Spirituality for a New Dark Age

The following article appeared in the July 2023 issue of Roqueta, Menorca’s English-language magazine.

There’s a retired bishop of the Church of England, whose sister lives in Menorca. While I was chatting to him during a recent visit, he mentioned that it has been suggested that he should write a book (he is a well-published author) on the subject of ‘Spirituality for a New Dark Age.’ It’s an intriguing idea – and it raises a lot of questions. It has its roots in the idea that the Church played a role in moderating the darkness of the dark ages.

What has historically been known as the Dark Ages usually refers to the period after the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe, the ‘early middle ages,’ when the order of Empire collapsed in the face of invading forces from (mostly) the east. The term originated with the Tuscan scholar Petrarch in the 1330s, who wrote: ‘Amidst the errors there shone forth men of genius; no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom.’

Given the tendency of Christian thinking to use the imagery of light and dark as a metaphor for good and evil, the impression given is that these were difficult times, and they certainly had their moments: this was a time of poor communication, lack of education, deteriorating public health, misinformation and superstition (but what had the Romans ever done for us?!). By the time the Black Death (bubonic plague) devastated large parts of Europe in the fourteenth century, the kind of superstition that regarded cats as mysterious carriers of bad luck contributed to the spread of the disease: killing cats is a rather silly idea, since they prey upon rats, which carry the fleas that in turn carry plague bacteria.

One thing about the Dark Ages is that they were not necessarily completely dark. Even Petrarch himself alluded to the light that shone in the darkness. Many historians object to the use of the term, which has in fact been ambiguously used to describe either the early middle ages, or later parts of the middle ages, or the entire 900 years from the fifth to the fourteenth century. It was during the age of Enlightenment that philosophers helped the myth of the Dark Ages to take hold, with the rise of scientific discovery and technological developments. I suspect that there is a certain degree of intellectual snobbery involved here: assigning the adjective ‘dark’ to any time that is not one’s own! Certainly during this time there were advances in all areas: science and education (universities), power generation (water and wind mills), architecture (gothic cathedrals), agriculture (crop-rotation, heavy plough, horse-collar), warfare (cannons, heavy-armoured cavalry), music (musical notation) and much more.

All of this partly owes its origins to a reactionary movement against organised religion that emerged during the Enlightenment. When the Roman Empire collapsed, one thing that was left in place was the Church, which had become the official religion of the Empire in the early fourth century. With its headquarters in Rome, or Constantinople (competing factions existed even then), the Church emerged as an influential force where there was a vacuum of civil order. Was this, ultimately, a good idea? By the time Martin Luther emerged on the scene in the 1500s, he perceived the Roman Catholic Church to have become a sort of Empire in its own right, with a privileged hierarchy that subjugated the poorer classes as much as any civil government did, exploiting ignorance. He protested against this, which is why we now have Protestant churches that broke away from Rome. So the Church may have ameliorated some of the darkness, but not without acquiring some dark habits of its own.

Anyway, what about the idea that, first, we are witnessing a new dark age, and secondly, that Christianity has something to say?

One of the characteristics of the dark ages was poor communication, resulting in misinformation and superstition. Today we certainly don’t have poor communication – at least not in a technological sense. Information in the form of multiple media can be passed around the world at the speed of light. Ironically, rather than suppressing misinformation, this has had the effect of making the sort of ill-informed opinion and plain fantasy that promote superstition, fear and anger all too readily available, to the point where it is sometimes difficult to tell where the truth lies. This is indeed reminiscent of the dark ages. How do we distinguish between the rule of law and witch hunting, for example?

What might Christianity have to say about all of this? Perhaps one counter-intuitive advantage of the decline of churches in the past few decades is that organised religion in many states cannot claim to have any kind of ‘official’ status, and many believe that the Church of England will, in the foreseeable future, become disestablished (i.e. not the religion of the state). In this regard, the Church will have to look back to a time when it was a minority institution, during the first three centuries of its existence, although we might hope that the persecutions that flared up during those centuries could be avoided. This would be a good start, but we live in a different era from that time, and while we might hanker after a purer form of spirituality, we have to be realistic about the world in which we live.

Personally, I believe that the Church made a strategic error during the early years of Enlightenment, as humanity came to know and understand more about the nature of the world and the universe in which we live. Instead of engaging in a dialogue with scientists and philosophers, the religious establishment decided to oppose it – Galileo was accused of being a heretic, for example, for daring to suggest that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice versa. The Greeks had in fact decided this centuries before; all too often we congratulate ourselves on gaining knowledge and information which was already known. The role of science, broadly speaking, is to explain how things work. The role of religion, in equally broad terms, is to try to understand why.

A good example to illustrate this might be the way we understand the word ‘myth.’ Nowadays, we tend to treat ‘myth’ in the same way as ‘legend:’ fanciful ideas or stories that don’t necessarily have any grounding in truth. But there is truth in the mythology of humanity: the truth of a myth is in its meaning. We make sense of the world in which we live by telling stories about it. Most cultures have some sort of creation story or myth. The Judeo-Christian creation story does not have to be taken literally to unearth the truth that there is order and purpose in the created universe, that there is a spiritual dimension within it, that there is divine inspiration in creation, that humanity has a responsibility to exercise good stewardship of our world, and so on.

If human beings are intrinsically spiritual, which I believe they are, then the darker aspects of the age in which we live can be lightened by tending to that spirituality. And doing so can provide a framework with some guiding principles about how to live in the face of rampant anger, fear and superstition. Practices that feed us spiritually, such as prayer and meditation can offer inner peace.

And guidance for living? When Kate was about to be discharged from hospital in California recently after an appendectomy, the nurse who was caring for her asked me about my favourite verse from the Bible. That might be a moving target, depending upon context and mood! But most commonly I return to a verse from the prophet Micah. ‘What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ How might our world be different if those were prevailing principles that we all followed? Would darkness be lifted?

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