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Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Teresa Polk

Great article, Carl!

a. c. grayling

Dear Mr Olson
My thanks for your comments. They will not, however, quite do, for all their majestic defence of the Dark Ages and the faith that made them. First may I pick you up on your point about my rhetorical "thousand years": you leave to your readers to work out the period I concede to you, from 318 (summoning of the Council of Nicea) to 1145 (your choice: the beginning of the building of Chartres Cathedral) is 827 years. How many months and days in addition is the kind of footnote detail one does not usually add in a newspaper article, which I think disposes of this point: we are talking of nearly a thousand years, a great length of time in human terms. And we are talking about a dramatic contrast which requires explanation by the most dramatic change that the age saw: the widespread adoption of an ethos not just different from, but in many respects opposed to, the ethos that produced and sustained classical civilisation.
In your original article you cite a list of names of people, almost all living after the building of Chartres Cathedral, as if doing so dispelled the darkness of the Dark Ages. You also assume that their work can be regarded as of equal value with the luminaries of either classical or Renaissance and post-Renaissance civilisation, a demonstrably dubious claim. That too can be allowed to pass, because the chief point is that burden of your remarks comprehensively misses the point I made, which is as follows.
The very good reason why the Dark Ages are so called, and were so called by its immediate successors in the early Renaissance (Petrarch was their baptiser), is because of the immense contrast between them and the ages that bracket them. I offered your friend Professor Miesel the challenge to look at the difference between first century Rome and fifteenth century Florence as focal cases of contrast with, say, what the seventh and eight centuries anywhere in Europe were like. First century Roman houses had running water and central heating, its literature was a glory, straight paved roads connected the cities of the Empire, trade flourished, education was widespread. A few centuries later the inhabitants of London were building daub and wattle lean-tos against the ruined walls of the near-deserted Roman city, with open wood fires on the floor, because they did not know how to maintain or rebuild the stone structures around them.
The point is one of contrast, severe contrast. You can count the poets and philosophers on your fingers for this entire epoch (our 827 years, remember); against the richly flourishing cultures of the preceding and (2-3 centuries on) succeeding ages the dearth is so marked, so dramatic, that even though plenty of historians of the middle ages talk of continuity and pockets of culture (Saxon jewellery, Christian monasteries) they would have a hard time refuting this claim about the difference in civilisational levels.
Such are the facts. The question now is why it happened. What made the Roman Empire collapse, and with it classical civilisation? Was it undermined from within so that it was less able to withstand attack from without? It appears so. By what? What was the major change of ethos that contributed massively to this collapse? I doubt that the historians will tell us that it was the widespread adoption, as the official religion of the Empire, of Hinduism. Whatever single ideology captured the Empire and imposed its demand for monolithic orthodoxy of belief and observance, the effect was similar to the consequences of all such throughout history (Soviet Communism is a more recent example; Taliban Afghanistan more recent still). That result is the closing of minds and the loss of variety in knowledge and technique, and these soon exact their penalty.
Such was the consequence of Constantine’s embracement of Christianity. You cite plenty of authors with a vested interest in arguing the merits of what happened in these largely illiterate, low-technology centuries, and seem to wish in effect to claim that they explain away the dramatic contrast in cultural level between the depth of the Dark Ages and the height of the classical and Renaissance cultures bracketing them. But your claim is so improbable, if indeed it is the claim, that one must suppose the stakes to be high enough to make it. And so they are: to defend the church against the imputation of being in effect one of the main barbarisms that destroyed the classical world.
Folk on your side of the debate resist this imputation by pointing to literacy in monasteries, illuminated bibles, later on the building of cathedrals, Scholastic philosophy and theology, later still church wealth in the commissioning of art, and so on, as proofs of the glories of Christian culture (this is what Professor Meisel’s case rest on, focusing on the end of the medieval period as if this salvaged the preceding millennium from stricture.) No one denies any of this, apart from the value of Scholastic philosophy, the general value of theology, and the question whether the men (men) who built the churches and painted the paintings were all Ignatius Loyolas in piety and motivation. (My guess is that ninety per cent of them were in it for the money; human nature is a constant.) Again, this is not the point: the point is the contrast at issue, and its explanation.
The onus is on you, I think, to say that the rise of Christianity did not have a major part to play in precipitating the collapse of classical civilisation. You also have to show that the recovery of classical literature and philosophy which marks the Renaissance was not, progressively, a rejection of the dominance of Christian though which has eventuated in the loss of Christianity’s dominance in the culture of Europe. This would involve your explaining away the contrast between medieval "contemptus mundi" literature and Renaissance celebrations of the "dignity of man", and its turn to non-religious subjects in art and literature. It would involve your explaining how the trends begun in the Renaissance resulted in the rise of science and the Enlightenment, both of which the church vigorously contested.
I am inclined to think that these challenges would prove hard going for you. They are what was at stake in my original piece, where I alluded to them in connection with the fact that this long and in too many ways dismal record of the faith connects with the fact that to this very day, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, your church is still attempting to stand in the way of progress towards fair, decent and inclusive societies, by its antediluvian prejudice against gay people.


Well done Carl! A great peice to have come up with in a day.

I may have misunderstood Carl, but it seems the reason that he provided the example of Chartres Cathedrel was not to bookend what he considered to be the Dark Ages. Rather, it was to demonstrate that the magnificent structure was built in the middle of what other people considered to be the Dark Ages. Indeed, it is a refutation of the stereotype. Thus Professor Grayling's attempt to impute that dating on Carl, as far as I can see, is to misread his text. It is therefore unhelpful and fails to aid his argument.

This might be mere semantics however. Professor Grayling's essential question, it seems to me, rather is whether Christianity precipitated the collapse of the Roman Empire. This is a complex historical question that admits of no easy answer. Suffice it to say, however, there are many different views about the collapse of the Roman Empire other than Gibbon's view. One is the supernatural view presented in St. Augustine's City of God, in which the decline of the Roman Empire was the result of the moral failures of the pagan population, caused by a polytheistic religion. Yet others claim it was the result of Germanic influx into the roman army (Vegetius, Ferril), technological changes (Richta), a number of different causes (Bury). The list goes on. All this demonstrates that the simplistic inference that Grayling wants us to draw is reductionistic and ignorant of the factual matrix of the late Roman Empire. And the question that Bury asks is: if Christianity was to blame, why were there successful civilisations in the East, Christianity's birthplace? (Bury) (checkout

Professor Grayling's assertion that the Church and Catholics were (are) closed-minded and that Faith is somehow an imposition is also an unfair reading of the evidence. If Catholics and the Church are so closed-minded, precisely why was Plato and the Platonic school of thought so important to St. Augustine? Or why did Aquinas resurrect the study of Aristotle in the West, when it had been lost there for centuries? Why did all the monks faithfully copy down in manuscripts the best of pagan and classical thought? The answer is, simply, that the Church beleives in Truth and recognises even if the source is not a Revealed source. One only has to read Augustine and Aquinas to see the willingness of them to engage with thinkers from other cultures. And simply because they disagree with them doesn't mean they are closed-minded.

The next point that Professor Grayling makes is to critique the more laudatory view of the period between 500 and 1500. Disappointing is his collapse into the circumstantial ad hominem fallacy. Even if it is true that all these different writers have a vested interest in defending Christian culture, how does that defeat their arguments or interpretation of the evidence? Why is it relevant that they are Christians? Surely a more precise reading of the evidence itself is in order. Further, asserting that it is 'dubious' to place say the achievements of Dante or Aquinas against that of Leonardo or Michelangelo does not make it true. Many have claimed the Divine Comedy to be the greatest poem ever written and Dante to be the greatest poet. Many also claim Aquinas to be one of the greatest philosophers to have ever lived.

Professor's Grayling denigration of Scholastic philosophy and the general value of theology is also wanting. The scholastic method is perhaps even better than the Socratic dialogue in terms of methodology. The Scholastic method places competing claims against one another and tries to give the weaker view its best possible argument. After giving the weaker or opposing argument its best possible construction, the Scholastics then attacked. This seems to be the most charitable and generous way of arguing.

And its precisely modernity's problem that theology is no longer queen of the sciences. What materialists and those who believe in scientism fail to explain is the premises on which their entire methodology rests; namely that we live in a rationally ordered universe governed by universal laws. Reason itself can't prove this; it rests on a metaphysical assumption that the universe was created through the Logos. The question that must be asked is why was Christendom the one who invented science and no other civilisation?

And more depressing is the widespread acceptance of the death of God that fueled the atheistic regimes of the twentieth century. There has been a change since the Enlightenment and its products were the gulags, the Holocaust and today's evils of abortion, euthanasia, etc. Professor Grayling fails to argue against the distinction drawn between Christianity the totalitarian ideologies (communism, by the way, was largely defeated through the efforts of Reagan and JPII, both men of great faith) proffered by Carl in response to Professor Grayling's conflation of the two. It seems strained to place systems that have antithetical metaphysical groundings on the same plane.

Ultimately, Professor Grayling's views rest on his preference for the post-Enlightenment culture than that of an overtly Christian culture. To this reader, however, a culture that lets the light of Christ shine through is to be preferred. After all, it is only through Christ Jesus that Love can be perfected. May the Lord grant us this!


Wow, Carl, you got his attention, didn't you?

For the uninitiated like me, it appears Professor Grayling has a talent for selecting events to support whatever he already believes before he starts writing. That's a definite skill that can often prove useful in a lot of circles. Haven't thought much about that since graduate school.

You and David appear to me to have been shackled by having to consider more information he did. Probably made your writing more challenging to do. The Christian Community is blessed to have folks like you doing this. Without your kind, I know he'd probably intimidate folks like me into an apologetic silence--in both senses of the word.

I think maybe the Professor might not be much interested in our God, but I'm going to pray for him anyway. Initially, it'll be out of spite, but I'm counting on it moving to a position of genuine concern. If he and God got better acquainted, they might get along pretty well.

He certainly seems to be one of those European relativists Benedict XVI spoke about so eloquently. It was fun to watch one on the prowl. Thank you for making it possible.

Cristina A. Montes

"This might be mere semantics however. Professor Grayling's essential question, it seems to me, rather is whether Christianity precipitated the collapse of the Roman Empire."

"And the question that Bury asks is: if Christianity was to blame, why were there successful civilisations in the East, Christianity's birthplace?"

For that matter, when we talk about the collapse of the Roman empire, we usually refer to the collapse of the Western Roman empire in 376 A.D. (Or is it 346 AD? Anyway...) We forget that the entire Roman empire itself has been split into two under Diocletian's time: the East and the WEst. After the Western Empire collapsed, the East still remained as what we know as Byzantium. Byzantium was Christian. If Christianity was the cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the EAstern Empire was also Christian, the Eastern Empire should have collapsed together with the West.

Carl Olson

I may have misunderstood Carl, but it seems the reason that he provided the example of Chartres Cathedrel was not to bookend what he considered to be the Dark Ages. Rather, it was to demonstrate that the magnificent structure was built in the middle of what other people considered to be the Dark Ages.

You're exactly right, David. Professor Grayling put words in my mouth when he decided to use the construction of the Chartres Cathedral as an arbitrary point in time to mark the Middle Ages. I never did such a thing; it was simply another one of his rhetorical devices, which appear to come from a very small and fast-shrinking bag.

Nice comments, btw. Thanks!


Thanks Carl - my pleasure!



A less rushed reading of the whole Grayling Thing revealed all the postings on the issue other than yours and David's I had missed earlier. They are all so good. It was rewarding to work through all the arguments. I'm one of those readers who know they never like the kind of things the Graylings of this life say but lack the knowledge to meet him head-on.I find a great deal of comfort that there are articulate first responders like you and all the others who can successfully hold the intellectual ground in situations like this.

But now I have good material and great analysis to borrow when coming across lesser Grayling wannabees at coffee! Thanks.

Carl Olson

Thanks, Cranky, for the kind words. Take heart in the fact that I am not a historian (certainly not a medievalist), but because of a love of reading and the guidance of people far more learned than myself have been fortunate enough to gain a modest sense of the truth about Church history. Initially this was due to addressing my Fundamentalist and Evangelicals friends and family members, but in more recent years it has been in response to skeptics, agnostics, and folks such as Professor Grayling. The beauty of the Catholic Faith is that there is never a need to fear a question, nor to lack for an learned answer. Which is not to say that good Catholic scholars agree on everything, but that the most robust inquiries tend to come from or be supported by Catholics.

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