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.
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. 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
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. Continue reading
The month that leads to the holiday of Christmas has become the most beloved period of the year in the west. It is a time of socializing, holiday-themed entertainment, and feasting.
In fact, the period has become so intense that many become quite weary of it by the time the actual day of Christ’s birth arrives. Some people reach December 25 feeling stressed out by holiday activities, annoyed by the monotony of holiday music, and bloated by weeks of excessive eating. On December 26, the ultimate symbol of Christmas festivity, the Christmas tree, is tossed into the garbage and life returns to its normal, non-festal mode.
This is not how Christmas was celebrated historically. The weeks leading to the holiday were kept as a period of penitential abstinence and expectation, of waiting. And this meant fasting. This practice, largely ignored by most of modern Christendom, was the means toward the fullest and most joyful celebration of Christ’s birth. The adage even arose that in order to feast, one must learn first how to fast. Continue reading
In a recent post on his excellent blog, Joel Miller confronted the scandal many make in our contemporary culture about the historical veracity of images and accounts of Jesus’s birth. An Orthodox Christian, Joel has much to say about western Christianity from an eastern Christian point of view. That goes for his most recent piece, which responds to an Atlantic magazine article (“Your Christmas Nativity Scene is a Lie,” December 13, 2015) “exposing” the historical inaccuracies of nativity scenes throughout America during the holiday season.
The author of the Atlantic article “reveals” to his large audience that the depiction of an ox and an ass in many such scenes is not supported by the “evidence” of the Gospel accounts, but, as Joel Miller notes, totally misses the very scriptural foundation (Is. 1:3) for these animals regarding the Messiah whom so many rejected. The point is, an icon is not a photo snapshot. It is a revelation or proclamation of a reality that includes but goes beyond the immediately visible. “It’s curious,” Joel observes, “that people who at times snicker at wooden literalism become so woodenly literal.”
Indeed. Continue reading
If the Puritans proved themselves the enemies of Christmas (see my previous post on that), they did so in part because their particular form of theology had been severed from the roots of ancient Christianity. As ironic as it is, the Protestant Reformation that inspired them cut a large part of modern Christendom off from the faith of the early Church.
The reformers, of course, believed they were restoring that faith. They looked at contemporary (sixteenth-century) Roman Catholicism and concluded it had deviated dangerously from it. Doctrines like sola scriptura (the authority of “scripture alone”) were devised by Luther and other Protestant fathers to correct these deviations. This is all well known to any college undergraduate who has been through a course in western civilization.
What is not taught in most American (or Canadian, or British, or Australian) colleges, however, is how far Roman Catholicism itself had departed from what was for eastern Christians the standards or norms of the ancient faith. Continue reading
Recently the internet was humming with commentary about a challenge issued to Starbucks to honor the celebration of Christmas. Joshua Feuerstein, an Evangelical Protestant Christian, posted a video in which he decries the coffee giant for what he considers its “war on Christmas,” evidenced in the absence of any explicit acknowledgement of the holiday on its seasonal red cups. (I myself do not find the challenge very compelling, not due to any lack of sympathy for Mr. Feuerstein or allegiance to Starbucks, but to the fact that when I stand in the store waiting for my coffee I observe that the cup in question is framed by shelves loaded with a seasonal roast called “Christmas Blend”).
In any case, it is hard to believe that the holiday could really disappear from American culture any time soon. If nothing else, it is far too great a cultural institution. It is rooted too deeply in what modern Americans value. It enhances, for instance, domestic life. Christmas is an opportunity for family togetherness, cozy times by the fireplace sipping hot drinks, listening to holiday music, watching holiday movies, enjoying the blinking of holiday lights, and opening presents. And all of these domestic pleasures are of course mediated by our consumer economy, which shifts into overdrive the day after Thanksgiving to produce, market, and distribute an immeasurable amount of holiday stuff.
However, these twin themes of contemporary Christmas–domesticity and consumerism–were not always a part of its celebration. I will write later about its significance in ancient times. Here I would like to reflect on its more recent history during the past couple of centuries. It is a history that will be unexpected for some Christians who have responded positively to the censure of Starbucks. Continue reading