Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe by Thomas Cahill








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The best teachers of history weave together patterns and trends from the past and connect them to the reality of the student in the modern world. Thomas Cahill proves himself to be just that kind of teacher on the pages of Mysteries of the Middle Ages. In this readable book, Cahill shows how certain individuals in medieval Europe laid a foundation for treating women with dignity, for scientific analysis, and for realism in art. Readers may find some of Cahill’s threads a bit stretched, but are likely to tolerate his opinions, because he presents them with a light touch and with a presentation style that doesn’t condescend or preclude other points of view. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 46-49:


Anything new must be received into the old. Buddhism, for instance, was received into an ancient Indian religious con­text, so much so that, in its vocabulary and outlook, it came to be understood as a kind of Reformed Hinduism. Similarly, the early attempts by Christian intellectuals to come to grips with the new revelation were largely limited by the mind-set of Greek philosophy. To one looking backwards from the twenty-first century, Clement of Alexandria seems as much a Greek philosopher (of negligible impor­tance) as he does a Christian. His outlook might be more easily adopted by a Stoic of his own day than by a Christian of ours; and while only a few Christian leaders of our day would be able to muster much sympa­thy for the repressive, howling monks who murdered Hypatia, the sixth—century patriarch of Alexandria was comfortably at home among their fanatical obsessions, which amounted to a sort of dumbed—down, if baptized, version of Plotinus’s anti-carnal philosophy.


For all that, the Christians of late antiquity understood that they were holding something new by the tail: they may not have been able to make out the full contours of the fabulous beast, but they had no doubt that it was alive and scarily larger than themselves. Almost from the mo­ment the persecutions were past, Christians began to argue heatedly about Christ: who exactly was he? and how do we explain his role in the great scheme of things? Their undying disagreements over the nature and function of this figure were so fierce and unyielding that for us—at so great a distance from their concerns—they illuminate little about Jesus as we might come to understand him today, but they do serve to under­score the obvious fact that he was utterly central to ancient Christianity.


The proposed solution to the quarrels, hammered out by bishops meeting in a series of councils (called “ecumenical” because they were thought to represent the whole Christian world), was that Jesus, though human, having “taken flesh” in the womb of his mother, Mary—was God’s Word incarnate. This Word of God had always existed, for he was the Second Person of the divine Trinity. The First was God the Father, and in this guise God had spoken to the prophets of Israel. The Second was God the Son, God’s own Word by the utterance of which he had brought the universe into being, as related in the Book of Genesis. The Third was God the Holy Spirit, who acted in time—who, for instance, had brought about the miraculous conception of Jesus and who ani­mated the church, the Assembly of Christians, in its pilgrimage through history


The consequences of such rarefied, Greek—inspired thinking would shape the subsequent history of Christianity—and, therefore, of the Western world—like no other theological statements ever made. It is not surprising that Greek Christians, enamored of subtlety, would continue to gaze upon this construct and fashion it into the focus for all their the­ology and prayer. If Christ was both God and man, did he have two na­tures with two separate intellects and wills? If so, how did these natures communicate with each other? As God, he knew all things; as man, his knowledge was necessarily limited. In the gospels, Jesus does not seem always to know what will happen next, so did God keep things from himself? As man, Jesus was capable of committing sin. Since all human beings commit sins, what, if anything, stopped Jesus from becoming a Sinner?


Such speculations ensured unending controversies and ever­-multiplying theological-political factions throughout the Greek world. Often enough, the controversies were so strident that considerable blood would be shed, sometimes spilled by slogan—reciting mobs of simple­minded monks. But in their secluded monasteries and chapels, monks and other clerics turned the esoteric into the palpable: the still point of Christian contemplation became the unapproachable Trinity, and invocations of the Trinity became essential to liturgical prayer. “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Deathless,” sang the chanters in their tripartite prayer as clouds of spiced incense billowed heavenward. “Let all mortal flesh keep silence / And with fear and trembling stand / Ponder nothing earthly minded.” Ponder the ineffable and bow before the mystery.


For practical, can—do Romans, this was a bit much. Roman Christians found Greek distinctions tiresome, and the endless theologi­cal disputes occasioned by those distinctions made them cross-eyed with weariness. Yes, yes, Jesus is both God and man; now let’s move on. And the liturgies of the East, in their attempts to evoke the ineffable, certainly put one in mind of eternity, for they seemed just about endless. How many Kyrie eleisons is that damned deacon going to make us warble be­fore he brings this litany to a conclusion?


For Romans, liturgy was not a nwstical end in itself. What the Greeks called the Sacred Liturgy, the Romans called missa (or mass) after the deacon’s last words, Ite, missa est(Go, you are dismissed). If that sounds to you as if their main interest was in getting out of church as soon as decently possible, you wouldn’t be so very far from the truth. Public prayer is not an end in itself, only part of a Christian life, a caesura of recollection; fortunately, it comes to an end and we are sent back to our lives. In fact, we come to this prayer not for some unspeakable spir­itual high but to renew ourselves for further work in the world. We don’t even need always to chant the Eucharistic celebration or bother ourselves with arranging elaborate processions of vested acolytes or choke the air with incense. Sometimes, we can even celebrate a short, stationary, said mass, a low mass, with just one officiant and a handful of worshipers—which pared-back arrangement the Greeks thought an abomination. Such stylistic differences between East and West implied significant differences in theological perspective.


Instead of getting off on the unutterable Trinity, Roman Christians found their attention drawn to the most down-to-earth aspect of Trinitarian doctrine: the Infleshing, the Incarnation, the Making of the God-Man. What, they asked themselves, are the practical conse­quences—to human beings—of the Word becoming flesh? From this question will flow, with sonic notable divagations, the main course of what was to become Western Christianity.


Despite the aspirations of so many mystical Greeks, human beings are not disembodied spirits. What should matter to us is not so much the inner life of God—and whatever that may be, the truth is that not one of us knows squat about it—as the impact of divine revelation on our own lives. The only point at which we can sensibly connect with the Trinity is the point at which, as John’s Gospel puts it, “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” If God became man and took on our weakness, our pain, even our death, these things can no longer be the woeful embarrassments we have always conceived them to be, for they are now shot through with his grace and elevated by his willing partici­pation in them. If God became man, lived an earthly life as all of us do— suckled, sweat, shat, wept, slept, loved, feared, bled, died—but also rose and returned to Heaven, the same route has been opened to all of us, to all “mortal flesh,” now impregnated with divinity. Our despised human­ity entitles us, for it is now the humanity of God.


How are we to follow such a path? The four gospels of the New Testament tell us how, for each recounts the story of Jesus’s earthly pil­grimage from a somewhat different personal angle—the angle of each writer—and in this story Jesus shows us the Way, the way to live our lives so that we may reach the same conclusion his life reached, eternal union with God. ‘~No one has ever seen God,” states John’s Gospel, for, like Plotiiius’s One, he—she—it is in himself—herself—itself unknowable. There is nothing you can assert positively about God (including gender) that is secure from falsehood. But, says Jesus conclusively in the same gospel, ‘if you know me, you will also come to know my Father. Henceforth you do know him—for you have seen him.” The face of the Father-God that we have seen is his ikon, his veritable image in flesh, Jesus.


Mysteries of the Middle Ages is a primer. For me, it was like a return to some philosophy courses from decades ago. Cahill is like a good teacher and guide: pointing out patterns, trends, and offering a point of view for consideration, reflection, and possibly further study.


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2007



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 in the June 2007 issue of Executive Times


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