As much as I may grumble about the Economist’s snooty and irritating Davos/Brussels liberalism, it still remains an invaluable resource, not least its Christmas issue. This year’s included a haunting, terrifically written piece on the 19th Century war that nearly destroyed Paraguay (trust me on this: as a tale of folly and horror, it’s difficult to match), and then this tale:
A century ago next year, one of the most extraordinary events in the modern history of Christianity took place there. In the summer of 1913 the Aegean was penetrated not by pleasure-craft, but by the navy of the Russian tsar. A gunboat and later two transporters, complete with a party of marines, sailed up to a giant monastic house. A Russian archbishop tried negotiating with a bitterly divided community. When that failed, the troops opened up with a water-cannon, directed at the cells of monks on the losing side in a theological argument. Eventually, hundreds of bedraggled monks, defeated but defiant, were bundled onto ships. Opinion differs on whether anybody was killed, but the monks were certainly treated brutally: over the next two weeks, more than 800 of them were dragged away and transported to Odessa, where about 40 were jailed and most of them were stripped of their robes and sent on their way.
The story is fascinating in its own right, but then there are passages like this:
In the 14th century, as Byzantium dissolved into civil and theological war and the Ottoman conquest loomed, yet another dispute over the boundaries between Earth and Heaven raged, both on Athos and in the imperial court. The terms of the argument sound obscure to most modern ears. When Jesus Christ appeared on a mountain bathed in light, were the rays that emanated from his body created or divine? But behind the question was that recurring dilemma in monotheism. How, if at all, can the all-powerful, transcendent Creator and the created world come into contact with one another, and what does that imply for human destiny? The view that prevailed was a subtle one. God was both an inaccessible “essence” and an infinite variety of “energies” that could be experienced on earth. Humans could both perceive the light emanating from their Lord and become re-transmitters of that light themselves—and all this could happen during their earthly lives. Ilarion’s treatise sparked yet another version of this debate.
It’s on reading about controversies like that I realize yet again that I am just never going to get theology.
No great loss, I suspect.