A decade into the fifth century, Alaric the Goth sacked the city of Rome. The event caused consternation throughout the world, and people searched for explanations for how something previously unthinkable had happened. When news reached an irascible translator of Scripture in Bethlehem named Jerome, he wept bitterly. He struggled to comprehend how an army of Visigoths, warriors who had recently fought for the Roman Empire, could sack the historic city.
Although his reaction was understandable, the city’s sacking should not have been a surprise to Jerome. A review of imperial actions toward the Germanic tribes on the borders in the recent past would have equipped anyone to predict the destruction of Rome. However, Jerome was focused on the present and could not anticipate it—or at least not fail to be surprised by it. But had he been equipped with historical perspective and context, he could have been spared much of his anguish over the news of Rome’s ruin.
Alaric’s sack produced a range of reactions throughout the empire. While Jerome wept in Bethlehem, others turned to anger. Despite the legalization of the Catholic Church nearly a century prior and its recognition as the official religion of the empire thirty years before, paganism was still strong in the Roman world. As they had in the Church’s early centuries, pagans placed blame on Christians for the destruction of the imperial capital, claiming that nothing so catastrophic had happened to Rome when the empire worshiped the old gods.
The false idea that the empire flourished only until it embraced the Christian faith gained favor in public discourse and demanded a response. St. Augustine (354-430) addressed these criticisms in his influential work The City of God.
The City of Man vs. the City of God
Augustine’s magnum opus not only answered the immediate objections of his contemporaries, it also provided a foundation of authentic Christian historical perspective. As a young man, Augustine had rejected the Faith and embraced the cults of pagan gods. Eventually, no doubt aided by the patient prayers of his mother, St. Monica, Augustine converted and found peace.
The scapegoating of the Church by pagans disturbed Augustine, so he dedicated thirteen years to writing a response and developing a Catholic understanding of history. Subtitled Against the Pagans, The City of God is a Catholic manifesto on interpreting history and maintaining a proper perspective of human events. Augustine viewed history as a great drama between two cities: the City of Man and the City of God.
The City of Man, founded on self-love, is where pride, ambition, greed, and expediency reign supreme. In contrast, the City of God is founded on selflessness and love of God, and in it humility, sacrifice, and obedience are paramount.
Membership in the City of God is not exclusionary. As Augustine wrote: “So long, then, as the heavenly City is wayfaring on earth, she invites citizens from all nations and all tongues, and unites them into a single pilgrim band.” The two cities are distinct yet comingled in time. Each individual struggles with membership in both cities. At times, the citizen finds himself immersed in the City of Man; at other times he is safely ensconced in the City of God; but more often than not, he bestrides the two.
Theologian Henry Chadwick says Augustine’s construct is meant to illustrate that the “meaning of history lies not in the flux of outward events but in the hidden drama of sin and redemption.” For Augustine, the sack of Rome, as devastating as it was, did not constitute the end of the world, as some feared, nor a repudiation of the Faith, as the pagans claimed. Rather, the event can be understood through the prism of an authentic historical perspective as the free-willed action, focused on selfish goals, of inhabitants of the City of Man.
Augustine’s perspective gives us the ability to maintain calm and hope during earthly calamities. Sadly, modernity has lost a proper sense of historical perspective and lacks historical memory. This mindset is widespread because modern man is too entrenched in the City of Man and has rejected, or at least ignores, the City of God.
Survivals and new arrivals
The Catholic author, historian, and politician Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) opined on this modern mindset in his work Survivals and New Arrivals (1929). In it he analyzed the strength and vitality of the Church in the modern world by focusing on the various forms of attacks against it and how likely the Church was to survive these assaults.
Belloc categorized these attacks into survivals and new arrivals. Survivals were centuries-old attacks that were not sustainable into the future. The main opposition came from the new arrivals: attacks present in Belloc’s day such as nefarious political ideologies that seek to replace the Church with the state as the citizen’s object of love and obedience. Within this group Belloc also included the modern mind, which he qualified as not so much an attack on the Faith as a resistance to it—something that tries to render faith unintelligible. With its three main vices of pride, ignorance, and intellectual sloth, the modern mind impedes a vibrant faith life.
It also views history with snobbishness, believing that modernity is superior to the past. As a result, the present becomes the sole focus of human activity and thought. Reflection on the past in order to learn from history is rejected. Th future is ignored because it cannot produce immediate and tangible results. God is ignored, partly because the principal benefit of a relationship with him is future (eternal life), and instead modern man worships himself in the moment.
Belloc argued that changing the modern mind proves extremely difficult, because indoctrination in this mindset is achieved through universal compulsory education, which is centered on the accumulation of information rather than on forming virtue. Belloc noted that the modern mind lacks the skill of critical thinking, in part because it focuses on the pursuit of temporal pleasures in the present and because the popular press enables this “sloth by providing sensational substitutes.”
The tyranny of the present
Belloc’s analysis of modernity is relevant a century after his writing. Modern society is consumed with the immediate and rejects the past by either ignoring it or crafting a new narrative that undermines the actions and memory of previously important historical actors.
As an example, there is a modern obsession with labeling Christopher Columbus (along with other explorers and missionaries) a genocidal maniac who sailed the ocean blue to enrich himself; enslave the native peoples of the New World; and spread disease, destruction, and death. Pope Benedict XVI noted modernity’s obsession with the present and the consequences such a false orientation produces:
The contemporary consumer society tends instead to relegate human beings to the present, to make them lose their sense of the past, of history; but by so doing it also deprives them of the ability to understand themselves, to perceive problems and to build the future . . . the Christian is someone who has a good memory, who loves history and seeks to know it.
The tyranny of the present, wherein man’s focus is solely on the now, enslaves modern man in a construct of his own creation and prevents learning from the past and shaping the future. The present sublimates all thought and activity away from self-reflection. The rejection of historical memory produces a lack of historical context, which culminates in a lack of perspective of human events.
Therefore, the modern mindset is unable to comprehend contemporary happenings with a frame of historical reference and is enslaved by the tyranny of the present. Modern man lacks perspective of actions taking place in the modern world. This lack of perspective, rooted in loss of historical memory, is perpetuated by the popular press and its twenty-four-hour news cycle of repetitive propaganda. It is fed too by social media, which are perhaps the quintessential tools of the tyranny of the present.
A hermeneutic of suspicion
The loss of the historical past results in the vices of quick judgments, false attribution of motives, and a hermeneutic of general suspicion. These attributes contribute to a negative discourse in which every word or action is interpreted in the most extreme manner, producing shrill, sensational commentary that seeks to compel the attention of citizens enslaved by the tyranny of the present.
Every utterance of a main actor (politicians, the pope) in the modern world is broadcast widely and interpreted in a way that suits the narrative of the presenter of the information. The tyranny of the present impedes our ability to read and hear in full context and develop a thoughtful reflection on what people say and do. Instead, we settle for tweets, clickbait headlines, and thirty-second soundbites steeped in a hermeneutic of suspicion.
The ability in modern society for anyone to publish or broadcast an opinion on any subject leads to a cacophony of voices that are not focused on authentic interpretation of events with historical perspective but rather seek attention from others in a clash of wills. Those who shout the loudest with the most sensational interpretation receive the most attention, which feeds the need for similar behavior in the future.
The fruit of the tyranny of the present is anxiety. Modern man has no anchor from which to safely understand present activity in the context of historical memory and perspective. And so modern man is no different than the pagans of Augustine’s day who blamed the Church for Alaric’s sack of Rome.
We too lack a view of history with God at the center—a view that sees human events as part of the drama of sin and redemption—because we have rejected the Christian worldview that girded Western civilization for centuries, and so we are rudderless in a sea of unease.
This modern mentality affects Catholics as well. Lacking historical perspective, we react to trials in the Church, such as clerical scandals, with anger and anxiety. Some Catholics, angry at the Church and its leaders, react by leaving the Faith. Others remain in the Church but criticize every utterance and action of the pope or bishop with whom they disagree. Still others become convinced that the present trials must be the vanguard of some long-awaited mass apostasy or apocalyptic sequence.
The antidote to a sick age
What is the antidote to this tyranny of the present? Knowledge of Church history, which gives us a long-term perspective on God’s divine plan.
Learning from the past is predicated on knowing the past. Shaping the future is rooted in a correct interpretation and perspective on modern events. Thus, the anxiety produced living in the tyranny of the present can be overcome with knowledge that previous generations of Catholics lived through similar situations and prevailed.
Historical memory and perspective also enable us to recognize that previous crises in Church history produced renewal and reform. From the darkness of men, God’s light has emerged. He does not allow the darkness, even when it comes from high offices in the Church, to triumph.
Learning from Church history requires acknowledgment that the Church is holy, but its members are fallen creatures. The actions of individual Catholics impact the Church both positively and negatively, but the negative actions—even of popes and bishops—never invalidate the mission and holiness of the Church.
Ultimately, knowing Church history should lead to a greater devotion to the Holy Spirit who has guided, guarded, and animated the Church since Pentecost. “When one remembers how the Catholic Church has been governed, and by whom,” Belloc aptly put it, “one realizes that it must be divinely inspired to have survived at all.”
Developing a proper historical perspective
As a historian, I am often asked whether things in the Church are worse now than they were in the past. Perhaps that question is asked from true curiosity, but I believe it is usually asked because the inquirer lacks the historical perspective that would provide context to modern ecclesial events.
There is no question that the current state of the Church is cause for anxiety among the Catholic faithful. News reports of national bishops’ conferences and synods proposing radical changes in ecclesiastical discipline strike fear in the hearts of the faithful. Pagan ceremonies and idols in Rome spread confusion and anger. Some conclude the state of today’s Church must be worse than it has ever been, and they bemoan a lack of leadership from the bishops.
And yet, although many modern events in the Church are troubling, a review of Church history provides examples of far worse crises that threatened the Bride of Christ. To put it plainly, Church history shows that evil does not prevail. God, in his infinite love and mercy, brings good out of evil situations that, in the moment and viewed without the proper historical perspective, might have seemed irreformable.
There are plentiful examples of darkness in the Church’s past, but each time God leads his people into light. Christians are people of hope, and to live that virtue authentically, we need the perspective of our history. God does not abandon the Church, and neither should we.