9th Grade: Conversions in the City of Man


We began the week looking at St. Augustine’s crucial work, The City of God.  Augustine began writing shortly after the sack of Rome in A.D. 410, and did not finish until many years later.  What he began as a response to Roman attacks on Christianity became, by the end of the work, a full-fledged outline of how History happens.  His work influenced a great deal of medieval thought, though eventually not all agreed with the categories he used to formulate his vision.

Augustine saw history divided into two camps, the City of Man and the City of God.  In Scripture we see Cain & Abel, Ishmael & Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and so on, each representing their respective cities.  The “City of Man” has its place on earth.  The state does not bear the sword for nothing.  But the guiding principles of the city of man are

  • Power
  • Pride of place
  • Competition
  • Justice

Note that justice is part of the City of Man.  This is the legitimate function of the state.  The point Augustine wanted to make, however, is that however legitimate the City of Man may be, it cannot redeem us.  It cannot exercise the fruit of the Spirit.  When pronouncing a sentence, for example, a judge cannot say, “The law says you must serve at least 15 years for your crime, but I forgive you.  You’re a free man!”  And we would not want him to.  Soldiers have the right to kill under certain circumstances, but ending life is not the best way to redeem life.

The Church represents the “City of God” which runs along different principles of love, mercy, etc.  The main goal of the Church is not social order but the redemption of individual souls.  We want the Church to be the place of healing, reconciliation, etc.

Where the rubber meets the road on this is how Church and State should interact.  Should the two meet in some way, ignore each other, or oppose each other?  We will revisit this topic at a later date.

This week we also looked at the reign of Charlemagne, probably the most important figure after Constantine in the history of the West.

In previous weeks we saw how the Church played a crucial role in setting the foundation for the rebuilding of civilization. This week we looked at a few different aspects of Charlemagne’s contribution to this project.

1. Can conversions by force be genuine?

Charlemagne conquered a great deal of territory, and as he conquered he ‘enforced’ the conversion of those he defeated.  To modern minds this seems absurd and counterproductive.  It may have been, but I wanted the students to think about, how in a different time, it may (I stress the word may) have been more effective than we might think.

  • Charlemagne ruled in a time when spiritual beliefs were worn more on one’s sleeve.  Many had the sense that when a tribe fought, so too did it’s god.  Charlemagne may have held a similar view.  In some ways this is admirable, in other ways dangerous (cf. 1 Sam. 4-5).  So, if Charlemagne beat you, you might very well think that your god had lost, and it was literally time for a new one.
  • Modern western democracies do not identify leadership with the nation itself.  We do this in some ways with diplomats,  but in Charlemagne’s time we see a sense that the king ‘was’ the tribe.  If the king converted, the nation would ‘convert’ as well.  A member of a tribe  might do so with the same conviction with which they followed him to battle.   It’s not ideal, but might God work with it?
  • Part of Charlemagne’s motives I think were rooted in part with his sacramental theology.  I don’t think that they believed that baptism would guarantee you Heaven.  But they did believe that baptism conferred God’s grace on the recipient.  With this view, perhaps they thought that if one had a few embers in their hearts inclined toward God, baptism could help fan that into a flame.

How might we tell if these conversions were genuine?  First off, clearly not all them were.  One can see evidence of this in some gravestones with Christian and pagan symbols.  Perhaps they hedged their bets.  But — for the most part Christianity lasted in these conquered lands.  Charlemagne’s conquests on the whole did seem to aid, rather than detract, from the growth of Christianity on the continent.

2. Is force necessary for Civilization?  If you are like me, you wish that it was not so.  And yet, civilization requires security and confidence to flourish.  In the chaotic period of semi-nomadic barbarians that Charlemagne inhabited, war may have been required for order to be established.

Certainly not all forms of civilization are worth the price of every war.  But we must keep in mind that before Charlemagne’s conquests, Europe was hardly a peaceful place.  In every measurable way, the quality of life declined significantly after Rome’s fall.  In the aftermath of Charlemagne’s conquests, civilization does make a comeback with the “Carolingian Renaissance.”  The Carolingian Renaissance cannot hold much of a candle to Periclean Athens or Florence in the 15th century. But then again, they started from a much different place. Writing and scholarship returned to the continent.  They started building with stone, showing a desire for permanence.  With permanence came a stable foundation upon which they could build again.

Last week we discussed the dilemma of whether or not King Arthur existed.  I think we can assume that the Arthur tales, if they had truth in them, may have grown with the telling.  But the stories do not arise from nowhere.  The historian Nennius, for example, writes ca. 800 A.D. that

Then Arthur fought against [the Saxons] in those days with the kings of Briton, but he himself was the leader of battles. . . . The eighth battle was in Fort Gunnion in which Arthur carried the image of St.  Mary, ever virgin, on his shoulders and the pagans were turned to flight through the virtue of Our Lord Jesus Christ and Mary the Virgin, his mother. . . The twelfth battle was on Mt.  Badon, in which 960 men fell in one day from one charge by Arthur, and none overthrew them but Arthur alone.  And in [all 12 battles] he stood forth as victor.

Nennius writes some 300 years after Arthur existed (if he existed), whereas Bede, a more respected historian who wrote earlier than Nennius, says nothing about Arthur at all.  How do we decide what source to trust, and what sources to ignore? When do we grant oral tradition weight as an historical source, and when do we discount it?  I hope the students enjoyed thinking through these questions.