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


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.

IgnatiusInsight.com: In the fourth chapter, on the church in the world from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, you write about the tension man experiences between "two irreducible orientations": the vertical, or eschatological, and the horizontal, or incarnational. What are those orientations and what people should know about them?

Dr. Olsen: We are oriented to God, vertically, and to the world around us, horizontally. These orientations were meant to be complementary, but often are in conflict. Sometimes we despair of the world and are tempted to throw up our hands and pursue some form of "flight to the desert." We want earth’s sufferings and frustrations to be done with and some form of eschatological rest. Then again we find the world so interesting and full of things to do that we forget God.

By saying that our orientations to God and the world were meant to be complementary, I mean something Ignatian, but also something prominent in the section on Prayer (IV) of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is that every day, and our life as a whole, is to be composed of a rhythm in which each day we orient the day by prayer, and then proceed "into the world" to live for the glory of God. Periodically, we stand apart from the world for a longer time in a retreat to get a fuller perspective on the form our life is taking. Here I stand with Augustine and Aquinas in thinking that the fullest form of Christian perfection is not a life wholly of the desert, but a life in which we go apart with God precisely to return and build up the body of Christ in charity.

IgnatiusInsight.com: "Modernity" and "post-modernity" are often understood and presented negatively by Christians, but is that a fair or correct treatment of those concepts/realities?

Dr. Olsen: These words have no fixed meaning, and can pretty much be assigned whatever meaning one wants, positive or negative. "Modernity" used to have two primary meanings, one essentially neutral, indicating that something was of the present (the word modernus already means that in medieval Latin), and one either positive or negative according to one’s own estimate, namely, something that presents a break with and rejection of the past. One of the meanings of "modernism" in art from about 1900 is "something that breaks with past artistic tradition." Whether one judges this a good or bad thing depends on one’s point of view.

"Post-modernity" often is a catch-word to express the assault during the last generation, common in the academic world, on the values of the previous period, now denominated "modern." The "modern" here signifies a now ending age characterized by trust in the so-called scientific method and the supposed fact and benificence of scientific advance; belief in objectivity and reason; and a correlative belief that truth is universal in the sense that, for instance, ideas like human rights and democracy have universal application. Post-modernity often calls all these beliefs of the modern period in question, and is characterized by a deep relativism. Rather than seeing the "modern" as good, it sees it as simply one more arbitrary set of beliefs.

Obviously, with so many incompatible definitions floating around, it is impossible to say that one should speak in general of either the modern or the post-modern as good or bad. I would make one historical observation however, and that is that for the average man on the street, the modern understood as faith in things like science, reason, and progress is not at all dead. As I indicated in an earlier answer, I wish some parts of it, such as the belief in progress, was dead, but they are not. That I wish that parts of the modern were dead means that I have sympathy for parts of the post-modern.

As I have intimated, I think the overconfidence in reason that has led historians to pretend that they can write purely objective histories deserved to die, and I am comfortable with certain forms of relativism such as recognizing that all history is always written from some limited point of view.

So my position is that it makes no sense to speak of either modernity or post-modernity as things that can be either generally approved or generally disapproved.

I deplore certain forms of artistic modernity, for instance, but like very much the recovery of an abstract mode of presentation that we find in a good deal of modern art. Religious people sometimes assume that all good art is mimetic, that is, imitates - or should imitate - something in nature. But some of the greatest religious art has always been non-representational. The figures in icons do not look very much like actual human beings, but are a reduction of the human figure to what is essential in him as a creature defined by relation to the Creator. In one of the periods I myself study, the Romanesque, the figures in most art are in one way or another distorted to emphasize some truth or another, or so whimsically presented as on first take not to seem human at all. So I am not going to be against "modern art" in general, but against any modernism which begins with the premise that all that has gone before is bad.

Think of the music of John Tavener. Tavener hates twelve-tone music and all the pretentiousness of various composers who in the early twentieth century rejected the conventions of the whole Western tradition of music. But in returning to the conventions of the Orthodox liturgy, and also going outside the Western tradition to incorporate various Eastern musics, he ended with a music almost cosmic in its conventions, beautiful but like no music that had ever been composed anywhere.

IgnatiusInsight.com: A consistent theme in the book is the role and meaning of liturgy. How is liturgy most misunderstood or misused today, and what can we learn from Church history that will help correct contemporary problems with the liturgy?

Dr. Olsen: The liturgy is most misused by trying to use it to teach about God, rather than to worship God. Obviously teaching about God is not a bad thing, and there is a place for it the homily, but the primary function of liturgy is to unite with the cosmos in praise of the Creator. The liturgy has been bent to didactic or teaching purposes for many reasons. One of the most powerful of these in America is the larger, vaguely Protestant, environment. From its beginning Protestantism tended to redefine Christianity around moral categories, taking religion itself to be about making people good. In some of the forms of Protestantism most prominent in American history, liturgy was "made plain."

Many Catholics have come to accept what is essentially a Protestant view, that the reason for being a Christian is to become good, and the reason for going to Church is to be taught how to do so. Hence they are comfortable with a certain hectoring that often has accompanied the Catholic liturgy in America since the II Vatican Council. I think here particularly of the instructions given to lectors, in which in essence they tell the people what the Scripture they are about to read says. I would prefer that the Scripture announce itself.

There are other reasons why the purposes of the liturgy have become distorted. As part of the general dumbing down of education and high culture since the 1960s,almost any solemn form of expression has hard going these days. My working class father had a much greater sense of the dignity of his body than do my students. He tipped his hat to women, and stood erect in conversation. They wear caps indoors, and lean on things when they talk. In such a culture it is going to be difficult for people to think of their bodies as things that signal their souls, to think of their bodies (as well their souls) as things that pray. Further, the whole heritage of liturgical music may be less open to them because at home pop music was always heard, and they have little exposure to classical music. One big marker in my own life was the day when each of my children went out and unbidden bought their first Mozart CD, just because they wanted to.

All this said, being a member of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City has been a revelation. I knew with my head that a solemn liturgy was not dependent on education or culture - witness the wonderful liturgies of the Orthodox world, often found in very elite cultures in which the mass of people are hardly literate - but we naturally tend to associate appreciation of the liturgy with appreciation of high culture. Conversely, "guitar masses" are seen as what people without much education, college students or members of Communion and Liberation, like.

Anyway, the pastors at the Cathedral of the Madeleine have made a point that the liturgy is addressed to no specific social class or ethnic group, and have simply presented the entire liturgical tradition of the Church as something intrinsically attractive because signaling God’s nature and how we stand in relation to him. Now, admittedly, a lot of work has been put into this. In a typical mass, the choir may traverse everything from chant to living composers. But the congregation is a "little United Nations," composed of dozens of ethnic groups and everything from homeless to rather wealthy people.

Probably what we can learn most from history here is the history of worship. Most of my students come into my Church history classes at the University without awareness of such things as that ancient prayer was largely about God, modern prayer largely about ourselves. When I read them ancient prayers or hymns, they can see that they are generally praising God; when I read them modern prayers, they can see that they are generally testimonies about something that has happened to themselves. But before they joined this class, they did not even have a sense of how our civilization passed from "objective" to "subjective" categories. By making them aware of such things, and showing them that religion can be about much more than just moral categories, new worlds open to them. They are ready to consider such proposals as that what makes us Godlike is participation in the liturgy.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You explain that Catholics have three basic approaches they can embrace in engaging with their historical situation: reject all accommodation to the world, accept accommodation to the world, or they can be "in the world, but not of the world." What does that third option mean and how has Pope John II articulated it in his writings?

Dr. Olsen: The third option means that we can at one and the same time live an active life in the world while oriented to God in prayer. In an earlier answer I noted the specifically Ignatian way of doing this, seeing prayer and the sacraments as food and reflection for finding our way in the world. Most of us will have a rhythm of life in which times of silence link us to times of productivity.

But the third option also refers to a certain attitude which understands that while we were made to enjoy the world and live as co-creators with God in it, finally everything worldly has only a relative value. We are to understand that we are not to become overly attached to anything less than God.

To be in but not of the world means to live in hope. This is as central a theme to John Paul II’s pontificate as any. We are to address each situation under the assumption that something good may come of it, and that God is at work in it. Since in this world good and evil are always present and intertwined, our goal is discernment, neither accepting nor rejecting the world as it is, but trying to discover how it may be used to the glory of God.

IgnatiusInsight.com: The second appendix is titled "Prayer as Covenant Drama in the Catechism of the Catholic Church." What does it mean to say that prayer is "covenant drama"?

Dr. Olsen: It means many things, but I would like to stress just one that develops an earlier answer. Above I expressed my reservations about the idea of progress. Implicit in that response was the idea that progress must have replaced an earlier idea better than progress, that should be recovered.

I take the Catechism of the Catholic Church and my second appendix to be talking about this earlier idea under the heading "covenant drama." The earlier idea was not intrinsically progressive, understood as meaning that things are generally getting better. It was that human history is centered on a covenant made between God and the Jews that with Christ has been explicitly extended to all mankind. This Covenant promises that God will be faithful to us, and asks us to be faithful to him. It assures us that God is doing something with history, making a tapestry that we can not yet read the meaning of.

Hence the addition of the word "drama" to "covenant." History has more the shape of drama than of progress. To speak of prayer as covenant drama means to think of our lives in a way analogous to history itself. God has created each of us for a unique mission and this is discerned and developed through prayer. We are "players" and God is the "author" of the play, and we dialogue with him about the nature of and how to play our role through prayer.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Beginning at Jerusalem has a strong "Balthasarian" flavor and tone to it. What influence has the work of the great theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, had upon your thought and this particular book?

Dr. Olsen: I am interested in and write about many things. Some are rather technical, and less display my larger interests. But this particular book manifests as much as anything my long-standing interest in Balthasar. I would have to describe myself as an amateur in things Balthasarian, because I have to spend most of my time reading and writing about history.

But I have been privileged for many years to have been in contact with various projects related to Balthasar. I have been connected to the principal Balthasarian journal in the United States from virtually the beginning, Communio: International Catholic Review. For three years I was able to participate in a week of studies each summer led by people associated with this journal, and when Balthasar visited Washington, D. C. and Catholic University for a conference on his thought, I was able to participate in that. I suppose we quarrel with every writer we read, but Balthasar has more influenced my view of the world than any single thinker. I think his central idea that theology of recent centuries has neglected the category of the beautiful, and has not seen the radical way in which the life of Jesus Christ redefined beauty, is of crucial importance.

[This interview was originally posted on IgnatiusInsight.com in September 2004.]

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:

Are We At The End or The Beginning? | Glenn W. Olsen
Author Page for Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Tale of Trent: A Council and and Its Legacy | Martha Rasmussen
Introduction to Church and State in Early Christianity | Hugo Rahner, S.J.
Crusade Myths | Thomas F. Madden
The Jesuits and the Iroquois | Cornelius Michael Buckley, S.J.

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