Sunday, March 27, 2016

Slouching Toward the Second Millenium

Christianity reached the end of its first thousand years with two long-brewing conflicts at the center of its organized social presence, the Church. They had less to do with doctrine than with the imperfect moral character of people, including especially believers.

The first was a conflict between the pope and various kings and princes over the power to appoint influential officials of the Church, in particular bishops and abbots, also known as the investiture controversy.

The second was a divide between Christians west of Rome and those east of the Eternal City. In retrospect, it can be seen a result of differing social cultures, customs and ways of perceiving, more than the complex doctrinal lynch-pin. Known as the Great Schism, it split Christianity into two church traditions, one Eastern (largely Greek-based) and the other Western (largely Latin).

Although both were irrelevant to the actual lived Christian faith, then or today, the result of the second is still visibly with us. At the time they were seen as struggles for the heart of Christianity. They illustrate ways in which the institutional, human expressions of faith are flawed, even if God and the spirit of the gospel remain perfect.

Investiture Controversy

The first crisis came with the evolution of the successors of the apostles, called bishops, from local organizational heads of Christian communities growing clandestinely to virtual medieval lords.

First, the legalization and designation of Christianity as official religion of the Roman Empire put them in the role of administrators of gradually considerable resources.

Early medieval bishops were charged with directing the building and maintenance of public places of worship, the suitability of priests and integrity of worship, along with the administration of community resources to care for widows, orphans and the needy. All this in addition to the strictly religious role of being teachers of the faith and preservers of the teaching of the apostles in as pure and clear a manner as possible.

When the western empire collapsed it was a hop, a skip and a jump for the bishop of Rome to take over many city government functions, including military. Similarly, other local bishops assumed roles that transformed them into feudal lords. There was a power vacuum and the leaders of the clergy, who happened to be the best educated people as learning declined and illiterate Barbarians came to torch and despoil, took over roles that had never been envisioned for them.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus had said (John 18:36). Yet people had to be defended, to eat and someone had to keep some semblance of order that even the new rulers could not possibly provide.

Add to these bishops turned potentates, the heads of monasteries that began to produce food for people in the ruined cities. Abbots were usually elected by communities of monks, much as bishops were often elected by all the people of the diocese; however, but their rule as community arbiter and administrator was total and over time roughly equivalent to that of bishops.

When the new rulers began to organize their principalities and kingdoms, who apart from their peers in other domains were their most notable rivals in the control of resources and power of persuasion? Bishops and abbots. It is not hard to see how or why kings wanted to control such church officials.

Let us remember that the average medieval king or prince was not a merely ceremonial figure such as Queen Elizabeth II (much as she is still the richest woman in the world). He was a warrior (Barbarians chose as leaders their fiercest warriors) and actual ruler.

The king often came to power by force, as brothers and cousins were constantly murdering each other for the throne. Otherwise, the monarch inherited the title and rose to the throne if wisely protected from murderous kin by his father and his closest subjects. To finance the defense, internal and external, kings needed money. From his palace, the king could see a beautiful place of worship and in the countryside fat monastic farms. No wonder he wanted to control the bishops and abbots!

However, bishops and abbots were first and foremost ecclesiastical officials, not secular or civil authorities, and their appointments, often by popular acclamation, had to be confirmed by the pope. The pontiffs were zealous in guarding the independence of the Church; one could not, after all, have some drunken, brawling prince suddenly saying to his buddy bishop, “the hell with Nicaea, I think God is a Quaternity, not a Trinity.”

There were many disputes of this nature and their story is tortuous and a sideshow to the substance of the faith. The best well-known is the power struggle between Pope Gregory VII (1072–85) and Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor (1056–1106). A similar struggle occurred between Henry I of England and Pope Paschal II in 1103 to 1107 and the later struggles leading to the murder of the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, by Henry II. The issue played a role in the conflicts between church and state in France and later in Spain and its colonies.

A series of concordats, the most notable being that of Worms in 1122, brought the matter to various kinds of settlements, including some participation of monarchs in the selection of candidates, with the final choice up to the pope. Do note also, that the early tradition of popular acclamation waned as the kings’ role increased. In Spain and its colonies, the settlement was known as “the Patronage” and the king was allowed to send a list of candidates out of which the pope usually chose one. In England, as we shall see, the king eventually declared himself a pope of sorts.

The end of these imperfect and unstable arrangements was effectively brought about with the republican revolutions of 1776 and 1789, in the United States and France, respectively, both of which proclaimed the principle of separation of state and church, albeit with widely differing implementations.

Importantly for Christianity, the controversy also resulted in the establishment in 1059 of the College of Cardinals, taking away from princes and kings, but also from the people of Rome, any role in electing the pope, which is the principal function of the college.

The Great Schism

Only five years earlier, in 1054, there had occurred the still unhealed break between the Catholic (Latin) West and the Orthodox (Greek) East. Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople was excommunicated by a papal legate in name of Pope Leo IX. The patriarch then excommunicated the legate and by implication the pope, who had died before the news reached Constantinople.

A schism in the Christian theological understanding is a split between two or more churches that acknowledge that both maintain the essential longstanding traditions of the faith. A schismatic is theologically teaching the true faith but for some strong historical reason does not function under the same leadership or in the same way as other Christians. This is distinct from a heretic, who teaches doctrine that itself is deemed grievously in error and thus not Christian.

Generally speaking, Catholics and Orthodox deem each other as schismatic, but both accept each other’s sacraments, including baptism, matrimony and ordination, as valid.

Nonetheless, the Great Schism was the first major division of Christianity that remains essentially unreconciled today, even though it was at heart a clash of cultural idiosyncrasies. Indeed, that the West chose for its tradition the name Catholic (universal) speaks to a sense of strength in numbers, while the East’s choice of the label Orthodox (true teaching) speaks of an appeal to philosophical truth.

East and West have a different view of worship. In the West, the priest came to elevate the host at consecration, bespeaking a popular western need for proximity to the divine; in the East, the consecration is hidden behind gates and smoke of incense, as an expression of an eastern popular view of the divine as so awe-inspiring that it must be hidden from ordinary people.

Their language was also different enough that one of the earliest disputes go back to the wording of one sentence in the 4th century Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed:
    And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
    who proceeds from the Father [and the Son].
In the original Greek, the second line τὸ ἐκ τοῦ Πατρός ἐκπορευόμενον draws from John 15:26, which puts in the mouth of Jesus the promise that “I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father.” The key last Greek word, latinized as ekporeuomenon, comes from the term ekporeuesthai, “to issue forth as from an origin.” This was translated to Latin as procedere, to move forward or come forth, more synonymous with the Greek proienai. In Latin the line was originally rendered qui ex Patre procedit.

Some Greeks viewed their word as making a point about the Holy Spirit’s way of coming to be as distinct, or even opposed, to that of the Son, who was born (γέννησις). Others didn’t.

The bracketed “[and the Son]” stems from the insertion into the Latin of the word filioque (literally, “son and”), making the Latin phrase qui ex Patre Filioque procedit (“who proceeds from the Father and the Son”).

Keep in mind the anthropomorphizing of God going on here.

God is one, not three. God is not a father in any real sense, we call God “father” in a patriarchal society as a simile, but God does not have a sex or have sex. Note also that the Spirit is also associated with Hagia Sophia, Greek for “holy wisdom,” a grammatically and metaphorically feminine notion, even though God is neither male nor female.

Now consider the possibility that filioque might suggest that God is a gay being (Father and Son) who incestually spawned a daughter. I offer this seemingly irreverent—and absolutely heretical—rendering only to convey the sense of shock that filioque produced in the ears of Greek-speaking Christians.

This was true, even though filioque first appeared in the East (Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in Persia in 410), only later to be added, possibly as a copying mistake, into the Toledo version of the Creed (III Synod of Toledo, 589), which became widely used in the West. Several councils condemned the “filioque” idea but it kept resurfacing.

Add to filioque the following laundry list of disagreements between East and West on:
  • who’s the boss (the patriarch of Constantinople or the bishop of Rome, or in some Eastern views, both); 
  • whether icons were idolatry (Rome said no, Constantinople said yes a few times);
  • use of language (Greek or Latin) and bread (eastern leavened or western unleavened) in the Eucharistic worship; 
  • dating of the feast of Easter; 
  • priestly celibacy, practiced optionally in the West since the Council of Elvira, Spain, in 305, but not absolutely mandatory until the First Lateran Council in 1123;
  • theocracy in the East (emperor seen as “viceroy of God”) as opposed to political independence of the pope; and
  • as marketers are fond of saying ... much, much more.
The end result was that the West went its way as a pontifical Latin rite. The East continued as a deeply mystical, philosophical and theocratic rite until the 15th century when Constantinople fell and it broke up into a loose federation of largely linguistic groups.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Christianity becomes European Christendom

Despite its problems, within Christianity there remained figures who tried very hard to hew to the teachings of the gospel. One of them was to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

The quote is known as “the great commission” given to the apostles by Jesus in Matthew 28:16-20.

We have already seen how within a generation the apostles themselves reached throughout the Mediterranean basin and one even got as far as India. Next we looked at the expansion to the northern provinces of the Roman Empire, Gaul (France) and Britannia (England).

Now from the 700s to the 900s came the three great expansions north, to Germany, Scandinavia and the Slavic lands of the Balkans all the way to Muscovy. Of course, just as Christianity expanded, it was faced with its first external challenge at its geographical edges.

Smack in the middle of this, in the year 800, the first non-Roman European multinational and imperial ruler, Charlemagne, was crowned by the pope. This was an event that would be echoed almost exactly a thousand years later, both with ringing significance.

For the faith, social culture, politics and self-understanding of Christian Europe, the papal crownings of Charlemagne and Napoleon are like the bookends of Christendom, a social culture of monarchical caste societies organized under the veneer of a faith that was often only skin deep. I bring up this side topic only to make clear the environment in which evangelization proceeded in the millenium in question.

In the cases of Germany and Scandinavia, the civil and the ecclesiastical authorities commissioned learned monks to take the faith of the gospel, along with their religious and secular book learning, to pagan, largely uncivilized and unlettered tribes. The targets of evangelization in the far north of Europe were coming under the influence of comparatively more advanced, and Christianized, western and southern kingdoms and the apostles brought faith in European baggage, as would happen three-quarters to half a millenium later beyond Europe.

The English and Frankish apostles to Germany and Scandinavia, Saints Boniface and Ansgar, respectively, started out as sons of well-to-do families who became monks, were sent abroad to evangelize and eventually became bishops where they went, with all the religious and secular political implications in that turbulent era and those wild lands.

Boniface (675? –754), born Winfrid in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, England, cut his missionary teeth around 716 in Frisia, the coastal region along the southeastern corner of the North Sea (today the Netherlands and northwestern Germany). Returning to Rome rather then England he was renamed Boniface by Pope Gregory II, after a popularly acclaimed fourth-century martyr, and appointed “missionary bishop” over for Germania.

The appointment was unusual in two respects. First, it covered a largely unchartered vast territory from Belgium all the way to what today is eastern Poland, which over time broke down into separate linguistic and ethnic kingdoms. Second, he was a regional bishop without any church organization or clearly defined territorial diocese; eventually, he was named archbishop of Mainz.

The evangelization mission did not proceed in a straightforward manner. Boniface first went on an exploratory tour of Germania and, to his surprise, found pockets of Christianity and functioning churches and even monasteries.

However, the Christian faith that prevailed was a grab bag of Christian, heretical (Arianism, for example) and pagan ideas and customs. This was the result of mostly illiterate, untrained and well-meaning but irregular Celtic missionaries who taught doctrines and rituals at variance with what was then already known as Catholic Christianity, particularly as regards Easter, baptism, the emerging clerical celibacy and the authority of the pope and bishops. Moreover, neighboring bishops jealously wanted a part of his domain.

That a mission fraught with so many obstacles did not immediately succeed should not be surprising. Indeed, Boniface was murdered by the pagans he attempted to convert.

Nonetheless, Boniface left an unusual legacy to Western society and a classic example of enculturation of the gospel, or the process of embedding Christianity in prevailing social customs.

In a village in northern Hesse there was a very large and old oak tree known as the “Donar Oak” (Thunder Oak), believed to be protected by Thor, god of thunder, a place regarded as hallowed ground, where every year pagans sacrificed a small child to the god. The pagans boasted that Boniface and the God he preached could not fell the tree.

Boniface chops down a cult tree
 in Hesse, engraving
by Bernhard Rode, 1781
The story goes that Boniface arrived in the middle of such a sacrifice on Christmas Eve with an ax. He called out “Here is the Thunder Oak; and here the cross of Christ shall break the hammer of the false god Thor.” Then he began to chop down the tree. It is said that suddenly a great burst of wind blew the oak over. When Thor failed to zap Boniface with lightning, the crowd converted to Christianity.

There is more.

Missionaries were careful not merely to defeat the symbols of the pre-Christian faiths, but to turn them to the faith’s favor.

Boniface then pointed to a little fir tree that stood behind the felled and once mighty oak, and said,
“This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace… It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.”
Therein lies the beginning of the Tannenbaum, or Christmas tree.

Saint Ansgar (801-865), had a similar trajectory. A 9th century bishop of Hamburg, still mission territory, he reached out to Scandinavia and is known as “the apostle of the North.” In 829, King Björn of Sweden requested a mission, and Ansgar was sent with a companion to Birka, about 18 miles west of Stockholm, where he made converts. The success prompted the establishment of the diocese of Hamburg in 831, set up as a missionary base with Ansgar as its bishop. As such, he established a school for missionaries to Denmark.

Unfortunately, the political and uncivil ways of the Viking Age did not favor missionaries.

First, Ansgar lost the support of the Frankish king when in 1840 Charlemagne’s sons divided his Franco-German empire. Next, a civil war broke out between kings in the region, and in 845 the Danes raided Hamburg and leveled the city. Finally, Louis the German, appointed Ansgar bishop of Bremen and joined that diocese to Hamburg. 

Ansgar managed to return to Denmark and continue his missions to Sweden under King Olof; he is noted, also, for keeping good relations with two warring kings, who allowed Christianity to gain legal recognition. He died attempting to avert a pagan anti-Christian reaction and like Boniface, on the face of the immediate circumstances, a relative failure.

The mission that not only succeeded, but whose seed left broad markings on the social culture of Eastern Europe all the way to the Ural mountain range was that of two brothers from Thessalonica, Saints Cyril and Methodius (respectively 826-869 and 815-885).

The youngest, Cyril, was christened Constantine but took the name Cyril when he became a monk in Rome shortly before his death. Similarly, the older brother was christened Michael but took the name Methodius when he became a monk at Mysian Olympus, in northwest Turkey.

Their father, a military officer from the Byzantine nobility, died when Cyril was 14, and the two brothers were taken under the protection of a local leader who founded education institutions, including the University of Magnaura, in which Cyril eventually taught. Cyril was ordained a priest around this period and his brother a deacon.

Cyril was first sent on missions to the Middle East, given his command of both Arabic and Hebrew, to the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil. In these travels he discussed the principle of the Holy Trinity with the Arab theologians. This effort was one of the earliest contacts between Christianity and the new religion of Islam, which had overrun Arabia, the Fertile Crescent of the Asian Mesopotamia and west through North Africa, all the way through Spain to the Pyrenees, where the military advance of Muslims was halted by Frankish warrior Charles Martel in 732.

A second mission in 860 was requested by the Byzantine emperor, Michael III, and the patriarch of Constantinople, Photius (a professor of Cyril's at the University), to the Khazar Khaganate, between the Black and Caspian Seas, in order to prevent the expansion of Judaism there. Cyril failed, and the Khagan imposed Judaism on his people as the national religion.

The work for which both brothers are best remembered took place toward the end of their lives.

In 862, Prince Rastislav of Great Moravia (which covered modern Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Eastern Austria, parts of Bulgaria and Romania), who had already been baptized and preferred the Greek style of the Byzantine church to the Latin and Frankish influence of Rome, requested from Constantinople missionaries to evangelize his Slavic subjects. Cyril and Methodius were selected for the task.

As skilled linguists, the brothers prepared for the mission by devising the Glagolitic alphabet, the first to be used for manuscripts in what is known today as Old Church Slavonic. The alphabet was designed to suit the features of the Slavic language. The brothers began translating worship books and the Bible—Cyril managed to complete the gospels and Methodius the psalms—into Slavonic, using that alphabet. Cyrillic, still used by many languages today, is a simplified version of Glagolitic, devised by the brothers for common use.

Despite their Eastern church influence, it seems that the worship books were based on the Gregorian Latin Mass, and to obtain permission to use them, they traveled to Rome. In 867, Pope Adrian II formally authorized the use of the new Slavic liturgy. Methodius was ordained a priest by the pope himself, and five Slavic disciples were ordained as priests and as by the prominent bishops.

Unfortunately, Cyril became ill and entered a monastery to end his days in prayer. There he took the name Cyril and died 50 days later, on February 14, 869.

This left Methodius alone with their disciples in Moravia. Unfortunately, the region was claimed to be under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Salzburg, who insisted that Latin be used.

There is some dispute as to how the pope made an end-run around Salzburg; one version is that Adrian named Methodius archbishop of the ancient see of Sirmium (4th century city in modern Serbia), with jurisdiction over Great Moravia and Pannonia (Serbia and adjacent lands), thereby superseding Salzburg by way of a more ancient claim. Methodius lived in unsteady conflict with his fellow bishops and constantly weathering accusations of heresy, but he stuck to his guns with Slavonic.

His successors had less luck. When Methodius died, on April 6, 885, he was buried in the cathedral church of Moravia; however, because of political disputes and poor records, it is still unknown where this church was located. This is easily explained by what happened in the wake of Methodius’ death.

St. Gorazd, designated as Methodius’ successor, was not recognized by Pope Stephen V, who took the Salzburg view and forbade the use of the Slavic liturgy. The new bishop banished the disciples of the two brothers from Great Moravia in 885, and they fled to the Bulgarian Empire, a kingdom that encompassed almost all of the Balkans, including parts of Greece.

Cyrillic gradually replaced Glagolitic as the alphabet of the Old Church Slavonic language and in turn became the official language of the Bulgarian Empire. The alphabet later spread to the eastern Slav lands of the Kievan Rus and ultimately Muscovy, thus all of Russia. Eventually it spread throughout the Slavic world to become the standard alphabet.

In this way, Cyril and Methodius paved the way for the spread of Christianity throughout eastern Europe. They are celebrated as saints on February 14 by the Anglican and Catholic communions and on either May 11 or 24 by Orthodox churches. They are revered with the titles Bishops and Confessors (the latter meaning confessing or giving witness to the faith), Equals to the Apostles, Patrons of Europe (shared with St. Benedict) and Apostles to the Slavs.