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The confidence of friends - part 2

Following up from last weeks blog, which started as an exploration of the following question, I advance an hypothesis of how 'the Establishment' seriously sidetracked Christianity far from its original message, and conclude that the most important source of power for the individual in any context is the community which defines them. 

The original question was: 
Do love/adoration for God and love/nurture for our fellow humans at the same time not exclude one other, almost by definition? Is a monastic approach to life (me-God) inconsistent with a participative approach to life (me-others)?

I think that Christian love is defined in terms of 'the other', just as a quark is only a quark when surrounded by the right gluons (thanks to Graham the particle physicist for this!) 

Without an 'other' it may be difficult or even impossible to love. The 'other' is not just a reflecting surface for the 'you'. The 'other' is a unique entity, which must be respected, though held at arm's length, and which gives one an alternate glimpse of God. I would assert that every human being is a shard of His many-splintered image.

Thus an approach to life which embraces others as centrally as it embraces God must be the right response to all great religious injunctions? (Certainly the history of monasticism in practically any religion is a story of obligations fulfilled and good works, often of a very societal nature, by those called personally to monastic orders, so the answer to my main question above must be no, the two are not inconsistent.) But I want to understand why this is true. 

Actually, I see the monastic tradition as not relevant to this problem at all, but something really completely different. I would assert that Christian monasticism is an archetypal relic of Christian community, a way for early Christians to band together against the non-Christian or pagan world of late Antiquity. Let me digress.

A view shared by several biblical scholars today is that monasticism is a relic of pre-Constantine Christianity, which morphed into a reaction against the state appropriation of the people-oriented, rather revolutionary early Christian faith. One could take a literal reading of the scriptures – that Christ's message was about inspiring the impoverished masses against their abusive and very hierarchical Jewish and Roman rulers. 

But I think it is more useful to take an almost neo-Bakhtinian or carnivalesquereading of it, and to consider that Christ's message was a call for individuation, for the elevation of individual consciousness from the tyranny of human rule to a mindset where the responsibility for salvation lies with oneself. (In many pre-Christian religions, the ruler usually doubles as a kind of high priest with a bit of demi-god status thrown in and who conducts the salvation ritual on behalf of all in a kind of centralized way. 

Does this sound all too familiar? In fact the Church was not the first to adopt this 'business model' of joint religious-temporal rule -- it goes back to old testament times where Jewish kings frequently officiated in the temple. 

What I am saying here is that the original, quite radical, almost Marxist ideal of individuation is the message that Christianity lost when it 'mainstreamed' in 313 under Constantine the Great's Edict of Milan. Christianity should have continued in the monastic tradition in order to maintain and defend Christ's intended ideal of radical rebellion against state-mediated communion with God. 

Instead, the post-Constantinian Church, with its revolutionary paradigm absorbed into the mainstream, had to turn to temporal rulers to underpin its spirituality. In the west the Bishop of Rome sought the support of Germanic and Norman kings, and decided to anoint Emperors falsely (such as Charlemagne) in order to maintain credibility, while the Eastern Roman church did everything in its power to maintain the pagan myth that the Emperor in Constantinople was the 13 apostle, hence elevating him (or her) to high priest/demi-god status.

In this sense Christ's revolutionary movement failed horribly at first, and the Church, as it evolved for centuries after His death, was almost identical in many ways to the joint religious-political rule (of both the Romans and the Jews) that He rebelled against in the first century.

So how does this link to Byzantium? Firstly, the monks were against Iconoclasm – mostly, I suspect, because this was something imposed from the top. Iconoclasm was an opportunity to impose control on the almost exclusively icon-worshiping monastic community across the Empire, and thereby weaken this community's potentially undermining message of poverty and self-abasement – a message which flew in the face of materialistic, state-run Christianity personified by the Emperor and his Patriarch.

And if monasticism was, at least in the Christian world, a self-perpetuating reaction to state-controlled religion, then the problem I posed earlier essentially becomes irrelevant: me-God and me-others-God are not apposite interpretations of Christ's message, and individuation becomes an essential part of community, not separate from it.

In Byzantine terms, just as the restoration of Iconoduly (Icon-worship) reaffirmed the right of individuals to participate in a “heavenly” community so too does the freedom to participate in this world, by exposing the “mirror shards” of God in others, bring both release for oneself, from a cage of empty materialism and self-obsession, as well as relief (and meaning) for others. This in itself is a form of power ... which leads me to end with Epicurus on friends:

Eνεκα τοῦ θαρρεῖν ἐξ ανθρώπων ἦν κατὰ φύσιν ἀρχῆς καὶ βασιλείας ἀγαθόν, ἐξ ὧν ἄν ποτε τοῦτο οἷός τᾖ παρασκευάζεσθαι

In other words, It is not so much the help of friends that makes a leader, but the confidence of that help in times of need.  


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