The modem world is secularized: everyone takes that for granted now. We are supposedly in the third (positivist or scientific) age of Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte. Religious society indeed existed once upon a time, but we have left those primitive forms behind. Religions are old, ruptured cocoons, fit only to be studied by antiquarians; they cannot support or manifest life, for the butterfly has left the chrysalis. Man and his world have developed into mature insects and have nothing left to do but reproduce themselves and die.
But is it really possible to reconstruct the social evolution of man by taking religious society or religion generally as the starting point? The conventional wisdom again says Yes: all early societies were religious!
Yet no thinking person will really regard “religion” (a rather grabbag word) and religious societies as simple curiosities and toss them aside as though there were only one way to explain the historical development of mankind.
If we really want to understand in any degree our present situation, we must try to understand better the situation out of which we emerged and which we reject. This approach means that we will not be dealing with the kind of religious society to be found in ancient Greece or the Egypt of the Old Kingdom or among the Polynesians or the Bantus (to take four different types of religion and of correlation between religion and society). We will be dealing, rather, with the specific kind of society that emerged from Christianity and was called Christendom. Modern society is not to be understood in relation to just any religious society whatever, nor is it to be taken simply as the opposite of religious society in the abstract. No, it emerged from a specific society that thought of itself as Christian, and is to be understood in relation to it.
There is no point, then, in talking about an abstract, general relationship between “religion” and “society.” The important thing is to focus our attention on Christendom as a specific type of religious society that is not identical with any other. In other words, if we are accurately to understand our own situation, we must reflect on what Christendom was; only then can we interpret our own “areligious” condition.
Chapter 1: Christendom
Even before attempting to give a positive description of Christendom, we must emphasize one great difference between it and almost all other religious societies. We think of religious societies as a primitive phenomenon; that is, no matter how far back we go and no matter how early the social forms and the religious expressions, the two are always found united to each other. It seems to have been that way from the very beginning: socio-economic structures and religions developed together and in dependence on each other, so much so that we cannot distinguish what is proper to each. Christianity, on the other hand, is not as old as the society within which it developed, and evidently that society did not develop out of Christianity. Instead, the society had already reached its full development in every area of culture when the new religion entered into it and reshaped it.
I know of but one comparable case: Islam. Islam, however, was brought to bear on much less developed peoples and on societies that were still chiefly tribal. Nor was there the same rupture between Islam and the bedouin tribes in which it arose as between Christianity and the empire.
The great difference, therefore, between Christianity and almost all religious societies has two causes. On the one hand, in the religious societies there was a kind of connaturality between religion and the socio-political institution, whereas Christianity would be opposed, at the practical level, to everything that Romano-Hellenistic society stood for.
Second, there is the volitional character of the relationship between Christianity and society. In the religious societies the union of institutions, lifestyles, and religion was spontaneous. Religion was just as much a part of everyday life as table manners or the training of children (and indeed these were controlled by religion). The sacredness of the king’s person was not maintained on doctrinal grounds; it was taken as self-evident, for it was a direct manifestation of the collective consciousness.
Christianity, on the contrary, consciously and deliberately produced Christendom as an embodiment of Christian thought. Christendom was to be an attempt to translate Christian doctrine into concrete, experiential, institutional forms. Just as the individual’s behavior was to be a deliberate, controlled expression of his faith in Christ, so the reconstruction of the state, the economic order, and social relationships would be an embodiment of Christian thought and reflect an interpretation of the Bible.
Christendom was not a religious society in the sense that it was a translation into social forms of religious feeling that had always been present in man. On the contrary, Christendom was the result of a: conscious, deliberate process. How was society to be made Christian? Or: how was Christian faith to permeate every area of life, public as well as private? After all, the God of Jesus Christ was the God of all reality; everything belonged to him, including the economic and social orders. This relationship should be rendered visible, especially since the life of man too is a single whole and should not be divided into unrelated parts.
We moderns have a very false idea of what Christians believed in the third or the eleventh centuries. We are used to reading that the Greeks separated body and soul and that the Christians followed suit; we find the theologians constantly repeating the same texts about contempt for the body and the need for asceticism; we know that since the eighteenth century the bourgeoisie have turned Christianity into a disembodied wraith. Therefore we are convinced that this is how the Christians of every period lived and thought, right down to our day. Then we lucky people came along and, after two thousand years of error, rediscovered authentic Christianity and early Jewish thought. Here is ignorance indeed! And what monstrous presumption it has tricked us into!
Some theologians may well have maintained the views described, but those views were neither widespread and generally accepted nor did they form an unbroken tradition. If all Christians had thought this way, Christendom would never have come into existence. The Cathars and Spirituals indeed professed such a theology and they drew the logical conclusions for their behavior: we must take seriously the separation of soul and body, we must reject the world in a fully real way, and we must look for the end of this world in the very near future. And the ending did not have to come simply from God; man could bring it about. The revolts of Thomas Munzer and John of Leiden were intended to lead to the kingdom of God which is no longer of this world. In like fashion, the Cathar prohibition against having children was to lead to the rapid elimination of the human race.
But such was not the general trend of Christian thought. On the contrary, Christians had to continue living in a society and a world which they were to bring to God and make conformable to his will. There was union, not opposition, between soul and body, church and society, but the body was to obey the soul and society was to be permeated and shaped by Christian thought, volition, and holiness.
What Christians were really trying to elaborate, as they gradually created Christendom, was a social morality. They were more serious about it than we are today, because they courageously set about applying their moral principles and effectively modifying structures in the light of what they considered to be the true and the good. And they succeeded. If we read the moral treatises of the third to the fifteenth centuries, we find that they raised all the questions, confronted all the difficulties, and tried almost all the solutions we today conceitedly believe we were the first to think of. Naturally, they did all this in the language of their time and in relation to the structures and cultures of their society. Our first task, therefore, is to try to grasp what Christendom was. Only then can we ask to what extent it was genuinely grounded in the Christian faith.
The intention, therefore, was to shape the whole of society in the light of “Christian truth.” It would be childish, then, to focus our attention solely on the primacy given the church’s authority or the subordination of the temporal power to the spiritual. These were indeed parts of the total picture, but they were secondary parts, even though they catch our attention. The first really important fact to be considered is that, like it or not, Christianity found itself the heir to a whole infinitely complex and rich culture.
What was it to do with that culture? It had no plan ready to hand. Consequently, when the educated elites, the politicians, the administrators, the professors, the philosophers, and the businessmen became converts and sought to take Christianity seriously, what was to be done with them? Were they to be told that faith in Christ meant the abandonment of politics, philosophy, and all these other things (the spiritualism we mentioned above)? Were they to be given a personal moral code to guide them in the exercise of these various activities? Or were they to tackle the problem head on and try to transform the culture in a radical way (and not simply at the level of moral motivation), so as to integrate it into Christianity? Christianity, after all, was an all-embracing creed and should transform reality as a whole!
Moreover, Christians found themselves members of the first society to be conscious that the “social system” was created by man himself. That is, it was the first society in which the social system and all its forces (the economy, etc.) were not considered to be simply the product of spontaneity, tradition, and metaphysical laws. They were considered, rather, to be the product of deliberate thought and organization and of the conviction that men could shape institutions according to reason so that these could express man’s free decisions and choices and not be determined solely by inherited custom. We cannot overestimate the importance of the new force which the Greeks and Romans thus introduced into human affairs.
Not only was the social system conceived as a human product. It was also for the first time regarded as a system. In other words, it was not the product of individual wills and the lives of obscure men, but the result of a combination of mechanisms, organizations, and institutions. Consequently, if the God of Jesus Christ was indeed the God of all creation, his presence must be perceptible not only in the individual conscience but in social structures as well-all social structures without exception. This attitude was the basis for assimilation and integration. Since Christianity found itself heir to Greco-Roman culture, it was in a position to effect such an integration.
As a result – and this is a first essential aspect of ChristendomChristianity assimilated all the religiosity and magic that was part of the culture. We have often ridiculed the Christians of that period for “baptizing” pagan gods and pagan institutions and thinking that nothing more was needed, that such a step would easily win over the pagan peoples.
It is clear enough that the local presiding Genius (or spirit of a place) was converted, in many places, into a Saint Genis or Genesius, and the goddess Birgitta into a Saint Bridget. That is common knowledge. So too, when the emperor became a Christian, the rites of emperor worship were Christianized and prostration before him was given a new meaning on the basis of the idea that the emperor was God’s representative on earth. Christian panegyrists of the fourth century took over the addresses of their pagan predecessors in the third century, changing only the theological vocabulary. At a later period, the Scandinavian and Germanic pagan brotherhoods were taken over, adapted, and transformed into the Christian brotherhoods. The ceremonies of knighthood came from two quite distinct sources: one part-the dubbing-was purely pagan and Germanic; the other-vigil under arms, prayer, Holy Communion-was a Christian addition.
But, to begin with, we must not think that this process of “Christianizing,” which seems to us so useless, simplistic, and superficial, was taken for granted. On the contrary, it often excited violent opposition. There was no quiet, smooth passage from the pagan form to the Christian form. Thus when the pagan brotherhoods were being transformed into Christian, the bishops sharply opposed the rites involving blood and beer. The result was an ongoing conflict between the brotherhoods whose communion rite took the form of the Eucharist, and the brotherhoods which claimed to be no less Christian but had kept the old pagan ceremonies while turning them into a simple feast. The latter were the “unofficial brotherhoods” of the day. And this conflict lasted for six centuries
Furthermore, it is simplistic to say that the assimilation and Christianizing of the pagan religious past was just a mistake or that in doing it people were taking the easy way out. The real question in men’s minds was: is Jesus Christ the Lord of history or is he not? We think the idea of Jesus as Lord of history is a modern discovery, but in fact the idea was a commonplace at the beginning of the Middle Ages. If he is Lord of all history, then he is Lord even of that history that unfolded before his coming. Moreover, all of human history had been moving toward him; all history had been a preparation for the Incarnation, just as all subsequent history was to be a manifestation of the Incarnation. All of history; not just the history of the Jews. History is not divided into sacred and profane, for it was the very history of the human race that contained the promise of Christ and manifested the action of God.
The men of the High Middle Ages were deeply convinced of all this. But they went a step further: the history of mankind had always been full of religious creations, for it represented mankind’s immense striving toward a God. How then could this aspect of man’s history be excluded from the great movement toward the Messiah? Christians were thus led to discover in the pagan religions authentic ancestors of and witnesses to Christ: Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue and the Cumean Sibyl had clearly prophesied concerning Jesus. And how many forms, rites, and legends there were that seemed to fit in neatly with Christian piety and Christian thought. If philosophy could be deliberately used as a framework for expressing Christian thought, then the pagan religions too had their contribution to make. They were reinterpreted in the light of Christian universalism.
Here then is a first aspect of Christendom: when Christianity assimilated all the sacral, religious, and magical elements in the ancient societies within which it developed, this was not an act of weakness or imperialism but the logical consequence of a principle. It is easy enough to criticize the decision and tpe tendency as based on a deadly confusion, which everyone denounces today, between revelation or Christian faith and religion. But I am not at all sure that these virtuous condemnations are marked by intellectual honesty. I am waiting for someone to explain to me how Christianity could survive while excluding everything “religious.” When the kingdom failed to appear at the end of the first generation, Christianity either had to break down into spontaneous, short-lived little groups and eventually disappear or it had to organize for survival, and once it did this, the “religious” had to come into the picture. Then the challenge had to be faced: the kingdom did not come and transform the world in “the twinkling of an eye”; was this whole immense world that God had created to be left therefore in paganism? No: it must be Christianized; the world must be freed from the power of darkness and made to serve the kingdom.
This enterprise soon proved to have certain consequences. To begin with, in such a vast undertaking it was impossible to rely on the individualized faith of Christians. Not every member of Christendom could be a convinced believer who had had an experience of the Lord Jesus Christ and undergone a conversion or passed through a long process of spiritual growth. A dedicated faith and a corresponding lifestyle could not be taken for granted.
As a result of this situation two things became characteristic of Christendom. First, a person became a member of it by means of outward symbols (for example, baptism) and because of the supposition that everyone who lived within the boundaries of Christendom should be a Christian. Because they served this purpose the sacraments were interpreted realistically, that is, as having an objective efficacy inherent in them (opus operatum). Second, as far as faith was concerned, the Christian became part of a huge mass in which the faith and works of all who made it up were pooled, thanks to the church. Thus any given individual did not have to have a genuinely personal faith, for he would, in any event, be nourished by and profit from the faith of others, that is, of the church as a whole. In this scheme the church was conceived of as a body in which each member had his place and in which each would have faith applied to him, as it were (the “implicit faith” of the theologians). The very idea of Christendom therefore implied that a great many of its members were not Christians in an individual, personal way. To say that medieval society was a Christendom is to say, not that all its members had a personal internalized faith in Jesus Christ, but simply that all profited from the faith common to the body as a whole.
This attitude necessarily tended to tum Christianity into an ideology; that is, Christianity became a set of presuppositions that determined the life of the collectivity. It was taken for granted that every individual was meant to be a Christian (how could he be anything else?) and that he became a Christian in a full and unqualified way through baptism. Christianity provided a scale of shared values, a store of patterns for behavior and attitudes, a set of ready-made ideas and of goals, norms of judgment, and reference points for evaluating words, feelings, thoughts, and actions. Here, then, was belief based on social fact; belief that was generally accepted yet no longer implied a total self-giving or a high degree of fervor. This did not mean, of course, that men did not sincerely accept the truths of the gospel, although the latter had to be transposed to a lower register, as it were, so as to be accessible to All.
A second consequence of the vast enterprise which Christendom represented was formalism. Everybody had become Christian, every citizen of Christendom was a Christian. Therefore there was no need to evaluate inner spiritual authenticity; the important thing was how a man acted. Morality was primary. The compiling of the sixth-century Irish penitential books was a critical factor in this development. Soon, moreover, concern for morality became concern for law.
The church of Christendom would soon be characterized by its concern for morality (a very legitimate concern in western society between the third and eleventh centuries when the moral corruption was so great that anyone not a professional theologian will have difficulty in imagining it) and by its striving for organization. Morality and organization were necessary if the vast totality called Christendom were not to fall apart but were to function properly. But a theological principle was also at work in this functioning. Faith was taken for granted; attention could therefore be turned to the works which had their origin in faith. But, at the same time, it was possible to influence the presumed “implicit faith” through these same works. In other words, rectify and Christianize men’s behavior and you have indirect access to their faith itself. The aim, therefore, was not to arouse or control faith directly, but to stimulate it by controlling its outward expressions. Once this approach was adopted, all behavior had to be precisely and unambiguously described, measured, and circumscribed. Models of behavior had to be provided and aberrant behavior condemned; patterns of organization for the church and for everyday life had to be established and prohibited areas clearly marked off. The church was on the way to becoming a great ethico-juridical organism.
But Christendom showed another basic trait: it not only absorbed man’s whole religious past, it also provided the framework in which the church could control culture (in the narrow sense of this word). We need not insist on this point, for it has been frequently made and fully documented. All the thought, knowledge, and intellectual life of Greco-Roman society were carefully preserved in and thanks to the church. We would know almost nothing of the Greeks and Romans, were it not for the patient scribes and manuscript collectors in the monasteries and episcopal palaces. Yet people talk so readily today about medieval obscurantism and fanaticism. Well, those “obscurantists” busied themselves wholeheartedly with the entire intellectual legacy of earlier societies, and those “fanatics” copied all the pagan manuscripts available to them, even those that were scandalous to faith and morals.
My interest, however, is not in these facts as such but in the larger problem: why did the church take on the role it did? It’s silly to say: “Because the clergy were the only educated people,” for then you merely push the question back a step: why were the clergy educated? After all, the destructive fury of the uncultured monks at Alexandria was also an expression of Christian faith!
What we really have here is an essential facet of Christendom. A certain number of services had to be provided if society were to survive and men were to live together in society. The church had to step in and provide any services that no one else was providing; she was a universal servant, intervening wherever there was no one else available. No one was interested anymore in intellectual culture and philosophy, in care of the poor and the ill, in the improvement of agriculture and the development of arable land. No one was interested anymore in alleviating the daily routine of men’s lives with festivals and days of rest, or in planning styles of social life in which men would cease to be wolves preying on their fellow men. Well then, the church would do all these things, simply as services without which society could not survive. That was the very meaning of “Christendom.”
Such an intervention implied that on behalf of society the church would lay down a certain number of pertinent “Christian principles,” from which specific conclusions and applications could be drawn. The principles were derived from faith, revelation, and the Bible, and applied to every area of life, none excluded. Christianity was evidently meant to affect the whole of man’s life (political and economic as well as moral) and the life of society too. Therefore it had things to say about man’s political and economic activity, and it said them in the form of principles for action and organization. The situation was ripe for Christianity to play this role, for, if no one else was interested, the church had to step in. Consequently, it was not a restless quest of power that led the church to formulate economic principles in comformity with Scripture, but rather, the conviction that everything should manifest the Lordship of Jesus Christ and that no area of human life is unrelated to him.
The medieval economy with its strengths and weaknesses was not the result simply of circumstances, as the contemporary historical dogma would have it, but of the conscious, deliberate, organized activity of the church. The prohibition of illicit trading and of usury (a prohibition that was far more widely enforced than people today like to admit), the refusal of primacy to economic factors, the effort to detach men from wealth and the desire for it, the search for stability and justice in the economic area, the concept of an organization made up of self-sufficient entities (this was not the result of an effort to make the best of a bad situation and lack of communications, but was the expression of a whole view of life) – all these were the deliberate application to the economic sphere of a set of “Christian principles” and were inspired by the concern to manifest the Lordship of Jesus Christ in that sphere no less than anywhere else.
In still another area the idea of Christendom had two kinds of consequences. First of all, Christendom meant that every local society must be part of the all-embracing Christendom. Every feudal domain, every city, every kingdom, knew that it belonged, and wanted to belong, to the larger whole which was Christendom. (“Christendom,” at this point, is a geographical term rather than a qualitative one, as above.) Every human, political, and social group was subordinate to the totality which was Christendom, so that in the last analysis civil society as a whole was (and had to be) identical with the universal church. The two entities were geographically coextensive and were organized with reference to each other.
As a result, no political organization within Christendom could be allowed sovereignty, nor could the boundaries between nations, kingdoms, and feudal domains be absolute and impenetrable. Before being a kingdom, a political unit was a part (not “member,” for that would imply a certain precedence of the kingdom in its association with the other members) of the one unit which alone possessed authentic unity: Christendom. Christendom was not a sum of social groups, but a unity, and it put up with its own division into groups only for the sake of greater ease in acting. In this politico-social whole (at one level, the Roman empire; at another, the one body of Christ) there was no confusion between the church and the political powers, but the two orders were nonetheless organized with reference to each other. The church claimed no right to control the political order, but at the same time it could not accept that the faith should be a matter of indifference in political life. For it was evident that if Christianity was significant for the whole of man’s life, it must influence the political order too. In order, therefore, to show forth the unity of Christendom, just as there was only one church, so there must be a single political authority, at least of a symbolic kind, set over all the local authorities. Moreover, while there was to be no confusing of the spiritual and the political power, neither could the latter be wholly autonomous and independent, since Christianity had the duty, in every sphere, of penetrating, inspiring, initiating, and, after a very rapid development, certifying and, finally, controlling.
We are all aware of the countless problems raised by this distinction of authorities, authorities which existed for the sake of functions and not as separate and independent sources of power. What the church wanted was not control and direction, but simply the right to exercise a function in the form of innumerable services. This exercise implied of course a freedom, and this in turn implied an authority. This approach, it goes without saying, quickly led from authority to power, especially once the church (beginning with the papacy) became a directly political force, that is, once it acquired a territory and a political organization with the pope acting as head of state. This latter development further complicated the relation between the “two powers,” which was already difficult enough. But we must not forget the original conception out of which the later situation finally emerged.
The second kind of consequences which the idea of Christendom produced may be expressed in the formula, identification of church and society. Church and society were coextensive geographically. Whenever missionaries brought the church into new pagan lands and established the faith there, the converted groups automatically became part of the totality called Christendom and were expected to adopt the poiitical or economic patterns proper to Christendom. The converse was also true: for a man to become part of the (civil) society of Christendom, he had to be a Christian (in the sense defined earlier). Within the boundaries of the civil society only Christians were permitted to live, men who shared the same implicit faith, the same vision of man and the world.
Those outside the boundaries were pagans. With them there could hardly be any “normal” relations; only mutual instinctive hostility. From the viewpoint of Christendom pagans did not add up to a genuine society, for how could society be just and properly ordered if it was not Christian? By the same token the king, a subject of the church, was required to show justice and mercy only to the Christian people. In his coronation oath he accepted responsibilities toward this people, but to non-Christian peoples he had no duties. Consequently heretics (who were worse than pagans) were driven out not only from the church but from Christendom itself.
A pagan who entered within the domain of Christendom was obliged to become a convert if he was to survive. Here we have the explanation of why the Jewish problem was insoluble and a permanent irritant: Jews were the only ones to be tolerated within Christendom without being Christians. They lived in this society, however, as though they did not live there at all, having neither rights nor duties in it. Their physical presence and activity were tolerated and ignored. They lived in communities that had their own rules and statutes, but the latter were given no juridical recognition by the larger society. As a result, the Jews were an abiding problem in the eyes of this society: how could someone be a man yet not a Christian? To exist in such a state was to be a living challenge to the basic principle of Christendom.
We all of us today live with the materialistic persuasion that everything is done from economic motives and with the deeply rooted suspicion that beneath every surface lurk motives that cannot stand the light of day. As a result our vision of Christendom is evidently distorted. We attribute our contemporary experiences and assumptions about fact to the period from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries. Thus we are convinced, for example, that the crusades were mounted because of the papacy’s capitalistic interests, that the cathedrals were built by an oppressed and terrorized proletariat, that slavery was eliminated by technological progress, and that the church’s regulations for politics and economics were never enforced. Correspondingly, we think of the church of that time as a political and financial power, of the conflicts between emperors and popes as mere conflicts between power blocs, and so forth.
Now all that is not entirely inaccurate; we need only add an “also” to each of the explanations given. Thus the crusades were a great act of faith, an implementation of the conviction that God’s kingdom would come on earth once Jerusalem became a Christian city again. The popes and other ecclesiastical authorities certainly believed this, but there was also a good deal of the financial corruption that inevitably accompanies such vast enterprises. We today, in reaction to the positive evaluations offered in earlier centuries, have also got into the habit of seeing only the negative effects of Christendom: the intolerable political claims of the popes, the formalism and magical interpretation of the sacraments, the layers of theological error that accumulated over the centuries, the superstitions, the acceptance of exploitation of the poor and weak by the rich and powerful, the economic stagnation that resulted from turning men’s attention away from serious matters to paradise, the consecration of the king as supreme Christian authority, etc. Once again, all these complaints are not unjustified, provided we add an “also.” We must also bear in mind the positive and fruitful side of the church’s activity and of the organization of Christendom (even though we need not exaggerate this positive side nor focus our attention on it to the exclusion of all else).
To begin with, there was the suppression of slavery. After a century of unchallenged claims that the suppression was due to Christianity it became the fashion from 1930 on to say that Christianity had nothing to do with it and that the suppression of slavery was the result of slave labor being no longer productive or of economic change or of technological progress. But no serious recent historian has ever proved any such thing. In fact, there is growing agreement among historians that material causes cannot explain the suppression of slavery. The decisive factor was the change of mentality due to Christianity. There was technological progress indeed, but it came about as the result of the suppression of slavery and the need to offset the consequent lack of manpower.2 Historians who are not Christian but do face up to the documents are coming to that position today.
Christendom had other undeniable positive effects. The protection of the weak, for example, was a central preoccupation. The protection given was not merely verbal or of no practical value; it was real and well organized. The disadvantages of a society that contained both powerful and lowly, rich and poor, were reduced to a minimum. I am not at all sure that other documented societies, including our own, have got anywhere as far in this area as Christendom did. All economic and political means of protecting the poor were used, and most of the time successfully. The measures taken by the church in the interests of peace were also very effective: the Peace Leagues, the Truce of God, and the Peace of God, for example, were institutions in which the church did not limit itself to pious exhortations to peace but took concrete means to achieve it. In a very unsettled and troubled situation, where often neither faith nor law were evident, the church produced almost a miraculous order and justice. She has been accused of juridicism, but in circumstances in which men had lost all sense of right and the common good, the restoration of law and order certainly represented important human progress and a force for good.
The church has also been blamed for her interference in the political sphere, but when disorder and rivalry between powers were the order of the day the church was able by her interference to create a context in which men could live. So too she established regulations and institutions for an economic order that had completely broken down. The doctrine on the just price (which was indeed applied, whatever people today may think) and the prohibition of usury were essential if exploitation was to be restrained and stability restored to the economy. The principles which the church applied were admittedly principles leading to stagnation and not to progress, but we must bear in mind the real dilemma which the church faced. That dilemma was either to lay great stress on economic activity, production, and consumption, which would lead to increased power of the rich over the poor, or to protect the poor and strive for the greatest possible measure of economic stability (stability, or ordo, was equated with justice at that time, whereas we today see justice as meaning equality), which would cause stagnation. The church chose the second horn of the dilemma. But we cannot condemn the church for her choice unless we accept a progressivist ideology and a mythology in which growth in production is identified with the good.
The points I have been making (and I could offer many more examples of positive interventions by the church) do not represent simply my own opinion. They are backed up by countless precise and detailed historical studies that contrast sharply with the grandiose ideological pictures we have become accustomed to since marxism came on the scene.” Such studies show that, given the widespread disorder, the church thought it her duty to take charge of society. That means that she had the courage to face a wide range of difficult problems in a concrete, practical way. She was not satisfied simply to hold forth on the need of incarnating the faith, as we do today, and to send out messages and proclamations, even those of a pope or a World Council of Churches. As a result of these practical interventions the church of course dirtied her hands. Christendom was an order in which men attempted to put the Christian faith into practice in a collective way. Any criticisms we can level against it are simply an acknowledgment that intervention in the political and economic worlds is always contaminating.
The final point I want to make is that when the church and Christians not only elaborated the teachings of Christendom but put them into practice as well, they did so in consequence not of eccentric ideas but of their faith and theology. The basic principles of Christianity contained Christendom as a logical conclusion. A fine French theologian recently reminded us that Christianity has been political since its very beginnings. This idea is now taken for granted and has become central in the thinking of many. Fine! But there is another truth of basic importance: the Incarnation; and the Incarnation requires that principles be put into practice. A Christian cannot stop at declarations of intention. Moreover, Jesus Christ is Lord of all history, and his Lordship must be manifested. Bring these three truths together and, if you take them Seriously, you will inevitably move toward “Christendom.”
The shape Christendom takes will depend on the energy of Christians, on the one hand, and on the extent of social disorder and the inadequacy of the political powers, on the other. But it is impossible to refuse to establish a Christian society. If we want each Christian to live out his faith in a concrete way in his personal life, how can we not want all Christians to do so in a collective way? And if Christianity is political, can we help but want a political order that is inspired by faith?
This point has been splendidly illustrated in one of the finest examples I know of modern (non-Christian) thinking: Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. With extraordinary subtlety he shows how the incarnation gave rise to a certain kind of collective lifestyle and to a way of representing the real that implicitly led to Christendom. Not to proceed along this path is either to play down the Incarnation or to belie one’s own principles, that is, to be a Hypocrite.
We may, of course, claim that the men of the Middle Ages were mistaken or that their theology was bad. But at least they made an honest attempt, and this without any illusion that they were establishing God’s kingdom on earth. (It is through the testimonies of Christians that we know of all the disasters, the mistakes, the injustices of the Middle Ages.) They wanted to build a Christendom, but they were well aware how far they still were from the kingdom of God.
The important, indeed the decisive, fact about their effort was that the passage from theology or faith to politics and action generally was mediated by an attitude to reality which Auerbach has analyzed for us. They took reality seriously and positively (not negating it, as people often claim) and were basically realists, but at the same time they refused to stop at this reality: for them reality was a “figure.” The Middle Ages had a figural conception of reality; this means that “an occurrence on earth signifies not only itself but at the same time another, which it predicts or confirms, without prejudice to the power of its concrete reality here and now. The connection between occurrences is not regarded as primarily a chronological or causal development but as a oneness within the divine plan, of which all occurrences are parts and reflections.” , Such an attitude to reality makes one take reality very seriously, as did the men of the Middle Ages. They were deeply concerned with the political life of society and attributed great importance to it, but this was because they saw in the activities of peoples and kings and in the decisions taken by the masses an action of God: Gesta Dei per Francos [the deeds of God performed through the French]; omnis potestas a Deo per populum [all power is from God by way of the people]; etc.
Such an attitude represents, does it not, an interpretation of history that derives from the Incarnation and life of Jesus “with its ruthless mixture of everyday reality and the highest and most sublime tragedy.” The life of Jesus led to a transformation in the way men looked at reality. “A tragic figure from such a background, a hero of such weakness, such a to and fro of the pendulum” was unintelligible to the Greco-Roman mind. It led to a new way of representing the real “which is ready to absorb the sensorily realistic, even the ugly, the undignified, the physically base,” while referring it to that which gives it its basic meaning: this reality, while being itself, also represents another reality. The whole complex of realities was situated in time (not one terminus of the figura in time, the other in eternity). Nonetheless the two events (the one foretelling, the other fulfilling) were not linked by a causal relation on the purely horizontal level. “The horizontal, that is the temporal and causal, connection of occurrences is dissolved; the here and now is no longer a mere link in an earthly chain of events, it is simultaneously something which has always been, and which will be fulfilled in the future.”
This conception of reality was never rejected in the Middle Ages, despite what is often too readily assumed. “They wanted heaven; therefore they scorned earth.” No, some mystics may have thought that way, but not the Christian populace of the West. Christendom tried to embody this conception of reality, for it was the conception clearly at work in the person and life of Jesus Christ as Incarnation of the Word of God.