As we move into the West we find a story which in some significant ways differs from that in the East. Here the disintegration of the Roman Empire began earlier than it did in the East and was much more marked than in the areas which remained under the Eastern continuation of that realm, the Byzantine Empire. Yet in the West Christianity eventually most strikingly proved its vitality. From the West it had its broadest geographic expansion, in the West arose the large majority of the vigorous new movements after the ninth century, and from the West came the widest and deepest influences upon mankind as a whole.
Why was this? How are we to account for the fact that in the region in which the collapse of the Empire with whose life Christianity had become so closely interrelated first became most apparent and where the earliest sweeping conquests by invaders occurred, Christianity displayed not only its most pronounced recovery but also its greatest vigour? Had an intelligent traveller from China or India journeyed through the Mediterranean world at the end of the sixth century he probably would have given a quite contrary forecast and would have looked for the revival and the renewed spread of Christianity, if they came at all, from the East. Here, with the exception of Rome, were all the most ancient and the strongest churches. Here the existing patterns of life had been far less disturbed. Here the larger part of the theological thinking and discussion had taken place and was still in progress. Here monasticism, that potent new movement in protest against the growing laxity of life in the Church, had arisen and had shown its most extensive development.
The answers to this question must be in part conjectural. Yet some factors can be pointed to as offering possible clues. One of these seems to have been that the collapse of the Empire freed Christianity from the restrictions placed on it by its close association with that regime and gave greater opportunity for its inherent genius to express itself than was true in the East, where the Roman state persisted.
Nearly allied to this factor is a second. The threat to Christianity in the West brought by the disintegration of the Empire and the inroads of invaders, while serious, was not overwhelming. Indeed, it was not as ominous as in much of the East. Situated as it was at the extreme tip of Eurasia, Western Europe was either not reached by many of the invasions which the East had to meet, arising as most of them did from the heartland of the continent, or, in the case of the Arabs, in the south-east, or it had to face them only after they had spent their main force. Thus the invasion which was most disastrous for the Christianity of the East, that of the Arabs, bringing with it a new faith, Islam, against which few counter gains have been made by Christianity or any other religion, was rolled back soon after it crossed the Pyrenees and never overwhelmed the churches of Gaul, the
Iberian Peninsula, or Sicily to the extent that it did those nearer Arabia. Eventually the churches of these areas reemerged and won or expelled all Moslems. The Bulgars, the Mongols, and the Turks penetrated effectively only to the eastern edges of Western Europe. What might have been the future of Christianity in Western Europe had invasions continued may be surmised from the fact that not until the last, that of the Scandinavians, had ended, did the recession cease which they helped bring and the resurging vitality emerge which issued in fresh advance. In contrast with the East where the major incursion, that of the Moslem Arabs, brought with it a "high" religion, Islam, all the invasions of the West were either by "barbarians" who were already in part converts to Christianity or who had more nearly "primitive" religions. It is a generalization borne out by universal human experience that a "primitive" religion yields more readily to a "high" religion than does a "high" religion to another "high" religion. Christianity won back none of the ground lost by it in the East to Islam, but, in contrast, it not only regained all of the territory in the West which it lost but pressed out beyond its former frontiers and gathered into its fold pagan peoples of "primitive" faiths and cultures.
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