Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Views of the world

Greetings as we move closer to Holy Week and the retelling of the story of Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection. My class in ancient Christianity is soon to deal with the radical change in the attitide of the government of the Roman Empire toward Christians, from their being a persecuted Jewish sect to becoming an imperial church, embraced and supported by the rulers. Many changes were taking place during these times, and I would like to highlite one in this blog.

To the right is a picture which has greeted me from my first day in Egypt in the office of Graduate Studies. It is a graffic reminder of a church movement in late antiquity where men and women fled from the distractions of this world to seek a closer communion with God. Through a stern discipline of renouncing all worldly pleasures, and even pursuing a life without a spouse and children, a person, either alone or sometimes in small groups, would live away from civilization. It was hoped that by this means, one's attention would be focused solely on things "spiritual". A book introduced by Helen Waddell, called "The Desert Fathers", records many stories of people who abandoned this world, while awaiting their journey to the next.

We have just finished examining martyrdom in the early church, the ultimate way of renouncing this world. You can review what I wrote in a previous blog spot about Felicity and Perpetua, two martyrs in North Africa. Historians also point to other signs in the period of late ancient history when there existed a "weariness" and a fatalism with regard to this life and this world. But it was not always the case.
In the last vain hope by the pagan Roman world to suppress and destroy Christianity, and to recover the glories of ancient Rome, the Emperor Diocletion instituted a great persecution of the believers beginning in 284 CE. He also supported the program of a fine scholar named Porphyry who advocated the philosophy of Neo-Platonism. This philosophy was even attractive in ways to some Christian scholars such as Origen and Augustine, though it had no place for Christ as the saviour of the world through his sacrifice on the cross. It did help Christians to talk about the way that the divine God communicated with the material world through the concept of the Logos (and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. John 1:14).
Porphyry asserted something more. He was an heir of the noble art forms of ancient Greece and Rome. So he taught that we can know something of the divine nature and essence (its beauty and goodness) by emanations of the spiritual world in the physical world, i.e. the created world, (though these are only imperfect copies). Things of the earth can in some ways give us glimpses of what lies beyond, and the art which humans create also lifts the human spirit toward these noble concepts of beauty and truth.
The second picture in this blog is probably familiar to you. Michelanglo, the gifted artist of the Italian Renaissance (he lived most of the 16th century) was attracted to this Neo-Platonic philosophy of Porphyry, and there was even a Platonic Academy established by the de Medici, a rich merchant family in Florence. Michelangelo wished to glorfy God in his art, and believed that the celebration of and creation of beauty in art lifted us into the spiritual realm. Michelangelo was one of those who ushered in the era we now call modern, which sought to recapture the art and architecture of the ancient pagan world.
I thought you might be interested in these contrasting views of the world and how they are expressed in art. David here appears poised and confident as he looks to the threat of the giant Goliath, and is armed with only a sling and stones. Michelangelo wanted this also to symbolize his city Florence, as it fought for its survival and advancement in that troubled age. It represented a recovery (Renaissance means rebirth) of a celebration of and confidence in the human spirit and what it could accomplish through human efforts in this world.
May God's spirit move among us in this season to renew our spirits.
A blessed Holy Week and Easter to all.
Roger R.

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