Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 13—476 C.E. onward—Out of Darkness, Something “Holy”
“Sins committed in the dark are seen in Heaven like sheets of fire.”—Chinese proverb
IN APRIL 1988 the Church in the Soviet Union rejoiced to hear General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev publicly state that mistakes made by the State in its relationship with the Church and its members were to be corrected.
A rift of another kind also seemed to be on its way to settlement when Roman Catholic pope John Paul II sent greetings to the “thousand-year-old sister church as an expression of the heartfelt desire to achieve that perfect union that Christ wanted and that is basic to the nature of the Church.” But how did a breach between ‘sister churches’ come about in the first place?
Loss of a Unity That Never Was
Early in the fourth century, after becoming emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine the Great moved its capital from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium, located on the shores of the Bosporus. It was renamed Constantinople, and we today know it as Istanbul, Turkey. The move was designed to unite an empire threatened with dismemberment. In fact, as early as the latter half of the second century, “the blueprint for a divided empire had already been sketched in outline, no matter how faintly,” notes The New Encyclopædia Britannica.
Christianity had spread through the eastern part of the empire faster and more readily than through the western part. So Constantine saw in a universal (catholic) religion a force for unity. But even as the empire was basically split, so also was its religion. The Eastern church was more conservative than the one centered in Rome, and it resisted the theological innovations Rome offered. “Right up to the twelfth century there would be many political and theological disputes between the two churches,” says The Collins Atlas of World History.
One of these theological disputes involved the Nicene Creed, which furthered the development of the unscriptural Trinity doctrine. As developed by the first three general councils held by the church (Nicaea in 325 C.E., Constantinople in 381 C.E., Ephesus in 431 C.E.), the creed spoke of the “Holy Ghost . . . who proceedeth from the Father.” But at a council in the sixth century, the Western church changed the phrase to read “who proceedeth from the Father and the Son.” This issue of the filioque (Latin for “and the son”) was, and still is, a point of dispute between these “Christian” sister churches.
Disunity became more apparent when the western empire ended in 476 C.E., marking the start of the Dark Ages. As regards Christianity, the Dark Ages were indeed an era of intellectual darkness and ignorance. The gospel light of Christianity had been, for the time being, overwhelmed by the darkness of Christendom.
Religious darkness is not conducive to unity. “The various sections of the Christian world were constantly seeking for a unity which was never achieved,” says former Canon of Canterbury Herbert Waddams. “It was not a case of full unity which was later broken,” he says, adding that “the idea that Christendom was once one great united Church is a figment of the imagination.”
A “Child” Is Born
The “child” born in 800 C.E. on Christmas Day grew up to be called holy. It was a restored western empire born after Pope Leo III broke with the Eastern church and crowned Charlemagne, king of the Franks, emperor. After a short interruption, the western empire was revived in 962 C.E. and later became known by a more pretentious title, Holy Roman Empire.
Actually, the name Roman Empire was a misnomer. The bulk of its territory, present-day Germany, Austria, western Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, eastern France, and the Low Countries, lay outside Italy. German lands and German rulers predominated, so its official name was later changed to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.
The empire mixed religion with politics. Collier’s Encyclopedia explains that the idea was “that there should be a single political head in the world, working in harmony with the universal Church, each with its own sphere and authority derived from God.” But the line of demarcation was not always clear, thus leading to controversies. Particularly between the mid-11th and the mid-13th centuries, Church and State contended for European leadership. Some feel that religion’s involvement in politics was unselfish and justified, but as author Waddams admits, “there is little doubt that papal ambition for power did play an important part in the development.”
During its last century and a half of existence, the empire degenerated into a loose collection of nations under the shaky control of a common emperor. Most appropriate during this phase of its history are the words of French writer Voltaire, who said that it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Finally, in 1806, gray with age and with nothing to recommend it for sainthood, the “holy child” died. In 1871 it was revived in the Second Reich (German for “empire”) but collapsed in 1918, less than 50 years later. And in 1933, Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich began its goose-step through Europe, only to come to an inglorious end in 1945 in the ruins of Berlin.
Germanic Influences in the West
The German reference work Meyers Illustrierte Weltgeschichte (Meyer’s Illustrated World History) calls “the three pillars upon which Europe’s Middle Ages rest . . . the heritage of classical antiquity in its late Roman mintage, Christianity, and finally the traditions taken over by the Germanic peoples from their ancestors.” In corroboration, German author Emil Nack says: “The old Germanic annual festivals were often continued in the form of Christian holidays, since the church, as advised by Pope Gregory the Great, transformed many a pagan festival into a Christian one.”
Observance of these religious festivals did not imply a deep sense of religiousness among Germanic peoples. Andreas Heusler, deceased authority on Germanic religion, describes it as being a religion that “forbade very little and demanded nothing of difficulty, including any mythological orthodoxy. A person was considered pious if he made his sacrifices, paid his temple tax, did not dishonor the sanctuary, and wrote no verses of mockery about the gods.” He concludes: “It was hardly religious ardor. . . . A German’s idealism did not lie in his religion.”
Although ancient Germanic peoples believed in gods, they felt that there was actually a still higher power, one that had created the gods. This was “the power of fate,” explains author Nack, which, he says, was “not swayed by sacrifices or prayers.” Notwithstanding, fate was not viewed as “blindly arbitrary,” since it operated in accordance with natural laws. So a person was viewed as “a free agent, not a victim.”
Germanic religion had its roots in nature. Sacrifices were often held outdoors, in groves and forests. A Germanic myth speaks of a cosmic tree called Yggdrasill, where the gods daily held court. The Encyclopedia of Religion describes it: “[It rose] to the sky, and its branches spread over the entire world. . . . The symbolism of the tree is . . . mirrored in other traditions. In ancient Babylonia, for example, a cosmic tree, Kiskanu, grew in a holy place. . . . In ancient India, the universe is symbolized by an inverted tree. . . . [But] there is no proof of any Judeo-Christian element in the concept of Yggdrasill.”
In view of this background, it is not surprising that in countries that have been strongly influenced by Germanic religion, people are often fatalistic, not very religious, and prone to say: ‘Nature is my god!’ It is also understandable that many of the pagan customs Germanic religion introduced into Christendom are nature-oriented. Christmas customs, such as using lights and mistletoe, burning the Yule log, or displaying a Christmas tree, are just a few examples.
Meanwhile, in the East
Always at odds with the Western church, the Eastern church was not at peace with itself either, as illustrated by the iconoclastic controversy. Icons, differing from the three-dimensional images, such as statues common in the Western church, are religious images or pictures on a flat surface, including raised work. They generally depict Christ, Mary, or a “saint.” They became so popular in the East that, according to John S. Strong of Bates College, they came “to be viewed as direct mirrors or impressions of the figures they represented, [and] . . . were thus thought to be filled with sacred and potentially miraculous power.” Nevertheless, in the early eighth century, Byzantine emperor Leo III prohibited their use. The controversy was not finally settled until 843 C.E., since which time the use of icons has been sanctioned in the Eastern church.
Another example of Eastern disunity comes from Egypt. While some Egyptian Catholics spoke Coptic, others spoke Greek, the two language groups disagreeing on the nature of Christ. Even though Byzantine authorities refused to admit it, this led to the de facto existence of two separate churches. All the while, each faction tried to maneuver one of its bishops into the position of patriarch of Alexandria.
Today, the Eastern church is still divided. Some churches of Eastern rite, known as Uniates, accept, for example, the jurisdiction of Rome’s pope. The Eastern Orthodox Churches and the so-called lesser Eastern churches, on the other hand, do not.
Like Sheets of Fire
Long before the unholy, scarcely Roman non-Empire ended, “a legacy of hatred of Christians for other Christians had been implanted deep in the hearts of the Christian East,” says Anglican churchman Waddams. Certainly, the sin of “Christian” hating “Christian,” even if committed in darkness, did not go unnoticed in heaven but was as obvious as sheets of fire.
Furthermore, Christendom’s sin of a divided house did not go unnoticed on earth. For example, a certain outstanding Arab of the seventh century C.E., who “knew a good deal about Christianity from his travels and from people close to him,” says clergyman Waddams, was not impressed by “the disputes which he observed among Christians.” This man sought a way better than the one offered by disunited Christendom. Did he find it? Today in 1989, fully 17 percent of the world population champion his cause. Who this man was and how he felt about “Submitting to God’s Will” our next issue will answer.
[Map on page 24]
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At the fall of the Roman Empire (476 C.E.), Christendom was divided under six competing bishops—Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Salamis (Cyprus)
[Picture on page 23]
An icon (religious image) of Jesus and Mary
Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.