Monday, October 19, 2009

On the Great Schism

It continues to be a paradox that while Noll clearly does not advocate a Great-Man perspective on history, his focus on events, even perhaps Great Events, leaves him to talk about significant historical forces in the hands of those who exemplify them.

Hence Humbert, leaving his letter of excommunication on the altar of the Hagia Sophia. The long string of causes that this springs from, and the longer one that it entails, might perhaps then indicate that, for Noll, the events which have shaped Christianity have not done so as history a se, but simply as the import of social symbols resounding through public time.

This is not to speculate far afield of the Great Schism, but it is to ask what kind of history Noll is about here as he describes the historical record. At any rate, might one say that that letter of communication began the long and unseemly history of separation of the church?

That is, is a Roman leaving a letter on an Orthodox altar at all the same sort of symbol as Luther leaving 95 theses on the Wittenberg door? Perhaps that is to go too far afield, or ahead. But the question must certainly be one of authority and defiance. It was authority that the Latin Leo desired over the Greek churches under threat of Norman knights; it was defiance that led Cerularius to reach out to control more Latin churches instead, and to shut them down when they defied. And it was certainly papal-imbued authority that sent Cardinal Humbert to Constantinople – and a sense of his own authority to write a letter of condemnation by himself!

One wonders what choice Cerularius would have had but to defy the critique. (One is reminded of Jesus’s own critique of the Gentile ie Roman rulers lording it up over their people, and wonders if a chief benefit of Christ’s approach would be precisely that service doesn’t generally provoke defiance). At any rate, the letter of excommunication, that perfect synecdoche of both authority and defiance, certainly sealed the deal.

Noll is certainly correct to trace the other divisions cultural and linguistic and theological to the formation of the Schism itself, but in choosing a great event or turning point one must say that the ingredients cannot overwhelm the alchemy; the point, the moment, must be greater than the sum of its parts. It is not just that the East spoke Greek and the West spoke Latin, but it is that a Latin-speaking foreigner marched right into the heart of Orthodoxy representing the very outsized authority that the four patriarchs the Orthodox recognized and demanded something like contrition.

That is beyond bad form. Did he gouge out the eye of an icon while he was there? And shout the filioque? (Perhaps one could advance a historical perspective concerning Very-Bad-Men and be more entertained.) Events that become historical are those stones that, in rolling, do in fact accrue meaningful moss.

And provoke more of the same. It is interesting to note that while the Orthodox clergy tended to support the efforts at reconciliation, it was the Orthodox churches themselves who resisted repairing the breach – perhaps because of the purely emotional effect of Roman authority overreaching in the past? But whatever the reasons for the failure of reconciliation as a whole, the Fourth Crusade and its unholy destruction within Constantinople became a ringing symbol of the formal separation that Humbert had begun.

When two sides are willing to go to war, one cannot deny that there is in fact some separation between them. And a Christian war does not seem to be more ready to gather forgiveness than any other. War is, after all, the greatest exercise of authority and defiance that one can possibly imagine.

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