Christian Herritage of Europe

Christ on panel, 6th century, Monastery of St. Catherine, Mount Sinai. Photo: Wikipedia. Museum Monastery St. Catherine, Egypt.

The recently released German movie ‘Pope Joan’ (Päpstin) puts urbi et orbi into female perspective. Although the authenticity of the story is seriously doubted, the theme is interesting and refers to the Christian heritage of Europe as such. Prof R. Brague may be quoted in this respect. ‘To speak of the Christian heritage of Europe bothers me. And for even greater reason, speaking of ‘Christian civilization’. Christianity was founded by people who could not have cared less about it. What interested them was Christ, and the reverberations of his coming on the whole of human existence. Christians believed in Christ, not in Christianity itself, they were Christians, not “Christianists”.

It took centuries to translate Christian reality into institutions. Think of the time it took the Church to reverse inveterate habits and impose the consent of the engaged couple as the sole indispensable condition for marriage. The monogamous marriage that we now call ‘traditional’ was in fact a hard won innovation. What is really traditional is the contract between two families for an exchange of spouses, whose opinion was seldom asked. Until quite late, so-called Christian society regarded with a jaundiced eye those who married without consulting the family or social conventions. Who can say that Christianity has had the time to translate the totality of its contents into institutions ? I have the impression that instead we are still at the beginning stages of Christianity’.

What is the debt of Christianity as religion towards Islam , there is none, because Christian dogma had already crystallized well before the birth of Islam. That was the work of the series of great councils and it was from (pagan) Greek philosophy that the Church Fathers borrowed their conceptual tools, while making profound changes in it. Christianity owes to Islam as civilization and culture however, although the topic has been overloaded with ideology. Whatever the debt to the Arabic (and  oriental heritage), the real intellectual revolution was a “papal revolution”, dating from the rediscovery of Roman law at the time of the investitures controversy in the late eleventh century (The recently published book ‘Millennium’, by Tom Holland offers some insights). Reducing law to system required more refined tools, which meant that the West turned to the East, seeking out works on logic and methodology, along with which the West received the Greek and Arabic heritage. The Church was the driving force behind this development.