Could it be possible that we are living in a new Dark Ages? I recently had a conversation with a friend in which we compared and contrasted the situation in the Dark Ages with the situation today, and there were many uncanny similarities. First off, let me begin by saying that on a whole I disagree with the phrase "Dark Ages" because I think the so-called Dark Ages were a very good time for humanity; we had finally shaken off all of the baggage of pagan antiquity but had not yet succumbed to rationalism and the errors of Protestantism; our faith was bold and strong, but simple and not yet complicated by the advances (and I would say that they were good and necessary advances) of scholasticism. By Dark Ages, I refer to the period from about 450 AD until around 1066.
Now, at first you will be tempted to write off my comparison of the Dark Ages with the modern world based on the superficial difference of technological advancement and the general diffusion of knowledge. But these differences are only accidental, as I will show.
One characteristic of the Dark Ages was the lack of knowledge. The mass of the European peasantry was ignorant of much of the learning and traditions of Greece and Rome. Much of this was due to the barbarian invasions; in the East, the onset of the Muslim curtain and the destruction of the great library of Alexandria by Amr ibn al 'Ass in 645 AD. Learning was preserved only in the monastaries, where the writings of the Fathers and of the best of antiquity was preserved. Now, can it be said that the modern world suffers from a lack of knowledge? Yes, it can. But what about the information revolution? What about the Internet and the widespread availability of knowledge to anybody on the planet with an Internet hook up?
We must realize two things: first, there is a difference between true knowledge and mere information. Information is raw data; knowledge is a comprehensive understanding and synthesis of the data into a meaningful concept. The second thing we can realize is that there are two ways to lack knowledge: by excess and by defect. In the Dark Ages they lacked knowledge by defect; ie, there simply was not enough learned people out there familiar with the old works to educate the people, and the times were so tumultuous that it is doubtful any institutions of higher learning could have flourished even had they been founded. But today we suffer from want of knowledge by excess. That is, the almost infinite availability of disconnected, raw data (factoids) made available by the Internet have cloaked true knowledge and gave us the appearance of knowledge by replacing it with a mountain of interesting but disconnected facts. Suppose you wanted to destroy a nation's economy. You could do it the old fashioned way by invading and confiscating all of the material wealth of the country so that it was left with nothing, or you could flood their market with an innundation of worthless counterfeit currency in order to make the real currency more difficult to distinguish and of more doubtful worth. This is what has happened due to the Internet.
Second, though many people adhered to the Faith, there was a widespread ignorance of the doctrinal truths of the Faith. Now, I'm not knocking the Dark Ages; I love them. But it cannot be denied that the education level of the clergy and laity was lower than in the patristic era. Priests actually condoned Trial by Fire as a good way of determining a criminal case. What I am getting at is there was theological ignorance. Can anybody deny that this is the case today? Can anybody truly deny that we are ignorant when 80% of the laity disbelieve in the Real Presence, 85% of Catholic couples use contraception, and the majority of priests seem ignorant (or at least apathetic) towards Catholic Tradition and the bishops and shepherds of the Church actively stifle expressions of the Church's Tradition?
Third, the Faith was imminently threatened by the expanse of Islam, which made inroads even into the heart of Christendom until it was halted by Charles Martel at Poitiers in 732. It is undeniable that today the Muslims are just as bent on conquest as they were a thousand years ago. They are again in the heart of Europe. The question is whether of not there will be another Charles Martel to rise up and drive them out?
Finally, I think I can say that in the Dark Ages, what was preserved of the intellectual and spiritual tradition of the Fathers was preserved in enclaves: little communities of religious like St. Benedict and the monks of Ireland who went out from the world to live lives of penance, prayer and study. Thus, the faith was preserved in tiny enclaves of orthodoxy amidst of sea of pagan invasion and social turmoil. In the later Middle Ages, the faith was nourished and preserved and grown at the University level in places like Paris and Salamanca. But at this point, it remained a monastic undertaking.
While these days the monasteries are not known for being bastions of orthodoxy, we can certainly see a parallel in that the true faith is being preserved and handed on in little enclaves (and certainly, like the Dark Ages, not in our mainstream Catholic universities!), places like the parishes of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius and the Benedictine monastrey of Fontgombault. Hopefully, the renewal going on in these places and in many more like them can flow outward to renew the entire Church, as happened in the Dark Ages as the fruit of Irish learning and spirituality rejuvenated the Church of the Middle Ages.
I think we need a Dark Ages mentality. We need to realize that of we are to preserve the faith, it needs to be done in small enclaves. We need groups of five or ten men and women who are willing (either literally or figuratively) to just go out into the woods and the crags of the mountains and live lives worthy of the divine calling, that by their example and holiness the Church and world at large might be restored.