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The Dark Ages

The sun had set on Europe. The light of the World had been dimmed, lost in the shadows in most places. We are near the end of that period, known historically (and controversially if the revisionists are to be believed) as the Dark Ages. It is 920 AD.

So what was the state of the nation in that year? The liberating truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ had been around for nearly nine centuries, plenty of time to clean up a dirty, filthy, corrupt World. But these were the Dark Ages, not an optimistic title. What had gone wrong? Where was the evidence of redeemed lives? Where had the light gone? Had Christianity failed, betrayed by the flaws of the human heart, or by external forces that it just couldn't stand up to?

It was a truly sorry picture. The Roman Empire was long gone. Christian Europe had imploded, the true faith torn apart through the corruptions of State Christianity and invasions from the north and the east, forcing migrations and uncertainty. Violence swept the lands, cities destroyed, churches ransacked, agriculture diminished and populations declined, most languishing as peasants or slaves.

Lots of factors have been attributed to this dramatic reverse - plague, the rise of Islam and the Huns and Barbarians, even an ice age in the 6th Century. Not too much is known of this period, due to the lack of active contemporary historians in this turbulent and uncertain time. It seems that people were too busy watching their backs to contemplate their social architecture. And, of course, few could actually write! So we must look inwards, at the Church itself. What were the Christians doing at this time? The Holy Bible had been finalised and distributed centuries earlier, so God's revelation to mankind was available to all. Wasn't this enough to provide all the answers at that time?

Of course it was, if people had access to it or had the necessary skills not just to understand it, but to actually read it in the first place. Literacy was virtually non-existent except with the clergy, the professional Christians. Even many kings of the time were illiterate. The common man and woman eked out their existence in a haze of superstition and ignorance.

The Christian dream had become a nightmare. In the last few articles we saw the young Church growing under the questionable guidance of the Greek and Latin Christian philosophers. The issues that concerned them became Church-wide debates at that time, engaging all. Pagan ideas may have infiltrated the Church, but at least there was a passionate dialogue going on, at least brains were thoroughly engaged. Something had happened in the intervening years. If Google had been around at the time, powered by the hot air of Greek rhetoric, popular searches in the year 250 AD could have been: What is the relationship between Jesus and the Father? What are the beliefs of Montanism? How relevant is Platonism in the Church? Why can't I celebrate Passover with my Jewish neighbour? Moving along to 920 AD we find our search engine powered by mud, grime and the ash of torched churches. Popular searches could have been: Why are there so many private parts of St Ananius? How can you ward off a magic charm? Why are monks so fat? Why does my Jewish neighbour need to feed off Christian blood?

It was a big step from the world of philosophy and reason of the 3rd Century, to the dark places of superstition and irrationality of the 10th Century. To get one insight on this it is worth considering the life and works of probably the most influential thinker of the early Church, Augustine of Hippo. To Catholics of every generation he is one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity. To others he is the philosopher who infused Christian doctrine with Platonism, another Christian philosopher already!

Augustine was enormously influential in many ways. From him we get the idea of original sin and our traditional understanding of evil. He has contributed much, yet it is worth looking at what influenced him. He was originally a follower of Manicheanism, a cult that promoted a form of dualism, with good versus evil, light versus darkness, body versus soul. His later influence was Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, who introduced him to the Bible interpretation techniques of Origen, developed from the dualistic ideas of Plato.

So what did Augustine do? We find out next week ...

Steve Maltz
September 2013

 (This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Truth)

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