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His Story and the History of the Church | An Interview with Dr. Glenn W. Olsen, author of Beginning At Jerusalem

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Dr. Glenn Olsen’s Beginning at Jerusalem: Five Reflections on the History of the Church (Ignatius Press, 2004) is a profound and challenging reflection on the history of the Church and what Catholics need to learn from the past. Dr. Olsen is Professor of History at the University of Utah and has a Ph.D. in the history of the Middle Ages. He has contributed numerous articles to many historical journals, including Communio and Logos, and is also the author of the book Christian Marriage: A Historical Study (2001).

IgnatiusInsight.com: How did this book develop and what criteria did you use in dividing the history of the Church into five epochs?

Dr. Olsen: The Weathersfield Institute of New York City asked me to organize and direct fifty lectures on the history of the Church, to be given in Manhattan ten a year during the last five years of the second millennium. The Institute divided the history of the Church into five epochs. The tenth lecture each year was to be a reflection on the significance of the epoch covered that year. As I say in the Preface to the book, I decided to give this final lecture each year myself, and these lectures lie behind my book, Beginning at Jerusalem: Five Reflections on the History of the Church.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Beginning at Jerusalem addresses some of the limitations and failures of many contemporary histories of the Church. What are those limitations and failures? How have they misinformed or skewed our understanding of the Church’s past?

Dr. Olsen: Following on the growth of belief in progress during the eighteenth century, most histories, Church or not, have told a tale of progress. Already in the nineteenth century certain intellectuals called such a presentation in question, but this seems not to have affected either very many historians or the general populace. Most histories still tell some version of a story of the progress of the race, often through the development of science, democracy, or some not specifically Christian vehicle. Such a tale seems to me far from the Christian message which, properly told, is not about success as usually understood at all.

When the Son of Man came to earth, he was killed. The triumph over death he achieved was rooted in suffering and being misunderstood or betrayed by those closest to him. Even the greatest historical "successes" of the Church have not rooted out evil, and every generation has to take up its cross. We are not at all assured that whatever triumph Christianity will have will be historical. Indeed, one of the most poignant moments in Scripture is when the query is made whether when Christ returns he will find anyone faithful.

Any thoughtful person understands that history is not progressive in the way that the thinkers of the Enlightenment thought. It is always lived in the shadows, that is, without enough light to come close to understanding one’s own time. We live in a mystery. Most people in fact are probably double-minded as to whether any general form of progress occurs. If something specific is asked, perhaps whether children are becoming better, youths more learned, public spaces more beautiful, or the world safer they will express their doubts and reservations. And yet from their earliest days they have imbibed the notion that mankind progresses, and they will in their unthinking moments assume or fall back on this idea.

It seems to me that history is not about success or failure in any pure sense. All historical successes breed failure, are mixed, and often what seems failure is preparation for heroic exertion. Christians are not asked to succeed, but to be faithful. Certainly Christianity does not aim intentionally at failure, but the thoughtful Christian understands that there are more important things than prospering in this world.

Thus the perky and optimistic narratives that tell Church history, especially American Church history, are as superficial as the telling of the national tale itself has been. They often imply that we are the lords of history, that is that first we plan, then we work, and then we succeed. They have little sense that God is the Lord of history, and that often we plan and work, and then things turn out in completely unsuspected ways. To use the technical terms, most contemporary history, religious or not, is written according to rational and teleological categories. This latter means that, the historian knowing how things turned out, the story is written to make this conclusion inevitable. But the participants in events never know how things will turn out, are in the dark. A history that does not convey human anxiety and uncertainty tells a lie about what it is to be human.

In sum, what we need are more histories which actually portray humans as the Christian tradition says they are, saints and sinners, wanting good and doing evil, always more or less in the dark.

It is almost a terrible joke to take up the last part of your question, about how people are misinformed about the Church’s past. Virtually every time I hear someone begin to speak about Crusade or Inquisition I will hear nonsense, and rare is intelligent presentation of even recent subjects, say the pontificate of Pius XII. I hardly ever come on someone historically well informed. I hasten to add that I will be eternally grateful for a certain nun who insisted my children learn Church history well, and for a layman who made them rattle off the main decisions of the Fourth Lateran Council. But by and large I find most Catholics carry around with them notions of Church history formed by those same historians who place Enlightenment at the center of their narratives. I am surprised and gratified when, having heard from such sources all their lives how much Catholicism has allegedly worked hand-in-glove with the forces of unreason and darkness, they still believe at all.

To come to a conclusion, our history-writing needs to be done by those alert to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, not those who assume the secularized categories of progress and optimism. It has at least to be in part about people who were faithful, not about people who "had a good attitude" or were self-confident. In sum, it must be open to the presence of both sanctity and the demonic in time.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Early in the book you write, "There is a sense in which loss of the past is a precondition for its reappropriation" (p 14). Will you explain that a bit and provide an example of what you mean?

Dr. Olsen: Often something is so familiar to us that we do not even notice it. We all have observed children taking for granted something that we ourselves did not have as children. More to the point, we probably at some time in our lives have experienced the loss or departure of someone we only fully appreciated when he was gone. We have the expression "I needed distance to understand that." So with the past in general. Sometimes we only notice how central and important or beautiful something was when we have experienced its loss.

To use the liturgy as an example, a person might be discontent or unsatisfied with so-called guitar masses. But for this to be so, it is likely that he would have had to experience some alternative, perhaps some more traditional solemn high Mass. This might set him to wondering about the history of the respective masses, guitar and high. Perhaps he would discover that the one is of relatively recent vintage, the other quite old. Implicitly, the one already for him suffers by comparison with the other, and this might lead him in quest of recovery or reappropriation of that which had faded from sight.

Such a phenomenon is going on all the time now. In my own parish, after a period of relative indifference in such matters, a new priest took it upon himself to restore the ancient musical traditions of the Church. Now, more than a decade later, we have our own Choir School singing the complete musical heritage of the Church, from chant to the most difficult of contemporary composers. The Society for Catholic Liturgy and Adoremus have been founded to spread this whole musical heritage, and now one can study such things at premier institutions, the University of Toronto, Yale, or Stanford.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Writing about late ancient and early medieval Christianity, you look at developments that are "unknown, neglected, or looked upon with condescension by most modern people, Christian or not" and state that they should continue to "speak to us." What are some of those developments and how should they speak to us?

Dr. Olsen: To continue with the liturgy, the implementation of Vatican II in our country often neglected old elements of Christianity in favor of the newest ideas. It probably is true that most Catholic children formed in the last long generation know little Church history, little doctrine, and not much about things like the cult of the saints or, except in frivolous ways, angels. And it is probably fair to say that one of the reasons the children - now adults - do not know these things is because someone scorned them.

Perhaps a nun said, "we don’t believe that any longer." (early in a tour of Italy while taking a group of high school students from an Episcopal school through St. Peter’s on a Saturday in Rome along with another group of Catholic-school students chaperoned by nuns, my wife with everyone else was asked by the guide, "who would need time left in the Sunday tour schedule to go to Mass?" Only my wife put up her hand, the nuns replying "We are on vacation.") It seems to me that humans were created to a certain orientation in the world in which they would "find themselves" in relation to God, the cosmos, and their fellow human beings. They are made at once to worship the source of their being, and to love and build up their neighbors. These things can be done in the most individualistic of societies, but it seems helpful for people to see themselves as part of some larger enterprise, in this case a whole creation made to hymn God. In our society most people have lost this sense of "what they are here for."

It seems to me that such ancient practices and realities as the cult of the saints, the communion of saints, and angelology were ways of showing the individual that he is part of something much larger, a whole creation coming from and oriented toward God. The cult of the saints tells us how various people have worked out a mission in their lives, suggesting thereby how we might live our lives. The communion of saints reminds us that we are not alone, but part of a larger body intended as the field of our love. The angels give us the premier example of worship.

IgnatiusInsight.com: The chapter on high medieval Christianity has a section on the debate over when and how the nature of the Church-State relationship changed. What is that debate about and why is so important? What can twenty-first century Catholics learn from it?

Dr. Olsen: Church-state relationships have constantly been evolving from the beginning, but there was a particular watershed in the eleventh century. Loosely speaking, until the time of Constantine in the fourth century, Christianity had been an illegal or proscribed religion, while from the time of Constantine it had been first made legal, and then the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Christian emperors, and then the various Germanic kings who followed them, tended to continue age-old beliefs that the emperor (or king) ruled in the name of God, was in some sense a vicar of God.

We might speak of this as theocratic rule, generally rule by a layman claiming to be chosen by God and responsible before Him for all his people. Generally this system prevailed until the eleventh century, and it implied a notion of society that was relatively undifferentiated, that did not divide society into very many separate spheres. Churchmen were thought of as in charge of the sacraments, but it was the emperor or king who was in charge of society as a whole, including churchmen. This view began to be seriously challenged by various ecclesiastical reformers in the eleventh century, and the result was a growing awareness of the Church as something not immediately identifiable with the state or with society, as in some sense a distinctive entity with its own life.

The basic reasoning of the eleventh-century reformers, that kings or secular governments are placed on earth to obtain the natural goods of humankind, peace, justice, etc., and that priests or the Church are on earth to lead men to heaven seems to me correct. Also correct is the observation that between the two offices, the role of priest is more important because eternal life is more important than temporal life. From this it follows that it may be that if a king seriously abuses his office, kills people for instance unjustly, the higher office of priest may intervene and try to discipline the secular office, or at least stop its unjust action.

Implicit in the eleventh-century view, but also worked out over the following centuries, was the idea that within a Christian society the role of king and priest were to be differentiated. That is, there are things proper to the state, such as warfare, with which the Church should not interfere unless justice is being violated; and things proper to the Church, such as the nature of the liturgy, which should not be interfered with by the state. Modern scholars of the middle ages have sometimes used the term "dualism" to describe such a politics. Commonly it was thought that an ideal situation would be one in which secular rulers did what they existed for, and were supported in this by the Church; and the Church did what it existed for, and was supported by the state.

Notice, this is quite far from the modern "separation of Church and state." It is more a harmony or cooperation of Church and state. There are some American Catholic writers who hold that the American way of dealing with Church and state is superior to anything in the European Catholic tradition. This seems to me mistaken. I do not of course think that we can go back to a time of emperors and priests, that we can stop being a democracy, but simply as an idea, the medieval view seems superior to me than ours.

Above all the ideal should be cooperation of Church and state. To take just one example, religion itself has both natural and supernatural dimensions. That is, it seems to me that religion per se, not some specific form of religion as Catholicism but religion per se, is natural to man. Man by nature is a religious being. It follows from this that the state, because it exists to foster the natural, has an obligation not to separate itself from religion, but to encourage religion.

Of course in a pluralistic society such as ours, there would be a lot of devil in the details of working out the implications of such a view, but my point is that the first instinct of the state should be to be supportive of religion in general, not to try to sever all relations with it.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You write, "Our times are becoming increasingly timeless in the sense that so few now have a knowledge of history that most lack a clear sense of where they or their civilization stand in history; they belong to no story or history" (p 99). Practically speaking, how can the average person best acquire a decent education in history? On a more speculative level, how does this lack of knowledge affect individuals and societies?

Dr. Olsen: I suppose the best way would be as a student to go to one of the few liberal arts colleges which still require a systematic study of history as part of their core requirements. Unfortunately, as Christopher Dawson long ago observed, the American Catholic educational system hardly ever was good at teaching history or more generally, at teaching what Dawson called "Christian culture."

Before Vatican II, American Catholic colleges tended to give philosophy a privileged place in the curriculum. After Vatican II, they tended to jettison this, especially in its Thomistic form, and to adopt the smorgasbord style of study of virtually all American universities, which tended to mandate no particular content of learning. Even the more counter-cultural Catholic schools which sprang up after Vatican II either turned to a Great Books format, or returned to an emphasis on philosophy in the curriculum. I am not opposed to either of these approaches, but neither of them had been strong in the teaching of history. So, an honest answer to your question would have to begin with the admission that it is very difficult to get what I think a proper education in history at almost any American school.

This means that some form of self-instruction is necessary. I can not of course here make up a long list of all the books a person should know, but, according to circumstance, there are various things that can be done. The journals Communio: International Catholic Review and First Things sponsor study groups across the country. These are listed either periodically, or at the end of each issue, and one might see if one exists in one’s area. Likely in the study group will be someone who could make suggestions as to a reading program.

For myself, I would suggest that a person begin with some standard work of Greek history, either of the older generation (books by M. Rostovtzeff or W, Jaeger for instance), or something more recent, perhaps Peter Green’s Ancient Greece: A Concise History, and systematically work through the history of the West. So much depends on the person, however. A high school Advanced Placement history teacher of my acquaintance tells me he has had to stop using one of the best textbooks every written, Robert Palmer and Joel Colton, A History of the Modern World, because the students entering his class no longer have the vocabulary to understand the book. In such a situation, I have some sympathy for what may seem an irresponsible answer, just reading in no particular order whatever history appeals to a person.

One could go on till doomsday about how ignorance of history affects individuals and societies. One of the most obvious is that one tends to get into the wrong wars, starting wars one never would have had one known one’s geography and history; and failing to take seriously other threats that might have needed armed response.

Read Part 2 of this interview.


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