I was like a person who delves into his family’s genealogy, seeking a deeper connection with the ancestors. I was like a Little Leaguer who memorizes statistics about those enshrined in the Hall of Fame, hoping some day to write records of my own. I was like a scientist, too, who time-travels in company with a brotherhood of fellow searchers, hoping to further their journey.
I never had such a clear sense of connection with the past as a Congregationalist or Episcopalian in my well-churched youth. The Catholic Church gave me this connection.
So when a highly respected Catholic friend suggested that I read Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, I started right in. I began with Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, which I gave five stars at Goodreads. Now I’ve moved on to two books tracing the history of the Church since the first century. The first of these is The Formation of Christendom, about which I’ve already written briefly already.
The purpose of this post is to summarize a few other key ideas I underlined in The Formation of Christendom.
Dawson writes, “It is impossible to understand Christianity without studying the history of Christianity.” Later he adds, “Of all the forms of Christianity Catholicism is the one that is most deeply committed to history . . . ”
Dawson’s primary purpose is studying how the history and particularly the culture of Europe was shaped and developed by the influence of Catholicism. He identifies six ages of the church:
- Early Christian, from beginning to the Peace of the Church (Constantine)
- Patristic period, from the conversion of Rome to the rise of Islam in the seventh century
- Formation of Western Christendom and the “predominance of Byzantine culture in the East” (600–1000)
- Great Age of Medieval Culture, from ecclesiastical reform of the eleventh century to the Renaissance and Reformation (1000–early 1500s)
- Divided Christendom, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation until the French Revolution
- Modern Age, not yet ended
He effectively says so in the book’s final sentence: “Each [age of the Church] 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.”
To study European civilization since the death of Christ was for Dawson nothing less than to study the aftershocks and enduring vitality of God among us.
A few bullet points on what struck me with the force of mini-wows:
The Jews as Our Ancestors in Faith
In pre-Christian times, the Jewish tradition “stood out in uncompromising hostility to the religious traditions of the more civilized peoples that surrounded the Jews. . . . One little people obstinately refused to be assimilated. . . . This [was] an exceptional situation.”
The “integrated development” of the Old Testament into the New observed by the Catholic Church “has no parallel among the religions of the world.” In this development, “the Kingdom is the goal of history, and all history is seen as a preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.” That is, the Judeo-Christian view of history is linear, not cyclic.
“The kingdom which Jesus preached was not the kingdom that the Jews were expecting.” Consequently, the “Messianic crisis of the Way of the Cross was the turning point . . . The Jewish people as a whole were carried onwards irresistibly into the vortex of war and destruction which destroyed the bridges between the Jewish and Gentile worlds and forced them to fall back on the Study of the Law as the ultimate citadel of Jewish national being, while the Christians took the opposite path and began, tentatively at first, to draw nearer to the Gentile world that surrounded them.”
Early Christian Period
A few short observations were striking to me here. Dawson calls the Acts of the Apostles “authentic history” but also “a kind of Christian epic . . . the spiritual Aeneid of the Church.” About the martyrs of the first period he notes, “In early Christian culture the figure of the martyr took the place of that of the hero in pagan culture.”
He quotes the remarkable Epistle to Diognetus: Christians, the text says, are a “third race. . . . The world may persecute the Christians, but although the world hates them, they are the principle of life on which the world depends. For God has called them to this great office and they cannot shirk this responsibility.”
Here, amid discussion of the Fathers and early monastic movements, I was particularly struck by Dawson’s definition of the Catholic liturgy.
Early liturgies, he writes, were the “fullest embodiment [of] the spiritual unity of Christian culture.” Our liturgy he defines as “the anonymous work of centuries of growth, so that it may be compared to the growth of a natural organism.” Here is Dawson’s core idea: the way the Word made flesh has developed within a people as a microorganism in a lab culture.
Formation of Western Christendom
Perhaps the most interesting realization I came to reading Dawson was that early Europe—the land most Americans of Dawson’s day were descended from—began as a collection of barbarian tribes who swarmed across the continent during and at the end of the Roman era. Catholic Christianity was the force that transformed these tribes into European civilization.
“Medieval culture,” Dawson writes, “was Christian culture par excellence. . . . It was the culture of Christian barbarians—of barbarians who were becoming Christians and of Christians who were themselves in part barbarians.”
“From the religious point of view,” this period from 600 to 1000 AD was “pre-eminently a missionary period. . . . It saw the conversion of our own parent stocks—the Celtic and Germanic peoples of the West, the Franks, the Anglo-Saxons, the Lombards and the Saxons, and later on the Scandinavians, the Poles and the Hungarians, and in Eastern Europe, the Russians, the Bulgars, and the Yugoslavs.” In other words, those of us who descend from European peoples are ultimately descended from barbarian “stock” converted to Christianity.
This helps to explain many aspects of the—
Great Age of Medieval Culture
—especially the Crusades.
“It was the Crusade,” Dawson says, “more than any other single factor which brought the unity of Christendom home to lay society as a fact of daily experience: so that the age of the Crusades—the two centuries from 1095 onwards—was also the great age of medieval unity and the period during which the moral and social authority of the Papacy was greatest.
“In the Crusades, the warlike energies of European society found an explicitly religious outlet.” The Crusades were “a real fusion between the native tradition of the warrior peoples of Western Europe and the ideals of the Church and the Christian tradition.”
Finally, the so-called High Middle Ages were anything but a dark period in history. This period “saw the building of the great cathedrals and monastic houses, the foundation of the new medieval cities, the development of canon law, Scholastic philosophy, and vernacular literature.”
That is to say, “The achievement of the later Middle Ages from the eleventh to the fifteenth century deserves the mane of a ‘renaissance’ better than the more limited movement to which the name has been appropriated.”
Dawson’s history of European culture infused by the Word of God is a history all Catholics and Christians can be proud of. It certainly bears further study. I will be moving on soon to the companion volume, The Dividing of Christendom.