This week we have tracked the whirlwind relationship between religious forces and political power in medieval times. On Day 1 we saw Gregory the Great take on the mantle of a servant during the collapse of the Roman Empire. On Day 2 we saw Islam sweep through the East and loosen the church’s hold in the very lands where she first preached the gospel. On Day 3 we saw a pope crown a European emperor in an effort to resurrect the Roman Empire. Yesterday we considered how the pope came to have so much authority, and how that set up some of the sticky church-state relations that riddled the Middle Ages.
Religion and Power
Sacred and Secular
Today we tend to think of political states as independent, sovereign entities without any religious a liation; the church is seen as a voluntary association that exists apart from the rest of society. But, as we’ve seen in the past week, both of these notions didn’t exist in the Middle Ages.Instead the sacred (the spiritual realm of the church) and the secular (the “ordinary” realm of nature and politics) were perceived as existing in harmony. Today, we are prone to see church life as different from one’s life at work or school or everyday life. Whereas, during the Middle Ages, the church overlapped with all of life—from education to politics to art. From this understanding we must ask, how can we forge more space in our lives for the sacred and let God orient our lives instead of the world? At the same time, instead of condemning the secular as all bad, how can we find and celebrate God’s beauty and truth in the world around us?
Church and State
Look at the news headlines today, and it’s clear that the issues we’ve studied this week are not just things of the past. Over a millennium later, Islam is still a force that Christians need to learn to engage with the hope and grace of the gospel. We may no longer be in an age of “Christendom,” but we are no less in need of wisdom to navigate the relationship between religious authority and political power. We look at some church leaders (like Gregory the Great) and see fellow disciples who are worthy of imitation and whom we rejoice to claim as family. Then we see other church leaders who—like some popes—make us sympathize with one critic of Christianity who said he would believe in Jesus as Redeemer if His disciples looked a little more redeemed.
Where do you see the church today either serving faithfully, or confusing earthly and heavenly power? Where do you see yourself joining in, or adding to the confusion? Where in your own life do you feel tempted to grasp the world’s standards of success and in uence, and how can you instead adopt the posture of a humble servant?
As you reflect on the events and people of the church in the Middle Ages, what was most notable to you and why?
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