This Fall I am teaching a survey course of church history that spans the beginning of the church through the Reformation. At this point in the semester we are starting to discuss the Medieval Era. The Fall of the Roman Empire in the West during the fifth and sixth centuries is one of those massive turning points in wold history. This is true not just because one of the greatest empires in world history collapsed, but also because one of the greatest migrations happened. Europe as we know it today was forged in these fires of change and upheaval.
The short version begins with the most recent Disney movie: Mulan. Well, Mulan may be more legend than history, but it is true that the Chinese repelled the Huns to some extent, sending them across the plains of Central Asia toward Europe. As they moved further West, they began to terrorize the Germanic tribes. This forced one tribe, the Visigoths (West Goths), into movement. The Visigoths crossed the Danube in 375 (at the permission of the emperor Valens) and learned quickly that they did not get along well within the empire. They won the famous Battle of Adrianople in 378 (where Valens died). This shocked the world as it was the first time the empire had lost a battle on their own turf to the Barbarian tribes. But it was only the beginning.
The Visigoths eventually went further West and invaded Italy. To defend the homeland, the empire pulled much of their forces from Gaul (modern France) and Spain. This was disastrous because the Visigoths were not stopped and took Rome in 410. And with Gaul and Spain weakened, the Vandals swept in to ravage this portion of the empire. This situation changed again as the Visigoths continued West into Southern Gaul and Spain, thus pushing the Vandals into North Africa by 429 (which they completely overran).
The Roman Empire in the West continued to exist through this time, but barely. The Huns, under their great king Attila, also invaded the empire and were only stopped by an uneasy alliance of Romans and barbarians at the Battle of Chalons in 451. But Attila still made it to Rome before his death in 453. Two years after that, the Vandals crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa and looted Rome. And by the end of the fifth century, the Ostrogoths (East Goths) also swept into Italy.
In a short span of time the Roman empire was effectively destroyed. The Eternal City had been sacked, looted, and ravaged by at least four groups of people. The Germanic tribes moved all over the world (and I don’t have space to discuss the Lombards, the Franks, the Slavs, the Saxons, the Angles, and the Britons). The world (at least in the West) was truly turned upside down.
Our Present Obsession with Presentism
While reviewing this history this week I was struck by two other simultaneous experiences. The first is our own historical moment. We live in an age of outrage over everything. Some of these things are deserved of outrage, but most are not. It feels like we are told often that the world is on the edge of a knife, the end of days has come, and Christ will come in our lifetime.
Of course, such pronouncements, like the events they are concerned about, are nothing new. This leads to my second experience. I am reading the inimitable Alan Jacobs’s new book, Breaking Bread with the Dead. I have not finished the whole thing, but a major point he makes helps in our moment. He decries the tyranny of the urgent that dominates in our day. He points out that our “temporal bandwidth” is especially weak. This speaks to the presentism — the inability to see the moment we live in (our now) in relation to the larger flow of history — that is destroying us. To illustrate, consider this thought experiment that Jacobs gives: can you remember the second-to-last thing that social media told you to be mad about?
The solution that Jacobs works toward is to add density to our temporal bandwidth. Our age lacks density, and the more we are attached to its demands, “the more weightless we become” (19). His basic argument is that the more you add to your awareness of history the more you will increase your own personal density. In effect, you will broaden your temporal awareness to include more than the immediate. You will then understand better our “now” in relation to the past and the future. Jacobs goes on to advocate several ways to do this, including reading more old books and experiencing more old art. If we can develop this density we will be more likely not to be blown around by the “mildest breeze from our news feeds.” In other words, we will allow larger truths and stories to keep us grounded in our moment. We will gain wisdom from those who have come before.
A thread runs through all I have outlined above. In our times of difficulty, we must not forget God’s providence. Theologian Millard Erickson defines providence as “the continuing action of God by which he preserves in existence the creation he has brought into being, and guides it to his intended purpose for it” (Christian Theology, 2004, 413). Now, I think our day is going through difficult times. But compared to many other moments in history, it is nothing more than average. The fall of the Roman Empire was on a different level. Even the twentieth century, with its world wars, was worse.
I want to close with a quote from one well-known Christian who lived through the upheaval of the twentieth century and who had a legendary amount of “personal density”: C. S. Lewis (for what it’s worth, Jacobs has a fantastic book on Lewis that is also worth your time). Lewis was drawn to think about his own time in relation to the earlier eras of time. He thought of two men from the fifth century who lived through the Barbarian migrations: Boethius (who was falsely imprisoned and executed by the Ostrogoths) and Augustine (who died while the Vandals were breaking down the walls of his city in North Africa). Unsurprisingly, these three saints of the past had wisdom to pass down on how to live through such moments. Lewis summarizes well why we must not move toward pessimism, but rather reflection upon God and his good work:
The classic expositions of the doctrine that the world’s miseries are compatible with its creation and guidance by a wholly good Being come from Boethius waiting in prison to be beaten to death and from St. Augustine meditating on the sack of Rome. The present state of the world is normal; it was the last century [the nineteenth] that was the abnormality.C. S. Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. by Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1970), 22.