Friday, September 16, 2011

Durant's Retrospective

The biggest philosophical hurdle to belief in God is the problem of evil in the world. How can an almighty, all-loving God allow evil? C. S. Lewis wrote about the question in The Problem of Pain. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky's Ivan puts the question most poignantly as whether the harmony of existence is worth the sufferings of one little girl. Augustine and Aquinas partly answered the question by proposing evil as a privation, not as a positively existing thing (as darkness isn't an existing thing in itself, but rather the absence of light). So many beautiful, honest, scarred words devoted to this principle conundrum!

And yet practically speaking the existence of evil, pain, and suffering is not the greatest hurdle to belief. Many people turn to God only in times of great suffering. Ten years ago this month, churches started filling and stayed packed for several months. And, as they say, there are no atheists in foxholes. No, practically speaking the greatest hurdle to faith is the character of the Church. "The Church made me feel too much guilt." "What a bunch of hypocrites." "Why should I believe in a God who sanctioned the Crusades?" "Without the Church, we would have seen liberty, letters, and science grow in the Middle Ages, and we would never have had the Inquisition." These are the things I've heard most often from nonbelievers. The theologians wrestle with the existence of evil in the world, but the world is more concerned with evil in the theologians.

I once went on an Alaskan cruise coordinated by a certain famous television preacher. Hey, these things happen. When the side excursions went on sale, I walked to the bursar's desk to stand in line, only to find all the Christian saints pressed in a mob around the desk, each reaching out a hand in front of another's face, clutching a filled-in request ticket, and hoping the bursar would see that justice demanded him to assist anyone other than the person standing at the front of the "line." I was never more ashamed of the Church. What face of Christ did the bursar see in us that day?

I've reached a place in The Age of Faith where Durant has finished recounting events in the history of state and church and has moved on to matters of morals, manners, and art. And at this transition, he includes a section called "Retrospect" summarizing the legacy of the high Middle Ages, when the Roman Church held a good degree of political sway over western Europe. In a way, I could say that Durant shows us in this section what face of Christ he sees in medieval Christians, and the vision is alternately inspiring and sobering.

In a post from last year, I pointed out that Durant gave credit to medieval Christendom for the establishment of hospitals, courts of law, and universities, and for the preservation and application of ancient philosophy. In this "Retrospect" he acknowledges other contributions. The Church, he says, prevented several wars between Christian states, although she of course encouraged several others against Muslim states. She kept the kings of the emergent nations constantly aware that their desires should not be sovereign but should always conform to a higher authority. Western European courts were the most just of their time. The monasteries and nunneries offered education and charity to people of all classes and both genders, and the various orders of clergy offered to all men, without any regard to pedigree, careers with the possibility of advancement -- advancement even to the most powerful seat in all of Europe. The Church "stopped infanticide, lessened abortion, and . . . steadfastly rejected the double standard in sexual morality." In a passage that surprised me, Durant praises the Church for tolerating "diverse, even heretical, views" as long as they were confined to discussions between academics at the universities and never threatened to dismantle the social order. And he sees the medieval Church inspiring her people "to raise the noblest works of art in history." All in all, he says, the Church did "its best . . . to establish moral and social order, and to spread an uplifting and consoling faith, amid the wreckage of an old civilization and the passions of an adolescent society."

But the picture isn't all one of justice, charity, and understanding. There was all that wreckage and adolescence, after all. Durant finds the average Christian of the time an inveterate liar, although no worse than humans of other civilizations. He also finds the medieval people crude, violent, and sensual. "Apparently the fear of hell," he theorizes, "had less effect in raising the moral level than the fear of public opinion or the law has now." And he calls the Inquisition one of "the darkest blots on the record of mankind," worse than the Roman persecutions of Christians (after reading Eusebius, I might want to argue with that view) and topped only by the brutality of the twentieth century (no argument here).

Durant's final assessment of the medieval Church, though, is positive. He notes that under the Church of the 1200s, "Europe achieved for a century that international morality for which it prays and struggles today" and also that the public opinion and law which he sees (in the 1950s) as such successful upholders of social morality were formed largely by the Church. Bonhoeffer says that, if Jesus didn't choose a lovely human body for incarnation, we shouldn't be surprised He didn't choose a lovely corporate body for a church. Durant holds up a mirror for us, and just as with the image we see in the bathroom mirror, we can only change so much and mostly just have to deal with what we see. And we can thank God that our foolish blunders don't hinder his will. Jesus hung shamefully between two thieves, and still his action achieved its end. In the thirteenth century, Jesus' work continued amid and through and despite inveterate liars and lechers and torturers. So I guess Jesus' work won't be stopped by a few self-centered, impatient cruise-goers, either.

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