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. I would now like to take my readers back beyond the twentieth century, beyond even the past five centuries, to the moment when, in my judgment, an event happened that symbolizes a shift away from traditional Christendom to the modern Christendom that would see a decline in Christianity and the rise of a secularized alternative to it. The event symbolized the decline of a civilization directed toward the kingdom of heaven. It symbolized the end of paradise and the birth of utopia.
The event is little known to historians, and scarcely ever mentioned in textbooks. And indeed, it is largely symbolic, pointing to or suggesting a shift that can be seen more concretely in better documented events from the time. But it is worth pausing to consider, especially as it showcases one of the most significant causes for the rise of utopia and the decline of paradise: the departure of the Christendom of the west from the Christendom of the east.
The year was 1342. A monk and theologian named Barlaam of Calabria was returning from the Christian east to the west–from Constantinople to Italy, the land of his upbringing. For many years he had distinguished himself in the illustrious Byzantine court, serving as imperial ambassador to the Pope and conducting negotiations to repair the Great Schism of 1054, when the Roman Catholic west and the Orthodox east were decisively separated.
His greatest notoriety, however, had been gained in theological disputes he provoked with the greatest contemporary mind of the Orthodox Church, Gregory Palamas. Barlaam had first mocked and then actually launched a philosophically sophisticated attack on the leading force in contemporary Orthodoxy spiritual life, a movement called hesychasm. Barlaam, who was an Orthodox Christian with western origins, was thoroughly versed in the rationalism of contemporary western scholastic theology. In particular, he applied what is known as nominalism to attack Gregory’s claim that, due to the incarnation, man may, through the sacramental life of the Church, actually know and even immediately experience the “divine energies” of God. This conviction not only lay at the heart of traditional Christian cosmology, it was fundamental in establishing Christendom’s unique experience of the kingdom of heaven in this world. Barlaam, an agnostic before his time, had scoffed at this and claimed that an unbridgeable divide separates man from an ultimately unknowable God. In 1341 his position was condemned by an Orthodox council of bishops in Constantinople, and the hesychastic tradition Gregory Palamas defended was vindicated.
And so Barlaam, humiliated and dismayed, returned to the west where he quickly converted to Roman Catholicsm. Perhaps he had had it with the Christian east and its apparently strict attachment to traditional Christianity. He traveled to Avignon, France, the current home of the Pope. It was here that the event I would like to pause to reflect on took place.
While negotiating his future in the Roman Catholic Church (he would in fact soon be made a bishop and sent to his native Calabria) he bumped into a young and prodigious scholar at the papal court (himself also just passing through). This man’s name was Petrarch, and he would, in future generations, be known as the father of Renaissance humanism.
For his own part, Petrarch had fallen in love with the culture of pagan antiquity. He found in it a relief from what he considered the oppressively gloomy spiritual culture of the late middle ages. His project to revive knowledge of pagan antiquity came to be known as the “rebirth” of classical civilization, or Renaissance. Desperate for knowledge of Greek–the language of Homer, Plato, and Sophocles–the young Petrarch asked the erudite Barlaam to be his tutor. Barlaam obliged.
We know almost nothing about the actual exchange that took place in 1342 between these fascinating and eminent men, one the self-proclaimed opponent of traditional Christianity’s hesychastic legacy and the other the proponent of what would become modern humanism. By most scholarly accounts very little was discussed, as both soon left the papal court and went their independent ways. But the meeting is surely symbolic of what was to come in the history of Christendom.
The cosmology of traditional Christianity, safeguarded in the east by Gregory Palamas’s claim that man can know God immediately in this life, would now begin to falter, first in the Renaissance west and later in the Russian east of Peter the Great and his successors.
In its place would be a cultural project to establish an alternative to paradise, one that found human fulfillment not in communion with a God who is at once transcendent and incarnate, but in this world alone.
If it was not yet the actual birth of utopia, it was surely symbolical of it.