Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Dark Ages: Who Turned Out the Lights?

Among the literature of those who make it their main business to vilify the Christians, perhaps no concept has served a more useful purpose than the idea of “the Dark Ages”.  The Dark Ages, according to this reading of history, were those centuries in which the Church was culturally ascendant, with the inevitable result that civilization sunk into superstition, ignorance, obscurantism, and moral decadence.  Here everything that was bad about the world is laid at the Church’s door, especially the decline of Science (with a capital “S”), which apparently had been going great guns until the Church took over.  As evidence of the Church’s war against Science, enlightenment, tolerance, and reason in general, the name of Galileo is usually bandied about, along with the notion that everyone in the Dark Ages thought that the world was flat.  It was from this ecclesiastical abyss that Science eventually pulled us all out, saving the world from the Church and restoring civilization.  But as we talk about the Dark Ages, it is worth asking how the Roman Empire of the west came to be so dark in the first place?  (Of the Roman Empire in the east, usually known as Byzantium, the vilifiers seem to know precious little.  Their world is a western world.)  In other words, who turned out the lights in the west?
            Your average person who delights in blaming the Church for the Dark Ages presumably thinks that it was the Church which was responsible for turning out the lights.  It is hard to argue with the sort of person who knows only this sort of history.  C.S. Lewis in his day lamented that for this sort of person, “History” was “that vague, composite picture of the past which floats, rather hazily, in the mind of the ordinary educated man…a land of shadows, the home of wraiths like Primitive Man or the Renaissance or the Ancient-Greeks-and-Romans” (from his essay Historicism).  Things have not changed much since Lewis’ time, and for your average person today, “History” is often what you get from popular talk around the water-cooler, or perhaps from watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail.    
Polemicists who comment on blogs often blame the Church for the Dark Ages.  Actual historians know that the Dark Ages, insofar as they were dark, were darkened by the barbarian invasions that inundated the western Roman Empire, and that it was only in the Church (and in its monasteries in particular) that any light was preserved.  It might be a bit of a stretch to suggest (as Thomas Cahill did in his book of similar name) that “the Irish (i.e. the Irish monks) saved civilization”, but it is certain that whatever vestiges of earlier Roman civilization managed to be saved were saved by the Church.  It was the pagan Gothic tribes sweeping down from the north and east that submerged classical Roman and Christian culture in a sea of barbarism.  It was the Church that tried to preserve what learning it could, and which strove valiantly to convert them.  After centuries of work it did a passable job, and it was only thanks to this that classic learning was preserved to become the foundation for later progress.  On that foundation the west has built many things, including modern democracy, modern science, and the concept of human rights.  But the foundation upon which they were built was a Christian one, one laid painfully and laboriously by the Church in the so-called Dark Ages.  In short:  it was the pagans who turned out the lights.  It was the Church who kept a lamp burning, and eventually turned the lights back on again.
            It is difficult and perhaps fruitless (unless one is paid by the word) to argue the case point by point, but a couple of examples may serve to illustrate the project as a whole.  Concerning the view that Christians in the Dark Ages thought that the world was flat, and that everyone remained a prisoner of this delusion until Christopher Columbus discovered America and proved that it was round:  as a matter of historical fact, thinkers in the Dark Ages knew that the world was round.  All the writers of the high Middle Ages agreed that the earth was a sphere.  Vincent of Beauvais (born 1190) wrote that that if a hole were somehow drilled through the globe of earth so that a stone dropping down could pass freely from one sky to the other, it could come to rest at the center.  In other words, all thinking men knew well before our modern age that the earth was round.  The denial of this historical fact may be dated from the seventeenth century as part of the campaign of Protestants against Catholicism, a denial which gained currency in the nineteenth century.  (See Jeffrey Russell’s book Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians.)
            Concerning the struggle of Galileo, supposedly the lone and lonely champion of Science in its valiant struggle against the Church’s dogmatism and blind ignorance:  Galileo himself was actually championed by a churchman, the Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who later became Pope Urban VIII.  Galileo got himself into trouble not by advocating his scientific theory, but because he antagonized his former supporters by his polemics (his book A Dialogue Concerning the Two Great World Systems, featured a debate between a Copernican of overwhelming learning and an all but moronic Aristotelian, named “Simplicio” (i.e. “simpleton”).  His crude and rude polemics were real problem, not his scientific theory.  Christians in his day stood on both sides of the debate.  But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?  Myths like this are too useful, and hard to come by.
            In all these debates about the Church and the Dark Ages, the real disagreement is not between the Church and the secularists, but between real scholars and ignoramuses who just love to blog.  Real historical scholars know that the concept of “the Dark Ages” is an historical construct of fairly recent vintage, and that the Church of that period was the defender of learning and the arts.  In every age there have been true scholars, and people who care little for learning.  The two have often tangled and argued.  Blogs with their comment sections prove that this continues to be true today.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Historical Quiz: "Who Am I?"

Time for an historical quiz:  please identify the following group. 
This people had no internationally acknowledged  government or army.   They lived within the borders of another country, and many in that country considered them to be a threat to their national existence.  Their host country, as a whole, wanted them to leave, and therefore subjected them to humiliation, threats, and intimidation to force them to leave.  Leaving was difficult, for the places to which they wanted to go were reluctant to receive them, and turned them away at their borders.  Many of them did succeed in leaving even so, but many stayed, believing that the country in which they were born was their home.  These people were treated as distinctly second-class citizens.  The economic measures to which they were subjected meant that they lived a much more wretched life and with a much lower standard of living than those around them.  They sought to protest the injustice of the discrimination and oppression, but found themselves helpless before a more powerful regime, who enforced their dominance and will through armed might.  This regime forced them to live in confined ghettoized spaces.  To survive, the oppressed minority had to work for those who oppressed them, and any resistance or hint of rebellion was ruthlessly punished.  Question:  who is this oppressed group?
If you said, “The Jews in National Socialist Germany in the 1930s”, you get part marks, for the above description does indeed fit the Jews living in the Third Reich at that time.  But not full marks.  For I was actually describing the Palestinians living in the State of Israel in the latter part of the 20th century, whose lamentable situation continues to the present hour. 
The Arab-Israeli conflict is exceedingly complex, and defies easy analysis.  In particular it resists labeling any group as “the Good Guys” or “the Bad Guys”, unlike the situation in Nazi Germany, where the Nazis were clearly the Bad Guys, and where the Jews they oppressed were simply the innocent victims.  (Let us remember that the global Jewish conspiracy to run the world, expressed in such forgeries as the “Protocols of Zion”, to which the Nazis called attention to justify the oppression, was simply a fantasy, and that Germany never was under threat by the Jews in their country or anywhere else.)  But though there is no exact parallelism between the Jews in Nazi Germany and the Palestinians in the State of Israel, there are certain resemblances, mentioned above.  In particular, the average Palestinian in the Zionist State is subjected to oppression, humiliation, and injustice, and such things are done at a cost.  Certainly terrorism is always evil, but such evil fruit, while remaining evil, is not inexplicable.  It is the result of hatred born through the endurance of prolonged injustice, and of unshakable despair.   
Being a pastor and not a politician, I have no easy solution to offer the prolonged conflict in the Middle East.  Whether the solution is to be found in two states or one state, I have no idea.  How the political and national borders are to be drawn now (having once been drawn by Europeans who had, I submit, no right to draw them) is a task beyond my wisdom.  But I know that regardless how national borders are to be drawn, the true final solution (yes, I choose the phrase advisedly) involves love, and mutual embrace, and self-crucifixion.  Arab and Israeli must embrace one another, whether or not their arms reach across national boundaries.  Each must put to death, at great personal emotional cost, their own desire for justice, for justice must be sacrificed in this age for peace.  Past wrongs cannot be easily righted, nor can pain be washed away in another’s blood.  Forgiving the other will be hard and painful, and will feel to the person doing the forgiving like death and dying.  Each side must gather up all their grievances, real or imagined, and cast them into the deep abyss of God’s mercy.  Sons and fathers and grandfathers have killed each other; both sides have seen beloved family members unjustly slain.  These things cannot be fruitfully avenged, nor can the pain be assuaged in this age.  God calls all to look not at those who have died and who still live with pain, but rather at those yet to be born.  For their sake, justice must be sacrificed on the altar of grace. 
I am keenly aware how naively idealistic these words must sound, and especially to those who have suffered loss.  Writing them from my peaceful home in Canada, from the midst of a family which has never known unjust oppression or terrorist death, may seem to undercut my right to say these words.  And I know how unlikely it is for those who have suffered to forego their rights, and to silence their cry for justice and retribution.  But this remains the only path to sanity and to offering a good life to those yet to be born.  Whether or not it sounds na├»ve, this path must be trod.  I am reminded here of the words of G. K. Chesterton about Christianity:  some accused Christianity of being tried and found wanting.  Chesterton countered that, on the contrary, it was found difficult, and left untried.   The same could be said for the only hope for peace and sanity in the Middle East.  It has certainly been found difficult.   God grant that it may not forever be left untried.







Sunday, June 15, 2014

Stiff Backs and Firm Handshakes

              A Protestant friend of mine who is sympathetic to Orthodoxy and likes icons recently felt he had to draw the line.  On a weekday service in church he saw an Orthodox friend bowing down in prostration before an icon of a saint, and he thought this was a bit over the top.  Kissing icons of Christ, sure; and of His saints—um, okay.  And prostrating before an icon of Christ—he could handle that.  After all, if Christ were present, he would certainly throw himself at His feet and prostrate himself before Him, and there was this talk about the honour given to the image passing to its prototype.  So, okay.  Prostrations before Christ’s icon were acceptable.  But prostrating before the icon of a saint (or presumably prostrating before that saint himself should they ever meet)—this was too much.  One has to draw the line somewhere, and this is where he felt it had to be drawn.  After all, Cornelius had prostrated himself before Peter once (read about it in Acts 10:25-26) and Peter told him to cut it out.  And in Revelation 22:8-9 St. John prostrated himself before the angel of Christ who was showing him the visions, and the angel forbade him to do so.  Even sola scriptura apart, it looks as if prostrations to anyone other than God is problematic.
            The question arises then:  what does our culture tell us is the correct way to show respect for a glorified saint or an angel?  Modern North American culture, which seems to have inherited much of the British stiff upper lip approach to life, is not very demonstrative, and in this we differ from other cultures.  In the far east, for example, bowing is a part of customary greeting, with the depth of the bow being indicated by the dignity of the person being greeted.  Thus if a janitor and the CEO of the company where he works in Japan greet each other, the janitor would make a profound bow and the CEO a slight forward tilt of the head.  Both would bow, but one would bow more deeply.  In the practice of eastern martial arts, the two combatants bow to each other before beginning their contest, and in martial arts schools, students bow down to their teachers.  No worship or adoration is implied in any of this.  This is simply how respect works in the Far East.
 This is not much different than how things used to work in the ancient west also.  In pagan Rome, the form of greetings was dictated by the relative status of the people greeting each other, for clients would greet their patrons differently and with greater respect than two co-equal patrons would greet one another.  Co-equal patrons would kiss each other.  Clients would bow and offer more profound respect.  Slaves would prostrate.  This is all very different now in the west, where kissing, embracing, and other fulsome forms of greeting are generally not done.  When one meets the President of the United States, one is expected to simply exchange a firm handshake.  When one greets the Queen of England, one is expected to bow a bit, or curtsey.  Hugging is “right out”.  And prostration before dignitaries would be considered mortifyingly embarrassing for all concerned, and might cause someone to phone 911.  Here in the modern west, our backs remain firmly erect.  If one were to ever meet St. Paul now, our culture instructs us to simply shake his apostolic hand, and say, “How do you do, St. Paul?  Nice to meet you.  I’ve read all your letters.” 
Putting it like this, it does seem as if we moderns are the odd ones.  St. Paul was concerned that the semi-pagan Cornelius might mistake him for some kind of a demi-god, for that is how pagans thought.  For pagans, the lines between the divine, the semi-divine, the heroic, and the merely human were all pretty blurry, and St. Paul as a good Jew thought these lines could stand a little firming up.  The Gospel could not be preached apart from a context of good Jewish monotheism, and he wanted to get that clear right at the beginning.  But now we are in no danger of deifying St. Paul or forgetting that he is no more divine than we are.   Our heart instructs us to do something more than simply shake his hand, treating him as if he were no more glorious than some politician.  Speaking personally, my own heart would compel me to fall at his feet—not in worship obviously, but in gratitude for all he has done, both for the Church and for me personally. 
This compulsion of gratitude and respect accords with the way profound respect was shown in Biblical times.  When Jacob wanted to show profound respect for his brother Esau, he didn’t simply greet him with the customary kiss.  He prostrated himself at his feet—seven times, in fact (Genesis 33:3).  His wife and children prostrated themselves too (v. 6-7).  When a woman of Tekoa wanted help from King David, she prostrated herself before him (2 Samuel 14:4); when Nathan wanted merciful help from David, he also prostrated himself before him (1 Kings 1:23).  Co-equal friends might kiss one another in greeting, but one greeted a king with a prostration.  That was how respect worked then in the Middle East.

In Orthodox liturgical practice, it still works that way:  candidates for ordination prostrate before the ordaining bishop at the time of ordination, and ordinary Christians prostrate before one another at Forgiveness Vespers.  When we encounter the glorified saints, whether personally in a vision or (more likely) in their icons, we prostrate ourselves before them too.  Prostration, like kissing, is the ancient tradition of humanity, and should need little justification.  It is the firm backs and handshakes of our strait-laced and uptight culture that need justifying.  It’s okay to be a little odd and out of step when one greets the President.  But in the Kingdom and in church, normalcy should prevail.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Maiden Names

           In the modern west, it seems that there is an increasing refusal of brides to take the surname of their new husbands, and instead a determination to retain their maiden names.  Even the Duchess of Cambridge, the new and popular bride of Prince William, second in line to the British throne, has opted to keep her maiden name, so that Kate is still legally Kate Middleton.   It is an increasing trend, and one that is preferred because it seems to express women’s empowerment.
            The smartest woman I know, my wife, has always thought this trend a bit odd.   Why keeping a surname that one never chose (i.e. the name of one’s father) in preference to a surname that one chose, that of her husband, should reflect a woman’s empowerment never seemed to make sense.  After all, no woman chooses her father.  In our culture, she does choose her husband, so that taking his surname would seem to reflect her power to choose more than retaining a surname which she never chose.  Kate was born a Middleton, whether she liked it or not.  Her becoming a Windsor was entirely her own decision. 
            One supposes that the objection to taking the husband’s surname is rooted in the objection to a woman’s defining herself in terms of another person.  Kate shouldn’t be “Mrs. Kate Windsor” because she is a person in her own right.  Taking the husband’s surname smacks of an archaic and out-dated submission to a husband’s authority which is altogether out of fashion and considered more than a little oppressive.  This refusal to be defined by another and to submit to oppression finds expression in the woman’s retention of her surname. 
            For those who take Scripture seriously, this is one more reason why woman should take on the surname of her husband upon marriage.  St. Paul speaks of the submission of the wife to the husband in Ephesians 5, as he does of the husband’s duty to love his wife as Christ loved the Church.  In Paul’s day the submission of the wife to her husband was expressed (in Corinth anyway) by the wife veiling herself when in public and in church.  In our day, it is expressed in her taking her husband’s surname.  The question then arises:  of what does this submission consist?  What’s it all about?
            It is important to stress first of all what it is not about:  it is not about a denial of a woman’s fundamental equality with men.  When a Christian woman takes her husband’s surname, she does not thereby define herself in terms of her husband, but continues to define herself in terms of Christ.  In marriage and in singleness, both man and women owe their ultimate allegiance to the Lord, not to any earthly person, including their spouse.  The name change simply means that she now acknowledges the leadership of her husband in the Lord.
Clearly, submission does not imply inequality.  St. Paul not only says that the husband is the head of his wife, but also that God is the head of Christ, and Christians have always insisted that God the Father and Christ are co-equal, co-eternal, and consubstantial.  That is, Christ is ontologically equal to God the Father in every way.  Submission therefore does not imply any ontological inequality, and the wife’s submission to her husband (or, come to that, their children’s submission to them) does not imply any inequality of value either.  It does mean, however, that only one is charged by God to lead and to take the ultimate responsibility—namely, the husband. What does this mean in terms of inter-relationship between husband and wife, between the leader and the led?  How does this work itself out in day to day life?  Bluntly put, it means that the husband must abase himself and die in his leadership, even as Christ died for His Church.  The husband must put his wife’s joy and benefit before his own, and serve her, no matter what the personal cost to himself.  This is manifested in a thousand little ways, starting at the beginning of their married relationship:  when the marriage agreement is first made, he proposes to her, and that upon bended knee.  It was thus that Christ served His own bride the Church, for He served her on bended knee when He knelt to wash His disciples’ feet on the last night of His earthly life.  The crown of leadership is the crown of martyrdom.  Christian men have not exemplified this truth very well throughout the ages, I admit, but it remains true nonetheless.

            I suggest therefore that Christian women should resist the modern trend of married women retaining their maiden names.  In North America, glory to God, women are free, and free to choose their own husbands.  Having done so, both wife and husband are called to lay down their freedom to serve Christ, and submit their own wills to His blessed and saving will.  When both do so, they find that service to Christ is the perfect freedom.  In submitting to His will, both find joy and inner liberation.  They also find themselves increasingly at odds with the world around them.  Part of this oddness consists today of the wife’s taking her husband’s name.  It is a small thing, I suppose, just a matter of a few syllables.  But small things can be very significant.  Remember Christmas:  the baby laid in the confines of the manger was small.  But this baby was still the infinite Christ our God, and more significant than the whole wide world.