Wednesday, March 04, 2020

When Did Europe Become Christian?

It's a trick question, isn't it? One could say that it never did, even though it was the standard-bearer for bringing Christianity to the world. Did Germany become pagan with the rise of the Nazis, or was it always partly pagan and incompletely Christian? The Goths were Christian,and the Vandals were Arian Christians, and displayed their faith by torturing the other types of Christians' priests. Clovis became Christian, and then his men the day after.  So what did they mean by that come that Sunday? What would they have said, and at what point would a modern Presbyterian say OK, that qualifies.  You're in the club. 

I think we can find some hard measurements in the High Middle Ages of widespread Christian practice, a good bit of piety and sacrifice, and fairly good knowledge of basic doctrine.  They tolerated a lot of physical cruelty, but all ages and places of mankind have done that.  If you wanted to point to one very great difference of modern ethical sensibilities, noting that we are far less physically cruel would be a good first choice, and that is very recent. It is also fair to say that the Christians of the time defined their own Christianity largely in terms of having no Muslims, no Jews, no pagans, and no heretics nearby. Our definitions might be so different that neither would recognise the other. We would each find the other to be very great sinners.

The Puritans and Quakers who first came to America may have a good claim to serious Christian living, though that often did not include the one virtue we consider more important than all others today, tolerance. The German Pietists and Scandinavian Lutherans who came here...did all of those sincere believers drain the Christianity of European churches left behind? The state churches of Europe do not impress me with their sincerity and generosity now. If you dig into the history of any little village in Europe you quickly encounter pagan customs that were celebrated until quite recently and even unto today.  These are sometimes merely high-spirited amusements on festival days, but folks will still say with a shrug that there seems to be something to it.  I heard on a podcast last week of a legislator in Ireland requesting money for the repair of roads in his district because the government had made the mistake of building it right through a fairy ring, and they were digging it up and upending it every year.

I don't know that there was ever a golden age. 


RichardJohnson said...

The German Pietists and Scandinavian Lutherans who came here...did all of those sincere believers drain the Christianity of European churches left behind?

To a degree, and for all European emigrants to North America, yes. The kingdoms and duchys and principalities of Europe that had a state-supported religion didn't really care about religious beliefs. They were doing this for political unity. The powers that be didn't care if you really followed the creed of the state religion- rather that you behaved as if you did. For those for whom religion meant little, there was no problem with feigned public obedience to the state religion. For those for whom religion meant a lot, and who did not agree with the state religion, feigning obedience to the state religion was a problem for individual souls. Emigration to America was often the solution.

Little by little, those for whom religion meant a lot- and dissented from the state religion of their area- left Europe for America.

Those who remained versus those who emigrated did not have uniform beliefs about the importance of religion.Certainly many of the remainers held deep beliefs in the state religion- not to mention dissenters who remained. Certainly many who emigrated had no attachment to religion.

Nonetheless, as a rough trend, emigration of dissenting religious believers to America, where they could practice their creed more easily than in Europe, meant that Europe slowly lost a certain proportion of its population for whom religion was important.

So, we should not be surprised that Europeans and Americans today do not agree on the importance of religion.

Christopher B said...

I was listening to a Jackson Crawford youtube about Norse pagan holidays and he gave examples of ones that are still remembered in Iceland today. Granted they Christianized late and were quite tolerant but it was still a bit shocking.

Reading Richard's comment made me think, do people in the US have any secular holidays that aren't primarily inspired by our history? Mother's and Father's day come to mind but they're pretty universal.

Grim said...

“I heard on a podcast last week of a legislator in Ireland requesting money for the repair of roads in his district because the government had made the mistake of building it right through a fairy ring, and they were digging it up and upending it every year.”

There’s nothing about that sentiment Chesterton himself would have rejected, especially if it is true that the road really needs regular repairs. He was opposed to having doctrines that forbade miracles, or imps or fairies too.

To whit: “ McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine. The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel. The Christian admits that the universe is manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he is complex.“

james said...

Is the question inspired by The Myth of Medieval Paganism?

The author has a point: part of the issue is one of boundaries. Is a semi-Pentacostal church that honors their "prophets" more than the Bible a Christian church? Can a man be a Christian and still wear his juju amulet? (The Aladura groups are emphatic about "no".) How about keeping a flag in the front of the church? Can you allow church members to dance?

Of course syncretism is a real problem (Jeremiah had somewhat to say about that), and so is unbounded tolerance (Corinth). "If you're tired of your sin, then we'll welcome you in. If you're not, you'll still feel right at home." (It would be interesting to read what Paul would write to the various churches in the US.)

One of those things that's hard to know from any sort of distance is what the ceremony means.

We get regular warnings about the paganism of Halloween, but seriously: without those reminders, who would remember? Trick-or-treat is a "thing we do" because we've done it, not because it has some deep meaning.

"Knock wood" is fuzzier--it's an unambiguously propitiatory act by people who have no idea who they're trying to propitiate or why this would be important.

Or take throwing coins in a fountain for good luck. I'm not sure something so vague is still pagan. I've known a few people who chucked in coins just because that's what people do, without even thinking about good luck.

If I can't be sure of the meaning of something that close to me is, I'm not sure I can be sure of what it meant to someone 800 years ago--unless they told someone. Or perhaps by how they reacted when somebody disrupted their customs.

One thing is reasonably clear, though--through European history there were plenty of people who took Christianity seriously enough that they wound up being called saints. And at the same time "the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it." Even, I presume, in "Christian lands."

Karimson said...

There is no talk, no conscious awareness, and no attempt to deal with the ecumenical councils or state constantine the religion.

Until christianity decides to look at the scholarly work, it is in perpetual shadow and self denial.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I am not clear what you mean by this. Please explain further.

Lincoln Annie said...

"Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."

~ Chesterton