On this date in 1582 – February 24 – Pope Gregory XIII announced the Gregorian calendar. You learn this by googling “This Day in History.” And if you google it on a regular basis, you’ll discover a society cut adrift from its traditional moorings.
“This Day” lists help us see centuries in seconds, highlighting what are considered to be noteworthy events. In the case of the Gregorian calendar, it’s the worldwide standard for calendars. That’s why Pope Gregory XIII announcing it on this date is historic.
The impetus for the new calendar was a problem with the predecessor, the Julian calendar. It had an error of 1 day every 128 years. Realigning days with the equinox fixed this, and by the end of 1582, most Western countries had adopted it. The rest of the world followed suit. In 1752, Great Britain and America adopted the Gregorian calendar. Japan adopted it in January 1783. The Republic of China first adopted it in January 1912 but didn’t use it until it was formally decreed in January 1929.
These events can be found on “This Day” lists. They’re instances of the church being taken seriously. We see this happen often in ancient times. For example, on this date in 1208, Francis of Assisi is remembered for receiving his vocation in Portiuncula, Italy. In 1510, Pope Julius II excommunicated the republic of Venice. This date in 1530 marks the first imperial coronation. Pope Clement V crowned Charles V.
Daily reading of “This Day in History” reminds us that the church invented or commercialized a vast array of technologies up and through the Middle Ages. This includes the compass, the clock, the round-bottom boat, wagons with brakes and front axles, water wheels, eyeglasses, and so on. The great estates belonging to monastic orders improved agricultural productivity, introduced a cash economy to Europe, and served not only as manufacturing and trading centers, but also as investment houses.
But read on. “This Day” also reveals a society adrift. Here is a sampling of what are considered to be significant events in the 20th century. On this date in 1917, the Red Sox sold pitcher Smokey Joe Wood to Cleveland for $15,000. In 1924, Johnny Weissmuller swam a 100m record. In 1932, Malcolm Campbell drove a record speed (253.96 mph) at Daytona. In 1951, Ria Baran and Paul Falk of Germany won the Ice Pairs Championship at Milan. Jeanette Altwegg of Great Britain won the Ladies Figure Skating Champion in Milan (Dick Button won the Men’s event). If you peruse 20th century “This Day” lists, you’ll mostly observe entertainment, including sports. The church disappears.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being entertained. But there is something wrong about the church becoming invisible. There’s an event explaining this. On May 29, 1919, Arthur Eddington photographed a solar eclipse on the island of Principe off West Africa. The 16 photographs confirmed the truth of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, or E=mc2. They also corrected the Newtonian cosmology, based on the straight lines of Euclidean geometry and Galileo’s notions about absolute time. These findings would prove significant.
With Einstein’s theory confirmed, British historian Paul Johnson notes that a “belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, or knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly, perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.”1 This was not Einstein’s intent. But it was the intent of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud.
Darwin redefined human beings as elevated apes. Philip Rieff writes that Sigmund Freud “brought us to the brink of the new age by denying the existence of morality’s transcendent basis.”2 Friedrich Nietzsche denied the existence of God. Together, they primed the public for a new way of thinking. “The public response to relativity was one of the principal formative influences on the course of twentieth-century history. It formed a knife, inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of the Judeo-Christian culture.”
People adrift look for something – anything – to hold on to. It’s no coincidence that entertainment means “to hold.” In a society cut adrift, entertainment has replaced faith. But it’s an evanescent entertainment. It’s brief. Example: who won the World Series four years ago? Few can remember.
The ubiquity of mobile devices accelerates our drift. Walk into a restaurant and observe the modern world. Faces are buried in iPhones. Few are talking. Most are in the grip are entertainments such as Facebook. We’re being entertained into imbecility.
For the Judeo-Christian to once again be taken seriously, the faith community has to better understanding how societies change. In The Sociology of Philosophies, Randall Collins writes, “It is the networks which write the plot of this story.”3 Networks of “influentials” operating in center institutions in education, art, media, and entertainment enjoy great influence in shaping the world. What they do tends to make 21st century “This Day in History” lists. The likelihood that the Judeo-Christian tradition will once again be taken seriously depends on being taken seriously by this network.
If you google “This Day,” you’ll appreciate how long this might take – perhaps a hundred years. But every time you google it, you’ll remember this date in 1582 when the church was taken seriously – and begin the hard work of returning our society to its moorings.
Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike
1 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 4.
2 Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006 Edition)
3 Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 78.