I’ve been thinking lately about the fall of the Roman Empire.
Let the reader understand.
I am specific when I saw Roman Empire as opposed to “Fall of Rome” because one of my historical presuppositions is Rome, as an idea, never actually fell. The empire collapsed, but not the idea. In fact, collapse is probably not the best word for it. Disintegrate would be better. Governmental structures evaporated but people still continued to think of themselves as Roman and they passed these ideals along. They were so successful at maintaining the ideals that today we celebrate the American Senate, our civic architecture is decidedly Roman, garrisons man outposts in every corner of the empire, our legal code is rife with Latinisms, and the national symbol is an eagle.
I will not bore you with my analysis of the Roman Empire’s demise. Instead, I want to share an observation I found in one of my old history texts. As you know, the Empire in the west fell in 476 A.D. but the Empire in the east, Byzantium, continued on for centuries. The discussion in the history text was of the church — a specific interest of mine, for obvious reasons — and how it viewed itself in these two very different parts of the Roman experience. In the east, the church viewed itself as intertwined with the empire itself, like the priesthood in ancient Israel’s kingdom. Byzantine faith was comfortable blending and bending the decrees of emperors with the teachings of the church.
By contrast, the church in the west learned to view secular power with suspicion. It was not the Christian empire extending ecclesiastical power at will, but rather it was Noah’s Ark, seeking to save and rescue the faithful as the world drowned in a rising flood of chaos. To be sure, this is the snapshot of the church at the end of the Roman Empire in the west. Eventually, history teaches, the church would grab at secular power with both hands, clutching and clawing for as much control and wealth as possible.
But that was not the case at the end. At the end, it was the church that held order. It was bishops who negotiated with tribal chieftains to spare cities. It was the church that gathered up orphans and raised them. It was the church that held together legal systems. It was the church that brought organization — even borrowing the terms like diocese to describe things.
Allow me, please, to philosophize a moment from the historical situation about the present. These two views are powerful in today’s American ecclesiastical landscape. Some view the church as a partner with politics, both on the left and the right, to wield power. Others, both on the right and the left, think of the church as an instrument to rescue those who are perishing, those drowning in the chaos of change and the evaporation of civilization.
The current climate we are in, perhaps, is the most Roman we have ever experienced.