This week in Humanities class, I will be continuing to lecture on and discuss the book How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I first read the book back in 1996 and read and taught through it about 3 or 4 times since then. On some occasions, I don’t think I accomplished the goal of what the book teaches.
This book is quirky, inconsistent, and unclear at points. Some of the contents are questionable; some of the points being made are indiscernible, and others are objectionable; and at times, the book is puzzling. But in the midst of Cahill’s style, digressions, bad theology, and wrongful applications are points of brilliance. The basic theme, the main teaching of the book, is outstanding.
For a brief period in history, right after the Fall of the Roman Empire, the lights of civilization were either going out or getting dim. When things are going bad, when the culture is plummeting to the bottom, when the political order is untangling, then watch: God is going to work. And be ready to be surprised as to where and how He works.
In this case, as described in this book, God took an ex-slave, an Englishman, actually Roman and English, and put him right back into the country of his captivity. The man was named Patricius (better known to us as Patrick) and the country was Ireland. Patrick took the Gospel to the very heathenism, brutal, uncouth Irish and they were changed.
In time, a spiritual descendant of Patrick, named Columbanus, established a monastery on the small, obscure island of Iona, which is located between northern Ireland and Scotland. Here, Irish monks began copying the great books, the classics of the Greeks and Romans, of the church fathers, and of the poets and writers of past ages. And they began schooling all who flocked to their monastery.
From this tiny island, the Irish monks crossed the waters to Scotland, and they began Christianizing their distant kinsmen, fellow Scoti. From Scotland, the mission-minded monks pushed down into England, which going through a dark period where the previous Christian influences were fading.
From England, they spread through the whole continent of Europe. Christianity was revived. Books were copied and read. The poor and needy were helped. And the Gospel did what it always does: It transformed civilization and individuals.
What happens when Christians go forth as salt and light? Two quotes from the book amply illustrate the before and after effects of Christianity.
First is a description of the Irish themselves before Christianity changed their culture:
“…they displayed proudly the heads of their enemies in their temples and on their palisades; they even hung them from their belts as ornaments, used them as footballs in victory celebrations, and were fond of employing skull tops as ceremonial drinking bowls.” Page 136
Then what the Irish monks were like in later years:
“Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies’ heads.” Page 196
Much of what Cahill says is similar to what the inimitably quotable G. K. Chesterton said about the Middle Ages:
“Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” (from The Quotable Chesterton, compiled by Kevin Belmonte)
The Middle Ages, which were not at all dark ages, were times of bold pioneering and conquest. Whole tribes and races and cultures were smacked right across the kissers with cutting edge Christianity. And the world was changed.
What I love about my Humanities program is that the old books talk about today’s news events. The world of the Irish monks is the world of we moderns. Just as they had the island of Iona and a few small monasteries as microcosms of Christianity, so we have just some outposts here and there.
And it will be the Gospel and the revival of learning that offers hope for our generation. That is why I am sold on classical Christian education. We not only read, but we learn to love books and knowledge. Cahill closes with this hope:
“If our civilization is to be saved—forget about our civilization, which, as Patrick would say, may pass ‘in a moment like a cloud of smoke that is scattered by the wind’—if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints.” Page 218
The Romans would in our time be the establishment powers. We know the Democrats will not save us or our civilization. While they would offer some use of brakes on our collision course, the Republicans offer little hope as well. Anyone expecting answers to our cultural calamities to come from Wall Street, Hollywood, the White House, Capital Hill, or any such power center will be disappointing. Romans can never solve problems. As Ronald Reagan aptly noted, “Guv’mint is not the answer. It is the problem.”
It will be saints who save civilization. It will be believers who pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and who then labor to make little portions of earth like heaven.