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"Religion and culture" and "faith and the renewal of society" in Christopher Dawson and Pope Benedict XVI.

CULTURE FIRST FOUND a place in the Church's magisterial teaching during the Second Vatican Council. Gaudium et Spes in particular contains an entire chapter on culture. (1) The document strongly states that "it is a feature of the human person that it can achieve true and full humanity only by means of culture, that is, through the cultivation of the goods and values of nature. Whenever, therefore, there is a question of human life, nature and culture are intimately linked together." (2) The importance placed on culture by Vatican II ensured its place in the writings of the pontiffs following the Council. (3) A particularly important moment in the promotion of culture as a central facet of the Church's life came with Blessed John Paul II's establishment of the Pontifical Council for Culture. He gave nearly annual addresses to the Council from 1983 to 1999, during which he deepened Vatican II's teaching on culture by placing it centrally within the task of the New Evangelization. The following demonstrates John Paul's firm conviction on the crucial role of culture: "On the eve of the Third Millennium, the apostolic mission of the Church commits her to a new evangelization in which culture assumes fundamental importance." (4) And further: "A faith that does not become culture is not fully accepted, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived." (5) Thus, a further investigation of culture and its significance has been placed by the Church as a central task today. In order to take up this challenge, I will explore the importance of culture for the Church and theology today by examining the connections between the thought of Pope Benedict XVI and the historian of culture, Christopher Dawson. (6)

Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) has consistently focused on the themes of religion and culture throughout his scholarly career, themes that formed the very basis of Christopher Dawson's career as a historian, social scientist, and lecturer in Catholic Studies. Though there are many links between their thought, to my knowledge, Benedict does not make any explicit reference to Dawson in his writings. (7) Nevertheless, Dawson's thought provides compelling depth to Benedict's account of culture and religion, and furthermore climaxes in a theme very dear to Benedict: the spiritual renewal of Western civilization. Dawson engaged in a project of cultural history that began in the very origins of culture and stretched throughout history until what he saw to be a defining moment within our own time. Dawson recognized that Western civilization embarked on a new and dangerous project by explicitly eliminating religion from culture. Without religion to provide a moral vision, he warned that the West faced an overwhelming threat in the rise of a powerful and uncontrolled technocratic civilization. His thought provides the background necessary to bolster Benedict's call to recognize the necessary role that religion plays in any culture and more specifically the need for the Christian faith, in relation to reason, to renew the waning, secular West. This article will examine their common ground in these areas and offer concrete suggestions on how Dawson can provide assistance in the Church's task of cultural renewal.

I. Religion and Culture

Though both Dawson and Benedict predominantly focus on a renewal of Western culture through a return to its Christian roots, to turn immediately to this point would be to move too quickly. The foundation for this focus is based more foundationally on their view of the general relation between religion and culture, of which Christianity's role in the West is a particular example. Therefore, we must begin by examining the phenomenon of religion and its relation to culture in both Dawson and Benedict.


Turning first to the nature of religion, both thinkers agree that human nature is intrinsically ordered toward something beyond itself. Dawson sees religion as a "recognition of a superhuman Reality of which man is somehow conscious and towards which he must in some way orient his life." (8) This ordering creates a desire for the infinite, which Benedict calls a thirst. He asks: "Is it not perhaps the case that the thirst for the infinite is a fundamental aspect of human nature? Is not, indeed, this thirst the very essence of human nature?" (9) For both thinkers, the orientation toward a superhuman reality or the infinite constitutes a fundamental experience of human life. While Benedict speaks of religion as the essence of human nature, Dawson affirms that it "lies at the very centre of human consciousness, in man's sense of his dependence on higher powers and of his relation to the spiritual world." (10) If these assertions are true then there must be evidence of this in history. The order of human nature is reflected for Benedict by the fact that "the history of religions is coextensive with the history of humanity. As far as we know, there has never been an epoch in which the question of the One who is totally other, the Divine, has been alien to man. The knowledge of God has always existed." (11) For Benedict and Dawson, humanity is religious by essence, which can be seen throughout history.

If religion is held to be part of human nature, the question arises as to whether it is natural in the sense that it is contained simply and even exclusively within humanity itself. Benedict himself asked this question of the representatives of world religions that he gathered in Assisi: "Is there such a thing as a common nature of religion that finds expression in all religions and is therefore applicable to them all?" (12) Benedict opens the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth with a clarification on this point. While affirming the universality of religious experience, he affirms that it always points to something further: "In every age, man's questioning has focused not only on his ultimate origin; almost more than the obscurity of his beginnings, what preoccupies him is the blessedness of the future that awaits him. Man wants to tear aside the curtain; he wants to know what is going to happen, so that he can avoid perdition and set out toward salvation." (13) The religious nature of humanity is not satisfied with the mundane, but seeks to look beyond. Human beings would never religiously be satisfied with a solipsistic experience of themselves. Dawson affirms this very vividly: "For there is in human nature a hunger and a thirst for the transcendent and the divine which cannot be satisfied with anything less than God." (14) Though religion springs forth from a deep longing and order within humanity, it cannot be reduced to nature or any natural experience.

A further question could be asked. Even if religion cannot be reduced to the natural, through its foundation in human nature can we say that all religions are essentially the same? Such a position seems to be held by Benedict, as he states: "There is in fact a wide sphere of religion in which commonly shared 'religious experience' ... is more decisive than differences between outward forms." (15) While acknowledging some basic commonalities in religion (at least in a "wide sphere"), he also asserts that "if we look at the history of religion as whole ... we get a far less static impression; we meet with a far greater element of genuine historical dynamic (history professes; it is not merely a constant symbolic recurrence of the same thing)." (16) This point is not merely assumed, but the various stages are laid out: "primitive," "mythical," "mysticism," the "monotheistic revolution," and "enlightenment" (where "rational knowledge is set up as the absolute value"). (17) The development of religion is actually one of the key aspects of the thought of Dawson and he largely follows this same organization of the stages. (18) Though Dawson treats this topic in many of his major works, such as Age of the Gods, Progress and Religion, and The Formation of Christendom, it can be seen most succinctly in "Religion and the Life of Civilization," (19) where he follows the same development as Benedict, although he passes over the monotheistic revolution, a lack for which compensation can be found in Christianity and the New Age. (20) Dawson sees the development of history and civilization as driven from within. The development of religion is intrinsically bound up with the development of civilization. Dawson argues that "the historian of civilisation must look above all for the great spiritual movements which give unity and continuity to the world cultures." (21) The changes in culture have followed the development of religion: "Religion is the great dynamic force in social life, and the vital changes in civilization are always linked with changes in religious beliefs and ideals." (22) Religion, for Dawson, is the guiding force of history and the development of culture and thus must be studied in relation to them. (23)


If Dawson's theory of the relation and religion and culture is correct, then both his and Benedict's articulation of religion must be complemented by an articulation of the nature of culture. It is to this endeavor that I now turn. It is helpful to begin with Dawson, who devotes great effort in defining culture throughout his writing. As a historian with expertise in sociology and anthropology, we should expect to find a more complete description of the nature of culture. In The Formation of Christendom, he articulates the key aspects of culture: "Even in the case of the simplest known or conceivable culture there are at least four of these factors without which it cannot exist. There are: (1) the sociological factor, or the principle of social organization; (2) the geographical or ecological factor--the adaptation of culture to its physical environment; (3) the economic factor--the relation between man's 'way of life' and the way in which he 'gains his living'; and (4) the moral factor--the regulation of human life in conformity with some system of values and standards of behavior." (24) Thus, Dawson presents a very integrated description of culture, one focused on a unified group of people, adapting themselves to their surroundings by a coherent way of life that has both practical aspects and deeper, more interior ones. (25)

Benedict does not go into such great detail, but has a description of culture that gets at the essence of Dawson's theory. Dawson clearly thinks the aspects listed above are essential for culture, which provides humanity with order and stability. In Truth and Tolerance Benedict gives what he calls "something like a definition of culture," namely, that "culture is the social form of expression, as it has grown up in history, of those experiences and evaluations that have left their mark on a community and have shaped it." (26) He also graphically portrays the human dependence on culture as follows: "The individual is no longer exposed alone to the abysses of his own existence but sees himself as the member of a race, a nation, a culture that bestows directly upon him the form and direction of that existence, that guarantees him safety, freedom, life--that are 'salvation.'" (27) Culture provides identity and even salvation in the sense that the individual is not left exposed to the difficulties of life, but is provided with direction, an identity and vision of life that includes both the exterior and the interior.

Culture cannot simply be reduced to the physical, but as Benedict notes it provides a form for existence. Thus, the unity of physical and spiritual in human nature is reflected also in culture, though in them both it is the interior that is the principle of the exterior. Even the physical aspects of culture are held together by interior principles, which can be seen even in Dawson's most anthropological work, The Age of the Gods: "A culture can only be understood from within. It is a spiritual community which owes its unity to common beliefs and a common attitude to life, far more than to any uniformity of physical type." (28) This is not to deny the important role of the physical and material, but rather to show that these aspects are drawn into the unity of culture by the power of the spirit. Dawson draws out the unity of these two aspects very poignantly in Religion and Culture: "We have seen that every social culture is at once a material way of life and a spiritual order. ... the material and spiritual factors interpenetrate one another so completely that they form an inseparable unity, so that religion and life have become one." (29) Benedict agrees with this mutuality between the interior and exterior aspects of culture. He states: "One would have to speak ... about a reciprocal influence: spiritual attitudes determine economic behaviors; then economic situations in turn retroactively influence religious and moral ways of seeing the world." (30) This is a very crucial point of connection with Dawson, who, as we saw above, unites the development of religion and culture. Not surprisingly, they also share the position that the interior is the higher element of culture, which can be seen in Benedict's Truth and Tolerance: "In all known historical cultures, religion is an essential element of culture, is indeed its determinative center; it is religion that determines the scale of values and, thereby, the inner cohesion and hierarchy of all these cultures." (31) It is the internal, the spiritual, that constitutes the highest element of human life and provides the basis for the organization of the external into a unified and purposeful whole.


Benedict's claim that "religion is the essential element of culture," leads us to the next logical step in this investigation, which is the relation of religion to culture. It should be clear already that for both thinkers religion lies at the very heart of culture and can even lay claim to being its essential component. Religion's central role in the life of culture may be the very thesis of Dawson's corpus of writing. He articulates this thesis as follows: "It is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture"; (32) and "I believe that every culturally vital society must possess a religion, whether explicit or disguised, and that the religion of a society determines to a great extent its cultural form." (33) Religion is important not only in its own right, but also for its role in culture. A culture needs something more than racial, geographic, and economic unity to unite its people in a coherent vision of reality with compelling purpose. This can only be supplied by something deeper and more transcendent than the material. This view is supported by Benedict: "The nucleus of culture is faith itself. ... Faith is erudition, the civilizing of man, his development in openness and depth." (34) Knowledge of the divine is the key aspect of faith and also religion for Benedict. Humanity needs grounding in the ultimate, and religion provides the answer. His argument follows these general lines: first, "Culture is concerned with understanding"; second, "In any question concerning man and the world, the question about the Divinity is always included as the preliminary and really basic question"; third, "No one can understand the world at all, no one can order his life rightly, so long as the question about the Divinity remains unanswered"; and finally, "the heart of the great cultures is that they interpret the world by setting in order their relationship to the Divinity." (35) Benedict uses knowledge of the divine as a way of describing Dawson's thesis about the central role of religion in culture.

The question then might arise as to whether one has simply reduced culture to religion. If culture is formed and guided by religion, has the earthly lost its autonomy? Both Dawson and Benedict agree that culture actually advances the material in culture. Dawson lays out his vision on how religion serves culture as follows: "Throughout the great part of mankind's history, in all ages and states of society, religion has been the great central unifying force in culture. It has been the guardian of tradition, the preserver of the moral law, the education and teacher of wisdom. In addition to this conservative function, religion also had a creative, conative, dynamic function, as energizer and life giver." (36) Religion conserves the inherited wisdom of the ages and transmits it to new generations, invigorating them with a dynamic vision. It creates even mundane energy ordered toward material progress and technical advancements. An objection could be raised from Dawson's own work: "As civilization becomes materially richer and more powerful, it becomes spiritually weaker and poorer." (37) He answers this problem by placing religion's role on a higher plane, "the plane of spiritual experience and religious faith," which "is also the center of unity for man and society. ... In the last resort every civilization depends not on its material resources and its methods of production but on the spiritual vision of its great minds and on the way in which this experience is transmitted to the community by faith and tradition and education." (38) Religion is essential for the functioning of culture, even in its material aspects, but the material does not exist for its own sake. It is taken up and integrated within the entire life of the people, as guided by religion.

Benedict likewise thinks that religion serves culture, though like Dawson he does not place emphasis primarily on the material, but once again puts a decisive emphasis on knowledge. He notes that "faith itself is cultural. ... Simply by telling man who he is and how he should go about being human, faith is creating culture and is culture." (39) As referenced above, knowledge of the divine enables humanity to have security about its identity and to have real knowledge and purpose toward anything. However, Benedict was speaking of faith, which cannot simply be equated with "sheer religion." (40) This insight leads to another major aspect of the two thinkers' articulation of religion and culture, which is the distinction between religion in general and those religions that claim faith in a revelation from God.


In differentiating faith and religion, Benedict makes it very clear that "a postulate of the first order for any carefully differentiated theology of religions would be the precise clarification of the concepts of faith and religion." (41) While religion as a general phenomenon consists of humanity's attempt to find the truth of God and relate to this truth, Benedict clarifies that "what is special about the self-understanding of Christian faith" is "that it is at the heart the self-revelation of truth itself." (42) Truth is a crucial aspect of Benedict's articulation of culture and the role of religion in culture, but Christianity offers a unique presentation of the truth. It is not simply a product of the interplay of religion and culture, because "faith in ... revelation springs, not from any one single culture, but from an intervention from above." (43) Christianity is a rupture in the general history of the development of religion as God has intervened and given knowledge and life on a level greater than is naturally accessible.

One would expect this distinction and level of precision in a theologian, but may not expect to find it in a historian. On the contrary, Dawson clearly distinguishes Christianity from the general understanding of religion: "Christianity ... transcends the sphere of nature and brings human life into immediate contact and communion with the divine source of supernatural life. Christianity is at once the revelation of the inadequacy of human knowledge and civilization and the communication of Divine life by which alone human nature can be restored and healed." (44) To get even more theologically precise, he states that "faith transcends the sphere of rational knowledge ... and brings the mind into close contact with super-intelligible reality." (45) If religion in general is meant to provide a vision for culture, the ability to see in union with the supernatural enables a leap beyond the normal course of history. Benedict affirms that "the Christian faith ... is not a product of our own experiences; rather it is an event that comes to us from without. ... It is not our experience that is widened or deepened--that is the case in the strictly 'mystical' models; but something happens." (46) Dawson likewise posits that the "Jewish revelation is altogether different in kind from those revelations of esoteric wisdom. ... It was a creative revelation ... the introduction of a divine principle in history." (47) Something radically different from the rest of the history of religion has occurred in Judeo-Christian revelation. (48)

Both Benedict and Dawson point even more directly to the distinguishing character of Judaism and Christianity, which derives from a personal relation to God. For Dawson, the God of Israel differed "from the age of tradition of the god of the city" and from the theory of "a metaphysical principle like Brahman or Tao," because "He was a personality." (49) If God is personal then this provides the possibility for a relation that draws one beyond one's own experience. Benedict reflects on the fact that "man does not find salvation in a reflective finding of himself but in the being-taken-out-of-himself that goes beyond reflection ... by accepting the other." (50) He contrasts this with mysticism, in which "inwardness holds the first place; spiritual experience is posited as an absolute. ... The monotheistic way starts from the conviction that is the opposite of this: here man is the passive element upon whom God acts." (51) God is the actor in history and the one who brings about Judeo-Christian religion: "If a genuine relationship is to come into existence, God must take the initiative; it is he who must come to meet man and address him." (52) This view of the relation of God and humanity culminates in the Incarnation. (53) Dawson articulates the significance of this event in the history of religion: "This conception of the Incarnation as the bridge between God and Man, the marriage of Heaven and Earth, the channel through which the material world is spiritualized and brought back to unity, distinguishes Christianity from all the other Oriental religions, and involves a completely new attitude to life." (54) God and humanity are brought together as one; the spiritual and the material, the two poles of culture, are truly united as God has taken on flesh and given a new spiritual significance to the world and history.

The culmination of the theory of religion and culture articulated by these two thinkers centers, therefore, on Christ. Speaking of the significance of the Incarnation for Christian faith, Dawson relates that "amid the diversity and discontinuity of human civilizations and traditions there appears One who is one and the same for all men and for all ages; in whom all the races and traditions of man find their common centre." (55) If religion could be called a search for the infinite, in Christianity the Infinite One has sought out humanity and given a definitive revelation that accounts for all the diverse longings and gropings for meaning. Dawson even states that there is a "traditional Christian theory of the successive world ages as progressive stages of revelation," which culminates in "the idea of a providential preparation through which all the positive elements in the pre-Christian and non-Christian world find their fulfillment in the Kingdom of God." (56) The history of religion finds its providential fulfillment in Christianity, which takes up any elements of truth of goodness found in prior and imperfect religious expressions. Benedict holds a very similar position, which he articulates in Truth and Tolerance: "religions ... need to recognize their own adventual character, the way they point forward to Christ." (57) Religion and even culture are inwardly ordered toward Christ in their search for truth and goodness. Benedict argues that cultures "have the inherent capacity for progression. ... [T]he inward readiness for the revelation of God is written into them. Revelation is not something alien to them; rather, it corresponds to an inner expectation in the cultures themselves." (58) Christ is the center of history, and as the revelation of God, he makes clear and accessible the end toward which all culture and religion strive throughout history.

II. Critique of Modern Culture

The first section sought to clarify how religion and culture form a dynamic unity that finds its ultimate fulfillment in the coming of Christ. If this is true, the stark contrast with modern culture must be clear. Is modern culture really a culture, and how are we to understand its order and goals? Both Dawson and Benedict agree that modern culture is an anomaly in the history of religion and culture and that due to its denial of religion it is seriously jeopardized by interior frustration and even destruction.


It is ironic that both thinkers affirm that the secularist culture of modern society is not devoid of religion. Dawson defines religion broadly: "For since man is essentially spiritual, any power that claims to control the whole man is forced to transcend relative and particular aims and to enter the sphere of absolute values, which is the realm of religion." (59) Western culture has not abandoned religion absolutely speaking, but only its traditional religion in Christianity. This new religion is not one that serves the same purposes, as defined above, of providing a spiritual and moral vision of the absolute, but rather focuses on terrestrial and self-centered aims. (60) Dawson describes "the religious mind that no longer conceives the possibility of spiritual intuition or supernatural revelation. It is driven back upon the lower type of religious experience, which primitive man possessed when he worshiped the daimonic powers that seemed to rule his life." (61) Primitive religion focused on the religious nature of the concrete, which expressed hidden and even dark forces that controlled the world. Dawson explicitly claims that losing transcendent and divine "spiritual character" leads to becoming "the servant of lower powers" that "inevitably leads to nihilism and self-destruction." (62) Living through the world wars, Dawson himself saw the destruction of this new atheistic religion. Benedict, while a witness to this destruction as well, describes a later form of self-destruction, more interior and hidden, but just as devastating to the soul. He puts his finger on one form of modern pseudoreligion:
  The "great journey" that men attempt in drugs is the perversion of
  mysticism, the perversion of the human need for infinity, the
  rejection of the impossibility of transcending immanence, and the
  attempt to extend the limits of one's own existence into the
  infinite. The patient and humble adventure of asceticism, which, in
  small steps of ascent, comes closer to the descending God, is
  replaced by magical power, the magical key of drugs--the ethical
  and religious path is replaced by technology. Drugs are
  pseudo-mysticism of a world that does not believe yet cannot rid a
  soul's yearning for paradise. (63)

This is one example of how "religion withdraws into the private realm. But it does not disappear: it only changes form and thereby, of course, its inner essence too." (64) In the end, the thought of both authors can be summarized by this rousing passage from Benedict: "We are threatened today by a new paganism in the enlightened Western world, but also for this reason in all other cultures too. The man who excludes the one good foundation of all things as too distant, too uncertain and too unimportant, so that he may turn instead to the powers that lie closer at hand, abases himself. The decomposition of the Christian synthesis facing us must ultimately also lead to a disintegration of man himself." (65) Religion has remained an important, driving factor in human culture, although it has become a degenerate force that in its truncated trajectory leaves humanity in a state of frustration and even self-destruction. The deepest longings of human life are being denied and turned inward, cut off from their true source of fulfillment.


Though one can say that modern culture has retained some kind of quasi-religion insofar as it still has some ultimate orientation, the lack of a true transcendent order is still a major difficulty that for both thinkers imperils its life. Dawson speaks passionately of this concern, which he raises in his introduction to Enquiries into Religion and Culture: "The central conviction which has dominated my mind ever since I began to write, and which has increased in intensity during the last twenty years, is the conviction that the society or culture which has lost its spiritual roots is a dying culture, however prosperous it may appear externally." (66) Culture at its heart is an ordering of life, which unites and grounds people in a transcendent vision, one that provides lasting meaning to all of their actions. Religion is so central to culture that "a society that has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture," (67) and is "condemned to sterility and decadence." (68) This is not to say that necessarily the society will immediately crumble materially, but that what truly makes it a culture has begun to fade and that the center of the life of the people can no longer hold society together and guide it. Dawson explains this further: "Culture is a very fragile thing, and the delicate balance of its social structure is overthrown as soon as its spiritual limits are broken and its individual members lose their faith in the validity and efficiency of its moral order." (69) Culture is primarily a spiritual reality (though united to its material elements) and as such requires faith and trust from its members to truly fulfill its proper function.

Benedict recognizes the life-threatening problem of Western culture as well, which in Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures he describes in terms of the need for a public morality: "A morality capable of responding to the threats that impose such a burden on the existence of us all ... and where this is lacking or insufficient, the power of man will be transformed more and more into a power of destruction." (70) This public morality cannot be seen in a purely secular light, due to the fact that "morality requires faith in creation and immortality, that is, it needs the objectivity of obligation and the definitiveness of responsibility and fulfillment," without which there is an "impossibility of human existence." (71) The ordering of life cannot go on without religion as it requires grounding in the ultimate in order to inspire and bind its followers. Secularizing culture trivializes it, making it mundane, no longer compelling, and no longer inspiring enough to be followed. Even on a civil level, "law can be the effective power of peace only when the yardstick for measuring is not in our hands. The law is not molded, not created, by us. In other words, there can be no foundation for law without transcendence," for without it, "the concept of law dissolves into thin air, and with it, the foundation of peace." (72) When the order and way of life becomes "merely subjective," there is nothing above to unite people as one, sharing in the same vision and purpose. The glue of society has lost its hold and it begins to break down from within. Speaking more particularly of Christianity, Benedict states that without "the good news of the faith ... human existence cannot long survive." (73) Modern culture has embarked on a suicidal turn, from which it must turn to ward off its own destruction.


This suicidal turn is the legacy of a secularizing project that has been under way in Europe for centuries. The religious tradition of the West, Christianity, has been explicitly abandoned for the religion of progress, based on reason isolated from faith and material advancements divorced from spiritual form. Dawson states that no society, "like our own, has ever consciously faced the prospect of a fundamental alteration of the beliefs and institutions on which the whole fabric of society rests. ... Civilization is being uprooted from its foundations in nature and tradition is being reconstituted in a new organisation which is as artificial and mechanical as a modern factory." (74) This is a unique event in the entire history of the world, the first time that a civilization has explicitly rejected the religion upon which it has rested and has not replaced it with another (explicitly transcendent one). Benedict echoes this point exactly: "For the very first time in history, a purely secular State arose, which abandoned and set aside the divine guarantee and the divine ordering of the political sector ... and it declared God himself to be a private affair." (75) This new secular society sought to recreate culture by rooting it primarily in physical ends with religion relativized and excluded from its classical domain. Dawson describes this situation: "Religion came to be regarded as one among a number of competing interests--a limited department of life, which had no jurisdiction over the rest. And as it lost its universal authority, it lost its universal vision." (76) In effect, a religion that no longer stands at the center of culture is no longer a religion at all. Religion is meant to be lived out as a way of life that provides a vision for all of life and unites people together as one.

This particular aspect of religion, its unifying force, relates all the more to Europe than other cultures. That Europe would be the epicenter of secularization is ironic, since unlike other civilizations it depended on Christianity primarily for its organization and formation: "The history of Christendom is the history of a culture based on ... spiritual universalism. ... [In it] there was formed a community of peoples sharing a common spiritual tradition which was transmitted from age to age and from people to people until it embraced the whole of Europe. More than this, it created Europe. For the European continent is the result of the European culture and not vice versa. From the physical point of view Europe is not a unity. ... Nor is it a racial unity. (77)

Europe arose out of the spiritual unity of Christianity that embraced the continent and gave it a common vision, way of life, and, thus, a common culture. Benedict also notes the role of the faith of uniting the diverse peoples in Europe, especially from the East and West. To demonstrate the reliance of Europe on the faith Benedict gives the example of monasticism, "which among the great movements of history had remained the essential guarantor not only of cultural continuity, but above all of fundamental religious and moral values, of man's awareness of his ultimate destiny; and as a force prior and superior to political authority, it became a source of the rebirths that were necessary again and again." (78) Christianity is intrinsically and even inextricably linked to Europe, because it provided Europe its very soul, brought it to birth, and guided it to maturity. This maturity, however, became one that rebelled against its origins, forming the most antireligious culture in the history of the world. Benedict points out this paradox: "If it is true to say that Christianity has found its most efficacious form in Europe, it is also true to say that a culture has developed in Europe that is the most radical contradiction not only of Christianity, but of all the religious and moral traditions of humanity." (79) While it would not be true to say that one can equate Christianity and Europe, the two have certainly become intertwined in many ways. Christianity found fertile ground in Europe in which to sink its roots and to create a new culture in which to express itself. Europe came to existence in this process, as Christianity drew together the legacy of classical Greece and Rome and the new energy of the Barbarian peoples. (80) For Europe to deny Christianity is to deny its identity, its own self--a dangerous move in diverting its spiritual momentum from the interior to the external.


This focus on the external has resulted in enormous economic and technological progress, while leading to a stagnation of the spiritual. The problem lies in the fact that material progress has far outpaced spiritual progress or even led to a decline in the spiritual life. As Benedict makes clear, without inner progress the exterior achievements can actually lead to harm: "Moral strength has not grown in tandem with the development of science; on the contrary, it has diminished. ... Our need, however, is for a public morality, a morality capable of responding to the threats that impose such a burden on the existence of us all." (81) Dawson specifies the cause of this situation in that modern culture "concentrates on the means and neglects almost entirely to consider ends," which has led to "incalculable progress in the scientific control of our environment," with a corresponding loss of "any clearly defined spiritual standards and aims." (82) Technological growth has been matched with moral decay so that culture has no clear purpose any longer. Dawson describes this culture as "selfish" and "destructive," (83) while Benedict describes it as having "lost its point." (84) He speaks of "a strange lack of will for the future," which is revealed especially in an unwillingness to have children, "who are the future." (85) This may lend some weight to Dawson's claim that "the only ultimate progress conceivable in a mechanistic universe is a progress to eternal death." (86) To build a material shell without any true life within is to truly live a life of death, without any true purpose or hope.

The claim that modern culture is cut off from true life and fulfillment is one that requires more explanation. Culture, as has been explained above, is a union of the spiritual and the material, the latter understood as a unity of a people in a physical environment with shared means of production and sustenance. It is the spiritual, however, that holds these diverse elements together in their proper spheres. When the material subverts the spiritual it can no longer be held in check and guided toward a further end. The material and technological have begun to dominate life so that Dawson can describe the "artificial character of modern culture," in which "man is sheltered from the direct impact of reality, while on the other hand he is subjected to a growing pressure which makes for social conformity. He seldom has to think for himself or make vital decisions." (87) The distortion and truncation of culture and its resulting artificial character certainly take a toll on the individual. Cut off from the deepest aspects of human life and placed within an overly materialistic setting, the individual is led to existential frustration. Benedict makes clear that "there exists in modern society a deep and prevailing sense of dissatisfaction precisely in those places where prosperity and freedom have attained hitherto unknown heights." (88) If religion is truly the center of life, then a culture without this center cannot provide what truly satisfies and fulfills its people.

Civilization stands at a point that Dawson calls the modern dilemma, a choice for the future of human life: "And thus we come back to the fundamental issue of the modern dilemma, an issue that may be expressed as a choice between religious and secular ideals or between the spiritual and materialistic view of life. The new forces of science and material organisation have endowed modern man and the modern state with powers and resources that modern man has not hitherto known. But these forces can be used alike for destruction and creation, for life and death, to the glory of God or in the service of Satan." (89) Modern culture truly stands within a novel situation, which seems headed toward a bad end in that the new material developments of culture have not been properly harnessed in their potential for good. Benedict as well points to the uncertain future of modern culture: "The project, which is unilaterally oriented toward the construction of an economic power, in fact automatically produces a sort of new system of values that must be tested in order to find out its ability to last and to create a future." (90) While there may be a question about the lasting value of the material developments of modern culture, there is no question about the need for a spiritual foundation for this new culture. Without the spiritual "a civilization of death is formed," because it cannot lead to life. (91) Though "people thought it was enough to develop technological capabilities," in fact, "man also needs traditions and inner values to sustain him." (92) The question or the dilemma is not then whether civilization can successfully continue without religion, but whether it will in fact accept the spiritual guidance it needs to order properly its material and technological advancements. Technological culture must be reoriented toward deeper spiritual aims and purposes. Dawson points to this need: "The only way to desecularize culture is by giving a spiritual aim to the whole system of organization, so that the machine becomes the servant of the spirit and not its enemy and master." (93) The Christian must then turn toward this project, the taming of the machine through a restoration of a genuinely human and religious culture.

III. The Restoration of Christian Culture

While introducing the need for the restoration of Christian culture, it is important to note that this restoration does not consist in an attempt to eradicate modern culture (in the way that modern culture eradicated Christian culture). (94) Rather, the vision for a new Christian culture entails vivifying the great traditions of the West, including the incorporation of its more modern developments. Particularly, Dawson lays out a vision for a new synthesis of the Western "humanitarian tradition," "scientific tradition," and "political tradition," particularly the "democratic ideal," with the tradition that should hold "the first place," the "Christian tradition." (95) It is the primary element of Christianity, the originating force of Europe, that can unite these diverse elements and integrate them into a common spiritual vision. Indeed, Dawson calls for a "new Christendom," that is, a "new spiritual order," consisting of "a re-ordering of all the elements of human life and civilisation by the power of the Spirit: the birth of a true community which is neither an inorganic mass of individuals nor a mechanised organisation of power, but a living spiritual order. (96) Once again, this Christendom is not the destruction of the fruits of modern culture, but their vivification by the spiritual dynamism of Christianity. For Dawson, Christianity is needed to save modern culture from the dangerous position in which it has placed itself: "The Christian way of life has indeed become the only way that is capable of surmounting the tremendous dangers and evils that have become a part of the common experience of modern man." (97) In short, a Christian culture is needed to save and preserve the heritage of the West and to carry it into the future. Benedict also thinks that modern culture can be "sapped" for its truth worth. He draws on St. Basil's image of the fruit of the sycamore tree needing slitting to draw forth its sweetness, which serves as an analogy for the slitting of the pagan world by the Logos. So today, Benedict holds that "the Logos itself must slit our culture and their fruit, so that what is unusable is purified and becomes not only useable but good." (98) Christian culture seeks to draw from the heritage of Christian culture and fuse its treasures with the purified fruits of the modern world.


In order to examine the need for the restoration of a Christian culture, it is first important to define the nature of Christian culture. In his The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, Dawson argues that "the only true criterion of a Christian culture is the degree in which the social way of life is based on the Christian faith." (99) That is, just as culture is a way of life with religion as its central guiding force, Christian culture is a distinct way of life centered on a Christian understanding of reality. It is at its core a spiritual reality, though as a culture, it is the incarnation of this spirit, in that it "accepts the Christian way of life as normal and frames its institutions as the organs of a Christian order." (100) A Christian culture is a way of life, which embodies the vision of Christianity in all that does both interiorly and exteriorly.

While we have seen thus far an amazing agreement between the thought of Dawson and Benedict, Benedict's position on Christian culture is more nuanced than Dawson's. As quoted above, we can see the foundation for a Christian culture in the following: "Faith itself is cultural. ... Simply by telling man who he is and how he should go about being human, faith is creating culture and is culture." (101) He even says that "faith exists as culture," providing "an entire way of life, a way of man's dealing with himself, with his neighbor, with the world, and with God." (102) Faith is cultural in that it lays the groundwork for every aspect of life.

Thus far, Dawson and Benedict are united, but unlike Dawson's vision of Christian culture as Christendom, the fusing of Christianity and culture into a single entity, Benedict argues that Christian culture is something that exists within a broader culture. Benedict speaks of a "double cultural identity" in "Christian culture, so that man now lives within two cultural entities: in his historical culture and in the new one of faith, which meet and mingle in him. This existing together will never be a complete synthesis; it brings with it a need for continuing processes of reconciliation and purification." (103) While Benedict acknowledges the reality of Christian culture, he sees it as a force stemming from a faith lived out, even influencing all of life, but within a broader culture. This is not to say that he falls into a "Manichaen" view of culture, as he describes it, which "reduces culture to mere interchangeable embodiment" and "faith is dematerialized into mere spirit." (104) Rather, there is a "productive tension" between these two cultures, in which faith "does not ... coincide with any of these other historic cultural entities." (105) While Dawson stresses Christianity's ability to fundamentally form and sustain a culture from within, Benedict seeks to maintain a proper autonomy for faith, while affirming its cultural influence.


Despite this difference of emphasis, both thinkers agree on the most significant way in which Christianity influences culture, namely, education. Benedict talks of having to reawaken "the organ of truth." (106) To do so "the task of the Church ... is, therefore, first and foremost 'education'. ... She must break open the prison of positivism and awaken man's receptivity to the truth, to God, and then to the power of conscience." (107) In a culture hostile to Christianity, this is no small task, especially given the fact that the average person can no longer grasp easily the message of the Church. The Church's difficult position is described by Benedict in that "a religion that is to serve as the fundamental force for life as a whole does no doubt need to be comprehensible to some extent. ... [I]f a religion can no longer be reconciled with the elementary certainties of a given view of the world it collapses." (108) This need to speak in an intelligible way and to connect to the central vision of culture is a challenge for Christianity in the twenty-first century, a challenge to which Dawson claims to have an answer.

Dawson also sees a need to "recover lost channels of communication and to restore contact between religion and modern society--between the world of spiritual reality and the world of social experience." (109) First of all, it is essential to demonstrate that belief has "intellectual significance," (110) though to recognize it one must "recover the use of his higher spiritual faculties--his powers of contemplation." (111) Without this intellectual and spiritual awakening, religious truth will sound on deaf ears and be lost in the midst of sensory distractions and empirical data. In addition to this personal element, Dawson calls for a reform of education in which the study of Christian culture will take the foremost place (in a way similar to the use of the ancient classics in a traditional liberal education).112 Knowledge of Christian culture can reorient Western culture, which has no clear sense of its origin and the values necessary to direct it in the future. Dawson asserts: "I believe that the study of Christian culture is the missing link which it is essential to supply if the tradition of Western education and Western culture is to survive, for it is only by this study that we can understand how Western culture came to exist and what are the essential values for which it stands." (113) Encountering the living reality of Christian culture and the tradition on which it stands may provide the tools needed to reawaken the Western soul to its own identity and need for spiritual recovery and renewal. Familiarity with Christian culture will provide the foundation and vision needed to ensure the survival of Western civilization.


Christian culture is intimately bound up with the history of Western civilization. It has become the bearer of the great tradition of rational, philosophical enquiry, which is capable of penetrating to the depths of the meaning of human life. The task of the Church is, therefore, not only to teach the Christian elements of Christian culture, but also the fundamentally human ones as well. The Church must help humanity to become fully human again. Dawson states that "people are becoming more and more aware that something is lacking in their culture." In response to this crisis, "Christians have a double task: first, to recover their own cultural inheritance, and secondly, to communicate it to a sub-religious or neo-pagan world." (114) This neopagan world, unlike its classical forerunner, no longer has an adequate appreciation of the capacity of reason to know the truth of the world and to look beyond it.

Benedict insists on the essential role of reason in the religious life of humanity, especially in Christianity: "The essence of the Christian faith, considered from the perspective of the phenomenology of religions, consists in its uniting man's primal religious drive in a subtle synthesis with a rationally formed turning to the one God who is seen to be the reason at work in the origin of all things and as creative love." (115) This unity of faith and reason arose in the context of the meeting of Christianity with the classical world of Greco-Roman thought. Dawson, drawing on the thought of Blessed John Henry Newman, asserts that Newman's "analogy of Christianity and Western civilization is no accident but a part of the providential order of history." (116) This thought underlies the premise of Benedict's provocative Regensburg lecture. He argues that the inculturation of Christianity in Greek culture cannot simply be dismissed, because "the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself." (117) Faith and reason require each other to enable humanity to reach the height of its fulfillment in coming to know God. (118) Faith builds upon reason's capacity to know the truth, and reason is deepened in its ability to plumb the depths of reality through faith. (119) However, Dawson points out that "the world of reason has become more arid and spiritually void, and the world of the soul has lost the consecrated ways by which it expresses itself in the world of culture." (120)

The separation of faith and reason stands as one of the most tragic elements of Western culture, as reason itself has become instrumentalized and bereft of even its natural ability to know God. The concluding lines of the Regensburg lecture consist of an appeal to rediscover the central importance of reason in the life of faith and in the realm of culture: "The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur--this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. ... It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures." (121)

The renewal of culture depends upon the renewal of reason and its openness to engaging in the deepest questions of human meaning. This is the program of renewal to which Benedict calls Europe: "Europe's greatness is based on a reasonableness in which, despite all that it learns and all that it can do, reason does not forget its highest calling; namely to be the perception of what is eternal, an organ receptive to God." (122) This openness of reason to the transcendent is crucial for the Church in its effort to communicate with the modern world, to enter into a dialogue, and to proclaim the truth, which is the end of both reason and faith.

Ultimately, both Benedict and Dawson see that the Church can not only help restore and advance the culture of the West, but in doing so can also unite all of humanity in a culture rooted in a proper relationship of faith and reason and religion and culture. This new global Christian culture would draw upon the heritage of Western culture and bring it into contact with other cultures. Dawson, drawing upon the thought of Jacques Maritain, asserts that "only in and through Europe this new world can realize itself." (123) If faith, and therefore a Christian culture, requires the proper functioning of reason then Dawson asserts that despite its limits "the material organization of the world by European ideas and Western science is a necessary preparation for the spiritual unification of humanity which it is the mission of Christianity to accomplish." (124) While this presupposes the earlier discussion of the distortion of reason in the West and the need for it to recover its identity, nevertheless, Dawson sees the initial inculturation of Christianity in the West as the key for new inculturation of the faith today. The true unity of humanity will not arise simply from a proper anthropology grounded in right reason, but from something deeper built upon this foundation. The Church must do what it can to lay the foundation for the action of grace, which is the true source of any cultural transformation. Dawson draws these elements, of our efforts and God's grace, together in the following fashion:
  If culture is not to be dynamized from below by the exploitation of
  the sub-rational forces in human nature, it must be activized from
  above by being once more brought into relation with the forces of
  Divine power and wisdom and love. The faith in the possibility
  of this divine action on the world is the foundation of
  Christian thought. We believe that to every fresh need there
  is an answer of divine grace, and every historical crisis
  (which is a crisis of human destiny!) is met by a new
  outpouring of the Spirit. The task of the Church and the task
  of the individual Christian is to prepare the way for such divine
  action, to open windows of the human mind and remove the curtains
  of ignorance and selfishness which keep humanity asleep. (125)

The unification of humanity in a fully human culture must be the work of grace enabling human nature to overcome its limits and the bonds of sin. (126)

Benedict also recognizes this twofold dynamism in the possibility of a unified Christian culture. First of all he states that "inculturation thus assumes the potential universality of every culture. It assumes that the same human nature is at work in all of them and that there is a common truth of humanity alive within that human nature that aims towards union." (127) This union is not a destruction of the individual culture, but its fulfillment. He recognizes an "inner openness" to Christianity in each culture. Christianity and culture cannot be thought of as being in a relationship of "absolute foreignness," but rather have "the tendency to move toward each other and to unite," as "part of their nature." (128) All of humanity, in every culture including the West, needs the faith to purify and deepen its culture. Doing so opens them up commonly toward a single transcendent end, providing a point of unity and common reference that can break culture out of the dangers of its current existential and technological crisis. Thus, Benedict lays out a grand vision of the possible convergence of the diverse human, cultural, and religious elements of humanity. Christ is truly the center of human history and the point to which all genuinely human elements of life are moving. He states:
  In a world that is moving with history, religions cannot simply
  stand still, just as they were or as they now are. Yet the
  Christian faith, which carries within itself the great heritage of
  the religions and which opens this heritage to the Logos, to true
  reason, could offer a new basis to them at the deepest level and
  could at the same time make possible a real synthesis of
  technological rationality and religion, something that can only
  come about, not by a flight into the irrational, but by opening up
  reason to its true height and breadth. (129)

This vision profoundly resonates with Dawson's entire corpus of thought, drawing into one succinct account the heart of his thought on the relationship of religion, Christianity, reason, and the synthesis of these elements for the renewal of the West (and through it, every culture of the world). Both thinkers boldly assert that this synthetic renewal is the most pressing concern for the future of humanity at this point in history.


I have walked along a trajectory in Pope Benedict XVI and Christopher Dawson that has taken us through their thought on the nature and relation of religion and culture, the state of modern culture, and the action that must be undertaken to address this crisis. I have seen a historian venturing into the realm of theology and a theologian taking on historical and anthropological questions. What is remarkable is that on almost every point investigated their thought coincided nearly perfectly. The significance of such alignment is to reveal and vindicate the theological depth of Dawson's thought and to make clear the strength of Benedict's articulation of key and pressing issues for modern culture. Both thinkers have a clear and compelling message on the issues of religion and culture and their modern application. That they support one another demonstrates that their message is Catholic in its fullest sense and not confined to a particular period of time or provincial setting. The questions of religion and culture must be addressed for the success of the New Evangelization. Benedict is at the forefront of this task, as Vicar of Christ and Universal Shepherd of the Church. The work of Christopher Dawson can be a powerful ally in understanding and addressing the landscape of modern culture and developing pastoral strategies to begin to stem the tide of the decline of Western Civilization.


(1.) "Gaudium et spes," in Vatican II: The Basic Sixteen Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, OP (New York: Costello Publishing Co., 1996), Part 2, ch 2.

(2.) Ibid., [section]53.

(3.) Cf. Pope Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi, [section][section]20-21; Pope John Paul II, Sapientia Christiana, forward; idem, Christifideles laici, [section]44; idem, Ex corde Ecclesiae, [section]43-47; idem, Address to the Fiftieth General Assembly of the United Nations, [section][section]16-18; idem, Ecclesia in Africa, [section][section]59-62, 78, 138-39; idem, Ecclesia in America, [section][section]70-72; idem, Ecclesia in Asia, [section][section]6, 21; idem, "Address to the Catholic University of Sacred Heart," [section][section]1-9; idem, "Message to the 6th National Meeting of Catholic University Professors," [section][section]5-6; idem, Ecclesia in Europa, [section][section]58-60, 108-121.

(4.) Address to the Members of the Pontifical Council for Culture, "Letting the Gospel Take Root in Every Culture," 10 January 1992, [section]3. John Paul describes this task further as the creation of "a new culture of love and hope inspired by the truth that frees us in Christ Jesus. This is the goal of inculturation, this is the priority of the new evangelization" (Ibid., [section]10).

(5.) "Address to the Italian National Congress of the Ecclesial Movement for Cultural Commitment," 16 January 1982, [section]2.

(6.) For general works on the life and thought of Christopher Dawson see Bradley J. Birzer, The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 2007); Christina Scott, A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1992); and Glenn W. Olsen, "Why We Need Christopher Dawson," Communio 35 (Spring 2008): 115-144. On Pope Benedict, see Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); and Aidan Nichols, OP, The Thought of Pope Benedict XVI: An Introduction to the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger (London: Burns & Oates, 2007).

(7.) A significant theological reference to Dawson from the continent, however, can be found at the beginning of Henri de Lubac's Catholicism. See page 41 (Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Elizabeth Englund, OCD [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988]).

(8.) Christopher Dawson, Religion and Culture (New York: Sheed and Ward), 25.

(9.) Joseph Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 86.

(10.) Christopher Dawson, The Judgment of the Nations (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1942), 94-95.

(11.) Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 97-98.

(12.) Pope Benedict XVI, "Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI at the Meeting for Peace in Assisi," Oct. 27, 2011.

(13.) Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, part 1, From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 1.

(14.) Christopher Dawson, The Formation of Christendom (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967), 25.

(15.) Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 25.

(16.) Ibid., 27. He elaborates more on what a static idea of religion would look like: "If we were to try to extract, from a current intellectual view of that kind, a couple of characteristic opinions, then we might well say: the concept of religion held by 'the man of today' ... is static; he usually does not foresee any development from one religion to another; rather, he expects each person to remain in his own and to experience it with an awareness that it is, in its basic spiritual core, identical with all the others" (Ibid., 23).

(17.) Ibid., 28. Emphasis original. See also the chart where these stages are laid out together with primitive religion leading to the mythical and the final three categories seen as the "three ways of moving beyond myth" (Ibid., 29). In another work, he makes a different, though related, distinction between religions: "If we make the effort to grasp the relationships that exist within the confusing plurality of the world religions, it is possible to draw a preliminary distinction between the tribal religions and universal religions. ... [T]here seem to be two fundamental types of universal religion ... the theistic and the mystical types of religion" (Joseph Ratzinger, Many Religions--One Covenant: Israel, the Church and the World [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999], 94-95).

(18.) For a more detailed description of the stages of religion in Dawson see R. Jared Staudt, "Christopher Dawson on Theology and the Social Sciences," Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 12, no. 3 (2009): 91-111.

(19.) Christopher Dawson, "Religion and the Life of Civilization," in Enquiries into Religion and Culture (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 78-94.

(20.) Christopher Dawson, Christianity and the New Age (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1985). See especially chapters 2 and 3, which are combined under the title "Stages in Mankind's Religious Experience," in the edited volume Dynamics of World History (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2002).

(21.) Christopher Dawson, "Cycles of Civilization," in Enquiries into Religion and Culture (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 58.

(22.) Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 181. Though Dawson amply treats the various stages of religion, he generally does so in unison with the developments in culture. Thus, he states: "We have followed the development of human culture through the ages, and have seen how at every step the religion of a society expresses its dominant attitude to life and its ultimate concrete reality" (Ibid.). This does not mean that the developments of religion can simply be reduced to changes in culture, because "the religious tradition is not identical with that of ... culture" (Ibid.). Rather than religion being explained by the culture, Dawson reverses the order by seeing religion as the central unifying and guiding vision and force within culture (cf. ibid., chapter 4).

(23.) Cf. Christopher Dawson, "Prevision in Religion," Dynamics of World History (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), 98-99.

(24.) Dawson, The Formation of Christendom, 40. While this is a later work, a very similar description can be found in his first published work, although he emphasizes racial integration within the first category (The Age of Gods: A Study in the Origins of Culture in Prehistoric Europe and the Ancient East [London: Sheed and Ward, 1933], xiii-xiv).

(25.) Atherton Lowry makes an interesting and important clarification on the nature of culture from a metaphysical perspective: "To explore further the metaphysical character of human society and culture, let us return to a point made earlier, at least by implication, that human social realities and cultural realities are not substances. Rather substances have to do with "nature" which grounds society and culture and only persons and things as agents and centers of activity are substances" ("The Metaphysics of Culture: Its Being, Its Life, and Its Death," Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 77 [2003]: 249-50). Drawing on Dawson's definition of culture, he states further:
  With the focus on the human soul, we can understand precisely how
  culture includes a "way of life." For the human soul is the very
  life of culture. The vitality, the very existence of culture,
  depends on the life of the soul. At the same time, we should note
  that the emergence of culture always involves the interplay between
  the human substance as a soul-body composite and the natural world,
  and as built on this interrelation, involves also the interplay of
  the human substance with the social-cultural world. As a result,
  new cultural expression comes about through the creative activity
  of the human substance, the response to the givenness of the
  natural and social-cultural worlds, and the influence of those
  worlds on the individual human being. Culture then arises through
  man's interplay with the natural and social-cultural worlds (251).

(26.) Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 60. Elsewhere he describes culture as follows: "This system of notions and thought patterns that preconditions the individual goes by the name of culture. The first and foremost component of culture is the common language; then comes the constitution of society, that is, the government with its subdivisions, then law, custom, moral concepts, art, forms of worship, and so on" ("Communication and Culture," in On the Way to Jesus Christ, trans. Michael Miller [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004], 43-44).

(27.) Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 153. In Truth and Tolerance he also defines culture as "the social form of expression, as it has grown up in history, of those experiences and evaluations that have left their mark on a community and have shaped it" (60). Dawson has another definition of culture, which also emphasizes social expression: "Culture is the name which has been given to man's social inheritance--to all that men have learnt from the past by the process of imitation, education and learning and to all that they hand on in like manner to their descendants and successors. And this involves all that man has and is" (The Formation of Christendom, 31).

(28.) Dawson, The Age of the Gods, 22.

(29.) Christopher Dawson, Religion and Culture (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1948), 197.

(30.) Joseph Ratzinger, Europe Today and Tomorrow: Addressing the Fundamental Issues, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 37. This statement is in response to Marx's position: "Karl Marx proposed the thesis that religions and philosophers are merely ideological superstructures for economic relationships" (Ibid.).

(31.) Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 59. And further down: "The more human a culture is the higher it is, the more it can lay claim to the truth that was hitherto hidden from it [about God and reality]; and the more it will be capable of assimilating that truth and of adjusting itself to that truth" (66). That this interior aspect is something intrinsic to culture can be seen as Benedict states that "the knowledge that man must turn toward God, and toward what is eternal, is found right across all cultures" (Ibid., 79).

(32.) Dawson, "Religion and the Life of Civilization," 94.

(33.) Dawson, Progress and Religion, 4. In the same work, this point is described in more detail: "If the rational and spiritual elements in a culture are those which determine its creative activity, and if the primary manifestation of these elements is to be found in the sphere of religion, it is clear that the religious factor has had a far more important share in the development of human cultures than that which has been usually assigned to it" (81).

(34.) Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 342. Speaking to the Bishops of the United States during an ad limina visit for Region IV (Jan. 19, 2012), Benedict spoke of the same reality, though in broader terms: "At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing."

(35.) Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 61.

(36.) Dawson, Religion and Culture, 49-50.

(37.) Christopher Dawson, "The Historic Reality of Christian Culture," in Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 66.

(38.) Ibid., 78.

(39.) Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 67.

(40.) Ibid.

(41.) Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 50.

(42.) Ibid., 66. When speaking of his account of religion, Benedict states that "up to this point we are still in the purely phenomenological realm" (Ibid., 81).

(43.) Ibid., 81.

(44.) Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Modern State (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1935), 112.

(45.) Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 41.

(46.) Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 87-88. While Christianity is distinct from religion, there is also a point of connection: "The essence of the Christian faith, considered from the perspective of the phenomenology of religions, consists in uniting man's primal religious drive in a subtle synthesis with a rationally formed turning to the one God who is seen to be the reason at work in the origin of all things and as creative love" (Turning Point for Europe?: The Church in the Modern World--Assessment and Forecast, trans. Brian McNeil, CRV [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994], 158). We see here once again the decisive focus on knowledge of God, which gains necessary accuracy in faith.

(47.) Dawson, The Formation of Christendom, 71. Benedict contrasts the esoteric views of the East with a Christian view of history: "In the concepts of Tao and Dharma, the eternal decrees of the cosmos play such an important role that the idea of 'history' does not appear at all, whereas here (in biblical revelation) 'history' is understood as a specific reality that cannot be reduced to the cosmos, and with this previously unnoticed anthropological and dynamic reality is inaugurated a completely different vision" (Europe Today and Tomorrow, 51). Dawson likewise insists on a new meaning for history in Christianity: History was no longer a mere unintelligible chaos of disconnected events. It had found in the Incarnation a centre which gave it significance and order. Viewed from this centre the history of humanity became an organic unity. Eternity had into time and henceforward the singular and the temporal had acquired an eternal significance" (Religion and the Modern State, 80).

(48.) Dawson affirms that Christianity does not follow the normal pattern of the interaction and interdependence of religion and politics ("Prevision in Religion," 99).

(49.) Dawson, The Formation of Christendom, 72. Benedict reflects on the significance of a personal God in Truth and Tolerance (103).

(50.) Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 171.

(51.) Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 36.

(52.) Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 100.

(53.) Benedict explicitly notes how the Incarnation changed humanity's worship and thus elevated religion itself. Humanity, and even the revealed religion of Judaism, had sought to express its relation to God through symbolic worship, though Benedict points out that Christ has altered this attempt by spiritually bridging the gap that kept us from God. In his General Audience on January 7, 2009, he states: "With the cross of Christ--the supreme act of divine love, converted into human love--the ancient worship with the sacrifice of animals in the temple of Jerusalem has ended. ... This symbolic worship, worship of desire, has now been replaced by real worship: the love of God incarnated in Christ and taken to its fullness in the death on the cross." See also his Sunday Angelus on June 8, 2008, on the nature of true religion.

(54.) Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 82-83.

(55.) Christopher Dawson, "The Kingdom of God in History," in Dynamics of World History (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), 288.

(56.) Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 124-25.

(57.) Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 79. This does not mean he has a completely optimistic view of religion, because the "negative factor in human existence: an alienation that hinders our perceiving things and that, at least partially, cuts men off from the truth and thus from each other" (65). Thus, neither a completely positive, nor a completely negative view of religion is possible for Christian theology. While there are elements of ignorance and sin in religion, Benedict still affirms that "the Christian faith ... carries within itself the great heritage of the religions and which opens up this heritage to the Logos" (78). Christ transforms and perfects the history of religion.

(58.) Ibid., 195.

(59.) Christopher Dawson, The Modern Dilemma: The Problem of European Unity (London: Sheed and Ward, 1932), 95.

(60.) Dawson provides an example of this new religion in the excessive nationalism, of which he was a witness in the twentieth century: "If the new State threatens the freedom of the Church and the individual conscience, it is because it is itself taking on some features of a church and is no longer content to confine itself to the outside life. ... It claims the whole of life and thus becomes a competitor of the Church on its own ground" (Religion and the Modern State, 44).

(61.) Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 44. Likewise, Benedict states: "More and more Europeans, whose Christian faith has collapsed, are taking up these irrational forces, and that brings a real paganizing process" (Truth and Tolerance, 78).

(62.) Dawson, The Formation of Christendom, 27.

(63.) Joseph Ratzinger, Turning Point for Europe?, 20.

(64.) Ibid., 158. This is brought out clearly in the following: "Technological civilization is not in fact religiously and morally neutral, even if it believes it is. It changes people's standards and their attitudes and behaviors" (Truth and Tolerance, 76-77).

(65.) Ratzinger, Turning Point for Europe?, 159-60.

(66.) Dawson, Enquiries into Religion and Culture, xvii-xviii. Dawson continues: "Consequently the problem of social survival is not only a political or economic one; it is above all things religious, since it is in religion that the ultimate spiritual roots both of society and of the individual are to be found. When a man has found his roots, he has found his religion, and the irreligious man is precisely the man without roots who lives on the surface of existence and recognizes no spiritual allegiance" (Ibid., xviii).

(67.) Dawson, "Religion and Life of Civilization," 94. Benedict very interestingly points out the impossibility of a culture to simply switch religions and move on as if nothing happened: "For one cannot see how a culture that is interwoven with [a] religion, that lives in it and intertwines with it, could be transplanted into a different religion, so to speak, without being destroyed in the process" (Truth and Tolerance, 59).

(68.) Dawson, The Modern Dilemma, 99.

(69.) Dawson, The Formation of Christendom, 46. In The Crisis of Western Education, Dawson discusses the problem entailed by "the absence of any deep moral conviction and of any effective social dynamics beyond the appeal to self-interest. It is a sort of spiritual vacuum, which can produce no cultural fruit whatsoever" (133).

(70.) Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 27. The language of a public morality, while not explicitly religious, is certainly grounded in the traditional role of religion as moral guardian of society. Put more theologically, Benedict states that "a world under God's sway is quite different from a world without God--that nothing, in fact, remains the same if God is taken away and that, by the same token, everything changes when one turns to God" (Principles of Catholic Theology, 68). Life needs to be ordered to God to flourish and this is the case on the cultural level and not just the private one. Benedict spoke strongly on this theme during his visit to the German Reichstag on Sept. 22, 2011 (Visit to the Bundestag: Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI). After noting that Germany herself had witnessed the breakdown of morality, he pressed the continuing need for the discernment of right and wrong: "At a moment in history when man has acquired previously inconceivable power, this task takes on a particular urgency. Man can destroy the world. He can manipulate himself. He can, so to speak, make human beings and he can deny them their humanity. How do we recognize what is right? How can we discern between good and evil, between what is truly right and what may appear right?"

(71.) Ratzinger, Turning Point for Europe?, 40. In place of true morality, we find "the lust for life," which results in "an enormous devaluation of life ... life is no longer surrounded by the seal of the holy; one throws it away when it no longer pleases" (Ibid.).

(72.) Ibid., 53-54.

(73.) Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 72. Speaking particularly of the United States, Benedict affirmed that "when a culture attempts to suppress the dimension of ultimate mystery, and to close the doors to transcendent truth, it inevitably becomes impoverished and falls prey, as the late Pope John Paul II so clearly saw, to reductionist and totalitarian readings of the human person and the nature of society" ("Ad Limina Address to US Bishops, Region IV," Jan. 19, 2012).

(74.) Christopher Dawson, "Christianity and Sex," in Enquiries into Religion and Culture (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 214.

(75.) Ratzinger, Europe Today and Tomorrow, 21.

(76.) Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 60.

(77.) Dawson, The Judgment of the Nations, 204. Benedict also notes that Europe "is a geographical concept only in a way that is entirely secondary. Europe is not a continent that can be comprehended in geographical terms; rather, it is a cultural and historical concept" (Europe Today and Tomorrow, 11).

(78.) Ratzinger, Europe Today and Tomorrow, 15. This theme was featured prominently in Benedict's speech to representatives of UNESCO delivered at Paris ("Meeting with Representatives of World Culture," Sep. 12, 2008.). Having spoken of the heart of monasticism as the search for God, Benedict ended the speech as follows: "What gave Europe's culture its foundation--the search for God and the readiness to listen to him--remains today the basis of any genuine culture."

(79.) Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 31. He draws out the significance of the loss of this basic religious sense elsewhere: "The loss of man's primordial certainties about God, about himself, and about the universe--the loss of an awareness of intangible moral values--is still our problem, especially today, and it can lead to the self-destruction of the European consciousness, which we must begin to consider ... as a real danger" (Europe Today and Tomorrow, 29-30). Christianity has been removed from its guiding role and the new religion of Europe is marked by a "strange trinity" of "belief in progress ... absolutized scientific-technical civilization and political messianism" (Turning Point for Europe?, 125). Even these new pseudoreligions have their origins in Christianity, which shows some residual influence of Christianity even among those seeking to destroy its influence. On this point see Dawson, Christianity and the Modern State, 72.

(80.) Cf. Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1932), 67.

(81.) Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 27.

(82.) Dawson, The Judgment of the Nations, 118.

(83.) Dawson, "Religion in the Life of Civilization," 94.

(84.) The full quote states it more graphically: "Where there is no longer anything worth dying for, life is no longer worthwhile; it has lost its point. And this is not only true for the individual; a land, too, a common culture, has values that justify the commitment of one's life; if such values no longer exist, we also lose the reasons and the forces that maintain social cohesion and preserve a country as a community of life" (Turning Point for Europe?, 39).

(85.) Ratzinger, Europe Today and Tomorrow, 24.

(86.) Dawson, Progress and Religion, 173.

(87.) Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, 132. Dawson contrasts the supposed freedom of today with the past. While today there is a large accumulation of wealth, "against this we must set a loss of spiritual independence, of which the average man is probably unconscious. However harsh and narrow was the existence of the European peasant, he still possessed the liberty to be himself--a liberty which flowered in a rich diversity and intense vitality of character and personality. But today, if a man is to enjoy the benefits of the new mass-civilization, he must put off his individuality and conform himself to the standardized types of thought and conduct" ("The New Leviathan," in Enquires into Religion and Culture [Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009], 5-6).

(88.) Joseph Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 11.

(89.) Dawson, The Modern Dilemma, 67-68.

(90.) Ratzinger, Europe Today and Tomorrow, 39.

(91.) Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 95.

(92.) Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 76. He continues below: "Technological civilization is not in fact religious and morally neutral, even if it believes it is. It changes people's standards and their attitudes and behaviors," (76-77).

(93.) Dawson, The Judgment of the Nations, 128.

(94.) Dawson specifically affirms this point: "The only really and specifically Christian politics are the politics of the world to come, and they transform social life not by competing with secular politics on their own ground but by altering the focus on human thought and deepening the closed house of secular culture to the free light and air of a larger and more real world" (Religion and the Modern State, 123).

(95.) Dawson, The Modern Dilemma, 47-50.

(96.) Christopher Dawson, The Sword of the Spirit (London: Matthewman & Edwards, 1940), 16.

(97.) Dawson, "The Historic Reality of Christian Culture," 13.

(98.) Ratzinger, "Communication and Culture," 47.

(99.) Ibid., 4.

(100.) Ibid., 24. He describes the end of Christian culture in more detail: "For Christian culture involves a ceaseless effort to widen the frontiers of the Kingdom of God-not only horizontally by increasing the number of Christians but vertically by penetrating deeper into human life and bringing every human activity into closer relation with its spiritual center" (Ibid., 9-10).

(101.) Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 67.

(102.) Ibid.

(103.) Ibid., 68. And further: "The people of God, as a cultural agent, differs from the classic cultural agents, which are defined by the boundaries of a communal life as a tribe, as a nation, or otherwise, in that it subsists within various different cultural entities, which for their part do not thereby cease, even for the individual Christian, to be the primary and immediate agent of his culture. Even as a Christian, one remains a Frenchman or a German, an American or an Indian, and so on" (Ibid.).

(104.) Ibid., 69.

(105.) Ibid.

(106.) Ratzinger, Turning Point for Europe?, 55. He explicitly links culture with education through the Greek word paideia: "The nearest equivalent to our concept of culture in the Greek world is the word paideia--education in the highest sense, which guides a human being to genuine humanity" ("Communication and Culture," 44).

(107.) Ibid. This is a task that is essential not only for the survival of Christianity, but also for society. Though Benedict denies that the Church has a direct political role, he still insists that "the sources of law have been entrusted to her safekeeping" (Ibid., 57). If humanity can no longer perceive the truth of God and listen to the voice of conscience and natural law its very survival is called into question.

(108.) Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 141-42.

(109.) Dawson, "The Historic Reality of Christian Culture," 75. He describes the task of Christian education: "If we could develop Christian higher education to a point at which it meets the attention of the average education man in every field of thought and life, the situation would be radically changed" (Ibid., 74.).

(110.) Ibid., 73.

(111.) Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, 202.

(112.) Cf. Glenn W. Olsen, "Christopher Dawson and the Renewal of Catholic Education: The Proposal that Catholic Culture and History, not Philosophy Should Order the Catholic Curriculum," Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, 13, no. 3 (2010): 14-35.

(113.) Ibid., 135.

(114.) Dawson, "The Historic Reality of Christian Culture," 76.

(115.) Ratzinger, Turning Point for Europe?, 158. This understanding of Christianity is possible because of a "recognition of the Logos as the foundation of all things" (Ibid., 142).

(116.) Dawson, "The Historic Reality of Christian Culture," 89.

(117.) Benedict XVI, "Faith, Reason, and the University: Memories and Reflections," Sep. 12, 2006. For a printed version of the lecture and for commentary on its significance see James V. Schall, The Regensburg Lecture (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2007). Benedict gave two important commentaries on the Regensburg lecture. The first was his address to the members of the Roman Curia on December 22, 2006, when he reiterated the "urgent need" for a dialogue between faith and reason. The second consisted of an address directly to Muslims in Cameroon ("Meeting with Representatives of the Muslim Community of Cameroon") on March 19, 2009. During this occasion he stated that "religion and reason mutually reinforce one another since religion is purified and structured by reason, and reason's full potential is unleashed by revelation and faith." And further: that the "urgent task of religion today," is to "unveil the vast potential of human reason, which is itself God's gift and which is elevated by revelation and faith." Important in relation to Dawson, he also stated: "Genuine religion thus widens the horizon of human understanding and stands at the base of any authentically human culture."

(118.) Both Benedict and Dawson contend that reason plays an important role in purifying religious sentiments. Dawson states: "We know from the study of comparative religion that man is capable of worshipping almost anything from the highest to the lowest, and it has been the great task of philosophy to purify man's concept of the divine and then liberate the mind from the service of idols" (Formation of Christendom, 21). Benedict agrees but articulates a mutual purification: "Religion must continually allow itself to be purified and structured by reason; and this was the view of the Church Fathers, too. However, we have also seen in the course of our reflections that there are pathologies of reason, although mankind is not as conscious of this fact today. ... This is why reason, too, must be warned to keep within its proper limits, and it must learn a willingness to listen to the great religious traditions of mankind" (Europe Today and Tomorrow, 80). See also Values in a Time of Upheaval, 43.

(119.) Speaking of faith's reliance on reason, Benedict makes clear that "the desperate situation of philosophy--that is to say, the desperate situation into which reason obsessed by positivism has maneuvered itself--has become the desperate situation of our faith. Faith cannot be set free unless reason itself opens up again" (Truth and Tolerance, 135). On the other hand, faith can serve reason by inspiring it to see that "the scope of reason must be enlarged once more" (Ibid., 158). He draws the two together in the following: "Ought we perhaps to say that religion and reason should impose limitations on one another, each demarcating the proper sphere of the other and helping it to develop positively?" (Values in a Time of Upheaval, 37).

(120.) Dawson, Religion and Culture, 21.

(121.) Benedict XVI, "Faith, Reason, and the University." This conclusion is echoed by a similar passage in Values in a Time of Upheaval: "It is important for these two great components of Western culture (faith and reason) to be willing to listen and to accept a genuine correlation with these (other) cultures also. It is important to include them in the attempt at a polyphonic correlation in which these other cultures themselves will be open to learn from the Western complementarity of faith and reason. This would permit the growth of a universal process of purification in which those essential values and norms that are known or at least guessed at by all men could acquire a new radiance. In this way, that which keeps the world together would once again become an effective force in mankind" (44).

(122.) Ratzinger, Turning Point for Europe?, 144.

(123.) Dawson, The Modern Dilemma, 33. Cf. Jacques Maritain, Religion and Culture (London: Sheed and Ward, 1931), 55.

(124.) Ibid.

(125.) Dawson, The Judgment of the Nations, 128.

(126.) Dawson makes clear that "the reign of social and international justice is an ideal which can only be reached by a spiritualised humanity--a humanity set free from the domination of lust and avarice and cowardice, which drives men and nations blindly into disorder and cruelty" (Christopher Dawson, "The Nature and Destiny of Man," in Enquiries into Religion and Culture [Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009], 282).

(127.) Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 59-60.

(128.) Ibid., 59.

(129.) Ibid., 78.
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Author:Staudt, R. Jared
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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