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From paradise to utopia

Benjamin Boivin

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Detail of The Last Judgment, a 15th-century triptych by Hans Memling (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Roman Catholic Church has a long tradition of Church history. Every generation of Catholics has felt somewhat compelled to interpret and reinterpret the long arc of human history through the lens of the Church.
Typically, though, this history is now much concerned with the development of the institutional Church and its interactions with a variety of actors, notably the state, starting with the Roman empire, as it also takes into account a number of social and cultural factors as well.
A number of modern tendencies in recent historiography have led us to a very limited and impoverished understanding of this history. One which we might not think about as much is a relative level of ignorance and disregard for the Eastern experience as the culture of the Mediterranean world was transformed by Christianity, leading to the emergence of a new civilization which we often call Christendom.
With Paradise and Utopia, Orthodox Christian priest and historian Fr. John Strickland offers an important corrective which will prove useful to any Christian's understanding of what the Church is, how it relates to Christendom, and how Christianity evolved in different ways in the West and the East starting from the Great Schism.
A major undertaking of four volumes, of which three have so far been published, Paradise and Utopia constitutes a form of Church history that is heavily rooted in cultural analysis. Through this project, Fr. Strickland hopes to provide an understanding of Western Christianity from a distinctly Eastern perspective.
One defining aspect of Strickland’s work is his concern with the notion of Christendom, which he defines as “a civilization with a supporting culture that directs its members towards the heavenly transformation of the world, by which is meant an experience of the Kingdom of Heaven in this world.”
For Fr. Strickland, Christendom's inception is to be found at Pentecost, which inaugurated a new culture and a new vision of the world. Starting from then and for a thousand years, the world was reshaped by what he calls the “Christian transformational imperative”. To put it simply, the experience of man, through culture, politics, and family, for example, was regenerated by Christianity so as to reflect on this Earth a foretaste of the Kingdom to come. The world became a newly ennobled and sacred place. This reality is best expressed, in the author's words, as the emergence of a “paradisiacal culture” in the formerly pagan Roman empire.
In the eyes of Fr. Strickland, though, there came to be a moment of rupture, following which this paradisiacal culture was somewhat weakened in the West. For him, this moment is essentially articulated around the Great Schism, starting from which Western Christianity, fueled with strong reformational ideals, came to develop a stavrocentric, or crucicentric (centred on the Cross), form of spirituality.
This observation is far from idiosyncratic and is in fact largely accepted in recent historiography. Although we could argue about its specific meaning, it is true that throughout the High Middle Ages there was much insistence on the humanity and suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was often associated with penitential forms of worship and devotion.
Fr. Strickland associates this development in Western Christianity with the influence of an anthropological pessimism, that is to say, an understanding of the nature of man as being so weakened and deeply wounded by original sin that he basically can do very little good on his own.
He contrasts this anthropological pessimism, this stravrocentric piety, which we could associate in its most radical expressions with contempt for this world, with a more optimistic understanding of the nature of man and of the world which characterized earlier centuries and, he says, subsists in the Orthodox Church. Fr. Strickland's views are nuanced, however, and he recognizes the persistence of the transformational imperative in Catholicism, and even in Protestantism for that matter, if to a lesser degree.
Strickland attributes the emergence of the Renaissance movement to the development of these particular forms of worship and piety. In his understanding, the Christian transformational imperative, weakened as it was, reemerged in an opposing secular form through humanism, which centered upon the transformation of the world without the perspective of transcendence. The end, the telos of this movement, he says, can be described as utopia, hence the title Paradise and Utopia.
Following on The Age of Paradise and The Age of Division, The Age of Utopia, the third and penultimate volume of the series, was published in late 2021. In this new book, Fr. Strickland addresses the developments of secular humanism, the Renaissance, and the so-called Enlightenment, which strove to build an earthly paradise. This, in the author’s view, constituted a disorientation of Christendom which in its various expressions led to often catastrophic results.
Turning away from Eden, looking inwards for answers, the West reunited the conditions for many of the most tragic experiences that can notably be associated with the development of ideologies. The example of socialism – a characteristically utopian political ideology which flourished in Eastern Europe throughout the 20th century with the dire consequences that we know – is probably the best expression of the predictable failures of this disorientation. It leaves us, in the words of the author, with a “post-Christian Christendom”, a culture that cannot be understood without reference to Christianity and yet has come to reject it dramatically.
We could argue with Fr. Strickland about particular aspects of this narrative, which, generous as it is, remains quite critical of the European High Middle Ages that so many have come to associate with the notion of Christendom as described by the author himself. Nevertheless, it shines a valuable light upon some of the difficulties which have led to the development of the godless culture in which we are currently submerged.
While many are tempted to ascribe these problems to relatively recent developments, Fr. Strickland audaciously points far away in the past, towards the Great Schism, as the profound tragedy from which what we may deplore really stems. If we Catholics are to develop a better understanding of this vast problem, we might very well have to do so with the help of our Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters: the Church must breathe with her two lungs!” (Saint John Paul II, 1995).
Fr. John Strickland, author of Paradise and Utopia, recently spoke with Salt + Light Media's Benjamin Boivin about the newest book in his series and the advantages of viewing Western Church history from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. Read the interview here.

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