Populus Trinitatis

In just a few weeks, on 4 July, it will be the 820th anniversary of the defeat of the Crusaders in the Battle of Hittin. I was reminded of this the other day while reading a review in the Wall Street Journal of Robert Laqueur's new book, The Last Days of Europe. Laqueur is not one of those simplistic doom-and-gloomers one often sees on CNN or Fox, but his story is nevertheless one of doom and gloom. Europe is being out-reproduced by non-Europeans living in Europe, and it raises real questions about the prognosis for European ideals and institutions, such as individual liberty, democracy, and, of course, Christianity. In one way it's a depressing tale: the home of the world's greatest places of Christian worship, the Gothic cathedrals, has, to a large degree, given up the use of those cathedrals as places of worship, turning them instead into museums and gift shops. The last time I was in Notre Dame there were signs in the aisles asking visitors to exercise some discretion, because there just might be some people there who had come to pray. When I visited Chartres there was no evidence that anybody went there to worship at all. Indeed, it seemed the majority of visitors came to look at the stained glass windows or the labyrinth. I'll pass over in silence what I saw in England, where the churches were largely empty, devoid even of tourists and new agers.

In another way, however, the story is not so depressing, if only because it is not a story that we are hearing for the first time. There have often been such challenges to the truth and the common good, and we worry about the present ones perhaps a bit more than we need to simply because we are not always the best historians. Sure, we don't want to stand idly by and watch our institutions crumble around us, but on the other hand it is extremely unlikely that Christianity itself will suffer the fate of the pagan religions that it drove out of existence. One has only to study very carefully the history and anthropology of these religions and to compare them with the history and anthropology of Christianity to see that this is true: Christianity is qualitatively different from any other religion that has preceded or followed it, and its truths are rather more compelling.

Writing in the 12th century about the Battle of Hittin, the scribe Imad ad-Din al-Isfani described the defeat of the Crusaders this way:
Victory occurred on that day, Saturday 4 July 1187. Tormented by thirst, the Franks succumbed to defeat, impotent to recover their fall. The breeze was in their direction, and beneath their feet was grass. Some of our holy warriors set fire to the grass. Its flame bore down on them, and its heat became intense. They, the people of the Trinity, were consumed by a worldly fire of three types, each invincible and obliterating: the fire of flames, the fire of thirst, and the fire of arrows.
I've always been struck by that description of the Christians: The People of the Trinity. The scribe's joke, obviously, is that these people who believe that God is Three in One were consumed by three kinds of "fire", but the real joke is on our scribe: the Jews were blessed by God to know His name, but Christians are blessed to know His Nature. Saladin and his army, alas, knew neither.

The Franks on that day "were consumed by a worldly fire", but Christians of all times are continually consumed by the Divine Fire that is the Holy Spirit, who teaches us wisdom and truth. In that sense we never shall be, we cannot ever be, defeated. We wear the name "People of the Trinity" with pride, because we are his people in a way that no one else is, though everyone is invited to be. And therein lies another difference between us and Saladin's army. Saladin spread his faith with his sword, but Christianity, even though some have tried Saladin's approach, spreads more naturally without the use of force. It is a religion of love and communion, and this too is what it means to belong to the Trinity.

There will come a time when Saladin's religion experiences the same historical fate that Julius Caesar's did. Nobody knows when that will happen, but we do know that it will happen. It will not happen violently, but with love, compassion, and mercy. That is the mark of the Trinity, it is the mark that all of us bear upon our very being, for we are his.

Comments

Good post. Thank you very much.

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