Christendom reached a fateful turning point during the fourteenth century.
The Age of Utopia: Christendom from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution, by John Strickland
The West, according to Strickland, had fallen away from the idea of paradise, understanding Adam’s banishment to mean that man would not again taste paradise until the Second Coming. Drawn largely from the doctrines of Augustinianism, a sharp line would be drawn between divine grace and human nature.
This as opposed to the old Christendom view, still held in the East, of a “transformation-centered” piety. The world was constantly in a process of heavenly transformation.
Before continuing, I would offer my thoughts on where this is headed, because where I see Strickland drawing sharp distinctions between East and West, I see shades, variability, nuance. Maybe this nuance is enough to make the difference. Then again, given the failings of Christendom in both the East and West, maybe it isn’t.
I have noted before that what the East refers to as theosis, someone in the West would describe as becoming more Christ-like. In both cases, the Christian is striving for transformation, in this world. Yes, I know that there are examples offered at the extreme to disprove this point (this world is not my home…), but extremes don’t make for good analysis.
Further, I have yet to understand that there is a view of man in the Eastern Church that recognizes anything other than his fallen nature and his inability to solve this problem on his own. In other words, Christ was crucified and was resurrected for some reason.
Strickland offers that in the East, human salvation is presented as the process of deification; in the West, a one-time release from an impending punishment. In the East, optimism, in the West pessimism. But in each case, is it only the one thing and not the other? Or, to put it differently, can it not be both?
Not using the stark words of Strickland, but…with salvation comes a life of becoming ever more Christ-like (theosis) and also an avoidance of punishment? Isn’t this understood both in the East and in the West? Strickland presents this as a clear distinction, but just because I am presenting his views, it does not mean I fully agree. It might be so, but I have seen too many examples contrary to this view.
With this, I will continue. And there are important points made by Strickland to be examined. We are introduced to Petrarch, known as the first humanist.
But three centuries after the Great Division, penitents like Petrarch found little in Western piety to encourage them. Most troubling was the system of penances that was now associated with the practice of confession.
Sin and the penances that negated sin were codified. It was a system more concerned with punishment and satisfaction that it was one of human transformation. Strickland offers that men like Petrarch could have looked East for a different example, namely Byzantium or Russia, where…
…the paradisiacal culture was flourishing, even if the political system of each was mortally threatened by, respectively, Turks and Mongols.
And this is the bump in the road that I keep running into, and that, as of yet, remains unexplored by Strickland. Sure, one can point to the decline in the West – greatly evident in the last 125 years, but with signs pointing this way much earlier. But does not being overrun by Turks and Mongols count as a decline as well? Not, perhaps in the same sense, but still in a tremendously meaningful sense?
Having said all of this, the West certainly offered a negative view of man and this world. Strickland cites a treatise written by Innocent before he was pope: On Contempt for the World, with a subtitle, On the Misery of the Human Condition. An excerpt:
Man has been formed of dust, clay, ashes, and a thing far more vile, of filthy sperm. …His destiny is to be a putrid mass that eternally emits a most horrible stench.
These are some of the more positive words in the statement. Strickland describes Innocent’s document as evidence of the disfiguration of Western culture derived from Augustine’s doctrine of original guilt…
…to which the Eastern fathers never subscribed. According to this doctrine, mankind was guilty of the Fall of Adam and Eve, and through the act of procreation every human being deserved eternal punishment in hell.
Look, something happened in the Garden, something that separated man from God. That something holds for every subsequent generation – otherwise, why bother with theosis? We are already there. It isn’t clear to me what “deserve” has to do with it. The reality of the fall is obvious; we see it in every human. That this reality is something to be dealt with, even the Eastern Church admits.
Again, the nuances are almost overwhelming. I am not suggesting that these are all meaningless distinctions, but the overlap on a Venn diagram seems to me quite high.
Yet…it is so that the treatise by Innocent became a bestseller, so to speak. And it depressed Petrarch. He was despondent, and instead of considering what Strickland calls the West’s “lost” doctrine of deification, Petrarch turns to a utopian humanism. This mortal misery is seen as a psychological condition requiring a remedy. And man, not God, would be the source of that healing.
That man, for Petrarch, would be Cola di Rienzo. On the day of Pentecost, 1347, he would address an assembled crowd in Rome. He spoke of creating a utopian commonwealth. A few days later, he took the title of tribune. New laws were passed; the calendar was changed, marking time not from the birth of Christ, but from Rienzo’s reign.
Petrarch, having received news of this coup d’etat with joy, would provide intellectual support. He was invited to Rome to act as some sort of minister of enlightenment. But before he could arrive, a counter-revolution of nobles would overthrow Rienzo. Oddly enough, he was not captured, and in 1354 would return to Rome to try again.
Fool me once, shame on you…
This time, however, few people were prepared to follow him. surrounded by a mob, he was dragged to the Capitoline Hill – once the site of the pagan Temple of Jupiter Optimus, ancient Rome’s most revered place of worship – and there ceremonially stabbed to death.
His body was then hung upside down. Then burned to ashes and thrown into the Tiber.
Petrarch would outlive Rienzo by two decades, never repenting of encouraging the revolution. For him, Christian culture was in need of new values, and political violence was an acceptable means to this end.