Christian History – The Dark Ages and Flexibility

Since we covered Augustine last time (and he died near the fall of Rome), what’re we covering next? While there are a host of different figuress, authors, writers, and thinkers that existed
in the interim, we are jumping ahead quite a few years – nearly five hundred years. Why,you might ask? Well, the fall of the Western (not Eastern) Roman Empire has pretty vast consequences for the rest of the world. Rome was sacked in 410, and the last king was deposed by foreign tribes (of the Germanic variety) in 476, effectively ending the Western Empire.

This would begin what would become known as the Dark Ages, and for good reason – the light of reason, order, and stability had been snuffed out, and what was left in its place was nothing more than war, conflict, and anarchy, many times for no discernible reason, between various tribes, rulers, and kingdoms eeking out their claims. The normal person, as a result, was caught unwillingly in the turmoil. Whereas with Augustine’s time, we enjoyed a period of stability where people could enjoy life and make philosophical gestures, there was no such time in a war-torn world – the Church, in effect, was a beacon of hope, and had to act to its current audience of despairing persons asking: where is there meaning in this death?Or, at the least, this is what your secular education would tell you.

Rather, the Middle Ages (as I prefer to call them) functioned just like the period before – the collapse of the Roman Empire basically strengthened the grip of Christianity across the whole of Europe, causing a intellectual revitalization, improved standards of living, and academic foundations. Strange, no? We attribute this on Theology Gaming to the lack of a divide between the sacred and the secular as our current society contains; all ends worked to the glory of God. That’s not to say that conflict, disease and strife did not spread and happen often, but is this really much different then our current paradigm? I trust you look objectively at every third world nation and tell me otherwise (it’s no surprise, then, that Christianity spreads in Africa and Asia like wildfire).

Monasteries preserved and contributed huge libraries of learning; in fact, we know this because monks recorded this information (hence making them the only “educated” people from our Western societal standards). Great advances in science and learning resulted with the Church’s foundations of universities, which not only taught theology but everything else as well. Everything fit under it, of course, but the one common subject matter encompassed science, medicine (the Church let doctors dissect bodies, among other things that we thought they weren’t allowed to do), languages, rhetoric, and even mathematics. The common people had more free time (all those holidays and feasts of Saint x add up) and more luxury money than most do in the modern world (considering inflation!). Contact with Muslims caused a common exchange of intellectual ideas as well, before they became so aggressive with one another, and translations ensured that the writings of ancient times would be preserved for future generations. Clearly, they thought in the long run.

In any event, most people were not up to snuff for these universities; it required talent and time, not a big bank account. University education started earlier (age 13-16, in fact), and took around 4-7 years. A bachelor’s degree only existed as training for a master’s degree (it didn’t have any other purpose, really), and even then it would only qualify you as a professor in a university – there wasn’t a financial incentive for a college education, in other words, other than the joy of learning. In that case, most people didn’t bother with it and lived their lives as best they could given whatever place they had in life. Backbreaking farm labor, I suppose, although since everyone did it, it wasn’t seen as a negative or as a “lower class”. Some people were designed for ministry and education, and others for farm life; that’s the way they thought about it.

As a result, “theology” in the non-academic sense  came to mean education in the practical matters of daily life, rather than, say, whether or not the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were of one substance. They were the “boots on the ground”, trying to live the Christian life daily. Hence, monastic theology (as it is called) became the norm for much of the Dark Ages. As per the name, monastic theology only applied to monks and nuns (a bit later, but nonetheless important). Benedict contributed heavily to this movement, though his influence didn’t become widespread until the 800s, when his Rule of Benedict was found and implemented. Even the Emperor of the Carolingian Empire was impressed, and forced it upon most monastic orders (yes, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire could do that).

Heiligenkreuz.St._Benedict

What did this contain? It’s a document promoting mildness in human action, neither extreme emotions nor cold rationality. It was meant to cover a wider variety of different circumstances, and thus it speaks in generalities so that abbots and the like could apply it to their context.  This is something that any Christian, with slight dedication, could keep as the document covers a wide variety of subjects with a lack of rigidity. As monks and peasants at this time were considered to be in much the same boat, it wasn’t much of a jump. Like in Jesus’ time, everyone existed in the same class with slight difference between them. Human weakness and frailty, as seen vividly by all in their time, were emphasized, and standards for people in such times we realistic and compassionate.

If there is one essential part to the Rule, it is obedience. Monks were, for all intents and purposes, an “upper class”, they are meant to have submitted themselves to obedience to
God, rule, and abbot. This is supposed to engender humility, creating obedience from the heart. A few quotes from the actual text will probably help in making this clear:

Listen, my son, to the precepts of the master and incline the ear of your heart. Willingly receive and faithfully fulfill the admonition of your loving father. Thus by the labor of obedience you will return to him from whom you departed through the sloth of disobedience…If we want to escape the pains of hell and arrive at eternal life, then…we must hasten to do now what will profit us in eternity. Our aim therefore is to establish a school of the Lord’s service. In setting it up we hope to order nothing harsh or rigorous.

A monk submitted his life to God out of humbleness and obedience. He submits to the dictates of the abott as if he were God himself. This encourages the monk to become humble and obedience from the heart, without grumbling or reticence to the task. Not every person could do this in medieval society, simply because the circumstances did not allow it. However, by acting in this way out in the world (yes, they left the monastery to give clothing and food; they’re not as cloistered as you imagined), they could communicate this Christ-like nature to others through action. This is incredibly practical and down to earth with the education of the time, and makes a great deal more sense. It’s practical and it worked. They make disciples. I imagine that’s the part people miss about the Great Commission in Matthew 28:

 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Perhaps making obedient disciples IS what we’re missing nowadays? Apparently, they were much more successful when not under the spiritual anarchy we see today in the Western world. Every culture has its own faults, though, and I suppose we need to tackle it with the same fervor and dedication of the Middle Ages – perhaps without assumptions of elitism which we tend to find ourselves.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.

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