A major cultural debt
At first sight this claim seems counterintuitive, if not downright bizarre. Weren’t liberty, human rights, and democracy--to name just three--achieved essentially by OVERCOMING Christianity?
Is Habermas just pulling our leg? I don’t think so, for if there is anything that uniformly characterizes the German thinker’s longwinded books it is the absence of humor. Still, he is a smart guy. Assuming that Habermas has been quoted correctly, what could he possibly have been thinking?
Some distinctions are needed at the outset. I believe that Habermas means what used to be termed Christendom. That is, the reference is not primarily to the faith of the New Testament; in my view, and as I have tried to show in previous postings, that is simply the manifestation of a wayward Jewish sect. Only one factor noted, conscience--especially as a nagging, corrosive presence--can be ascribed to that source, as seen in the writings of Paul. By and large, though "Primitive Chritianity" is not in question: that is why a reference to the Council of Nicaea is unhelpful.
It is also important to exclude, by and large, Eastern Orthodox Christianity. That branch of the faith disembogued in the autocracy of the Third Rome in Moscow.
As I see it, what Habermas is talking about is the achievement of a quarreling lot of peoples clinging to the extreme Western edge of the Eurasian land mass during the period that is still misleadingly termed, by some at least, the Dark Ages.
The first component is demographic. The invading hordes who brought down the crumbling Western Roman Empire triggered a period of complex ethnic negotiation and amalgamation. This process led to the emergence of the competing nation states of France, England, Spain, and the rest. As in ancient Greece and China, political pluralism fostered healthy competition and divergence of views.
In addition to the incipient nation states there was the power of the papacy. The papacy as an agent of democracy? What a grotesque notion! Not so, for during the High Middle Ages the papacy was locked in a battle for supremacy with the Holy Roman Empire, a struggle sometimes known as the Investiture Contest. Most Europeans know about one key episode in this struggle, when Emperor Henry IV, ostensibly the all-powerful ruler of the West, was compelled to go to the castle of Canossa in 1077 to beg forgiveness of Pope Gregory VII. In the end, however, the dispute between the emperor and the pope was a draw--each power was to exist in its own sphere This is the origin of our modern doctrine of separation of church and state, which has no counterpart in the ancient world--or for that matter in Islam.
Medieval Christianity contributed to democracy in other ways. One was the custom of the monastic orders electing representatives to attend a kind of summit meeting in Rome. From this custom arose the idea of representative government as found in the “estates” or parliaments of various countries. As we know it, representative democracy differs from the participatory democracy of the ancient Greek city states because it is not necessary for the citizens to assemble in person--we send a representative instead.
Gradually these representative institutions became strong enough to challenge the power of the monarch. The parliaments excersised their prerogative by requiring that the king obtain their approval before appropriating money. This tradition survives in our own practice (not always carefully observed) of assigning the details of the budget to the Congress.
The nobility also played a part in resisting the arbitrariness of royal rule. The most famous incident of this kind is Magna Carta, which the barons extracted from King John at Runnymede in 1215. Although the Great Charter originally only protected the rights of the aristocracy, the monarchy had been brought to the edge of a slippery slope that led to fundamental guarantees of rights to all citizens. Of course, traces of the old language still remain, as when Britons speak of “the crown” (that is, the government) and being an “English subject.” Everyone knows, however, that Queen Elizabeth reigns, but does not rule.
Moreover, from their customary law traditions Western European Christianity evolved a unique concept of the rule of law. To early Germanic rulers was ascribed not the practice of making law but of finding it. In this “supreme fiction” the law was regarded as a stable, preexisting entity, and not just a kind of silly putty to be reshaped as any powerful person saw fit. By contrast, Roman emperors could modify the law by decree whenever they wished.
These are just a few examples of the way our liberties owe a debt to medieval Christianity. Many others could be cited.
There were also major contributions to literature, the arts, and the natural sciences. Let me cite just one example from each. Rhymed poetry began among the so-called barbarian peoples of early medieval Europe, replacing the quantitative poetry of Greece and Rome. The technique of oil painting emerged about 1300 in Northwest Europe, to be perfected later by the Van Eycks and their successors. About the same time, eyeglasses appeared in Venice. The principle of modifying sight by the intervention of a vitreous medium was the essential forerunner of the microscope and telescope. Without eyeglasses there would be no Galileo and no modern astronomy.
Today, in the view of many observers, Western Europe finds itself adrift in the face of determined adversaries within its gates. Europeans seem to have no core values. In fact they do. But acknowledging these strengths means discarding, once and for all, the historical amnesia that an insouciant secularism has brought in its wake.
Labels: medieval liberties