Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The First Iconoclasts…

 

…of Christendom.  No, this will not be a story of the Reformation.

The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland

By the middle of the eighth century, the southern territories of Christendom had been all but consumed by the conquests of the Umayyad Caliphate….

It will also not be a story of iconoclasm by the Muslims. 

But first, a backstory.  By this point, the integrity of the Roman Empire had been greatly compromised.  Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa were all overrun by Muslim armies.  Despite having second-class status, the Christians in these lands were granted some toleration as they constituted the majority in these lands and were necessary for effective administration.

They also had religious autonomy, however they could not convert Muslims, build new churches, even maintain existing churches.  The cross could not be displayed, and bells could not be rung.  Even with this, many of the Christian clergy supported this Arab colonization:

Bishops enjoyed a privileged status under the caliphate, being assigned the responsibility of overseeing their fellow dhimmis.

A large number of these bishops were Monophysites, persecuted under Byzantine rule; they saw the Arabs as a lesser evil.  Becoming both agents and victims of this long-term subjugation, resistance to the pressures of apostasy would dissolve.  The Syrian and Coptic churches survive to this day, but the numbers are rather insignificant.

The rest of Christendom would have suffered a similar fate if not for two men: Byzantine Emperor Leo III in the East, and Charles Martel in the West.  In 718, the Arab forces against Byzantium finally relented; in 732, Martel was victorious in the Battle of Tours.  European Christendom was saved, only to fall into another internally divisive period.

For Muslims and Jews, the making of images was precluded; however, icons were prevalent throughout Christendom.  This would change under Emperor Leo III, who formed the conviction that the widespread use of icons was causing the empire to lose its faith.  Leo decided in 726 to launch Christendom’s first iconoclastic movement, preceding the Reformation by about 800 years.

It began with the icon of Christ Pantocrator, standing at the top of the Chalke Gate.  As the workers assembled to remove it, a riot broke out; the foreman of the crew was lynched.  This did not dissuade Leo.  He continued, persecuting and deposing any bishops who opposed him – no separation of church and emperor here.

Leo died in 740.  His son and heir, Constantine V, only increased the policy; he convened a council of his bishops – not an ecumenical council, despite the claim.  Suffice it to say, the vast majority of bishops did not agree with the conclusion. 

The iconoclastic argument was refuted by John of Damascus.  How did John manage this?  He argued that as God commanded the Israelites to make graven images of cherubim, icons were acceptable.  But what of Jesus?  His humanity was as real as his divinity; the transcendent God had entered creation and assumed human form.  It was this human form that was captured; the Incarnation was at the center of the defense of icons.  In 787, at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, John’s arguments carried the day.

But this did not last long.  Constantine VI and his mother, Irene, offered the latest chapter in Byzantine court intrigue.  He an iconoclast, she an iconophile.  As he was young, the two would be co-emperors – but such an arrangement wouldn’t last long.

In 790, Constantine would move to remove Irene from power, acting with great cruelty, blinding his enemies at the court, including his own uncle.  His actions led to a return to iconoclasm, despite the ruling of the recent council. 

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Separation of Church and State

 

Significantly, for the first time ever the pope ignored the requirement that the emperor issue the summons to such a council and assumed responsibility for it himself.

The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland

The pope who called the Lateran Council was Theodore, but he died before the council was convened; the new pope, Martin, would preside over the council; the year was 649.  Never before was an ecumenical council called without being convened by the Roman Emperor.  This was a council was called by the bishop in Rome without the authority of the emperor in Constantinople.

The immediate issue was that of Monothelitism, but for purposes of this post the issue is secondary.  It is sufficient to note that this doctrine was developed as some sort of middle ground regarding the nature of Christ, an issue that divided the Church in the East.  The emperor, looking for ways to reunite the empire, sought support for a compromise position – hence, this doctrine, which satisfied almost no one.

More relevant is this issue of independence and separation, and how it played out in this first example of what would become a meaningful feature in the Western tradition and seemingly completely absent in the Eastern.

The act was the beginning of what might be called the heroic papacy, a self-conscious effort by successive popes to wrest doctrinal authority from caesaropapist emperors and to establish it instead as the prerogative of Rome.

Ironic, in that both the pope who called the synod and the author of the canons of the council, Maximos the Confessor, were both from the east.  These Eastern patristics would elevate the status of Rome and the papacy to a heroic status, a position never before occupied by any of the major bishoprics before.

Maximos was given complete leeway in setting the agenda for the council; his Greek theological credentials were impeccable.  And he did not work alone, as a large team of Greek monks and theologians assisted him, having travelled from the east; altogether, one hundred bishops were present.  And, it must be reiterated, all without imperial authority.

This council would reject Monothelitism as a heresy.  In the long run, this decision was vindicated, as demonstrated more than thirty years later, in 680-681, in the Sixth Ecumenical Council convened by Constantine IV in Constantinople. 

But things didn’t go so well in the short run; obviously, the emperor was not happy.  Both Maximos and Martin would pay dearly for their defense of Orthodoxy – a position contrary to the emperor’s wishes and at a synod called without the emperor’s authority.  They were both abducted in Rome and brought to trial in Constantinople:

Both were tortured; Martin was publicly flogged on the streets of Constantinople, and Maximos had his right hand chopped off and his tongue cut out to prevent continued theological influence.  Both died in exile, reviled by a caeseropapist state that demanded the final word in defining Christian doctrine.

Meanwhile, developments in the West would begin to offer a glimpse of an entirely different evangelism, and a further manifestation of the roots that would come to separate Eastern and Western governance.

Christianity began its spread in the Mediterranean basin, with people acculturated to Roman and Greek tradition.

As early as the fourth century, Christianity had indeed broken free of the empire in the East, being planted first in Armenia, and then, even more distantly, in Georgia.

Later, an even more distinct eastern Syrian form would emerge in the pagan Persian empire.  But in the West, Christianity would appropriate Roman civilization even while transforming it.  While initially spread in Latin, the Scriptures would be translated into native languages – Ulfilas, for example, with the Goths in the fourth century…

…though notably he elected to exclude the Books of Kings in fear that his militant audience would use these works to justify conquest.  The decision had little effect….

Thursday, May 6, 2021

A Covenant with Death

 

“If I wasn't a devil myself, I'd give

Me up to the Devil this very minute.”

-          Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Isaiah 28: 14 Wherefore hear the word of the Lord, ye scornful men, that rule this people which is in Jerusalem.

15 Because ye have said, We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto us: for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves:

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Ephesians 6: 12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

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Isaiah 28: 16 Therefore thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste.

17 Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding place.

18 And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye shall be trodden down by it.

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Ephesians 6: 13 Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Child Sacrifice

 

Sacrifice, a religious rite in which an object is offered to a divinity in order to establish, maintain, or restore a right relationship of a human being to the sacred order.

While the original use of the term was in the context of a religious act, the word is used more broadly today. 

The term has acquired a popular and frequently secular use to describe some sort of renunciation or giving up of something valuable in order that something more valuable might be obtained.

In a secular context, it really isn’t much different than what was meant in the historic, religious context.  Why would we sacrifice to the gods?  Ultimately with the hope to gain something in the future (a good crop, victory over enemies, eternal life in heaven) better than we otherwise would have received (a hailstorm, defeat at the hands of enemies, eternity in hell).  It always was, and remains today, giving up something of value in the hopes of attaining something more valuable in the future.

Desperation blinds me

And through these bloodstained eyes I see the light

A better life is worth this sacrifice

-          The X Aspect, Dream Theater

Sacrifice is not an exchange of a good for a good; that is a trade.  It is the exchange of a good for a hope, or a certainty for a possibility; one gives something up and may, or may not, receive that which he hopes for in return.  We sacrifice today in order to have the possibility to achieve, in some manner or another, a better life tomorrow.  But no guarantee.

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Genesis 22: 1 Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”

“God endorses child sacrifice!”  How many times are Christians beat over the head with this passage?  “What does it say about the followers of such a God?”  “What kind of God is that?”  I will come back to these questions.

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Lesley Stahl: We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Madelaine Albright: I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.

The children were sacrificed for the hope that a better future would result.  Secondary, for the purposes of this post, is for whom or in what manner we might find this better future.  But child sacrifice it was – for the benefit of someone’s future.

As an aside, Albright has since written that she shouldn’t have put it that way, instead she should have pointed out that “Saddam Hussein could have prevented any child from suffering simply by meeting his obligations.”  So, it was Saddam’s fault. 

She would continue: “Nothing matters more than the lives of innocent people.”

Except for those we sacrifice.

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Depending on the source, it is estimated that something more than 40 million abortions are performed each year; one estimate is as high as 70 million.  To what are these children sacrificed other than for a life better than the mother (and, potentially, the father) perceived it otherwise would have been had the child been born. 

It is a hope, of course; there is no guarantee.  A sacrifice. 

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Critical theory (also capitalized as Critical Theory) is an approach to social philosophy that focuses on reflective assessment and critique of society and culture in order to reveal and challenge power structures.

Hey, I am all for challenging today’s power structures, with one key difference – I offer some thoughts on what might replace these current power structures, or hierarchies.  Critical theorists critique society and culture, and offer as a replacement to current hierarchies…nothing.

[Jürgen] Habermas also replaces the expressive totality of a fully democratic society with the ideal of “undamaged intersubjectivity” and of universal solidarity established through “communication free from domination.”

“Free from domination” means no hierarchy; no hierarchy means no value system – nothing is or can be valued as more or better than any other thing.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Returning to Form?

 

I refer to a couple of earlier posts where I have commented on the return of Jordan Peterson (here and here).  In the first, he noted that he had a good amount of his bravery beaten out of him, which is certainly understandable.  Both he and his conversation partner, Douglas Murray, were far more timid than either had been on previous occasions; this came in the aftermath of the US election, events at the capitol, etc.  In the second, Peterson offers that we must put our faith in man – this contrary to his previous messages that we look to something higher, above man.

Peterson has recently released a conversation with Paul Rossi of Grace Church High School.  I have not listened to many of his conversations since these first two (although the one with Jonathan Pageau was quite worthwhile).

Returning to the current video…Rossi recently wrote an essay, published by Bari Weiss: I Refuse to Stand By While My Students Are Indoctrinated.  (The backstory to these events can be found here.)

Before the discussion begins, there is an “advertisement” (I don’t know what else to call it) from an organization called FAIR: Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (beginning here). It includes comments and endorsements from people like Coleman Hughes, Steven Pinker, John McWhorter, Bari Weiss, and Glenn Loury.  If you are familiar at all with any of these names, you will understand something of this organization – these individuals have spoken out against the destructive turn that the conversation of race has taken in the United States (beyond this, I know nothing about the organization).

If you are not familiar with Rossi’s essay, it is worth reading.  In the essay, he raises concerns about how his students – and all students at his school – are being indoctrinated into race hatred and resentment (I have no better terms for this).  Hatred toward one’s self, if one is white; resentment toward everyone by everyone, regardless of skin color or nationality.  Needless to say, he has been chastised by his school.

The discussion between Peterson and Rossi is over two hours.  Much of the first half is Peterson asking Rossi for the background story – how he came to such a point, the road he travelled, etc.  Further, Peterson acts as a psychologist would: why do you think you believed such and such, what was going on inside you when this or that happened?

The second part gets more into the particulars.  Included in this part is a recorded conversation between Rossi and George Davison, the headmaster of the school.  The introduction to this recording by Peterson and Rossi, as well as the recorded portion played, are worth listening to – even if you don’t listen to any of the rest of the discussion.  It begins here; it will take only about four minutes or so of your time.

Conclusion

Peterson, at least I this conversation, is returning to form.  It is a good thing if this continues, as he has had a way of moving the conversation regarding both the destructive intolerance of society and the value of the Christian narrative as well as about anyone in the last five years.

Yes, he has his shortcomings and faults.  He, like all of us, is only human.

Friday, April 30, 2021

What is Truth?

 

“The truth." Dumbledore sighed. "It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”

-          J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

In response to my question, "What’s Your Alternative?” when considering a culture or tradition better suited for liberty than the Christian, and a value higher than what I suggest must be the highest value, the value of love, I received the following as one reply: “the truth.”  The truth valued higher than love.  It’s an interesting thought, one perhaps worth exploring.

Aren’t there times and situations when we know it is better to not tell the truth, or to not speak truthfully?  If the truth inflicts tremendous harm on someone without any gain to the person, is this at least something worth considering?

The truth is rarely pure and never simple.

-          Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Why would the truth be higher than love?  In other words, why value truth?  I can think of one reason: to achieve justice.  So, the “why” of truth is justice.  It’s one possibility.  Does this make justice the thing we should most highly value?  For this, we would need a standard.  I guess one standard could be something along the lines of the non-aggression principle and property rights, but that just leads me back to the question from Ira that started this entire discussion. 

In any case, if justice is the highest virtue, this leaves no room for mercy.  What of mercy?  Can a society be just without mercy?  I don’t know, maybe. 

Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; justice without mercy is cruelty. 

-          Thomas Aquinas

Why have mercy?  I guess otherwise it would be a cold society.  Three strikes you’re out, no extenuating circumstances.  But, at least according to Thomas, neither justice nor mercy can be highest, as each one is destructive without the other.  What is above them both?  Why must justice and mercy walk hand-in-hand?

I am finding that the last answer to the last “why” is love.  I certainly wasn’t the first person to figure this out.  And it wasn’t the Greeks or Romans who did, either….

A Texas Libertarian offered a comment worth exploring:

There is a simple test to conclude whether Christianity or the actions of the individual or group of supposed Christians are bad.

(1) Are the tenets of the Christian Church good?

(2) Are the bad actions of the individual or group in question in line with Christian tenets?

If (1) is yes and (2) is no, then it should be clear that it is the individual and not the religion who's to blame.

I was thinking about this in terms of the Greek / Roman morality prior to Christianity, which I explored here.  In that society, it was ethical to murder slaves for any or no reason, have sex with slaves with or without consent, treat women like chattel, murder babies for any or no reason – and certainly if they were female.  Contrast this with the Christian society that replaced it – where each of these “goods” of the Greco-Roman ethic were overturned quickly.

I will grant that in either society, no man perfectly lives his ethic.  Some Roman men did not murder their newborn daughters, and no Christian was the next Jesus Christ.

But which ethic is the one worth aiming at?  Which one, if aimed at, provided a better chance of a society where all were treated with respect, where property and life were upheld, where peace had a better chance of taking hold?  To ask these questions is to answer these.  The competition is so one-sided as to not be fair.

Conclusion

What is truth?  Try love.  Love is truth.  It works well for liberty, also.