Saturday, 8 May 2010

Possibly Counter-intuitive Eastern-Western Comparison

I mentioned earlier that a lot of my reading of late has been Greek or Greek-related. While I'm presently chugging my way through the Odyssey, I just finished this book and have jotted down some notes and thought trains which I thought I might share.

Andrew Louth (a Russian Orthodox priest who, interestingly enough, works at Durham University, Durham being the city where N.T. Wright is bishop) attempts in "Greek East and Latin West" to treat of Eastern and Western Christendom for the period in tandem. As he does so, he draws out some interesting and occasionally (at least to a Western Christian)counter-intuitive contrasts between the two. For example, looking at the monastic reforms of the eighth and early ninth centuries in both East and West, he points out that the reforms of Theodore of Stoudios were quite independent of imperial authority and, in a society and church wracked by iconoclasm, his reforms and his stubborn and principled refusal to toe the imperial line on doctrinal and ethical matters (while Constantine VI did his best to ape Henry VIII) set a precedent that allowed Eastern monasticism to attain a place in the society independent of emperor and political expediency, enabling it to counter-balance the primacy of those elements and fulfill a kind of prophetic office in the Byzantine Church, like Samuel to Saul or John the Baptist to Herod.

In the West, on the other hand, monastic reform was largely instigated and overseen by the emperor (in this case Charlemagne and then Louis the Pious) and the imperial court. It was a largely top-down affair, among other things standardising the Rule of St Benedict.

The interpretation Andrew Louth puts on this is very interesting. He says that the nature of reform in the West set later precedents for centralised reform of monasticism by bishops and/or the Pope- that, in effect, monasticism was to be ordered and controlled and always fall under some sort of central authority, to be (I think the East would see it thus) less pneumatic (in the Greek sense of the word). In the East, on the other hand, it was and is more chaotic, as we in the West might say or, as they might say, more Spirit-led and free.

What I find interesting is how contrary to the typical stereotype both pictures are. Contrary to the charge of caesaropapism often levelled at the East (which, I think it would be fair to say, has often been true generally of the episcopal hierarchy), the monks and monasteries could (and sometimes did) stand against the emperor, giving a substantial section of the Eastern Church independence from political vagaries and therefore the ability to comment on and apply the Church's teaching to the issues of the day. On the other hand, as far as the West is concerned, it is arguable that, even given the later battles to secure the Church's independence from the state, the habit of centralisation, at least as far as religious and ascetic life goes, was simply transferred from the imperial court to the Pope. It is interesting to see this tendency even now at work, with the recent papal-sponsored tour of inspection of monasteries in the U.S. (a very much needed and, indeed, long overdue initiative). The habit has become, for good or ill, ingrained.

At the same time, looking at the period in question, it is undeniable that, given the choice, one would much rather have been a Christian (and, for that matter, a Christian monk) in the West than in the East. The Eastern emperors were, at this point, hostile to orthodoxy and, largely, a liability for the Church. In the West, Charlemagne and his immediate successors were faithful, devout and orthodox Christians who were genuinely trying to foster the Church and the life of faith in their domain.

Of course, times change and what was once necessary and laudable under certain circumstances becomes unhelpful and detrimental under other circumstances. That is, I suppose, true of the approach to monasticism of both East and West. The approaches seem to have remained the same ever since, but the political and social situations which form their context are constantly changing, and either model suits certain contexts better than the other. Which, I wonder, is the better approach in our present situation?

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