The Catholic University of America Press has undertaken to bring back into print a number of the major works of 20th-century British historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970). It is difficult to decide the best way to go about "reviewing" a work published in 1929 by someone long- and widely acknowledged as a major scholar and thinker. One approach is to evaluate whatever features the current edition offers in addition to the original text; in this case the additions, though not where the greatest value of the re-publication lies, are very useful in contextualizing the work for new and returning readers. Dawson's daughter Christina Scott provides a foreword containing a brief biography and a description of Dawson's overall intellectual and scholarly project (helpful particularly for those new to his writing and thought). She also notes that these reprints of Dawson's works will contain introductions by "scholars with the specialized knowledge to point out changes brought about by modern research." In this case the honors are done by anthropologist Mary Douglas, whose introduction is more a personal appreciation than an assessment of where Dawson's analysis stands in relation to later historical work. She does, however, provide compelling data for the intellectual history of 20th-century Catholicism by making clear the scope and audacity of Dawson's project.
Dawson's second book, Progress and Religion was conceived as the introduction to a planned five-volume history of culture. In it, he tells the large story of the history of civilizations in order to make his distinctive and impassioned case for the necessity of religion as the vital force in a living culture, and the consequent danger in which Europe and the west found itself as a result of having severed religion from the life of the culture. The apparently declensionist thrust of this narrative helps explain why Dawson has had and is having a revival in recent years more among conservative Catholic scholars than among liberal, a situation that I will return to below.
Dawson divides the argument of Progress and Religion into two major parts. In the first, he examines the disciplines of sociology, history and anthropology (Chapters I - III) in relation to the idea of progress, providing a capsule intellectual history of the 19th century. He finishes this first section with a chapter on "The Comparative Study of Religions and the Spiritual Element in Culture," in which, arguing that "the process of reducing the unintelligible multiplicity and heterogeneity of the sensible world to order and unity is co-extensive with the history of humanity" (69), he lays the groundwork for the multi-chapter review of the history of civilization and religion's role in it that forms the book's second half.
Part II turns to the origins of civilization and journeys through the whole of that history, simultaneously developing Dawson's own argument and drawing on and critiquing the works of contemporary scholars. In Chapter IX ("The Age of Science and Industrialism: The Decline of the Religion of Progress") and in his Conclusion, Dawson arrives at his own day and his own diagnosis of the plight of Europe between the wars: having abandoned religion, the spirit of the culture, Europe risked bringing about its own demise. Dawson sees this as tragic, since European culture could be uniquely capable of bringing together two elements that post-Enlightenment history had rigidly separated and on which any genuine human "progress" depended. "The organization of the material world by science and law which has been the characteristic task of modern European culture is in no sense alien to the genius of Christianity. For the progressive intellectualization of the material world which is the work of European science is analogous and complementary to the progressive spiritualization of human nature which is the function of the Christian religion. The future of humanity depends on the harmony and co-ordination of these two processes" (190).
This much farther on into the future of humanity and the history of Europe, how does Dawson's diagnosis hold up? Do his reflections have other than archival value for contemporary readers?
First, let's not diminish the importance of archival value. To any student or scholar of 20th- century Catholic intellectual history it is a wonderful thing to have key primary texts readily available, and Dawson's work are key texts. For anyone teaching courses on the religious, intellectual and cultural history of the U.S. and England in the first half of the last century, having these works back in print is something to be grateful for. Having said that, though, I think it is also important to address the more interesting and difficult question of how Dawson's analysis might play a role in contemporary research.
The usefulness of Progress and Religion (and, probably, much of Dawson's other work) as a secondary source is limited even Mary Douglas' appreciative introduction admits his research has been superseded (as, one presumes, he would have expected and hoped it would be). As an encounter with an exceptionally expansive and lucid mind asking incisive questions about the most important issues of his era, though, Dawson's work could not be more timely. The question is whether the people most likely to benefit from the encounter and, through the encounter, to further the discussion of the issues he raises will read his works.
It is relatively easy to make the case that Dawson's work provides a formal model for scholarly discussion. His work is an invitation to historians to take up ambitious synthetic questions, those posed not only by Dawson's time but by world events of the last few years, with a boldness not generally encouraged in the contemporary academy. His wide reading, his fairness to the argument of those with whom he disagrees and his invariably collegial professionalism of tone, again, are a balm to anyone feeling bruised by the sniping that characterizes so much academic and public interchange these days.
Progress and Religion offers more than a formal model, however it represents a substantive contribution to a conversation still going on. While I was reading this book and therefore thinking about progress more than I usually do, I was also teaching a 19th-century novel dealing with class disparity and the inequality of women. When I asked my class of undergraduates for their reaction to the novel, one of them said, "I'm just really glad things aren't like that anymore." I suspect the doctrine of progress is today more deeply entrenched than ever in the mind of the average person and at the same time more firmly rejected by most of the intellectuals historians, social scientists, philosophers, theologians likely to examine the issues that preoccupied Dawson. Which suggests to me that, for different reasons, both liberals and conservatives might want to grapple a bit more rigorously with the idea of the direction and whether there is one in which things have been moving or have moved since Dawson wrote.
If an informal web investigation is any indication, Dawson is currently most popular among those who see in events and trends of recent years confirmation that his diagnosis of the sickness of western culture was not only accurate but terminal. Agreeing with him too entirely, however, risks our being less energetic about evaluating our time than he was about addressing his own. It takes little effort simply to parrot his diagnosis (he scathingly calls his the Age of Cinema what would he do with the Age of Fear Factor?) and call him prescient, to see only a continued decline exactly according to the course he predicted. Dawson's concerns beg to be addressed by those addressing the clear heirs of the large trends he examines globalization, post-colonial change, the relationship of religion to modernity, among others none of which, clearly, has become less relevant in the past decade. The Christopher Dawson whose mind animates Progress and Religion would be a bracing, worthy colleague to anyone thinking seriously about these matters can we think of higher praise for any scholar's work 75 years on?