Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Octobre, the Musée Condé, Chantilly, circa 1440
The three videos below are of an amazing lecture series by Dr. Andrew Jones on the worldview of the High Middle Ages. It is fairly technical, but this is important. We inhabit our modern worldview(s) like fish inhabit the sea. It takes a lot to grasp one’s own worldview, let alone understand another so foreign to our sensibilities as the Medieval one. The depth of Dr. Jones’ talks provide much of the necessary perspective to understand a traditional Christian perspective that is, I believe, essentially foreign to modern Christians.
I find the Middle Ages worldview particularly fascinating in light of Rod Dreher’s timely and provocative book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Dreher poses the idea that, since we live in a post-Christian world, Christians should recognize that fact and focus on what can be done to shore up the faith, including communities and practices that support the faith as a kind of bulwark against the prevailing winds of our time. This does not mean forsaking the culture and leaving it entirely to its own devices, rather he argues we should find other means of engagement than what we might be familiar with, while also focusing less on secular battles and more on building healthy Christian communities. Still, his vision is a kind of retreat into faith and Christian culture, and out of the culture wars and the insidious power of secular society. Drehere uses St. Benedict as an examples and talisman for his thought experiment — leaving us with more of a Medieval monastic approach than a modern sociopolitical stance. I find his argument mostly convincing — at least I want it to be, perhaps more than it is.
And yet, Dr. Jones’ approach is not about critiquing our modern world as Dreher does. He merely lays out the High Middles Ages worldview in such detail that one cannot help but compare it to our own. My reaction is basically this: Christians should jettison the modern worldview and embrace the medieval one. But this is no mere “Benedict option.” Rather, it is something even more profound. It would require a nearly total worldview, total cosmological reorientation of Christianity itself. In other words, what we call Christianity today is a far cry from what Christianity was in the Middle Ages, and we might want to grieve that loss.
Our modern worldview is the child of the Enlightenment. Modern Christianity, primarily Protestantism but also too much of modern Catholicism, is also a child of the Enlightenment, which was a child of Protestantism — a kind of serpent eating its own tail. In other words, once Western Civilization gave up on the Medieval worldview it’s been a slow slog downhill in many respects. Does this mean we ought to go back to the Middle Ages? No. But we ought to look deeply into their worldview and critique our own.
In short, we could only have ended up with the Novus Ordo Mass once we lost our understanding of the Medieval world view. It seems clear to me that the struggles many modern Catholics have with accepting the Traditional Latin Mass is that it truly seems fundamentally foreign to them, and in a sense it is. I would argue, and I think it is also clear from these lectures, that the Medieval worldview, at its core at least, is both more biblical and more human, than the worldview underlying much of what we might call “modern Catholicism.”
So, in another sense, we do need to go back. We need to recover the Truth about God, the Church, and ourselves. And we should look to the pinnacle of Christendom, its core beliefs, and its way of looking at the world and the life of man, to find that Truth.
For Protestants this will mean recognizing the more Biblical worldview is a traditional Catholic one. For Catholics this means the traditional Catholic worldview is one that far too many Catholics today (perhaps most) do not know or live. Perhaps what the Church needs is a new kind of renaissance — a rediscovery of what was lost, and then letting that discovery reanimate the Church and our lives. This could, then, become what brings Christians back to the same table, once again spiritually, liturgically, and visibly united in Christ.