Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Where were the protestants?

Diana Butler Bass: Is Western Christianity Suffering From Spiritual Amnesia?

In the 1990s, I taught history and theology at an evangelical college, a place where the students were serious young Christians. One day, lecturing on the medieval church and the Crusades, I explained how in 1095 Pope Urban II launched a holy war against Muslims. Most of the students took notes. One young woman, looking very worried by the idea of Christians starting a war, shot up her hand. "Professor," she began, clearly wanting to blame Roman Catholics for the affair, "what did the Protestants say about this?"

"Well," I answered slowly, "there were no Protestants in 1095." I did not have the heart to tell her that Protestantism would not exist until more than four hundred years later.

Puzzled, she blurted out, "But where were they?"

At the present juncture of history, Western Christianity is suffering from a bad case of spiritual amnesia. Even those who claim to be devout or conservative often know little about the history of their faith traditions. Our loss of memory began more than two centuries ago, at the high tide of the Enlightenment. As modern society developed, the condition of broken memory -- being disconnected from the past -- became more widespread. Indeed, in the words of one French Catholic thinker, the primary spiritual dilemma of contemporary religion is the "loss and reconstruction" of memory.

In some ways, understanding the loss is easy. Many modern thinkers wanted to forget. To them, European Christianity was a trash heap of magic, superstition, and repressive tradition, a faith needing to be enlightened by Reason and Science. The medieval world was like a stained-glass window in one of Christendom's ancient cathedrals -- pretty, perhaps, but you cannot see through it. As the Middle Ages ended, rationalists and revolutionaries smashed the cathedral windows to let in the clear light of human progress.

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