Note: This series is intended to be a pocket commentary on How Should We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer. If you’ve worked through the book or video sessions on your own or in a Classical Conversations Challenge II class, I welcome your comments and ideas below. This post covers the first part of Chapter 2, The Medieval World.
When Roman society collapsed, what do you think happened to culture in the Empire? If you guessed that it flatlined, you’re right.
Artistic technique? Gone, with realism reduced to symbols.
That elaborate music nobody could really understand? Silenced.
Education? Forgotten. In fact, if monks hadn’t snatched some treasures from the ruins, much of the learning and literature of the West until that time would have been lost to us forever.
Prior to the breakdown, Roman and early Christian art shared the vibrancy of the faith itself. Church leaders leaders like Ambrose of Milan and Augustine preached a solidly biblical Christianity. The art this tradition produced showed real people doing real things. But as Christianity changed, the art that resulted became fragmented—quite literally, since one major art form of the time was mosaics. These artists shared their faith in a way that nobody could possibly misunderstand, using symbols instead of realism to tell their stories. Many of these artists truly loved God and worked out this devotion through their art. But when they exchanged real life for mere symbols, they also traded away something precious.
At least cultural life still flourished in some form in the Eastern part of the Empire. In the West, monasteries became rare islands of knowledge. But even there, simple faith drifted into something else. The church structure grew and demanded obedience to its own rules and authority. Beliefs changed. Could man really be saved through faith in Christ alone? Surely this idea was too good to be true; people ought to work for it. And why couldn’t the church adopt a few good ideas from the local religions? This mixing of faiths (syncretism) continued for centuries, and little by little the church forgot where she had begun.
How did this affect the lives and thought of the people living during that time? Well, on the surface it looked like the whole world was devoutly Christian. After all, the lives of entire communities revolved around the church. But still these Christians struggled with how to be in the world but not of it. Too often they tried to solve this problem by dragging the world right down the church aisle. As a result, the church became a contradiction.
On the one hand you had the monks, most of whom lived very simply and spent their lives caring for the poor and sick. And on the other—within the same church—were the leaders who seemed to live only to plunder the same people the monks were trying to help, and who didn’t mind twisting Scripture to accomplish this. It became such an obvious problem that the church tried policing itself by making rules about money making and money lending. When they failed, the secular government (by then nearly one with the church) set up laws that outlawed hoarding and set fair prices. These strategies didn’t always work, but at least they were a public recognition of the problem and an attempt to do something about it.
But the organized church did excel in cultivating a spirit of excellence and beauty. As the centuries passed, church artists produced works of lasting loveliness. Some of these masterpieces decorated the Bible or other religious books. But the church wanted to inspire common people as well. If you needed to go to the hospital in Sienna, Italy, for example, in addition to receiving care for your body, you received care for your soul every time you looked at the elaborate artwork on the ceiling. This building stayed in constant use until1997, and although the new Sienna hospital is almost certainly more hygienic and efficient than the old, in the intervening years society forgotten a truth about the human condition, something our Middle Ages ancestors understood better than we do. Our spirits as well as our bodies are important, and should be nourished.
But as medieval society continued to build on a foundation that wasn’t entirely sturdy, cracks began to form. Can you feel the tremors? An earthquake is coming.
For the previous post, click here: http://anneephillips.com/2017/01/27/theres-no-place-like-rome-how-should-we-then-live-pt-3/
For the next post in the series, click here: