The rise and fall of what the West once was

The Age of Paradise: The Rise and Fall of What the West Once Was, published in 2019, is the first volume in a projected four-volume cultural history of Christendom by the Eastern Orthodox priest and historian, Father John Strickland.  

“Before there was a West, there was Christendom. This book tells the story of how both came to be,” the author states at the outset, adding that he views Christendom as a “civilisation with a supporting culture that directs its members toward the heavenly transformation of the world”.  

While recent books such as Tom Holland’s Dominion have examined the influence of Christianity, Strickland places a particularly strong focus on what he sees as the unique transformational imperative of the Christian faith: the need to “participate in the renewal of the cosmos by bringing it into alignment with the kingdom of heaven”.  

Age of Paradise covers the period up until the Great Schism of 1054. In it, Strickland argues that during this early period, Christendom’s centre of gravity lay in the East, where its most paradisiacal features were most strongly felt.

In the opening chapters, the author describes the core elements of Christian life in the early church and how the rapidly growing religion gradually transformed the pagan culture of the Roman Empire from within.  

As other authors such as Holland and Rodney Stark (author of The Rise of Christianity) have done previously, Strickland details the consequences of this shift away from pagan values. 

While many modern-day secularists remain in denial about the scale of this transformation, the facts are clear.  

Even the most admirable pagan philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle held views which were antithetical to the values of the early Christians: values which became those of Europe and elsewhere until recently.  

The Roman Empire was the most advanced and cultured civilisation of its time. But it was a society built on slavery and stained by savagery: savagery towards the enslaved, towards outsiders, towards women, towards the ill and needy and towards children who were imperfect or unwanted.  

The same enlightened people who could construct the towering edifice of the Colosseum almost 2,000 years ago thought nothing of sitting inside it and watching other humans being torn apart for their amusement. Nothing in the moral framework of Roman society suggested that they should be disturbed by this. But Christianity changed all of this irrevocably and made previous abuses unthinkable.  

Crucially, Strickland rejects the popular view that the age of Christendom commences with Emperor Constantine, the first Roman ruler to be baptised. 

“From the beginning of her history the Church cultivated distinct beliefs and values that created a unique proto-civilisation -- however small -- and a subculture to animate it,” Strickland writes, adding: “Christendom was founded at Pentecost, and its founders were not emperors but the faithful members of local parish churches.”  

Readers interested in the historical development of Eastern Orthodoxy will be particularly interested in how the author addresses the role which Christianity has played in shaping the direction of governments. 

This is an especially important point, and one upon which he elaborates. The Church and State model which developed in the West was not the same as what he calls the Byzantine approach of "symphony", where the Eastern emperor ruled in harmony with the bishops in his jurisdiction.  

Within this environment, a church historian such as Eusebius “viewed the Christian state as an extension of the kingdom of heaven". In the West, on the other hand, St Augustine’s writings about the "City of Man" and the "City of God" focused more on the limitations of this world, and partially as a result of this, there came to be a greater distance between religious and political authorities. 

A large part of this book is taken up with political disputes, including those which gradually drove East and West apart.  

What is more interesting than this, however, are Strickland’s observations about other differences which became more obvious as the churches carried on down their diverging paths, and what this indicates about the key values of Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  

For instance, he sees the focus on church domes in Eastern architecture as symbolising heavenly immanence. Church spires in the West, in contrast, tended to “direct attention away from the world to a distantly transcendent heaven”. 

Naturally, given the author’s background, all of what is here is written from an Orthodox perspective. As such, The Age of Paradise provides readers with a very comprehensive and accessible insight into the role that the Eastern Church played in early Christendom, and how modern Orthodox believers view this history.  

There are some less satisfying elements, though, which relate to the disputes between East and West. 

In his overview of the first few centuries of Christendom, the author says curiously little about the papacy. The first mention of the institution appears to be in relation to the Acacian schism of the late 5th century.  

Strickland is critical of what he calls “papal supremacy” but has little to say about what the role of the successor to Saint Peter was during the first centuries of Christendom, or what it should consist of more generally.  

He praises later pontiffs such as Saint Gregory the Great, noting how he bore “witness to the Eastern character of Western Christendom”, but the overall analysis is focused on the triumphs of some popes and the failures of others, not the institution itself. 

From the Orthodox viewpoint, there are five key centres of church leadership, each of which is led by a patriarch, one of whom is the Bishop of Rome. 

When describing the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Strickland describes how the question of the Pope’s jurisdictional authority was being debated, and notes in passing that the “bishops of the East obviously regarded Rome as preeminent within the pentarchy, but in terms of moral authority and prestige rather than administrative oversight”. 

Unfortunately, he does not expand on why this preeminence was obvious, or what that means in practical terms when it comes to papal authority. 

Was the papacy’s prestige wrapped up with that of the city of Rome? Hardly -- Rome had declined greatly and had been sacked by the Visigoths several decades earlier. Was it to do with the moral authority of individual popes, which has varied so greatly over the centuries? 

Practical issues relating to administrative oversight can be a constant source of dispute in any organisation, but they should be manageable, as they were for the first 1,000 years of Christendom.  

Separately, what is included here provides food for thought when it comes to what has happened to the Catholic and Orthodox churches since 1054, and the approaches which they have chosen to take. 

While examining the first millennium of Christendom, Strickland provides numerous examples of Western and Eastern political leaders overstepping their boundaries and, as he sees it, “distorting the ideal of ecclesio-political symphony”, which led in turn to the papacy expanding its power to counter that of the secular authority.  

Aside from the recent emergence of integralism among a few eccentric Catholic intellectuals, few in the West would argue that a separation between religious and temporal authority is ultimately a good and necessary thing, and has helped to preserve an influence and an independence which the Eastern Orthodox churches simply do not enjoy. 

The recent furore within Orthodoxy over the granting of independence to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, and the furious response of the Putin-aligned Russian Orthodox Church, is just one example of the dead end which the Orthodox model of "symphony" leads to.  

National churches -- a concept which should not exist -- in the Orthodox world which recoil at the thought of submitting to the Pope’s authority have historically had no problem taking orders from kings, tsars and presidents-for-life.  

In the centuries after the break with the East, the strength of the papacy provided a focal point for resistance to Islamic conquests which the more loosely aligned Orthodox churches -- operating within a dying empire -- lacked. The Iberian peninsula was reclaimed, the armies and navies of the Ottomans were repelled and Vienna was saved twice.  

If the churches had reunited fully in the 1400s -- an outcome many Orthodox faithful desperately wanted to become a reality -- could Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia have been saved too? Quite possibly.  

Strickland does not write about Rome in anger, but his account is one-sided and does not acknowledge the negative consequences of disunity for those of his own denomination.  

“The loss, for the West, of a cultural and spiritual linkage to the East -- that greater bearer of Christianity’s most paradisiacal features -- was a tragedy more epic than any in history,” he writes. 

Unfortunately, there is little here about what the Great Schism has cost the East, where opposition to reunion between Catholicism and Orthodoxy remains strong, often for reasons which relate more to nationalism than to theological questions.  

Perhaps this will be rectified in the coming volumes -- the second of which (The Age of Division) was published in November. 

That being said, The Age of Paradise remains an interesting and readable account of this period in history, one which is brought to us by an erudite scholar.  

Those looking to learn more about the role of Eastern Orthodoxy in helping to shape Western history and culture would do well to examine the first volume of Father Strickland’s work, and to look forward to the completion of his task.  


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