10 May 2017

CHRISTENDOM

Part 3 of 8 of the Lecture Gold out of Egypt, which I first delivered on 20 April 2017 at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

As much as I lament that these knots and spirals would not be found in a church nowadays except as an expression of Irishness, I lament more that a church nowadays is likely to contain no artwork at all. We are living in a time comparable to the iconoclastic crises; contempt for tradition and sacred art is encountered at all levels of the Catholic Church.

Moreover, contemporary secular society is decidedly antitraditional. Those who mass-produce and peddle its culture profit by arousing the desire for novelty; things that are made to endure or to live with can only be sold once. Its music and art exist primarily as electronic simulacra. These can be sent across the world within seconds; bound to no particular place, they go to every nation and move them toward sameness. I do not know if such things can properly be called culture; I do not know if they can even properly be called things. A similar movement toward a postnational world is made in political and economic matters. The rules of national sovereignty are reduced to legal fictions, just as the marks of cultural identity are overwritten or erased.

Unsurprisingly, this provokes a reaction. All over the world, people are concerned to protect their self-determination and cultural identity from foreign influences, from invasive ways that are not theirs. That is to say, that are not theirs as Frenchmen or Englishmen or Germans or Americans. In such a time, when nationalism provides the motive to preserve tradition, and postnationalism the motive to destroy it, it seems that anyone who is a traditionalist in matters of religion or culture or art should and must be a nationalist as well.

The curious thing, however, is that in the history of Christianity, nationalism is not an especially traditional idea. A distinction between nations certainly is as ancient as the Tower of Babel, where the language of the whole earth was confounded: and from thence the Lord scattered them abroad upon the face of all countries. But the idea that nationhood be the foremost way for a man to understand his identity, his place in history and in the world, began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The choice presented between nationalism and postnationalism is a false dilemma; there is older way, and that is what is actually expressed in works of art such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and Chartres Cathedral. It is the idea of Christendom: that a man should understand his place in history and in the world not foremost as a member of a particular nation, but rather as a member of the universal Church. This is the way that once was maintained by the Catholic Church, and that naturally would be yet, were it not for the failure of its institutional authorities to stand fast, and hold to the traditions they have learned. Perhaps artists can take up the task, if churchmen will not, of reviving this magnanimous idea.

This idea of Christendom does not destroy the particular genii of nations, but neither does it provoke them to battle against each other. It rather establishes principles by which they may together praise the same God. Moreover, it establishes principles by which the Christian tradition may withstand foreign influences; not by barring them entry, but by converting them to its same sacred end, by staking upon whatever is true or good or beautiful in them a legitimate claim.

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The word Christendom is often used to refer to the political and military aspect of the universal Church, one embodied by the converted Roman Empire and by the confessional states that succeeded it. I am not really speaking about that, for I neither possess nor know any means that could plausibly restore it. As far as I can tell, every sovereign state in the world now persecutes the Church in some way, and will continue to persecute the Church for the foreseeable future.

I am rather speaking about a religious force for communication between nations and the partaken culture that it inspires. This is older than the conversion of Constantine, indeed as old as the Church. Consider the miracle of Pentecost, which the Church Fathers contrasted to the divine intervention at Babel:
And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak. Now there were dwelling at Jerusalem, Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. And, when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together and were confounded in mind, because that every man heard them speak in his own tongue. And they were all amazed and wondered, saying: Behold, are not all these that speak, Galileans? And how have we heard, every man our own tongue wherein we were born? Partians and Medes and Elamites and inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome. Jews also and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians; we have heard them speak in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.
The miracle was not to make all these different men into Galileans, nor to give them understanding of a single language, whether that of Galilee or that of Eden. Christianity did not erase the distinction between nations or tongues, or move them toward sameness; it rather made the wonderful works of God intelligible to them all and thus ended the privilege of any; as St. Paul wrote: There is neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian nor Scythian.... Christ is all and in all.

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