Shattering the Sacred Myths - Chapter 6

A Rational History of Christianity

 
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Christianity's rise to power followed by Europe's descent into a dark age.

The land of Israel was situated within easy reach of many of the ancient empires. Its location was strategically important as the doorway to Egypt. Israel was periodically invaded and occupied by the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. These diverse cultures helped to shape the development of the two major religions to come out of Israel - Judaism and Christianity.

Israel was captured by the Persians around 550 BC and remained under Persian control until the invasion of the Greeks around 330 BC. The land was then ruled by Greek kings for the next 150 years.

Greek culture was eagerly absorbed and had a lasting effect on the entire region. By the time the Greek Empire was taken over by the Romans, many Jews spoke Greek, and many educated Jews were familiar with Greek philosophy.

Augustus Caesar became the emperor of Rome in 27 BC, and he ruled the empire for over forty years. This period of history became known as the time of the ‘Great Roman Peace’. Mediterranean trade flourished and regional economies experienced unprecedented prosperity. Diverse cultures intermingled and shared their ideas, inspiring a resurgence of art, architecture, and literature.

Among the Jews at the time, there were a number of different sects of Judaism. The largest sect was the Pharisees, who were influenced by the Persians and who believed in life after death. Then there were the Sadducees, who were influenced by the Greeks. The Sadducees held the high priesthood and other positions of power, and they did not believe in life after death.

Then there was a radical sect called the Essenes. This group was opposed to the priesthood in Jerusalem. They chose to live in separate communities, they were pacifists, they practiced ceremonial baptisms, and many of them were celibate. They had been developing their own scriptures and were anxiously awaiting the arrival of a messiah.

The last independent king of Israel was Herod the Great who ruled alongside Augustus Caesar until the final year BC. After Herod's death, the Romans divided Israel into a number of territories, each ruled by a king or governor appointed to serve Rome.

Many Jews struggled to maintain their political and religious independence. Radical political parties and religious sects appeared, but any group that was openly opposed to the Roman occupation was hunted down and its leaders were killed.

Jesus

According to the legend, the man who became known as Jesus Christ grew up in Israel as the Romans were establishing their authority over the Jews.

Jesus seems to have become concerned about the level of violence and corruption in the world around him, and about the lack of moral responsibility and social cohesion. At around the age of thirty, he became a religious reformer on a mission to change the traditional Jewish beliefs and customs.

Jesus was written to have said that God intended for us all to be peaceful, loving, and forgiving to one another. He said that you must love others as much as you would love yourself, and not to do anything to anyone that you would not want done to you. He said that God forgives those who realize their wrongdoings and change their ways.

Jesus was said to have preached that there is a heavenly kingdom that exists in the midst of our earthly kingdoms. A person's life cannot be judged by the changing standards of this evil world. Our earthly standards will always be corrupted by greed, lust, and other selfish interests. A person's life can only truly be judged by the eternal standards of God's heavenly kingdom.

He was written to have said that no person can serve two masters. You cannot serve God while pursuing your own selfish desires. Only after abandoning your pursuit of pleasure and your ambition for wealth and power can you truly live to serve God.

In his sermon on the mount from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus was reported to have said ...

You have heard how men of ancient times were told, “Do not murder”, and “Whoever is guilty of murder must be punished”. But I tell you that anyone who is angry at his fellow man without reason is guilty, and whoever speaks abusively about his fellow man is guilty, and whoever condemns his fellow man to death shall himself be condemned to the fires of hell.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. But I say to you, do not seek revenge for any harm done to you. If someone slaps you in the face, turn your head and let him slap you again. If someone tries to take your robe, let him have your tunic as well. And if someone forces you to walk one mile, walk with them two miles instead. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the borrower.

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy”. But I say to you, love your enemy and help those who hate you, so that you may be servants of your heavenly father. For he makes the sun shine upon the good and the evil, and he pours the rain upon the just and the unjust. If you love only those who love you then how does your conduct excel? And if you welcome only your family and friends then how do you differ from non-believers who do the same? You then are to be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.

Do not pass judgment on others, for the way you judge others you will be judged. Why notice the splinter in your brother’s eye without taking notice of the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me extract that splinter from your eye”, when there is a log in your own eye? Do not be a hypocrite. First get rid of the log in your own eye, then you will see clearly to extract the splinter from your brother’s eye.

You have heard that it was said, “Be faithful to your wife”. But I tell you that any man who looks with desire upon another woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to be unfaithful then pluck it out and throw it away from you. You would do better to lose one of your eyes than to live your life dishonestly.

Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the seeker finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. If your son was to ask you for a loaf of bread, would you give him a stone? Or if he asked for a fish, would you give him a snake? If you then, evil as you are, know enough to give your children what is good, then how much more surely will the goodness of God’s heavenly kingdom provide for those who ask. Accordingly, whatever you would have other people do for you, do the same for them.

Everyone then, who listens to these sayings of mine and puts them into practice will be like a thoughtful man who built his house upon the rock. The rains came down, the floods rose, the wind blew and beat upon that house, but it never collapsed, for it was based on the rock. And everyone who hears these sayings of mine and fails to practice them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rains came down, the floods rose, the wind blew and beat upon that house and it collapsed and was completely wrecked.

According to the legend, Jesus traveled widely, attracted followers, and gained support for his message. But he increasingly provoked the anger of the Jewish priesthood. After traveling to Jerusalem to preach, he was arrested by the authorities and executed. He died around the year 30.

The legend of Jesus continued to grow after his death. His followers idolized him for having been the heroic spokesperson for a more enlightened form of Judaism. Stories about Jesus grew more mythical as new followers added their own expectations about who they wanted Jesus to be and what they wanted him to have said. The one thing that united them all was their desire that his life and death should be significant enough to bring lasting social change.

Collections of wise sayings and stories about admirable deeds were attributed to Jesus. As the years passed and his following grew more enthusiastic, Jesus the man was gradually transformed into Jesus Christ, the mythical savior of mankind, so perfect in every way that that he was believed to be the spirit of God embodied in the flesh of a man.

There were no significant writings about Jesus until decades after his death. He was not mentioned in any reliable Jewish or Roman histories. Few people had heard about him and his following remained a small and relatively unimportant sect of Judaism.

Paul

Paul was a fanatical Jew who was initially hostile to those who believed in Jesus. He was authorized by the Jewish authorities to hunt down members of the sect, but after witnessing the strength of their faith, he realized that stories about the son of God might be persuasive enough to spread the Jewish faith in God to the Greeks and Romans.

After converting to Christianity, Paul traveled throughout the Roman Empire, preaching to anybody who would listen. He was regularly beaten, stoned, ridiculed, and arrested, but he did manage to attract new followers and establish growing congregations in many Greek and Roman cities. In his letters to the various congregations, he wrote ...

If someone among you seems wise in this age then let him admit his ignorance, so that he may become wiser, for the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s estimation. For as much as by God’s design the world failed to know God by means of its wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe in him through the foolishness of Holy Scripture.

Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities, such as his eternal power and infinite wisdom, have been clearly shown in all the things that he has created. So that men were without excuse, because although they had knowledge of God, they failed to respect him or give thanks to him. Instead they indulged in speculations and found reasons to glorify themselves, and so their thoughts became darkened. Thinking they were wise, they had become foolish. They even tried to bend the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made in the likeness of a corruptible man, and in the likeness of birds, four-footed beasts, and reptiles.

I say to you and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live like unenlightened people, with their vain and selfish thoughts. Their understanding is darkened because they are far removed from the guidance of God. Because of their ignorance and the hardness of their hearts, they have no true feelings. They have abandoned themselves to sensuality, and with greedy minds they pursue sinful activities.

But those who know Christ, who have heard about him and have been taught that Jesus gave us the truth, you are to rid yourself of your old primitive nature which was corrupted by its deceitful desire, and renew the spirit of your mind, and adopt a new nature that is created in God’s likeness in genuine righteousness and holiness. Putting aside falsehood to speak the truth to each other, because we are all one another’s brothers.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with tenderness of heart, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patient endurance. Bear with one another and forgive each other in case one has a grievance against the other. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so should you forgive also. And above all give love, which is the perfect bond of union. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts.

Do you not know that you are committed as slaves to serve the one to whom you have offered yourselves? Thank God that although you were once slaves to sin, your hearts have become obedient to the standard of teaching to which you were introduced, so that having been set free from sin, you became slaves to righteousness. For when you were slaves to sin, without righteousness, what good did you derive from those things of which you are now ashamed?

I beg you, therefore, to offer yourselves to be slaves in the service of God. Do not conform to worldly ways, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so as to sense for yourselves what is good and acceptable, and what is the will of God.

Do not suppress the Holy Spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test them all and keep what is good. And keep away from evil in every form.

The Jews

The Jews had been told that they were God's chosen people, but Paul preached that God's love was for everybody, not just the Jews. Christianity would be a religion for every believer, regardless of race, gender, or class.

Colonies of Jews had settled in cities throughout the Roman Empire. Many Greek speaking Jews were persuaded to convert to Christianity along with Greeks and Romans who were not satisfied with their traditional religions or philosophies. But soon after being established in the Greek and Roman worlds, Christianity's roots in the Jewish world were extinguished.

Furious at the corruption of their Roman governors and encouraged by their own vast resources of money and men, the people of Israel rose up against the Romans in the year 66. The Roman army marched into Judea to regain control. The war lasted several years and millions of Jews were killed. The city of Jerusalem was destroyed and its inhabitants were either slaughtered or sold into slavery.

The Gospel stories

Many stories were written about the life of Jesus. Most of these stories portrayed wildly differing accounts of what Jesus said and did. But only the four books known as the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John gained widespread acceptance. After centuries of debate by the bishops, they were included in the final choice of scriptures.

Mark had grown up among the early Christians. He wrote the first gospel in Greek after the death of Paul, around 40 years after the death of Jesus, and after the destruction of Jerusalem. Drawing from the clutter of myths surrounding Jesus, Mark skillfully wove together a story which aroused admiration and satisfied the hopes and expectations of believers.

In Mark's story, Jesus was baptized by a desert preacher who declared him to be the chosen one. He then traveled around the countryside, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, casting out demons, and raising the dead. Throughout the story he struggled to teach the ignorant Jews a higher form of wisdom, but he was misunderstood by his followers, persecuted by the priests, and betrayed by a friend. After being crucified by the Romans, he rose from the dead and ascended to heaven to sit beside God.

The Jewish tradition is full of myths about miracles and divine interventions, and so Jesus needed to be said to have performed miracles in order to prove that he possessed the power of God.

The sayings of Jesus had been recorded in Hebrew by his early followers. These sayings were translated into Greek and combined with Mark's story to produce the gospel of Matthew. Throughout the gospel stories, Jesus was said to have fulfilled many obscure Jewish prophecies about the coming of a messiah. Matthew added the story of the virgin birth to help fulfill these prophecies and make it easier for people to relate to Jesus as being the son of God.

The gospel stories say that Jesus expected to be tortured and killed in order for his life to be seen as a sacrifice and for his example and teachings to be immortalized. His suffering continues to inspire those believers who have also suffered in their own personal struggle to maintain honest and loving principles in an often uncaring and hostile world.

In a world where few people can accept the concept of God without being able to envisage God in their mind's eye, the Christian mythmakers had constructed a human idol to be worshipped in the place of the incomprehensible God. To them it was more than just an acceptable compromise, they believed that it was part of God's plan that a myth about the son of God had been successfully conjured from raw enthusiasm at an opportune time.

The wisdom behind using Christ as an idol to represent God was expressed in the gospel of John, written around 70 years after the death of Jesus. Jesus was someone who could be loved by everyone, especially by children. He would give those who believed in him an awareness of God, and by aspiring to be like Jesus, they would gain an ideal guide for their own character and values.

Luke tried to enhance the teachings of Jesus and tie up the loose ends of the myth with his own gospel. He also wrote about the adventures of Paul. But adding extra detail to the story only increased the contradictions and absurdities of the myth.

In any case, it did not seem to matter that the pieces of the puzzle did not fit together, believers would be too blinded by the light to notice. And even if they did notice, they were usually so grateful for having been shown an alternative to the meaninglessness of an ordinary life that they did not seem to care.

Much of what Jesus was written to have said and done was metaphorical and symbolic. But the intended meanings of the gospels were misunderstood by most believers, especially the priests, who continued to preach that the events portrayed were literally true.

Other scriptures

Many of the letters that were supposedly written by early Christians are known to be forgeries. Early Christian writers often signed their work using the name of an apostle in the hope of attracting a wider readership. Early church historians wrote that the epistles of Peter, John, Jude, and James were not written by those to whom they have been attributed. These writings were not universally accepted as scripture until after centuries of debate by the bishops. Church historians also doubt the authenticity of many of Paul's letters, especially his letter to the Hebrews.

Although the Book of Revelations was embraced by some early congregations, it was widely rejected by many others as a dangerous work of fantasy. Only because of its undying support over the centuries was it able to overcome fierce resistance to gain a permanent place among the scriptures.

The Jews had managed to keep the Persian myth about the Day of Judgment out of their scriptures, but it became firmly entrenched in the Christian religion. The scriptures say that the faithful will be rewarded with resurrection and eternal life, just like Jesus had been resurrected, while the sinners and non-believers will be punished with eternal damnation.

Although the fear of hell is often considered to be an effective way of encouraging people to restrain their behavior, it is also widely criticized for retarding the emotional growth of believers by having their moral choices depend only on reward and punishment.

The Trinity

Trying to define the exact relationship between Jesus and God became the most serious problem facing the early church. The commandments of Judaism clearly state that there can only be one God, but the Son of God seemed to be a separate lesser God. Even the bishops were confused, and many of them were drawn into bitter and sometimes bloody disputes. Eventually the concept of the ‘Trinity’ was devised to cloud the issue behind a mysterious word.

There were many different sects among the early Christians, each sect having its own unique beliefs and preferring its own choice of scriptures. Some sects insisted that Jesus was just a man. Others encouraged freedom from sexual restraint. Eventually one sect gained political power and all other sects were persecuted out of existence. Any writings not favored by the prevailing sect were banned or destroyed. Few of these banned writings have survived.

Constantine

The Romans usually showed tolerance towards popular religions as long as they did not challenge the authority of Rome. But many early Christians publicly denounced the gods of the empire and openly criticized the divinity of the emperor. Many refused to cooperate with Roman authorities or participate in state affairs.

As Christianity continued to grow in popularity, it became an effective opposition group, united and disciplined in its protest against many of the unnecessarily cruel and vulgar aspects of Roman tradition. This provoked a number of emperors to become openly hostile towards it. But executing Christians only seemed to strengthen this religion whose founder had also been executed by the Romans.

By the year 306, a significant percentage of the empire's population had become Christian. Around this time, a handful of military commanders were battling for control of the empire. One of them, Constantine, took advantage of the growing sympathy towards Christianity by making it known that he supported the Christian cause. In one decisive battle, despite being outnumbered, his troops won a comfortable victory. After becoming emperor, Constantine proclaimed tolerance for Christianity throughout the empire.

During his reign, he gradually transformed Christianity into a state religion. He began by exempting the church from taxation because of their service to the poor. Over the following years, he continued to show favor to Christian bishops until he eventually gave them power over state officials and courts of law.

Roman emperors had traditionally assumed the role of being the chief priest of whatever the popular religions were at the time. Religious cults either gained or lost popularity solely because of the emperor's interest in them. After Constantine converted to Christianity, many people followed his lead and Christianity soon became the most popular religion in the empire.

The Church

The history of Christianity has been marked by frequent disputes between bishops over the interpretation of scripture. In early times, these disputes often led to power struggles within the church. Any bishop who held an opinion that was different from the majority of bishops was condemned as a heretic.

During the reign of Constantine, the bishops became bitterly divided over the relationship between Jesus and God. In the year 324, Constantine tried to resolve this dispute by sending letters to the leaders of each faction. Hosius, the bishop of Cordova, was sent to deliver these letters, and upon delivering them, he was written to have said ...

My brothers, Christianity has hardly begun to enjoy peace, and you are about to plunge it into eternal discord. The emperor is only too right to tell you that you are quarreling about a very trivial matter. If the object of the dispute were essential, then Jesus Christ, who we all recognize as our highest authority, would certainly have spoken of it.

God would not have sent his own son to earth in order not to teach us what is true. Anything that he did not expressly tell us is the work of men, and they are likely to be mistaken. Jesus has commanded you to love each other, and you begin by disobeying him and hating one another, and creating division throughout the empire.

Pride alone gives birth to these disputes, and Jesus, your master, has ordered you to be humble. None of you could know whether Jesus was made or begotten. And why should his nature concern you, so long as yours is to be honest and reasonable? What does a meaningless science of words have in common with the morality which should guide your actions?

You confound people’s faith with mysteries when you should be strengthening religion through virtue. Do you want Christianity to splinter into mass of conflicting beliefs? Is that what Christ came for? Stop disputing; worship, build, humble yourselves, feed the poor, and calm family quarrels instead of scandalizing the entire empire with your discord.

Augustine

In order to maintain unity and avoid conflict, the bishops needed to agree on one clear interpretation. The church slowly approached an official position as each dispute was resolved through heated debate. Influential bishops argued their viewpoints in letters and books. Innovative ideas were condemned as heresy. In the end, the least offensive interpretation was eventually agreed upon by the weary bishops.

The most influential writer to rise out of this period was the bishop who became known as Saint Augustine. In the absence of anything better, his writings on a wide range of subjects seemed to satisfy the need for a comprehensive explanation of the Bible. Augustine's writings became sacred in their own way. His books still form the backbone of Catholic philosophy today. He died during the barbarian invasions around the year 430. Augustine wrote ...

When the question is asked, what we are to believe in regard to religion, it is not necessary to probe into the nature of things, as was done by the Greek scientists. We need not be alarmed should the Christian not know the number of elements; the motion of the heavenly bodies; the shape of the cosmos; the species of animals and plants; the nature of stones, rivers, and mountains; about time and distance; the signs of coming storms; or about a thousand other things which these scientists have either found out, or think they have found out.

For even these men themselves, endowed as they are with so much genius, burning with zeal, abounding in leisure, tracking some things by the aid of human conjecture, searching into others with the aids of history and experience, have not found out all things; and even their boasted discoveries are more often mere guesses rather than certain knowledge.

It is enough for the Christian to believe that the only cause of all created things, whether heavenly or earthly, visible or invisible, is the goodness of the creator, the one true God; and that nothing exists but Himself that does not derive its existence from Him. And that he is the Trinity, meaning he is the Father, and the Son begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father, all being one and the same spirit.

Augustine knew that Christianity was not compatible with science. For Christians, there was no need for new discoveries. Everything that mankind would ever need to know about God, nature, or humanity was to be found in the Bible. The process of discovery that began in ancient Greece had come to an end. Books would be destroyed and knowledge would be lost, marking the beginning of a dark age that would last for the next thousand years.

Moral influence

The Romans had long enjoyed coming to the Coliseum to see gladiators, criminals, and wild animals fight to the death. Their taste for violence reflected the savagery of a conquering nation. 5000 animals were slaughtered to celebrate the opening of the Coliseum in the year 80. Centuries later, crowds were entertained by the spectacle of Christians being eaten by lions.

Around the year 430, a Christian monk entered the arena and interrupted a fight between two gladiators. He was stoned to death by an outraged crowd, but his protest was successful. The Christian emperor at the time declared an end to all gladiatorial death matches.

Ancient Rome was powered by slavery. Nations that refused to submit to Rome were conquered and their people were enslaved. Fathers who were unable to pay their debts were often forced to sell their children into slavery. Girls were abducted from poor rural areas and sold to wealthy Roman households.

Continuing the work that had been begun by the earlier Stoic emperors, Christian emperors reformed the laws to offer better protection for women, children, and slaves. Conditions continued to improve for slaves until they became virtually indistinguishable from common peasants.

Barbarian invasions

The western provinces of the empire like France and Spain spoke mostly Latin, while the eastern provinces like Greece and Turkey spoke mostly Greek. Constantine recognized the growing wealth and cultural strength of the Greek speaking provinces by establishing a new capital in the Greek city of Byzantine, which he renamed Constantinople. The western provinces would later be governed by a Latin emperor in Rome, and the eastern provinces by a Greek emperor in Constantinople.

During the 400s, invasions and migrations of Asian tribes into Europe placed an unbearable strain on the defenses of the empire. Roman institutions were still recovering from the cultural upheaval that had followed the rise of Christianity. The majority of troops guarding the northern border were now barbarian tribesmen. Rivalry between the two halves of the empire made the situation even more dangerous.

Rome's frontiers eventually crumbled as barbarian tribes from northern and eastern Europe flooded into the empire and soon conquered Italy, Spain, and North Africa. Rome was repeatedly sacked, its treasures stolen, its buildings burned, and its people massacred. Wherever the barbarians settled, Roman civilization was replaced by primitive tribal law and culture. The western half of the empire came to an end in the year 476 when a barbarian warlord declared himself to be the king of Italy.

Throughout Western Europe, there was a dramatic decline in trade. Law and order gave way to banditry. People moved out of the towns and cities, and within a few generations, reading and writing were largely forgotten. Roman buildings, bridges, and roads fell into disrepair and became overgrown with weeds. The knowledge needed to reconstruct them was gradually lost. Peasants in centuries to come would look at the ancient ruins and think that they were built by demons.

The eastern half of the empire survived the invasions and eventually recaptured Italy, North Africa, and the coastal regions of southern Spain. The church in Rome also survived, and the bishop of Rome, otherwise known as the pope, rose to become the spiritual leader of the western churches. The eastern churches took their directions from the eastern emperor in Constantinople. Christianity continued to spread throughout Europe as devoted missionaries worked to convert pagan kings.

By the late 500s, Christianity had reached the height of its intolerance. Followers of other religions were persecuted, denied property rights, and banished into exile. Anybody who questioned the opinions of the bishops was charged with heresy and often condemned to death.

Charlemagne

By the mid 600s, Arab tribes had been united by Islam and were conquering many of the territories of the eastern half of the empire, gaining control of Palestine, Syria, and North Africa. They soon invaded Spain and then crossed the mountains into France. After losing a decisive battle to French forces, they retreated back to Spain.

Christians commonly prayed before pictures and statues of Jesus and Mary. Muslims claimed that this was idol worship. The eastern emperor agreed and ordered the destruction of all religious icons, but the western churches refused to obey. The eastern emperor threatened to invade Rome, but the pope countered this threat by forming an alliance with French kings. Division grew between the eastern and western churches.

The French king Charlemagne (Charles the Great) came to power in 768. His grandfather had repelled the Muslim invasion, and now he was determined to restore the western half of the empire and bring order to Europe. He began by conquering much of northern and eastern Europe and converting the barbarian tribes to Christianity.

Using an army of Christian priests who also acted as executioners, he threatened to kill any tribesman who refused to accept Christ as their savior. The older generations pretended to be Christian out of fear, but their children grew up knowing no other religion. Conversion to Christianity proved to be an effective way of taming the warrior habits of the northern tribes.

Charlemagne continued to expand his empire and strengthen the church in Rome. In the year 800, the pope crowned him emperor of the western half of the empire. Charlemagne wanted to form a permanent alliance between church and state, but over the following centuries, this degenerated into a power struggle between popes and emperors that continued to dominate European politics for nearly a thousand years.

The Middle Ages

By the mid 800s, Muslim warships controlled most of the Mediterranean Sea. They captured Sicily and invaded parts of Italy, almost capturing Rome itself. If it had not been for the successful efforts of Italian, German, and Greek forces then the history of Europe would have been significantly different.

Vikings from the north and Huns from the east continued to raid the struggling Christian kingdoms, destroying villages, capturing women, and looting the golden ornaments and jeweled relics from churches and monasteries. The Vikings established themselves as lords over much of Europe, giving rise to a new aristocracy. After being converted to Christianity, they ceased their raids and greater stability descended upon Europe.

The book of revelations describes the end of the world. In the years leading up to the year 1000, there was a growing anxiety that the world was going to come to an end. Many believers packed their belongings onto wagons and began a hazardous journey towards the holy land. Villages throughout Europe were left abandoned. The church refused to deny that the end was near, as believers were donating their property to the church in a final effort to gain favor with God. The year 1000 came and went and nothing happened.

Kings and aristocrats owned the land and enslaved the peasants to work in the fields and fight in the wars. Popes often gained the affection of the oppressed masses by speaking out against injustices and by supporting popular resistance against tyranny. The church played a vital role in promoting community values and providing charity for the poor.

By the mid 1000s, married priests were passing their parishes down to their sons, kings were appointing their political allies as bishops, and Italian princes had taken control of Rome and were selling the papacy to the highest bidder. The church had descended into anarchy and corruption as aristocrats shamelessly exploited it to gain wealth and power. True believers struggled to reform the church. One new rule was to forbid priests from marrying and having children.

Disagreements continued to push the eastern and western churches further apart. One disagreement was about the nature of the Trinity. Did the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father alone, or from both the Father and the Son? These differences were exploited for political purposes, and the two sides eventually excommunicated each other. The western church became Catholic and the eastern church became Orthodox.

The Crusades

Warrior tribes from central Asia converted to Islam in the 900s. Known as the Turks, they were employed as mercenary soldiers by the Arabs. Within a century they had gained control of the Muslim empire and were invading the area of land now known as Turkey. After the Greek armies were crushed by the Turks, the eastern emperor pleaded to the pope for assistance.

The pope responded by gathering forces from all over Europe to launch a religious crusade. But rather than recapturing Turkey, they invaded Syria and Israel and captured Jerusalem instead, whose entire population was slaughtered, many of whom were eastern Christians.

The crusades greatly strengthened the pope's power by uniting all of Europe under his command. The crusaders held on to Jerusalem for almost a century. Several other crusades were launched during this time, each one facing increased resistance from Muslim armies.

Rather than attacking the Muslims, the armies of the last crusade decided to attack Constantinople instead and loot its treasures. Unconquered since the days of the old Roman Empire, Constantinople had been one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Centuries later, the Turks used cannons to blast their way through its defensive walls, finally bringing an end to the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Constantinople is now known as Istanbul.

Universities

Science, mathematics, and philosophy had been abandoned throughout Europe after the rise of Christianity and the fall of Rome. Many of the books written by ancient Greeks and Romans had been lost and forgotten. Some of these works were preserved by Greek book collectors and Irish monks. Others were translated into Arabic and for hundreds of years were only available to Muslim and Jewish scholars.

During the reign of Charlemagne, church schools had been established across Europe to teach new generations of priests how to read and write. The importance of these schools grew over the centuries as they began teaching administration and commerce to aristocrats and wealthy merchants. Universities were established in the 1100s to teach theology, law, and medicine.

The Muslims were forced out of Spain in the 1200s, and their schools and libraries fell into the hands of the Europeans. European scholars eagerly absorbed the knowledge of their Muslim and Jewish counterparts and began translating their collections of ancient literature into Latin. European universities soon added science, mathematics, and philosophy to their range of subjects.

Thomas Aquinas

The rediscovery of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers had a profound effect on European thought. This caused the Catholic Church to become deeply concerned. Those whose ideas strayed too far from Christianity were accused of heresy. Scholars tried to defend themselves by arguing that there was no contradiction between philosophical reasoning and religious faith.

The most influential scholar of the time was an Italian monk who became known as Saint Thomas Aquinas. His writings helped to ease the growing conflict between faith and reason. Aquinas believed that although observation and rational thinking can take us a long way towards understanding the design of nature, our purpose in nature can only be revealed through religious scripture.

Aquinas did not believe that anything could be discovered about nature that would ever cast serious doubt on the existence of God. He wrote ...

Although the truth about God might be discovered through human reasoning alone, it is advantageous that this truth has been revealed to men by way of religious faith, because if the search for this kind of truth were left entirely to reason, three disadvantages would follow.

One disadvantage is that very few people would have an informed understanding of God. A considerable amount of study is required to discover the truth, and most people are hindered from carrying out such study. Some are hindered by their limited ability to understand things, and it may not be in their nature to learn such knowledge. No amount of study could ever teach them of the highest form of human knowledge, which is the knowledge of God.

Other people are hindered by the needs of business and the concerns of property management. Our human society requires that most men be devoted to the pursuit of such worldly affairs. And these men could not possibly spend enough time learning the lessons of speculative enquiry required to arrive at the highest point of human enquiry, which is an understanding of God.

And few people are interested in carrying out such a study. The knowledge required to contemplate God requires so much other knowledge. Most of the sciences contribute something to the understanding of God. And so only after much study in many other subjects will a person be ready to learn about metaphysics and begin their search for the divine truth, and this is a labor that few are willing to undergo for sheer love of knowledge.

Another disadvantage is that those who reach an understanding about the nature of God and the truth behind the existence of all things take such a long time to learn these things because of the profound depth of such truth and the great amount of study required, and also because in youth and early manhood, the soul is tossed around in the waves of passion and is not fit for the study of such high truth. Only in settled age does the soul become prudent and scientific.

Thus, if the only way to discover the knowledge of God was by way of reason, then the human race would dwell for a long time in the thick darkness of ignorance, as the knowledge of God, the best instrument for making men good and wise, would come to only a few, and only to those few after much of their lives had already passed.

A third disadvantage is that, because of our limited ability to think, and our wild imaginations, there will always be a degree of error in the conclusions that we reach using human reason. And this is why many men continue to doubt even the most accurate conclusions, unable to see the strength of these conclusions, and seeing the great diversity of opinions held by other men who have a reputation for being wise.

So therefore it was necessary for the truth concerning divine things to be presented to men with the fixed certainty that comes from faith. It is wholesome, and it is a divine mercy that those things that test the limits of human reason have been given to us as articles of faith, so that all men might easily partake in the knowledge of God without any doubt or error. And so the scriptures say, “Now you walk not as the non-believers walk in the vanity of their own notions and with their darkened understandings”, and, “I will make all my sons educated in the ways of the Lord.”

The Great Schism

Before the invention of the printing press, the Bible had been painstakingly hand copied by monks, and copies were carefully protected by the church. The common person was not allowed to read the Bible. The church was afraid that without the proper training, readers might not adhere to the official interpretation. The penalty for being found in possession of a Bible was to be burned at the stake.

During the 1200s and 1300s, there was a growing movement in the more liberal areas of Italy and France to reject the Catholic monopoly on religion. Alternative beliefs began to attract followers. The pope reacted by organizing a series of massacres. He then introduced the Inquisition, with its torture chambers and public executions, intended to silence dissent and terrify the population into loyalty.

In the year 1378, French cardinals rejected the election of an Italian pope and elected their own pope instead. An intense political struggle followed, with the two rival popes excommunicating each other and calling each other the ‘antipope’. The dispute continued for decades. This period of weakness was seized upon by rebel priests in England and Germany. One rebel priest went so far as to declare all popes to be antichrists.

With the position of the pope having been disgraced, the rebel priests proclaimed that the Bible was a higher authority than any pope, and so true believers should be able to read it and interpret it for themselves. They began translating the Bible into English and German. A new pope was eventually chosen and the dispute was settled. The rebel priests were condemned and some were put to death, but it was too late, their ideas had already begun to spread throughout Europe.

The printing press

Since long before the crusades, the Catholic Church had been raising funds through the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was a voucher that you could buy from the church which guaranteed you divine forgiveness for your sins. There were different prices for different sins, and you could even buy indulgences for the dead. The crusades were partly funded by the sale of indulgences, and by the time the crusades were over, they had become a major source of revenue for the church.

Johannes Gutenberg was a German metalworker who saw that there was a profit to be made by selling church related products to faithful Christians. He started by making religious trinkets, and then later realized that he could make a fortune by finding a faster and easier way to print indulgences rather than copying them by hand.

He created separate stamps for each letter, which were arranged on a frame to create a printing plate. The plate was then covered with ink and pressed against paper. The plate could be used again and again to print thousands of perfect copies. The success of Gutenberg's technique made him ambitious enough to attempt printing the Bible.

After years of work refining the process and designing the plates, he successfully printed hundreds of copies of the Bible and began selling them in 1455, each one costing an amount equal to several years pay for the average worker. But Gutenberg failed to make enough money to recover his development costs and his new invention was taken away from him by his financier.

Printing presses soon began appearing throughout Europe. For the first time in history, the general public had cheap access to growing amounts of information. European culture began to blossom as it embraced this new form of communication.

By the year 1500, thousands of different books had been published, covering a wide range of subjects, and millions of copies of these books had been sold. Also by this time, the Catholic Church had begun banning and burning books that it found offensive. But this had little effect, as heretics could now distribute printed books faster than priests could burn them.

The Protestant Reformation

In 1517, a German university professor named Martin Luther published a paper objecting to the corrupt practices of the church. He argued that indulgences were a fraud. They promoted deceit and immorality, and they led people to become skeptical about religion. If the pope really cared for people, then he would empty purgatory out of love and not for money.

Luther was ordered to be silent, but instead he became even more outspoken. He was eventually condemned by the pope, but by now he had gained an immensely popular following. Princes throughout northern Europe saw this as an opportunity to gain political and financial independence from Rome. They began confiscating church property and formed their own national churches. This outraged the wealthy ruling class families in Italy.

The pope and the emperor sent armed forces into northern Europe to exterminate all opposition and regain control. European civilization fell into a series of long and bloody religious wars. Villages and towns were burned to the ground and populations were massacred. Millions of people were killed and millions more were forced to flee. Over one hundred years later, nobody was winning and everybody was exhausted by war. A peace treaty was signed in 1648 and Europe was divided into Catholic and Protestant countries.

Continue to chapter 7 ... The rise of modern science