The following essay is part II of a two-part featured series, in which different authors, from different perspectives, lay out a vision forward for the West. Read part I, here.
“Future of the West: The Two-Faced God” Part II: Byzantium 2.0
“We dream of originality and autonomy; we believe we are saying only what is new. Yet all this is no more than a reaction, a mild vendetta against God’s status quo.”
— Friedrich Hölderlin
Chesterton was correct when he scribbled “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” A quote that leaves most recoiling in disbelief. Isn’t the West almost solely defined by being ‘Western Christendom 700–1789’ and the post-Christianity that followed?
While the West may have been Christian in the loosest sense, its faith was defined by error, the primary one being phyletism. This late-term nicely fits the Western attitude, its faith being distorted by the prioritisation of its constituent nations’ identities over the demands of the Gospel.
Instead of dissolving into a brotherly Roman soup or a new ecumenical arrangement, each western nation sought to prove its own supremacy within a nominally Christian framework — a habit best described as ‘New Israelism’. France was the fille ainee de l’eglise (first daughter of the Church), the Spanish were feted as a people led by the Rex Catholicissimus (Most Catholic King), the Germans claimed to have an ‘Augustus’ who topped a polity Voltaire famously trounced as “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” A statement downwind from the Eastern Romans who openly queried how a mid-ranking official could confer universal empire on the leader of a single ethnos. Perhaps the best example of how national pride displaced religious criteria for honour comes from England, where the ruler’s fidei defensor title was removed by pope Paul III only for the English to restore it themselves in 1544.
The first obvious manifestation of this will-to-power (instead of will-to-Gospel) was in the ‘nationalisation’ of the pope by the Franks: his transformation from a fifth (and honorary head) of the universal Pentarchy into a spokesman for Frankish interests. Soon the inevitable followed. Instead of playing a Leonine figure who upheld Chalcedon and other orthodoxies in a sea of Eastern speculation, the venerable See of St Peter turned into its own source of rather dubious projects and justifications. Low moments included the insertion of the filioque (distorting the Trinity), the Avignon debacle and, finally, the papal primacy.
Bad theology makes bad realities. Pride and self-interest suborned the tenets of the Gospel and the results were the Great Schism, the Crusades (only a fallen mind, a jihadist psyche, could truly believe anything is worth reclaiming through violence) that recovered nothing and sacked the Eastern capital of Christendom (Constantinople), and the Reformation (which laid the foundation for materialism — its shrillest form being the prosperity Gospel).
Even those glorious redoubts, the monasteries (brought from the East in the last gasps of late antiquity) eventually crumbled. England’s “dissolution” was only the most dramatic removal. Two centuries later France played the same trick, while Spain let theirs fall into such disrepair that by the Peninsula War (1808-1814) they could be used as barracks, stables and kitchens.
The ruling principle behind this was a reorganisation of the cosmos. At exactly the moment the West realised Man did not sit at the centre of a geocentric system (but amounted to Lilliputian oddballs in a heliocentric one) it decided mankind could recover his dignity by pulling himself up by the proverbial bootstraps; that reason would provide the Icarus dynamic famously labelled “Faustian” by Spengler.
The upshot in theological terms was that instead of seeing Man as having his beginning, middle and end in God, the West framed all that was mysterious (where we came from, where we were going after death, and what our purpose was in life) as irrelevant, while all that reason (deified as ‘Reason’) touched, which tended to concern material matters, was reformulated as fundamental.
Inner spiritual transformation i.e. becoming Christocentric — which had once sat in the engine room of the West — was jettisoned for an older ideal: to seek an external mechanism, tool or system that would in some sense ‘solve’ mankind. Exactly what was being ‘solved’ differed from thinker to thinker, as did the ‘solution’, but the mind-set remained. The classical example remains Plato’s forms of government (democracy, oligarchy, timocracy, monarchy and aristocracy), which are outlined as though Man might live in perfect harmony if some sort of political system ‘fixed’ him.
Instead of faith constituting the omphalos (navel) of the universe, the force upon which life and truth turned, it was relegated into a sop for the conscience. Indeed, today this process has reached its apogee in that the ‘spiritual’ has been relegated to a feeling of calmness or peace: a kind of energy reset that enables even greater productivity in the material sphere.
It is in trying to confront (and reverse) this giant reorientation that I differ from most of my peers in envisioning the future. While I admire their critiques of the modern “cathedral” — especially the surveys of funding models cf. Herbalis and the Blob, or Benjamin’s identitarian stance — I view them as deftly deconstructing the Left’s legitimacy rather than replacing it. To be blunt, this amounts to a failure of the imagination. While late capitalism and the Left appear able to summon countless visions on a day-by-day basis to ensure conformism, the Right is usually reduced to peddling ‘trad’ (usually authoritarian) nostalgia or a tepid libertarian free-for-all.
It’s not that such diagnoses are inaccurate, it’s that — as with most politics — they’re too downstream. Correcting bad realities is a noble pursuit but it’s also futile unless the theology is corrected. This is where I shunt Byzantium into the foreground. Not wistfully as some Tolkien-esque shining city on the hill — a twenty-first-century Gondor — but as a cipher that represents more than the sum of its historical parts. Its siren call is Orthodoxy, and I suspect Orthodoxy — the cultural paradigm the Roman Empire bestowed upon Christianity — shall play a large role in reversing the Occident’s dormative years.
To many, it is becoming increasingly clear that the West is playing truant in religio-cultural terms; worse, that its dead-ends (individualism and utilitarianism, for instance) have theological roots. At the moment this fact provokes three responses: first, techno-messianic materialism (which at its most extreme amounts to transhumanism — though a rudderless, amoral human deprived of death is the sort of end many deserve, God might joke); second, a moribund Protestantism, which, like Socialism finds itself stuck on a loop that refuses to acknowledge any manifestation as its authentic self; third, a louche Popery that glibly reduces the pluralism of the Church to the plaything of a presidential figure with a mixed record.
In such an atmosphere, regress is obvious. Materialism is a bastardised form of Protestantism, Protestantism the bastard of Catholicism, Catholicism the bastard of Orthodoxy. This last, then, is our ground zero — a net for disaffected sorts who admit they cannot (and would not want to) remake the world in their own image, which would amount to pride (i.e. devilry) and yet refuse the historical paths trodden and mired (Catholicism and Protestantism). At root, Orthodoxy provides an important guarantee of the early Church’s pristine ecclesial experience.
To give two quick examples of the different timbre of the Orthodox chord. First, the East’s Church Fathers (especially the Cappadocians) struck a different tone to the likes of Tertullian, Jerome and Augustine; theosis is a very different prism to view the faith through. Second, in the East the Macarian heart has always provided a bluff counterweight to the (crypto-Pelagian?) Evagrian spirit, in contrast to a Latin Church equipped with procrustean axonomies that suffer constant paradigm shifts (damaging the faith’s credibility in the process).
To be sure, Orthodoxy presents no Panglossian alternative universe. It can no more claim an imperious ‘triumph’ over Latin Christianity than the latter did over Orthodoxy in 1204. Indeed, it has its own issues, not least a version of the phyletism that burdens the West and its corollary, an endless appetite for devolution and autocephaly. However, it does offer a playground that avoids Latin potholes — or should that be craters. The West has allowed rationalism to monopolise knowledge and then permitted its development into an upper case monstrosity (Reason) that recedes into ever more absurd positions such as positivism. In such an atmosphere the faith has been forced to assume contorted pietist positions or even fideism.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, exponents of Natural Law either draw from authority and deductive reasoning to impose teaching on science, or lean on contemporary science and inductive reasoning to revise the authoritative teaching. In short, the West has nature and grace at odds leaving Man to be supernaturalised in his pursuit of God, estranging him from the creation of which he is awkwardly still part. Whether any of this can be blamed on the Byzantine’s favourite scapegoat, Augustine, is moot. What isn’t is that the Manichaean cum platonic division of spirit and matter — which tends to dismiss the latter unworthy or untrue — proven stubbornly popular among the Latins (and their descendants). Taking this thinking to its natural conclusion, it gifts the world Protestantism (the ultimate rationalist form of the faith) which distrusts matter and prefers to live in a world of ideas.
Catholicism at its best retains the Orthodox truth that it is in our material transfiguration (i.e. Eucharistic living) that we have the fullest taste of God’s work of restoration in this world. God is confident in, first, the ability of Creation to be able to convey his grace and, second, in Man to fully participate. At its weakest, however, Catholicism withdraws to ruined bastions such as scholasticism where the intellectual little man — a presentiment of Nietzsche’s “Last Man” — who is estranged from his own humanity and physicality dwells. Here, the Latin saint is a disembodied spiritualist, a proxy rationalist, always seeking to elevate Man above his natural condition to a variety of pseudo-angelic worlds. Forgetting that from such a lofty vantage point he can hardly relate to (let alone participate in) the world’s salvation.
Orthodoxy has trodden a very different path. To Byzantines, Man is dynamically oriented towards God and union with Him (a quality derived from creation and not diminished by the Fall). Homo Byzantinus plays a vital role in rejoining the created with the divine, keeping the eschatological role foremost in mind as the correct context for the world.
Such an attitude keeps the constant tension between the Church (salvation) and the World (ambivalent as both fallen and capable of being saved): solitude and the arts, monastery and cathedral, cloister and tavern, desert and city, so that we live in a manner that reflects the potential of this world and the justice of the next. If Maximos the Confessor saw Man as a microcosm and mediator, he also knew that you can’t mediate what you aren’t connected to or have renounced.
In the Latin approach, Man has lost his connection to what he is in trying to become what he isn’t. Being ‘super/supra-nature’ means he is no longer connected to nature but has transcended it. Conversely, the Orthodox faith revels in the incarnation: Christ did not enter the world as an idea but as Man.
Ironically, for all the West’s focus on the humanity of Christ (especially in art where its iconography has laid emphasis on types such as the “Man of Sorrows”), its Christ is theologically rather bloodless. Its Church has misunderstood the significance of his humanity. Christ’s physicality was not simply a vessel to be punished or apotheosised but the earthy man at the summit of theosis. Christ didn’t appear in a vacuum-like some odd deus ex machina — he is Adam redeemed: the fallen man who has resumed his divine mission.
In the near future, Orthodoxy will escape its status as a spiritual and cultural ghetto in the West; a redoubt for reactionaries (who fail to understand the past usually passed for a reason) or retreat for those who like their religion served with a large dollop of mysticism. It cannot operate as the western churches or “denominations” appear happy to, namely as a subculture of the secular mainstream, a sort of Sunday Morning kultur. It takes seriously the claim — a frightening one — that its faith is for all men in all countries at all times. Moreover, its demands cannot be reduced to soundbites, customs, practices, intermittent patterns, etc. It accepts nothing less than the transformation of one’s life into its ‘truest’ mode.
This means Orthodoxy’s twenty-first century collision course with the West will be more cataclysmic than its leisurely medieval divergence. But the drama should be a positive one: the two Churches (Latin and Byz) have the potential — after dark nights of their respective souls — to complement one another.
If both salvation and the devil were real enough for Christ, then they must be for us too. When we distance ourselves from traditional instructions, we have a habit of liberating ourselves from truths rather than antiquated norms. Indeed, the freedom on offer has a habit of becoming a destructive dynamic that can swallow entire generations whole.
The mission that follows from this is simple. We must remain equipped to reunite the two natures of what it means to be on earth: that is being human (created) and connected to the divine (eternal), just as Christ the ‘theandros’ (God-Man) united them. Man has been enabled to enter God’s workshop and labour with Him in melding our reality with His greater one. This, in the words of the great A. Schemann, is the “salt” of the faith, its content that is rehearsed in the liturgy and sacraments. It is the same prayer, the same joy of “Thy Kingdom Come…” It is:
“The understanding of life as preparation, not simply for an eternal rest, but for the life that is more real than anything else: a symbol of which this life is but a ‘symbol’ and a ‘sacrament’.”
This seed of faith can move mountains (Matt 17:20) and spread like wildfire. Most importantly it should (re)install a sense of ‘respair’, a return to hope that’s intrinsic to the sacramentality of life. After all, there is a strong sense — as we enter the twenty-first century after Christ — that the accretions of Time have left us despairing, wearied and cynical about the advent of the Parousia. This teleological form of thinking should be replaced with the instruction to “Seek first the Kingdom of God; and all things shall be added unto you.” (Matt 6:33)
Once we have reminded ourselves that our own lives should be measured by an orthodox yardstick, then we can start evaluating our cultures in the same manner. No wheel has to be reinvented, just a silent volte-face away from the disciples — who Jesus was pushed to censure: “O ye of little faith” [Matt 8:26] — towards the Roman centurion whose belief Jesus “marvelled at” (Luke 7:9). A restoration of the knowledge that our lives matter quite simply because they are providential.
This providence concludes in the Eschaton, which the Church must redirect Man towards instead of letting him bury himself in the pedantic surgery of scholasticism whereby theology becomes a variant of biology that seeks to kill and dissect (St Augustine’s society of good morals is a direct ancestor of modernity’s “values”).
This is emphatically not a mystical call to be “other-worldly,” a demand to melt into a hippy’s meditative sunset. On the contrary, this is a rather pedestrian rearrangement of the furniture. Its consequences, however, are huge and ensure the world is transfigured in God’s image – a vocation currently limited only by Man’s lack of cooperation.
To conclude, as the foundations of Constantinople were laid a terrific irony was born. Christians that we now label ‘monastics’ fled the fruits of empire in the moment it converted to the faith. They did so to preserve what might be called Christian maximalism. This refusal to let the world bend God’s light is perhaps Orthodoxy’s greatest gift today and is especially obvious in the timeless nature of texts such as the Philokalia. In a Western-dominated world where every faith must doff its cap and make excuses for being what essentially amounts to a club of ignoramuses, misfits, or idealists, Orthodoxy refuses a conversation on those terms. Its faith is unshakeable and operates safely in the knowledge that “Greater is He that is in [us], than he that is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)
To the extent I bring anything other than love to Byzantium, it is that I appropriate the civilisation as a hermeneutical tool to reinterpret or reinvent the West. This is because the West’s version of Christianity no longer moves it. It has tried and failed (its ‘cancel culture’ a particularly nasty off-cut of Puritanism) to push, prompt, or provoke society into adopting a Christian model. At this impasse, Orthodoxy promises greater results in relighting the West’s wick, on terms so old they amount to something new. Its light will illuminate God’s Creation, which remains shrouded in a profoundly post-Christian darkness that “comprehends it not.” (John 1:5)