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Christianity from a Bahá'í Perspective

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 7

Christianity in the Middle Ages

      While Christianity was spreading in the Greco-Roman world, that world was itself undergoing revolutionary changes. The reasons for the decline and eventually collapse of the Roman Empire were numerous, and no single explanation is adequate. Internally, the empire never solved the problem of a stable, peaceful succession of competent leaders. Emperors usually appointed their successors, but some proved incompetent, emotionally imbalanced, or evil. From the beginning, the rule of force was established as superior to the rule of law, allowing many generals to contest the succession, often successfully; the result was a military challenge to almost every new emperor, devastating civil wars every decade or two, and sometimes frequent changes in leadership. The simple technology of the day placed limitations on the empire's growth; for example, a peaceful society allowed for increased trade and greater prosperity, which produced larger cities, but the unsanitary conditions of the larger cities also stimulated disease, which the improved transportation systems spread empire-wide. Thus the empire suffered from several serious plagues in the first and second centuries, in addition to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

      Externally, the empire faced enemies close and far. Along the eastern border the Persian Empire revived under the Sassanian dynasty in the mid third century and became a serious threat; Romans and Persians fought many wars, and as the frontier shifted back and forth Mesopotamia and Syria were devastated. Along the northern border, the tribes of northern and central Europe came in contact with Roman civilization, adopted aspects of it, and consequently became increasingly civilized, organized, powerful, and envious. Increasingly, emperors had to be good generals and had less time to devote to the development of the empire's cities or the maintenance of its roads and aquaducts. Eventually the empire had to be split into eastern and western halves so that there were two emperors to handle the two major frontiers.

      Throughout the second, third, and fourth centuries Roman military spending rose, forcing taxes upward ruinously and weakening the empire's economy. When enough tax revenue could not be raised the emperors ordered the gold and silver content of the coins to be decreased, in order to mint more coins using the same amount of precious metal; but this debased the currency and caused inflation, further damaging the economy.

      In Central Asia, the movement of peoples out of what is today Mongolia triggered a domino effect, displacing tribe after tribe westward; by the third and fourth centuries the frontiers no longer could hold them out, and Germanic and Slavic tribes began to pour into the empire, either to settle peacefully or to conquer and destroy sections of it. The eastern Empire, with its higher population density and older civilization, survived fairly well; relatively few of the major cities were destroyed. But after the 630s the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire faced a new and much more powerful enemy: Islam, which quickly conquered all of Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and North Africa. Islamic armies steadily advanced on the Byzantines, finally capturing Constantinople itself in 1453.

      The western empire collapsed under the pressure of the migratory tribes. Rome was sacked in 410 and 455 and was besieged three times in the sixth century; its population, nearly a million in the first and second centuries, declined to less than fifty thousand by the end of the sixth century. By the eleventh century it was only thirty thousand. In Britain urban life was completely swept away by the tribes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who were entering, conquering, and settling. Latin became extinct as a spoken language in Britain, and the Celtic peoples were assimilated or driven into the hills of Wales and Cornwall. Gaul was overrun by various tribes, among them the Franks, from whom the country acquired the name of France; urban life there collapsed as well. Spain and Portugal were overrun by the Goths.

      One result of the invasions was a steady shrinkage of Christendom. In the north, Britain was completely lost, any gains in Germany were eliminated, and even in France and Spain Christianity was imperiled. The invasion of the Bulgars and southern Slavs swept away Christianiy in parts of the Balkans; then the Magyars occupied Hungary, destroying Christianity there. But the worst blow to Christendom was undoubtedly the spread of Islam, which ultimately eliminated or drastically weakened Christianity in the eastern and southern half of the former Roman Empire. It would be hundreds of years before these losses were reversed, primarily through conversion of the Germanic and Slavic peoples north of the former Roman Empire to the Catholic and Orthodox faiths.

      As the roads became unsafe for commerce, the towns that survived had to be concentrated along waterways. But with the rise of Islam the Byzantine navy could no longer control pirates and maritime commerce ceased. In the north, the Vikings began their raids about 800, snuffing out whatever peaceful trade that had begun to develop along the North Sea and Atlantic Coast. Towns became the targets of organized looting by both Saracens and Vikings, causing urban life to shrink further. With it went the merchant and aristocratic classes, the theatres and libraries, most knowledge of reading and writing, and most familiarity with the accumulated wisdom of the ancient Mediterranean civilizations. With the virtually cessation of trade, life became purely local; food had to be raised locally and thus land became the principal source of wealth. Even coins largely disappeared from circulation and any trade that did occur had to be conducted by barter.

      The extent of the changes to Western European culture is measurable in many of the words that entered the Latin language or changed their meanings. Domus, Latin for house, disappeared from the Latin spoken in France, Italy, and the Iberian peninsula; in all those areas except France it was replaced by the word casa, which originally meant "cottage." The Latin word for city, civitas, was swept away in France and replaced by the word ville, from the Latin word villa; this suggests that most cities were destroyed, and settled life mostly survived around the villas of powerful noblemen. The Latin laborare, "to work," was replaced in French, Portuguese, and Spanish by a word from which we get travail, "strenuous exertion; toil; tribulation or agony; anguish." From Italy to the Atlantic, the Latin word bellum, "war," was replaced by words of German origin. Such changes bespeak of the decline of living standards and social order.

      In the rising tide of chaos one institution stood out as a source of hope: the church. Not only did the church come to represent the City of God and the hope for humanity's future, but it was blessed by many able leaders who were able to use the church's size and prestige to preserve what civilization remained. Bishops often were able to persuade barbarian chiefs not to sack their cities; in Rome, the Pope largely ran the city, organizing the collection and distribution of food and other essentials. Gregory the Great (c. 540 - 604) was the most distinguished example of leadership. Son of a Roman senator, in 590 he was force to abandon a monastic life of prayer when he was unanimously elected Pope. He used the church's estates in southern Italy and Sicily to grow food for Rome's poor. He appointed governors to run other Italian cities. He negotiated a peace treaty with the Lombards, a German tribe then occupying northern Italy. He sent missionaries to England to reestablish Christianity there (the German invasion had destroyed it two centuries earlier). He also help bring about the conversion of many barbarian tribes to Catholicism from Arianism, a rival form of Christianity based on the teachings of Arius. His efforts to missionize pagan areas of western Europe strengthened the claim of the bishop of Rome to primacy over the church in western Europe. This greatly fostered the development of the papacy.

      Monasteries also developed as the focal points of civilization. Celibacy as a tendency in Christianity can be traced back to the first century (I Cor. 7:1-9). First Timothy 5:3-16 (a letter attributed to Paul, though written in the early second century) speaks of an orders of widows, presumably the forerunner of nuns. In the late third century, Antony of Egypt (251-356) began to organize the Christian hermits living in the desert into a monastic community. Possibly gnosticism influenced the strong monastic tendency that developed in Egypt; indeed, the so called "gnostic gospels" found in southern Egypt in the 1940s are thought to represent the gnostic library of a ruined monastery nearby, which were probably buried as a result of an order that monasteries destroy all heretical works.

      Jerome was one of the earlier monks in the western Roman empire, having been a hermit in the Syrian desert for five years. Augustine established a monastery in North Africa. As Christianity went from a religion of a small, dedicated minority to the dominant form of religion in the Roman Empire the zeal of the majority of its followers declined somewhat, and monasticism provided a new outlet for zealous Christians to pursue a religious life different from their contemporaries. Thus its influence steadily grew in the fourth and fifth centuries.

      The collapse of the western empire also made monastic life increasing attractive. It provided some measure of safety, since few monasteries were destroyed. Because monasteries were usually self-sufficient, they had a reliable food supply, and the brothers or sisters took care of their own when they were sick or old. Celibacy meant that domestic responsibilities would not be a distraction. Learning was prized, so monks had the time to learn Latin and sometimes even Greek, to read and study—not just the Bible, but the old philosophical and literary classics—and to write. Under the circumstances of the times, what Mediterranean and Christian civilization that survived was mostly to be found in the monasteries. The monasteries also initiated educational programs to teach Christianity to the masses, which had been partially de-Christianized by the empire's collapse. The rural areas of the western Empire had never been completely Christianized anyway; the monks completed the job.

      Ironically, one of the great powerhouses of monasticism was Ireland. Because of its isolation Ireland never suffered barbarian invasions, until the Vikings in the tenth century. Christianity arrived in Ireland about 600 under Saint Patrick and quickly conquered the island. Irish Christianity was initially monastic; monks went into virgin territory, established a new monastery, and from it converted the population. Initially Ireland had no dioceses and parishes, just monasteries; the local abbot, not the local bishop, was powerful. Working with Rome, in the eighth and ninth centuries hundreds, if not thousands, of Irish monks spread out over Gaul, Germany, Switzerland, even northern Italy, founding monasteries. Usually thirteen monks traveled together to found a new monastery, in imitation of Christ and his twelve disciples.

      A significant figure in the development of monasticism in Europe was Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547), an Italian monk who acquired a reputation as a holy man and who consequently attracted many disciples. Benedict organized many monasteries, and the experience he acquired culminated in the rule of Saint Benedict, a document that sets the basic principles of monastic life. Such a life is dominated by unconditional obedience to God's will and to the exercise of humility; it views the abbot as central in a monk's spiritual development; and it advocates a daily life that balances worship, prayer, reading of scripture, and useful work. Benedict's rule was a synthesis of existing monastic practices with Benedict's own insights. Upon it a monastic order—the Benedictines—was founded. It was the first organized monastic order in the Catholic church.

      It is easy for Bahá'ís, aware of the Bahá'í prohibition of monasticism, to view the development of Christian monasticism with suspicion, but it is not clear that such suspicion is justified in the context of those times. Christ may not have created monasticism, but He did not forbid it either. In many ways, the creation of a clergy and a monastic lifestyle were positive developments in early Christianity. A clergy, with its sacramental powers, adapted Christianity to the folk religion of Greco-Roman culture; monasticism allowed the religion to develop and spread under the adverse social conditions after the collapse of the western Roman Empire. Convents provided women with their only opportunity to escape the burden of near-constant pregnancy, child rearing, and domestic drudgery and to learn to read. Monasteries provided one of the few opportunities for men to avoid constant work to support a family and to learn to read and write. Thus monasteries and clergy were effective responses to the needs of the day.

      The monastic spirituality that developed in the fourth and fifth centuries represented a refinement and extension of the spiritual life expected of a Christian layperson. That lifestyle started with baptism, which washed away one's original sin. Confession of sins before a priest engaged the church's power to forgive sins and allowed one to reduce one's time in purgatory (the church claimed no power over hell, however). Taking the sacraments were a means of obtaining God's grace and assisting in one's salvation. Confessing one's sins on one's death bed completed the cycle. However, if one wanted to be a good Christian, one became a monk; there was no definition of spirituality for the laity. A celibate, cloistered, ascetic, prayer-filled life was seen as superior and more "Christian" than the life of a married layperson, who was mired in domestic drudgery and tempted by sexual pleasure.

      By the late middle ages (1200-1500 C.E.) the redevelopment of an urban culture put this system of salvation under strain. The growing strength of the monarchies resulted in safer highways and sea routes. The Crusades re-established trade with the Middle East, brought new ideas to Europe, and created the conditions for a new prosperity. Towns became cities. A class of artisans (craftsmen) and merchants arose that had not existed for hundreds of years; this new "middle" class existed between the peasants and the nobility. A money economy spread for the first time since the fall of Rome. The new "middle" class wanted economic and political power and saw religion in a new way as well. They yearned for a less monastic spirituality; as a result the late middle ages saw the establishment of many lay religious orders that permitted marriage and worldly employment and that promoted a new style of popular mysticism. The artisans and merchants often disliked the idea that salvation was available through the mechanical process of attending mass and confessing sins, and sought a more direct link to God.

      The late Middle Ages also saw the founding of universities across Europe to teach Christianity and classical learning. Returning Crusaders and Jewish and Christian visitors from Islamic Spain brought books. Aristotle, totally ignored by classical Christianity, had become a central influence on Arabic philosophy and his assumptions had shaped Islamic theology. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Aristotle was introduced to western Europe in Latin translation from Arabic along with Avverhoes (Ibn-Rushd), Avicenna (Ibn-Síná), and Algazal (Al-Ghazálí), major Muslim philosophers and theologians. The translations were poor and the Islamic content suspect, generating confusion and heresy in many universities. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), who obtained a doctorate in Theology at the University of Paris, produced over fifty treatises in his short scholarly career, notably his Summa Theologica, where he reconciled Aristotelianism to Christianity, thereby producing a new formulation of the latter. Somewhat controversial in his own lifetime, Aquinas soon emerged as the primary theologian of the medieval Catholic church and remains a central voice in Catholic thought to this day. His Summa became the principal textbook of Catholic theology; six thousand commentaries have been written on his works.

      In the fifteenth century several major events changed European culture forever. The European conquest of the civilizations of Central and South America flooded Europe with unprecedented quantities of gold and silver, causing inflation but greatly expanding investment capital. Cities expanded even more. Movable type and the development of a process for making cheap paper revolutionized book production. From 1450 to 1500, six million books were printed—far more than monks and scribes had copied by hand in the previous thousand years. Individuals, especially those in the new "middle" class, could now purchase books. The development of a book market stimulated writing books in the vernacular languages; use of Latin began to decline. The expansion of the supply of books and the decrease in their cost fostered learning and expanded literacy. Newspapers pamphlets, and posters were produced in large numbers, the latter two extensively illustrated as a result of another invention: the woodcut, which created black and white illustrations.

      The growing powers of monarchies and the spread of vernacular publishing accelerated the creation of national cultures, weakening Europe's cultural and religious unity based on Latin and the church. The kings asserted the right to appoint bishops in their kingdoms, thereby claiming control over their national churches. Just as the "universal" church of the old Roman Empire faced a split as the Latin west developed a Christianity distinct from the Greek east, so now the Catholic church faced national tensions. Northern Europe—speaking Germanic languages, more recently Christianized, and more recently urbanized than the older Latin lands—developed cultural expressions and political institutions of its own as it developed economically and socially.

      The fifteenth century saw the Bible translated and printed in most of western Europe's major languages. For the first time in the history of Christianity it became available to large numbers of readers. As a result many Christians discovered that masses, confession, baptism of infants, and other central features of their religion were not mentioned in the Bible at all, and other features—like the trinity and priesthood—were only implied at best. The stage was set for a major reform of Christianity throughout Europe. It is no coincidence that the phrase sola scriptura—"only scripture"—was to become the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation.


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