If ten people fight against 1000 people, who would win? To answer this apparently simple question, we have to raise several other questions: how are they equipped or armed, what do they value in life, where are their geographical positions relative to each other, how adequate is their access to supplies, and what is the state of their morale, among other considerations. Those during the European middle ages would probably respond that the victors would be those whom God helps. This was an answer obviously given without much thought by the people at that time and we are told that even great things happened. A journalist for the Catholic Times explores the issue.
In Roman times, disputes would be settled, he says, by bringing the case to court and judging its merits by referring to the appropriate laws. During the middle ages, instead, the case would be settled by "ordeal." They left it up to God to judge. God, it was believed, would help the innocent person survive a proposed ordeal that both parties to the dispute had to endure. Whether the ordeal selected was putting a hand into boiling water or placing hot stones in the hand, or any other tormenting incident, the innocence of the participants would be determined by how long the pain could be endured, the belief being that God would provide the innocent one with sufficient endurance to outlast that of the guilty one. Even when the ordeal selected was dueling with swords, it was believed that God would be on the side of the innocent dueler, and he would survive the fight.
Humanists of the Renaissance considered their ancestors to have lived in the dark ages, "trial by ordeal" being one example of this so-called darkened understanding. Is it just as easy for us today to make that statement? the columnist wonders. Are we living in a more humane way than they did in the middle ages of Europe?
He goes on to ask if it is more humane to teach our children, and ourselves, not to waste one minute or second of the time allotted to us. Is getting good marks and entering a first-rate school more important than having friends and more time for family commitments? Or is it more important to win in some competitive encounter? On TV and on the internet, we are presented with continual sensory stimulation, seduced into believing that the victor is the one enjoying the so-called spoils of victory, while the loser in this competitive battle is left with nothing, or very little. Is this "heartlessness of the victor," as he puts it, what we are to accept as our modern understanding of what it means to be fully human?
This modern approach he labels as either machine-like or animal-like; so where is a person to stand? We are able to stand firm, he says, within a faith community. Jesus said he has overcome the world, and where he reigns there is where we are able to stand up straight. The columnist makes clear that he doesn't want to return to the middle ages. We have seen that both in the middle ages and in the present we have lost a great deal of what makes us human; we have seen the problems. Our work now is to work to rid ourselves of these problems, and become truly human.