A Flip of the Script

A few days ago I came across the trailer for a mini-series on Amazon called Redbad, a harbinger of Europe’s (and perhaps ours as well) cultural moment. The movie involves the advancement of Christianity into a pagan land. The story proceeds from the pagans’ perspective. A few things immediately stand out:

  • The cross is associated not with sacrificial love, but with a ‘dark god’ who presumably loves punishment, an enormous ‘flip’ of its symbolic meaning for the last two millennia.
  • The series depicts Christians as intolerant bigots, the pagans as allowing something akin to freedom of conscience.
  • The Christians are usually filmed amidst darkness and smoke. Scenes with pagans alone seem to give them brighter light.

A few comments . . .

  • I would not say that Charlemagne allowed for freedom of conscience, but the idea that the pagans did . . . well–no one practiced this in the 8th century.
  • Charlemagne’s reign had plenty of messiness. But ‘messiness’ reigned in the West politically more or less since the time of Roman emperor Septimus Severus ca. 200 A.D. What historians should look for, as Will Durant suggested, was not how particular people shared in the vices of their time, but whether or not they swam against the current in any way with their virtues. With this standard, the cultural impact of the “Carolingian Renaissance” gleams brightly. As Kenneth Clark stated, paraphrasing Ruskin, “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their words, the book of their deeds, and the book of their art.” If we think, like Clark, that the last is the most trustworthy, Charlemagne’s reign comes off rather well.

A few examples:

  • The invention of a beautiful script (the Carolingian).
  • The creation of books, and the elevation of books as highly prized articles (studding the cover with jewels couldn’t make their value more obvious to their contemporaries).
  • Architectural innovations. Charlemagne put of the building talent of his empire not into palaces and castles, but the church at Aachen:

None of these things belong to pagan achievement.

One should not criticize Redbad for ‘historical inaccuracy’ per se. The medium of film works differently and tells stories differently. “Accuracy” is not my real concern. The mythos surrounding Charlemagne in the centuries after his death lacked “accuracy” in the strict sense of the word, just as any reporting or retelling of any event lacks “accuracy.” We edit and shape all the time, this is how our brain works as well as our souls. The problem with Redbad comes from the replacement of the standard Christian mythos entirely, and inventing another out of whole cloth, a perverse parody of creation ‘ex nihilo.’ As we see from the “book of their art,” the mythos surrounding Charlemagne has basis in fact.

Per Fexneld

When seeing a book titled, Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Women in the 19th Century, one should proceed with caution. The book could be written by a crazy feminist, or a crazy anti-feminist. The book could hardly be a book at all, and instead a mere rant. But this book stands as a work of scholarship, carefully (mostly too carefully) written with extensive bibliography and footnotes. The author, Per Fexneld, teaches at the University of Stockholm and seems an ordinary professorial sort, with perhaps a small chip on his shoulder. Digging a bit further, you see that he intends not necessarily to praise or condemn with what he finds, but merely to put the facts before the dear reader. I will usually at least pick up books with bold titles like these, merely out of curiosity and admiration for the sense of dash the writer displays.*

I kept reading the book because Fexneld faithfully executes his task of providing copious information, albeit at arms length from the material. But his perspective seems trustworthy because of this distance. He clearly has no love for Christianity and has much sympathy with women of the 19th century. He never identifies as a “Satanist” himself but seems to value, or at least understand, the role the idea of Satan plays in transgressing norms for the sake of liberation as it relates to feminism.

A few things I did not like:

  • As an Orthodox Christian, naturally I would be sensitive as to how Fexneld uses ancient Christian sources. I found to my chagrin that when discussing them, he uses secondary sources rather than direct quotes from the primary texts. I sense that these secondary sources shaped his opinions of the early fathers, not reading the primary texts directly. Despite this, he treats early Christian commentators mostly with fairness, but he could have done much better than this for what aims to be a serious scholarly study. My sense is that he cherrypicked what early Christian witnesses said about women, and to his credit, he partially admits this at least one point.
  • Fexneld takes his place among the many (mostly European? it seems to me) “historians” that don’t write history at all, but reference books. He has good information, but writes with such obviously posed dry detachment that his style could light a fire on a wet day. Where are the Abbot Suger’s, the Thomas Carlyle’s? Alas, gone are the poet historians from the world.
  • The “reference book” feel means that he tries hard not let the reader in on how one should interpret his information. Should we denounce the “satanic” feminists? Should we praise them? Or should we merely observe and think nothing about these feminists, besides concluding that a=a?

But in the end I have to confess that he created an effective and interesting reference book. My frustration above stems from the fact that he has talent that he holds back through fear or misperceptions regarding his chosen profession. If you want to do research, well and good. If you want to write, at least make an attempt at poetry that seeks meaning and synthesis.

To the thrust of his work, then . . .

With copious notes and numerous examples, Fexneld amply shows a “Satanic” strain that ran through many early feminists. He distinguishes full blown “Satanists” (of which there were a few) from those that merely used Satanic tropes (the majority of his examples). With different particular manifestations, these women

  • Built upon Romantic ideas from Byron and Shelley that recast Satan as a tragic hero of the Biblical narrative. He attempted to bring knowledge and liberation, and so on.
  • Recast Eve as the mankind’s savior, of sorts, a figure akin to Prometheus. She boldly went where Adam refused to go and paid the price, but she gave mankind knowledge and self-awareness.
  • Thus, for these women, feminism represented a real social and theological revolution, not just icing on a semi-Christian foundation. They wanted an overthrow of the Christian narrative and the patriarchy which it established. To do so, it simultaneously exalted Eve, Satan, and the fall itself.

The multitude of examples is the strength of the book, but Fexneld throws them together in ‘one after another’ fashion. Worse, one cannot sense if any one example or group of examples accurately embodies or represents the whole. He very carefully hedges many of his statements. This caution has its place in parts, but not for the whole. When writing a book like this you have to actually say something. To mitigate this, the breadth of his treatment touches on

  • The rise of the occult in the period
  • The focus from the pre-Raphaelites on feminine figures from classical cultures, “strange” women, and even Lillith, Adam’s first wife in certain Jewish texts.
  • How popular literature and art veered into occult themes with the thinnest Christian veneer, with significant attacks on “Christian patriarchy” hidden below the surface.
  • The popularity of certain occult female writers like Mary McClane and Sylvia Townsend
  • The connection of feminist social inversion to sexual inversion (lesbianism).
  • The rise of women depicted as Satan (in a positive sense) or at least, womanly figures depicted as Satan.
  • The publication of The Woman’s Bible which inverted the basic biblical narrative, praising Eve, etc.

. . . and other things. One gets the sense of a tidal wave of either direct, or mostly indirect, Satanism flooding the feminist movement from 1880-1920. But the central question–was 1st wave feminism driven primarily by “Satanism” or not? I have the feeling Fexneld would recoil at the thought of the volumes of his research intended to answer that question one way or the other. No doubt he would see such a commitment as a grave faux pas.

Let us deal with this crucial question which Fexneld leaves untouched.

First, the feminist movement obviously challenged and successfully upended certain elements of society. Certainly Satan, among other things, sought to upend the order God established in creation. So perhaps feminist women found themselves naturally drawn to satanic symbols or Satan himself. But, not all orders should stay in place. Scripture has numerous examples of the established order needing “flipped” or inverted to attain proper wholeness again. David, the youngest son of Jesse and a shepherd, will overthrow Saul, the “demonic” king who consulted with witches. Herod, for example, rightly feared that Christ would give him a run for his money.

So, second . . . was the feminist movement a proper or improper inversion? I don’t think we should answer this question based on the rote numbers of “satanic” vs. non-satanic feminists. I think the question has its roots in the nature of the inversion. If the inversion was proper, then we can relegate the trends Fexneld observes to the fringe. If improper, then we can say that even the “good” feminists participated in something wrong.

This is a very tricky question, and I can see why Fexneld failed to tackle it. But how can we truly avoid it? I’m sure that Fexneld has an answer for this conundrum somewhere in his own mind, or at least I hope he has answered it. I cannot claim to know enough to answer it definitively. I will try a pass at it, however–why not?

I begin with the obvious statement that calling upon Satan in reality or in tropes, for any cause, will ultimately destroy you, just as the flood and chaos will destroy anyone.

Not surprisingly, the feminist movements occurred within democratic societies. One can see democracy itself as a kind of inversion against traditional monarchy, replacing a “top down” political order with one from the “bottom up.” Just like Saturn eating his children in a fruitless attempt to stop the slippery slope of revolution, so too the feminist movement seems like an inevitable byproduct of democracy itself–the revolt of “Earth” against “Heaven.” Feminist detractors could not prevent this ‘revolt’ even as they might praise and affirm a democratic way of life.

Were Victorian era women “oppressed” in some sense of the word? If we look at women’s fashion as a piece of evidence, we see that–whether or not women created/embraced these fashions, their movement, the way for them to show themselves to the world, was certainly restricted–especially if we accept Fexneld’s “proto-feminists” from the mid-19th century starting the modern feminist movement. This may shed light on their overall place in society. But the place of women in Victorian society is something which I know too little about to comment on.

I suspect that the “oppression” of women lacked the severity that some claimed, but disconnects from equality are hard to bear within a democracy. I withhold sympathy from many of Fexneld’s female examples, but would extend it to more moderate feminists.

The age old problem of revolutions has always been, however, where and when do they stop?

Obviously, I oppose the rebellion against Christianity that at least some feminists then and now espouse, on historical as well as religious grounds. I trust my religious objections are obvious. As to the historical, we can briefly consider Regine Pernoud’s Women in the Days of Cathedrals, which shows us an era where

  • The earliest medieval treatise on education was written by a woman
  • We see the invention of romantic love (at least as an accepted part of general society)
  • Women regularly practiced medicine
  • Women in monastic orders could get more or less the same education men in the church received

In short, the status of women at the height of medievalism–a patriarchal society in most respects–far surpassed that of any pagan society. Pernoud suggests, however, that the Renaissance and subsequent ages introduced more Roman and classical pagan concepts of property and ownership. Possibly this did have an impact on women’s status in the Renaissance and future centuries.

Of course, one cannot construct a society entirely of “Heaven” anymore than entirely out of “Earth.” Mankind itself is both “heavenly” and “earthly,” (just as mankind is not just men or just women) made from the dust of the earth and the spirit from above. Strikingly, many of the cathedrals in the “Age of Cathedrals” reference by Pernoud were dedicated to the Virgin Mary, including Chartes, Notre Dame, Burgos, and Cologne, just to name a few. Here, I am convinced, lies the heart of the matter Fexneld misses entirely. Yes, Christianity is obviously patriarchal. We pray to our Father in Heaven. But Christians made the “Woman” (John 2:24, 19:26) the representative of Creation itself. On the one hand, Mary flips the hierarchy. As a young girl, she resided in the Holy of Holies–unheard of within Judaism. This seems a radical inversion. But it is her assent to God “flips” everything– she sets what was askew right again, the harm of Eve healed.** But what Mary put back in place is not a revolutionary society but a the right hierarchy, the reign of the true king–the subject of her Magnificat.

A blessed Advent to all.

A 13th century manuscript drawing showing Mary punching a devil.

*Some of Fexneld’s other work includes a published article: “Bleed for the Devil: Self-injury as Transgressive Practice in Contemporary Satanism, and the Re-enchantment of Late Modernity.” Clearly he has Satan on the brain. As an aside, should I ever become President my first executive order would ban all titles that that have something short and arresting to start, and then ruin it with a long and boring subtitle.

**Many of the fathers from St. Justin Martyr (ca. AD 150) onward develop the Eve-Mary parallel. Both are approached by an angel, and both assent to the angel, but it is Mary who in questioning Gabriel shows wisdom–Eve should have questioned the serpent. Eve’s pride humbles her, whereas Mary’s humility exalts her to the highest place.

Time in Joint

Historians tend towards the romantic, which means they can develop an undue fascination with decay. The best historians add to this a grand sweeping view of all things and thus see (with good reason) the vicissitudes of time and the sin to which all men are drawn. Historians hopefully are not cranks or kill-joys–rather they at least believe themselves saying, “I’ve seen this movie before . . . . ”

Exceptions exist of course, but Polybius, while writing of the glorious successes of the Republic saw the wheel of time moving that same Republic inexorably towards decline. Oswald Spengler also shared the basic assumption that civilizations, like every living thing, had its inevitable death built into their DNA. Plato too saw forms of government moving in a definite cycle, and Machiavelli–though departing from Plato as much as he could philosophically–shared this basic assumption. He hoped that practical wisdom could elongate the good parts of the cycle and shorten the bad ones, but sought nothing beyond that. Toynbee, being more influenced by Christianity than any of the aforementioned greats, saw more hope but still admitted that every civilization he studied had declined and disappeared.

All of these historians (others could be mentioned, such as Thucydides, and though Herodotus may have been the most hopeful, he did not write about the Peloponnesian War) dealt with civilizational decline but not with the concept of time itself. Some might say that historians should not bother about “Time” and let it stand as the purview of either science or theology. Well, history involves a degree of science, and no one can write about mankind without at least subconsciously thinking about God.

Enter Olivier Clement, and his dense, difficult, but still fascinating Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in Light of the Orthodox Tradition. I cannot claim to have understood him thoroughly, but I hope to have gleaned the most important aspects of his work.

History shows us that civilizations had two main ways of conceiving of time, either as cyclical or linear. The cyclical view dominated most pre-Christian civilizations. Clement writes that

For primitive society, authentic time is the dawning moment of creation. At that moment . . . heaven was still very close to earth. . . . This first blessedness disappeared as a result of a fall, a cataclysm that separated heaven and earth . . . Thereafter he was isolated from the divine and from the cosmos.

The whole effort of fallen man was therefore to seek an end of this fallen state in order once again to be in paradise.

One sees this in the mythologies of most civilizations I am aware of. For the Greeks, Egyptians, Meso-Americans, etc. history begins with the gods ruling on earth in some capacity, a golden age of harmony and justice.

As the gods fled, all people had left to them was mimicry. By participating in the “cycles” initiated by the gods they could perhaps glean something. So we marry because heaven and earth were once married. We farm because of the motif of life from death, death from life we see played out in agriculture. Night becomes day, and day becomes night. Clement writes,

One important symbol (and ritual), the dance, sums up this conception of time. According to a very ancient tantric expression, the cosmos is the “game of god,” the divine dance. Primitive cyclical time is nothing less than the rhythm of this dance, ever tighter cycle in which the dancer is drawn in and assimilated.

Clement acknowledges that much truth exists in this conception of time, but emphasizes that it is fruitless in the end and thus, hopeless, a “hellish” repetition.* “Time is always experienced as degradation” as we move further out from the original marriage of heaven and earth. As we move further out, our connection lessens, hence the origin of ecstatic religious manifestations as an attempt to escape the cycle of reality and return to innocence. The Dionysian cult, for example, was universally acknowledged as “new” by the Greeks in the 5th century. Toynbee mentions that in the aftermath of Hannibal’s invasion, the more disciplined Romans found themselves “plagued” with an onslaught of much more emotional religious expressions. The old gods could no longer meet the new needs

This severing of man from meaning makes time itself meaningless. Eventually not even the regularity of the cycles can entice. One sees this clearly in the Viking epic Egil’s Saga. The prose sparkles, and the poetry is even better. But in the end we have feast, feud, violence, victory–rinse and repeat. So too in other cultures. Clement cites the famous story of Narada from the Sayings of Sri Ramikrishna which illustrate this well:

Narada, the model of piety, gained the favor of Vishnu by his fervent devotion and asceticism.  Narada demanded of Vishnu that he reveal to him the secret of his “maya.” Vishnu replied with an ambiguous smile, “Will you go over yonder to fetch me a little water?”  “Certainly, master,” he replied, and began to walk to a distant village. Vishnu waited in the cool shade of a rock for him to return.

Narada knocked at the first door he came to, eager to complete the errand.  A very beautiful young woman opened the door and the saintly man experienced something entirely new in his life.  He was spellbound by her eyes, which resembled those of Vishnu. He stood transfixed, forgetting why he had come. The young woman welcomed him in a friendly and straightforward way.  Her voice was like that of a gold cord passed around the neck of a stranger. 

He entered the house as if in a dream.  The occupants of the house greeted him respectfully.  He was greeted with honor, treated as a long lost friend.  After some time he asked the father of the house for permission to marry his daughter who greeted him at the door.  This is what everyone had been waiting for. He became a member of the household, sharing its burdens and joys.  

Twelve years passed.  He had three children and when his father-in-law died he became head of the family.  In the 12th year the rainy season was especially violent. The rivers swelled and floods came down from the mountains and the village was swamped with water.  During the night the waters swept away houses and cattle. Everyone fled.  

Holding his wife with one hand and two of his children with the other, with the third perched on his shoulders, Narada left with great haste.  He staggered along, battered by torrents of water. Suddenly he stumbled, and the child on his shoulders fell and plunged into the flood. With a cry of despair Narada let go of his two other children and flailed away to try and reach the littlest one, but he was too late.  At this moment, the raging water swept away his wife and two other children.  

He lost his own footing, and the flood took him away, dashing his head against a rock.  He lost consciousness. We he awoke he could see only a vast plain of muddy water, and he wept for his loss.  He heard a familiar voice, “My child, where is the water you said you would fetch me. I have been waiting for almost ½ an hour.”  

Narada turned and saw only desert scorched by the mid-day sun.  Vishnu sat beside him and smiled with cruel tenderness, “Do you now understand the secret of my maya?”

Commenting on this story, Clement cites two Hindu scholars, who write that,

The nature of each existing thing is its own instantaneity, created from an incalculable number of destructions of stasis.

and

Because the transformation from existence non-existence is instantaneous, there is no movement.

Thus, for Hindus as well as Greeks, eternity is seen in opposition to time, with immobility being the means of entering into eternity, which is again, in opposition to all that is transitory on earth.**

Viewed against other pre-Christian societies, Israel of the Old Testament looks quite different in their view of time and space. Some comment on the “crudeness” of the anthropomorphic language in the Old Testament about God, but this language, “demonstrates that eternity is oriented towards time, and that eternity marches with time towards encounter and fulfillment.” Clement uses the word “courtship” to describe this relationship, which I find most apt. One might then say that the Old Testament culminates in the Virgin Mary bearing the union of Heaven and Earth in the person of Christ. Time takes on a linear dimension and events take on definite meaning. True–time is part of creation and thus partakes of the curse of the fall–it marches us towards death and non-being. Existence gets mechanized. But this also means time will be redeemed, and this process of redemption begins not at the future “Day of the Lord,” but in the Incarnation itself, and in the everyday “now.”

The Christian worldview has elements of the cyclical time of many pre-Christian civilizations. Many medieval calendars, for example were often expressed in a circular, not linear, manner.

The Church is both eschatological and paradisal–a paradise regained–though importantly, a paradise regained that will be greater than that which was lost. Levitical liturgical life prescribed yearly festivals that mirrored the seasons of the year. In some ways, the world is a “game of God,” as St. Maximos the Confessor states.^ The liturgy recapitulates not our vain longings for a return as in pagan cultures, but the real interaction of time and eternity at the heart of existence.

In the Old Testament, time had meaning in part because it moved to a definite fulfillment with the coming of the Messiah. With the Messiah rejected, the Jewish people lost their connection with the eternal purpose of time. Now time as a straight line simply ends in death, and proclaims the reign of death just as strongly as the vain repetitive cycles of the most ancient cultures.

If I understood Clement rightly, he argues that the Christian sense of time preserves the best of both Jewish and pagan time–the cyclical and the linear–while introducing an entirely new element. The liturgical cycles give us continual entrance into a defined pattern life as we move in a distinctly forward direction towards the Day of the Lord. But these cycles don’t just recall the past or proclaim the future, but bring about an intersection of eternal and temporal. Liturgical prayers often speak of the “today” of the historical event celebrated. And if time is part of creation, then the “line” of history too will be redeemed and circumscribed by eternity.

As to the implications on blog about history and culture, well, here I have less confidence than in my attempts to understand Clement. But if I may venture forth . . . it does seem that an undue amount of political commentators have fallen prey to the romantic idea of cyclical and irretrievable decay. Right after Trump was elected, for example, a new edition of Plutarch’s lives detailing the end of the Roman Republic got published. Some now on the right feel a leftist totalitarianism on the rise. But Clement would tell us that is at precisely these times that we must remember: time no longer bears us unceasingly towards decay. If we so choose, we can live in a world infused with the paradise of eternity.

Dave

*Clement mentions that many ancient societies buried their dead in the fetal position as an indication that the cycle of life/death was to repeat ad infinitum. Many Native American tribes did this, as did the Egyptians, apparently. As far as I know, Christians have never buried their dead in a like position, testifying to a different theology of time and redemption.

Egyptian Mummy

Cremation practiced at times by the Greeks and others also testifies in some ways to the futility of the cycle–we began as nothing and return to nothing.

**Clement notes some similarity between this concept of “immobility” and Orthodox ascesis. Many monastic fathers speak of “stillness of heart” and “remaining in your cell.” Again, Clement acknowledges the complexity of the topic and the need to emphasize that sometimes the differences are not of “kind” but of degree & orientation.

^The idea being not something arbitrary but something playful and in flux, compared to the stability of the heavenly realms.

9th/10th Grade: Matter and Spirit in the Dark Ages

Greetings,

After our Rome unit we transition out of Roman civilization into the medieval world.  This transition will involve rebuilding civilization along a whole new foundation with a different view of reality and consequently, society.  Early next week we will examine the question of the relationship between the physical and spiritual reality, and to what extent (if any) they can be separated.

Can a physical thing be a spiritual thing at the same time?  Or vice-versa?

The modern west tends to view reality in binary form.  We have a spiritual world and a physical world and for the most part the two live separately and do not mingle.  But the medievals would answer the above question affirmatively, and for them the divide between the physical and spiritual had much less rigid separation.

As an entry point into their mindset, we might think of mankind itself.  We are physical and spiritual beings.  Our bodies and souls have a mutual relationship.  We cannot separate them, just as we cannot extract the sugar from the eggs in a cake mix once we mix them together.  We exist as physical and spiritual beings simultaneously.

Medieval people applied this concept to many other areas of theology and life in general.  The elements in the eucharist can be both the body and blood of Christ and bread and wine at the same time.  Certain physical places were holy and important to see on pilgrimages, which were spiritual journeys often undertaken barefoot.  God’s presence hallowed certain physical objects, and God used them in various ways.  The medievals called them relics, and some Biblical examples of this might be Moses’ staff, the cloaks of Elijah and Jesus, and Paul’s handkerchief (Acts 19:12).  The saints don’t reside “out there” so much as they dwell in the here and now as a cloud of witnesses.  The presence of God and the saints link Heaven and Earth and we should (according to early Church doctrine and practice) ask the saints to intercede for us in prayer, just as we ask those on Earth to pray for us.

These theological ideas did not stay purely in the spiritual life of Christians, but impacted the values and shape of society in unique ways.  As we might expect these theological ideas took some time to trickle down into society itself, but eventually we will see their impact when we examine feudalism.

This week we also looked at the chaos in Europe after Rome’s fall.  As the only transnational organized group, the Church inevitably ended up bearing the brunt of the load in bringing about the return of civilization.  At first glance, the proliferation of monasteries has little to do with the recovery of civilization.  But monasteries performed at least 3 crucial functions to aid civilization:

1. Geographical Stability

As this map indicates,

the 5th and 6th centuries saw a great deal of chaos.  Semi-nomadic barbarian tribes wandered and fought as they went.  At bare minimum, civilization needs a defined location upon which to build.  Monasteries provided that, not only be dedicating themselves to prayer, but also to agriculture.  Farmers have to stay put and establish roots to successfully grow crops.

2. Refugees

With barbarians on the move many lost their homes and families.  Monasteries often served as places of refuge to care for, or possibly even educate, thousands of unfortunates.

3. Manuscripts

Many of you, like me, grew up in a time when parents said something akin to, “If we ever have a fire the house, the first and only thing to grab is the photo album.”  As a kid, this never made sense to me.  How about grabbing the tv?  But my parents had the right idea.  Part of our identity means having a connection to the past and those around us.  We don’t just exist as individuals in the ‘now,’ we know who we are based at least in part on our connection to others.

Monks copied many manuscripts such as the Bible and Church fathers, but also other Latin texts from Rome’s past.  We owe a great deal of our ancient Latin literature today to monks from the 6th-10th centuries preserving and copying them.  These books, I think, helped enhance their collective cultural memories.  It helped them connect to a past, reminding them that not all was lost.

The prevalence of monasteries raises the question of what exactly civilizations build upon.  Many critics of the Church accused Christians of “dropping out” by going to monasteries.  This withdrawal showed a heart that did not care.

In his monumental work, The City of God, St. Augustine asks his audience what exactly makes civilization work (among other topics).  It is not, he argues, a good economy, a powerful military, or even a workable political system.  What makes civilization tick is an established pattern of interacting with others both within and without one’s borders.  These interactions get formed from our values, and our values come from what we worship.

Perhaps monasteries can be viewed as a civilizational act of faith, akin to tithing.  They declare that we put our roots in the worship of God, in prayer and in praise, and not in our economy, our military, etc.  Only after recognizing the source of all things can things be properly enjoyed and properly used.  Rome, like nearly every other civilization, mistakenly believed that enough power, enough effort, enough careful application of resources, could hold things together.  They put the cart before the horse.