or as he sometimes called it, eschatological dualism) is, on the other hand, the logical and even necessary state for humans living in this fallen world as we do, somewhere between Christ and Adam, between heaven and earth, eternity and time, the already and not-yet, the “ought” of Gospel discipleship and the “is” of current personal and social realities. The dualism Dawson describes is the source of a creative tension which gives rise to authentic culture.
Dawson illustrates this idea of moral dualism and “vital tension” in the following passage from Understanding Europe, found in Chapter One, entitled, “How to Understand our Past.” In it, Dawson is addressing the gap between Christian ideals and social realities, insisting that, though we ought not to ignore or deny this gap, on the contrary,
the existence of this dualism created that state of vital tension which is the condition of European culture. In every age and every Western society this tension expresses itself in different forms, from the simple and straightforward dualism of Christian culture and pagan barbarism which we see in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History to the inner conflict “piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit” which we see in a Pascal or a Kierkegaard. Where this tension is absent,—where civilization has become “autarchic,” self-sufficient and self-satisfied, there the process of Christian culture has been extinguished or terminated. But even today we can hardly say that this has happened. Indeed what we have seen during the last century has been something very different—an increase in spiritual tension which has become almost world-wide, although it has lost the positive element of religious faith that was an essential condition of its creative power in Europe in the past.
It is obvious that there is a profound difference between the old dualism of the Christian way of life and unregenerate human nature on the one hand, and the new dualism between the revolutionary ideas of liberalism, nationalism and socialism and the traditional order of society on the other, but there is a certain relation between the two, so that it is possible to maintain that the whole revolutionary tradition is a post-Christian phenomenon which transposes a pre-existent psychological pattern to a different sociological tradition. But even if that were the case, it would make it all the more important to understand how the archetypal pattern originated.
Dawson asserts here that the tension of the modern Western world is largely the sublimated tension originally situated within Western Christian man and his struggle to conform to the new way of Christ. With the introduction of Christianity, came a new ideal: to follow and conform oneself, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, to the teachings and discipleship of Christ, the perfect human, the incarnate Logos. Religion became “a conscious and continual effort to conform human behavior to the requirements of an objective moral law and an act of faith in a new life and in sublimated patterns of spiritual perfection.” While it was true that a large gap always existed between the Christian ideal and social realities, the gap was at least theoretically acknowledged and became the ongoing basis for the creative tension of personal conversion – an ideal creating a pattern of personal striving which left little room for the destructive external tension of tribal warfare. And while military warfare was not unheard of within the Christian pattern (e.g. Joan of Arc), the far more common and typical representatives of the City of God were peaceful, creative, generative people of a new type of life and social order, such as St. Benedict and St. Francis. Many were martyrs who chose to have their own blood shed in sacrificial union with the crucified Christ rather than shed that of others to advance religious or political agendas.
According to Dawson, it was through Christianity that the sense of tension was made vital, being
transferred from the corporate responsibility of the blood feud to the sphere of the individual conscience. It became the sense of sin and produced as a correlative, the act of repentance. Now this spirit of moral effort and the consciousness of personal responsibility have remained characteristic of Western Christian culture—it may even be argued that they are its essential characteristics and that all its external political and material achievements have been to a considerable extent conditioned by them.
The meaning and originality of Christianity were originally affirmed in its universal world-transforming mission, which embraced the whole history of the human race. It announced the coming of a new order in which mankind would be remade by the infusion of a higher spiritual principle… It was a cosmic process that was progressively realized in history and which made a new world by making a new humanity. It was essentially dynamic, as we see most clearly in St Augustine’s interpretation of history as a process of conflict between two conflicting wills and spiritual principles embodied in two opposing communities and social orders.
Elsewhere in this same work, in a similar vein, Dawson writes,
Now when these conditions have obtained over a continuous period of more than a thousand years, it is difficult to deny that they must have had a great cumulative effect on the life of western man and the forms of western thought and feeling. Indeed it may be argued that Western culture as a whole is the fruit of this thousand years of continuous spiritual effort, and that there is no aspect of European life which has not been profoundly affected by it.
Dawson then says that it is the history of this dynamic spiritual process—“the history that really matters”—that we ought to be studying in schools; and which, tragically, our cultural elites spend most of their time ignoring or renouncing in favor of other, decidedly materialistic ideals. Elsewhere, Dawson writes that “it is this vital tension between two worlds and two planes of reality which makes the Christian way of life difficult but which is also the source of its strength.”
In the above paragraphs, Dawson was saying that when this “dynamic spiritual process,” this “continuous moral striving and effort” of the Christian way of life, which had been the driving force behind Western culture for over a millennium, is subverted, then the moral dualism ceases to be directed toward personal conversion and instead is transferred outward towards revolutionary dialectics. This involves something akin to a reversion to the pagan tribal blood feud wherein certain groups are demonized and identified as the source of evil in the world. We might say—a reversion from moral dualism back to metaphysical dualism. Dawson says that the more revolutionary modern ideas of liberalism, nationalism and socialism are distinctively post-Christian phenomena which “transpose a pre-existent psychological pattern to a different sociological pattern.”
According to Dawson, the vital tension of the Christian ideal was seriously compromised with Luther and the movements of Protestant revolt, as a more radically pessimistic view of human moral possibilities asserted itself across much of Europe.
Dawson was certainly aware of the complexities of history and the many shortcomings of those within the church which contributed to the religious rifts of the 16th century. He was no Catholic triumphalist. He was an irenic and ecumenical thinker and writer, and his “The Dividing of Christendom,” first delivered as a series of Harvard lectures to a largely Protestant or secularized audience, is a subtle, balanced and non-polemical study of the dynamics of the era. However, he was not afraid to state clearly his criticisms of the excesses and ideological underpinnings of the Protestant revolt and its far-reaching effects. A discussion of Dawson’s treatment of this important and contentious era of Western history is beyond the scope of the present essay.
Relevant to the current theme, however, is that through the doctrines of the early Protestant reformers the “vital tension” was in influential ways effectively renounced in favor of legal justification through the act of faith, as the ideal of human perfectability through a conscious and sustained project of moral and spiritual effort became less and less compelling and convincing. The confiscation and closing of the monasteries in 16th century Germany and England and elsewhere is a typical, significant phenomenon in this regard. The “pre-existent psychological pattern” of the vital tension, however, was not eliminated but rather sublimated, as the inner dialectic of conversion was transferred to an outer dialectic of tribal warfare against external enemies—first manifested in the wars of religion which raged between Christians and were so devastating to the later cause and credibility of Christianity in Europe. The tension ceased to be vital (pertaining to life), and instead became mortal as Europe violently reverted back to tribalism and the blood feud in its new and more sophisticated form as ideology. The fact that the ideology was based on interpretations of Christianity remains among the deepest sources of scandal and loss of historical credibility for the Christian religion.
Thus began the slow and agonizing reversal of the creativity which the original ideal of Christianity produced. Vital tension, the war against the “enemy” within through the grace of Christ and personal conversion, gave way over the ensuing centuries to increasingly violent and volatile wars between Christians, nations, races, and classes. After the extreme advancement of the process culminated in the two world wars of the twentieth century, it is little wonder, says Dawson, why the West has found itself in its current state of skepticism and relativism and nihilism.
Dawson was writing about the sublimation of the vital tension during the early fifties, after the two world wars had ended the 19th century’s naive liberal faith in “progress” through technology, science and material advancement. The first half of the twentieth century demonstrated the truth of modern man’s spiritual failure, his inability to control the forces he had created, due to his inability to control himself and bring his life and world under any coherent, meaningful, spiritual or moral unity.
The Postmodern Era
There is today a widespread, though not often clearly articulated, sense that what has gone before us is a failure, including Christianity, and we are left with nothing compelling to put in its place. The current postmodern era of the aftermath of the wars and the catastrophes of the twentieth century has, despite its understandable intentions, seen a continuous descent into ever more strident movements of negation, rather than creation. Contemporary ideologies have become more and more boldly anti-. One need only think of such examples as the renouncing of language (deconstructionism), gender (radical feminism), ethics (relativism), meaning and destiny (nihilism), spirituality (technological, materialistic consumerism), dialogue (fundamentalism, terrorism), contemplation (the absurd activism and corresponding spiritual acedia of modern life). Reason itself has been reduced to positivism, leaving everything but hard science and mathematics relegated to the domain of the subjective, the sentimental, and the sectarian. What is left is one’s own very personal project of creating an individual meaning for him- or herself; or, more typical, accepting the meaning imposed by power.
Even Christians have been left confused. Christianity has to a large degree been slow to recognize and respond to this bewildering state of affairs. Sterile dialectics between liberal and conservative, traditional and progressive, etc, have polarized even Christians into ideological camps. Churches struggle to stay vital and resist ideology and the enervated materialism and idolatry of the zeitgeist, while trying to proclaim a gospel whose words often sound more and more foreign, and whose meanings have dimmed in proportion with the obscure culture which once coined them.
Added to this demoralized climate for modern Christianity are the strident claims of the “new atheists” like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, et al, that religion is a delusional failure which the modern world needs to outgrow so as to move on to a more enlightened and progressive future. Events like 9/11 are cited by the less subtle as evidence that religion itself is an inherently volatile, destructive, destabilizing force for humanity.
In the midst of all this, Dawson’s half-century old proposal for a return to the vital tension which made Christianity such a creative spiritual force in history, as well as for a much more serious study of the culture which it generated, is all the more bold and creative today, and its extraordinary nature gives us all the more reason for taking it seriously.
What we need is nothing less than a spiritual revival of European culture: without this its political and economic revival is almost impossible. It is no use indulging in speculations about the coming of such a revival. The future is in the hand of God and the heart of man, and both are hidden. All that we can do is try to understand what is the nature of the spiritual traditions that have made Europe what it is, what are the principles that have governed its past development, and what are the ideals that it must preserve if it is to be true to itself and to retain its spiritual vitality.
Rather than giving into the widespread skepticism of his contemporaries, or else giving into a sterile, reactionary brand of doctrinal conservatism which would, at best, remain at the purely rational level, or at worst, forsake dialogue and engagement with today’s world while attempting to turn back the clock or simply wait for the second coming, Dawson retained a remarkable faith in the Christian tradition, and the vital tension which has animated it, and in the power of the Spirit which has enabled its greatest triumphs and achievements.
Dawson proposed a return to the creative tension found at the source of European and Western culture: Christianity, the historic religion which has been its soul and has made possible its vital creative accomplishments through the centuries. His writing career may be seen as a calm, consistent, intellectually compelling, non-sectarian case for why it is in everyone’s best interests to (re-)take the historic reality of Christian culture and its life-giving tension seriously.
In a word, Dawson agues that Christianity is not only relevant; it is the solution.
Dawson once wrote, “Every culture is like a plant. It must have its roots in the earth, and for sunlight it needs to be open to the spiritual. At the present moment we are busy cutting its roots and shutting all light from above.” These words are as true today as when they were written decades ago. For those still perceptive enough to notice what Dawson is describing, or human enough to care, one may wonder why the plant is dying; one may wonder why we are witnessing such decadence and despair, even in the midst of so much luxury and material wealth. One might wonder why modern man has proven unable to control the forces he has introduced into the world, and why he continues to be torn apart, without and within, by alienation, fragmentation, ideology, and violence. Dawson would say that there is hope yet for the plant; that the plant’s roots are deeper than we think; and that there is still sunshine and rain to be had high above us in abundance. But we must begin tending the roots again and poking some holes in the sealed roof overhead, if we are to let in some water and light again and see the plant revive and flower anew.
But in the meantime, contemporary Christianity, weakened by secularism and internal division, and even its own peculiar brands of ideology, has all too often seemed unequal to the challenge. The tension has lost its vitality, the salt has lost its taste: and when this is the case, “then indeed the world sinks back into disorder and death, for a despiritualised Christianity is powerless to change anything; it is the most abject of failures, since it serves neither the natural nor the spiritual order.” It was to help Christianity once again become a creative spiritual force in the world, to help the plant revive, to help the salt “restore its savour,” that Dawson continually re-proposed its vital tension and the study of the culture it spawned.
An objection against Dawson may arise: is he simply one more irrelevant, wistful reactionary, a tweedy, out-of-touch conservative, well-meaning and maybe even well-informed, but in the end simply an old-order bookworm calling us to renounce our place in the modern world for an impossible flight and escape into an older, extinct one?
No honest and open reading of Dawson could ever support this charge. Dawson was a writer and thinker of profound subtlety and depth, an extraordinary human soul and scholar of the rarest type who applied the same spirit of slow and careful contemplation to his lifelong study of history and culture as medieval men like St Bonaventure and St Bernard once applied to their study of Sacred Scripture. He was asked to fill the first-ever Chauncey Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard, a (historically) Protestant school, during the late fifties and early sixties—a sign of the esteem in which he was held by those even outside Catholicism. Dawson revered the tradition of Christian culture not as some static relic but as a dynamic witness to provide inspiration and direction for the present and future. He was an enlightened and broad-minded scholar convinced of the spiritual and creative energy of Christianity as the soul of the West, and was always proposing, not religious ideology, but a re-embracing of the “vital tension” of authentic Christian conversion and love, as found in the tradition , within the context of a life of grace and the common spiritual society of the “city of God” and its most organized outward manifestation, the Church. He proposed that we “return to our first principles and recover our unity of social purpose.” He avoids the escapist, dis-engagement temptation of so many traditionalists, instead insisting:
Our task is constructive, not revolutionary. We cannot abandon either our spiritual traditions or our new system of material organization. They are both of them essential elements of the Western tradition, and they must be reconciled and coordinated with one another if our civilization is to survive.
Dawson insisted, however, that although we need to balance both elements, the spiritual one is more important, being the creative power originally behind the material achievement; and, in a classic Dawsonian paragraph, says:
No doubt civilization is in a sense dependent on the economic process, just as a man of genius depends on his dinner. But economic causes do not create civilizations, any more than good food makes great men. In both cases greatness is a spiritual quality, and has its source in the intelligence and the will of the individual and the society. A civilization lives by its faith and its ideals no less than by its wealth and its material organization. Its creative power is intimately related to the strength of its spiritual tradition.
How are these ideas of Dawson relevant to us now? We are living in a world that has abandoned “vital tension” for ideology and violence; or, like Nietzsche’s “last men,” for the “luxuriating” narcotics of enervating entertainment and the material comforts and conveniences of suburbia. If we do not find creative and compelling alternatives capable of having some influence over the people of our time, then as Christians we risk the same failure to provide an answer for ourselves and our world as everyone else, and we will miss our moment in history.
But there remains a dynamic spiritual process, for those willing to re-embrace the “vital tension” of the Christian ideal and its historical embodiment through culture and history. By re-connecting, in ways relevant and recognizable to people of today, with the fascinating, living person of Christ, the common universal spiritual society he has spawned, the tradition he has inspired, and the Spirit he has given, new possibilities may yet emerge, even in surprising and unforeseen ways. For even today the proposal of a vital, adventurous tension springing from an authentic encounter with the living Christ is being repeated with power and clarity, for example by Pope Benedict XVI in the first pages of the encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
The true nature of the Christian ideal is beautifully articulated in Dawson’s great essay on the difference between Marxist tension and the “vital tension” of Christianity:
Since this Christian dualism is a spiritual one, it does not find its solution in the class conflict or in any of the temporal conflicts of history, but in the mystery of the Cross which reverses the material values of history and gives a new meaning to victory and defeat. The true makers of history are not to be found on the surface of events among the successful politicians or the successful revolutionaries: these men are the servants of events. Their masters are the spiritual men whom the world knows not, the unregarded agents of the creative action of the Spirit. The supreme instance of this—the key to the Christian understanding of history – is to be found in the Incarnation—the presence of the maker of the world in the world unknown to the world. And though this divine intervention in the course of history seems at first sight to empty secular history of all ultimate significance, in reality it gives history for the first time an absolute spiritual value. The Incarnation is itself in a sense the divine fruit of history—of the fullness of time—and it finds its extension and completion in the historic life of the Church.
In spite of modern man’s spiritual failure, the resources even now exist to remedy the problem and return to that vitality which for so many centuries provoked a fruitful, culture-building tension through authentic Christianity. “Everything depends on whether the Christians of the new age are equal to their mission—whether they are able to communicate their hope to a world in which man finds himself alone and helpless before the monstrous forces which have been created by man to serve his own ends but which now have escaped from his control and threaten to destroy him.”
Dawson saw reasons for hope, reasons which even a generation after his death still remain. If Christians can re-connect with the Presence which incarnates itself into history, with the tradition and community which that Presence has generated, and the “City of God” which that Presence moves and provokes people to choose over their schemes and agendas, then an un-looked for era of creativity may emerge as a spring in the dry desert of nihilistic, postmodern Western culture. “The house of the world seems closed and guarded; its masters have no rivals left to fear. But suddenly the wind of the Spirit blows and everything is changed. No age has ever been able to foresee the age to come.”
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
1. Matthew 7:3-5
2. “The Nature and Destiny of Man,” Enquiries into Religion and Culture. London: Sheed and Ward, 1933 (essay from 1920: Dawson’s first published work), 334.
3. Dawson wrote two essays on Augustine: “St Augustine and His Age,” in Enquiries into Religion and Culture, 198-258; and “St Augustine and the City of God,” in Dynamics of World History,311-340 (ISI Books: Wilmington, Delaware, 2002). Dawson cites the “two cities” frequently; see for example: “The Kingdom of God and History,” Dynamics, 290; “The Christian View of History,” Dynamics, 251; The Judgment of the Nations, 181 (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1942); The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, 9 (Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson. Edited by Gerald Russello. CUA Press: Washington, D.C., 1998; Understanding Europe, 221.
4. Dynamics of World History, “The Christian View of History,” 251. Wilmington, Delaware; 2002
5. The dynamic goes back to the New Testament and finds typical expression in the Pauline theology of the flesh/spirit, as for example in Romans 7 and 8 and Galatians 5
6. Dynamics, “The Christian View of History,” 261
7. Here we come to matters of great contention, leading far afield into theories of justification and differing historical and theological interpretations. Obviously, the complex topic is beyond the scope of this essay. For an insightful, if dated, commentary on the implications of Lutheran and Calvinist approaches to the implications of “the fall” of man, see Jacques Maritain, Three Reformers, Part I (Luther).
8. Understanding Europe, Christian Culture Press: Fayetteville, AR; 1991 (reprint); 20-21 (italics added)
9. Elsewhere, Dawson writes about the unique, world-changing dynamism which the peculiar spiritual force of Christianity has always exhibited and influenced, over and against the other world civilizations: “Why is it that Europe alone among the civilizations of the world has been continually shaken and transformed by an energy of spiritual unrest that refuses to be content with the unchanging law of social tradition which rules the oriental cultures? It is because its religious ideal has not been the worship of timeless and changeless perfection, but a spirit that strives to incorporate itself into humanity and to change the world. In the West the spiritual power has not been immobilised in a sacral social order like the Confucian State in China or the Indian caste system. It has acquired social freedom and autonomy, and consequently its activity has not been limited to the religious sphere but has had far-reaching effects on every aspect of social and intellectual life.” (“Christianity and the New Age,” from Essays in Order, 228-9. The Macmillan Company: New York, 1931).
10. For an insightful treatment of the salutary and creative effects of Christianity, particularly monasticism, on Western culture, see Meeting with representatives from the world of culture, Address of Pope Benedict XVI, Collège des Bernardins, Paris, Friday, 12 September 2008
11. Understanding Europe, 15
12. Understanding Europe, 15
13. Understanding Europe, 221
14. Understanding Europe, 17
15. For Dawson’s comprehensive educational proposal, see The Crisis of Western Education.
16. Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson, 9. Edited by Gerald Russello. CUA Press: Washington, D.C., 1998.
17. This was a concern treated frequently and with great insight by Walker Percy. For example: “The words of religion tend to wear out and get stored in the attic… So decrepit and abused is the language of the Judeo-Christian religions that it takes an effort to salvage them, the very words, from the husks and barnacles of meaning which have encrusted them over the centuries. Or else words can become slick as coins worn thin by usage and so devalued. One of the tasks of the saint is to renew language, to sing a new song.” (Signposts in a Strange Land, 306. Picador: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux: New York, 1991) See also Message in a Bottle, “A Novel About the End of the World,” 116-17: “Christendom seems in some sense to have failed. Its vocabulary is worn out… The old words of grace are worn smooth as poker chips and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a poker chip after it is cashed in.”
18. Christopher Dawson, The Modern Dilemma, 47. Sheed and Ward: London and New York, 1933.
19. “Christianity and the New Age,” from Essays in Order, 243. The Macmillan Company: New York, 1931.
20. The Modern Dilemma, 42
21. The Modern Dilemma, 42-43
22. nother modern re-proposal of Christianity to this effect, echoing Dawson’s, may be seen in Luigi Giussani: “It is not the task of Jesus to resolve all the various problems, but to harken man back to the position where he can more correctly try to resolve them… The task of those who have discovered Jesus Christ – the task of the Christian community – is precisely to bring about, as much as possible, the solution to human problems on the basis of Jesus’ call.
Jesus Christ’s conception of life, then, is essentially a tension, a struggle (‘I have not come to bring peace but a sword’ [Mt 10:34]). It is a pressing on, a seeking – seeking one’s own completeness, one’s own true ‘self.’ Nothing is more anti-Christian than a concept of life as something that is comfortable and satisfied, as a possible contingent happiness. ‘But woe unto you that are rich for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full!’ [Lk 6:24-25].” At The Origin of the Christian Claim, 98. McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal & Kingston; London; Buffalo: 1999. Tr. Viviane Hewitt. Italics added.
23. Dynamics, “Karl Marx and the Dialectics of History,” 379
24. Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson, 53. Edited by Gerald Russello. CUA Press: Washington, D.C., 1998.
25. Dynamics, “History and the Christian Revelation,” 270