Ecclesial Cosmopolitanism

The older I grow, the more I see a convergence of issues and thoughts. I began to read an article by Pauline Kleingeld, who wrote another work on Novalis and his puzzling fragment Die Christenheit oder Europa. This article is Six Varieties of Cosmopolitanism in Late Eighteenth-Century Germany. The article was written as a response to nationalist feelings in many parts of the world, by appealing to Kant and a number of German Idealist philosophers. Conventionally, cosmopolitanism is divided between its moral and political dimensions. In late eighteenth century Germany, its few proponents competed against the mounting nationalism which came to prevail in various forms.

Typically the relationship between cosmopolitanism and nationalism expresses the priority we give to our country, tribe, parish, whatever we have experienced and know – or to humanity as a whole without distinctions. Kleingeld expresses her desire to escape the tendency to put all the eggs into a single basket. She distinguishes six types of cosmopolitanism: moral, political and legal, cultural, economic – and Romantic, expressed in faith and love. Certainly there will be overlapping and grey areas.

Writing the articles of the past couple of days on some unusual aspects of Roman Catholicism, it occurred to me that there can be an ecclesial cosmopolitanism linked with thought about the moral, cultural and romantic dimensions. When considering the various tendencies in Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, crudely called traditionalism and liberalism, I see exactly the same lines drawn in the political world between liberal or conservative democracy and populism of the extreme left and right.

The so-called liberals seemed to have come up with the idea of ecumenism as an expression of religious cosmopolitanism: the abolition of all differences by mixing everything up into a homogenous and bland paste. The traditionalists would react by claiming to represent the “one true church” outside of which there is no grace, no salvation or spiritual reality. My article on pope Boniface X shows the ultimate caricature of “true church” parochialism in an institution which cannot be identified or recognised as real outside the anonymous person making the claim.

I have already written on Sedevacantism which is a system designed to find an intellectual solution to the contradiction between the Counter-Reformation understanding of the Papacy and the current reality. Ultimately, there are few choices if the logic is taken to its conclusion: abandon Christianity, abandon Papalism or attempt to restore the papacy as they understand it. As someone who spent a few years as a convert to Roman Catholicism, my option was the second one, one that is held by the Orthodox, Old Catholics, Anglicans and the churches of the Reformation. Compared with politics, it marks a populist reaction to the liberalism of the mainstream institutions in Rome and the local dioceses.

Over its entire history, the Church has struggled between its witness to the teachings of Christ and the temptation to political power. I was particularly marked by the parable of the Grand Inquisitor in the Karamazov Brothers of Dostoevsky, especially that outrageous justification of the Inquisitor “correcting” Christ. Like so many others I was faced with the choice of abandoning Christianity as something corrupted to the core and looking to religious and philosophical alternatives, or separating faith and spiritual / liturgical life from politics and coercive power. I heard so much criticism of the teaching by Vatican II on religious freedom by the traditionalists that I began to be convinced that this very freedom constituted the basis of Christ’s teaching. Some wish to make Christ a king, but when Pontius Pilate asked that very question, Christ answered that his kingdom was not of this world, above all not a political or aristocratic kingdom.

When I looked at so-called liberalism in the mainstream church institutions, I found that only the appearances were different, but everything depended on a political ideology. This time it would be based on cultural Marxism and a different form of coercion and policing. These very problems were faced by Enlightenment philosophers in the changing world of the Renaissance and the late Baroque and Rococo periods. I found the key in the Romantic reaction: accept the rationalism of the Enlightenment but restore the place of the whole human being through imagination, emotions and feelings alongside the rigours of reason. The pieces fitted into place though various providential catalysts during my university days.

Cosmopolitanism sees humanity as essentially a single moral community notwithstanding the differences of culture, language and religion. In such a perspective, all humans are worthy of rights, impartiality and tolerance. Many ideas in the late eighteenth century came from the Cynics and Stoics of the ancient world. The moral variant did not seek to bring about political reforms or revolutions, but rather a qualitative movement of human souls. The Enlightenment and cosmopolitanism worked together.

The Church is not a closed and exclusive institution, but a communion of those who are citizens of something much greater than their immediate surroundings. It was in that same period that men like Captain Cook set out to discover new cultures in depth. Some reflections from that time are remarkably modern in our twenty-first century terms.

What man [der Mensch] could become, he has everywhere become in accordance with the local conditions. Climate, location of towns, height of mountains, direction of rivers,… have sometimes favoured him from one side, sometimes limited him from another and influenced his physique as well as his moral behaviour. In this way, he has nowhere become everything, but everywhere become something different.

The one who wrote this was the naturalist and anthropologist Georg Forster (1754-94) who sailed with Cook on the Endeavour. He opposed the notion of one superior culture acting as a standard for all but rather advocated diversity, pluralism and complementarity – equality. He did, however, blame cultures that practised slavery or cruelty, and praised those that allowed individual persons to flourish. Were his own standards not hypocritical, ie. judging from the standard of western culture? Complete freedom from prejudice is an ideal more than a reality.

Kleingeld’s final category is Romantic cosmopolitanism, the aspect that emphasises the elements that make us human: “love, emotional bonds, beauty, shared faith, and mutual trust“. They had to be restored to humanity on top of reason that was emphasised by the Enlightenment. The Church is no exception to the whole of human experience. One thing that has to be understood about Novalis’ vision of a medieval world was not the desire to retreat into obscurantism but its “Parousia, the cosmopolitan ideal of a global spiritual community“. Christenheit oder Europa is a parable, not a historical rendering, and we will find this same thought in Dom Guéranger, Viollet le Duc, Pugin, Newman, Pusey, the entire Oxford Movement, the slum priests, the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris and the entire movement as survives to this very day.

Novalis and the other Romantics cultivated this rosy notion  of the middle ages to convey a religious form of cosmopolitanism in unity, beauty, sensuality and mystery. It is a desire for return to childlike innocence and the sense of wonder. This dream contrasts with competition and the power of money and brute strength. Materialism destroys the sense of the transcendent, and out of it came the persecution of Christians and anti-clericalism. This conflicts would cause oppositions between religion and politics, religion being locked into the confines of states. Europe ended up in crisis and perpetual warfare.

Novalis looked to a new world, the cosmopolitan ideal of a global spiritual community. I do believe that Romanticism can bring about an understanding of Christianity exactly as it did in that brief moment of the 1790’s in Saxony. Again we face nationalism and new forms of populism, new challenges to humanity and peace. I am also fascinated to see huge changes in science from materialism and mechanistic determinism to quantum physics and a notion of consciousness preceding matter and energy. The changes are bringing us to a new future as we live and breathe.

I hope that Romantic cosmopolitanism will play a role in emancipating Christianity from nationalism and populism, from prejudice and hatred. The horror of two world wars in the twentieth century saw the rise of the League of Nations, United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Union. Nationalism and populism may be on the rise, but so is cosmopolitanism. Ecclesial cosmopolitanism isn’t about mixing religions, apostasy, idolatry, unlimited hedonism and all the things traditionalists complain about. It is a search for something much higher and deeper within ourselves, the icons of God’s love that are love, emotional bonds, beauty, shared faith, and mutual trust.

I can but do my best along this lonely path.

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7 Responses to Ecclesial Cosmopolitanism

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention! And for venturing to ponder “an ecclesial cosmopolitanism”. I should probably not venture to say more before reading the linked article. But I will note recently encountering the observation that someone consistently considering himself a ‘citizen of the world’ would presumably consider absolutely everyone else in fact equally a citizen of the world. How, then, would the citizens of the ‘cosmopolis’ organize themselves? And what-all preexisting ‘things’ would relate in what ways to that ‘polis’? By way of comparison, I (perhaps too-ignorantly) suppose that St. Paul was not only a Roman citizen, but a also citizen of Tarsus – perhaps even the former as a result of the latter, in the relation of Tarsus to the Empire (about which I know far too little).

    I also wonder in how far Anglicanism (in some sense of that word) is distinctly ‘ecclesial cosmopolitan’ in its ecclesiology – from the first, recognizing the church-ness of other Churches equally with that of the reformed Church of England?

    • I suppose this is akin to the anarchism and Cynicism of Christ. My own approach has been to distinguish the absolute and the Universal Idea from our earthly reality of living in our countries with their laws and administrative systems. What I am reacting against is the historically recurring exaggeration of nationalism and “populism”, though elitism is also dangerous. It is dilemmas like this one that have attracted me to Idealism and Romanticism rather than nationalism and scholasticism. My brush with one of those pretend popes has certainly been a cause of thought in more general terms.

      Another thought in my mind, considering the political crisis in my own country, is the legacy of Russian nihilism (see Nihilism, Anarchy, and the 21st century) for a brief introduction. I was particularly struck by the figures of Dominic Cummings and Andrew Murray respectively advising Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Many of the terms like “populism” being bandied about are little more than euphemisms for some other agenda – like destroying the status quo in order to bring out a new power.

      These dynamics apply also to religious institutions like the Roman Catholic Church. I have often been tempted myself to think in terms of destruction of the institution to clear the way for something new which would not suffer from interference from the moribund old. In computer terms, a “hard reboot”: switch the machine off and force it to begin anew without any trace of the old.

      This dialectic between nationalism / populism and the slow and prudent reform of the old institutions seems to reflect many of these themes. My own mind is divided. The thing is when what you had is gone, you never get it back!

    • I appreciate that I must seem to be sawing off the branch on which I am sitting. I belong to an institutional Church which is definitely rooted in the culture that nurtured it. I suppose that I solve that conundrum by “self-partitioning”: I am a priest of the Anglican Catholic Church, but I also live in a country where my Church is totally irrelevant and I must live my life in a wider social context. From whence comes the awareness of the inadequacy of my immediate “box”. Somewhere there has to be a balance between belonging somewhere and being rootless but yet open to all in terms of consciousness. It isn’t easy to express in words.

      • Stephen K says:

        No, it’s not easy to express in words, but that is, I think, the very nature of the mystery of the spiritual dimension of our lives. We are taught as children we should love God before we even have any concept that God is beyond the limits of our love and thinking about. We then spend the rest of our lives, either trying to keep God locked up in our concepts, or grappling with a sense of guilt when people try to say loving the idea of the man, the messiah, Jesus, is not enough. Mystics are people who do not depend on words and dogmas but experience. The challenge for the rest of us is not to stay handcuffed and gagged in the gaol cell of the vocabulary in which we were first brought up. We can love God, but the intellectual definition of it falls far short of the love and compassion we show to creation around us. You can be a priest of the ACC and a Christian and a spiritual person all at once. Don’t let others try to threaten you or impose their own idea. God must surely be everyone’s , else not God? Love is salvific, surely, if so, surely the kingdom of God? But, like you, I have no words to express the sublime (i.e. ‘at the very highest limit’). Take courage and noli timere be not afraid.

      • Thank you for these words from a fellow veteran of the Intégrisme of the 1980’s. As we should not throw pearls to swine, we should not expect to make pearls out of swine (much as I enjoy eating pork!). I have learned a lot from populist religion as from populist politics. Life is a learning curve, even from the psychotic in America who claims to be yet another pope, taking the name of some of the most evil popes in history. I do not take his claims seriously, not by a long chalk, but my sense of empathy and curiosity seeks to understand the personality. We are all personalities and Richard Dawkins is not wrong in his theory of memes and viruses of the mind. However, there is a transcendence of consciousness that escapes his science and materialistic prejudice. This is what has hope of survival and what does good to the human species, not the memes that destroy and cause violence. Indeed I take courage.

      • Stephen K says:

        there is a transcendence of consciousness that escapes … science and materialistic prejudice. This is what has hope of survival and what does good to the human species, not the memes that destroy and cause violence.

        How true this sounds, and how lovely an idea it is! I embrace it and take courage too.

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