September 3, 2013

Religion: The Key of History – Why you should read Dawson

by Tom Gourlay

“Religion is the key of history.  We cannot understand the inner form of a society unless we understand its religion.  We cannot understand its cultural achievements unless we understand the religious beliefs that lie behind them.  In all ages the first creative works of a culture are due to a religious inspiration and dedicated to a religious end.  The temples of the gods are the most enduring works of man.  Religion stands at the threshold of all the great literatures of the world.  Philosophy is its offspring and is a child which constantly returns to its parent.”

Christopher Dawson – Religion and Culture.

Dawson’s deep and profound insight into history and culture hinge on this truth – that religion is the key, or the engine of history. Profoundly different to utilitarian or Marxist/economic interpretations of history, Dawson’s reading of history is radically human centred.

In the deeply secular and often almost anti-religious culture that surrounds us we often suffer the perception that religion is extrinsic to life – something furnishing, but not essential to the everyday life of individuals. In Dawson’s historical analysis however, we see that the cultus, or religion is at the heart of every culture.

The now Blessed, soon to be Saint Pope John Paul II spoke of three philosophers who have been particularly influential in forming the modern mindset – three authors whose understanding of human nature is centred on either power, sex or economics. These three, the ‘masters of superstition‘ as he named them, Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx, have dominated the landscape of the Western historical and cultural self-understanding of our contemporary world. And so, the writing of history in recent times has come to merely an analysis of the battles over power, sexual domination or control of the means of production.

This however was not the starting point for Dawson. His writings begin with an anthropology built on the understanding of the dual nature of the person; body and soul – man created and fallen, and man ultimately redeemed by the Incarnation of Christ.

Dawson’s history tells the story not of power hungry people driven by libido or the desire to control the means of production, but rather of people fallen and redeemed by Christ, caught up in the cosmic struggle to bring the light of Christ to the nations. A people who struggle against sin or who revel in it.

This is why Dawson’s history is so exciting to read – because it is a truly human history.