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December 22, 20173307Views


Ben Shields talks to Henry Hopwood Phillips about becoming a Byzantine in the 21st century.

Ben Shields talks to Henry Hopwood Phillips about what Byzantium represents, why it’s relevant, and what becoming a Byzantine in the 21st century means to him.

BS: First I think we should touch on why Byzantium, the Greek, Eastern half of the Roman Empire, is your model of what a diverse, monocultural, Christian society should look like. Why aren’t you simply an elegist for the West, the identity of which is inextricable from Christianity? Since the Byzantines never called themselves ‘Byzantines,’ always ’Romans,’ why don’t you hold up the whole Christian Roman Empire the way you do Byzantium? I’m curious as to what you see as separating the Latin West from the Greek East, and why the latter has your heart.

HHP: Why East over West? Such a big question. To be brief, because that’s where the Roman Empire went! To expand, the further back an observer peers - let’s say roughly AD 300-800 - the more obscure the dividing line between West and East becomes. It’s why I love to deploy the term "oikoumene” like a toddler with a water-pistol. The entire (AD 300-800) period, which can be stretched to AD 1204, could quite fairly be characterised as the estrangement of the Latin and Greek minds. So, whilst the Latins became obsessed with staking out kingdoms, chasing immortal glory {pace Rosenzweig), pinning down theological legalities and, most importantly, developing a Faustian genius that looked to conquer distance, space and time, the East retained the idea of a static, sovereign imperium that respected the idea that immortality was one of God’s characteristics and not one that could be achieved by forming glory-hunting nationalisms, its theology was both more humble in refraining from asserting and petrifying into doctrine what was ultimately mystery, and also kept a more realistic assessment of its geopolitical terrain in hoping, ultimately, to conquer hearts and minds, rather than territories as the West seemed intent on doing. My own journey with Byzantium has been a long road in which I’ve untangled myself from several Western assumptions that lean on some of these “first ideological movements” if you like, with a correction from the Greek Eastern perspective.

BS: So you feel that, to its peril, the West’s Latin tendencies overshadowed its Greek ones?

HHP: Yes, basically. It’s a difficult question to answer because what we’re really talking about is not a sudden, symbolic divergence like the Great Schism (1054) but rather a very slow, civilisational alienation. The Semitic East, Greek middle and Germanic West have always possessed very different cultural DNA before Rome but by the second century AD, you could fit a cigarette paper between most of the nations because Rome did its job well. What’s interesting is that two quite cohesive geniuses, personalities or blocs are born within Rome, it gestates a future Romulus & Remus. And I think that’s quite special. One of the most interesting activities in the period of Late Antiquity is tracing the hows, whys and whens of this process. I don’t want to be on record as saying the Latins arc rubbish and the Greeks brilliant (I believe the Orthodox Church has lacked a missionary momentum for far too long, for instance), rather that our Western self-perception has lacked balance when it comes to our medieval Greek cousins.

BS: Docs Latin Christianity by nature eventually shed Christ the way that the EU has?

HHP: I don’t know but I suspect it’s a natural conclusion. A dangerous process occurs in the West that lacks a counterpart in the East. The Papacy, though theologically incorrect in trying to rise above honorific superiority, seems to have been a necessary development in that it formed a legal framework, canon law, that behaved as a Christian bulwark against the nationalisms Western people seem inclined to, that drag people away from Christ. Sadly, the cure is sometimes worse than the disease, however, as the increase in Christian legalism (with all its pride, doctrine and ossification) was foreign to a humble faith that respected that mysteries were just that. Christianity starts to shrivel up in that legal cage, instead of faith it won formulas, instead of love it achieved doctrine.

BS: Do you see capitalism, which is a system you despise, as a logical conclusion for the Latin West?

HHP: Not capitalism per se but in its twisted form, yes. My theory is that the Latin Church suffocated so much mystery in legal formulae, that the people of the West felt bound to resist in the Reformation and the Enlightenment. But they resisted not really against the soul of the Christian faith - they resisted against its body, its legal instruments (death), its regal bearing (pride) and its pretensions to knowledge (charlantry) which didn’t necessarily exist. The Enlightenment was to a certain extent right, it was a necessary correction, but it was rebelling against something that Christianity hadn’t needed to become. And what the Enlightenment ultimately did was chuck out the baby and the bathwater, replacing a corrupt Christianity not with any real Erasmus-esque striving ad fontes, but with, first, nature, then willpower, and then nothing. Which is why economy (the art of balancing power with material supply and demand), which is shorthand for capitalism, has become everything. Because we don’t have any values to assert against it that is bigger than it, apart from semi-sincere leftist slogans (which exert an alternative material model but no real spiritual one). Linked into all this is the fact the Left is, and I hold this view strongly, a bastardised version of Christianity. It’s the way most British socialists came to socialism—through Christianity. Through reading Thomas Moore’s Utopia; through loving English Civil War Digger and Leveller literature; through Ruskin, Morris and chums - I call it the Christopher Hill route.

BS: Byzantine values seem to be, in your view, the antithesis of the bloated and secularized European Union. But by some scholars’ lights, the Byzantine world had a crippling bureaucracy of its own. Is your love of Byzantium mostly a spiritual-cultural one, or do you extend your admiration for it to the administrative and bureaucratic level?

HHP: The European Union ultimately sits exactly where the logic of the West has taken it: power for power’s sake with very little rationale that is not technocratic/parasitic - that is to say, it has no cultural momentum other than working out the details of the death of the Christian culture from which it sprang.

Bureaucracy, not money, makes the world go round because money doesn’t operate properly/smoothly in a vacuum, therefore I’ve no real animus against the former. Byzantine
bureaucracy, however much it must have crippled certain aspects of life, still had a demos (the faithful) and directly or indirectly pursued an aim that every paid up Byzantine would have subscribed to: the quest for the Kingdom that Jesus promised (Matt 3:2). On the contrary, the EU can claim neither a people nor an end for itself.

BS: Should the West turn to the Byzantines, as you suggest, and reverse its descent into a Spenglerian Winter, how shall the Church and State relate to one another? Byzantium was, of
course, a theocracy, yet you don’t strike me at all as a theocrat! When we last spoke, you talked about the need for Christianity to start again in house churches like it did in first century Judea and Galilee. Putting religion in the private sphere seems like it would pull it further away from the state’s line of sight, but a neo-Byzantium must in some way put Christian values at its helm. In short, just how separated arc Church and State in your vision of the 21st century West?

HHP: Only an idiot would seek to resuscitate Byzantium as it was configured between the fourth and fifteenth centuries. That said, we had a Patriarch and an Emperor during the Byzantine period - is the relationship between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister really a million miles from it? I’m not really concerned with the outer forms of things. If I had to gamble, I suspect a future Christian renaissance will resemble less the Church of the mid-later Byzantine period with its wily, politicking and perfumed bishops, than the Church of Paul with its early tensions, smelly house churches and crazy-eyed stylites. When the state demands the same as its people and fails, many things can be forgiven, however, today the leaders of the state have more in common with other leaders than with their constituents, Byzantium 2.0 would reconnect the two.

BS: How will these house churches reconnect leaders with their constituents? Is that because diverse social classes would be in the house churches?

HHP: It goes back to how the Enlightenment threw out this bastardized version of Christianity that pretended to knowledge it didn’t have and left capitalism in its place. What it means is we all live alongside each other, but only in the way that battery hens live alongside one another. We’re not joined to one another other en masse by anything other than the dead weight of history and a non- living tradition. What I’m getting at with these house churches is, I think when a lot of people go to church, at the moment, they see a lot of the deadweight of tradition and history and they don’t see a living faith. They see the pomp and ceremony but they don’t see a striving friendship group with beliefs, which is what Christianity started out as.

The lack of connections between one another is reflected in government too. We’re connected only in the absence of connections. And so we’re fine with there being no ideology; we don’t want Islamism, we don’t want communism etc. We don’t want demands. We’re basically Nietzsche’s “Last Man”. We’re happy with capitalism because it allows everyone to think about nothing. But it forces us to think about nothing, really. Capitalism could perhaps be an engine of true freedom, treating God and Man as ends in themselves (I’m unsure how much capitalism has an intrinsically evil core, and how much of it is merely a mechanism that reflects ourselves) but most of its strongest forces over the past few centuries appear centripetal (requiring the absorption of ever greater peripheries to stay stable). They collapse a person in on his or her own material concerns, fantasies, and a bewildering amount of impulses few know whether to entertain as serious or not. This creates a divided man, and a house divided against itself cannot stand (Mk 3:25). The West is full of healthy people living out the most protracted spiritual deaths. It’s why things like yoga have taken off in Western capital cities, its enlightenment-lite narcissism takes the edge off day-to- day vapidity.

House churches are the closest thing to a glue that will dissolve this attitude and reform bonds that mean we genuinely help each other out on a micro-level and genuinely care about our body politic, our commonwealth, on a macro-level. I think, not even in a just, perfect and ideal Christian state, but if only half-way there, governments wouldn’t need a welfare state. This isn’t some fantastical statement, I see it in many fast-developing East Asian countries I visit. David Cameron tried to appeal to a “Big Society” in UK six years ago, but few people commit themselves to hardships for the sake of platitudes and empty slogans - not even naive Britons. There must be a vision, a truly believed one: one like the Christian story.

BS: Let’s talk about education. In a neo-Byzantine society, to what model ought we turn to? A Classical education was big in Byzantium, and what we have left of Classical literature is largely because of what the Byzantines elected to preserve. Is a Classical education what the Western person needs today, or do you see that as a moribund model in the same way you do congregational churches?

HHP: In many ways the West still provides the best education in the world. Other cultures have insisted on creating a story and then making the facts fit. The Reformation and Enlightenment put paid to that tendency in the West. However, the civilisation has lost touch with the fact almost every single one of its systems requires a ‘value input’ at some juncture and each one is formed from a secular residue of past religious assumptions. This means we are living on borrowed time culturally-speaking because each generation becomes more brave in throwing more historical judgments under the bus and replacing them with either nothing or infantile, disposable laws Pace Tacitus (nobody demonstrates this tendency more than the manner in which Tony Blair treated the British constitution). It’s my belief, and it is just that—a belief, not a morsel of wisdom or knowledge—that the modern stalks of thought can be replanted in Christian understanding, and seek the sun’s knowledge together without jettisoning the fundamentals of the other. Paul’s reinvention of the Law as a covenant of Love has always allowed movement within Christianity about what it stands for. It is emphatically not a static faith.

BS: Whose is the Byzantine-era mind that you most admire?

HHP: That is such a difficult question. Not because I can’t think of one—I would say Michael Psellos—but first, because Byzantine intellectual culture was oddly corporate in character (perhaps due to ecclesiastical and court influence) and second, many minds fail to stand out because we see being merely a repository of wisdom as inferior to pioneering (though Byzantines did plenty of latter especially in the fields of military technology and architecture). But this is to do a disservice to historical context. To the East we must not forget that the beginning of 11th century represents the apex of Islamic thought and Byzantium should have folded in the 8th century, under military pressure from the Caliphate. Yet it didn’t. And to its West, all the great Italian cities, bar Venice (a crypto-Byzantine city) have become diminutive, mercantile towns, the great cathedral schools were only just getting on their feet, and the closest thing the West could produce to Psellos is their creme dc la creme, Pope Sylvester II (famous for trying to bring West up to speed with Greek and Arabic innovations). Stuck between a rock (Islamic ex oriente lux) and a hard place (darkness in the West), Psellos shines as the original Renaissance man. When the civilisational outlook is bleak, we have a
Roman on stage writing history, geography, physics, music etc. and, what’s more, is in that irritatingly Byzantine way, serenely pious.

BS: What’s a lesson or two from Byzantium’s failures that we must glean in order to proceed as a neo- Byzantine society?

HHP: Byzantium is perfectly capable of leaving a bad taste in the mouth. It effectively surrendered its naval power and mercantile fleet when it should have persevered on both fronts in the 11th century. This was not a one-off policy mistake; it was repeated by an incredible number of generations “in purple” over a number of centuries. Perhaps two more frustrations arc worth venting. First that the pressure was never kept on the Anatolian frontier with Islam (from at least Constantine X onwards), and so the initiative eventually inevitably fell to the Crescent. Second, when all the dominoes were falling before the Ottomans, the Byzantines and Bulgarians failed to unite meaningfully in spite of the marriage of Keratsa (daughter of the Bulgarian Tsar) to Emperor Andronikos IV. In other words, there’s a slow but tangible lack of forward-thinking, an unwillingness to going on the offence, and an evaporation of general will-power as the Empire grinds down its gears.

BS: You’ve said that Byzantine Society is founded upon three pillars: the Greek intellect, Roman law, and a Hebrew soul. Tell us how, exactly, this fusion occurred. In your reading of Byzantine history, how quickly did it occur, and under whose leadership did it happen? Because initially, Byzantium was pagan, and then non-persecuting of Christians even as it was still cultural pagan. Is there a moment that you see in Byzantine cultural history when those three pillars cement themselves?

HHP: First, the Hebrew soul smuggled some of its ideas into the West via Neoplatonism and some of the mystery cults in the third century. Perhaps the key moment on this front was when Constantine was educated by a Christian teacher, Lactantius, as a princely hostage at the court of Diocletian. Second, the Greek intellect digested parts of the Hebrew theology in the Byzantine patristic era via men such as Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrios Pontike, Dionysios the Pseudo- Areopagite and Maximos the Confessor. Finally, Roman Law’s adaptation, though more glacial was also more permanent: it ameliorated the lot of slaves, stopped affording the mistress of a man legal recognition, made acquiring divorce much more difficult, advanced the position of women as property-owners, and in general absorbed a conscience we can still recognise and appreciate today.

BS: You’ve a great penchant for philosophy and critical theory, and use it a lot in your cultural critiques, such as your recent bit on Heidegger. But what about theology? Late Antiquity’s
theologians and spiritual debaters like Augustine and Plotinus brought rigorous spiritual debate in a changing religious landscape. Reading the piece in The Byzantine Times about the evolution of Christology made me wonder what kinds of theological debates we need to be having right now, as church attendance drops and secularisation’s own hollow theology is spreading everywhere in Western culture.

HHP: We must start initiating big and hard debates on what it means to be a Christian immersed in a living tradition in the C21st (an interesting one might be why several Christian traditions are failing to attract more men for example). Christians have got into one of three terrible habits: first, pretending that being Christian is cultural baggage, a sort of embarrassing relic you have carry with you like a tawdry crucifix on a necklace hidden behind a shirt; effectively a historical burden to bear but nothing to take too seriously. Second, making the argument that the faith is basically apolitical. Third, making the case that liberalism best encapsulates Christianity’s message.

All three are wrong. The first is an apostate. As regards the second, I distrust Christians who do not like governments to reflect Christian truths. The first martyrs did not argue that their deaths were unnecessary; they did not develop a form of Islamic "taqiya" or dissimulation that saw politics as superficial or irrelevant; quite the opposite, the Early Church frothed with Donatism and other matters of spiritual cleanliness. The third is perhaps the most insidious because it contains veins of truth. Liberalism is an extension of Christianity (Siedentop, Making of the Individual, 2014) and shares many of its beliefs but the Bible can hardly be reduced to Locke nor vice versa.

BS: Let’s touch on katabasis. You mentioned it in “How to Pray Like a Byzantine” as a process of delving deeply inward. I want to hear more about the Byzantine character of self-analysis and self- searching. Looking inward may be Christianity’s greatest contribution to civilization—not that it didn’t exist in the paganism, but there is no question that the outer world is pagan, and the inner, Christian. Nevertheless, there are many non-Christian forms of contemporary katabasis. Marshall McLuhan called the psychiatrist’s couch the symbol of the 20th century, and psychoanalysis is certainly a form of katabasis. What is the nature of Christian, of Byzantine katabasis?

HHP: This hits on what I was touching upon when I referred to Byzantine “humility” in theology. So much of Western mystical thought is wrapped up in Jesus as a Man of Sorrows, to whom the prayerful can emulate, and hope for the same end i.e. the sort of Ascension found in the early chapters of the Bible’s Acts. The emphasis is on contemplation (i.e. thought with an object), not meditation, going upwards, ascending. Conversely, the Byzantine Christ is shown more often as the distant and grand Pantokrator who, nonetheless, practises katabasis (“going down”) and so the focus is shifted on to the incarnation—that is Christ debasing himself out of love. This is important because it puts the brakes on a Western tendency to become a Christian version of a Platonic warrior, battling with knowledge, visions and hierarchies as if intellectualism were the real ticket to heaven, and reinforces the humility of truth, with its roots as something loving and low rather than proud and high.

BS: Are there any world leaders now espousing Byzantine values?

HHP: No leaders sincerely espouse Byzantine values. Putin opportunistically deploys them because the civilisation’s ideological tools are the only real weighty ones at his disposal thanks to the whims of history (Vladimir the Great’s conversion, Ivan III’s Byzantine spouse and Philotheus’ pretensions for Moscow etc) that can be set against a West that wants to govern the model of globalization and an insecure and provocative Turkey that controls the straits, but this is cynical posturing. Whether the attitudinising will take a life of its own and future Russian leaders will have to sincerely or insincerely embrace the Orthodox Church as the godparent of the nation is perhaps a more interesting question, as is whether the Church will ditch one of the worst diseases to afflict Christianity, Phyletism.

BS: Finally, where do you stand on this summer’s Council?

HHP: I rejoiced when I first heard of it. It would have been the first since Gregory Palamas’ hesychast victory in 1851, which was the ninth and final council considered ecumenical by all but a few spoilt apples. Now, to be honest, I’m more confused and distressed. I can’t work out whether Kyrill is correct (along with his Antiochian and Bulgarian cronies) in putting the brakes on Bartholomew’s modernising mission, according to which narrative this Council is Orthodoxy’s “Vatican II”—and not in a good way—or whether he represents Orthodoxy at its worst i.e. being conservative for the sake of it, and digging his heels in against a patriarch who wishes to move the Church, with the Holy Spirit, in order that it might not stagnate.

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    My favorite part: "I suspect a future Christian renaissance will resemble less the Church of the mid-later Byzantine period with its wily, politicking and perfumed bishops, than the Church of Paul with its early tensions, smelly house churches and crazy-eyed stylites. " Reminds me of Rod Dreher (convert to Orthodoxy) book, The Benedict Option.

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