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The Problem of Progress: Modern Loss of Medieval Sight

In an ever-evolving society fueled by rapid technology and increasing knowledge, it would seem natural for progress to dominate modern civilization. In a world of “on-demand” and instant everything, speed overruns the course and time becomes currency. Modern America has lost its appreciation for doing things properly and exchanged it for efficiency. The danger in this worldview is that truth becomes relative and civilization only thinks it is indestructible, when in fact constant progress only builds a castle in the sand. It may be tall, but remains vulnerable to the tide and awaits the slightest breeze to knock it over. In contrast, medieval poetry and literature displays a vast awareness of the finite nature of the natural world, and in turn, a proper understanding of the infinite. The Anglo-Saxon view of cultural progress serves as a useful model to modern apologists by illuminating the value of a strong foundation in universal truth, a holistic view of originality, and regular evaluation of society.

Since the Anglo-Saxons were aware of the finite nature of society, and life in general, their worldviews were grounded in eternal truths rather than transient cultural trends. This is seen most clearly in medieval elegies like “The Wanderer,” where the poet says, “Nothing is ever easy in the kingdom of earth, / the world beneath the heavens is in the hands of fate. / Here possessions are fleeting, here friends are fleeting, / here man is fleeting, / here kinsman is fleeting, / the whole world becomes a wilderness.”[1] The poem is solemn in grief, but also rooted in the truth. While Anglo-Saxons readily acknowledged civilizations as frail, modern culture tends to push against frailty with constant, yet finite development in education, religion, and economy, assuming that all progress is good progress. Without acknowledging the fragility of civilization, modern culture disregards the value of the infinite and the need to reinforce a solid foundation of belief, and therefore runs the risk of crumbling completely and forever once obstacles arise.

Not only did medieval poets acknowledge the frailty of life, they were proactive in building their beliefs in light of that frailty. The poet continues, “Brave is the man who holds to his beliefs; nor shall he ever / show the sorrow in his heart before he knows how he / can hope to heal it.”[2] Anglo-Saxons knew that their hope for the infinite was the only counterpart to their existence within the finite. Earthly possessions and cultural progress were transient factors to their existence. In another elegy, “The Seafarer,” the poet says, “The gold a man amasses while still alive / on earth is no use at all to his soul.”[3] Anglo-Saxons lived through the fall of Rome and attacks on their country from Viking invaders, leaving them with nothing. They took these events as motivation to root their civilizations in universal philosophies and ideas that could both survive the devastation and also serve as a foundation for reconstructing a new society from ruin. In the face of a brittle civilization, Anglo-Saxons quickly learned the value of values, and the importance of fostering lasting truths that are not contingent on the fragile arms of a vulnerable society.

Modern apologetics, in turn, must also be rooted in eternal truths and not swayed by fleeting cultural trends. This does not mean that apologists need to disregard the cultural climate of their time. Instead, it means that universal truth and cultural application are separate, independent elements of apologetics that must function simultaneously. The alteration or disregard of one directly influences the trajectory of the other. If cultural climate is ignored, then the truth will not be heard. If, on the other hand, truth is not universal, then it will crumble along with civilization, proving to be an unworthy truth to follow. Since apologists know that the truth of the Christian faith is worth following, they must coordinate their work accordingly, as to not compromise foundational values and also to speak into culture in a meaningful way. In her book, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, Holly Ordway suggests, “Our modern culture is paradoxically both extremely suggestible (hence the success of advertising) and extremely wary of being taken in . . . Because so many people are so fearful of being taken in, we must be carefully not to be pushy or to paint an over-rosy picture when we suggest that they look into the Faith.”[4] Apologists must carefully balance the nature of culture with the nature of truth. Anglo-Saxons used their art and philosophy to reflect on both reality and hope for what is to come, successfully rooting their work in a balanced view of heaven and earth.

Another beneficial factor in the Anglo-Saxon worldview is the method in which ideas and knowledge were preserved and distributed. In his book, The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis says, “If their culture is regarded as a response to environment, then the elements in that environment to which it responded most vigorously were manuscripts. . . In our own society most knowledge depends, in the last resort, on observation. But the Middle Ages depended predominantly on books.”[5] In the way that the Middle Ages depended on books and manuscripts for building culture, modern society would consider them irrelevant. Modern civilization is built on the foothold of social media and transient “publications” that promote the individual voice. Ideas and values of culture are now mass-produced and moving through the system at rapid speed without authentic credibility or accountability. Because of the nature of modern media, no idea has the time or authority to sink in and marinate society with a solid foundation of truth and character. Ideas have no time to stick. With advertisement and entertainment shepherding modern readers toward “new” things, those readers mistake “new” for genuine progress.

On the same note, Anglo-Saxon awareness of the finiteness of civilization is also reflected in the way that they view originality. Lewis notes,

I doubt if they would have understood our demand for originality or valued those works in their own age which were original any the more on that account . . .The originality which we regard as a sign of wealth might have seemed to them a confession of poverty. Why make things for oneself like the lonely Robinson Crusoe when there is riches all about you to be had for the taking? The modern artist often does not think the riches is there. He is the alchemist who must turn base metal into gold.[6]

Instead of clinging to the need to be original, Anglo-Saxons relaxed in the order that surrounded them. “They are not trying to heighten it or transform it. It possesses them wholly.”[7] In contrast, modern autonomy has blossomed into a fear of starting over and being unnoticed. These qualities cripple one’s ability to appreciate anything that is not original and new. Therefore, progress becomes the goal, rather than stability, goodness, and best practice.

Perhaps the most valuable implication to take from the medieval view of the finite world is the significance of continuous evaluation. Faith and truth are not programmable elements of life that can be set to autopilot. After the fall of Rome, and again after the Viking attacks, medieval England was forced to re-evaluate society. Eventually, that force became habit and allowed for thriving art, culture, and literature. In “The Seafarer,” the poet says, “Foolish is he / who fears not his Lord: death catches him unprepared.”[8] Acknowledging that fate is not always in the hands of man allowed Anglo-Saxons to prioritize their efforts of progress. By taking moments of pause, and sometimes even regress, they were able to not only propel their society forward, but to also nurture it in a healthy way. Modern apologists must also be willing to take a step back in order to move forward when and how society needs. Willingness to sacrifice the initial illusion of “progress” is essential if civilizations are to ensure that faith will not crumble after unforeseeable setback.

The unpredictable decline and ruin of medieval England provided Anglo-Saxons with ample opportunity to rebuild, preserve, and evaluate their cultural values. Modern western apologists have not experienced such fragility, but are not exempt from it. The Anglo-Saxon view of the finite world highlighted the immensity of the divine. However, modern culture is constantly building the world bigger and bigger with “progress,” all the while eclipsing the divine from sight. This is dangerous territory in evangelism. Without proper perspective of the natural and supernatural, apologists misrepresent the truth that they declare, negotiating its identity. The Anglo-Saxon worldview provides modern culture with a framework to build upon, beginning with their value of a solid foundation of truth as the anchor for society. Their view of originality and their place in civilization also serves as a wonderful model for an increasingly autonomous culture of modern day. Finally, Anglo-Saxons paved the way for modern apologetics with their example of continual evaluation of cultural temperature to assure its trajectory remains precise.

1 - “The Wanderer,” in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, Kevin Crossley-Holland, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), lines 108-112.

2 - “The Wanderer,” lines 115-117.

3 - “The Seafarer,” in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, Kevin Crossley-Holland, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), lines 103-104.

4 - Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017), 137-39.

5 - C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 5.

6 - Ibid., 211.

7 - Ibid., 208.

8 - “The Seafarer,” lines 108-109.

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