History Within Culture – Part III

As, I said earlier this is a rather lengthy essay. The essay in question is “Why We Need Christopher Dawson,” written by Glenn W. Olsen in the Spring 2008 issue of Communio. So far in this series of posts, I have related Olsen’s treatment of Dawson’s approach to history, as opposed to the more generally held view of historical “time periods.” (See Part I and Part II). Now we move on to Olsen’s response to one of Dawson’s Catholic critics, Robert A. Markus. This section of Olsen’s essay will also serve as a useful critique of the usual over-simplifications of Church history, especially as it pertains to the middle ages and the “pre-Vatican II Church.” It would seem Markus is guilty of this tendency to over-simplify in order to fit a preferred narrative of history. As Olsen’s response to Markus is a bit long, I will do my best to edit appropriately in order to present only the most pertinent excerpts. But I fear this post will still be longer than I would like. Nonetheless, what Olsen has to say on this matter is very much worth reading.

Glenn W. Olsen, from “Why We Need Christopher Dawson” (Communio, Spring 2008):

Dawson has been criticized by Catholics such as the patristics specialist Robert A. Markus, who desires a radical critique of society by Christianity, for laying “much stress on the Church’s role in creating a ‘Western Civilization,'” and in this failing “to see the cost to the Church in becoming thus identified  with a culture largely of its own making.”…

… Nevertheless, Markus’ idea that Dawson failed “to see the cost to the Church in becoming… identified with a culture largely of its own making” seems to embody multiple misunderstandings or misreadings of Dawson.

First… “Western Civilization” was not then the traditional expression, but it became to be a phrase increasingly used after the War, in part to define the “Western” values under attack as the Cold War commenced…

At first sight, the point Olsen makes above seems to be a vague one, but it will make more sense in the light of what follows.

Second, whatever could be called “Western Civilization” in Dawson’s vision, he himself never thought of it as something largely of the Church’s making. His repeated emphasis, as we saw above, was on the plurality that had made the West: Judaism, Greek learning, Roman ideals of government and law, Christianity, and the Celtic and Germanic cultures of the North. Of these Christianity was very important, but Dawson did not have the rationalist and mono-causal view not uncommon among historians which sees some person or institution (but not God) as “making cultures.” That is, he was not in the habit of seeing anything so complicated as “Western Civilization” as “largely” of anyone’s own making.

Third, Dawson did not exactly hold that the Church (simply) identified with the cultures it help make. Certainly he understood that it sometimes did this, though arguably more in the modern period than the earlier… Especially in the early middle ages, the Church often assumed the posture of a teacher, teaching both Christian and Roman ways to barbarian peoples; but it also often criticized these same “students.” There are few periods where in which the Church has not engaged in cultural criticism, and Dawson’s books relate much of this. He repeatedly shows the Church criticizing cultural developments it had had a hand in…

Fourth, I would have thought that Dawson’s portrayal of things like the Reformation and the dividing of Christendom thereafter are testimony to his lively sense of the tragic in history, of how one does not necessarily reap what one sows, or more likely that one both does and does not reap. The dividing of Christendom is an example of the fact that often in history problems emerge beyond anyone’s solution. Dawson’s treatment of the earlier Gregorian Reform of the eleventh century certainly embodied a sympathy for the radical critique of traditional Germano-Christian society into which the Gregorians entered, their insistence that the Church should be free from lay and royal control. We might say in this regard that, to the degree in which he shows the Church identifying with various cultural phenomena, Dawson very clearly saw the cost of these identification and of the Church’s various “triumphs,” limited and passing as they might have been…

In sum, Markus seems to assume especially an early medieval Church and papacy more in control of European development and more triumphant than it ever was, and this becomes the basis for his not particularly accurate description of Dawson. Markus seems to be unaware of much recent scholarship on the early middle ages which stresses how much human experience varied across the continent, and how diverse Europe was…

Markus tends to view the period of Constantinian settlement and the middle ages – in some ways all Church history until Vatican II – as a time of the triumph of a Church led by a strong papacy. This undifferentiated view, not unlike that of those today who view Jewish history always with an eye to the Holocaust, is fundamentally misleading in being teleologically driven by a fixed idea that radically underestimates the resistance through the centuries of all kinds of social structures to “manipulation from above,” and then blames the papacy for all its failures to criticize radically such things as the presence of slavery in Christian society… In the case of Christian history, no one particular person or institution is responsible for the deeds of “Western Christendom,” good or bad. Markus is absolutely right that the papacy has a special responsibility to engage in social criticism, but it takes hardly any knowledge of Church history to see that it very frequently fulfilled this responsibility, just as it has frequently failed to extirpate this or that evil from society.

It is rather odd for Markus to write that “Late Antique Christianity had no legacy of reforming ideas to bequeath to a Church confident in its ability to mould secular society to serve it needs and purposes.” There is a sense in which such a statement can be justified, if it means that the elaborate reform terminology and ideas of Augustine, centered on the idea of reformatio in melius (“reform to the better”) as delineated by Gerhard Ladner, was lost in the early middle ages. But the Carolingian period of the late eighth and ninth century was in fact full of a language of reform, now under the heading of correctio, used to promote all kinds of educational, legal, moral, and liturgical reforms. Dawson details a good bit of this… For Markus to write, “[t]he emergence of an increasingly centralized ecclesiastical structure dominated by the Roman see deprived the Church of an element of an internal self-criticism that had been encouraged under its earlier condition” seriously fails to convey a sense of the weakness of the papacy both before and after the time of Gregory VII (1073-85), and the degree to which reformers like Alcuin, and later such reformers as the founders of Cluny, depended on what support the papacy could supply, even if largely moral. Dawson was in fact much more clear about such things than a critic such as Markus. It is almost bizarre for Markus to write that, in the early middle ages after the time of the rise of Islam in the seventh century, “The Western Church was deeply marred… by its triumph.” This was a time when no European government, including the papacy, functioned very efficiently. Markus perhaps reveals his own agenda – and certainly his deeply flawed notion of an unchanging triumphant papacy – in the further comment that “The marks of triumph became permanent features of its entire future until the 1960s.” That is, according to him pre-Vatican II history was of a piece until finally the Church was liberated from its monochromatic past by Vatican II. Dawson never descended to such simplicities.

And there you have it. As Olsen says in the ensuing paragraph, “[s]o much for one recent critic of Dawson’s allegedly triumphalistic notion of Christian culture.” By the way, if Markus writes a response to Olsen, I would be very interested in seeing it.

In the next post in this series, we will begin to take a look at Olsen’s own critique of Dawson, focusing on Dawson’s thinking within Romantic categories and why that’s not such a bad thing.

3 Responses to “History Within Culture – Part III”


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  1. 1 History Within Culture - Part I « Reason in the Light of Faith Trackback on January 4, 2009 at 12:51 pm
  2. 2 History Within Culture - Part II « Reason in the Light of Faith Trackback on January 4, 2009 at 12:52 pm

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