It is the 11th of November 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was… well, there are 2 for this 11th of November, both in the 19th century.
In 1821 and 1855, events took place that would profoundly impact the church and help us understand the world in the 19th century. We don't shy away from ambitious projects here on the Almanac, so our research team has come up with the top 3 events of the 19th century in the world, as well as the three most important 19th-century events in the church, and that will lead us into our remembrance for today.
So, the top 3 events in the western world in the 19th century… please, no wagering beforehand:
#3 - The Post-Napoleonic Balance of Power. Sure, it doesn't sound exciting, but the end of the age of Revolutions, the development of the modern European map, and achieving relative peace for the Industrial Revolution seem essential.
#2 - A tie: The American Civil War and the Revolutions of 1848 were socially and politically, and theologically significant. The events dealt with human freedom and dignity, the authorities' role, and the tragedy of loss and suffering. These were the crucibles in which much of the modern world would be made.
And the #1 most important event of the 19th century: steam power. Steamships and steam locomotives would facilitate a kind of upgrade in global mobility not seen since the Age of Exploration. Peoples, ideas, disease, books, and more would commingle with speed never imagined.
For the church, we have at number 3:
#3 - An eschatological awakening—from predictions about the end times to dispensationalism and new religious movements, many would seek ultimate comfort in the unique knowledge that appears to be found in the book of Revelation, the Old Testament, and sometimes a copy of your local newspaper.
#2 - The Second Great Awakening—this serves as the birth of the American church much more than, say, stories about the pilgrims or puritans. A distinctly experiential faith with a fervent desire for the salvation of individual souls would come to dominate not only the frontier but the halls of seminaries as well.
And the #1 event in the 19th century for the church is the silo-ing of Christianity into new denominations, new institutions, universities, and seminaries, long before the break between Fundamentalists and Modernists in the next century, the worldwide church continued its fissure left and right with tragic consequences.
Between renewal and decay and inventions that saved time but caused death, the paradox for the Christian was striking. And two men internalized these paradoxes in their respective fields, one was born on the 11th of November, and the other died on the same date, albeit on a different 19th century year.
A happy birthday to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was born on this date in 1821. As a deeply Christian man, he struggled, through his literature, with questions of faith and meaning. Perhaps in the second half of the century, there was no greater expounder of the human condition in all literature.
And it was on this, the 11th in 1855, that perhaps the greatest investigator into the human condition in the first half of the 19th century died, Søren Kierkegaard. He was the melancholy Dane whose philosophy gave birth to existentialism and whose theology brought modern relevance to questions about the Bible, sin, and salvation.
Both authors would have to wait for translation as Danish and Russian were foreign languages with little significance for many academics. Thus, these men's ideas tended to predate the reading of their actual works helping to create the caricatures that tend to hang around still today.
Kierkegaard indeed wanted to criticize Christendom and challenge Christians to embrace the paradox of radical faith and doubt. I recommend his "Fear and Trembling," a discourse on Abraham and Isaac that includes variations on the story to make a point about faith.
Dostoyevsky epitomized the 19th century Russian and human condition in both his characters and his own life. A man of deep faith, his works often deal with the themes of darkness and light, both metaphorically and literal. If you have not read the Brothers Karamazov, get it and a stack of notecards. Give yourself a year to slowly read it. If you've not read the small section of that book called "the Grand Inquisitor," often printed separately. That might be the quickest way to introduce yourself to the Russian master.
A time of growth, change, and conflict. An epoch referred to by historians as the "long 19th century," we can understand it in technology, politics, sociology but also through the lens of the people whose faith had to contend with it. Two of those giants we remember today. Søren Kierkegaard died on this day in 1855, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky was born on this day in 1821.
The reading for today comes from Dostoyevsky on the topic of art and Christ, from a letter to his niece.
"All writers, not ours alone but foreigners also, who have sought to represent Absolute Beauty, were unequal to the task, for it is an infinitely difficult one. … There is in the world only one figure of absolute beauty: Christ. That infinitely lovely figure is, as a matter of course, an infinite marvel."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 11th of October 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who wants you to know that the O with a line through it in Kierkegaard's first name isn't a diphthong but its own letter in the Danish alphabet. Thank you, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. Remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true… Everything is going to be ok.