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.

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