Christopher Dawson promoted an alternative, if tentative, vision that Christianity could make a comeback as the source of spiritual renewal for desiccated Eastern cultures…

Dawson ChinaIn preparation for a trip to the Asian countries of China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore, I have been reading many books and essays on a wide variety of topics by a wide variety of authors, such as Jonathan Spence, Freda Utley, Anthony Kubek, Simon Leys, and many others. I have listened to Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China. I also subscribed to two courses from The Teaching Company: “From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History,” by Professor Kenneth Hammond and “Foundations of Eastern Civilization,” by Professor Craig Benjamin.

The most useful book, oddly enough, has been Christopher Dawson’s book, Christianity in East & West.[1] The book not only explains the past relationships between Europe and Asia, but, perhaps prophetically, forecasts the possibilities of a worldwide unity built on the spiritual foundations of Christianity.

I would not claim that Dawson is unique or the sole provider of such insights, but for this beginner looking to find his way into a new vast subject, it is a good place to start.

His understanding of the East and Oriental Nationalism is essential to gain a perspective on what is going on in the world today. He accurately saw the parallels between the spiritual desiccation of the West and the East. Oriental Nationalism was built on the repudiation of the spiritual foundations in which these cultures and civilizations had been nurtured. Even though revolting against the colonialism and hegemony of the West, they were still enthralled with Western ideas created by the intelligentsia coming out of the Enlightenment.

His thinking parallels that of Eric Voegelin:

Today, no major thinker in the Western world is unaware, nor has failed to express the fact, that the world is undergoing a severe crisis, a process of withering, which has its origin in the secularization of the spirit and the ensuing severance of a consequently purely secular spirit from its religious roots. No major thinker is ignorant of the fact that recovery can only be brought about by religious renewal, whether within the framework of the Christian churches or outside it.[2]

In fact, I am certain that there is a major research project awaiting several dissertations comparing the historical work of Christopher Dawson and Eric Voegelin!

The French Connection

Christopher Dawson describes the secularization of the West in several preliminary chapters of his book. The main source he finds in the French developments of the seventeenth century. Richelieu and Henry IV sacrificed religious unity to national unity. The court of Louis XIV set the political stage for the Philosophes and the French Enlightenment. This spiritual and intellectual revolution was accomplished before the political upheaval of the French Revolution.

The impact of Chinese thought, particularly that of Confucius, on the West was significant. The Jesuits at the court of Peking were accepted because of their mastery of Western technology. Building cannons, clocks, and technical instruments necessary for the keeping of the Chinese calendar, they had little effect spiritually on the Chinese people. But they baptized the Chinese as “children of Noah.” They adopted Chinese ways that resulted in the Rites controversy with the Dominicans and Franciscans. At issue were the accommodations of the Jesuits to ancestor worship and other Confucian rites. Jesuits were pro-assimilation as much as possible: in dress, language, and ritual.

Although the Jesuits lost several short-term battles, they seemed to have prevailed in Vatican II. “Going native” was once again looked up with greater favor.

The reports of the Jesuits were accepted by the philosopher Leibniz. He went so far as to say that “the condition of affairs among ourselves seems to me to be such that, in view of the inordinate lengths to which the corruption of morals have advanced, I almost think is necessary that Chinese missionaries should be sent to us to teach us the aim and practice of natural theology as we send missionaries to instruct them in revealed theology.”[3]

Voltaire would certainly have accepted the first half of Leibniz’s analysis, but not the second. Voltaire took from Confucius what he wanted in his fight against established religion. Voltaire stressed Confucius’ “pure morality,” his struggle against the hereditary nobility, and his defense of enlightened despotism.

The Chinese, in their turn, have always been ambivalent towards Confucius. The First Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, built the Great Wall and buried the terracotta soldiers in his tomb. On top of that, he allegedly killed between 460 and 1,160 scholars, a large part of whom were Confucian. He also burned the most important books that were not technical or agricultural. He kept one copy of each, but unfortunately his library burned.

The Han Dynasty restored Confucius as its preeminent model for statesmanship, and he has remained central to Chinese culture ever since, at least until the beginning of the twentieth century.

The movements of China in the early part of the twentieth century tracked the development of secularism and socialism in the French experience. The movement from the Philosophes and Rousseau (in their different ways) to the French Revolution prepared the ground for secularism, nationalism, and socialism.

Nationalism in China during the period 1910-1925 was also connected very strongly with both anti-Confucian and anti-Christian passions. According to Dawson, “In China, on the other hand, the great tradition of Confucian education was still dominant in the nineteenth century, but it was the most formidable obstacle to the new ideas and therefore has been treated by the reformers as a reactionary force.”[4]

K.M. Panikkar captures this mood of revolt:

The rising tide of nationalism was unfavorable to Christianity, and the New Tide which expressed the spirit of young China had a basically anti-religious attitude…. The intellectual leaders of the May 4th movement were all of them skeptics, and to them Christianity was but another manifestation of superstition, this time under a foreign garb. The Young China Association, founded in Peking in 1920 under the leadership of men who were to become famous later, limited its membership to young men who declared solemnly that they have no religion.[5]

What was the upshot of all this spirit of revolt? According to Dawson, “the shibboleths of Western democracy took the place of the maxims of Confucius.”[6] In spite of the hopes of the May Fourth (1919) movement and the Communist sympathizers in the 1940s, China has never been terribly close to “liberal democracy.”

Unfortunately, the shibboleths of democracy took on a more sinister demeanor when the communists and fellow travelers in the U.S. military and State Department decided that Mao Tse-tung was really a democratic reformer.

It is noteworthy that the current protesters in Hong Kong still are stuck on “the shibboleths of democracy.”

The attacks on Confucius and the tradition of the Chinese gentlemen continued throughout Mao’s bloodthirsty tyranny. Even as late as 1973, Confucius was conflated with Lin Biao as fellow reactionaries. In the view of the French leftist, Roland Barthes, “its very name—Pilon-Pikong in Chinese—has the joyful tinkle of a sleigh-bell, and the campaign comprises made-up games: a caricature, a poem, a children’s sketch during which, suddenly, a little girl in make-up assails the ghost of Lin Biao between two ballet dances: the political Text (and it alone) gives rise to these little ‘happenings.’”[7]

There is an apocryphal story of a conversation between Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai (not Mao Tse-Tung as it is sometimes related). When Zhou was asked about the impact of the French Revolution, he answered it “was too early to tell.” It appears that he misunderstood the question to mean the student riots of 1968, not the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Although the ideas of 1968 are very similar to the ideas of 1789 or 1793, there is a deeper similarity between the totalitarian urge in France and China.

Both the French revolutionaries and the Chinese revolutionaries desired a total break with the past. Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of the inspiration for the French Revolution could equally describe the murderous regimes of Communist China under Mao Tse-tung:

No nation has ever before embarked on so resolute an attempt as that of the French in 1789 to break with the past, to make, as it were, a scission in their life line and to create an unbridgeable gulf between all they had hitherto been and all they now aspired to be. With this in mind they took a host of precautions so as to make sure of importing nothing from the past into the new regime, and saddled themselves with all sorts of restrictions in order to differentiate themselves in every possible way from the previous generation; in a word, they spared no pains in their endeavor to obliterate their former selves.[8]

It is ironical that the modern nation which best exemplified the murderous quality of this assault on the past was Mao Tse-tung’s China. He carried out “to the end” those ideas started in earlier secular movements to overthrow the Manchu Qing dynasty.

The fact that Tocqueville’s book is recommended by top communists such as Wang Qishan in the current regime sparks curiosity. Wang Qishan is the head of the Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection, and his favorite television show is the Machiavellian American TV series, “House of Cards” with Kevin Spacey. Wang is the leader of the “reform” movement to uproot corruption.

Do they want reform and not revolution? Is there a possibility of repairing the total break with the past? Are the attempts to root out “corruption” recognition of the similarities between the Ancien Régime and current Chinese conditions?

Dawson has pointed out that the agents of secularization preceded the economic revolution:

In Germany and throughout Eastern Europe, as well as in Italy and Spain, the agents of change were not the new capitalist bourgeoisie but the old professional middle class, the men of letters and the professors, the lawyers and the government officials. Even in France, where economic conditions were more advanced, the capitalists who played a part in the Enlightenment were not the industrial capitalists but chiefly the ‘Farmers General’ and the government contractors who represented a tradition as ancient as the publican of the Roman Republic.[9]

Both France and China today are suffering from what can be loosely called “crony capitalism.” China’s capitalism is, at best, State capitalism where the newly-made-rich prosper from favoritism, bribes, and restrictions on economic activity.

Similarly is the current Plenum conference on the “rule of law” really a turn to Western conceptions of the rule of law or simply a reassertion of the ancient Chinese tradition of legalism, rule by law? The harsh rule of despots was the fourth alternative vision of ordering society presented by earlier Chinese civilization to Confucianism, Taoism, and, later, Buddhism.

Confucius may be making a comeback in China as well as in other parts of East Asia and particularly the well-ordered world of Singapore. When I watched the opening ceremony of the Chinese Olympics in 1998, I was intrigued by the favorable treatment of Confucius. However, it is not a good sign that the worldwide established Confucius Institutes, funded by billions of dollars of Communist Chinese money, are established in 100 American universities. The University of Chicago finally recognized these for the propaganda machines that they are and terminated them.

Although the Reign of Terror in France lasted only a couple of years, in Communist China it persisted for close to thirty years. Pol Pot’s terror in Cambodia was closer to the French timeline of three years.

Perhaps China is facing the same gloomy choices that Dawson saw for the “prospects of Western culture.” He claimed:

It is impossible to go any further on the road of revolution and secularism which has been followed for so long, for this road has reached its ultimate conclusion. Only two alternatives remain. We can either remain in the half-way house of liberal democracy, striving desperately to maintain the higher standards of economic life which are the main justification of our secularized culture; or we can return to the tradition on which Europe was founded and set about the immense task of the restoration of Christian culture.[10]

It would be easy to reformulate this option for the Chinese: Either we remain in the half-way house of market reforms without effective private property; or we can return to the tradition of Confucius on which China was founded and set about the immense task of the restoration of Chinese culture.

Christopher Dawson promoted an alternative, if tentative, vision that Christianity could make a comeback as the source of spiritual renewal for desiccated Eastern cultures. The worldwide culture that has come into being is mainly the result of the intelligentsia in these countries—a very thin crust not reflective of the underlying spiritual realities of the indigenous peoples.

Contemporary Europe’s position is “more like that of the Christians under the Roman Empire, when the Church had on the one hand to convert the pagan masses in the great Mediterranean cities, Antioch and Ephesus and Rome, and at the same time to defend its bare right to exist against the crushing weight of an all-powerful world state which recognized no limit to its authority.”[11]

Later at the end of his chapter on “Christianity and the Oriental Cultures,” he issues the challenge: “Is it not possible that the same thing will happen in modern Asia: that the key points of oriental Christianity will be found in the great urban centres like Calcutta and Bombay, Tokyo, Shanghai, Canton, Singapore—that the new Churches will find their future leaders in the same urban cosmopolitan classes from which the leaders of the primitive Church were drawn? The soil must be broken—the plough and the harrow must do their work before the seed can produce a good harvest. But this is the age of the plough and the harrow, not the time of the harvest.”[12]

If we take Dawson seriously, then we should start reading Piers Plowman.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Christopher Dawson, Christianity in East & West (La Salle: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1981). This edition contains what was originally published in 1959 as Movement of World Revolution plus three additional chapters.

[2] “Foreword to the Second Edition of The Political Religions,” Collected Works, Volume 33, The Drama of Humanity and Other Miscellaneous Papers, 1939-1985, (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004), pp. 22-23. Note that Voegelin stresses “the world” and not just the Western world.

[3] Quoted in K.M. Panikkar, Asia and Western Dominance (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd, 1953), p. 473. Liebniz’ views are echoed in T.R. Reid’s recent book, Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West, 1999. For more on Leibniz, “Leibniz on China, from the Preface to the Novissima Sinica (1697/1699).”

[4] Dawson, op. cit., p. 45.

[5] Panikkar, op. cit., p. 450.

[6] Dawson, op. cit., p. 19.

[7] Quoted in Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays.

[8]Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Régime and the French Revolution, (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955), p. vii.

[9] Dawson, op. cit., p. 86.

[10] Dawson, op. cit., p. 87.

[11] Dawson, op. cit., p. 88.

[12] Dawson, op. cit., p. 207.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email