Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Turn Toward Messianism (Part II)

(Part I)

This two sided millennialist heritage was passed on to medieval Western Christendom. Would Christ return to Earth in human form to reign over the physical world along with the saints in their exalted but still physical bodies? Despite the effort of the established Church to do away with such dreams of a kingdom of this world as evidence of a Judaizing influence, such beliefs would continue to manifest themselves along the periphery of the Christian theological and political establishment. The most important of these traditions comes out of the work of Abbot Joachim of Fiore. Fiore's actual writing and pseudepigrapha would continue to explicitly be at the center of almost any apocalyptic speculation through the seventeenth century. If we are to accept Marjorie Reeves, this Joachimite tradition is the engine driving not just the Franciscans, but pretty much everything of consequence in late medieval and Renaissance thought. Even within the established Catholic Church, Joachim hovered along the borders of respectability. There is no attempt to take Joachim head on and denounce his work point blank as heresy, even if the millennialist implications of his work were sidestepped. (Again the analogy to Maimonides is useful. Traditional Jewry found that they could not summarily dismiss Maimonides as he was too important a legalist, his potentially dangerous philosophical beliefs could be side stepped by ignoring his Guide to the Perplexed.) Even while the Church opposed messianism in the form of the millennialist rule of the kingdom of saints, it still accepted some form eschatology, particularly as it involved Antichrist. Joachim turned calculating the arrival of Antichrist into a European wide sport.

Joachimite thought came to be used as the intellectual justification for many of the political revolts, both before and during the Reformation, which dotted the late medieval and Renaissance landscape, such as the Fraticelli, the Taborites and the Munster uprising. As Norman Cohn argued in Pursuit of the Millennium, while medieval Christian millennial movements had a strong social basis to them, they did arise in those elements of the lower classes with strong social attachments. Instead they came about among landless peasants, unskilled and journeymen workers lacking social networks to tie them to established society and install in them traditional values.

The Protestant tradition, despite Luther's opposition, would come, by and large, to actively embrace a millennialist program. Many even come to openly embrace Joachim as a prophet and as a proto-Protestant. This is strongly contrasted by the Catholic Church, which even during the upheavals of the Reformation did not turn toward millennialism. In fact the Counter-Reformation solidified the Church's opposition. As a side note I would point out that this Joachimite millennialism plays an important role in Protestant philo-Semitism. Early modern Protestant philo-Semites are consistently also active millennialists. This is not a coincidence in that Jews play an important and even positive role in Joachimite millenarianism. The Jews are going to accept Christ, which will usher in the new era. (See Robert Lerner, The Feast of Saint Abraham: Medieval Millenarians and the Jews)

Why would the established Catholic Church seek, following the Augustine tradition, to distance itself from millennialist thinking, while those on the heterodox periphery and Protestants would embrace this tradition? For the established Catholic Church, millenarianism is both useless and threatening. The Church was the political victory. The Church might be threatened by Arian Goths, the Holy Roman Emperor, the king of France, Protestants and other manifestations of Antichrist, but this is not to question the narrative of a victorious Church. The truth of the Church could be treated as obvious fact proven by history. Forget about what you might believe about the disappearance of a body in first century Judea, Constantine converting to Christianity and the Church taking over the Roman Empire are unchallengeable historical facts. (Constantine's Donation would prove to be a different story.) Church anti-Jewish polemics are a good example of this sort of reasoning. Any claim to needing another political victory would be a denial of this victory and a call for the overthrow of the Church.

Joachim was fairly explicit in this regard; the Church was to be reformed according to the new Law of the Holy Spirit, creating a new Church order. (The Franciscans would famously embrace this as a prophecy of the coming of their order. How even the moderate Franciscans managed to avoid being killed as heretics is one of the great mysteries of medieval history.) Those outside of the established Catholic Church had no such qualms of maintaining Church victory. On the contrary they had to justify themselves in the face of this Catholic supremacy. Similarly, Protestant theology developed with the consciousness of not having a Constantine type victory. Over a hundred years of religion wars in Europe gained Protestantism some regions in Germany and France, England, Scotland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. There would be no glorious march to Rome to strip the altar at St. Peter's. (Rome's sack in 1527 came at the hands of the Catholic Charles V.) Even within Protestantism itself there was no unifying accepted faith as Lutherans went against Calvinists and Anabaptists. What else but the return of Jesus could prove the truth of a given Protestant sect?

No comments: