“… the Romans serve all gods. That is why the power and the authority of the Romans has embraced the whole world…. they respected the divinities of the conquered, seeking everywhere for strange gods and adopting them as Rome’s own, even setting up altars to unknown powers and the shades of the dead. Thus, by adopting the rites of all nations they of Rome became entitled to rule over them.” Minucius Felix, third century Christian apologist, from his work Octavius.Cited in Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid. (W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 14.
As we arrive at the dawn of the Modern Age, the European Renaissance humanists vastly admired the cultural achievements and syncretism of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In their disillusionment with what they found around them, they extolled the virtues of the Classical Age and found what had taken its place following 500 CE squalid. With so much of the “Classical Age’s” art, philosophy, and literature renewed as the 15th Century turned to the 16th, the shadow of God’s wrath seemed to be lifting. Unsettling questions had begun to percolate deeper as the new ideas found their voices; new poetry, music, prose, art, sculpture, and architecture burst forth. “What is man?” queried the humanists, deducing that humanity was glorious in and as itself, not as a mere sinful thing deserving the Creator’s most severe judgment.
Italy was the cradle and the nursery of this ferment, and the Italian Renaissance rapidly found its way into the European hinterland to the north and west, along with new ways of financing speculative endeavours and new curiosity about the world and nature. It was the cultural and social equivalent of Rome’s conquering legions setting forth once more to make Italy and ‘Rome’ (the old imperial, cultural mystique, not the spiritual harlot that had insinuated itself into its place) mistress and saviour of (Western) civilisation.
To retain an image of relevance among the new cultural (g)literati, the Popes of those decades adopted the trappings and aspirations of being Renaissance connoisseurs while lip-serving the role of spiritual guides. They hired the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael to embellish their monumental edifices. Some of the Renaissance Popes were so little concerned with spiritual matters that they allowed a corrupt Curia to run affairs like a Mafia while they used the huge Papal wealth to satisfy their appetites for art and less savoury things. They showed up for official functions and gave audiences to the select of the upper crust, but did little else as ‘Holy Fathers’.
All this ‘rebirth and renewal’ required vast outlays of capital to stage and maintain the show. “Let us have only the best of all this new art and sculpture and architecture to honour God. Let us rebuild dilapidated old St. Peter’s (and the sprawling Vatican enclave) as a fitting monument to the Prince of the Apostles and his successors as Vicars of Christ, for the seat of Christ on earth is falling into ruin from neglect. Let us use the [still contested] power of infallibility to assert Christ’s delegated spiritual authority to release the unworthy souls of the departed from almost everlasting torment in purgatory in return for a proper contribution to the erection of this stupendous monument to the glory of the Roman See as the spiritual seat of God’s Kingdom on earth.”
The strictly humanist perspective on the Renaissance, as the humanists themselves named this cultural resurrection, was one of breaking the fetters of what they were already calling the “Dark Ages”, those wretched in between centuries when fear, superstition, Divine wrath and barbarism crushed the human spirit. Knowledge had been at a premium in those days and the world had seemed a harsh and hard-scrabble place. Humanity had seemed powerless in the war between God and the Devil, circumscribed and doomed to a fate it had no ability to alter. The climax of the Black Death and the prolonged wars and depredations of the late “Middle Ages”, as the in-between time also began to be called, had only seemed to confirm this.
But the new humanism had now broken this thrall. Humankind was glorious and worthy in its own right. Even Scripture was now found to confirm this, as in Psalms 8 and 82. (The creation of chapter and verse referencing of the Bible was a Renaissance innovation to facilitate scholarly analysis of the sacred text.) The invention of the movable-print Printing Press (the mid 1450s was the momentous time when Johan Gutenberg printed the first type-set multiple copies of the Bible[i]) had opened the floodgates to mass education and literacy. Vehement Papal injunctions against the ignorant laity gaining possession of the Bible for themselves (ignoring that most of the parish priests and monks in monasteries were just as ignorant and illiterate), including, God forbid, women!, could no longer be sustained.
The 16th Century thus opened with a social and cultural clash between rival claimants to the Roman heritage in Rome’s successor civilisation in the West. Fading from view in this spiritual and cultural Cold War was the hope of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven. In this gathering confrontation there were a few increasingly isolated voices watching with great concern, men such as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More of England. It would become more and more difficult to find tenable middle ground. Listening to spiritually reasoned argument based on humility and simplicity in seeking and hearing the Creator’s call to loving-kindness, patience, mercy, and reconciliation in and through Jesus alone would be shouted down in passionate denunciation and condemnation of the errors of one’s opponents.
Power and the acclaim of position is an addiction in whatever form one hears its seductive siren call. Each ‘hit’ of this spiritual-psychological ‘drug’ one gets is like a little confirmation of one’s petty godhood. Jesus knew this and admonished his first followers about it repeatedly. He practiced what he told them constantly so that they would really understand, not just hear an intellectual-moral principle:
“The one who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” (The ‘sword’ is any weapon you select as a brutal, exciting, fast-tracking means of taking power. Your chosen ‘sword’ will be the weapon you find you are most effective and proficient in. Perhaps it is a form of emotional manipulation and psychological coercion. Or perhaps it is a straightforward tool of actual physical violence and intimidation.)
“The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” (God’s Kingdom does not value prowess in the means and methods of gaining and exercising power as per the usual techniques of the present ‘age’.)
“You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” (To actually do this you have to physically bow down in front of the person whose feet you are washing. Pretty hard to take a haughty, lordly posture with them after that!)
“The Kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves ‘Benefactors.’ But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves…. I am among you as one who serves.” Except, perhaps, vote-hunting politicians, and pretense to the contrary, our culture largely despises the elderly and relegates them to the sidelines. Not so in Jesus’ day, or with almost every generation up to the last few, in the West at least. The youngest had to apprentice and prove themselves worthy of honour and respect. They had to serve those who had won the right to lead.) We could add many other remarks of Jesus to the same effect.
“It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.” (Italics are the author’s.)
“Marks of the New Monasticism: Peacemaking”, Common Prayer, a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. (Zondervan, 2010), p. 382.
The imperial way is the way of long-established pattern humankind’s way of directing its societies and deciding what is to be valued. It is based on humanity’s presumption that we can bootstrap our own way into a utopian society, whatever version of that we aspire to. For a thousand years, the hybrid called Christendom had seemed to offer a way out of that trap. But as the ‘Middle Ages’ gradually morphed into something new and as yet unpredictable, the hope that the hybrid called ‘Christendom’ could lead to the Kingdom of the Creator on earth seemed like a mirage always moving farther into the horizon. Were we to cease hoping? Or was it only the failures of those who had preceded the dawning light of the Renaissance that had driven hope almost out of sight?
TO BE CONTINUED
[i] 1453 – The Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks sent hundreds of Byzantine scholars, nobles, and merchants with great wealth fleeing to the West, particularly Italy. Along with the material wealth usually entrusted to the Italian banking families, they brought hundreds of manuscripts of the classics of Greco-Roman literature and a huge influx of new teachers and craftsmen to give a massive, accelerated boost to the Renaissance. This exodus had already been well under way since the Council of Florence in 1439 had futilely attempted another reunion of the Greek and Roman Branches of Christianity. By that point, the writing on the wall for the final demise of the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire was quite visible to almost everyone, but the Byzantine Emperor’s appeals to their Christian brethren of the West fell on deaf ears among the fractious, quarrelsome rivals of the emerging national kingdoms. France and England were locked in the climactic stage of the Hundred Years’ War (Joan of Arc and all that); the ‘Empire’ was rocked by civil war (the rebellious Bohemian Hussites were rampaging into Germany itself) and Italy’s most prominent powers (Tuscany, Milan, Venice, Genoa, The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Papacy) were obsessed with seeking advantages over one another. Castile and Aragon in Spain had their own crusade to rid Iberia of the remnants of the Muslim Caliphate still anchored at Grenada and Seville. Italy’s dozen or so principalities were perpetually fighting among themselves for one reason or another. Thus, the Pope’s appeal for a new Crusade to drive back the Turks was still-born.