Medieval Unity and Humility

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If I were to choose a leitmotif for the early Middle Ages in England, it would most certainly be unity. The quest for unity is perhaps what most characterized its endeavors in the realms of ethics, aesthetics, religion, and academics. They approached all of these with the assumption that Christianity is the great reconciler of God and man, Christ being ‘the image of the invisible God” through whom and for whom “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.”[1] These Christians believed that through “the blood of his cross,” Christ brings peace, reconciling all things on heaven and earth.[2] In many ways, peace was scarce for them amidst the political and social upheavals after the fall of Rome. Disorder and fragmentation met them everywhere. It is remarkable (and heartening) that despite this, they persevered and eventually prevailed in bringing about stability and progress.

The medieval mind took for granted that the world was irreducibly complex. Yet they also believed that though order might not be readily discernable, it was there to be discovered. They had what G.K. Chesterton called a healthy mysticism in that if they saw “two truths that seemed to contradict each other, [they] would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them.”[3] The medieval Christian looked to first things to order their world, one of which is God’s goodness. Another was the confidence that God was indeed working in history and the natural world to restore it and reconcile it to himself. Taking these first things as starting points, along with a tremendous respect for the wisdom of the past, enabled them “to produce the greatest, most complex specimen of syncretism or harmonization which, perhaps, the world has ever known.”[4]

Most importantly, I get the impression that they were well aware that humanity’s progress was not inevitable. Another fundamental principle for them was mankind’s sinfulness, something we moderns have all but abandoned. “The monk is deeply aware of the fact that in himself and in others, that order has been disturbed, has been disrupted by the Fall, by original sin, and by the personal sin of each person,” remarked Father Basil, a monk whom Dreher interviewed for his book on the Benedict Option.[5] “The monk enters the monastery knowing that finding that order doesn’t come easily,” he continued, “You have to fight for it, to work for it, and you have to be patient to achieve it.”[6] Life was hard for medieval man and much of his energy was devoted to a recovery he did not get to fully enjoy. I can now see that the necessary seeds that bore the fruit of the Renaissance were planted during the Middle Ages, the medieval Christians laboring under the arduous task of stabilizing and nourishing the dry and recalcitrant soil in which they were placed. We have much to learn from their patient persistence today as we seek recovery and reunification in our own fragmented world.

Chesterton wrote that it is the sign of a healthy mind that can hold two seemingly contradictory truths together while resisting the urge to choose one over the other. At the heart of this healthiness is the virtue of humility and this is another striking characteristic or leitmotif of the early Middle Ages. Perhaps this came from living in the shadows of Roman ruins that spoke to them of a culture more advanced and more stable than their own. Whatever the reason, the medieval person was more generous with ideas from the past that did not immediately fit together. They were not as threatened as we are with data that refuse to be packaged away into neat little categories and –isms. The medieval view of the cosmos was large enough to allow for synthesis and integration across time, disciplines, and cultures while retaining the distinctiveness of Christianity. They approached synthesis with the humility of those that are grateful for the grace to get their heads into a seemingly infinite cosmos, knowing that the cosmos is too wonderful to fit into their heads.[7]

For the Christian apologist, as our culture moves into a time of darkness, we have much to learn from the humble, generous, and determined spirit of the medieval Christians. Though we are not beset on every side by barbarians, we are in a time of moral and intellectual chaos where the battle is fought not against raiding Vikings, but against fragments of virtue that bully the emotions but rarely cohere into a comprehensive and sustained argument. We are pummeled by “wild and wasted virtues” that have “swollen to madness in their isolation” from a single, unifying system.[8],[9] It is moral chaos – the power of which is best demonstrated by the disintegration of the one institution that has managed to survive since the beginning of history: marriage. Forces of fragmentation afflict our world on every side, perplexing stability at every turn, but we will not despair. It will take all of our reason and imagination (and energy!) to create order from these wild virtues and devouring vices. The work we do today may seem to have little success by worldly standards. Nevertheless, we can take heart that though the problems are different, the chaos is nothing new under the sun. The church survived at least one collapse of civilization, and by God’s grace, it will survive another.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” 2 Corinthians 4:7-12

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[1] Col 1:16-20, ESV.

[2] Ibid.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 23.

[4] Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 45.

[5] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, 56.

[6] Ibid.

[7] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 25.

[8]Ibid., 13.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955), 56.

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One thought on “Medieval Unity and Humility

  1. Pingback: The Lost Light of the “Dark Ages” | Along the Beam

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