Friday, January 21, 2011

Why A Sense of Loss?

During my last Lost Colonies Session, one of my players (seeing the endemic desecration and corruption throughout St. Urheim's Monastery) asked this very astute question: How is it possible that such a holy place could become so evil?

This plays right into one of the themes of my campaign: the recovery and restoration of lost religious sites. Awhile ago Roger over at Roles, Rules, and Rolls made a list of real cities that have real dungeons beneath them. As this list indicates an historic reason for the theme of dungeons in fantasy RPGs, there is also an historic reason for my own theme of loss.

I greatly sympathize with Tolkien's concept of the "long defeat," because as an Orthodox Christian I am filled with a profound sense of loss and of how precarious our world really is. Here are just a few examples of things that have been lost:
  • The four ancient patriarchates of Eastern Christendom are under occupation by non-Christians and suffer persecution: Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), Antioch (now in Syria), Alexandria (in Egypt) and Jerusalem.
  • Many treasures of the ancient church were destroyed during the period of iconoclasm. Countless icons from antiquity were burned and broken when the Emperor Leo III sparked a tumultuous 112-year conflict after deciding that icons were a form of idolatry.
  • One of the most influential churches in the history of Christendom — Hagia Sophia in Constantinople — was first made into a mosque and now is merely a museum. It is illegal for Christians to worship there. This fate is shared by countless church buildings across the Middle East.
  • Today in Turkey about 0.2% of the population is non-Muslim, meaning that Christians number less than 140,000 (Orthodox Christians hoover around 4000) in a country of 72.5 million. Lest we forget, prior to the 1920s, the number of Christians in Turkey numbered in the millions. Today's tiny population holds on despite mass deportations and a forgotten genocide.
  • We also tend to forget that Turkey is one of the birth-places of Christianity. The Apostle Paul, the Apostle Timothy, St. Nicholas (aka Santa Claus), Polycarp, Irenaeus, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian were all from the region of modern Turkey. The place where believers first were called Christians — Antioch (Antakya) — is in Turkey. Paul's letters to the Galatians, the Ephesians, the Colossians, Timothy and Philemon were written to people living in what is now Turkey. All seven Ecumenical Councils recognized by the Orthodox Church took place in what is now Turkey.

And I haven't even begun to speak about the fracture of Christendom into 30,000+ denominations or the brutality that Christians suffered under the Communists in the 20th century...So, yes, loss is an historic reality.


Anonymous said...

One of the most melancholy sets of books I've read is Sir Steven Runciman's A History of the Crusades. Western Christendom ostensibly set-out to save Eastern Christendom, and succeeded only in largely destroying it.

velaran said...

Not to be insulting, here, but:

What about the losses caused BY Christians persecuting other religions(oftentimes through outright murder), wiping out ethnic groups and faiths, and as the basis for 'scientific racism'. Not to mention quite a few Churches throwing their weights around the most psychotic despots they could find?

Be honest, man: you guys gave LOADS more punishment(even to yourselves[especially in the One Big War That Was Actually Two; there's where all the Christians went in early 20th Century!]) than you got! The other Mythologies are way behind in the Misery Index! It's not ever gonna even out, imo.

And, oh yeah, 'communist' persecution was pretty weak sauce compared to the persecution various churches suffered elsewhere.(Even the churches say so...)

And, I'm not gonna list the good stuff done by believers of whatever stripe because everybody knows about them....(If they don't they can look it up.)

I hope one day we can relegate religious strife to games/novels/movies/TV shows set in the past.

The concept of the Long Defeat is intriguing in a D&D context, good luck with it.

FrDave said...

Not to be insulting, here, but

Actually, I am very glad you wrote, because it gives me an opportunity to dialogue.

Let me point out a couple of things:

1) The world wars happened because of nationalism, not Christianity. As a matter of fact, nationalism is antithetical to the Christian world-view (cf. Col. 3:11, Gal. 3:28). For example, the Orthodox Church has condemned Philitism (religious nationalism) as heretical.

2) If we can agree that the Spanish Inquisition is one of the most heinous instances of Christians behaving badly, we can then compare a few numbers and find that Christians (even when behaving in very unChristian ways) are not very good at "giving punishment" as you have euphemistically put it. Over the coarse of about 160 years (1540-1700), the Inquisition was conservatively responsible for 1080 deaths. Conservatively, about the same number of people were executed in one month during the reign of terror during the French Revolution and in Russia under Lenin during the Russian Civil War. Stalin managed the same feat in about 3 days during the purges of the late 30s.

And, oh yeah, 'communist' persecution was pretty weak sauce compared to the persecution various churches suffered elsewhere.(Even the churches say so...)

I'd like to see your sources. The Orthodox Church suffered greatly under the communists and we are still recovering even 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Personally, I wouldn't call the years my wife's grandfather had to spend in prison camp for preaching the Gospel "weak sauce."

velaran said...

1) Gott Mit Uns, my friend! Muscular Christianity spurred on both Wars. See newspapers, sermons, film propaganda, novels, penny dreadfuls, comics, etc... Pacifists, Idealists, some Communists and Socialists, etc...including Christians, of course vehemently opposed this! And even the notion of 'Christendom' itself as a Empire!

For example, the Orthodox Church has condemned Philitism (religious nationalism) as heretical.
Oh yeah, I knew that. It's admirable, really.

2)'one of the most heinous instances of Christians behaving badly': Not even.
That only covers Catholicism! :-) Besides Slavery, Genocide, Forced Conversion(Sometimes of other Christians!), Disorder followed the Splitting of the World between Portugal and Spain. Then there's the civilizing missions of Russia, France, England... The Teutonic Knights, Charlemagne, Erik Bloodaxe and his ilk in Scandinavia and Iceland.... Not to mention the Crusades, which like other religious wars went on almost into the 1600's.

conservatively responsible for 1080 deaths:
this number is VERY conservative! Stalin was an Orthodox Tsarist, you know! He wanted to reconstitutue White Russia. He frequently referred to God, the Bible and the Holy Texts!
He, however also believed in Science tempering Faith, and State control of believers; so he warred on the Islamic and Orthodox, as well as Catholic faiths(all too successfully, many would say, but they survived.).(I think you know all this, but not sure.) He,like the Catholic Hitler, occasionally said some outrageous thing about their religion or God, but that's par for the course with dictators. The Directorate had varying views on religion(any, none, specific, whatever..), Lenin was to all intents and purposes, an atheist, from what I can tell.
Numbers of dead during Russian Civil War, Purges, French Revolution; undoubtedly high, but estimates, I'd say it stacks up pretty well against most atrocities, though.

3)I should've used a better term; like on a smaller scale(what I meant by weak sauce vs. strong sauce, say[Internet slang; my mistake]), not something that sounded dismissive of suffering.(An example: My grandad thought the Japanese were weak sauce compared to the Germans.)
'Personally, I wouldn't call the years my wife's grandfather had to spend in prison camp for preaching the Gospel "weak sauce." ':
Neither would I. My condolences.(And kudos to him for sticking up for his principles.)
The 'communist' suppression of the churches wasn't on the order of Medieval Crusading, proportionately, or even to Renaissance era or Ancient World murderous prejudice.(Any was too much, in my opinion.) That was my point, however clumsily made. Most recently, I saw references to scale in Christianity Today, Pagans and Christians, The The War Against The Vatican, How Many Has God Killed, and A Guidebook To Ancient Religion. I'm sure there's more.

In closing, I'd still say Christians, due to Guns and Germs(direct and indirect harm, in other words), have caused more misery than the other Believers.(Not that they are spotless of course. Nor Atheists or Agnostics, for that matter.) I don't think it's a bludgeon to beat people with, just the truth. What happened, happened. And may it not happen again.

Thanx for the exchange!

FrDave said...


My point still stands. Muscular Christianity is not Christianity, but nationalism co-opting religios forms. The same can be said of Stalin and Hitler. Quoting the Bible does not necessarily make one a Christian.

1080 may be conservative, but it is verifiable. I also use the example of the Spanish Inquisition because it is very clearly Christians, whereas the claims of slavery (which the Bible clearly lays the foundation for eliminating), genocide, colonialism, etc. are more clearly laid at the feet of secular powers. The estimates I use for the French Revolution, the Russian executions, etc. are also conservative (one might say VERY), in order to be fair.

I would invite you to explore the flip side of the coin. In my own exploration of history, I have found that the world is a much better place with Christianity than without. Much of our culture, science as it is practiced today and the value we place on the human person all come directly out of Christianity and a Christian world-view.

velaran said...

'Muscular Christianity is not Christianity, but nationalism co-opting religios forms.':
But people at the time considered it Christian to do such things in the name of Christianity, mediated by the state or not. And, unfortunately, did their bidding....

Some sources say much higher(a very few lower).
I accept your baseline, however.

'whereas the claims of slavery (which the Bible clearly lays the foundation for eliminating), genocide, colonialism, etc. are more clearly laid at the feet of secular powers.':
Backed by the Churches, Rulers appointed by God(i.e. the Churches), etc... What the Christian in the street may have thought(and there were quite a few, as I understand, who were appalled at first; they were silenced or grew jaded.), as well as individuals who opposed this ideology, was irrelevant to the powers directing the slaughter. You could claim corruption of the message of Christ here, and I wouldn't object, honestly.(But the consequences still stand.)

Values are shared across a spectrum of cultures, irrespective of religion: i.e. don't steal, no murder, respect for elders, etc...

'I have found that the world is a much better place with Christianity than without. Much of our culture, science as it is practiced today and the value we place on the human person all come directly out of Christianity'.':
Agree heartily, but much anguish as well.(As with other belief systems.) Good with the bad and all that. Once again, I'd say history supplies evidence of the horrible things done in the name of religion. Christianity is only the prime offender because of, in my studies, historical accident. I.e. confluence of warring states with roaming populations, a unified(mostly) religion which could be interpreted as supremacist, access to superior weapons, and the spread of germs. I don't consider this mythology to be particularly malignant.(Except Nazi Christianity, which bids fair to be the worst strain of your faith ever!) I'm a fan of quite a few of its adherents, actually. J. R. R. Tolkien, Dostoevsky, Martin Luther King, Jesus, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Tolstoy, Alexandre Christoyannopoulos(and Christian Anarchists in general, actually), Dorothy Day, etc... and most especially the Christians in my gaming group!

Thanx! Look forward to more of your blog posts.
Gentleman and a scholar, Sir!

John said...

I can see how you'd parallel the elegiac quality of Tolkien in your game and also relate it to the decline of the Eastern church.

I'm mostly ignorant of Orthodoxy, but just started encountering in my reading how eastern theology differs from the western churches. (I'm working through a book called The History of the Church in Plain Language - basically a survey of Christian history). After seeing the reach of the Eastern church prior to 1054, I can see how it seems like a 1,000 year decline. I wonder how different would be the history Veleran mentioned if the sides were flipped - Rome and Constantinople?

We may be traveling through Istanbul later in the spring, and visting Hagia Sophia is high on the list if we do get a stop-over there.

As usual, I tend to run my games in a more escapist manner (with the horror elements and whatnot), but I enjoy reading how you incorporate elements of faith into it.

velaran said...

What if Byzantium survived?
I'm no credentialed historian, but here's my take:

Technically, around the time of the 4th Crusade, the Byzantines(They called themselves the Romans, of course[the 'real ones!')] were making a comeback. They lost momentum, and the Empire fell. That Nation-state was successful beyond the wildest dreams of anyone, but say, Egypt or China! A 1000 year decline is actually pretty impressive!

The Byzantines were adept at forming alliancs, and outsmarting potential opponents, as well as adapting technologies as they needed them: as with explosives, 'napalm', herbal remedies, etc...(Sometimes discovering them on their own.) They were reknowned traders, with good reason! And a good Emperor had the support of his(or her :-)) populace(and they didn't feud with/actually battle the Church as much[mostly they blinded /strangled their kin in quick precise coups]), much more so than any of the tyrants of the West. As long as they could abstain from murderous theological debates, they generally had political stability.(People converted in disgust to would be conqueror's faiths after particularly brutal purges over abstruse concepts[to the layman]! ) With a giant fleet, well trained soldiery, huge agricultural reserves, and mineral wealth, the Byzantines could've explored distant corners of the Earth, even further than their traditional terminuses like China or Libya. But, they were fighting up to 3 wars at once(and not doing too badly, actually...) and were bottled up.

Had they been able, I believe they would've chosen bargaining for trade routes over outright conquest. They were pretty tolerant, though smug in superiority(like all others, really), when it came to other religions. They reserved must of their vitriol for 'fellow' Christians!

I think there would have been less bloodshed(Byzantines were pretty worldly) though war, though bacterial and viral outbreaks would've still occurred. I believe more people in lands far from Europe would've survived.(Dunno about conversion rates though, the Byzantines varied on how harsh they were to beaten peoples and their religion[probably more lenient, I'd err on the side of historical practice here.]) This would change everything, Byzantium would be a world power, checking expansionism in Europe, possibly having colonies across the world, working their intrigues globally... I don't think the wars afterwards(religious wars would definitely have a different context circa 1500[no Turks, maybe no significant Mongol influence, If any Reformation, it'd be influenced by Orthodoxy].) or so) would have had the same atomizing effect on Europe with a strong Byzantium... Not to mention the interplay of new peoples and products of their lands being co-mingled creating more possibilities than could probably be settled in a simple blog post!.

Armchair specualtion ends here.
Whew. Interesting thought exercise!
Now I wanna read some historical fiction.

FrDave said...

Just because there has been great loss doesn't necessarily mean decline. Orthodoxy is 300 million strong world-wide. Just as God turned persecution in Jerusalem into mission work around the world (St. Thomas got as far as India), He has used the losses I highlighted to disperse Orthodoxy all over the world. This has resulted in a flowering of Byzantine studies, a vigorous exploration of liturgical texts and religious dialogue that hasn't been possible, in some cases, for 1600 years.

I think your speculation is very fair, though I doubt there would have been a Reformation. Prior to the fall of Constantinople, Rome was always kept in check by the presence of the Eastern Empire and her predilection for solving problems with councils instead of edicts. Luther was part of a long line of Catholic reformers, most of whom used the East as a model for their reforms (indeed, we still have correspondence between the first Lutherans and the Patriarch of Constantinople). Unfortunately, Luther came after Constantinople had recently fallen, meaning that the Pope felt free to excommunicate Luther rather than deal with the reforms Luther was calling for. Orthodoxy's tendency towards a conciliar model most likely would have been much better at dealing with issues that plagued the Medieval Church in the West.

velaran said...

Eh, you never know, FrDave, the Western Traditions tended to splinter off more readily; mostly centering around the Clergy and its roles in society.(where there's a Will, there's a Way in many instances....) A mainland presence(I was assuming that the Empire maintained regained the land, almost everyone agreed was theirs by treaty and Monarchal Right in Eastern Europe and the middle of Italy.) would dissuade this and make it unlikely.

Doctrinal Disputes:
'Orthodoxy's tendency towards a conciliar model most likely would have been much better at dealing with issues that plagued the Medieval Church in the West.':
I'd say so! It worked for the most part fairly smoothly, barring violent outbursts on minutiae or distinctions that the average worshipper couldn't grasp, as distinct from the West's infighting over more mundane issues.(An anomaly that plagued an otherwise consistent and sophisticated[quite possibly exacerbating it at times] religious doctrine.) Hypostasis(this controversy is STILL AROUND[though there's hope it may be resolved in the future], albeit bloodless for over a millenium and a half now)? Iconoclasm(more than once, stunningly...) of course, wars broken into shifts are not uncommonly found in history, even today, unfortunately...)? Pope as ruler of Christendom, and the Laws of Kingly succession generally were better understood issues by the average citizen. Though wars fought over INTELLECTUAL positions(albeit religious conflict, it was intra-doctrine, requiring specialized knowledge, rather than your God vs. my God[it's our God, but you got It wrong, sorta slightly]) are real standouts in the long sordid human chronicles.(Though fights over their favorite sports teams fired them up too... Physical and Spiritual concerns were generally at balance in Byzantium religion and culture, from what I've read.)

The Pope and Eastern Religion:
'Pope felt free to excommunicate Luther rather than deal with the reforms Luther was calling for.': the Popes were at best obsequious towardds Byzantium I'd say. there are occasions where his Legates were OPENLY insulting to the person of the Emperor himself!(Though this was normally punished harshly, even by by death, exceptions were made for them.)
The Western polities(egged on by Rome and its hangers on) repeatedly mocked the Empire, and disregarded its culture and even its formidable reach. The consequences of this were astoundingly, forgotten quickly! Rinse, repeat, etc... They were lucky the Empire was often pinned down, imo....

For D&D:
I always thought the Great Kingdom was originally a Byzantine style Empire, that was slowly tearing itself apart. I mean, this would add a lot to the campaign, I think. A large, populous country with an extensive trading network fielding excellent armies(domestic and foreign[and always recruiting]) and a superb navy, with a recognizable but distinct(sometimes eerily so...) religion who are prone to occasional infighting amongst themselves over matters the outsiders usually couldn't understand, opposed on many fronts by ex-satellites and opportunistic polities that want to break its back or at least get some of its pie. The PCs could help with theological squabbles via elucidating ancient texts(help decide the nature of Pholtus, for example), search for religious artifacts to bolster factions/save the nation in times of war, maybe even help fight off the encroachment of the Evil religions that are infecting it from within, and generally participate in culture generally higher than any other place in the Campaign World.

See Arthurian legend regarding possible resurgence of Byzantium, it's quite fascinating. Though I don't buy Arthur standing up to it and triumphing. And don't forget Bradamanthe, the White Knight, a woman who was the Champion of the Empire!(I would have that as some kind of official position myself!) Assuming pre-Fall of the Oeridian States, of course.(I deplore From The Ashes!)