Fr. John Strickland is an Orthodox Christian priest and historian. Author of
The Making of Holy Russia and creator of the
Paradise and Utopia book series, podcast, and blog, he recently spoke with Benjamin Boivin about his latest volume, The Age of Utopia. (You can read a review of the series here.) This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Boivin: Paradise and Utopia is an ambitious intellectual undertaking which you have been working on for quite a while. It is not only a series of books but also a podcast and even a blog. What inspired you to create this series and how has the process gone so far?
I think the main motive for it was that when I was trained and studied history at secular universities, I always felt like the people who surrounded me – good people, my professors included but also my fellow graduate colleagues – were really never very interested in the Christian dimension, the Christian background to Western civilization. When I started teaching – I've been teaching for about 25 years or more now – I started trying to bring that Christian insight, that Christian perspective to the history of the West.
I am a member of the Western civilization. I grew up in America from birth and was raised in Southern California. I was Protestant, and I later converted to Orthodox Christianity; I feel completely Western. I live in the Puget Sound region near Seattle. You can't get more Western than that on the map!
I think it's really worth spending some time thinking about what role Christianity – especially, in my vocabulary, traditional Christianity – played in the long-term formation of Western civilization. There is so much talk today about the crisis of Western values, the loss of a Christian underpinning to our society and culture, and a lot of people have spent time looking at certain events which are important events but which I don't think capture the main issue. Those events include things like the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies, the so-called Enlightenment of the 18th century, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Some of them go back as far as the late medieval period, with the rise of nominalism and its effects on the way people think in the West.
But I wanted to go back to something much more fundamental than any of those events, and that is the Great Schism, the separation of East and West, back in the 11th century formally, though it was a long time coming and took a long time to finally get worked out. I wanted to go back and see if that wasn't the key to understanding some, if not a lot, of the trouble we see today in our society that begs for a Christian solution, a Christian answer.
One of the main features of your books is that they tell a story of the Western world from a distinctly Eastern – as in Eastern Orthodox – perspective. What are some of the main blind spots of the Western narrative, from your point of view?
Having grown up in the West as a Christian, there were really only two forms of Christianity that had any impact on our culture. One was Roman Catholic, the more traditional and ancient, and one was Protestant, which, developing more recently, looked to the first century and the times of the Apostles for its inspiration.
Both of these are excellent perspectives on Christianity in the West. But I think the blind spot you ask about is that there is a third perspective, and that perspective is largely unknown in the West. Often people simply don't know that there is something called the Orthodox Church and that for a thousand years – for the first millennium – there was unity between what became known as the Orthodox Church in the East and what became known as the Roman Catholic Church in the West, and later Protestant churches. I think the blindspot is that we simply don't know about, and haven't been trained to take interest in, that first millennium.
When I first came into contact with the work you do, I was immediately intrigued by the two main concepts you make use of to interpret Western history. Those are, of course, “paradise” and “utopia”. Can you tell us more about their meaning in the context of your work?
Any historical account takes some liberty in trying to create interpretative devices for the vast range of historical experiences that we're talking about in any given historical narrative. These are interpretative devices that I think help me, and hopefully my readers, understand a little bit better and organize the historical material, the historical data.
What I do there is that I'm really looking at culture. I should emphasize that. This is at some level a Church history – as distinct from political history, economic history, military history, etc. At some level it is, of course, because for at least 1500-1600 years, it was members of the Church, self-conscious leaders of a variety of Church bodies, who were influencing the culture of the West. But it's really designed more as a cultural history, if that distinction can be made.
For instance, I'm not taking so much time talking about the administrative or the doctrinal developments or expressions of Christianity over the ages. I'm really trying to focus on whatever doctrinal, administrative, or other elements of Christianity influenced the way the culture of the West was shaped and formed.
And to that end, my conclusion is that in the first millennium, we can talk about a culture that was “paradisiacal”. I use that term in its adjectival form – related to paradise, understood as an experience of the Kingdom of Heaven. I define Christendom 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.
I think one of the really interesting, under-discussed, and neglected features of our debate about what is going on in our culture today is that it's often taken for granted that Christianity represents a kind of anti-world, anti-terrestrial, anti-earthly point of view, that Christianity is about life after death, something beyond this world. Of course Christ entered this world to preach a Kingdom that is not of this world, and this is absolutely true in that respect. But it's also true that the Gospel of John, for instance, while speaking of the world as something that hates Christ and will hate his disciples as well, is also something that God loved so much that He gave to it His only begotten Son. The world is something that God loves.
Nevertheless, this world is being transformed. Christ says. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). So my conviction as a Christian is that we really are called to acknowledge and even to emphasize the transformative elements of Christianity in this world, to the extent that we would experience the Kingdom of Heaven in it, even as we are on our way out of it, as it were.
That is, I think, what Christianity is trying to do: to bring people into contact with the Kingdom of Heaven even when they are living in this world. That was culturally creative, and what it created was a paradisiacal culture: a culture that was centred upon liturgy, upon worship, upon the assembly of the Body of Christ on a regular basis. A culture where patterns of timekeeping, for example – the daily cycles, weekly cycles, annual cycles of time – were transformed into an experience of the Kingdom of Heaven in this world.
Liturgy began to make use of time; the sacraments made use of the physical creation – the bread, the wine, the oil, the water, and so forth. The whole cosmos was being transfigured or transformed by the presence of the Body of Christ within it, assembled together in worship, in sacramental communion. This brought about a transformation of the world, a heavenly transformation of the world that had a paradisiacal element to it.
The second interpretative device here, utopia, is my way of understanding what happened with secularization, what happened to lead us today to a view of the cosmos in which the Kingdom of Heaven, paradise, is no longer really a point of cultural reference.
My way of understanding is shaped by a lot of historical studies that talk about certain elements of piety in the period from the 11th century to the 14th century, the High Middle Ages. Many Western scholars historically have spent a lot of time talking about new patterns of piety, new patterns of culture, new patterns even of Christian practice and faith.
I think of Rachel Fulton, for example, and other scholars as well that have spent a lot of time trying to understand what they perceived as a really dramatic change in the culture and piety of the West by the 14th century. So I picked up on this work that is being done by all sorts of Western scholars. I look at that, and I see a weakening of the paradisiacal culture.
I don't say it was replaced, and I want to emphasize that. In the West after the Great Schism, there was a continuation of the paradisiacal culture, and it continues today strongly in the Roman Catholic Church, and also in the Protestant churches, certainly in certain ways. I think today we can see a lot of emphasis on recovering more traditional patterns of worship in the Roman Catholic Church. That is a theme that one sees out there for sure, and I think that all of that is, if I may, a tapping into first millennium patterns of worship that did continue beyond the Great Schism but that might've been weakened over the course of modern times as other elements were emphasized in worship.
Along with all the scholarship that's out there, I do see some changes taking place. Once that change takes place, the very positive, affirmative cosmology – view of the world – that I call paradisiacal – which involves also a very positive or optimistic view of man – that was very characteristic of first millennium Christendom, begins to weaken.
Other elements enter into the culture of the West that are more pessimistic in character. What begins to happen is an anthropological pessimism, a pessimism about the human condition in this world, which becomes more and more apparent in the West during this period of time. That creates problems that have to be solved because Christendom is historically a unitary, ancient civilization with a supporting culture that directs its members towards the heavenly transformation of the world.
The solution is the following: If it is increasingly difficult to find an experience of heavenly transformation in the culture that I'm living within, in the piety that's become more and more influential, then I am going to find a solution, an alternative to that heavenly transformation.
The main person I look at here, from the 14th century, is Petrarch, whose writings are full of anguish, full of angst and anxiety about his spiritual condition, about his relationship with God, about a lot of things. He is, of course, known as the father of humanism, and he breaks from that pattern to begin to celebrate an experience of transformation that is secular, that is related to this world by itself.
Now, Petrarch was a pious Roman Catholic intellectual. He never called Christianity into question at all. But, nevertheless, he created a pattern of thinking about culture, of living out culture, of looking at the cosmos and man's place within it, which was radically different from what had preceded it many centuries before – since Pentecost, which is where my narrative began in volume one.
In the beginning of my volume three, Petrarch pioneers a new cosmology: a secular cosmology that really appeals suddenly to a lot of intellectuals in the 14th century and going into the 15th century (the so-called Quattrocento
, the Italian Renaissance) and beyond that. That's the key. It's when we get this humanism which focuses on man's place in the saeculum
, in secular culture, that opens up a new model for transformation that can be called utopia
, and that's where utopia now takes the place of paradise as the organizing principle for Western culture.
As we know, the unity of the Christian Church – East and West – was broken by the Great Schism of 1054. What are some of the fundamental elements that, in your view, came to distinguish Western and Eastern Christianity?
I'm coming at the history of the West from an Eastern point of view. That's what I'm trying to provide here: an Eastern view of what the West once was. What I see is that there was a transformational imperative that can be discerned, measured, and documented in the first millennium. I think there's no question about this. I root it in liturgy and sacramental life, but I see it in much more than that. I see it in government, I see it in art, I see it in iconography for sure. People of Western Christendom experienced their culture in a transformational way, insofar as the Kingdom of Heaven entered into it and transformed their experience of it.
How this went forward after the 11th century is the question that I raise in volume two, The Age of Division
. What I see, coming from an Orthodox Christian point of view, is that there begins to appear – in addition to what I call a metamorphocentric
, or transformation-centred, experience and piety – a stavrocentric
, or crucicentric
, one: one centred on the Cross.
Now, many historians speak about the crucicentric culture of the High Middle Ages. There is a real attention, a focus on one limited and defined element of Christ's ministry, which was his death on the Cross, and then an imaginative meditation on that that inspires emotional responses in the individual, especially responses of compassion and co-suffering with Christ in his agony on the Cross.
That stravrocentric element becomes more and more emphatic, more and more common in the West. That helps me understand how we get to a point where someone like Petrarch, or beyond Petrarch, can agonize over their place in this world and its real meaning – if it has any meaning whatsoever – if what living in this world really brings about is this affective piety where we're using emotions and our imagination to think about Christ's suffering and not experiencing the larger picture.
Metamorphocentrism never excluded the Cross at all; the Cross is absolutely central to any traditional Christian understanding of things. But the stavrocentric approach began to minimize or ignore the metamorphocentric approach. The result of this, I think, is that it created a kind of crisis that people like Petrarch felt obligated to resolve by looking not at a paradisiacal culture but at a utopian one.
Many would argue that the period which is covered is The Age of Utopia – from the Renaissance through the Russian Revolution – marks the disappearance of Christendom, but you don't. Why?
Many people talk about Christendom in a very limited way. I think that's a mistake. As Christians living in the modern West, I think we should claim our civilization as Christendom. I think that's important, almost as a first step, for us to recover a culture that is healthy, vital, and productive.
A lot of people look at Christendom as a civilization in which Christianity prevails; it's the air that everyone breathes, the kind of uniform culture that one might find in the High Middle Ages, for instance. I don't think that's the most effective or helpful way of using the term Christendom.
I define Christendom as a civilization with a supporting culture that directs its members toward the heavenly transformation of the world, but then, after the rise of humanism, toward a secular transformation of the world. There is no way to understand the modern mania for transformation – for secular transformation: progressivism, revolutions, and the many other forms it takes – without putting it in the context of and linking it inseparably from the Christendom of the first millennium and beyond, in fact the Christendom of the first 1600 years.
We can think of our civilization as maintaining this value placed on the transformational imperative that originated at Pentecost, that was worked out for three centuries even before there was a Christian state. For three hundred years, from Pentecost to Constantine, there was no Christian state; Christianity was often illegal and persecuted, and yet, historians have pointed out it was an extremely successful, influential cultural force.
If we use a model of Christendom from the first three centuries, rather than one in which the state protects some form of Christianity and everyone is a member of some Christian body, I think we see our culture today in a different light. And I think that that's helpful.
Yes, I do think that we live in a culture that can be called Christendom, but I call it a post-Christian Christendom. It's still Christendom; it was still the product of traditional Christianity during that first millennium. Many of the basic contours and values we have today, we inherit from that, though it is post-Christian.
You have described “secular humanism” as having replaced Christianity – what you call reformational Christianity – in the Western world. What is this secular humanism? And what are some of its most notable fruits?
We have all of that salvific energy that Christendom cultivated in its membership, in its population, directed no longer toward heavenly ends but toward secular ends. The result is the proliferation of a civilization that is the modern West. I have to say that a great amount of this, I love.
I mean, we would not have some of my favourite classical composers of the 19th century, from Beethoven to Wagner to Tchaikovsky, without humanism and its secular imperative. I love classical music, for instance, but we could look at the rise of the novel and so many different things. We could look at the government; we could look at the Civil Rights Movement. We could look at so many other elements of progress at a purely secular, non-salvific level that are the result of this energy being released, or rather, diverted, redirected toward the saeculum.
“Disoriented” is a term I like to use as well in my broad conception of the history of Christendom. Orientation, of course, literally means, in the Latin, “facing east”. Orientation is not just knowing which way to go: freshman orientation in college or work orientation on your first day of employment. Orientation is facing the east, quite literally, facing paradise for Christians, facing the Kingdom of Heaven. After all, paradise was planted "in the East" (Genesis 2:8).
What happens with secular humanism is that the energy and cultural creativity of the West gets re-oriented from paradise to utopia. I think, for Christians, the only way of understanding that, of interpreting it and evaluating it, is to call it disorientation: looking towards something that is not paradise, that is not salvific, and investing one's life and one's being in those things.
This is why we get crises like the Romantic Movement, where you've got these kind of maniacal poets, painters, and composers, sometimes on the verge of suicide because they are trying to invest themselves in something transformative that can't save, that can't provide Western men, Western humanity, with salvation.
In the third volume, I also raise the whole question of transcendence, the disenchantment of the modern world and the efforts to find alternative forms of transcendence that are not what Christianity offered historically.
I start the narrative for The Age of Utopia
with Petrarch on Mount Ventoux in Southern France, having an experience of the glory of the secular world, although one that is modified by his reading of Saint Augustine there at the top of the mountain, one of his famous little works.
And at the end of the story, we are with Stalin on top of Lenin's tomb, under very different circumstances but still with this sense of triumph, this sense of the glorious possibilities that the world offers to secular humanism. Petrarch and Stalin are very different people for sure but with a similar, very comparable tension, and that is very disturbing for sure. I'm working right now on volume four, and I'm just now starting my account of the Soviet Union under Stalin.
I end the third volume with him just coming to power, but now in the final volume, The Age of Nihilism
, I'm going to talk about how that power manifested and played itself out in the Soviet Union. I think that's why it emerges as that kind of demonical political force in the world that other powers in the world that don't have a lot of Christian influence – maybe China is an example – borrow from. But the West is the powerhouse of Nazism, of Stalinism, and other things as well that became really demonic in their use of this secular transformational imperative.