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Religion and the Rise of Western Culture

1947 to 1949
University of Edinburgh

Dawson examines the rich and diverse Christian history of Europe which he had room only to assume in his previous lectures on 'Religion and Culture' (1947). Dawson assumes the thesis he first described in his 1932 publication The Making of Europe — that the Dark Ages were not dark but vibrant and illuminating. These lectures trace the development of the Christian Church and its influence on culture in Europe, from Roman adoption in the 5th century to the 11th-century Byzantine tradition. Dawson's concern is to demonstrate that the history of religion is more than an aspect of Western culture; it is its foundation.

In the first chapter Dawson introduces his thesis of the inexorable influence of Christian cultural history on Europe, not to demonstrate a Christian superiority or to create a nostalgic revision of a difficult past. Rather, these lectures argue that the modern relegation of religion to a social category is insufficient; the innovation and conflicts of Christian history have determined contemporary Western culture.

The second chapter begins with the early Church's encounter with surrounding non-Christian cultures, the Roman adoption of Christianity, and the polar responses of concession and conflict. The third chapter discusses the effects of the monastic tradition and the formation of the Western Church, focusing on the Rule of St Benedict, and the pilgrimages of ascetic orders, especially of Irish monks. The fourth and fifth chapters cover the spread of Christian religion and culture into northern and eastern regions, and the sixth chapter details the emergence of a distinctly Eastern tradition.

From the first half of this two-year lecture series, Dawson concludes that the changes arising from conflicts within a dynamic Christian culture are part of Western culture in elemental and inextricable ways. “The importance of these centuries . . . is not to be found in the external order they created or attempted to create, but in the internal change they brought about in the soul of Western man – a change which can never be entirely undone except by the total negation or destruction of western man himself” (274). These lectures begin where the previous year's lectures left off, with the spread of monasticism, and the encounter of Christianity and Christian culture with northern European societies. The seventh chapter considers the reforms of the Church in the 11th century and the role of the medieval papacy. The eighth chapter focuses on the tension between the courtly ideal and the Christian tradition, which gave rise to bloody conflicts and crusades, as well as beautiful and profound prose, such as the Quest of the Grail cycle of the 13th century (186).

Concessions made by Church and state resulted in crisis, as the apocalyptic call to the renunciation of the world conflicted with the now deeply rooted but developed culture of Christianity. In the midst of natural friction, however, come the Christian origins of medieval institutions fundamental to modern Western society, including the commune and the guild (chapter 9), and the school and the university (chapter 10). Chapters 11 and 12 discuss the crisis of medieval Christian culture, and the significance of this crisis for studies of contemporary, or popular European culture.

Dawson concludes his two-year lecture series by reiterating the fundamental importance of honest consideration of religious culture, for the development of any society. 'If there is any truth in what I have been saying in these two courses of lectures, such moments of vital fusion between a living religion and a living culture are the creative events in history, in comparison with which all external achievements in the political and economic orders are transitory and insignificant' (274).