Friday, December 25, 2020

2020: The Collapse of the Christian Church


Christmas of 1914: soldiers from opposite sides met in a friendly manner across the front line. For a short time, the Christian message of love managed to overcome the message of hate that came from national governments. It was just a brief moment for a good deed that surely didn't go unpunished. But it was highlighting a deep contradiction that was prefiguring the final collapse of the church, but that would take another century or so. It is coming now. 


Sometimes, life is like watching the long needle of an old mechanical watch. No matter how carefully you look at it, it doesn't seem to move -- time is frozen. Then, you look at something else, and when your glance is back to the watch, the needle has moved. Time has passed, and that moment will never come back. 

Sometimes, you have the same sensation with history. For a long time, everything seems to be frozen and nothing changes then, suddenly, everything has changed and the world is a different one. It has happened in this 2020 that, suddenly, changed everything, and the world of one year ago will never come back.

I already noted how some institutions have been shattered at their foundations by the COVID crisis of 2020. One was the university, destroyed by the sudden discovery that it is an expensive machine that produces nothing useful for the state. Another illustrious victim is starting to crumble: it is the Church. Primarily, the Catholic Church in its claims of universality, but all Christian Churches have been affected by a crisis that left them stunned, suddenly realizing that they had nothing to say and nothing to do about a disaster that seemed to affect everybody. 

The collapse of the university and of the Church is all the more remarkable considering how old they are. The University has about one thousand years of history in Europe, more if we consider the Islamic world. The Christian Church is even older than that. Yet, nothing is eternal in human history. Everything moves, changes, crumbles, disappears, is reborn, and disappears again. It is true for empires, and also for institutions that seem to be stronger even than empires: churches, temples, religions, and ideologies. Even the Gods die and are reborn, it is one of their characteristics. 

And so, look at the Christian Church in Europe. It was born as the reaction to a state, the Roman one, that was crumbling, starting around the 3rd century AD. The Roman state was based on military might, but that was too expensive for the new times. Gradually, the Church replaced the Roman state, mirroring the older institutions in new forms, more compatible with an age when the available resources didn't allow the kind of military power that had been the rule in earlier times. The Church delegated force to local warlords while governing on the basis of prestige and on a shared set of beliefs and rituals. As all human constructions, the system was far from being perfect, but it generated an age of relative peace and the end of the worst flaws of the older Roman world: the slavery of millions, the oppression of women, the emphasis on military power, the inequality of the few versus the many, the cruelty of the arena games. 

The reign of the Christian Church lasted for several centuries, nearly a millennium. Then, the giant wheel of history made one of its turns. The printing press appeared in the 15th century, the brainchild of a man named Gutenberg who probably never imagined what he was creating: nation-states, new creatures that had never existed before. Their organization was not anymore based on money, as in the Roman state. And not even on a shared religion and a sacred language (Latin), as it was the case for the Christian Church. Nation-states were based on their national language: an invention of the printing press that created bonds among the people who could understand each other. It was a re-edition of the old Greek concept of the barbarophonoi, those who speak bar-bar, the barbarians. But the new barbarians were not anymore the inhabitants of remote lands, bad-smelling and dressed in animal skins. They were your neighbors who happened to live just on the other side of an imaginary line called "national border." Those same neighbors whom the Church had been telling you to love as yourself, but whom now the state instructed you to hate and despise.

And so there started a conflict that's lasting to this day. As for many features of history, things move slowly, but surely. First, there came the great convulsions of the age we call "Renaissance." It truly started with a bang, the extermination of hundreds of thousands of European women, accused of being witches. Not only the nation-states succeeded in enlisting the Church top help in the task, but with the so-called "enlightenment," we saw one of the greatest successes of propaganda in history. The Church was accused of a mass extermination that had instead been performed by the state. Even people's perception was modified: in their memory, the age of witch-hunting was pushed back to the Middle Ages, turned by propaganda into a "dark age" of superstition and violence. But the Church was not a woman-killing machine. It was the state who wanted more cannon fodder for its armies and so it needed to enslave women and turn them into child-bearing machines. But the force of propaganda is enormous, it is one of the wheels that push history forward. 

The witch-hunting age, mostly the 16th and 17th centuries, was one of the factors that shattered the unity of the Christian Church. Then, there came the reformation, and then the age of colonization when, again, the states managed another master stroke of propaganda. They were able to convince everyone that it had been the Church pushing for enslaving and exterminating non-European people.

Then, there came the 20th century and the age of the world wars where, again, the Church found no role and nothing to say on an event that was shattering its very foundations of a universal institution. I wrote an entire book on how people's faith was affected by this tremendous contradiction: Christians were fighting each other all over Europe and, on both sides of the front line, Christian priests were blessing young men to go killing other young men on the other side (you see, in the figure, an Italian military chaplain blessing Italian soldiers before going to battle). 

The Church barely survived this tremendous blow, but more were to come. Once, a Japanese friend of mine told me something like "I always found it weird how every week Europeans get together in churches to eat God." A flash of how strange some things appear when seen from another viewpoint. But this Japanese man was right: eating God is one of the elements of the Church rituals. A Church is like a state in many ways: it has rituals just like the state does. The state has military parades, the church has religious processions. The state enlists young men as soldiers, the Church enlists them as choirboys. The state vaccinates children, the Church baptizes them. The state taxes people, the Church asks them for alms. And much more. The Church may ask you to eat the body of the son of God who sacrificed himself for his love for humankind, just like the state may ask you to send your son to die on some remote mountains to show his love for that section of humankind that you call the "nation."

You may see all this as a symmetric battle, but the two sides are not equivalent in power. As I said, the Church had started as an alternative to the crumbling Roman state, but it was to be expected that the wheel would turn around. The State is now much more powerful than the Church and the sermons of the priest had no way to compete with the state news services. It was all going to happen and it happened. 

It is curious that such an old and resilient institution was demolished by such a humble creature as a virus labeled SARS-Covid2. But that was how it happened. Faced with the virus threat, the Church found nothing to say, nothing to object, nothing to propose. It meekly submitted to the superior power of the state. 

So, in Italy, this Christmas the state ruled that the traditional midnight mass was to be held at 8 pm. Of course, it is hard to believe that a virus could infect people at midnight but not at 8 pm. One could also say that, while nobody can say at what time Jesus Christ was born (probably not even on the day we call "Christmas"), it was the job of the Church and not of the state to decide on this point. But the Church was totally silent and it bowed down to the state. It had already bowed down on many other things. The images of Italian police stopping the celebration of a mass during the lockdown of March was seen by everybody and condemned by almost nobody. On visiting a church, you would find someone at the entrance pointing a laser gun at your forehead. You saw the benches with places crossed with red tape. Instead of holy water fountains, you would find bottles with disinfecting solutions. People hiding their faces in front of God just like Adam had been hiding from God in the Garden of Eden.  And, finally, the final insult was the virtual mass, with the priest turned into a 2D image confined in a little square on a screen, virtually blessing virtual believers. 

It was a sacrilege, it was the desecration of a place that, so far, had managed to resist, at least in part, the state's power. And it was, basically, the end of an age. Anything you believe in must be eventually be kept alive by practice. Practice is based on rituals, the Christian church has been existed for so many centuries because among other things, as my Japanese friend said, people would collect every week to eat God together. It may have been silly from a Far-Eastern viewpoint, but it was a ritual. And all rituals are collective -- they have them also in the Far East, even though they don't eat their Gods in the form of wafers. 

Without the rituals, or with the rituals compressed on a screen, the structure ceases to exist. It is just like the university: it is no more a university when teachers and students are reduced to 2-dimensional creatures inhabiting a small square of a screen. Without the ritual of classroom teaching, the university cannot exist. Without the ritual of the meetings of people whom we call the "congregation" and that in earlier times was called the "ecclesia," the Church is mute, the faith is gone, the faithful are disbanded, the holy places are desecrated.  And that's what's happening and everything that happens happens because it had to happen.

And now? History will keep going in circles as it has always done. The new state-sponsored rituals to fight the pandemic are triumphant, but there will be new cycles. The Gutenberg machine is being replaced by the much more powerful Google machine and we don't know what effects that will have on the entities that dominate the world, nowadays. Will the triumphant nation-states will see their doom, soon? We cannot say. We can only say that the great wheel of history is turning. It will keep turning.



Note added after publication

An interesting article appeared on the "Tablet Magazine" on how the members of the Jewish Satmar community of New York decided to defy the COVID regulations and held a funeral celebration for one of their members.
This story matches very well my considerations in this post on how most religions worldwide are unable to provide an independent answer to the COVID issue and are being squeezed out of the debate, and perhaps out of existence.
In the article, the author bends over backwards to justify the position of the Satmar Jews. Right now, the idea that there is something more important than fighting the Covid epidemic looks incomprehensible, monstrous, even straight evil, to the great majority in the West. 
Yet, I believe that the Satmar understand very well that if they are to survive as a religious community they have to uphold the belief that God is more important than a virus. Actually that God is more important than anything else. And they are acting consistently. Something that the Christian Church, and the Catholic Church in particular, is not doing at al




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)