Learning Jesus (7)
Celtic Christians gathered the light of learning into a worldview.
How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God!
Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings.
They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house,
And You give them drink from the river of Your pleasures.
For with You is the fountain of life;
In Your light we see light. Psalm 36.7-9
What Dark Ages?
Toward the end of the last century, the late Carl Sagan famously insisted that, because of Christian extremism in the middle of the fourth century, the light of learning went out, and the Western world gave itself a frontal lobotomy that lasted a thousand years (Cosmos).
That’s a clear and clever metaphor. It’s just not true. Following the events that Sagan rightly deplored – the murder of Hypatia and the burning of the library at Alexandria – the light of true learning, learning that grows in the light of Scripture and leads us to the Light of the world, began to brighten considerably. Some of the greatest thinkers of the fourth and fifth centuries – Augustine, Jerome, Ephrem, the Cappadocian Fathers, Boethius, and more – began to articulate the outlines of a Christian worldview as the light of Rome was sinking below the horizon of history. Great works such as City of God, the Vulgate Bible, The Pearl, and The Consolation of Philosophy would inspire kings and thinkers for the next thousand years and beyond.
This is not to condone the unlawful actions of passionate but misguided believers in fourth-century Alexandria (whose mistake was thinking political action was the way to secure their freedoms). It’s simply to insist that the “Dark Ages” – which we’ve all heard about since we began to be taught “history” – never really existed. The light of learning never went out in the West or the East, because the Gospel continued to spread and bear fruit; and that Good News unfurled a new way of thinking about the world, a way in which all roads led not to Rome, but to Jesus.
That worldview was picked up and adumbrated by scholars, poets, and artists during the period of the Celtic Revival.
The Celtic road
The Church Fathers created the “roadbed” for the highway of Christian learning. In their day, thinkers in the Celtic Christian tradition would add solidity and illumination to that highway, both in writing and by their art.
Thinkers from the period of the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800) created a handful of profound writings designed to enfold all of history and creation in a Christian encyclopedia, with Jesus at the center. Colum Cille’s majestic poem, Altus Prosator, outlines from creation to consummation the work God does on earth to honor and exalt His Son. The seventh-century Liber de Ordine Creaturarum offers a majestic summation of all creation – visible and invisible – as the domain of Christ. A larger, more comprehensive, philosophical, and enduring treatise on the same theme was written by Eriugena at the end of this period. His Periphyseon is the most outstanding example of speculative philosophy, grounded in Scripture, from the entire Middle Ages.
What these writers did for thinking Christians, anonymous artists and poets did for the rest of the faithful. We’ve mentioned already the lavish illustrations in Celtic illuminated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, and the Lindisfarne Gospels, as well as the exquisite carvings on high crosses. In these especially, Jesus is presented as not only the quintessence of life and all knowing, and the center of all human aspiration and hope, but the focal point of the entire cosmos, and Ruler of all peoples and things. Many an unlearned Christian would have received ample and inspiring edification in Christ as his pastor explained those paintings and carvings, and read the works of obscure but faithful poets from this period.
Celtic Christians not only added paving to the road of Christian worldview; they also spruced up the railings of Biblical and creational revelation with stories, poems, works of art, and acts of social reform, all of which made clear to everyone that Jesus is the Source, Reason, Explanation, and End of all such earnest endeavors.
Darkness or light
If there ever was such a period as the “Dark Ages”, I can only believe we are living in it now. The Light of Jesus Christ is shining brightly through any number of readily-accessible translations of Scripture; and able commentators and teachers abound to help us discover Him there. He is equally radiant throughout creation, where His grandeur, wisdom, goodness, bounty, mystery, power, and love are everywhere on display; and many tools, resources, and teachers wait to guide us further along in our knowledge of Christ by drawing out His glory in all His works.
The darkness exists where these great lights are denied or ignored. In our day, they are denied by the unbelieving world, and ignored by the vast majority of those who claim to be followers of Christ. Jesus is speaking to us, as He has been from the beginning, calling us to know, love, and serve Him. Our Celtic Christian forebears understood the importance of seeking Him in all His revelation, and declaring His glory to the world by every means. Shall we betray their legacy by our cold indifference to increasing in the knowledge of Jesus? Will we continue to be content with “just enough” of Jesus to keep us comfortable in our faith and assured of our salvation? Shall we not press on, through every available avenue of learning, toward the upward call of the prize of God in Christ Jesus?
Let it not be said of us that we allowed the light of true learning, in every sector of the Christian encyclopedia, to go out – whether in our generation or the generation to come.
We have a choice. You have a choice. You can choose to shrug off the calling to seek Christ and His Kingdom, and to gather His Light from every source to illumine your mind and journey in life. You can simply say this is not your thing. Too difficult or demanding. Takes too much time. And as you do that, don’t forget to hope for the best for the generation that follows you, that somehow, without our example and encouragement, and despite the maelstrom of false teaching and information that swarms them daily, they’ll find their way to Jesus by themselves. Instead, let us work hard to build the road that leads to Jesus through every subject, discipline, and arena of learning, and to bring others along with us as we do.
The Light has dawned, and the darkness is receding (1 Jn. 2.8). Is it receding, or will it gain ground, in you?
1. What do people mean by referring to the “Dark Ages”? Why do the times we live in qualify as such?
2. What are the greatest obstacles keeping you from a more concerted effort at increasing in the knowledge of Jesus Christ?
3. What would you say to a new believer to urge him to press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus?
Next Steps – Transformation: Make a plan for growing in Christ in the year ahead. What will you do today to begin implementing that plan? Tomorrow?
T. M. Moore
The Celtic Revival began with the work of Patrick. Learn from his own words in our book, Celtic Flame (click here), and discover the legacy of the Celtic Revival in our book, The Legacy of Patrick (click here). Our book, Understanding the Times, is a valuable guide to understanding the world we live in and how we as Christians can understand how to live in it. Order your copy by clicking here.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.