I opened my mail box today and happily found a package with Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (Viking, March 2010), a monumental work by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University and author of The Reformation and Thomas Cranmer, both highly acclaimed books.

Here is how the publisher describes his latest contribution: “Once in a generation a historian will redefine his field, producing a book that demands to be read – a product of electrifying scholarship conveyed with commanding skill. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity is such a book. Breathtaking in its ambition, it ranges back to the origins of the Hebrew Bible and covers the world, following the three main strands of the Christian faith.”

Here is an endorsement of the book from Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury: “A triumphantly executed achievement. This book is a landmark in its field, astonishing in its range, compulsively readable, full of insight even for the most jaded professional and of illumination for the interested general reader. It will have few, if any, rivals in the English language.”

I do not know when I will have the time to read this massive book. At random, I turned to page 1005 and started reading on the future of Eastern Orthodoxy:

The sufferings of the Orthodox and the ancient non-Chalcedonian Churches of the East through the twentieth century, combined with the mushrooming of other Christianities, have given traditional Eastern Christianity a much diminished numerical share in the contemporary spectrum of Christian activity. In 1900, the Orthodox were estimated as 21 percent of the world’s Christians; that had declined to 11 percent at the beginning of the twenty-first century, while the Roman Catholic proportion, thanks to its growth in the south of the globe, had risen from 48 percent to 52 percent. Yet this decline in ‘market share’ should be viewed in the context of the huge rise in Christian numbers generally – and more importantly, it is worth remembering that the Christian obsession with statistics, triumphalist or alarmist, is even more recent than the general Western secular fascinating with them . . . .

More important in the eyes of the Orthodox or the non-Chalcedonian Churches might be an older preoccupation: the revival in the life and morale of monasticism, that institution which is so central to their life and spirituality. From the 1970s, both Mount Athos and the Coptic monasteries of Egypt have seen a sudden and unexpected revival, bringing new recruits and new hope, albeit sometimes accompanied by an ulta-traditional attitude to the modern world. A major element in this on Mount Athos was the restoration of full community life to most monasteries after centuries when monks had tended to live individually, not generally as hermits, but pursuing their own spiritual paths. What remains to be seen is how this other-worldly spirituality and emphasis on an ancient liturgy can find a constructive relationship with modernity. We have seen how the Churches of the Eastern Rite and beyond found their cultures constrained in succession by two unsympathetic powers: from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire and its outliers and the Islamic monarchy of Iran, and then, in the twentieth, the short-lived but far more hostile power of Soviet Communism. Paradoxically, these oppressions were also shelters from pressing theological problems – what, in a different context, the poet Constantine Cavafy called ‘a kind of solution’ – for the Churches were mostly too preoccupied with survival to look beyond their walls. The Western Church in its Protestant and Catholic forms had struggled with various degrees of success to find a way of addressing children of the Enlightenment – efforts frequently scorned by the Orthodox. Out of all Eastern Churches only the Russian Orthodox Church in the last years of the tsars had much chance to do this. Now that the Orthodox cannot escape the task, the effects of Eastern Christianity will be interesting (pp. 1105-1106).

In two paragraphs, knowledge was gained and a big question was raised. I did not know that traditional Eastern Christianity has “a much diminished numerical share in the contemporary spectrum of Christian activity.” I did not know that there has been a “revival in the life and morale of monasticism” at Mount Athos and the Coptic monasteries of Egypt. And I did not know that oppressions against Churches of the Eastern Rite “were also shelters from pressing theological problems.” Diarmaid MacCulloch asks a fascinating question: Can “this other-worldly spirituality and emphasis on an ancient liturgy . . . find a constructive relationship with modernity”? Put differently, how will the Orthodox undertake the inescapable task of “addressing children of the Enlightenment”?

If two paragraphs provide this much reflection, I cannot imagine what 1184 pages will provide.

Articles by Christopher Benson

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