Posts Tagged 'Culture'

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

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