With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

From Schism to the Council of Florence: Part IV

IV Great Expectations for the Future

Both Lyons and Ferrara-Florence tend to be looked down upon because they were failures. It would be too facile to suggest that they were not. It can not be forgotten that as a response to Florence, both sides became more rigid in their formulations, and dialogue in its shadow has had to deal with what one should do with the council itself. To the West, it became the standard by which reunion with the East could occur.[1] To the East, it became the last example by which the West had proven it could not be trusted to keep to its promises. Yet, with the hindsight of history, we can now look back at the councils. If we look, not with a polemical eye, we can appreciate their positive achievements. We can recognize that some good was actually done at them.

Both councils provided a contact between the West and the East in a way which had not happened before. Even before their formal separation, communication between the Latins and the Greeks had been severely lacking. Without such contact, it was only a matter of time that unity would be terminated. Most Westerners lost the ability to read and understand Greek, and the East had no interest in Latin. The theological legacies and traditions which developed by both sides did so without the dialogue which was needed to keep themselves properly in balance with the rest of Christendom. Texts were rarely shared. Understanding was lost. It is no wonder that misunderstanding occurred, and theological debates would end up going in circles with participants not listening to each other.

However, we see something unique happening after Lyons. The cold, icy barrier separating the cultures began to thaw just a little, if only for the fact that each side had to learn to appreciate and understand the tradition of their opponents (even if they still rejected it). At Lyons, the East saw something it had not seen before: Latin scholasticism. Eastern theologians grew interested in it, and translations of the schoolmen from Latin into Greek began to take place.[2] Not all of the Greeks appreciated this development. Yet it is important to note that many of their leading figures took scholasticism seriously and found it a vital component of their own theological output.[3] This meant that many Latin authors, secular and Patristic, which had been neglected by the Greeks were finally introduced to and studied by the elite in the East.

Just as Lyons was able to introduce the Latin heritage to the East, so Florence was able to open up the long lost Greek heritage to the West. In an age where humanism was increasing, the interaction of the classical tradition in renaissance Italy became the spark which helped shape the modern world. When the philosopher Pletho was in Florence, he preached his brand of Neo-Platonic philosophy on the city streets. The people of Florence were impressed and Pletho enjoyed the warm attention and affection he received. Here, for the first time, the fullness of the Platonic tradition was being revealed to the West; it was no longer necessary for the West to hear the teachings of Plato second hand. Having been impressed by Pletho, the Medici desired to bring the whole Platonic corpus to the West. Texts were brought over by the aid of Bessarion. Marsilio Ficino was chosen to be their translator and interpreter.[4] Ficino’s role was not only that of being the Western expositor on Plato, but he became something else. Inspired by what he learned, he helped transform the world around him. The notion of Platonic love developed side by side with an appreciation for the arts. Indeed, Ficino, because of his understanding of beauty, was among those who helped raise the respect given to an artist so they would no longer be seen merely as a carpenter! Would the renaissance have been the same without the support given to the arts?

Equally important is the fact that the council of Florence helped attract Easterners to the West; some of them decided to stay and live in the West after the council ended. More than any other person, Bessarion saw how the West could help protect the doomed heritage of the East.[5] If Constantinople's fate was decided and its fall could not be prevented, there had to be a way to preserve its legacy. To Bessarian the answer lay in the West. Would Bessarion have considered this anwer and moved to Venice if he had not first been shown respect in Florence? Would he have thought it possible to protect and save Byzantine civilization in the West, if the council had occurred in Constantinople? His foresight helped give as much to Byzantium as it did to the West. Similar to what India has been for Tibet, Italy, and especially Venice, became for Byzantium. Within Turkish-controlled Byzantium, seminaries were closed, and this made proper clerical education nearly impossible.[6] And yet in Venice the possibility remained. Those who could get to Venice found Bessarion, and others like him, helped to pave the way for a proper education. It was not an entirely far-fetched proposal, especially since the Turks did not actively prevent it.[7] Byzantium lived abroad in its exiles.

While we can see the positive cultural impact both councils had, can we find any evidence of solid theological ramifications? Certainly. The Council of Lyons forced the East to actually reflect upon its pneumatology, and it can be said that some of their most profound writings on the procession of the Holy Spirit came as a reaction and response to Lyons.[8] It must also be remembered that at Florence the debates opened the West and the East to the differences in the Latin and Greek patristic legacy. Mark of Ephesus wanted to deny it by denying the texts; the council itself wanted to simplify it by saying the Fathers agreed. We now know that might not always be the case. But what could they do at a council? What other solutions could be reached with the evidence that was brought before the fathers of the council? None at the time, but it opened up the possibility that one could be found. Humanists in the West certainly would take this newfound revelation to heart, but they had the time which the council did not. And yet, there was at the council itself the first glimmer of a new awareness that perhaps the different theological traditions do contradict each other, and contradicted each other even before the schism; however, it was not a dogmatic contradiction, and these traditions could exist side by side as they did before. Indeed, some could say that it really was the mutual lack of charity which really brought about discord within the Church of Christ.

Also it must be seen that Florence also did another remarkable thing: it finally gave its final and full assent to the possibility of a plurality of rites and traditions within the Church. Prior to Florence, aspects of the differing liturgical practices between the Greeks and Latins often was the source of vehement polemics between the two parties. They believed their own liturgical tradition must be followed; indeed members of the West and the East often declared each other heretics based upon such different liturgical practices such as what kind of bread (leavened or unleavened) was being be used in the eucharist. The issue was taken up briefly at Florence, but the outcome was one of compromise: both sides recognized each other’s practice was legitimate! And now, after Florence, it can be said that “…today the problem of the bread of the eucharist might seem at most an indifferent question of liturgical custom and of and humanly established ecclesiastical discipline…”[9]

We have talked about Rome and Constantinople and how they were affected by the union councils. And yet this is a tale of three cities. What can we say about Moscow? Here the legacy of the councils must be seen as a mixed bag. On the one hand, the rise of Russia, and its emergence on the world scene can be seen as an effect of the fall of Constantinople. Its spirit was allowed to soar when it felt it no longer had to be held back from its bonds with Byzantium. As the triumphant daughter of Byzantium, it held onto the Byzantine heritage with zeal. At once this ascendancy put itself as a rival to Constantinople, brokering discord within the Orthodox world. Its rise and release from the Tatar Yoke was proper, but its fight with Constantinople certainly was a shame. To become Byzantium’s rival, it had to acquire and translate the theological and philosophical textbooks of Byzantium; it had to acquire a sophistication it had until that time lacked. Where could it turn for this?

Here we find the story of Maximus the Greek. Born in 1470, he traveled to Italy and lived there for a time studying under Ficino and Pico. For a brief period, he even became a Dominican monk in Florence; but he did not stay, and in 1504 he moved to Mt Athos.[10] From Athos, he was sent to Russia, where he was able to translate many important works from Greek into Slavonic. It was not an easy task. At first, he did not even know Slavonic. Yet he worked hard to learn it, and in the process became one of the most important intellectual links which united Russia with its Byzantine heritage. It is interesting to see how he was first and foremost a Greek who had been nurtured in Italy, in the diaspora. His unique qualifications came from the fact that Florence had helped usher in an age where the diaspora were welcome in the West, and that they were given a place to stay and be educated. Would Russia have found someone so properly suited to their needs, someone so capable as Maximus the Greek, if the Council of Florence did not inspire Bessarion and other exiles to stay behind?

What lessons can we learn from these councils for modern ecumenical dialogues? We can find several, but for issues of space, let us look at three of them. First and foremost, especially in the aftermath of Florence, it has been shown that a key to true ecumenical dialogue requires that is more than just talk and union “from above.” The laity need to have a significant role. Union is not to be achieved by merely having leaders come to theological agreements without the people understanding how and why those agreements were made. Not only are the laity needed in these dialogues, a desire for unity must also be nurtured within the laity as well. Without it, no matter how many agreements are made at a council, no true lasting unity will be possible.

Second, and connected to this, it is important to make sure that union is not attempted merely for political reasons. Such a union ends up being forced and contrived, and it will not last. We see this after both Lyons and Florence: when the populace rejected them, the Byzantine emperor tried to use force to squash the rebellion which followed. Today we might wonder why it was thought union could be achieved in this way. It might seem obvious to us that unity cannot be forced. Yet it was something we had to learn, and history has been our guide.

Third, it is fruitful to see that, despite the fact that the attempts for union failed, there was a desire for unity among Christians. The ecumenical movement is not a modern aberration as some “traditionalists” might want people to think. While this might seem obvious to some, to others, so worked up and caught up in their own traditions, it is not. Schisms go back to the time of the Apostles; so do the attempts to heal them. Human frailty often gets in the way. We can see Florence, because it was so close to making unity a reality, as a sign of hope. Even Mark of Ephesus, who disavowed the results of Florence, agreed that unity should be attempted. This perhaps explains why it came so close. And it gives us hope to this day. It shows us that in spite of all the controversies, strife and bitterness that have separated Christians from each other throughout the centuries, a desire for union continues and has not been destroyed. If it was preserved in the past, despite all the wrongs that have been perpetrated by members of both sides, it is something which can be built upon in the present time of charitable relations. Indeed, the fact that politics were not the only reason for which Florence was called might even demonstrate that a movement of the Spirit, the Spirit of truth and love, was at work at the time of the council. It was not listened to. Too much stood in the way. But yet . . . but yet there truly was a positive side of Florence. Agreements were made, resolutions passed, and true progress was achieved. If the Spirit could do that in the past, what more can it do today? There is a great desire for unity prevalent among many Christians today; even if ecumenical talks fail to resolve the divisions between the churches in our life time, perhaps, because of the greater charity shown between the churches, there will at least be a closing of the gaps which divide Christians from one another? We can at least hope and have some great expectations for the future.


[1] Thus, for example, the Union at Brest can be seen as a “regional attempt to revive the Union of Florence.” Waclaw Hryniewicz, “The Florentine Union Reception and Rejection: Some Reflections on Unionist Tendencies Among Ruthenians,” in Christian Unity: The Council of Ferrara-Florence 1438/9 – 1989, ed. Giuseppe Alberigo (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1991), 239.
[2] Deno John Geanakoplos, Interaction of the “Sibling” Byzantine and Western Cultures, 100.
[3] George Scholarius, for example, admired St Thomas Aquinas, and even worked to translate some of his works into Greek. See George A Maloney, S.J. A History of Orthodox Theology Since 1453 (Belmont, Massachusetts: Nordland Publishing Company, 1976), 92.
[4] See the introduction in Marsilio Ficino, Meditations on the Soul: Selected Letters of Marsilio Ficino. Trans. by the Language Department of the School of Economic Science, London (Rochester, Virginia: Inner Traditions International, 1996), xii.
[5] Deno John Geanakoplos, Interaction of the “Sibling” Byzantine and Western Cultures, 172-3.; 177-78.
[6] George A. Maloney, A History of Orthodox Theology, 100.
[7] Steven Runcimann, The Great Church in Captivity, 211.
[8] See Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter, 100 -110 for a discussion of this period of theological debate within Byzantium.
[9] John H. Erickson, The Challenge of Our Past, 135.
[10] John Meyendorff, Rome Constantinople and Moscow, 140-41.

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