The Specter of Anthropological Pessimism

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.

Illustration of Victims of Bubonic Plague from the Toggenberg Bible

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

Why Hesychasm Mattered

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

The Birth of Utopia

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 New Martyrdom

Everyone knows about the old martyrdom, when Roman emperors and angry mobs of pagan citizens put Christians to death by the thousands for their faith. It lives on in the memory of all Christians and helped form the identity of the Church for hundreds of years. But the “new martyrdom” is for some reason less well known.

This new martyrdom is going on now, and in fact has been going on for most of the past five hundred years or so. Continue reading

“Into the Dustbin of History”

It was a dramatic moment in the history of modern Christendom. It was 1917, and the Bolsheviks, under the iron resolve of Vladimir Lenin, had just seized power in a Russia that politically had all but collapsed.

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Lenin’s speech to the Congress of Soviets

The last tsar–a devout Christian–had abdicated earlier in the year. An irresolute provisional government under Alexander Kerensky had isolated itself from the discontented population of peasants, workers, and soldiers who were demanding immediate change. And now, as socialists of all types assembled at the Congress of Soviets in the capital, Bolshevik guards were arresting the provisional government and putting Kerensky to flight. (He would ultimately make his way out of Russia and settle in Palo Alto, California, to spend his remaining days teaching about the Russian Revolution at Stanford University). The breathtaking moment was recreated later in Sergey Eisenstein’s rousing but highly deceptive masterpiece of propaganda film, October (which can be viewed here). It was the birth of the world’s first “proletarian dictatorship.”

As Lenin finished explaining–and proclaiming–the imposition of dictatorial rule, a group of moderate socialists decided to walk out in protest. They sought a revolution different than the bloodbath for which the Bolsheviks, soon to be known simply as Communists, were preparing. And as they did so, one of Lenin’s closest collaborators, Leon Trotsky, jumped to the podium and shouted, “That’s right, get out of here! . . . You are worthless! . . . Go were you belong now . . . into the dustbin of history!” Continue reading

A Final Lullaby for Hitler

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April, 1945 was not a good month for Hitler or the German nation he ruled. The Third Reich teetered on the brink of collapse and a national catastrophe loomed. As American soldiers fought their way across the Rhine River from the west, the Russians moved inexorably toward a doomed Berlin from the east. Soon the city Hitler had once dreamed of redesigning as a monument to Nazism would be reduced to rubble by the Red Army. Mere boys were conscripted to mount a hopeless defense and young women prepared for the worst at the hands of the approaching conquerors. The atmosphere was simply apocalyptic. And it was in exactly this atmosphere that a symbolic but unnoticed moment in the history of modern Christendom was played out.

Albert Speer, the evil genius of German wartime munitions production and a professional architect–indeed, the very man Hitler chose to give Berlin its modernistic face lift–organized one final, climatic performance of the city’s world-famous philharmonic. The event must have been surreal. He tells of it in his remarkable memoirs, Inside the Third Reich.  I always find myself fascinated by this work, written as it was by a man who looked over Hitler’s shoulder at some of the most important scenes in the history of Nazi Germany (he can be seen immediately to the Fuehrer’s right in the famous photograph taken before the Eiffel Tower after the fall of France).

The musical performance Speer organized as the capital was encircled served as a kind of artistic last will and testament of National Socialism. As such, it provided a kind of swan song or perhaps even final lullaby for the visionary Fuehrer who had now withdrawn underground into his bunker to prepare for the end, brooding over plans to kill himself.

What was Speer’s musical taste for such an occasion? What else could it be? Richard Wagner’s opera Goetterdaemmerung, or Twilight of the Gods. Wagner was, of course, the preeminent composer for Hitler, and the final opera in the series the Ring of the Nibelung contained an ending that was as nihilistic as Hitler’s vision of the world. I will have much to say about Wagner’s place in the history of Christendom in later posts. It is really quite significant. For the moment, it is striking how well the music suited that vision.

In the final scene of the work, the heroine Brunnhilde, who is herself preparing to commit suicide by riding atop the funeral pyre of her lover Siegfried, pauses for a moment to sing softly to her absent father, the impotent god Wotan. In fact she sounds more like a mother singing a bedtime lullaby to her child. “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!” she coos, “rest, rest, O god!” And then the ten-minute march toward the destruction of everything begins, as the Rhine River overflows and the palace of the gods, Valhalla, comes crashing down in flames. It is marvelous music, beautiful and stirring and, when put to use by the Nazis, chilling. If any of my readers has never experienced it, one particular good production (with Gwyneth Jones singing the lead) can be watched here. As the smoke rises on stage at the end of the  performance, the scene looks rather like what I expect Berlin did after its fall in 1945. 

“Rest, rest, O god!” These words say quite a bit about modern Christendom. No longer convinced that a heavenly paradise can be attained in this world, no longer hopeful that a secular utopia can be built in its place, the values of twentieth-century Christendom found it difficult to resist nihilism. And in the case of the Nazis, to a horrendous degree.

And what was it like to attend that final concert in the doomed Nazi capital? One account related that when it was over, and the chords of one of modern Germany’s greatest musical compositions gave way to the distant thud of approaching tanks, a Nazi official was standing by to distribute cyanide tablets to Berlin’s true believers as they departed.

Was such a scene inevitable for a culture that had lost its moorings in both paradise and utopia?