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Dawson, Christopher


Historian; b. Hay Castle, Wales, Oct. 12, 1889; d. Budleigh Salterton, Devon, England, May 25, 1970. The son of a military, landowning Anglican family, Dawson was educated at Winchester and Trinity College, Oxford. In 1914 he became a Roman Catholic. From 1930 to 1936 he lectured in University College, Exeter. In 1934 he was Forwood Lecturer in the University of Liverpool and in 1947 and 1948 he delivered the Gifford lectures at the University of Edinburgh. In 1958 he became the first Chauncey Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Studies in Harvard University, where he lectured until 1962.

Dawson's first book, The Age of the Gods (1928), reflected his conviction, supported by his study of pre- Christian cultures, that religion formed the basis of every culture. For the rest of his scholarly life he evaluated religion's place in the evolution of Europe.

In 1929 Dawson's Progress and Religion, an analysis of the historical implications of the evolution of the idea of progress, described modern Europe as tempted by various secularist alternatives to her true Christian culture. He found the belief in the inevitability of progress, central to these aberrations, unacceptable for a Christian. His numerous writings fostered a critical examination of the secular origins of current values and a new appreciation for the distinctively Christian values which had been central to Western culture, and which remained, he thought, essential to its survival.

For Dawson, Christianity, which was the creator of Europe, could be seen to have found its full form only in the Roman Catholic Church. He thought himself neither a theologian nor a philosopher but rather a "metahistorian"a historian who asked large questions and drew far-reaching conclusions. At the source of his creative power was what he called "a universal metahistorical visionpartaking more of religious contemplation than of scientific generalization."

Dawson was an early ecumenicist, but in the last decades of his life ill health prevented him from confronting the evolution of contemporary Catholicism. His works include The Making of Europe (London 1932); Religion and the Modern State (London 1935); Christian Freedom (London 1943); Religion and Culture (London 1948); Understanding Europe (London, New York 1952); The Revolt of Asia (London 1957).

Bibliography: c. scott A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson (New Brunswick, NJ 1992).

[j. hellman]

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