Monday, August 7, 2017

Tonsor: Historiography: Dawson


When Tonsor had finished his prepared remarks on Christopher Dawson, arguably the greatest Catholic historian of the twentieth century, he looked at us triumphantly and asked if there were any questions, especially from the Marxists in the class. He was spoiling for a fight. Not surprisingly there was a pause. The student next to me began clicking his pen, an irritation he often inflicted on the rest of us at such times. 

Across the room a hand reluctantly went up. This student was no Marxist -- he was too tentative to be an ideologue. He began painfully: "So, like, Dawson says that religion is, like, the root of culture. But is that true of American culture? I mean, we don't have a single religion. Besides, isn't America more secular than other nations. How does Dawson's thesis apply, like, to our country?"

"I question your statement that America is more secular than other nations," said Tonsor bluntly, a note of irritation in his voice. "What is your evidence for that statement?"

Church and state in Charleston, West Virginia, in the Upper Ohio River Valley.
Image at URL

The poor student had now grasped the tar baby and would not easily extricate himself. "You just always hear how, like, Americans are materialistic, which doesn't sound very religious to me. Also you hear how, like, when it comes to the Constitution, we have, like, separation of church and state --" 

"Let me stop you there. First, purge the word 'like' from your vocabulary. Verbal tics do not become you.

"Second, regarding the Constitution, I think you are on dangerous ground to cite one line of a letter by Thomas Jefferson to a congregation of Baptists. You give it too much weight. Besides, Jefferson was not even at the Constitutional Convention. If you were to ask most constitutional scholars, they would tell you that the Framers were not seeking freedom from religion so much as freedom for religion. The question among a free people, then, is what should the role of government be? Americans do not want the government interfering with their right to worship or not to worship. It is a matter of conscience, and freedom of conscience is sacrosanct; at the heart of America's civic experience." (When Tonsor made this last point about freedom of conscience, he was doffing his hat to two of his heroes, Lord Acton and John Stuart Mill.)  

"To get a better idea of the Jeffersonian position," Tonsor continued, "read Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) and Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments (1785). Both are powerful statements in defense of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. 

"Now, what else were you saying? Something about how materialistic we are, the implication being that we are not religious? Let's examine your claim. Ask yourself what Americans have historically done with their right to worship or not to worship as they please. What does the evidence say?

"Gallup and other organizations survey social attitudes about these things. And the polls consistently show that Americans are among the most religious people in the developed world. The vast majority of us say we believe in God, in Heaven, in Satan, and in Hell."

I couldn't help but think the poor kid Tonsor was addressing most definitely believed in Hell at this point. He was shifting uncomfortably in his chair.

"The surveys," Tonsor intoned, "show about half of us go to church or temple on Sundays. Both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population, Americans are among the most church-going people in the developed world. That's how we exercise our religious freedom -- with our feet.

"When I was about your age, I occasionally went from Champaign-Urbana, where I was studying, up to Chicago. To get to Chicago you go through the city of Kankakee. For those of you who are taking a sociology or American studies class, Kankakee would offer a fine case study to test Dawson's thesis about the importance of religion in American life. In the nineteenth and for much of the twentieth century, community life in Kankakee was organized around its churches -- Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist.

St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church and Seminary in Kankakee, IL, at URL

"Let us ask the Dawsonian question: What do those churches mean? Why were they built? After all, they exist not by government fiat but because free men and women willed them into existence. All the churches are a fine illustration of Tocqueville's observation about America, that she is strong because of her robust civil society. 

"The presence of these churches means that the majority of people in Kankakee believe in something transcendent. They subscribe to a faith that organizes their experiences, their understanding of things. Those thousands of people who shoehorn themselves into the pews every Sunday believe, to varying degrees, in a transcendent God; in a creation that is not God; in linear time that has a beginning, middle, and end. They believe that human beings are more than an accidental collocation of atoms; that they exist in a moral order; that the individual possesses a soul; that each one has free will to choose good or evil; and that their choices create the storyline of a cosmic drama.

"Considered collectively, those churches tell you much about a place like Kankakee. To the people there, religion provides a source of meaning, enduring values, family structure, social norms, cultural cohesion, and feelings of Gemeinschaft or community.

"Those churches are also a sign that the men and women of Kankakee are prompted by their faith to be in ceaseless activity on behalf of their fellow man." (When Tonsor said "ceaseless activity," I could not help but think he was unconsciously referencing Goethe's Faust.) "Think of all they have accomplished. They raised the money to build beautiful structures whose steeples dominate the city's skyline. That material evidence alone gives you a clue, does it not, to just how important religion has been to the settlers in the Kankakee Valley. Their faith has also spurred them to establish other crucial institutions in the community -- schools, colleges, hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, thrift shops, charity drives, disaster relief for the distressed in distant lands, and even insurance at a rate families can afford. On top of all that, their faith instructs them to pay their taxes, serve on juries, and defend their country. Think of what Kankakee would be without its churches!

"That there are so many denominations within close proximity in a small city like Kankakee is another remarkable thing to ponder. It shows how pluralistic our society is. In the face of all our diversity, Americans nevertheless unify around a creed. Truly little Kankakee is an e pluribus unum. Every church is different. Every church has its baptismal book, uses its own translation of the Bible, tells different stories in its stained-glass windows, and sports its own architectural style. The diversity of the material culture in these churches provides valuable evidence about the array of cultures the immigrants represents. It so happens that the Kankakee Valley was first settled by French Canadians, but there are also Germans, Irish, Scots, Blacks, and many others. So a typical working-class city like Kankakee, Illinois, offers a powerful demonstration of Dawson's thesis: Religion is what puts the 'cult' in culture.

For more on Dawson, see Bradley Birzer's superb biography,
Sanctifying the World: The Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (2007).
Image by Birzer at URL

"Kankakee is not unusual. Across the land there are ten thousand, twenty thousand Kankakees. One can build the case, sociologically and inductively, as Dawson the sociologist would have, that the centrality of religion is to be found again and again in our communities. Let me say it once more: It's religion that puts the 'cult' in culture.

"One can also build the case historically. Dawson the historian argued that the centrality of the Christian cultus in all these towns and cities comes from someplace. To see the deep roots of our Western cultus, I'd urge you, the next time you're in Chicago, to visit the Art Institute. In the medieval collection is an exhibit that perfectly illustrates Dawson's thesis. It's in a room that features a scale model of a Gothic church and medieval village, somewhere in feudal France or Germany. What strikes the visitor as he walks around the table is how that church stands at the very center of the village. The scene brilliantly captures the historic reality of early European communities -- all life's activities centered around the church ... the people's aspirations, like that steeple, soaring to the heavens."

I glanced over at the student. I'm sure the poor fellow didn't know what to say after that sustained intellectual barrage. But our professor, even in his irritability, was demonstrating how the historian cites credible evidence and mounts a powerful argument. 

At the close of the period, Tonsor seemed to want to soften his hammer stroke yet still come down with enough force to set the nail. 

"To the entire class let me say: You cannot assume your personal opinions are the truth. This is why we study history: to use the slashing blade of reason like a machete to hack through the dark jungle of false opinion until we see the light of truth."

A striking image, that -- in the same league as the Allegory of the Cave. And yet I remembered Tonsor saying to me, not long before, that he did not care for Plato.

The Kankakee River flowing through dolomite outcrops.
The source of the river drains a small part of Michigan west of Ann Arbor,
the only claim the State of Michigan has to the Mississippi River system.
The rest of Michigan is in the Great Lakes Basin.
Photo at URL


In my previous life back in Fort Collins, I had made a wonderful discovery over the holiday break in 1983-1984. Lazily meandering through the Stone Lion bookstore a few days after Christmas, I came across a slim volume titled, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture. I bought the book and consumed it as though it were the Eucharist itself.

In The Historic Reality Dawson made powerful arguments. Religion (the cultus) was at the root of ancient cultures -- the two words were even etymologically related. Most of the West's morals and codes of behavior had been derived from Church doctrine. Because of its power, the medieval Church was the most unifying force in early Europeans' worldview, morality, social norms, and economic practice. It was not for nothing that medieval Europe was called "Christendom." Dawson's argument ultimately was that the West's faith had humanized her subjects, and we abandon that faith at our peril.

Dawson, interestingly enough, was able to step back from Christianity and look at religion from a sociological perspective that was compatible with what I had learned as an undergraduate. For instance, one way to see religion is through a philosophical lens. In such a light, religion does not necessarily require belief in a supernatural being, a fact confirmed by historical experience. Think of the religion of ancient Greece with its belief in anthropocentric gods, or of the ancient religion of Japan called Shinto, with its naturalistic worldview. 

If belief in the supernatural is not the defining element that everywhere obtains, what then is religion? At the very least it is a worldview with three parts: "a theory of knowledge, an ethical system, and an idea of what makes up and orders everything."[1] Each of these three parts requires a pre-scientific act of faith. Religion involves epistemological faith because it proposes the way believers can access a truth that cannot be scientifically corroborated. It involves ethical faith because it teaches believers to accept commandments of what is right and wrong based ultimately on authority rather than on reason. And it involves metaphysical faith through stories of what makes up and orders everything from a speck of dust to the cosmos. By these three criteria, Marxism is as much a "faith" as Christianity. Let that thought settle in: Because of their "faith," Marxists can be the true believers that Christians are. Even materialistic Marxists advance a theory of knowledge, an ethical system, and an idea of what makes up and orders everything.

A fairly liberal view of religion, this. Nevertheless, the apprentice historian in me worried about the extent to which I could use Dawson's religious insights in graduate school. On the one hand I wanted to incorporate what was true and insightful in his work into my own. On the other I recognized that I must use Dawson's insights with care around the history profession's gatekeepers. After all, he did not have an earned doctorate.

Before setting my sights on Ann Arbor, I set about creating a little exercise for myself to explore the boundary between religious faith and academic discourse. After all, it is a treacherous frontier between what is believed in faith and what can be proven as true:
"Twentieth-century modernity is a kind of sickness": This is an inadmissible statement in a scholarly work because it is an opinion and it is polemical. 
"Several twentieth-century Catholic converts are on record as having written that modernity was a kind of sickness": This is an admissible statement in a scholarly work because it reports what others said. 
"One of Harvard University's founding documents (1643) states, 'Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Iesus Christ which is eternall life, John 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning'": This is an admissible, accurate quotation in a scholarly work, even in our secular post-Christian culture, because it is publicly accessible and thus can be confirmed. 
"A peer-reviewed study has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It strongly correlates quicker healing times among church-attending patients who pray before and after surgery than among agnostic patients who neither attend church nor pray before and after surgery": This is admissible reportage in a scholarly work because it cites a scientific study that has been peer-reviewed and whose outcome can be replicated. 
"Even though it is many centuries old, Anselm's a priori ontological argument proves God's existence": This is an inadmissible statement in scholarship because such "knowledge" is neither provable nor accepted by universal reason.  
"Rasputin would not die. It took hours for assassins to kill him likely because he was possessed by the Devil": Inadmissible. It is a tough sell to nonbelievers who do not think that Satan really exists or is a historical agent. Modern scholarship insists on naturalistic explanations of mysterious occurrences.
"Christianity is the one true faith": inadmissible because it is an article of faith and therefore an unprovable opinion. 
"Western civilization is superior to other civilizations to the extent that it is informed by Christianity": inadmissible because of the polemical nature of the claim as well as the highly subjective notion of "superior."

I believe the way I treat each of the foregoing statements conforms to norms that even the most secular scholar would uphold. And yet -- and yet -- if it were known to the academic gatekeepers in Ann Arbor that I admired Christopher Dawson, my graduate studies in history might suffer because of the academic prejudice against self-consciously Christian scholars in the humanities at most universities. While making my way through graduate school on the road to tenure, I would constantly have to put my opinions through a sieve of the gatekeepers' devising. It is just not -- polite -- to let one's religious faith come through in conversation, teaching, or scholarship. Failure to self-edit could result in less academic support, less financial support, less consideration by peer-reviewed journals, and less opportunity on the job market. All of which made me ask: At what cost to my integrity was I becoming an academic? 

At what cost, indeed? The pagan, Thucydides, gave me something to think about: "I have written my work not to win the applause of the moment, but to be a possession of all time."


[1] Armen Oganessian, "Religion's Seat at the Table," Ethika Politika, December 4, 2017, at URL, accessed December 4, 2017.

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