Benson: The Dawn of All

March 13, 2017

The Dawn of All
Robert Hugh Benson
(Aeterna, 2005) [1911]
226 p.

In Lord of the World, written a few years prior to the present novel, Benson had imagined a future confrontation between the Catholic Church and a global secular power, a conflict in which the Church was, in its capacity to assert strength at least, severely over-matched, and reduced to a scattered remnant. The Dawn of All is in many respects a companion piece, a thematic complement to the earlier book, for in it Benson again imagines a global future, but in this case the power balance is reversed: the Church is ascendant, nearly the whole population of the earth has been converted to Christianity, and its truths are taken for granted in all spheres of life.

One might think that for Benson, a Catholic writer, this would be an opportunity to paint an attractive portrait of a harmonious world informed by the truths of the Catholic faith, and one might think that such a portrait would appeal to Catholic readers. Strange to say, this isn’t the case. It is an odd, odd book, either too inept, or too cunningly sly, I’m not sure which.

Our central character is an English prelate, Monsignor Masterman, who, in the opening scene of the novel, finds himself in the middle of a public ceremony with no idea what is happening or what he is doing there. It turns out that he has suffered a sudden amnesia, and remembers nothing of what has happened for at least a half-century. Everything seems strange to him.

Everything seems strange because so much has changed. The wholesale conversion of the world’s peoples to Catholicism has taken place more or less entirely in the interim, so that he finds himself, psychologically at least, suddenly transported from a world like our own, in which Catholicism vies alongside other religions and is largely sidelined in halls of power, to a world transformed, in which Catholicism reigns supreme, occupying a place in culture, law, and government much like the place liberalism occupies in our own, “the centre and not merely a department of national life”.

This amnesia is a — well, I’ll stop short of saying it’s “effective”, but it is helpful — a helpful literary device, because of course the reader is in precisely Masterman’s position, transported suddenly to a world unlike that we know, and it gives Benson a plausible reason to dump a lot (a lot!) of exposition on the reader without being too tedious about it.

Benson has to give us some explanation of how Catholicism suddenly conquered the world, so to speak. This he does by annexing, more or less, the authority of the sciences, for he argues that the findings of maturing sciences, especially medicine and psychology, began to corroborate the claims of Catholicism. Illnesses, it is discovered, are almost all psychosomatic, and it is Catholicism’s cure of souls that is found to most effectively cure the body too. Miracles are confirmed by scientific observation. And so the Catholic faith comes to be generally accepted, but not really on spiritual grounds. It’s just due to an objective finding, rather than an interior conversion.

Is this a problem? I have to be careful here not to prejudge. The scenario Benson describes, for instance, is perhaps not so different from how things looked in medieval times, when the Church was powerful and generally acknowledged as a teacher of truth, and when there was harmony between faith and reason. People believed in the Church more as a brute fact, like we view the political sphere, yet weren’t always greatly devout in consequence. By contrast, a common line in Christian apologetics since at least Pascal has been that the claims of faith are possibly but not certainly true, and that this in-between status is important, indeed essential, to the Christian faith, for had they not that status the appropriate response would be something other than faith, other than trust in God; it would be knowledge or irrationality. But is it really the case that having faith is preferable to having knowledge? To claim so strikes me as, possibly, an instance of using lemons to make lemonade. Indeed, it is contradicted by Catholicism itself, which says (for instance) that the existence of God, at least, can be known by reason, or, to make the point more forcefully, that ultimately the articles of faith, which we see at present through a glass darkly, will become knowledge.

Benson anticipates this response in his readers, and Masterman himself wrestles with these questions, for he too is taken aback. He struggles to adjust to a world where religion is “concrete and effective”:

“somewhere in the back of his mind (why, he knew not) there lurked a sort of only half-perceived assumption that the Catholic religion was but one aspect of truth—one point of view from which, with sufficient though not absolute truth, facts could be discerned.”

And so I am wary of my own initial response to Benson’s setup — that the “conversion” it contemplates is superficial and disappointing. Perhaps then, at a deeper level, I find his scenario discouraging simply because this coincidence of science and religion that he imagines does not seem to be true. Not that I think there is irreconcilable disharmony between them, but we have witnessed nothing like the “hand in glove” relationship between them that he puts into his book.

Setting aside how the world came to be as it is, what does Benson imagine it is actually like? The best part is that Ireland has become an island inhabited almost exclusively by religious orders, full of monasteries and retreat houses. This is nice — although also rather depressing when compared with the contemporary reality. Family life is strong and healthy: divorces are rare, large families are common, and adultery and fornication are censured. But Benson’s picture of what Catholic society would look like is not wholly attractive: there are heresy trials, monarchic government (no more the “intoxicating nightmare of democratic government”), and an educational test for the vote (only 1 in 70 pass).

But the bigger problem for Masterman is that as the Church becomes authoritative for society, and as her power increases, she must exercise that power, and doing so seems to Masterman to be inconsistent with her nature. He believes that the Church, like Christ, must be always ready to suffer, not to inflict suffering. He witnesses a heresy trial, for instance, which greatly disturbs him, all the more so because the man condemned fully accepts the verdict and the authority from which it issues.

The principal action of the novel, insofar as there is action in the novel, addresses precisely this worry of Masterman’s. Has the Church forgotten how to suffer after all? There is a plotline involving the Holy Father and a small group of rebels holding out against the Church that speaks directly to this point, and does so fairly satisfyingly.

**

An oddity about The Dawn of All is that it spends a great deal of time fascinated by volors. These flying ships, sort of like airborne trains, I believe, appeared in Lord of the World too, but peripherally. Here they sometimes seem to be the main attraction, as Benson returns to them time and again, dilating on exactly how they work, how they dock at platforms to let passengers on and off, how it feels to ride on one, what can be seen from one, how quickly they travel, and so on. I grant that thinking about flying machines is interesting, but Benson’s interest in them, or the interest he presumes in his readers, begins to feel excessive.

**

In the end I found The Dawn of All to be disappointing, partly on account of its leaden plotting and long exposition, partly because its portrait of a Catholic society seemed unappealing, and also partly because I felt cheated by an eleventh-hour revelation that cast a different light on much of the novel, and in an extremely annoying way.

**

Some passages:

[Welfare, from Church and state]
The State can only give for economic reasons, however conscientious and individually charitable statesmen may be; while the Church gives for the Love of God, and the Love of God never yet destroyed any man’s self-respect.

[The family as the model of society]
The Socialist saw plainly the rights of the Society; the Anarchist saw the rights of the Individual. How therefore were these to be reconciled? The Church stepped in at that crucial point and answered, By the Family—whether domestic or Religious. For in the Family you have both claims recognized: there is authority and yet there is liberty. For the union of the Family lies in Love; and Love is the only reconciliation of authority and liberty.

[Two poles]
The Pope attended by princes—the Pope on his knees before a barefooted friar. These were the two magnetic points between which blazed Religion.

4 Responses to “Benson: The Dawn of All”

  1. Janet Says:

    In the introduction of the edition of the book that I have (at least I think that’s where I read it) Msgr. Benson says that he wrote The Dawn of All in response to the criticism he received about Lord of the World. People were disturbed by the negativity of it. I suspect that his heart was not really in The Dawn of All. I didn’t care for it much. In fact, it’s probably my least favorite of all his books that I’ve read.

    In a way, I have the same objections to The Dawn of All that I do to Paradiso. We know that “Eye has not seen, ear has to heard, nor has it so much as entered the heart of man what God has prepared for those who love Him.” We can’t conceive it, and so everything we write about it falls flat.

    AMDG

  2. cburrell Says:

    True, but The Dawn of All falls far flatter than Paradiso!

    You make a good point.

  3. Janet Says:

    Of course. I like Msgr. Benson, but he can’t touch Dante.

    AMDG

  4. cburrell Says:

    One of the books I’ve settled on for Lent is Msgr. Benson’s spiritual memoir, Confessions of a Convert. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is quite interesting so far.


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