Coded gray.

Wednesday 9 August 2006

White church

Pic of the day: Traditional church in Norway.

Is Christianity medieval?

First, this is not about whether God or Jesus is alive and well. It is about the religion itself, as it affects culture and society. It is a well known fact that during Europe's "Middle Ages", the Church was an important factor in politics and culture, even in economy. But was this a natural consequence of that religion, or would pretty much any religion have done the trick? Did the Church create the medieval society, or the other way around, or did they just happen at the same time for different reasons?

Let us first look at the time frame here. People in the street mix together the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages and the Witch Hunts, but these are quite different parts of history. Although Christianity was present during them all, the culture was quite different. The Dark Ages began with the fall of the western Roman empire (the eastern part survived through the High Middle Age). Population declined in Europe, and much knowledge was lost. Monasteries became repositories of knowledge, not just theological but practical as well, as they housed most of the literate people still alive.

After the end of the large migrations, the precursors of many modern nations were established. Most of Europe was "Christened" by now. The church still had little political influence. It is often said that the Middle Ages began (replacing the Dark Ages) in 800 with the crowning of the Frankish emperor, Carolus Magnus. It is said that the recreated Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman, but at least sometimes it was an empire... though it covered a rather different area from the former Roman empire. It did not even cover the same area all the time... it began as a Frankish empire, but moved on to Germany for much of the time.

The Middle Ages was a time of relative stability and reconstruction, quite different from the beginning of the Dark Ages when knowledge was lost. The Feudal system was rigid but fairly stable. Even when the kings on top changed, most people still worked for the same minor nobles. Everyone knew their place in the world. Knowledge was gradually accumulated, but it was a different knowledge from that of the urban Roman age. New and improved agriculture, especially in colder parts, made the population grow. This continued until the Black Death. The Church came into its full power during the Middle Ages, and became an important political factor. Conversely, political issues and worldly power dominated the church.

The Black Death marked a sudden end to the classic Middle Age society. In the large population, the disease spread like wildfire. At the same time, the climate was growing colder. Perhaps half the population died over the course of a human lifetime. The church was particularly hard hit, since the priests were called out to give the last rites to all the dying people. To the horror of the populace, God did not spare his priests from the plague. Heresies broke out everywhere, compounding the chaos from the extinction of many noble houses. Serfs had no masters, and beggars moved in and took over large farms that were lying idle. All things were overturned. Nothing ever became the same again.

The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation changed the Church from mainly a political establishment to more religious again. It never regained its former worldly power. It was after this that the witch hunts started, mainly in Protestant and Reformed countries, whereas the Inquisition did its work in Catholic Europe. It persecuted witches too (along with Jews) but less hysterically than further north. The witch hunts lasted so long that they even happened in the Americas. This then is a rather newer phenomenon than the Middle Ages.


The medieval society was stable, even rigid. People believed in absolutes, everlasting truths, not just in theology but in everyday life. Individual achievement was limited. Inventions tended to be practical and easy to implement, not requiring changes in the organization of society (though some of them eventually caused such changes).

While medieval Europe is the best known example, there have been other such societies. China had a remarkably similar system, which lasted longer (probably because the Black Death hit less hard. In fact, the rigid and self-absorbed nature of the grand Chinese empire cost them to lose their leadership of the world to Europe, and only their total humiliation at the hands of colonial powers woke the eastern dragon from its slumber. Japan too had a feudal period that is more recent than ours. Similar traits was seen in the Muslim world, and some claim to have seen it even in meso-America. Clearly Christianity did not cause all these.

In fact, it could be argued that Christianity was co-opted and adapted for the purpose. If we look at the first Christian societies, which admittedly are mostly known from the New Testament, we see that their values were more like the Green vMeme than the Blue. They valued honesty, humility, communal solutions, respect for marginalized groups, racial and (with some dissent, notably from Paul) sexual equality. Their pacifism and their distrust in money and power is eerily similar to Green movements today. Early Christians used sacred texts creatively and figuratively, and spontaneous thinking was encouraged. "The Law" was seen as something of the past, vastly inferior to the new immediate life.

So what changed? Let us be honest, a Green society probably was not sustainable for long at the level of development seen in the Roman Empire. Certainly not after its collapse, when large migrations caused chaos and war everywhere, and established authorities were toppled. The Dark Ages brought to life again the Red vMeme, which is egocentric and obsessed with personal prestige. Its law is the law of the jungle: The strong eat the weak, and it's each man for himself. To tame this monster, society has again and again produced blue vMemes. And this came to pass again, as the Dark Ages gave way to the Middle Ages and the rigid but less conflicted feudal society.

A useful knowledge gained from this is that the Green vMeme is vulnerable to Red. In its attempt to sympathize with all underdogs and understand all different cultures, it is just plain butchered by the barbarian Red. While Blue and Orange societies are shamed by the peaceful protest of the Greens and often end up converted by it, the distance to Red is just too large. If you sit down in front of their armies, it just makes it easier for them to slaughter you. Or so I have heard from people who claim to know more than I. In this case it probably doesn't matter, since the Green idealism of early Christianity probably had disappeared already during the days of the Roman Empire.


Has Christianity recovered from its stint as the spiritual backbone of feudalism? This is a trickier question. What has happened is that the religion has shattered into a thousand shards. Some of them are still solid Blue, but others are Orange ("health and money through prayer", anyone?) and some are Green. Individual Christians can go even further than that, although the unique, traditional Christian elements tend to become less visible at Yellow. I doubt for instance most "traditional" Christians could make themselves write an essay such as this.

I am not sure we will see a resurgence of Christianity with more modern values. Perhaps its days as a mass religion is numbered. If so, this is not quite the disaster it may appear, for this was foretold by its very founder. In fact, it was clearly not meant as a mass movement, but a "narrow path". This is not to say that its centuries as a feudal religion was a bad thing. But it may have been extraneous to the religion itself. If so, the disappearance of this brand of Christianity should be no cause for sorrow, neither for friends nor enemies.

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Seven years ago: Sleepy in paradise

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