Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Just what is a Christian without love?

What with all the soul-searching about paedophile priests and the role of the Pope, I find myself returning to the question of just what Christianity is about.

People have often told me that what matters in Christianity is its spirit rather than the detail of its doctrine. As St Paul told the Corinthians, ‘if I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.’ In other words, it doesn't really matter if you've penetrated the mysteries of the Trinity or they've completely defeated you, what matters is the extent to which love inspires your outlook and guides your actions.

The Archive of Melvyn Bragg’s excellent ‘In Our Time’ series on BBC Radio 4 includes an episode about the Fall of Constantinople which I find particularly instructive from this point of view.

It’s easy to think that Christianity is essentially a European religion with Latin as its traditional language. Plenty of books and films conspire to give that impression. In fact, for most of its early history Christianity was predominantly an Asian religion and its main language was Greek. Of the five great patriarchates in the Roman Empire, four were in the then Greek-speaking East: Constantinople was on the border between Europe and Asia, Antioch was in Asia Minor, Jerusalem in the Middle East, and Alexandria, in Egypt, was in North Africa close to the cusp of Asia. Only one patriarchate, Rome, was in the West.

In the seventh century, an extraordinary new wave of conquerors emerged from the Arabian Peninsula, inspired by the new religion of Islam, and swept into Western Asia and across North Africa. They took Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria in swift succession. Only Constantinople held out in the East. When Spain also fell to the Moslems, Western Christendom in turn suffered a major blow.

Faced with such a powerful threat, you’d think the two remaining Patriarchates would see the sense of hanging together to protect each other.

However, Rome was upset that Constantinople wouldn’t accept its primacy within the Church. It made a great deal of an ideological dispute concerning Constantinople’s refusal to follow Rome in adding the words ‘and from the son’ to the end of the Nicene creed, making it read ‘… the holy spirit that proceeds from the Father and from the son’. In the East, the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone; in the West from the Father and the Son. This led to great debates about a triangular view or a linear view of the Trinity.
The Trinity as seen by the Church in the East (left) and West.
A difference worth thousands of lives and the loss of the Christian heartland?

Now I’m convinced that the difference between these two views is absolutely vital in some key way that escapes me. However, it strikes me that it’s less important than hanging onto a toehold at the edge of your Continent against a common enemy.

So how did the protagonists behave? The representatives of Rome travelled to Constantinople in 1054 and, having failed to persuade the Patriarch to change his view, formally excommunicated him from the Church.

A great line in one of my favourite films, A few good men, is ‘my client's a moron, that's not against the law.’ What’s more, and this is one of the great arguments against all racism, being a moron isn’t limited to any one race or group or creed, and it’s just as common at the top of great organisations – for instance, among princes of the Church – as anywhere else. So the Eastern Church reacted with exactly the same level of maturity and Christian love as the delegates from Rome, excommunicating them in return.

The subsequent split in Christendom, which came to be known as the Great Schism, has persisted to this day, in the division between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

For the next act in this pursuit of love above all other considerations, fast forward to the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The Crusades were about seizing the former Christian territories from the Moslems. So it’s interesting that the Fourth Crusade attacked the Christian city of Constantinople and sacked it.

It did so primarily at the urging of the Venetians, a great sea power of the time, second in the Eastern Mediterranean only to Constantinople. In case you’re wondering, this was not a coincidence.

The sacking of the City, by fellow Christians, led to the break up of the remains of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire based on Constantinople. By 1453, all that was left of the Empire’s former possessions were the City itself with some of the hinterland and the Southern Peloponnese, in modern-day Greece.

In that year, the Turkish Sultan Mehmed II moved against the City, which had resisted siege after siege in the past, including one by the Ottoman Turks 30 years earlier. This time, though, the Turks had brought great guns, built with skill by their Christian subjects in Hungary. With forces estimated at up to 60,000 against 7500 defenders – 3500 of them from Western Christendom, so some people heeded that stuff about love over doctrine – and the advantage of the siege guns, they finally broke Constantinople and captured it, following up with the sacking (raping, killing and looting) which was traditional amongst all Christian, Moslem and other armies at the time. It's probably still traditional today, though you only find out about it when people are moronic enough to take photos of what they’re doing.

The rule of the Ottomans was strengthened and lasted several more centuries. They might have won anyway, but it’s pretty certain that the sacking of 1204 made it inevitable that they would: it left Constantinople without the strength to defend itself against such a threat.

Now, from the point of view of simple humanity, none of this matters very much. I don't suppose that the vast majority of people under Ottoman Turkish rule then, or under republican Turkish rule now, lived much more or less happily than people under other regimes. Obviously, many thousands died and much was destroyed in the fighting, but who’s to say that the Byzantines would not have caused as much death and destruction had they retained their Empire?

It's just ironic from the point of view of Christianity. Of course, the Western Church emerged in full and sole control of the domain still politically controlled by Christendom, producing the Western-European, Latin-based image of Renaissance Christianity that has come down to us today. Overall, however, that domain was massively reduced. In particular, Christians in the old heartland of the religion were reduced to more or less grudgingly tolerated or openly persecuted minorities.

‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal’ said St Paul. He had a point. It’s curious that the people who proclaimed their role as defenders of his message seemed to have had such trouble hearing it.


Anonymous said...

one image is worth a thousand words


Awoogamuffin said...

That sounds like an interesting episode, but I don't have it. Is it from a while back?