Christopher Dawson and the New Age

Christopher Dawson and the New Age December 29, 2005

Christopher Dawson, who died in 1970, was one of the leading historians of the twentieth century. A devout Roman Catholic, hededicated his career, and some 25 books, to understanding andexplaining history, particularly Western history, from aChristian perspective. One little book, Christianity and the New Age, provides a glimpse of thewisdom of this remarkable writer.

Originally published in 1931, “Christianity and the New Age” does not deal directly with the popular neo-paganism that has recently been going under the label of “New Age.” Rather, Dawson focuses on the decades around the beginning of this century, which he sees as amajor turning point in Western history. It was a time, he says, when liberalism and nationalism, which had dominated the 19th century, “had won their long fight with the old [Christian]order, but they had lost their own ideals.”

These decades saw the collapse of the humanism that hadarisen with the Renaissance, a collapse that, Dawson argues, was inevitable because of the inherently self-destructive nature of humanism. Medieval men rooted their lives in the “supernatural.” Renaissance men, by contrast, “rejected their dependence on the supernatural,” but this “self-affirmation of man gradually led to the denial of the spiritual foundations of his freedom andknowledge.” Humanism is a parasite, stealing what life it hasfrom its Christian host. The end result of humanism divorced from Christianity is man “stripped of his glory and freedom and left as a naked human animal shivering in an inhuman universe.” (I suspect the Renaissance, at least in some sectors, was more friendly to Christianity than Dawson suggests.)

Once Western man had uprooted his social and cultural lifefrom its Christian moorings, the way was opened for various forms of materialism. Hence, Marxism became the “quasi-religious” driving force of much of the world. More immediately dangerousto the West, however, is its passive acceptance of “the practicalmaterialization of culture.”

In this context, Dawson has some harsh words for the “mechanization” of life in this century, but he is not an opponent of technological progress; rather, “the disease of modern civilization lies neither in science nor in machinery, but in the false philosophy with which it has been associated.” Indeed, in one of his most dramatic insights, Dawson says that the machine is “a vindication of spiritual order,” both because it is an artefact of Christian culture and “since it frees man from his age-long ‘animal’ condition of dependence on nature andmaterial circumstance.” Thus, “the restoration of man to his true position as the master of nature and the organizer of the material world, which is the function of science, corresponds in the natural order to the spiritual restoration of human nature initself, which is the work of Christianity in the supernatural order.”

Prophetically, Dawson recognized that Western man could not construct the totally materialistic culture that humanism desired. He argues that “however far back we go in history, and however primitive is the type of culture, we do find evidence for the existence of specifically religious needs and ideas of thesupernatural.” Because “man cannot live by reason alone,” Dawson predicted that Western man would be “driven to take refuge in the non-rational.”

The great strength of Dawson’s work is that he not only diagnoses the West’s illnesses but he also prescribes a cure. The problem facing the West, he says, is how “spiritual experience is to be brought into living relation with human life and with the social order.” Simply put, the cure, the solution, is Christianity, because Christianity alone among the world’s religions “brings the spiritual world into vital and fruitful communion with the life of man.”

If Christianity is to be brought into relation to society, however, several false conceptions of Christianity must be rejected. Dawson castigates Christians who regard their faith as “a limited department of life, which ha[s] no jurisdiction overthe rest,” and warns that pietism, which divorces religious experience from doctrine, weakens and discredits the ethical side of Christianity, and leaves Christianity vulnerable to attack.

Instead, Christianity must be proclaimed in its totality. It “alone among the great faiths of the world was essentially based on the belief in a Holy Society.” Even in the Old Testament, Israel was intended to be “the source of a universal Kingdom of God, which should embrace all nations, and in whichthe creative purpose of God should find its ultimatefulfillment.” Jesus did not come proclaiming a retreat from human life and society, but the coming of a “new order inaugurated by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus,” in short, “the mystical and spiritual reign of God in humanity . . . .already immanent in the present order, which it is destined totransform and supersede-it is a leaven and a seed and a hidden treasure.” This new order is already “incorporated in a spiritual society,” so that “the Church was itself the future kingdom in embryo.”

The goal of this new order, Dawson argues, is “nothing less than the re-creation of humanity.” Dawson argues that, since the Christian is a citizen of two realms, “every Christian mind is a seed of change so long as it is a living mind,” and “a Christian has only to “be in order to change the world.” Thus, “it is the function of theChurch to sow this divine seed, to produce not merely good men, but spiritual men-that is to say, supermen.” Thus the Church “is the organ through which the Spirit enters the social process and builds up a new humanity. The spirit breathes and they are created and the face of the earth is renewed.”

I cannot agree with everything in this book. Dawson is very uncharitable and inaccurate in his treatment of Protestantism,and there is some typically Roman Catholic mysticism. But overall, there is more wisdom in this little book than in many fat volumes of secularist history or philosophy.

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