Christopher Dawson on Religion

If the modern man is indeed the heir of all the ages, he is of the kind of heir who tells the family solicitor to sell the whole damned estate, lock, stock and barrel, and give him a little ready money to throw away at the races or the night-clubs. He is certainly not the kind of heir who ever visits his estate: and, if he really owns all the historic lands of ancient and modern history, he is a very absentee landlord. He does not really go down the mines on the historic property, whether they are Caves of the Cave-Men or the Catacombs of the Christians, but is content with a very hasty and often misleading report from a very superficial and sometimes dishonest mining expert. He allows any wild theories, like the wild thickets of thorn and briar, to grow all over the garden and even the graveyard. He will always believe modern testimony in a text-book against contemporary testimony on a tombstone. He sells the family portraits with much more than the carelessness of Charles Surface,[1] and seldom even knows enough about the family even to save a favourite uncle from the wreck. For the adjective “fast,” which was condemnation when applied to profligates, has become a compliment when applied to progressives. I know there are any number of men in the modern world to whom all this does not in the least apply; but the point is that, even where it is obviously applicable, it is not thought particularly culpable. Nevertheless, there are some of us who do hold that the metaphor of inheritance from human history is a true metaphor, and that any man who is cut off from the past, and content with the future, is a man most unjustly disinherited; and all the more unjustly if he is happy in his lot, and is not permitted even to know what he has lost. And I, for one believe that the mind of man is at its largest, and especially at its broadest, when it feels the brotherhood of humanity linking it up with remote and even barbaric things.

Mr. Christopher Dawson has written studies of historic and pre-historic problems which have been admired by men distinguished in every way, and especially distinguished from each other. His work has been most warmly praised by critics as different as Dean Inge and Mr. Aldous Huxley and the Rev. C.C. Martindale. [2] But I, for one, value his researches for one particular reason above the rest: that he has given the first tolerably clear and convincing account of the real stages of what his less lucid predecessors loved to call the Evolution of Religion. Whether myths and mystical cults were really evolved along one consistent line, I do not know. But theories about mythology or cults or mysteries were most certainly not evolved along any consistent line. They cut across each other and almost immediately became a tangle of contradictions. First we had the Sun Myth illuminating everything like the sun, and enabling Bishop Whatley to prove that Napoleon was a mythical character. [3] Then we had Herbert Spencer and Gran Allen, [4] who said that everything came from ghosts and graves and the worship of ancestors; and then Professor Frazer, who (with all his genius) could not see the sacred tree for the golden bough. Now, whatever else be true of these theories of evolution, they are not evolved. The grave does not grow out of the sun; nor even the oak out of the grave; and on no possible theory is Frazer a development of Spencer. They are contrary guesses; and if there is evidence for all of them (as no doubt there is), the evidence only increases the confusion. Mr. Dawson has ordered the confusion without contradicting the evidence; and his conclusion is that there were, broadly four stages in the spiritual journey of humanity.

The first notion, with which the lowest and most primitive savages seem to have begun, was very like the notion with which many of our Higher Thinkers hope that all humanity will end. It was a broad belief in what is now called “the spiritual element in life”; in a spirit almost impersonal but still superior to our material minds; of which we may gain encouraging glimpses and visions. This is the stage of the Shaman, or medicine-man, who, as an independent individual mystic, can tap the vast and vague supernatural power that pervades the world. By special magic rites, with special material objects, herbs or stones or what not, he could release the mysterious force. For note that this is not pantheism; the sacred tree is hidden in the wood or the dryad is imprisoned in the tree. Now I could not be content with this magic, whether or no it suit the Higher Thinkers. But I have no sympathy with this magic; I count no man large-minded or imaginative who has not sometimes felt like a medicine-man. It is quite natural to me, walking in the woods, to wonder fancifully whether whistling back the note of a certain bird, or tasting the juice of a certain berry, would release a glamour or give back a fairyland. I call that being the heir of all ages.

The second stage is that of the static archaic culture, in which a whole people live a ritual life, generally founded on the seasons of seed or harvest, in which there is not distinction between sacred and profane, because ploughing or fishing are religious forms; and no distinction between king and priest, because the Sacred Emperor rules the whole round of ritual life like a god. China and Egypt and other cultures were of that sort. Here again, I should be dissatisfied with a religion that was a pageant of nature; for I feel the soul, in Sir Thomas Browne’s noble phrase, as something other than the elements, that owes no homage unto the sun.[5] But I am much more dissatisfied with a man, pretending to be a man of culture, who merely despises the ritual. I can never see a pageant of harvest without feeling that it is religious, and it gratifies me to think that I am feeling like the first Emperor of China. I call that being the heir of all ages.

The third phase described is the rise of the world religions, the moral and universal religions; for Buddha and Confucius and the Hebrew Prophets and the first Greek philosophers appeared roughly at the same time. And with them appeared the idea expressed in Sir Thomas Browne’s phrase: that the soul is greater than the sun. Henceforth the conscience is more than the cosmos. Either it condemns the cosmos, or ignores the cosmos, as in Buddhism; or it gives a mystical meaning, as in Platonism; or it sees it as an instrument for producing a grander good, as in Judaism and Christianity. Now I do not myself care about the Buddhist extreme, which almost unmakes the world to make the soul. I do not like Nirvana, which seems indistinguishable from death. But I would not be seen dead in a field, not in a field of any paradise, negative or positive, with the man who has no admiration for the superb renunciation of Buddha, or for the Western equivalent, the star-defying despair of the Stoics. No man has really been alive who has not some time felt that the skies might fall, so that the justice within his conscience should be done; and in the richer tapestry of the Christian there is also a dark thread of the Stoic. I call that being the heir of the ages.

I will not complete the four phases here, because the last deals with the more controversial question of the Christian system. I merely use them as a convenient classification to illustrate a neglected truth: that a complete human being ought to have all these things stratified in him, so long as they are in the right order of importance, and that man should be a prince looking from the pinnacle of a tower built by his fathers, and not a contemptuous cad, perpetually kicking down the ladders by which he climbed.

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, Jan. 7, 1933.



1. A likeable rake in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “School for Scandal.”

2. William Ralph Inge (1860-1954) was an English liberal theologian and dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London for many years. Rev. C(yril C(harlie) Martindale (1879-1963) was a Jesuit author of a number of books and tracts defending the Roman Catholic Church and religion.

3. Richard Whately, English archbishop of Dublin (1787-1863), was a writer on logic and opponent of the Oxford movement. He held a number of controversial views that made him unpopular. His “Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte” (1819) mocks the methods used by philosophical skeptics.

4. Grant Allen (1848-1899) was a writer on topics of science and evolution. His The Evolutionist at Large (1881) and The Evolution of the Idea of God (1897) are on Chesterton’s mind here. See March 25, 1911.

5. The passage from Religio Medici (pt. 2 sect. 11) reads, “There is surely a piece of Divinity in us, something that was before the Elements, and owes no homage unto the Sun.” (See also June 20, 1925.)