For observers of modern nationalism, something remarkable recently occurred in the eastern borderlands of western civilization. Though scarcely noted by anyone this side of the Vistula, millions of Ukrainians joined together on July 28 in what was touted by journalists and politicians as one of the most significant celebrations of their statehood ever. Continue reading
My new book The Age of Paradise is scheduled for release next week. Readers of my blog might like a taste of what to expect, so here is a summary of its content and the contribution it seeks to make in assessing our post-Christian culture today.
The book is the first of a four-volume history of Christendom, a subject defined as a “civilization with a supporting culture that directs its members toward the transformation of the world.” At a time of renewed interest the future of Western culture, it traces that culture to the beliefs and values of the early Church. Many historians regard the Renaissance or Enlightenment as the definitive moment in the rise of the West, while others locate it in the so-called Middle Ages (I try to avoid the term) when a distinctive Roman Catholic Christianity prevailed in western Europe. I have looked instead to the ancient Christianity of the first millennium. There I find within the East especially the foundations of what the West would one day become.
At the heart of the narrative is a culture of “paradise,” an experience of the kingdom of heaven that saturated the cosmology and anthropology of traditional Christianity. This experience was manifested in the community ideal of agape love. It was articulated in a theology emphasizing “deification,” the process whereby human beings take on the very attributes of God. It was publicly observed in statecraft, where a principle of “symphony” held the government to a principle higher than sheer power. And it was expressed especially by the arts of iconography and temple architecture, which vividly proclaimed the presence of the divine on earth. I argue that one of the core values of modern Western culture—the utopian transformation of the world—is to be located first of all in the paradisiacal culture of Christendom during its first millennium.
The Age of Paradise is the first part of a series entitled The Rise and Fall of What the West Once Was. It appears in the wake of successful and provocative publications by conservative Christian authors such as Rod Dreher’s best-selling The Benedict Option, R.R. Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes, and Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land. It addresses the same audiences as these excellent works, but pursues a direction of cultural inquiry that is largely lacking in them: the deep and often neglected history of an “other” West that is, in the end, very different than the one to which we are accustomed. That West is the Christendom that preceded modern times. The Age of Paradise is being released with the conviction that in order to address and perhaps even solve today’s “crisis of culture” it is necessary to rethink where it came from and where in the future it might go.
The secular holiday that Americans along with so many other nations around the world celebrate today is often regarded, by historians, as the product of commercial interests. After Anna Jarvis (d. 1948) succeeded in obtaining Woodrow Wilson’s presidential approval for a national day of honoring mothers in 1914, the story goes, national associations of florists, stationers, and chocolatiers seized on it as an opportunity for expanding their still regionalized and modest early twentieth-century markets. Money was to be made in the commemoration of motherhood, and, as so often happens, capitalists hijacked what otherwise would have been a grassroots effort to honor one of the most altruistic experiences of human life. Indeed, poor Jarvis herself, later in life, appears totally to have lost confidence in the official holiday and became notorious for her interventions in its continued celebration, more than once being arrested for demonstrating publicly against the influence of commercial interests.
Such is the madness of modern Christendom. But what is also interesting in the story of Mother’s Day, celebrated (following the date set by Wilson) in nearly one hundred different countries on the second Sunday of May, is that it perpetuates a feature of pre-capitalist, pre-industrial, and even pre-secular Christendom. This feature is the organization of time around a calendar rooted not in this world, but the kingdom of heaven. That calendar was originally liturgical, grounded in the experience of man’s relationship with God. It was established over the course of many centuries by the early Christians, who looked on the ancient world’s calendars as powerless to communicate the radically new life they were experiencing. That life, centered upon the incarnation of God, was one of gratitude. And so, an entirely new system of time measurement arose between the first century and the eleventh century that gave thanks to God for the salvation he had delivered to the human race in Jesus Christ.
There came to be innumerable feastdays in this Christian calendar. And some of them remain today in our post-Christian Christendom as reminders of its Christian origins. One of the most prominent is Christmas Day, which literally commemorates the incarnation (though, as traditional Christians following the ancient calendar will know, the Lord’s Nativity is only one of several incarnational feasts that include Theophany/Epiphany, Meeting of the Lord/Presentation, and the Annunciation).
On a weekly basis, though, much more influential by reason of its frequency is what we call in the English language Sunday, but which most other languages influenced by Christianity name with some variant of “The Lord’s Day.” This was the name for the First Day of the week among ancient Christians, and it caught on over time as faith in Christ’s resurrection on that day spread from one European and non-European people to the next. Hence, Kiriake (Greek), Dominicus (Latin), Dimanche (French), and Domingo (Spanish). Beautifully and uniquely (I do not believe any other tongue on earth does this), the Russians call the day not The Lord’s Day, but The Day of the Resurrection (Voskresene).
As the latter example shows, the Day of the Lord is the day on which early Christians proclaimed that Christ had risen from the dead, and on this day a special celebration of thanksgiving became standardized almost immediately. So, when many centuries later, in an increasingly secular twentieth-century America, Anna Jarvis and her supporters managed to have a day set apart for the commemoration of mothers, it was natural and providentially appropriate that that day be Sunday. Of course, for many at the time Sunday had ceased to carry its solemn liturgical meaning of Thanksgiving. It was by then simply the day of the week most likely to accommodate family get-togethers and festivities. So it is in our time.
Yet, the echo of human gratitude to God echoes still a bit on Mother’s Day. Apart from the annual celebration of Thanksgiving Day, this secular feast is probably the most gratitude-laden. Jarvis herself had insisted that the day be named in the possessive singular and not in the possessive plural (“Mothers’ Day”) to enhance personal feelings of gratitude and love by individual children for their individual mothers.
And what could be more faithful to the early Church’s vision of the calendar than that? By the hundreds of millions, on this day people throughout the cosmos assemble to give thanks for what they had no control over: Their origins through the care and love of their mothers. Many mothers fall short, and all who are worthy of their role would be the first to admit that. But few human relationships better incarnate the sacrificial love that Christians have always experienced in their God, a love which, since early times, was built into the very calendar by which they lived their lives.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Photo credits: David Crump Daily Mail.
The renaissance was a time of dramatic shifts in the culture of western Christendom. It was a time of origins, when former patterns of thought and culture faded into the background and modern values began to appear. This was true in the case of humanism, and it was true in the art it came to influence. Famous paintings of the renaissance document this shift.
One type of painting that came to represent the epitome of renaissance art was the Madonna. We are used to this term, but its historical background is interesting. It comes from the medieval Italian Ma Donna, or “My Lady,” and entered the English lexicon as a specific type of painting depicting Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms. As such, it is simply the descendant of a long tradition of artistic representation in Christendom dating to the early centuries.
The image of Mary holding Jesus itself came to be standardized not in the medieval or renaissance west, but the Byzantine east, where a range of icon types were developed such as the icon of She Who Points the Way (Hodegetria in Greek). Whereas such earlier depictions of Mary and Jesus were primarily liturgical, however, the renaissance Madonna gave rise to a new conception of the two, one that was increasingly worldly. I commented briefly on this development in an earlier post, and here I would like to take the reflection a step further. Continue reading
The Renaissance was a reaction to medieval pessimism about the human condition. Petrarch, Mirandola, and other early humanists celebrated the dignity of man because western culture, despite deep roots in the anthropological optimism of traditional Christianity, had for centuries come to diminish the human experience of paradise in this world. Having explored this reaction in light of eastern Christendom, I would now like to turn to one of the most famous elements of the Renaissance, its art. Continue reading
In the nineteenth century, the cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt famously characterized the Renaissance as a revival, after a full millennium, of the non-Christian values held by the ancient Greeks and Romans. This was not new, as contemporaries of the Renaissance such as Giorgio Vasari had themselves used “rebirth” as the metaphor of the culture of their time. Vasari (d. 1574) all but dismissed the value of the arts between the rise of a Christian culture in Europe after the conversion of Constantine and the rediscovery of classical art in his own time. But Burckhardt (d. 1897) canonized this interpretation for a modern audience. Henceforth the period of Christian art and culture that flowered for a thousand years was dismissed as the “middle ages” when traditional Christianity obscured the worldly potential of human greatness.
This view is no longer held in its purest form by historians, many of whom have today come to discover the riches of medieval art and culture. But like all great ideas it has cast a lasting shadow over our understanding of the past. Continue reading
The Christendom of the late-medieval west was a soil desiccated of the experience of paradise. Centuries of Roman Catholic piety had enriched this soil with faith in the kingdom of heaven, but not far below the surface there was an aridity that caused longing for a more immediate experience of it. Growing frustration was expressed in the period’s proliferation of mystics, and also in the life work of the man that would unintentionally inspire modern Europeans to depart from Christianity altogether, Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch (d. 1374). Continue reading
By the late middle ages, western Christianity contained within it the distinctly pessimistic anthropology I described in my previous post. As I noted, this contrasted sharply with the anthropological vision of the east, recently defended by Gregory Palamas in the form of hesychasm. And when disasters struck in the west beginning with the fourteenth century, this pessimism was exposed and began to assume an even greater force. The Black Death in the middle of that century killed more than half of the population of western Europe. The Hundred Years War, by the time it was over in the middle of the fifteenth century, brought France and England to a point of exhaustion. Despair and the pessimism that accompanies it ran deep. Continue reading
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.
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. Continue reading
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 an opportunity to reflect on what was being “left behind” in the old stage, represented as it was by the east. By this time, the Roman Catholic west had pretty much committed itself to what, to the Orthodox at least, appeared to be significant innovations. These included papal ecclesiology, scholastic theology, and doctrinal development (resulting in what had come to be called purgatory). As such, the west represented what might be called a “new Christendom,” and I will be spending time in future posts addressing it. But here I would like to say a few words about the “old Christendom” of the Orthodox east, and the important place hesychasm played in it. For it was this movement that not only embodied traditional Christianity’s conviction about the presence of God in this world, but insulated the east from forces that would eventually lead western Christendom into disarray. Continue reading