Category Archives: Christianity

A few words from the Polish dictionary

Katolicyzm / Catholicism


Black Madonna of Częstochowa, church mosaic

Poland is a Catholic country. The foundation of the Polish state was laid in the tenth century, at the Baptism of the ruling elite in A.D. 966. Unlike Eastern Slavs, Bohemia and Poland chose Latin Christianity and this fact ensured their Western orientation. As Russia was Christianised by missionaries from Byzantium, it is often said that Poles and Russians belong to two different civilisations.

Samuel P. Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilisations have been criticised as simplistic but there is ample historical evidence that Poles and Russians have indeed been engaged in a struggle, often posing existential threat to each other. It seems that the initial choice of confession by their forefathers had the consequence of turning them into enemies despite their ethnic and linguistic kinship as Slavs.

Poland’s other enemies were also non-Catholics. When Poland formed a union with Lithuania as the Commonwealth of Both Nations, it became exposed to the threat from the Ottoman Empire and Islam. Poland styled itself as the Antemurale Christianitatis or the bulwark against Islam.

The enmity of Poland and Prussia also had a religious aspect. Bismarck’s policy of Kulturkampf was directed against he Roman Catholic Church. Poles were targeted both as Catholics and members of a national minority, suspected of disloyalty to the state. In 1901, Polish children in Września went on strike when the German authorities ordered German to be the language of instruction at religious lessons.

Maria Konopnicka wrote in Rota:

Nie będzie Niemiec pluł nam w twarz
Ni dzieci nam germanił,
Orężny wstanie hufiec nasz,
Duch będzie nam hetmanił.
Pójdziem, gdy zabrzmi złoty róg.

Tak nam dopomóż Bóg!
Tak nam dopomóż Bóg!

The German won’t spit in our face,
Nor Germanise our children,
Our band will arise in arms,
Spirit will lead the way.
We will go when the golden horn sounds.

So help us God!!!
So help us God!

Poland has always looked to Rome as the centre of Christianity. In the sixteenth century, many Polish noblemen switched to various forms of Protestantism but Counter-Reformation was ultimately victorious. The impact of Counter-Reformation was so strong that it permeated Polish culture for centuries. Most churches in Poland are Baroque edifices – over-decorated, exuberant and somewhat kitschy. One could argue that Polish religious life has similar characteristics – it perhaps ossified four centuries ago. It emphasises rituals and simple religiosity while theological depth and intellectualism are rather distrusted. In Poland, Catholicism is primarily a religion of simple folk.

Polish Catholicism has a feminine character because of the Poles’ devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. Marian cult has a long tradition in Poland, with Bogurodzica (Mother of God) being the oldest Polish hymn. In Poland, Zdrowaś Maryjo (Heil Mary) vies for prominence with Ojcze Nasz (Lord’sPrayer). If it’s true, as someone observed, that Protestantism is the religion of the Father, Catholicism is the religion of the Son, and the Easter Orthodox Church is the religion of the Holy Spirit, Poland seems to have its own form of Christianity – the religion of the Virgin Mary.

Catholicism is more than a religion in Poland. When the country was partitioned at the end of the eighteenth century, the Church was the only institution uniting Poles as members of one nation. The Church was instrumental in the survival of Poles as a nation. This process had a negative consequence of excluding Jews and other ethnic and religious groups from the Polish nation. To be a Pole meant to be a Catholic and to be a Catholic in Poland meant to be a Pole.

Although history weights heavily on Poland’s religious life, there are signs that the role of the Church in society is about to be re-evaluated. It is not uncommon for Polish Catholics to be anticlerical. The church is under pressure to reduce its presence in public life, to curb its material appetite, and to accept responsibility for the cases of child abuse by priests. If no change is affected the process of secularisation may accelerate.

Flucht und Vertreibung / Flight and expulsion


German stamp

The flight and expulsion of Germans from Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia at the end and after the II World War is yet to be tackled by Polish historians. Most Poles are preoccupied with the martyrdom of their own nation during the German occupation and they are indifferent to the suffering of German civilians after the war. The Poles either ignore it or see it as a case of historic justice. More than six million Germans fled or were forcibly removed from the German territories incorporated into Poland. Hundreds of thousands died or were murdered in the process of ethnic cleansing of gigantic proportions.

Between 1945 a 1950, there were more than 200 internment camps in Poland where German inmates were treated with utmost brutality. Often, their only crime was that of being German. The most notorious camp was located at a former German concentration camp at Świętochłowice-Zgoda. In total, up to 60,000 inmates of Polish internment camps died or were murdered in the first post-war years.

R.W.F. Bashford wrote in a report to the Foreign Office:

The concentration camps were not dismantled, but rather taken over by new owners. Mostly they are run by Polish militia. In Świętochłowice, prisoners who are not starved or whipped to death are made to stand, night after night, in cold water up to their necks, until they perish. In Breslau there are cellars from which, day and night, the screams of victims can be heard.

After the fall of communism, the public was confronted with many painful aspects of recent Polish history. No stone was left unturned during the examination of Polish antisemitism during the war and the participation of some Poles in the Holocaust. It’s now time to examine the last untold chapter in Poland’s post-war history.

Okupacja / German occupation


Andrzej Wróblewski Execution VIII, 1949

The German occupation of Poland is considered by the Poles to be the most traumatic period in the history of their nation. During the II World War, Poland was gobbled by two dictators consumed by imperial ambitions of global proportions. Hitler and Stalin were fanatical idealists who wanted to reshape the world according to their genocidal visions. Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states were the borderlands where both dictators conducted their political experiments (vide Timothy Snyder Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin). What Radom Polizeidirektor Dr. Heinz Doering wrote about Hitler, “Er war nur ein Genie, ein Staatsmann, ein idealist”, Communists could write about Stalin. What was meant, respectively, to become a paradise for Germans and a promised land for the working class, became a hell for the Poles and a slaughterhouse for the Jews.

Polish doctor Zygmunt Klukowski wrote in his Dziennik (Diary):

We are totally exhausted by our nervous lives, the restlessness and insecurity, not knowing what will happen to us in a month or a week, but even what an hour will bring forth. We live in constant fear of searches, arrests, beatings, imprisonment or internment in some remote camp, deportation, expulsion from our homes and, of course, torture and executions that take place in prisons and camps. It may be easier to die than to live in such inhumane conditions.

Poland in its current form was shaped by the war – geographically, politically and culturally. The war caused its borders to move westwards. Because of the war, Poland lost its sizeable ethnic minorities (the Jews, Ukrainians, Belarussians and Germans). Because of the war, Poland became a satellite of the Soviet Union and had a communist form of government imposed on it.

For the Jews, Poland is a giant cemetery. There are now almost no Jews in Poland but synagogues (turned into shops and libraries) and kirkuts (devastated or neglected) are still there. People were murdered 70 years ago but the material signs of their culture still exist as silent witnesses of the Gehenna of Jewish shtetls.

The historic centres of Warsaw, Poznan, Gdansk (Danzig) and Wroclaw (Breslau) are relatively new, post-war constructions because the original Old Towns were destroyed during the war. The Royal Castle in Warsaw was rebuilt only in the 1970s. Today’s Warsaw is a modern city with skyscrapers and wide avenues only because Hitler ordered its total destruction at the end of the war. Warsaw is a war child, scarred physically and mentally, and so is Poland.

And yet Poland is emerging from the shadow of the war as Phoenix from the ashes. Her former enemy, Germany, is now her stronger supporter within the European Union. Freed from the Communist yoke, Poland is modernising itself with astounding rapidity. The awareness of history is very strong among the Poles but so is their confidence in Poland’s future development.

Litwa / Lithuania


The coat of arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Litwo! Ojczyzno moja! (Lithuania, my country!) writes Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s greatest poet, in the invocation opening the Polish national epic poem, Pan Tadeusz. Polish school children learn the Invocation by heart without understanding its meaning. For modern readers, too, it is indeed puzzling that Mickiewicz considers Lithuania to be his fatherland, the land of his forefathers. To make the matter even more complicated, Mickiewicz was born in or near Nowogródek which is now in Belarus.

Modern Poland is very different from the country described in Pan Tadeusz. Until the end of the eighteenth century, Poland was composed of two “nations” and known as Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów (the Commonwealth of Both Nations). Lithuania was a political term and encompassed the lands which today form Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. A Lithuanian szlachcic (nobleman) could be ethnically a Pole, Lithuanian or Ruthenian, but he always spoke Polish. His confession could be either Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Uniate or Calvinist.

The vagaries of history turned Poland and Lithuania into independent countries. Lithuania itself, which once extended from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, is now one of the three small Baltic countries. Poland moved westwards. It lost its Kresy Wschodnie (Eastern Borderlands ) which are now in Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine but gained large swaths of Germany, namely Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia.

A student of Polish history may conclude that there is little continuity in the history of Poland. For this reason, one must not see the past of Poland through the prism of modern times; one must also be aware that there have been at least two Polands (and two Lithuanias for that matter).

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” (L. P. Hartley).

Poezja / Poetry


Jacek Malczewski Melancholy 1890-1894

Modern Polish poetry is preoccupied with ontology in its personal dimension. Poems of Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska and Zbigniew Herbert are an invitation to the examination of “the metaphysical feeling of the strangeness of existence” and questions such as “Why am I exactly this and not that being? at this point of unlimited space and in this moment of infinite time? in this group of beings, on this planet? Why do I exist if I could have been without existence?” (Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz).

Życie na poczekaniu.
Przedstawienie bez próby.
Ciało bez przymiarki.
Głowa bez namysłu.

Nie znam roli, którą gram.
Wiem tylko, że jest moja, niewymienna.

O czym jest sztuka,
zgadywać muszę wprost na scenie.

Kiepsko przygotowana do zaszczytu życia,
narzucone mi tempo akcji znoszę z trudem.
Improwizuję, choć brzydzę się improwizacją.

((Wislawa Szymborska Życie na poczekaniu)

Life while you wait.
Performance without rehearsal.
Body without fitting.
Head without reflection.

I don’t know the role I’m playing.
I only know it’s mine, non-convertible.

What the play is about
I must guess only after it’s begun.

Poorly prepared for the dignity of life,
I barely keep up with the pace of the action imposed.
I improvise, though I loathe improvisation.

(Wislawa Szymborska Life While You Wait )

Polish poets are particularly sensitive to the fragility of individual existence. Human life is precious because it is constantly exposed to threats from Nature and History.

Melancholy of modern Polish poets is nothing new. Poland’s first great poet, Jan Kochanowski, is now mainly known for his Treny (Laments), written after the death of his daughter. His despair precludes any consolation.

Nieszczęsne ochędóstwo, żałosne ubiory
Mojej namilszej cory!
Po co me smutne oczy za sobą ciągniecie,
Żalu mi przydajecie?
Już ona członeczków swych wami nie odzieje –
Nie masz, nie masz nadzieje!

Pathetic garments that my girl once wore
But cannot anymore!
The sight of them still haunts me everywhere
And feeds my great despair.
They miss her body’s warmth; and so do I:
All I can do is cry.

(translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Seamus Heaney)

Melancholy seems to be a permanent trait of the Polish character. Classicism, with its tendency to see harmony in the world and to restraint and discipline in personal behaviour, has been supressed in Polish culture due to Poland’s turbulent history. The Enlightenment didn’t have the chance to permeate Polish psyche because it was cut short by the loss of independence at the end of the eighteenth century.

The Polish culture is to a large extent the creation of Romantic poets or national bards – Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński. Cyprian Kmil Norwid is sometimes considered to be the fourth bard but his poetry is too intellectual and hermetic to gain wider recognition.

Polish romantic poets were scarred by the loss of independence of their motherland when the country was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Most of them lived in exile which made them bitter and unhappy. They could escape the painful reality only by sentimental journeys into the land of their childhood (see Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz)  or by creating fantastic visions of Poland’s fate (Mickiewicz’s Dziady ForefathersEve). They validated Poland’s martyrdom by seeing in their country a Christ among nations whose suffering will cleanse the world.

Romantic poetry is a staple of Polish education, making the Poles prone to see their country as a God’s playground (the title of Norman Davies’ history of Poland). Romanticism made the Poles brave when faced with adversity but also quite self-centred.

Maybe, at last, Poland can now free itself from the yoke of History. A free and prosperous nation would be ill served by Romantic excesses. Jan Lechoń, wrote in 1920, somewhat prematurely, that it was time to stop thinking about Poland as “a parrot of all nations – in a crown of thorns” and “in the spring – to see spring, and not Poland.”

It remains to be seen whether Poland’s accession (return?) to the West means indeed the end of history.

Ziemie Odzyskane / Recovered Territories

Polish poster

The Polish authorities treated the German lands incorporated into Poland after the II World War as Ziemie Odzyskane (Recovered Territories) on the grounds that these lands were once inhabited by Slavic tribes. In popular culture, Ziemie Odzyskane were terra nullius or the Wild West, ready to be settled and developed by the Poles expelled from the Eastern Borderlands (Kresy) which were incorporated into the Soviet Union.

The public awareness of the expulsion of Germans from their ancestral lands was, and still is, non-existent. Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia were to be plundered by some (szabrownicy) and settled by the others (osadnicy). The authorities appealed to people’s spirit of adventure. The settlers were supposedly to be like pioneers, and they were portrayed as such in official propaganda and popular culture. In a 1964 film, Prawo i pięść (The Law and the Fist), a lone hero imposes law and order on a few inhabitants of an almost deserted town. The viewer can only guess that the town was depopulated through the expulsion of Germans. In a comedy Sami swoi (Our Folks – 1974), the colonisers are themselves the expelees from the Eastern Borderlands into Soviet Union. In a popular song Nim wstanie dzień (Before the day breaks), Edmund Fetting sings “We will grow grain again in the earth heavy with blood”.

For the Polish authorities, the removal of people was not enough – the acquired lands had to be de-Germanised through the destruction of all signs of German material cultures. Even cemeteries were not spared – they were often demolished and turned into parks. In Wroclaw (Breslau), all pre-war cemeteries were systematically demolished except the Old Jewish Cemetery.

Post-war toponymy was also used to raise nationalistic feelings. In Wroclaw, Kaiserbrücke (Freiheitsbrücke) was renamed as Most Grunwaldzki to celebrate the victory of Poland and Lithuania over the Teutonic Knights. In Szczecin (Stettin), Hakenterrasse were renamed as Wały Chrobrego to stress Poland’s claim to the Baltic coast.

In recent years, the German past of Poland’s western regions is being rediscovered and even celebrated to stimulate regional pride. Villages in which German is spoken have bilingual road signs. Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia may play a role in reconciliation between Poles and Germans.



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There is no justice on the earth, they say.
But there is none in heaven, either.

Pushkin Mozart and Salieri


Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus (1979) is constructed as an inquiry into the nature of God and God’s relationship with Man. Milos Forman’s eponymous film (1984) deals with the same subject. It is a faithful adaptation of the play whose main theme is at a juncture of art, religion and philosophy.

Shaffer is not however the first writer who turned the rivalry of Antonio Salieri (1750 – 1825) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) into a story of cosmic dimensions. Alexander Pushkin wrote a short play Mozart and Salieri in 1830. He furnished the story of a “poisonous” relationship between the two composers with a theological argument of God’s injustice to ordinary men.

O heaven, where,
Where is the justice, when the holy gift,
Immortal genius, comes not as reward
For any burning love or self-denial,
Labor, diligence or prayer, but lights
Its radiance instead in heads of folly
And frivolity?

In Pushkin’s play, Salieri is so incensed by God’s injustice that he assumes the role of the defender of all mediocre men and women, “us children of the dust”, who must be protected from God’s negligence and favouritism towards men of extraordinary qualities. The similarities between Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri and Shaffer’s Amadeus are so striking that Shaffer’s claim he was not aware of Pushkin’s play at the time of writing Amadeus is rather surprising.

The film’s narrative frame is Salieri’s confession, made in a mental asylum at the end of his life, that he killed Mozart because he could not stand his own mediocrity and Mozart’s blessedness. Ama-Deus is apparently beloved by God. Salieri initially believes that he made a pact with God. In his youth, he promised to be entirely devoted to God in exchange for being endowed with musical talent. All events in his life suggest that God agrees to the bargain and keeps his side of it. A native of a provincial town in Lombardy, Salieri is transported to Vienna, a musical capital of Europe at that time. He becomes Hofkapellmeister achieving, apparently with God’s help, all that was possible to achieve on the musical scene of the continent in the second half of the eighteenth century.

And then Mozart arrives. Salieri realises that his rival’s music is infinitely better that his own. It is now clear to him that Mozart is an instrument in God’s hands. Mozart’s music is of such beauty that it could only be created under divine inspiration. Salieri’s music is mundane, Spirit-less, Mozart’s music is miraculous, spiritual, infused by the Holy Spirit (pneumatic). The former’s music is of this world, the latter’s is outworldly – “the very voice of God! […] an absolute, inimitable beauty.” (Amadeus’s script).

Salieri feels cheated by God. He thought he did everything to be rewarded but God chose Amadeus who did not deserve this honour. Infuriated by God’s injustice, he apparently poisons Mozart in order to take revenge on God. Salieri probes into the nature of divinity and comes to conclusion that God is not on the side of ordinary men whose talents are either non-existent or limited. Disgusted with God’s injustice and frivolity, he creates a new church for mediocrities and sees himself as a pope of the masses. The film ends with his benediction and absolution to all people of modest intellect and unremarkable talents.

In the film’s final scene, Salieri talks to the camera. He is addressing the audience which he assumes is composed of people like himself – talentless mediocrities abandoned by God. Their only salvation is to replace God as an object of (self) adoration. Salieri is oblivious to the fact that he moves through a crowd of patients in a mental asylum.

I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. On their behalf I deny Him, your God of no mercy. Your God who tortures men with longings they can never fulfil. He may forgive me: I shall never forgive Him.
Mediocrities everywhere, now and to come: I absolve you all! Amen! Amen! Amen!


Theologically speaking, Salieri is guilty of Pelagianism. Pelagius (circa AD 360 – 418) rejected the concept of grace, maintaining that salvation is attained primarily by good deeds. For Salieri, God is the “Old Bargainer” and, therefore, God is not free to bestow His favours on whoever He chooses. However, when Salieri meets Mozart, he realises that God’s sovereignty is limitless. Pushkin, Shaffer and Forman reaffirm the role of grace in salvation. Amadeus is the reaffirmation of God’s freedom.

As a historical personality, Mozart is well suited to illustrate epochal changes occurring at the end of the eighteenth century. At that time, Europe was being reshaped politically, socially and artistically. The French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic era can be seen as the apogee of the Enlightenment but also as the first phase of Romanticism. Mozart belongs to Classicism in the history of music but he can also be perceived as a proto-Romantic. He lived in a period of transition, between Haydn and Beethoven. James H. Donelan writes in Poetry and the Romantic Musical Aesthetic that

Just as Kant, above all others, was the origin of the move of metaphysics toward aesthetics, so Mozart was the origin of the movement of music toward an elevated status as the highest of the arts. […] For some critics, Mozart was the quintessential Enlightenment composer, eminently reasonable, demonstrating a cool, mathematical perfection in everything he wrote. For others, Mozart was the proto-Romantic genius, erratic, uncontrollable, and destined to an early, impoverished end.

In Amadeus, three forms of transformation are occurring, namely the transformation from Classicism to Romanticism in musical aesthetics, the transformation of the concept of God as watchmaker into a God as a free creator, and the transformation of the society through the process of secularisation in politics.

In Romanticism, aesthetics is being infused with metaphysics. Music acquires religious dimension. Salvation occurs through art. E. T. A. Hoffmann writes in “Beethovens Instrumentalmusik” that music leads us out of life and into the realm of the infinite.

Music discloses to man an uncharted realm: a world that has absolutely nothing in common with the external, empirical world, a world that comprehensively encircles its empirical counterpart, a world to which the latter abandons all distinct sensations for the sake of surrendering itself to an inexpressible yearning.

Music gives us access to Being in its totality, without the mediation of Logos. The experience of Being cannot be verbalised: the truth about the Absolute and the Infinite can only be sung. Hence the role of music as as the highest of the arts. Music shows us how things really are; it is a phenomenal representation of the noumenal. The truth about the world is non-verbal. Music expresses Harmonia mundi by mystically conveying to us the meaning of the universe.

Mozart is Die Zauberflote, the flute of God. At the performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, Salieri says “I heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theatre, conferring on all who sat there a perfect absolution. God was singing through this little man to all the world.”

The role of music changes in Romanticism because the concept of God is also changing. God is no longer a watchmaker who designed the universe as a giant mechanism, instituted the laws of Nature and then withdrew from the world. During the Enlightenment, God was essentially perceived as deified Necessity. Romanticism turned Him into an artist, if not a musician, who is free as a creator of the world. Feelings, not reason, permeate the world which is no longer a mechanism but a living organism. Salieri talks to God who does not answer. God uses arts in general and music in particular as a means of communion with His creation.


Amadeus is also about politics. It represents the political and social transformation which occurred during the French Revolution when subjects of a monarch, who was anointed with divine legitimacy, emancipated themselves and became free citizens. In feudalism, earthly political arrangements were the reflection of a heavenly order where God was not unlike a monarch in heaven. When feudalism crumbles, God also is being dethroned. Linda Woodhead writes in Christianity that

the modern world comes into being when power, rather than being seen as the possession of sovereigns and monarchs (earthly and heavenly) to whom individuals must submit their lives, comes to be seen as the possession of each individual subject. Since each one is sovereign in his or her own right, power is now thought to come from below, and to be bestowed by ‘the people’ on their rulers, rather than the other way round.

There are hints of things to come in Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, where servants are no longer satisfied with their lot. Die Zauberflote is even more subversive. Mozart was a Catholic and a Mason which was not an unusual combination at that time. He used Die Zauberflote as a platform to express his belief in the coming brotherhood of men.


The desire of an individual to free himself from the constrains imposed by the society is arguably the main preoccupation of Forman in all his films. It is also the main subject of Shaffer’s plays.

However, the matter of social and political emancipation is more complicated. At the end of the film, Salieri heralds the advent of a world without God, without art, and without metaphysics. This will be the world of Salieris in which there will be no place for Mozarts. Strangely enough, Salieri makes his prediction in a mental asylum.

His world is meant to be a utopia but it turns out as a dystopia. Equality seems to be inherently connected with mediocrity. This connection has been examined by many thinkers including Dostoevsky (Legend of the Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov), Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), de Tocqueville (Democracy in America) and Ortega y Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses).

Amadeus is a rare case of a successful film adaptation of a play which satisfied both the playwright and the film director. It seems that Shaffer and Forman had similar views about the world and both loved music as an art with metaphysical connotations.

The film itself is constructed as an opera. Music is not just an illustration added to a story but carries the plot and provides an interpretation of the events shown on the screen. Discontinuous editing is used by Forman to emphasise the structural role played by music. The role of fragments of Mozart’s operas is to signal different stages in Mozart’s life, from Die Entführung aus dem Serail (courtship), through Le nozze di Figaro (marriage) and Don Giovanni (Mozart’s relationship with his father), to Die Zauberflöte (Mozart’s message to the world). The film ends with the Requiem which serves as premonition of Mozart’s own death.


According to W. H. Auden, “No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.” The same can be said about Amadeus. Its story is not very sensible. There is no evidence that Salieri poisoned Mozart, Salieri was not a mediocrity, and Mozart was not a mythical artist who composed without any effort, almost an idiot-savant. Like in operas, the plot in Amadeus is subservient to music.

Formally, Amadeus is as artificial as any opera. Its meaning though is deep intellectually and engaging emotionally. Opera is a drama through music not merely a drama with music, and so is Amadeus.

Opera is an Italian invention and therefore necessarily connected with Catholicism. One can go as far as claiming a link between religion and opera. Elaborate liturgy of the Catholic mass is not unlike the spectacle of an opera whose aim is to dazzle the spectator. Seen from this perspective, opera is a secularised mass. A Baroque church is not that different from an opera stage.

Forman turned Shaffer’s cerebral play into a dazzling spectacle. He used Baroque interiors in his native Czechoslovakia to emphasise the role of visual sensitivity in Catholic Europe. Amadeus is a highly successful marriage of psychological depth of Shaffer’s play with Forman’s visual imagination. Amadeus has not lost its power since it was first shown in cinemas in 1984. It often appears on the lists of best films ever made.


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Why is the West ahead of Islam?

(this is an abridged version of an interview conducted by Beata Janowska with Professor Marek Gensler, of the University of Łódź (Poland). The interview was published in Gazeta Wyborcza on 21 March 2016. The translation and the choice of images are mine).


Henri Bechard Interior of the Amrou mosque ca 1870

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a question arose in the Arab and Latin civilisations of what to do with philosophy. The response was different in each of these two civilisations. In your view, it was a key moment which paved the paths of the Muslim world and Europe. In the eleventh century, the Arabs were far superior to the Latins in their knowledge of philosophy.

Yes, the Arabs knew philosophy incomparably better than the Latins because they inherited ancient philosophy directly from the Greeks. When they conquered Egypt in the seventh century, the Mouseion in Alexandria was still a major intellectual institution of the ancient world. The legacy of Aristotle and Plato, or rather of the whole philosophical tradition, was very much alive in Alexandria at that time.

The Latins hardly knew Aristotle, because only a few of his minor texts were translated into Latin before the sixth century. Previously, there was no need for translations because everyone who dealt with philosophy knew the Greek language. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, and the dark ages began between the sixth and tenth century, contacts with the Greek world had weakened. People no longer understood Greek and all the important texts were lost or were in Byzantium and therefore inaccessible. Nevertheless, Aristotle was still believed to be a great philosopher because he appears as such in the works of St. Augustine.

There were at that time important philosophical centres in Syria.

This is another story, they were created by refugees from Athens. In 529, the emperor Justinian ordered the closure of pagan schools, or more precisely, forbade non-Christians to teach in them. This resulted in the transfer of the Alexandrian school to Christians and that transfer occurred through an arrangement between Christians and pagans. In Athens, however, the philosophical school was closed because the Athenians did not want to negotiate with Christians and preferred to emigrate to Hellenised Syria which was then controlled by the Persians.

In Syria, they translated Neoplatonic texts first into Syriac and then, when the Arabs took over those lands, into Arabic. This work continued in Baghdad, the new capital of the Muslim empire, where a school was established at the court of the caliph. From the fifth to the eighth century, interesting things were done in philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire, of which the Latins were not aware of because of their separation from Byzantium. In contrast, the Arab conquerors of the Roman provinces in the south and east of the Mediterranean showed great interest in the philosophical thought of the conquered population.

Did the Arabs learn Greek?

They employed Greeks and Syrians as translators. Syrians were often were bilingual and, as their Semitic language is close to the Arab language, it was not particularly difficult for them to translate philosophical texts into Arabic. Porphyry, the disciple of Plotinus, was a Syrian. There were schools established at the courts of Muslim rulers because the Arabs, unlike the Latins, believed that the monarch should be educated. The Arabs accepted the Greek ideal of an enlightened ruler. The sons of emirs and sultans had to learn philosophy, often from textbooks written specially for them.

In Islam, education was not associated with religion and science was secular in nature. Islam did not develop theology in the Western sense. When Muslim lawyers needed logic, they learned it from ancient thinkers, while doctors studied biology from the same source. However, most Muslims did not think that they could learn anything from pagans about God.

Why did philosophy and theology come close to each other in the West?

Unlike Islam and Judaism, Christianity treats its holy texts as dictated by the Holy Spirit to specific people at a specific time. That is why they have a supernatural element, but also human. The task of the theologian is to extract the revealed truth from a text written down by a human being. The holy text must be freed from the accretions of human origin, and expressed again to be understood by a new generation. St. Augustine said that no one understands fully the message of holy books. Acculturation of the holy texts is therefore necessary for every believer.


Tommaso da Modena Albertus Magnus 1352

Do you mean that one has to interpret Biblical texts anew in order to reconcile them with the level of knowledge and way of understanding of the world at a particular time?

Christians were aware of this from the very beginning. The first theological school was established in Alexandria by Clement at the beginning of the third century, when paganism still prevailed. Origen, who received solid philosophical and philological education at that school, distinguished three levels of interpretation of the revealed text. The first is the somatic or bodily level which involved a literal reading of the simple truths such as the Ten Commandments. The second level, which is psychic, refers to the soul. At this level, moral truths are dissected from the sacred texts for a particular time and place. For example, in the Old Testament, polygamy was allowed, and now it is not. Why? After all, it is not possible for God to change His commandments and indeed, He did not change them, only Man learned to read them differently. That’s what God allowed at the times of Abraham, it became unacceptable when mankind developed new sensitivities. People now understand that having four or five wives is a bad idea. It’s better to have one, lifelong companion. Moral progress affects the interpretation of the biblical texts whose meaning can be adapted to a particular period in the history of mankind.

The third and highest level of Origen’s scheme is called pneumatic as it involves the spirit (Gr. pneuma) and not the soul. At this level, the Bible is being interpreted allegorically to gain knowledge of Man as a creature of God and of God himself. This is the theology in the strict sense i.e. the speculative theology. This is what Christianity managed to gain through philosophy. Without philosophical conceptualisation, we would be doomed to a literal reading of the Bible.

As it is in Islam and Judaism?

In Islam and Judaism, the sacred text is treated as revealed in full, without the human element. In the Torah, which contains the Mosaic laws, there are rules governing nearly all aspects of life and there is not much room for speculation, though Judaism is still much more open than Islam. On the other hand, the Arabs believed that as long as religion does not intersect with science, everything is fine. Religious Islamic law is disconnected from ethics. Metaphysics is also absent. Muslims rejected it as a tool to know God, because there is no place in Islam for a discussion about God as the first cause.

Initially, Muslims showed great enthusiasm for philosophy and there was even a kind of speculative Muslim theology developed by scholars of the Koran, Mutazilites, but later philosophy was considered as unhelpful in spiritual development. Muslims began to wonder whether the extraction of pure knowledge from the Qur’an about God and creation is indeed necessary and whether it leads to salvation. Maybe this is an expression of arrogance of reason which leads people astray? Christians in the West also have such doubts. The eleventh century is a time of great dispute about the value of philosophy, both among Christians and Muslims.

These concerns are best expressed by St. Peter Damian (1007-1072) and Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). 

Damian, a Benedictine monk, came to the conclusion that the development of philosophy went too far. Young and ambitious monks had the audacity to discuss issues such as, What it means that God is omnipotent. Is He omnipotent in such a way that even the principle of contradiction does not apply to Him? Damian was irritated by such deliberations because, being well educated, he sensed that the philosophy began to drift dangerously, freeing itself from theology, and soon it could happen that the philosophy would begin to dictate the terms to theology.

Did Damian believe that the teaching of philosophy should be forbidden?

He wanted to see theology above philosophy. This order was determined by the Augustinian concept of goods, according to which the knowledge of God is the supreme good, so that what serves this aim is also good, including philosophy. However, when philosophy ceases to be a means to this end, and sets itself other goals, it becomes evil because it distracts man from God. Damian worried that philosophy began to separate itself from theology as an autonomous discipline and to impose scientific requirements on theology. He wanted philosophy to be ancilla theologiae, a servant of theology. If philosophy does not want to play this role, it should be discarded.

Al-Ghazali rejected philosophy for slightly different reasons.

Both Damian and Al-Ghazali were scholars and long-time teachers of philosophy. Al-Ghazali studied, commented and taught philosophy until he had a kind of mystical vision that changed his life. He gave up teaching, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and travelled a lot. He abandoned teaching to venture on the mystical search for God. In his famous work The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he criticised the philosophical approach to God as erroneous and of little value. He did not say that philosophy is bad but that it is inferior to mysticism. Such views were voiced in Islam before, however, it was Al-Ghazali who triggered the loss of interest in philosophy among Muslims who gradually abandoned speculative theology which anyway was in an early stage of development. Interestingly, Al-Ghazali also distrusted the systematic study of Qu’ranic law and the emphasis on orthodoxy by its guardians. He maintained that Sufis, or mystics, are closer to God.


Jean-Leon Gerome Prayer in Cairo 1865 

Did Al-Ghazali recommend the abandonment of philosophy for religion?

In the eleventh century, Islamic mysticism went beyond its religious frame, with eminent Sufis suggesting that God is too great to be constrained within one religion. In all religions, mystics are censored because of individualism in their approach to faith. Nowadays, Islamic fundamentalists blow up the tombs of famous Sufis because individualism makes Sufism heretical. Christianity experienced similar problems, as mysticism often leads to heresy.

In the eleventh century, philosophy and science were synonymous. For as much as one could grasp a thing scientifically, one could only describe it in the concepts of philosophy. Even medicine was in fact the practical use of natural philosophy. The emancipation of science occurred in later centuries. A major step on this road was the appearance of universities in Europe in the thirteenth century, with the autonomy of studies and research in various departments. At the faculty of liberal arts, people were free to philosophise in a secular context; they were even forbidden to deal with religious issues. They were only bound by the principles of correct reasoning and by the correspondence between thought and reality. Interestingly, students at the faculty of theology engaged in thought experiments by using the procedures of so-called secundum imaginationem, which are exercises to imagine an entirely hypothetical situation such as, for example, God commanding us to hate Him. This idea was later developed by philosophers and eventually incorporated into the study of nature as an idealisation, that is the representation of a hypothetical state of nature stripped of certain elements which are non-essential from the point of view of the hypothesis under investigation.

For the development of science, it is important to develop complicated theories and to define concepts. Without philosophy and theology, there might not be such giants of science as Newton and Leibniz.

That’s right. Theology was a discipline for pioneering a new type of scientific hypotheses, which were later tested empirically. In science, verification was carried out by experiment, while in theology it was affected by reference to the tradition of religious dogma and the examination whether new theses are consistent with it, or lead to contradictions.


Laurentius de Voltolina

If the West rejected philosophy at that time, would science also be rejected? Was it a decisive point in the fate of Western civilisation?

Yes indeed, although it is difficult for us to accept that this is the case because for the past three centuries we got accustomed to the idea that science is the avant-garde of knowledge and theology is of little consequence. But in the Middle Ages, science found protection under the wings of theology. Regrettably, people now see the the Middle Ages in pejorative terms. Reputation of the Middle Ages suffered greatly during the Enlightenment. Most people nowadays cherish the Renaissance which supposed to be a period of the restoration of antique tradition. In fact, modern science is the legacy of antiquity and the Middle Ages, in which the achievements of antiquity were enriched and developed further.

Mystical knowledge also involves intellect which is however engaged in contemplation rather than speculation. Mystical experience cannot be shared with others. Unlike philosophy, mysticism cannot be taught. Mystical knowledge does not require a conceptual apparatus because the mystical union is inexpressible.

In the West, the position of philosophy was defended by St. Anselm (1033-1109), the archbishop of Canterbury.

The authority of Anselm was instrumental in the continued duration of philosophy as an inalienable component of education. He strongly supported the autonomy of philosophy. Justifiably, Anselm is called the father of scholasticism. He claimed that philosophy is absolutely necessary as an element of education and without education one cannot acquire the knowledge of God.


Ludwig Deutsch The Scribe 1911

In the Arab world, science was defended by Averroes (1126-1198).

Averroes was aware of the damage caused to philosophy by Al-Ghazali, and in response to it he wrote The Incoherence of the Incoherence in which he provided arguments against mysticism. According to Averroes, philosophy it is the highest form of theology because only philosophy uses abstract terms, being the subtlest and most sophisticated of all possible forms of expressions as the language of the abstract. Philosophy is capable of expressing matters concerning God as the supreme cause in the fullest and most precise way. Averroes did not differ in that from Aristotle who argued that philosophy leads to the knowledge of God as the first mover. By knowing the causes of things we attain perfect knowledge.

But he failed.

Averroes could play the same role in Islam as Anselm did in Christianity but he had insufficient authority as a religious thinker. He was a kadim, or Islamic judge, a person of great importance but not important enough to save philosophy. He was accused of the lack of piety, because he claimed that philosophy, not religion, is the surest path towards God. As a result, he had to flee from his native Cordoba to Africa. Averroes was treated as a heretic. After him, the authority of philosophy crumbled to dust and even his pupil Ibn Arabi abandoned philosophy for mysticism. Averroes is the last great scholar and philosopher of the Arab world.

In the East, there were no universities in the Western sense because there was no room for autonomous faculties. The University in Cairo, founded in the tenth century, is only a religious school. Over the following centuries, only remnants of philosophy needed by medics and lawyers were preserved in Islam. It is a sad paradox that, when in the twelfth century the Latins literally rushed to the Arab philosophy, and the great Arab scholars were read with admiration in Europe, the thinkers of the Muslim world already switched to mysticism. When universities flourished in Western Europe and became institutions of higher learning in the full sense of the word, science almost completely froze in the Arab world.

We can say that in the relay race of human progress, the baton was taken by another player at the very last moment.

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Jacob Boehme

(This is a fragment of Jacek Woźniakowski Góry niewzruszone. The translation is mine).




In 1613, the mayor of the Silesian town of Gorlitz wrote as follows: On 26 July Jacob Boehme, the shoemaker living between the gates behind the hospital smithy, was summoned to the City Hall to be punished and investigated for his enthusiastic faith (um seinen enthusiastischen glauben gefragt), then he was shackled in the stocks, and ushers took from his home a book written by him in quarto after which he was released from prison and admonished to give up such things”.
He, however, did not abandon anything despite pressure from many sides; in the years 1612-1623, he wrote three and a half thousand pages of strange thoughts that were to made powerful impression on the European culture in the following centuries.
Boehme was two years older than Rubens and four years younger than Kepler. He wrote his meditations at the same time when the works of Bacon and Shakespeare were being printed, when Rembrandt, Corneille and Milton were entering adulthood. He lived to see only one of his books published, and only anonymously (Der Weg zu Christo), but his manuscripts spread like fire in countless copies: already in 1621 he was read in the whole of Silesia and Saxony, and the March of Meissen. Silesian nobles were particularly attached to his thought and spread it long after the death of the master. Saint-Martin (1743-1803) translated Boehme into French, learning German for this purpose. Mickiewicz translate Boehme into Polish, and also  wrote an essay about him. There are several books about the impact of Boehme on English literature and about his English followers, of whom the most important, and perhaps the least orthodox, was William Blake; one of the most fascinating romantic landscape painters, Samuel Palmer, probably learned about Boehme from Blake. Later, Shaftesbury’s thought was also developed within the circle of Behmenists.
Coming from Evening Church 1830 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881
Samuel Palmer Coming from Evening Church 1830
The literature on the role of Boehme in German culture is, of course, especially abundant. When he was still alive, he was called Philosophus Teutonicus: and he was very proud of that. Friedrich Schlegel put him on a par with Shakespeare and Durer. Schelling considered him to be a miraculous phenomenon in the history of mankind. Today, the thought of Boehme is believed to be the root of all the major theosophical systems of the eighteenth century and also of all contemporary sects of this kind. The impact of Boehme, sometimes decisive, on Tieck, Runge (who initiated the romantic philosophy of landscape painting), Novalis, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer are widely discussed, but even completely different type of thinker, Feuerbach, owes Boehme a lot. Russian philosopher Berdyaev wrote about Boehme as “without a doubt one of the biggest Christian gnostic”, and stressed the importance of Boehme as almost the “Father of the Church” in old Russia. Herzen was also enthusiastic about Boehme. According to Berdyaev, Boehme enabled the victory over the rationalism of Leibniz and Spinoza) and as the first reached to the Bible to see the life of cosmos as a passionate struggle, as a movement, as a process, as incessant Genesis. Lucien Febvre says that in the brain of Boehme “ferment probably one of the most powerful metaphysical geniuses of humanity” and another eminent historian of ideas, Koyre, devoted a large monograph to Boehme.  It is worth to add that in the United States it exists today (or at least existed in 1960 ) the Jacob Boehme Society.
Boehme experienced a spiritual shock when reading Copernicus: it was an intense feeling of infinity of space. Copernicus expanded space by moving the sphere of the fixed stars into a celestial abyss. Where is God in this case, where is the real heaven? – asks Boehme. It is necessary to either reject the theory of Copernicus, or push back the sky and God into infinite depths, or negate the existence of God. Boehme confesses that he experienced “pagan hours” when he understood that, after Copernicus, it was impossible to keep the old idea of “heaven above the stars.” And then – probably under the influence of Sebastian Franck and Paracelsus – he was dazzled by a thought that infinite space – Abgrund, Tiefe, Chaos, Unendlichkeit, Mysterium Magnum – this was God (Gott ist das Ganze alleine and die grosse Tiefe überall). Such was the foundation of his thought, expressed in nebulous and vague language, extremely complicated, and with ambition to explain the world and the after-world, even if explaining the unknowns by other unknowns which is typical for theosophists; in fact there are no unknowns: those who are initiated simply know it all. Nevertheless, a powerful poetic vision of the cosmos shines behind Boehme’s strange meanderings of language and thought. A stormy exposure of arguments by the shoemaker from Gorlitz moves forward with enormous force. Let’s try – at the expense of inevitable simplification – to elucidate some of the elements of this vision.
William Blake
The Abyss is an “eternal peace without beginning and end.” It is the matrix of everything that exists, but undisclosed, unfathomable, unknowable and perhaps in-knowing (reminding us of complicatio of Nicholas of Cusa). Thought can only grasp something while the divine abyss is above and beyond anything that is particular and definable. But the abyss does not want to be in the state of nothingness. God, to be revealed, needs Nature. He is in fact for Nature what the central point is for the circle: to be the centre, the point needs a circuit. Revelation is therefore primarily an act of the abyss seeing itself in a mirror, that is, splitting itself in the act of creative love; the Son is love while the Spirit is behind the power of the act of creation; this Trinity is the basic form of the divine dynamics and consciousness. The Trinity manifests itself initially in the first stage of creation, which Boehme calls die ewige Natur. Eternal Nature is purely spiritual and coeternal with God, but we can not comprehend this, because we always think in terms that are temporal.
God, having revealed Himself in Eternal Nature, wants the full realisation of everything that already exists potentially in the divine unity. Here we encounter an important, quasi-Augustinian place in the doctrine of the Silesian theologian. The pure  revelation of the Abyss is impossible without further fissions (“separations”), without the play of the opposites. God is for Boehme love itself, eternal Nature is also good, the opposites somehow contain one another, the light is hidden in the darkness: Die Lichtwelt ist in den finstern verborgen, auch die finstere Welt in der Lichtwelt. “if there were no death, there would be no life, if there were no darkness, there would be no light.” Darkness is not bad in itself, but in the extent to which it separates itself from light (here there is an echo of Manichaeism of Gnostics): all that is good, comes from light, everything that is evil comes from darkness that separated itself from light.
This way, God separated Himself from Lucifer. Eternal Nature became black and empty. “If all the trees were writers, and all the twigs were feathers, and all the mountains were books and all the water was ink, even then they would not be able to describe all the pain and despair, which caused Lucifer and his angels … “
But God created the world in order to fix what was broken, and restore the meaning and harmony where there was the disharmony of the opposites, to reveal His own presence in the world, like the soul of the body, like the juice in the tree. God also sent his Son, the Prince of Light, so light cold win where it fought against darkness in the “wild nature”. It is so because “God is everything – darkness and light, love and anger … He is called the one God because of the light of His love.” Christians should ponder upon the life of Christ and thus guide their souls from darkness into light.
Nature, the whole nature is therefore the last degree of Revelation, as the only true teacher of philosophy, astrology, theology, as the figure and signature of God: “When you see the space and the stars, and the earth, you see your God, and in this God you live and exist … otherwise you’d be nothing … “
In De Signatura Rerum, Boehme expresses his vision of Nature as Revelation with particular force. In this speculative treatise  on astronomy, intricate and full of repetitions, the Silesian Theosophist seeks relations of everything with everything, like Paracelsus did before him. In this oeuvre, there are moments of admiration for created things so intense that perhaps only in Shaftesbury – despite the differences in style – we hear a similar tone.
Creation is for Creator a statement and a sign. Das Ausgesprochene ist ein Modell des Sprechenden und hat wieder das Sprechen in sich, dasselbe Sprechen ist ein Saame zu einer andern Bildnis nach der ersten: denn beide wirken, als das Sprechende und das Ausgesprochene. Each object reveals his internal and spiritual properties.  Boehme puts it in an aphorism of great poetical power, Das Innerliche arbeitet stets zur Offenbarung. Thus also Creator revealed Himself in multiple forms. We can rocognise the divine in the stars and natural phenomena, in trees and herbs. Everything tells us about the spiritual hierarchy of existence, from herbs and trees to God. Everything tells us of its own voice: Ein jedes Ding hat seinen Mund zur Offenbarung. This terse sentence containes in nuce the whole philosophy of nature of Romanticism.

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Christianity. An introduction in 1000 words


As a syncretic religion, Christianity is difficult to analyse. There is no agreement among Christians themselves as to its essence, hence there are many Christian churches. To probe into Christianity, one has to examine its history.

Within the first few centuries, Christianity originated as a Jewish sect, evolved into a religion with universal aspirations, incorporated Greek philosophical ideas into its doctrine, and became a state religion. Christianity stands therefore on three pillars – Jewish mysticism, Greek philosophy and Roman administration. Correspondingly, its foundation texts are written in three languages – the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek, while the Latin translation of both texts had been used in the Catholic Church for nearly two millennia.

In Christianity, beliefs are more important than practices. All its Churches make claims to orthodoxy, ie the correct set of beliefs. Christians are indifferent to how they dress and what they eat but focus on what they think. In Judaism and Islam, orthopraxy prevails hence there are strict dietary and clothing rules in both religions while beliefs are relatively simple. In Islam, a declaration of faith is sufficient to become a Muslim. In Judaism, one is born a Jew.

Christianity has strong rational and humanistic elements. These elements are so dominant that some critics of Christianity deny that it is a religion. En arche en ho Logos, kai ho Logos en pros ton Theon, kai Theos en ho Logos, John writes in his Gospel. For the Greeks, Logos meant the underlying order of reality. John’s passage can be read as “In the beginning was Reason, and Reason was with God, and Reason was God”. Christian God can therefore be understood as deified Logos, or Reason, combined with the personal God of the Jews.

Socrates asks whether that which is holy is loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods. He answers that the gods only recognise the holiness which already exists in holy things. This thought became the basis of the Christian theology. It equates God with the Good and Necessity. God is benevolent. What follows is that God is not omnipotent. God cannot appear again and declare that the Decalogue will now include new commandments urging believers to rob, rape and murder. Similarly, God can only do things that are not contradictory or impossible. God cannot change what I ate yesterday for breakfast.

One of the papal encyclicals is titled Fides and Ratio, faith and reason, and this combination makes Christianity a peculiar religion. The centrality of Aristotelianism in the Catholic Church prompted Russian emigre philosopher Lev Shestov to declare that Catholicism is a rationalist philosophy masquerading as a religion. Shestov expands on Dostoevsky’s criticism of the Papacy in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky accuses the Church of corrupting the original message of God that his kingdom is not of this world, and sacrificing freedom for earthly welfare.

“Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”. Pope Benedict XVI used this statement by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus to reiterate the Church’s attachment to Reason. The Church cannot accept Tertulian’s Credo quia absurdum because it denigrates Reason. God can be both known through Revelation and rational thought. It is therefore legitimate to seek rational proofs of God’s existence. Shestov writes that Catholics believe that they have the key to the universe and that that key is Reason.


Jean Fouquet Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, ca 1452

The other central aspect of Christianity is its anthropocentrism. The New Testament says that Jesus was sent to Earth to die for our sins in an act of atonement. Jesus became Man and suffered as a human being for the sake of humanity. His human characteristics are stressed to such an extent that this may not be the case of God becoming Man but Man being celebrated as God. In Western art, Jesus is portrayed first as a baby with his loving mother, then as a merciful teacher and, finally, as a humiliated and suffering individual who is executed together with common criminals. If a Martian landed on Earth and visited art museums and Catholic churches, he would have concluded that Christianity is the religion of Man. Catholicism acquires feminine characteristics through the cult of Mary, the mother of God. The Church is the Bride of Christ. Sensualism of certain saints verges on eroticism. Religious themes in painting, but also in music, provide ample evidence of Christians celebrating beauty in themselves, also physical beauty. There is disarming sweetness in cantatas of Bach and Vivaldi or paintings of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus.

By worshiping their God, Christians worship the order in the universe and themselves as deified human beings. Christianity is therefore prone to be perceived in human, rational and, ultimately, secular terms. It is only seemingly a paradox that Christian societies had evolved into modern welfare states. The original Christian promise has found its fulfilment in a secular society which treats Christian principles as its own. Even the pessimistic doctrine of the original sin has turned out to be a blessing, so to speak. Man is born in sin and incapable of perfection. If an individual transgresses against divine and human laws he will be dealt with according to the severity of his transgression, with the aim of rehabilitation rather than revenge. Among Western societies, only the US retains the capital punishment. In Islam, striving for perfection is a religious obligation and those who fail in jihad are harshly punished.

Christianity is unique among religions. It encompasses rationalism and humanism and this combination places it on the antipodes of Islam and orthodox Judaism which are both strictly theocentric. Orthodox Jews and Muslims are oriented towards their holy texts as homini unius libri, or men of one book. Judaism has its reformed branch which originated in Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, and mainstream Judaism embraced modernity to the same extent as mainstream Christianity. The fact that most Jews had lived in diaspora in Europe for two thousand years is reflected in the history of Israel which is a state with Western institutions, although with complications of geopolitical nature.

Islam though is past-oriented and anti-modern and will remain so until it revisits the dispute of Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), an Aristotelian philosopher, with Al-Ghazali, an enemy of Aristotelianism. Islam diverged from Christianity when Al-Ghazali accused the philosophers of blasphemy and infidelity, punishable by death. Al-Ghazali killed the flourishing Islamic civilisation which abandoned Reason and reverted to Revelation, discouraging an interaction with visible and tangible reality and focusing instead on the holy text as the primary aspect of reality.

Christianity chose an opposite path when it opted for Aristotelianism as its core in the thirteenth century, and it made all the difference for Europe and its outposts on other continents. Modern civilisation can only be built on three pillars – rationalism, empiricism and humanism. There are plenty of aspects of Christianity that can be criticised but, on balance, Christianity has played a positive role in the history of the world.


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