The Third Way, 36: “The Cloud of Unknowing”

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“He [the Creator] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11.

“It was not man who implanted in himself the taste for the infinite and love of what is immortal.  These sublime instincts are not the offspring of some caprice of the will; their foundations are imbedded in nature; they exist despite a man’s efforts.  Man may hinder and distort them, but he cannot destroy them.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1836.

“By making “God” a purely notional truth attainable by the rational and scientific intellect, without ritual, prayer, or ethical commitment, men and women had killed it for themselves. . . . For Marx the death of God had been a project—something to be achieved in the future; for Nietzsche it had already occurred: it was only a matter of time before “God” would cease to be a presence in the scientific civilization of the West.  Unless a new absolute could be found to take its place, everything would become unhinged and relative. . . . The [19th] century that had begun with a conviction of boundless possibility was giving way to a nameless dread.  But, Nietzsche believed, human beings could counter the danger of nihilism by making themselves divine.  They must become the new absolute and take the place of God.  The God they projected outside themselves could be born within the human spirit as the Übermensch (“Superman”) who would provide the universe with ultimate meaning.  To achieve this we had to rebel against the Christian God. . . . As an incarnation of its will to power, the Übermensch would push evolution of the species to a new phase so that humanity would finally become supreme.”

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God. (Vintage Canada, 2009), pp. 256-7.

“Nameless dread.”   That is how Karen Armstrong aptly describes the spirit which descended on the West’s intellectual and spiritual “überclass” as the 19th C ended and the 20th dawned.  The Law of Karma certainly seems to apply.  In Biblical terms, when we “sow the wind, we reap the whirlwind.”  Truly, “You reap what you sow.” 

The dominant view in the West’s intelligentsia had (and remains) determined to divest itself of all the vestiges and encumbrances of prescientific “superstition.”  But, despite all their most strenuous and constant efforts, then and now, they have not been able to remove “eternity” from their (or most of humanity’s) hearts.  De Tocqueville, a brilliant French sociologist, political scientist, and student of human nature who was so fascinated by the great American experiment in representative democracy as it evolved in the early 19th Century that he spent two years in America to observe it, was speaking of the peculiar role of religion in the new, rapidly growing nation when he wrote the quote above.  Seldom has anyone been so prescient about a nation’s fundamental character and the tensions it would have to resolve in order to survive and flourish in the future.  And seldom has any writer so pointedly and precisely described the truth about the essentially spiritual nature of the human soul.

In the 21st C we find ourselves in a “Cloud of Unknowing”, as the Medieval mystics called it.  The essence of reality escapes us despite all our scientific sophistication.  The more we discover about how the natural universe seems to work, the more we discover about how incomprehensible, how fundamentally inexplicable it all is.  We simply drive the ultimate questions back one more step every time we think we have discovered an elusive primal pre-particle or some echo or trace of the moment of ‘creation’ — the Big Bang, if you prefer — (without God, of course, thank you!).  Creation ex nihilo, spontaneous and without any apparent reason or cause, without any point of origin or ultimate purpose or design.  Somehow, it just appears, and in the same instant explodes, like an abracadabra moment.  Supposedly, this is not sorcery or superstition or even “faith-based” assertion.  We are told over and over again that it is indubitable scientific ‘fact’.

But the hunger for eternity remains in the heart, and even the most determined rationalist still sees what is in awe and stupefied wonder.  Having entered the “Cloud of Unknowing” we now see that, with no other point of common reference, it can only begin with the self, the consciousness each individual has of itself residing in and being part of something much greater.  So where to start? 

Enter mysticism, yoga, mindfulness meditation, or whatever label and technique of probing beyond the mere scientifically observable phenomena (which are awesome enough in themselves but stand outside us). We now face a smorgasbord of choices which, we are told over and over, all lead to the same ultimate destination.  You amy choose one and adhere to it almost exclusively or mix and match from the buffet. Only begin from “emptiness”, where the mind loses its attachments and distractions, the multitude of encumbering sensations that block the ability to penetrate beyond self, beyond the boundaries of a body and this physical realm that holds our true being captive to time and space.  Becoming “awake and aware” of being alone, “just being”, that is the place of meeting, the place of becoming one with the oneness of all things, of knowing, if only for a moment, how I too am one with the One.  No longer just this isolated sliver of awareness adrift on a cosmic ocean searching for its true place of rest, but One with the One-in-all.

This is Hinduism’s highest goal, what they call Brahman.  Buddhism names it ‘extinction’.  For both, abiding in the restful bliss of this state is nirvana.  It is the end of karma and all strife, and obviates any need to return to this illusory realm, maya, to continue the fruitless cycle of birth and rebirth.  The most direct route to enter this state is raja yoga — rigorously practiced, guided meditation, as led by a master, a guru. For Western dabblers and samplers, enter gently via some introductory classes, then grow/go deeper.

But is the human mind really capable of such stillness, such “extinction”?  Are humans really “made” to lose their individual awareness and be ultimately absorbed into anonymity and a sort of “pure being” without awareness?  Or is this too an illusion?  Is the Cosmos mere “maya”, a sort of karmic maelstrom-agglomeration of eons of outcomes based on all choices since the One exploded and countless errant entities went astray from the One? Or is extinction and Brahman another kind of maya?

The human predicament of the 21st Century is that we answer both “Yes!” and “No” to these ultimate questions at the same time.  On the one hand, the materialist West with its scientific and technological prowess tells us that this Time-Space continuum, however multi-dimensioned it may be in theory, is all there is.  It had a beginning and it will have an end.  Who we are in it are a sort of freakish accident that has gained self-awareness, against all probability.  We have seen how demoralized and rudderless we have become traveling this road.  In contrast to our schizophrenia, the greatest of all gurus once said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’. . . . You cannot serve two masters.”

Our “sublime instincts” demand that there be a meaning beyond simple recognition that we are an accidental blip with no more significance than any other outcome of what we call “evolution”, that our true destiny is to become “extinguished” in the great cosmic “Om”.  If extinction of self is what we are here for, why do we so stubbornly hunger to know and to be known as persons?  The guru emerging from the deep meditative state remains a self with awareness.

Why do we have such an ineluctable drive and ability to study the wonder of what exists to the very limits of the Cosmos, to learn, to fashion it in new ways, to admire it and stand in awe of it?  Finally, why do we insist on attributing meaning to it if, ultimately, there is no final purpose, or only a purpose which, as individuals, can satisfy nothing of our natural sublime hunger since we will not even be aware when all is resolved in ‘the One’, or when ‘evolution’ reverts to devolution and extinguishes everything once again?

This hunger, this innate predisposition for eternity which lives in the very core of our being, cannot, indeed will not, be denied.  When we deny it, what is becomes horribly ugly.  Once more, de Tocqueville nailed it: “Man [humankind, if you prefer] may hinder and distort them [the sublime instincts], but he cannot destroy them.”

The Third Way, 33: The Allure of Rome, Part 12 – Christendom’s Civil War

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“This doctrine of the Kingdom of Heaven, which was the main teaching of Jesus, and which plays so small a part in the Christian creeds, is certainly one of the most revolutionary doctrines that ever stirred and changed human thought…. the doctrine of the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus seems to have preached it, was no less than a bold and uncompromising demand for a complete change and cleansing of our struggling race, an utter cleansing without and within.”

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume 1.  Revised and brought up to date by Raymond Postgate and G.P. Wells.  (Doubleday and Company, 1971), p. 445.

Peter Waldo, 12th Century; Francis and Clare of Assisi, 13th Century; John Wycliffe, 14th Century; John Hus, 15th Century; humanist reformers like Erasmus and Thomas More, 15th and 16th Centuries; Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther, 16th Century.  This is a very short list of radical idealists seeking serious reform of the Roman Church and European civil society over the last 300 years of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.  But before we consider how the explosion of the early 16th Century, which historians now call the “Protestant Reformation”, blew apart the long-standing Medieval consensus, we must give credit where credit is due. 

First, let us recall that a church is primarily the people who are its members. For a thousand years the Roman Church had often been an agency of great good, restraining the civil powers from behaving without conscience and scruple towards the humble folk under their rule.  Often, when no one else stood up for the suffering peasants, serfs, and labourers, the Church did.  The Church provided for the poorest of the poor, for widows and orphans, What medical help and relief for the starving and destitute there was came almost entirely from the Church via its monasteries, hospital foundations, dioceses, and parishes.  The Church brought solace to the afflicted, comfort to the grieving, relief to the suffering, and hope to the downtrodden—even if only that they could eventually be with God after they purged their faults in purgatory.  The Church forced secular rulers to behave with more restraint and to follow law rather than thier own arbitrary whims of justice.  It compelled rulers to control exorbitant financial exploitation of those who were forced into debt.  It made it clear that even kings and lords must answer to a yet higher authority and be subject to laws they themselves did not make.  When plague and disease swept through, those who most often stayed to help at the probable cost of their own lives were the monks, nuns, and parish clergy, assisted by some selfless physicians and lay persons.

We must not confuse the 16th Century’s widespread disgust with the largely corrupt and self-indulgent hierarchy, and frustration with their stone-walling mindset, with a desire for revolution or a wish to tear apart the fabric of a continent-wide society the unity of Christendom.  This society had functioned rather effectively to create a kind of general consensus and awareness of being one under God, despite the numerous rival national and ethnic rivalries.  The ethos and foundation for this had largely been the legacy of Charlemagne, all things considered one of the truly great monarchs of world history. 

Like Charlemagne, the monarchs and princes of the Middle Ages all named Christ as the supreme King of kings, although many of them with far less conviction than their archetype.  Following his lead, scholars, ecclesiastics, and many of the rulers agreed on most of the principles they adhered to, having been educated to think of their world as one under God through the Church, with the Latin language as a symbol of their essential unity.  What divided them was human sinfulness manifested as greed, pride, arrogance, lust, and ambition.  But all sought absolution from God’s servants in the Roman Church.  A priest from Germany, France, Italy, England, or Poland was just as competent to absolve as any other.  A well-qualified, conscientious, and intelligent scholar or lawyer trained in Padua, Paris, Oxford, Salamanca, or Cologne was as competent to educate and advise a leader as any other and, speaking Latin, could rapidly integrate in a new setting.

When, on October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther posted a Latin document railing against the abuse and injurious effects of indulgences exploiting the gullible to finance Church debt and build the new St. Peter’s in Rome, he was not trying to be obscure.  He was conventionally offering to engage any who cared to debate the issue, which was a well-recognized long-standing grievance, especially among the myriad principalities of Germany who had no strong central monarch to advocate their cause.  By this point, the Holy Roman Emperor was more like the CEO of a loose Confederation who depended largely on the voluntary cooperation of the local princes.  Because of this central vulnerability, Church financial exigencies oppressed the German states more than the united kingdoms of France or England, for example.  

Making a public post such as Luther did was not a radical move in itself.  What was radical was the challenging nature of several of his “95 Theses”, as this document has become known.  Why it had the effect of a tocsin call to action that reverberated across Germany was not due to Luther’s simple action, but to that of his enthusiastic students and the readiness of educated Germans to heed what it said as echoing much of what they felt themselves. It also fueled political fires and the ambitions for more autonomy of certain princes over and against the new Emperor, Charles 5th.

As we would say of a social media “post” today, it “went viral”.  The students of Wittenberg University took it to the local printer and copied it so it could be physically carried to other towns and cities then reprinted, reposted, and individually distributed.  This action was the explosive catalyst, along with the students’ enthusiastic “preaching” of its contents among their peers in the taverns and universities they visited.  Luther at first had no control and little to do with this spontaneous outpouring.  He unwittingly found himself the center of attention, but realized he could not now avoid it unless he retracted his most controversial criticisms.

We cannot here retell the story of the Reformation in detail.  As Luther galvanized Germany, so did Ulrich Zwingli shake Switzerland from his home church in Zurich.  Both of these rebel clerics would eventually be excommunicated, both would be declared heretics, and both would preach most of the same things, dividing their countries and societies.  Their followers would derisively be called “Protestants” (today we would say “Protestors”) by loyal Roman Catholics leaders and rulers, who sought and failed to eliminate them, their followers, and their teaching.  Germany and Switzerland would soon be engulfed in religious civil war which would spread to much of northern and central Europe and not finally end until 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia.

No matter how “righteous” the cause may be or appear to, strong leaders must be strong-willed and, when driven into a corner, will often even display a ruthless streak.  The major leaders of the Reformation period (among whom we find Luther, Zwingli, Jean (John) Calvin, Guillaume (William) Farel, Philip Melancthon, John Knox, and many more perhaps less well-known figures) were far from faultless.  They said things and committed or authorized actions that were much less than charitable, merciful, or gracious. The Gospel and Saviour they professed to restore and serve could only be used to justify these excesses with greatly strained elasticity.  As theologians trained in the Medieval scholastic method, they were accustomed to elastic analogy and allegory. They rightly denounced the Catholics for persecutions and massacres, but those whom they inspired often did the same things, and sometimes with approval directly from their very mouths (as when, in 1525, Luther told the German nobles to crush the Munster peasant radicals “like wild dogs”).

How was the Roman legacy mixed up in all this?  First, through the continued claims of the imperialist Roman Catholic Church to represent and enforce the Creators’ intention that all those who took Christ’s name should acknowledge the Pope as his rightful Regent on earth.  The Pope called on the Emperor and the Kings of Europe to bring the Protestants to heel and to inflict the due penalties for apostasy and heresy.  Secondly, through the education that all had received in the universities and schools of the time, where the curriculum and subject matter so heavily reflected the Greco-Roman heritage.  Thirdly, through the well-entrenched and proven administrative apparatus of both Church and State bequeathed from Imperial Rome via the Church and the scholars and advisors trained by the Church to work with the secular rulers.  Fourthly, via the still accepted notion that all subjects must publicly practice and adhere to the same religion with the same rituals and official formulae in order for a society to remain stable.  Private belief might be otherwise, but universal public adherence to the approved religion was essential for order and stability in a society.

In the West, we have become so accustomed to the notion of “the separation of Church and State” (although ‘Church’ in our time means personal religious opinion more than anything else according to progressive court and tribunal reinterpretations) that we cannot imagine religious belief being imposed and enforced by an approved religious authority via the government legal system.  However, there are many countries where the religion, or approved, official ideology and government are bound together and act as one power to enforce conformity.  Most Muslim countries are like this, as are communist and fascist regimes.

In truth, all ideologically founded impositions of standards of public speech and behaviour, or prohibitions on some types of public and even private behaviour, are theologically rooted. Thus there never has been nor can be a complete separation of theological (religious) opinion from society and law-enforcement. Even an atheist is expressing a religious opinion and, when it is publicly imposed via education or restrictions on freedom of expression in some kinds of discussion, such as certain kinds of ‘human rights’ claims, a religious or a-religious perspective of what is at present a rather small minority is being imposed on the rest of society via the legal machinery of the state. Language is not theologically or religiously neutral, unless we interpret ‘religion’ to be an institutional affair. But over the last fifty years in the West it has been inserted into certain approved and disapproved opinions being publicly asserted, even to the point that those who hold the current ‘disapproved’ perspective are prohibited from speaking publicly on pain of penalty or sanction.

In Europe in the 1500s, the result of the polarization of Roman Catholic rulers facing off against the minority of those who had become supporters of Protestant views was to be what we have come to call a series of “religious wars” lasting into the mid-1600s.  Imperial Rome had had many civil wars, and now its successor civilization in the West would be engulfed by a massive one centred on whether the spiritual descendant of ancient Rome, the Roman Catholic (Imperial) Church should still hold sway.

TO BE CONTINUED   

The Third Way, 32: The Allure of Rome, Part 11 – Dam Burst

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“… the rise and break-up of the Roman system … the obstinate survival of the idea of theEmpire in Europe, and of the various projects for the unification of Christendom … at different times.” 

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume 1.  Revised and brought up to date by RaymondPostgate and G.P. Wells.  (Doubleday and Company, 1971), p. 3.

There have been two “Roman systems” in the History of the West.  The first was that of antiquity and the Roman Empire created by Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Octavian, better known as Augustus, the first Emperor with the title.  It lasted 503 years (27 BCE-476 CE[i]), and its Eastern Mediterranean successor, the Byzantine (East Roman) Empire, lasted almost another thousand years until the Fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The second was the spiritual empire of the Popes, the Christian Patriarchs of the West within the Catholic Church as it emerged after the collapse of Rome’s political hegemony.  Apart from the Avignon hiatus during most of a century in the Middle Ages, the Popes remained in Rome and, for much of the time from about 800 CE until 1870, were the temporal sovereigns of the center of Italy.  But the Papal claim to imperial status was spiritual.  As the “Vicars of Christ on earth”, the successors of the “Prince of the Apostles”, St. Peter, and “Pontifex Maximus”, the Supreme Priest designated by God on earth to stand before and officiate at His altar on behalf of sinners seeking His mercy, the Popes of the “High Middle Ages” declared their authority to be above that of any earthly sovereign.

The New Testament calls the Church “the Body of Christ” and the “Family of God”.  The Catholic Church emerged from the ancient world as a united institution declaring itself the sole legitimate presence of Christ on earth.  In 1054 CE, it fractured into two branches, East and West, or “Orthodox” and “Roman Catholic”. 

Inevitably, the Church was also very much imprinted with the human character of the society and culture into which it was born in time and space.  Today’s church(es) are as much imprinted by their culture and history as those of yore.  Without denying the hand of the Creator through Christ in the Church’s origin and continued existence, we must recognize its very human nature.  This cannot be a surprise, for, in Christian theology, Jesus is both fully and equally God and human in one person.  If the Church is the chief agency of Jesus’ continued presence in the world, we cannot be much astonished to find that it is “fully human”, as Christian theology says the same of Jesus.

But, unlike the Founder, the Church is not also “fully God.”  Christians believe that it is imbued with God’s Spiritual presence and nature, but it is as much defined by the character of the humans who make it up as by the presence of God’s Spirit at its heart.  Christians have done and do amazingly good things but, as ‘sinners’, they must still “work out their salvation with fear and trembling”, as the Apostle Paul once put it.  Therefore they also mess up pretty badly and pretty regularly.  So too, and repeatedly, have the Church’s human leaders.

Being a sinner is not so much the problem, but rather being too proud, arrogant, and stubborn to admit when we get it wrong, and sometimes horribly wrong.  That is a manifestation of the common humanity of both every human individual and every historically recorded human institution and society.  It is the same old pattern that has plagued humanity since its beginning, whether male or female, or any other gender we may care to define into existence according to certain postmodern lights who insist on redefining reality on their own terms.  In any sense we care to look at it, humanity is broken and out of sync with the Creator’s original intention, or His/Her “will” as the Christian Bible terms it.

All this to say that the Church, or ekklesia as the Greek in the New Testament calls it (it means the assembly, congregation, or gathering of the Body of Christ on earth), first began in a First Century Jewish culture, itself already much influenced by the syncretistic Hellenic culture of the Eastern Mediterranean.  It then rapidly expanded into the Hellenistic-Roman milieu, reaching as far west as Rome itself within the first generation.  The ekklesia was both like and unlike other social groups of its time, but it quickly ran into serious difficulty because of its challenging differences with the host culture. 

It did not fit any models; it was not confined to a particular class or ethnicity.  It recognized the full humanity of slaves and women and took no notice of race or language.  It challenged accepted standards of public and private morality.  But, most serious of all, it called its adherents to a higher ultimate allegiance than that to the Emperor or the “genius of Rome”.  It proclaimed another King above even the divinity sitting on Rome’s throne, a King who could and would call to account even “Divine Caesar”, as Emperors had began to be called even in Augustus’ day (although he and his first successor, Tiberius, never officially adopted that title).

As we read the Book of Acts, the various Apostolic letters, and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, we cannot but be struck by the almost immediate adaptation of the Christian message to the society and culture that enveloped it.  Since then, this is the ongoing story of the presence of Christianity and the Church in our world.  It can only be thus, for Christianity is not a fixed “system” meant to be cemented into an immutable set of rules and practices issuing from the mouth and mind of an unchangeable philosophy.  It is a message about reconciling the parties in a very broken primary relationship (God with humanity), and then the relationships of human-to-human and humanity with the Creator’s creation.  It is a message that every broken human and every struggling generation must hear and respond to for itself.

If we understand this dynamic from the start, there is always room for discussion about how this needs to be communicated and acted upon in the midst of the ebbs and flows of life and the ongoing saga of every society’s and culture’s evolution through time.  However, it does not mean there are no firm principles or that there is no basic perspective or fixed points of reference.  It is the ballet of finding the balance as the rocking vessel moves with the waves.

What emerged from the chaos of the thunderous crash of what had seemed like “Eternal Rome’s” collapse  was an institution which had imbibed a great deal of the ethos and structure of the secular society and system of the Late Empire.  It was this that gave an immediate anchor to help stabilize much of the West for a few centuries, helping it survive and emerge as “the West” as differentiated from “the Orient”.  But even success has its drawbacks when we identify a fixed system as the primary reason for the eventual triumph of those that latch onto it, and make its forms, rules, and laws immutable because, for a time, they helped to achieve survival and bestow eventual supremacy over all rivals. 

Within the emerging civilization of “the West”, the Roman Church had been the anchor, and the Patriarch of the West in Rome had been the Father-figure who offered connection to the revealed truth and traditions and assured their pure transmission.  To a large degree, the Pope (the title is an adaptation of “Papa”, the familiar Latin word for father, a word still used in Italian and Spanish) was truly seen as the universal, earthly “father” of the family of God to which all the baptized belonged.  Such a well-rooted emotional and cultural attachment cannot be very easily broken, even if it is eventually revealed as a construct which has passed its expiry date.

As we have seen, the sense of the Pope’s failure to be a faithful father and true “Vicar”, or stand-in, for God’s Son, had become more and more acute by the early 16th century.  The hierarchy’s failure to restrain both Papal and its own exploitation of the “sheep of the flock” reinforced the conscious and unconscious (for many) sense that the ordained clergy had forfeited the right to the title “Father”, as the priests were to be addressed, and hardly even qualified for the humbler and simpler appellation of “brother” or “sister”.  Some noted the verse where Jesus had cautioned his disciples to call no one “father” except God (Matthew 23:9).

All that was lacking for the storm to break out was a catalyst.  In 1517 in Germany, a Dominican monk named Theodor Tetzel provided that catalyst. It would provoke a locally popular but obscure University of Wittenberg professor named Martin Luther to challenge Papal authority on a specific question.  This challenge would prove the chink that fell out of the dam and let loose the flood of all the pent-up resentment, frustration, disillusionment and doubt.  The rapid acceleration of what at first looked like a “tempest in a tea-pot” into a raging hurricane would take everyone by surprise.  Within a generation it would have permanently shattered the illusion of the unity of Christendom and shaken the spiritual Imperium of Rome to its very foundations.


[i]  27 BCE is the year Augustus was officially granted the title, or rather the Senate ratified the fact of Octavian being, “Imperator”.  Octavian was also named “Augustus”, or “highly honoured and esteemed.  He was given life-long command of all Rome’s armed forces, as well as reconfirmed for life in many other honours, such as Pontifex Maximus and Princeps (First Man of Rome, hence the title “Prince”).  This made the Emperor the supreme military, religious, and civil official of the State.

The Third Way, 30: The Allure of Rome, Part 9 – Renaissance

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“… 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.

The Third Way, 25: The Allure of Rome, Part 6: Francis & Thomas

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“Two things … laid the foundation for what was now to follow: first, the gradually awakened cultural thought and awakened piety of the Middle Ages: and second, an increasing distortion of the teaching of the Bible and the early church.” 

Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Volume 5, A Christian View of the West.  (Crossway Books: Wheaton Illinois, 1982), p. 105.

One year after Francis of Assisi died, Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274), another great of the Middle Ages, was born.  Both Francis and Thomas came from wealthy Italian families.  Both displeased their parents by choosing a church life instead of following their fathers into the family business.  Both would profoundly challenge the church and their contemporaries to do better as Christians in building the Family of Christ on earth.  Both were humble, self-abnegating and self-effacing examples of piety and devotion to God.  They sought wholeheartedly to further the coming of his Kingdom as their lights directed them.  Both became great saints in the Roman Catholic tradition soon after their deaths.

But they were also vastly different.  They represented two very contrasting ways of seeking “the Third Way”.  Yet both sought a road back to direct experience and relationship with the Creator, a way past the stultified, stifling, hierarchical, rigidly controlled legalism and forms of an increasingly oppressive and imperial Church version of Christendom. 

As he matured, Thomas knew the tales and legends of the towering figure of St. Francis.  He was certainly very aware of Francis’ extremism, his disturbing, flamboyant radicalism, and his enormous legacy and impact, as was everyone in Italy and much farther afield.  But this was not for him.  He chose to become a more conventional monk, taking a semi-isolated and inconspicuous path towards the Creator.  Nevertheless, his impact would be remarkable in its own right during and after a life just slightly longer than Francis’.

Devoted to study and prayer, Aquinas became a scholar among scholars.  After his death, he would be proclaimed a ‘Doctor of the Church’—an honour conferred very rarely and only upon those considered theologians of the very first rank, just beneath the Apostle Paul, a sans pareil

At first, he seemed the most unlikely candidate possible to reach such a pinnacle.  He was extremely taciturn; he was not eloquent when he chose to offer his views.  He was mocked as ‘the [dumb] Ox’.  But, maturing under the mentoring of Albertus Magnus, the most prestigious scholar of the generation prior to Thomas’, he flourished.  The brilliance and depth of his mind and deep spirituality of his spirit emerged.  In the end, even the Pope would turn to Thomas for insight.

On the other hand, in practice if not in theory, Francis had largely abandoned the institutional forms of Christianity (except Mass and the sacraments) and even refused ordination to the priesthood, whereas Thomas strove to purify and strengthen the institution in order to conform it more closely to what he conceived as God’s design for it.  He believed that truth is truth, wherever you find it. 

When the works of Aristotle, perhaps the greatest and most systematic philosopher of antiquity, and certainly the most prolific in written output, became available via migrant scholars bringing treasures of forgotten documents of antiquity from Constantinople and Muslim Cordoba in Spain, Thomas eagerly delved into them seeking new revelation about the nature of Creation and humanity.  His reading and profound study brought him to conclude that human reason is a means of knowing God almost on a par with Biblical revelation and Church tradition.

This contrast in approach between radically pure simplicity (Francis) and seeking to reform from within via reasoned persuasion (Thomas) is not new.  It recalls Jesus facing the institutional forms and scholarship of the ‘Judaisms’ of the First Century.  Back then, the Essenes were the extremists rejecting the whole establishment as corrupt and beyond redemption.  The Sadducees were the thorough conformists, seeking this-worldly power and position to preserve and maintain the system and their own privileged position as the elite.  Another party within Judaism were the Pharisees, who, like Thomas, represented a sort of reasoned midway position between the extremes of Essene and Sadducee.  Finally, the Zealots, like the Medieval Crusaders, sought violent purification of the land in order to ready it for the coming of the Messiah-King who would make Israel (Catholic Europe under Rome) supreme. 

Jesus fitted nowhere comfortably in any of these ‘parties’, although theologically he most closely resembled a Pharisee.  He was a threat to all of them, as well as Rome over the long haul, and paid with his life.  He had called his disciples to “take up your cross daily” and challenge the supreme authorities with the declaration that God’s Kingdom is “not of this age.”  Kosmos is the Greek word often translated as “age”, and in its New Testament context it connotes the whole way we relate to God’s creation by force and manipulation rather than by seeking to work in true harmony with God’s purposes for it and us.

The early Church, still keeping close to Jesus’ first impulse, emerged as a real threat to establishment Judaism and Rome.  For its first two and a half centuries the primitive Church weathered the assaults of the ‘powers that be’ rather well, although it had begun to absorb the marks of institutionalization from early times.[i]  With Constantine’s coup in recruiting the Catholic (Universal) Church to serve as an imperial adjunct in the early Fourth Century CE, ‘official’ Christianity passed from its age of innocence into the murky realm of political, moral, social, and economic compromise and manipulation for the purposes of furthering its own agenda as conceived from on high (at the Patriarchal level).  In effect, it became imperialist—Roman!

A great irony awaited the Imperial Roman Universal (Catholic means universal) Church as the Middle Ages drew to its dénouement.  Having become quite Roman in system, form, and ambition, blessing it all with elaborate ceremony and invocation of God and Christ, who had preached both “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are the poor,” the Church would re-import the seeds of its former great enemy, pagan wisdom and its worship of human reason.  A new hunger for more ancient wisdom would arise from the rediscovery and dissemination of Aristotle’s amazing works.  The Crusades had opened the doors to a trickle, which then became a steady flow, of Byzantine and Muslim scholarship based on many ‘lost’ works from the glory days of Rome and Greece.  Italy was the first area of the West impacted, but the new Italian scholarship began to expand into the Holy Roman Empire, France, the Low Countries (now called The Netherlands and Belgium), and England.  The New Testament in Greek was ‘rediscovered’ as part of this package.

From this influx of new-old wisdom written in beautiful, classic Latin and Greek came admiration of that ancient literature and poetry and drama and science, and, as absorption grew, so did the desire to emulate it.  Next came the imbibing of the spirit of these ancient sages, the spirit of ‘humanism’.  It seemed to the ‘humanists’, as the new generations of scholars began to identify themselves, that the essence of the ancient civilization of Rome had been rooted in a delicate and noble recognition of human beauty, form, and dignity not dependent on a slavish servitude to gods (including, by implication, the God of the Bible).  The philosophies of the lost Golden Age had been noble efforts to formulate the perfect balance in life and a reasoned-out approach to the Creator or whatever really existed in a spiritual sense.

It is beyond our scope here to go into detail on the progression of this recovery of ancient humanism in the West.  The movement it sparked has been called the “Renaissance”—a French term meaning rebirth.  It took form under the guidance and direction of a group of 14th Century Italian scholastics.  They won support and admiration from their peers, and the movement spread into art, sculpture, and architecture.  The results reverberated across the culture and challenged some very basic Medieval notions, including the inviolability of Papal authority and Church dogma.  The rediscovery of the Greek New Testament opened up a profound re-examination of the established paradigm of the Gospel and the formation and history of the Church itself.

When all of this is married to the growing dissatisfaction with the imperial, established Church system and the increasingly obvious distortion of holiness into formal sacramentalism and the suppression or cooption of all attempts to return to a spirit of simplicity in seeking God, the makings of a great upheaval were at hand.

Ironically, the Renaissance of ancient humanism rooted in pagan Imperial Rome would play a significant role in fracturing the unity and supremacy of the imperialist Roman Church.  The 13th Century saintly giants, Francis and Thomas, stood as precocious signposts to the roads that would diverge from the main highway in the 14th  and 15th Centuries and generate revolutionary events in the 16th Century.

TO BE CONTINUED

[i]  Institutionalization seems inevitable this side of the Second Coming of Christ.  The struggle is to keep the institutions we are compelled to form and use to make life livable from becoming tools in the hands of the ambitious and unscrupulous.  Those who propose anarchy as a realistic solution are completely naive or misled about human nature and live in a dream.  But that is another topic for another time. 

The Third Way, 24: The Allure of Rome, Part 5

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“Make me a channel of your peace; where there is darkness, let me bring your light;  where there is injury, your pardon Lord …” St. Francis of Assisi

 Charlemagne’s dream of reunifying the West under the banner of a ‘Christian Empire’ died with him in 814 CE and faded from view in the secular sphere.  Henceforth, jealousies and rivalries among rulers would close that door.  But there was one place where the goal of Rome’s supremacy remained very much alive—Rome!

True, there was no longer an Emperor there, but there was an imperial claimant of another sort—the Bishop of Rome, the Patriarch of the Western regions of the (not yet Roman) Catholic Church.  Even with Charlemagne, the alliance between the Imperial throne and the throne of St. Peter had been an uneasy one, as the Popes had come to view their place with a spiritualized imperial eye.

The claims of the Popes to first place in the power hierarchy of the West, and indeed the universal Church, had been growing since the late Roman Empire.  With the Empire’s hold over the lands from Italy north and west evaporating, and the Emperor in distant Constantinople, the only prominent authority figure left with a general claim, for Christians at least, was the Pope.  The West’s Patriarch within the Church hierarchy claimed the prestige and authority of the two greatest apostles, Peter and Paul, who had both finished their lives in martyrdom at Rome.

The argument ran that since Christ is the King of kings his authority supersedes that of any earthly sovereign.  When Christ ascended into heaven, he had commissioned his apostles with his authority to carry his Kingdom to the ends of the earth.  Peter was the primus inter pares (first among equals) among the Apostles, because, just before his ascension, Jesus told him to look after his flock as its shepherd.  And prior to that Peter had given Peter ultimate authority to “bind and loose” things on earth in Christ’s name. Jesus had also given Peter the “keys to the Kingdom” of Heaven.

But how did the Bishop-Patriarch of Rome inherit Peter’s authority, assuming that this is what Jesus had really done and that it didn’t just die with Peter?  The rationale was that anyone who stepped into the role of Peter in Rome (Bishop) also stepped into the commission and special authority Peter had received from Jesus.  In effect, he became Peter’s stand-in, and Peter had been Jesus’ designated stand-in.  Ergo, the Patriarch of Rome was the “Vicar” (like a Regent) of Christ on earth.  But how was the line of authority from Peter transmitted to the Bishop of Rome?  Had Peter directly delegated it in some way?  Did he even have Christ’s authority to do such a thing?  Answer to the jeopardy question: the power to bind and to loose! The Church’s greatest ancient historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, who just happened to be a great fan (and personal friend) of Constantine and his imperial commissioning of the Catholic Church to assist the Emperor in ruling the great Roman domain, delineated the direct succession to many of the apostolic and post-apostolic generation of leaders in detail, so tradition confirmed it!  Thus, just as the Emperor designated governors and prefects, Christ designated the spiritual government via the Apostolic Succession.

This line of transmission was nowhere to be found (except by inference) in the New Testament.  After all, an imperial claim of the magnitude the Pope was asserting could not rest solely onso me ambitious ‘Successors’ of Peter’ claims to go one-up on their other Patriarchal colleagues.  (Other Patriarchs hailed from Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.  The only one in the West was Rome.)

The large majority of Christians tended to be in the cities and towns for the first few centuries.  When inevitable controversies grew over how to interpret Scripture, what to believe, how to live a Christian life, and how to incorporate converts into the “Body of Christ”, the leaders of smaller centers and congregations looked to those of the larger ones.  And among the larger ones, disputes about whose guidance and direction was to have primacy arose.  After a while, it boiled down to just a few senior leaders, “Father-Rulers”—Patriarchs—especially the two in Rome and Constantinople.

Because claims to senior authority had to be backed up, it came down to “the Apostolic Succession.”  This concept declared that the Apostles had the power to pass on their authority to bind and to loose spiritual truth and rules to successors “by the laying on of hands”, i.e., designating a chosen successor upon whom they laid their hands and prayed “ordination”[i]—the impartation of their authority to this chosen successor.  These successors then had the same power to bind and loose and ordain and even condemn.  Thus, as Eusebius recounted it, all true authority in the Church had been handed down in a direct line, via proper ordination, to the Bishops in office, who also then ordained local elders (presbyters [priests]).

The Patriarchs of Rome asserted that because Peter had ministered in Rome for the last few years of his life, he had designated Rome as the locus of his successor, and he would be the “Primate”, the foremost of the chosen leaders of the whole Church.[ii]  Eventually, as Medieval society reached its quintessential expression, there arose a number of truly “Imperial Popes”, claiming both supreme spiritual and temporal power, even the right and authority to enthrone and dethrone monarchs and deny whole countries access to mass and the sacraments, which were held to be the principle channels of God’s mercy, grace, and favour. 

Personal faith in and relationship with the Creator had little to do with any of this.  Certainly there were many good and saintly Christians with deep personal faith, but the official Church had little room, less comfort, and scant patience for such zealots who could and sometimes did radically challenge the proper imperial ordo rooted in Rome’s still potent ambition to reassert Empire via a different route.  It was abundantly clear that whatever spirit was really at work here, it did not bear the marks (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control) of the work of the Holy Spirit.  The high water mark of Papal Imperialism came under Pope Innocent III (quite the ironic patronym).

So what to do with the fanatics who saw through this charade of using all the levers of secular power to assert Christ’s authority to rule and reign (largely in the same old way by the same old rules)?  First tactic: divert them into less menacing channels and get them to accept the hierarchical model, as with the co-opting of the Franciscan movement even during Francis of Assisi’s lifetime.  It was fitting that that most imperial of all Popes, Pope Innocent III, had to deal with that humblest and most unpreposessing of saints, Francesco Bernardone (1182-1226), the greatest radical and most serious challenge to imperial Christianity of the Middle Ages, and perhaps of all time. 

It was said that Francis died of a broken heart, choosing self-imposed exile in a simple forest habitation rather than one of the proliferating fine new abbeys being built for or handed over to the newly established Franciscan Order.  Francis rejected this seduction and was deposed as leader of his own movement.  But being who he was, Francis could not be left alone.  He was well tended to by his most faithful disciples even as he slowly starved (fasted) himself to death.[iii]

Francis was a pacifist through and through and he preached peace and reconciliation. He was neutralized by the seduction of his followers, but for those who would not be diverted, best coerce them into silence by threats and fear.  If they would not be coerced, eliminate them by excommunication and condemnation as heretics (Albigensians, Waldensians, Lollards, Cathars, etc.), then hunt them down and subject them to the proper penalty for blasphemy and heresy, or perhaps for witchcraft and sorcery and consorting with demons.  Thousands of “wise women” and not a few men who would not go into a convent to practice ‘proper’ spirituality were disposed of this way.

Many ordinary, simple folk looked on in disgust, seeing right through the facade.  There had to be another way, a “Third Way” to know God—not the old imperial way or the increasingly corrupt hybrid called Christendom.  People grew more and more disillusioned and many set about seeking that “Third Way.”

TO BE CONTINUED

[i]  “Ordination” is a very Roman word designating someone’s official, approved acceptance into a distinct “ordo”, or class of persons with special status and rights and privileges, setting them apart from others who thus became lesser and who could then be “patronized”—another Roman term—given gifts and favours from the higher order to the inferior classes.  Being a patron carried weighty responsibilities, but bestowed great prestige and “gravitas”, the air of authority and position the bearer had earned or inherited.  This whole ancient Roman social system is still quite visible in the Roman Catholic and other very hierarchical Christian denominations.  It was one of the principle goals of the Reformation and especially the Anabaptists to shed this imperial (and very unbiblical) religiosity.

[ii]  The English word “church” with its building-centered and cumbersome administrative baggage almost completely misses the real meaning of the Greek word it supposedly translates.  That word is ekklesia and, in the time of the New Testament, it carried a semi-democratic meaning.  It meant ‘the popular assembly’, or the assembly of citizens who had political rights in the local polis, or civic community.  It is certainly debatable that Jesus intended to leave a heavily autocratic, rigidly hierarchic institution to carry forward his mission of bringing the “Kingdom of God” into the world after he departed.  One may be excused for suspecting that another, older pattern based on humanly constructed (Roman) power paradigms usurping the Master’s real intention is at work here.

[iii]  Many hold that the Medieval, and Roman Catholic Church (as well as the historic Church in general) missed its greatest opportunity to return to the “straight path” with Francis.  If his amazing vision and beautiful spirituality had been fully embraced and perhaps given a tweaks for folks who could not match his inner fire, it would very probably have truly, radically changed the direction of both the Church and society.  Even as it was, it brought hope and real spiritual renewal to millions even in Francis’ lifetime.  For many, St. Francis was/is the greatest Christian since the Apostle Paul.

The Third Way, 22: The Allure of Rome, Part 3

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“… no matter the vigilance of any ethnarchy, it cannot withstand the siren song of the larger society that encompasses it.”

Thomas Cahill, The Desire of the Everlasting Hills, the World before and after Jesus.  The Hinges of History, Volume III, (Doubleday, 1999), Kindle Edition, Location 480.

During more than five centuries, for many millions who never saw the imperial metropolis, Rome was the siren singing the song that bewitched (or oppressed) a quarter of the world’s population.  More than 1500 years later, the song still echoes around the world.  Its lyrics were sung in Latin and Greek.  These two imperial languages have infiltrated every significant society in our world via English, French, or the other languages of the European colonizers.  The vocabularies of the Western tongues are replete with Latin and Greek derived words and terms, sometimes imported unaltered: sine que non, pro tempe, ad lib., extempore, rigor mortis, et cetera (etc.), halitosis, archetype, pantheon, -etc., etc., etc.  Modern medicine developed first in Greek, and was absorbed by Latin.  It has retained much of the original vocabulary in anatomy, diagnosis, etc

The well-known and respected historian of Western Civilization, Thomas Cahill (The Hinges of History is his multi-volume magnum opus for the layman and well worth reading), quoted above, also points out that a language is not solely and simply a means of verbal communication:

“Languages bring values with them, and one cannot learn a language without making one’s own things the civilization that developed the language considers important …. the Greeks had their own powerful words and phrases which, once learned, gave the speaker a specifically Greek outlook …. Similarly, common English words and phrases adopted nowadays throughout the world give even simple people, living in cultures bound by non-Western myths, access to such values as progress, democracy, technology, and capitalism, even if one should see these values through the eyes of inflexible traditionalists: as contempt for traditions of authority and discipline and love of chaos and of self at the expense of the common good).”

(Cahill, ibid., Location 306)

Languages are imbued with the worldviews of those who developed them, encapsulating the common factors underlying the culture and society whose principle tools of communication they are.  As such, they are spiritual vehicles; they carry the soul, the ethos (a Greek word we have simply imported) of a people, a tribe, a clan, a nation.  The West drank so deeply at the Greco-Roman well for so long that the European civilization that succeeded Rome is still steeped in a Greco-Roman worldview. 

There have assuredly been other major influences as well—the Judeo-Christian and Germanic contributions being most significant.  But when these three cultural tributaries of the Western Amazon merged over time during the Middle Ages (in itself, a loaded ideological term entirely dependent on the idealization of the Greco-Roman “Golden Age”), unquestionably the one which ended up “winning” the merger was the Greco-Roman stream. 

Part of Rome’s genius was adoption and adaptation—the ability to absorb and assimilate all comers, repurposing them to serve Rome’s dominant vision as the great civilizer of the world, the great unifier giving everyone equal access to the same gods and guiding principles.  The Emperor was the supreme symbol, the creator and maintainer of this unity—the “Saviour of mankind”, the “Son of God” (Jupiter, Zeus, Amon-Ra, Baal, whichever high deity was relevant to the people in question).  Every subject and citizen of the Empire owed their final allegiance to the Emperor as the incarnation of Rome’s “genius”, or “Spirit-Guide”.  

If we change the vocabulary and eliminate the divinities, this has a very modern sound and feel to it.  Louis XIV declared to the French in the 1670s, “L’état, c’est moi. (I am the state.)”  In the early years of the 19th Century Napoleon declared that he was the embodiment of all the true values of the New Revolutionary France—liberty, equality, brotherhood–with himself as the God-appointed guardian of France and its people (and, via France, Europe, which he had been divinely commissioned to liberate).  Hitler said, “I am Germany, and Germany is I,” and he said repeatedly that “Providence” had led and guided him to fulfill his ‘sacred mission’ to purify the Master Race first, and then the world.  Stalin and Mao made closely parallel declarations regarding Russia (the Soviet Union) and China  as the lights of the emerging socialist utopia. They engineered even more horrendous slaughters of their subject peoples than Hitler did of most of the peoples of Europe combined. 

Until early modern times, European monarchs claimed “the divine right of Kings” as the basis of their rule.  God and the state were joined at the hip, and to challenge the anointed order was to engage in treason, lèse-majesté, and perhaps even heresy or blasphemy.  (In many Islamic countries, blasphemy is still a crime and punishable by death, and blasphemy is considered anything that puts into question Muhammad’s word or character, as well as anything raising an issue with Allah’s revelation in the Quran.)

The spirits of Rome did not simply vanish when Odoacer the Ostrogoth said there was no longer a Western Roman Emperor in 476 CE.  The spiritual principalities and authorities that stood behind Rome had already been presciently transferring and insinuating themselves into what would emerge as the Empire’s real successor. This was no longer a temporal empire held up by military might, intimidation, and coercion.  Rather, it was the newly rising spiritual power it chose to migrate to—the Catholic Church.  This was a much more subtle but perhaps effective method of entrenching itself in the hearts and minds of humanity—especially those of the West.  Reintroduction into the cruder methods of temporal sovereignty could come later.

Cultures and societies cannot “live by bread alone.”  They have a soul.  The Bible speaks of these powers and influences as actual spiritual entities—“the Prince of Persia” which opposed the angel sent to answer Daniel’s prayer, for example (Daniel 10:13).  The Apostle Paul speaks of “rulers, authorities, principalities, powers, spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly realms,” operating behind the facade of visible powers (Ephesians 6:12 is one reference to this).  When Jesus spoke with Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, he told him, “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.”

Judaism and Christianity are not alone in suggesting the presence of spiritual powers behind and within governments, societies, and regimes.  We scientific, sceptical moderns are now averse to using this kind of “woo-woo” language, but the reality of mysterious collective psyches and group dynamics remains.  The great psychiatrist Carl Jung postulated “unconscious collective [viz. hereditary] memory” to explain it.  Sensitive, attentive people frequently pick up such “vibes”.  We talk of “school spirit, team spirit, national/army/corporate morale” (a fancy word to describe the same essential dynamic at a group level).  Many people (including this writer) have personally experienced the phenomenon of sensing “the spirit in a place/person/home/group”—describing it as “positive, joyful, happy, peaceful, tense, explosive, angry, dark, etc.”  Migraines aside, people who see auras often diagnose these operative spirits with uncanny accuracy.

Rome bequeathed its operant, dominant spirits to the West: its sense of “divine mission” to civilize and bring equality and ‘liberation’ (subjugation to its superior system) to the ‘barbarians’, the lust for power, for control, for wealth, for cultural hegemony.  We see all of this abundantly displayed in the history of the West both in the actions and programmes of its governments and its long- and one-time most dominant cultural, social, and spiritual institution, the Roman Catholic Church.  Neither has it been absent from the Protestant and Orthodox branches of Christianity.

That is not to say that other imperialisms have not done likewise at different times in other locations—China and the Islamic Caliphates for example—or seek to do so today .  But the modern/post-modern era has been characterized by the rise to dominance of Rome’s successor civilization, that of the West.  Even if the West now defines itself as secular and Post-Christian, it is demonstrably neo-Roman.  In fact, it is now more Romanesque (Roman-like) than at any time since 476 CE. 

The parallels to the late Empire are uncanny, our cynical, blasé, jaded spirit and dependency on greater and greater displays of wealth poured out to entertain, divert, and amuse our increasingly disillusioned populace, for example.  Our art and cultural refinements and tastes are more and more dystopian and apocalyptic and less and less subtle and ‘refined’, just as the cultural producers and products of the third to fifth centuries CE of Rome had become mere tawdry imitators and imitations of the greats of the past. 

Like the late Roman regime of those last centuries, our governments tax heavily and almost crushingly in order to finance the increasing demands of a less resilient and more demanding populace.  As in those days, debt piles up with no end or prospect of ever repaying in sight, and the balance of payments slides ever more into the negative in favour external suppliers of the special luxury products which have become ‘necessities’ while we become less and less able or willingly to provide for our own real necessities.  Our money is more and more devalued and less and less based on the real economy.  The military sucks up huge outlays in order to protect a fading hegemony and keep the ‘barbarians’ outside the frontiers, while multitudes on the outside clamour to move in and get a piece of the lucrative and much easier to access pie which they see on the inside.  (The late Empire’s greatest cry of terror was, “The Goths are coming!”)

Like the later Emperors, our rulers have no solutions or even a clue as to how to manage an increasingly desperate global outlook.  Governments are made and unmade by the unscrupulous manipulation of popular will by elites seeking to gain some advantage over their rivals.  Back then, changes were made by coup and assassination of one faction against another.  Today, a degraded and increasingly discredited and highly manipulated ‘democratic process’ is the main instrument, although cruder methods are not entirely out of the question. 

In any case, during the late Empire, it was Rome’s ponderously ubiquitous and heavy-handed bureaucracy and judiciary which really ran things.  The ruling cadres were more and more oblivious to the real needs and cries of the mass of the population who watched the old foundations which once gave stability to life and dreams of fair opportunity for all sliding into impotency.  For Rome, credible moral leadership had all but vanished, and it was anything goes in the theatres and arenas—even the most outrageous displays were not only tolerated but lauded as great cultural examples and performances.  The most outstanding charioteers, athletes, and gladiators fascinated and enthralled the diversion-seeking populace.

Do we not recognize ourselves in this mirror?  Subtract our glitzy technology and the trappings of our wobbling democracy, and we are staring at a society that acts and smells and, on the inside, looks like our twin.  (If it looks like duck …) Just a tad upside down here and there.  Our elites mock Christianity and religion in general as outmoded superstition that has afflicted our consciences with false guilt while trumpeting the real guilt of religious genocide, of which, as the enlightened, the elites are not guilty.

Jesus once excoriated the Pharisees of his day for outwardly extolling the prophets while whitewashing their tombs–thus unconsciously demonstrating that they actually approved their murders by their own ancestors. Today’s secular rights legalists often “whitewash” or conveniently forget the misdeeds of their own logical ancestors–Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and, yes, even Mussolini and Hitler. Religion (Christianity above all) can now be discarded, or at least ignored because only the superstitious, unwashed masses insist on hanging on to some of its vestigial appurtenances.  The ancient elites up to the late Fourth Century CE also mocked the bothersome pretentions of Christian activists as outrageous and a drain on the empire’s moral, social, and military strength.

Sooner or later, the spirits (authorities, powers, principalities) that overshadow and characterize a place, a people, a group, a corporation, a union, a political party, and even a nation will flagrantly manifest themselves.  Jesus used to say, “Let those who have eyes see; those who have ears, let them hear!”  The ancient is now the modern—Rome reprise.

TO BE CONTINUED