Progress and Religion

By Christopher Dawson, 1929

Arnold Toynbee is generally regarded as the English-speaking world’s answer to Oswald Spengler, the great interpreter of the rise and fall of cultures, but Christopher Dawson deserves this regard far more.  Like Spengler and Voegelin, his work combines disciplines from theology to literature to history; indeed, he is unique among the great meta-historians in that he seriously engages the results of sociology and anthropology regarding primitive peoples.  He also has the virtue of conciseness:  this book is under two hundred pages, with the latter half of it giving the best short history of mankind that I’ve yet encountered.

Meta-historians like Spengler and Dawson concern themselves mainly with two questions.  First, what quality or qualities sets one culture apart from another?  Second, what drives the evolution of a culture:  its growth, decline, etc?  To the first question, Dawson answers that a culture is a combination of two elements.  The first is the material base:  how do people extract their livelihood from nature?  This is informed by geography and technology, and it includes the basic social structures (e.g. family, property) associated with this extraction.  Dawson here bases himself on the work of Frederic Le Play.  The maintenance of this basis is crucial for a culture’s spiritual vitality, because it is that culture’s direct contact with nature.  So, for example, he claims that the Hellenic culture was based on a wide class of free-holding farmers, and this culture was ruined by over-urbanization and slave-driven commercial agriculture.  The second element defining a culture is religion.  Religion is not a mere epiphenomenal superstructure determined by the base; it is based—even among the most primitive peoples—on a profound metaphysical intuition of pure being.  Anticipating Voegelin, Dawson claims that the progress of human thought has been in the clarification of this intuition.  A culture is a unique combination of these two elements:  change either one and you will have a different (or dead) culture.  The two are united in a way analogous to body and soul; like body and soul they interpenetrate to form one substance.  Religion can act on the material base, while this base provides the contact between people and nature on which the religious sense depends.

Change can be driven by an alteration of either element, but for Dawson religion is by far the more dynamic of the two.  He regards most human progress to be driven by advances in religion.  First, there was the transformation from shamanism to organized priesthood; this drove the development of the first archaic civilizations (Sumer, Egypt, etc).  These were city theocracies, based on the idea of a sacred order immanent in the universe which governs both the motion of the heavens and the behavior of men.  These civilizations were disrupted by a series of barbarian invasions, after which it became difficult to identify the current society with the sacred order.  So this order was reconceived—its moral element became paramount, and it came to be seen as transcendent rather than immanent.  This was the Axial Age, later to be described more famously but with less insight by Jaspers, and it included the great spiritual movements of Confucianism, the Upanishads, Taoism, Buddhism, and Greek philosophy.  The new movements tended to deflect attention away from the physical world and towards contemplation of the Absolute.  The exception was the Hebrews, for whom salvation was tied up to historical events and to the fate of a particular people.  Christianity, through the idea of the Incarnation, carried forward this idea of divine manifestation through the physical and the particular.  Western Christendom was distinct from other cultures in that the religion didn’t grow up with the other elements of the culture’s social structure, but came to them as an outside transforming source.  It was a civilization held together by the Church, rather than by a political structure.  This worked largely because secular culture and authorities were too weak to assert their independence.  When they became stronger, they did so, and the Renaissance and the Reformation were the forms of southern and northern cultural self-assertion, respectively.  The loss of religious unity led to Christianity being replaced by the liberal/humanitarian religion of progress.  This religion is now undergoing a crisis, mostly because it based its claims on the authority of science, which was supposed to answer men’s age-old religious questions and provide a justification for faith in future progress.  The trouble is, science can do neither of these things if it is to remain true to itself.  Nor does history, which records both rises and falls, provide justification for the progressive faith.

According to Dawson, the current situation cannot be maintained, because culture lacks a unifying religious vision, which all stable cultures must have.  He thinks that Europe’s future depends on a return to the historical Christian faith, which preserves (and, indeed, is the ultimate source of) the attractive features of the progressive faith, while providing the metaphysical and historical foundations that progressivism lacks.

It should be taken as a tribute to this book that my main complaint is that it wasn’t longer.  Many interesting statements call for further explanation or defense.  I regret that Islam is hardly mentioned, and Dawson shows here little of the appreciation for the achievements of Byzantine culture which he was later to acquire.  Then there is my feeling that belief in “progress” is too silly a faith to serve as the starting point of a book this serious.  Dawson thinks that progressivism is the faith that drives peoples’ quasi-religious devotion to liberal humanitarianism and socialism.  Whether or not this is true, I’m glad that Dawson didn’t confine himself to this issue, but went on to engage the great spiritual movements that have driven the human race.

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