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A Return to the Medieval

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • Updated Mar 05, 2015

The first temple to the Norse gods to be built in a thousand years is being constructed in Iceland. The worship of Thor, Odin and Frigg gave way to the Christian faith toward the end of the Viking age, but a modern version of Norse paganism has become increasingly popular in Iceland. Membership in ‘Asatruarfelagid’, an association that promotes faith in the Norse gods, has tripled over the last decade.

George Eliot once opined that “history, we know, is apt to repeat itself.” 

So are we returning to the medieval? 

Yes, I believe in many respects, we are.

The Middle Ages, at almost a thousand years in length, was not a single unit. Historians tend to divide it up into three eras: the early Middle Ages, which was from 400 to 1000; the high Middle Ages, which was from 1000 to 1300; and the late Middle Ages, which was from 1300 to 1500.

It is the early Middle Ages that come closest to earning the nickname “dark.” After the fall of Rome to the barbarian Alaric in 410, there was a loss of learning, a loss of cultural cohesion and a loss of order. It was a world that mixed Christianity with paganism.

But make no mistake - it was a deeply spiritual world. In fact, the supernatural was everywhere, in places and days, people and events, filling people’s lives with images, symbols and rituals. 

In places such as Ireland, the earth and all in it was considered sacred. Gods and goddesses roamed the landscape and the world of magic was embraced. But there was no God who sat in Heaven, and no knowledge of a Christ who had come to earth.

As the Middle Ages went forward, particularly by the time of the high Middle Ages, we can say that the medieval world had become a profoundly Christian world. This was because missionaries re-founded Western civilization and essentially reconverted the West back to Christianity from paganism; what Thomas Cahill referred to in the title of his book How the Irish Saved Civilization

Then came the Renaissance. As the word itself means, the Renaissance was a “rebirth,” for it was seen as a return to the learning and knowledge reflected in ancient Greece and Rome. 

From the Renaissance came the creation of what many have called “humanism.” As the name implies, much of this was simply a celebration of the humanities, and humanity itself. At first, this was a Christian, or “sacred,” humanism. Only when humanism was ripped from its Christian moorings and became a secular humanism – when humanism became “autonomous,” to use Francis Schaeffer’s term, meaning divorced from the anchor of biblical revelation and a Christian worldview – did it became destructive. Instead of studying man in light of the Creator, there was a return to Protagoras’s idea that “Man is the measure of all things.” 

This was a radical reversal of medieval understandings. 

With man as the measure of all things, as opposed to God, what kind of world would there be? Many would claim it to be “enlightened,” and in fact it was the Enlightenment that sprang from the Renaissance. 

To properly understand the Enlightenment, it must be seen as more than an age – it must be understood as a spirit. Rather than turning to revelation, there was a turn to reason as the surest and best guide for humanity. The motto of Immanuel Kant, one of the most significant thinkers of the time, was “Dare to use your own reason” - or simply “Dare to know”. The fundamental idea was that we could begin with ourselves and gain the means by which to judge all things. And not only that we could, but should. The issue was not about the Enlightenment’s relationship to religion, but rather about the Enlightenment as a religion. So much so that many historians refer to the Enlightenment as the “rise of modern paganism.” 

The speed by which Enlightenment thinking took hold was breathtaking. By the end of the era, the church had been marginalized, theology dethroned as the queen of the sciences, and the Christian worldview reduced to a fading memory. For the first time since the fourth century, the church would once again face persecution. 

But then something began to happen. Many believed the Enlightenment era would be the last, greatest summit humanity needed to ascend. Yet people begin to slip down the side of the mountain, finding Enlightenment thinking hard to grip. At first, it was called postmodernism. There was much talk about what that meant, because no one was really quite sure. What we did know was that there was a changing view of reality, a new definition of truth, and a renewed openness to the spiritual.

It wasn’t very “enlightenment-ish” at all.

But calling it postmodern, which simply means that which comes after modernity, didn’t seem quite right. It didn’t seem to capture what was going on. So perhaps an easier thesis would be this: we’re returning to the Middle Ages. 

The early Middle Ages, to be exact.

Just as the fall of Rome threw us into a medieval world with its accompanying spirituality the first time, the fall of modernity and the waning of Christianity leading to our post-Christian state are throwing us into it again. 

Some would suggest that it may even be part of a larger cycle.

The founder of Harvard University’s department of sociology, Pitirim Sorokin, noted that civilization tends to swing in one of two directions: toward the material or the spiritual. One is rational or scientific, the other is more theological and aesthetic. 

The medieval world was a spiritual world. Pagan, often mixed with Christianity, but spiritual. From the Enlightenment forward, we have lived in a rational, scientific world. Our current shift is clearly back toward the spiritual. 

But if we are entering a new era that is similar to the earlier medieval era, what does that mean? If we follow the medieval pattern, there will be at least five dynamics: widespread spiritual illiteracy, indiscriminate spiritual openness, a deep need for visual communication, an attraction to spiritual experience, and a widespread ethos of amorality. 

Sound familiar?

Which is why the term “neomedieval,” first offered by Umberto Eco in regard to Western society, seems appropriate. 

And with the neomedieval, the neopagan.

James Emery White



George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life.

James Emery White, The Church In An Age of Crisis (Baker).

James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).

Reuters Staff, “Iceland to build its first temple to the Norse gods in 1,000 years,” Reuters, February 2, 2015, read online.

Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper Reality: Essays, trans. William Weaver.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. You can also find out more information about the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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