Constructing Christendom 3: Reconstruction?

Romanesque Basilica Sant'Ambrogio, Milan (my photo)
Romanesque Basilica Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (my photo)

In my first post on this topic, I talked a bit about what we mean by Christendom and the dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Last post, I talked about the role played by the papacy in developing and spreading culture and unity throughout the arising kingdoms that took Rome’s place, bringing us from Pope Leo I (r. 440-461) to Pope Leo III and Charlemagne at the latters coronation in the year 800.

Most of the next 1000 years I’ll skip, okay? Suffice it to say, as mentioned in the first post, the Church as an institution along with many individual Christians was a powerful force in the intellectual, political, cultural, social, legal, artistic, military (etc, etc) life of Europe. For good or ill.

Today it is not.

What I will not talk about, which may disappoint, is the cultural fragmentation that has coincided with the decline of ecclesiastical power in the West. The two may well be linked; I’m not really a cultural analyst, more of a classical philologist/historian who plays around in theology. I would say, however, that we do live in troubling times, when the visual arts are incomprehensible blobs, blots, and belches, music is mostly either vapid pop or void ‘art’, poetry has missed the part where words mean things, modern novels have forgotten what a story is, art cinema is so dull, and so forth.

I also leave it up for others who wish to discuss any possible moral degradation. This is a story that is unequivocally linked to the fall of Christendom, but is a symptom. We cannot legislate morality. If any sort of ‘Christendom’ is worth reconstructing (a point up for debate), I think maybe we begin with disciples.

No, sorry.

With Jesus.

What, then, do I mean by the fall of Christendom?

I first heard the term ‘Christendom’ in old books about the Crusades when I was a kid in the 80s and 90s. I had this vision of all of Christian Europe standing firm against the oncoming, oppressive infidels, who were apparently some people group called ‘Turks’ and by religion ‘Moslems.’

I first heard of how we are living after Christendom from my father’s preaching in the late 90s. He put it simply, that most people aren’t really Christians anymore. Charles Alexander, one of his fellow Anglican priests from the Diocese of Calgary, once put it that we are clearly living in a post-Christian age — at least 35 years ago people could tell you which church they weren’t going to!

That is to say, not only do we have fewer people who truly believe and live the Gospel, we have fewer people who even identify as nominally Christian. To be Christian is no longer to hold any power in our culture. Our churches, as I have seen in Edinburgh, are empty(ing).

Some people are living in fear as a result. They miss ‘the good ol’ days’ when Christians, and evangelical or possibly Roman Catholic Christians, had the power. When they could say, ‘Down with this sort of thing,’ and people would listen.

I don’t know if we’ll ever have ‘good ol’ days’ again.

Could that be a good thing?

New evangelization

What should actually trouble us isn’t the marginalisation of the Church. That is inevitable if no one’s going to our churches or believing the version of the gospel that is publicly pandered to the populace. We should be concerned about salvation and souls.

The Roman Church calls this the New Evangelization. Postmodern, post-Christian, un-Christian Europe and North America have turned their backs on the Church. Even in countries like Cyprus, where almost everyone turns up at a church on Sunday morning, people are not seeking to become Jesusy. They don’t go to their priests for spiritual comfort or advice — they go to the big New Age conventions for that.

When we look to those Great Popes (Leo I and Gregory I) and late antique/early mediaeval saints like St Caesarius of Arles or St Augustine of Canterbury or St Martin of Tours or St Cuthbert or St Aidan or St Columba or St Boniface we see not just people out to mould culture into their vision of what Catholic culture should look like (as the abovelinked post to St Caesarius discusses) but people who want to see their neighbours and the peoples of distant lands find Jesus and then follow him.

I also believe that simple evangelism as I was taught or imagined when younger is not enough. Tracts are not enough. I once wanted to be a door-to-door preacher (no joke) in my zeal to make sure people heard about Jesus — not enough. That guy yelling on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh — not enough. What does Christ call his Apostles to do?

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19, NKJV)

A disciple is a lifelong student of Jesus, an apprentice is his school of life and love. We are to be being conformed to the likeness of his image, and to be helping our neighbours do likewise.

Charles Alexander, in the same series of talks where he noted that 35 years ago people at least knew which church they didn’t go to, called us to be prophets to the culture around, that we need to be a radical church for a radical age.

Cultural transformation

I have a distinct feeling that more Christians = more Christian culture.

But we need, as a Church, to be willing to foster the artists in our midst. We need to let them produce fantastic art that sometimes maybe doesn’t talk about Jesus at all. The Truth will shine through, don’t worry.

We also need to help make real disciples who are in positions of power. Not power-hungry hypocrites who have all the Jesusy slogans but lack Jesusy character. Nay! Men and women of Jesusy character in places of power is a good thing.

But we’ve been saying this for decades. But the effect of Christians on public policy and our efforts to keep people in church and hooked on Jesus have been failing.

So I could be wrong.

How do you think we could transform culture into something where orthodox Christianity is at least visible and taken seriously?

Constructing Christendom 2: Pope Leo and his successors

In my last post, I was discussing the construction of ‘Christendom’ in Europe, the role the emperors played in that, and then about the dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire. I probably sound like a catastrophist in that, but I can assure you I am neither a catastrophist nor a continuitist. And if those words mean little or nothing to you, be glad.

The Bishop of Rome

Pope Leo the Great (r. 440-461) was not unaware that Valentinian III’s empire was being slowly dismembered. As an acolyte, back in the good ol’ days, he’d visited North Africa on a papal embassy. But by the time he was pope, North Africa was not part of the Roman Empire. Increasingly, neither was Spain nor Gaul. It had been 30 years since the legions left Britain.

But here’s what Leo did, and here’s one reason why we should think him Great. He kept the church running. In his letter to the bishops of Mauretania Caesariensis (present-day Algeria), he told them that invasion and persecution were no excuse; ecclesiastical order and canons had to be upheld.

Now, this may sound like Leo being a hardass. And really, to a degree it is. Leo can be; it must be admitted. Nonetheless, it is something more. It is Leo saying that the life of the Church can continue, that order can be maintained, even when the Empire is no longer there to keep order.

Leo would also temper the canons with mercy and then hope that the local church could make its own rulings in many cases. And what he did in North Africa, he did in northern Italy (irregularities and problems resulting from Hunnic attacks), southern Gaul (irregularities and problems arising from Visigothic attacks), and Spain (irregularities and problems arising from Alans, Vandals, Sueves, and Visigoths; including a resurgence of Manichees and Priscillianists).

Leo created a network of bishops in the West who listened to him, sought his advice, and tried to implement it, not only in his jurisdiction as Metropolitan Bishop of Southern Italy, and not only as a court of final appeal, but in other aspects of the liturgical feasts, the doctrine, and the organisation of the church throughout Gaul, northern Italy, the Balkans, North Africa and, to a degree, Spain (the one letter to Spain may be spurious).

This vision of the Bishop of Rome being a figure to rally behind, being someone to help keep order, regardless of who ruled you, who ruled him, and what those rulers’ religion was, was one succeeding Bishops of Rome would take up. It was also something that helped provide religious and cultural cohesion even as political cohesion eroded.

Before going further, I admit that if the popes and bishops hadn’t done it, someone else might have. The cultural capital of the West was far from gone. In that sense, I am not a catastrophist — everything did not suddenly descend into utter chaos with the ‘fall’ of Rome. A lot of taxation continued, local church councils continued, the monastic project continued, evangelisation continued.

Nevertheless, the Bishops of Rome were actively engaged in creating networks of authority that could rally behind the image of Roma Aeterna, Roma Invicta, even after 476 when no emperor was left. Susan Wessel, in Leo the Great and the Spiritual Rebuilding of a Universal Rome, argues that Leo is the one who really gets the ball rolling. She’s probably right.

And why Leo? Well, his papacy was extraordinarily long. Furthermore, he was involved in the great theological crisis of his day, and spent all of his papacy in the intellectual vacuum left in the West by Augustine’s passing, and most of it in the similar vacuum left by Cyril of Alexandria. As a result, he’s our first pope with lots of sermons and letters and theology and canon law flowing out from Rome. The following popes would continue this, working towards a united western church with a united western culture.

Since it was the popes, bishops, and monks, rather than the Roman aristocrats and their successors (although they often patronised the popes, bishops and monks!!), who really worked to create some semblance of cultural unity across the post-Roman kingdoms, this strikes me as a determining factor on how Europe is distinctively Christendom even after the Empire ceases to be, and so ceases to be God’s vehicle for the transmission of the Gospel.

Most famously on this blog, we see this activity in Pope Gregory the Great (saint of the week here) sending Augustine of Canterbury (saint of the week here) on his evangelistic mission to Britain. He also wrote his Book of Pastoral Care that was such a hit, the Emperor Maurice in Constantinople had it translated into Greek and distributed throughout. We have over 500 letters from Gregory the Great as well as numerous other theological works and a major liturgical work under his name.

Another saint of the week, Boniface, was also commissioned by the popes of his day in the 700s. They were funding missionaries and supporting local bishops. The western church’s network of influence thus involved the founding of monasteries and the building of late Roman and Romanesque cathedrals.

That is to say, the Church, guided by the two Great Popes, sought to maintain a semblance of order as the Empire fragmented. Furthermore, through fostering learning in the monasteries such as that at Lérins and, later, those following Benedict’s footsteps or way off in the Isles, in the oft turbulent (but never completely darkened) years that came, the Church kept western literary culture alive, giving us Columba and his poetry (saint of the week here), Bede (saint of the week here), Alcuin, Caesarius of Arles, and many, many more.

So, could you please bring Charlemagne into this?

Charlemagne: Note the lack of moustache! (On this topic, read ‘Charlemagne’s Mustache’ by Paul Edward Dutton)

As the popes are doing their thing, post-Roman politics continue apace. Visigothic Spain stabilises. The Franks, beginning with Clovis I (r. 481-511; his wife, Clotilda, was saint of the week here), began conquering more and more of Gaul and all the neighbouring territory, beyond the boundaries of the Empire That Had Been. The Eastern Empire (‘Byzantines’) had regained North Africa, a few bits of Spain, and Italy by the mid-500s. In the late 500s, they lost Northern Italy to the Lombards who invaded.

The Frankish realms are interesting from a political perspective because the Frankish royal houses did not establish a game of ‘one son gets it all’, so the territory would move between powerful kings with everything, powerful kings dividing it amongst themselves, powerful kings fighting it out, weak kings with ostensibly everything but ruled by the Mayor of the Palace, the Mayor of the Palace becoming the new king (Carolingians), and then the whole thing doing its thing again.

There are some great names in Frankish history: Pippin the Short, Charles the Bald, Hincmar, Lothar, Charles the Hammer Martel, and Charles the Great, who in many languages has melded his name with his honorific as:

Charlemagne.

Whew. Skipped a lot. That probably really didn’t help you at all. If you really are sincerely interested in Early Mediaeval political history, I recommend Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome, and check out chapters 5, 6, and 16 for the Franks and the Mediterranean in this period. And then read the whole book, which also includes culture. Wickham is a fabulous historian.

So, back to Charlemagne (r. 768-814).

Charlemagne is one of those strong, united Carolingians. He pushes the boundaries of his kingdom into Spain and expands into further bits of what is now Germany, maybe even Austria (the geography gets me confused sometimes). He also added Italy. Looks a lot like the Later Roman Empire …

And so, on Christmas Day, 800, he and Pope Leo III (r. 795-816) staged an elaborate ceremony in Rome where the Eternal City’s new Holy Roman Emperor was crowned:

Jean Fouquet, ‘Coronation of Charlemagne’ from 1460. Note the misplaced beard.

The significance of this Leo is that his patronising of bishops and emperors goes far beyond his fifth-century predecessor. Whereas Leo the Great acknowledged the legitimacy of Valentinian III, Petronius Maximus, Avitus, and Majorian in the West, as well as Theodosius III, Marcian, and Leo I in the East, and enlisted their help in pursuing his papal goals, Leo III helped make Charlemagne Emperor.

And so crown and mitre were intertwined. The Middle Ages are being forged in that ceremony. And Christendom is moving beyond a cultural network that helps keep monasteries and missionaries and art and culture flowing. It is moving itself deeper into the power politics of its age.

… and we, today, are witnessing Christianity moving out of the power politics of our age.

Next: Reflections for today

Constructing Christendom 1: What is it and whence did it come?

Notre Dame (what better symbol of 'Christendom'?)
Notre Dame (what better symbol of ‘Christendom’?)

Many people have been speaking for the past few years about the Fall of Christendom, about how we now live in the Post-Christian West. Today I was doing some reading and thinking about the origins of ‘Christendom’.

What is it, though?

Christendom is the idea that for centuries in Europe and certain non-European kingdoms (think Ethiopia and Armenia) — besides those places formally colonised by Europe — there was a confluence of power, persons, and Christianity. Christians were kings or lords or emperors or presidents. Christians were chamberlains or generals or composers or philosophers or poets or architects.

In Christendom, as it is imagined, Christians hold power and influence in the political and cultural life of the realms. Typically, this is constructed in negative ways these days — bishops who make or break politicians, popes who wage wars, devout Christian slavetraders. The other side, also sometimes stressed, is emperors and kings making or breaking bishops, monasteries, and cathedrals.

Of course, the confluence of Christianity and western culture was much more fertile than that. ‘Christendom’ could allow for the construction of beautiful cathedrals and the composition of oratorios, the development of affordable or free education and healthcare through the Church’s charitable ministries.

And the persistence of something to hold onto when everything else may be going to pieces.

Constructing Christendom

Constantine

The man usually targeted for making this a reality is the Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337, saint of the week here). He legalised Christianity, he granted favours to the Church, he built lots of churches, he helped fund the Church’s charitable works, he called the Council of Nicaea, he is thought to have founded Constantinople as a purely Christian capital (its level of Christianness is disputed). He is also falsely accused of all sorts of things, such as persecuting Gnostics, burning apocryphal Gospels, hiding the fact that Jesus was married, making Jesus a God for the first time, increasing the power of the bishops and stealing it from local presbyteries, and so forth.

From Constantine onwards, goes the Christendom narrative, the Empire and the Church were welded together ever more tightly, as when Theodosius I (r. 379-395) outlawed paganism in 381, and culminated in the East with the alleged theocracy — or caesaropapism — of Justinian the Great (r. 527-565) and in the West with Pope Leo III (r. 795-816) crowning Charlemagne (r. 768-814) Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800.

But wait! How do we get from Constantine to Charlemagne?

The development of Christendom in western Europe is tied up intrinsically with the political shift from the centralised government of the Roman Empire to the scattered polities that arose in its place.

The theology of Christendom is as old as Constantine, visible in the works of Eusebius of Caesarea such as In Praise of ConstantineThe Life of Constantine, and The Preparation of the Gospel. Later, in the 400s, Orosius (385-420) in Spain, writing in the shadow of Alaric’s sack of the Eternal City in 410, would argue that the pax romana ushered in by God’s chosen emperor, Augustus (r. 31/27 BC – AD 14) was part of a divine plan that culminated with the century following Constantine. Church and Empire were to be intertwined henceforth forever!

Except that, after bouncing around in Spain for a while, the Vandals conquered Roman North Africa, 429-439. Rome’s breadbasket and many of her wealthiest provinces were not only gone but were in the hands of Arian Vandals who set about busily persecuting the Nicene church there. Orosius didn’t live to see that; his mentor Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo Regius in Africa, did, just barely.

[Augustine is an important figure for how we should look at these ‘disasters’, but that would make this even longer than it already is. So we’ll talk about him another day.]

The Vandals proceeded to harass Sicily and conquer Sardinia, thus further reducing Rome’s grain supply and forging what one historian calls an ‘empire du blé‘ — empire of wheat.*

Meanwhile, Visigoths were busily settling various bits of Gaul (mostly what is modern France) and every once in a while sacking a city for good measure. Burgundians kept threatening the eastern border along the Rhine. Oh, and then Attila came and trashed everything in sight before going home and dying somewhere. And then the Alemanni crossed the Danube to do some of their own invading.

In 466, the Visigoths began their conquest of Spain, still holding much of southern Gaul. Spain would be theirs, and strong overall, until the Umayyad conquest beginning 711.

The fifth century also saw the coming of the Franks into northern Gaul, in what is now the Netherlands and Belgium, where they eventually supplanted the Roman rule.

The empire, in other words, was being dismembered, and the Roman ruling class was being replaced by or integrated into new polities. These often ran much along Roman lines except with no tax or tribute going to Rome, but over time they would subtly change with landed aristocracies, castles, and the peasantry.

Italy itself (and the last Roman ties to what remaining ostensible power she had in Gaul) was lost in 476 with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus and the accession of the Scirian (a non-Roman people group) Arian Odoacer to the kingship of Italy, which lasted until the Ostrogothic Arian Theoderic the Great took over in 493, ostensibly in the interests of the Emperor in Constantinople, but we all know that to be a sham. (Well, I think it was, anyway.)

By 530, we have this instead of the Western Roman Empire:

What does this have to do with Christendom?

It is clear that Orosius’ vision of the pax romana and Christianity coinciding and coinhering would not survive the century. The Roman Empire in the West was clearly not God’s chosen instrument for the passing along of the Gospel through the centuries, no matter how strong she was in Eusebius’ day or how hopeful Orosius was in the 410s. In the reign of Valentinian III (r. 425-455), with the loss of Africa and ongoing devestation in Gaul, Rome’s financial base was destroyed.

The Roman Empire could not be God’s chosen vessel. Could it?

Maybe it could. To keep life liveable (i.e. keep this post well under 1500 words), next post we’ll see how Christendom was constructed, and why the fifth century is so important for us as we look back on all that follows.

*Christian Courtois, Les Vandales.

Christianisation Under Justinian: 2

A friend of mine is a minister at a church with a very multicultural, international congregation. One day, of the many Africans in his congregation came to him and offered to pay him so that he would put a curse on someone for him. His answer was a firm no.

This is the sort of startling story we hear coming out of Africa more frequently than most of us are very comfortable with. But if the Global South is becoming the new Christendom, as Philip Jenkins argues in The Next Christendom, then ought it not to have all the characteristics of the old Christendom?

When I first mentioned the Christianisation of Europe here, it was in the context of the persistence of pagan practices throughout the Middle Ages, after Europe was an ostensibly “Christian” continent. The ongoing resort to non- and pre-Christian practices by believers go back to the sixth century under Justinian, if not earlier.

One letter of Barsanuphius and John will suffice:

Letter 753:Question: Since my beast of burden is ill, it’s not out of place for someone to cast a spell on it, is it?

Answer: The casting of spells forbidden by God, and it is not necessary to make use of it all, for it is destruction of the soul to transgress the command of God. Apply to it, rather, the treatments and cures of veterinarians,* for this is not a sin. Pour over it holy water as well.

Given that the person addressed the letter to the Two Old Men of Gaza, he was probably well associated with the church (although we cannot forget the social function of the holy man in Late Antiquity). We cannot assess this person’s level of Christian commitment. This person could be head-over-heels for Christ and attend Church assiduously. However, how many sermons about spell-casting do you really ever here? And how well catechised is the growing Christian population of the Eastern Roman Empire in the sixth century?

What this letter illustrates is the continuation of apparently “pagan” practices in the Christian Empire on the part of Christians. It also demonstrates the difficulties attendant on catechising the many Christians of Justinian’s Empire. It also casts away the easy distinction between “Pagans” and “Christians” as we observe the historical record.

Finally, it brings home the importance of helping Christians learn accurate Christian faith and practice so they don’t go around casting spells on sick beasts of burden.

*Lit. “horse-doctors”.