We often read in conventional media and blogs alike the statements of people profess to be atheist or agnostics and who equate religions with their evil results. To hear some savant claim that Christianity is simply the slaughter of the Crusades, the Inquisition, or fundamentalist intolerance means that the speaker clearly understands little of the deep currents of history. Are the foundations of American democracy to be judged by self-serving politicians, corporate plunderers, or media pundits who distort every tenet of that democracy in the name of their own brand of patriotism?
As I have said so many times in the past, neither PJ nor I are religious, per se. We were both raised Catholic but we do not participate in the church. But our work in Via Lucis has demonstrated to us that there is something in the world of religion – particularly medieval Christianity – that is profound and moving, full of understanding of the depths of human suffering and compassion.
There is something very simple that can be seen over and over throughout history – great ideas ignite a flame in the human soul and extraordinary things are accomplished in the shortest time. Athens went from a provincial Greek town into the dominant force in Greece in the space of a century. A collection of 18th century colonies in what was considered a wilderness transformed into the greatest power in the world in less than two hundred years.
The same thing happened in the medieval world. In this particular case, the enflaming idea was not political, as in Greece and America. It was religious. But it was just as liberating, just as powerful, and it had results that were just as astonishing. The 11th century opened on a Europe that was poverty-stricken, desolated by Saracen, Viking and Magyar invaders, ruled ruthlessly by local nobility whose only occupation was war and killing. The countryside was in ruins, there was little commerce or currency, and no order.
Christian monks appeared on the scene, dedicated to poverty and service in the name of their God. They cleared the lands, made the peace, sheltered the homeless, fed the hungry, and rebuilt an infrastructure of roads and bridges that had been left to moulder and collapse. The people of Europe saw these good works and began to believe that the God who was represented on the earth by these men and women in black robes was the proper object of their worship. The life of an entire continent began to look upward and inward to make themselves worthy of such a good and just God who had brought them out of misery. And the people trusted the monks and nuns to stand guard on their souls.
This belief and faith accomplished miraculous things – the five thousand remaining Romanesque churches in France alone are a testament to this. The great Gothic cathedrals of Europe are the product of technological advances, but they are also among the clearest expressions of religious faith known to man. Europe turned from an inward-looking barbarian backwater to a civilization that would accomplish something that no other civilization had ever done in history – it would come to dominate the entire world.
But all things carry in themselves the seeds of their own destruction. The Greeks knew this – the drama of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are built on this understanding. Despite the warnings of these playwrights, Athens collapsed after a short hundred years of glory. Democracy devolved into demagoguery and the glory of Athens was shattered by war, plague and starvation. The medieval Church was not immune to this fate. As the Church prospered, abuses proliferated. Where Athens had its Socrates to proclaim its faults, the Church had its reformers. The Benedictines vowed poverty and when they strayed from this vow, the Cistercians appeared to remind them that things worldly interfered with things spiritual. But inevitably, the worldly overwhelmed the spiritual and the trust of the people was betrayed. Religious reformations and their accompanying wars show how strong was the spirit, but the damage had been done and the material world triumphed.
The bright flame that illumines darkness is a wondrous thing. In the enlightened world, people discover and create new things, confident that this world will continue forever. But other people begin to perceive the attractions of the world at the dim periphery of the light. They move to this shadow world and their operations begin first to distort the visible and, eventually, control it. The words are the same, but the intent and the motivations are not. When people can no longer tell the difference, collapse is inevitable.
Perhaps these are lessons that we should learn today.