Note: this is Part 3 of the Islam and the West series. Click “Islam and the West Series” under “Pages” for information about what this series is all about. At the end I’ll have links to parts 1 and 2. Only about one blog entry a week will be part of this series.
In part two I discussed how Augustine brought neo-Platonism into Christian theology, having a profound effect on early Christian thinking and western culture. This was a linking of Christianity to ancient Greek philosophy. Some Christians didn’t like it — an early Church leader Tertullion asked “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Yet it took, the Catholic Church would be heavily influenced by Augustine’s theology.
While Augustine was alive, the Roman empire was still standing. But by the early 5th century, it was already in collapse. In 410 there were six emperors in one year due to assassination, war and treachery. Roman civilization was slowly perishing, and many blamed Christianity for weakening it. Augustine dealt with that and many other questions in his famous book The City of God, which developed a theory for when it is just to wage war. Later in this series, we’ll compare it with the Muslim notion of jihad which represents the Islamic equivalent to just war theory.
Christianity was at base a pacifistic religion. The teachings of the new testament are clear: this world does not matter, your soul matters. Obey God’s commandments for eternal life, don’t let the temptations of the world cause you to sin. Yet one major commandment is Thou shalt not kill and in warfare you not only kill, but you kill people you don’t even know for some kind of worldly cause. How can a Christian have any part of that? That kind of view caused many Romans to charge Christianity with weakening the Empire, and failing to confront the danger facing a Rome beseiged from all sides. To show how bad it had become, the empire had split in 286 AD, making Constantinople (now Istanbul) the capital in the East (and at times the entire eastern and western empires), while in the West the capital moved first to Milano, then in 402 to Ravenna.
Augustine wrote his City of God between 413 and 426. In it he argued against the kind of complete other worldliness he seemed to embrace in the past, even while maintaining the core of that teaching. However, he noted that perfection was not part of our world, which he called the city of man. The city of man is separate from the city of God, and while the latter is peaceful and perfect, the former is riddled with warfare, violence and sin. For Augustine the trick was to stay true to moral principles while living in this wretched city of man. To do that you can’t pretend that this is already the city of God, or that any human is capable of perfection. In one part of the book, he dealt with the question of war, and whether Christians should simply stand by while the pagan barbarians destroyed the now Christian Roman Empire.
Augustine argued that a just war essentially met three conditions (though there would be additions by later theologians over time): 1) it had to counter aggression — just war was never to increase power to bring gain to the ruler, but to counter injustice and aggression from another; 2) it had to be ordered by legal authority; and 3) Christian love had to be the ultimate motive for the war. Augustine also made it clear that truly virtuous people prefer no war to even a just war, but seemed to understand that in the city of man, that might be too much to demand from everyone.
Augustine’s impact would be profound, and probably not what he intended. First, note that these conditions would prevent most, if not all wars. No one would launch a war of aggression (and defense was not supposed to turn into aggression — meaning even WWII’s occupations of Japan and Germany defy just war theory in its pure form), the legal authority granting the right to wage war would presumably be guided by Christian ideals, and thus if love were to be the ultimate motive, violence would be limited and forgiveness embraced. Thus just war could be seen as setting an ideal that could not be achieved.
And as Rome fell and the dark ages encroached just war slowly morphed into the idea of holy war. Christian love would be the motive for brutal crusades and witchhunts — even later during the Salem witch hunts the perpetrators claimed they were burning the witches out of Christian love, to cleanse the souls of the women involved so they would escape damnation.
Here we see something we’ll notice in both Christianity and Islam: the ability of what appear on their surface to be clear teachings to be turned into whatever later political leaders want it to mean. Aggression could later mean anything threatening Christian holy sites (like Muslim control over Jerusalem) and Christian love could rationalize aggression.
Still, Augustine’s other-worldliness and general pacifistic tendencies were powerful forces that would keep Europe focused on tradition and continuity rather than progress and materialism, and while Augustine opens the door to move from the more pacifistic teachings of Jesus to one that accepts warfare, there nonetheless remains at the core of Christianity a profound sense of mystical pacifism that, as we’ll see, differs from the radical reformism of Islam. However, those Christian tendencies also have real contradictions with modern western ideologies, many of which embrace violence far more easily.
After the collapse of Rome Europe, following a mystical form of Christianity, and unable to politically re-organize the empire, drifted into the dark ages, while down in Arabia a charismatic reformer named Muhammad would start a process that would unify Arabia and create another major civilization. That will be the subject of part four of this series.