Chapter 4 - No One Was Enlightened by the Enlightenment
How we tell history shapes our future.What sort of story do you tell about yourself? Whatever it is, it probably shapes the job, spouse, hobbies, and friends that you have pursued.The story you tell about yourself shapes who you are. And so it goes with the telling of history. Let's take religion as an example. How do we tell the history of Christianity? Many modern Christians dismiss this question. Just preach the gospel they say. I think this is an act of religious suicide. If you let anti-Christians tell the story of Christianity, it goes like this:
'Ancient Greece and Rome built the foundation for progress. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle created the first hints of the scientific pursuit that built both of those great civilizations. Technology and social order grew and expanded. Until Christianity came about. Almost immediately, things went down hill from there: witch burnings, superstition, war, antisemitism and a distinct lack of bathing. And only after people started questioning Christianity did the Enlightenment begin. This ushered in the Scientific Revolution. Democracy. The end of slavery. The civil rights movement. Globalization. And finally rights for LGBT. Christianity was a huge dark spot in human history but now it is thankfully fading from the world scene.'
If this history is believed, what does someone think when you approach them with the gospel? Are they receptive? Do they wait to hear what you have to say? No. 'Just preaching the gospel,' becomes an almost impossible task and few if any will have anything to do with you.
But consider this. The history told above is a complete lie. Almost every word.The emperor has no clothes. Ancient Rome and Greece did not set the stage for the rise of science and their societies were filled with oppression, slavery, widespread infanticide, and war. When Christianity came on the scene, things started to get better almost immediately. Infanticide was made illegal. The gladiator games were abolished. Slavery faded from the European landscape. Hospitals were founded. Orphanages took care of the bands of orphans that had previously plagued major cities. The church protected the poor and provided a check on the rich and powerful. Scholars now reject the term, 'Dark Ages,' because it has become very obvious that this era was actually one of amazing growth in knowledge and academic pursuits. The early scientists were not Enlightenment skeptics of religion but were instead were mostly very devout Christians. Christians led the way in ending slavery a second time when it popped back up in the New World (see chapter 1). Christians led the way on the Civil Rights movement. And far from shrinking from the world scene, Christianity continues to grow both in the United States and globally. Far from being a dark spot in human history, Christianity has shed light on a dark world and continues to do so.
A parallel to the story of Christianity is the story of Western Civilization. Is Western Civilization a history of stealing ideas from the Chinese, land from the Africans and Native Americans, and generally oppressing the world? Or is ours a unique civilization that was the first to end slavery, the first to introduce republican democracy, and the first to establish the concept of universal human rights? How you answer this will probably affect how you view concepts such as multiculturalism, religion, and immigration.
This story matters. It matters for a number of reasons. One obvious reason is that many, believing the Enlightenment-is-the-turning-point myth, are convinced that science, education, and reason are the solutions to the problems with the world and religion (and Christianity in particular) are the primary problems with the world. More science less religion is the solution to almost every societal problem. But if this is a myth this "solution" has the potential of undermining the foundation for all that is good and free in society.
The stories we tell about ourselves matter. History matters. And the people we have put in charge of our history departments are overwhelmingly liberal, socialist, and anti-Western in ideology. History is war. And we have given control of the guns to the enemy. And so we must take back control. We must research, retell and correct the historical record. Winston Churchill once wrote, "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." Every person that loves God and country should take this as a personal battle cry. Everyone should become historians of the truth. We need to tell the truth about the history of the church, the history of our culture, and the history of our nation.
The turning point of modern history has been told wrong. The world did not change with Isaac Newton or Voltaire. The turning point came much earlier. It was when the tomb of a young man, executed for insurrection by a Roman governor, was found empty that the world changed. Jesus of Nazareth had taught for about three years in the Roman controlled nation of Israel. He taught a unique message of caring for the poor, valuing the widow and the orphan, acknowledging the humanity of the stranger, forgiving your enemies, and living according to the codes of the God of Israel. He stated that the Kingdom of God was near and that all who followed him would join this Kingdom. This Kingdom, he said, would grow like a mustard seed (very small) into a giant tree where the birds of the air could nest. And this prophetic statement certainly came true. Jesus died and rose again in about 34 AD. By the end of the first century, the followers of Jesus had grown from a handful to thousands scattered throughout the Roman Empire. By the end of the second century, Christianity was making a major stir. By the beginning of the fourth century, the Emperor of Rome himself was bowing down to the King of Israel.
The effects that Jesus' teaching had on the world were breathtaking. Ancient Rome was a brutal place. Widespread slavery. Widespread infanticide. Gladiator games were the national pastime. Gangs of orphans roamed the streets. There was no social safety net for the poor. Fertility had sagged thanks to the use of prostitutes, abortion, leather condoms, the preference for homosexual sex and pederasty. War was a constant. Emperors had no check on their power. The rights of the people were almost nonexistent.
The "rule of King Jesus" immediately started to make things better. Some of the earliest changes (as mentioned in chapters 1 and 2) were the ending of sexual slavery. Orphanages were built to help with the many homeless children. The first welfare system was established by the bishops. A giant change was the attitude toward babies and family. Abortion and infanticide were eschewed by Christians. Sex outside of marriage was rejected. This created what we now call the nuclear family with a mom, dad, and a large family living together.
The Middle Ages are Not the Dark Ages
As mentioned above, most historians have dropped the "Dark Ages" label from the era between the fall of Rome and the Enlightenment. The phrase was always propaganda and the more we learn about the middle ages the more we realize how wrong it was. Europe during this period was not utopia but many wonderful things happened.
First, scientific progress did not stop or falter. The opposite is true. Schools developed, the university system was established, and the scientific process was first established during this period. People were not dumb either. Despite common perceptions that people all thought the earth was flat, few did. Monks developed massive libraries and saved many ancient writings from being lost to time. Technologies were developed for farms and military that far surpassed other cultures. It is notable that during the crusades, the Christians were able to travel thousands of miles to beat the Muslims on their own land. Medicine made progress as well with the first forays into surgery with even some initial understanding of antiseptics.
Second, the idea that everyone stunk and were afraid of baths is also a myth. Communal baths were widely used, hand washing was common before meals, and soap was in demand. For most of the middle ages, people would have been relatively clean compared to other cultures and not the filth covered caricatures of popular perception. It was only with the horror of the Black Plague that brought this stereotype to us. It is hard for us to imagine the impact of a plague that killed 1/3 of the population but people do crazy stuff when that happens. And one of the desperate measures was to avoid communal bathes. But this really did not happen until the end of the middle ages (14th century).
Third, life was not nasty, brutish, and short. Despite the idea that everyone died in their 20s back then, the truth is that the experience of the typical Medieval European was better than the typical experience in almost any other culture of the same era. Short average lifespans were mostly due to the high rates of infant mortality. But for people that survived beyond early childhood, it was quite common to live into your 60s or 70s. And that life was more free and enjoyable than it would be if you had been born in another region of the world. Slavery was almost completely absent. The typical work day was about eight hours. People got Sundays and other church holidays off work. Wars were less frequent and on a smaller scale than in other societies. Things were certainly not perfect but hardly the horror we typically imagine and pretty good in relation to other cultures of the time.
But what about the crusades? The crusades are often misunderstood. From the 7th century through the 11th century (the time of the First Crusade), Muslims had swept through Christian country after Christian country. They had defeated all of Northern Africa and some of the oldest and most established Christian countries. Once they took control they enslaved and abused the Christian population. For centuries they had been threatening Europe. In the 8th century, they conquered Spain. In the 9-10th centuries they defeated large parts of Italy. By the 11th century, many of these threats to Western Europe had subsided but they continued to threaten the East. Constantinople was in constant danger. And the Christian minority throughout the Islamic territories were constantly abused.
Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos wrote to Pope Urban II in 1095 asking for aid against the invading Turks. This sparked a call to arms by the Pope and the beginning of the First Crusade. The cause was just and understandable. The crusades themselves were fought, for the time, with relative justice but there were certainly atrocities and horrors. But these were only horrors by Christian standards. For other cultures, sacking a city or massacring a group were not considered wrong. But when the crusaders did it, they brought shame to their Christian cause. These moments, while memorable, did not define the crusades and in comparison to the Muslim invasions of Christian lands (or for that matter, any invasion by any ancient people), the Christian crusades were remarkably atrocity free. When atrocities did happen, the pope apologized - something no other conquering leader of the time would have done. Rodney Stark sums up the truth of the crusades in the following way, “The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God's battalions.”
How Christianity Checked the Power of Emperors
For most of history, kings ruled with few checks on their personal behavior. If you had the power of the sword, you had absolute power. But as Christianity became the majority religion in the Roman Empire, Christian bishops provided unprecedented checks on the power of the secular rulers. There are many examples of bishops calling Emperors to accountability. One great example is when Ambrose of Milan confronted Theodosius the Great regarding the brutal and deadly manner he put down an uprising. Ambrose wrote to him,
'What has been done at Thessalonica is unparalled in the memory of man...You are human, and temptation has overtaken you. Overcome it. I counsel, I beseech, I implore you to penance. You, who have so often been merciful and pardoned the guilty, have now caused many innocents to perish...'
The Roman Emperor, once a person that no one could question let along admonish, was forced by Ambrose to do penance publicly wearing sackcloth outside a church door begging those who entered to pray for him. This was a remarkable example of the church limiting power that once had no limit. But it certainly is not the only time.
Another powerful example takes place many years later. In the
late 10th century, Otto III was the "Holy Roman Emperor". He appointed his
cousin, Bruno of Carinthia to be Pope. At age 24, Bruno took the title
of Pope Gregory V. The only problem was that Gregory had a rival pope to
deal with. Roman aristocrats, against Otto's wishes, had appointed John
XVI as pope. Otto, furious, stormed Rome, drove out and killed the
villainous aristocrats and then troops pursued and captured this
'anti-pope'. His troops cut off John's nose and ears, cut out his
tongue, broke his fingers and blinded him. They degraded him before Otto
III and Gregory V forcing to ride through the streets of Rome seated
backwards on a donkey as crowds jeered and threw stuff at him.
But the Rule of King Jesus, even when the Pope in the king's pocket, would not tolerate such behavior. All Christians understood that we are not to do so cruelly to anyone even our enemies. Nilus the Younger, an old monk in Rome, went up to the Pope and the Emperor. He was unarmed and aged. But nevertheless he reproached Gregory and the Emperor for this crime. He pointed to Jesus and his forgiveness of his enemies and willingness to forgive even the worst of enemies. Nilus prophesied that "the curse of heaven sooner or later would affect their cruel hearts". No power under heaven could have forced the king to repent but the words of Christ coming from an ancient monk did. The king was broken. When his cousin died, the King saw this as a sign that his sins were destroying him. He went to Nilus on his knees and begged him to remove the curse.
With Christianity, suddenly kings and princes simply had less power. We take it for granted today that leaders are under the law and that they cannot just do as they please but to a great extent, it is Christianity that made this assumption so ubiquitous.
Christianity also puts a check on democracies. We cannot exchange a corrupt king for a corrupt public or some of the same terrors (or worse as we saw in revolutionary France) can happen from the mob than can happen from a king. Democracy helps check the tendencies of
the single unjust ruler but it does not fix the tendencies of an unjust
society. It is possible for a democracy to do great harm to minorities.
Get 51% to support some evil and that evil will be done. In some ways,
when democracies go bad they are worse than when monarchies go bad. At
least with a monarchy going bad you can always wait for the bad king to
die. Public opinion is not so centralized.
But in the history of Western Civilization you see a progressive growth of protection of the stranger, the minority, the disabled, the weak, and the forgotten. Christianity then not only offered a counterbalance to kings but also a counterbalance to the general public. In 1776 when Jefferson wrote that famous line, "all men are created equal," no one laughed. If those words had been written in 34AD everyone would have laughed. The 1740 years that passed between the crucifixion of Christ and the writing of the declaration of Independence had seen the teachings of Jesus spread like yeast throughout the world. The twenty-seven books of the New Testament along with the Hebrew bible grew to be a huge sticking point to anyone that would to abuse and kill. These words forced people to realize God wanted us to love our neighbors AND our enemies (GK Chesterton once noted that often those are the same people). They forced people to realize that the weak, the slave, the outsider, the widow, the orphan and the minority were as great in God's eyes as the most powerful king.
It is worth reminding everyone that white people had all the power when Jim Crow laws were repealed. Why would whites give up this power? Like Nilus, Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to the scriptures and pricked the hearts of the majority. In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote, "How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law." His words are clear. Moral laws are not established by men but by God. And, his argument followed, what you are doing is not consistent with the bible.
This explains chapters 1 and 2 and why the state of the weak members of society were so much improved in the Christian West. And it explains why societies that explicitly reject Jesus like the Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany so dangerous. Lacking any trust or fear in the unchangeable law of God, torturing enemies is no longer taboo. As long as a king can justify it to himself, no force on earth can stop him. And not just kings. As long a society can justify abusing a minority, no power on earth can stop them.
These horrors are seen clearly in societies that intentionally reject Christianity and her morals such as Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Revolutionary France. It is worth noting that all three were not opposed to the Enlightenment or science. Instead, they were known for their scientific and philosophical efforts. The French were known for their influential philosophy. The Nazi's had some of the world's greatest rocket scientists. The Soviets were the first in space. If there
is no other sign that the turning point of history was not the
Enlightenment but the resurrection it is found here. No, it was their rejection of Christian ethics that made them so bad not their rejection of the Enlightenment.
We live in a society that has been sold the myth that science and reason can give us morals. We live in a society that thinks that history turned when Newton came on the scene. We live in a society that has been fed Enlightenment propaganda for centuries. But standing outside our culture and looking back at the broad span of history we can see that this emperor too... has no clothes.
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell has a beautiful overview of the work of André Trocme and the French Huguenots
A great biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is by Eric Metaxas simply titled, Bonhoeffer
Rage Against God by Peter Hitchens has a powerful description of the Soviet oppression of Christians.
Through the Eye of the Needle by Peter Brown talks about how Christians formed the first social safety nets.
Rodney Starks, God's Battalions, is an excellent defense of the crusades.