Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be greatest must be servant to all.”

Although many events from medieval Church history seem to have been guided by the power of the Pope, head pastor in Rome and (according to the various popes) Vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth, Christianity was never united under a single worldly leader. Jesus Christ and the Bible unite Christians in heaven and on earth. Other attempts to impose unity and conformity upon Christians result only in division, separation, and sometimes violent opposition.

In early Church times, leaders of the Church in five cities were generally respected as foremost among Christians on Earth. Those cities were Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Councils that discussed and defined the teachings of the Church did not submit to any of these five bishops; one council even condemned Pope Honorius as a heretic!

The sudden appearance of Islam overwhelmed the congregations in Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch. While they still existed, they were much smaller and exerted little influence on the rest of Christianity. Given two powerful centers of the faith, it perhaps was inevitable that a showdown would arise involving the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch in Constantinople.

The groups of Christians led by these two figures disagreed about several matters. Probably the most important theological matter was the question of the Holy Spirit, whether he proceeds from the Father and the Son (as is taught in the western Church) or from the Father alone (as is taught in the eastern Church). A more practical matter on which the groups differed was the question of religious artwork. Byzantine emperors grew increasingly hostile toward artwork in the Church, pointing to the Ten Commandments, which include a prohibition of “graven images.” Defenders of such artwork were able to cite examples of artwork in Scripture—even in the book of Exodus, the same book which contains that prohibition of graven images, but which gives instructions for building the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. They also indicated that artwork is helpful for teaching and for devotional life, insisting that the Biblical prohibition only forbids worshiping images. A Byzantine Emperor named Leo sent soldiers into churches to destroy images, prompting fierce opposition and large demonstrations from Christians defending the place of art in the Church. The compromise reached in the Byzantine Empire was stricter than Roman leaders liked. Ironically, eastern churches are now known for their icons representing Jesus Christ and certain saints and angels.

The two groups of Christians differed on other subjects as well, such as determining the date of Easter each year, the use of leavened or unleavened bread in Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper), and other details about Christian life and worship. From a historical point of view, though, the biggest difference in opinion regarded the question of whether the Roman Pope is the head of all true Christians on Earth. In the year 1054, the Pope sent a messenger to Constantinople to lay a message on the altar of Hagia Sophia. This document excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople and anyone who agreed with the Patriarch in saying that the Pope is not the head of the Church on Earth. Somewhere between the two cities, the Pope’s messenger passed a messenger sent by the Patriarch excommunicating the Pope and anyone else who says that the Pope is the head of the Church on Earth. From this year until the present, every Christian on Earth has been excommunicated by one of those two documents (and some groups of Christians would be considered outside the Church according to both documents).

Christians who agreed with the Patriarch in Constantinople called themselves “orthodox.” This Greek word means “thinking correctly.” No doubt every Christian calls himself or herself orthodox; each of us believes that he or she has the correct faith. The Christians who agreed with the Pope called themselves “catholic.” This Latin word reflects the unity of the Church and also signifies that it exists everywhere. Again, every Christian would consider himself a member of the true catholic Church. While human organizations among Christians on Earth continue to use these labels, every believer in Jesus Christ in heaven and on earth is a member of the one true Church, which (by definition) is both orthodox and catholic.

Meanwhile, the Pope’s worldly authority over the city of Rome and other parts of Italy involved the Pope in battles with assorted other heads of state in Europe. Italy increasingly became a battleground for armies from the Holy Roman Empire, France, Spain, and other European powers. Finally, to escape the turmoil, Pope Clement V moved himself and his Church government to Avignon. That city today is in France, although in 1305 (when Clement became Pope) it was part of the country ruled from Naples. For seventy years, the Pope and cardinals governed the Church from Avignon. All these popes and most of the cardinals came from France, spoke French, and were politically allied with the government of France.

After Pope Gregory XI died in 1378, a group of Italian cardinals slipped back into Rome and elected Urban VI as Pope. The French cardinals, still in Avignon, proceeded to elect Clement VII. Now there were two popes, and Christians in Europe had to decide which of them was their head. Bishops and archbishops took sides; secular government took sides. Both popes died and were replaced with new popes by their respective groups of cardinals. Finally, in 1409, a church meeting in Pisa fired both popes and elected a new pope, named Alexander V. Unfortunately, neither of the other popes believed that he was fired, and now Christians had to choose from among three earthly heads.

Five years later, another church meeting was held in the city of Constance. Before electing a new pope, the leaders of the council persuaded all three current popes to resign. Two did so quickly—one even before the council began—hoping that their willingness to cooperate would buy them votes. The third held out for a while but eventually also resigned. All three were sent into retirement, and the Council of Constance elected Martin V to serve the Church as pope.

For a while, some Christians hoped that the power of popes would be reduced by these years of chaos and struggle. They hoped that Church Councils could provide leadership for Christians and could reunite Christians living on Earth. Instead, popes from this time onward insisted that only the Pope can convene church councils and that the Pope can instruct those councils how to vote and can overrule their decisions. Meanwhile, other Christian movements were brewing, movements that would produce further chaos and would provide even greater challenges to the popes in Rome. J.

Church and State in Medieval Times

An important theme in medieval European history was a struggle to define the relationship between the power of the Church and the power of human governments. The Cluny Reform represents one attempt by Church leaders to disentangle Church work and Church workers from worldly governments and their concerns. Yet, as long as Church leaders accepted gifts of land from donors, their leadership remained enmeshed in the feudal structure of Europe, which was political and sociological as well as economic.

A document called the Donation of Constantine supposedly gave the Pope, the head pastor in Rome, political control over not only the city of Rome but also many more properties in central Italy. Later research demonstrated that the Donation was not written in the time of Constantine but instead around the time of Charlemagne. Still, its existence and enforcement of its terms meant that Church leadership, beginning with the Pope, could not be separated from worldly power, not even by high-minded movements such as the Cluny Reform. The most significant form this struggle produced has come to be known as the Investiture Controversy.

“Investiture” means the giving of a job within the Church—a pastor or preacher in a local congregation, a bishop or overseer of several congregations, an archbishop overseeing a region with many congregations, or the Pope himself, who came to view himself as the overseer of all Christianity on earth, the Vicar of Christ representing his earthly authority over the Church. In feudal Europe, though, kings and emperors wanted to participate in the task of choosing Church leaders, particularly at the administrative level of bishops and archbishops. In a sinless world, Church leaders and worldly politicians would cooperate to find the best leaders for every open position in the Church hierarchy. Because both Church leaders and worldly politicians were imperfect sinners, they sometimes battled for control, each seeking appointments within the Church for his own benefit. Church leaders and worldly politicians all had relatives and friends to whom they owed favors, and the jobs of bishop and archbishop were highly-sought privileges. Church leaders wanted newly-named bishops and archbishops to be loyal to the Church; worldly politicians wanted bishops and archbishops to be loyal to the local authorities and to the people they served in their positions.

Sometimes worldly politicians would attempt to procure Church positions for men who were highly unqualified for leadership in the Church—men more interested in their own wealth and power than in service to Christ and His people, men who had not renounced sinful habits and ungodly living, men who had not even been educated in the Bible or the teachings of the Church. On the other hand, Church leaders sometimes imposed preachers and bishops upon their congregations who had no knowledge of the local customs or language, who had no interest in the part of Europe to which they were assigned, and who—on occasion—did not even bother to move to the location where they were assigned to serve, but merely told the congregation where to send the people’s offerings. Both sides in the Investiture Controversy could point to abuses made by the other side and could claim right motives for their own positions. As a result, the controversy raged for centuries.

The most famous episode of the Investiture Controversy involved a Holy Roman Emperor named Henry and a Pope named Gregory. When important Church positions opened within the borders of the Empire, Henry had men of his choice invested into those offices. Gregory objected, accused Henry of sinning against the Church and its Lord, and excommunicated Henry—indicating that Henry was no longer a Christian. Not being a Christian, Henry could not be Holy Roman Emperor, and Gregory actually chose a man to replace him. Of course Gregory had no authority to put that man in charge of the Empire, but Gregory’s proclamation led to civil war in the Empire which could only be ended by resolving the controversy. Henry visited a castle in northern Italy where Gregory was staying. According to tradition, the Emperor stood barefoot outside the castle for two days, waiting for the Pope to grant him an audience. (The actual two-day wait was probably spent mostly indoors, with occasional trips to the castle door to see if the Pope was ready yet to meet.) Eventually the leaders met and worked out a compromise that pleased them both, although it set no precedent for quarrels over Investiture at other times and in other places.

Another significant episode involved King John of England and Pope Innocent III. John is mostly known from the Robin Hood stories, although the real Robin Hood probably lived long after the time that John ruled. But John, like Emperor Henry before him, had a man of his own choice invested as Archbishop of Canterbury. Innocent demurred, preferring Stephen Langston for the office. Stephen was a talented scholar, who not only wrote profound commentaries on the Bible and penned a Pentecost hymn still sung often today, but who also is responsible for dividing the books of the Bible into chapters. Innocent not only excommunicated John; he also declared England to be under the Interdict until John capitulated and allowed Stephen to be invested. “Interdict” meant that the Church workers were out on strike. No church services. No weddings or funerals. No promise of forgiveness for sinners. The people of England panicked, and King John surrendered to the Pope; Stephen Langston became Archbishop of Canterbury.

King John was so weakened politically by this event that, not long afterward, he was forced by his nobles to sign the Magna Carta, or the Great Charter of England. Church life was free from political interference. Human rights were recognized in England. Taxes were limited and needed to be approved in advance by the nobles. While the Magna Carta was by no means the first effort to limit government in medieval Europe—Germanic customs had placed limits upon kings and emperors all along, providing a structure of government more in line with the Roman Republic than with the Empire of the Caesars—it was an important step toward the later recognition of human rights and of the need to limit government power in the lives of its citizens, including the principle of balancing power among the branches of government to provide such limits. J.

Early medieval civilization

More than fifteen hundred years ago, pirates captured a British boy named Patrick from the largest of the British Isles. They sold him as a slave on the second-largest island, the island known as Ireland. Patrick was British, but not in the sense of Anglo-Saxon. The Angles and Saxons were only beginning to invade Britain at that time. Patrick was a Celtic Briton, trained in some Roman ways (including Christianity). He would become the patron saint of the Irish; he is the Saint Patrick who is dimly remembered every 17th of March with leprechauns, shamrocks, parades, and green beer.

After a few years, Patrick escaped from slavery. He ended up in France, where he joined a monastery and became active in the Christian monastic life. That life included the preservation of holy and historic texts, including the Bible and the Church fathers, but also various classic Greek and Roman writings. Patrick remembered the pagan Irish who had been his masters, and he felt a yearning to bring them the Christian Gospel. Sent as a missionary, Patrick preached the Gospel in Ireland. He also established monasteries like the one where he had lived in France. While the various Germanic tribes stirred around the mainland and the largest of the British Isles, Christianity and its literate tradition remained strong in Ireland. When Europe became more settled, Irish missionaries carried their Christian teachings and traditions back to Britain and the mainland. Like other Germanic tribes, the Franks embraced this form of Christianity, and in so doing they become the heirs of Greco-Roman civilization.

The same civilization was continuing unbroken in the Byzantine Empire. The western version of those traditions differed in small ways from the eastern version; over time, those differences would increase. Charlemagne was especially interested in preserving and spreading the literate civilization of the monasteries. His royal court included literate monks from the regions he ruled and also from beyond those regions. Even later raids from the Vikings could not extinguish the light of European civilization that had been inherited from Greece and Rome and had been perpetuated in the monastic movement, especially in Ireland.

Meanwhile, culture in western Europe had not come to a standstill. The Church was not merely preserving treasured documents from the past; it was also producing new literature, beginning with the Roman bishops Pope Leo the Great and Pope Gregory the Great. Other great writers of the early medieval time included Boethius (who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy), the writer known as Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and the Venerable Bede. All these writers contributed to the progress of civilization that was happening in Europe during the early Middle Ages.

Many Christians joined the monasteries. Others supported the monasteries with gifts, including bequests of land. By the time Carolingian rulers were being replaced by Capetians and Ottonians (Saxon kings named Otto who were crowned as emperors), some congregations and monasteries possessed great wealth in land, serfs, and treasures. This led to divergence from the original intention of monasteries, even abuse of the Christian religion. Rather than keeping their pledges of chastity, poverty, and obedience, monks had live-in girlfriends. They ate better than the peasants and even than some of the nobility. They used their influence to control the politics of the regions where they lived. Through these abuses, they were giving Christ and his Church a bad name in Europe.

A reform movement began in the 800s and gathered steam in the 900s, reversing this trend of worldliness and deceit in the Church. Associated with the Cluny Abbey in Aquitaine—then in the country of Burgundy, but now part of France—the Cluny Reform (or Cluniac Reform) spread throughout France, Spain, Italy, and England. Monasteries following the new set of rules (which reaffirmed the goals of earlier monasticism) networked with one another and were, for a time, the largest religious influence in Europe. Several leaders of this reform movement were later elected popes. Although Protestant Christians often think of reformation as a series of events during the sixteenth century, the Cluny Reform and later reformations of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries also helped sustain the life of genuine Christianity in a world that frequently tempts Christian leaders to depart from Christ’s paths and to travel their own direction. J.

The Feudal (not futile) Era

Charlemagne’s empire crystalized an economic, social, and political system called feudalism. This system flowed from the mixture of Roman and Germanic ways of life as channeled by Christian beliefs and practices. Roman society favored a landed estate, owned by the aristocracy and worked by slaves. Christian teachings did not prohibit slavery—both Old and New Testament regulated slavery rather than forbidding it, but the New Testament also stresses the brotherhood and equality of all Christians under the Lord Christ and in His Church. Under Germanic leaders, the working class shifted from slaves to serfs. Serfs, unlike slaves, were not property to be bought and sold. They belonged to the land and could not be removed from the land; when the land changed hands, owners moved but serfs remained. The genius of feudalism was that mutual obligations and services existed at every level of society. Like a lease between renter and landlord today, the agreement between serfs and lords placed each party under obligation to the other. Serfs tended the land, produced a crop for the lords, and had other duties on the estate. Lords protected their serfs, acknowledged their rights, and saw that their basic needs were met. Abuses happened in feudalism, as was the case with slaves and masters and is the case with employers and workers today. But feudalism was right for Europe’s Middle Ages (and similar systems existed in India, China, and especially Japan around the same time).

Lords owned land and directed the serfs who lived on the land. But lords answered to higher officials—to counts and dukes and earls and other nobility. Those counts and dukes and earls answered to kings. The kings answered to an emperor. The emperor answered to God—sometimes directly and sometimes through Church officials (and that balance could be contentious at times). Each of these relationships involved promises of loyalty and protection, and the feudal bonds could be broken if promises were not kept. Many of the landowners—lords, counts, dukes, and earls—were warriors, or knights, who served their kings and their emperor. They needed wealth to be knights—to have armor and weapons and a horse, as well as means to maintain them and training to use them properly. They might train some of their serfs as infantry, but warfare relied upon the cavalry of knights, and those knights were expected to follow the rules of warfare and of society according to the code of chivalry.

Feudalism helped to maintain a stable society, but it also opened the door to a passage toward our modern economy. Not all peasants were serfs who worked the land on the lords’ estates. Some serfs on the estates, and some peasants not tied to the land, excelled in crafts that were not agricultural. Some were builders in stone or in wood. Some were smiths, working with metals. Some made clothing. Sheep were raised for their wool, so the fabric industry needed shepherds, shearers, spinners, weavers, fullers, dyers, and tailors. Likewise, cattle were raised for milk, for farm labor, for meat, and for leather. Tanners and shoemakers came from the peasantry. (Consider how many of these crafts became last names that still are used today.) Some serfs were released from their manorial duties and became free peasants. Some ran away from the estate. Some already lived in free cities. Together, they formed a class of workers who were able to unite into guilds that oversaw their crafts and protected their rights as workers.

A city might have three shoemaking shops, each owned and operated by a craftsman and his family. The three shops did not compete for customers; instead, the master shoemakers met frequently as a guild to set prices for shoes and to discuss their work. If a fourth shoemaker moved to town, he could not open a shop without joining the guild and receiving its permission to work in the city. Likewise, each master shoemaker had assistants who were learning to make shoes—perhaps his own sons, perhaps apprentices from other families. These assistants might hope to open their own shop one day, or they might hope to take the place of their master when he died; but they could do neither without permission from the guild. Every craft had its own guild. The lords, the counts and dukes and earls, the kings, even the emperor and the Church leaders could not interfere with the guilds. They made their own rules and governed their own affairs. The seeds of capitalism were already sprouting during the Middle Ages within the guilds.

Merchants had their guilds as well. They bought items in one city and sold them in another; they also purchased and sold items that had traveled the silk roads from far-away lands. Medieval merchants were also proto-capitalists as they combined forces to protect their trade and to resist interference from governments and the Church. One of the most powerful merchant guilds, the Hanseatic League, operated in northern Europe at the height of the Middle Ages. Travel between cities was both protected and financed by merchants in the various cities of the League. Even the emperor and the archbishops of the Church had no power to tell the members of the Hanseatic League what to do with their money, their purchases, and their sales.

Rudimentary banking existed in ancient empires, including Rome, but most people preferred barter and personal trade to government currency. Money from the government was used mostly to pay taxes, not as exchange between citizens. Lending institutions were problematic, because the Bible prohibits usury—lending money or items of value for repayment with interest assessed on the loan. Instead of usury, Christians were expected to care for one another, to lend to the needy without expecting (or demanding) repayment, to pay a worker timely wages and to prefer heavenly treasure over earthly wealth. One loophole used during the Middle Ages was for Christians to lend to Jews and for Jews to lend to Christians. They could charge interest on their loans, since they were not family under the same religion. Since Jews were barred from owning land in most European countries, banking was one of the few businesses open to them. (Jews have no natural gifts for banking or desire to handle money; Christian rulers essentially forced them into the banking business.) By the High Middle Ages, usury was redefined from “lending at interest” to “lending at excessive interest.” By that definition, Christians were able to finance one another’s ventures. Some families, such as the Fuggers, became very wealthy under this system. Historians who claim that modern banking was invented in Italy during the Renaissance overlook the development of capitalistic financial practices in Europe long before the Italian banks were established in the 1400s.

These times were not Dark Ages in Europe. They were times of development and improvement, times which were leading Europeans toward the modern era. Science, education, and theology were also taking strides at this same time, as I will show in a future post. J.

The so-called “Dark Ages”

Historians once labeled the medieval period of Europe’s history “the Dark Ages.” This misleading label suggested that a glorious past existed under Roman rule, but that all that was good from Rome disappeared for centuries because of barbarian invasions. The same historians designated the end of the Dark Ages the “Renaissance” or rebirth; a slightly later age they called the “Enlightenment,” as if at that time the barbarian darkness was finally dispelled. This approach overlooks the continuity of Rome’s glory in the Byzantine Empire. It also sidesteps the efforts of Germanic tribes to continue the best of Roman ways in combination with their own cultures, not only continuing Roman civilization, but improving upon it. To show the deception of these labels, one needs only to ask when the Dark Ages ended—when did Europe become civilized again? No matter how hard one strives to identify a beginning to the rebirth, the enlightenment, the glory of modern Europe, its origins and sponsors are always found within that medieval period that has been described as Dark Ages.

Of course the British Isles were only lightly touched by Rome. The Celts had come to Britain long before the Romans, displacing an earlier group, those responsible for monuments such as Stonehenge. Julius Caesar crossed the channel and asserted Roman authority over some of the Celts; the emperors who followed Caesar continued to claim that authority. Eventually, though, the Roman armies were withdrawn. Germanic tribes crossed from the mainland: Saxons and Angles and others. Arthur, King of the Britons, was among the Romanized (and Christian) Celts who tried to prevent the incursion, but eventually the newcomers and older tribes mingled to create England. Later generations saw the Vikings come. In the middle of the eleventh century, England was a prize to be claimed by one of three Viking clans. The winner, in 1066, was William the Conqueror, who came from Normandy ( a settlement of Vikings on the coast of France) to claim England from another Viking ruler, King Harold, who had repelled an invasion from Danish Vikings just before William’s victory.

During these same centuries, Iberia was settled by Gothic Germans who blended their ways with Roman civilization. They were then displaced by Muslim rulers who controlled Iberia for several generations, until Christian rulers slowly claimed the land for themselves, establishing minor kingdoms which would eventually coalesce into the modern nations of Spain and Portugal.

But most important among the nations of the early medieval period was the Franks. This Germanic tribe had been persuaded by the Romans to guard the border for Rome, allowing Roman troops to strengthen the empire’s position elsewhere. With the withdrawal of Roman power to Constantinople, the Merovingian kings of the Franks grew in power and importance. Clovis, King of the Franks, considered the teachings of two groups of Christian missionaries, accepting the Trinitarian doctrine of one group and rejecting the Arian heresy of the other; this selection was vital for the survival and growth of genuine Christianity in Europe. Over time, the Franks established control over much of the territory that the Romans had called Gaul; over those same centuries, the Merovingian king became increasingly a figurehead, as real leadership rested in his assistant, dubbed the Mayor of the Palace. One of those Mayors, Charles Martel, stopped the Muslim advance into western Europe. His son, Pepin, made a proposal to the Merovingian king, Childerec: he suggested that Childerec wanted to become a monk and leave the kingdom to Pepin. Childerec looked at the soldiers standing with Pepin and saw their weapons, realized he had no defenders standing on his side, and agreed that he had always wanted to be a monk. Pepin began the Carolingian line of kings, a line named for Pepin’s son Charles, who is known as Charlemagne, or Charles the Great.

Charles expanded the Frankish kingdom into central Europe, defeating Germanic tribes and converting the survivors to Christianity. He also battled Germanic tribes in Italy, receiving the thanks of Pope Leo III. On Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo placed a crown on the head of King Charles, declaring Charlemagne to be Roman Emperor. This coronation shows that western Europeans still considered themselves to be the heirs of Rome. It also was taken by later popes to demonstrate the authority of the Church over earthly kings and emperors.

Charlemagne intended to divide his kingdom among his sons, but he outlived all but one of those sons. Louis the Pious replaced his father on the throne; when he died twenty-five years later, the Carolingian kingdom was divided among his three sons. Charles in the west and Louis in the east squeezed their brother Lothar out of his lands in the middle (although Lothar was equally eager to vanquish his brothers and claim the entire kingdom for himself). The western portion of the kingdom became France; the eastern portion, several centuries later, would become Germany.

The Carolingian line remained in control of France for 150 years, in spite of some rebellions and rival rulers. Their biggest problem was the incursion of the Vikings from the north. The Carolingian line endured in the east less than a century, but the imperial power remained under other rulers. The result in central Europe was a confederation of kingdoms, cities, and other lands, all of which acknowledged one man as Holy Roman Emperor; this political entity survived until the time of Napoleon. Meanwhile, France likewise held together as a European power through the centuries until its royal government was terminated in the French Revolution, which would go on to produce the very same Napoleon. J.

The history of Islam: part three

My first college roommate once asked me, “Do you know why we Arabs hate you Americans?”

I responded, “No, Mohamed, please tell me why you Arabs hate us Americans.”

“After World War II,” he informed me, “you helped rebuild your friends, Britain and France, and that made sense. You also helped rebuild your enemies, Germany and Japan, and that was strange. You helped everyone else in the world—you even helped the Jews get their own country—but you did nothing for us. That’s why we hate you today.”

It seems strange that a young man, born several years after the war ended and the rebuilding was accomplished, should carry a national grudge to the point of hatred. It also seems strange that, in spite of that hatred, he would travel to the United States to take classes in our schools. But Mohamed’s view of the United States reflects a reality found across the Muslim world over the past seventy years. (Bear in mind that, while most Arabs are Muslims, most Muslims are not Arabs. Yet from Indonesia to Nigeria, the feelings expressed by my roommate are common.) For a time, the United States had become a world power, matched only by the Soviet Union. But Muslims had exercised political power in the world in the past, and they expect to rise to that level again.

Five hundred years ago, many Muslims lived in powerful Old World empires ruled by Muslims. The Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Moguls each were stronger and more advanced than any European government. Muslims could take credit for scientific and medical advances, for philosophical inquiries, for outstanding artistic accomplishments, and for revolutionary mathematics (such as algebra). But new things were happening in Europe: exploration of the world’s oceans bringing discovery of previously unknown lands, reformation of the Christian Church, a Scientific Revolution, an Industrial Revolution, and a philosophy that called itself the Enlightenment. On the political front, Enlightenment philosophy declared that all human beings are equal and that we all have rights; that government should be limited in power and should protect those rights; that people should have freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly; and that education provides a way to develop those freedoms and to establish that equality. Coupled with an economic movement called Capitalism, this philosophy was developed in western Europe, was tried in the thirteen United States of North America, and was eventually established in Europe and was transported around the world.

 As the Muslim empires lost political power, some leaders tried to imitate European ways, hoping to catch up to Europe’s scientific and industrial advances and to maintain their place on the world stage. Other Muslims said that Enlightenment philosophy was opposed to Shariah and the Qur’an; they would accept western science and technology, but not western ideas about freedom and equality. By the end of the first World War, the Muslim empires had collapsed. European governments—especially Britain and France—held political power over north Africa and west Asia. But, following the second World War, Britain and France began to divest themselves of their colonies. They recognized national governments in Africa and Asia, withdrawing their armed forces and seeking trade with their former colonies. Where Old World empires once had prevailed, now Third World nations were on the board, eyed by the powers of the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States offered freedom, democracy, and the benefits of capitalism. The Soviet Union offered stability, socialism, and a dream of world-wide Communism. Both sides in the Cold War looked at the Third World as a battleground for their ideas. Both sides assumed that “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” and that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” If a government favored one side in the Cold War, opponents of that government were assumed to be fighting for the other side. The possibility of a third side that hated both Americans and Soviets seems to have escaped both Americans and Soviets during their conduct of the Cold War.

Eventually, the United States and its allies won the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed. China remained under the control of the Communist Party, but it turned away from socialism and embraced capitalism. Those few countries that cling to soviet-style socialism (North Korea and Cuba) are trapped in economic doldrums; those that embraced freedom and capitalism most fervently (such as Germany and Japan) became economic powerhouses.

Meanwhile, the Muslim world remains skeptical about the value of freedom and democracy. Most are governed by a small elite. While they learned to play the economic game of capitalism, teasing industry’s thirst for oil to their enrichment, Muslim governments continued to try to balance Shariah against Enlightenment values of freedom, equality, and education for all people. Well-to-do Muslim families in Asia and Africa have satellite dishes; they watch American television. They do not tune in to religious broadcasting or to documentaries on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. No, they watch our entertainment shows. They have learned about life in the United States from Seinfeld and Friends, from Jersey Shore and the Kardashians. Given those examples, one can easily see why Muslims might question the benefits of freedom, democracy, and education for all people.

All Muslims are not the same. Many appreciate the United States and value what we are when we are at our best. Most do not wish harm upon us, so long as we leave them alone. But twenty years ago, a group of Muslim terrorists attacked the United States. They did not target churches; they worked to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They showed us what they reject about us: our obsession with worldly wealth and power, our display of human beings at their worst rather than at their best.

Before we hope to be a light to the world, a shining city on a hill, the United States must clean up its own act. We must learn to use freedom responsibly, to use education in a way that shapes better people, to devote our resources for meaningful purposes. We can do better than we have done. When we live up to our own standards of truth and justice and the American way, then we will be recognized as people who have something worth sharing. J.

The history of Islam: part two

Muhammad’s insistence that he was receiving messages from God met skeptical ears and minds in Mecca, just as any claim to have messages from God meets skeptical ears and minds today. A few did believe Muhammad, though, and then a few more believed. This growing group of believers prompted resistance from the authorities in Mecca. For years the determination of both sides increased. A turning point came when the leaders of a nearby town (then named Yathrib; today called Medina) invited Muhammad to come to their town and settle disputes among their leaders. Muhammad’s clandestine journey to Medina became the first year for the Muslim count of years, as the assumed date of the birth of Jesus is the first year in the Christian count of years. (Because Muslims begin a new month every new moon and have no leap days or leap months, the Muslim year is ten or eleven years shorter than the Christian years. As a result, Muslim observances drift through the seasons, falling sometimes in summer and other times in winter.) Relations between Muhammad’s followers in Medina and his opponents in Mecca led sometimes to armed battles and sometimes to negotiations and compromises. In the end, Muhammad claimed authority in Mecca; he had the altars of false gods removed from the city center, but he kept one meteorite in Mecca, designating it as sacred to God. Observant Muslims treat that stone with reverence; it stands at the center of their pilgrimage ceremonies in Mecca.

When Muhammad died, he left no instructions about who was to continue leading the Muslims in Mecca, Medina, and the surrounding area. His followers understood that Muhammad was the last of the prophets; there would not be a next prophet. But they needed someone to guide their movement. Therefore, they designated a Caliph, a man who could speak in place of the prophet. Four Caliphs were selected in the thirty years after Muhammad died—a new one was chosen when the last one had died. Some Muslims believe that the fourth Caliph—Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad—should have been the first Caliph. This controversy began the split among Muslims that continues as a division between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Other groups also had variant understandings about how Islam should be governed. After the death of the fourth Caliph, the Umayyad family gathered control of Muslim government, ruling from the city Damascus for almost a century. They eventually gave way to the Abbasid family, who built a new capitol city in Mesopotamia, the city of Baghdad, from which they continued to rule Muslim lands.

For, within a century of Muhammad’s death, Muslim Arabs had spread as an army across north Africa and into Spain, and also into western Asia as far as the western part of India. They permitted religious freedom to “People of the Book,” but they demanded that polytheists acknowledge the one God or die. The Caliphs, the Umayyads, and the Abbasids determined Sharia for the many people living in these lands. Already, though, Islam was splintering, as Shia and other groups resisted some of the interpretations of the central Islamic government. Muslims in Spain and Morocco never acknowledged the Abbasid government in Baghdad, recognizing their own local leaders as successors to the Umayyads. Other north African groups developed their own Muslim governments, including the Fatimid government in Egypt, who claimed that their leaders were descended from Ali and from his wife Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad.

Meanwhile, invaders were entering west Asia from the central part of the continent. The Saljuq Turks invaded the Abbasid Empire, leaving the Abbasid Caliph as a figurehead but dominating the government of Baghdad. The strength of the Saljuq Turks caused the Byzantine Emperor to call for reinforcements from western Europe, conjuring the Crusades. Turks were no more impressed by Byzantines by the European fighters, but they offered an alliance if the Christian Crusaders would help them battle the Fatimids in Egypt. The Fatimids offered a similar alliance. Reluctant to sign a treaty with either group, the Crusaders held their kingdoms for a bit more than a hundred years before they were overwhelmed by the Turks, led by the Kurdish general Saladin. Later the Mongol Empire, including additional Turks among their soldiers, seized Persia and Mesopotamia, including Baghdad. Mongols and Turks who remained in west Asia converted to Islam and continued to rule as their predecessors the Umayyads and Abbasids had ruled.

By 1500, Muslim rule was divided among three Empires, along with smaller kingdoms. In India the Moguls ruled, a Turkish group drew their name from the Mongol Empire. In Persia the Safavids held power. Further west the Ottoman Empire appeared. This Empire grew to claim much of the land that had belonged to the Byzantine Empire, overthrowing the final Byzantine government in Constantinople in 1453. At their peak, all three of these empires were mightier than any comparable power in Europe.

The balance slowly changed. European explorers and colonists brought wealth from other nations into Europe, while the Muslim empires remained stagnant. Technology and invention flourished in Europe, but not among the Moguls, the Safavids, or the Ottomans. Vibrant new ideas about democracy and human rights arose in Europe, but the Muslim empires held to their older ways. Eventually, the empires withered. British power displaced the Moguls in India. Austria and Russia pushed back the borders of the Ottoman Empire (which still survived until after World War I ended.) Many reasons have been proposed for this shift of power, and most of them probably contain some truth.

Some Muslim leaders tried to learn from European powers and imitate their successes. Muhammad Ali, a viceroy serving the Ottoman Empire in Egypt, practically created an independent country using European methods and technology. A group called Young Turks tried to do the same in the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Many Muslims imitated European culture, European music and clothing, and European philosophy regarding human rights. Others resisted. Movements calling for rejection of European ways, for a return to the vital principles of Islam, arose in all the Muslim Empires.

Meanwhile, Islam was spreading during these centuries in non-military ways. Merchants worked trade routes into Africa and across India to southeastern Asia, as well as into central Asia. When merchants built houses and mosques and brought their wives and children, their example often won converts to their religion. The peaceful Muslim incursion into the islands of Indonesia outlasted Dutch Christian influence in most of those islands, which is why the country today with the largest number of Muslims is Indonesia (not Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Iran).

In my next post I will look at Islam in the world today and how it relates to other ideas, both religious and secular. J.

The history of Islam: part one

When I began college (a great many years ago), my first dormitory roommate was a young man named Mohamed; he was from the country of Jordan. After we had shared a room for a few weeks and had talked about other things, one day out of the blue he asked me, “We Muslims have great respect for your prophet Jesus; why don’t you Christians have any respect for our prophet Muhammad?”

No one could identify the difference between our two religions more distinctly.

Islam could be considered a Christian heresy, like Arianism and Nestorianism, or like some of the newer developments in Christianity. Both religions believe in one God. Both consider him eternal and unchanging, all-powerful, knowing all things, present everywhere. Both consider him good and holy and merciful and the source of all that is good. Both regard the one God as Creator of all that exists, and both define evil as corruption of the good things made by God. Both look to him as the giver of all laws, the One who has the right to tell people how to behave and to punish people for breaking his laws. Both religions await a Day of Judgment with a resurrection of all people, followed by heaven for God’s people and eternal punishment for God’s enemies. Both believe that God has spoken to his people through prophets. Indeed, when the teachings of Christianity are reduced to the verbs, “Trust and Obey,” no distinction remains between Christian teachings and Muslim teachings.

Muslims believe that Islam is the first and original religion, the only true religion, and that all other religions are corruptions of that true religion. Muslims believe that Adam and Abraham and Moses and David and Jesus all preached the same message that Muhammad preached, but that their message was changed by their followers. Muhammad’s prophetic messages, received as the Qur’an, teach that God is one and has no equal. The Qur’an clearly states that God has no Son. God sends messengers, but God has never sent a Savior. Each person is required to work out his or her own salvation by obeying God’s commands. As in Christianity, the commands can be reduced to two laws: be faithful to God, and love and help your neighbors. Anyone who can say—and truly believe—that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet is a Muslim.

Muhammad was born in Mecca, a city in Arabia, around the year 570. The city of Mecca contained many religious people: some worshipped many gods, others were Jews, and others were Christians. Even the Christians were divided into groups that argued with one another. Muhammad wanted to know the truth, so he sought God in prayer and meditation, asking to be sent the truth. Evidently, Muhammad never heard or heeded Saint Paul’s warning in Galatians 1 to avoid anyone, even an angel, who brings a different gospel. A being of light appeared to Muhammad, telling him to recite, and began passing on to Muhammad messages the being said came from God. Those messages, when written, were preserved as the Qur’an.

More than half the people in the world today are either Christian or Muslim, although both religions include many nominal followers who are labeled as Christian or Muslim according to culture and family tradition, not according to their top priorities. In some places, the two growing religions confront one another violently, as in Nigeria, the Sudan, and Ethiopia. At first, Muhammad and his followers had greater respect for Jews and Christians than they had for polytheists. “People of the Book,” as they were called, were allowed to continue to practice their religion, although they paid higher taxes than Muslims and were barred from most government jobs. Some converted to Islam because they saw no difference between the two religions; others converted for economic reasons. Islam quickly became a majority religion in many parts of west Asia and north Africa.

Observant Muslims pray five times a day, facing Mecca. They donate two percent of their net worth (not their income) every year to assist the poor. They fast during daylight hours one month of the year, showing their commitment to God and their awareness of the problems of the poor. They seek, at least once in their lifetime, to take part in a pilgrimage to Mecca. They try to obey the commandments of God, which are encompassed in a legal system called Shariah. This system can vary from region to region, because religious questions (for most Muslims) are answered in a four-step process. First: what does the Qur’an say? Second, what do the history and traditions about Muhammad reveal? Third, what precedents have been set when the question has been asked before? Fourth, what does common sense (guided by the Qur’an and the traditions) suggest? Religious experts provide answers according to this path, and even governments are expected to follow the understanding of the experts. Muslim countries vary considerably in the amount of influence Shariah has over national and local laws. Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iran under the Ayatollah, and Saudi Arabia are more tied to Shariah as declared by the experts than are Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, and other countries that are largely Muslim in population.

Muslims agree about God, Muhammad, and the Qur’an. They disagree about many other things—for example, about whether God created the world quickly a few thousand years ago or worked through evolution through many millions of years, about the place of women in society and government, and about the use of violence to overthrow worldly and unholy entities in the world. Like Christianity, Islam is divided into competing groups that sometimes are more rigorously opposed to one another than they are to groups outside of Islam.

In two coming posts, I will describe the political history of Islam and the Muslim understanding of the world today. J.

The Byzantine Empire

According to tradition, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BC. (Archaeology suggests that people lived at that location far earlier, but likely for most or all that time, they did not consider themselves “Romans.”) The last Roman king was deposed in 509 BC, creating the Republic of Rome, which expanded over the centuries to rule the Mediterranean basin. Under Octavian Caesar, called Augustus, the Republic was replaced by the Roman Empire in 27 BC. This Empire continued to be ruled from Rome until Emperor Constantine moved the government to Constantinople in 330 AD. Constantine thus began the Byzantine Empire, which was viewed as a continuation of Roman government and culture; this Empire survived until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD.

In other words, the duration of the Byzantine Empire from Constantine until the Ottoman success was more than eleven centuries, a few more years than those that encompass the entire traditional Roman history from the founding of the city to the moving of the government. Given continuity of Roman culture, the Roman civilization lasted more two thousand years. Even treating the Byzantine Empire as a separate entity from Rome, its existence for eleven centuries makes it far more durable than most other Empires and other centralized governments of human history.

When historians focus attention upon the immigration of Germanic groups into the western Empire and neglect the continuity of Roman civilization in the eastern Empire, they misinterpret history. The west blended Roman civilization, law, and traditions with their Germanic ways; the east became more Greek in its outlook, but remained as a major world power through dozens of emperors. The Byzantine Empire had challenges of its own from immigrants, including Goths and Bulgars and Slavs and Avars. Later, it protected Europe from the advance of Islamic civilization, although it lost north Africa and parts of western Asia in the process. Roman literature, science, architecture, and philosophy were preserved by the Byzantines, as was the Christian religion. All of these were them communicated with other civilizations. Missionaries from Constantinople brought Christianity north into eastern Europe, even inventing an alphabet so they could share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the Russians. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Empire remained a key link in the Silk Roads which united the continents in an economic system of trade (along with transportation of technology and of ideas) over the centuries. The Byzantine Empire was essential for world civilizations and particularly for the continuing development of western civilization while it remained in power.

The Emperor Justinian, two centuries after Constantine, was one of the most important rulers of the Byzantine Empire. He recodified Roman Law, enabling it to survive into modern times and to shape the legal codes of many current governments. He strengthened Byzantine power in the Mediterranean Sea, even recapturing some of the lands that had been claimed by Germanic governments. He also shared political power with his wife, Theodora—much to the dismay of many men in the eastern government and Church. Justinian, like Roman emperors before him, supported the arts and was responsible for beautification of the capitol city—in his case, including the construction of the church building called Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom.

In the eleventh century, Muslim military forces in western Asia were strengthened by the influx of Turks from central Asia, who had been displaced by the growth of China. Needing reinforcements to keep his borders secure, the Byzantine Emperor called for help from European Christianity. Thus began the Crusades. The Emperor was not impressed with the quality of warrior arriving from the west, but he prepared to place them as shock troops in front of his better-trained soldiers. Instead, they headed south and captured Jerusalem, establishing five western-style kingdoms in the Holy Land, kingdoms that lasted more than a century. The eventual decline of those kingdoms led to further crusades, including the disastrous Fourth Crusade, which sacked Constantinople and never made it to Jerusalem. This event, though eventually overturned by Byzantine fighters, was the beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire, even though it held on for another two centuries after that catastrophe. Distrust between eastern Christianity and western Christianity had begun before the Crusades and only worsened during these times. The fall of Constantinople was not recognized in Europe for the turning point of history that it became, although not many more years would pass before Turkish warriors were at the gates of Vienna, threatening to overwhelm western civilization. But that story awaits another chapter. J.

Popes and monks and other stuff

Constantine’s confession and avowal of Christianity was a mixed blessing for the Church. On the one hand, they were free from persecution—free to build churches and invite people to join them for worship, free to share their faith with neighbors and family and friends, free from fear that they might be arrested, tortured, and killed for their faith in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, this freedom opened the doors for nominal Christians, for those who claimed a place in the Church without true faith in the Savior, for those who sought to use the Church for their own purposes rather than joining the Church from a commitment to Jesus Christ.

Moreover, Constantine’s embrace of Christianity brought worldliness into the Church. Now the Church could receive gifts of money and property and could maintain that property—for the service of the Lord, but also for worldly profit and gain. Now the Church could become involved in worldly politics—in the name of Jesus, but sometimes contradicting his will and his purposes for the Church. Becoming respectable in the world encouraged some Christian leaders to imitate the world and to judge their service to God by the world’s standards of success. These challenges remain for Christians to face in the twenty-first century Church.

Constantine and the eastern (Byzantine) emperors after him believed that they answered only to God. Church leaders answered to God and to the emperors. A structure of authority had developed within the Church, acknowledging various ministries in each congregation with a head pastor or bishop, along with regional leaders who could be considered archbishops. Five of those archbishops had pre-eminence in the Church because of the size and antiquity of their congregations—those in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. The most important decisions about faith and practice were made in councils—the few great councils, and many smaller regional councils that handled lesser matters and affirmed the conclusions of the great councils. Much later, three of the pre-eminent congregations would be overwhelmed by the growth of Islam, leaving Rome and Constantinople to quarrel over leadership of Christianity on earth. By this time, the head pastor in Rome had already assumed political power, filling the vacuum left as Roman power retreated to the east. Power battles between Rome and Constantinople, and between the pope and secular leaders in western Europe, would fill the pages of history in later centuries.

Even before Constantine, the practice of monasticism had already begun in the Church. Some Christians sought closeness with God, closeness that could not reach its fullness in congregational life. They went into the wilderness to pray, to meditate, to escape worldly temptations, and to test themselves with ascetic practices. They survived with minimal food, minimal clothing, minimal shelter, and no social commitments. In some ways, these monastic practices were informed by the same Greek distrust of the physical world that had energized Gnostic beliefs. Yet these monks and hermits also offered a way for Christianity to survive and flourish in spite of the challenges of worldliness that the Church faced in those centuries.

One of the most famous Christians to practice monasticism was Anthony, who lived in Egypt. He had a reputation of holiness, of total commitment to Jesus Christ, and even of being capable of working miracles. To escape the world, he made his home in the desert. Because of his reputation, other Christians sought him in the desert and asked to join him. Anthony might have asked them, “What part of ‘alone’ do you not understand?” Instead, accepting the inevitable, Anthony made a set of rules about asceticism and self-denial. He did not require those rules of all Christians, but only of those who insisted on living near him.

Many other early Christians followed Anthony’s rules, or sets of rules that were similar. What worked in the Egyptian desert—especially regarding clothing and food—was not suited for life in Europe; Benedict of Nursia (480-550) developed the Benedictine Rule that some Christians still follow today. Common patterns in monastic life included poverty, chastity, and obedience. Bread, water, and some green vegetables were frequently the diet of monastic Christians—lettuce, but no dressing; bread, but no butter; no meat or dairy; no wine or other alcoholic beverages; no luxuries, and only the bare necessities. Jerome—a monk living in Bethlehem, famous for his Bible translation—disparaged Christians who paid too much attention to hygiene. Jerome claimed that you could distinguish the real monks from the imitators, because you could smell the real monks even before they entered the room.

Monastic communities developed forms of Christian worship that many congregations still use today. They preserved and copied Christian literature—not only the Bible, but also the writings of many Church Fathers. As non-Christian groups invaded Europe and devastated many centers of civilization, monastic Christianity preserved what was best from Roman times. Patrick, a Christian from Britain, was kidnapped as a boy, taken by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. After a few years, he escaped, and ended up living for a time in a monetary in France. Patrick remembered the pagans of Ireland and felt burdened to bring them the Gospel. When he became the great Saint Patrick, missionary to Ireland, he also imported monasticism from France. In later generations, when France had been overrun by Germanic groups, missionaries came from Ireland, bringing back the Gospel and the monastic life that Patrick had transplanted to their island. In this way, Christian faith and Roman traditions remained alive in western Europe during the region’s most troubled times.

For a time, then, early Christianity was the prevailing culture of the Mediterranean world. J.