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Christopher (Henry) Dawson

Chair, Roman Catholic Studies, Harvard Divinity School
1889 to 1970

Born in Hay Castle, England, in 1889 and educated at Winchester College and at Trinity College, Oxford, Christopher Dawson began his academic career studying modern history. Becoming a Roman Catholic shortly after his time at Oxford, Dawson consistently focused his research and writing on issues of European culture and religion. Lecturer in the History of Culture, University College, Exeter, Gifford Lecturer and first recipient of the Chauncey Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University (1958–1962), Dawson was also editor of the Dublin Review.

His first publication, The Age of the Gods (1928), came after a period of thorough research, but it was his second work, Progress and Religion (1929), which first demonstrated the depth and range of his thought and drew attention to his vehement critique of the materialist tendency of the social sciences. In this latter work, Dawson critiques the strict materialism of the sociology, anthropology and history of his day which, he argues, tended to regard religion as ‘essentially a negative force’.

Dawson’s central concern was to articulate the centrality and dynamism of religion for all cultures, but particularly for European culture. He was a member of a group of writers that staffed Catholic publishers Sheed and Ward. During the 1930s he edited and contributed to their publication series entitled Essays in Order. During this time he continued with his own writing, notably The Making of Europe (1932), in which he argued the currently accepted but previously unique thesis that the so-called dark ages were in fact the most creative period in the culture of the Western world. His other publications during this period include Christianity and the New Age (1931), Medieval Religion and Other Essays (1934), as well as more personal social and political reflections, such as Religion and the Modern State (1936) and Beyond Politics (1939).

The interactions of political and religious authority, and the study of the ‘culture of Christianity’, were consistent concerns for Dawson. His many publications following the Second World War focused on and argued for the necessity of diverse and integrated education as the heart of sociopolitical progress. It was his public and at times unpopular conviction that the study of culture as inherently religious was the only possibility ‘to bring Western civilization back to the right road’, or to repair the schism between religion and culture in the West, and especially in Europe. In contrast to what he considered to be positivistic and nihilistic prevarications of his age, Dawson wrote, ‘It is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture. . . . A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture’.

Later in his career Dawson’s focus broadened slightly, from specifically European and Christian concerns, to include more generally the relationship of Christianity to other world religions, most notably in Mission to Asia (1966), The Dividing of Christendom (1967) and The Formation of Christendom (1967). Perhaps surprisingly, save eight years in his early career as a part-time lectureship in the history of culture at University College, Exeter, and four years late in life as Professor of Roman Catholic Studies at the Harvard Divinity School, Dawson did not receive wide academic recognition during his lifetime. He was, however, elected as a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA) in 1943.

By his death in 1970, Dawson had at least twenty publications to his name. His influence on contemporary dialogue religious studies and the social sciences, and his rehabilitation of European cultural studies cannot be overestimated. Books on Dawson include Christina Scott’s A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson (1984) and Daniel O’Connor’s The Relation Between Religion and Culture According to Christopher Dawson: A Synthesis of Christopher Dawson's Writings (1952).