Above all other twentieth-century men, the late Christopher Dawson took seriously the two theses developed by Newman over a century ago. Newman’s theses were that only the liberally educated are really educated and that a person without an introduction to theological lore lacks an ingredient necessary for liberal education. Dawson wanted to know what, given our situation, could be done about a liberal education and about an effective acquaintance with transcendent purpose in and through education. Is either a liberal education or an education in divine transcendent things now possible? Could we have both and combine and integrate the two? Could it be undertaken at all in American universities, in France or Italy, or East or West Germany, or in South American countries?

Aware of the difficulties, Dawson said it could he done through “education in Christian culture.” Education need not be shut once for all into an enclave marked “secular and illiberal,” and Dawson outlined a course of studies in Christian culture covering two to four years; in this attempt, he was more radical and thorough than any secular, Catholic, or Protestant college or university in America. He claimed that some such studies are needed if youth is to receive a liberal education relevant to today’s world. To grasp what he meant, we must first see how he understood the relation of religion to culture and to society in general.

Dawson’s central thesis, repeated for forty years, was the relation, as he conceived it, between religion—any religion, primitive, Christian, Buddhist—and a living and healthy culture. This is an anthropological, historical, and sociological question, and his treatment of it in his Gifford Lectures[1] and elsewhere showed that it is also a philosophical question. What have religion and culture—occasionally called civilization or society—to do with each other? And what has education in religion to do with a liberal education? But the other part of the question—What has religion to do with culture?—is more inclusive and it comes first in time and in his opinion first in significance. Dawson’s reply was that a strong living culture has to have a strong living religion; if religion is on the downgrade, culture is on the downgrade. There is a correlation between the two, so that, as religion lapses, culture lapses, even though outwardly the society or culture may be prosperous. Dawson claimed that a people cannot have a great and lasting culture unless the worship of the gods is basic to it and co-creative with it. He held that it is a mistake to think that the great cultures are the creators of religions, it is truer to say that religions are creators of cultures.

Dawson knew that his assertion would have shocked nineteenth century liberalism which assumed that it is all the same to society and culture whether people ever bother their heads about religion, and the routine liberal view that society is as well off without religion: the secular city is self­-sufficient. Religion is a matter of social and cultural indifference; the arena of political, economic, and military involvement is too rough for religion to count. That is what the liberal-secular man has concluded, partly because religion has long been regarded by both liberals and conservatives and by believers and unbelievers as a private matter between a man and his God, with no social function; religion is seen as faith and a matter of private interpretation. Irreligion is non-faith. One man believes, another does not; one society is religious, another is not. That is all there is to it. Whether people are of the faith kind or of the non­ faith kind is a matter of individual taste and preference and of no concern to society and culture. As Dawson read history, this opinion is an error with serious social consequences.

Culture is an organized way of life based on a common tradition and adapted to a particular environment. It requires some specialization of tasks and channeling of social energies, as is clear among the Eskimos or Bushmen. It is the life style worked out under particular circumstances, and its formation involves a community of work and a community of thought as well as of place and of blood. Any people with any considerable “community” and adaptation to its environment automatically has a culture. The culture, said Dawson, is a living whole from roots in the soil and peasants’ and fishermen’s instinctive life up to achievements in artists and philosophers. We may think the Bushman culture retrograde, but it is the result of a free and intelligent activity, and expresses itself in an art and folklore richer and more original than that of many civilized peoples.[2] A people’s culture may be high or low, healthy or de­ cadent, but is sure to be existent.

Dawson’s hope for the West was that at least some youths would concentrate on the study of Christian culture in an objective way, since, in addition to the fact that this culture could be the content of a liberal education, he held that it would be extraordinarily important to have Christian culture diffused and recreated. This is because Christian culture has been central to whatever we have been for centuries. But what precisely is it? Christian culture is the Christian people’s way of life: “Christian culture is simply the Christian way of life in its historical development.”[3] When we study this, or any culture, we are studying man, and, said Dawson in 1942, “Primitive man is just as much dependent on cultural traditions as civilized man.” We speak of and for Christian culture, but mindful that we may justly speak of Pueblo or Grecian or Chinese culture. Seen in this way, culture is a remarkably democratic concept, and Christian culture is one among many cultures.

Dawson was temperamentally an aristocrat and conservative, yet, here again, he was liberal and democratic. Man, he said, is religious, and secularized, modern man, refusing the over-all religious way of mankind, is an illiberal maverick with a penchant for aristocracy, uppish and as if too good for the human race. Religion is the bond between man and God, between human society and the spiritual world.

What we are concerned with here is not literary culture but spiritual culture—the training of the mind in the way of the divine law. Some such process is implicit in the conception of human relations with super-human reality which is the very essence of religion according to our definition…. [Involved in religion is an inner-discipline which renders the soul capable] of transcending the ordinary level of humanity.[4]

Man reaches above and beyond himself and enjoys a vision of the divine. His thus linking himself to God is the religious phenomenon and datum. The strange occurrence, said Dawson, is our modern widespread secularism. If it is true that man is the worshipping animal and incurably religious, and if he can turn a man or a nation into his god, it is still not strange that some man should think himself not religious or a worshipper; after all, a man here or there has thought himself the man in the moon. The strange thing, Dawson proceeded, is that an age, at least in some leading lights, should in effect declare itself secularist, not bound to God. He described the irreligious man as the man who lives on the surface of existence and recognizes no ultimate spiritual allegiance.

Losing the religious and theological dimension in Western society has been a long and complex story. Although from Plato’s time, Hellenic “paideia” was a humanism in search of a theology, the religious traditions of Greek culture were not deep enough to furnish one. Somewhat similar is the modern situation. Progressively controlling education, the state is nevertheless religiously badly off; it needs a spiritual bond other than law and the power of the sword. But how are we to achieve such a bond which we have needed ever since society lost contact with the faith of Christendom? Modern society has sought this bond in each of three ways; in the democratic ideal of a natural society and its general will, the common American method; secondly in the nationalist cult of a racial community, the Fascist-Nazi model, and in the Communist faith. In each instance, we see a substitute religion or counter-religion with a quasi creed, a cult, and priesthood, transcending the political community and creating a kind of secular church.[5]

A major event secularizing Western man is the split in Christianity; this has made education in Christian culture difficult. The break meant a break in Christian culture, a culture which, as Dawson’s The Making of Europe shows, had been a thousand years in process of formation. This culture had struggled trying to discover itself, making its way past a sort of presumed commitment solely to the supernatural until it encountered an extremely natural and naturalistic world. Tension was inevitable and remained for centuries: a dualism between the natural barbarian warrior and the supernatural man with his faith in a transcendent being and transcendent society. Eventually, it became the custom to accept, at least as provisional and transitory, any good political rule and any good temporal conditions and institutions. This attitude held when the ruler was, from Charlemagne’s time on, anointed and regarded as in some way sacred, and it still holds in the coronation of British rulers. Tension and dualism between temporal and spiritual must always remain in a Christian society.[6] The Church-State social body was quasi theocratic, and yet the guilds turned society in effect into a community of communities. The guilds combined secular and religious activities, and medieval society was much like one organism, “an ordered spiritual structure that reaches from earth to heaven.”[7]

The organic structure was broken by the dividing of Christendom in the sixteenth century. In a volume on this subject, Dawson summarized thus:

For when the age of religious war was over, Europe was still divided (and America also) by a difference of moral values and psychological antipathies. And these differences are harder to surmount than the theological ones, because they go so deep into the unconscious mind and have become a part of the personality and the national character.[8]

Much common belief and common tradition has remained, but for a long time the gap in ways of life has been so wide that we cannot speak of modern Western culture as a common Christian culture, and the fissure is so deep that we cannot see a solution in the present period and under existing historical circumstances.

In education, common ground long remained because the Renaissance afforded higher education a common classical background and it furnished common norms for value judgments transcending national and political frontiers and forming the European republic of letters of which every scholar was a citizen. This intellectual community was presupposed in primary and secondary education, the primary school taught children their letters, grammar school taught them Latin and Greek, so that educated men everywhere possessed a common language and the knowledge of a common literature or two common literatures. Classical education could perform this unifying task, said Dawson, because it was built on a common spiritual tradition; by itself, it was less than half the European system of education: below it was the religious education common to all, and above was the theological education special to the clergy. Whatever its merits and former success, Dawson had not the slightest illusion about its present feasibility; after so long a run in Great Britain and on the Continent, classical education is completely antiquated as a common denominator in education. Dawson was convinced that we must nevertheless seek a unifying factor, but this cannot be found in prevailing specialisms and much less in technology. We suffer for a unifying element, given the centrifugal forces of specialism and vocationalism and the disorientating forces of Communism and non-revolutionary secularism.

That is one side of the picture—education has lost common and unifying factors. At the same time, modern Western society has made education universal; the effect on the whole is good, but has been bought at a high price. It has meant the substitution of quantitative for qualitative standards and inevitably changed the relations of education to the state:

…there is no power left outside politics to guide modern civilization, when politicians go astray. For in proportion as education becomes controlled by the state, it becomes nationalized, and in extreme cases the servant of a political party. This last alternative still strikes us here in England as outrageous, but it is not only essential to the totalitarian state; it existed before the rise of totalitarianism and to a great extent created it, and it is present as a tendency in all modern societies, however opposed they are to totalitarianism in its overt form.[9]

To be brief, education is state education, the state tending to control the mind of man. These ideas were stated by Dawson in Lumen Vitae in 1949 as part of his earliest and (he said in a letter to the author) his most important article on educational philosophy. As Dawson saw the situation, our culture lacks a common understanding of nature or of man and any transcendent aim for person or society, each of the deficiencies a serious matter. Three mighty contemporary faiths—democratic, fascist, and communist—successfully transcend the individual, but none of them succeeds in transcending either the secular or temporal. In America, continued Dawson,[10] faith in science tends to supplant theological orthodoxy and this faith merges unconsciously with faith in democracy. A cultural uniformization is more and more demanded; in educational theory, men of distinction have said that to be democratic and American all must attend public schools; and to be up-to-date, all must applaud the same television shows and Hollywood stars. Dawson regarded those who have their own schools as in some measure saving educational and cultural freedom.

The individual person transcends the political arena, since he is not totally subject to it, and for Dawson the cultural body should also transcend that arena. In totalitarian nations, both culture and the person are at the mercy of the state. The effect is the invasion of the human soul by the hand of power, the original sin of every totalitarian system. Common understanding and transcendent purpose—does anything now promise these values in education? Must we give up hope that a culture with common understanding and transcendent purpose can be created and perpetually recreated? Dawson’s reply was that those values are available, but not on a secularist basis. We need a new ground for educational process, and the time when secularism could conceivably provide an acceptable philosophy of education and culture is past.

Dawson’s reply to the cited deficiencies and threats was always the same—it was “education in Christian culture.” We must face the problem as a whole and remember the common spiritual foundations of the learning for centuries available to Western man. But while we use Christian culture as content, we must hold this culture off from ourselves and study it as we would any given object. Dawson was not appealing for indoctrination nor speaking primarily of cult and commitment, but of Christian culture as a basic area of study.

This content could be studied with appreciation and respect as the old classical matters were studied, and like these with dispassion and freedom, and could serve as what Dawson called the “means” of liberal education. Moreover, the study of Christian culture in its formation, its peak, and its periods of decline could be useful. Spending so many years in school, we certainly want to discover how we ourselves came to be. To do this we must study, not vocational specialisms and not primarily modern civilization, important as this is, but the older order of Christian culture, which is the historic basis of our civilization. Our coming to be modern was through a struggle of centuries and even a series of prolonged struggles. Let at least some Western youths have the chance to become liberally educated by a straightforward study of how we and our culture came to be. Such a study could be useful in face of domestic and world problems, it could be both liberal and utilitarian.

To carry this study through, teachers would have to acquire much knowledge now passed over. Also a devotion akin to that once felt for the classics and now for scientific studies would have to be experienced by teachers and students. We would need a new renaissance. Another handicap is the fact that in most universities it has become nobody’s business to consider Christian culture. But Dawson claimed that the reasons making its study difficult are reasons in its favor as educational matter; difficult, but integrative:

it is an integrative subject involving the cooperation of a number of different specialized studies, in the same way as the study of litterae humaniores in the Greats School at Oxford involves the cooperation of philosophers and historians as well as philologists and literary critics.

In every culture, education teaches children some know-how—how to hunt and fish and cook, to read and write—and its massive over-all work is to initiate youth into the social and spiritual inheritance of the community. It always does this whether or not the community has formal schools. Today, we would need to understand our particular culture, English, Mexican or Dutch, as

the first step to understanding the culture of the past. From this point of view I have much sympathy with Dewey’s theory of education—that it should be a means of participating in the total experience of life in a community. But whereas his community is contemporary secular society, our community is a universal one in the fullest sense of the word: it is the community of the civita­ tis Dei. The whole purpose of Catholic higher education should be to actualize or realize this citizenship which we all accept as a truth of faith, but which we should realize as the membership of a true community more real than that of the state or nation and more universal than modern civilization because past and present coexist in it.[11]

Taken in its widest sense education is simply the process by which the new members of a community are initiated into its way of life and thought from the simplest elements of behavior up to the highest tradition of spiritual wisdom. Christian education is therefore an initiation into the Christian way of life and thought, and for one thousand two hundred years, more or less, the peoples of Europe have been submitted to this influence. The process has been intensive at some points, superficial at others, but taking it as a whole it may be said that nowhere else in the history of mankind can we see such a mighty stream of intellectual and moral effort directed through so many channels to a single end. However incomplete its success may have been, there is no doubt that it changed the world, and no one has any right to talk of the history of Western civilization unless he has done his best to understand its aims and its methods.[12]

Through homes and churches and private schools we now receive some of this initiation, but actual curricula in Europe and America generally avoid Christian culture content.

The education for which Dawson spoke would be national, but also transnational and transpolitical. All of us say with Aquinas that it is against nature for man to be “subordinated in all that he is to any political community,”[13] man is of the political community and naturally transcends it. People want their children to learn with and for the political community, but through their learning and culture to transcend that community. That was Dawson’s position. Citizens should know and love the national community and know and love beyond it—a view, he remarked, unacceptable to revolutionary or other secularists. Dawson thus parted company with secularists of whatever brand. Writing in Studies, he remarked that even in Western democratic society, which in intention consciously rejects totalitarian solutions, state control and political direction of schooling inevitably tend to increase—a control due to the fact that the state has taken the place of homes and independent organs of culture as the paymaster and controller, first of universal public education, and eventually of higher education and scientific research.

Hence it is not surprising that some leading representatives of democratic educational theory, like the late Professor Dewey, go as far as the Communists in their subordination of education to the needs of the political community. In Professor Dewey’s view the function of education is not to communicate knowledge or to train scholars in the liberal arts: it is to serve democracy by making every individual participate in the formation of social values and contribute to what he calls ‘the final pooled intelligence’ which is the democratic mind.

No doubt Dewey’s democratic community is not so crudely political as that of the totalitarian ideologists. What he has in mind is not the political organization of the state but the community of popular culture. But it is no less fatal to the traditional concept of culture since it reverses the natural relation between the teacher and the taught and subordinates the higher intellectual and moral values to the mind of the masses. It is indeed difficult to see on these principles how any of the higher forms of culture could ever have arisen. For even the most primitive and barbarous peoples known to us achieve Dewey’s ideals of social participation and communal experience no less completely by their initiation ceremonies and tribal dances than does the modern educationalist with his elaborate programs for the integration of the school with life.[14]

Dewey’s final word was initiation into the ways of the democratic community, a ne plus ultra. But it was not Dawson’s final word, since he held that the person transcends the best sociotemporal community; and not only the person, but the culture also transcends it. Education should serve the good society and help to initiate men into it, but also serve other important ends—to liberate the person’s judgment, and teach all, as Dewey insisted, to respect the socially liberated state of man. Along with these values, it should help to initiate men and culture into the transnational, transpolitical and transtemporal world. This higher objective, necessary at any time, just now is especially needed to counter the totalitarian mind, and it seems to us that Dewey remained unaware of such a demanding goal of education. The secular city is always unaware of it.

It is difficult to separate education as initiation into the particular culture from a people’s religious life, since this is part of the culture. As the people believe and worship, so we may expect their theory and practice of education to be. Almost always the tradition of a learned priesthood lies at the heart of the great civilizations, and even when a culture has been secularized, the tradition of a priesthood is not wholly lost, as was clear (said Dawson) in Matthew Arnold and Emerson who saw themselves as priests of culture; a culture always has its high priests. The sacred order exists in any society, serves as a law and norm, being not merely social or political, since, seen in anthropological and historical light, law requires divine origin and sanction. Such a view is stock in trade in Judaism and is found in one form or another in the world religions and the ancient civilizations; in the Pueblo culture where a remarkably durable society is based on sacred ritual; and in China:

[with] all the characteristic features of the religion of the archaic culture preserved at least formally intact in one of the most highly developed and refined forms of civilization the world has known. Down to 1912 the Emperor still offered the great sacrifice of the winter solstice at the Altar of Heaven with all the ritual of a remote, almost prehistorical past, and every spring he performed the ceremony of the sacred ploughing which opened the agricultural year. For the ancient Chinese religion like that of the other archaic societies was based on the principle of a perfect coordination of the heavenly and the earthly orders by a cycle of ritual actions.[15]

Granting so much, what have such anthropological and historical facts to do with a modern philosophy of education? Dawson’s answer was that to jettison the coordination between sacred and earthly and of a priestly group guarding a sacred tradition of culture could not be done without disorienting and impoverishing the culture in question. Yet, this has occurred in the secularization of modern Western culture, where, as in any culture, some social embodiment of the higher spiritual principle remains a fundamental condition of an enduring social order. If religion is vital to culture, then religion is not a matter of indifference to education, and neither is it a matter of sentiment or private interpretation; on the contrary, religion is integral to social realities and is the root of every living culture.

In the tendency toward secularization, and in the case of Communist nations, in the violent secularistic imposition, education has a dual task. First, it has to help us desecularize our minds—and in a society bursting with affluence and freedom, this may be difficult—and help us to understand our present condition, and this also will demand much. Dawson spoke strongly on this point:

It is only by the rediscovery of the spiritual world and the restoration of man’s spiritual capacities that it is possible to save humanity from self-destruction. This is the immense task which Christian education has to undertake. It involves a good deal more than any Christian or any educationist has yet realized.

We cannot tear the two apart—a Christian learning and a Christian culture or society. However, the chance for education in Christian culture suffers attacks arising from two unlikely sources: a religious source, and an academic source. In the latter, the tendency is to sacrifice everything to science and technology and these themselves to political power. In the religious field, theological study is shut into an airtight cell and thereby in effect, so far as education is concerned, social realities are secularized. Education also suffers disabilities of its own. For two centuries, it has faced an insistent vocational and industrial demand, resulting in a sort of subculture. The dualism of religious and secular and the utilitarian tendency are further complicated by a massive social fact which Dawson called an “extroverted hedonistic mass culture.”

The recovery of a Christian culture is therefore the essential educational and religious task, and it is inseparable from the social ideal of Christendom-of the Christian people—plebs Christiana­populus Dei. This ideal…lies at the very heart of Christianity.[16]

Christian culture is a natural and inescapable subject of study for anyone wishing to understand the Western world. What, then, would it be like? How would it be broken into areas or fields? On Dawson’s plan, it would be a study in history, philosophy, theology, in art and literature and social institutions, and be a study for anyone, Jew, Moslem or agnostic who wished to understand that world, since, without Christian culture, the Western world does not exist and cannot be studied. Dawson claimed that such a study would be of greater educational importance than most matters studied now in school and university, and because of its immersion in historical data, it would be more relevant, especially in theology and philosophy, than the courses now given in many Catholic or other Christian schools. Within this manifold called “Christian culture,” we would have fields and objects of study—Greek and Latin civilization, the Near East, many sciences and Oriental cultures along with Christian culture. Dawson felt that we must bypass both textbook courses and nationalist separatism in the study of Western society. We need to “study the old spiritual community of Western Christendom as an objective historical reality,” since there is a living tradition “reaching back through Petrarch and John of Salisbury to Alcuin and Bede and Boethius, and it was this that built the spiritual bridge across the ages” bringing us classical humanism.

The existence of this spiritual community or psychological continuum is the ultimate basic reality which underlies all the separate activities of modern Western societies and which alone makes Western education possible.[17]

The educational and cultural task would mean a conversion and spiritual transformation, even to begin to think of the task would take effort. The alternative, in Dawson’s view, is a robot utopia combined with a bankrupt secular humanism; we have samples of this combination and can see that it is “inhuman in the absolute sense­—hostile to human life and irreconcilable with human nature itself.” Science without wisdom will not answer, nor will science in the hands of power. But a thorough social science, of anthropology, history, and sociology, teaches that man is the worshipping animal, that religion is essential to a living culture and that education is an initiation into the social and spiritual inheritance of the community. We want facts brought for­ ward integrally with an understanding of whole ways of life. We want to know man, and Dawson held that we have the opportunity and the need to know and to assimilate Christian culture.

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Republished with gracious permission of Modern Age, Fall 1973.


[1] Christopher Dawson, Religion and Culture (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1948); Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1950).

[2] For Dawson’s concept of culture, see his Age of the Gods (London: J. Murray, 1924); Progress and Religion (New York and London: Longmans, 1928); Religion and Culture, and Religion and the Rise of   Western Culture.

[3] Dawson, The Commonweal, 61 (April 1, 1955), p. 678.

[4] Religion and Culture, p. 176.

[5] Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education ( New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961) , pp. 102-111.

[6] Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, pp. 75-76, 170, 180-181.

[7] Ibid., pp. 91, 205-212.

[8] Christopher Dawson, The Dividing of Christendom (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965), p. 16. Parenthesis in the original.

[9] Christopher Dawson, Understanding Europe (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1952), pp. 4-7; also Dawson, “Education and the State,” The Commonweal, 65 (January 25, 1957) , pp. 423-427.

[10] The Crisis of Western Education, Chapters 6 and 8.

[11] Dawson, “Dealing With the Enlightenment and the Liberal Ideology,” The Commonweal, 60 (May 14, 1954), p. 139.

[12] Understanding Europe, p. 242.

[13] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Sum. Th., I-II, q. 21, a. 4, ad 3.

[14] Dawson, Studies, 42 (Autumn, 1953), p. 298.

[15] Religion and Culture, Chapter 8.

[16] Understanding Europe, p. 254.

[17] Ibid., Chapters 1 and 13.

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