The Politics of Dissent

Name and Place for Tuesday, December 2 (’14)


This is how most of us imagine the typical medieval day. Am I right?

I’ve been trying to work through Norman Cantor’s The Civilization of the Middle Ages. I’m not sure if Cantor is a Christian. His early sections on the origins of Christianity are decidedly liberal, pitting Paul against Jesus and other such silliness. But here’s an interesting quote speaking of the early centuries of the church in the era of its new-found legality and political clout. I’m not really capable of analyzing how fair and accurate his characterization here is, but in the spirit of “just tossing it out there,” I post it for your consideration. The part I was mainly interested in was the third paragraph, but I’m posting a bit more for context:

“Despite its rapid and decisive transformation from a spiritual brotherhood into an authoritarian organization, the church never abandoned its doctrines of love, faith, inner spirituality, and self-sacrifice. Ambiguities appeared within Christianity and were perpetuated, as Christian ethics and theology came (at least potentially) into conflict with the church’s public policy. Remnants or vestiges of the early, antiestablishment attitudes of the underground church survived in the institutional church, and that conflict has made the history of Christianity noble, agonizing, and complex. Most of the vast, prolific writings of the church fathers reflect the accommodation of the church to the Roman state, but there are fragments of dissent and rebellion that became important later on. The rebellions of the later Middle Ages took their primary inspiration from the New Testament, but they also exploited strains of antiauthoritarianism within the patristic writings.

“It is complexity – or ambiguity – that gives the western church (and western civilization) its special character. Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and others were great men whose lives and thoughts were not simple or polarized. Their doctrines, like those of their contemporaries, tend to be conservative, to compromise with the world, but the minor strain of dissent – of liberation from the prevailing order – became important in western Europe.

“Dissent existed only in the Latin church; in Greek Orthodoxy, the emperor was the head of the church, and the church served the state. Byzantium and its Orthodox religion became a symbolic union. Temple and palace were one and the same, as they had been in the Near Eastern monarchies since the third millennium B.C. In the East, the only available form of dissent was mysticism, which was of no particular benefit to society. Mysticism, like drugs, offers personal escape from intolerable circumstances. It was a strong movement within the Byzantine church, but it was never translated into religious reform, revolution, or social change. The Greek church opposed the state only when the emperor directly attacked the church (as in the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries). Only in the Latin church (and only in European civilization) was there any attempt to apply morality to society, to create a new moral order and a better world – the kingdom of God in society, as well as in men’s souls” (69).

One thought on “The Politics of Dissent

  1. I most like his statement of the effect of mysticism being an escape from an intolerable situation. Perhaps that is the reason behind the rise of mysticism (“I’m a spiritual person”) in the post-modern West, that has no propositional truth outside itself, which is of course intolerable.  Jimmy McGuire


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