History of Christianity 3: Medieval Christianity

In this week’s History of Christianity video, I cover 1000 years in 20 minutes! Insane! And I have a handout this week: Medieval christianity handout

Recommended Readings

If this were a university course, I would assign the following online readings.

Medieval Sources

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1.25-26 (Augustine), 4.27-29 (Cuthbert)

The Inscription from the Xi’an Stele

The Assisi Compilation, ch 34: St Francis gives away his cloak

Modern Studies

R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, pp. 214-239, 272-299 -Available at openlibrary.org

Bibliography

Medieval Sources

Adomnán of Iona. Life of Saint Columba.

Bede. Life and Miracles of St Cuthbert.

Life of St John the Almsgiver. From Three Byzantine Saints: Contemporary Biographies of St. Daniel the Stylite, St. Theodore of Sykeon and St. John the Almsgiver, trans. Elizabeth Dawes, and introductions and notes by Norman H. Baynes, (London: 1948).

Thomas of Celano. First Life of St Francis of Assisi.

Turgot of St Andrews. Life of St Margaret.

Modern Sources

Armstrong, Chris R. Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians. Baker Publishing, 2016. Available on Scribd with a subscription.

Cameron, Averil. Byzantine Christianity: A Very Short History. London, 2017. Available on Scribd with subscription.

Farmer, David. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. 5th edn. Oxford, 2011. (I used this for St Kilian/Killian/Cillian and Alexander Nevsky; it’s a tremendous resource with proper bibliography for each entry.)

Jenkins, J. Philip. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died. 2008. Available on Scribd with subscription. Available on openlibrary.org

Markides, Kyriacos C. The Mountain of Silence. New York, 2001. -Available on openlibrary.org

History of Christianity video 2: Late Ancient Christianty, 300-600

Here’s my second History of Christianity video, covering the years 300-600. I had hoped to create a handout this week. As yet, no such luck. Maybe later today if other things go well…

In this week’s instalment of the history of Christianity, we look at the years 300-600. Sticking to our themes of spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity, we look at three topics:

  1. Christianisation of the Roman Empire
  2. Monasticism from Egypt to St Benedict
  3. Christianity outside the Roman Empire

If this were a university course, I would assign the following readings (all available online):

Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Bk 1, chh. 26-32

Athanasius, Life of St Antony

St Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries, Prologue

Agathangelos, History, Book 3

Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, pp. 152-159, 174-183, and 192-212.

Further Ancient Sources

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975.

John Cassian, The Conferences. The quotation is from Conference 10, ch. 7

Further Modern Sources

Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome. Oxford, 2011.

Henry Chadwick and G. R. Evans, Atlas of the Christian Church. Oxford, 1987.

J Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity. 2009. -Available if you have a Scribd subscription.

My first church history video, Christianity to the year 300

For the next five Mondays, I’m going to  be uploading 20-minute church history videos to YouTube on the theme “Spiritual Disciplines and the Expansion of Christianity.” The first video in the series is now up, covering an introduction to the series and Christianity before Constantine:

This is the first in a five-part series looking very quickly at the history of Christianity. I’d like to acknowledge the technical support from Pastor Ben Spears that made this possible — expect better videos as I get more practice!

I do two things in this week’s video:

First, I introduce my theme: spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity.

Second, I run through church history from Acts to around the year 300.

If this were a university course, I would assign the following readings (all available online):

The Didache (c. 90).

Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, Bk 1, chh. 1-3

Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, pp. 32-73, 94-100.

Ancient Sources

Clement of Alexandria. See this page for his works.

Didascalia.

Diocletian. See Eusebius, ‘The Martyrs of Palestine‘.

—. Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, chh. 7-19.

Ignatius of Antioch. Letters.

—. See the account of his martyrdom here.

Polycarp of Smyrna. Letter.

—. See the account of his martyrdom here.

The evangelism books I mention towards the end

John Bowen, Evangelism for “Normal” People.

Bill Hybels, Becoming a Contagious Christian.

Rebecca Manley Pippert. Out of the Saltshaker and Into the World.

Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church.

I missed a trick by not mentioning Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church.

St Columba: Missionary, monk, poet

Today is the feast of St Columba, or Colm Cille, about whom I’ve blogged in the past. St Columba is rightly remembered for being a missionary who brought Christianity from Ireland to Scotland. He is also remembered as the founder of the abbey at Iona, which would be an active missionary centre for Scotland, northern England, and the Western Isles. He is less well-remembered as a poet, although I’ve made sure to blog some of his verse here.

I’ve been doing some writing and thinking about the relationship between monasticism and mission lately, and it struck me today, as I read Malcolm Guite’s reflections on encountering Columba on his journey to Christianity, that the monk-missionary-poet is maybe just what we need!

Monk

If you read Adomnan’s Life of St Columba, you see that the saint — or at least the idealised version of him seen by Adomnan — was truly a monk, truly single-minded in devotion to God. Not long ago, Carey Nieuwhof wrote a post (that I failed to bookmark) talking about the things the churches that makes it through the agonising death of Christendom will have.

I am pretty sure that the top priority will be: Monomaniacs for God in the pulpit, in the boardroom/vestry/kirk session/elders, in the pews.

The one thing every variety of monk is meant to be, whether alone in caves, living in little huts near each other, living in abbeys, living on pillars, living alone on islands in the North Sea, is a monomaniac for God. Like Columba.

Missionary

St Columba was not a hermit. He lived an ascetic lifestyle and finished up his earthly life as abbot of a monastery. But he preached the Good News that God came down from heaven on a rescue mission to save us. He was ready to preach and sought out opportunities.

Studies have shown that churches that are growing these days have at least one trait in common: Congregants tell their friends about Jesus and invite them to church.

Poet

Poetry is the reenchantment of the disenchanted universe through the medium of words. As we face head-on the post-Enlightenment universe we live in, almost everyone we meet will be a materialist, whether the kind who believes that matter is all that exists or the kind who believes that matter is all that matters.

As Christianity goes forward, poetry will be the vehicle for expressing the inexpressible, the joyous meaning of the Gospel, of worshipping the incomprehensible God. The Church that goes beyond proposition and treads the ground of mystery — this is the church that will survive.

It’s also the church of our ancient and medieval ancestors in the faith…

Justice and the kingdom of now and not-yet

There is little that I, a middle-class white guy from Canada, can add of much value to the conversation on racism now happening, a conversation that will hopefully bear fruit in all of our lives and societies, from those of us unconsciously complicit in systems that oppressed, to active oppressors, to those unjustly oppressed. In Canada, we are coming to realise that we have our own share of anti-black racism, but also, since we have proportionately fewer black people for white people to oppress, more than enough oppression of and racism against indigenous people. In Australia, I understand the Aborigines are out marching as well.

So, as we all become painfully aware, I will only offer what little I can by way of what tiny part of stuff is my expertise: a sliver of ancient Christianity …

A few days ago, Death to the World posted this amazing icon of St Moses the Black, one of the fourth-century Desert Fathers of Egypt:

Before getting to Abba Moses, it is worth pausing on Death to the World’s caption and tags that accompanied the icon:

The last true rebellion is death to self. There will be no political savior. #counterrevolution #lasttruerebellion #sainthoodisyourprotection #deathtotheworld

This is precisely what I would expect from Death to the World, and it’s always worth pausing to remember that. Death to the World, if you didn’t know, is an Eastern Orthodox group whose originally membership was drawn from the counterculture on the US west coast, especially those into heavy metal. It stills has a counterculture vibe. It actually started out as a zine back in the day! They are very big into the work of Father Seraphim Rose, who himself came out of the ’60s counterculture of hippies, New Age, and Marxism.

Death to the World will always point us in this direction. We are to abandon it all. There is no political saviour. We must give all to gain everything (okay, that’s St Clare of Assisi). We need to remember this, always. We will never build Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land (contra William Blake). The last true rebellion is the overthrowing of self, the death to a corrupt and dying world, and a wholehearted embrace of truth. Be holy. Sainthood is your protection.

Abba Moses would agree. Abba Moses was a former robber who was converted late in life and became great and holy monk amongst the Desert Fathers in Scetis. I am not sure where exactly he was from, whether modern Ethiopia or Sudan or southern Egypt. But he was definitely one of the few black saints of the patristic era before the conversion of Ethiopia.

Here are four instructions from Abba Moses. The full ‘seven’ gets very long. From Sister Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 141:

  1. The monk must die to his neighbour and never judge him at all, in any way whatever.
  2. The monk must die to everything before leaving the body, in order not to harm anyone.
  3. If the monk does not think in his heart hat he is a sinner, God will not hear him.
  4. If a man’s deeds are not in harmony with his prayers, he labours in vain.

The first, last, and greatest rebellion lies here, within us, within the putrid wickedness of our own hearts.

The statement, “No political saviour,” should remind us that humans are evil and will perpetrate evil. If we fight for justice and a more just society, we must be ready for failure at some level.

The tension is that the same Desert that nourished St Moses the Black — who actually received some abuse from fellow monks for his skin colour — also calls us to care for the poor as part of our death to the world:

A brother asked an aged monk: ‘There are two brothers: one of them leads a life of solitude six days a week and does much penance, while the other is dedicated to the service of the sick. Which of the two is behaving in the way that is more acceptable to God?’

The old man answered him: ‘The brother who is always making a retreat would never attain the heights that the one who serves the sick has reached, not even if you hoisted him with a hook in his nose.’ -Anonymous Collection of Sayings of the Desert Fathers no. 224, quoted in Thomas Spidlik, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, 175

St John Chrysostom, who had been a monk in the Syrian desert before becoming a priest and later bishop of Constantinople, spoke often and at length about the abuse of the poor by the rich, and called upon his wealthy, aristocratic audience to care for the poor. His audience included the emperor, remember. St Basil of Caesarea, who lived an ascetic lifestyle and had visited the famous monasteries of Egypt, also exhorted people to care for the poor, but he went a step further and built a place where the poor and sick could be cared for.

Their political system was very different from ours, but those fathers of the church who had the ear of emperors tended to call upon them to care for the poor.

Our cultural world is also very different from theirs. Ancient Romans are a fine example of how bigotry and xenophobia can exist without modern concepts of race. Not that an ancient person wouldn’t be aware that Abba Moses was black and Patrick of Ireland was a pinkish white colour. They just had a variety of other markers of ethnicity that they took into account when being cruel and oppressive, frankly.

Our questions of racism and race are, therefore, not their questions. Nevertheless, justice cries out. We do live in this particular world, this iteration of human bigotry and oppression, this cultural moment. Injustice is being wrought against fellow human beings made in the image of God. St John Chrysostom and St Basil and the Desert Fathers would all call for just treatment of black people. They would consider kneeling on a man’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds until he asphyxiates and dies, with people looking on calling for mercy, to be wickedness. To be murder.

Therefore, seeking social justice in our society, in ways that we hope are effective here and now, is an act in line with the spirit of the writings of these great Fathers of the Church.

The Kingdom of the Heavens, when a great multitude from every tribe, tongue, and nation will gather around the throne of the Lamb, has not yet come in its fullness and power. It will not come until Christ returns to exact justice upon evildoers. Until then, all our efforts at building a just society will be partial. Nevertheless, we are called to do these things, to preach repentance to racists and our own selves for our complicity, and to seek justice for the victims of the racist oppression that to this day plagues our societies.

I suspect that the only sustainable way to do this is to die to ourselves every day so that we can more fully love our neighbour.

This is the tension of the Christian life. Now and not-yet.

Crafting a Rule of Life 1: “From time to time”

A lot of people believe that crafting and following a Rule of Life is a wise way to approach Christian discipleship, inspired by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, St Benedict, St Augustine, the Franciscans, and others. Indeed, although there is nothing monastic about their rules of life, many evangelicals throughout history have committed their lives to disciplined living and a rule of living, from John Wesley to John Stott.

Rev. Kyle Norman recently published a piece on Ministry Matters, a Canadian Anglican webzine, all about the benefits that come from crafting and following a rule of life. A quick historical quibble: the recommendation to follow a rule of life on p. 555 of the 1962 Canadian BCP is not Cranmer’s. I haven’t tracked down its origin. It is not there in 1662 or the Canadian 1918 revision or the proposed English revision of 1928. It is, perhaps, a minor quibble of a historical matter, but I’m a historian, so these things irk me.

Anyway, here’s what we find on p. 555 of the BCP 1962:

Every Christian man or woman should from time to time frame for himself a RULE OF LIFE in accordance with the precepts of the Gospel and the faith and order of the Church; wherein he may consider the following:
The regularity of his attendance at public worship and especially at the holy Communion.
     The practice of private prayer, Bible-reading, and self-discipline.
Bringing the teaching and example of Christ into his everyday life.
The boldness of his spoken witness to his faith in Christ.
His personal service to the Church and the community.
The offering of money according to his means for the support of the work of the Church at home and overseas.

I’ve been thinking recently about what it would take to both craft and follow a Rule of Life. If you’ve put up with reading this blog long enough, you know this isn’t the first time I’ve tried something like this. The likeliness of my success is dependent, I believe, on the external support I have. So I’m going to do a little spiritual bromance to find someone to encourage me on this journey, don’t worry.

As part of this journey, I’ll write about this statement that comes at the end of the Supplementary Instruction of the Canadian Catechism. First, then:

From time to time

I think this phrase is highly significant and likely to be passed over. Now, when they wrote this, I don’t think the revisers of the Prayer Book had my situation in mind. “From time to time, frame a Rule of Life because you can’t stick to one.” I think, rather, they had the necessary flexibility that all these things should hold, in keeping with the historic Protestant approach to the spiritual disciplines.

Despite some unfortunate turns in more recent history, Protestants have historically practised the spiritual disciplines. Our Reformational forebears prayed, read Scripture, meditated on Scripture, fasted, some even confessed sins to one another, engaged in acts of mercy or social activism, ate and dressed with simplicity, and so forth. If they were unmarried, they practised celibacy. Some have lived in communities that hold everything in common.

The Posting of Luther’s 95 Theses by Julius Hübner, 1878

According to Greg Peters (in both The Story of Monasticism and The Monkhood of All Believers), the main criticism Martin Luther and John Calvin had with monastic practice was the perpetuity of the vows — besides, of course, the spiritual elitism that had arisen in late medieval monasticism. Everything else a monk did, Luther and Calvin were in favour of, and even promoted for the lives of ordinary Christians. But the only lifelong vow a Christian was allowed, according to Scripture, was marriage. Whether you agree with them or not, there is one main takeaway for Protestantism:

Asceticism is not antithetical to Christian living.

What this means for the BCP p. 555 is that if one crafts a rule of life, doing so is not contrary to historic Protestantism, certainly not counter to the magisterial Reformation, of the Lutherans and the Reformed, of which the Church of England is a part. It also means that if you do frame a rule of life, you need to do so with enough discernment that if some aspect of your life changes, your rule of life can change with it.

This means that, even if I had succeeded in maintaining the Rule of Life I drafted myself as a student in Edinburgh in 2014, it would have changed when I was a post-doc in Rome in 2015, and then again back at Edinburgh as a lecturer in 2016, but most drastically, it would have changed — probably would have to have been entirely rewritten — in 2017 when my first son was born. And that’s okay.

The Rule of Life has to be flexible because life on earth isn’t static. We are dynamic beings whose circumstances change. What needs to stay central in a Rule of Life is its focus on helping us love God and love others more and its workability — too rigid a Rule of Life will cause us to abandon it.

So it’s time to consider afresh what a Rule of Life means for me in 2020, father of two, unemployed, living with my in-laws under social distancing recommendations. It’ll change, maybe in a few months or sooner, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

Worldview and lifestyle: What do you really believe?

Every once in a while I try to think about the connections between the different aspects of classic Christianity I blog about — between theology and spiritual disciplines, usually, although sometimes between different aspects of theology. One of the common teachings we find in books about worldview is that our worldview shapes how we live.

If this is true, most of us are atheists, materialists, and deniers of hell.

In the last point, I think David Bentley Hart once pointed out that if other Christians really believed in the hell of everlasting punishment that they profess, they wouldn’t waste any of their time, would they? Wouldn’t Hart’s intellectual opponents be out on the street preaching, giving away their money to mission work, turning conversations to evangelism, that as many would be saved as possible?

But most Christians don’t live like that, don’t live with any urgency that hell is an immediate possibility for ourselves and our neighbours.

In his cutting book, The Golden Cow, John White (author of the children’s fantasy The Tower of Geburah as well as several non-fiction Christian books for adults) says there are two kinds of materialist. There are the secular materialists who say that matter is all that is. And there are those who say that matter is all that matters. Many evangelical Christians, he contends, fall into this second category. We live the same lives as our neighbours. We strive for more money, for more comfort, etc., etc.

For most of daily life, most of us are what I’ve heard called “practical atheists”. We do not live as though the God of the Universe indwells us, as though any insignificant event may actually have eternal significance. We hardly set aside time for prayer. When we make non-moral decisions, we usually simply choose what is easiest or what we like best, not what is most spiritually beneficial. That latter may require discernment — but how many of us even try to discern anything in our lives?

So, if worldview impacts lifestyle, most of us don’t really believe Gospel, do we?

I, myself, attach my mind quite easily to high ideals. Nevertheless, having read Cassian and Jeremy Taylor about gluttony, I still sat down the other day and drank a bottle of sugary pop and ate 125 g of gummy candies. High ideals are nice unless I actually have to change how I live, right?

My main problems are probably acedia — listless despondency — and not even wanting this enough. That is to say, when it actually comes upon me that I should make some sort of decision for spiritual discipline rather than ease, acedia comes upon me. I feel tired. I feel soooo weary so much of the time. I do not wish to add another burden. So prayer, Scripture reading, disciplined eating …. these are set aside. Just for now. Don’t worry — I’ll do it tomorrow.

Some people say a Rule of Life is a cure for this. (Obviously besides the Holy Spirit seizing us.) Maybe that. Probably also community and spiritual friendship.

I’m thinking about how to make a Rule of Life, so maybe you’ll hear from me on that before too long.

What do you think? How can we cure our practical atheism in comfortable western Christianity?

We can’t all be Michael Jordan – The tension of discipleship

In response to my recent post about the professionalization of asceticism in Late Antiquity, a friend of mine commented:

It’s tempting to lower the bar, but also hard to expect everyone to play like Michael Jordan.

He makes a good point. The life of discipleship is, like most of Christianity, a matter of upholding tensions. We are justified by faith, not works, but works are evidence or at least fruit of faith. God is a single essence but also three persons. Jesus is a single person who has two natures. The Kingdom of the Heavens has broken through into history and is amongst us, but it will not fully come until the Last Days and the return of Jesus.

Discipleship, then, exists in tension. I affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone as articulate by Richard Hooker and, last I checked, Martin Luther (whose teaching bears a resemblance to St Mark the Monk, but that’s a different question). We do not enter into a right relationship with God, or become citizens of the Kingdom of the Heavens, or escape Hell, or find our way into the New Heaven and the New Earth on Judgement Day because of anything we have done. Nothing we do holds any merit with God. It is all grace.

But we are called to be Jesus’s lifelong students. We are disciples. Faith without works is dead. Antinomianism, cheap grace — these are not the path of discipleship. In the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Jesus tells his students to make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit — and “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19 NKJV)

The path of discipleship is figuring out how to live that last bit, seeking to love God and neighbour better and better every day. The tension is that we are already justified by our trust in God and his saving mercy upon us, yet we are still seeking to lead holy lives. Nevertheless, while we cannot become holy without doing something, we cannot do anything without God’s unmerited favour helping us.

The question, then, is how do we help people become better disciples of Jesus without lowering the bar on the one hand (“It’s okay if you sleep with your boyfriend, God’ll forgive you — we’re saved by grace, after all!”) or expecting everyone to play like Michael Jordan on the other (“If you eat meat during Lent you are re-committing Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden”)? Both parenthetical statements are real statements I have heard, not hyperbole!

I am not sure. I think we need to exercise grace on the one hand, but also discernment as we sift through the disciplines to see what will help us grow into greater love of God and of neighbour. What we need, then, is each other: People to encourage us and help us see what we need in order to grow spiritually. Loving community helps maintain the tension of discipleship and foster spiritual growth. This is what the old abbeys or the communities gathered around the elders of the Desert were about.

I wish I could create or find that today.

The professionalisation of asceticism in late antiquity

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

In a couple, or a few, weeks I am going to be giving some online seminars about church history for my churches. I’ll make sure this blog is kept informed. The theme tying together the seminars will be spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity. At the same time, I am attempting to forge a book about St Benedict’s Rule. As these two forces collide in my mind, I can’t help but think about the history of monasticism and its relationship to the ante-Nicene church.

And its relationship to non-monastic followers of Jesus — this post could just as easily be the appropriation of discipleship by monks in the Later Roman Empire.

John Cassian gives an account of the origins of monasticism that, although historically worthless as Columba Stewart notes in Cassian the Monk, is nevertheless of interest when we consider the definition of a monk and of asceticism — for this is how Greg Peters uses it in The Monkhood of All Believers — and, from there, the actual origins of the Christian ascetic tradition.

According to Cassian, the first Christians were cenobitic monks — that is, monks who lived in community with shared property — citing Acts 2 as his evidence. And this Acts 2 parallel will continue to be used in descriptions of the monastic ideal for much of the western ascetic tradition. But, sighs Cassian, this didn’t last. As more people converted, things got lax. It was up to the fourth-century monks to bring discipline, true asceticism, back.

Except, of course, when they did it, asceticism was appropriated by a distinct set of Christians who lived lives set apart from the increasingly Christianised population of the Roman Empire (and its successor states as well as easterly neighbours — the non-monk ascetic Ephraim the Syrian finds himself portrayed as a monk in later Syriac literature; East Syrian monasticism is its own flourishing form of asceticism in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages).

Cassian is right that the primitive church was essentially ascetic, although we may quibble about calling them monks. This is the contention of David Bentley Hart in the notes surrounding his translation of the New Testament. Hart believes that the New Testament authors actually expect members of the Christian community to abandon all of their possessions and lead lives of simplicity and prayer (in a nutshell; I’ve not read his notes, only about them — I may have details wrong). However far that may actually go, it is certainly the case that simplicity is certainly a mark of the apostolic lifestyle, and many Christians did abandon all to gain everything (St Clare’s laudable exchange).

Other early Christian literature bears witness to an ascetic, even rigorist, ideal. I do not recall all of the details, but the Didache expects Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and to pray three times a day. The Apostolic Tradition seems to expect members of the community to pray all seven canonical hours and to attend teaching at church before work when it is available.

Clement of Alexandria, who comes between Didache and Apostolic Tradition, believed in the simple life: simple food, simple dress, not owning fancy dishes and furniture. Eat in moderation. Study the Scriptures. Pray. These are a few of Clement’s recommendations; he believes in training, askesis, of the body and mind to be able to ascend to apatheia and in the state of dispassion to encounter the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Other figures have expectations for Christian living surrounding food, dress, personal property, and prayer, that we today would consider ascetic, such as Tertullian and Origen. These expectations are coupled in Origen with a belief that a contemplative life and meditation on Scripture can help us enter the Cloud of Unknowing and encounter the impassible God.

To what extent these ante-Nicene ascetics represent mainstream Christianity is hard to say. Well, they represent mainstream thinking. How most Christians lived for most of history is actually hard to judge. But this strand of thought is taken up by Antony and his associates and soon becomes the preserve for a special, higher class of Christian: the monk.

The monk, for these purposes, is the professional ascetic who goes above and beyond the requirements of the “normal” Christian. He or she is single-minded in devotion to God and does special things for Him. The rest of us simply have to go to church and follow the Ten Commandments — or whatever else emerges from the systems created by institutionalised Christianity.

But the idea that we are all called to fast (truly fast, not simply abstain from certain foods), to pray the canonical hours, to give away unnecessary possessions, to be single-minded in our pursuit of God — this is lost. We non-monastic lay people are there for moral instruction, not ascetic labour.

This is perhaps a gross oversimplification, but I believe something along these lines happened to Christian discipleship in Late Antiquity, within the Empire as well as outside it, and persisted throughout the Middle Ages.

The spiritual reality of the Ascension

The Ascension by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, Edinburgh

Someone I know once expressed concern because he learned Bishop Spong says that if Jesus had ascended to heaven, then he was still going up without stopping since there’s nothing up there but outer space. This sort of crass literalism is not even worthy of fundamentalists who know very well that when Jesus ascended, he didn’t go to a place within the physical, material, tangible, visible universe that is measurable by scientific equipment.

But it turns out that Spong doesn’t even believe in heaven, so whether he was willfully misunderstanding orthodoxy or simply stating his own beliefs — “There is no heaven, so Jesus must have kept going, I guess!” — doesn’t really matter. But what this Spong-ian anecdote represents is a certain discomfort some have in our age with the miracle of the Ascension, perhaps because the divine has been boxed in by the Enlightenment, likely also because people assume illiterate, ancient fishermen were idiots who actually thought heaven was a place in the sky.

Although I have not read the entirety of Christian literature, the only person I’ve encountered who seems to think heaven is literally “up there” is Cosmas Indicopleustes, the same guy who is in that minority of fools who believed in a flat earth (most educated people in the ancient and medieval world knew better). And I may even have misunderstood Cosmas, taking the diagrams in the copy of his book too literally. This is an actual possibility, not just me being irenic or falsely modest.

Most thoughtful Christians who have considered what this event means whilst simultaneously asserting its historicity have decided that, when Jesus was hidden from view behind the cloud, he passed from our plane of physical existence into the Throne of God in the Heavens (taking his physical, human body with Him!!). It strikes me that there may be spiritual significance in God’s use of a cloud, although it may simply have been the most convenient thing for the moment.

Here is the take we find on this event in The Cloud of Unknowing:

[Ch. 59] And if you are going to refer me to our Lord’s Ascension, and say it must have physical significance as well as spiritual, seeing it was a physical body that ascended, and he is true God and true Man, my answer is that he had been dead, and then was clothed with immortality; and so shall we be at the Day of Judgement. At that time we shall be so rarefied in our body-and-soul, that we shall be able to go physically wherever we will as swiftly as we can now go anywhere mentally in thought. Up, down, sideways, backwards, forwards — it will be all the same to us, and good, so the scholars say. But at the present time you cannot go to heaven physically, but only spiritually. And it is so really spiritual that it is not physical at all: neither above or below us, beside or behind or before.

[Ch. 60] Now perhaps you are saying, ‘But how do you arrive at these conclusions?’ For you are thinking you have real evidence that heaven is up above, for Christ ascended physically upwards, and, later, sent the Holy Spirit, as he promised, from above, unseen by any disciple. And we believe this. And therefore, you think, with this real evidence before you, why should you not direct your mind literally upward when you pray?

I will answer this as best I can, however inadequately. Since it had to be that Christ should ascend physically, and then send the Holy Spirit in tangible form, it was more suitable that it should be ‘upwards’, and ‘from above’, than it should be ‘downwards’ and ‘from beneath’, ‘from behind, from the front, or from the sides’. Apart from this matter of suitability, there was no more need for him to have gone upwards than downwards, the way is so near. For, spiritually, heaven is as near down as up, up as down, behind as before, before as behind, on this side as on that! So that whoever really wanted to be in heaven, he is there and then in heaven spiritually. For we run the high way (and the quickest) to heaven on our own desires, and not on our two feet. So St Paul speaks for himself and many others when he says that although our bodies are actually here on earth, we are living in heaven. (Phil. 3:20) -Trans. Clifton Wolters, chh. 59, 60, pp. 125-127

While there are some late medieval mystical works that should be classed as “outliers” and not representative of Christian tradition more widely, on this point, at least, The Cloud of Unknowing is not an outlier. There is thus no theological reason to doubt that Jesus actually did rise up into the air before vanishing from his disciples’ sight. Believing in the historicity of the Ascension neither makes you a fundamentalist, nor necessitates Jesus continually ascending through the reaches of interstellar space.

So celebrate the Ascension tomorrow without feeling like you must turn off your brain.