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An Interesting Historical Paragraph

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“…while the state was feeble, incompetent, governed by unprincipled self-seekers, and totally without any policy beyond that of momentary expedients, the Church was vigorous, able, guided by men prepared to sacrifice everything personal in its interests, and with a policy so far-sighted that it brought victory for the next thousand years. It is true that these merits were offset by fanaticism and superstition, but without these no reforming movement could, at the time, have succeeded.”

This passage is from A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. It describes the state of affairs while St. Ambrose was bishop of Milan — then capital of the Western Empire — at the end of the fourth century.

Far from being a theologian of any substantial ability, I choose rather to interpret the above quote in today’s context as a layman.

For those cynics among us, in the first part, they can take cold comfort that our age is not the worst of times. Removed from its context it can very well apply to modern times. It is clear that history does have a spine after all.

There is another angle here – the pillars of Catholic theology, beginning with St. Jerome, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, and later Gregory the Great, and its influence and impact on Western thought.

Today, we tend to view religion as an irrational if not dangerous force. This was not the case for a long time. Interestingly, some of its tenets were found in ancient Greek thought, itself rooted in rationalism. The Church was an integral part of the West and its development until the Enlightenment decided to challenge many of its assertions. Since then we have run with Hobbes and Voltaire. We seem to be tiring out at the moment. In this way, the last sentence in the passage is the one we cling to as a vision and perception of religion.

It explains, in part, how we tend to rationalize the Church’s reaction to the Da Vinci Code. I often heard, “What’s the big deal?” when talking about the Code, regarding its possible indiscretions. The big deal is that we are superimposing our present secularized blueprints on something — the Church — that has a completely different worldview. Since I firmly believe (as a secularized person) that theology has a firm place when discussing important issues in society in the public sphere, I would have been discomforted if the Church did not respond to it. It makes no sense to censor their view. I want to hear the best minds society has to offer in civil discourse.

This paragraph shows and reminds us that we must always look at the big picture and that the grass wasn’t always greener centuries ago. Specifically here, it was the Church that was once the most enlightened institution on earth and the government (the last refuge of collectivism) was a cesspool for all human vices to incubate in.

Have the roles been reversed as much as we think they have?

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About Alessandro Nicolo