The now-established Christian leaders first called themselves “orthodox” and then “catholic” (meaning universal), and as their connections to state power increased, other versions of Christianity came under attack. Some were simply erased, violently. This was especially noticeable during the reigns of emperors Theodosius I and Theodosius II.
Over the 5th and 6th centuries, however, the Western empire fell apart, ending the enforcement of Christian orthodoxy and leaving Christians to find their own bearings, generally on a town-by-town basis. This left Christianity to return to its decentralized beginnings, as well as removing the sword of the state, previously used to eliminate heretics. As a result, heresies were reported far less often for several centuries.
The Quiet And Critical Years
The years between about 500 AD and 900 AD used to be called the Dark Ages, but unfairly so. They were dark to historians, mainly because the “official” records of rulers were almost absent during those years. The people who lived through those years nonetheless found lots of opportunity and living standards often rose. Still more importantly, the Christian world – primarily just Europe once the Muslim conquest overran Christianity’s historic centers – changed the world in crucial ways.
With Christianity largely decentralized, leaders were almost always chosen locally. The highest layers of the thin bureaucracy (like the bishop of Rome), remained under the thumb of the increasingly distant Eastern emperor. The local units that mattered to the believers during these years weren’t the bishops nearly as much as the monasteries.
The early European monasteries (with Ireland being an exception) were informal, almost to the level of being retirement homes. But these monasteries looked after the old, the orphans and the sick, as well as being agricultural production centers and crucial hubs for the new commercial model that began during these years. And so, again, we see the centrality of loving in word and deed. This remained.
And it’s crucial to understand that the clergy wasn’t leading the people nearly as much as it was being led by them. An unexpected example of this turned out to be the celibacy of priests: As historian Peter Brown discovered, it was the average believers who pushed this rather than the clergy. The people wanted their priests to be special… not just like them.
The great oddity of this period, to modern eyes, was the cult of the saints. (Many people of the time saw it as excessive as well.) But seen in the context of the failure of Rome and the death of an entire world model with it, the cult of the saints and the gift economy of the powerful made sense. They served, in fact, as the glue that held this new European civilization together. They were, in their time, essential.
It was in this period, then, that Christendom – the Christian kingdom – came together. Anyone who wanted to be powerful had to legitimize him or herself (and women could hold power in this era) by funding monasteries, by building tombs and shrines for local saints, and by collecting and donating relics. Ruling types had to gain the respect of the people, and the people were committed Christians.
For a thousand years after this point, to greater and lesser degrees and with obvious errors and exceptions (which every human civilization has had), Christian ideals were taught and the passages of life were tied to them. Pilgrimages, for example, were a common right of passage.
And to be specific on Christian ideals, there were seven essential virtues that were held as crucial, and were consistently taught to European children:
Things that are taught to children, generation after generation, and which are supported by their parents, friends and neighbors… these are lessons that stick. And these lessons bred a culture… a civilization… that expected self-control, courage, wisdom, justice and charity.
After just a few generations these teachings become deep expectations; things that were simply part of the broader culture, and which children learned even without being specifically taught. These ideas, and others like them, forged the moral core of Western civilization. And it was a solid, humane core.
This was the gift of Christianity to Europe, and through Europe to the rest of the world.
The Glory of Christendom
“Glory” is a difficulty work to apply to any human civilization (all have included errors, abuses and even horrors), but if it can be applied to any of them, it has to be this one. I say that because of one overwhelming fact:
For the first time in recorded history, Christian Europe defeated the ancient evil of slavery.
No other civilization can make this claim. The Jews of the Second Commonwealth were in the process, but Rome stopped them. Christendom achieved it.
I’ll bypass the lengthy explanation of how this happened (it’s in the references I listed at the beginning of Chapter One), but I can tell you the driving “why” of how it happened, and that was the belief that all men are brothers. Or as we would say, a belief in the dignity of man.
Slavery required a separation of legal status between slave and free, and Christendom removed it. Everyone, rich and poor, sat in the same church and heard the same sermons. All were expected to measure their lives against the same standards, and it was made clear that God loved them all equally. Slavery simply couldn’t survive in that environment, and so it faded until is was absent from the continent by about 1000 AD.
Still, the people of the period, like humans of all periods thus far, had internal flaws. Among other things, they sought safety in authority.
We see this, for example, in the desire for formal rituals and prayers. Regardless of the fact that Jesus spoke against these things, there is a perceived safety in them: If you follow the prescribed pattern, you cannot be wrong. And so they were instituted and remained.
At the same time a fear of evil also came to the fore, revolving around the belief that we are fallen creatures, always in danger of tipping over the edge into horrors.
And, as noted before, this is when hope in the resurrection was replaced by a belief in “going to heaven.”
The Later Middle Ages
Again there is far, far too much to cover here, but I will pass along a few points:
After about 1000 AD, the Church, centered in Rome, became strong and began to spread its power. In 1054 AD they separated themselves from the Eastern emperor and grew powerful enough to call crusades. The central church was never quite as powerful as it’s haters imagine, but by 1300 or so, it was both immensely powerful and arrogant. But the worse it got, the more it spawned reformers, who happened to be among the best, brightest and bravest of their generations.
Still, all though these “worst of the Church” years, just about every European town had had kind and concerned religious people in them; people who did not abuse the parishioners, who helped the sick, who educated children, who interceded for the poor, and who supported the weak.
Yes, there were massive abuses at the top, but at the bottom there were many good and decent religious people. And there were far more people at the bottom than at the top.
Europeans over the entire medieval period expected to see Christian goodness and they did see it. This should never be forgotten, and as we noted earlier, it instilled the virtues of Christendom into millions of Europeans, in a deep and enduring way.
By 1400 AD, however, state power had consolidated significantly, and that era’s rulers, like rulers of all periods, knew they needed legitimacy as much as they needed force and fear. Legitimacy in that era, however, was almost monopolized by the Church. And so efforts to de-legitimize the Church began in earnest. The rising reform efforts suddenly became attractive to political types.
Thus was launched the Reformation, featuring sincere religious types (even if tragically flawed), backed by ruling types who saw opportunity. This continued until the continent settled down to a new organizational model (the nation-state, formalized by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) and a rough north/south divide between states loyal to the original Church and those loyal to the new Protestantism.
Stupidities continued on both sides, of course, accompanied by revolting outrages like the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre and the sacking of Rome. But underneath it all, science was gaining some traction (powered by Christendom’s virtue of courage), and by the 1600s it had become a very significant line of development. Between science and the discovery of new continents, the imaginations of the Europeans began to crack open.
By the end of the 17th century (that is, by about 1700 AD), we see modernity arising within a doctrinally divided Christendom. Here are some highlights:
A belief in religious toleration, as proclaimed by John Locke and others.
A belief in freedom of conscience, championed by Luther and others.
Places to escape to, if the old model of state domination was too repellent to you. (North America in particular was wide open.)
The fact that humans now understood the operation of the universe. Anyone who wanted to badly enough could calculate the orbits of the planets, weigh the celestial bodies, view their moons, see micro-organisms and much, much more. Such things were almost unimaginable in earlier eras.
New inventions were arriving in a steady stream. By 1700, Europeans had recently discovered the slide rule, the blast furnace, the steam engine, laws of electricity and gasses, and much more. Coffee, tea, champagne and newspapers had arrived in the cities.
This, then, was when the old world changed into the new world.
Modernity took time to form, of course, and it rooted in different places at different times.
Christendom, however, began to hit difficulties. For one thing, the desire of the rulers to strip the churches of legitimacy and transfer it to themselves continued. In particular, the ability of people to reference an external standard of conduct – like the Bible or revered churchmen – restricted the actions of the rulers, and they didn’t like it. They began rewarding people who undermined it.
On top of that, practitioners of “science” were beginning to feel after power, and they wanted legitimacy too. The state was too dangerous a target for them to challenge but religion was a target within their range… and it was well-suited to their weapons.
As a result, since the middle of the Enlightenment period (about 1750) it became a widely practiced tactic to attack religion in order to present one’s self as a great agent of science and reason.
Unfortunately, nearly all churches were still promoting a Christianity that primarily addressed doctrines and descriptions; and which turned out believers who considered submission and obedience to be best forms of righteousness they could practice.
So, on one hand we have “rational” types seeking intellectual dominance, and on the other a Christianity stuck in various dogmas. That put Christianity into a vulnerable position, since a great many of their dogmas could be undercut with new analytic techniques. Forgeries like the Donation of Constantine fell early, but many parts of “doctrinal Christianity” have followed and are following.
As a result, people whose families were Christians for uncounted generations have been walking away ever since.
The Roman Catholic Church has, since then, reformed in many ways, some better and some worse, but has held together. Protestant Christianity, on the other hand, has tended to split. As a result Protestant churches have spread farther and experimented more. Most of these splits, however, were over doctrine, leaving them brittle targets for the “rational” types who still wanted to tear them apart.
Tearing Christianity apart, however, ultimately involves attacking its core beliefs. But since free will, justice above the ruler, and so on are deeply humane beliefs – and since those uprooting them must present themselves as different – they’ve come up with some deeply problematic replacements, which they, regardless, strove to present as enlightened.
Replacing the humane elements of Christianity, then, have been “scientific Marxism,” post-modernism, critical theory, deconstruction, and so on. These are wildly corrosive ideas, teaching precisely the opposite of “the dignity of man,” but they promise status in certain circles. And so they’ve thrived in academia… or at least in large parts of it.
This is not to say that the newer forms of Christianity were without virtues. The Society of Friends, for example, has courageously championed important virtues before others would touch them, such as when it led the eradication of slavery in the Americas. Likewise the Pentecostals and Charismatics, for all their tangents, produced (especially at their peripheries) groups who believed very strongly in doing Jesus’ words rather than doctrine, and loving in deed and truth, not just in words or in symbolic actions. The better sides of the hippie movement, to pick one example, were strongly influenced by such people.
Where We Are Now
Humans have a weakness, in that they tend to hold their doctrines as idols, which sets them up for endless trouble. There is, no matter how badly we want one, no such thing as an ultimate and unassailable ruleset, much less one that incorporates the ultimate truth about the world from its creation through to its end.
That, however, is how Christians have tried to present their religion, and there’s no way it can live up to such a demand.
Even if the creator dictated a book specifying everything (which is not what the Bible claims to be), humans would muddy it up just the same. This is not to insult humanity; it is merely an acknowledgement that we are, as yet, incomplete beings.
And so, as humans who are products of a culture with excellent analytical tools run into unsupportable claims, they have little choice but to dismiss them. And so Christianity is declining in the West. And very ironically so, since it was the virtues of Christendom that spawned science and its analytic skills.
Humans holding their doctrines too dearly, however, is understandable. While the world in which we find ourselves is generally suited to us, it also features overwhelming forces like storms, droughts, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Because of this, people have often been overtaken by tragedies. Doctrines and dogmas serve as insulation from such torments, as well as draining away anguish by providing “deeper meanings” to them.
But regardless of the reasons for dogmas, Christian religions have been thrashed under the model of, “If one part of your beliefs is wrong, they’re all wrong.” That’s a false model, of course, but by presenting their beliefs dogmatically – as a complete ruleset – Christians step directly into it.
At this point, even those who are warmly predisposed toward Christianity are forced to admit that many traditional teachings are likely or partly wrong.
The solution to this particular crisis is a return to the original model of Jesus: that of planting seeds, watering them, and waiting for growth to take place. Think of it this way:
If Christianity dropped its post-Jesus dogmas, it would become more or less unassailable.
But that solution, however simple, is not an easy one, since it would displace Christian leaders. (Hierarchy, again, complicating progress.) Some of those men and women are capable of rising to the occasion, if they see it clearly enough, but others will not be.
But if key concepts can be added to one or two minds at a time, accompanied by kindness and concern, change will come. Those who hold dogmas can step away from them at their own speed, replacing them piece by piece. No one will be bullied into change. This model is organic rather than mechanical; gentle, not forceful.
The virtues of Christendom are worth saving… are essential to save. This is not to say that we need to move back into the past, or even that everyone must be a Christian. But Christian virtues and Judeo-Christian principles have produced the greatest progress our planet has ever seen. To simply abandon them – to surrender them to anti-human ideals – would be to curse the generations that follow us.
Again, this is not to say that Christendom ever approached perfection. But it did instill the virtues that have driven slavery from all but the most backward portions of the planet, that spawned the science and technology we enjoy… that are ready to take us throughout our solar system and then our galaxy.
And so upgrading Christianity is all but essential; reinforcing the virtues and eliminating errors would be worthy challenges.
Forging a new culture is probably too large a task to take on, but if done so honestly and with excellent principles, that would be fine as well.
What is not reasonable, humane, or sensible, is to replace Western (Christian) civilization with ideas that have been chosen for their destructive capacity. “Because it puts down traditional values” is no virtue at all; that’s the description of a weapon. Fighting against something is not how goodness forms. It is far more commonly just our anger, elevated to power and provided with weapons.
If we wish for a livable world, and to deliver such a thing to our offspring, we must build rather than tear down.
New values worth any effort will have to be more life-affirming, more benevolent and more supportive of human dignity than those which have gone before.
That’s a tall order, but better ideas should always be welcomed.