The Third Way: Part 1

The Progressive (Enlightenment) Road

Introduction

This post initiates a new series in this blog.  It will be entitled “The Third Way”.  This series is a sequel to the series of posts under the title “The Demise of Christendom” which extended over eight parts. 

For readers who have not read “The Demise of Christendom”, that series surveyed the journey of Western society and culture over 1700 years, during which the prevailing paradigm of the West’s identity as a society was assumed to be based on the values and story of Christianity.  As we moved through the ‘History of Christendom’, as we may term that long saga, we recall that the model of ‘Christendom’ was flawed from the beginning, having attempted to marry (Roman) imperial, coercive power, as per the typical world order born millennia before during pre-Christian times, with ideals born and derived from the example and teachings of Jesus and his Apostles.  Jesus’ saying that his Kingdom “is not of this present age (way of doing, being, ruling, ordering – the term is kosmos in Greek and is often mistranslated as ‘world’)” was suborned by the temptation that, with the aid and authority of the government holding ‘the power of the sword’, the ‘Kingdom of God’ would be established on earth[i] before Christ’s promised return.

I will not recapitulate the whole story of how that illusion collapsed and finally and only recently has faded to mere phantom memories.  Anyone desiring to learn more of that story is invited to peruse “The Demise of Christendom”.

The Progressivist Road 

I begin this series with an extensive quote from Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.  Pinker is a highly acclaimed Harvard academic of the first rank who enjoys a well-earned, positive international reputation.  As a prominent point-man and proponent for the Enlightenment and its undoubted contributions to the material improvement of humanity, Pinker has produced a sort of ‘manifesto’ for Progressive Ideology.  It is presented as the true faith and only real hope for humanity to avoid self-destruction, or devolution, or even the complete annihilation of life on earth.  Here is how he concludes Enlightenment Now, his magnum opus, his ‘manifesto’:

“ …. human nature has … been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption.  We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively[i], to have thoughts about our thoughts.  We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity.  We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy-for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration.

“These endowments have found ways to magnify their own power.  The scope of language has been augmented by the written, printed, and electronic word.  Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and the narrative arts.  And our puny rational faculties been expanded by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, skepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality.

“As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature.  We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind.  We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences.  Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by others.  From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe.  Much suffering remains, and tremendous peril.  But ideas on how to reduce them have been voiced, and an infinite number of others have yet to be conceived.

“We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one.  But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.

“This heroic story is not just another myth.  Myths are fictions, but this one is true-true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have.  We believe it because we have reasons to believe it …. it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, (Viking, 2018) pp. 452-3

It is not my desire to dissect Pinker’s projection of humanity’s future in detail here, as tempting as that is.  However, I invite the reader to note a few salient points.  First is Pinker’s use of religious language to speak about the kind of future he hopes for and aspires to for Humanity and Planet Earth.  He says “human nature has been blessed with resources that open space for a kind of redemption. [Emphases are mine.]  He speaks of humanity’s having received ‘endowments’, and anthropomorphizes concepts such as ‘history’ and ‘journalism’, endowing endowment with some sort of autonomous power [which hints at a kind of magical thinking].

Like almost all Enlightenment progressives and their post-modern kin, Pinker does not attribute much, if any, of human progress to the contributions of ‘religion’.  Rather the opposite, if not explicitly, certainly by weighty implication.  He cites a figure of 55 million deaths in wars of religion which the adherents of the major monotheistic religions waged on one another or on pagan miscreants.  In the same quote above, he ends his book [it is the actual last sentence] by saying “knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance”.  I will not dispute his closing statement because I agree with it wholeheartedly, as I in fact do with most of the citation – except to say that it actually requires something more than “only … convictions” which he lists.  Any ‘reasonable’ person would agree with those convictions, including we ‘religious types’ who actually believe we are reasonable – no doubt a largely oxymoronic statement to an Enlightenment Progressive.

Another example of the actually quite religious flavour and fervour of Pinker’s manifesto’s resounding conclusion is his talk of ‘heroic tale’ and ‘myth’.  His use of ‘heroic tale’ is of course borrowed from the (mainly religious) heritage of the West, beginning with the Greeks, whose heroes (such as Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax, Heracles) were all intimately connected to deities (such as Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Hera, Ares, Hephaestus), the Romans, who had their own parallel pantheon guiding and protecting their destiny, and the Vikings. 

A heroic tale is a specific literary genre involving supernatural elements and the conflict of good against evil, light against darkness, justice against injustice.  It is easy to understand why Pinker and Progressives would frame their story in such terms – to inspire!  The saga of ‘heroic reason’ does not sound very inspirational.  Inspiration needs emotion and enthusiasm, belief in a higher cause, and heroic protagonists who actually act heroically.  Such is the forte of ‘religion’, not science, reason, and logic.  (Not to say that there have been and are no heroic philosophers and scientists.  But even there, conspicuous by absence in Pinker’s heroic tale is the amazing fact that a good many of them were Deists, Theists, and, heaven forbid! – even Christians!  Progressive History is largely revisionist history.)

Then there is the wholly egregious negativism towards a category of story Pinker calls myth.  He implicitly divorces ‘myth’ as he has defined it (“fiction”) from truth, because truth is only attained by the application of reason.  This is the supreme tenet of the Enlightenment.  He wants to have his cake and eat it too – elevating the Enlightenment Progressive Story to the status of the one and only ‘true myth’ – an oxymoron by his own definition.  The problem is that, for us to be converted to (or renewed in our faith in) the Enlightenment Now vision and version of “redemption” – his term – he needs the religious symbolism and language.

He sounds much like Auguste Comte in his invention of the Religion of Positivism as a necessary substitute for (then outlawed) Christianity at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th Centuries as the French Revolutionaries, invoking all the most noble principles of the High Enlightenment, devolved into tyranny and mass killing to rival any done by the ‘Christianity’ they so deplored and excoriated.  It seems that appealing to high philosophical principles and the light of Reason and Science alone simply does not inspire much hope or commitment among the ordinary unwashed masses who just don’t know any better.  The ‘truth’ has to be dressed up with religious vocabulary, regardless of the century we find ourselves in.            

In our next instalment, we will discuss the idea of ‘redemption’ à la progressiste


[i]  Unfortunately some die-hards in extremist groups who still identify themselves as ‘Christian’ would still love to take over the government and then use the ‘power of the sword’, as the Apostle Paul called it in the Letter to  of Romans, to create a ‘Christian’ theocracy.  Sorry guys, we’ve been there and done that and moved on.  It was ugly and would be just as ugly second time around.  Look at Iran or Saudi Arabia.

[ii]  “recursive/recursively” – an academic term referring to the faculty of using an ability or skill to improve itself by tweaking it through new uses and situations.  Simply: a fancy way of saying ‘practice makes perfect’ – like a mechanic or musician learns a new, more efficient and elegant way to do old things and then, from that, finds improvements and makes ‘advances’ in their area of expertise.  In this context, we get better at reasoning by reasoning; we get better at communicating by communicating.  We get better at science by applying previous science and trying new stuff with it.  We get better at helping people in real, practical ways by helping them in real practical ways.  All in all, we learn from our mistakes – but there are always new mistakes to learn from.

The Demise of Christendom, 8 (Conclusion)

 “Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of death, the post-Christian West believes in something we have called progress – a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity – as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism.  We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort.  Our ability to extend this bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning.

“But none of this material progress beckons humans to a way of life beyond mere satisfaction of our wants and needs.  And this matters.  We are a meaning-seeking species.

“Our modern world tries extremely hard to protect us from … existential moments [when we really look at death as our own destiny and feel our emptiness]… Netflix, air-conditioning, sex apps, Alexa, kale, Pilates, Spotify, Twitter … they’re all designed to create at world in which we rarely get a second to confront ultimate meaning – until a tragedy occurs, a death happens, or a diagnosis strikes.  Unlike any humans before us, we take those who are much closer to death than we are and sequester them in nursing homes, where they cannot remind us of our own fate in our daily lives.  And if you pressed, say, the liberal elites to explain what they really believe in – and you have to look at what they do most fervently – you discover … – “an orthodoxy – the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.

“But the banality of the god of progress … never quite slakes the thirst for something deeper.  Liberalism is a set of procedures with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation with mortality.”

Andrew Sullivan, “America’s New Religions,” New York  Magazine, December 7, 2018 (nymag.com)

Sullivan’s brilliant article can be found in its entirety in New York Magazine.  I encourage those interested to visit the relevant site (see above). 

Sullivan is not a religious fanatic but an insider among the “liberal elite” he takes to task, exposing the sheer banality and hollowness of what the Enlightenment ‘faith’ has left us in place of the West’s much-neglected Christian roots.  His comments are among the most incisive and perceptive recent deconstructions of and insights into the parlous condition of US society and politics.

As severe as he is with the liberal progressives and their hypocrisy, he is equally devastating and perceptive in dealing with the mortal illness eating away at the “Right” in the US – its tendency to default to superficial religiosity and cultism.  Nevertheless, he has very positive things to say about the influence of true Christian values and contributions to the US  in the past.  He recognizes that there is probably no real replacement for the ‘true spirit’ of the faith of Christianity to be found.

What Sullivan describes about the state of society, culture, and politics in the US is just as true across the rest of the West.  No room for Canadian ‘smugness’ or European superiority here.  As the leading state of the West, the US is the lightning rod which most poignantly illustrates what the West has become without Christ.

The last gasp of  Constantinian-style ‘Christendom’, with all its contorted manifestations over the past 1700 years, was seen during the two World Wars.  In World War 1 both sides (the Allies led by Great Britain, France, and, later, the US) appealed to God.  The Allies looked to maintaining justice, liberty, and equality, invoking God’s endorsement for their crusade to tear down the godless, pagan, ‘Hun’ tyranny that threatened to destroy ‘Christian civilization’.  It was a curious mixture of Christian and Enlightenment values.  The Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Turks, the ‘Huns’ in question, invoked God as well.  The mindless slaughter and misery of millions belied the sentiments of all, suggesting that God was not taking sides, and did not take sides in such wars.  Many privately arrived at the conclusion that a God who permitted such senseless evil must not be just or good at all, or simply didn’t exist.

The Post-World-War 1 West slid farther away from any sense of attachment to God or the old Christendom paradigm.  As Communism took hold in Russia and its empire millions more perished in the quest for the new egalitarian utopia.  Western liberal progressives were at first bewitched by the apparent end of privilege and the leveling of classes and opportunities in the Soviet experiment.  It took ten years before the truth began to set in, and even then during the thirties the illusion that Communism could create the society of the future died hard.  One of its first acts had been to wipe the vestiges of Christendom out, but still paradise did not emerge.

The extent of the demise of Christendom was further highlighted by the emergence of Fascism, which replaced Christ and King with the new political-Messiah figure of the ‘Great Dictator’, as Charlie Chaplin aptly satirized it in his great film of that title.  During the 1930s, Fascism adopted all the trappings of a religious cult, substituting the ‘Leader’ (Duce, Fuhrer, Caudillo, Emperor in Japan) as Messiah for Christ and the Nation for the Church.  The Fascists denied the legacies of both Christianity and the Enlightenment and called for the ‘New World Order’, the ‘New Roman Empire’, and the ‘New Order in Asia’ based on the emergence of the Nietzschean Superman and Super Race.

Meanwhile, the democratic nations of the West were breathing the fumes of the old Christendom in order to recover enough courage and moral fibre to finally resist this neo-pagan onslaught.  Their own new cult of maximum material comfort in the here and now along with progressive evolution into a new utopian society had betrayed them as well, their faith deeply shaken by the paroxysm of the Great Depression.

As this epic drama unfolded, the West found two voices to stir its memory and once more tap into the last reserves of Christendom – Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.  Neither of these men were model Christians, but both still adhered to some core Biblical values and foundational concepts of a just society.  Both saw the heritage of Christianity as having a key role to play in establishing ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’.  In 1940, at the height of Britain’s lonely struggle for survival, Churchill openly called the war ‘a struggle to preserve Christian civilization’.  He gave this as one reason Britain and its empire must ‘never surrender’ and carry on to the very end ‘if necessary alone, if necessary for years’.

Like all great people, Roosevelt was flawed, with deep personal secrets (but none as serious as what has come to light about some more recent presidents).  But he had a strong faith in God throughout his life.  In declaring the US’s resolve as it entered the war in December 1941, he appealed, with great and true conviction, that the US and its allies would fight ‘so help me God’ – echoing the Presidential Oath of Office – in ‘righteousness might’ to bring the tyrants crashing down and from the ashes create a better world.

However, since World War 2 it is almost impossible to trace any true operation of the old Christendom in action.  A few remnants may stubbornly persist – as in taking oaths on the Bible ‘so help me God’.  As Sullivan notes in his article, quoted above, the West has turned full-bore to the Progressive Religion.  And, as we are now beginning to witness more and more clearly, it too is being ‘weighed in the balance and found wanting’.

The ‘true believers’ in the Progressive Vision, the ‘Left’, will doubtless continue to believe and push its agenda, just as, on ‘the Right’, the true believers in some sort of neo-Christendom will endorse the writhing severed tentacles of that moldering corpse.

For those of us not enamoured or captured by the Postmodern religious ideologies or the dying husks of the old ones, we are left with the task of finding ‘a Third Way’ to move forward and avoid existential despair.  Perhaps the ‘Third Way’ is already with us, but we must wake up to see it and begin to act on it.

There are many voices ‘out there’ seeking this way.  We may discuss some aspects of this quest in future posts. 

Comments and responses to the ideas presented in this series are welcome.

The Demise of Christendom, 7

The Demise of Christendom, 7

In our tour of how ‘Christendom’ has lived and died, we have remarked that it was a flawed concept from the beginning.  Lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying that the Kingdom of God coming into this world is a chimera or will never happen.  I am merely saying that the concept that it could be made to happen by having the Church partner with an imperial, absolutist system operating from fundamentally conflicting principles (Caesar is Lord instead of Jesus is Lord) could not bring it into being.  Even Caesar mouthing submission to Jesus but just carrying on business as usual cannot change who Caesar is and how he does business.

The West found its identity as ‘Christendom’ in tatters as the 18th Century drew to its close.  Two political earth-quakes seemed to confirm this – the American (1775-83) and French Revolutions (1789-99).  The two are closely tied, despite taking place on different continents.  The American Republic drew its founding principles from the Enlightenment idea of ‘the social contract’.  But the prevalence of a strongly committed Christian minority among the Founding Fathers tempered  and ever since in American society has tempered the full expression of atheistic Enlightenment progressivism. 

Not so in France, where that Revolution pushed the Church, and any strong Christian voice, right out of any role in the newly emerging Enlightenment Republic.  Within a few years, the ‘Republic of Reason’ became the ‘Republic of Terror’.  Churches and religious houses were closed, sacked, burned, pillaged, clerics persecuted and sometimes killed, nuns raped, and dissidents guillotined or chased into hiding or exile.  Civil war and foreign invasion followed, and only a military Messiah named Napoleon Bonaparte saved the Republic, and then converted it into his personal ‘French Empire’ with himself, Napoleon I, as ‘Emperor of the French’.

Nevertheless, some good things came from the long-drawn-out and tortured journey down the winding track of Christendom.  God has not abandoned the world in frustration, like a long-suffering parent who finally throws up his hands, sighs heavily and says, “I guess they’ll never learn, so I’ll just have to leave them to wallow in their misery.”  The Biblical narrative of the people of Israel with their many failures shows us clearly that that is not his way.  God has not given up on Israel, and neither has he given up on the world, the Church, on Christianity, or on Christians.

All through the 1500 or so years of the ‘Christendom’ saga, God was still present.  He inspired people to do wonderful works of charity and love for the poor, the needy, the afflicted, the oppressed, the broken, and the sick and maimed.  They founded thousands of refuges and homes, hospices, hospitals, schools, universities, communities, and agencies to reach out to the victims of famine, plague, war, and natural calamities, and to train and educate those who otherwise had little hope of a path out of these miseries.  They worked within the flawed structures of Christendom to turn them away from oppression and extortion, even if only partially successful.  They worked to break injustice and inequality and restore dignity and hope.  They were Jesus to those they touched, who were in turn inspired to live out ‘Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.’  The results were at times astounding, overcoming incredible odds and barriers.  And why should this astonish?  God’s way has always been to use ‘that which is nothing’ to humble the powers of ‘this age’.

Enlightenment advocates love to point out the work of the secular humanists in abolishing slavery and fighting poverty and injustice.  When this is true, it is right to praise such work and those who do it.  But is necessary to redress the balance by saying that  it was not the vehement and caustic eloquence of the Voltaires and Jeremy Benthams and John Stuart Mills who ended African slavery, but determined Christian activists like the Quakers and the Anglican Evangelicals like William Wilberforce, and William Lloyd Garrison in the USA, and Afro-Americans such as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. 

The greatest work in bringing an end to child labour and abominable working conditions in the early Industrial Revolution was done quietly and with the enormously costly perseverance of determined Christian men and women like Lord Shaftesbury, John Owen, Hannah Moore, and William and Catherine Booth, not by the Socialist, Anarchist, and Communist theoretical radicals such as Rousseau, Marx, Engels, and Proudhon, who would rarely dirty their own hands to go alongside the actual workers in their poverty and misery.  In Canada we find a very similar pattern.  All the early feminists, such as Nelly McClung, were convinced Christians.  Egerton Ryerson, a Methodist Minister in Ontario (Upper Canada in those days) set the example in making education available to everyone regardless of creed, socio-economic standing, race, or gender.

When these unsung heroes and heroines laboured in the trenches of social justice, there was still a mainly Christian consensus in Western society, despite all the stridency of its critics who decry Christian atrocities, oppression, and injustice from the sidelines.  We are not excusing such abuses where they have occurred.  Christians are ‘sinners’ like everyone else.  But to suggest that things were better before Christ gave us a new way of living, and would have been better without the Christian leaven in the lump, defies the evidence.  Things were not  better before, and, despite some nice Greek of Confucian philosophies and religious ‘advances’ such as Buddhism, what other hand of mercy was on hand or even on the horizon to actually work from within the general brokenness of ordinary humanity even among its lowest and most downcast to create a more compassionate and merciful society?

The Christian consensus and society that emerged in the West was not because of the power-construct of ‘Christendom’ as handed down from the ancestors but in spite of it.  It was a manifestation in the here and now of the true nature of Christ’s coming Kingdom, over against the machinations of greedy and power-hungry men (and occasional women) masking their sin in claims of ‘Divine Right’ and a mandate to rule handed down by God . 

The pattern remains the same today.  If we really look into who is doing most of the hard, dirty work in social justice and relief of the most terrible afflictions of the 21st Century, whom will we find there doing the bulk of the work – quietly, anonymously, humbly?  (The question is rhetorical, in case you haven’t guessed.)  Once more I say, ‘Why should this astonish us?’

In the early 19th Century, Napoleon strangely attempted to revive a sort of echo of the old Christendom.  He made a Concordat with the Pope to allow Catholicism to return to France and re-establish its official status. He marched across Europe as a sort of self-proclaimed Messiah for the cause of “Liberté, Ēgalité, Fraternité” as if people had never heard of such things before.  The revolutionaries who had overthrown the ‘ancien régime’ had packaged the Church as part of the problem along with the aristocracy and gentry, and inasmuch as it had acted as an agency of the old ‘Christendom’ they were right.  But Jesus had long before said that if people turned to him (not an institution using his name but acting like Caesar) he would set them truly free from their root bondage to sin[i] and fear and death.  He had long before demonstrated that in him and in his Kingdom (as opposed to Christendom) there is ‘neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female’, but all are equally children of God, regardless of race, creed, color, language, age, or gender.  The Gospel covers the whole revolutionary and Enlightenment panoply of ideals and values.

Napoleon discovered that you cannot impose the ideals of freedom, equality, and brotherhood (or sisterhood or whatever other term you prefer) by either law or military and police coercion.  Same old story, new cast. 

A little over a hundred years later, Communism failed even more woefully than the French Emperor to usher in the Golden Age of liberty, equality and fraternity, as demonstrated when the ideals of Marx were imposed on massive populations in eastern Europe and Asia only to butcher all dissidents by the tens of millions.  The excesses of applied secular, ‘de-religioned’ ideology were far beyond any perpetrated by Christendom’ crusaders and inquisitonists.

The basic problem, which the Enlightenment thinkers from Hobbes to Mill, and including modern-day Enlightenment proponents like Dawkins and Pinker, can never seem to grasp is that, in their hostility to Christianity, born of their contempt for Christendom, which they understandably but mistakenly identified as Christianity itself, they idealize human nature and, in doing so, completely misunderstand who and what we are.  When you eliminate a Creator, this misapprehension becomes inevitable.

We will conclude this series of reflections on ‘The Demise of Christendom’ with the final instalment in Part 8.


[i]  “Sin” is a word almost no one accepts anymore, as part of our redefinition of reality.  That little word now carries an enormous connotational baggage of Pharisaical judgment and condemnation.  The New Testament uses the word hamartia,  which really means “falling short, missing the mark.”  This is a far more relatable concept.  All of us know, regardless of our faith perspective, that we “miss the mark” – even if only of our own standards of right and wrong, justice and injustice, equality and equity, or just allowing others the freedom to be themselves (without abusing others), etc.  That is one reason that the Apostle Paul could tell the Romans, with complete ‘justice’, “all have sinned (failed to live up to the mark) and fall short of the glory of God (or of acting like true children of God).”

The Demise of Christendom, 6

The Demise of Christendom, 6

“The utopian dream of the Enlightenment can be summed up by five words: reason, nature, happiness, progress, and liberty.  It was thoroughly secular in its thinking…. Here was man starting from himself absolutely.  And if the humanistic elements of the Renaissance stand in sharp contrast to the Reformation [which started from the Bible], the Enlightenment was in total antithesis to it.  The two stood for and were based on absolutely different things in an absolute way, and they produced absolutely different results.

“To the Enlightenment thinkers, man and society were perfectible…. If these men had a religion, it was deism.  The deists believed in a God who had created the world but who had no contact with it now, and who had not revealed truth to men.  If there was a God, He was silent.”

Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live, The Complete Works, Volume 5, A Christian View of the West. (Crossway Books, 1982) p. 148.

“What is enlightenment?  In a 1784 essay with that question as its title, Immanuel Kant [one of the pre-eminent German and Enlightenment philosophers] answered that it consists of “humankind’s emergence from its self-incurred immaturity,” its “lazy and cowardly” submission to the “dogmas and formulas” of religious or political authority.  Enlightenment’s motto, he proclaimed, is “Dare to understand!” and its foundational demand is freedom of thought and speech.”

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. (Viking, 2018), p.7.

As we have seen in previous instalments, the old paradigm of ‘Christendom’, a pan-European and, indeed, a united, world-wide society founded on and unified by the teaching of and allegiance to Jesus Christ, had been splintered by the Reformation, then shredded even further by over a hundred years of religious wars and millions of dead among the competing European kingdoms and empires.  With the discoveries of whole new continents, these divisions had been exported to wherever rival colonies had been established, often nominally in the name of Christ “to civilize and Christianize the heathen”.

It was a sorry dénouement to what was once a noble ideal based largely on fulfilling Christ’s ‘Great Commission’.  It might have been, perhaps should have been, foreseen.  Christ’s example and teaching that the power-politics of this world could not bring about the coming of His Kingdom on earth had been rationalized away by the fourth century.  The operative concept of ‘Christendom’ that then took hold had been founded on mixing and taming old-style imperial and temporal power, politics, and ambition with the saving and redeeming work of the Body of Christ on earth, His Church.  Jesus had said to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”  (Kosmos in Greek – this world-order, this age, the age of power and coercion by fear and force as kings and emperors do).  Constantine had been Satan to the Church, tempting the emerging prelates to bow and receive all the kingdoms now as a reward.  Unlike Jesus, her Master, the Church had put the Emperor’s seal-ring on and been bewitched by it ever since.

At its highest echelons, the Church of the Middle Ages had succumbed almost completely to the delusion of using secular and material power and means to assert the Dominion of the King of kings.  Instead of acting like counter-culture yeast working from within to transform society to become Christ-like, Popes, Patriarchs, Cardinals, Abbots, and Bishops had turned to the allure of wielding power and gaining influence in the present age ‘in the name of Christ’. 

Lest we call anathemas down on their heads too quickly, let us remember that power, wealth, position, and prestige are highly addictive and few can give them up willingly, even if ‘serving the Lord’.  This pattern was not broken by the Reformation ‘Masters’ either.  Lutheranism replaced Catholicism in northern and central Germany and Scandinavia.  Reformed Churches replaced the Catholic Church in much of Switzerland and the Netherlands.  The Dominies of these new churches held onto the secular-spiritual stick and carrot methodology of control over their flocks, persecuting the non-conformists (especially the Anabaptists) as hotly as the Roman Curia had done.  Let us remember that our present society is not immune to this pattern either – even those claiming to be ‘the children of the Enlightenment’.

Bitter disillusionment with (Christian) religion (whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox) and its abuses of power, including persecution and slaughter in the name of the Prince of Peace and Lord of love since the time of Constantine, had left most of Europe’s educated class with little use for Christianity and its claims by the time the 18th Century rolled around.  It has remained to the present, and this ethos has traveled around the world wherever Europe’s intellectual heritage has taken root.

The newly ‘enlightened’ intellectuals of the 18th and 19th Centuries determined to set themselves and Western society free from the shackles of superstition, dogma, and persecution.  Their tools would be the liberating powers of reason and science that would set aside Christianity, superstition, dogma, and absolutist ideology – as they saw it, all pieces of the same cloth.

The new prophets of science and reason, the Enlightenment philosophes, would show the way forward.  Steven Pinker (an influential and enthusiastic modern advocate for the legacy of the Enlightenment and the continued relevance of its core values) explains the Enlightenment mentality thus.  “If there’s anything the Enlightenment thinkers had in common, it was an insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world, and not fall back on generations of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts.”  (Pinker, p. 8)

A brief look at three of these new prophets will help us understand the roots of the Enlightenment ethos which dominates the West today.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) studied at Oxford University in the Humanities but became fascinated by science.  He reached the conclusion that only material things exist and that everything can be explained by physical properties, particularly by laws of motion.  He did original work in optics and attempted to synthesize everything into a single system.  In England’s civil strife between the King (Charles 1) and Parliament, he was a Royalist because of his lifelong connection to the Duke of Devonshire (Cavendish) and his family.  Rather than having to take an active part, he fled to France from 1640-1651, by which time England had become a (short-lived) republic under Oliver Cromwell.

Hobbes is most famous for his political treatise, Leviathan.  In this book, he was the first to articulate the principle of the modern liberal doctrine of the ‘social contract’ between a people and a sovereign or a set of rulers.  His ideas were completely secular; religion was a human invention based on ignorance and superstition.  All can be explained by laws of nature that can be discovered, even laws governing human behaviour.  We would now classify this as psychology and sociology, although those terms did not then exist.

David Hume (1711-1776) was also a convinced materialist and sceptic.  His most famous work is An Essay on Human Understanding, which one might call the first modern textbook on psychology, although it was categorized as philosophy.  Hume built on Hobbes’ and Locke’s work, and was close to and probably influenced Adam Smith, the ‘Father of Modern Economics’.  Hume was also an atheist, although he skirted the issue in most of his writings, choosing to imply there is no God rather than say so.  He worked closely with the French encyclopédistes, Diderot and D’Alembert, and knew Voltaire and Rousseau.  He was influential in launching the Enlightenment in France, and his ideas penetrated Germany as well.

John Locke (1632-1704) was the most ‘practical’ and important of the ‘British Trinity’ we are discussing.  Locke knew Hobbes and inspired Hume, but his writings had enormous impact far and wide.  Locke was not an atheist, always considering himself a Christian.  But, in practice, he was a materialist, and is considered the founder of the modern philosophy of ‘Empiricism’. 

Locke wrote voluminously.  His two most important works were An Essay on Human Understanding and Two Treatises on Government.  Both were ‘tours de force’ and are still considered foundational to the modern West.  Locke argued that human nature does not come pre-imprinted with certain ideas about truth and morality, but that experience and abstraction teach us what truth is.  There are no ‘eternal categories’ (such as Plato argued) guiding our perceptions, although there is a Creator who has sent the Messiah to guide us to salvation.  Later Enlightenment thinkers, such as Hume and Voltaire, rejected Locke’s ‘religious perspective’ as a strange anomaly in an otherwise brilliant thinker’s work .  They were happy to endorse and use Locke’s brilliant analysis but dispense with his theology. 

In Part 7 of ‘The Demise of Christendom’, we will examine some of Christendom’s vestiges in the last two centuries.

The Demise of Christendom, 5

“The concept of a united Christendom with a secular and a religious head (the Emperor and the Pope), which Charles V had briefly tried to revive, had been dying for centuries and suffered a death-blow with the Reformation and the fragmentation of Christianity.  It was now finally buried after [the Peace of] Westphalia [1648] and was only to re-emerge in a rather different form with Napoleon and his ‘new order’.”

Derek McKay & H.M. Scott, The Rise of the Great Powers, 1648-1815. (Longman Group Limited, 1983), p. 6.

Our story of the demise of Christendom has now brought us to the end of its ‘formal’ existence.  In the mid-17th Century, the nations of Europe would still have identified themselves as ‘Christian’, but common allegiance to a spiritual head claiming the earthly mantle of Jesus Christ had ended.  The majority of Europe’s peoples west of Russia (called ‘Muscovy’ in the early 17th Century) still recognized the Pope and adhered to the Roman Catholic Church, but large segments had become Protestant – Lutheran or Reformed for the most part.

As our citation above states, wars of religion in Europe became a thing of the past after the Peace of Westphalia (1648).  However, because rulers were still deemed to have the right to dictate what religion their subjects should adhere to, wars still sometimes carried a substratum of ‘Catholic versus Protestant’, depending on the combatants.  But Catholics often fought Catholics, and Protestants fought Protestants, and all made opportunistic alliances with powers of the ‘other’ religion to support their national interest[i].

Behind the scenes of all the religious and political upheaval from 1528 to 1648, with its marching armies and their rapine and slaughter done in the name of ‘true Christianity’, another sort of ‘Quiet Revolution’ (to borrow a phrase from Canada’s history in the 1960s) had been under way.  We sometimes call this the ‘Renaissance’ and ‘the Scientific Revolution’.  The way we study, speak, and write about such things after the fact always leaves our perception of them segmented and incomplete. 

We can perhaps relate more holistically to it by thinking of how people a hundred years from now will try to make sense of all the diverse currents, trends, and influences converging in the early 21st Century.  We relate to it all as a continuous stream full of mingling currents.  Future historians will probably have to break the era up into ‘areas’ of study – the media (establishment mass media, social, and other), art and culture, economic issues, international affairs, social trends and developments, religious and spiritual concerns, etc.  But these things are never separate from one another.  They always flow together, inextricably intermixed, impinging on one another.  An economic decision always has social and political aspects, and could well carry over into the moral and spiritual and even artistic realms.

Since the early 16th Century, new developments in scholarship and inquiries into the natural world had been awakening interest in science, in knowing more about history, in learning more about the roots of culture and the study of the world and the universe.  For Europeans, whole new continents had been discovered and were under intense exploration and colonization with a host of possibilities, including commercial and religious expansion.  Telescopes were opening up the universe and opening minds and eyes to see it in a new way that, for some, threatened their paradigm of ‘God’s’ order.  Anatomical discoveries were revealing how the body works.

Thus, at the same time as the religious and political order of ‘Christendom’ had been shattered, to many it appeared as if the theological and philosophical order that underpinned the old ideas of ‘God’s appointed order’ was also being torn apart.  Perhaps the whole basis of ‘Christendom’ was open to challenge, and there needed to be a radical reconception of Creation and Divine Order?  Not many would then go so far as to suggest that God’s existence was open to question, but deep questions of God and Science and Revelation and Faith began to resonate.

 In the 17th Century, around the time that the Peace of Westphalia restored a structure of relative peace and order to Central and Western Europe, or shortly before, the first generation of ‘Philosophes’ portending the burgeoning of the ‘Enlightenment’ burst upon the scene like an intellectual and scientific fireworks display.  There had been earlier forerunners (e.g. Copernicus, Bacon, Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo), particularly in the field of astronomy, but within a short time a whole host of even greater ‘new lights’ appeared in the intellectual firmament.  There were advances in medicine, optics, and a host of areas, as well as astronomy.

Some of the most significant thinkers and scientists of the time include René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Hugo Grotius, Samuel Rutherford, Isaac Newton, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and John Locke.  We could add many more to the list.

These early ‘philosophes’ are the initial stage of what became known as the Enlightenment.[ii]  They represent a gathering sea-change in thought, and thus in the dominant worldview in Western culture.  For more than a thousand years Christianity (or at least the Roman Catholic version of it) had provided the foundational understanding of what is, who humans are, how the world works, and what is to become of it all.  By the 17th Century, certainties were fracturing, just as Christendom had fractured.  New science offered a new understanding of the universe.  New continents meant exposure to many new cultures and influences, including spiritual and philosophical challenges, bringing many of even the most basic views up for re-examination.  No amount of censorship by nervous ecclesiastical authorities would prevent this process.  This is the air the thinkers on our list breathed and the current of ideas they swam in.

Some of these early philosophes were devout Christians, or would have considered themselves so.  Others were doubters and perhaps agnostics, and at least one was an out-and-out atheist.  Descartes (1596-1650) discarded revelation and the Bible in trying to explain what a human is and who or what God is.  He considered himself a good Catholic, but his famous series of Meditations offered the Enlightenment thinkers a road to accept a Creator but leave behind the Bible, Church, and ‘superstition’.  He gave us the famous one-liner, “I think; therefore, I am,” turning the focus on the individual’s supremacy in judging what is real and exists.  Logic and reason became the supreme tools for assessing such questions, as they also were for discovering truth about the universe through ‘Science’, which could now stand independently as an authority in opposition to Scripture, revelation, and dogma. It must be said that most of the early modern scientists were still practising Christians and did not see reason and science as opposed to faith. Rather, they were complementary ways of finding truth, for God is the God of Creation.

Pascal (1623-1662) rejected Descartes’ logic, writing many notes on why logic and science must fail to lead one to truth unless submitted to God, who stands above and beyond all such methods and can still intervene directly in the universe He created.  Yet Pascal, possibly even more brilliant than Descartes, still used incisive, brilliant logic to argue against those who would deny God by using those same tools.  Pascal was a pioneer mathematician and physicist, but is most remembered for his Pensées, a collection of notes he intended to turn into a great apologetic treatise in defence of Christianity. Unfortunately, he died before he could carry out his project.

Grotius (1583-1645) was a Dutch legal scholar who wrote enormously important work on the foundations for what we now call ‘human rights’ and ‘international law’.  He was a devout Christian and argued that there were no ‘human rights’ or law without God as guarantor, and that no sovereign or state could escape giving an account (to God, ultimately) for their treatment of subjects and actions towards other states.  Grotius wrote of ‘natural law’ – the law written in nature, in the order God created.  As with so many things, the later Enlightenment ‘lights’ would readily adopt his conclusions, minus God.  Logic and science approved them, so God need not be included.

So too with Rutherford (1600-1661) who gave us Lex Rex, (Law Is King in English), arguing for the supremacy of law, even over absolutist sovereigns.  The Supremacy of Law is a pillar of modern constitutional thought, but Rutherford argued that only a system of law rooted in God’s law could stand.  Laws not rooted in the Supreme Law must fail to be truly just and become mere tools for human rulers to impose their will.  On the other hand, even rulers must give an account to God and can be held accountable in this world for breaking the law.  Subjects need not obey rulers who are clearly violating God’s express law.  Once more, the later philosophes loved the principle of making sovereigns accountable to law (and thus to the courts at some level), but saw no need to keep God involved.

Newton (1642-1727) was one of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of all time.  Many volumes have dealt with him.  One of the lesser known aspects of this polymath and extreme eccentric was his obsession with understanding the Bible, especially its apocalyptic side.  Newton was at least a Theist, believing there is a personal God who not only created an amazing universe according to a set of ‘laws’ which science seeks to discover, but that this God could (and did) intervene in His creation – although He normally stood aside.  The later Enlightenment ‘lights’ thanked Newton for his amazing work in physics and for giving them the intellectual and scientific machinery to leave God aside in understanding things as they are.  However, they emphatically rejected his ‘superstition’ as completely irrelevant and inconsistent with ‘the greatest mind of the age’.

The last three on our ‘short list’ will be discussed in the next post.  They proceeded to dispense with the need for ‘superstitious fear-mongering’ in order to bring authority into an argument.  They thus signal the entry of the next stage of dismantling Christendom.  For the Enlightenment militants, this was nothing less than deconstructing the moral, cultural, and social legacy of Christendom (and the influence of Christianity).  This became the scarcely disguised aim of the Enlightenment program as the 18th Century moved forward.

Our tale will continue in Part 6.


[i] Then as now, the ruling classes or monarchs, usually together, determined what ‘national interest’ meant.  Some of the greatest wars of this period were focused on dynastic issues as much as questions of territory and trade.  Then as now, there was no such thing as a ‘disinterested’ or ‘pure’ casus belli [reason for war] to uphold a noble principle of right and justice, or to relieve oppression.  Rulers respected the right of fellow rulers to treat their subjects within their borders as they saw fit without maintaining a ‘right of intervention’ to end persecution or oppression.  There were no ‘armies of liberation’.  Armies were composed of mercenaries and conscripts, usually of the meanest class of men.  The officers were usually nobles seeking fame, fortune, and influence.  Then as now, woe to the civilians caught in the battle zone.

[ii] François Marie Arouet (1694-1778) of France, better known as Voltaire, is often credited with inventing the term (in French, ‘Illumination’) ‘Enlightenment’ for what was taking place all across Europe.  The ‘heyday’ of the Enlightenment was from 1740-1788, but what was then launched carries forward to this day in the West, and has rippled across the world.

The Demise of Christendom, 4

The Demise of Christendom, 4

“Freedom exists only in the conflict between the call to be, to be born, and to grow, and the objections to this call …. The whole notion of freedom being exercised amid conflict is … a product of Western man.”

Jacques Ellul, The Betrayal of the West, (Seabury Press, 1978), p. 56

The tottering medieval consensus of a united ‘Christendom’ was shattered by the Protestant Reformation.  Ellul’s principle of freedom, quoted above, comes sharply into focus in what ensued.

The Reformation did not explode out of a vacuum.  In the later Middle Ages almost everyone knew that the condition of the Church and its role in society required reform.  As we have seen, various efforts and proposals had been periodically made and had failed.  The Papacy and Church hierarchy were addicted to power, wealth, and politics.  Theology and Papal Bulls were used to excuse abuses and justify practices and doctrinal statements that could never be found in Scripture or the early Church Fathers, except by often far-fetched allegorization, which was the preferred method of interpretation.  Calls for reform, for Councils, and for control over very worldly activity by those supposedly charged with seeing to the eternal salvation and spiritual health of the laity abounded but faded on the wind. 

Many ordinary priests and monks were truly dedicated to serving God and their flocks and living a quiet life of devotion, but too many imitated, on a modest scale, the self-indulgence of those above them.  Many disregarded the official vow of celibacy, and parish clergy were often hardly literate enough to say Mass.  Spontaneous movements, such as those of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Domenic, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, or the Cathars and Waldensians were either anathematized or canalized into more controllable institutional forms. 

In the later 1300s, the Roman Church fell into a division stylized as ‘the Babylonian Captivity of the Church’.  First two and then as many as three rival Popes arose and established courts in Rome and Avignon.  Kings and Princes chose sides, based on which of the rivals they could best control, manipulate, exploit, or suffer least interference from.  The Conciliar Movement sought to remedy this mess and eventually resolved the ‘Babylonian Schism’ at the Council of Constance, but at the same time sullied itself by condemning Huss and Wycliffe as heretics and calling for their followers to be wiped out by the Holy Roman (German) Emperor and the King of England.  A safe-conduct issued to Huss to explain himself at the Council was ignored and Huss was burned at the stake without ever having a chance to speak.  The Movement ultimately failed to prevent the Popes from returning to their old ways.

In the 1360s, John Wycliffe, a distinguished professor of theology at Oxford University, had begun to overtly denounce the Church hierarchy as ungodly.  He declared the Pope to be fallible, said Scripture was the first and supreme authority for Christians, and strove to bring the Bible to the people by translating it into English and sending his students out to teach it to the people.  Remarkably, Wycliffe survived to die a natural death in 1384 under the sympathetic protection of Prince John of Gaunt, known to history as ‘the Black Prince’ and England’s greatest warrior of the 14thCentury.  Wycliffe’s followers became known as ‘Lollards’[i]and were later mercilessly persecuted, particularly by Henry VIII.

On the continent, John Huss of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), who had studied at Oxford, repeated Wycliffe’s claims and led the Czechs into their own pre-Reformation in the early 1400s.  After Huss was burned at the stake, his followers took control of Bohemia and defeated every Catholic attempt to retake their country.  Eventually, in the 16th Century, the‘Hussites’ would divide into a majority which reintegrated into the Roman Catholic Church and a remnant which would join the Lutherans.

Other attempted Reform movements included The Brethren of the Common Life in the Netherlands and Germany and Christian Humanism, exampled by scholars like Desiderius Erasmus (In Praise of Folly) and Thomas More (Utopia). Seeking lay community in the towns, ‘The Brethren of the Common Life’ produced one of the greatest of all Christian devotional and meditational books, TheImitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis.  Early in the 16thCentury, Erasmus’ and More’s hope for ‘organic reform’ of the Church and society from within was blasted by a German Augustinian monk. 

Martin Luther had undergone a personal conversion in 1515 (the date is uncertain, some saying as early as 1511) after years of futilely striving to win God’s favour and appease His wrath by rigorous self-discipline and flagellation. While teaching theology and Bible at Wittenberg University in Saxony, he found the key to salvation in Romans, where the Apostle Paul declares, “The just shall live by faith.”  Once he had seen this and knew it in his very soul, he was set free.  He began to see the freedom and redemption wrought by faith everywhere in the New Testament.  He concluded that the whole system and hierarchy of the Church had gone astray and was deceiving the faithful, preaching a Gospel of God’s salvation by works of merit overshadowed by pending Divine wrath. 

TheReformation began fairly innocently on October 31, 1517, as a hand-written public notice posted on Luther’s own parish church door in Wittendberg (Church doors were the public billboard of the day).  The document (now called The 95 Theses) focused on the issues of indulgences[ii], the forgiveness of sin, and the Pope’s and hierarchy’s fraudulent manipulation of the faithful.  Seeking a debate, Luther ended up with a revolution.  His students had his hand-written missive printed and distributed all over Germany, and within months this obscure professor at an out-of-the way university had become a household name across Germany, and soon across Europe.

The Roman Church’s hierarchy chose to attempt to silence this upstart monk, but Duke Frederick of Saxony, under whose protection Luther lived, refused to comply. Attempts to hold dialogue between Luther and the Roman authorities, sometimes even resulting in temporary ‘cease-fires’, all broke down.  Luther began publishing scathing attacks on the whole Papal system, repeating many of Wycliffe’s and Huss’s charges.  The printing press and his students’ and parishioners’ zeal spread his work, name, and ideas far and wide.  A growing number of sympathetic German nobles and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people began to regard him as both Germany’s champion against a corrupt and grasping Italian-led Church and the new voice of God’s call to repentance. 

In 1520 he was excommunicated.  Luther called on Christians to take back Christ’s church.  He called on the German nobility to defend the souls of their people and Germany from despoilment by Italian clerics.  Emperor Charles V called Luther to stand before the Imperial Council convened at Worms in 1521.  Luther expected the same fate as Huss.  Told to recant or face the consequences, Luther avowed, “My conscience is a prisoner of God’s Word.  I cannot and will not recant, for to disobey one’s conscience is neither just nor safe. God help me, Amen.”[iii]  After, Luther’s protector, Duke Frederick of Saxony, hid him away for a year in a remote castle and Luther translated the Bible into German.

We need not recount the whole story of the Reformation.  It engulfed all of Europe in its repercussions, leading to deep religious divisions that exacerbated the already angry political rivalries.  To finish with Luther: he was never burned as a heretic but instead founded the Lutheran Church, dying peacefully in his bed in 1547. 

As Luther roused Germany, another reform movement started in Switzerland led by Ulrich Zwingli, resulting in the‘Reformed Church’.  Its greatest champion would be Jean (John) Calvin (1509-64), a Frenchman who would make Geneva his base. 

England too would separate fromRome.  King Henry VIII, who had once been named ‘Defender of the Faith’ by the Pope for writing a treatise against Lutheranism, took England out of the Roman fold in 1534, having Parliament declare him the Head of the Anglican Catholic Church rather than the Pope.[iv]  From here on, the English Church would not be able to stem the inroads of Protestant ideas and piety.

Religious wars of Roman Catholics versus Protestants would erupt in Germany and Switzerland in the late 1520s.  They would continue with ferocity and terrible effect until 1648, sweeping the continent from Sweden to Hungary and Poland to France.  Even England would have its own version of this between 1642-9, and the subsequent wars among theWestern nations would have a slightly religious tinge for the next century as well.

While the West remained nominally Christian, the unity of Christendom was gone and the seeds of its ultimate demise had been shown.

We will continue the tale in our next instalment.


[i] The term is said to have been derived from the ‘lolling’ sound of mumbled vocal prayer in English coming from the assemblies the members held in forests and remote locations.  Those hunting them would go stealthily, finding them by following the sound.

[ii] An indulgence was a promise that, in return for performing a work of spiritual merit, the performer would have his or her time in purgatory reduced.  Purgatory was a sort of ‘in-between’ place after you die, where your soul must be cleansed of sin before it could enter God’s presence.  Luther was outraged that his parishioners were being defrauded of their money by unscrupulous salesmen commissioned by the Pope or his Cardinals to finance the building of St.Peter’s in Rome by selling ‘plenary indulgences’ guaranteeing no time in purgatory to the buyer or another person the buyer wanted it applied to, even if already dead.

[iii] Quoted in Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 2, The Reformation to the Present Day.  (Harper, 1985), p. 28.

[iv] Henry’s break with Rome was not from any zeal for ‘reform’.  Henry wanted his more than twenty-year long marriage to Princess Catherine of Aragon annulled so he could marry a younger woman and father a male heir.  The Pope refused, fearing offending Emperor Charles, who was Catherine’s nephew.

The Demise of Christendom, 3

“[In]the medieval situation …. Europe was regarded as Christ’s kingdom–Christendom.  Thus, Christian baptism was not only spiritually but socially and politically significant: it denoted entrance into society.  Only a baptized person was a fully accepted member of European society.  A Jew was a nonperson in this sense… But if the church baptized or consecrated the state, this only made more complex the problem of conscience, because a government which is to all appearances in tune with society can, for that very reason, betray society with the greatest impunity.  This, of course, was and is true of the church as an organization too.”

FrancisA. Schaeffer, (How Should We Then Live, Complete Works, Volume 5,  A Christian View of the West, Second Edition, 1982) pp. 95-96.

Part2 of this series recounted the genesis of Christendom.  In the above citation, Schaeffer succinctly and brilliantly summarizes the inborn contradiction the marrying of the Church (or any institutional, officially sanctioned religion, Christian or other) with any form of government creates.  The outcome is an inevitable wrestling match for domination between the twin centers of authority as the contestants vie for primary loyalty.  But before we embark on how this hybrid system fared during over a millennium of uneasy cohabitation, we must quickly survey what happened with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

As noted in Part 2, the Empire of the West dissolved at the end of the 5thCentury CE.  In 476, the Ostrogoth King Odoacer simply deposed the nominal Emperor of the West, the youth Romulus Augustulus, and, as King of Italy, declared his own nominal allegiance to the Emperor ofthe East.  Thereafter, there were no Emperors of the West, and the barbarian kings who had overrun the western provinces paid lip-service to their nominal sovereigns in Constantinople for some decades, then simply didn’t bother. 

In the early 6th Century, Emperor Justinian I sent a powerful army west from the still surviving East Roman Empire to recover the lost provinces.  His best generals, led by Belisarius, partially succeeded.  However, Persian attacks and internal turmoil, including several years of disastrous harvests because of volcanic ash in the atmosphere and a terrible plague which killed millions, forced him to recall his main army.  He left garrisons to try to hold North Africa, most of Spain, and Italy, which had been retaken.  Gradually these provinces were lost, with the remnants going down under the Muslim onslaught in the 7thand 8th Centuries.[i]

The last West Roman Emperors had increasingly turned to the Church to unify and consolidate society and the power of the State. Bishops were given double-duty as spiritual leaders under the Church and civil administrators seeing to the social and material welfare of the people and providing scribes and lawyers to assist the civil authority.  In return, the civil authority assisted the Church in collecting tithes and offerings and enforcing orthodoxy.

Inorder to make it easier for people to accept baptism and Christianity as the rule for their lives and the guide to eternal salvation, the Church began to syncretize and baptize pagan philosophy and practices.  Here are some examples: Plato’s and Cicero’swritings were interpreted as ‘proto-Christian’, semi-inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes popular myths could be retold and re-identified with Saints or angelic interventions, while demons could be found behind other, less edifying practices.[ii]  Ceremonies and rituals, shrines and holy places could be revised and rebranded.  The role of ‘Pontifex Maximus’, once the highest religious position in Rome as the High Priest of Jupiter, was assumed by the Bishops of Rome as ‘Christ’s Vicar on earth’.[iii]

The Church’s ‘magisterium’ (the officially approved teaching ministry guided by the theological masters) regulated how Scripture was to be read and understood, claiming the authority of the Holy Spirit. Like Constantine, the proto-type 0f the Christian sovereign, the King, Emperor, or Prince could claim that God had put them in place and that their subjects owed them ‘honour, respect, obedience, taxes and duties,’ preferably without contestation.[iv]  The ‘secular’ authorities gave special exemptions to the ‘sacred congregations’ and those that fell under their jurisdiction in order to minimize friction.

But friction was frequent and inevitable.  Over the Centuries, the Church became wealthy and endowed with enormous property.  Bishops and Abbots became ‘lords temporal and material’ in their own right.  The Kings and Princes began to resent the Church’s frequent demands, special privileges,and incessant claims to special authority. Popes eventually began to claim authority, as the earthly representative of Christ, the King of kings, to dictate what the ‘temporal rulers’ could and could not do under threat of personal excommunication, and/or interdiction of their realm.[v]

Events like the Crusades against Islam and heretics must be viewed at least partly in this light.  The Popes and their deputies, the Cardinals and Bishops, constantly intervened in worldly politics and then fell back on their ‘sacred’ privileges and exemptions when Kings sought to dispute or retaliate.  Much of their massive wealth was not returned to the commonwealth in fulfilment of their recognized obligations to bring healing, comfort, and material help tothe sick, the widows and orphans, the dying, the despairing, and the straying.  To many in Europe in those centuries Church magnates seemed much better at judging, condemning, and persecuting dissenters and sceptics, or chastising offenders of the sanctioned customs and regulations, than in sharing Christ’s love and preaching the good news of the Kingdom. 

There were of course many exceptions and godly examples.  The best known is Francis of Assisi, but there were numerous others, more obscure. It was the humble local clergy and ministers, assisted by the monks and sisters of local houses led by compassionate and pious leaders who brought hope and consolation to the struggling masses. But there was a great disconnect between the people and the Church hierarchy.

By the late Middle Ages there was an increasing call for true change, such as somehow reducing the power of the Pope.  One effort in this direction was the Conciliar Movement in the 15thCentury.  Its proponents said that the Pope should be subject to and restrained by a regularly meeting Council of the leading ‘Fathers of the Church’ and that Bishops should hold no or limited secular power and have no access to the disposition of Church wealth or property.  However, the hope of true reform eventually collapsed, as did calls for the reunification of the Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) Churches, which had undergone an irreconcilable schism in the year 1054.

The‘Lords Spiritual’ proved themselves unable to voluntarily divest themselves  of wealth and power.  Inevitably, some people would decide to take things into their own hands. 

We will pursue this tale in our next instalment.


[i] It is interesting to note that the Arabs suffered far less from the devastating plague of the 6th Century. This meant that their society and manpower retained more vigour than the Persians and Byzantines who were enormously weakened by this, perhaps the worst plague in recorded history.  This factor is usually forgotten in trying to explain why the Muslim eruption from Arabia (634-714 CE) so swiftly overran the much enfeebled Sassanids and Byzantines.

[ii]The identification of demons with pagan idols, shrines, and gods had begun very early in Christianity.  The Apostle Paul said idols were ‘nothing’ but he also firmly held that there were unseen ‘principalities and powers, and spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places’ much involved in the world’s dark places.

[iii] There is a cogent Catholic argument for the role of the Pope as Peter’s successor as earthly Head of the Church.  Various Gospel passages can be cited in support of it, although there are equally cogent arguments to dispute it.  Even if we accept the ‘Petrine Primacy’ logic as valid, it is still a very long way to all the rest of what has accrued to the Papacy and hierarchy over the last 1900+ years of Church History.

[iv] To be fair, the New Testament does advise Christians to grant these things to rulers, for example in Romans Chapter 13.

[v] Interdiction was a solemn Papal decree forbidding the clergy to say mass or administer the sacraments to the population of a realm refusing to accept Papal authority.  It was rarely used and usually when a sovereign had violated what the Pope considered Church and Papal jurisdiction on an important matter such as naming Bishops.  A people without mass and the sacraments feared the fires of hell if they died without confession and absolution.

The Demise of Christendom, 2

Christendom: 1. Christians worldwide, regarded as a collective body. 2. the countries occupied by Christians, especially in the Middle Ages.  Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002

As we pick up the story of the Demise of Christendom, it would be well to review how construct of ‘Christendom’ came into being in the first place. 

Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome (306-337 CE), created it.  How and why?

Constantine is a figure of contradiction and controversy. He was born in Naissus in what is now Serbia, the date unsure, but perhaps 272 CE (although some have put it as late as 288).  His mother, Helena, daughter of a prominent family, was a Christian; his father, Constantius, a successful Roman general (legatus in Latin) became ‘Caesar (DeputyEmperor) of the West’ under Emperor Diocletian’s political and military reformof 293.  Like most Roman soldiers of the3d and 4th Centuries, Constantius was a Mithra worshipper.  Mithra was a soldier’s god, the great Conqueror of darkness.  He had been imported from Persia (now Iran), and was much akin to Ahura-Mazda of Zoroastrianism.   It was Constantius’s religion that was passed to their son, Constantine, not Helena’s.

Constantineis most famous as the reputed ‘first Christian Emperor of Rome’, reigning from 306-337 CE, but as sole Emperor (although not unchallenged) only from 315.  There is much controversy about the sincerity of his supposed ‘conversion’ in July of the year 312 the night before the decisive Battle of the Milvian Bridge just outside of Rome.[i] 

As fascinating as the intricacies of Constantine’s rise to absolute power may be for Roman History buffs, we will jump over most of that part of his life to the later stages.  Suffice it to say that he finally eliminated his last rival in 324, leaving him with the task of trying to create a new unifying vision for an Empire which had lost its way.  The old paganism held on in the rural regions, but about a quarter to a third of the citizenry is estimated to have adhered to Christianity by this point. 

Constantine marched into the East and Christianity was catapulted from a despised minority religion for losers to become the imperial religion of choice across the Empire.  The new absolute Emperor began to name Christians to positions of prominence and authority.  Nevertheless, even as he favoured Christians and offered the Christian leaders the allure of position and influence, he still honoured Mithra and used Mithraic symbols on coins and insignia.  As Pontifex Maximus, he participated in and presided over old pagan ceremonies, not wishing to alienate the still pagan majority.  In Rome he spent money on renewing old temples while he financed the building of Christian churches,which were now built openly and specifically as public centers of worship.

He called the Christian bishops to pray for the peace and prosperity of the Empire, the health of the Emperor, and to become his advisors.  He told them it was time to end their internal ‘civil war’ over the teaching of the arch-priest Arius and to resolve the issue of the Divinity of Jesus once and for all.  In turning to the Catholic Church[ii]as his new Imperial religion of choice and unifying principle, he needed theChurch to be unified. 

In 325 CE he called the major prelates to meet in the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in Pontus (north-western Turkey) to settle the Arian heresy.  Politically, he transferred the imperial capital to Byzantium, which he then humbly renamed Constantinople (City of Constantine) and rebuilt on a grandiose scale, taking monuments and artistic treasures from Rome and all over the Empire to embellish his new capital.  He considered himself God’s servant as  much as any Bishop, on a par with an Apostle as a promoter of Christianity, and presided at the Council of Nicaea, although not interfering (much) in the theological discussions. When the Council was deadlocked in controversy, he called the major Bishops into his presence and read them the imperial riot act.

In doing all this, Constantine laid the foundation for what became known as ‘Christendom’.  Geographically, this would evolve from the ‘Christian Empire’ phase of Rome’s last 150 years, and shift west into Europe proper in the following centuries.  Politically, socially, and ecclesiastically Constantine brought the Church into full participation as a major influence and center ofpower.   

However, full-blown ‘Christendom’ would not be reached until the period we now call the Middle Ages.

The West Roman Empire ended with a whimper in 476 CE.  Its vast territories had once included what is now Italy, France, England and Wales, Spain, Portugal, North Africa from Tunisia west, Belgium and the western Netherlands, the Rhineland in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and much of Hungary. By 476, barbarian tribes under barbarian kings had taken over these lands.  Some of these Kings were Catholic Christians, some Arian heretics, some straight out pagans. Most were nominal in their faith, as were their followers.  It is rather difficult to follow the Prince of Peace while living by pillage and rapine. It would take a settled lifestyle before the Church’s civilizing influence could take hold.

In the Empire’s death throes, the old capital city of Rome had been sacked twice (410 and 455 CE) and the imperial administrative and civil framework had all but disappeared.  There were local survivals.  But the Church still stood, and, once the dust began to settle and more permanent boundaries began to solidify, the kings and their rough councils realized they needed to have a regular administration with regular laws and a structure by which to maintain order and communicate their will.  They needed to meld their semi-nomadic population with the old Romanized population.  They needed to find and use the old Roman imperial officials and re-establish structure. But the only structure and dependable source of trained and educated leadership that had outlasted and survived the debacle was the Catholic Church. We will continue the story in our next instalment.


[i] The story is recounted in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea. Eusebius was a contemporary and confidante of Constantine and wrote his famous book, the only extant ancient history of early Christianity, in the 330s, beginning when Constantine was still alive.  There is little doubt that he got the story firsthand.  Constantine claimed that the day before the Battle he saw a vision of a flaming cross in the sky and heard a voice telling him, in Latin, “In hoc signo vince,” (pronounced ‘vinkay’, hard ‘c’)– “In this sign, conquer” – it is an imperative.  Constantine immediately interpreted that Christ had spoken to him.  He ordered his legions to use the cross alongside the imperial eagle standard as they went into battle, and some cohorts (regiments) to paint the cross on their shields.  His victory was shatteringly decisive, and the new “Emperor of the West” ever after credited Christ with the victory, rather than Mithra.

[ii] The term ‘Catholic’ means ‘universal’ in Greek. In the late 3d Century it became attached to the word Church to differentiate ‘true’ Christianity from the many heretical and strange aberrations that had arisen.  Some extremely strange teachings about Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit had caused much strife and led many deluded Christians to abandon the major traditions and teachings that had been recognized as having been faithfully passed on since the time of the Apostles.

The Demise of Christendom, Part 1

The Demise of Christendom, 1

“Political society is instituted for no other end, but only to secure every man’s possession of the things of this life.  The care of every man’s soul, and of the things of heaven, which neither belongs to the commonwealth nor can be subjected to it, is left entirely to man’s self.”  John Locke, Letter concerning Toleration. (1690)

“Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God … a wall of separation [should] be erected between the Church and the State.”  Thomas Jefferson, Address to a Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, in the State of Connecticut, Washington, 1802.

The West, as a society and civilization, has lost its way.  Once upon a time, not so long ago, the democratic Western nations were proud of who they were and certain they had a place and a mission in the world.  Now, not so much.  Instead, we find the governing class fumbling to excuse the core values and identity that gave the West cohesiveness in the past.  We find the intelligentsia pleading mea culpa to every sin and misdemeanor the rest of the world chooses to throw our way.

In the next series of “Worldvyou” posts, we will examine some of the history behind this moral collapse, which is also a collapse of morale and self-confidence.  Individuals lose their mojo, so too do civilizations.  The West is there now.

One of the greatest concepts contributed by the West is the separation of church and state.  It is a bedrock doctrine of the social, political, and economic order of the West.  It is cited over and over in jurisprudence and as justification for many decisions taken by both public and private administrators.  What does it mean, and how did it become the ‘law of the land’?

Gaining a grasp of the history of this key principle will act as a sort of compass in tracing the demise of Christendom, which was a key component in the West’s old mojo.  We have found nothing comparable to replace the Christendom motif, and the dogma of the Separation of Church and State, for good or ill, has played and continues to play, a major role in stripping it away.  We will start with two of that principle’s pioneer advocates.  We will retrace the history behind them, come into the present, and offer some projections as we conclude.  A number of posts over the next weeks will be required to make this journey.

In our first citation, John Locke, one of the great English ‘philosophes’ of the Enlightenment, was commenting on the then recent ‘Glorious [Bloodless] Revolution’ of 1688-89 in which King James II of England was dethroned and exiled by a cabal of Lords and wealthy commoners.  James’s offence?  He had converted to Roman Catholicism, hardly a wise choice when an important part of his official job description was earthly Head of the Anglican Church.

Locke wrote a public, open letter to the English ruling classes (the nobles, or ‘Lords’, and the gentility, or wealthy commoners who sat in the House of Commons).  He was attempting to bring some rational balance to a situation teetering on the edge of a renewal in religious-political Civil War.  England was then a ‘Great Power’ in Christendom, one of the leading Protestant nations.  The West was recognized as unquestionably ‘Christian’, although divided between Catholics and Protestants.  Religion was very much part of public and private life, just as it had been for thousands of years.

Jefferson was in his first term as President of the United States when he made his comments as quoted above.  He was the first major politician to clearly articulate governing a major democracy under such a guiding principle.  Since then, the US approach to it has evolved to something he would have great difficulty recognizing.  But we will return to that much later in this series.

Archeology and ancient writings show us conclusively that all ancient societies were religiously rooted and that the elders, leaders, and rulers expected the populace to participate in and support the group’s religion.  Neither government, law, nor any other aspect of life could be separated from the group’s common religion.  If you belonged to the clan, tribe, city-state, or kingdom, you were expected to recognize, honour, and respect whatever deities or spiritual powers the clan, tribe, city, or kingdom worshipped.  There were penalties for not doing so, possibly even death or exile.

Conquering another place with its own gods and religious forms complicated matters.  The Romans resolved this by simply assimilating the gods of conquered peoples, re-identifying them as local names for the imperial gods Jupiter, Juno, Mercury, Mars, Venus, etc.  They attempted (usually unsuccessfully) to ban some ‘foreign gods’ which did not assimilate readily (Isis, for example).  The Romans prided themselves on tolerance, as long as the supremacy of Jupiter and a few other key gods and goddesses was accepted.  The Romans began all official functions by honouring, however perfunctorily, the presiding Roman deity, and everyone present had to observe this.  Only the Jews won a grudging exemption.

No society before the modern West deviated much from this pattern.  There was a national or tribal pantheon, and all citizens needed to adhere to it.  Settled civilizations historically enact laws to enforce and sustain the system.  Legal systems typically claim divine sanction and guidance, even revelation.  The Romans were no exception.  Even the much admired, philosophically ‘advanced’ Greeks had laws about blasphemy and ‘impiety’ (disrespect for the gods).  That is why Socrates was famously sentenced to death.

In 381 CE, ‘Christian’ Rome outlawed paganism, and Rome became a constitutionally Christian Empire.  Religion was still rooted in public life, and courts still asked God for wisdom and guidance; blasphemy was still a crime.

Christian rulers of the Middle Ages had no notion of separating law and religion, let alone of dividing the Church from its intimate connection to social and community life.  The concept of the ‘Three Orders’, or ‘Estates’, as they were called in France, recognized that each section of society had an important role to play, and that this order was ordained by God.  Each of the three ‘Orders’ must recognize the duties, privileges, and responsibilities of the other two or society would break down and God’s judgement could be expected.

The Church’s role was to support the secular authority by promoting moral behaviour, civil obedience, and conformity.  The civil government’s role was to maintain peace and order and sustain the Church’s moral and spiritual authority.  The civil government was in the hands of the King and nobility, the class anointed and appointed by God to govern on earth.

The third Order, or Estate, was that of the ‘Commoners’, or the People – all the rest who did the labour and practical tasks, and paid the taxes to support the other two Orders.  The People were instructed that this was their divinely appointed role in God’s economy.

This ‘regime’ lasted from the reign of Charlemagne (768-814) until the twin upheavals of the Renaissance and Reformation shook the cultural and ideological unity of Europe, excluding Russia.  A number of other factors undermined it over time and eventually awakened demands for change and reform in all three ‘Orders’.  If the system was divinely anointed and appointed, how could it be changed and questioned?  In the ‘High Middle Ages (1100-1300)’ some scholars began to quietly question what part God’s will actually played in this whole scheme which seemed to conveniently protect and benefit only two of the three Orders.

The Nobles footed the bill for endless wars and some local improvements and finding manpower to fulfill their obligations.  But the heaviest burden fell to the Third Estate or Order, who were taxed and levied other tasks of labour and kind by both the top two Orders.  Five percent of the population received 95% of the public revenue and any trickle down to the other 95% of the population was dependent on the liberality and goodwill of the 5%.  Across Europe, the tax and duty exempt Clergy possessed 20-25% of the land as time went on.

Flaws and cracks in the system appeared.  The Kings resented Papal and Episcopal competition for the loyalty and purses of the People.  The Holy Roman Emperors, followed by the powerful Kings of the emerging nation-states of France and England, began to question the Pope’s claim to sole control over the appointment of senior Church Officers (Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops) and the heavy burden of sending tithes and special offerings outside their realms.

The ‘Second Order’ (Royals and Nobles) resented and questioned the Church’s owning of massive properties if the ‘First’ or ‘Spiritual Estate’ was supposedly primarily concerned with the spiritual and eternal aspects of life, yet interfered incessantly in ‘secular affairs’.  Church officials paid no taxes and were not even subject to the regular laws, but were tried in separate, ecclesiastical courts.  Yet, the ‘Spiritual Lords’ did not hesitate to call on the ‘Secular Lords’ to enforce orthodoxy and bring ‘infidels and heretics’ to judgment and even death if the Church so decided.  The whole business appeared more and more self-serving and less and less spiritual.

It took centuries for the tangled web of these interlocked interests to begin to break apart, with the power of the Secular Authority gradually shedding Papal and Ecclesiastical domination.  But subjecting the Sacred to the Secular and making the ‘Lords Spiritual’ subject to the ‘Lords Temporal’ was no better a resolution to the intermingling of God’s concerns with earthly civil concerns.

We will take up the tale in the next instalment.

 

Heroes and Anti-heroes

Heroes and Anti-Heroes

“Hero: a person distinguished by courage, noble deeds, outstanding achievements, etc.”  Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002.

On November 11, 2018, Canadians commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of ‘The Great War’, ‘the War to End All Wars’.  Solemn ceremonies took place throughout Europe and in many other nations such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  The United States marked it on ‘Veterans’ Day’, recalling their 110 000 war dead of WW1 and honouring the 25 million military veterans still alive in the country, as well as all those who have died in the US’s numerous wars over the last century.

In Canada, November 11 is a solemn day.  Polls show that about a third of the population attends a ceremony.  We especially honour our military dead from all our international conflicts of the last 100+ years – World Wars 1 & 2, Korea, Peace-Keeping missions, Afghanistan.[i]  We also honour the survivors of these conflicts.

Some people believe that all this attention to the wars and recognizing the heroism of those who served and died in the services during these conflicts somehow glorifies war and violence.  They worry about romanticising war as a path to renown or ‘a great adventure’.  However, they are illogically confusing the entertainment world’s too frequent portrayal of war as glory and adventure populated by heroes and anti-heroes of great daring-do with the real life remembrance of terrible pain and tragedy.  They somehow cannot compute the ‘lest we forget’ factor.

In real life, recognizing the heroism of someone is not a glorification of the act(s) they performed.  Someone honoured with a Governor General’s medal for an act of exceptional bravery does not yearn to return to the icy, swirling rapids from which they pulled a drowning soul, or of re-entering the blazing inferno from which they carried out an unconscious victim.  Neither do we who applaud these deeds from the sidelines ever wish to ‘go and do likewise’.  Yet, as a culture and society we somehow conclude that the horrors of war may stimulate a desire to return to the carnage for the sake of some supposed glory and renown won posthumously by a recipient of a Victoria Cross, for example.[ii]  Paradoxically, those who have been there are usually those who most desire to see an end to war.

If real-life heroes can even be convinced to tell their stories (and many prefer not to talk about it), more often than not they will say there was no romanticism, glamour, or glory involved, but rather determination, grim resolve, and a reaction to an immediate, urgent need with death lurking on every side.  They overcame their fear, recognizing that survival was very much in the balance for those around and themselves.  Most heroes bear the psychological, emotional, and often the physical scars of their experience for the rest of their lives.

Yet there is still an awkward ambivalence about heroism in our culture.  It stems from the impetus to make everyone feel special, valuable, and equal.  If we recognize some as genuine heroes who have done amazing and specially courageous and selfless deeds, we fear that others may be slighted or diminished in their self-worth unless they too are recognized as heroes for having gone or been willing to go.  After all, perhaps some of them would have done equally heroic deeds given the ‘chance’.

But here is the antithesis of that position: if we deem everyone who died, regardless of how, and everyone who returned, regardless of their role, and everyone who would have ‘gone into the breach’, given the chance, a ‘hero’, what is actual heroism?  Is every police-person walking or driving a beat and every fire-person wearing a badge automatically a hero?  By so cheapening the idea, have we effectively debased heroism?  Should everyone be celebrated as a hero for just being a ‘normally good’ human being who is actually selfless from time to time?  Or is that just what everyone should be but not that many choose to be?

We have created a culture which prides itself on inclusivism and avoiding even the appearance of slighting anyone lest we damage their fragile sense of worth [as the social-psychologist inform us].  Thus, every kid wins a prize; no one fails a class.  If one wins a medal, all must have a medal as recognition of having competed.

We all know that in the adult world many, if not most, things in life do not work this way.  If we try and don’t win, or come in near the top, will we all succumb to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?  Are we that far gone?  We wonder why our youth seem so ungrateful and ‘entitled’.  Not all qualify for the Olympics.  Not all win scholarships.  Not all get the job or earn a promotion.  Not all are equally gifted in musically or mechanically.  We cannot have 37 million Prime Ministers.  We cannot all aspire to be brain surgeons or aircraft pilots, and we know very well that only the very best should do those things.  Professional athletes are not recruited for being mediocre; entrepreneurs succeed because they are hard-working and excellent innovators, not because clients pity them for having tried but failed to better the competition.

As in so many things, to understand heroism we need to go back in time.  The ancients ‘immortalized’ exceptional people in legend and myth, sometimes even divinizing them.  Then, as now, courage was ranked as a virtue, along with complementary qualities such as loyalty, honesty, integrity, respect, compassion, and courtesy (this is not an exhaustive list).  One virtue could not be isolated from the others.  A hero was not just someone who ‘saved the day’ in an emergency, but someone whose character demonstrated the seamlessness of a good life that regularly manifested at least some of those other virtues.  Their courage did not spring out of nowhere, just as, to them, cowardice flowed from a flawed character which focused on self-benefit above all else.

In the ‘classics’ (including the Bible as the major source for our culture’s traditional values and virtues), we find great consistency in ‘heroic’ ideology.  For starters, let us consult another great source for the ancient understanding of heroism, Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey.  These twin epics were the closest thing to a Bible for the ancient Greeks.  Homer’s portrayal of heroes and villains is not so far from the Biblical perspective.

The most heroic figure of all in those tales was Hector, the tragic Trojan hero who was on the losing side in the war.  Hector appears only in The Illiad, killed by Achilles close to the end.  Odysseus, the protagonist of The Odyssey, is a more sympathetic character than the other Greek leaders, but does not match Hector’s noble character.  Hector was not just a ‘simple soldier’ who excelled in battle.  Only the Greek demi-god Achilles could defeat him, and Achilles had a supernatural ‘cheat’ on his side – invulnerability except for one obscure spot.   Hector worked selflessly and tirelessly for his family and his country, keeping up their morale and inspiring them all with his integrity, intelligence, compassion, love, and constancy.

Achilles, the Greek champion, is a poor figure by comparison – self-absorbed and petty, letting his friends die at Hector’s avenging hand until his honour is personally challenged.  Achilles’ shamefully violates all the protocols of honour by refusing a decent burial to Hector after he slays him.  Achilles enjoys a charmed life, unlike Hector who is fully mortal but by far more noble.  In vengeance for Achilles’ disgraceful treatment of Hector, Hector’s brother, the despised Paris, puts a poison arrow into Achilles’ vulnerable right heel – an amazing feat of archery guided by Apollo, the Archer-God.  Homer also includes a tragic heroine, Hector’s valiant and virtuous wife whose character far outshines that of Helen, the kidnapped Greek beauty foolishly taken by Paris.  (Homer’s including a truly sympathetic ‘leading lady’ for his epic was quite daring in that culture – perhaps a little personal heroism on Homer’s part).

Israel’s ancient heroes are quite human. They manifest courage and other noble virtues but display serious character flaws: Abraham lacks courage in defending Sarah’s honour, twice.  Isaac does the same thing with Rebecca.  Gideon has to be cajoled repeatedly before he will act, and after he wins, he lets his sons run wild oppressing the people themselves.  Samson cannot forego his need for sex with foreign women and settle down to judge the people as a true leader should.  Samuel is a just judge and powerful prophet but fails as a father despite his prophetic prowess.  David is all over the map – full of zeal, pluck, and generosity, and an adulterer and murderer!

True heroes are all flawed people like the rest of us, sometimes writ larger.  So why, in very recent times, have we of the West  found this ‘need’ to turn so often to rebellious anti-heroes who somehow prove the whole world wrong, or simply defy law and convention with glee? Why have we come to admire (if only secretly) Bonny and Clyde, Billy the Kid, Al Capone, the Godfather?  If not them, we fantasize many others (with ourselves in their roles) who run rampant and wreak havoc on the stodgy world and universe of law and order and peaceful quiet life.  Let justice be rough and ready, even if it leaves behind a trail of bloody dead bodies and smoldering, stinking wreckage so long as ‘the bastards who done me and my special people wrong get what they deserve’.  Our new breed of anti-heroes and heroines with super-powers do what the pitiful agents of normality cannot and even save us all from our worst fears!

Who started this elevation and veneration of the likeable scoundrel who is really just a poor, repressed, misunderstood victim of injustice?  The prototype came from the 17th Century English epic poet, John Milton.  He was Satan-qua-Lucifer in his masterpiece as found in Paradise Lost.

Over the last 350 years a great deal has been written by Milton’s admirers and critics, trying to understand what inspired him to ‘rehabilitate’ the devil as a sort of misunderstood, tragic figure in his own right.  Milton did it very well, and, with his inimitable poetic gifting, very eloquently and persuasively.  The English Puritan church authorities of that time hinted that he was flirting with heresy, although he did not deny Christ’s divinity or give Satan divine status.

Today, few besides English lit scholars know who Milton was, but the concept he created stuck and opened the door for later efforts along similar lines.  A hundred years after Milton, Christianity had been largely debunked by the Enlightenment literati and glitterati and its influence in society and the culture shaken to the foundations.  After Milton and Gibbon [cf. my previous blog ‘Progress’], writers could openly create new anti-heroes and use them to question ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is worthy of repute and respect’.  Tales such as Frankenstein and Dracula could be published and popularized.

It is a long way from Milton’s Paradise Lost to X-men, Batman and the shadowy, indistinct images of heroism today.  Even heroes must have a deep, dark secret in the basement of their lives, just like villains.  Even villains sometimes can behave with some honour (honour among thieves), but they just defy convention.  Don’t we all know that morality is but a code of behavioural rules agreed upon by social convention so as to avoid social upheaval?  Sir John A. needs to be dethroned across the board because he was a man with the typical values of his time, not ours, which are, after all, the only worthy ones.

We all know that success is reaching the top of the heap, winning riches and power, or prestige and influence, or just ‘evening the score’.  Virtue just gets in the way.  Better to be gorgeous, glamorous, and ruthless while smiling and charming everyone until ready to slit their throats.  But of course I still want the other guy to be virtuous [honest, fair, etc.] in dealing with me.  Justice is a still fine thing if it removes my enemies and obstacles.

Our elevation of celebrities to be counterfeit heroes and heroines, we demonstrate and reinforce the moral bankruptcy of our culture and education system.  We offer our children illusions of meaning, to be achieved by financial gain, career ‘success’, and prestige among peers, and possibly by some winning of temporary acclaim – the Andy Warhol ‘fifteen minutes of fame’.  But now notoriety will do as well as fame – hence the craziness of mass shootings and truly depraved gang behaviours.

But contrary to the impression left by our conventional and social media crazes and rages, real heroes and heroines actually still exist.  They just don’t spend their time vaunting and flaunting their character and deeds in the public (or private) eye.  Mostly, they prefer to go about their business quietly, obscurely, with no interest in fortune or acclaim.  Here are a few genuine 20th century hero(in)es: Mother Teresa, Lotta Hitchmanova, Dag Hamerskjold, Ari VanMansum, Winston Churchill (with all his well-known foibles).  You can name others.  And we have the quintessence of the anti-hero in spades from the past century too: Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao.

Who we venerate and elevate as hero and heroine speaks volumes about the soul of our culture.  Perhaps it is time we searched our own hearts and souls about the models we keep front and center as those we esteem and place first in our quest to emulate a worthy way of life.  Do I really want to be like a Hollywood or sports superstar or a ruthless billionaire business tycoon?  Do I want my kids and grandkids to be like them?  If not, how will I give them something different to aim for?  Why has our education system failed so badly in this?  And, yes, it is OK to have a military figure as a hero; there can be selflessness and nobility there too.

If you are a Christian, your ultimate hero is Jesus.  And there are many who pursue(d) Him and whose lives demonstrate that they do/did so nobly.  If you are of another persuasion, but this resonates with you, choose some other worthy figure(s).

[i] Official figures for war dead can never be completely exact, particularly regarding the two World Wars.  Thousands of Canadians served in the British forces and were recorded as British dead.  Canadian World War 1 figures have been put at 61 000 dead during the war, and 66 000 within a few years after due to death from wounds and the war’s direct consequences on those veterans.  World War 2 losses in dead are put at 43 000 or so, but more need to be added in the same way as they were for WW1.  542 Canadians died in Korea and 158 in Afghanistan, plus several dozen in Peace-Keeping operations.  We may round our numbers up to about 110 000 all tolled.

[ii] About 80% of recipients of the highest Commonwealth decoration for valour in the World Wars died while performing their heroic deed – hardly something that can be repeated or inspire a wish for an admirer to imitate the example.