Christopher Dawson believed that history, far from being cyclical, was instead a particular manifestation of God’s will, and thus was “moving towards a great consummation, the revelation of the power and glory of Yahweh through his servant Israel”…
As noted in previous essays in this series, Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), one of the greatest of the unsung heroes of Christianity in the twentieth century, worried incessantly and critically about the rise of “progressive” thought in world history. As Dawson noted, time and time again, no one in the ancient or medieval Western worlds (or elsewhere, for that matter) considered history to be progressive. Instead, most who thought about history at all—East and West—thought of it as cyclical: A thing began, it aged, it died, and the cycle began all over again. A person came into the world, survived into middle age, became bodily corrupt, and died. Yet, humanity as a whole continued, even when the individual did not. The same was true of the seasons. Spring, then summer, then autumn, then winter. And, yet, out of this cycle, no fifth thing arose. Instead, the cycle began again, and spring followed winter. Always, and without exception. Cycles became critical elements to all first ethical, moral, and philosophical understandings of the world, whether in Miletus, India, or China. The idea of cycle, Dawson explained,
was the common possession of all great civilizations of the ancient world, and it is probable that the whole system springs from a common origin in Mesopotamia, where astronomy and astrology reached a high pitch of development during the Neo-Babylonian period. In addition to Babylonia, we find it in Syria and Persia and India, and even as far East as China, where it has remained current down to the present day. Indeed, the Chinese astrologers surpass the Greeks in the exactitude with which they have calculated every phase of the cosmic cycle.
One readily sees the Hellenic frustration and fear of the trap in the myths as well as in the beginnings of philosophy. Are we, the Ionians wondered in 510 BC, fire, water, earth, or air? And, why did the One (the fire, the earth, the water, or the air) become many, and how do we return to the One? Rarely did the Greeks consider transcending these cycles, only surviving them.
The road up and the road down are one and the same, recorded Heraclitus in his Fragments. Ultimately, there is no escape, and we must accept that which is as truth, inalterable and whole, even if only understood poorly.
Such an inheritance, the great T.S. Eliot reminded us, leads us no where.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
Of all ancient peoples, only the ancient Hebrews began to think of some element that might allow a person, a community, or an idea to escape the confines and cycles of this world. Beginning with the fifteenth verse of the second chapter of Genesis, an “escape clause” slowly emerged in the Old Testament. Dawson went so far as to credit the Jewish prophets with introducing a “modern” version of history, questioning if not destroying the notion of cycles. “While the philosophers of India and Greece were meditating on the illusoriness or the eternity of the cosmic process, the Prophets of Israel were affirming the moral government of the universe and interpreting the passing events of their age as the manifestation of a divine purpose.” Far from being cyclical, history was a particular manifestation of God’s will, and, thus, “moving towards a great consummation, the revelation of the power and glory of Yahweh through his servant Israel.”
Being equally Hellenistic as well as Hebraic, Christianity needed to know, with some certainty, exactly what was the “fullness of time.” Not surprisingly—especially given that he was a Roman citizen, an educated Greek, and a religious Jew—St. Paul first understood the real meaning of history. Christ, not Israel, would be God’s truest manifestation, the Greek Logos made flesh. As Paul recorded, Jesus is the “first born over all creation, for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him, all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers—all things were created through him and for him.” In language similar to that employed by St. John the Beloved nearly forty years after Paul wrote to the Christian Colossians, Paul continued: Jesus “himself is before all things and all things are held together in Him. He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things.” It must be noted and stressed repeatedly that in this one passage, St. Paul answered every single Greek question and longing regarding the role of time and history. As noted above, those longings and questions were shared by all the other major civilizations of the world as well. Further, Paul concluded, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son and through him to reconcile all things to himself by making peace through the blood of the cross, through him, whether things on earth or things in heaven.”
That is, the answer to the place of the person, the community, or the idea in history is not one of being trapped, unless trapped by one’s own choice and ego, by one’s own pride and hubris. Instead, through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and the Grace freely given by His love, men can reach heaven and communities can be sanctified and ideas can further love. After all, as John the Beloved well knew, the Light of the Logos is that which lightens EVERY man. In John’s writings, there are no exceptions and no caveats, and Christ’s grace is not limited by time or space. The Logos redeems all time, not just the time to come. Coming from outside of time itself (and, indeed, being its author), the Logos works through all of time, past, present, and future, both sanctifying it, transcending it, and intertwining with it.
The next time someone suggests that Christianity is contrary to reason or philosophy or intellect, feel free to scratch your head in pity for that person. Then, of course, say a prayer that that person too accepts the light of the Love of Christ. Otherwise, they might well be trapped in the cycles of their own imaginings.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photo taken by Andrew Seaman, courtesy of Unsplash.