I’ve been reading Susan Wise Bauer’s “History of the Medieval World from the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusades.” It’s a fascinating survey of the eras’ history from Asia and India to the Middle East, Europe, North Africa, and a light touch on portions of the Americas. However, it is severely limited to the stories of violent competition for power and position among tribal chiefs, nobles, kings and emperors. It moves on to the ebb and flow of mass migrations spearheaded by war, and the succeeding wars leading to the eventual formation of modern nation states. To the extent that she recognizes the role of religion, it is to portray caliphs and popes as agents of their own selfish interests and puppets of more powerful warrior princes. Christianity and Islam are not seen as faiths to be followed but religions used to unite disparate people for political purposes.
It is a scenario unlike classical liberal education concerned more with the development of philosophy, especially political philosophy that guided nations into more civilized ways of existing. Wars are, of course, a part of that history but tend not to play a central, domineering role. Likewise, theology’s own story is about discovering more about who God is and how we are, to following God’s way of love as commanded by Christ Jesus. Institutions of the Church have too often been corrupt participants in struggles for political and economic power, but that is not the history of theology’s search for greater understanding of a deeper truth. Moreover, what is true of Christian theological history has parallels in Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and other major religions.
I wondered why Bauer had ignored so much of theological and philosophical history that was foundational to developments in the arts, sciences, and political practice, and that she had nothing to say about economic development. But it’s equally true these other histories have seldom covered the ego driven wars for power and territory as she has done. It was good to learn how Visigoths and Moors became Spaniards, how eastern Franks became German and western Franks became French, and so on. None of these histories can stand on their own. They all happened at the same time, engaging and conflicting with each other almost as much as tribal chiefs and would be kings did.
I suppose none should be given precedent over another, but I’m going to do it anyway. It seems to me that it is theology and philosophy that have pulled and pushed humanity toward more civilized societies by asking moral and ethical questions while positing answers. As a Christian, I believe that following Jesus and proclaiming the good news means demonstrating by word and deed the moral standards for living together that God has declared for all humanity.
It’s hard to know when history has a major turning point but perhaps we are in one now. The more stable societies are the more likely they are to prosper in relationships with one another. I wonder if the post WWII years have been the time when nations and their leaders finally learned that lesson. It’s to our shame that peace had to be held together with threats of mutual annihilation, but it worked long enough for us to realize the whole idea is so immoral it must never be tried, notwithstanding Putin’s current nuclear saber rattling. Ego fueled armed conflicts still endanger too many people in too many places. Petty conflicts over unimportant border still pop up. Yet on the whole, most nations have settled down to peaceful, if sometimes tense, relationships with each other. There are plenty of struggles for power and position among would be leaders, many of whom think authoritarianism is better than democracy. None of that is good news, but it is good news that the world has grown beyond the never ending brutality of Medieval wars. WWII appears to have been its final defeat. May it please God to be so.
So now what? Is the battle over, the victory won? No. Amidst the wreckage of two thousand years of war, it’s clear that creation itself has suffered irreparable damage at our hands. We cannot change what was but we can change what will be, and creation care must be at the top of the list. Along with it is the recognition that earth can’t continue in relative stability unless ifs people have adequate health care, good education, security in daily life, economic equity, and relief from every form of discrimination – areas of social morality God made unambiguously clear almost three thousand years ago through Amos and the other ethical prophets. They were sealed, stamped and delivered to us by the very Word of God made flesh, Jesus. We’ve made progress which has been hard to do while wielding weapons and threatening death. However slow, we have made progress. It’s time to lay down the weapons and bend more to the essential task at hand. Can we do it? Humanity has been and is still too easily misled and motivated by intimidating fear mongering. Often proving ourselves to be too gullible, falling for the silliest and most outrageous deceptions, we shall see.
© Steven E. Woolley