Posts Tagged 'Communio'

Participation in the Eternal Law

How is the natural law linked to the eternal law of God? The latter is the source of the former. Read the previous post for some context pertaining to what follows.

The eternal law is identical with God’s creative wisdom and providential governance of the world, which are as radically interior to the world and everything in it as they are transcendent of that world. In this sense, then, everything in the world is an expression of God’s eternal law – his creative wisdom – and finds its true or complete identity only in that law and wisdom…

As Ratzinger points out, the consequence is that the world – created being – is saturated with divine reason, indeed is constituted by divine reason. According to this view, the world can never be understood as simply pre-rational (as not yet participating in, and embodying, logos) because its internal order shares in divine reason. Indeed, it is in itself an expression of divine reason.

The result is that the world is not simply matter with certain physical properties that confronts human reason as object. Rather, the world in all of its physicality is itself saturated with meaning for its highest fulfillment in specifically human being. When the mind engages being, in other words, it is engaging what is primordially rational.

— David S. Crawford, “Natural Law and the Body,” Communio XXXV (Fall 2008). Emphasis original.

“The world… is in itself an expression of divine reason.” “[T]he world in all of its physicality is itself saturated with meaning…” “When the mind engages being… it is engaging what is primordially rational.” Chew on that for a while.

Re-thinking Divine Reason

Here’s some food for thought, courtesy of the latest issue of Communio (XXXV, Fall 2008).

All that is exists because it was thought by God. Therefore all creation can be seen as ontologically bearing that mark of divine reason; all creation meaning what is material and what is immaterial (e.g. reason, intellect, nous, etc.). In the context of natural law and the phenomenon of conscience, man participates in the divine reason by way of the memory (anamnesis) implanted in him at his beginning. In this way when man thinks (as a created being), he re-thinks the divine reason of which he is a part.

It follows from this traditional view that that human thinking is the re-thinking of being itself. Man can re-think the logos, the meaning of being, because his own logos, his own reason, is logos in the one logos, thought of the original thought, of the creative spirit that permeates and governs his being.

— Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, quoted in the Communio XXXV essay by David S. Crawford entitled “Natural Law and the Body.”

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.

History Within Culture – Part II

christopher-dawsonIn Part I of this series, I mentioned Dawson’s view of history centered on culture versus the more prominent view of distinct time periods (ancient, medieval, modern) and the impact it has on how we view history. From what I gather reading Glenn W. Olsen’s essay, this is Dawson’s most enduring contribution to historical studies. In this post I will attempt to elaborate on Dawson’s overall view of history with respect to the way history is generally viewed. As is usual with my posts, I will let the author speak for himself, as I could and do not have anything to add. I should also mention that the author in this case is Glenn W. Olsen, not Christopher Dawson. Although, Olsen will serve as a useful introduction to the thought and enduring legacy of Dawson. That is, after all, the point of this series of posts.

So let’s get right to it. In the following passage, Olsen sets up for us the contrasting views of history (from “Why We Need Christopher Dawson”, Communio, Spring 2008):

One could argue that Dawson’s most memorable books are written in pursuit of the overarching shared vision of life of this or that society as it evolved over time, and then of the subcultures that composed each society, its doctors, warriors, or chiefs. The merit of this approach might be illustrated by comparing it with the outline of history still present, despite the inroads of subjects such as World History, in the curricula of most history departments in the United States. Typically, while denying they are Eurocentric, these divide the history of the world into three epochs derived from the periodization of European history: ancient, medieval, and modern, probably with some residue of the Petrarchan equation of ancient with “Golden Age,” medieval with “decline,” and modern with “return to or progress along the right path.” As a schema this does little more than replicate with a slight Western flavor what Mircea Eliade judged the most basic pattern of mythical thought across the world religions, the loss of a “once upon a time” (Eden) in a sad present (history), but with an Eden of possible recovery shining before us (utopia or, on a slightly less grand scale, a world made safe for democracy)…

This brings us to Dawson’s particular method, centering historical inquiry on the cultures in which the history takes place. Olsen continues:

Dawson consciously decided on “culture” as a better word than “civilization” to speak of his interests. “Civilization” as derived from civitas, had too urban and intellectual an association for him. If he was to talk globally about human communal life, a good deal of which had not centered on cities, the better word was “culture,” for, coming from cultus, this could designate any habit of being or shared pattern of life, urban, rural, nomadic, agricultural, familial, or monastic. It also suggested that life, like religio, is typically tied to the gods, that is, that human communities commonly are part of a larger community of God and man. That is why culture is embodied religion. Only those of us who have inherited the prolonged attempt of recent centuries to undo the ties between religion and culture, to separate God from man, to marginalize religion, cannot see this. Man’s usual situation for most of history has been within a religious community composed of gods and men.

That said, Dawson thought the best way to study any culture was over its life-cycle, from origin to maturity, the latter being the point at which its form was most realized (here he was closest to the Romantics), to decline and afterlife. Few cultures actually die, most pass on something of themselves after their moment of greatest flourishing to successors, and in a sense live to the present. Homer and Sophocles are still read today. Thus it makes little sense to speak of a Roman period simply succeeding a Greek period. Rather, after a kind of fulfillment in the so-called Classical period of the fifth century B.C., Greek culture continued to develop in the Hellenistic period and was central, for instance, to the articulation of Christian theology…

Though Dawson knew a great deal about and wrote about many of the cultures of the world, arguably he most fully illustrated his idea of the formation of culture in his studies on Christian culture. This he saw as foreshadowed by Israel, formed around the figure of Christ, and facilitated by the Roman Empire; then under the influence of Greek philosophy as passing into a kind of intellectual and spiritual maturation in the patristic period, followed by the bringing of entire peoples to Christianity in the middle ages, along with further cultural innovations, such as the chansons de geste, Gothic architecture and scholasticism. This culture, called Christendom by the time of Charlemagne, was divided in the sixteenth century and subsequently laid under siege, especially by modern nationalism, but again, in certain respects continues to the present.

So what difference does it make if we view history through the cultures in which the history is contained, or if we view history as a succession of time periods, ancient (“golden age”), medieval (“decline”), modern (“rebirth”)? Olsen elaborates:

In any case, Dawson propsed that, so far as the history of Christianity is concerned, our basic historical schema should be the stages of the development of Christian culture. This leads to a rethinking of still current assumptions about the relation between Christianity and Western history.

First of all, the so-called middle ages, viewed as a stage of the development of Christian culture, was not just a middle period between two times of high achievement, a period so lacking in distinctive characteristics that it was to be labeled “middle.” Rather, the medieval stage of the formation of Christian culture was to be seen as a time of the first great missionary expansion of Christianity, when, against great odds, whole peoples had been joined to Christendom and the Church had in fair measure communicated a sense of the faith. It was a time when the Christian literary and artistic imagination blossomed.

Moreover, the so-called Renaissance (if ever the characterization of a period has taken the part from the whole, it is in regard to the Renaissance), was not in general a time of de-Christianization, though that might, especially according to geography and social class, have been one’s experience. As such fine historians since Dawson’s time as Augustine Thompson have now shown for the early Italian Renaissance, this was a time when – say in the great cities of Italy – life continued to be lived according to a Christian, liturgical, rhythm.

Finally, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were in important respects attempts to form the most thoroughly Christian society yet, in which, as a stunning book by Brad Gregory on the willingness of early modern Christians to die for their faith has shown, the Christian hold on Europe continued to develop (W. H. Lewis long ago suggested that the seventeenth was the most Christian of centuries). Certainly an argument can be made that the Baroque, Catholic and Protestant, represents the most distinctly Christian and European art form ever conceived, finding the Christian, incarnate, God in all things and seeing the world as a stage on which the Christian drama plays out. And so it goes.

The point, then, is that overly to separate the various stages of Christian development into too-distinct periods obscures the fact that they were all part of a living and continuing entity, Christendom or Christian culture.


Part III

History Within Culture – Part I

communio_spring-2008In the Spring 2008 issue of Communio, Glenn W. Olsen wrote a rather lengthy essay entitled “Why We Need Christopher Dawson”.  I haven’t read too much in the way of scholarly history, but I’ve read enough to understand the differing views on the nature of history (i.e. what can we “know” from historial inquiry?). I find the topic fascinating and thus far* have not read a better treatment of it than N. T. Wright in Part II of The New Testament and the People of God. So when I read Olsen’s essay on Christopher Dawson’s approach to history through culture, I was very intrigued. I found myself agreeing with much of the essay, and can second Olsen’s opinion that we need more of a Christopher Dawson view of history in the world.

I will attempt to do a series of posts (how many I don’t know) on Olsen’s essay. This will also serve as an introduction to Dawson’s thought, which is the primary reason for me to do this series of posts. Also me typing this out will help me remember it better. See. My reasoning can be very simple at times. I should also note that this touches on some of the discussion that has been had recently over at the fides quaerens intellectum blog.

By way of introduction, here is how Olsen starts out his essay, which serves to set the stage for a discussion about Dawson:

Historians have a rather short half-life. Whether one views historical writing as a branch of literature or as a kind of science, it is based on documentary research. As this advances more evidence becomes available by which to understand the past, making earlier narratives to that extent dated. Add to this the inevitable changes in perspective brought about by history itself, carrying the historian with it, and modifying ideas about what in earlier times is most valuable and important, and we find every generation rewriting the past. Even the historian most devoted to philology, that is to avoiding anachronism by using words and ideas only as they were used in the period he wishes to study, must begin with words and ideas as they are presently defined and laboriously work back to earlier meanings – and the present usage with which he must begin is itself shifting. The upshot is that few historians are read by many beyond their own times. If they are, it is because they are a Thecydides or a Gibbon, that is, historians of such great stature, intelligence, style, or insight as writers – in the case of Gibbon, so amusing and incisive – that we cannot lay their histories down. No matter that we may strongly disagree with the interpretive framework of a Gibbon, he draws us into his web, and we can always make allowances for the limitations of his perspective.

So why should we continue to read Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), now dead for more than a generation? Truth be told, some in the historical community, having asked that question, have suggested that Dawson is passé, an interesting and important writer in his own day, but now either not sufficiently up-to-date, or embodying perspectives once plausible, but now less so. We will consider one such critic below, but first we need to address the question at hand: why should we continue to read Dawson?

Probably most would agree that his greatest historical contribution was his writing of history around the idea of Christian culture, an innovation which in turn expressed his conviction that culture is embodied religion. At the heart of culture lies religion: Dawson’s genius lay in his working out this insight in a series of books and essays. These all, in one way or another, dealt with the idea of culture, but perhaps it is fair to say that, once having defined the relation of religion to culture, he was more interested in using this idea to write history than in pursuing its final philosophical foundations. This latter is the goal toward which we move here. The claim is that Dawson is stil worth reading not just because he was an illuminating historian and a fine sylist, but because his organizing ideas, true in themselves, continue to provoke reflection on the nature of culture. At the same time, this reflection should be useful even for historians, inasmuch as it points to the need to make room for, and give priority to, apprehend meaning as the causa causarum in history.

I can second that statement about (Edward) Gibbon. I am working through his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire now, and I must say it is easily the most enjoyable history book I have ever read.

After the exceprt above, Olsen goes on to contrast Dawson’s view of history as cultural evolutions versus the generally held view of cut and dry “time periods” (e.g. ancient, medeival, modern). It is surprsing to me how the differing approaches to history impact what we can learn and how we understand history. But more on that in a later post. I will also add – because I know you were wondering – that Glenn W. Olsen is a professor of history at the University of Utah with a PhD in the history of the Middle Ages.

* “thus far” doesn’t mean all that much as I readily admit that I am not well read in this area.

Part II
Part III

Abstracting God

I’ve been lagging much too much in my reading of the latest issue of Communio. Catching up a bit, I’m reading the first essay (embarrassing, I’m still on the first essay) dealing with the mystery of the Transfiguration by Jose’ Granados, assistant professor of theology and philosophy at The Catholic University of America. In section 3.1 of the lengthy essay, he makes an interesting point about the Old Testament prohibition against portraying God’s face:

In fact, the prohibition against making images can be read not only as a caution against materializing God, but also against excessively spiritualizing him. Let us recall what we said above about the human capacity to form images: it is based precisely on the separation between form and matter. If this capacity is absolutized, according to what we have called the pride of vision, the painting creates a split that isolates its object from the concrete world.

From this point of view the images of God are criticized in Scripture because they mistake the divine face for the abstraction of a painting. To paint a figure of the divinity means to make him alien to our reality and thus to transform him into a abstraction, a God of ideas who can neither hear nor see. God cannot be depicted because the image, when it is separated from the body, loses its truth and becomes a static abstraction: the idol of the concept. An image is not valid for representing the God of Israel, not because it connects him too much with the world, but precisely because it connects him too little.

Of course, Granados is not arguing for iconoclasm. He is pointing out the central reason for the Old Testament theology. Put too simply, in the Old Testament, the peole of Israel were not allowed to make an image of God, because God had not yet revealed his face. In the New Testament, God’s fufilling revelation to man, we have seen the face of God in the “Incarnation of the Logos.”

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