Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Christopher Dawson's Influence on Bernard Lonergan's Project of "Introducing History into Theology"

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Christopher Dawson's Influence on Bernard Lonergan's Project of "Introducing History into Theology"

Article excerpt

THIS ARTICLE FOCUSES on Bernard Lonergan's project of bringing history, as its own field and specialty, into conjunction with Biblical, foundational, doctrinal, and systematic forms of knowledge. In this endeavor, he was deeply influenced by Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), the British cultural historian and philosopher of history who was a Catholic convert. (1) An examination of Dawson's influence offers a broad context for opening the historical dimension of Lonergan's contribution to Catholic theology and provides a significant approximation and example of what Lonergan proposes in Method in Theology as "critical history," or history as it explains "the meaning going forward" in a tradition.

I.1 Christopher Dawson's Method

The initiation of Dawson's life-long work as a historian of culture had its promising start during Holy Week 1909, when, at the age of 20, while still a student at Oxford, Dawson joined his longtime friend Edward Watkin, himself a recent convert, for his first visit to Rome. Having attended the Holy Triduum ceremonies at the different basilicas, he was stunned by the synergy of the ambience of Roman pagan antiquity and the living Catholic faith that he found there. He was already familiar, and agreed with Lord Acton's hypothesis that "religion is the key to history." There, in Rome, the immediate sense of the flow of historical existence awakened in him the desire to serve the important recovery of the step-by-step process by which Christianity had transformed the collapsing empire into the new creation of a Christian culture.

Dawson was both familiar and impressed with Edward Gibbon's, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (2) and had a keen appreciation both of Gibbon's style of writing and of his broad historical knowledge. (3) While rejecting Gibbon's claim that Christianity had been the cause of the collapse of the empire, Dawson had not yet worked out his own "upper blade" for translating Acton's vision into practice in regard to Gibbon's claims. On Easter Sunday he climbed the steps to the church of Ara Coeli, situated on the Capitoline hill, where Gibbon had stood when he was inspired to take up his project of the history of the Roman Empire. Christina Scott, Dawson's daughter, reports that there is a note in her father's journal sometime late in 1909 recalling "a vow made at Easter at the Ara Coeli" and that Dawson had been thinking of how the vow might be fulfilled, noting that he had in the meantime gotten "great light on the way it may be carried out. However unfit I may be, I believe it is God's will I should attempt it." (4) There would be four difficult years before Dawson would follow the steps of John Henry Newman and his friend Watkin and enter the Roman Catholic Church, being baptized on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1914 by Fr. O'Hare, SJ, at St. Aloysius Church, Oxford. (5)

By this time, Dawson's image for fulfilling his plan was taking shape as a result of his research and reading that was part of his preparation of a study of world civilizations and with the intention of writing a five-volume history of culture. By 1922 he had worked out a theory of the cycles of civilizations before having read Oswald Spengler's work, The Decline of the West, with which he was to be in serious disagreement because of its failure to grasp the dynamic interactions of different cultures. Dawson's own approach to a theory proposed a schema that would analyze the dynamic interconnection of civilizations from 4000 B.C. to the twentieth century. His conclusion was that civilizations were the result of parent (often primitive) cultures, which had distinct stages of origin, progress, and maturity, leading, in turn, to the emergence of new cultures. This heuristic had been identified by means of the massive research that he had done for his first major book published in 1928, The Age of the Gods: A Study in the Origins of Culture in Pre-historic Europe and the Ancient East. …

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