This is the fourth post in the series Crossing the Threshold.
The Modern World
Years ago I read the Introduction to Peter Kreeft’s book Heaven the Heart’s Deepest Longing. What I gleaned from that introduction helped me learn how to teach 2500 years of Western Civilization in about five minutes in a way people seldom forget. I use my body as a diagram.
Looking out at the ancient world there were two small people groups around the Mediterranean Sea that became the source for all of Western Civilization: the Hebrews and the Greeks. Think of these two peoples as two streams (my calves). One was the Classical stream from the source of Reason, the other the Biblical stream, rose from the source of Faith. These two streams became great rivers (my thighs!) The Greek stream flowed into the Roman river which created a world empire but remained essentially Greek in its mind. The Hebrew stream flowed into Christianity. Jesus did not create a new religion. He was the Jewish Messiah; the King of the Jews. These two great rivers came together during the Middle Ages (my torso) and created what can best be called a Christocentric world.
I like how John Eldredge describes this world in the book he coauthored with Brent Curtis The Sacred Romance
“Once upon a time the Western World had a story. Imagine you lived in the High Middle Ages. Your world was permeated with Christian imagery. You marked the days by the sound of church bells and the weeks and months according to a liturgical calendar. You lived in anno domini the year of our Lord. It wasn’t football season it was Advent. Your role models were the saints, whose feast days were regular reminders of a drama greater than yourself. The architecture of the Cathedrals, the music, literature and sculpture all gave you a vision of transcendence, reminding you of the central elements of that great story. Even the everyday language reflected the Christian understanding of life’s story, expressions like God be with you, upon my soul and by Christ’s blood. Birth, death, love and loss all of your personal experience would be shaped and interpreted by that large story.”
The world had a large story; a metanarrative and everyone’s small story fit into that large one giving their life meaning and purpose. That world no longer exists, for the High Middle Ages was ripped apart by two movements: The Renaissance (my left arm) and The Reformation (my right arm).
Starting in the 1300’s Europe began to feel a number of “birth pangs”. The Black Plague rapidly spread killing one third of the population while wars, religious strife, economic depression, occultism, invasions from the east and corruption within the fundamental institution of Medieval society the church led to a season ripe for movements of renewal. The Reformation longingly looked back to the river of Biblical faith. It wanted to cleanse the church, reform it and purge it of its corruption. The Renaissance which means “rebirth” was something entirely different. For what emerged out of the Renaissance was something that had never existed before in human history; a secular society. For the first time a civilization was being built on a foundation that had no spiritual life, no religion, and no god as a source for its formation.
The Renaissance was followed by other movements; The Age of Scientific Discoveries, The Enlightenment, the Democratic and Industrial Revolutions and by the time the Modern World emerged it was evident that man had been “reoriented”. No longer did he give allegiance to God; he was now the Captain of his own ship sailing along on a sea of secular humanism with the notion that progress and the wonders of technology could take him anywhere he desired to go.
The Victorian Dream had briefly tried to keep God in the story as a remote author saying that he gave man all these wonderful discoveries and technologies to build his kingdom on earth. But by 1900 belief in science, pursuit of raw power, and a thirst for glory, had ejected God from the picture altogether. No longer was man God’s steward of creation, his Genesis vocation, now he was his own god and he was out to conqueror the world.
There probably isn’t a more fitting symbol of man’s arrogance as he enters this new age than the White Star Line’s luxury ocean liner the Titanic. Named for mythological deities of ruthless greed and power the largest ship ever built was promoted as being “unsinkable”. Divided by economic classes into first, second and steerage, she was the perfect metaphor for what the industrial titans in her first class were actually doing to the rest of the world; dividing and conquering. On the night of April 14, 1912 she was making her maiden voyage crossing the Atlantic when she struck an iceberg and sank. The entire 20th century might be viewed as Titanic’s descent to the bottom of the ocean floor. Wars, genocides, economic depressions, weapons of mass destruction, totalitarianism,….death and destruction of a magnitude never seen before in history.