During the previous two years of my reading plan, I read in Will Durant's monumental medieval history, The Age of Faith, portions covering the Byzantine Empire, the beginnings and rise of Islam, and medieval Judaism. What a fascinating parade of characters, events, nations, structures, and ideas! Belisarius, Harun-al-Rashid, Avicenna, and the Jewish Exilarch should be common knowledge.
Yes, I know that last statement reveals a hopeless idealism. After looking at some of the entrance exams for our incoming graduate students this week, I'm forced to lament that the Reformation, the French Revolution, and Origin of Species should be common knowledge. Apparently they are not. But then the dark ignorance which twentieth-century American education has bequeathed to us all is the whole reason for this reading project. So let me say it again: these stories should be known, and since they aren't, at least now I know them.
This year, my assignment covered all the rise of organization that Chesterton referred to. (See my post entitled "Christmas in August" from August 11, 2010.) The passage includes chapters on the new beginnings of government in the northern countries, the conflicts between Pope and German Emperor and between Latin and Greek churches, feudalism, the Crusades, the economic revolution, late-medieval national governments all around Europe, and pre-Renaissance Italy.
I love every page. Durant has the historian's sense of story and concern for sources, but he has the poet's eye for the vivid moment. And while some historical writers get bogged down in strings of facts and forget to make a point, Durant never fails to provide a sweeping, picturesque summary point. A sampling: The creative, fiery temperament of the Irish survives partly because Rome never conquered the island and imposed its laws. The Popes' political recognition of the western Emperor (even when at odds) did more to sever the eastern and western churches than points of theology. The medieval men and women who, generation after generation, cleared forests, dug canals, and built dikes to tame the European wilderness were the greatest heroes of civilization. ("Perhaps, in proper perspective, this was the greatest campaign, the noblest victory, the most vital achievement of the Age of Faith.") The biggest result of the Crusades was the establishment of wealthy trade routes with the East that replaced European feudalism with a culture of commerce and industry. Russia provided costly protection for western Europe against the Mongols. ("Perhaps the rest of Europe could go forth toward political and mental freedom, toward wealth, luxury, and art, because for over two centuries Russia remained beaten, humbled, stagnant, and poor.")
Our culture, of course, is not wholly ignorant of this history. I hear periodic references to the Crusades, for instance, usually in service to an argument that Christianity, far from being the true way of life, is actually the source of all the ills of western history. Durant, not overlooking hospitals, courts of law, universities, and the preservation and application of ancient philosophy, has more sense. As someone who rejected Christian belief, he nevertheless maintained the very reasonable view expressed this way in his Caesar and Christ: "That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic, and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospel. After two centuries of Higher Criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ, remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature of the history of Western man." Christianity indeed looks pretty bad sometimes during the Middle Ages, yet Durant continues to respect its ideals and best possibilities as he understands them.
In speaking of Duke Wenceslas of Bohemia, he tells us, "He did not cease to be a Christian when he became a ruler. He fed and clothed the poor, protected orphans and widows, gave hospitality to strangers, and bought freedom for slaves." I was deeply struck by the criteria by which Durant recognized Wenceslas as a Christian. I know many Christians who attend and serve their local congregation faithfully. I know many Christians who believe every line of the Apostles' Creed. I know several Christians who can quote hundreds of Bible verses from memory. I know several Christians who work tirelessly among, for instance, high school and college students to make disciples. And I know a few very brave Christians who work to translate the Bible and bring the Word to traditionally non-Christian cultures around the world. I admire all these activities and trust that our Lord honors them all. But would Durant recognize them as Christians? Or would they just look like people with religious hobbies? Jesus said He will one day call people like Wenceslas sheep and place them at his right hand. Would that the American church looked like a thriving sheepfold to the Will Durants of this world.