Incarnational History

My wife has been a long-time fan of Christopher Dawson, the twentieth-century Catholic historian, and I decided to take a shot at reading a compilation of his essays in Dynamics of World History. Here’s a passage from one essay, “The Kingdom of God and History,” that analyzes the difference between Catholic and Protestant understandings of history:

If Christianity is the religion of the Incarnation, and if the Christian interpretation of history depends on the continuation and extension of the Incarnation in the life of the Church, Catholicism differs from other forms of Christianity in representing this incarnational principle in a fuller, more concrete, and more organic sense.

As the Christian faith in Christ is faith in a real historical person, not an abstract ideal, so the Catholic faith in the Church is faith in a real historical society, not an invisible communion…or a spiritual union of Christians who are divided into a number of religious groups and sects.

This calls to mind the super-spiritualization of certain Protestant communities. All sacraments are purely symbolic, the Church is an invisible collection of all true believers, and so on. But Christ really became a man; He really used his spit and made mud and then truly healed the blind person–it wasn’t just spiritual, although of course it had a spiritual aspect; He had real nails driven into His hands and feet and He died. After He rose, the Church He founded was also similarly visible and unified, in a real way.

Dawson continues:

It is not enough for the Catholic to believe in the Word as contained in the sacred Scriptures, it is not even enough to accept the historic faith as embodied in the creeds and interpreted by Catholic theology, it is necessary for him to be incorporated as a cell in the living organism of the divine society and to enter into communion with the historic reality of the sacred Tradition.

This is a fundamental difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, not just that we believe different things and have different books in our Bibles, but that the Catholic conception of the Church is that of a living, supernatural society that is also visible here on earth and which, through our baptisms, we are incorporated into. This reality affects the entire way we live our life (or at least, it should).

Dawson’s larger point here is that the idealist belief in the “law of progress” found fertile ground in Protestantism and formed the basis for the Protestant understanding of history. These idealist principles of “immanence and self-determination” were the negation of the Catholic principles of “divine transcendence and divine authority.” Some of this starts going over my head, but I get his general idea.

This is also one reason why becoming Catholic is more than just accepting some intellectual ideas, which are perhaps more or less close to what one already believes. Becoming Catholic entails a degree of assent that is an order of magnitude greater (and different) than what Protestantism requires. This does not mean that Catholics are “more faithful” than Protestants but only that the commitment made when becoming Catholic is greater. “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God.” No one says those words lightly!

Becoming Catholic changes your life, reordering it in a hundred big and little ways. But doesn’t it make sense that Christ would demand such radical faith and commitment from his disciples?

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