Sunday, February 28, 2016

Love to Truth (Sins of the Medieval Church III)

“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” says Proverbs 16:18. This verse is often misquoted as “pride goeth before a fall.” The point is that pride, not greed, not hate, is at the heart of all wrongdoing.

Somehow we convince ourselves that, like Eve in the story, we deserve to know everything God knows; at some point we tell ourselves we do. Then we correct others, judge them, set ourselves up as arbiters of right and wrong.

This is what happened to Christianity starting around the time of Nicaea.

The Church had gone from being a predominantly Jewish movement with some quirky ideas about its founder and a gentle, forbearing and kind way of life that endeared itself to others, to an institution financially supported by the greatest political power in the world and run by aristocratic philosophers who thought they could see into God’s mind.

From Agape to Orthodoxy

The faith had started as a matter of good practice largely freed from ritual or tribal rules—loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself, celebrated with the Greek word agape, a universal, unconditional love that transcends and serves regardless of circumstances.

Then it became a matter of teaching, in Greek doxos. You could be orthodox, hewing to correct or good teachings, or you could be heterodox (later evolved to heretical), holding beliefs declared to be incorrect and even wrong.

To be fair to the Christians involved, Christianity’s popular success became its burden.

No one had sought to anoint any of the varied ideas of the Greco-Roman world as tenets of Christianity when Christians were being served as supper to lions. Certainly, no one but Yehoshua’s followers had gotten involved in the debates within the marginal but legal religion of the Jews.

Yet the minute the emperor himself submitted to baptism, every sophist of the ancient world suddenly discovered that he had been Christian all along, that Jesus Christ confirmed his theories. Of course, it was not as if the bishops had videotapes of Jesus to play on YouTube when they wanted to refute heretic who popped up.

Indeed, this was how the bishops evolved an unusual method of defining what the gospels meant, scrupulously avoiding additions to what had been taught. The famous Via Negativa, or negative path, was a way of saying what an apostolic teaching could not possibly mean.

We have already reviewed the intellectual conundrum of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, brought up in words attributed to Jesus that, at least because they are otherwise inexplicable, must have some grounding in actual words of the Galilean woodworker, who apparently did not feel the apostles were entitled to fully understand them.

Of course, if the apostles who lived, slept and walked with Jesus the Christ for three years had no idea what these words meant—they certainly left no paper trail of such knowledge—why would their successors, bishops 200, 300 and 400 years later, who didn’t even speak Yehoshua’s Aramaic, have a clue?

Instead of simply doing more, speaking less and ignoring the arguers, Christians decided they had to take a stand on matters about which they really knew nothing. This was the grand sin of pride of the medieval Church, and it took only a skip, a hop and a jump to end up in the bloodbath of the Crusades and the Inquisition.

Prideful Christianity continues today among people who argue, for example, for or against an ancient language for rituals instead of a modern one, or who condemn or insist on a female as opposed to a male ritual leader, or who decry the (usually sexual) wrongs of others rather than take a good look at their own overweening pride.

Five Words

Once again, I am drawn to Pope Francis for words out of this mess.
Asked what he thought about homosexuals who practiced the faith, he answered, “Who am I to judge?”

Five words that have been heard around the world. The question is, have we listened?

Who am I to judge whether the Son proceeded from the Father or from the Holy Ghost? Who am I to judge whether there are 7 sacraments, 14 or only 2, or whether we should regard the whole world as a sign of God’s gift to us?

This is not an argument for anomie, Émile Durkheim’s word for what colloquially we describe as “anything goes.” There is right and there is wrong, and we all know what those are, at least for ourselves. If Stalin thought the Gulag was a good thing, he would have advertised the camps in tourist brochures rather than keeping them hidden.

Nor is this an argument for syncretism, the notion that different, even contradictory, beliefs or schools can somehow blend into an amoeba-like universal idea. There is truth and untruth, although we cannot always tell which is which.

However, if you speak with sincerity about something I believe to be untrue, I do not have the right to condemn you, hurt you or coerce you to change your mind.

Jesus taught about this. “Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet.” (Matthew 10:14) This was a Jewish practice at the time, by which Jews leaving a Gentile city would express their separateness from the inhabitants of that city.

I may depart from you, shake off the “dust” of your ideas and hold fast to mine.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Bowing to Mammon (Sins of the Medieval Church II)

Although one of the vows of medieval monks was poverty, the princes of the Church did not take to it easily, once the faith became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

I was reminded of this just yesterday, driving through the “little Vatican” around the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. I am reminded of it when I pass the Episcopal Church’s replica of Canterbury Cathedral on prime property on the highest spot on the city or when I chance on televangelists shilling for donations.

All are a far cry from the vision of the Galilean who warned an enthusiastic scribe who wanted to follow him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Matt 8:20)

Similarly, when a man named Simon saw that by laying their hands on people the apostles conveyed the power of the Holy Spirit, including speaking in tongues, he offered money for this gift, but Peter refused him, saying, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money!”

The sin of trying to sell or purchase sacred things, ecclesiastical preferment, benefices and so forth is even today called simony.

Indeed, Paul of Tarsus, the great evangelizer from Asia Minor to Rome, made a living as a tentmaker and refused any payment from the churches he founded or visited. The groups were then mostly tradesmen and a few middle-class intellectual workers, mostly not rich, and initially they held all things in common, although that does not seem to have lasted long.

Wealth Comes to the Archbishop

Even under persecution, there were Christians wealthy enough to welcome a congregation into their homes. Accounts of raids and materials confiscated from bishops and priests show that they had valuable books and chalices and other ritual utensils made of gold and silver.

Yet the floodgates of wealth opened when clerics became imperial officials—the present liturgical vestments are the garb of Roman bureaucrats—and buildings set aside for worship and prayer were built thanks to imperial subsidies.

Then came the many donations and benefices showered on clerics and monks, including some who were wealthy, such as Gregory, and gave their inherited family property to the Church.

For example, the cathedral of Rome, St. John Lateran (not St. Peter’s Basilica), was built on land where once stood the palatial mansion of a Roman patrician clan, the Laterani. The Lateran Palace became Emperor Constantine I’s when he married his second wife, Fausta. The palace was given to the bishop of Rome by Constantine and was for a while a papal residence and papal offices, until it was converted and extended into the cathedral.

Because the clergy became a socioeconomic class by virtue of its privilege of learning, and inducted members of the barbarian nobility into its ranks, it did not take long for the institution to accumulate land (some of it arable and productive), buildings (many used almost exclusively for religious purposes, but later for broader public uses) and income from donations, tithes and even taxation.

Eventually, some bishops even became feudal lords.

The 1964 film “Becket,” starring Richard Burton as Thomas Becket and Peter O’Toole as King Henry II, illustrates in its retelling of high drama and conflict between monarch and primate archbishop, how ecclesiastical wealth became a bone of contention between church and state. One of the original historical inflammatory issues was the archbishop of Canterbury’s refusal to pay taxes to the king.

The much-vaunted vaults of the Vatican are now effectively empty: the microstate survives on donations, the sale of artifacts and green energy. Average U.S. bishops make no more than average priests (between $35,000 and $45,000). Still, not many people earning such salaries get paid trips to Rome and to dozens of conferences all over the place.

Clearly, clerics even today live well, if not luxuriously. In the Middle Ages they were among the wealthiest people, by title if not personally. Indeed, this situation gave rise to the scandal of wealth among Christians in general, even in the face of appalling and widespread poverty.

When I stop to consider the vast economic divide between me and a child in the slums of Calcutta, I have to consider myself no more than a dreadful sinner. That sin flies in the face of the one who counseled a rich yet very good young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Feud Becomes Bias (Sins of the Medieval Church I)

St. Isidore’s medieval sin, you may have guessed, was a religiously based prejudice against Jews that led him to approve of measures against them. He was not the first nor, unfortunately, the last. This is a wrong that goes against the essential grain of faith in Jesus the Christ, who was Jewish himself.

Christian anti-Judaism rests on a misreading of the New Testament that conveniently supports Gentile biases against Jews that existed before Jesus came along. In the true and correct Christian teaching, Jews are still the Chosen People of God; the rest of us are adoptive children.

A Family Feud

Misunderstandings on these matters stem from the equivalent of a family feud overheard by outsiders who lack sufficient understanding of the context of what these people are saying about their relatives. Yes, there are many New Testament verses that in isolation might be used to justify unchristian thoughts, words and deeds against Jews. What’s missing is their context.

The faith laid out in the gospel was spoken and written down by Jews for Jews. There may have been the odd Gentile camp follower among the crowds around Jesus. However, the principal figures who knew him—even his adversaries—were all Palestinian Jews.

At that time, Judaism was a bazaar of wild ideas. There were Sadducees, Pharisees and many other religious “parties,” somewhat similar to Christian denominations, but without the brick and mortar and written constitutions. The Sadducees didn’t even believe in life after death (mnemonic: they were “sad, you see”).

The Pharisees were good and observant Jews, not bad people at all. Modern Talmudic Judaism descends from the Pharisees, with whom Jesus sparred. Even this may have been a bit of intramural mind wrestling, as suggested by scholarship that argues that Jesus was himself a Pharisee.

So keep in mind that when they “curse” one another they are employing classic Middle Eastern emotionalism. They are not stating that the person attacked is devoid of divine favor; it’s merely a vague equivalent of the modern “WTF” exclaimed in response to the absurd.

Similarly, when John in his gospel, frequently the source of anti-Jewish tirades, says “the Jews” did X, he is not talking about some other, alien evil people. John was a Jew. He was speaking to Kristianoi, the majority of whom were still Jewish, about the Jews with whom Jesus locked horns.

The insults Kristianoi and rabbinical Jews lobbed at each other were fierce, as occurs with close relatives. Some rabbis argued that Jesus’ mother was a whore and that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier. This was an insult, not a statement of theology.

So John, or conceivably some of his scribes, shot back, “Oh, yeah, well Jesus cursed all of you from the cross, you heathens!” Again, this is not a theological statement; it’s just a polemical riff that got stuck in the Bible.

How the Medieval Sin Arose

Misunderstanding arose when those who believed in Jesus the Christ were mostly Gentile. The Romans hated the Jews before Christianity. There is document after document referring to the Jews as what Romans regarded as an unruly, stubborn and backward people.

When heated street arguments broke out between Pharisaic and Christian Jews in Rome, soldiers couldn’t tell the difference, and at least once the emperor temporarily expelled the whole lot. Thus, the early persecution of Christians may actually have been anti-Jewish persecution by Romans.

However, Judaism was a legally recognized religion under Roman law. Jews were allowed to refuse the oath to Caesar. When serious division between Christian and Pharisaic Jews arose, the latter chose to make clear to the authorities that the Christians were not proper Jews.

Indeed, by then a large number were Gentile, and they responded in kind. Then the Roman emperor not merely recognized Christianity but made it the official religion of the state. Now the Jews (and pagans and others) were on the outs.

By that point Christian leaders were no longer Jewish fishermen whose entire frame of reference was Judaic law and traditions, but highly educated philosophers obsessed with defining orthodoxy and heresy. Misread rabbinical Judaism after Christ came in for a drubbing as almost the original heresy.

This is the point at which Isidore shamefully comes in, completely ignoring Jesus’ words, writing a heinous polemic, De fide catholica contra Iudaeos (On the Catholic Faith against the Jews). The bishop read the gospel as blaming the Jews for the crucifixion and cited Matthew 27:25 as proof that “the Jews sinning against Christ cursed their own posterity.”

Jesus himself, in another gospel, makes it clear that he blames no one: “I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but l lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18).

Isidore’s misreading is part and parcel of the Hellenization of Christianity and the loss of the Hebraic thinking at its original core. He would have remained just one more anti-Jewish polemicist had he not exerted such powerful influence on early medieval canon law and had the Church not exerted considerable sway on the ordinary civil law of the arising Barbarian kingdoms.

In fact, Isidore’s sway at the Council of Toledo led to decrees that applied to all of Spain, urging that converted Jews break contact with their brethren, that the children of converted Jews be removed from parents who were found to be teaching them Judaism and that Jews be barred from public office.

It was the first step in Church-supported discrimination and persecution, which led to many others and was not confined to pre-Reformation days. Martin Luther in 1542 authored Against the Jews and Their Lies, a work that calls Jews children of the Devil. Luther declared: “If we are to remain unsullied by the blasphemy of the Jews and do not wish to take part in it, we must be separated from them, and they must be driven out of the country.”

Invective of this type convinced one mediocre Austrian painter, Adolf Hitler, to infamously declare: “I believe that I am today acting according to the purposes of the Almighty Creator. In resisting the Jew, I am fighting the Lord’s battle.”

How do we as Christians pull back, repent and acknowledge such grievous sin in our midst? Pope Francis recently pointed the way. In an open letter in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, he recently wrote:

“God has never stopped believing in the alliance made with Israel and that, through the terrible trials of these past centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God. And for this, we will never be grateful enough to them, as the Church, but also as humanity at large … [the Jews] persevering in their faith in God … remind everyone, even us as Christians, that we are always awaiting the return of the Lord and that therefore we must remain open to Him and never take refuge in what we have already achieved.”

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Three Christians of the Early Middle Ages

As I attempted to craft the story of St. Isidore, a figure of the Spanish church, I came across his well-known prejudices, but could not find a Christian critique that could allay my horror.

Thus, I have decided that this coming penitential season of Lent is the perfect occasion to review ways in which medieval Christians betrayed the hopes of the Galilean woodworker who started it all. This, too, is part of the story of the faith.

But first, let me set the stage with three last figures from early medieval Christianity. Two are scholarly men who highlight ways the faith of the West became rooted in British and Spanish societies, two major fountainheads of Christianity as it was carried across the Atlantic. Another highlights how the Church structure became enmeshed with the structures of power.

Isidore the Archbishop

Isidore of Seville (560-636) was most likely born in Cartagena, a southern town on the Mediterranean Sea, into a family of high social rank of Hispano-Roman and Visigoth origin.

Like many other canonized saints of the era Isidore had a churchy family. He was the younger brother of St. Leander, who preceded him as archbishop of Seville and the older brother of St. Fulgencius, who became a bishop in another diocese of Andalucia, and Florentina, who became an abbess and religious superior of a network of 40 convents.

He studied at the cathedral school of Seville, one of the first of its kind in Spain, where the most learned people of Seville, including Leander, taught and met. There is some debate as to whether Isidore became a monk for a time, but when Leander died, in 600 or 601, Isidore was appointed to succeed him in the see of Seville, a post he held for more than 30 years.

He followed in Leander’s footsteps. The elder brother had been a companion of Gregory the Great in Constantinople and was regarded as one of the leading lights of councils of Toledo and Seville. He had also led the struggle to wipe out the heresy of Arianism from his region, a task Isidore completed.

Isidore crowned his ecclesiastical achievements at the Fourth National Council of Toledo, in 633, when the bishops of Spain were urged to establish seminaries in their cathedral city seats, modeled on his own school in Seville.

His longest-lasting work, however, was his scholarship. Notably, long before the Arab world awoke to an appreciation of Greek philosophy, he introduced Aristotle to Seville.

He was the first Christian writer to attempt an encyclopedia of human knowledge, including Christian teachings. In a work that took roughly 25 years to compose, Isidore produced the Etymologiae (“the Etymologies”), a veritable encyclopedia consisting of 448 chapters in 20 volumes.

This work includes his own digest of Roman textbooks, miscellanies and compendia, abridgments and summaries of all the Roman learning of late Antiquity. This left future generations many fragments of classical learning that otherwise would have been lost. The work covers, among other things, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry, music, astronomy, medicine, law, the Catholic Church, heretical sects, pagan philosophers, languages, cities, animals and birds, the physical world, geography, public buildings, roads, metals, rocks, agriculture, ships, clothes, food and tools.

The Etymologiae became the most used sourcebook of the Middle Ages, often supplanting the works it summarized, and was printed in at least 10 editions between 1472 and 1530. A last, scholarly edition was printed in English in 1911.

There is a scar of darkness, however, on Isidore’s escutcheon, which I reserve for the Lenten series.

Bede the Monk

Bede the Venerable (673-735) undoubtedly knew of Isidore, whose major work was lodged in the Northumbrian monasteries in which he lived. In Bede's time, this area was part of the Kingdom of Linsey, and he may have been high born, although his own recounting, the major biographical source, does not say.

A the age of seven he was was sent to the monastery of Monkwearmouth by his family to be educated by the abbot, a common practice among the Christianized Celts and Germanic peoples. He may or may not have been intended for the priesthood, but that is where his life led.

At 17, the abbot of Iona Abbey, the Scottish monastic community founded by St. Columba, visited Bede’s monastery, and his talks sparked the young monk’s interest in the controversy surrounding the date of Easter.

This was a long-standing debate (begun in the year 190 and still unresolved) over whether to base the date of Easter on the Jewish calendar’s 14th day of the month of Nisan, the day before the gospels place the crucifixion, as was common in the Eastern churches. Or to use other methods, more or less independent of the Jewish calendar, as was the case in some but not all parts of the Western Church until the reform of the Gregorian calendar in 1582. The topic is believed to have been the spark that transformed him into a scholar.

He was ordained a deacon at 25, which was young at that time, and a priest at 30, around the year 702.

Bede wrote his first works, the De Arte Metrica and De Schematibus et Tropis, classroom texts, at about that time. He continued to write for the rest of his life, eventually completing over 60 books.

A complaint in 708 made by monks at Hexham who accused Bede of heresy in his work De Temporibus gives a sense of the intellectual world he inhabited. Bede calculated the age of the world for himself, rather than accepting Isidore’s authority, and concluded that Christ had been born 3,952 years after the creation of the world, rather than 5,000 plus years as was commonly accepted. (Protestant fundamentalists today tend to go with the 17th century Irish Bishop James Ussher, who famously put time and date of creation as “the entrance of the night preceding the 23rd day of October ... the year before Christ 4004.”)

Bede’s crowning achievement, however, is his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (An Ecclesiastical History of the English People), completed about 731 and dedicated to Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria (into which Linsey was absorbed). He took his style and research method from Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea at the time of the first Nicene council, whose Ecclesiastical History remains the preeminent early story of Christianity after the New Testament. His story begins with the Roman conquest of Britain in the year 55 BCE to his own era, including an autobiographical chapter. The work has placed Bede as the father of English history.

There was, however, another side to Bede, of whom it was said, “I can with truth declare that I never saw with my eyes or heard with my ears anyone return thanks so unceasingly to the living God.” These are the words Bede's disciple Cuthbert.

Cuthbert left a moving tale of Bede’s death on the vigil of the Ascension, 735. Bede was busy dictating a translation of the Gospel of John. His scribe, a boy named Wilbert, said to him: “There is still one sentence, dear master, which is not written down.” Then Bede supplied the sentence. The boy then agreed that the work was finished. “Thou hast spoken truth,” Bede replied, “it is finished. Take my head in thy hands for it much delights me to sit opposite any holy place where I used to pray, that so sitting I may call upon my Father.” On the floor of his cell singing, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost,” he breathed his last.

Bede is revered as a Doctor (or teacher) of the Church and a saint in the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox traditions.


Our third figure is Charles the Great (in Latin Carolus Magnus), the first of that name to become king of the Franks (ca. 742-814), who was not a saint by any means.

Charles took the Frankish throne in 768 and became King of Italy in 774. Notably, in 800 he became the first Holy Roman Emperor; that is, ruler of much of modern Italy, France and Germany as the first recognized emperor in Western Europe since the fall of Rome three centuries earlier. Moreover, this coup was accomplished by having Pope Leo III crown him on Christmas Day in the old Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome.

It was a feat Napoleon attempted to replicate 1,000 years later, with good reason. Charlemagne was, effectively, the major political figure who laid the foundation of Western Christendom, the European monarchical structure of society that claimed divine legitimacy and Christian inspiration until as late as World War I. Its ideology rested on turning the gospel’s “rule of God” into a “kingdom of God” that  echoed the traditionalist European caste system and was said to be presided over, of course, by Christ the King.