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The Rise of Western Christendom​

If you are interested in Western Christianity between the dates of 200-1000, you’ve just found the perfect book. If you are not interested in this mostly unknown part of history, then what’s the matter with you?! 

  • The Tenacity of Paganism — According to Brown, there was never a clean break from Paganism to monotheism. Instead, Paganism came to be thought of as a second rate story for backwards and illiterate people. “Pagan” means countryfolk (75). Christianity was not primarily a religion of the poor and disenfranchised. On the contrary, wealthy and influential people embraced the new faith more readily in cities, which led to the Christianizing of cities at a far quicker rate than rural areas. There is very little on record as far as pagan martyrs after Christianity ascended to power. Paganism wasn’t the last remnants of a former infestation that needed to be stamped out. Christianity became the ribeye steak among the general population, and Paganism was Chicken Mcnuggets! One could continue munching on the Mcnuggets if they wanted to but why? There was steak to be had! Pockets of Mcnugget chomping pagans continued to exist for centuries. 
  • Mixed bag micro-Christianity — Christianity didn’t grow from the top down, it grew from house to house, and village to village without any overarching system. The result was thousands of “roll your own at home” variations of Christianity. Like the countless Micro brewery’s that cover the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, each with their own label, taste and texture, so too developed Micro-Christianity all over Western Europe. Brown describes the variety as “individual beads on a necklace.” One of Christianity’s most effective means of spreading was through slavery. Christians captured and pressed into slavery continued to spread their message of hope. The Christian ability to overcome the burden of his bonds through belief led many captors to salvation. This happened in Iceland, Ireland, and the Scandinavian countries. Slaves didn’t always have their theology straight which contributed to the diversity of Christianity. Also, many of these people groups were willing to accept Christianity, but only with significant exceptions. Ireland embraced the Jesus way but embraced the Old Testament practices of polygamy and tribal violence much to the consternation of missionaries stationed there. Iceland decided to convert on masse one night as a strategy to unify their country. They, however, doggedly clung to their practice of female infanticide and the eating of horseflesh, both practices which the Christian church condemned. 
  • Golden Age of Peasantry — With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, many have thought that Europe plunged into a dark era of misery and ignorance. Perhaps it was a little tougher for the elites of society, but for the peasants, it was a near utopian era! “No longer policed and bullied every year to pay taxes, the peasantry slipped quietly out of the control of their landlords. Rents fell as taxes vanished… Less of their agrarian surplus was taken from them than at any other time in the history of Europe…It was only until the 8th and 9th centuries that the normal life of grinding extortion resumed for the peasant classes” (31)
  • The game changers that led to Christianity’s dominance 
    • Equality — “High and low men and women met as equal subjects, now, to the overruling law of one God….If a poor man or a destitute stranger should come in, do thou, O bishop, with all thy heart provide a place for them even if thou hadst to sit upon the ground.” (64-65) The gatherings had order, to be sure, but the development of equality and even the giving of preferential treatment to the lower classes was something entirely new.
    • Sin and it’s divine and communal solution – Except for Judaism, the universal human condition of sin, had no real identity, it wasn’t a mainstream idea. People didn’t think in those terms. But when the Christians brought it forward, it just made sense, “oh so that’s what that is.” So also did the hope for deliverance in Christ. The battle against sin was not a solo endeavour. Sin was the one thing the Christian community was committed to eradicating. This new way filled people with understanding, home, and a community committed to helping each other get better. 
    • Mobilization of wealth. From the very beginning giving was a significant tenant of the Christian faith. Wealth could be amassed quickly to help the poor and make a real difference in the world. This generosity shocked the Pagans but also won them over. It wasn’t until the 9th or 10th century that giving to the church became mandatory. Forced charity turned out to be a bad idea. But isn’t that what taxes are? 
    • God has come near — The old story of Paganism, was worn out, it wasn’t helpful. The ancient tale that emphasized the unbridgeable chasm between the human world and the divine world had lived its little time. The steep upward glimpse of distant, ruthless and unreachable deities was replaced with a much better story, A story that stood Paganism on its head. As Pope Leo said, “It is far less amazing that human beings should progress upwards towards God than that God should have come down to the human level.” (117) In the Christian story, God, out of love, came to rescue the human. A concept utterly foreign to Pagan thought, but it came like refreshing rain on parched earth. 
  • When the Christian story shifts from “what” to “how” the fights begin. It was the wonder of what God had done in Christ Jesus that filled the Roman world with hope and joy and led to such an incredible conversion rate. Eventually, over time, converts began to wonder precisely how God’s son had invaded the earth. When the focus shifted from what to how, and different answers were arrived at, the gloves came off, and the fights began. They haven’t stopped either, fortunately, over the centuries they’ve become less bloody. 
  • Monophysite mayhem. — Did Jesus have one nature or two? The “official” church decided at Chalcedon that the answer was two. Jesus was both 100% human in nature and 100% divine in nature. If he had only one nature, he could neither be truly divine or human, and that made for a lousy saviour — But the “mono” (one) “physite” (nature) people weren’t buying it. To them, it made no sense to say someone had two natures. It wasn’t possible. Eventually, the Monophysite’s were severely persecuted, to such a degree, that they welcomed Islamic invasion when it came to their territories in the 600’s! I wish it could have been possible to remain amazed at the “what” and less concerned about the “how.” But that wish is impossible. It’s human nature to understand, sadly, violence was the result of the quest to understand the how of the incarnation The message of life, brought death. 
  • Christianity’s tumultuous relationship with Icons In the East, Christians killed each other over the issue. Icons were supposed to be helpful tools aiding in the worship of Jesus, but for many, they became more than that. Pictures of the saints, relics from ancients days, and whatever tangible bits of the past gradually became elevated to the point where Christian’s were coming dangerously close to worshiping the images. For many, the thought of living life without an Icon present became unthinkable. “If only I shall see his likeness, I shall be saved.” Once some key battles were lost, and the Roman empire of the East began to shrink. Byzantines began to wonder if it might be God’s judgment for Idolatry. The “Iconoclast” (Icon Breakers) faction was born. Before long, they found a sympathetic Emperor or two, and the smashing began. Iconophiles (Icon lovers) responded by hiding their icons, and trying to smash Iconoclasts! Iconophiles also attempted to sully the reputation of Iconoclasts by linking them with Islam, which tolerates no images whatsoever. 
  • Emperors being emperors, only one kind of Christianity will do. Christian or not, violence is what emperors do. Whether Justinian in the 5th, Clovis in the 7th or Charlemagne in the 9th. Blood flowed freely and ones religious affiliation seems to have made little difference. Was Charlemagne’s beheading of 4500 Saxon captives in his conquest a bit much? Not really, all in a days work for an emperor! What about his Christian conscience? He doesn’t seem to have struggled with it. By the 9th century, the golden age of peasantry was over, and powerful kingdoms were emerging in the West, of which Charlemagne’s was the strongest. His Frankish Empire decided to go on a mission to correct the false teachings of the countless “micro-Christiandoms” that had sprung up all over continental Europe. The Pagan Saxons had been intermingling with Christian Franks for centuries, creating a “bad brew” of Christianity. For the sake of control, it was time to clarify the ingredients and make sure to get the Christian recipe just right. The monks who had long worked in these brackish waters between Christianity and Paganism protested the violence strongly, “We must preach and persuade” they said. To which Charlemagne responded, “I’ll preach with an iron tongue,” and so he did. In Ireland and England, the need for precision to the “right” type of Christianity also became a bit extreme. Wilfrid, for example, freaked out that the monks didn’t have the proper hairstyles and that the calendar of Holydays wasn’t as it should be. He had been to Rome and learned the way more perfectly. To any Irishman who objected to his changes, he reminded them of their place in the hierarchy of Christianity. They were but a “pimple on the chin of the earth!”  
  • Repentance gone wild. Augustine believed that penance was a frame of mind. It was a lifelong process, because sin, also, was a lifelong companion of the Christian. Pope Gregory and the leaders that followed him made sin and its abolishment from one’s life the absolute focal point for the Christian. In some ways, with this over-focus on sin, God became distant again. Attaining God’s presence in heaven was the goal, and every Christian became responsible to abolish his sins to accomplish this goal. Books of long lists were written, describing in blushing detail every imaginable sin, with the corresponding prescription of penance that needed to be carried out, to be purged from the stain. Priest’s came to function as extremely powerful “doctors” who held the cure for sin. Terror of hell and fear of death without giving doing penance replaced the joy and hope. Mass, confession, and penance became the key to heaven, and the priest’s held those keys. 
  • How Islam swallowed up Christianity in the East In the 6th century, modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, parts of Iraq, parts of Iran, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain were populated predominantly by Christians who were part of a mostly Christian empire. Within 100 years all these lands had been conquered with the sword of Islam, and the Christians who remained within the borders of this expanding Islamic empire were slowly but surely converting to Islam. How did this happen? 
  • Timing is everything: The Byzantines and the Persians had beat each other up so badly that when the Arabs came round, there wasn’t much fight left in either of them. 
  • Commitment is everything: “There was nothing strange in the idea that warfare was blessed by God, but within Arabia itself, the sheer aggression of the followers of Muhammad changed the rules of the game.” (293) Islam was convinced, as was Christianity, that they alone represented the culmination of God’s purposes on earth, it’s just that the Muslims had no limitations whatsoever, coming from their theology, that would prevent them from inheriting the earth through whatever means necessary.
  • At least it’s not Paganism: Many Christians of that era viewed Islam as an “in-between” religion. It was a religion of Abraham. It even affirmed a lot of Christian teachings. Many Christians managed to convince themselves that Islam was simply a more perfected version of Christianity and so they converted. 
  • More freedom under Islam: Islamic rule was not so bad for Christians at first, especially for un-orthodox Christians. In the Byzantine empire, they were hounded, in the Islamic one as long as they paid their extra taxes for being non-muslim they were free to believe what they wanted. “Islam rested as lightly as a mist along the contours of what had remained a largely Christians landscape.” Of course, all that would change, but it was suitable for a while. In the end, it was the steady increase of taxes, the unifying nature of the Arabic language and increasingly better opportunities reserved only Muslims that led to the Islamification of the east. 
  • Gregory vs. Theodore in Bible Study — Western Christians studied their Bibles like Gregory for the first several hundred years. For Gregory, the Bible was a great encoded message sent by God to cast fire into the heart. It echoed with the mighty whisper of God. It was for this “whisper” that the devout Christian should listen, reading the Bible, as it were, “between the lines” – paying less attention to the text itself than to a message from God which lay behind the text. Theodore was not impressed with the Western scholars he found when he finally escaped encroaching Islam and moved from Antioch all the way West to Britain. For Theodore, the Bible was first and foremost a challenging text. Its different books had been written at specific times, by specific authors. One had first to discover exactly what these authors meant before one could go on to draw upon the Bible to nourish higher flights of contemplation. Modern Biblical scholarship went the way of Theodore, but the Gregorys meditative approach dominated the first 1000 years of Western Christianity. Theodore became immensely popular. Being from the Middle East, he could answer all the contextual questions Western Scholars from Britain could never even have hoped to answer. 
  • Moving into a neighbourhood — Monks moved into pagan places and built monasteries — Christianization often took place, on the ground, through a wide penumbra of half participants who had gathered around a monastery. (375) Monasteries were not closed off areas reserved only for quiet contemplation. They became centres of learning and commerce, and as a result, Christianization.
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Atheist Delusions

We remember what we want to remember

    Every age necessarily reinterprets and rewrites the past in accord with its own interests, ideals, and illusions (33) The past is always to some extent a fiction of the present (129). 

Hart is disgusted. The tale that modernity is wishing to call history has gotten entirely out of hand, most notably in its recollections of Christianity. 

The story that modernity wants to remember

  • Once upon a time, there was a late Roman Hellenistic culture that cherished the power of reason and pursued science and high philosophy. Then came Christianity, which valued only blind obedience and irrational dogma, and which maliciously extinguished the light of pagan wisdom. Then, thanks to Islam, thirteenth-century Christendom suddenly rediscovered reason and began to chafe against the bondage of witless fideism. And then, as if by magic, Copernicus discovered heliocentrism, and reason began its inexorable charge toward victory through the massed and hostile legions of faith. 
  • The emergence of the secular state rescued Western humanity from the rule of religious intolerance. 
  • Secularism is the exuberant adventure into the adulthood of the race so long delayed by priestcraft, superstition and intolerance. Secularism is the great revolution that liberated society and the individual alike from the crushing weight of tradition and doctrine.

What does Hart think of this story? 

   Utter bilge. Hart criticizes Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Kirsch, Gibbon, MacMullen, and Freeman to name a few. To Christopher Hitchens subtitle on his bestseller “How religion poisons everything” He directs particular malice. What precisely is meant by everything? Hart wonders, then he lists an entire page of wonderful things that would not exist were it not for Christianity, things like the abolition movement, the golden rule and hospitals. He concludes with the comment “It borders upon willful imbecility to lament the rise of Christendom.” One example of the “selective memory” of modernity comes to us through Edward Gibbon’s majestical work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In it, Gibbon argues that Pagan polytheism was more “tolerant” than Christianity because of the plethora of pagan deities to choose from. This “tolerance” is pure fiction. Pagans slaughtered with “extravagant violence” says Hart, Jews and Christians alike. Anyone who denied the god’s existence was in mortal danger.  Adding to pagan “tolerance” was the reality of human sacrifices both on alters, and more prevalently in the coliseums. Pagan systems of belief cared nothing for the homeless, the gladiatorial spectacle, crucifixions, the disposal of unwanted infants, or the brutal slaughter of war captives or criminals. Paganisms “tolerance” was completely ambivalent towards tyranny, injustice, depravity or cruelty. In Gibbons over-reaching bid to prove paganism more tolerant than Christianity, he leaves all these considerations out these items out.  Hart is not about to let him or anyone else get away with it. 

“Vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness. — Their rantings are as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism.”

Christianity not perfect but…

    “It is true” is the single most used phrase in the entire book. Hart uses it to acknowledge that Christians were not perfect. For example,

“It is true that Christianity’s greatest historical triumph was also its most calamitous defeat”. Hart admits that when Christianity became a politically dominate force unfortunate tragedies happened. “It is true that Christendom in many respects was hardly Christian. Even so, the gospel has at best flickered through the history of the West, working upon hard and intractable natures—the frank brutality of barbarians, the refined cruelty of the civilized— producing prodigies of sanctity and charity in every age.” 

Critics of Christianity point out that slavery and the abuse of women continued on into Christendom. Hart acknowledges that “it is true” but then takes us on a fascinating journey where the norms of abuse accepted without question in paganism gradually fell prey to the corrosive influence of Christian thought. Hart concludes

Christianity has been the single most creative cultural, ethical, aesthetic, social, political, and spiritual force in the history of the West, to be sure; but it has also been a profoundly destructive force; and one should perhaps praise it as much for the latter attitude as for the former, for there are many things worthy of destruction.

The extinction of Paganism was a good thing.

    Pagans became Christians to such a degree that paganism became extinct because paganism was terrible.

“It was time for the gods of that age to withdraw: for too long they had served as the terrible and beautiful guardians of an order of majestic cruelty and pitiless power.”

  • Pagan thought did not embrace science and reason: Christianity upended the progression of science we are told. According to Hart, science as we understand it, didn’t even exist in pagan times, “all its methods, controls, and guiding principles, its desire to unite theory to empirical discovery, its trust in a unified set of physical laws and so on—came into existence only within Christendom, and specifically under the hands of believing Christians.” The “so-called” dark ages of Christendom brought about the university, the first real steps in medicine, and the devolvement of incredible new science-based technology. The same cannot be said for the Hellenistic world or the Muslim world for that matter. They remained technologically static in part because they never developed science beyond theory and they remained committed to a slave culture. The church muting Galileo always comes up as evidence that the church and science were not friends. Hart is not buying it. What’s the story then? “That story demonstrates nothing of Christianity’s aversion to Science but only how idiotic a conflict between men of titanic egotism can become.” 
  • Paganism was depressing: Harts assessment of paganism is particularly bleak: 

“In any event, to return to my principal point, the Christianity of the early centuries did not invade a world of noonday joy, vitality, mirth, and cheerful earthiness, and darken it with malicious slanders of the senses, or chill it with a severe and bloodless otherworldliness.  Rather, it entered into a twilight world of pervasive spiritual despondency and religious yearning….It was a pagan society that had become ever more otherworldly and joyless, ever wearier of the burden of itself, and ever more resentful of the soul’s incarceration in the closed system of a universe governed by fate.

Christianity is a better story.

    In addition to the fundamental goodness of the world, Christianity taught the indispensable value of a human person. The followers of Jesus saw in persons something godlike, to be cherished and adored. Then adding to the image of the divine in all humanity comes the grand rescue story of Jesus, proving once and for all that humanity is loved by God and welcomed into a divine eternal relationship. As Hart puts it: 

By contrast, Christianity taught the incorruptible goodness of the world, the original and ultimate beauty of all things, inasmuch as it understood this world to be the direct creation of the omnipotent God of love. (144) … Christianity brought a deep and imperturbable joy” (145) 

    The advent of Christianity unquestionably changed the world for the better. For Hart, it is unconscionable for respected historians and philosophers not to recognize this. Hart is not apologizing for Christian’s who may have misbehaved in the past. Hart quips “Humans frequently disappoint,” but this truth is not limited only to Christians. He will not accept criticism from angry, misinformed people who:

“have not even paused to acquaint themselves with, for example, the Inquisitions actual history, while at the same time completely ignoring twenty centuries of unprecedented and still unmatched moral triumphs. — its’ care of widows, and orphans, its almshouses, hospitals, foundling homes, schools, shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies, and so on.”

    The secular nation-state is the problem – Hart refuses to take the blame for the “so-called” religious wars of the 15th -17th centuries. He insists that they be renamed as the first wars of the modern nation-state. “Religious allegiances, anxieties, and hatreds were used by regional princes merely as pretexts for conflicts whose causes, effects and alliances had very little to do with faith or confessional loyalties.” The protestant reformation succeeded because it served the interest of the emerging nation states. It wasn’t that the Germans became protestant and now wanted independence from the empire. They wanted independence from the empire, and so they became protestant. Hart takes us on an entertaining albeit very disturbing walk through the 15-17th centuries and concludes with a statement that hardly needed to be said. “Few would be so foolish to suggest that any side fought for religious reasons” As the common bond of Christianity decreased in Europe, so the standing armies of the future nations increased. Violence increased in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state, and that, whenever the medieval church surrendered moral authority to the secular power, injustice and cruelty flourished. Before the shift, for example in the 10th-11th centuries, the church instituted “Peace of God” days and “Truce of God” days, making war illegal on certain days of the week, fast days, and feast days. By the time the church was finished with the calendar three-quarters of it consisted of periods of mandated tranquillity, the churches great work though not carried out perfectly was always tilted towards peace. 

What came after Christianity faltered was the absolute state and total war. The “religious wars”  were the moderns state’s great struggle to free itself from those institutional, moral, and sacramental allegiances that still held it even partially in check. So that it could now get on with all those mighty tasks—nationalist wars, colonial empires, universal conscriptions, mass exterminations of civilians, and so on.

Is the post-Christian world better?  

    First, for any people, comes its story, and then whatever is possible for those people becomes conceivable within that story — slowly and relentlessly, for centuries now, another story has been replacing the Christian one. Attempts to reverse this process are probably futile. (239)

  • A New God — Freedom.

At the deepest level of their thoughts and desires, they are obedient to principles and promptings that rest upon no foundation but themselves…Freedom of the will is our supreme value. It is for all intents and purposes our god and certain kinds of god (as our pagan forebears understood) expect to be fed.

Human freedom is the thing that drives people to a passionate and often articulate hatred of belief in God. Anything that stands in the way of freedom must be destroyed. Freedom might just as well be seen — from certain more antique perspectives as a kind of slavery to untutored impulses, to empty caprice, to triviality, to dehumanizing values. Modern Freedom is nihilism. The question to ask is where does nihilism lead? Nowhere good.

  • A Better Story — Knowledge. Technological mastery is not just our guiding ideal but our model of truth. Power over material reality is all that matters, that’s the better story of the post-Christian world. 

    Only Christianity teaches the infinite dignity of every soul and the infinite value of every life. Because of Jesus, charity became the shining sun around which all other values were made to revolve. In the Post Christian world, this is no longer the case.  If there is a God of infinite love and goodness, of whom every person is an image, then certain moral conclusions must be drawn; if there is not, those conclusions have no meaning… What Nietzsche understood was that the effort to cast off Christian faith while retaining the best and most beloved elements of Christian morality was doomed to defeat…A civilization, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it…But as a cultural reality, even love requires a reason for its preeminence among the virtues. Love requires a reason, and the post-Christian world doesn’t have a reason. 

    Then to scare us entirely out of our minds, he quotes the ideas of Joseph Fletcher, Linus Pauling, Peter Singer, James Rachels, and Lee Silver, whose post-Christian ideals seek to manage humanity in what Hart describes as “robustly merciless terms.” When Christianity goes, so goes the sanctity of human life. Reading these guys makes this claim perfectly visible.

    When the aspiring ape ceases to think himself a fallen angel, perhaps he will inevitably resign himself to being an ape. He will rejoice that the universe demands little more from him than an ape’s contentment. This is no description of progress, this is a descent into darkness. 

What can a Christian do? 

    Hart is not jubilant. Christianity’s inexorable movement towards extinction is only resisted by his confidence that the Christian story is a cosmic truth that can never finally be defeated. Hart recommends retreat for the Christian into the desert as the monastics did in the 4th century. They rebelled against Christianity’s own success, to discover again in the quiet wastelands, what it really meant to live for the love of God and one’s neighbour. To banish envy, hate, and resentment from the soul and to seek the beauty of Christ in others. The success of secularism to Hart is the same as the success of institutionalized, politicized Christianity of the 4th century. The authentic Christian retreats from both. In many ways, I think Harts very brief conclusion tilts toward an agreement with another book I read recently, The Benedict Option

Body counting might not be the best comparison.

    Hart with almost monotonous regularity takes the reader back to the 20th century to remind us that the most savage and sublimely violent period in human history was brought about by secular governments who had embraced thoroughgoing materialism informed by Darwinian biology. My one issue with this constant refrain is the failure to consider technology into the body count. The real question to ask in my opinion is what would the badly behaving religious leaders of Christendom have done with weapons of mass destruction had they had them? A question impossible to answer, but I get an uneasy feeling that the body count discrepancy from the Christian to secular would not have been nearly as high if both had weapons of equal capability.