Christianity, a Dynamic Principle of Progress

Author: John J. Mulloy

Christianity, a Dynamic Principle of Progress

By John J. Mulloy

Of the various reasons which exist for the importance of the study of Christian culture, I should like to examine the one which sees Christianity as having imparted a dynamic principle of change and transformation to Western culture. This principle, while religious in origin and expressing itself most fully in the religious developments by which Christianity has striven to incorporate itself in the different forms of each historical epoch, is not restricted in its influence to the religious areas of culture. Instead, the historian who examines the history of the West from the vantage point of Christian culture will become aware of the way in which the leaven of Christianity has communicated itself to movements which are secular in character and indeed often enough anti-Christian in their motivation. Thus, as Christopher Dawson has pointed out, the development of science and technology, the rise of the Industrial Revolution, and in the sphere of aesthetic culture, the Renaissance, all owe a great deal to the influence upon them of Christianity, as it imparts to them its own sense of purpose. Even an anti-Christian movement like the French Enlightenment was heavily indebted to the Christian worldview, although it secularized the ideas it had borrowed in order to create a heavenly city here upon earth. And in the case of so anti-Christian and atheistic an ideology as Marxism, it would have lacked much of its appeal if it had not had behind it the idea of the Hebrew prophets, carried forward by Christianity, of the importance of the poor and the dispossessed. Even though Communism enslaved the proletariat, its driving force comes from its claim to rescue them from oppression. As Dawson has observed:

"For what was that social revolution in which Karl Marx put his hope but a l9th-century version of the Day of the Lord, in which the rich and the powerful of the earth should be consumed and the princes of the Gentiles brought low, and the poor and disinherited should reign in a regenerated universe?" , p 229.

In his statement of the difference in basic character between Western Christian culture and the Oriental religion cultures, Dawson shows how this difference derives from the influence of Christianity. He writes, in the Introduction to the second volume of his Gifford Lectures;

"Why is it that Europe alone among the civilizations of the world has been continually shaken and transformed by an energy of spiritual unrest that refuses to be content with the unchanging law of social tradition which rules the oriental cultures? It is because its religious ideal has not been the worship of timeless and changeless perfection but a spirit that strives to incorporate itself in humanity and to change the world. In the West the spiritual power has not been immobilized in a sacred social order like the Confucian state in China and the Indian caste system. It has acquired social freedom and autonomy and consequently its activity has not been confined to the religious sphere but has had far-reaching effects on every aspect of social and intellectual life.

"For, side by side with the natural aggressiveness and the lust for power and wealth which are so evident in European history, there were also new spiritual forces driving Western man towards a new destiny."

, pp 8; 10

The origins of Christian culture are to be found at the time when the Church came out of Palestines in the first apostolic geneoration, to spread the gospel to peoples possessed of the Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire. This involved a need to translate Jewish ideas and prophecies, of which Christianity was the fulfillment, into the Greek language and form. This was accomiplished so quickly that all the four gospels, as we have them, are written in Greek, not Aramaic. Nevertheless, many Greeks and Romans, especially those in positions of authority, looked upon Christianity as something quite alien to their own cherished traditions, an Oriental superstition intruding itself upon the proprieties of civilized life. It was this attitude which led to the two and a half centuries of persecution of Christianity by the Romans, before the Faith finally gained acceptance. Yet, as Christopher Dawson points out, Christianity and its ideals of spiritual freedom were in accord with the best tradition of earlier Greek and Roman society. And it was in succcessfully resisting persecution and maintaining the principle of freedom that Christianity showed the dynamic character that was to characterize all of its later development. Of this confrontation of the Christians with the might of the Roman Empire and the prestige of Hellenic culture, Dawson writes:

"How this tradition of Western civilization survived the decline of the city state and the loss of its political freedom has always been the greatest of historical problems. The answer of the old school of liberal historians was that it did not survive:--that the light of classical civilization was extinguished in the night of the Dark Ages and was reborn miraculously at the Renaissance which was the starting point of the new period of progress and enlightenment. The other view which I myself hold is that the ancient world saved its soul by its conversion to Christianity and that the tradition of its culture lived on in Western Christendom. The loss of political freedom in the ancient world was in fact counterbalanced by the revelation of a new spiritual freedom; so when the earthly city was enslaved men acquired faith in the existence of a spiritual city `which is free and the mother of us all.' And as the first epoch in the history of freedom is marked by the rise of the free Greek cities and their struggle with Persia, the second is marked by the rise of the Christian Church and its struggle with the Roman Empire which had lost the ideals of citizenship and political freedom and was rapidly becoming a vast servile state like those of the ancient East. The battle was fought out under the shadow of the executioners' rods and axes in praetoria and amphitheaters and concentration camps from Germany to Africa and from Spain to Armenia, and its heroes were the martyrs... Henceforward wherever the Christian faith was preached not only in Europe but from one end of the world to the other, from Japan and Annam to Canada, the names of the men who bore witness with their blood to truth and spiritual freedom have been held in honour.

"The dynamic force of this spiritual ideal put new life into the dying civilization of the ancient world and gave Latin Christendom the power to incorporate the northern barbarians in the new synthesis of Western medieval civilization."

(1942), pp 63-64

As we study the earlier history of Western Christian culture, we find this same dynamic process at work, often contending against great odds... The creation of Western culture itself in the lands conquered by the Germanic barbarians was a kind of by-product of the spread of Christianity to these previously pagan peoples. The conversion of Ireland, of France, and of England were all missionary efforts that at the same time extended the territory and influence of the culture of the West. In fact, we may say that the conversion of these countries actually created Western civilization. That is, if we define that civilization as the union of Christianity and Graeco-Roman culture with the societies and traditions of the barbarian peoples. The later centuries of the early Middle Ages witnessed a continuation of this process, for, after the almost fatal disasters of the Muslim conquest of the Mediterranean lands and, later, the Viking invasions, it was through the unifying force given by Christianity that Western culture again took up the task of reconstruction of Western society and extended the area of its influence.

Earlier it was the disastrous conditions of Germanic invasion of the Empire, when society seemed almost on the verge of extinction, that Christianity had had to exert its energizing power, so that a new culture might spring up amidst the ruins of the old. No sooner, however, had this age of Western Christian culture reached its flowering in the monasteries of Ireland and England, and, through the efforts of St. Boniface and his Anglo-Saxon monks, converted Western Germany to the Christian Faith, than a new threat arose.

The work of St. Boniface, of whom Dawson speaks as one "who had a deeper iufluence on the history of Europe than any Englishman who has ever lived," (, pp. 210-11), extended also to the revitalization and reorganization of the Church in the Frankish kingdom, and thus laid the foundations for the Carolingian age which began a generation after the death of Boniface.

The base upon which St. Boniface relied for carrying on his work in Germany and in the Frankish kingdom were the monasteries of England from which he drew his missionaries, both men and women. However, with the Vikina invasions, beginning around 800, these monastesies were subjected to repeated raids, so that the flowers of learning and art which they had produced were ruthlessly cut down and the plant itself almost uprooted from which new growths of Christian culture and Western civilization might spring.

Dawson gives a brief but graphic account of these invasions, and he quotes from a contemporary chronicle to illustrate what was taking place. Dawson notes:

"It is of these dark years that the chronicler of St. Vedast writes, `The Northmen cease not to slay and carry into captivity the Christian people, to destroy the churches and to burn the towns. Everywhere there is nothing but dead bodies--clergy and laymen, nobles and common people, women, and children. There is no road or place where the ground is not covered with corpses. We live in distress and anguish before this spectacle of the destruction of the Christian people.'"

Dawson passes this judgment on the signifiance of these invasions: "There has never been a war which so directly threatened the existence of Western Christendom as a whole; indeed the Christian resistance has more right to the name of a crusade than the Crusades themselves." , pp. 100-101.

Yet here also the vital and vigorous power of Christianity reasserted itself and became the source of life for a new outburst of creative activity. This extended the area of Western culture into Scandinavia with the conversion of the Northmen themselves, and into Central and Eastern Europe with the conversion of the Magyars and the Poles. It also produced an intensive cultivation of the internal resources of the Christian cultural tradition, which led to the great achievements of the High Middle Ages from the 11th to the 13th centuries. In the following passage from an unpublished article Dawson remarks on this new flowering of Christian culture in the Gothic age:

"This revival was not confined to the intellectual world, for this central period of the Middle Ages from 1060 to 1260, witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of social energy in every field. In spite of all the oppression and lawlessness of feudalism, it was an age of freedom and enterprise, when men were everywhere combining for common ends, in religious orders and universities, in communes and gilds, in pilgrimages and crusades. Above all, the rise of the medieval city with its intense communal and religious activity, marks the emergence of the West from barbarism to a new civilization which differed alike from those of classical antiquity and the contemporary Oriental world....

"It was the age of St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure and St. Louis, of the builders of the great Gothic cathedrals, of Robert Grosseteste and Simon de Montfort."

In his Gifford Lectures Dawson speaks of the religious principle which provided the inspiration for the great achievements of medieval culture and gave the medieval period that dynamic character which historians have so often overlooked. The Middle Ages were not an age of stability and security, when everything was fixed and guaranteed by the unity of religious faith, as is so often supposed by the defenders of the Middle Ages as much as by those who attack them. This period existed, rather, in a state of uncertain equilibrium, in which a balance between the forces making for disunity and the unifying power of a supernatural faith, was precariously maintained.

Dawson has remarked on this characteristic of medieval culture, which indeed distinguishes Christian culture from the other great world civilizations. He states:

"Medieval Christendom, at least in this its greatest period, was not a static unchanging hierarchial order, like the civilizations of the ancient East, it was a dynamic movement that was continually changing and hardly achieved completion before it began to pass away. Modern writers have frequently been so impressed by the logical completeness of the medieval synthesist as revealed in the works of St. Thomas and Dante that they have failed to realize its dynamic character. But in reality medieval man lived precariously between two abysses, with hell beneath his feet and the heavens filled with the mysteries of a succession of spiritual worlds above his head. And in the same way medieval civilization itself! was a precarious achievement, like a great arch thrown over the abyss of barbarism.

"If we want an image of the medieval world, it is [that of] a a Gothic cathedral, as Henry Adams described it in the last pages of , with their emphasis on the sustaining arch and flying butress by which the divergent elements in the structure are held in unity."

Dawson then gives us this conclusion as to the causes for the ending of the great age of medieval culture: "Now in the 14th century the strain became too great to be borne. The centrifugal thrust of royal power and national ambition became too strong to be mastered by the centripetal aspiration of Western culture towards the center of Christian unity. The arch was broken and the vault collapsed. Out of the ruins men began to build again, with lower aims and more divided purposes. Yet the inheritance of the great age of medieval culture was never completely lost. All the new elements which that age had created were taken over and incorporated into the new national cultures..." (1967), pp. 272-273.

It is sometimes said that the study of Christian culture in the medieval period is a retreat into the past and an abandonment of the issues which face the contemporary world. Whereas, in fact, if we understand the medieval achievement in its true dimensions, as a constant creative struggle against the forces which threatened to tear society apart, we shall more readily appreciate its relevance for the problems of cultural crisis which we must confront today. For we also have the same opportunity and the same obligation to extend the Christian faith and Christian culture to the new peoples with whom our present world society has brought us into contact. And we are confronted with the same need to impose unity and order on the diverse intellectual and cultural elements which have grown up outside the Christian community proper, but which need reconciliation with the truths of the Christian tradition if they are to reach their proper term of fulfillment.

Thus the inspiration and guidance which we can gain from a study of Christian culture in the past, and especially its classical moments or periods, can give us a deeper understanding of our own time in world history. And it can show us what use may be made of these lessons of the past for the creation of a vital Christian culture that may be achieved for the future.