Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, "Rome: The Coliseum Seen through the Arches of the Basilica of Constantine"

Everyone in theology has a theory about why the modern age is a deplorable age. I am not above such theorizing. And yet, after long months spent struggling through Hans Urs von Balthasar’s massive volumes on the “Apokalypse of the German Soul” (Die Apokalypse der deutschen Seele, 1937-39), my head throbs with deep confusion. How many shining moments do we lay aside so that we might blame the past for our present heartache?

Von Balthasar’s case I leave aside for now, as it seems his essays on the “German soul” (suspect for the era in which they were written, and their topic) in fact end up condemning the fate of that German soul as it then stood – and just before World War II. That is a different story for a different time, and perhaps in a more scholarly forum.

Let us be more general.

We are historically contingent creatures. Of course the past affects our present, and of course the wild roots of the modern age sink deep into bygone eras. I am not postmodern enough to reject all historical narrative as such (which is yet another narrative anyway). No: we need to make a story of history because it is one, and because we find in its pages the scattered features of our current situation.

I am not bothered by doom and gloom, not in itself. It is true to say that Christianity finds itself in a difficult situation in the modern age, a vastly shifting situation barely apprehended before it flickers with a new tinge. There are deep problems across the board. Everyone has their own little set of favorites, like action figures toyed with and loved, but in any case they persist in every corner and clique of theology. And for all that doom, I do not despair. I do not imagine that Christianity can be sunk, and do not imagine, as sometimes seems to be the case, that Christianity should be sunk so that it could live “improved” (or, among the rabid of another type, stay dead). If the Church is His, then it will not fall. It will not. I mean that in the sincerest manner possible, and with a simplicity that I refuse to relinquish.

Besides: I like computers, cars, and hospitals so much as to not hate everything about the modern era.

The trouble is often the tone that these historical narratives take upon themselves. “Ah yes, that Nominalism, it eviscerated God and the world, which is how nowadays we cannot manage to imagine a God who intervenes in creation.” Or, “Ah yes, those Greeks, who robbed Christianity of its Jewish roots and inherent dynamism.” These woeful tales annoy not because they are always wrong. They often have truth in them: we do have a hard time imagining an active God, and we do forget Christianity’s profoundly Jewish character. They annoy because, it seems to me, they proceed from their diagnosis to a wholesale ignorance of the age that is to blame.

Take, for example, that blame of the Greeks: it is not in fact so easy to differentiate between Hellenism and Judaism in the time under discussion. The Mediterranean world was a complex relationship of cultures, so much so that – in a very real sense – to blame “the Greeks” for a dead Christianity amounts to also blaming the Jews (who were also rather Hellenized!).

We say that we do not, and should not, do away with entire ages. I am not confident that we follow through. By “we” I suppose I mean the field of Catholic systematic theology, though anyone who thinks historical theologians and biblical scholars get away Scot free has checked their brain at the door.

The most urgent example, in my mind, is that vast and forgotten era that runs from Trent to Vatican II. This age, which runs for – oh – 500 years, floats dead in the waters of theological interest. Some of Catholicism’s great “modern” saints lived during this time (John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux just to name the Carmelites!); theologians of great importance lived in this era, too (Alphonsus Liguori, John Henry Newman, etc.). For the most part, however, it seems to me that we travel from the Second Vatican Council backward to the High Middle Ages (Thomas Aquinas, etc.), or even farther backward to the Patristic Age (Augustine, etc.) for our theological resources. What about those 500 years? We are now more historically aware than we have ever been; we continue to make the mistake of forgetting entire epochs anyway.

Some eras are more important than others: I am convinced it is not possible to underestimate the importance or the riches of Augustine, and of Thomas Aquinas, and others. They are giants for a reason, and the theological world has for ages orbited around them with good cause. I love hierarchy, especially hierarchies of truth, and I never want to imagine history’s threads as a flat space of development. We should make judgements about what is important and what is not.

But a judgment must be informed. A judgment must be careful.

So what of those 500 years between Trent and Vatican II? And what of those Greeks? How about that burgeoning university system in the Middle Ages? Might the things we deliberately overlook also be placed in rightful orbit around theology’s lasting figures and truths?

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