The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society
October 4, 2012
THERE ARE ONLY so many ways of telling a story. Scan world literature and you discover a surprisingly small stock of narrative styles; narrow your search to historical writing and you find only a handful.
The oldest and most enduring is the chronicle. Chronicles all look something like theBayeux Tapestry, the eleventh-century embroidered scroll that visualizes the stream of events leading up to the Norman Conquest. As the scroll unfurls you see men fighting on ships, followed by men fighting on horseback, followed by men fighting with swords, with the occasional lord and castle thrown in for variety. This goes on for more than two hundred feet. Since chronicles try to be comprehensive, they are wonderfully messy documents—messy like the truth. They leave the impression that the outcomes of human action depend on choices the actors make in time, that they are weaving the tapestry as they go.
The Hebrew Bible belongs in this tradition. What makes the chronicle of the covenant so dramatic is that it follows the unpredictable encounter of divine and human freedom in all its emotional twists and turns. God chose Abraham, but would Abraham choose God? In the event, he did; but then Isaac had to choose whether to remain faithful to their covenant, as did Jacob and Esau, and so on down the line. The story that emerges is meaningful not because it exposes the irresistible work of providence, but because it doesn’t. It teaches that you must choose to be chosen.
Human beings should be content with such stories and the gods who come with them. But few of us are. Chronicles place the responsibility for history on our very small shoulders, which is a burden we would like to shirk. We want comfort. So from time immemorial we have fabricated myths to convince ourselves that we understand the underlying processes by which the world took on its present shape. Such myths begin with some remote historical Big Bang, after which life unfolds in a meaningful, if not precisely predictable, direction. It is a revealing psychological fact that the most common historical myths that early civilizations comforted themselves with were stories of fated decline, which give temporal reasons why life is so hard. We suffer because we live in an Age of Iron, far removed from our origins in the Age of Gold. It’s not our fault, and perhaps one day the gods will smile down and return us to the world we have lost. Pazienza.
Christianity turned its back on these ancient stories of fated decline. But it has never been able to escape historical mythmaking, despite the best efforts of theologians from Augustine to Karl Barth. The reason, as Hegel formulated it so well, is that Christian revelation is based on a unique divine incursion into the flow of historical time that altered but did not delegitimize an earlier divine-human relationship. Christianity therefore begs for a story that connects the historical periods created by this event: the age before the Incarnation, the age of the present saeculum, and the age to be inaugurated by Christ’s redemptive return. Eusebius of Caesarea, in the early fourth century C.E., was the first Christian thinker to have a serious go at this, and his progressive narrative shaped much subsequent Western thinking about history. In his account, God used one providential hand to “prepare the Gospel” by guiding Hebrew history from Abraham to Jesus; and with the other hand, He built Rome up from a small republic to a vast and powerful empire. With the conversion of Constantine to Christianity these two trajectories met, fusing divine truth with mundane power and inaugurating a new epoch of God’s kingdom on Earth. Against the pessimistic pagan myth of the World We Have Lost, Eusebius offered his optimistic Goodbye to All That.
Eusebianism is a theological trap, though. For the moment bad things start to happen, the myth, and the hopes attached to it, begin to crumble. Augustine saw this firsthand after the sack of Rome in 410. Despair was immediate and widespread among Roman Christians, who began to wonder whether they were being punished by the ancient pagan gods they had abandoned. To shore them up Augustine wrote the City of God, a bloated, disorganized, brilliant polemic that still stands as the greatest Christian work on history ever written. Augustine did more than refute his pagan adversaries, who blamed the Roman collapse on the effeminate corruptions of Christianity. He reoriented Christian thinking away from the flow of history and toward its eschatological end. We do not know why God allowed pagan Rome to flourish and then joined it with the Church, Augustine tells his readers; we never did and never will. Nor do we know why He allowed it to collapse. That’s God’s business. Ours is to preach the Gospel, be righteous, remain faithful, and serve Him. The rest is in His hands.
Though the City of God became a foundation stone of Catholic theology almost from the moment it appeared, the temptation of Eusebianism remained great—even for Augustine himself, who while writing his masterwork asked his disciple Orosius to write a History Against the Pagans, which demonstrated how life had in fact progressively improved since the advent of Christianity, just in case that argument, too, was needed. This tension—between Augustine’s image of the pilgrim Church just passing through and Eusebius’s image of the Church triumphant—was never resolved in the Catholic Middle Ages. And for a good reason: despite centuries of internal conflicts over papal authority and external conflicts with the Eastern Church and the Turks, the Roman Catholic Church did indeed seem triumphant…