Sunday, 7 October 2012

Implications of regarding Byzantine Christianity as the apex


As I have said before, I regard the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire as the high point of Christian devoutness in human history - certainly not perfection nor paradise, but the high point - and from this follows certain conclusions which frame quite a large range of other historical matters.

1. The Great Schism, that process around 1000AD when the Western and Eastern churches divided, is seen as a disaster; but especially for the West. From that point Western Christendom has been significantly incomplete and biased (and the East, also, was wounded and diminished). This does not (in my view) at all mean that the Western Church is invalid - but that its capacity for glory has been lessened, it cannot reach the heights of theosis which previously had been possible, nor can the Christian life on earth be as complete as it was in Byzantium.

2. The Reformation was seriously flawed by (in some instances) its explicit denial of so many tenets of the ancient Eastern church - monasticism and the eremitic tradition, iconography, veneration of the Mother of God etc - in other instances these were neglected but not outlawed by reformers. By the standards of those who regard Byzantium as the apex, the Reformation and all its consequential ramifications has been a very clear failure in terms of the level of devotion (the level of theosis) it was able to create and sustain.

3. In politics, the supremacy of Byzantium refutes any doctrine or notion that the institutional division of Church and State is necessary or desirable (although in some circumstances it may be the least bad option). It refutes the supremacy and even desirability of democracy, socialism, libertarianism and a host of other modern fetishes.  Indeed, Byzantium demonstrates that such institutions as slavery and eunuchs are not qualitatively outwith the scope of a high Christian civilization. Tough stuff.

4. Byzantium also refutes the idea that a civilization ought to be judged by its achievements in science, literature, the arts, military conquest, economic growth or any other worldly domain - and implies that all of these should be subordinated to the spiritual and next-worldly as the primary and explicit goal of civilization.

5. The history of the world is seen as having been in decline for many centuries - indeed since at least the sack of Constantinople by Latin Christians in 1204, leading up to the end of the Third Rome with the execution of Tsar Martyr Nicholas II in 1917.

(Unless Holy Russia can be revived...) The thread of Christianity in this world has been broken, and its wholeness almost everywhere broken; and all remaining Christian possibilities are intrinsically much limited in scope.


This explains why the highest peaks of Holiness seem to be very limited in our era (perhaps no living Saints in Europe, UK or the USA?), and probably this situation cannot be remedied.

Yet limitations in scope and nature do not affect the duty to be a Christian nor the duty to strive for sanctity, nor do they diminish the need for mission and conversion. We are still afforded glimpses of Heaven. But our situation does diminish the fullness and height of what can be attained.  

I could go on - but it can be seen from these examples that a Christian spirituality which sees Byzantium as the apex of devoutness on earth will have widespread implications beyond the acknowledgement of a simple historical fact.



sykes.1 said...

Do you think the Holy Spirit has abandoned the Church?

Most of Byzantine Christianity has been overrun by the Muslims and has disappeared. Whatever the glories of Byzantine civilization, entire Eastern Orthodox Churches exist only as a remnant in the United States. And who knows what will happen in Russia.

The mainstream Protestant denominations in the US have now rejected even the Bible, and they are rapidly dying out. The only believing Protestants are the fundamentalists, the evangelicals have no doctrine.

The great majority of the world's Christians are Catholic. So despite Catholicism's all too many defects, it remains the most likely center for a Christian revival.

Unless, of course, the Holy Spirit has abandoned us.

AlexT said...

Just out of curiosity, has your respect for Byzantium and Fr. Seraphim Rose awoken any interest in converting to Orthodoxy? I know this would go against your 'mere christianity' theory, but if your hope is theosis, and Orthodoxy is the best hope for theosis then....well, i'm sure catch my drift. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

bgc said...

@AT - yes, I would not rule this out at some point. But there is nowhere Orthodox and English speaking where it is possible for me to attend weekly. And, anyway, I do not think the superiority of Eastern Orthodoxy comes through in practice except when it is in an Orthodox society (or an Orthodox monastery). In other words, attending an Orthodox church once a week is not really different from attending any other real Christian church once a week. And, at this present moment (but for how long, I do not know) I have two solid Anglican churches I can attend - once uses the Book of Common Prayer, and the other is evangelical and doctrinally very sound. The other possibility may be the Anglican Ordinariate in the Roman church - if a parish opens nearby.

JP said...

We, in the West, are not taught the history of our own countries honestly -- not even the history of very recent events. The chances of anyone learning the honest truth about an alien country in the far past is remote indeed. Anything written in English is likely to take a Protestant perspective, which is unsympathetic to the Byzantines to say the least.

Dale James Nelson said...

JP, there is a lot of Orthodox, Byzantine-friendly material in English translations, from the St Herman of Alaska Press, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, St Tikhon's Press, etc. Light and Life book service or Eighth Day Books of Wichita, Kansas, would probably carry a lot of these things and more, and I think their thick catalog has a section on Byzantine Christianity... enough to keep anyone busy for years. You could become quite a scholar by reading some of these, I'm sure.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

"Western Christendom has been significantly incomplete and biased (and the East, also, was wounded and diminished)" [by the Great Schism]: I agree completely. Pope Paul VI (and also John Paul II, I believe) said that the Orthodox and Catholic Churches are the two lungs of the Church and we cannot indeed breathe normally while being severed from one another.

"I regard the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire as the high point of Christian devoutness in human history...": if your measure of devoutness is mainly liturgical reverence, monachism and the number and deeds of the saints, the Western Church can hold herself well to the comparison in most eras and places and for as long as the Eastern Church. As I already wrote on another thread, they are different mostly in outlook.

To give an example of that difference, I said to my daughter recently: "Mass" is called such because of the "Ite, missa est" at the end of the Latin Mass; it does not mean "Go, the Mass is over", it means "Go, you are sent", that is, sent in "mission" to the world. This is the outlook of the Western Church, and I hope you will agree that if there is still a Church at all in the world, it is because of her. Whereas the outlook of the Eastern Churches, as exemplified by the name "Divine Liturgy" they give to the Eucharist, is more mystical, reverent, devout, as you say. But I insist it is just an outlook. There certainly were and are as many devout people and saints in proportion on both sides.

Shannon said...

Could you recommend any books on early Byzantine Christianity?

Prinz Eugen said...

I think lacks nuance to say one civilization marks an apex. The best we can point to are certain limited ears in both Western and Eastern history. I would say that these eras are usually characterized by a strong monastic movement and truly Christian rulers. Thus France under St. Louis, England under Alfred the Great or Spain under St. Ferdinand would much better qualify then most of Byzantium’s history. Also the early Crusading period, with its spiritual unity is probably one of the greatest examples.
I would really like someone to explain to me how having a separate and subordinate state from the Church lead to liberalism? The Byzantine model while certainly having some good qualities also led to a number of ridiculous circumstances that I think most traditionalists would find repugnant. It also seems as though the Eastern model did not really offer much opposition to the evil ideologies like communism but rather were somewhat conducive towards that end in way that Catholicism and Islam were not (of course Protestantism is the most conducive to all liberal thought.)

bgc said...

@Shannon - if you search this blog for Byzantine and Byzantium (including comments) you will find some advice on books.

bgc said...

@PE "I would really like someone to explain to me how having a separate and subordinate state from the Church lead to liberalism? "

If you look through Thought Prison (my online book linked in the blog list) you will see that I regard the separation of Church and State as the first step in that specialization of societal function which leads to modernity (for good and ill) on a slippery slope - it is intrinsically unstable.

But on general Christian grounds, there cannot be allowed to exist any part of life (a 'secular realm') exempted from the Christian frame.

Dale James Nelson said...

BGC, you start from Byzantium in your discussion of a Christian society. I would start from the New Testament. Clearly there one has the sense that always there eare two distinct realms, church and state. The state ought to keep hands off the prescribing of religion; the penalty, when a Christian unrepentantly sins, is excommunication, not fines, imprisonment, execution, etc. The church is the Mother who gives us the Gospel, the free forgiveness of sins for Christ's sake; the state is not there to forgive sins but to protect the innocent and punish the guilty; i.e. the state's realm is law. And here I would insist that the domain of law is not a matter of revelation in the sense that the Gospel is. "Natural law" itself teaches patriarchy, marriage, family, benevolence, duty, etc. In a sense our problem is not that Britain is post-Christian but that it has taken some elements of the Tao and blown them utterly out of proportion (e.g. the duty of hospitality to strangers) while interfering with others.

But I suppose we have had this conversation before and it's just something we have to agree to differ about.

JRRT Reader said...

@ Shannon

For a good general history of the Byzantine Empire (I prefer "Romania", their own name for their country, but alas, I'm in the minority here), I would suggest "A Short History of Byzantium" by John Julius Norwich. This a condensed and abridged version of a 3 volume history he had written on the same topic.

bgc said...

@JRRTR - Actually I would not recommend Norwich as a first point of contact because he is not a Christian and does not give a central place to Christianity in his account.

Steven Runciman's books are much sounder on the Christian side (although Runciman was apparently not Christian either, he certainly seems to be sympathetic and admiring of Byzantine Christianity).

If you search 'Runciman' on this blog, you can find a couple of excerpts from his work.

JRRT Reader said...

That may be a valid concern, though I would not consult Norwich for the religious but rather the basics of the political side of things. It's good to have a working knowledge of this or that emperor's reign or whichever time period. It may be dry but it is more or less necessary. Indeed, one of the most valid criticisms of Norwich's condensed volume of his work is that it seems at times little more than an endless cycle who was reigning or usurping at any given moment. What I would say in favor of Norwich is that is not anti-Byzantine, and is perhaps even sympathetic on the whole to that empire, which serves to distinguish him from many a Western historian, past and present.

Gabe Ruth said...

Somewhat off topic...

Just came across this post on the differences between Eastern and Western monasticism.

I've never seen the difference expressed this way before, but it sounds very familiar to your thoughts on the subject. Something new that came through for me here was the idea that mysticism can be used in the West as a way to hold theosis at arms length. Instead of allowing the presence of God to overwhelm and envelope their entire being, they hold to the logical framework and keep everything that cannot be held inside it cloaked in mysticism. He seems to be saying that mysticism is a way to acknowledge the transcendent mystery of God without submitting to it, to still hold on to human conceptions of God.