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.