by David Pence
These essays written separately for periodicals by Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) were published as a book in 1959. Three of the most penetrating essays were published a couple years earlier as a separate book: The Revolt in Asia. Bringing these essays together in this CUA publication allows us to consider with Dawson that "world history as it is understood today is an entirely new subject." He starts the opening essay ('The Relevance of European History') with an acknowledgement that "if we wish to study world history we must pay as much attention to China and India and Islam, not to mention Indonesia and Africa, as to Europe." Just as quickly he objects to a view that European history is hopelessly parochial and "ethnocentric." He does not agree with the historian who thought the victory of the Russians at Stalingrad had made all European history a "thicket of dead ends offering no line of advance." The good Marxist demanded instead a "history that is truly universal, that looks beyond Europe and the West to humanity in all ages and times." Dawson answered not to "kick away the ladder of European historiography. Only by a return to European history is that long-held dream of a universal history possible."
He further explained: "For the last thousand years four civilizations have had different views of what shapes world history: China, India, Islam, and Europe (or rather Christendom because the division of western civilization and its great eastern neighbors has always been religious, not geographic). These four civilizations are not themselves worldwide but live amidst humanity as islands in an ocean of darkness."
Dawson does agree that students of Europe spend too much time on intramurals without attending to the epoch-changing ability of European culture to "break down the isolation of the ancient civilizations and bring the unknown outer world into the light of history." Three actions -- the Europeanization of Russia, the establishment of an autonomous western civilization in North America, and the conquest of India -- "penetrated the hearts of the American and Asian continents... with the influence of European culture." These actions rested on another triad of European achievements: the seagoing talents and discoveries of Portuguese and Spanish sailors, the rise of the sciences, and the development of technology. None of these, though, is the "Revolution" spoken of in the title.
Any revolution to Dawson must be about social organization based on the structure of fundamental loyalties. In the Reformation and the Renaissance he explains the setting of the stage for the rending of Christian Europe. A northern Protestant covenantal Old Testament character as "hard as iron and irresistible as a steam hammer would be the spiritual power behind the new economic order." A southern Catholic mixture of humanism, drama, and baroque art in popular culture with the intellectual Thomistic synthesis would set two highly "different and irreconcilable" religious cultures against each other. The revolution ('Rationalism and Revolution') occurred when two opposing forms of Christianity bloodied the public square so severely that the secularization of Europe became the unintended consequence of two deeply religious movements. Brad Gregory's book of that phrase ponders this seminal question, as does Dawson who places the priming locus of this peculiar development in the France of Henry IV and Cardinal Richelieu. Interestingly, the historian James Hitchcock answered that the most surprising thing he learned in writing his one-volume history of the Catholic Church was "the role of the Jansenists in pre-revolutionary France" fomenting the secular revolution. (Here is a laudatory take on Richelieu and his role in establishing the nation of France).
|Richelieu (d. 1642)|
The nation-state became the instrument of secularization and is criticized by Dawson for organizing all loyalties in subservience to it. However, it would be a fatal error to think the atheistic anti-nationalist sentiments of the European Union are spoken in the same voice as Dawson speaks. One must follow Dawson into the five chapters that comprise the second half of his book, Asia and the West. Here he comes to the same conclusion that Henry Kissinger has been emphasizing since he wrote his 2011 book on China. The fundamental form of polity in the East is the nation-state.
Dawson is incisive in his analysis of this phenomenon ('The Rise of Oriental Nationalism') and, like Kissinger, understands its profound significance. Unfortunately many of Dawson's greatest admirers seem uninterested in such real political-military forms, which make up the historical world of politics and religion. Dawson explains the fall of the Oriental Empires and the schizophrenia of anti-colonialist movements championed by such obvious Western offspring as Marxist political parties. He sees many benefits of oriental nationalism as "an educational movement," and as the vehicle for the "emergence of a state of political consciousness, self determination, and full citizenship... It was the nationalists who destroyed the Caliphate and the Chinese monarchy." He quotes President Sukarno of Indonesia: "For us, nationalism is everything. Though nationalism in the West may be out of date for many, for us in Asia and Africa it is the mainspring of our efforts." The nation was the most effective form to live out the fraternity of citizenship for many indigenous Christians, such as Sun Yat-sen -- the father of Chinese nationalism. The Catholic personalism and nationalist history of Vietnamese Catholics like Ngo Diem, his brother Ngo Nhu, and father Ngo Kha, confirms and deepens the broader truth Dawson points to in this chapter. At the same time, Dawson warned there were other opposition nationalist parties that were neither secularist nor occidental nor open to Christianity. In India there was the Mahasabha, representing orthodox Hinduism; in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood; and in Pakistan, the Islamic Party opposing Ataturk. All three of these countries since Dawson's warning have been ruled by governments representing more indigenous and religious-based forms of nationalism. These trenchant chapters of analysis must be especially responded to by men who wish to continue Dawson's project, not simply admire his legacy.
The re-publication of Christopher Dawson's works has come at a pivotal time in the Catholic Church's life amidst the nations. French political philosopher Pierre Manent asks if the nation is still the proper political form. America's premier Catholic political intellectual, Russell Hittinger, argues that Catholic tradition has been sparse and vague in understanding the polity as a corporate body with its own common good. He argues that while papal teachings have warned the state not to tinker with the sacral institutions of marriage and the Church, there is no recent vigorous defense of the polity as a corporate body with a common good of its own. At Vatican I (1869-70), the Church relinquished the sword of the state. But the nation-state is alive and well and holds its proper sword for better or worse. Enemies of the Church, the nation, and marriage roam about the world seeking the ruin of all three institutions. Where is the sword of spirit that shall fight them?
Christopher Dawson should not be recruited too glibly against the nation. His work on the oriental nations is about the real political bodies in which men live and love. Dawson has a big enough spiritual framework that he does not cringe in facing the nation-state, for he has seen it do both good and bad. In a practical tone he reminds us, "The work of penetration has already been done by the secular forces that created the new Oriental nationalism. New experiments and new techniques can best be dealt with, I believe, on a national rather than cultural basis. It is now a matter of making an approach to each nation individually." While he approaches the nations as nations, he approaches them as if he has something more to give their union. "Religion is essential to humanity and can not be banished from this world. " It is precisely Christianity, he says, that "has a universal spiritual mission. We are not just one religion among many."
He sees the development of national forms in the East no longer based on Indian caste or Chinese exclusivism as an opportunity. The movement of world revolution has constructed a certain stage and nations are full-throated actors upon it. But entering, also, is a resurgent universal spiritual institution -- the Catholic Church calling herself the "light to the nations." The globalization of the central form of Biblical polity -- the nation-state -- has arrived just as the Church gains her equilibrium from the Second Vatican Council called to address the world in a more forthright biblical idiom.
The caliphates, European atheists, and Marxists blame the nation for many sins and argue for its extinction. Many bishops and Anabaptists join in their cry. There are none who champion the nation in its naked form. As Dawson said ('The Rise of Oriental Nationalism'): "As a means of evoking common loyalty and common action within a single society, there is no denying the value and efficiency of nationalism. But as the ultimate principle of human action, it is morally inadequate and socially destructive. Left to itself it becomes mass egotism and self-idolatry which is the enemy of God and man. All the great civilizations admit the existence of a higher law above that of tribe or nation. There is a consensus of principle that unites all the world religions and all the great civilizations of the past alike in the East and the West. All agree that the social order does not exist merely to serve men's interests and passions. It is the expression of a sacred order by which human action is conformed to the order of heaven and the eternal law of divine justice."
In this dangerous world, it is necessary that free men forge the fraternal military bonds of the nation, but they must be cast in a spiritual crucible. Christopher Dawson believed in Divine Providence. He had an unshakable confidence in the cultural primacy of religion. He suggested that nations are the forms we should approach in making spiritual bonds with Adam's sons in the East. Let us abide his prudence... and let us obey our Lord who did not command us to bury the nations, but to baptize them.