Review of: Arch­priest John Strick­land, The Age of Par­adise: Chris­ten­dom from Pen­te­cost to the First Mil­len­ni­um (Chester­ton, IN: Ancient Faith Pub­lish­ing, 2019). 978–1‑94496–756‑7.

by Monk Theodore

The big ques­tion that faces the Ortho­dox Church now, and has been fac­ing Her for many decades, is the ques­tion of sec­u­lar­ism and how the Body of Christ can exist and work out its voca­tion in a high­ly sec­u­lar­ized soci­ety. Many of the Church’s great­est thinkers have set their minds to this prob­lem. In this first of a pro­ject­ed four-vol­ume series exam­in­ing the his­to­ry of the Church, Father John offers his answer, albeit indi­rect­ly.  What Fr John presents here may not be the most prac­ti­cal solu­tion, but it might be the most encour­ag­ing. Sit­ting here at the end of 2020, the phrase “if the year 2018 seemed a bad one for our civ­i­liza­tion…” from the intro­duc­tion elic­its a wry smile, if only because, with cer­tain caveats, it under­scores the impor­tance of revis­it­ing the Spen­g­ler­ian view of his­to­ry that the author advocates.

The author presents a vision of the history of the Church, or, more correctly, the Church in history, that phenomenon we now call Christendom

  Before I pro­ceed with the review, it should be stat­ed that this book con­tains very lit­tle that some­one who is fair­ly famil­iar with church his­to­ry has not read before. It does not con­tain ground-break­ing research, nor great rev­e­la­tions, nor fan­tas­tic dis­cov­er­ies. But that is not Fr John’s inten­tion. What our author presents us with is not sim­ply a series of his­tor­i­cal facts, chrono­log­i­cal­ly arranged, but rather a vision of the his­to­ry of the Church (or, more cor­rect­ly) the Church in his­to­ry, that phe­nom­e­non we now call Chris­ten­dom. Chris­ten­dom is, for Father John, the civ­i­liza­tion that aris­es from the cul­ture of the Church, although he takes a far less pes­simistic view of the cul­ture-civ­i­liza­tion dichoto­my than does Spengler.

Father John calls Christendom a “transformational imperative”

  Before tak­ing us on a jour­ney through the first thou­sand years of Chris­ten­dom, Father John lays down exact­ly what he means by this term. It is not a world­ly polit­i­cal enti­ty loose­ly con­sist­ing of those states which offi­cial­ly adhere to some form of Chris­tian­i­ty, as many believe it to be, but rather par­adise, or at least the earth­ly man­i­fes­ta­tion there­of, as the book’s title indi­cates. This is the theme run­ning through Fr John’s work and he takes care to define what he means, and in what way Chris­ten­dom was — and still is — dis­tinct from the pagan cul­ture around it.

Father John calls Chris­ten­dom a “trans­for­ma­tion­al imper­a­tive,” an Incar­na­tion-root­ed dri­ve to take both anthro­pos and cos­mos and trans­fig­ure them in the image of the King­dom of Heav­en. It is char­ac­ter­ized by these four prin­ci­ples, all of which the takes from the Holy Evan­ge­list Luke’s account of the ear­ly Church in the Acts of the Apos­tles: doc­tri­nal integri­ty, divine par­tic­i­pa­tion, heav­en­ly imma­nence, and spir­i­tu­al trans­for­ma­tion, all under­gird­ed by a pro­found spir­it of humil­i­ty and repen­tance. It was these four prin­ci­ples that we see devel­op in the course of six chap­ters, from a cat­a­comb (sub)culture amidst deca­dent Roman pagan­dom to Chris­ten­dom, that great civ­i­liza­tion which has had more influ­ence over this world than any other.

These four prin­ci­ples are not sim­ple ideas to which one should assent. Rather, as Father John demon­strates time and time again in his sweep­ing nar­ra­tive of the Church’s first mil­le­ni­um, they are the very man­i­fes­ta­tion of eccle­si­as­ti­cal life itself: litur­gi­cal, sacra­men­tal, mys­ti­cal, and espe­cial­ly trans­fig­u­ra­tive.  The Age of Par­adise shows how this eccle­si­as­ti­cal trans­fig­u­ra­tion — and cre­ation — of cul­ture is worked out in the cat­a­comb Eucharis­tic assem­blies, in the Roman hearth, in the glad­i­a­to­r­i­al are­na, in times of epi­dem­ic, and, final­ly, in the impe­r­i­al throne room with the birth of Chris­t­ian empire: from the Great Per­se­cu­tion to the Great Church.

Despite the vicissitudes of life, the Church was still paradise and still the unique place of divine immanence in the world, where all men could encounter the living God and be transformed by Him.

  The con­ver­sion of Saint Con­stan­tine is, obvi­ous­ly, a turn­ing point in the nar­ra­tive, as Father John tran­si­tions from nar­rat­ing the Church’s slow but dynam­ic growth and its trans­fig­u­ra­tion of that which was around it, to depict­ing the Church’s strug­gle to main­tain its eyes firm­ly on the heav­en­ly par­adise, now that it had been weld­ed to world­ly pow­er. Sanc­ti­fy­ing the state, a process which came to be known as sym­pho­nia, was a longer and more labo­ri­ous strug­gle than the con­ver­sion of the empire itself.

Despite the tyran­ni­cal emper­ors, cor­rupt prelates, and heretics that are sad­ly all too preva­lent in the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, Fr John demon­strates that, despite the vicis­si­tudes of life, the Church was still par­adise and still the unique place of divine imma­nence in the world, where all men could encounter the liv­ing God and be trans­formed by Him. Chris­ten­dom is not defined by its kings, but by its saints, and for every Julian there is a Basil, and for every Eudox­ia, a Chrysostom.

Being a his­to­ry of the Church through the lens of cul­tur­al devel­op­ment, it is par for the course that Father John diverges at times into var­i­ous excur­sions on litur­gy, iconog­ra­phy, archi­tec­ture, and oth­er facets of what he terms “ori­en­ta­tion.” For him, this is an entire dis­po­si­tion relat­ing to the Church’s trans­fig­ur­ing of the world and the things there­in — not lim­it­ed to, but per­fect­ly sym­bol­ized by, the litur­gi­cal prac­tice of fac­ing east to pray.

Now, such lan­guage does lend itself to an all-to-easy East-West dichoto­my , almost a stan­dard in Eng­lish-lan­guage Ortho­dox lit­er­a­ture nowa­days. While Fr John does avoid the worst excess­es of this, it still makes its pres­ence felt at times in grim invo­ca­tions of “Augus­tini­an­ism” and “the Franks.” Although one can­not deny the gen­uine dis­tor­tions that did arise in West­ern Chris­tian­i­ty, lead­ing to the Great Schism, a lit­tle more nuance is always appre­ci­at­ed by this writer when deal­ing with “the West” as an unit, and Fr John does a bet­ter job in this regard than many.

One of the subtle strengths of Father John’s book is how it is able to provide an almost-allegorical account of our own situation.

  This is where Father John signs off on his his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, with Christendom’s two sides slow­ly grow­ing dis­tinct from one anoth­er. Yes, right up until the eve of the final sep­a­ra­tion, that trans­fig­u­ra­tive divine imma­nence was still present in both the Old and New Romes, pri­mar­i­ly in the ascetic and monas­tic impulse, even while the Church of Old Rome was about to draw the cur­tain on its res­olute and cen­turies-long fideli­ty to the Nicaean Creed by offi­cial­ly incor­po­rat­ing the fil­ioque clause. What hap­pens beyond this will be cov­ered in sub­se­quent vol­umes, when the West “re-ori­ents” itself from par­adise to utopia, which, as Fr John relates in his intro­duc­tion, lit­er­al­ly means nowhere.

One of the sub­tle strengths of Fr John’s book is how he is able to pro­vide an almost-alle­gor­i­cal account of our own sit­u­a­tion. When he writes of the pagan world among which the Church found itself in those ear­ly days, the lan­guage he uses is unmis­tak­ably drawn from today’s cul­ture wars, which he does not hes­i­tate to refer to when set­ting the scene in his intro­duc­tion. When Father John writes about sex­u­al degen­er­a­cy in ancient Rome, he’s writ­ing about the present. When he writes about abor­tion in ancient Rome, he’s writ­ing about the present. When he writes about social inequal­i­ties (real, not imag­ined) in ancient Rome, he’s writ­ing about the present. When he writes about cor­rupt polit­i­cal elites in ancient Rome, well, you can be cer­tain he’s writ­ing about the present.

This is how Father John responds to the big ques­tion of sec­u­lar­ism with this book: he shows us that Chris­ten­dom was born and came to matu­ri­ty in a sit­u­a­tion not unlike our own, or even worse in many cas­es. In effect, this book is a mes­sage of hope: we did it once, we can do it again, if God so wills. The cur­rent socio-polit­i­cal cli­mate demands utopia but will nev­er find it. We have par­adise, because we have the Church. We still have the four prin­ci­ples of doc­tri­nal integri­ty, divine par­tic­i­pa­tion, heav­en­ly imma­nence, and spir­i­tu­al trans­for­ma­tion, all present and alive in the life of that Church, our Church. We have Chris­ten­dom. Why? Because, Ortho­dox Chris­tians, we are Chris­ten­dom.

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