Thursday 27 February 2020

From only 'Rome' to Not Rome: How much I have changed in eight years

Eight years ago on this blog, in my review of a book about Christopher Dawson; when at the peak of my immersion in Eastern Orthodoxy, I stated: "As Rome dies over the centuries, so civilization-as-such dies, and is not replaced. Rome or nothing or something altogether alien and unChristian - these are the only civilizational alternatives."

I have now changed my understanding so much that I regard a continuation of Rome (its civilisation and religion) and not only un-desirable, but impossible. 

What brought about such a change?

Well, it was a sequence. First of all, from around the turn of 2012-2013, I began properly to understand Mormon theology, and soon became convinced of its superiority, its rightness. Then, about a year later  I got to grips with William Arkle. And soon afterwards, began my encounter with Owen Barfield. So, within a year of writing the following, I had begun the transformation of my understanding - and within a couple of years it was complete in its main features; after which there have been only relatively minor tweaks. 


Wednesday, 19 September 2012 - Christopher Dawson and the Byzantine blindspot

Christopher Dawson - 1889-1970. Once very famous Roman Catholic historian of ideas, now all-but forgotten. Admired by Tolkien, C.S Lewis (who knew him) and TS Eliot.

See Sanctifying the World: The Augustianian mind of Christopher Dawson by Bradley J Birzer.

Excerpts from Progress and Religion, 1929 pp 157-166.

Dawson in italics - my comments [in square brackets].

It cannot be too strongly insisted that the victory of the Church in the 4th century was not... the natural culmination of the religious evolution of the ancient world, It was, on the contrary, a violent interruption of that process which forced European civilization out of its old orbit into a path which it would never have followed by its own momentum.

It is true that the classical culture and the religion of the city state ... were losing their vitality, and that nothing could have arrested the movement of orientalization which ultimately conquered the Roman world. But this movement found its normal expression either in the undiluted form which is represented by the different Gnostic and Manichaean sects, or in a bastard Hellenic syncretism.

[So, 'a bastard Hellenic syncretism', or 'orientalism' is how Dawson characterizes the millennium of the Byzantine continuation of the Christian Roman Empire! The coherence of Byzantium - as I see it by far the most coherent Christian society which ever existed on earth - is dismissed as a weird or exotic (yet centuries-long) suspension of crudely-mixed Judueo-Christian an Greek elements in asolvent of 'orientalism'.]

...the Byzantine culture does not simply represent the fusion of the Hellensitic-Roman tradition with Christianity. It contains a third element of oriental origin which is, in fact, the preponderant influence in Byzantine civilization. It is to be seen in the social and political organization of the Empire which borrowed from Sassanian Persia all the external forms of the oriental sacred monarchy.

The rigid hierarchy of the Byzantine state which centres in the Sacred Palace and the quasi-divine person of the Holy Emperor is neither Roman nor Christian, but purely oriental.

[This is just name-calling! For Dawson, 'Oriental' is clearly a bad thing in and of itself, and 'rigid' added as a meaningless adjective to 'hierarchy'; 'quasi-divine' as a sniping and inaccurate characterization of the concept of the Emperor. The ideal Emperor was actually conceived as an Apostle, God's representative on earth, and an intermediary with Christ Pantocrator (that is Christ as active and Heavenly ruler of all, ruling Earth via his intermediary). But actual Emperors were judged against this ideal, and deposed when their behaviour showed they were not the real Emperor and a mistake had been made in choosing them. Anyway, Dawson doesn't like this kind of thing, and he needs to distinguish The West from it. But in doing so he is actually taking a pro-modernizing stance. Because 'orientalism' is the ideal of unity, fusion or harmony of church and state - and in attacking this, Dawson introduces - not just as a pragmatic reality but as an alternative ideal - a distinction between the realm of God - the Church, or City of God; and the secular realm of the state - politics, military and economic activity. In other words, functional specialization: modernity. Once begun, unstoppable.]

And the same influence is to be seen in Byzantine religion in its tendency to neglect the historical and dynamic elements in the Christian tradition, and to become absorbed in theological speculations regarding the nature of the Godhead.

This tendency reaches its climax in the writings of the so called Dionysius the Aeropagite, which probably date from the close of the 5th century, and have exerted and incalculable influence on the religious life of the Byzantine world. Here we may see the most extreme assertion of the Divine Transcendence and the negation of all finite modes of being.

In fact, Byzantine 'theological speculations' were mostly reactive to heresy and criticism from Western Christianity - and were not core to Christian life. Byzantine Holiness was not 'absorbed' in theological speculations, its purpose was for the human spirit to be 'absorbed' with (in communion with) the Godhead itself: so that man becomes Saint, who lives partly in Heaven in communion with God, partly on this earth to learn, teach, and act as intermediary. The 'neglect' of historical and dynamic elements actually meant that for Byzantium at its best, Christianity was a living presence in daily life, which tried to create (by ritual, arts, ascetic practices, devotions, prayer) model itself upon and emulate Heavenly life. A moment-by-moment earthly copy of the permanent Heavenly ideal. Naturally, historical and 'dynamic' elements were subordinated to this timeless task (not 'neglected'). Dawson accepts the modern secular revisionist history that Dionysius is the work of a late author ('Pseudo' Dionysius) - when for many centuries the ancients accepted the identity of the originator of these teachings as the disciple of St Paul. I believe the ancients.

Thus abstract mysticism [of Dionysius] is linked up with a fixed ritual and ceremonial order which is its earthly and sensible counterpart...

Again this harping on Byzantium as fixed, ritual, ceremonial!... yet ultimate reality is fixed, surely? So why should not earthly copies be fixed? If the Byzantine fixity was unreal then the Empire could not have endured as it did! And why does Dawson, a pre-Vatican II ultramontane Roman Catholic, criticize Byzantium for its use of devotional ritual and ceremony? In seeking to distinguish, positively, Western from Eastern Christianity - he has drifted into anti-Catholic sentiment.

...the moral ideal of the Byzantine world found its expression in the uncompromizing other-worldliness of the monks of the desert which represents the extreme development of the oriental spirit of asceticism and world-denial within the boundaries of orthodox Christianity.

[But elsewhere, and rightly, Dawson is unstinting in his praise of the Irish, later Scottish and Northumbrian ascetic monks and hermits who maintained the last Western outpost of Christianity in the remote 'deserts' of the British Isles. St Boniface - who Dawson regards as perhaps the most important figure in the whole of European Christian History - was a Lindisfarne product of this non-Latin tradition. What were these if not example of uncompromizing other-worldliness of precisely the type that Dawson brands as 'oriental'? The 'Celtic Christian' church of Anglo Saxon times was precisely Byzantine or Eastern Orthodox - albiet not 'Greek'!) in all its distinctive respects. The whole Synod of Whitby dispute was a prefiguring of the Great Schism in terms of the Latin Christians (Pope as supreme bishop, a church led by priests) versus Byzantine Christian (Emperor as supreme authority, the bishop of Rome as having precedence but not authority over other Patriarchs, and led by monks)]

Nevertheless, even this radically oriental version of Christianity did not satisfy the Eastern world. With the coming of Islam it reverted to a simpler type of religion (etc)  

The drawn-out and bitter conquest of the Byzantine Empire by Islam is represented as having happened merely because the 'orientals' were not 'satisfied' by Eastern Orthodoxy, and wanted something 'simpler'... I wonder why so many Byzantines bothered fighting to the death to resist something that supposedly satisfied them more than what they had? And why so many of the conquered over the next centuries, even until now, continued to practice Byzantine Christianity despite its entailing subordinate status?]

In the Roman West, in spite of its lower standard of civilization, the conditions were more favourable to the development of an original and creative Christian culture.

[This is true: Western Catholic Christianity is indeed much more original and creative than Eastern Orthodoxy, and thus much more satisfying to creative geniuses. Unfortunately, being creative and original does not imply or entail its being more true, or more Holy. Indeed, if ancient Christianity during its first millennium had as much Christian truth as was available in the fallen world; then everything that came since - no matter how original and creative - has been deviation from that truth.]

In his Byzantine blindspot, Dawson is typical of most historians.

Indeed, I believe that our whole understanding of the modern world, the nature of civilization, and the human condition is distorted and perverted by a vast and pervasive Byzantine blindspot.

Constaninople was the second Rome, the capital of the Byzantine Empire was the Christian Roman Empire.

The core, essence, and highest manifestation of Christian Rome was Byzantium; of which the Latin West was - spiritually speaking - a pale and fragmented outgrowth. Rome was (in its variants and descendents), the only model and pattern of Christian civilization we can ever know.

As Rome dies over the centuries, so civilization-as-such dies, and is not replaced.

Rome or nothing or something altogether alien and unChristian - these are the only civilizational alternatives.

The Third Rome was Moscow - and Orthodox Russia was the lineal descendent of Byzantium: the Tsar (in ideal) was the continuation of the Byzantine Emperor. The Russion revolution a century ago was therefore the end of Rome as a cohesive spiritual-political organization; the fragmented Holy Roman Empire in the West ended about at the same time. It was the end of Rome which marked the qualitative rift with the Christian past - the Great War was only a mechanism. The twentieth century was then unleashed in all its various horrors. The end times began. 

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