October/November 2017 - Vol. 94
Christopher Dawson
The Cultural Consequences of Christian Disunity
by  Christopher Dawson
Note: A renowned Christian historian of the 20th century, Christopher Dawson (1889-1970 ) wrote several books on Christianity's influence on the development of culture in the West, and its decline due to the growing influence of secularism, and the necessary return to Christian unity. The following article was first delivered as part of a lecture series delivered at Harvard University in 1958. Christopher Dawson was one of the founding members of an ecumenical movement among Catholics and Protestants in Europe, called the Sword of the Spirit, which began in 1939 and the early '40s The movement as a whole was short-lived because the climate for ecumenical cooperation between Catholics and Protestants was not yet ripe. Dawson's writings are very relevant today as Christians seek to build bridges and ecumenical cooperation together. ed.
Of all divisions between Christians, that between Catholics and Protestants is the deepest and the most pregnant in its historical consequences. It is so deep that we cannot see any solution to it in the present period and under existing historical circumstances. But at least it is possible for us to take the first step by attempting to overcome the enormous gap in mutual understanding which has hitherto rendered any intellectual contact or collaboration impossible. From this point of view the problem is not to be found so much in the sphere of theology, strictly speaking, as in that of culture and historical tradition. For the changes that followed the Reformation are not only the work of the Churches and the theologians. They are also the work of the statesmen and the soldiers.

The Catholic and Protestant worlds have been divided from one another by centuries of war and power politics, and the result has been that they no longer share a common social experience. Each has its own version of history, its own social inheritance, as well as its own religious beliefs and standards of orthodoxy. And nowhere is this state of things more striking than in America, where the English Protestant North and the Spanish Catholic South formed two completely different worlds which had no mental contact with one another.

It was not until the 19th century that this state of cultural separation came to an end; and the change was especially sharp in the English-speaking countries when Catholicism and Protestantism finally came together within the same societies and cultures. In England this was due to the movement of intellectual rapprochement which is represented by the Oxford Movement and the personality of Newman, while in America it was the result of external forces
above all the mass immigration of the Irish Catholics to America in the middle of the 19th century, which produced such profound social changes, particularly in New England.

Nowhere in the world have Catholicism and Protestantism been brought together more suddenly and closely than in Boston. Throughout the I9th century these two sections of the population remained separate peoples, although they necessarily shared the same national and regional citizenship. It is only in quite recent times that they have come to share a common culture. But this culture is a purely secular one; and one of the reasons that it is so completely secular is that there has been this complete cleavage of spiritual tradition and absence of intellectual contact between Catholics and Protestants.

No doubt there are many other factors in the secularization of modern culture, but this is one for which Christians are directly responsible. The movement of history, which for Christians in some way reflects the action of divine providence, has put an end to the social division of Christendom which followed the religious revolution of the I6th century. Hence it is now our business to see that the inner division in our culture should also be overcome by a progressive movement of intellectual understanding, the reconstitution of a common world of discourse and of a new dialogue between Catholics and Protestants.

In this work of mutual explanation there are two main fields to be covered. First there is the theological field, in which the student has to study the positive developments of Catholic and Protestant doctrine so as to understand the exact nature of the divergence in our beliefs. In the past this field had become a battleground of theological controversy so that it was a source of division and antagonism rather than understanding. Indeed it was the controversial character of theology that did more than anything else to discredit it in the eyes of the world. It is only in recent times that theological studies have taken a new direction and there is a growing tendency to re-examine the whole question in the light of first principles. We see the results of this new theological orientation in the French series published under the title Unam Sanctam, and there has been a parallel movement of theological thought in Germany. Indeed it was there that the new approach first originated more than a century ago with the writings of John Adam Moehler. Today there is an international literature on the theology of Christian unity, which is likely to increase as a result of the Ecumenical Council.

But in addition to this theological study we have also to study the historical background and the cultural development of Catholic and Protestant society during the centuries of disunity. It is these historical studies that have been most neglected in the past, owing to the artificial separation between ecclesiastical and political history, which has had the effect of focusing the light of historical research on certain limited aspects of the past and of neglecting others that were intrinsically no less important.

Thus political history has developed as the history of the European State system and the power conflict between the European dynasties and empires, and finally of the political revolutions that have changed the forms of the state.

It is only in modern times that historians have attempted to rectify this one-sided emphasis by opening up the new field of economic history, which today is generally recognized as no less important than political history.

But this is an exception, and there are still important fields of culture which are relatively uncultivated by the historians. The obvious solution would seem to be the expansion of historical science to include the whole of human culture in all its manifestations; but in spite of the efforts of German culture-historians to create a new study of this kind, it has failed to establish itself as a scientific discipline and is still looked on with considerable suspicion by the professional historians. In any case, we have to consider the question of religious history as a field of study which historians ought to take account of, but which they have in fact neglected. No doubt their answer would be that this is the business of the ecclesiastical historians. This is true enough in theory. In practice, however, ecclesiastical history is as highly specialized as political history, which it resembles in certain aspects.

The ecclesiastical historians have dealt exhaustively with the history of heresies and theological controversies, but they have shown little interest in religious culture. Even such a famous book as Ritschl's History of Pietism is not a genuinely historical work. It is a polemical work, devoted to the demonstration of a theological thesis rather than to the exposition of a phase of religious history or the explanation of a form of religious experience. In fact it is not to the ecclesiastical historians but to the literary historians that we must look for the main achievements in this field. With all his faults Sainte Beuve was a real religious historian when he wrote his Port Royal; and in our own days I think that the best approach to religious history has been made from the literary side, in respect of Catholicism, by Bremond in his literary study of religious experience in France in the I7th century, and of Protestantism by Professors Perry Miller and Johnston in their study of the New England mind.

When we come to the subject of this work, which is the development of the Catholic and Protestant cultures in modern times, we shall find ourselves in a no man's land, between the political and the ecclesiastical historians. For while the actual schism which destroyed the religious unity of Western Europe has been studied exhaustively by both groups of historians, neither of them has paid much attention to the development of the new forms of religious culture which took the place of the old common culture of medieval Christendom. Yet no one can deny their importance, for they had a considerable effect not only on the development of literature and music and art but also on the structure of social life, as we see in a very striking way in the contrasts in the social development of the two Americas.

And it is the same with the following period. For the political and ecclesiastical historians have both written a great deal on the history of the I8th-century Enlightenment and on the political and religious revolution which followed it, but the religious revival of the 19th century, which transformed and re-created the Christian world that we know and in which we live, has, I believe, never been studied in its cultural aspects. One should perhaps make an exception as far as North America is concerned. For American Catholicism is the creation of this period, and in so far as historians attempt to study American Catholicism, they are bound to focus their attention on the I9th-century development. Even so, it is impossible to study that development without studying the European background from which it emerged and which influenced its development in so many different ways. Yet there has been no study of the European Catholic revival by American historians, so far as I am aware, and very few translations of European works on the subject.

Moreover there is another and more fundamental reason why religious history during the last century or two should be a neglected and difficult field. For this is the age when the secularization of Western culture was triumphant and when religion was consequently pushed out of social life and increasingly treated as a private affair that only concerned the individual conscience. Whereas in the past religion had occupied the center of the stage of world history, so that a monk and a mystic like St. Bernard had moved armies and had become a counsellor of kings, now it had withdrawn into private life and had left the stage of history to the representatives of the new political and economic forces.

This progressive extrusion of Christianity from culture is the price that Christendom has had to pay for its loss of unity-it is part of what Richard Niebuhr has called "the Ethical Failure of the Divided Church'. The tragedy of schism is that it is a progressive evil. Schism breeds schism, until every social antagonism is reflected in some new religious division and no common Christian culture is conceivable.

In the old world of united Christendom these social antagonisms were as strong as they are today, but they were antagonisms within a common society, and the Church was seen as the ultimate bond of unity. As William Langland writes, "He called that house Unity
– which is Holy Church in English.” No one was more aware than Langland of the evils of contemporary society – the whole of Piers Plowman is an impassioned plea for social and religious reform, so much so that he has sometimes been regarded as a harbinger of the Protestant Reformation. But his emphasis is always on unity: "Call we to all the Commons that they come into Unity” "and there stand and do battle against Belial's children.”

As I have pointed out elsewhere, the creative age of medieval culture was the result of the alliance between the Papacy and the Northern Reformers, represented by the Cluniacs and the Cistercians, and when this alliance was broken, the vitality of medieval culture declined.

The Protestant Reformation of the I6th century represents a final breach between the Papacy and the Northern Reformers
– between the principle of authority and the principle of reformation. But both principles were alike essential to the traditions of Western Christendom, and even in the state of division neither part of the Christian world could dispense with them. Therefore the Catholic world developed a new reforming movement, as represented by the Jesuits and the other new religious Orders; while the Protestant world had to create new patterns of authority and theological tradition, such as we see in the ecclesiastical and theological discipline of the Calvinist Churches. But this pattern was never a universal one, and the Protestant world was weakened from the beginning by continuous theological controversies which produced a further series of schisms and permanent divisions between the different Protestant Churches.

It is difficult to exaggerate the harm that was inflicted on Christian culture by the century of religious strife that followed the Reformation. The great controversy between Catholicism and Protestantism rapidly degenerated into a state of religious and civil war which divided Christendom into two armed camps.

There could be no question of spiritual reconciliation so long as Catholics and Protestants were cutting one another's throats, and calling in foreign mercenaries to help in the work of mutual destruction, as was the case in France in the I6th century and in Germany in the 17th. Even within the Protestant world religious controversy became the cause of social conflict or its pretext, as we see in the case of the Civil War in England. That war was indeed far less destructive and atrocious than the great religious wars of the Continent, but it demonstrated even more clearly the essential futility and irrationality of religious conflict, in which each military victory led to fresh divisions and further conflicts until no solution was possible save a tired and disillusioned return to the traditional order in Church and State.

It was during this century of sterile and inconclusive religious conflict that the ground was prepared for the secularization of European culture. The convinced secularists were an infinitesimal minority of the European population, but they had no need to be strong since the Christians did their work for them. All they had to do was to point the moral, very cautiously at first, like Montaigne, and then with gradually increasing confidence and vigor, as with Hobbes and Bayle, and the English Deists. It was, however, an Anglican clergyman, a High Churchman to boot, who spoke the final word in The Tale of a Tiub.

Thus it is not too much to say that the fate of Christian culture and the development of modern civilization have been determined or conditioned by the state of war which existed between Christians from the Reformation to the Revolution
– first a century of civil war in the strict sense and then a century or more of cold war and antagonism. And though today Christians are at last emerging from this atmosphere of hatred and suspicion, the modern Christian world is still divided by the religious frontiers established in that age of religious strife.

As a volcanic eruption changes the face of nature
– overwhelming fertile lands with fields of lava and changing the course of rivers and the shape of islands – this great religious cataclysm has changed the course of history and altered the face of Western culture for ages to come. It is impossible to ignore this dark and tragic side of religious history; for if we do not face it, we cannot understand the inevitable character of the movement of secularization.

On the other hand, it is a still greater mistake to see the dark side only, as the thinkers of the Enlightenment did, and to ignore the spiritual and cultural achievements of the post-Reformation period.

For the energies of divided Christendom were not all absorbed in internecine conflict. On both the Catholic and the Protestant side the Reformation was followed by the development of new forms of religious life and thought. These were of course very different, so that they have sometimes been regarded as opposite to one another. Yet I think it is possible to trace a certain parallelism between them, which was no doubt due to their common historical background and to common cultural influences. In the first place there was on both sides of the religious frontiers a return to moral discipline after the laxity of the early Renaissance period. On the Protestant side this took the form of the Calvinist discipline, which was the main inspiration of English and American Puritanism in the 17th century and the parallel ethos of the Presbyterian Covenanters in Scotland.

It is one of the paradoxes of religious history that a theology which centered in the doctrines of predestination and reprobation and denied or minimized the freedom of the human will should have developed an ethos of personal responsibility which expressed itself in moral activism. There can, however, be no doubt that the hallmark of the new Protestant culture is just this spirit of moral activism, which was based on intensive theological training, but which found expression in secular life-in war and business-no less than in the life of the Churches.

On the Catholic side the restoration of moral discipline took the form primarily of a return to the tradition of monastic asceticism. But this tradition was now brought out of the cloister into the world and applied by the new religious orders, above all by the Jesuits, to the contemporary situation, that is to say, to the needs of the Church, to the restoration of ecclesiastical unity and order, to the education of both the clergy and the laity, and to preaching and missionary propaganda.

But in addition to the moral asceticism of the Counter-Reformation there was also on the Catholic side a certain tendency to theological rigorism which is much more akin to the theological tendencies of Puritanism. It produced the Jansenist movement, which caused a serious breach in the unity of Post-Reformation Catholicism, at least in France. The theological feud between the Jansenists and the Jesuits and the controversy about grace and free will bear an extraordinary similarity to that between the Puritans and the Arminians on the same questions.

In the second place the Post-Reformation period is characterized by the interiorization of religion and the intensive cultivation of the spiritual life. In the Catholic world this expressed itself above all in the great mystical movement which began in Spain and Italy in the I6th century and spread to France and England in the following century. But it is also represented by the ascetic spirituality of the Counter-Reformation. Indeed the most influential of all the spiritual works of the age
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius – was, as its name denotes, essentially ascetic, and used the reason and the imagination in order to produce a psychological change in the personality. On the Protestant side, the mystical element is less significant, for the main emphasis was always placed on the experience of conversion and personal conviction of sin and redemption.

The Pietist movement in the Lutheran church (which was later in date than the Catholic spiritual revival) was not devoid of an element of mysticism, while some of the minority sects, like the Quakers, were more definitely mystical and ultimately came to be influenced strongly by the less orthodox representatives of the Catholic mystical tradition. There was in fact an interesting underground movement towards religious unity and spiritual reconciliation which was carried on by representatives of these extremist groups, such as Peter Poiret in the Netherlands, who attempted to create a common eirenic theology based on the consensus mysticorum; and Isaac Watts translated Jesuit sacred poetry. Though this movement was an isolated one, which affected an infinitesimal minority of Protestants, it does indicate the existence of Catholicizing tendencies in the Pietist movement as a whole, which explains the hostile reaction to the movement on the part of Protestant historians like Ritschl.

Finally, in the third place, both Catholic and Protestant Europe were deeply influenced by the culture of the Renaissance. On both sides there was a continuous effort to use the new learning for Christian ends and to bring the new culture and art into relation with the Christian tradition. Thus the ideal of a Christian Humanism held a central place in both Catholic and Protestant culture and provided an important link or bridge between them.

It is true that its influence was much stronger in Catholic Europe owing to the fact that Italy was both the home of the Renaissance and the center of Catholic culture. Moreover, Catholicism was able to use the new art and music and architecture of the Renaissance in the service of religion in a way which the aniconic and non-liturgical character of Protestantism made impossible.

Thus the Baroque culture, in which the spirit of Christian Humanism found its full social and artistic expression, was exclusively or predominantly Catholic, and the sharing of this common culture gave the entire Catholic world from Peru to Poland an international unity which Protestant Europe never possessed. In Northern Europe the influence of humanism was confined to the educated classes and found expression only in literature. But in this field it was triumphant, and throughout the I7th century, in England above all, the spirit of Christian Humanism inspired not only the poetry of Donne and Herbert and Milton and Vaughan but also the thought of the Cambridge Platonists and the Caroline divines, as well as of men of letters like Sir Thomas Browne and Isaac Walton.

Nevertheless all this wealth of literary culture could not prevent an increasing divergence between the social and psychological tendencies of Catholic and Protestant society. The Baroque culture integrated asceticism with mysticism, and humanism with popular culture, through the common media of art and liturgy; but in the Protestant world, the religious culture of the masses, which was derived from the Bible and the sermon, had no access to the imaginative world of the humanist poet and artist. Thus it was on the popular level that the differences between the two cultures are most obvious and their separation is most complete. For what could be sharper than the contrast between the popular culture of Catholic Europe with its pilgrimages and festivals and sacred dramas all centering in the great Baroque churches which were the painted palaces of the Saints, and the austere religious life of the hard-working Protestant artisan and shopkeeper which found its only outward expression in the weekly attendance in a bare meeting house to listen to the long sermons of the Puritan divines and to sing long psalms in metrical but far from poetical versions?

This difference in the form of the religious life found expression in a corresponding difference of psychological types and spiritual personalities. A man like Cotton Mather had no doubt received a good classical education, but no one can call him a Christian Humanist. His character was formed in the same mould as that of his congregation. Whereas on the other side, men like St. Francis de Sales or Fénelon were humanists not only in their classical culture but in their spirituality and their personal relations. This failure of Protestantism to assimilate the Christian Humanist tradition completely caused a certain impoverishment and aridity in English and American cultures and led ultimately to those defects which Matthew Arnold was to criticize so vigorously in the I9th century.

Nevertheless Protestant culture had its own distinctive qualities. The moral energy of the Puritan tradition inspired the new bourgeois culture of the English-speaking world in the later I 7th and I 8th centuries and gave it the strength which enabled it to overcome its rivals and dominate the world. What I am concerned with at the moment, however, is not to judge the values of these two forms of culture, but to point out their differences and show how their divergence contributed to the disunity of the Christian world. For when the age of religious war was over, Europe was still divided (and America also) by a difference of moral values and psychological antipathies. And these differences are harder to surmount than the theological ones, because they go so deep into the unconscious mind and have become a part of the personality and the national character.

When we come to the 19th century we shall find plenty of cases of men who have lost all conscious connection with religion but who nevertheless retain the social and national prejudices which they have inherited from their Catholic or Protestant backgrounds.

Similarly when the barriers were first broken down it was due not only to the theological converts and apologists, like Newman, but to the cultural converts, like Arnold and Ruskin. Arnold is a particularly significant case, because he admitted his debt to the Oxford Movement, though he did not concern himself with the theological questions which were its raison d'être, but concentrated all his attention on the cultural weaknesses of the Protestant tradition and the need for a revision of English cultural values. The same phenomenon is to be found on the Catholic side, though it is less easy to point to a representative figure. But one may mention the attempt of a group of Catholic sociologists in France in the later I 9th century to criticize Catholic social ethics by comparison with the moral energy and activism of Anglo-Saxon culture
– an attempt which was, I believe, the real source of the Americanist controversy.

Now I do not wish to suggest that we should approach the study of Catholicism and Divided Christendom in the spirit of Matthew Arnold rather than in that of Newman or Moehler. These are theological questions, and the last word must always rest with the theologians.

Yet as an historian I am convinced that the main sources of Christian division and the chief obstacle to Christian unity have been and are cultural rather than theological. Consequently, I believe that it is only by combining the study of the history of Christian culture with the study of theology that we can understand the nature and extent of the problem with which we have to deal.

[Excerpt from The Dividing of Christendom, Chapter 1, by Christopher Dawson, was originally published by Sheed & Ward, New York 1965. First English edition published by Sidgwick and Jackson Ltd, London 1971. Reprinted in 2009 by Ignatius Press, Sanfrancisco. © 1991 Julian Philip Scott 2008 Literary Executor of  the Estate of Christopher Dawson.]

Christopher Dawson and the Christian View of History

While lecturing in the United States in the early 1930s, T. S. Eliot was asked which of his contemporaries was the most powerful intellectual influence in Britain... He selected Christopher Dawson. Dawson’s work was similarly praised across the ideological and theological spectra, as the likes of G. K. Chesterton, Barbara Ward, Russell Kirk, Dorothy Day, C. S. Lewis, Arnold Toynbee, and Lewis Mumford all testified to its importance for their efforts.

Christopher Dawson’s religious faith undergirded all his intellectual efforts. He believed that people are naturally religious and, hence, as a historian, concluded (with Lord Acton) that “religion is the key of history.” Yet Dawson also contended that the Christian faith makes the distinctive claim to be an essentially historical religion, one based on belief not just in the general direction of history by Providence, but in “the intervention by God in the life of mankind by direct action at certain definite points in time and place,” culminating in the Incarnation. This “central doctrine of the Christian faith” is hence “also the center of history,” a synergy that, according to Dawson, generated a unique vision of history:
"The Christian view of history is not a secondary element derived by philosophical reflection from the study of history. It lies at the very heart of Christianity and forms an integral part of the Christian faith. Hence there is no Christian “philosophy of history” in the strict sense of the word. There is, instead, a Christian history and a Christian theology of history, and it is not too much to say that without them there would be no such thing as Christianity."
Christopher Dawson, “The Christian View of History” (1951)

excerpt from Sitting Still with Christopher Dawson, article by Adam Schwartz, Touchstone Magazine, March/April Issue 1999
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