Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Old Time Religion

I am taking a history of Christianity in the middle ages class:

“The truth is that there was a price to be paid for the Frankish experiment in creating a Christian social structure and culture. It gave to the western Church a wonderful sense of unity and coherence; it gave to western society great dynamism, which lies at the source of the European impact on the world. But it involved a degree of doctrinal, liturgical and, at bottom, cultural and racial intolerance, which made an ecumenical Church impossible. Unity in depth was bought at the expense of unity in breadth. The Christian penetration of every aspect of life in the West meant a highly organized, disciplined and particularist ecclesiastical structure, which could not afford to compromise with eastern deviations.” 
A History of Christianity, Paul Johnson, page 185

Johnson tosses off the point that the West had a dynamism that the East and other cultures didn't have because of this depth of integration. Is that why? Isn't this a weird kind of Western chauvinism? We dominated because of this integration which also made us intolerant jerks, but that is the price of empire. I am not sure if this is true. There were probably other reasons that we came out on top -- accidental reasons. 

If you have read Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs and Steel, you know that there were reasons having to do with geography that favored the broad temperate areas of Europe. If one is looking only at the history of religion, then one thinks it is running the show but perhaps it is just riding on top of other forces that are so integral that we don't see them.

If one looks at all the insanely stupid things that went on, coming out of the West (crusades anyone!), one has to think that we must had some advantage to maintain 'the West' during that time. I am just not sure it was the integration of church with society. In fact, history shows that the West really took off when society began to be dis- integrated. It was then that we dominated, not before when the Ottoman empire was the West's equal.

It is difficult reading the history of politics and the monastic orders, it's so horrific.  There are some alternative movements that ran through the history which give a little relief.   There were the Third Force people, who were reasonable reformers, and Millenarianists, nutty but populist.

In fact Johnson uses the Third Force as a wonderful writer's device.  He could have covered the Reformation and then the Counter Reformation and it would have read like a tennis match. By focusing a whole section on the Third Force you have a counterpoint to the warring.  They are like the narrator in the Great Gadsby, concerned but trying not to get burned as they watch the passionate people do their destructive thing; but also hoping it will turn out well against all the evidence. 

 I shared with my son some of the Sebastian Castellio's quotes “I have carefully examined what a heretic means and I cannot make it mean more than this; a heretic is a man with whom you disagree.” “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine; it is to kill a man.” “Who would not think that Christ a moloch, or some such God, if he wanted men to be immolated to him, and burned alive?”. (318) My son put them on his face book page.

As a Unitarian Universalist I feel that the history of my movement is in the Third Force people. This is a bit of a stretch but the Millenarianists are probably a part of our movement also, represented by the Universalist side of UU.  Forgive me Universalist ancestors, the Universalists were not concerned with the end of the world, or violent like the Millenarianists or even focused on a particular charismatic figure, but they were a populist movement. Like the Millenarianists they had their day and just petered out. Now our movement is known most for its Unitarian roots, because they left a body of writing through Emerson and the other Transcendentalists. At the turn of the century, and in the 20's there were millions of Universalists, but by the time they merged with the Unitarians in the 60's there was a remnant left.  They are both honorable traditions -- I am glad to have both of them backing me up.  If I seem a little nervous it's because the Middle Ages were an Age and neither the Third Force or the Millenarianists prevailed during that long stretch of time.

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