Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

We are facing a Dark Age. In this new era, theology will need to be sparer, stripped of speculative distractions, courageously at home with death and the “other world,” and, most important, deeply engrossed in Scripture. Otherwise, the public face of the Christian faith will be washed away by the storm surge of our destructive culture.

Dark Age Ahead was Jane Jacobs’s last book, published in 2004. Jacobs, who died in 2006, was a maverick scholar and urban activist. She almost singlehandedly prevented highway projects from tearing apart lower Manhattan and central Toronto. Her writings, initially on cities and their importance to human life, moved on to treat economics and culture more broadly. She was dismissed by mainstream social scientists but prized by others for her respect for common-sense experience.

Although Jacobs’s work continues to have a small and avid following, she is mostly forgotten today. Her anti-religious instincts, joined to moral commitments that were in many ways inimical to Christian convictions, make her seem irrelevant to the Church. But Dark Age Ahead identified key pillars of common life, whose crumbling Christians should likewise fear. Jacobs saw the peril of families, in their unraveling; of universities, in their credentializing evisceration; of individual moral purpose, in its hijacking by governmental control; and of science, in its increasingly tyrannical regimentation. As these disintegrations proceed, Jacobs argued, North American society, like Roman civilization in the fifth century, would slide into a new “Dark Age.”

The notion of a “Dark Age” is venerable. But these days, historians reject the label as an invention of the chauvinistic Renaissance, which looked back at the purportedly superstitious Middle Ages. InThe Rise of Western Christendom, the formidable Peter Brown demonstrates the cultural vitality and ­creativity of the European centuries following the collapse of Rome. Still, even Brown must deal with the fact that things changed with Rome’s demise, and often not for the better. One can tick off some of the transformations: universal political dislocation; greater (but more equalizing) impoverishment; migration from depopulating cities into the rural areas. There were new initiatives as well: the building up of smaller, scattered, yet vibrant communal centers (monasteries, regional fiefdoms, and markets). Brown rightly argues against the misleading vision of the “Dark Ages” as a descent into cultural lethargy and a frantic grasping at survival on the margins of civilization. Rather, energy was all around: creative, mobile, a kind of bubbling “background noise.” The High Middle Ages, and modernity beyond it, according to Brown, are but the blooming of the vital seeds planted in the sixth to tenth centuries.

So, yes, those centuries brought things that were new and vital. But these things arose as a creative response to changes that felt rather grim. The age was in real ways “dark” after all. Life during these centuries was stark and wrenching. Disease, accidents, violence, and famine made life brutish and short. Brown’s characterization of the era’s focus amid the widely shared experience of precarious existence is illuminating: intellectual clarity and simplicity. In the face of the fragmentation and “decentering” of social purpose during these centuries, there emerged a localized and personalized response to the world, a search for a simplified, clearly marked path through life’s burdens to salvation. It was an age sensible of God’s often painfully felt judgments, yet marked by glimpses of divine love’s powerfully tender embrace. In this landscape, theology was saturated with Scripture. In the Word of God, it cleaved to Christ, through life and then through death, so as to enter into God’s unveiled presence.

Brown prefers “late Antique” to “Dark” as the proper adjective for these centuries. He shows how Christians gathered together the writings of the “Fathers” (so labeled for the first time). They did so in order to engage them “as a body of living truth.” Those who came before were “alive” in their witness, even to the present moment. “The problem was not to create a new message, nor to contest old ones, but to make sure that a message whose alloy had already been tried and found true in the days of the Fathers of the Church should sink ever deeper into the hearts of individuals and of the Christian people of entire Churches.” This period did not celebrate the ­impresario, creative artist, or towering genius. “Its ‘ego-ideals’ were the preacher, the spiritual guide, and the teacher.”

Much here depended on memory. The theology of the Dark Ages was primarily one of remembrance, not as a quarrying of what could be found useful among the ruins of the dead, but as a drawing-near of the past, to make it a living companion of the present and future. “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!” (Mark 12:27) It was Scripture’s God, after all, who ordered the world’s time and the Church’s life, and it was Scripture that granted to the Church’s past witness, insofar as that witness itself grew from it, its apostolic vitality.

Imbued as we are by certain notions of what counts as “theology,” we can imagine the Dark Ages a time of little theological activity. But this parochialism blinds us to what the Christian intellectuals of these centuries preached, commended, and taught: God raises the dead (Mark 12:26). Those who come after are not doomed to live in an ever-greater darkness as the light of Christ recedes. He and the saints who bore witness to him remain among us—if we will but clear away the fog of worldliness and search the Scriptures anew.

The pursuit of a life aligned with Christ was hardly simplistic. It involved biblical commentary, preaching, and catechesis. The focus, center, and goal was ­ever paramount, driven by the deepest yearnings for the most magnificent of realities.

Speak of the “late Antique” era, or the “early Middle Ages”—however one wishes to sanitize the nomenclature. But recognize in the Dark Ages a remarkable vitality, a “staying alive” that was very far from grim cultural survival. The endurance of those centuries was a dazzling divine grace in the face of death—indeed, of darkness—a testimony to the unconquerable power of life in Christ. The Dark Age ahead will be terribly dark if this grace is not received anew.

The past never vanishes. But it can be forgotten, put out of mind even as it works upon us. Whatever the details of her analysis, Jane Jacobs was surely right when she characterized the central feature of “any” dark age as “mass amnesia.” In her reading of North America’s future, a growing amnesia about what constitutes a health-giving communal life augurs a political and economic collapse.

Perhaps we should not underestimate the staying power of technocratic management, however ­inadequate it is from a human perspective. But we see today, among the wrecked terrain of common life that COVID has not so much caused as clarified, aspects of social decentering and its centralizing reaction, depopulated public spaces, and tangled, even frantic moral ­accusations. These trends of disintegration are reminiscent of the fifth century’s turn toward a dispersed, fragmented culture.

Our vast amnesia is evident in the fact that we ­barely notice it. We still cling to a fantasized history with inflated social pretensions, briefly embodied, mostly contested and almost always cruel: empire, global illumination, material profusion and wealth, universal order, and, in an ancient key, progress. This fantasized history is now sustained by elaborate ­intellectual intricacies, which have outgrown philosophy and in certain ways theology, too, and taken on a life of their own. In our churches, we preach and teach as though that history were ours—rather than subordinate to the biblical drama, that is, “real history.” This theological amnesia, however virtuous we may imagine it to be in our commitments to the grand university projects that supposedly bring light to the darkness—abundantly dogmatic, systematic, philosophical, hermeneutical, political, ­critical—has left our churches woefully unprepared for what is to come.

Theological work in the Dark Age ahead will need to learn from the Dark Age behind. It must be stripped down and focused on the Scriptures’ invitation to bring the apostolic world into the present, and not be “­updated,” but rather “backdate” our spiritual imaginations. Brown writes of Gregory the Great’s “austere assumption that there was only one permanent and all-­important object on which the human mind could always work”: the “raw stuff of human nature” brought to a place of “transparency to God.” Theologians, like the rest of the world, are holding on to far too much. “Much of the comfort and richness of a culture could and should be sacrificed to that one overriding aim.” Lest we also forget, that should be our goal, too.

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines