- Christopher Dawson on Theology and the Social Sciences
Though primarily known as a historian, Christopher Dawson (1889–1970) demonstrates remarkable theological insight in his scholarly work. Dawson successfully integrates the findings of the social sciences with careful theological attentiveness to achieve a view of history that accounts both for the natural striving for God as well as God's intervention in the world. Religion, as found throughout human history, must be seen as a human attempt to relate to and even reach the absolute. The context of this search has been historically conditioned and in turn enormously influential on history. Therefore, the social sciences are crucial in order to understand both the origin of religion in history and its crucial role in shaping it. Nevertheless, Dawson argues that the social sciences alone are not sufficient to understand religion for two reasons. The first is that empirical study cannot fully comprehend the nature of human spirituality. The second is that religious striving toward the divine provides the context for God's intervention in history, which transcends the limits of observable data. This article explores Dawson's central themes in relation to theology and suggests ways in which Dawson may aid modern theological study. [End Page 91]
The most striking feature of Dawson's historical method is his ability to integrate findings in the social sciences while not succumbing to their limits.1 He recognizes that many scholars in these disciplines actually ignore the most crucial aspects of human life. Dawson writes that "behind the rational sequence of political and economic cause and effect, hidden spiritual forces are at work which confer on events a wholly new significance."2 Therefore, "if we rely on history alone we can never hope to transcend the sphere of relativity; it is only in religion and metaphysics that we can find truths that claim absolute and eternal validity."3 Dawson certainly does not argue that the social sciences should be collapsed into theology or metaphysics, but rather makes the bold claim that any history that does not take the claims of these disciplines seriously will contain grave flaws.
Rather than allowing religious claims and data of the human sciences to stand apart from one another in an isolated fashion, Dawson attempts to create a comprehensive view of history that accounts for the totality of human experience. History must deal with those things for which "the men of the past cared most." What they cared for most were religious ideas, which usually arouse the interests of theologians only to receive "neglect by the historians, with the result that the latter devote more space to secondary movements that make some appeal to the modern mind than to the central issues that were of vital interest to the men of the past and governed not only their inner life but also their social institutions and practical activities."4 Even though Dawson focused on elements intentionally overlooked by his colleagues, he also made use of the best modern scholarly material available to him. In particular, Dawson integrated the findings of anthropology and sociology, grounding his theory of the role of religion throughout history in rigorous, scientific study.
In his first book, The Age of the Gods, he lays out his vision:
After a century and more of historical specialism and archaeological research, of the minute criticism of documents and [End Page 92] sources, the time has come when it is becoming possible to reap the fruits of this intensive labour, and to undertake some general synthesis of the new knowledge of man's past that we have acquired . . . a general vision of the whole past of our civilisation has become possible.5
Dawson expressed a theory that stretched throughout all of history and that traced the development of human life alongside the development of religion. He did this by stressing the "organic relation between theology, history and culture," in order to see human life as an ordered whole, embracing both natural relations and supernatural aspirations.6
Religion and Culture
The heart of Dawson's theory consists in his insight that religion plays an essential role within the life of every culture. Because of...