It should be readily apparent to most that Christianity no longer has the popular cultural sway it had even a generation ago. Moreover, the faith is not even united within itself, with dozens of larger denominations and thousands of independent churches, a variety of creeds, and even entirely different and incompatible understandings of faith, salvation, sin, and repentance. Saint Vincent of Lérins, writing in the early 5th century, in qualifying both what the core of Christianity is, and what it is not, gave his maxim: “Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” What then was it that Christians of that time believed? What did Christianity look like in its first thousand years, and might an understanding of that early ethos inform increasingly embattled Christians today?
John Strickland, in The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millenium, presents both a history of the first millennium of Christianity and what those first Christians believed, and an argument that the loss of that early vision says much about the culture wars of today. The first significant divergences in Christian belief and practice (which would culminate in the Great Schism of 1054) need to be understood both in the context of the preceding centuries, and in their implications for the further fracturings that would ripple from the Reformation through the cultural crisis of the collapse of Christian faith and cultural influence of today.
What was fundamentally “believed everywhere, always, by all” for the first millennium of Christianity, argues Strickland, was that the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus and his disciples, and proclaimed loudly with Jesus’s resurrection, was neither distant in time, nor distant in space from our own world, nor remote and set apart, but immanent – that is to say near at hand and present already about us. The early Christians believed that we already lived within reach of Paradise itself, and that we could experience it (even if imperfectly) in humility and repentance.
As Strickland argues, those believers of the first millennium lived with a confidence and hope, truly making that an age of paradisiacal belief. United as they were in their beliefs, despite wars and political intrigue over what was once the Roman world, one could still at that time speak of Christendom as a single common society. As Strickland puts it in his introduction:
“Before there was a West, there was Christendom. This book tells the story of how both came to be.It is the first part of a longer history that commands our attention and respect, even though we are increasingly a people without memory of it…
But we are aware, some of us, that the West was once a civilization very different than it is now. We are aware that Christianity was once the core of that civilization, even if it coexisted with and made use of the riches of classical humanism. We are aware, finally, that if we want to reestablish strong and nourishing roots for our culture, we will need to take the Christian past seriously, for Christendom is what the West once was.”
Thus Strickland begins his narrative, taking the reader from the Book of Acts, through the Ecumenical Councils (and the various crises of faith that necessitated them), the Christianization of the Roman world, the collapse of the western empire, the new order wrought in the West by the Franks in the 8th and 9th centuries, and how the unity of the faith began to crack under political and theological pressures. At the book’s end, the reader is right on the precipice of the Great Schism, and the parting of ways between Eastern and Western Christianity that would follow in its aftermath.
In the book, Strickland argues that the paradisiacal vision of those Christians is both what sustained them through the various persecutions, and what made Christianity so attractive and transformative to the Roman world and beyond. This vision was not dimmed in either East or West by the military and political collapse of the western Empire, and it proved over time as transformative to the Germanic invaders, Celts, Slavs, and other waves of people to encounter it. Strickland compares contemporaneous Christian art and rhetoric from the furthest distant corners of Christendom, showing the commonality of practices, beliefs, and expressions, even during times when communication was nearly non-existent (a good example being the great similarities between the halo nimbus of the eastern icons, and the halo nimbus of the Celtic crosses). Though liturgical practices and language might differ from Ireland to Syria, the beliefs and the world outlooks were the same.
The relationship between Church and State was also touched by this vision, with each having their own separate parts to play. For instance, when Theodosius II brutally punished the city of Thessalonica for a rebellion in 390, Bishop Ambrose of Milan forbade the emperor from receiving the Eucharist until the emperor repented. Strickland, of course, notes that while this set a precedent, the precedent was not universally followed over the centuries, with some emperors asserting terrible control over the church, and others being more tamed by it, but the concept that an imperial ruler himself was subject to God was novel.
Yet the pressures of conquests and political intrigues in both East and West begin to pull apart the unity of the faith. Both Frankish and Byzantine emperors had their parts to play, with some attempting to rule the church and use it to impose their own notions of doctrine or culture, and others subverting it altogether. In these political machinations, the unity of the faith was sorely tested, especially as the millennium drew to a close.
The Age of Paradise is an excellent cultural and political history of the first thousand years of Christianity, and is written for a lay audience. At just under 300 pages of text, there is only so much detail that can be covered, and the author does not attempt to give every detail of every council, heresy, persecution, or controversy, but rather to present a picture of what the Church was, what it believed, and how it transformed the Roman world and beyond. It is also an argument that perhaps the reason we are facing the cultural crises we are is that we lost something of what the early faithful believed and practiced, and began to lose it a long time ago.
I should note that John Strickland is both an Orthodox priest, and a former college professor, and while he is definitely making his arguments from the Eastern Orthodox perspective, he also attempts to be scrupulously fair in analyzing the events that would lead to the sundering of Rome from the East. I have not encountered many works that either understand the schism itself, or what led up to it, and a great many more understand it only in either political or polemical terms. Strickland does a fair job in narrating the pressures of the times, and laying blame fairly for the many missteps and lost opportunities.
Nota Bene: Ancient Faith Publishing provided me with a review copy of this book.