Chapter V. Christianity and Civilization
A new epoch commences in the life of the Church with the beginning of the IVth century. The Empire accepts christening in the person of the «isapostolic» Caesar. The Church emerges from its forced seclusion and receives the seeking world under its sacred vaults. But the World brings with it its fears, its doubts and its temptations. There were both pride and despair paradoxically intermingled. The Church was called on to quench the despair and to humble the pride. The IVth century was in many respects more of an epilogue than of a dawn. It was rather a finale of an outworn history than a true beginning. Yet, a new civilization emerges often out of the ashes.
During the Nicene age for the majority the time was out of joint, and a peculiar cultural disharmony prevailed. Two worlds had come into collision and stood opposed to one another: Hellenism and Christianity. Modern historians are tempted to underestimate the pain of tension and the depth of conflict. The Church did not deny the culture in principle. Christian culture was already in the process of formation. And in a sense Christianity had already made its contribution to the treasury of the Hellenistic civilization. The school of Alexandria had a considerable impact on the contemporary experiments in the field of philosophy. But Hellenism was not prepared to concede anything to the Church. The attitudes of Clement of Alexandria and Origen, on one side, and of Celsus and Porphyrius, on the other, were typical and instructive. The external struggle was not the most important feature of the conflict. The inner struggle was much more difficult and tragic: every follower of the Hellenic tradition was called at that time to live through and overcome an inner discord.
Civilization meant precisely Hellenism, with all its pagan memories, mental habits, and esthetical charms. The «dead gods» of Hellenism were still worshipped in numerous temples, and pagan traditions were still cherished by a significant number of intellectuals. To go to a school meant at that precisely to go to a pagan school and to study pagan writers and poets. Julian the Apostate was not the just an out-of-date dreamer, who attempted an impossible restoration of the dead ideals, but a representative of a cultural resistance which was not yet broken from inside. The ancient world was reborn and transfigured in a desperate struggle. The whole of the inner life of the Hellenistic men had to undergo a drastic revaluation. The process was slow and dramatic, and finally resolved in the birth of a new civilization, which we may describe as Byzantine. One has to realize that there was but one Christian civilization for centuries, the same for the East and the West, and this civilization was born and made in the East. A specifically Western civilization came much later.
Rome itself was quite Byzantine even in the VIIIth century. The Byzantine epoch starts if not with Constantine himself, in any case with Theodosius, and reaches its climax under Justinian. His was the time when a Christian culture was conscientiously and deliberately being built and completed as a system. The new culture was a great synthesis in which all the creative traditions and moves of the past were merged and integrated. It was a «New Hellenism,» but a Hellenism drastically christened and, as it were, «churchified.» It is still usual to suspect the Christian quality of this new synthesis. Was it not just an «acute Hellenization» of the «Biblical Christianity,» in which the whole novelty of the Revelation has been diluted and dissolved? Was not this new synthesis simply a disguised Paganism? This was precisely the considered opinion of Adolf Harnack. Now, in the light of an unbiased historical study, we can protest most strongly against this simplification. Was not that which the XIXth century historians used to describe as an «Hellenization of Christianity» rather a Conversion of Hellenism? And why should Hellenism not have been converted? The Christian reception of Hellenism was not just a servile absorption of an undigested heathen heritage. It was rather a conversion of the Hellenic mind and heart.
What really had happened was this. Hellenism was mightily dissected with the sword of Christian Revelation, and was utterly polarized thereby. The closed horizon has been exploded. One should describe Origen and Augustine as «Hellenists.» But obviously it was another type of Hellenism than that of Plotinus or Julian. Among the decrees of Julian, Christians most loathed the one which prohibited Christians to teach arts and science. This was in fact a belated attempt to expel Christians from the making of civilization, to protect the ancient culture from Christian influence and impact. For the Cappadocian Fathers this was the main issue. And St. Gregory of Nazianzus in his sermons against Julian dwelt at length on this topic. St. Basil felt himself compelled to write an address «To young men, on how they may derive benefit from Hellenic literature.» Two centuries later, Justinian debarred non-Christians from all teaching and educational activities, and closed down all pagan schools. There was, in this measure, no hostility to «Hellenism.» This was no break in tradition. Traditions are kept and even cherished, but they are drawn into the process of Christian re-interpretation. This comprises the essence of Byzantine culture. It was an acceptance of the postulates of culture and their transvaluation. The magnificent Temple of Holy Wisdom, of the Eternal Word, the great church of Sophia in Constantinople, will ever stand as a living symbol of this cultural achievement.
The history of Christian culture was by no means an idyll. It was enacted in struggle and dialectical conflict. Already the IVth century was a time of tragic contradictions. The Empire became Christian. The chance of transfiguring the whole of human creativity was given. And yet, it was precisely from this Christened Empire that the flight commences, the flight into the desert. It is true that individuals used to leave cities even before, in the time of the persecutions, to dwell or wander in deserts and holes of the earth. The ascetical ideal has been for a long time in the process of formation, and Origen, for one, was a great master of spiritual life. Yet, a movement begins only after Constantine. It would be utterly unfair to suspect that people were leaving «the world» simply because it became difficult and exacting to bear its burden, in search for an «easy life.» It is difficult to see in what sense the life in the desert could be «easy.» It is true also that in the West at that time the Empire was falling to pieces and sorely endangered by Barbarian invasion, and apocalyptic fears and anticipations might have been alive there, an expectation of a speedy end of history.
In the East at that time the Christian Empire was in the process of construction. In spite of all the perplexities and dangers of life, here one might have been tempted rather with a historical optimism, with a dream of a realized City of God on earth. And many, in fact, succumbed to this allurement. If nevertheless, there were so many in the East who did prefer to «emigrate» into the Desert, we have all reasons to believe that they fled not so much from worldly troubles, as from the «worldly cares,» implied even in a Christian civilization. St. John Chrysostom was very emphatic in his warnings against the dangers of «prosperity.» For him «security was the greatest of all persecutions,» much worse than the bloodiest persecutions from outside. For him the real danger for true piety began precisely with the external victory of the Church, when it became possible for a Christian to «settle down» in this world, with a considerable measure of security and even comfort, and to forget that he had no abiding City in this world and had to be a stranger and pilgrim on earth. The meaning of monasticism did not consist primarily in taking severe vows. Monastic vows were but a re-emphasis of the Baptismal vows. There was no special «monastic» ideal at that early age. The early monks wanted simply to realize in full the common Christian ideal which was, in principle, set before every single believer. It was assumed that this realization was almost impossible within the existing fabric of society and life, even if it is disguised as a Christian Empire. Monastic flight in the IVth century was first of all a withdrawal from the Empire. Ascetic renunciation implies first of all a complete disowning of the world, i.e. of the order of this world, of all social ties. A monk should be «homeless,» aoikos, in the phrase of St. Basil. Asceticism, as a rule, does not require detachment from the Cosmos. And the God-created beauty of nature is much more vividly apprehended in the desert than on the market-place of a busy city.
Monasteries were in picturesque environments and the cosmic beauty can be strongly felt in hagiographical literature. The seat of evil is not in nature but in man’s heart, or the world of evil spirits. The Christian fight is not against flesh and blood, but «against spiritual wickedness in high places» (Ephes. 6:12). It is only in the wilderness that one can realize in full one’s allegiance to the only Heavenly King, the Christ, loyalty to Whom may be seriously compromised by claims laid on a citizen by his man-made city.
Monasticism was never anti-social. It was an attempt to build up another City. A monastery is, in a sense, an «extraterritorial colony» in this world of vanity. Even hermits did dwell usually in groups and colonies, and were united under the common direction of spiritual father. But it was the «coenobia» that was regarded as the most adequate embodiment of the ascetical ideal. Monastic community is itself a social organization, a «body,» a small Church. A monk left the world in order to build a new society, a new communal life. This was, in any case, the intention of St. Basil. St. Theodore of Studium, one of the most influential leaders of later Byzantine monasticism, was even more rigid and emphatic in this respect. The Empire, already since Justinian, was very anxious to domesticate monasticism, to reintegrate it into the general political and social order. Success was but partial, and led to a decay. In any case, monasteries always remain, in a sense, heterogeneous inclusions and are never fully integrated into the imperial order of life. One may suggest that Monasticism, historically speaking, was an attempt to escape the building up of Christian Empire. Origen contended in his time that Christians could not participate in the general civic life, because they had a «polis» of their own, because in every city they had their own «order of life,» to allo systema patridos (C. Cels. VIII. 75). They lived «contrary to the order» of the worldly city (antipoliteuomenoi).
In a «Christianized» city this antithesis was not removed. Also monasticism is something «other,» a kind of «anti-city,» anti-polis, for it is basically «another» city. Essentially it always remains outside of the worldly system, and often asserts its «extraterritoriality» even with regard to the general ecclesiastical system, claiming some kind of independence upon the local or territorial jurisdiction. Monasticism is, in principle, an exodus from the world, an exit from the natural social order, a renunciation of family, social status, and even citizenship. But it is not just an exit out, but also a transition to another social plane and dimension. In this social «otherworldliness» consists the main peculiarity of monasticism as a movement, as well as its historical significance. Ascetical virtues can be practised by laymen aso, and by those who stay in the world. What is peculiar of monasticism is its social structure. The Christian world was polarized. Christian history unfolds in an antithesis between the Empire and the Desert. This tension culminates in a violent explosion in the Iconoclastic controversy.
The fact that monasticism evades and denies the conception of the Christian Empire does not imply that it opposes culture. The case is very complex. And first of all, monasticism succeeded, much more than the Empire ever did, to preserve the true ideal of culture in its purity and freedom. In any case, spiritual creativity was richly nourished from the depths of the spiritual life. «Christian holiness synthesizes within itself all the fundamental and ultimate aspirations of the entire ancient Philosophy,» aptly remarked one Russian scholar. «Starting in Ionia and Magna Graecia, the main stream of great Hellenic speculation flows through Athens to Alexandria and from thence to the Thebaide. Cliffs, deserts, and caves become new centers of the theurgic wisdom.» Monastic contribution to the general learning was very large in the Middle Ages, both in the East and in the West.
Monasteries were great centers of learning. We should not overlook another aspect of the matter. Monasticism in itself was a remarkable phenomenon of culture. It is not by chance that ascetic endeavour has been persistently described as «Philosophy,» the «love of wisdom,» in the writings of the Patristic age. It was not by accident that the great traditions of Alexandrinian theology were revived and blossomed especially in the monastic quarters. It was not by chance likewise that in the Cappadocians of the IVth century ascetic and cultural endeavours were so organically intertwined. Later on, too, St. Maximus the Confessor built his magnificent theological synthesis precisely on the basis of his ascetical experience. Finally, it was by no accident that in the Iconoclastic period monks occurred to be the defenders of art, safeguarding the freedom of religious art from the oppression of the State, from «enlightened» oppression and utilitarian simplification.
All this is closely linked with the very essence of asceticism. Ascesis does not bind creativity, it liberates it, because it asserts it as an aim in itself. Above all – creativity of one’s self. Creativity is ultimately saved from all sorts of utilitarianism only through an ascetical re-interpretation. Ascesis does not consist of prohibitions. It is activity, a «working out» of one’s own self. It is dynamic. It contains the urge of infinity, an eternal appeal, an unquenchable move forward. The reason for this restlessness is double. The task is infinite because the pattern of perfection is infinite, God’s perfection. No achievement can ever be adequate to the goal. The task is creative because something essentially new is to be brought in existence. Man makes up his own self in his absolute dedication to God. He becomes himself only in this creative process. There is an inherent antinomy in true ascesis. It begins with humility, renunciation, obedience. Creative freedom is impossible without this initial self-renunciation. It is the law of spiritual life: the seed is not quickened unless it dies. Renunciation implies an overcoming of one’s limitations and partiality, an absolute surrender to the Truth. It does not mean: first renunciation, and then freedom. Humility itself is freedom. Ascetic renunciation unfetters the spirit, releases the soul. Without freedom all mortifications will be in vain. On the other hand, through the ascetic trial the very vision of the world is changed and renewed.
True vision is available only to those who have no selfish concerns. True asceticism is inspired not by contempt, but by the urge of transformation. The world must be re-instated to its original beauty, from which it fell into sin. It is because of this that asceticism leads to action. The work of Redemption is done by God indeed, but man is called to co-operate in this redemptive endeavour. For Redemption consists precisely in the Redemption of Freedom. Sin is slavery, and «Jerusalem which is above is free.» This interpretation of the ascetical endeavour will appear unexpected and strange. It is certainly incomplete. The world of ascesis is complicated, because it is a realm of freedom. There are many roads, some of which may end in blind alleys. Historically, of course, asceticism does not always lead to creativity. One ought, however, to distinguish clearly between an indifference to creative tasks, and their non-acceptance. New and various problems of culture are disclosed through the ascetic training, a new hierarchy of values and aims is revealed. Hence the apparent indifference of asceticism to many historic tasks. This brings us back to the conflict between the Empire and the Desert. We may well say: between History and the Apocalypse. It is the basic question of the significance and value of the whole historical endeavor. Christian goal, in any case, transcends history, as it transcends culture. But Man was created to inherit eternity.
One may describe asceticism as an «eschatology of transfiguration.» Ascetic «maximalism» is primarily inspired by an awareness of the end of history. It would be more accurate to say: conviction, not an actual expectation. The calculation of times and dates is irrelevant, as it is dangerous and misleading indeed. What is important is a consistent use of «eschatological measures» in the estimation of all things and events. It is unfair to suppose that nothing on earth can stand this «eschatological» testing. Not everything should fade away. No doubt, there is no room for politics or economics in the ultimate Kingdom of Heaven. But, obviously, there are many values in this life which will not be abrogated in «the age to come.» First comes Love. It is not accidental that monasticism takes persistently the form of a community. It is an organization of mutual care and help. Any work of mercy, or even a burning of the heart for somebody else’s suffering or need, cannot be regarded as insignificant in the eschatological dimension. Is it too much to suggest that all creative charity is eternal? Are not some abiding values disclosed also in the field of knowledge? Nothing can be said with an ultimate certainty. And yet it seems we have some criterion of discrimination. Human personality, in any case, transcends history.
Personality bears history within itself. I would cease to be Myself if my concrete, i.e. historical, experience is simply subtracted. History therefore will not fade away completely even in the «age to come,» if the concreteness of human life is to be preserved. Of course, we never can draw the definite line between those earthly things which may have an «eschatological extension» and those which have to die out on the eschatological threshold – in actual life they are inextricably interwoven. Distinction depends on spiritual discernment, on a sort of spiritual clairvoyance. On one hand, obviously, but «one thing is needful.» On the other hand, the «World to come» is undoubtedly a world of Eternal Memory, and not of eternal oblivion. There is the «good part» which «shall not be taken away.» And Martha shares it also, not only Mary. All that is susceptible to transfiguration will be transfigured. Now, this «transfiguration,» in a sense, begins already on this side of the eschatological cleavage. «Eschatological treasures» are to be collected even in this life. Otherwise this life is frustrated. Some real anticipation of the Ultimate is already available. Otherwise the victory of Christ has been in vain. «New Creation» is already initiated. Christian History is more than a prophetical symbol, sign or hint. We always have some dim feeling about things which have not, and cannot have, any «eternal dimension,» and we style them therefore as «vain» and «futile.» Our diagnosis is very fallible indeed. Yet, some diagnosis is unavoidable. Christianity is essentially historical. History is a sacred process. On the other hand, Christianity pronounces a judgement on history, and is in itself a move into what is «beyond history.» For that reason, Christian attitude to history and culture is bound to be antinomical. Christians should not be absorbed in history. But they have no escape into a sort of «natural state.» They have to transcend history for the sake of that «which cannot be contained by earthly shores.» Yet, Eschatology itself is always a Consummation.
Vladimir Soloviev pointed out the tragic inconsistency of Byzantine culture. «Byzantium was devout in its fate and impious in its life.» Of course, this is a vivid image, and not an accurate description. We may admit, however, that some valid truth is emphasized by this phrase. The idea of a «churchified» Empire was a failure. The Empire fell to pieces in bloody conflicts, degenerated in fraud, ambiguity and violence. But the Desert was more successful. It will remain for ever to witness to the creative effort of the Early Church, with its Byzantine theology, devotion and art. Perhaps it will become the most vital and sacred page in the mysterious book of human destiny, which is continuously being written. The epilogue of Byzantium is likewise emphatic, and there is the same polarity: the fall of the Empire after an ambiguous political Union with Rome (at Florence), which was, however, never accepted by the people. And, on the very eve of the fall of «corrupt Byzantium,» the glorious flowering of mystical contemplation on Mount Athos and the Renaissance in art in Philosophy which was to nourish the Western Renaissance too. The fall of the Empire and the Fulfillment of the Desert…