The Best of Times?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

If we did not know that the “times” of which Dickens wrote this description were those of the French Revolution, I wonder when we would imagine it. No doubt, as he writes, the years of the late 18th Century, and the years of the mid-19th, and the years of the early 21st are indeed all “so far like” each other that it probably does not matter.

Still, let me ask you a question – a “readers’ poll” as it were. When do YOU think, ecclesiastically speaking, were

1) the best of times
2) the worst of times
3) the age of wisdom
4) the age of foolishness
5) the epoch of belief
6) the epoch of incredulity (by which, I take it, Dickens meant unbelief)
7) the season of Light
8 ) the season of Darkness
9) the spring of hope
10 the winter of despair

Here’s my go:

1) the best of times: Now. Christianity has never had it better. We are heirs to the cumulated faith of two millenia, there are more Christians alive today representing a greater proportion of the world’s population than at any time ever before, an unprecedented number of Christians are involved in active evangelisation, people in every nation on earth have heard the Gospel, theology and scripture studies are persued at an unprecedented level, the laity of the Church are aware of their vocation and are using their gifts accordingly as never before, Christian culture and thinking has so permeated “Western” society that few people actually recognise the incredible degree to which “Western-ness” is “Christian”, literacy is becoming universal as is access to immense amounts of information to inform our faith, etc. etc. I imagine that this contention will be contended because of its contentiousness, but there it is. I really do think that this is “the best of times” for the Christian faith in the last 2000 years.

2) the worst of times: Cheeky boy that I am, I am tempted to say “Now” again, and you could certainly make a good case for it, but I will say the 9th-10th Century and leave it at that. Google “pornocracy” if you want an idea why…

3) the age of wisdom: Ah, well that would have to be the Post-Nicene Patristic Age, I reckon.

4) the age of foolishness: 1968

5) the epoch of belief: the 13th Century. Exactly what they believed is another matter.

6) the epoch of incredulity: the late 19th and early 20th Century. It was suddenly the fashion.

7) the season of Light: The Apostolic Age

8 ) the season of Darkness: Again, contrarily, the so called “Enlightenment”.

9) the spring of hope: the missionary expansion of the Catholic Church to the New World, Africa and Asia inspired by the Counter-Reformation

10) the winter of despair: Never. I do not think that there has ever been an age of the Church in which “despair” has been the keynote. I pray that there never will be.

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14 Responses to The Best of Times?

  1. Kiran says:

    1) Agree with you. Though my heart is in Augustinian Hippo.

    2) I too am likewise tempted to say “now.” But I can think of several periods including “now.” The Arian crisis. The period of the “letter of Honorious.” The “Pornocracy”. The fourteenth century. The eighteenth century, though it did have one of the greatest of Popes. But of all of these, I think the period between the 9th-11th century, not only for the pornocracy, but also because of the greatest disaster to have befallen the Church – the separation of East and West.

    3) The Age of Wisdom I would date to between Ambrose and Cassiodorus.

    4) 1960s-7os. Most of the really bad things happened in the latter decade.

    5) I strongly disagree. I am not sure there ever was an age of belief. Perhaps again, I am inclined to nominate the 7th-8th century, the age of Bede.

    6) Agree with you.

    7) Agreed

    8) Agreed

    9) The Spring of Hope, I would put in the 13th century.

    10) Amen! I think the 70s are as close as we ever got, and perhaps the time of the semi-Arian threat.

  2. Paul says:

    I think there is a lot to be said for your optimism about the present times.
    However, I just read about a new TV programme the US called “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”

    It’s about (ahem) extreme violence and sex by men with swords and skirts. Don’t tell me Caligula and Nero are making a comeback? What is the dark fascination with things like this? Yuck!!!

  3. GAB says:

    1) Hmmm…your case is strong, although I confess I’m just not feeling it. But I’ll go along with you anyway. One might add to your list the fact that the past little while must be regarded as one of the high points in the history of the Papacy. No bad Popes within living memory, no Papal States, and some terrific pastoral and ecumenical stuff going on. All things considered, we’re pretty blessed.

    2) I’m split between 9th-10th century, an execrable period, and 357, when the Arians broke Ossius of Cordoba and the only orthodox bishops left in the entire world were the Pope imprisoned in Sirmium and Athanasius hiding in the desert. I think the Church has seldom stood in such peril as it did that year. I think I shall choose the latter, in fact, because the 9th century, though it bore witness to the pornocracy, also contained King Alfred the Great, a man to whom I have a particular devotion (why nobody has ever pursued his cause is truly a mystery to me) and who was instrumental in reforming the English Church.

    3) Agree with you there.

    4) 1970s.

    5) Agreed.

    6) Agreed. A period which forgot that scepticism is medicine, not food.

    7) Agreed.

    8) Eighteenth century, without a doubt. A century which, more and more, I fear our own times are aping. Worrying when one looks at how that particular century ended.

    9) The conversion of the barbarians as the Empire began to crumble. Looking simply at sources, I am tempted to say the decade following 313 and the Edict of Milan. The way Eusebius speaks of it- as though all of Christian history has been leading to this point and this is the Church’s Easter after it’s centuries-long Good Friday- is arresting and inspiring. The only problem is, I know what came after. Unfortunately, the Church doesn’t get its Easter until the General Resurrection. Still, there was incredible and unlooked-for hope and joy in those short days. But, taking the long view, I stand by my original choice.

    10) Again, 357 is probably the closest we ever got. But God always has an ace up His sleeve. In this case, bizarrely, it was Julian the Apostate.

  4. joyfulpapist says:

    I’m with GAB on points 1-9. 10? On that, I’m with you, Dave. Even when some parts of the church have been in a parlous state, others have been thriving. The western world, particularly Europe, looks pretty bad right now, but there are pockets even so where devout laity and dedicated clergy hold to the faith. Despair isn’t part of our story – we are, at heart, people who believe in a happy ending.

    • Schütz says:

      And I don’t think the Pope and Athanasius were despairing in 357 either – it was hope that kept them going (perhaps we should vote 357 as the answer to 9). Although I am almost prepared to agree that 357 was “the worst of times”.

      BTW has anyone noticed that when you put an “8” together with a “)” on wordpress, you get this: 8) ?

  5. Kiran says:

    I think the monothelite crisis was worse than the Arian crisis.

      • Kiran says:

        Because roughly half of Christendom right up to very many Bishops and patriarchs held to it. The Pope himself (Honorius) is thought to have written a letter asserting it, though he didn’t of course, say it ex cathedra. The Faith in that case was saved by a subsequent Pope and a monk. But for Pope St. Martin I, and St. Maximus, the world might have found itself monothelite. I think over all, it was this, and not the Arian Crisis, which was the low point of the Church.

  6. Terry Maher (Past Elder) says:

    Uh, did you not notice that Dickens applied all ten descriptions, or rather, all five sets of opposite descriptions — actually seven, why did you leave the last two out? — to the same age, not a list of ages? To preserve the model, one would ask ecclesiastically speaking which one age is characterised by all of the above.

    Even poor old Dickens gets theologised to death. Next thing you know, he’ll be an absent Father of Vatican II too.

    • Schütz says:

      Yeah, I know that. I’m not a nong, PE. And, taking Dickens in the sense that he originally wrote would be an argument for saying that every age of the Church was “the best of times/worst of times” etc. But I thought to make a game out of it by dividing up the categories. I’m allowed to do that on my blog. This is my reality you’re in… :-)

      And I left out the last two (“we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way”) because they are really a description of the people experiencing the age in question, not a description of the age itself. They don’t fit the game. Good rhetoric, though. Dickens always sounds best when read aloud.

      And as for theologising Dickens – hey, if you can do it with “The Matrix”, you can do it with Dickens. It’s another game we like to play.

      • Terry Maher (Past Elder) says:

        I think saying every age has been the best of times and the worst of times is really pretty good. All of them have had good and bad features, that is not a recent phenomenon at all, and none of them, save in the Romantic 19th century fantasies of the “ressoucement” crowd, represent a purer time to be recovered through, of course, them, sort of an ecclesiastical Rousseauian noble savage. One could say actually there are no “ages” of the church, but the church itself is one age until the End Time.

        • Schütz says:

          Again, all correct. I find it most amusing to read Church histories that divide up the Church into four or six “ages” – the “cut-off” points are very arbitrary, although general “turning points” can be noted in retrospect.

          But even thoug every age may be “best/worst”, I think that the balance of elements which were “best/worst” might be discussed. One period may be better in one aspect than in another, etc. That’s what I am interested in here.

  7. Rob F. says:

    1) the best of times: 6th and 7th centuries. The Western barbarians were rapidly being converted after their horrific expansions in the previous century, and the Persians were held in check and were in slow decline. The church was at peace almost everywhere and rapidly expanding.

    2) the worst of times: 7th and 8th centuries. Slow progress in the West did not make up for catastrophic losses in the south and east. Those losses have yet to be regained.

    3) the age of wisdom: Apostolic era.

    4) the age of foolishness: 16th century and protestant reformation. Yes the counter-reformation was great, but not that great, and the protestant reformation left a wound that is still infected 5 centuries later.

    5) the epoch of belief: 16th century again. The conversion of the Americas.

    6) the epoch of incredulity: You are right, no argument from me.

    7) the season of Light: The high middle ages leading to the renaisance.

    8 ) the season of Darkness: As you say. The night follows the day.

    9) the spring of hope: The triumph of Constantine.

    10) the winter of despair: The reign of Diocletian. He came very close to shutting the church down completely. The moderation and later overthrow of his policies in the decades following were a true eucatastrophe, which must have been amazing to live through. See number 9 above.

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