Posts Tagged 'Glenn W. Olsen'

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 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

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