Monday 7 March 2011

The City of God: The Church, or Constantinople?


In the lives of most Christians past and present, The Church is grossly deficient, and we must make do with the best that can be managed: which may not be very much.

Some denominations are much better than others at insisting-upon - sometimes eliciting - specific approved behaviours from adherents.

This might happen for many reasons: one common way of getting adherents to behave well is by being selective (excluding non-virtuous people, or only attracting the well-behaved to join), another is by having strict and explicit laws backed up by punishments (sometimes draconian) for transgression. Strictly, therefore, the behavior of adherents may have nothing to do with the specifically religious aspects.


However, the ideal of The Church varies between denominations, and I think these ideals can be compared and evaluated.

It is instructive to imagine how the world would ideally be organized (ideally according to specific aspiration) if a denomination or religion had its way.


In the Catholic Christian denominations, the ideal is sometimes termed The City of God -  a situation actualized in Heaven - but seen only incompletely and in corrupted form here on earth.

There are two main concepts of the City of God - Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox.


The RC concept of the City of God comes from Augustine of Hippo (St Augustine to the RC Church), and it refers to the ideal Church.

It is the Church - ruled by the Pope (Vicar of Christ) - which is seen as the earthly representation of the Heavenly order.

The secular world of 'politics', ruled by the monarch or by some other form of government such as democracy - is excluded from the City of God.

The Western Catholic tradition is therefore dualistic: Church and State, spiritual and secular - Pope and Monarch


The Orthodox concept of the City of God comes from Eusebius (early church historian and biographer of Constantine), and refers to the city of Constantinople.

It is the City - ruled by the Emperor (Christ's Vicegerent on earth) - which is seen as the earthly representative of the Heavenly order.

The Eastern Catholic tradition is therefore monistic: a single hierarchy with the divinely ordained monarch at its head and incorporating the Church and State, spiritual and secular interwoven within it.


I regard the Orthodox ideal vision as superior, since it includes the whole of human society in microcosm; whereas the Roman Catholic City of God explicitly excludes the secular world, and introduces a division into all human affairs.

This dualism, I believe, is the ultimate case of the thin-ness, the two-dimensionality which I feel in relation to the Roman Catholic church - even in my most idealistic imaginations of how it might be. I feel this even in its most passionate and eloquent advocates (even in such 'rounded' and earthy advocates as Chesterton and Belloc; even in such earthy places as Spain and Italy).

There is, for me, a dry-ness about the RC priesthood which I cannot prevent myself from noticing - this even comes through in the Gregorian chanting. It may be, often is, sublime - but always, for me, incomplete - even in its aspiration it excludes so much of human society.

Of course the dualism brings advantages: in practice the Western Church is less corruptible by politics, because more independent of it.

Furthermore, the Western Catholic tradition has a higher level of achievement (and a higher level of potential achievement) in the relatively-autonomous intellectual sphere of universities, systematic theology, philosophy and leading on to science.

Nonetheless, this achievement comes at the price of a fundamental societal disunity which - once introduced, has tended to increase and evolve until we get the micro-specialization of modernity and - indeed - the secularization of society, including the Church itself.


By contrast, when I read accounts of Byzantium I feel a straining towards an idea of organic completeness - or rather of Heavenly completeness.

I feel that the City of Constantinople in its ideality (an ideal which was indeed passionately and devoutly believed by its inhabitants for hundreds of years) was indeed a representation (incomplete and corrupt, inevitably) of Heaven on earth in a way that is beyond the scope of the Western Church - because not (in a sense) desired by the Western Church.

I even feel that this difference can be felt between otherwise very similar countries such as Western Spain and Eastern Greece - this is a question of impressions, not facts. For me the Greek Church feels a part of the social whole in a way that the Roman Catholic Church does not, and probably could not be, in Spain.

I feel it also in the contrast between Orthodox chanting and Gregorian chanting - the (various types of ) Orthodox chant have a much greater appeal to me, a more complete and rounded spirituality which does not separate the spiritual and secular. A glimpse of Heaven as a City, not as a Church... 


(All this is a nebulous impression which I could not back-up with data, nor would I want to - nonetheless I think it is true. At any rate, it is something I cannot help but perceive.)



Brent said...

Let me put in a plug for the Lutheran churches' confession concerning the Church, especially
the Small Catechism, Third Article of the Creed and the Smalcald Article's section on the Church.

The Lutheran teaching on vocation is very holistic; I think Gene Veith's book 'Spirituality of the Cross' is worth reading on vocation.

Anonymous said...

Looks to me the reverse: The Roman Catholic Church was always corrupted by politics, the Borgias being a particularly notorious example, though leftist politics was far more common, while the Byzantine Church was not, because any would be reformers seeking earthly redemption were apt to be clapped in irons by the emperor.

Byzantine priests were patriotic, while Roman Catholic priests subversive, because the emperor demanded patriotism or else.

Space said...

I wonder if you have ever come across Joseph Farrell's 4-volume thesis on Christianity and Europe. It's voluminous and conceptually interesting if not thorough. It discusses the religious and psychological schism and the creation of 2 Europes.

Thought you might enjoy it.