The Third Way, 35: The Allure of Rome, Part 14 – Finale

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“The spiritual state of our time is characterized by curious paradoxes.  On the one hand, modern man is a naive realist—even a dogmatic absolutist—the material, sensual data being to him unquestionable reality.  If he speaks of reality in terms of indisputable certainty, he points to the material world, to the world of space, filled with matter.  But it so happens that modern science has shattered and riddled this compact conception of the world in such a way that modern man, without giving up his naive conception of reality, has at the same time become a sceptic…. Reverence for the quantum is, so to speak, the new version of the golden calf.”

Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilization, 1.  (London: Nisbet and Co., 1947), p. 31.

Brunner’s observation on the spiritual state of the world post WW2 is no less true 72 years after he pronounced it in a lecture in Scotland all those years ago.  Our sceptical, postmodern, progressive intelligentsia insist on the one hand that no such thing as “spirit” exists, or at least plays any role in what we experience.  Yet they appeal to the invisible absolute all the time in the domain of science; the unseen quantum and the unfathomable random govern all while we somehow, in complete contradiction, observe what seems like organized and analysable phenomena on every side.  We have the conceit that only today do we really know anything worth knowing (yet don’t really know what we profess to know)—even as we discount and eliminate whole categories of experience and accumulated wisdom that we cannot fit into these extremely narrow and limited models.  As Brunner puts it, “… the material, sensual data [are] to him unquestionable reality.”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said, “What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”  (Quoted in Metaphors be with you, an a-to-z dictionary of history’s greatest metaphorical quotations by Dr. Mardy Grothe.  HarperCollins, 2016, p. 191.)  Despite the likelihood that our long history with Rome will not teach us much, if anything, Rome will not go away, either in life or in this blog.  We ignore the weighty heritage we have received from it at our peril—yet ignore it we largely do and probably will continue to do in future.  Similarly, just as Rome will not go away, neither will our heritage from Christianity, as much and as vehemently as so many might like it to. 

The EU’s atrocious and gratuitous revision of the historical record in 2003 (see previous blog) notwithstanding, Europe is saturated with cathedrals, universities, institutions, ideas, ideologies, cultural treasures, memories good and bad, and consequences so deeply and complexly intertwined with its present that all the wishing in the galaxy cannot make it go away.  Europe, the birthplace of the West, is the product of an ancient super-state that lasted over 500 years.  But it is just as much, and perhaps even more, the product of an ancient faith that has infused its spirit and inspired so much of what it stands for that it is culturally and civically suicidal to abandon it.  Nonetheless doing its best to abandon it, the West slides ever deeper into hopeless confusion about what it is and who it is and who we, its sons and daughters, really are in our heart of hearts. 

But there it is: the city of Rome with all its reminders of past glory remains one of the top five tourist destinations in the world.  Europe from the northern reaches of England to the west bank of the Elbe in Germany, from the coast of Portugal to the Bosporus in Turkey, remains filled with Roman ruins and monuments that the curious dabbler and serious student can visit for the rest of their lives and never reach the end.  Much of the Middle East has all kinds of Roman remains as well, but conditions for touristic or scholarly visitation there are less than conducive at this juncture. 

Like the city of Rome, the Roman Catholic Church still stands and is likely to continue to do so, despite its beleaguered reputation and the disdain of multitudes.  It is good that it should, both as a historical institution that encapsulates so much of the West’s heritage and history, and, when it actually succeeds in acting more like what Jesus was aiming at, as a positive social and spiritual voice.  Protestants, Roman Catholicism’s wayward progeny, will also remain around, and they would do well to cast fewer stones at their living progenitor.  “Those who live in glass houses” and all that…

The West emerged from the ancient twin colossi of Imperial Rome and the Imperial Roman Church after a thousand years of struggle and reconfiguration.  That millennium, conventionally called “the Middle Ages”, was an adventure in figuring out what to do with the massive mountain of Roman remains — material, intellectual, spiritual, psychological, sociological, psychic, economic, cultural, etc., etc. — filtered by each of the successor people’s existing and developing characteristics as they emerged from barbarism.  Even conflicted Russia, on the cusp of where Europe meets the Orient, could not escape.  Japan, which decided 150 years ago to create a hybrid of Western and its own indigenous society, did not escape. 

Even China, still officially idolizing the likes of Marx and Mao, has not escaped and cannot escape.  After all, Socialism, Marxism, and Communism are derivatives of a progressive, utopian view of life and history rooted elsewhere, as is Capitalistic social democracy.  That “elsewhere” is a Biblical conception of linear time from Creation to Final Judgment and the coming of the Kingdom of God at the end, when all things will be resolved in love, peace, and justice for all, regardless of any distinction.  (“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” wrote the Apostle Paul.)  And the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth is the core message of Jesus and Christianity, at least when it is not suffering from amnesia.  That message has, by and large, been disseminated world-wide by the missionaries of the West.  Unfortunately, it was taken abroad much alloyed with other baggage which had wrapped itself around it and so became much confused with it.  This contamination has led to enormous negative side-effects which have greatly obscured the fundamental positive story of who Jesus is and what He did and is still doing.

As unpalatable as it no doubt is to some billions today, the reality of our global human society and current path of social evolution is that most of our major ideas and governing practical paradigms have emerged from the West’s specific ethos rooted in Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman soil.  It may not be politically correct to admit it, and it may be debated and denied among the academic hoi-polloi, but the human ecology and landscape of the 21st century is as it is because Rome and Judeo-Christianity have made it that way.

 That is why Brunner says justly, and as aptly now as when he first said it, that our progressive evolutionary paradigm is actually terribly naive and fundamentally flawed.  It is a dead end as a road of hope.  After all, what is the ultimate purpose?  Death and extinction lie at the end of it—however long from now that may prove to be.  There is nothing else, and all the struggles to make life better, more tolerable, more just, more equitable, are based on an ideology that is rooted in concepts of a perfect society borrowed from a faith that the same people who, nominally and perhaps really, strive for it profess to despise.

When they cannot face this they demonstrate a lack of integrity.  It is they who become guilty of the sin of willful ignorance of which they love to accuse the supposedly blindly naive and superstitious believers in a fundamentally good and beneficent Creator.  They cannot honestly face the reality that without a Creator their quest is only a plea to lessen misery while existence lasts.  There are so many contradictions in this that it would take a great volume to elucidate them all. 

It is a deliberate choice, quite succinctly put thirty years ago by Stephen Hawking, the supreme icon of postmodern Science.  In his conclusion to A Brief History of Time, the great astro-physicist and cosmologist admits that God is the admittedly most straightforward solution to the existence of time, which represents everything that exists.  But he then completely illogically jumps past his own logic, declaring, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis [God].” 

He is really saying that we (the ‘real’ scientific elite), cannot admit that that is the clear and most obvious and practical solution based on the evidence.  Somehow, sometime, based on pure faith in Reason and Science (the modern, postmodern, Enlightenment substitutes for Castor and Pollux, the twin gods of good fortune and hope in ancient Rome), we will find a non-God answer.  Until then we choose not to turn to God, although He/She/It is the elephant occupying almost the whole room we find ourselves in.  That is what Hawking was really saying without saying it.

As we observed in a previous post, the most admired philosopher of modern times among our intelligentsia is Friedrich Nietzsche, who already saw all these contradictions at least a hundred and twenty years ago.  Like Hawking, he deliberately chose to continue to hold on to them.  Eventually he drove himself to suicide because, as he well knew, his own solutions to our meaningless existence (such as a Superman ruling a Super-race which would emerge to lead humankind into the next exalted phase of evolution) were really soulless and empty.  That ideology was later adopted and personally believed as applying to himself and the German people with vicious zeal by a certain Adolf Hitler and his movement.  We all know the results, but we have begun to forget them to the point that we may well set off down the repeat-history road warned of by Schlesinger’s shortened version of Hegel’s observation: “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.”

Nietzsche’s most famous line is, “God is dead and we have killed Him.”  We live in a culture that thinks that because we declare God, the Creator, dead, that means that, for real, He/She/It is actually dead—never existed in fact.  The old Enlightenment philosophes used to call hard-core religionists “invincibly ignorant” because they seemed immune to all appeals to Reason and Science (the modern “Golden Calf” as Brunner puts it) to make them understand that there is no God and never has been.  No doubt for most of our entrenched postmodern neo-philosophes, people who cling to faith in (to their mind) an invisible, unknowable Creator, of whatever description, still are “invincibly ignorant”.  As we have seen, the shoe fits them as well as and even better than it does those who “cling to faith in a fictitious Deity.”

If turning once more to the Creator is part of our way forward, we must not make the mistake of trying to resurrect past failed approaches to Him/Her.  Yet that may well appear to be the most natural way of going about trying to restore or initiate such a relationship.  Hegel’s and Schlesinger’s warning is just as applicable in this respect.  Christendom (distinct from what Jesus really taught and meant) was not the answer, as we have seen in abundant detail over the course of this blog.  Trying to reinstate some sort of Christian-Secular Hybrid State will never bring the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in Heaven.”  Neither will an outright theocracy à la Islam where a Church-State holds all the power and enforces a slew of rules to compel everyone to behave rightly, justly, etc.  Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Krishna and many other great spiritual leaders emphatically denied the road of political power as a way to bring mass ‘salvation’ to the human race. 

The one major and unfortunate exception to this rule was Muhammad.  If history teaches anything about using the sword and harsh laws to compel and sustain belief, it is that ultimately this path will fail, but not before it inflicts terrible suffering and massive death.  Eventually the failure must and will become blatantly evident.  Then, if the oppressors will not mend their ways, and as Jesus once so cogently put it, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

What, then, is the ‘Third Way’ which we seek?  We have seen what it is not and cannot be.  What can and should it be, or, more aptly, what could it be like?  That is our quest.

The Third Way, 34: The Allure of Rome, Part 13 – Back to the Future

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                By 1650, it was quite clear that the shattered unity of Christendom was irreparable.  Humpty-Dumpty had fallen and all the Kings’, Emperors’, and Popes’ horses and men could not put him together again.  Surely at this juncture the hankering for Roman-type hegemony would fade into the dim pages of history?  There was now neither an Empire nor a Roman Church to unify the squabbling peoples of the West.

            Besides, a new way forward towards wisdom and understanding, one that was freeing the West from the shackles of religion which had cost millions of lives over more than a century of fraternal war, was awakening hope of a better, saner, and more balanced and rational future.  Everyone needed to break from theological fanaticism and dogmatic condemnation and anathemas.  It was even beginning to be safe to voice such ideas in some places.  The dawning of tolerance and toleration of differences within society was edging over the horizon in a few lands, such as England, the Netherlands, some minor German States (until 1806, Germany was a crazy geo-political jigsaw puzzle of over 300 sovereignties), and Switzerland.  Incidentally, these areas all happened to be Protestant.  If you were a dissenter in a Catholic land, best to keep your head down and your mouth shut, for the Inquisition was lurking and would continue to do so until the revolution in France (1789-99) broke the Church’s secular power once and for all.

This new way was Science, the path of Reason, rational discourse and discovery.[i]  Its early proponents and practitioners had to proceed cautiously, especially if they happened to be Roman Catholic and carried on their research in a Catholic state.  Everyone knows the story of Galileo (although few really know it, but rather a much mutilated version of it).  Incidentally, the real story of the relationship of religion (mainly Christianity) and science is also much mangled and has been caricaturized in stereotypical revisionist textbook accounts more like fable than the historical reality.  (Fake news anyone?)  We cannot really deal with this issue here today, but it would be worth a visit of some length in the future.

            For the increasingly militant proponents of the new knowledge, there were models to admire and emulate and to study ardently in the new curricula being gradually established in the universities.  National Academies were being created to reward research and grant recognition to the best and brightest.  The best-known example of this was England’s Royal Society, whose declared purpose was the promotion of new science, the scientific method, and discovery of all kinds based on rational pursuit of empirical knowledge.  England’s lead was imitated and followed widely and with success in France, the Netherlands, and Prussia, a new, rising power in Germany.

            Aristotle once more came forward, along with a host of other ancient Greek thinkers and philosophers who had dabbled in science (Pythagoras, Hiero, Ptolemy, etc.), and even the Romans, those most practical of ancient people and the master engineers of History.  Cicero, Juvenal, and Lucretius were much admired Roman rationalists.

            What was most admired among these ancient authorities was the ability to think independently, setting aside religious issues and questions.  After all, paganism was so varied that insisting that one set of gods and practices supersedes all others was a completely pointless exercise.  Those eminently sensible Romans simply said, “Believe in whatever gods you choose, or none at all.  Just observe the public ceremonies and acknowledge the ‘divinity’ of the Emperor for appearance’s sake.”

            Thus, we turn once more to the Greeks and Romans, as did many Enlightenment thinkers.  How should we pursue truth?  Well, let’s see how those admirable ancient sages did so.  Let’s discuss their thoughts and proposals.  Let’s study their literary output in depth.  Let’s really understand how language can be used and developed as a tool to express nuance—no better exemplars than Ciceronian Latin and Attic Greek.

            Let us do as Aristotle did, or Euclid, or Pythagoras, or many others, analysing nature and all sorts of subjects with insatiable curiosity and relentless application of observation and classification. 

Another subject needing elucidation in the light of science: what kind of government is most admirable and effective?  Two principal models stood out: Athens and Rome.  By far the most effective in all history was Rome.  But by far the most elegant and admirable in principle was Athens.   Regrettably, tumultuous Athens also proved the fragility (folly?) of democracy, whereas Rome had demonstrated five hundred years of continuity and two hundred years of rock-solid stability and relative tolerance, Christians aside, during the Pax Romana, (27 BCE -180 CE).  This was the doing of a series of “Enlightened Despots” (especially those beginning in 98 CE with Trajan and ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the remarkable ‘Philosopher-King’, in 181 CE), so that seemed to be a tenable option.

            Edward Gibbon’s monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a remarkable best-seller by late 18th C standards, was translated into every major European language.  It was the Enlightenment’s paean to the glory of ancient Roma.  It was a manifesto against the debilitating and nefarious effects of Christianity on the greatest civilization of all time (at least as Gibbon portrayed it).  By inference, it was the negative eulogy of a dying faith, at least as the Enlightenment philosophes conceived the upcoming eclipse of Christianity in favour of rational Deism, the updated version of that most venerable ancient philosophy, Stoicism. 

Gibbon’s verdict was that, like moles and termites eating the foundations of a magnificent edifice, Christianity had sapped the Empire’s moral and martial spirit and its general morale, destroyed the central vision and unity of a truly transnational, tolerant state, and betrayed all that was noble in the ancient world.  In its place, it gave Europe a millennium of Dark Ages (rather than Paradise on earth), religious bigotry, and factionalism.  It was time for the West to free itself from these chains of suppression, ignorance, superstition, and fanaticism.

            Other Enlightenment rationalist writers and thinkers (e.g. Diderot, D’Alembert, Voltaire) offered many other commentaries based on similar ideas.  They were great communicators and savvy manipulators of the mass media of the age, particularly print in an age of rapidly increasing literacy.  They invented newspapers and popular magazines, pamphlets and broadsheets, and that massive compendium of new learning, the Encyclopedia.  They founded coffee houses, salons, and new clubs to carry their torch and spread their gospel.  The overall tone of these learned works and places was (often not-so) subtly anti-Church and anti-Christian, although rarely overtly anti-Christ.  Once more, all this is far beyond what we can discuss at length here.

            One general effect was to resurrect the legacy of Rome and its Empire, to brush it off and reburnish it, once more making  its “Golden Age” (minus the infection of Christianity) a symbol and ideal which could be admired and even, perhaps, in the right circumstances, partially restored.[ii]

            Let us therefore see some of what we retain from the Romans in our history, besides a lot of interesting scenarios for nifty books, TV series, and spectacular films (The Robe, Ben-Hur, Gladiator, etc.).  Well, we have Latin, to begin with!  One of the Latin synonyms for ‘Emperor’ is Caesar (simply the retention of Julius Caesar’s name as a title).  The Germans and Austrians adapted it as ‘Kaiser’, while the Russians turned it to ‘Czar/Tsar’.  Via Napoleonic France, most of Europe’s legal codes are based on Rome’s massive law traditions as systematized under Justinian (Emperor of the East, 527-565 CE).  Via the Church, administrative and civil service models were to be found in the later empire’s methods, particularly as developed from the time of Diocletian (Emperor 284-305 CE) to Theodosius I (the Great, 379-395 CE).  For more than a millennium the Roman model of education (Trivium and Quadrivium) formed the pattern of western education right to the university level (once more via the Church).

            Imitation and emulation are the greatest forms of flattery and honour.  For 1500+ years Western governments, governors, and magistrates have continually resorted to the Roman model in practice and symbolism.  National, institutional, heraldic, and educational mottos have rarely used any language but Latin.  After the fall of the West (476 CE), for centuries the successor barbarian kings pretended allegiance to the Emperor in Constantinople in order to legitimize their rule in the eyes of the former Imperial subjects who formed the mass of the conquered population. 

The barbarian kings relied heavily on the resident Roman educated class to carry on a semblance of orderly rule, then on the Roman Catholic clergy.[iii]  They rather crudely tried to emulate Roman military organization, which had so long defeated them.  The Holy Roman Emperors used the eagle as their power symbol.  Remnants of Roman engineering prowess aided in construction and siege warfare.  These antiquities remained subjects of study then as they remain now.

            Imitators and claimants to the title and prestige of “Imperator” (Latin for Emperor) have remained part of European history, culture, and society since Charlemagne earned the title of “Emperor of the West and Holy Roman Emperor” in 800 CE.  Perhaps the most ardent and successful modern admirer and aspirant to this distinction was Napoleon Bonaparte, self-styled “Emperor of the French” (1804-1814, 1815). He deliberately avoided the phrases “Emperor of France” or “Emperor of the West” to show that his rule was based on the will of the people and his own efforts. 

Like Charlemagne, he was invested by the Pope (1804 CE), although he took the crown from the Pope and placed it on his own head.  Napoleon’s imperial legions used eagles as their martial emblems, like the Roman legions.  His Marshals carried batons with eagle-heads as their authority symbols.  Before being Emperor, Napoleon used the titles “Consul, First Consul, Consul for Life.”  Like Constantine, he made a strategic alliance (the 1802 Concordat) with the (Roman) Catholic Church to unify his people and cement his rule.  As mentioned above, his legal code, the “Code Napoléon”, which is still the foundation of French law and that of much of Europe via the expansion of French domination during Napoleon’s meteoric career, was inspired by and modeled on Justinian’s great code.

The United States has its share of Greco-Roman emulation and symbology, from its sloganry to its eagle, and much else.  Tsarist Russia used the two-headed eagle (facing east and west), an adaptation of Byzantium’s (East Rome’s) imperial symbol.  And the Kaiser’s Germany sported an imperial eagle on its very flag, while Nazi Germany stylized this for itself and had it emblazoned on military uniforms and symbols of power all over Europe.

The legend and mystique of Rome is still much with us, both “late and soon”.  As the West sleepwalks its way into abandoning and losing its heritage, the ghosts of the Caesars and the Eagles haunt us still.

Where does all this leave us in our spiritual meandering and searching for some sense of meaning and contact with the true, the just, and the beautiful? Perhaps there is another echo whispering, one of a resurrected Lord meeting Peter on the Via Appia as he headed into a Rome the Apostle had just fled, and Peter asking, “Quo vadis, Domine?”

Of that, more next time.


[i]  The capitalization of Science and Religion here is deliberate, as, for the “new thinkers” of what became known to us as “the Enlightenment”, they rapidly assumed the status of dogma.  Faith and belief are part of human nature and even our genetic makeup, so simply removing ‘Religion’ from one’s primary worldview does not obviate the need to believe and serve some kind of ultimate truth and reality.

[ii]  It is interesting to see how long this effect has lasted.  As recently as 2003, when the EU was adopting a constitution, its preamble pointedly ignored and virtually outright denied any debt to Christianity in the making of Europe as a society and transnational culture while extolling the great debt owed to the ancient glories of the Greco-Romans.  Revisionist History à outrance!

[iii]  In the year 212 CE, all free residents of the Empire were granted Roman citizenship, thus eliminating all local allegiances and national distinctions.  So a resident of Gaul became a Roman, as did an Egyptian, a Greek, a Syrian, a Macedonian, a Briton, a German, or a Spaniard.

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, 31: The Allure of Rome, Part 10 – Reform Longings

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“As the Middle Ages drew to a close, many advocates of reform were convinced that the greatest ill of the church was the obscurantism of what soon would be called the “dark ages.”  The printing press, the influx of Byzantine scholars, and the rediscovery of the artistic and literary legacy of antiquity gave credence to the hope that the furtherance of scholarship and education would produce the much-needed reform of the church.  If at some point in the past centuries practices had been introduced that were contrary to original Christian teaching, it seemed reasonable to surmise that a return to the sources of Christianity—both biblical and patristic—would do away with such practices. 

This was the program of the humanist reformers.”

Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 2, The Reformation to the Present Day.  (HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), p. 10.

This hope, that “a return to the sources of Christianity—both biblical and patristic—would do away with such practices,” inspired Erasmus, Thomas More, and others like them as thed into the 16th Century.  But the signals from the top were not very promising.  The series of “wicked Popes” that afflicted the Roman Catholic Church as the 15th C ended and the 16th began seemed to point to ‘more of the same’ and perhaps even worse, with open depravity and debauchery fouling the Holy See.  The Conciliar Movement had been swept aside by the brazen highhandedness of the nepotistic Curia under these Pontiffs.  There was open flaunting of the law of celibacy even at the Papal level and no evidence of observance of chastity or self-control.

A radical named Girolamo Savonarola had briefly brought a sort of revival and purging of the most flagrant abuses and moral outrages in Florence in the mid 1490s, but when he began denouncing the outright ‘paganism’  and ‘anti-Christ spirit’ of the current Pope, said Pope had manipulated his overthrown and subsequent condemnation and burning as a heretic in 1498.  A little later the massive fund-raising campaign to rebuild St. Peter’s and the Vatican as state of the art manifestations of the new cultural glories began.  All over Europe there were outcries from the humanists and the religious reformers alike at the grandiose scale of the undertaking to be financed on the backs of the whole continent, but the instructions from Rome were to forge ahead and ignore all the carping.  Prelates were directed to send contributions from their dioceses. Eventually, a supplementary campaign would be directed to the gullible unwashed who would buy into the indulgence promises for their dead loved ones and themselves when they would pass on. The “unwashed” did.  Local needs must be met by local tithes and offerings on top of everything else.

For the 99% of the at least nominally Roman Catholic population of Europe west of Muscovy and north of the Balkans in the early 1500s, Rome was the ‘Holy City’, the awesome place where dwelt the exalted personage of Christ’s earthly representative.  They held all kinds of fantastic notions about the place and the person who sat on the lofty gold-leafed throne that shone like heaven’s seat itself.  To make pilgrimage to Rome was an ambition only next to the now all-but-impossible idea of pilgrimage to the Holy Land, once more locked firmly in the mail-fisted Islamic grip.

Pilgrims traveling to Rome in the last 100 years before Western Christianity blew itself apart, disillusionement often proved tbiggest outcome.  The tawdriness of Rome in those days quickly disabused many visitors.  The ardent pilgrims were viewed as sheep to be fleeced by the wily Roman populace.  Everything in Rome came at a price—access to pilgrimage sites, masses and novenas for the peace and remission of one’s own or one’s loved ones’ sins, a brief instant of audience time in the Papal presence, outrageous prices for food and accommodation, and the prospect of being waylaid and robbed on the roads and byways around or in the city itself. 

Visitors to the city often left minus the aura of holiness they may well have arrived with thanks to the army of priests and mountebanks peddling relics, medals, rosaries, and making outrageous claims for the spiritual blessings and benefits they came with.  It took a heavy dose of credulity to accept that the red-robed “Princes of the Church” parading in jewels and expensive robes and carried to and fro in fancy sedan chairs or carriages by legions of liveried servants and escorted by Papal guards were the living vessels of Christ’s grace and mercy who dispensed His favour to a yearning people.  If the Pope was even glimpsed, he seemed far removed from the pictures of the poor, simple Jesus one saw in the stained glass of the churches or heard about in the Gospel stories.

Such a visit, in company with other monks of his Augustinian Monastery, illuminated and disillusioned the mind and spirit of a young German monk named Martin Luther in 1510.  Luther never forgot that visit or its impact on him.  He remained an obedient servant of his Order as he departed, but his awe for Rome and its Papal monarch had evaporated.  The full fruition of this would explode a little over a decade later.

The humanists were not the only ones hoping for some miracle of awakening to turn the hearts of the people and the drift of the church and society away from some sort of cosmic upheaval.  Surely the renewed advance of Islam into Europe after the dismal failure of all the Crusades to stem the tide, and most recently the Fall of Constantinople, the bastion protecting Europe’s Eastern door, were signs of God’s judgment and displeasure?  And yet the secular Princes did not seem to care as they set out to enrich themselves by seeking to “do and end-run” around the Turks to the fabled riches of the Orient.  True, they had found some distant new lands far across the great ocean, and there were barbarian pagans there to exploit and perhaps convert— if they weren’t first massacred by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors posing as agents of Christ the King via his stand-ins, their earthly sovereigns.  But the tales of Spain’s newly found riches and some thousands of forced baptisms hardly boded a massive spiritual renewal.

More quietly and far less conspicuously, the Brethren of the Common Life worked at the grass roots level, seeking to build community in the towns and cities where the regular institutional church agencies mostly failed to touch the hearts and souls of simple people.  The Brethren did not seek Papal benediction.  Nor did they always approach the Pope’s hierarchical deputies, the Bishops, or the Bishop’s deputies, the parish priests, for approval to establish houses, schools, and centres. 

They focused on providing education to the less advantaged.  They encouraged daily prayer and meditation and study of Scripture and the lives of the saints.  The principle of voluntarism allowed adherents to choose their own level of involvement.  Some took personal vows, but there was no obligation to remain single and take a lifelong vow of chastity or obedience to religious superiors.  They all contributed to a common purse, but having some of one’s own money was allowed as well.

It is unfortunate that the culture of the time gave few options to young women.  Girls’ education, including literacy and numeracy, was entirely at the discretion of the parents, and especially the father.  If not done at home with a tutor or perhaps through the mother or, very rarely, the father, the girl might be entrusted to a convent.  But it is still possible to see the hunger for relationship with the Creator among women very much in evidence, and there were indeed very notable exemplars of some who even gained high reputations and influence.  Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich are two such, and there are many others.

There seemed a sort of ‘quiet before the storm’ as the 1510s moved along.  Perhaps it was more the numbness of hopelessness, what with the holders of temporal and spiritual power so firmly anchored in the status quo when the need for drastic spiritual and social reform was so evident to all—even the peasants and labourers in the countryside and cities.  National rivalries continued to fester and block meaningful steps forward, lest somebody lose some real or perceived position of advantage or influence.  Radicals such as the remnants of the Waldensees and Lollards were still hunted and executed, despite a growing grass-roots sympathy for them.

Perhaps the most salient critique of the absurdity of the situation came from Erasmus of Rotterdam, the most reputable Christian humanist of the day.  His The Praise of Folly (1509) was a scathing exposé of all the clichés of superficial Medieval spirituality—pilgrimages, relics, physical self-punishment (such as auto-flagellation), fasts, the corruption of so many monasteries and convents, and the flagrant wealth and exploitation of the laity by the church hierarchy.  He wrote the book as a satire in order to avoid censure and condemnation as a heretic for his exposition, and he got away with it.  Even the most obtuse reader could identify everything he “praised” as sadly all too true.  The book was an immense success in terms of the literate public of the day.  But, if everyone with a conscience knew how true it all was why was it so impossible for anything to be done to address all these abuses?

The time for action was past-due, and the patience to wait was fast evaporating.  Kings and Emperor laughed in their sleeves at the Papacy while continuing to pay it lip-service and depend on its role to maintain a spiritually flaccid populace.  The successive Popes were happy to receive tithes and due honours while enjoying the immense benefits of a seemingly unassailable ultimate authority over people’s allegiance.  The Renaissance humanists applied their newly gained philosophical and cultural perspective rooted in the ancient masters of Greece and Rome to find solace from the moral and intellectual wasteland they saw in the decaying body of Christendom.  They advised other discomfited thinkers and sympathizers to do likewise.

TO BE CONTINUED

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, 29: The Soul of the West

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(Note to readers: The series on “The Allure of Rome” will be continued at a later time.  Periodically, it will be interrupted by other topics.)

“The totalitarian revolutions, with their practice of inhumanity, lawlessness and depersonalising collectivism, were nothing but the executors of … so-called positivist philosophy, which, as a matter of fact, was a latent nihilism, and which, towards the end of the last [19th] and the beginning of this [20th] century, had become the ruling philosophy of our universities and the dominating factor within the world-view of the educated and the leading strata of society.  The postulatory atheism of Karl Marx and the passionate antitheism of Friedrich Nietzsche can be considered as an immediate spiritual presupposition of the totalitarian revolution of Bolshevism on the one hand and National-Socialism [Nazism] or Fascism on the other.  That is to say, the prevalent philosophy of the Occident had become more or less nihilistic.  No wonder that from this seed that harvest sprang up which our [the WW2] generation reaped with blood and tears …”

Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation, First Part: Foundations, (London: Nisbet and Co., Ltd., 1948), p. 3.

Little has changed in the mindset of “the educated and leading strata” of Western society since Emil Brunner spoke these words in 1947 as he began the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in Edinburgh, Scotland.  We may add the newer variation of nihilism called postmodernism, but Nietzsche and nihilism still command a huge following, supplemented with Foucault, Marcuse and other more recent, trendy figures, including some hard-left feminist voices.  Existential desperation and despair still rule academia, and no hope of more than a very transient and contingent reprieve is even hinted at.  Meaning in the cosmic sense has faded from view.  We now find only stop-gap contingencies to prolong our tenuous hold on hope—causes to fight for (climate change or gender mutability, anyone?), methods of “self-actualizing oneself to the fullest” during the brief candle of our swiftly-passed sojourn on our freakishly incredible little speck of cosmic dust we call Planet Earth.

Literally, “nihilism” means belief in nothing (nihil = nothing in Latin, + ismus = belief in).  On its own, it is a strange and self-contradictory term.  No one can really believe in nothing, for one must at least believe that one exists in order to actually ‘believe’ a thing, even if we declare that belief as ‘nothing’ or non-existence.  The belief itself, however abstract and ethereal, is a thing we believe and believe in.  One can believe that it all means nothing, but not that nothing exists, at least not with real conviction.

In truth, a nihilist cannot really be a nihilist.  She may be like Descartes, who began his Meditations on the nature of reality with his famous declaration of universal, radical doubt that anything at all actually exists, even himself.  But she can only at last arrive at the same place as Descartes—admitting that she is actually ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is) because she is thinking.  As Descartes concluded, it will not answer to posit that perhaps, after all, I am merely an idea in another, greater being’s mind.  In that case, even if that were a possibility (which it can be shown not to be since one has the actual power of independent thought), at least the other, greater being exists to have the ‘thought’ which self-identifies as “I think, therefore I am.”

Brunner’s lectures were given in the immediate wake of World War 2, and he was seeking to understand how the West had “come to this pass.”  His diagnosis is completely brilliant and as relevant, and perhaps even moreso, today as when he composed it and shared it.  We may have seen most of the totalitarian dictatorships crumble into the dustbin of history since 1945, but nihilism and Nietzschean despair live on.  Mockery of the Creator and even the idea of His/Her existence also lives on, declaring, like Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, in the face of the ever-increasing, quietly accumulating scientific (yes, scientific!) evidence to the contrary, “I see nothing; I hear nothing; I know nothing.”  Schultz was choosing to see, hear, and know nothing, and so do our ultra-modern-postmodern nihilists.  As an old friend used to say, “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts!”

After all, a real, existing Creator, leaving His/Her stamp, image, and signature everywhere for “those who have eyes to see and ears to hear” to perceive, will actually require me to admit I am not my own creator and god, and neither am Ithe actual creator of my own reality.  If I am to be the least bit really honest about that reality, I must admit that I don’t control it.  Then I will have to admit that I am truly accountable and responsible to Someone/Something much greater than myself for the of life I have been given.  As the New Testament puts it, “You are not your own; you have been bought with a price.”  I would need to seek the Creator’s purposes and my place within them in order to achieve harmony with what really is, including within my own being.

It is all very well to say, as the ‘progressive’ nihilists who may confess a sort of transient, temporary (and, yes, even fifty billion contingent years is temporary) existence of something destined to implode and return to nothing that, as the only (as far as we know) self-aware extrusions of the Cosmos, we are responsible to care for the fragility of life in all its forms until we and it inevitably pass into oblivion.  The greatest of nihilist gurus, Nietzsche, has already given the simple, callous, and brutal but completely realistic answer, in the form of a question, to this apparent altruism towards an ultimately meaningless and aberrant ‘something-out-of-nothing-destined-to-return-to-nothing’: “Why?”

Nietzsche is rarely read straight-up by those who claim to proclaim his gospel.  Rather, he is read and admired in dribs and drabs by the “‘wise of this age”, as Paul of Tarsus described the similar folk of his day two thousand years ago.  But Nietzsche is not really taken at his word even by those who claim to be his evangelists.  He said that the meaning of everything, in so far as any meaning is to be found, is only in seizing “the will to power”.  “God is dead and we have killed him,” he said.  (A Theist wag’s reply to this from God’s perspective: “Nietzsche is dead and I’m still here!”). 

The angst-driven, postmodern existentialist turns the “will to power” into, “The will to make yourself whatever you choose, to make meaning whatever you choose.”  Although Nietzsche would not contradict this, he would chide, “But this is not enough.”  I-myself as “God” is so small as to be ridiculous.  But most humans do not have the courage to admit that underneath this revolt against the Creator there really IS nothing to support the claim that we can define reality as we see fit.  The void left by the Creator can only be finally and fully filled when I, the creature, accept who I really am in relationship to Him/Her, the Creator.   Most of us cannot live with true nihilism, for the only position really left to the true nihilist is despair.  Even Nietzsche finally killed himself because he couldn’t find real hope even in his own myth of the Superman and Super Race.  We all desperately want our own existence to mean something real,and we cannot live without some substantial meaning to which we can anchor our lives and identities.

Brunner observes that worldviews inevitably shape the civilisations where they take root.  He then looks at the West and its relationship to Christianity, and the consequences of the West’s rejection of its strongest foundation.  This suicidal rejection is an exceedingly perplexing phenomenon, just as the emergence of anything called a “Christian civilisation” was a mystery in the first place, given that The New Testament says nothing whatsoever about creating such a thing.  It talks much of “the Kingdom of God” and how it contrasts to “this age” or the system of “the world”.  It is radically countercultural in the truest sense, and yet, when it took hold, it spawned the richest and most open culture and society the world has ever seen.  And now we find that the children of this culture have decided, like children so often do, that the parents know nothing and never did, and they can do infinitely better without all that old-style discipline and talk of morality and moderation and accountability to a greater Being and greater good.

Our journey in this blog has been to explore elements of this story and, like a blind person with a walking stick, to tap our way forward towards a “Third Way” of truly knowing the Creator and understanding our relationship with Him/Her.  As we move forward, we also need to look backward, for our fore-parents were not stupid and probably not as blind as we have chosen to make ourselves or make them out to have been.  People across all cultures and ages have been seeking harmony within themselves and with the creation and whatever or whomever brought it into being.  Therefore, wisdom and insight can be found in various traditions and quests, as well as insight in how not to travel this road.  In every age people have blundered into ditches or, even worse, a terrible morass by adopting insane, reality-denying and destructive notions of what is and what it means.  Now, in the 21st Century, the West has lost its way and must once more go seeking its soul.