In my presentation of past articles on the origin of what I call the “age of utopia”–the story of which I’ve been writing in recent months–this one helps establish the context in which the “father of humanism,” Francesco Petrarch, made his breakthrough into modernity. In a real sense it was a reaction against a pessimism that had never sat well within Christendom.
What historians call the late middle ages was a difficult period in the history of western Christendom. From about 1300 to about 1500, a series of horrible events occurred including the Black Death and the Hundred Years War.
Dying Victims of Black Death
As they did, they caused new features of western culture to appear. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that these catastrophes acted as abrasives across the surface of an otherwise verdant Christian culture, exposing stones that had long remained buried beneath it.
One of these long buried stones was what can be called anthropological pessimism, a emphatically negative view of the human condition in this world.
This repost from several years ago discusses one of the essential differences between the old Christendom of the East and the new Christendom born of the Papal Reformation. That difference is hesychasm, and it can be seen in the iconography that was abandoned when the new Christendom turned to naturalistic painting during the Renaissance.
In yesterday’s post I presented the movement in fourteenth-century eastern Christendom known as hesychasm as a sort of foil (or contrasting device) against the disaffection that was stirring at the time among western thinkers such as Petrarch. The necessary link in this case was Barlaam of Calabria, the theologian who lived temporarily in Byzantium but fell out with the hesychastic current there and ultimately returned to his native Italy. There he converted to Roman Catholicism. Serving as Greek tutor to the illustrious Petrarch, it is conceivable that his agnosticism about the possibility of man experiencing the immediate presence of God in this world (what I call “paradise”) was passed on to his pupil, soon to be known as the father of modern humanism.
And so, we not only have a moment when a new stage in the history of Christendom is discernable–what I called the symbolical birth of utopia–but also…
Having released volume two in my history of the rise and fall of what the West once was, I have been writing the first chapters of its sequel. Since this blog is designed to share the ideas that go into this next volume (as well as the one that follows), I will be reposting some of my earlier posts in the weeks ahead. The one I am presenting today tells the interesting but little known story of a philosopher named Barlaam and his impact on the “father of humanism,” Francesco Petrarch.
It has been several months now since my last post, and I apologize to my readers for the long delay. It is due in part to obligations and tasks that arose soon after Christmas and which required my attention. It is also due to the fact that in presenting my reflections I came to a point that required a pause as I prepared for a new phase in the project. This post represents the beginning of that new phase, as I take a step back in time from from what for the most part has so far been reflections on the twentieth century. Modern Christendom, the subject of this blog, is after all the result or product of cultural shifts occurring over a period much greater than the few generations that separate us from the rise of things like militant atheism.
So far I have been interested mainly in recent history…
The reorientation of modern Christendom toward an untransfigured world was, as I indicated in in another post, the central project of the Renaissance. This Renaissance project was inspired by the values of the classical pagan world, but it was also motivated more immediately by the desire to escape the increasingly pessimistic anthropology of medieval western Christendom. Humanists like Mirandola proclaimed a new humanity to their generation, one that possessed free will, one that enjoyed complete autonomy. This was the dream of the Renaissance, and it became over the centuries an inalienable feature of our modern culture. Continue reading →
In two weeks, Orthodox Christians throughout what was once the Soviet Union will be celebrating the memory of the New Martyrs and Confessors of that land (those following the Western calendar in America and elsewhere celebrated the event yesterday). These people were killed for their faith between the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the collapse of Communism in 1991. Recognized as saints since 1982 by the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia, they were eventually canonized in Russia by the Patriarchate of Moscow in 2000. That event itself was a symbolical milestone in the history of Christendom, for it represented the restoration of traditional Christianity to a place of vitality within our culture. Continue reading →
On October 25, 1917, an insurrection took place that must surely stand as one of the most momentous domestic attacks on government in history. Known as the Bolshevik Revolution, it set the standard of what an insurrection is and should by definition be.
The Age of Division, volume two of my history of Christendom, has now been released by Ancient Faith Publishing.
Building on The Age of Paradise, it carries the story of the rise and fall of what the West once was beyond the first millennium. Opening with events surrounding the fateful Great Schism of 1054, it follows efforts by the papacy to impose a thorough-going reform of Western Christendom. In addition to improving the spiritual quality of church life, the Papal Reformation also unleashed other forces including the crusades and, more indirectly but tragically, a penitential piety that slowly eroded the place of paradise within Western culture.
The book also tells the story of Eastern Christendom during this period, when the Fourth Crusade and the Turkish onslaught finally brought Constantinople to its knees. Nevertheless, in Russia the Orthodox Church continued to nurture the culture of the old Christendom, despite growing isolation from the West and the depredations of Ivan the Terrible.
The Age of Division concludes with a reflection on the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, which both continued the process of transformation begun by the papacy in the eleventh century and, in very significant ways, brought it to an end.
Almost totally unknown in the West is the Orthodox Church’s commemoration of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. The holiday is one of twelve annual “great feasts,” and it occurs on January 6. It is known most commonly as Theophany (Greek for “divine appearance”), but also as Epiphany. That is the name for the feast among Roman Catholics and some Protestants. However, in the latter case the event commemorated is not the baptism of Christ but the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem. The Orthodox do not discount the Magi (they are actually featured extensively in the hymnography of Christmas). But they attach far more significance to the baptism, seeing in the image of Christ standing in the waters of the Jordan the fulfillment of the Incarnation. What this holiday represents is the heavenly transformation of the cosmos.
There are several reasons for this. One is historical. In the early Church, the celebration of the Incarnation originally occurred on January 6, not December 25. Epiphany was a liturgical catch-all for a range of events associated with the great turning point in history of the world. Eventually, these were separated from one another to enhance the celebration. The Circumcision of Christ eight days after his birth (January 1); the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple forty days after (February 2); and the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary nine months prior (March 25) all filled in the calendar. Both East and West came to celebrate these events, but in the East January 6 remained the Incarnation’s central liturgical event.
Another reason is biblical. The scriptures present Christ’s appearance at the Jordan as the beginning of his public ministry, and not his birth. While some of their content speaks of the immediate impact of his birth (in addition to Matthew’s account of the Magi there is Luke’s account of the shepherds in the field), that event is in most ways obscured. The Magi themselves come and go without speaking to anyone but Herod. Once they do, the wicked king orders the Massacre of the Innocents in order to destroy Jesus. The short term outcome of the birth is in fact the flight into Egypt and continued hiding in Nazareth after the return. The baptism is the turning point from obscurity to evangelism. Matthew and Luke have almost nothing to say about the first thirty years of Jesus’s life. Mark, for his part, literally locates the “beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” with the baptism. And all four Gospels make yet another important point. It was only at the baptism that the Holy Trinity was fully revealed as Son of God was immersed, God the Father bore witness to him, and God the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove.
A final reason for the primacy of the Theophany in Orthodox Church is cosmological, and this bears most directly on the holiday’s significance for the culture of Christendom. By immersing himself in the waters of the Jordan, Christ brought the Incarnation to its fulfillment. Having assimilated our humanity to his divinity, he submitted to the consequences of our brokenness, repentance. He was sinless and had no need of repentance, but by undergoing the baptism offered by John he joined the human race in its desperate turn to God for redemption. By doing so he sanctified the cosmos.
Water is the most elemental part of the cosmos and sustains its life. Just as the Son of God assumed a human body, by immersing himself in the waters of baptism he joined himself to a material creation which he himself brought into existence and in which he blessed the human race to live. The result was the transfiguration of the world, revealed in all of its glory on Mount Tabor later in his ministry.
The celebration of Theophany is therefore of great importance in revealing paradise to this world. This is why it has always been so solemnly kept as a holiday of heavenly immanence in the East. One of the Greek fathers, Sophronios of Jerusalem (d. 638), even composed a sacramental rite of water blessing for its celebration. Originally enacted at the Jordan River itself, the rite became standardized throughout the Orthodox Church and continues to be enacted at springs, rivers, lakes, and seas throughout the world today.
The most remarkable thing about this rite is its profoundly theological and poetic reflection on the union of heaven and earth. In addition to its statements about the participation of the material elements in the holy baptism of Christ, it unites the “today” of this world with the eternity of heaven. A brief excerpt from what is a long prayer provides a sense of this. “In the preceding feast we saw thee as a child,” the priest declares, referring to Christmas, “while in the present we behold thee full grown, our God made manifest, perfect God from perfect God.”
For today the time of the feast is at hand for us: the choir of saints assembles with us and angels join with men in keeping festival. Today the grace of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon the waters. Today the Sun that never sets has risen and the world is filled with splendor by the light of the Lord. Today the moon shines upon the world with the brightness of its rays. Today the glittering stars make the inhabited earth fair with the radiance of their shining. Today the clouds drop down upon mankind the dew of righteousness from on high. Today the Uncreated of his own will accepts the laying on of hands from his own creature. Today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Master, but stands before him with trembling, seeing the condescension of God towards us. Today the waters of the Jordan are transformed into healing by the coming of the Lord. Today the whole creation is watered by mystical streams. Today the transgressions of men are washed away by the waters of the Jordan. Today paradise has been opened to men and the Sun of Righteousness shines down upon us.
A world so understood, in which the incarnate God is united with man, in which time is joined to eternity, and in which material things are transfigured by the presence of the immaterial–such a world is what Christendom has always sought to be.
Twenty-twenty has been an interesting year for national monuments. In America, statues have been toppled on public squares everywhere, even as President Trump declares a heroic past beneath the stony visages of Mount Rushmore. In Russia, victory over Nazi Germany has been commemorated by the construction of a cathedral—one of the largest in the world—whose consecration brought President Putin alongside Patriarch Kirill. And in Turkey—once the heartland of Eastern Christendom, the majestic Hagia Sophia has now been designated by President Erdogan a national mosque. Continue reading →
For most Americans, December 7, 1941 possesses a gravity and symbolism like few other dates in our nation’s history. It was the moment when America ceased to be free of the Second World War and became one of its most consequential combatants. It ended an era of isolation and catapulted us into a global superpower. And it was marked, of course, by a devastating suprise attack by the Japanese on our naval base at Pear Harbor.
But many Americans do not realize that Pearl Harbor Day has an equivalent in Russia, where entry into the war also occured involuntarily after a suprise attack by the enemy. In fact, the event marking the beginning of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War dwarfed America’s tragic losses, as did the body count when the war finally ended.
Half a year before our “day of infamy” (to quote President Roosevelt), the Soviet Union was forced into World War II by a suprise attack by Germany. On June 22, 1941, the entire weight of the Nazi war machine came crashing down on her western borders. Operation Barbarossa was the largest invasion in world history and was an even greater example of diplomatic infamy than Pearl Harbor. Without warning, the Germans smashed Soviet defenses to pieces along a border stretching two thousand miles from the Baltic Coast to the Black Sea. Within hours there was nothing left of the border. Within days, the Germans had destroyed or surrounded its reeling defenders. Within a month they had conquered a territory greater than Germany itself. And by December, they could see Moscow–six hundred miles from the border–in their field glasses. No suprise attack has ever been so overwhelmingly successful.
And yet it would ultimately collapse and lead to the ruin of Nazi Germany. The Red Army sustained unimaginably high losses but kept fighting. By the time Germany’s ally Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, in fact, the Russians had launched a counterattack that saved Moscow from capture. The road to Soviet victory was a long one, and would pass through even greater catastrophes like the heartbreaking siege of Leningrad (in which the Germans starved a million unarmed civilians to death) and the epic Battle of Stalingrad. After the two titans all but exhausted themselves in the tank battle of Kursk, the Red Army rose again to continue the struggle. There was simply no stopping it. By the summer of 1944 it had recovered nearly all of the territories lost to the Germans since Barbarossa. During the year that followed, it advanced inexorably to Berlin, where Hitler committed suicide. Soon after Germany finally surrendered.
Russia’s war against Nazi Germany has never been ignored in the West, but it has been neglected. Americans are far more familiar with D-Day than Stalingrad, with the Battle of the Bulge than the Battle of Kursk, and with Pearl Harbor than Operation Barbarossa. This is a natural expression of patriotism. However, it can sometimes have troubling consequences.
Recently, Russian president Vladimir Putin published an article in a Western journal criticizing the West’s sometimes myopic narrative about the Second World War. There was much that was inevitably political about the piece. But it did raise an important point: No long-term harmony between the United States and Russia is possible as long as the latter’s role in destroying twentieth-century fascism is ignored. Indeed, Putin’s article was provoked by a White House communique stating that in the fall of Berlin “America and Britain had victory over the Nazis.” In point of fact it was the Red Army that captured the German capital, but nowhere was this acknowledged in the brief Twitter statement. The suggestion was that it was a Western achievment.
This helps explain why in Russia today so much attention has been given to patriotism and the importance of national unity. At a time when America is experiencing divisions comprable the 1960s and national monuments are being thrown to the ground for their association with historical evils, Russia recently raised a monument in Moscow to her victory over Nazi Germany. It is not a statue, but a church.
In fact, it is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. The Temple of the Resurrection of Christ was only completed within the past month and consecrated a week ago by Patriarch Kirill. And it was opened for public use today, June 22, the anniversary of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
It is an example of a very different vision of modern culture than that which currently prevails in the secularistic European Union or America. Whether Russia will succeed in rebuilding her nation on a foundation that includes Christianity–as Ukraine likewise sought to do with the commemoration of Saint Volodymyr in Kiev last year–remains to be seen. But one thing is certain, having lost twenty-seven million lives along with other Soviet states during the Second World War (compared to America’s 420,000–an unquestionably heroic but far smaller number), she deserves the West’s respect.