Before there was a West, there was Christendom.
The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland
This will be different. John Strickland is an Orthodox scholar, professor, and priest. This book is the first of a contemplated four-book history of Christendom – inherently a history of the West, but integrating the Christian East.
Strickland uses the term “Christendom” more expansively – not limited to the West from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, but covering the entirety of a civilization from its beginnings two-thousand years ago.
From its beginnings, Christianity engaged with the world – God, after all, came to the earth in the flesh. It was always seen – at least until recent years only in some subset of denominations – as engaged with the kingdom in this world, not merely an unearthly kingdom in the next; the eternal kingdom was made immanent.
This was an active calling for its adherents:
From its inception, Christendom contained what can be called a “transformational imperative,” an evangelical mandate to participate in the renewal of the cosmos by bringing it into alignment with the kingdom of heaven.
This was unique to Christianity, and this is why Christendom became the civilization that most changed the course of history.
Strickland offers an interesting thought: for its first fifteen centuries – in both East and West – Christendom was grounded with some sense of humility, calling for the spiritual transformation of one’s own life. But things turned in the West with the Renaissance:
Simply put, humanists and the nihilists that followed them ceased to see the world’s misalignment with the kingdom of heaven as their own fault and instead blamed it on others.
Detached from humility and the practice of repentance, this ultimately led to the secular Enlightenment, Jacobin France, and Communist Russia – a search for heaven on earth: utopia. We have gone from the public ritual of Lent to the public ritual of political debate (or, worse, the guillotine and gulag).
This really is an interesting insight: since it is your fault, I need no longer be humble in my approach to change you; I am fully justified in using force to change you, as you are, in manner of speaking, a criminal. We certainly live in a time when the Christian West has taken this idea to an extreme. This is cancel-culture writ large; it is the sin of being born white – a fault that both cannot be erased and requires no humility to confront.
The lack of humility in the self-righteous of today is overwhelming, but is it just the flip side of the lack of humility in the Progressive Protestants of 100 years ago? In other words, without the humility found in the first 1500 years of Christendom, are we left with only the extreme of self-righteousness?
It seems to me that this humility was grounded in the idea of Original Sin, or the reality that all men are fallen. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn captured it well:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts.
Understanding this will make one humble. Returning to Strickland:
Today we Westerners live in an advanced state of cultural oblivion.
There is a crisis of values; suicide rates, addiction rates, divorce rates, abortion rates – all point to a dark and self-destructive culture and society. This at the same time that anti-Christian roots are taking hold while Christian roots are dying – or being actively destroyed.
Strickland notes the election of Donald Trump in 2016 as a possible revival of a conservative cultural agenda, but doubted its staying power – he was right, as we certainly now know.
The possibility of defending Christendom through political measures has become highly questionable.
In fact, it can’t happen this way, through politics. Politics is downstream of the culture, and religion is the foundation of culture. And, obviously, the West is built on the foundation of a specific religion and a specific cultural tradition.
This humanist transition in the West offered a short window of what we now call classical liberalism, reaching its peak in the late nineteenth century. It was quickly followed by the suicide of the West in the Great War one-hundred years ago. As Nietzsche’s madman offered: God was dead, and what was revealed in this wake was two World Wars (or a single, long war), Communism, fascism, and today’s social justice craze and obsession with masks.
All the while, liberty has only decreased – to the point, today, where even attending church has become a criminal matter in even the mostly (relatively) free Western societies.
Was there another option open to the Christian West, instead of turning toward the pleasures of the natural world from the time of the Renaissance – and certainly by the Enlightenment. Strickland offers that, instead, the West could have rediscovered Eastern Christendom.
And this is what is interesting to me about this book (and series of four books, if I end up reading all of these). It is a history about which I am sorely lacking, yet a history that was intertwined with the West for much of the last two-thousand years.
It is also interesting today to see, in those who are grasping for some meaning in this decadent Western society, many reaching toward more traditional forms of Christianity – Orthodoxy, to be sure, but also the more traditional forms of Catholicism. Even in some Protestant denominations, the more liberal are shrinking while the more conservative are growing (or not shrinking as fast).
Beginning in the eighth century, a distinct Christianity was forming in the West – born of Charlemagne and a local Roman bishop turned universal. By 1054, the division was complete. It is to this Great Schism that Strickland points to as the critical juncture in Christendom.
Christians, [Archbishop Chaput] reminds his readers, do not have “the luxury of despair.”
As if to emphasize this point, Strickland contrasts Villa Jovis from 2,000 years ago with what was happening in the Eastern Mediterranean, a thousand miles to the east.
…the palace is perhaps best known to posterity as the site of some of the ugliest and most depraved actions of the time.
The Emperor of Rome, executions, sexual profligacy, slaves debauched for entertainment, drunken orgies, ritualized rape.
But to the east, the day of Pentecost. Given how the West was thereafter transformed, it amazes me that anyone can believe that a society that respects the individual is only possible absent Christianity. There was such a society – it was Roman, and before it, Greek.
How can we despair today, given that a much weaker Christendom conquered a much more debauched Rome two-thousand years ago?
This book will be quite a journey for me, steeped as I am (for a layman) in the books, culture, and tradition of the West. Let’s see if it opens any doors.