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Europe, Christianity, and the Thought of Christopher Dawson (Part 1)

Gerald Russello on How the Historian Might View Constitutional "Blindness"

NEW YORK, SEPT. 15, 2003 ( A European Constitution that lacks any reference to the continent's Christian roots would be a sign of a dangerous historical blindness, warns a devotee of Catholic historian Christopher Dawson.

Dawson (1889-1970), an Englishman who strongly believed in the importance of religion's influence on society, wrote in 1938: "A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture."

Here, the editor of "Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson" (CUA Press), Gerald Russello, shared his ideas on the modern importance of Dawson's thought. Russello is an attorney in New York.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Tuesday.

Q: What is the relevance of the thought of Christopher Dawson today?

Russello: Christopher Dawson remains the most important Catholic historian of the 20th century. The contemporary value of his work is in his recognition of the abiding importance and influence of religious belief, and its enduring ability to shape culture.

In books such as "Progress and Religion" [1929], Dawson demonstrated that materialist or environmental explanations of religious belief did not accord with the evidence. As he wrote in 1925, "Modern writers on anthropology and primitive thought have tended to assume that religion is a secondary phenomenon and that man's earliest attitude to reality was a kind of empirical materialism."

A growing body of sociological evidence confirms the relationship Dawson saw between religion, culture and the health of a society. Current events in the Middle East and around the world further testify to Dawson's central insight that religious belief is essential to understanding culture.

Therefore, Dawson speaks to us not only as a world historian -- who had great respect for the religious and philosophical traditions of medieval Islam, China and the great Hindu epics -- but in particular as a scholar of Christendom. Through books such as "The Making of Europe" [1932] and "Religion and the Rise of Western Culture" [1950], Dawson inaugurated a fresh way of understanding Christian culture.

Christian culture is a spiritual society as much as a political one, and modern Europe's neglect of its religious past was a call to investigate further the true sources of European unity and achievements.

Dawson's writing combined deep knowledge and scholarship with a broader vision, which even non-Catholics came to appreciate. It was these qualities that caused T.S. Eliot to call him one of the most influential writers in England.

Q: Dawson wrote that the passing of a religion is not a sign of progress but a token of social decay. Is the absence of Christianity in the draft of the European Constitution evidence of that decay?

Russello: The absence of references to Christianity from the European Constitution is a matter of great concern. That Christianity shaped Europe more than any other set of practices or beliefs is a simple fact of history. It is everywhere evidenced in the traditions, art, modes of thought and languages of Europe.

Indeed, by its very interest in maintaining political unity and its concern for individual rights, the European Constitution bears at least an indirect relationship to the Christian foundations of Europe. Any attempt to deny this historical and continuing relationship presents the history of Europe in a misleading way, which can only harm the chances for real and lasting unity.

For Dawson, the history of Europe is incomprehensible without understanding the role Christianity has played in creating it -- just as understanding Islam is crucial to understanding the history of Muslim nations. In that light, the reluctance to acknowledge Christianity's influence is a sign of a dangerous historical blindness.

Q: According to Dawson, what is the historical basis of European unity?

Russello: The historical basis of European unity is Christianity and the forms it took throughout Europe, in institutions such as the monastic orders, the tradition of chivalry, the cult of the saints and martyrs, and above all the international structure of the Catholic Church.

Unlike other great cultures, Europe was a "society of peoples," split geographically, ethnically and linguistically. This caused a juxtaposition of practices and ideas that propelled Europe to world power, but it was not sufficient to create a Western "culture."

That was provided by Christianity, which, Dawson stressed, was in its teachings "neither Eastern nor Western but universal." Because Christianity was not native to Europe, it was able to exist separately from individual European people even as it molded European culture as a whole.

Christianity provides a spiritual unity to Europe but not primarily a political one. Its great political contribution was its contention that Christians belonged not only to a temporal society, but were also citizens of an eternal society. The dual citizenship of the Christian had dramatic political effects that remain important to this day in the political self-conception of the West and its preservation of freedom.

Indeed, it is the failure to recognize the Christian roots of this freedom that has rendered the West vulnerable to those who would destroy it. The West carved out a political sphere that was able to remain connected with the religious basis for Western culture, yet was still able to govern its own affairs.

The existence of an autonomous spiritual realm, however, also protected individuals from being considered as mere pawns by the state. The combination proved extremely successful in political, economic and religious terms.

Dawson hoped to see a supranational entity created that would embrace Europe's tradition of regional autonomy as well as its overarching spiritual unity and respect for the inviolable spiritual nature of the human person.

[On Tuesday: The Church and ecumenism]


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