A “museum” is a place for musing. Herewith mine.
The Cloisters is a wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is located far off in the upper, upper, upper West Side of Manhattan. The building itself resembles a medieval monastery, if somewhat elaborate for a single sample of the type. The building is pieced together from various ruins of western Europe, typically from elements quarried or hewn in medieval times, or materials architecturally accurate to the period. The building is as much worth the trip as the medieval art displayed there.
So much from the brochure. What is not so obvious just from this description is that nearly all of this medieval art is religious in nature. The overwhelming sense one derives from it is that this was the understood purpose of art at the time: to explicate that which is above; beyond; supernatural. Or, if you prefer secularist terminology, that which constituted the “enchantment” of the era, or the common “imaginary” that sustained people.
Walking through the Cloisters, imagining oneself a part of medieval society, the Christian claims to truth must have been all-encompassing. Stories told and retold of Christian glories of ages past was no doubt a mainstay to every person’s existence. Difficult to imagine, now, but here’s the thing: if it’s all true, then weren’t those people better off, than we are now? Our existence can only be said to be better now if the pervasiveness of Christianity then was unfounded. That is, if it were illusory. If Christianity is true, then it is we who live in intellectual and artistic poverty, not they; to say nothing of spiritual poverty.
But another observation, this from my astute daughter and guide. It seemed that the Christianity as reflected in the medieval art was “severe.” So it was. Lots of blood. Lots of weapons. Lots of personal sacrifice. Lives lived within the entire conviction that Christianity is true. Heaven is real. Hell is, too. Eternal life, in damnation or paradise, really does hang in the balance.
Well, Christians live today, and sometimes in indisputably “severe” conditions. But we’re talking here about the severity of the message, rather than the oppressions that Christians have been subjected to, from time to time. Consider this: the truth has not changed. People have, but not God. Start with a reading of the Old Testament. It is often said that the God of the Old Testament was an angrier, harsher God than that of the New. In fact, it is a commonplace to make this observation. But it is no more true for that. God has not changed through history. People have. God, like the Shepherd that He is, has given people the direction that they need, and we very slowly come to be more like Him, even as many drop away for want of sufficient imagination to guess at how large God really is.
So, extrapolating from the Old Testament, through the New, and on into the era of the earliest church, and the initial spread of the Gospel, into medieval times, through the Renaissance, the so-called “Enlightenment,” and then down to the present day in which dominant Christianity has given way to dominant materialism. God has not changed, but look at how man has. Christians today certainly don’t think of their faith as being “severe,” but the written revelation now is the same as it was in medieval times.
Time does have an arrow. There is a beginning and an end. The big story did not end with the advent of Christ. We are only in an interregnum period. In our understanding of God, we as a people have come from somewhere, and are going somewhere. We should expect that from one moment to another in history, we would observe something different about the understanding of God, that people have commonly held. If medieval believers were not entirely accurate in their “severe” take on Christianity, are we more accurate now? And how will future believers render our current understanding? Whatever the right word might be, it is not “severe.”