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Mediaeval Religion

When it comes to theological politics a basic premise to begin with is the distinct differences between religion in the mediaeval period and religion in secularity. According to Charles Tayor, in A Secular Age, during the middle ages there were no distinctions “between the religious, political, economic, social, etc., aspects of our society… In these earlier societies, religion was ‘everywhere’, was interwoven with everything else, and in no sense constituted a separate ‘sphere’ of its own.” This is in stark contrast tocontemporary modern societies where varying spheres of activity function in autonomous domains, each having their own internal rationality. Similarly, religion in secular society fits this same category. In fact, it is anachronistic to say today, if one is being politically correct, that God permeates all of society. Certainly people continue to make references to God in varying public spaces, but they are only personal gestures. This is because society is no longer “connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality” at all in the same way as pre-modern societies were. God simply is no longer present “at all levels of society.”

There is an entirely different meaning to belief today, primarily because there are a plethora of reasonable options rather than a single uncontested assumption that everyone shares. God is no longer axiomatic, in other words, because there are a plurality of options and alternatives to choose from. Religion, therefore, as many theologians and historians have pointed out, is merely a private, individual matter that is relatively undemanding of political structures in comparison to the mediaeval milieu. It would be erroneous to assume from this that secularity refutes religion or crowds it out due to science, philosophy, or any other modern discourse. Rather, secularity changes the fundamental character and conditions of religion. “To put the point in different terms, belief in God isn’t quite the same thing in 1500 and 2000.” One of the largest contrasts between these two eras is that civilization has moved from an immediate certainty in a supernatural plane of reality to understanding that there are many ways to interpret existence. Unlike 1500 there is no longer a default option for everyone to live by and we instead must coexist with others who adopt and are engaged in differing standpoints. We no longer have a common background to take for granted in the sense that the Middle Ages had.

This shift in background, which brought on the coming of the secular age, also had to do with the separation between the immanent and the transcendent; the natural and the supernatural. This divide is unique to our modern culture and would have been unintelligible in 1500. This means today that religion in the West usually has to do with recognizing or believing in something transcendent whereas humanism slides to the other horn of the paradox and is concerned only with the immanent goals of self-sufficient humanity. Charles Tayor actually marks the emergence of this humanism as coterminous with the rise of a secular age. For the first time in history humanity no longer accepts any final goals other than human flourishing. God simply ceases to be relevant to human life in any way. But this was unthinkable in pre-modern societies because there was not yet any separation between the transcendent and the immanent. Back then it was either white magic or black magic. Spirits and cosmic forces were unproblmatically there in everyone’s lived understanding and the only choice one faced was whether to side with the gods or the demons. To choose not to believe in God at that time would have meant to choose a life vulnerable to the spiritual field of forces without protection. Disbelief simply was not intelligible and the conditions did not yet exist to choose between different options.

We can sum up by saying secularity “consists of new conditions of belief.” According to Stanley Hauerwas, and returning to the concerns of contemporary theology, this means religion is now “mere belief” and “practical atheism.” What this means for Hauerwas is that faith has been relegated to an autonomous and private sphere unlike any time before. Authentic faith for him is religion-as-culture, something all theologians of pre-modern times would have agreed with had they been able to step out of their own cultural surroundings and articulate what they always already unquestionably assumed. What many contemporary theologians are wrestling with today is how religion, or the church more specifically, returns to its authentic roots of penetrating all aspects of society from political and economic life to social relations as well. (For those interested, Halden’s got a good critique up of Hauerwas’s ecclesiology here). Unfortunately, or fortunately, mediaeval religion is from a bygone era and the real question is whether the new conditions of belief are legitimate or whether we are all just practical atheists. There is no returning to this pristine golden-age past and theology has made some serious headway in examining these historical differences. Charles Taylor for one gives an excellent introduction to the whole matter.