Thursday, October 27, 2016

CHRISTIAN REALISM: Russell Hittinger on what Dawson would do

[first published April 7, 2016]

by Dr. David Pence

Professor Russell Hittinger writes at The Imaginative Conservative how Christopher Dawson would address the political confusion of our day. He begins by showing how Dawson, more than any other modern Christian thinker, has taken a historical Augustinian approach to explain Christian revelation.  He contrasts this with natural law, metaphysical and philosophical approaches to evangelization. He began by showing the historical approach as the most effective strategy of modern anti-Christians. This was the approach of the great historian of Rome, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). David Hume (1711-1776) was anti-Christian as well, but he was more a naturalist philosopher.

"David Hume, for example, understood very clearly that historical apologetics can prove to be a more effective weapon than ordinary philosophical discourse. Hume devoted much of his philosophical career to polemics against Christian natural theology—against the possibility of miracles, against the proofs for the existence of God, and against metaphysics in general. Yet, as he read the galleys of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall on his deathbed in 1776, Hume conceded that Gibbon would do more to undermine Christianity than would any of his own work. He saw that there is no better way to turn men’s minds against Christianity than to suggest that it has played either an insignificant or a harmful role in history and culture. Most men care little for metaphysical debate, but they are willing to entertain a new story."

Christian apologetics clung to the mighty guns of philosophical discourse with a few exceptions.

"Cardinal Newman, perhaps, was an exception; he understood that modern debate over religion had shifted from natural theology to historical claims and ideologies, and that with the secularization of Christianity history tends to replace metaphysics as the central paradigm.
Relatively few intellectuals appreciated the fact that "modernism" is something more than a set of heterodox philosophical or theological theses; that the real power of “modernism” consists in its invitation to take a novel view of history; and that it does not so much ask for a consent to carefully worked-out philosophical premises, but calls for a conversion of perspective. Liberation theology, for instance, need not attack directly the traditional (i.e., Augustinian and Thomistic) understanding of the nature of man and society; rather, it employs historical arguments which are intended to demonstrate the historical, cultural, and spiritual obsolescence of the tradition."

  ...there was one Catholic thinker who in this century made a significant contribution to answering the modernist historical polemic—Christopher Dawson. Although there is somewhat of a Dawsonian revival taking place in America these past few years, Dawson is not well-known; he certainly has never enjoyed the notoriety of Chesterton or Maritain.

Born on Columbus Day, 1889, at Hay in Wales, Christopher Dawson was educated at Winchester and at Trinity College, Oxford. After studying economics under Gustave Cassel in Sweden, Dawson returned to Oxford to do post-graduate work in history and sociology. He converted to Catholicism in 1914. His first major work, Progress and Religion (1929), involved “an historical enquiry into the causes and the development of the idea of progress and its relationship to religion.” Dawson’s subsequent work was devoted to two facets of this theme. First, he investigated the general problem of the relationship between religion and culture, focusing upon sociological laws of development. Second, he was interested in the specific relationship between the Christian religion and Western culture. Although Christopher Dawson was recognized by many as the pre-eminent Catholic historian of his time, it should be mentioned that his work was better received outside of Catholic schools. In 1947-1948, he was invited to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh. Then, in 1958, he became the first incumbent of the Stillman Chair of Catholic Studies at Harvard. He was regarded with some suspicion by Catholic educators because he emphasized the paramount importance of historical and cultural studies and warned that a myopic focus upon scholastic philosophy tended to reduce Christianity to a mere set of "ideational products" shorn of historical and cultural flesh. Dawson suggested that unless the curriculum in Catholic schools was expanded to include these other studies, students would be vulnerable to historical apologetics. In The Crisis of Western Education (1961), he outlined the problem and recommended ways to rectify it. Christopher Dawson was viewed as a dangerous innovator. Though, in retrospect, it is ironic that many of the Catholic educators who regarded him in this light in 1960 were later the ones who insisted upon jettisoning scholastic philosophy altogether from the curriculum, later Dawson was often viewed as dangerously "conservative." (How Dawson and other Catholic thinkers prior to Vatican II—like Maritain and Danielou—were "innovators" one year and "reactionaries" the next is a story still to be written.)"

Hittinger has shown how Dawson employed the Augustinian pattern of the Two Cities in explaining historical events and progress. This is the essential necessity for an accurate telling of European history and, indeed, world history. It is not the "West" that underlies the successes of Europe, but Christianity. Most narratives of the "Modern West" are attempts to give a materialist account of the world without the Second City that underlies the civic orders by providing a transcendent culture. Scientism, Marxism, and Social Darwinism were, to Dawson, all attempts to replace Christianity as an organizing synthetic force larger than nations. These failed ideologies have now been appropriated in different ways by nations of the East. Dawson rejected the idea that "Western history died at Stalingrad." Restoring the Christian roots of European historiography would provide the supranational spiritual backdrop needed to formulate a true world history of the nations in dynamic interplay with the City of God.

"It would be a mistake, [Dawson] warned, to “kick away the ladder” of European historiography because nearly the entire world now lives under the influence of European culture and its ideologies. If it is true, as Dawson contended, that these ideologies represent efforts to retain the unity of Christendom on secular terms, then it can be said that Europe has given to the world a broken image of its own Christendom. Europe’s own cultural and historical amnesia is an international problem. The ambition of Western intellectuals to use history, in the first place, to occlude the West’s dependence on its own religious heritage and, in the second place, to hide the fact that the extra-European world now lives under ideologies generated by the West’s own amnesia, is at the very nerve of the problem of world order.
The recovery, therefore, of a sense of Christendom is not some esoteric religious issue. The struggles of international order today are not essentially between Oriental and Occidental, or between First and Third Worlds, but between forces internal to Christendom itself. That two men from the East, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Karol Wojtyla, should grasp this reality more clearly than Western intellectuals would both please and distress Christopher Dawson."

The Hittinger article contains a much larger argument than our selections here.

In our series on Catholic Sociobiology, we highlight the work of Professor Hittinger in formulating a Christian understanding of the polity.

Here is Hittinger on St John XXIII and how the concepts of Order and Law inform his encyclical Pacem in Terris. 

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