The setting of the great recession

The seeming triumph of Christianity in winning the professed allegiance of the Roman Empire carried with it a major threat. In the preceding chapters we noted the fashion in which Christianity was imperilled by the extent to which a large proportion of those who bore the Christian name were compromising with the non-Christian environment in which they were immersed. We also saw the manner in which the Church was being interpenetrated by ideals which were quite contrary to the Gospel, especially the conception and use of power which were in stark contrast to the kind of power exhibited in the life and teachings of Jesus and in the cross and the resurrection. A nearly related but somewhat different danger was the close association with the Roman Empire and Grsco-Roman culture which that victory brought. Although before it had completed the first five centuries of its course Christianity had begun to spill over the boundaries of the Roman Empire, by the end of that period it had become almost identified with that realm and its civilization. The overwhelming majority of Roman citizens thought of themselves as Christians and the large majority of those who bore the Christian name were Roman citizens. The Catholic Church, which embraced most of those who counted themselves as Christians, had grown up within the area which had been given political unity by the Roman Empire and in its structure reflected the pattern of that Empire. While strikingly original in its essence, Christian theology had perforce employed Greek and Roman terms and had utilized concepts drawn from Greek philosophy. By the year 500 the Roman Empire and Grsco-Roman culture were in decline. Christianity had both weakened them and prolonged their life. In succeeding centuries their disintegration was accelerated. Could Christianity survive their demise or would it share their growing debility and ultimate death?

That Christianity was seriously affected by the fatal sickness of the Roman Empire is one of the most palpable facts of history. For more than four centuries the outcome was by no means clear. In the numbers of those who called themselves Christian, in apparent inner vitality as expressed in fresh movements inspired by the faith, in the moral and spiritual quality of the churches which were the official vehicles of the Gospel, and in its prominence in the total human scene, Christianity lost ground.

The Roman Empire suffered from both internal weaknesses and external pressures. We have already noted that the weaknesses in part ante-dated the coming of Christianity, that they were for a time allayed by the imperial system inaugurated by Augustus Cssar, but that from the end of the second century they began again to be apparent, were aggravated, and multiplied. The external pressures were by invaders who took advantage of the internal decay to overrun most of the Empire. Their inroads accelerated Rome's decline. The main incursions were from two directions, from the north and north-east on the one hand and from the south-east on the other. Those from the north and north-east were by peoples who were thought of as barbarians and whose cultures were of a "lower" and more nearly "primitive" stage than that of the Romans. Their cultures, including their religions, disintegrated under contacts with what was left of Grsco-Roman civilization and by the year 1000 most of the northern invaders who had settled in what had once been the Roman Empire had taken on the Christian name and were in part conforming to the remnants of Grsco-Roman culture which had survived their conquests. Those from the south-west, the Arabs, were the bearers of a new and vigorous religion, Islam. While in some ways they, too, were "barbarians" and took over much of the cultures of the peoples of "high" civilizations whom they subdued, their religion almost entirely supplanted the faiths of the conquered populations. From the seventh into the tenth century the Moslem Arabs mastered about half of the lands which had been ruled by Rome. This segment also embraced about half of what might be denominated Christendom. In it the Christian churches dwindled more or less rapidly. With the possible exception of Judaism, Christianity proved more resistant to Islam than the faith of any other people whom the Arabs overran, and in two regions, the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily, it did what no other religion accomplished: it eventually won back extensive areas and populations from the Prophet. However, this did not come at once. For several centuries the record was one of progressive losses of the Cross to the Crescent.

Christianity not only survived these disasters. Eventually it forged ahead to fresh advances which carried it farther geographically than it had gone in the first days of its might. Some of the gains were made while major losses were being suffered on other fronts, but most of them were not to be achieved until much later centuries. Christianity even proved to have profited by the break-up of the Roman Empire, for, in the West, largely freed from the latter, it eventually displayed renewed vigour and a long series of fresh, creative movements.

In this recovery from the disintegration of the closely allied Roman Empire and in this subsequent spread Christianity surpassed the record of any other religion. A religion is often an integral part of a particular culture. When a culture disappears the religion associated with it also tends to die out. Some religions prove to have more vitality than the cultures with which their early development had been connected and outlast them. In its ability to survive the passing of cultures with which it has been intimately related, to win back territories in which it has experienced grave losses, and to gain peoples of other cultures, Christianity has been unequalled. Buddhism, absorbed by Hinduism in its native land, India, lived on outside of India and was reintroduced into India by immigrants. Yet most of its geographic spread was prior to the assimilation of its Indian constituency by Hinduism and since then it has thrown out few new movements. Islam survived the decay of the Arab Empire through which it had its initial spread and, capturing other peoples, notably the Turks, enjoyed fresh geographic expansion through them. In Persia, partly divorced from Arab culture, it gave rise to fresh developments. Yet in general Islam has been closely tied to the Arabic language and to Arab culture and apart from that connexion it has not displayed much vitality. Judaism did not perish with the disappearance of the little Jewish state which centred in Jerusalem, but compared with Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity it has won relatively few converts outside of its own community, a community which has never been able to break away from its narrowly ethnic traditions and become universal. Hinduism and Indian culture have been inseparable and Confucianism has been identified with the particular form of Chinese civilization of which it has been the core. Christianity continues to bear the imprint of its Jewish heritage and of the Graco-Roman world into which it first moved, but more than any other of the faiths of mankind it has proved its capacity to outlast cultures with which it has seemed to be identified and some of which it has helped to create. Freed in part from the crippling compromises of the Gospel which that association entailed, it has inspired fresh movements within itself and in its milieu, it has resumed its expansion, and more and more it has approached the universality which has been of its essence.

The dates of the beginning and the end of the great recession cannot be precisely determined. We have named the end of the fifth century as the climax of the first great period of advance and as ushering in the decline, but by selecting a round number, A.D. 500, we are wishing to convey the suggestion that no single year can be pointed to as a sharply marked divide between the one era and the other. The conquest of the Roman Empire by the northern invaders is sometimes said to have begun in 378, for in that year the Goths defeated the legions and slew the Emperor Valens in the battle of Adrianople, not far from Constantinople, the capital which Constantine had created only a few decades earlier. The capture and sack of Rome in 410 was even more spectacular. However, Rome as a city was not seriously damaged and soon recovered, and while in the fifth century various Germanic peoples established kingdoms in the West — the Visigoths in Spain, the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Burgundians in the south of Gaul, the Vandals in North Africa, the Angles and Saxons in Britain, and the Franks in the north of Gaul — most of them still thought of themselves as within the Roman Empire and several of their rulers accepted titles from the Roman government.

Not far from the year 500 came various events which may be regarded as marking both the peak of the triumphal course of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the beginning of the decline and of a new age. In the year 476 Romulus Augustulus, commonly viewed as the last of the Emperors in the West, was deposed by the Herulian Odovacar (Odoacer), and while the event was not regarded as of outstanding importance by contemporaries and the Empire continued, the centre was now indisputably in Constantinople and the date has been traditionally given as marking the end of the Western Empire. In 496 Clovis, King of the Franks, was baptized, both a landmark in the conversion of the Germanic invaders and an indication that a new era had begun in which not the Roman Empire, but Germanic rulers were to become champions of the faith in the West. One era was passing and another was beginning. In the year 529 the Emperor Justinian I closed the ancient schools at Athens in which philosophy had been taught, an act symbolic of the triumph of Christianity in the very citadel of the non-Christian philosophies which had once been dominant in the Roman Empire. Not far from that same year Benedict of Nursia and a small band of his followers established themselves on Monte Cassino, the centre from which was to spread the rule which for centuries was to shape the monastic life of the West.

The decline of Christianity was not rapid nor without spurts of revival. In the second and third quarters of the sixth century, as we are to sec, the generals of Justinian I renewed Roman administration in much of the West and in North Africa and Justinian himself, as an earnest Christian, added to the prestige of the Church in the East. In that century Christianity spread up the Nile into what is now called the Sudan. It also was carried eastward and early in the seventh century was planted in China. In the West in the latter part of the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great greatly added to the power of the Church of Rome, and through missionaries, some of them from Rome and some from Ireland, a beginning was made towards the conversion of the Germanic peoples who had settled in Britain and of other pagans on that island. In the seventh century the reconversion of Britain was practically completed.

Yet the seventh century also saw the spectacular and rapid Arab conquests. It is from A.D. 622 that the Moslems date the beginning of their era. Mohammed died in 632. Before A.D. 651 the Arabs had conquered Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, and most of Egypt. In 697 they took Carthage, the capital of North Africa, and by 715 they had overrun most of Spain. The political victories of the Arabs were accompanied by the spread of Islam and the beginning of the slow decline of the Christian communities in the Arab domains. In the meantime, in the sixth and seventh centuries, the Slavs, pagans, were moving into the regions north of Greece, filling most of the Balkan Peninsula and even much of Greece itself, and the pagan Avars effected settlements in the Balkans and raided Greece. In consequence, substantial portions of these areas were being de-Christianized. In 680 the Bulgars, an Asiatic folk, moved south across the Danube and established a non-Christian state at the expense of the eastern remnants of the Christian Roman Empire. Never again was Christianity to lose so large a proportion of the territory in which it was the dominant religion.

The eighth century witnessed a marked revival of the faith and an improvement in the morale of the Church in the West under the Carolingians, rulers of the Franks, and the conversion of much of Germany. Yet the ninth and tenth centuries saw new waves of invasions of the West by pagans. The Carolingian Empire broke up and could offer them but feeble resistance. The Scandinavians ravaged the shores of most of Europe, and established themselves in much of Britain, in the part of France, Normandy, to which they gave their name, and in the western portion of the later Russia. Wherever they went they plundered churches and monasteries. They dealt mortal blows to the flourishing monasteries of Ireland in which had been centred the Christianity of that island. Late in the ninth century the pagan Magyars made themselves masters of Hungary, to the detriment of whatever churches were found in that region.

The decline of the Carolingians and the renewed invasions were followed by decay in the quality of the life of the Church in the West. Monasteries became lax in the observance of their rules, bishops tended to be secular magnates, and the morals of the clergy deteriorated. In the middle of the tenth century, the Papacy, deprived of the support of the Carolingians, became the victim of local factions in Rome and reached an all time nadir.

In the eighth and ninth centuries the section of the Church which had its centre in Constantinople was torn by a prolonged controversy over the use of images. In the ninth century, moreover, the Moslem Arabs conquered Sicily, established strongholds in the southern parts of Italy, and took Crete. The Arab successes made for fresh advances of Islam in territories which were traditionally Christian. In China a severe outburst of persecution in 845 seriously weakened the small Christian communities in that Empire.

In spite of the disasters the ninth century was also a time when in Central Europe, the Balkans, and Constantinople the tide seemed to have turned. Notable advances of the faith were being achieved among the Slavs and Bulgars and the patriarchal throne in Constantinople was held by Photius, outstanding as scholar and churchman. From our tanta-lizingly imperfect knowledge of early Christianity in India comes evidence which may indicate a growth in the eighth and ninth centuries. In the West the upswing was beginning to be seen even in some of the darkest hours. The monastery of Cluny, both a centre and a symbol of renewed life, was founded in 910. In the East the Byzantine Empire, the leading champion of Christianity in that region, was enjoying a revival in the latter part of the ninth and in the fore part of the tenth century. The end of the recession might, therefore, be placed as early as 850 or 900.

On the other hand, because of events which we are to see later, such as the spread of the Cluny reforms and the revival of the Roman Empire in the West under Otto I (he was crowned Roman Emperor in 962), and the beginning of the conversion of Russia (which may be dated from the baptism of Olga c.954, or, better, from the baptism of her grandson, Vladimir, c.987), A.D. 950 seems preferable. The upswing was not sharp or sudden. By that year it was distinctly noticeable in some quarters, but in others the decline appeared to be continuing and not yet quite to have reached its lowest point. For instance, in spice of the persecution which followed an imperial edict of 845, Christians were still reported in some of the ports of China in 877-878, while not far from 987 Nestorian monks sent to China to assist the Church there declared that they could find no Christians in that land.

In A.D. 950 Christianity was far less prominent in the total human scene than it had been in A.D. 500. In A.D. 500 the Roman Empire, while tottering, was still outwardly the mightiest realm on the planet and Christianity was its professed faith. In extent and culture the Roman Empire was then rivalled only by its chronic enemy, the Persian Empire, and by the Gupta Empire in India. Neither of these controlled as much territory as was still nominally in the Roman domains, and the Gupta Dynasty was showing signs of disintegration. China was in a long period of division, civil strife, and foreign invasion.

During the first five centuries of the Christian era the expansion of Christianity was paralleled by that of Buddhism. Approximately five centuries older than Christianity, by the time of the birth of Christ Buddhism had already spread through much of India and Ceylon and had penetrated into Central Asia and China, In A.D. 500 its geographic extent was probably wider than that of Christianity. Like Christianity, but for other causes, by A.D. 950 it had fallen on evil days. In India, the land of its birth, it was decadent and was in process of the absorption and elimination by Hinduism which were to bring about the severe decline of which we have already spoken. Before A.D. 950 it had entered upon the slow decay in China which is still in progress. It was never as widely spread as was Christianity in the seventh century or as Christianity ultimately became. In the seventh century Christianity was represented by communities from Ireland in the west to China in the east, and from Scotland and Germany in the north to the Sudan and possibly South India in the south. Yet between A.D. 500 and A.D. 950 Buddhism was also spreading — in South-east Asia, the East Indies, Korea, and Japan — and in A.D. 950 it was probably more prominent in the total world scene than it had been in A.D. 500.

The four and a half centuries between A.D. 500 and A.D. 950 also witnessed the emergence of Islam, vigorous and younger than Christianity, and by the latter of those years Islam, after only three centuries, was almost as widely spread geographically as Christianity and was the official faith of states which were more powerful, in the sense in which that term is applied to states, than were any of those which were professedly Christian. During most of the period, moreover, China was ruled by the T'ang Dynasty which, during its heyday, was, along with the Arab Empire, the mightiest realm on the planet, and Confucianism, which provided the ideological foundation of Chinese culture, was on the eve of a great revival.

In A.D. 950 a religiously neutral world traveller or the hypothetical visitor from Mars might have given it as his opinion that Christianity was to share the fate of Manichsism, which, also after an extensive geographic spread, was waning. Manichsism, it will be recalled, was younger than Christianity but older than Islam. Like the latter, it was indebted to Christianity but it never had as powerful political support as that accorded Christianity through the Roman Empire or Islam through the Arabs. After a rapid expansion which carried it as far west as Carthage and as far east as the China Sea it slowly died out, although its last remnants lingered on in China at least to the beginning of the seventeenth century.

In these centuries of its great decline Christianity was espoused by a few kingdoms in Western and Southern Europe which, compared with the major empires of the day, seemed insignificant, by the Byzantine remnant of the Roman Empire, and by such minor states as Armenia and Ethiopia. Culturally Christianity seemed to be of dwindling significance. Italy had not recovered from the "barbarian" invasions and the "Christian" peoples of Western Europe, while vigorous, were crude. Constantinople was wealthy and its upper classes were polished, luxurious, and sophisticated, but were ceasing to do or say much that was new. The Nestorians in Mesopotamia had tutored their Arab conquerors in Hellenistic culture, and in the process had put some of the Greek philosophers into Arabic, but the Arabs had proved apt pupils of the Nestorians and other subject peoples and were producing a culture which appeared to be fully as "high" as that of Constantinople and "higher" than that of the Franks or others of the Germanic peoples who had been converted to Christianity. To the thoughtful non-Christian tourist Hindu and Buddhist India, although politically divided, would have seemed to be on a more advanced cultural level than any "Christian" land except the Byzantine Empire, and under the glorious T'ang Dynasty the great cities of China would have been far ahead even of Constantinople. From the standpoint of Augustine's earthly city, by A.D. 950 the political and cultural associates of Christianity had decidedly declined since the days of Constantine and his immediate successors and even since Justinian I. If its future depended upon the kind of power embodied in the earthly city and its affiliated cultures, the outlook for Christianity was grim.

The break-up of the Roman Empire was accompanied and followed by divisions in the Catholic Church. As we have seen, the Catholic Church arose within the framework of unity provided by the Roman stare. When that framework fell apart, the bond of love which ideally characterizes Christians did not have sufficient strength to hold the Church together. The ostensible grounds for the divisions which emerged were doctrinal and administrative, and these intensified the divisions. However, the cleavages were largely along the cultural, racial, and national seams in the fabric which Rome had once held together. Arian Christianity became identified with some of the Germanic conquerors; the descendants of the ancient Egyptians, the Copts, found in Monophysitism reinforcement of their antipathy to the Byzantine tie. Somewhat similarly Monophysitism was the bond of a Syrian Christianity and, in another form, of the national church of Armenia as against the orthodox Greeks. Nestorianism continued to be the faith of the majority of the Christians in Mesopotamia and the regions to the east, although both Monophysites and Orthodox also had communities in Mesopotamia and the lands which lay eastward of that fertile valley.

In point of numbers the major cleavage was between the portions of the Catholic Church which centred respectively at Rome and Constantinople, the one predominantly Latin and Roman by tradition and temper, and the other Greek and Byzantine. The separation cannot be given a precise date. The two main wings of the Catholic Church drifted away from each other partly because of cultural traditions, partly because of rivalry between the two great sees, and partly because of the obstacle presented to communications by the widening of time-distances and the difficulty brought by the disruption of political unity to preserving intimate physical contact. Now and again the breach seemed to be healed, but across the centuries it deepened and widened. While various dates have been given for the final break, the ones usually offered come after this period and none of them has won universal acceptance by historians.

As we endeavour to cover the years of what we have called the great recession, it seems best to do so by summarizing the course of Christianity in each of the main divisions of the Church. First we will survey the history during these centuries of that branch which had its main centre in Constantinople, for it was here that the tradition of the relation of the Catholic Church and the Roman Empire which had been inaugurated by Con-stantine went on without interruption and was strengthened. Constantinople was the capital from which the Roman Empire was carried on without a lapse and by almost insensible stages became what is commonly called the Byzantine or Greek Empire. The branch of the Catholic Church officially espoused by the continuing Empire regarded itself as the Orthodox Church. Eventually, by processes which are to be discerned in this period but which matured centuries later, the Orthodox Church became a family whose main members were national churches. We will then move on to the several smaller churches in the East, especially to those of Monophysite complexion, including the Coptic, Ethiopian, Jacobite, and Armenian bodies, and to the Nestorians. Finally we will survey the course of that branch of the Catholic Church which found its cohesion in Rome and the Roman Pontiff, the Pope, for it was from this section of the Church that Christianity was to have its chief developments in the next three major periods of its history.

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