Monday, March 2, 2015

Reading History, Muttering Wow

I have finished reading Christopher Dawson’s book The Formation of Christendom and am reviewing my notes on it for a longer post.

The first thing that strikes me is that I wrote the word WOW in the margin of my book four times. History that makes you say WOW is history worth reading.

Here are my four WOW moments reading Dawson:

1. Dawson’s erudition defies credibility. His mastery of the history of Christendom makes the jaw drop. Here’s one sentence that illustrates my point.

“When the Mongols destroyed the capital of the Muslim world [Baghdad] in 1258, a representative of the Armenian subculture, Kiriakos of Kantzag, hailed its downfall in the same accents as those with which the Hebrew prophet had rejoiced over the fall of Nineveh nearly two thousand years before.”

That Dawson had so many data points at his fingertips and could connect them with such a broad vision awes me beyond saying.

2. As a Catholic historian, Dawson managed to reframe key episodes in Church history to shed fresh light on them. Regarding the Inquisition, for example, he was hardly naive, pointing out judicial torture, introduced in 1251, as one of the Inquistion’s “worst features.” But those who criticize the Church for the Inquisition in short dismissive phrases probably have not studied it as deeply as Dawson.

The Inquisition, he notes, began as a reaction to the Catharist movement. This, he adds, “should perhaps be regarded not so much as a heresy as a rival religion, since it was rooted in the non-Christian and perhaps pre-Christian dualism of the ancient East, which was transmitted to the West, through the Balkan peninsula, by the Paulicians and the Bogomils.” That was a WOW for me: another display of knowledge that few could rival.

Going on, he writes, "Catholicism’s most dangerous foe was not some form of simplified or rationalized Christianity, but a religion which regarded the body and the whole material world as the creation of Satan, condemned marriage and childbearing as essentially sinful. It was forbidden for the Catharist not only to marry, but to kill any living thing, or to eat anything that was the fruit of sexual generation.”

The campaign against the Catharists, begun in the 13th century, was nothing more or less than an internal Crusade.

3. Dawson explains something that has always perplexed me. How could Joan of Arc, a saint, have been condemned and executed by a panel of Catholic clerics?

In his final chapter, he begins by noting “two essential characteristics” of the Christian faith and Catholic Church: universality and uniqueness. That is, while the Church is a worldwide institution (the largest and longest-lived), it serves the spiritual needs and respects the spiritual experience of the individual. “The Catholic Church,” he writes, “in spite of its elaborate hierarchical organization, its world wide extension and its authoritarian claims, has never lost contact with its individual members. The men of power and the men of learning have quarreled with the Church, but the little men and women of all ages have made it their home.

“Every Christian,” Dawson writes, “has a direct access to the heart of the mystery.”

But these two aspects of the Church must be kept in balance, or communion. “The closer the communion between them,” he says, “the more flourishing is [the Church’s] condition, whereas if they become in any way disconnected or dislocated, everything tends to go wrong, as in the fifteenth century when the hierarchical Church condemned and burned St. Joan of Arc and Savonarola.”

That was a third WOW for me. Here is the fourth, the final sentence in The Formation of Christendom. It needs little comment:

4. “Each [of the six Christian ages so far] has its own record of achievement and failure and each has played its part in the world mission of the Church, the progressive transformation of humanity by the new principle of divine life which was brought into the world by the Incarnation and which will continue its work through the whole course of human history until the end of time.”

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