Eternity in Time: Christopher Dawson and the Catholic Idea of Historyed. by Stratford Caldecott and John Morrill (review)
- The Catholic Historical Review
- The Catholic University of America Press
- Volume 84, Number 4, October 1998
- pp. 697-698
- View Citation
- Additional Information
BOOK REVIEWS General and Miscellaneous Eternity in Time: Christopher Dawson and the Catholic Idea of History. Edited by Stratford Caldecott and John Morrill. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 1997. Pp. 214. $39.95.) Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), although perhaps one of the century's more important historians, presents a seemingly contradictory legacy. His religious beliefs and innovative approach to historical study made him suspect in the eyes of the historical establishment of his day, while his ecumenism and reluctance to reify the Middle Ages reduced his influence among fellow Catholics, especially in his native England. Nonetheless, Dawson's work remains the most sophisticated attempt by a Christian historian to incorporate a providential vision into empirical analysis. His focus on "metahistory" as a means to discover the underlying purposes of history, has become even more crucial in our postmodern age, when the denial of true knowledge has become fashionable. And many of his methods—if not his conclusions—have been adopted by the contemporary historical profession. This collection of papers arose out of a conference held at Westminster College , Oxford, in honor of the silver jubilee of his death, and treats of two main subjects. The first is an examination of Dawson and his work. The second purpose is to extract from that examination an historical approach that is both truly Catholic and fully compatible with general standards of scholarly rigor. As the subtitle indicates, what the essays explore is a Catholic idea of history, not simply a "Catholic history," which, as Dawson himself noted, too often becomes merely a"department of apologetics." Rather,Eternity in Time seeks a new synthesis between the reality centered in the Incarnation and the truths of history. The contributors demonstrate Dawson's profound sensitivity both to the complexity of history and to his conviction of its underlying unity. Dawson's conclusion that religion is the key to history suffuses his work. "Every human culture must possess some spiritual dynamic,which provides the energy necessary for . . . civilization," he wrote in 1929, and his life was spent exploring the implications of that insight. His familiarity with the latest anthropological works and his immersion in the literature and beliefs of other cultures convinced him that historical approaches that attempt to explain religion in 697 698BOOK REVIEWS terms of material factors will be insufficient to explain civilization or humanity 's universal impulse toward the transcendent. As Fernando Cervantes points out, a secular view of history cannot comprehend the past as "an organic, intelligible whole" (p. 52). In contrast, Dawson saw history as the constant interpenetration of the eternal with the temporal that reveals an intelligible meaning. A Dawsonian history is open to theological norms and the revelation of the salvific plan,without, however, surrendering specifically historical norms or methods, a point made by Dermot Quinn in his essay (p. 74). Francesca Murphy critiques what she calls a "deep-sea diving" approach to the past, which seeks to recover the lost glories, political or theological, of Catholicism. While useful and important, such archaeological history in fact echoes secular histories that find the reasons for cultural change in political or material terms. "Even if the findings of the Catholic side are true, [such] history is Marxist 'Catholic studies,' not Catholic history" (p. 124). Rather, drawing on Dawson's use of "symbolic" moments (such as the conversion of barbarian kings to Christianity) to dramatize the moral order that those symbols embody, Murphy calls Catholic historians to conceptualize the normal events of the world as infused with the divine. Only then, she argues, can Catholicism present a universal history that supplies the "perceptual apparatus" (p. 130) lacking in its secular counterparts. Eternity in Time is an outstanding collection of essays that challenges secular standards ofvalue in historical study and presents an alternative vision based in Catholic thought. Gerald J. Russello New York Historical Dictionary of Catholicism. By William J. Collinge. [Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements, No. 12.] (Lanham, Maryland:The Scarecrow Press. 1997. Pp. xx, 551. $58.00.) This is a historical dictionary of Catholicism, not "a dictionary of the history of Catholics,"the author tells us in the introduction. He has made an attempt,he says, to encompass all seven of Ninian...