The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation, by James C. Russell
Russell begins this examination with a look at religious interaction between folk-religious societies and universal religions – not specifically German and Christian but tribe and universal. He works to develop a model of conversion and adaptation when two such forces meet.
As a reminder: I am working through this book for the purpose of understanding the relative libertarianism of the medieval Germanic tribes. While elsewhere there were “tribes,” and elsewhere there were “Christians,” and elsewhere there were tribes that were Christian…nowhere else have I found a society and a law that more closely approached libertarian principles as I have found in this one.
With that out of the way…
Each historical instance of an attempt to Christianize a society is unique and dependent on many factors…. Distinguishing between that which is essential to Christianity and that which may be modified or omitted to advance the process of Christianization has always been a major problem for the missionary.
What can be minimized of the universal Christian religion; what is of paramount importance to maintain of the local tradition? How these two can be brought together is the work of the missionary.
As an aside: through this work I am finding some insights applicable to the split in the libertarian camp, a split between the universal libertarian (the non-aggression principle is for all, equally and uniformly) and the tribal libertarian (call it blood and soil). I will comment on these as this comes up in the book. Like now:
[The Emperor] Julian believed that each ethnic and national group had its own unique origin, character, and god, and that it was ill-advised to attempt to modify the cultural and religious traditions derived from this organic uniqueness.
Oswald Spengler adds:
Each Culture possesses its own standards, the validity of which begins and ends with it. There is no general morale of humanity.
If so (and I believe the world offers ample evidence in support), this suggests something about the unlikelihood of the universality of libertarianism…unless there is a god behind the movement. (Hint: there isn’t – at least not one that is working toward liberty.)
Spengler is an interesting sort.
Spengler predicted that about the year 2000, Western civilization would enter the period of pre-death emergency whose countering would necessitate Caesarism (extraconstitutional omnipotence of the executive branch of the central government).
He wrote The Decline of the West, and he conceived of the book several years before the beginning of the Great War. He seems to have been correct, and the movements behind Brexit, the AfD, and Trump might represent only the beginnings of this Caerarism that he predicted.
I am reminded of Angelo Codevilla, writing even before Trump’s election:
We have stepped over the threshold of a revolution. It is difficult to imagine how we might step back, and futile to speculate where it will end. Our ruling class’s malfeasance, combined with insult, brought it about. Donald Trump did not cause it and is by no means its ultimate manifestation. Regardless of who wins in 2016, this revolution’s sentiments will grow in volume and intensity, and are sure to empower politicians likely to make Americans nostalgic for Donald Trump’s moderation.
But now, returning to Russell. He asks: What was the Christianity which was spread? Why did Christianity spread? Why has it reversed in some places, or otherwise failed to spread? Why, after being present in India and China for far longer than it took to convert the majority of Rome, has Christianity made just marginal inroads?
Further: What effect did Christianity have on the environment, and what effect did the environment have on Christianity? These questions outline the breadth and depth of the study – eventually applied to the German case.
Perhaps an answer can be found in the cohesiveness and solidarity of society. The decline of Rome and the spread of Christianity through the Roman world inversely correspond. The Japanese, on the other hand, have been almost immune to the work of Christian missionaries.
The German tribes also held such cohesiveness; yet Christianity took hold. What was necessary for Christianity to successfully spread through these tribes?
…the Anglo-Saxon missionaries did not emphasize the central soteriological and eschatological aspects of Christianity. Instead, seeking to appeal to the Germanic regard for power, they tended to emphasize the omnipotence of the Christian God and the temporal rewards he would bestow upon those who accepted him through baptism and through conformity to the discipline of his Church.
Russell next spends a chapter on exploring the meaning of “conversion,” and how this term is problematic even at the individual level – and certainly when discussing a larger society – e.g. the conversion of the tribes to Christianity. Even as late as the 1600s, few of the Christian “peasants” were knowledgeable in any of the meaningful Christian doctrines:
As Van Engen notes, some historians now claim that, outside of a miniscule clerical elite, “the great mass of medieval folk lived in a ‘folklore’ culture best likened to that observed by anthropologists in Third World countries.”
Yet society was described – and most members of society would describe themselves – as Christian. But it was a German Christian, different than what was to be found in the East. It was a Christian that developed as the missionaries made accommodation.
This reality may be difficult to accept for Western Christians, yet without this reality Christianity may not have spread to the north and west as it did. Again, my purpose in this examination is not doctrinal but cultural and political – whatever this Western Christian tradition is or is not, it certainly was foundational in forming and maintaining a reasonably libertarian order.
The author gives many examples of this Germanic influence on Christian tradition: the German law codes found in the period 500 to 800; the concept of collective security; war; family and kin; lordship. All of these found their way into the Christian tradition; during this early period, Christ was seen as a victorious German warlord!
The universal religion was molded into something akin to a folk religion. Like I said: working through this topic and this book will be complicated, enlightening, troubling, controversial, and valuable.
How am I doing so far?
I think of the movie Silence, and the two Jesuit priests (try to get past the two being Spiderman and the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, Kylo Ren) who went to Japan in the early 17th century:
I worry, they value these poor signs of faith more than faith itself. But how can we deny them?
What kind of Christians were they?
It is a movie worth watching. More than once.