The Third Way, 28: The Allure of Rome, Part 8 – Wycliffe and Chaucer

A good man was ther of religioun,

And was a povre Persoun of a toun;

But riche he was of holy thoght and werk.

He was also a lerned man, a clerk,

That Cristes gospel trewly wolde preche;

His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.

Benign he was, and wonder diligent,

And in adversitee ful pacient …

Geoffrey Chaucer is the best-known English poet of the Middle Ages.  His lifetime also happens to span the period of tremendous turmoil we were considering in the previous post to this one.  He and most of those he served at England’s court as a secretary and bureaucrat survived the ravages of the Plague, while witnessing the early stages of the Hundred Years War.  He was an early Renaissance man, and helped English finally emerge as the dominant language of government and society in England.  He made himself a master of it and did much to fashion it into the flexible, powerful communication tool it has become.  He played a role in making it “respectable” for educated people to use it every day at court and in official business because, despite being a great linguist in his own right, he preferred it over the ‘superior’ tongues of Latin, Italian, and French, all of which he knew and spoke with facility.

Chaucer was a contemporary with another great scholar and force of that age, John Wycliffe (1320-1384).  There is no evidence the two ever met, but it is certainly not impossible, and is even probable.  Wycliffe was a chaplain to King Edward III for some years in the early 1370s and Chaucer was frequently at court.  Wycliffe was also a master of Latin and certainly knew French.  He was a professor at Oxford University, and for a time was considered the leading light among its faculty and quite popular with students.  His work would have enormous impact on Western culture and society over the next two centuries at least.  In his way, he contributed perhaps even more to the emergence of the modern world than Chaucer, although he is now mostly a footnote in religious and cultural studies. 

Chaucer was religious in a conventional way, as was required of those moving in the upper echelons of late Medieval society.  He would not ‘rock the boat’—although his unfinished ‘magnum opus’, The Canterbury Tales, raised many of the really important issues facing the culture of that time.  He had already published other, well-received works.  The Tales were only published posthumously, whereas Wycliffe’s work went very public during his lifetime and shook the very foundations of English society. 

It would have been extremely interesting to have listened to these two converse about the problems of their age, especially of society and church.  They had a common link which could have made that happen: they both enjoyed the patronage and protection of John of Gaunt (Gaunt being Ghent in Belgium), the ‘black sheep’ of the royal family.  Gaunt was also known as the Black Prince, and was the fourth son of King Edward III.

Wycliffe sought what we have been calling ‘The Third Way’.  He diligently studied the New Testament, assessing the whole ecclesiastical and social system of the time as aberrant from Christ’s true Kingdom.  He lamented the alienation and estrangement of the humble folk from the sacramentalism which seemed most suited to hold the populace bound in submission to the clergy and their lordly allies as they used their hard-won and meagre wealth and offering little solace and practical support in return.  He became more and more convinced that the paradigm of Christendom had to change and that it represented very little of what Jesus had taught by example and word. 

After all, Jesus had not gone to the religious establishment of his day to initiate the Kingdom of God.  From the day of his birth he had lived, ministered, and died among the humble, the outcasts, the downtrodden, the hopeless, those scorned and rejected by the rich and powerful.  From the first, the worldly powers, in the person of Herod the great, had sought Jesus’ death. 

Wycliffe agonized about how to bring Jesus back to the common mass of people of his time and country.  The whole sacral system depended on everyone meekly accepting their God-ordained lot as serf, free holder, landless labourer, apprentice, etc., while turning to the Church to ensure access to God’s mercy and grace for the hereafter.  The priest and prelate were the instruments dispensing this mercy and grace via the sacraments and sacramentals, the intermediaries ordained to advocate with the great Judge. 

Wycliffe concluded that the Good News had to be taken directly to the people, just as Jesus and the disciples had done.  He determined that Jesus had eliminated the need for a special class of intermediaries when he died on the cross as the ultimate, final sacrifice for sin and alienation from God.  The true and final authority in God’s family was his Word, not a Pope or set of “Princes of the Church” who mocked God with their scandalous lives and opulent lifestyle supported by the poor and hard-working faithful.  God the merciful and loving is everywhere and does not need a special ‘holy place’ to meet his people.  The people themselves are his temple and his body.  The people had to be able to hear and even read the story for themselves, ending their dependence on half- and even un- educated priests who cared little if at all for their temporal welfare, let alone their fate in eternity.

Wycliffe’s predecessor at Oxford, William Ockham  (1280-1349), had shared many of the same views about the Papacy and the Church.  He had been condemned as a heretic in 1326 and excommunicated.  Similarly, the dissidents in the 12th and 13th Centuries in France and Italy, the Waldensees and Humiliati, had already been much persecuted and killed for holding many of the same views and their stubborn remnants were still hunted. Thus Wycliffe fully understood his eventual probable fate.

Wycliffe was too outspoken, and for this he was ejected from his teaching post at Oxford and his royal appointment as a chaplain.  He was confined to his parish of Lutterworth where it was hoped he would fade into obscurity.  But he did not.  Many of his students and hearers followed him.  He began a great project of re-evangelization of England, knowing his time was limited and he could look forward to ultimate condemnation and probable execution.  His enthusiastic disciples agreed to help him to translate the Bible into English, make multiple manuscript copies, and then take it to the humble folk in their villages and towns.

Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic in 1384, six years after the western Great Schism of two rival Popes began.  John of Gaunt was politically forced to withdraw his protection.  The priest of Lutterworth was to be arrested, but he inconveniently died before they could get to him.

The sheen of Rome’s appeal was much tarnished in those years.  Kings, Princes, and Emperors all resisted and resented the imperial Papacy and ultimately refused to accept its claims to final authority in things temporal as well as spiritual.  But the allure of absolute spiritual sovereignty still carried great weight.  There was still the call to unity in Christendom, at least in theory and doctrinal and ritual conformity. 

If, as Scripture says, there is “one God, one faith, one baptism, one Lord and Father of all” then to threaten the unity of Christendom by questioning the Church’s central authority to define “God, faith, baptism (who is in and who is not)” was to threaten the very community under the Lord and Father of all who had created the Church and given it the final authority over spiritual things, including matters of salvation and how to achieve it.   But that was the very nub of all the disputes that were brewing. Was the Church under an absolutist spiritual monarch the true Church as Jesus and the Apostles had first created it, the church of God’s family?  Or was it an aberrant, corrupt hybrid, as more and more were beginning to suspect and question?  Was the whole office of “Pope” and “Vicar of Christ on earth” a human usurpation in the old pagan Roman spirit rather than the Holy Spirit’s way of guiding those seeking to know and worship the Creator “in spirit and in truth,” as Jesus had put it?

TO BE CONTINUED

The Third Way, 27: The Allure of Rome, Part 7 – Black Death

“I AM WHO I AM; I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE; tell them that I AM has sent you.” Yahweh-Adonai to Moses, Exodus 3: 14.

The scholars were awake.  The artists were awake.  New-old knowledge and truth was beginning to bring excitement and hope to the longing lands of the West in the early decades of the 14th Century.

Then came the horrendous Black Death (1347-51), coupled with the calamity of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) engulfing the western Kingdoms of France and England.  A war on that scale and of that duration could not but greatly impact the neighbouring states as it ran its course. Tentacles reached into Spain and Portugal, Italy, the Lowlands, and the Empire.  The Plague devastated all of Europe, North Africa, and western Asia in a few brief years.  We forget that it had already snuffed out millions in Central and Eastern Asia in the late 13th and early 14th Centuries.

Surely it must be the Apocalypse!  And on top of all this there was the festering Papal schism, the Pope in Rome versus the Pope in Avignon, in the Western Church.  It seemed a fitting retribution for provoking the yawning divide between eastern and western Christendom in the Great Schism of 1054.  Christendom seemed reduced to a shadow, a shattered community, and the dual and then triple Papacy’s claims to spiritual leadership a mockery.  The secular leaders ignored the plight of their suffering peoples and the spiritual leaders squabbled, blamed, and anathematized one another.  Who really cared for the poor survivors of the sweeping devastation unleashed by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?  Even the dedicated caregivers perished along with those they cared for.  Best to flee and hope you could somehow escape God’s wrath.  Even God seemed to have turned his back and declared that the edifice of Christendom should be torn down to the foundations.

Now, almost eight centuries after these horrific multiple whammies, which historians and other analysts estimate to have wiped out between a quarter and third of Europe’s total population of perhaps eighty million between 1347 and 1351, we have mostly forgotten this even occurred.  We imagine the calamity of World War 2 to have been the worst event in human history, but it pales in proportion to this period of woe.  The devastating Spanish flu of 1918-19, the last real pandemic in recent history, pales in perspective despite its estimated global death toll of sixty million.  The plague did not tear or bomb down structures, but it left whole towns and regions deserted, ghost-like vestiges that the wilderness swallowed in a few decades.

Losing twenty to twenty-seven million of eighty million meant economic and social chaos for entire countries.  In comparison, the Soviet Union lost 22 million out of 160 million in WW2.  Germany lost 6 million out of 80 million.  Only the Jewish loss of 6 million out of a world population of about 12 million (9 million in Europe) is comparable, but the Jewish population was dispersed among many nations rather than concentrated[i].  (This is not meant to minimize the Holocaust or any nation’s national loss in WW2 in any way.)

If God had seen fit to unleash such wrath on Christendom, gross spiritual and moral bankruptcy must be the cause.  Had not Francis of Assisi and other reformers been sent to prophetically warn and call the faithful to repentance?  And had their call not been ignored or reduced to a token by those who should have heard and led the way back to the Creator and his order for creation and humanity?  Who could have faith in leaders who spent their time seeking power and reward in this world, living as if the poverty of Christ had been completely irrelevant to his whole message?

Repentance seemed in order, and, with families and communities destroyed, crowds of penitents took to wandering and preaching judgment and repentance, punishing themselves in pleas for Divine mercy.  Others refugees resorted to pillage and banditry, as local authority disintegrated and resources were scarce.  Besides, who was to stop them (except when God’s judgment finally caught up)?  In areas where the devastation had somehow been lesser, a semblance of order was reasserted by local lords or towns, and the lords used their men-at-arms to chase the outlaws and vagabonds off to easier pickings, as did the town magistrates by recruiting town militias of upstanding citizens.

What was to be gleaned from the catastrophe once it became clear that the end of the age had not come, but that God had granted a new reprieve?  As with all disasters, the responses were of two kinds: (1) to see the hand of God and the need to reform life both collectively and personally, (2) to decide that the Creator, if He/She is there at all, is not the benevolent, merciful being they had been told about, but either a capricious fiend or an indifferent tyrant.  If the first, change and renewal would have to come from the people, for the leadership were mired in their sin and showed no signs of turning from it.  If the second, then it would be best to begin to enjoy what there is to enjoy in this world and not waste time on appeasing an unappeasable or indifferent Creator.

At any rate, how was it possible to return to what had been before, to reassert the old bonds of fealty and order and duty of each of the three Orders (Estates, as the French called them)—clergy, nobility, commoners?  Nobles and clergy may have suffered somewhat less by being able to isolate themselves more effectively when the plague had passed through their region, but all had been severely affected.  Serfs found their masters dead, vassals found their liege lords gone, or lords had lost those who were supposed to support their rule and receive their fealty.  Many had lost most and even all those they cared about in the world.  Serfs abandoned their lands and wandered to find more generous situations, or went to the towns to live as free townspeople.  Old records were burned or became irrelevant. Labour was scarce and money was to be made.  Men-at-arms went to find more favourable lords or ran off to become freebooters.  New lords asserted themselves by taking control of areas left without a lord, then offering fealty to whichever superior liege would give the best terms.  Towns gained greater autonomy in return for direct loyalty to the sovereign, thus gaining independence from feudal obligations in return for taxes and militia during war.

But where was hope to be found?  Was life just short and brutal with no more significance than finding the maximum comfort and least pain in its brief span?  Few openly questioned that there was a Creator-God, but if there was, how was He/She to be related to?  The Church had lost much of its moral authority and its leaders offered no answers except more of the same old rituals and dogmas, or the idea of being more diligent in piety and abnegation.  Certainly, there were movements in that direction, and new devotions and strivings, but there were huge questions still hanging: Why?  What must be done? 

There were voices suggesting God must be sought apart from and beyond these things, or that the Gospel (and therefore Jesus, the Lord) had in fact had been betrayed by the selfish elite. He must now be rediscovered and made real once more.   There was also an awakening to the challenge of new knowledge and ancient wisdom.  Were we to continue to deny the goodness of the creation we find all around us?  Were we not made to appreciate it and discover God’s love within it?  In this, the ancient sages had much to tell.  If the Golden Age’s sages and example were to be taken seriously, it might help find a way forward.

Like a tremendous earthquake, The Black Death sent aftershocks.  For example, more localized outbreaks brought more horror to London and southern England in 1368.  The people found the Church unable to answer, but surely God must stay his hand in answer to all the prayers, entreaties, flagellation, repentance in sackcloth, pilgrimages, and works of charity which the survivors proliferated.  The quarrels among rival Popes and prelates and the political manipulation by Kings and Emperor of these rivals only bespoke the complete bankruptcy of hoping for renewal from on high.  It would have to come from the grassroots, and, it seemed, it would need to be more assertive about the evils at play than Francis’ inspired and admirable way through submission to authority while preaching self-denial and the Gospel of poverty.  It would also have to surpass Thomas’ intellectual spirituality in accessibility, using simpler means to communicate the Gospel truth in a way everyone could receive.

TO BE CONTINUED


[i]  In the 1930s, Poland and the Soviet Union had the largest Jewish populations, and the three million Polish Jews were almost wiped out by the Nazis.  This represented about 10% of Poland’s pre-war population, a very significant number.  Soviet Jewry lost about 1½ million, accounting for about 1% of the Soviet population, and 7% of all Soviet war deaths.

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

“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, 23: The Allure of Rome, Part 4

The allure of Rome flows from our very human desire to achieve the ideal society.  Somehow, for many, the saga of ancient Rome’s centuries-long ‘glory’ seems to have reflected that ambition.  The lustre of memory too easily forgets the ugliness of how Rome achieved and maintained its enduring supremacy.  That is why the wide-winged eagle remains a prime symbol of power and sovereignty for nations with imperial aspirations—the Hapsburgs, Tsarist Russia, Napoleon, the USA, Nazi Germany.  Those who aspire to political and social greatness in the eyes of their fellows find Rome’s tale fascinating.  Surely with all our science and technological prowess we can do even better! 

Selective memory is not a new phenomenon.  The much idolized Alexander the Great created a vast empire by cutting a swath of ruthless destruction from Greece to Afghanistan and the borders of India.  He sought immortal fame and glory, claiming he was chosen by the gods, and was in fact a “son of god”, variously named Ares, Zeus, Baal, or Amon-Ra; he claimed them all as “father” according to the audience.  If he was lenient from time to time it was strictly for political reasons; in general he squashed the resistance like bugs, utterly annihilating Thebes (Greek, not Egyptian) and Tyre, for example, and slaughtering hundreds of thousands.  He spared Athens from this wrath only because of the pleas of Aristotle and some other of his advisors.  Yet, despite his megalomania and concomitant atrocities, he is revered as a great unifier, humanity’s benefactor and promoter of universal brotherhood.  Islam even elevates him among the twenty-eight recognized prophets.

Rome’s genocides were multiple, but the most complete were those of Carthage (149-146 BCE) and Judea.  Carthage, Rome’s major competition in its ascendance to empire, was utterly, deliberately, and permanently destroyed.  Not a stone was left standing on another and the city site was plowed level and sown with salt.  An estimated million people were slain in that hecatomb.

The Roman conquests of Gaul (France, for the most part) and Britain included the extermination of whole recalcitrant tribes and the relentless extirpation of the Druids.  Even the imperial Roman historian Tacitus reported a British chieftain’s observation that the “Pax Romana” was founded on total destruction of opposition: “They created a desert and called it peace.”  After all, it was for “greater good” over the long term.  The barbarians who refused Rome’s mission to pacify, unite, and “civilize” the world must be erased and room made for those who were more worthy (compliant and complaisant).

Judea was effaced permanently from the map in two separate wars of rebellion.  In the first (Zealot) rebellion (66-73 CE), the estimated carnage was 1-1.5 million killed and another half million enslaved.  The second (Bar-Kochba) rebellion (133-135 CE) saw another half-million put to the sword.  Jews were banned from Palestine and Jerusalem rebuilt as a Roman city called Aemilia Capitolina—no Jews permitted under Rome.  It became a largely Gentile city for the next 1700+ years.  It was given its original name again by Constantine.

Rome’s vaunted tolerance and clemency was strictly limited to the dictates of imperial policy.  Generally speaking, slaughtering the population was bad economics, although many got rich on the spoils.  Depopulation is not conducive to a healthy tax base.  Europe’s ‘tolerance’ during the Middle Ages and into modern times was also largely a matter of convenience, although some Christian leaders objected to pogroms and massacres promulgated in Christ’s name.  The oft-extolled toleration of the Islamic Caliphates and Ottomans was no better, and too often reflected the work of Alexander, Rome, or Genghis Khan to qualify as anything like Allah’s primary qualities of mercy and compassion.

The Roman Emperor Constantine I, the ‘Great’ (305-337 CE), officially tolerated Christianity, making it an accepted and encouraged faith, but not an exclusive one (Edict of Milan, 312 CE).  Theodosius I, the ‘Great’, ended Rome’s brief era of real toleration and, in 385 CE, made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, denying paganism and Judaism any standing and closing their places of worship. 

After Constantine, the Catholic Church, the official, orthodox expression of Christianity, had become increasingly an organ of the state, an auxiliary to the established secular power.  (The term ‘secular’ as we understand it never applied to ancient, Medieval, or early modern states.  It was used strictly as an adjective indicating ‘of this present age before the Millennial Reign of Christ’.)  It is from this time that we may speak of the emergence of the idea of ‘Christendom’—the lands where Christ is acknowledged as the ultimate, Divine ‘King of kings’.  In the concept of Christendom, earthly sovereigns hold sway while, at least theoretically, they owe Christ allegiance.

For more than a millennium Rome’s old spiritual ethos seemed to have lost the war to stay in control.  The new political regimes and gradually evolving national kingdoms  paid lip service to Christ’s Kingdom of humility, compassion, mercy, and caring for the downtrodden, but delegated these sorts of humane and compassionate service to the Church as Christ’s ‘mystical body’ at work in the world until his real, visible, physical return, whenever that might be.  For centuries, this system worked more or less effectively through the dedication and commitment to selfless service of many persons who sought to be Christ’s hands and feet to the suffering and oppressed. 

But, as we know, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” (a truism coined by Lord Acton, a British 19th Century historian).  The old allure of Rome’s distant echo rose from the ancient ruins and distant memories: “Once upon a time there was a great empire … Remember?  Once upon a time, there was unity among the peoples, and there was a golden age of peace and plenty (the 200-year Pax Romana) … Remember?  Once upon a time there were no petty kings and squabbling, feuding nobles sowing destruction and mayhem wherever you turn; there was a single great Emperor who gave wise, or at least firm, government and preserved peace and order.  The Emperor ensured safety and protection from marauders, pirates, bandits, and barbarian invaders … Remember?  Look about and you can see the remnants of the monuments, the great cities, the splendid roads and aqueducts bringing clean, safe water to everyone.”

In the seventh and eighth Centuries CE Islam’s fanatical armies exploded out of Arabia and thundered across North Africa and South-Western Asia, bringing down the 400 year-old Second Persian Empire and all but obliterating Zoroastrianism in Persia’s old domain (Persia is now Iran).  Paganism was mercilessly erased from all Islam’s vast new expanse “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful”.  The Byzantine bastion of Constantinople (the successor of the East Roman Empire, which still called itself ‘Roman’) was almost taken, barely surviving a terrible siege in 714 CE, while the East Roman domain was reduced to a rump in Anatolia (central and western Turkey) and the Balkans (Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro).

In the early 8th Century the Muslim hosts crossed from Morocco into Iberia (Spain and Portugal).  By the second decade most of Iberia was Muslim and Muslim forces were raiding and scouting into southern and central Gallia (France).  The dominant power in old Gallia (the Roman name) was the Frankish Kingdom, and Charles Martel (Martel means “hammer”) decisively defeated an invading Muslim army in 732 CE at Poitiers.  His grandson, another Charles, came to the Frankish throne in 768.  He had conceived a much greater ambition than merely consolidating the “Carolingian” Frankish hold on old Gallia.

The grandson of Charles Martel is now known as Charlemagne (a distortion of the Latin Carolus Magnus),Charles the Great.  Charles soon to be “the Great” dreamed a great dream of reuniting the lands of the West under his banner into a ‘Christian Roman Empire’ and driving back the invading Muslims.  He would bring the still pagan barbarians of Central and Eastern Germania and the Slav lands into the Christian fold.  He had a “holy ambition”.  He was relentless, rarely spending a whole year in one place.  He moved his capital to Aachen, now a city in northwest Germany, in order to be more central.  He campaigned with monks and priests and at least one bishop to Christianize the conquered peoples—for conquer profusely he did.  He used a combination of carrot and stick, but when a people like the Saxons proved too stubborn to convert, he reverted to the ancient Roman way of ruthlessly setting examples of what resistance would cost.

For his fervency and dedication, he won the East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor’s approval to resurrect the title “Emperor of the West” and use the Roman Eagle as his imperial insignia.  He was crowned by the Pope on Christmas Day in the year 800 CE.  He wanted his realm to be known as a truly Christian state and so coined the term “Holy Roman Empire” to differentiate it from the old pagan version.  When he liberated Rome itself from the infidel Lombards, he granted the Pope sovereignty over it under his protection.

Charlemagne’s dream was certainly more noble than Constantine’s, and the new Emperor of the West seems to have had a very sincere faith in Christ and a desire to see it established and inculcated into the hearts, minds, and culture of the peoples under his sway.  He promoted learning and study and extensively built churches, monasteries, convents, schools, hospitals, and castles for his garrisons.  He was devout in his personal observance.  But he still used fear and force to convert the reluctant or make examples of the too stubborn.

“Life is too short.”  Worn out by many years of hard campaigning and trying to administer a vast domain at a time when roads and bureaucracy were rudimentary, with large areas still only half-subjugated, he died in 814, ruefully leaving his realm to be ruled by his three sons, and sensing that his unfinished mission would probably die with him.  Here the parallel with Constantine becomes closer.  Like the three sons of Constantine, Charlemagne’s three sons quarreled.  Rather than sharing the rule of a unified empire, they jealously divided it and then conspired to intrude into one another’s kingdoms, which is what the three portions became.  The senior son, “Louis the German”, held onto a nominal precedence and the title “Emperor”. 

Within two generations, only two kingdoms remained standing—Francia, which became France, and the Kingdom of Germania, the titular “Holy Roman Empire”, ruling Slavic and even Italian areas.  Instead of a united West, the newly emerging Christendom was divided.  But the dream and memory of the glory of old Rome lived on.  Charlemagne had given its revival a valiant effort, but he alone could not overcome the obstacles.  Charlemagne’s hard-won title, “Emperor of the West”, was not transferred to a successor, as none proved worthy.

TO BE CONTINUED

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

“… 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