NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.
We left our last discussion with the world of Christendom having been rocked to its core. With the departure of the Eastern Church, the danger is that it would raise a whole new sense of papal rejection. If folks can just tell the pope no, then what does that mean?
Well, as the saying goes, nothing brings a people together like a common enemy.
To be fair, I’m not going to wade into the spicy conversation surrounding the Crusades and present myself as a historian or expert. I know talking about this period of history can be incredibly charged emotionally — as it should be. I know some historical reconstructionists have attempted to put a “positive spin” on the Crusades and what the intentions were behind them. I will be attempting no such explanation. For me, this chapter of Christian history is dark and marked with all sorts of problems, which most of us have simply kept out of sight and out of mind.
I remember the chapter in Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller where he spoke about his experience at the reverse confessional. He talked about how they set up a confessional booth at Reed College and — instead of receiving confessions from others — they offered confessions on behalf of their faith, both current and historic. I have not stopped hearing the kickback from readers or thinkers who say, “But why would I/they apologize for something that happened centuries ago?” This question shows our blatant disconnection from our faith and where it comes from. This disconnection stops us from being able to think critically about how we could ever get to that place. And a dark history disowned by the descendants of it will be bound to repeat itself. Some would say we are on the verge of such an era right now.
But I won’t try to present myself as an expert — only as a learner, a student of history, and a fellow thinker.
It’s my belief that in our desperate need to unify Christendom, we seized an opportunity that arose at just the right time. Shortly after the East-West Schism, the Islamic movement was making its way to capture Palestine. While there is no way I am going to give you a history of the Islamic faith here, it would be helpful to know that as Mohammed was doing the work of canonizing his teaching and creation of the Qur’an was underway, there were three dominant worldviews at play within Islam. There was what we might have called a progressive movement — which wanted to live peaceably with everyone. There was a moderate movement that saw itself as the correct faith, and others as largely apostate, but did not seek to convert them by force. There was also a radical branch of the faith bent on violent overthrow of the pagan idolaters.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. We studied Judaism of the second temple period and its different sects. We have seen the same movements grow and disappear within Christian history, as well. (I cannot move on without recommending Battle for God by Karen Armstrong, a wonderful look at the history of the three faiths and the rise of radical fundamentalism in each.)
I find this helpful because most people choose which groups they want to represent their own faith story. While Christians would (typically) never define themselves by the fringe, radical edges of fundamentalism, we consistently do the opposite to the “other” in the conversation. I would say the movement of Islam toward capturing Palestine did not represent the Islamic faith as a whole (not even close). It did have a lot of traction at this point in history, though, and it did provide a perfect opportunity for the Church in the west to find a common enemy and use it as a scapegoat to bring unity to a struggling kingdom.
This is my unauthoritative (and probably oversimplified) opinion on this point of history. I am no expert in the Crusades, so I will not try to explain my way through it. Let’s just say that these few centuries were an absolute mess, and the mess seemed to galvanize an unfortunate unity in Christendom.
But before we move on to the next chapter of history, it would be worth pointing out that not everyone is out fighting in the Crusades.
They never are. We let the poor, the uneducated, and the commoners do that work for us.
Simultaneously, as the Crusades are being fought, we witness the rise of “scholasticism” and an ever-widening gap between those who have and those who have not. This is a gap we are well acquainted with today; we often talk about the gap between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the world. In the Middle Ages, this gap was driven more by education and academic privilege. While the middle and bottom classes were fighting in the Crusades, the cream of the crop was being taught and educated at a level we simply hadn’t seen before. With the rise of science and the accomplishments it brought, a university system that we still understand and rely on today began to take shape. Apprentices were taught not only how to read and write (which was an incredible advantage, by the way!), but they were also instructed in the blossoming fields of mathematics, science, theology, and the arts — most of which was driven by the Greek philosophers of the Hellenistic era.
One of the most revered names in Church history is often that of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, without a doubt, changed the face of Christian history by bringing into a logical order the many fields of education. Aquinas showed how the world of mathematics and science could blend with the world of philosophy and theology, and the western world would never be the same. The way we understand our education system today is largely shaped by the perspective brought to us through the work of Thomas Aquinas. Many would call him the father of logic and reason.
I’ll resist my desire to be critical until we conclude our study of history, but I’m hoping my western-minded readers will notice that somewhere around a millennia before this, we lost some things that were absolutely crucial to the health of the Church. While I realize we are all still enamored with the pillars of Hellenism today, I hope we learned enough to critically examine just how lost we are 1,000 years after the Judaic movement of Jesus. But I digress.
Or do I? We shall see.