Sunday, May 17, 2015

Interesting But Worth a Critique

The End of Ancient Christianity by Markus is an enlightening presentation of the Church from Augustine to Gregory I, about 400 to 600. This is the post Constantine period, one where Christianity was no longer persecuted and managed to begin its establishment of elements of control over the lives of most people. At the time of Augustine, say 400, there were clouds on the horizon but not to the extent of those that Gregory had to contend with. Markus argues that there was in the West a change from the secular to the sacred, namely changes from classic Roman control to controls influenced and dominated by the Church.

One of the dominant changes was the move of the capitol city from Rome to Constantinople, Byzantium, and the remnants of control in the west being limited presence in Ravenna. Augustine in Hippo knew the old Rome, while Gregory in Rome saw a totally new reality. Markus presents his interpretation of how this change occurred and what were its elements.

On p 15 the author commences building his presentation of secular and sacred. He states “No one really doubts that in ways such as these Western Europe was being drained of the “secular”…” This in some ways is contradicted by the facts. The Franks, namely the Merovinginians, albeit Christian in calling, were anything but sacred in their actions. Gregory of Tours recounts their blatant brutality and even the letters between Gregory and Brunhilda, the former Queen, lay out the clear continuation of Frankish ways. Moreover the preponderance of Salic law had supplanted Roman law and the Code of Justinian never really made its way to the West. Add to that the Lombards who were Arians, and a continual burden to Gregory. Spain and its Visigoths had a similar situation. Thus the statement made by the author in my opinion is contradicted by both the record and the facts.

On pp 16-17 the author provides an outline. Part I is a discussion of the post Constantine changes. Part II discusses the forces that the author contends led to the changes from secular to sacred. Part III considers the ascetic norms which became part of the way of life going forward.

Chapter 2 is a discussion of the structure of the Christians in the beginning of the 5th century. They had become communities, open and were using the martyrs and their relics as a nexus to their past.

Chapter 4 is a discussion of Pelagius and Augustine. The key to understanding Augustine is his theory of grace and it is predicated on Paul’s letters in Romans. Grace was given, and acts were less important than grace. Pelagius in a simplistic sense saw acts as important if not more so than grace. To this speculation Augustine responded with vitriol. On p 52 is an excellent interpretation of the development of Augustin and his battle on grace. He had sharpened his arguments on what he did with the Donatists. The Donatists position was that if you denied your faith you were not able to return to where you were when the cause for the denial was lifted. Augustine stated that once a priest always a priest and that if one recants one can return. This battle was the driver for sharpening the Augustine dialectic.

On p 55 is an interesting discussion on Augustine and the Pelagian view of sin. Namely the Pelagian view was that man could abstain from sin whereas Augustine saw man in a continually losing battle being saved only by grace. Further man never knew if God had given such grace.

Chapter 5 discusses the issue of; if grace is God’s, then what is the worth of man trying? (p 63) This is followed by the Timothy statements by Paul on free will and the possible conflicts with grace. Many of these complex ideas led to the ascetic life and the separation from society of the hermits. Whereas the martyr was the sine qua non of the pre-Constantine period, the monk the author alleges is that in the post-Constantine period (p 69). The author then discusses the details of the monastic life as it developed over this period.

Chapter 7 discusses the martyrs. In particular it focuses upon the cult of the martyrs. The Church calendar became a continually celebration of martyr after martyr. There was a culture brought to the faithful centered on one martyr after another. The martyrs were in the past but they became the nexus to the present. On pp 98-99 the author discusses this in detail The calendar went from social to sacred, from the celebration of pagan events to the remembrances of the dead. Ironically as the times went by the calendar became not only sacred by the day but even by the hour, a time for one prayer after another. Chapter 8 then is a discussion of how secular festivals could be incorporated. On p 111 there is the Augustine dictum of “abstain as far as you can from worthless spectacles”. Paganism slowly but then aggressively was persecuted. Chapter 9 is a discussion of the further Christianization of time. On p 131 there is a discussion of time being an element of the Christianization of all life.

Now the author contends that there is some universal acceptance of these principles across Western Europe. There does not seem to be evidence of this acceptance. Admittedly in Church controlled domains like monasteries and in Bishoprics, the religious times were practiced, yet as the population, in what would become France and even in Ireland, the people lived is ex-urban locations, and the monasteries were often segregated. England until Gregory I was even turning pagan. By the late 6th century the Irish monks like Columbanus had spread out across Gaul and down into Italy, such as at Bobbio, and their monasteries were open to all but distant from many. Thus it is questionable as to how universally acceptance and practice were.

In Chapter 10 there is a discussion of place. Christianity states the author abandoned place qua geography, and used place as worship. The discussion on pp 140-141 details some of this. The old Roman world was filled with holy places, albeit pagan. Christianity abandoned this, almost as a way to sever the tie to the old ways. On p 142 the author uses the martyrs as a bridge to the past during this period. It was a bridge that allowed them to connect the world of persecuted Christianity with the “new” world dominated now by Christianity. As he states on p 155 the places became locations of history and not holiness.

Chapters 11 and 12 discuss the isolation of the monasteries and the frontiers they created and then how these could be broken down. Chapter 13 adds the invasion of the ascetic into the daily lives.

Chapter 14 is a conclusion. It is here where I may have my greatest concerns. Here the author discusses Gregory I. Gregory was in a sense the last and in the sense the first of a generation of Bishops of Rome. Elected by the people, he looked westward. He befriended the Merovingians, especially the brutal Brunhilda. One must wonder how that was managed and as one reads his letters they are letters from a Bishop at once a religious leader and at once a true politician. He wanted to keep the Merovingians in the Church, albeit a brutal people. He managed the wife of the Lombard king, who eventually managed peace with the Lombards and Rome. He managed people in his lands, and he used some of the best of Roman management style to survive. At the same time he was the Bishop of Rome who truly severed the tie to Byzantium. On pp 224-225 the author commences on this discourse.

The last sentence of the book (p 228):

“The massive secularity of John Chrysostom’s and Augustine’s world had drained out of Gregory’s. There was little room for the secular in it. The Devil was close, always ready to swallow up the world and the flesh.”

I find this difficult to agree with. In reading Gregory‘s letters, and there are many, one sees a man who balances the secular with the sacred. On the one hand he can write of Job and how to preach and on the other how to govern and how to handle complex situations. In the correspondence with Columbanus one sees a set of discussions on such issues as the true date of Easter but one sees an Irish monk, never dominated by Rome, and the Bishop of Rome respectfully but aggressively making their points. He was a politician and a political leader. He managed to keep invaders at arm’s length, discuss politics with barely civilized kings and queens and also managed to fear the people of Rome. Whether it is Gregory of Tours or Gregory of Rome, the devil often seemed a distant concern.  

It could be argued that the Middle Ages in the West is the period from Gregory I to Ockham (400-1350). It was a period of Church dominance, sacred and secular. Gregory became the first Bishop of Rome to both sever the ties to Byzantium and at the same time establish political parallelisms with the emerging rulers of the developing nations. Ockham represents the first major denial of papal secular authority. Marsilius also parallels that effort but in many ways it is Ockham that introduces the individual, via both nominalism, as well as his papal analyses. In fact the very move from Rome to Avignon was a break from what the Bishop of Rome was to be, in Rome, not Avignon.

The author indicated he was starting with a biography of Gregory. That would be a worthy task by a highly worthy writer.

Overall this book is exceptionally well written and the author makes his arguments forcefully. I would strongly recommend this to anyone trying to understand this critical period not only in the history of the Church but the history of the West.