Last night I read the article “The Forgotten Faithful: Arab Christians” by Don Belt in the June issue of National Geographic (I read it in print). I do not doubt that Don Belt knows much more intimately the state of affairs for the modern Arab Christian; the article was very good and balanced and informed on that front. However, the following statement makes me wonder at his knowledge regarding their Byzantine ancestors:
When the Musliam Caliph Omar conquered Syria from the Byzantine Empire around 636, he protected the Christians under his rule, allowing them to keep their churches and worship as they pleased. But many Christians converted to Islam anyway, preferring its emphasis on a personal connection with God to the oppressive hierarchies of the Byzantine Church. (p. 94)
My issue is with the final sentence, not the first. The first is true, verifiable, historical fact. The second is speculation. We do not know the motives behind most conversions of local populations at that time because most of them were unlettered — not necessarily illiterate, but not about to write a paperback about “My Conversion to Islam.” I imagine that their conversion to Islam was similar to that of many Roman citizens in 313 or more likely 381. This is the new religion in town, the rulers recommend it.
I acknowledge that the Church has had her times of “oppressive hierarchies” and that the Byzantines would not have been entirely free from them. However, we should note a few things that make Byzantine Christianity different from Roman Catholicism (since most people imagine everything from Constantine to the Reformation to be the same sort of creature).
One fact is the lay nature of the monks. Monasticism was a lay movement started and maintained by the laity of the Eastern Church, not governed or regulated by the clergy. There were no bishops sitting around approving which orders were allowed to found monasteries; there are no orders in the East. They are all just monks. And often, especially in places like Syria and Palestine, the monks were local holy men, involved in the life of the community. Lay monasticism was a source for popular piety amongst the Christians of the Holy Land, something not enshrined in the hierarchies. These holy men would have stressed the importance of a personal connection with God.
Second, there was a robust Syriac and Aramaic Christian literature, as seen in the earlier St. Ephraim and the liturgies of the Syrian Church. Many theologians would have been writing in Greek, the international language of the day. St. John of Damascus, a Syrian, did, as did many across Asia Minor and in Egypt. The existence of Christian literature in the vernacular speaks of the existence of personal piety in Late Antique/Byzantine Syria.
Third, the role of the clergy, this so-called “oppressive hierarchy” was to baptise, preside at the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist), and to teach the people. In a proper setting, Eastern Christian clergy are not intermediaries between the lay people and God, but exhorters of the lay people, instructors of the lay people, shepherds who help keep the lay people on their pathway to their own personal connection with God. The Eucharist is not about the priest standing between me and God; it is about God coming to me in the bread and wine. Perhaps some people find the fact that it’s always a priest or bishop consecrating the elements oppressive; a proper understanding of the Eucharist creates popular piety and devotion to God (even a bad one can, both being seen in Mediaeval Catholic piety).
This personal connection with God would have been demonstrated in the attendance at morning and evening, and occasionally noon, prayers. This is the same expression of a “personal connection with God” that Islam would have offered. I could see an uneducated, uncatechised Christian not seeing much difference between Christianity and Islam due to similarities such as this; yet I do not imagine that they would say, “Great! I am free from those oppressive hierarchies!”
Fifth, the whole point of Pseudo-Dionysius (aka Denys, before AD 532) was the accessibility of God to every Christian. Mysticism is not meant solely for the monks and the priests. That’s the point. And Pseudo-Dionysius was very popular in the Byzantine world, as were many other mystical writers from St. Gregory of Nyssa to St. John Climacus. Very popular as well was St. Ephraim the Syrian.
Sixth, if the hierarchies of this era were oppressive, what was a layman like St. John of Damascus doing producing such excellent and well-informed theology?
There was ample opportunity for a personal connection with God in the world of Byzantine Syrian Christianity, through monasticism and contact with monks, through the sacraments, through daily prayer, through the literature of Syrian Christians, through mysticism. I think that a shift from Christianity to Islam on the part of the local inhabitants of the Middle East was fairly gradual and the result of a cultural form of Christianity that had not taken root in the hearts of the people.
Yet to this day there are many Christians residing in the Holy Land, praying where Christ and the Apostles prayed, walking where they walked, living where they lived, dying where they died.