What Christopher Dawson Lamented in Modernity
Interview With Author Jaime Antúnez
By Jesús Colina
SANTIAGO, Chile, NOV. 27, 2007 (Zenit.org).- When a society loses its religion, sooner or later it loses its culture. This is one of the reflections of English historian Christopher Dawson, highlighted in a book on his philosophical contribution to the study of history.
Jaime Antúnez Aldunate, editor of the Chile-based review Humanitas, is the author of "Filosofía de la historia en Christopher Dawson" (Philosophy of History in Christopher Dawson), a man he says was the best Catholic historian of the 20th century. The book is available in Spanish from Ediciones Encuentro.
In this Interview with ZENIT, Antúnez reflects on the main principles of Dawson's thought and how his reflections can be applied to modern culture. Dawson lived from 1899 to 1970.
Q: In your book, you make it clear that Dawson the historian can also be analyzed as Dawson the philosopher.
Antúnez: Indeed, he can. No one could deny the depth and originality of a significant number of his philosophical intuitions springing from a meditation on history, even if they sometimes lack a certain systematic nature.
I looked specifically at his writings on the meaning of human acts. I must say that on the subject of the philosophy of history, Dawson is a strenuous defender of what he calls metahistory -- his own and most genuine field of thought -- an area in which history, theology, sociology, political science, anthropology, art and philosophy cohabit and complement each other.
The concept of culture has particular relevance in Dawson's metahistory. This concept is a common thread throughout his body of work and enriches his thought. It is based on a well-balanced equation of material elements, covering everything from geography to spiritual elements.
This formula surpasses the imbalance that had arisen from various philosophical determinisms, such as materialism that denies the importance of the spiritual realm. In Dawson's equation the spiritual factor -- the final guarantee of human liberty -- always prevails.
For Dawson, the synthesis of a culture is obtained on the level of rationality, with the highest expression of rationality being the intelligibility of religion. More specifically, he suggests that the light provided by Judeo-Christianity to understand history finds its natural fulfillment in the presence of the divine: God has first revealed himself to human beings and has later become human through the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. Incarnation and Trinity constitute, therefore, the core of Dawson's metahistory.
Q: Can you explain how Dawson understands the role played by consciousness in religion and culture?
Antúnez: Dawson explains that when man adores the mystery expressed in nature, or simply nature, we are still in the stage of paganism. However, when the forces governing nature lead human beings to perceive God in the soul, in the deepest darkness of consciousness, the grounds for a religious evolution are already lain, as seen in historical religions.
In this same line of thought, the world of culture comes to exist through the cooperation between the psyche and reason, and, achieving this unity has been the historical function of religion. World religions have been the cornerstones of world cultures. And as a result, if taken away, the arches will fall and the buildings will collapse.
Dawson concluded that over the centuries it has been repeatedly confirmed that religion is the greatest cohesive force of culture and it constitutes the cornerstone of every major civilization; so much so that when a society loses its religion, sooner or later it loses its culture.
Q: In 1945, just at the end of World War II, Dawson wrote that the barriers of culture and religion have fallen and, for the first time in history, the whole physical world comes to be one. What did he mean by this, given that tumultuous period?
Antúnez: The cultural reality that he observed originated in Europe and was inspired, though not exclusively, by the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The same materialistic tendency exists today, but not so much in the force of ideological structures. It exists in Western scientific techniques that provide the common structure of human existence and the basis upon which the new, universal, scientific civilization is being created.
The challenge for religion, Dawson noticed, and particularly for the great universal ones, is this scientific world, one [that is] unified, organized and controlled by knowledge and scientific techniques. Religions survive and continue to have an influence on human life, but they have lost their organic relationship with society; a relationship that was expressed in the traditional synthesis of religion and culture, in the West as well as in the East.
Not just in 1945, but before our eyes is the most extensive, comprehensive and intense secularization the world has ever seen. From this Dawson concludes that a culture of this sort is not in any way a culture in the traditional sense; that is, it is not an order that assembles all the aspects of human life into one living spiritual community.
Q: How did Dawson tackle the topic of philosophy of progress that came from the Enlightenment agenda?
Antúnez: In 1929, Dawson's book "Progress and Religion" dealt with the ideological perspective of the concept of progress adopted in modern culture, beginning mainly with the Enlightenment, and its consequences.
Coinciding with other authors who wrote analyses of this period on the history of thought -- such as Nicolas Berdiaev and Jean Guitton -- Dawson noticed that in the 18th century, due to the influence of Enlightenment philosophers, a sort of replacement of religious sentiment takes place. Faith in a beneficent and provident Creator and maintaining the main precepts of Christian morality, Dawson said, were "divested of their supernatural dimension and adapted to a utilitarian, rational scheme of contemporary philosophy."
In this way, moral law was deprived of the ascetic and spiritual elements and put on a level with practical philanthropy. Moreover, the providential order was transformed into a mechanistic natural law. This took place particularly in the idea of progress. Consequently, the belief in moral perfectibility and in the indefinite progress of the human race replaced the Christian concept of eternal life as the final aim of human effort.
Q: Have these concepts been handed down to us today?
Antúnez: Several events throughout the 19th century, especially the catastrophic circumstances at the beginning of the 20th century, deeply shook the stability of the creed of progress. This does not play down, however, the timeliness and scope of the problem.
Though it is true that this faith in progress in the terms formulated by the Enlightenment philosophers would not be accepted today, it still remains as a backdrop, permeating, to a great extent, the problems of our times.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger observed in the 1980s that our times are "found at the halfway point between millenarian irrationality and hopeless positivist rationality." This coincides well with Dawson's early prediction, expressed in 1927, that a new culture was about to be born. He said it would be one that would not recognize a hierarchy of values and that, abandoning itself to the chaos of feelings, would allow "the most astonishing perfection of scientific technology to be dedicated purely to ephemeral ends."
Q: From all of this, did Dawson have a deep-rooted, critical vision of modernity as culture or did he see anything redeeming in it?
Antúnez: In light of Dawson's analysis, it is the human being and his position in the universe that, as a result of the phenomena described above, was altered.
Even though he says in "Progress and Religion" that the new synthesis of modern man is superior in relation to the physical world compared to the synthesis of the 13th century, in its totality it is inferior. Human beings not only lost their central place in the universe as the link between the superior reality of the spirit and the inferior reality of matter, but "they were left in danger of being expelled from the intelligible order." This is due to the fact that the universe is conceived as a closed mechanical order, governed by mathematical laws, in which there is no room for the spiritual and moral values that were previously considered as the absolute reality.
However, Dawson's critique of modern culture does not imply -- thanks to human freedom -- an irreversible or a predetermined process. As with everything human, its persistence or defeat depends on human will. Nor does this necessarily imply a regress in the field of scientific and technological advances. On the contrary, considering them as positive results of the civilization in which they came to light, the Christian one, they are elements, among many, to be reintegrated into a search for a spiritual unity of culture.
[Carrie Gress contributed to this interview]
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