This course follows the extraordinary development of Western Christianity from its early persecution under the Roman Empire in the third century to its global expansion with the Jesuits of the early modern world. We explore the dynamic and diverse character of a religion with an enormous cast characters. We will meet men and women who tell stories of faith as well as of violence, suppression, and division. Along the way, we encounter Perpetua and her martyrdom in Carthage; the struggles of Augustine the bishop in North Africa; the zeal of Celtic monks and missionaries; the viciousness of the Crusades; the visions of Brigit of Sweden; and the fracturing of Christianity by Martin Luther’s protest. We hear the voices of great theologians as well as of those branded heretics by the Church, a powerful reminder that the growth of Christianity is a story with many narratives of competing visions of reform and ideals, powerful critiques of corruption and venality, and exclusion of the vanquished. The troubled history of Christian engagement with Jews and Muslims is found in pogroms and expulsions, but also in the astonishing ways in which the culture of the West was transformed by Jewish and Islamic learning.
We shall explore the stunning beauty of the Book of Kells, exquisitely prepared by monks as the Vikings terrorized the coast of England. We will experience the blue light of the windows of Chartres, and ponder the opening questions of Thomas Aquinas’ great Summa. We will read from the Gutenberg Bible of the fifteenth century, which heralded the revolution brought by the printing press. We will travel from Calvin’s Geneva to Elizabeth’s England to Trent, where a Catholic Council met to inaugurate a modern, missionary Catholic church. We will walk through the great Escorial of Philip II of Spain, hear the poetry of John of the Cross, and follow the Jesuits to Brazil and China.
Christianity in the West was forged in the fires of conflict and tumult, and it brought forth both creativity and violence. It echoed with calls for God’s world to be transformed, it inspired the most sublime art and architecture, yet it also revealed the power of the union of cross and sword to destroy. The course is a journey through the formation of the West as one strand of Christianity, as one chapter in a global story. It is a journey that has shaped our world.