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An excerpt from "Christianity and the History of Culture" | Christopher Dawson | From Chapter 2 of The Formation of Christendom

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The history of Christianity is the history of a divine intervention in history, and we cannot study it apart from the history of culture in the widest sense of the word. For the word of God was first revealed to the people of Israel and became embodied in a law and a society. Secondly, the word of God became Incarnate in a particular person at a particular moment of history, and thirdly, this process of human redemption was carried on in the life of the Church which was the new Israel--the universal community which was the bearer of divine revelation and the organ by which man participated in the new life of the Incarnate Word.

Thus Christianity has entered into the stream of human history and the process of human culture. It has become culturally creative, for it has changed human life and there is nothing in human thought and action which has not been subjected to its influence, while at the same time it has suffered from the limitations and vicissitudes that are inseparable from temporal existence.

Now there are those who reject this mingling of religion and history, or Christianity and culture, since they believe that religion is concerned with God rather than man, and with the absolute and eternal rather than the historical and the transitory. We certainly need to recognize how important this aspect of religion is and how man has a natural sense of divine transcendence. And we know from the history of religious thought that we do actually find religious men of this kind--men who seek to transcend human nature by the flight of the Alone to the Alone, in the words of the Neo-Platonist philosopher, and who find the essence of religion in the contemplation of pure being or of that which is beyond being.

But this is not Christianity. Although Christianity does not deny the religious value of contemplation or mystical experience, its essential nature is different, it is a religion of Revelation, Incarnation and Communion; a religion which unites the human and the divine and sees in history the manifestation of the divine purpose towards the human race.

It is impossible to understand Christianity without studying the history of Christianity. And this, as I see it, involves a good deal more than the study of ecclesiastical history in the traditional sense. It involves the study of two different processes which act simultaneously on mankind in the course of time. On the one hand, there is the process of culture formation and change which is the subject of anthropology, history and the allied disciplines; and on the other there is the process of revelation and the action of divine grace which has created a spiritual society and a sacred history, though it can be studied only as a part of theology and in theological terms.

In Christian culture these two processes come together in an organic unity, so that its study requires the close cooperation of Theology and History. It is obvious that this is a difficult task, but it is a very necessary one, since there is no other way of studying Christianity as a living force in the world of men and it is of the essence of Christianity that it is such a force and not an abstract ideology or system of ideas. Thus the history of Christian culture differs in nature from Church History. The latter has been for centuries a highly specialized study, which stands somewhat outside historical categories. There is a sense in which the Church as a theological concept stands outside and above history. But during recent centuries Church History has been regarded as equivalent to ecclesiastical history--a kind of special subject which lies outside the margin of political history. From this point of view Church History is something only to be found in societies and periods which distinguish clearly between Church and State or between Religion and Politics. It therefore tends to become a somewhat arbitrary and artificial subject, since the history of the modern churches is conditioned and limited by the history of the state to which in a sense they belong. And where there is a complete separation of Church and State, as in the United States in the nineteenth century, Church History becomes emptied of significant content, as one sees in the (typical) nineteenth-century, twelve-volume American Church History Series. It has no scientific unity, so that finally it is held together only by the corporate traditions of the particular sect.

Church History can, of course, be studied scientifically from the sociological angle as Ernst Troeltsch did in his famous book, but this leads to theological difficulties.

The study of Christian Culture, on the other hand, does not involve this dualism, since the concept of culture is a unity which embraces both Church and State. Culture is a universal phenomenon which can be made the subject of scientific study, and since every historic culture has its religious aspect, Christian culture is not exceptional in this respect, but is comparable to the other cultures which are associated with a particular religion, the culture of India, for example, or the culture or cultures of the Muslim peoples. The distinctive institution of Christian culture, a Church of its nature independent of the political society is irrelevant to the comparative scientific study of cultures.

On the other hand, we cannot ignore the great difficulties which affect the higher study of religion today and the change of intellectual climate which has become increasingly unfavorable to the study of the relations between religion and culture in the modern world and the modern university. For theology has long since lost its position as a dominant faculty in the university and as an integral part of the general educational curriculum. It continues to exist on sufferance only as a specialized ecclesiastical study designed for the clergy.

Consequently the student in a modern university may be totally ignorant of religion, so that he requires a very elementary type of instruction, whereas the theological student has no need of elementary studies, since he already takes for granted (however unjustifiably) the validity of some particular form of Christian theology. This is a very unfortunate state of affairs, for it creates a gap between university studies and theological or ecclesiastical studies which it is nobody's business to fill. There is, as I see it, a no-man's-land between the university and the theological school.

It is clear that in this situation there is no longer any common religious tradition. One can no longer take for granted any common principles or truths that are generally accepted. We have to allow for the existence of four or five fundamentally different points of view in religious matters, secular and Christian, Protestant and Catholic. And there is a wide difference in the secularist camp between the liberal humanists and the dogmatic materialists. And again in the case of the Protestants, there is a division between the liberal Protestants, who represent the old humanist Unitarian tradition, and the neo-orthodox, who seek to revive the traditions of the Reformers and the Puritan theologians. So wide is this gap that it is difficult to find anything, above all in regard to natural theology and the nature of religion, on which these two agree.

In these circumstances the only remaining approach that is common to all potential students is the phenomenological approach, which is both social and psychological. On the one hand, everyone is agreed that Christianity and Catholicism are momentous sociological and historical facts which have had a profound influence on human history; while on the other, religion is a psychological phenomenon which is almost universal and common to all cultures and periods, so that it is impossible to question its subjective human importance. Moreover, in spite of the almost infinite diversity of religious phenomena, there are certain elements that are common to them all and which may be regarded as essentially religious. Such are worship and prayer and such also is the rite of sacrifice.

Worship implies the existence of some power other than man which men venerate as greater than themselves, while prayer and sacrifice imply the existence of a twofold relation by which man establishes some channel of communication with the higher power. This unknown power which man instinctively and naturally worships is habitually known as God or the Gods; in fact, the phenomenological definition would be: "God is what man worships, and what man worships is God."

It may be objected that this notion of worship tells us nothing about the real nature of the object of worship. Indeed we know from the study of comparative religion that man is capable of worshipping almost anything from the highest to the lowest, and it has been the great task of philosophy to purify man's concept of the divine and to liberate the mind from the service of idols--from the worship of all that is not God. And this process is in some respects parallel to the work of revelation, which has also consisted in the purification of man's natural religious instincts by the elimination of false objects of worship and the redirection of the human mind towards God, the one ultimate and absolute transcendent reality.

To modern man the word "God" means far more than this, for it has come to us enriched by the content of the Jewish and Christian revelations, so that it has acquired moral and personal values which have become almost inseparable from the word. But even apart from this religious tradition, the word has also acquired a philosophical meaning and has been enriched by centuries of philosophical tradition.

For Western religion and theology represent a synthesis of two different traditions, the Hebraic tradition of religious revelation, which is represented by the Bible, and the Hellenic tradition of metaphysical or natural theology, which has been accepted by the Christian Fathers and theologians as a kind of rational propaedeutic or foundation for theology in general. Nevertheless, this philosophic tradition was by no means lacking in religious content, a content supplied by the aesthetic or mystical contemplation which was characteristic of it. On the one hand, Greek philosophy contemplated the universe as a visible order which was the reflection or creation of a spiritual principle--the divine logos; on the other, it saw the spiritual world as an ascending order or hierarchy of intelligible forms which culminated in absolute good and absolute unity, so that for the Stoic and Neo-Platonist the intellectual disciplines of science and philosophy found their final end in a religious act of contemplation which resembles that of the mystic.

This Hellenic theology was readily adopted by the Christian theologians, as we see in St. Augustine's early writings, in the Greek Fathers, and in the works that pass under the name of Dionysius the Areopagite. There has been a somewhat similar development of philosophic theology in modern times during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the product of deism and rationalism. But this modern movement tended to lose its religious character as soon as it became separated from the Christian tradition, and it soon ceased to show any trace of those contemplative or mystical tendencies which characterized the older Hellenic tradition. Consequently in modern times the historical alliance between natural theology and the theology of revelation has been broken, except in the case of Thomism, which has held fast to the old tradition.

Modern Protestant theology, especially the school of Karl Barth, has utterly rejected as false and worthless any rational or philosophical theology and has refused to admit the existence of any form of genuine religious knowledge except that contained in biblical revelation and apprehended by divine faith. If, however, we accept the Barthian principle, the complete nonexistence of any natural channel of understanding between God and Man, it is difficult to see how such an act of faith can be elicited except from those who already possess some kind of faith. The God who spoke to Abraham was not totally unknown being. He was one who was accepted or taken for granted as the God of his fathers.

There is, however, nothing in natural theology, or the philosophic idea of God, which contradicts or excludes the idea of Revelation. For once granted the existence of a divine transcendent being who is the object of human veneration and prayer, it is very conceivable that such a being should intervene in human life by manifesting his will to man or by establishing some channel of communication. The difficulty of this belief lies not in its abstract possibility or probability but in the apparent impossibility of man understanding the divine purpose or mode of operation. For it is obvious that if man were to possess the power of influencing the behavior of insects by scientific means, the insect would be incapable of understanding what was happening, and that it could only be explained from the human standpoint. The difference, however, between God and the rational animal is far greater than that between man and the insect world, and it is inconceivable that the human intelligence can understand the process of divine revelation, even though he is the recipient of it. God is not only the giver of revelation, he must also create the vehicle for its transmission and the faculty for its reception.

The Christian takes for granted the idea of a word that is in some sense common to God and Man, but this is a truth of faith, which is unattainable by human reason. It involves what the Greek theologians term a divine "economy"--an adaptation of divine truth to the means of human understanding, whether by inspired Scripture, as in the case of the Hebrew prophets, by a historical dispensation, as with the history of the Chosen People, or above all by the central mystery of the Incarnation by which the Word of God is embodied in a historical Person who is both human and divine. This marks a new beginning in the history of the human race--a new creation by which humanity is raised to a higher spiritual level which transcends the natural life and the rational knowledge of the human animal.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:

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Christopher Dawson born in Wales and educated at Winchester and at Trinity College, Oxford, was a lecturer at Univeristy College and Exeter, as well as at Liverpool and Edinburgh Universities. In 1958 he became the first Professor of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University. Among his previous books are The Crisis of Western Education, The Dividing of Christendom, The Dynamics of World History, and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture.

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