Gods of the Sideways World

Many across the political spectrum seem to feel that things in the U.S. have gone crazy, or upside-down.  Those on the left marshall Triump’s presidency, Charlottesville, and the Kavannaugh hearings, to prove their point, while those on the right do so with transgenderism, campus snowflakes, and . . . their own perspective on the Kavanaugh hearings.*

It appears that we can look at the same thing and not see the same thing.

Different theories exist to explain our predicament.  Some trace the beginnings of it all to Bush’s controversial foreign wars, others to the rise of the internet, or the Clinton presidency, or to the end of the Cold War.  Peter Thiel postulated that our cycles of cultural leaders skipped Generation X and went from the boomers–who artifically held on too long to power–straight to the millennials.**  Thus, lacking “Generation X” to mediate the generation gap, we jerk awkwardly to and fro like a record skipping across a turntable.

We can give all these theories their due.  But I wonder if we may be witnessing something more fundamental.  Without knowing it, akin to frogs in the pot, we are experiencing the final stages of the life in a vertical world, which existed in every ancient civilization up until the 17th century, and seem ready to fully embrace the victory of the sideways world, which has been gaining ground steadily since that time.

One can say anything in blogs . . . but, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

Mattheiu Pageau’s (brother of the more famous Jonathan PageauThe Language of Creation has all the appearance of quackery.  The book has no reviews or endorsements on the back cover.  The book has no footnotes, or even a bibliography, despite the obvious fact that he draws heavily on early Christian and Jewish sources.  This sends shivers down my spine and I can think of no defense for it.  While some parts of the book desperately needed footnotes to have a shot at convincing me, the opening several chapters made complete sense, and the book in a general way hits its target by helping one to reimagine the world.  Once embarked with The Language of Creation, it is probably best to turn to St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Maximos the Confessor for surer guides.

The key to Pageau’s thoughts, and indeed to much of the ancient and medieval world, lies in how we conceive of our experience of space.

Everyone who has read Ender’s Game realizes that space has no up or down, at least in a scientific or absolute sense.  But we must order our sense of space to exist in it, and that involves choices on our part, choices that upon closer examination are not arbitrary.  And since we must choose, we should be struck by the fact that everyone (in the west at least) up until the present day concieved of the cosmos as heirarchical, as up and down.^

And it may be no coincidence that our current depiction of the solar system conceives it as existing horizontally, and not heirarchically.

This choice of how we depict the cosmos was certainly intentional in older civilizations, and we can fairly assume that it remains intentional today.

There is a difference.  The order and shape we give to the space around creates a framework for meaning.

The up/down nature of reality helps us understand creation and our experience of the world in many different ways:

Creation

  • We first note in Genesis 1 that God resides “above the waters,” above that is, undifferentiated, unformed chaos.  The immensity of God cannot be contained, thus He must mediate our experience of Himself for us to know Him at all.
  • Creation happens through speech, and not coincidentally.  Speech gives form to thoughts and ideas, it gives them a public reality.
  • Creation happens via continual separation and differentiation.  God ‘draws out’ reality from above.
  • The purpose of creation is for God to unite Heaven and Earth.

Plant Life

  • Plants grow from seeds.  The seed falls from above, containing the “idea” of the plant, the entirety of the plant’s particulars.
  • Seeds bury themselves in the earth, which produces the manifestation, the “incarnation” of the idea in more variety.

Man

  • The upright nature of man is also no coincidence.  It separates us from other creatures (while at the same time, giving us no evolutionary advantage per se.  Many robotics designers have pointed out how inefficient the design of the human body is).  But it also corresponds to heirarchy–the intellect is above and governs the body below. Our thoughts move as the thoughts of angels, thus the “heavenly” nature of our intellect. Our “earthy” parts are lower and more chaotic.  Our appetites need structure.  Our “heart,” which lies between our heads and our bellies, serves as the mediator and point of unity between the two, between “heaven” and “earth.”  The structure of our bodies, then, gives us a clue as to the meaning of space.
  • Man himself serves as the mediator of creation, a priesthood meant to image God to all of creation.  As a hybrid creature of Earth and Heaven, we stand between both worlds.

Language

  • Language itself serves as a kind of union of heaven and earth.  We have “”heavenly” thoughts in our intellect.  We take bits of “earth” in the form of random marks, and arrange them into a pattern to make letters.  We then further organize them into words, and so on.
  • Language, then, takes earthly random particulars and gives them structure and distinction from above–according to ideas, principles, etc.  We make ideas manifest through language.

Christ Himself

One could go on and on seeing the extent of this pattern, but all of these patterns cohere most fully in Christ Himself.  He “came down from Heaven,” (John 6:38, the Nicene Creed) as the Word of God, but then took on human nature through the Virgin Mary.  After His death He went even “lower” down and, “descended into hell” (as in the Apostles Creed).  His ressurection and ascencion^^ complete the redemptive process of descending and ascending, a link back to Jacob’s ladder.

Such was the view of the world, more or less, from at least the time of Nero down to the 16th century.

The Copernican Revolution certainly transformed how we view the cosmos, but the hierarchical nature of reality could have been maintained.  I cannot trace the exact time we started to depict the solar system horizontally, but perhaps we have an inkling now that this change involved more than mere astronomy.  Perhaps a trend towards this leveling can be seen, starting from this depiction in the 18th century

which still seems to preserve a sense of heirarchy, and then 100 years later we see

which seems to advance the leveling process a bit further.  Of course the present day, (as seen above) completes the progression towards a flat world.

The leveling of the cosmos presaged a levelling of society, and the ushering in of chaos and confusion.  Geographically speaking, both oceans and deserts represented chaos for the ancient and medieval world–i.e., both areas have no visibile differentiation in their form, and we cannot live there.  With chaos comes death.  For to understand anything and understand its meaning, we need differentiation and distinction.  Again, this is one of the main teachings of Genesis 1. The same holds true of society in general.  The early phases of dismantling existing heirarchies and norms come with great excitement.  Maybe the old forms had run their course, maybe change was overdue.  But the dismantling of all distinctions between up and down, creation and creature, men and women, etc. will usher in a blindness that will hinder our ability to understand the world God made and to understand God Himself.  Without this foundation, we will hardly be able to understand each other.

Since we cannot live in chaos, we will soon find that heirarchy will have to return.  Given our seeming embrace chaos (i.e. a world with no heirarchy and no distinctions), it may end up returning with a vengeance.  We already can see what distorted forms it might take. Those on the far left would make the most marginalized “victim” king^^^, and those on the far right would repeat Charlottesville en masse.  New gods would rule over us.

I believe most people want to avoid both of these extremes, but have no idea what to do about it.  Perhaps we can start with the very simple move of thinking about the world as up and down instead of side-to-side.

Dave

*I continue to hope that the world of twitter and political commentating is merely a distorted reflection of the real world we all inhabit.  Indeed, I have come across very few in my neighborhood or at church who got terribly bent out of shape one way or the other about Kavannaugh’s nomination.

**Peter Thiel believes that the dearth of viable presidential candidates in their 40’s-50’s in the last election proves this point.

^Like most medieval maps, this does not represent an accurate spatial depiction of the cosmos, but the cosmos as it appears “spiritually” to them in their hearts and minds.  Ptolemy’s Almagest was the standard work of astronomy of the Middle Ages and speaks of the Earth as a mathematical point in the universe.  But, they represented the Earth as larger than other planets because this is where the drama of the redemption of the cosmos plays itself out.

^^Most churches hardly focus on Christ’s Ascencion and stop at Easter.  But the structure and scope of redemption shows us how crucial the Ascencion is, for Heaven and Earth cannot be fully reconciled until Christ presents Himself spotless before the Father.  Only after this does the Spirit of God descend that God may dwell within us.

^^^I have no settled thoughts on the trigger warning and micro-aggression phenomena, aside from an obvious distaste for it.  But I do wonder at its logic.  If victimhood gives one power and the right to speak, would it not serve their interests to increase their victim status by having themselves “assaulted?”  Perhaps then, the enthroned victims wish to keep their power by preventing anyone else from gaining status?  That would make them like everyone else.  Those in power tend to guard it jealously.

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Most of the Time, the World is Flat

Our struggle with economic equality has many roots.  For starters, we have the dual affirmation of the values of liberty and equality, something Tocqueville noted as perhaps the key tension in modern democracies.  Modern democracies also elevate the status of the individual choice much more highly than traditional societies.   This honoring of the individual adds fuel to the free market, which ultimately seeks to commodify our choices.  We will likely see laws supporting “traditional” morality, such as those against gambling and certain kinds of drug use, get removed from the books.   I read with dismay this article, which indicates that Washington state now allows one to commodify the womb.

The multiplication of choices in the market dovetails with additional freedoms for the individual, and of course we generally want and desire such freedoms.  But we cannot have such freedoms and have economic equality at the same time.

The roots of this trend towards an absolute market of things, and even using oneself as an economic object, has origins that predate modern democracies.  To have an unending market of things we need to first have control over things, and to establish control the thing must be emptied of its own significance that we might fill it.  In his A Secular Age, Charles Taylor observes that it is the homogenization of time and space that makes the modern era (ca. 18th century-today) possible, for it allows us to give our own meanings to our experiences.  We can add that our perception of things as mere objects contributes to this trend.

Marcel Mauss’ book The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies poses many questions, such as, “Do books with absurdly boring titles, written by French sociologists, have an inverse or complimentary relationship with the inevitable nerdiness and pomposity of those that read such books?”  Sure, having this book in front of you at your local Starbucks will likely make you look like a prig, but for those willing to assume the risk, Mauss has some interesting nuggets to reveal about the economies of the ancient world.

The societies Mauss surveys have an economy, but not ones we might expect.  Some minor differences exist between the societies he examines across time and space, but in the main we can say that:

  • One can never truly own a thing, because the thing (be it a gold coin, a chair, a paddle) has an identity all its own.  It is its “own” (ha!) thing before it ever was “your” thing.
  • One should not keep anything for too long.  To do so would risk courting vengeance of a sort from thing itself (some societies had a more magical view of this, some abstracted it a bit more), which “longs” to go to someone else.  Our stuff wants to roam wild and free.
  • One could potentially amass even a great surplus of things, but in end, everyone needed to give things to others and keep the cycle of exchange moving.* This was not mere self-emptying or even generosity per se, because all acknowledged that receiving a gift came with reciprocal responsibilities and burdens.**  Failure to reciprocate courted disaster.

Of course these societies had a hierarchy, determined by birth or honorific achievements, or something else, but material wealth got passed around with much more fluidity in the ancient world than today.  We may admire this, but quite frankly, we could never replicate it.  For starters, we no longer see the world of things as full of meaning.  As Taylor observed, in a world of homogeneity only we ourselves can transmit this meaning to things.  Again, the concept of magic enters in with some of the early societies, but Mauss delineates between magic and some form of “embodied meaning.”  I did not find him terribly clear on this point, but it is a hard concept to describe (and for me to understand).  Something has to do with the idea that in the societies Mauss describes one more directly experiences the world.  This too is hard to describe, but I would venture that

  • Today we assume that a thing has no meaning in itself.  So its meaning must be mediated or transmitted by layers of society and the self.
  • Whereas “back then,” our experience of the world and the meaning of the world were one and the same.

We might catch a glimpse of this difference by looking a a different issue.

About four years ago Jonathan Pageau wrote a series of articles about ancient cosmology, and gave his first post the intriguing title, “Most of the Time the World is Flat.”  Pageau obviously does not mean to imply that the Earth is not really round, and of course the earth does not change its shape.  Rather, he postulates a significant disconnect between what we believe the world/cosmos to actually be like and our everyday experience of it.  Science has not given us, and perhaps cannot give us, a workable, experiential model of the world.  So we live divided, having to import a meaning to our experience that has no solid reality behind it.  He writes,

I would like to propose something that might seem provocative at first, but will hopefully help people see the world with different eyes. There is a growing image on the recent horizon of human experience, it is an image of a family or a group of friends all next to each other at a table or in some other intimate setting, yet all interacting with tablets, ipods and smartphones as if the people around them didn’t exist. I would like to propose that this image, this reality is the final result of Galileo’s cosmological model. Some of you might think I am exaggerating, so I will need to explain.

The Copernican/Galilean worldview, that is the heliocentric worldview and its further development into our modern cosmology of galaxies and nebulas and black holes has two important aspects. It is an artificial vision and it is an alienating vision. It is artificial in the strictest sense of “art” or “techne”. It is a technical vision because we cannot experience this vision without technology, without telescopes and other apparatuses. Because technology is a supplementary thing, a garment of skin, something which we add to our natures in order to physically bolster them toward the material world, it therefore also leads further into the material world itself. (emphasis mine).

. . . modern cosmology is not only artificial, but it is alienating, it moves Man away from himself. Once Man accepted that what he saw through his telescopes and microscopes is more real than his natural experience, he made inevitable the artificial world, he made inevitable as its end the plastic, synthetic, genetically modified, photoshopped, pornographic, social-networked reality we live in. When at the very core of vision, the shape of your cosmos leads you to believe that technology provides a perception which is more true, more real than your experience, more real than walking out of your house and looking at the sky, then the telescope and the microscope will soon be side by side with the camera, the screen and the accelerated time and space of the car window. The metal and glass frame will swallow us and human beings will lose themselves for their incapacity to fully inhabit the world.

Pageau knows that his desired task of reorienting our perspective will likely fail, with a gulf too broad for us to comprehend.  Still, I encourage you to read the whole article here and try for yourself.^

It is the strict materialization of our things that creates the gulf between us and our things, which then means we cannot access the economies of the past.

If we wish to regain access to this world, we need a different conception of reality itself.  We should take care and not romanticize this version of society.  Mauss points out that violence existed in these societies–though probably not because of stark material inequality.  The societies he describes sometimes had huge surpluses, which they then sometimes consumed in spectacular fashion.  On the other hand, rarely did these societies have much of the technological innovation that we would appreciate.  But, if we wish to access this way of life, we need to stop treating the inanimate things we create and consume as mere means to an end.  Indeed, we often treat others as a means to an end as part of our contribution to a fallen world.  Unfortunately, as the new surrogacy law in Washington state reveals, we are now so completely alienated even from our selves that we will cannibalize our own bodies as a means to an end for ourselves–a bifurcation that puts us far from the world Mauss describes.

“Man is what he eats.”  Alexander Schemmann began his classic For the Life of the World quoting this epigram of Fuerbach.  One might assume that an Orthodox priest would disagree with this radically materialist statement, but Schemmann turns the quote on its head and argues that with this quote Fuerbach, “expressed the most religious idea of man.”  Mere matter does not exist, at least in the way we usually think.  Perhaps the place to begin is with the eucharist, for it is here that symbol and reality fuse together most profoundly, and it is here that the world’s transformation begins anew.

Dave

*This reminds a bit of the modern economic idea that money must circulate through society like blood must circulate through the body.  Was this Ricardo’s idea originally?

**Norbert Elias talks about aristocrats even as late as the 17th century in Spain who were expected to beggar themselves once every 10-15 years or so by hosting grand feasts for entire villages.  After which, the cycle would begin again.  This hosting/feasting was a crucial basis of their authority.

^Pageau has since walked back partially some of the “anti-science” approach he takes in this article.  He has credited Jordan Peterson with helping him see some possible connections between science and the symbolic worldview.

9th Grade: ‘Faith,’ Reason, and The Crusades

Greetings,

This week we wrapped up our unit on the Crusades.  This difficult era raises many questions for us:

1. Did the Crusades attempt to stem the tide of Moslem aggression, or did they in fact cause more Moslem unity and a resurgence of Moslem power?

Some see the Crusades as a legitimate attempt to strike against Moslem expansionism.  Others argue that the Crusades forced the Moslems to unite once again. Having been invaded by the West, they determined to renew their attacks against them.  Do the Crusades bear any blame for the eventual collapse of Constantinople in 1453?

2. What role should faith and reason play in everyday affairs?

The Third Crusade is a good example of this problem.  Richard I fought his way to Jerusalem, but went home in part because he believed he could not hold the city even if he took it.  Therefore, it was pointless to risk his live and the lives of his men for nothing.  Some criticized his actions, saying something to the effect of, “You must step forward in faith, and watch God bless you.  This is what faith is all about!   You cannot think of this in practical terms. That is not thinking with faith.  Put  a foot into the Jordan, and then watch it part.”

We see this same question also running through the idea of the tragic Children’s Crusades, though here the Church strongly opposed Europe’s youth to no avail.* How should the balance between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ guide our daily lives?  How should we answer the argument of many young people who participated in the ‘Children’s Crusades,’ which ran something like this:

  • God has called his people to crusade for Jerusalem.  We believed so in 1097.  Has God changed?  He is the same, yesterday, today, forever.  Therefore, His call is the same.  We must still vie for the Holy Land.
  • But how shall we go?  Let us not trust in princes, horses, or chariots (i.e. Ps. 20), let us know that our trust is in God, by marching out in true faith.  We see in Scripture that Moses led the Israelites to the Red Sea and it parted. Joshua marched around the city, and it fell.  Guided by God’s word, we shall emulate their example.  God shall make a way for us to take Jerusalem, and do so in a way so that all glory goes to him.
  • Many argue that the problem with the Crusades was a lack of organization, supplies, or reinforcements.  This only betrays worldly thinking.  Would more supplies have made the Crusaders less greedy in 1204?  Would it have made them less violent inside Jerusalem’s walls in 1099?  No, the problem has been our lack of faith and obedience.
  • Jesus pointed out the strength and purity of the faith of children.  Therefore, who better than the Church’s youth to undertake this venture?

We know that the Children’s Crusades ended in utter disaster.*  But what would you say in response to their argument?  How can you disprove them? What is faith’s relationship to reason?

3. The west attempted at least seven times at retaking Jerusalem.  What should this tell us about them?

  • That they were foolishly stubborn?
  • That they were intensely dedicated and willing to make great sacrifices for achieving their goal?
  • That they were a people of faith willing to trust in spite of adversity?
  • That they were foolish, naive, and used ‘faith’ as a cover for their prejudice and desire for gain?

In the end, the Crusades would have many unintended consequences.  The West was exposed to Greek literature and philosophy for the first time.  St. Thomas Aquinas, the Renaissance, and Exploration may all have been by-products of this, among other things.  The Crusades also raise many questions about using violence as means to bring about the Kingdom of God that are still with us.  If we agree with the Crusades, should we also agree with the bombing of abortion clinics?

Next week we will return to our look at Medieval Feudal society, and I hope that the students will be confronted with good questions.

Dave Mathwin

*I should note that scholars debate when these crusades took place, and whether or not there was one crusade or two.  A few even doubt whether or not they were children at all, as some believe they may have been a mass of landless unemployed.  My rendering in class was the traditional story.

9th Grade: The Crusades and “The Fog of War”

Greetings,

In his famous work, On War, the Prussian Carl von Clausewitz commented,

War is an area of uncertainty; three quarters of the things on which all action in War is based are lying in a fog of uncertainty to a greater or lesser extent. The first thing (needed) here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment.

This truth makes itself felt in many areas, with the Crusades certainly among them.

This week we began to look at the Crusades.  The Crusades would be one of the defining events of medieval civilization and they raise many questions.

Why did they go on the Crusades?

We understand some of the parallels from the Crusades to today, with religiously motivated conflict once again making a return to history.  But every a cursory look at the Crusades repels most modern observers.  Their reasons and motivations seem entirely foreign to us.  When we examine Crusading literature, for example, we cannot help but be struck at the importance they placed not on “holy war” against Moslems, or “breaking Moslem power,” (very general, broad reasons), but  specifically the recovery of Jerusalem, and more specifically still, the recovery of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ may have been buried and raised from the dead.  Many miracles were recorded at the site in the Middle Ages, which we moderns may or may not believe.  But there can be little doubt that nearly all medievals believed God was present in a special way at this church.

Exterior, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Interior

Many may have a hard time relating to this today.  We tend not to think of some places as more special than another.  For early medievals, however, Jerusalem was part of their spiritual inheritance.  Not having access to it might be the equivalent of not being able to have access to the Bible for some Protestants.

One need not read Scripture every day to be a Christian.  But if someone or some power decided that Christians could no longer have access to Scripture, that would be a problem.  If we see Scripture the way medieval Christians viewed Jerusalem, we would see that the Bible is part of God’s gift to the Church.  God need not ‘prove’ His love by giving us this, but He gave us His word as a gift, for our benefit.  It is part of His inheritance for us.  Should we seek to recover our inheritance?  Would we be justified in using violence to do so?

As for the medieval view of Jerusalem, I tried to explain it to student using the idea of experience and inheritance.  Suppose for a moment that there is a special place associated with your childhood and your family.  Take, for example, your grandfather’s house that had a place you enjoyed.  In my case it would be the stream in his backyard.  I had many great times there building forts, shooting bb guns, playing elaborate games of tag. Now suppose that upon his death he left the property to me in his will from now until doomsday. Let’s suppose that circumstances prevent me from staying on the property, and I get word that someone else occupies  the property and dumps toxic waste into the stream.  If I didn’t care, what it would say about how I view my grandfather, or my inheritance?

Of course, even if my analogy accurately describes the west’s view of Jerusalem, it still begs a variety of questions.  In what sense was Jerusalem the ‘inheritance’ of Christians?  Is it only history that makes it special, or are certain places (such as the Holy Sepulchre) really a literal “fount of blessing” for the Christian faithful?  If it were, what would be best way to regain it?  What methods would be justified?  Should they even attempt to do so, or ‘turn the other cheek?’

So why did people go?

  • Some went out of a general sense of holy duty.
  • Some, and perhaps many, went in a sense of a pilgrimage, in response to the call for soldiers to exercise penance (indeed, I think we have understand the idea of penance to understand the Crusades).
  • Some went out of a sense of adventure.
  • Some went out of response to the stories of Moslem persecution of Christians. Historians argue that the stories medieval Christians heard contain some exaggeration, and that may be true.  Exaggeration or not, the stories were believed, and we should keep in mind that some of the stories of Christian persecution were undoubtedly true.
  • Some argue that some went in the hopes of adding land to their existing estates.   I admit this possibility in isolated cases, but find it unlikely for the majority.  If their main concern was to add wealth, they would have stayed home and managed their estates.  The Church, for example, enacted several provisions against molesting the property of crusaders.  Their long absence surely would have opened their property up to danger in their absence.
  • Some may have seen it as a way to break the political and military power of the Moslem empire in half, and perhaps hasten its decline.

While the motives of the Crusaders may have varied, there are a few that I believe do not fit the period.  Some say that the Crusades were motivated by anti-Moslem bigotry.  This may have been true in isolated cases,  but the purpose of the Crusades cannot have been to ‘kill Moslems.’   Plenty of Moslems, for example, resided in Spain and were much closer than Jerusalem.  Also, the Crusaders occasionally made alliances with Moslems on their way to Jerusalem, which they would not have done if their avowed purpose was to kill as many as possible.  Also, while some may have wanted to add to their territory, the Crusade in itself was enormously expensive. Nobles who left paid their own way, as well as their attendants, along with being absent from their estate, which also would have reduced their income.

The Crusades had numerous causes, and sifting out the most important is very difficult.

One indirect cause surely was the rise of Moslem power from 630-750 A.D.  From modest beginnings in Arabia, they quickly grabbed the near entirety of the mid-east, along with North Africa and Spain.

But the Crusades do not begin until the late 11th century, so the growth of Islam cannot be the main proximate cause.  Some suggest that around 1050 AD a new breed of tough warrior Moslems called Seljuks caused great alarm in the west.

Moslems had also taken territory from the Byzantine empire, composed largely of Orthodox Christians.  Their appeal to the west for help opened the door not only to political reconciliation, but also reconciling of eastern and western churches, a tempting prospect.

The rise of the power of the state also contributed.  Before mid 11th century, the state generally was weak vis a vis the hold of Church on society.  With the overall stability of the civilization by 1050 came the rise of more powerful monarchs who could control more and more the lives of the warrior caste. Pope Gregory VII, for example, raised his own army of “holy warriors” to combat the rising power and threat of Henry IV.  Since fighting and violence is not in itself wrong, the Church sought to “Christianize” or refine it in the lives of Europe’s warrior caste.

All this of course, does not answer the question of whether or not the Crusades were a good idea, from either a purely military or Biblical perspective.  Even today the Crusades raise important questions:

  • Can violence be used in the name of Christ to achieve ‘holy’ ends?  If we think in Augustinian terms, can violence be part of the ‘City of God?’  Or, can the ‘City of God’ borrow from the ‘City of Man’ without being tarnished?   Can one kill others for God and His Church?  If so, how does this fit within the Christian ethic of loving our neighbors?  If not, is being a soldier wrong for a Christian?  Nearly the whole history of the Church would say ‘no’ to this question.  If a soldier cannot kill ‘for God,’ then for whom should he kill?  How can we know whether or not one truly fights for God?
  • In what sense should the Crusade be thought of in practical terms, and in what sense should the idea of a ‘leap of faith’ enter the picture?
  • Why did the Crusades not result in the reunion of East and West, as many hoped?  What impact did they have on the future of East/West relations?

All in all, the Crusades raise important and profound questions for us today.  At certain times the Crusades have been romanticized.  Today for some the Crusades are the ultimate example of religious bigotry.  Of course, the Mideast has its own remembrance of the Crusades which we do well to consider.

We will delve more into these questions next week.

Blessings,

Dave

9th Grade: 1066 And all That

Greetings,

I wish you all a great break and a Merry Christmans

This past week we wrapped up the Norman Conquest of 1066.  I wanted us to see the conflict between Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy not just as battle for the throne between two rivals, but as a window into the society at large.  Toward that end we focused a lot of our discussion on oaths in early Medieval Europe.

We looked at oaths because the central controversy involving the Norman Conquest involved a dispute over an oath taken by Harold.  Harold apparently got blown off course one day and landed in Normandy in France.  Instead of holding him for ransom, William, Duke of Normandy protected and befriended him.  At the end of his visit, William asked Harold to pledge that he would not seek the throne of England after Edward the Confessor’s death.

Harold's Oath

In that oath, several questions arise:

  • Did Harold promise to let William have the throne?
  • If so, was that promise binding, i.e. was the oath a valid oath?
  • Did Harold really break his oath in the first place?

Oaths had crucial important for this period I think, for the following reasons:

1. Today we have extensive written contracts, police, and law courts to enforce social order and provide a platform for trust in social interaction.  The world of 1066 had none of these things.  So we see instead an ironclad priority placed on “keeping one’s word,” which stood in place of the modern written contract.  Breaking one’s word, then, did not just damage your personal reputation, it threatened the fabric of civilization itself.

2. This can help us understand why the Church felt the need to involve itself in the oaths of great noblemen.  By 1066 Europe had only recently emerged from a chaotic “dark age,” of barbarian invasions.  The Church wanted peace, and so often strengthened them by adding spiritual overtones on the oaths to make them even more binding.  One could argue that this would make the Church a meddler in personal affairs.  I think they would respond that peace is everyone’s business.

Of course oaths could only bind under certain circumstances:

  • Oaths were freely taken — that is, no compulsion came with the oath.
  • The terms of the oath could be performed by those making the oath (one could not vow for another’s actions)
  • One could not vow to sin, and then sin because, “I promised I would.”

As an example, there is this text from the life of King Louis IX of France in 1248, from The Chronicle of Matthew Paris.  Note how all urge him to “unbind” himself from his first oath, but then once he vows again, the matter is settled.

. . .the lord king of the French who, as was well known, had taken the cross [vowed to go on a Crusade] was severely criticized, and almost circumvented by his magnates and courtiers, because he was unwilling to redeem or commute his oath in any way, in spite of the [fact that he taken the vow when very ill].  His mother Blanche, aware of the king’s imbecility at the time [of the oath] insisted and earnestly argued with him, and the bishop addressed him as follows.

“My lord king, remember that when you took the cross, making a vow so hurriedly and without advice, you were ill and your mind wandered.  The words you then uttered lacked truth and authority.  The good pope will willingly grant a dispensation from the oath, knowing the critical state of your kingdom and your past infirmity.”

Then the king’s mother added her own suggestions, spoke to him with some effect. “Dearest son!  Instead of resisting your own prudence, pay attention to the advice of friends.  Bear in mind how pleasing it is to God to give heed to the voice of one’s mother.  Stay here and the Holy Land will suffer no detriment.  . . .  God neither plays tricks nor does he quibble.  You are sufficiently excused by your illness and the deprivation of your reason. . .”

To this the king, no little moved, replied, “. . . Lord bishop, here is the cross which I assumed; moreover, I resign it to you.” Raising his hand to his shoulder, he ripped off the cross.  At this all those sitting around him expressed their intense joy, but the lord king, altering his tone, said: “My friends, certainly I am not now deprived of my reason or my senses, nor am I powerless or infirm.  Now I demand back my cross.  He who ignores nothing knows that nothing edible shall enter my mouth until I have signed myself with it.”

When those present saw this they recognized the hand of God here (Ex. 8:19), and that these things had been effected by a divine force from Heaven.  Nor did anyone dare raise any further questions about the affair.  We have recorded this business fully and exactly so that everyone appreciates the constancy of the most Christian king of the French in the service of Christ.

Harold IOne of the controversies of 1066 revolved around Harold’s oath.  Some argued that it was not taken freely, as Harold at the time was under William’s custody and protection.  Some also argued that the oath was not Harold’s to make, as the English Witan chose kings, and Harold might feel bound by their choice.  When Harold broke his vow (from William’s perspective, it set about a clash that could be solved only through battle.  Harold might argue that. . .

  • The oath I took does not bind, for I took it under indirect compulsion, a stranger in William’s land.  Besides this, I do not fight for my own personal gain, but for England.
  • I fight for England’s right to choose an English king.  Edward the Confessor (God rest his soul) always had half of himself in Normandy.  I say that England has a right to choose an English king that will look after English interests.

William might have countered with. . .William I

  • I do not fight for petty slights, nor revenge.  I fight for uphold civilization itself, and the sanctity of oaths taken upon holy relics.  If oaths have nothing sacred to them, we have nothing to keep us together but naked force and barbarism.
  • If kings do not keep their i, neither can we expect the common man to do so.
  • The pope has given me his banner, for he too recognizes the greater good at stake in this.  Harold’s refusal to back down show him as an enemy of the Church and civilization.

In the famous Battle of Hastings that ensued, both armies fought well but Harold was killed in the fighting, which left the throne open for William of Normandy, from then on known as William the Conqueror.

Harold's Death

Many in England get tired of hearing about 1066 in much the same way that we may tire of hearing of 1492.  But the Norman Conquest did change the social fabric of England, and more importantly, brought England into the fold of the European continent.

Some years after the Normans displaced the Saxons, a handful of monks wrote the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” detailing life before and after William.  The conclusion below, though short, provides an interesting opportunity for textual analysis.  Did the Anglo-Saxon writer like William or not?  Did he have to praise him because he was a Saxon and had lost, or is the praise surprising for the very same reason?  Was William a good king?  It depends on what you think most important about political leadership. . .

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Assessment of William I

If anyone would know what manner of man King William was, the glory that he obtained, and of how many lands he as lord, then will we describe him as we have known him, we who had looked upon him and who once lived at his court. This King William…was a very wise and great man, and more honored and more powerful than any of his predecessors. He was mild to those good men who loved God, but severe beyond measure to those who withstood his will. He founded a noble monastery [Battle Abbey] on the spot where God permitted him to conquer England., and he established monks in it, and he made it very rich. In his days the great monastery at Canterbury was built, and many others also throughout England; moreover, this land was filled with monks who lived after the ule of St. Benedict; and such was the state of religion in his days that all who would, might observe that which was prescribed by their respective orders.

King William was also held in much reverence. He wore his crown three times every year when he was in England: at Easter he wore it at Winchester, at Pentecost at Westminster, and at Christmas at Gloucester. And at these times all the men of England were with him, archbishops, bishops, abbots and earls, thanes and knights. So also was he a very stern and wrathful man, so that none durst do anything against his will, and he kept in prison those earls who acted against his pleasure. He removed bishops from their sees and abbots from their offices, and he imprisoned thanes, and at length he spared not his own [half-]brother Odo. This Odo was a very powerful bishop in Normandy. His see was that of Bayeux, and he was foremost to serve the king. He had an earldom in England, and when William was in Normandy he [Odo] was the first man in this country, and him did William cast into prison.

Amongst other things, the good order that William established is not to be forgotten. It was such that any man…might travel over the kingdom with a bosom full of gold unmolested; and no man durst kill another, however great the injury he might have received from him. He reigned over England, and being sharp-sighted to his own interest, he surveyed the kingdom so thoroughly that there was not a single hide of land throughtout the whole of which he knew not the possessor, and how much it was worth, and this he afterward entered in his register. The land of the Britons [Wales] was under his sway, and he built castles therein; moreover he had full dominion over the Isle of Man; Scotland was also subject to him…; the land of Normandy was his by inheritance, and he possessed the earldom of Maine, and had he lived two years longer, he would have subdued Ireland by his prowess, and that without a battle.

Truely there was much trouble in these times, and very great distress. He caused castles to be built and oppressed the poor. The king was also of great sterness, and he took from his subjects many marks of gold, and many hundred pounds of silver, and this, either with or without right, and with little need. He was given to avarice and greedily loved gain. He made large forests for the deer, and enacted laws therewith, so that whoever killed a hart or a hind should be blinded. As he forbade killing the deer, so also the boars; and he loved the tall stags as if he were their father. He also commanded concerning the hares, that they should go free. The rich complained and the poor murmured, but he was so sturdy that he took no notice of them; they must will all that the king willed, if they would live, or keep their lands,…or be maintained in their rights. Alas that any man should so exalt himself…. We have written concerning him these things, both good and bad, that virtuous men may follow after the good, and wholly avoid the evil, and may go in the way that leadeth to the kingdom of heaven.

9th Grade: Needful Things

This week we began looking at the aftermath of Charlemagne’s reign and his accomplishments.

Historians often focus on Charlemagne’s volatile character and his many wars, and these certainly have their place.  I wanted the students also to consider the broader context of how civilizations get created.

We often take civilization for granted, but we should ask ourselves why, and even if we need civilization in the first place. Inevitably civilization will detract from some personal freedom.  We will have to follow certain laws and maintain certain obligations to the larger population.  At times we will have to give allegiance in some form to leaders and laws we do not like.  But I believe that while civilization may not qualify as an absolute good, it remains a very strong relative good.  Without civilization life often gets reduced to who has the most force.  The weak would be at the mercy of the strong.  Also, without civilization culture on any appreciable scale will not exist.  So if nothing else, as Kenneth Clark stated, barbarism is boring.

But civilization will not build itself, nor does it arrive fully formed from the sky.  Humanity must create civilization themselves, and this requires much more than merely wanting to pass a few laws.  Who should make laws?  Who should enforce them?  Who will decide guilt or innocence when disputes arise?  These difficult questions can take generations to answer.

Often the answers a particular people arrive at do not come from abstract discussion, but “on the ground realities.”  Though it may sound harsh, the answers usually come from those who are most able to provide order, and this order comes from a monopoly on the use of force.

Many could argue that Charlemagne betrayed his Christian values with far too much reliance on war and unnecessary power grabs.  But Charlemagne did provide the necessary unity through his conquests to end disputes.  He did provide security and order, and this helped lead to what historians refer to as the “Carolingian Renaissance.”   While this period cannot hold a candle to other great historical renaissances in terms of what they produced, they also started from a much different place.  They developed a new style of writing, and a new architectural style.  We see books written once again (though of poor quality), and a general revival of the idea of scholarship.  Europe started to grow roots that would bear fruit in the centuries to comeCarolingian Script

Aachen Cathedral - Interior

What we often miss when examining the foundations of civilization, however, is the element of trust required.  More so than laws, the daily habits and patterns of our interactions with one another form the real core of civilization.  These habits have their roots in our conception of moral order, which comes directly from our religious beliefs.  Christianity thus played a huge indirect role in the formation of civilization after the fall of Rome.  It provided unity, yes, but it also provided a basis for common interaction.  No set of laws can cover every circumstance, and in the absence of law we fall back on the trust of our fellow man.   When this does not exist, when law and structure fail, civilization fails as well.  One need only think of the looting and destruction that might happen if power went out in a major city, or the chaos in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or the rioting in the summer of 1968.  This may indicate that we rely perhaps a little too much on the force of law, and the trust and personal bonds that should unite us may not be all that strong.  Without a common moral foundation we have to rely on force to keep us together, and force will fail in the long run (if not the short run).

My hope for this unit with Charlemagne is that the students considered his achievement, and the cost of his achievement.  When we look at nascent civilizations we get a glimpse into nature of civilization itself, which we should then be able to apply to our own day.

Many thanks,

Dave

9th 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.