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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED   

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

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

This was the program of the humanist reformers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

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

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“… the Romans serve all gods.  That is why the power and the authority of the Romans has embraced the whole world…. they respected the divinities of the conquered, seeking everywhere for strange gods and adopting them as Rome’s own, even setting up altars to unknown powers and the shades of the dead.  Thus, by adopting the rites of all nations they of Rome became entitled to rule over them.”  Minucius Felix, third century Christian apologist, from his work Octavius. 

Cited in Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid.  (W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 14.

As we arrive at the dawn of the Modern Age, the European Renaissance humanists vastly admired the cultural achievements and syncretism of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  In their disillusionment with what they found around them, they extolled the virtues of the Classical Age and found what had taken its place following 500 CE squalid.  With so much of the “Classical Age’s” art, philosophy, and literature renewed as the 15th Century turned to the 16th, the shadow of God’s wrath seemed to be lifting.  Unsettling questions had begun to percolate deeper as the new ideas found their voices; new poetry, music, prose, art, sculpture, and architecture burst forth. “What is man?” queried the humanists, deducing that humanity was glorious in and as itself, not as a mere sinful thing deserving the Creator’s most severe judgment. 

Italy was the cradle and the nursery of this ferment, and the Italian Renaissance rapidly found its way into the European hinterland to the north and west, along with new ways of financing speculative endeavours and new curiosity about the world and nature.  It was the cultural and social equivalent of Rome’s conquering legions setting forth once more to make Italy and ‘Rome’ (the old imperial, cultural mystique, not the spiritual harlot that had insinuated itself into its place) mistress and saviour of (Western) civilisation. 

To retain an image of relevance among the new cultural (g)literati, the Popes of those decades adopted the trappings and aspirations of being Renaissance connoisseurs while lip-serving the role of spiritual guides.  They hired the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael to embellish their monumental edifices. Some of the Renaissance Popes were so little concerned with spiritual matters that they allowed a corrupt Curia to run affairs like a Mafia while they used the huge Papal wealth to satisfy their appetites for art and less savoury things.  They showed up for official functions and gave audiences to the select of the upper crust, but did little else as ‘Holy Fathers’.

All this ‘rebirth and renewal’ required vast outlays of capital to stage and maintain the show.  “Let us have only the best of all this new art and sculpture and architecture to honour God.  Let us rebuild dilapidated old St. Peter’s (and the sprawling Vatican enclave) as a fitting monument to the Prince of the Apostles and his successors as Vicars of Christ, for the seat of Christ on earth is falling into ruin from neglect.  Let us use the [still contested] power of infallibility to assert Christ’s delegated spiritual authority to release the unworthy souls of the departed from almost everlasting torment in purgatory in return for a proper contribution to the erection of this stupendous monument to the glory of the Roman See as the spiritual seat of God’s Kingdom on earth.”

The strictly humanist perspective on the Renaissance, as the humanists themselves named this cultural resurrection, was one of breaking the fetters of what they were already calling the “Dark Ages”, those wretched in between centuries when fear, superstition, Divine wrath and barbarism crushed the human spirit.  Knowledge had been at a premium in those days and the world had seemed a harsh and hard-scrabble place.  Humanity had seemed powerless in the war between God and the Devil, circumscribed and doomed to a fate it had no ability to alter.  The climax of the Black Death and the prolonged wars and depredations of the late “Middle Ages”, as the in-between time also began to be called, had only seemed to confirm this.

But the new humanism had now broken this thrall.  Humankind was glorious and worthy in its own right.  Even Scripture was now found to confirm this, as in Psalms 8 and 82.  (The creation of chapter and verse referencing of the Bible was a Renaissance innovation to facilitate scholarly analysis of the sacred text.)  The invention of the movable-print Printing Press (the mid 1450s was the momentous time when Johan Gutenberg printed the first type-set multiple copies of the Bible[i]) had opened the floodgates to mass education and literacy.  Vehement Papal injunctions against the ignorant laity gaining possession of the Bible for themselves (ignoring that most of the parish priests and monks in monasteries were just as ignorant and illiterate), including, God forbid, women!, could no longer be sustained.

The 16th Century thus opened with a social and cultural clash between rival claimants to the Roman heritage in Rome’s successor civilisation in the West.  Fading from view in this spiritual and cultural Cold War was the hope of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven.  In this gathering confrontation there were a few increasingly isolated voices watching with great concern, men such as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More of England.  It would become more and more difficult to find tenable middle ground.  Listening to spiritually reasoned argument based on humility and simplicity in seeking and hearing the Creator’s call to loving-kindness, patience, mercy, and reconciliation in and through Jesus alone would be shouted down in passionate denunciation and condemnation of the errors of one’s opponents.

Power and the acclaim of position is an addiction in whatever form one hears its seductive siren call.  Each ‘hit’ of this spiritual-psychological ‘drug’ one gets is like a little confirmation of one’s petty godhood.  Jesus knew this and admonished his first followers about it repeatedly.  He practiced what he told them constantly so that they would really understand, not just hear an intellectual-moral principle:

“The one who lives by the sword will die by the sword.”  (The ‘sword’ is any weapon you select as a brutal, exciting, fast-tracking means of taking power.  Your chosen ‘sword’ will be the weapon you find you are most effective and proficient in.  Perhaps it is a form of emotional manipulation and psychological coercion.  Or perhaps it is a straightforward tool of actual physical violence and intimidation.)

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”  (God’s Kingdom does not value prowess in the means and methods of gaining and exercising power as per the usual techniques of the present ‘age’.)

“You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”  (To actually do this you have to physically bow down in front of the person whose feet you are washing.  Pretty hard to take a haughty, lordly posture with them after that!)

“The Kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves ‘Benefactors.’  But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves…. I am among you as one who serves.”  Except, perhaps, vote-hunting politicians, and pretense to the contrary, our culture largely despises the elderly and relegates them to the sidelines.  Not so in Jesus’ day, or with almost every generation up to the last few, in the West at least.  The youngest had to apprentice and prove themselves worthy of honour and respect.  They had to serve those who had won the right to lead.)  We could add many other remarks of Jesus to the same effect.

“It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice.  It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.” (Italics are the author’s.)

“Marks of the New Monasticism: Peacemaking”, Common Prayer, a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  (Zondervan, 2010), p. 382.

The imperial way is the way of long-established pattern humankind’s way of directing its societies and deciding what is to be valued. It is based on humanity’s presumption that we can bootstrap our own way into a utopian society, whatever version of that we aspire to.  For a thousand years, the hybrid called Christendom had seemed to offer a way out of that trap.  But as the ‘Middle Ages’ gradually morphed into something new and as yet unpredictable, the hope that the hybrid called ‘Christendom’ could lead to the Kingdom of the Creator on earth seemed like a mirage always moving farther into the horizon.  Were we to cease hoping?  Or was it only the failures of those who had preceded the dawning light of the Renaissance that had driven hope almost out of sight?

TO BE CONTINUED
[i]  1453 – The Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks sent hundreds of Byzantine scholars, nobles, and merchants with great wealth fleeing to the West, particularly Italy.  Along with the material wealth usually entrusted to the Italian banking families, they brought hundreds of manuscripts of the classics of Greco-Roman literature and a huge influx of new teachers and craftsmen to give a massive, accelerated boost to the Renaissance.  This exodus had already been well under way since the Council of Florence in 1439 had futilely attempted another reunion of the Greek and Roman Branches of Christianity.  By that point, the writing on the wall for the final demise of the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire was quite visible to almost everyone, but the Byzantine Emperor’s appeals to their Christian brethren of the West fell on deaf ears among the fractious, quarrelsome rivals of the emerging national kingdoms.  France and England were locked in the climactic stage of the Hundred Years’ War (Joan of Arc and all that); the ‘Empire’ was rocked by civil war (the rebellious Bohemian Hussites were rampaging into Germany itself) and Italy’s most prominent powers (Tuscany, Milan, Venice, Genoa, The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Papacy) were obsessed with seeking advantages over one another.  Castile and Aragon in Spain had their own crusade to rid Iberia of the remnants of the Muslim Caliphate still anchored at Grenada and Seville.  Italy’s dozen or so principalities were perpetually fighting among themselves for one reason or another.  Thus, the Pope’s appeal for a new Crusade to drive back the Turks was still-born.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

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