Strangers and Pilgrims
Strangers and Pilgrims
from Conrad Noel's Jesus the Heretic. London, Religious Book Club, 1939.
Medieval Europe! How difficult to describe it, with its light and darkness, its heights and depths; cathedrals soaring up to heaven, parish churches and domestic buildings so true in form and quality that they must have sprung from something superb in the hearts of the people; the folk dances and folk tunes, the plain chant of the liturgy, the doctrine of the Schoolmen guarding the peoples' right of rebellion against cruel lords; all this and much more on the one side, and yet -- that dark strain of Puritanism and still darker strain of cruelty; the saintliness of certain popes contrasted with the satanism of other occupants of the Holy See. . .
It is sometimes supposed that with the compact of Church with State about the time of St. Augustine, the Catholic Church had entirely lost the dream of God's International Commonwealth. Dr. Bethune Baker, himself what is generally called a reactionary in politics, and therefore with no particular love for a revolutionary idea of God's Kingdom, yet wrote with that superlative critical honesty of his, that about this period Christians were content to think of the Kingdom as not of this world or even for this world. 'The putting off to another life in another world of the hope of the Kingdom, and the realization of its conditions, is perhaps the greatest apostasy that the history of religions can disclose.' In the writings of St. Augustine you may certainly find a fatal identification of the Church with the Kingdom and its postponement to another life, but here and there in his 'City of God' we come across traces of the earlier ideal, and he draws a beautiful picture of the little communities and cities of the world, linked together at last in the love of God and the mutual understanding the one of the other; but as one reads, one feels that his hope of such a consolation had grown faint and that the earth has become so impossibly corrupt that our hearts must now be fixed on a Heaven beyond the grave.
In spite of this, there were periods of revival and renewal of the old religion in the Middle Ages; such a revival took place about a thousand years after Christ, when Christians, taking literally the promise of His coming when a thousand years had been accomplished, once more recovered their belief in His advent and the establishment of the Kingdom. About a century later, St. Bernard of Morlaix, more popularly known as of Cluny, wrote a satirical poem of about three thousand stanzas on the exceeding corruption of the Church and the world, with fierce and fearless denunciations of the Pope, the hierarchy, and of clergy and people who could hardly escape the damnation of hell. I have only read an American translation in prose of this extraordinary work, but what is remarkable about it for our own generation is that the hymns we used to consider as relating to the world beyond death, are integral parts of this poem, largely concerned with the hope of the new world order, which we thought had been lost for so many centuries and left for us to rediscover. We have four of them in our Hymnals, 'Jerusalem the golden,' 'Brief life is here our portion,' 'For thee, O dear, dear country,' and 'The world is very evil.' This latter might have given us a clue to that poet's meaning, for he speaks of the times as waxing late, and the evil being so overwhelming that the Judge must be at the gate.
The Judge that comes in mercy,His next verse is a call to Christians to rouse themselves out of their lethargy, that penitence may lead to the gladness of Heaven, to that
The Judge that comes in might,
To terminate the evil,
To diadem the right.
Home of fadeless splendour,This home of fadeless splendor described in rich and vivid imagery is not only to be sought in Heaven above, but 'shall be too for earth.' Why should not this vision of true beauty have its accomplishment here and now?
Of flowers that fear no thorn,
Where they shall dwell as children
Who here as exiles mourn.
Strive, man, to win that glory;Those happy people who have long been exiled from their true home and have wandered as strangers and pilgrims amid the miseries of this present world.
Toil, man, to gain that light;
Send hope before to grasp it,
Till hope be lost in sight.
And through the sacred lilies,
And flowers on every side,
The happy dear-bought people
Go wandering far and wide.
The idea of strangers and pilgrims runs like a thread through the Sacred Scriptures of both the Old and New testament. It begins with Abraham, continuing through the long line of law-givers and prophets, and widens out into the stream of Christ's teaching, and is the recurrent theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
The author looks back to Abraham and reminds us of the faith which led him out, not knowing whither he went. 'By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked for a city which hath foundations, "whose builder and maker is God."'
Many a generation of people, loyal to the heavenly city, have wandered as exiles through a strange country, a wilderness of barren thought and ugly practices. They would not bow down to the cruel idols of avarice and lust enthroned in this strange land, and were all the more embittered because they know it to be God's land with boundless possibilities of fruitfulness. Wandering through this wilderness they use it for a well, and the pools are filled with water; the well-springs of their faith are unquenchable and in those springs is yet the pledge that the desert will some day blossom as the rose.
There is nothing of extreme Puritanism in all this: for the exiles love the earth and its creatures, its mountains, its valleys and its seas; it is not the earth, but the world, in which they feel themselves strange and uncomfortable. Somewhere is has been said that 'earth accepting, world rejecting' should be our watchword, and so it has been from the time of Abraham down the long ages. There have always existed these exiles of undying faith. William Morris sings of them:
Nothing ancient is their story, e'en but yesterday they bled,But what if the world crumbles to dust with the vision unfulfilled? What if the City of God should never descend upon this earth? Countless thousands have hoped for its coming and have died in disillusion. And yet it is a city that hath foundations whose maker and builder is God, a city which must remain unshaken, for it is built upon the eternal principles of mercy, justice, and generosity, which are the abiding qualities of the Godhead.
Youngest they of earth's beloved, last of all the valued dead.
In the grave where tyrants thrust them, lies their labour and their pain,
But undying from their sorrow, springeth up the hope again.
Some had name, and fame, and honour, learn'd they were and wise and strong;
Some were nameless, poor, unlettered, weak in all but grief and wrong.
Names and nameless, all live in us, one and all, they lead us yet,
Every pain to count for nothing, every sorrow to forget.
The learned and unlearned alike, though they seem to perish in the dust, are the citizens of that heavenly Jerusalem where the happy dear-bought people go wondering far and wide.
It was no illusion on the part of Peter Abelard, who had all his life striven for the truth of things and sought for reality beneath the outward shows, when, at the end of a lost battle, he sang his swan song:
Now in the meantime, with hearts raised on high,.
We for that country must yearn and must sigh,
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
Through our long exile on Babylon's strand.
Low before Him with our praises we fall,
Of whom, and in whom, and through whom are all;
Of whom the Father; and through whom, the Son;
In whom, the Spirit, with these ever One.
from F. Hastings Smyth's "The Middle Ages", in Christianity and Property, ed. by Joseph Fletcher. Philadelphia, Westminster Pr., 1947.
Not until the later Middle Ages do we find any significant theoretical treatments concerned directly with the nature of property, the laws and customs governing its possession and exchange. The reason for this, no doubt, is to be found in the fact that the chief source of wealth was the land; and property rights were expressed in terms of controlling and working the land, and of enjoying its produce. These things had not been devised within the memory of any living man, but had been inherited out of a dim past losing itself in the midst of imperial, and even Republican, Rome; and they had been enshrined in a system of feudal tenure against which no one thought of raising a question any more than he dreamed of doubting the propriety of the rigidly defined human relationships built around the system.
But by the thirteenth century such analyses did begin to appear. They are found chiefly in the writings of the great Scholastic theologians; though even here they emerge as a kind of by-product in the discussion of problems of the nature of man, the natural law, and the moral life. The definitive Scholastic treatment of this subject is that of Saint Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1225-1274). In his great Summa Theologica we find the medieval concepts relative to property, its ownership and its use, treated (oddly, as it may seem to us, but quite soberly from Thomas' point of view) within a discussion of "Theft and Robbery" . . .
Saint Thomas refrains from using the concept of private property in the sense in which we would employ it. Instead, he defines man's relation to things that he possesses as a power or dominion over them . . . [man] is made in the image of God, and, therefore, has a capacity of using a creation (which ultimately, essentially, is in the dominion of God alone) as if these things were made for him. . . This does not seem to take us very far along the road to what we today would call the "right to own private property." Saint Thomas is willing only to concede, up to this point, that by natural law man has a right to use "external things" as if they were made for him. . .
But Saint Thomas has a second thing to say: "Man has a twofold relation to external things, of which one is the power of producing and consuming. For this it is lawful that man should possess property. It is also necessary for three reasons: first, indeed, because man is more solicitous in procuring something that will belong to him alone than something that will belong to all or many . . . secondly, because human affairs are more orderly if to each belongs the proper care of something . . . thirdly, because human society is thus preserved in greater peace so long as each is content with his own . . . Yet all of the foregoing reasoning has to be taken in conjunction with another statement to the effect that "according to natural law there is no distinction of property, for this . . . is the result of an arrangement by man which is part of positive law."
The arguments advanced by Saint Thomas for the allocation of private property rights . . . are in reality expressions of the sad fact that man is lazy, greedy, and belligerent. In an unfallen world human beings would find no necessity or reason for the exercise of the natural right to private property. This means that what we call the right of private possession of property is one of the evil consequences of the fall of man!
We may note two interesting deductions that can be drawn from this analysis. First of all, the right to private use-control of things may not be exercised in such a way that natural justice is contravened. For example, in this same article about "Theft and Robbery" in which his observations about property rights occur, Saint Thomas says that if someone if starving and unable to find the owner of a store of food, or, indeed, if the owner, because of his wickedness, will not give him anything, the starving man may take what he needs secretly, and this is not theft! Here is a principle that cuts clean across our own modern notions of absolute private ownership, and would certainly not be recognized in a modern court of law. The unhappy example offered by Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean is an excellent case in point. Secondly, all possessions of external things must be held "privately" as if they were held in common. . . A corollary of this later dictum, in Saint Thomas' view, is [that] it becomes an act of injustice to exercise private control over more things than those of which one may make lawful and proper use to satisfy one's own legitimate needs. Thus accumulation of things, in our modern sense of "getting rich," is strictly unlawful in the Thomist view, and is classified under the sin of avarice. . .
We have already spoken of Saint Thomas' reference to almsgiving as a matter of justice, rather than of charity. This was by no means an abstract theological concept, but had all along been taken practically to heart by hosts of Christian people. Indeed, from the time of Constantine onward there was a great flow of alms, not only directly to the poor, but indirectly to them through the Church. Anyone might, of course, give alms to every needy person to whom he had direct access, but if he were able, and wished to do more, he could give to a Church or to a monastery, And such institutions were able to succor the ranks of the distressed and needy in an organized and extended manner. . .
Throughout the whole of the Middle Ages Church properties continued to grow until, as it is now estimated, the Church controlled one third of all arable lands in western Europe . . .
The growing monopoly of Church landholdings, and especially the removal of monastic lands from the possibility of renewal of royal control by escheat (since, unlike medieval law lords, religious foundations never died), coupled with the great abuses of simony, immorality of the clergy, relic mongering, and the scandalous luxury enjoyed by the great prelates, were to become decisive factors leading to the Reformation. But even before the age of the Reformation, constant criticisms of these great landholdings were hurled against the Church. Those, however, who attacked the Church holding of property so vehemently did not express any new opinions or theories of property rights themselves. The interest of these critics was only whether the Church, as the body of Christ, the poor man of Galilee, ought itself to own property, Arnold of Brescia, for one, born about the year 1100, maintained that the Church, being concerned with spiritual things only, had no right to sell and purchase anything without the permission of the State. One can imagine what a hue and cry this suggestion raised throughout all the fiefs of the Church! Arnold's belief has been summed up in the teaching that "bishops having regalia, clerks with property, and monks with possessions, could never be saved." He was denounced by Saint Bernard as an "armour-bearer to Goliath." Eventually, in the year 1155, by papal order, he was hanged.
Marsilius of Padua . . . Occam, Wycliffe, the Taborites of Bohemia, and numbers of other reforming leaders, in greater or lesser measure, shared these general views. . .
But the monastic establishments of the Middle Ages, in spite of all the abuses that found a home within their precincts, in spite of a kind of quasi-private misappropriation which great abbots and prelates often made of the wealth and riches that had been showered upon the religious orders, in spite of every glaring practical denial of that disdain of worldly luxury and comfort to which in theory they adhered, did still, in substantial measure, bear witness to the Christian truth that (whatever its lawfulness in the natural order) it is not necessary that men should live within a society in which the use-rights of property are privately particularized to individuals. Members of the religious societies upheld, as it were, Plato over against Aristotle. They proclaimed both by precept and example that men could own all things in common and make private use of them only as they had particular need, while (in contradistinction to St. Thomas' warnings) they worked and produced for the benefit of all together, they lived efficiently in their communal life, and, besides all this, they preserved peace among their members.
The official Church, furthermore, approved of this witness of the religious societies that private use-rights of property were not necessary to social well-being. It was only when secular Christians (that is, Christians under no religious vows, were they laymen or clerics) began to apply the monastic property principle of community of goods and of nonprivate ownership to the arrangements of life outside the monasteries that the Church objected . . . [For] ordinary people in this world the Thomist-Aristotelian compromise (private ownership, managed through charity and almsgiving, as if for common social use) was drastically enforced as necessary without exception to mankind within a fallen world . . . the more or less communist heresies of the Middle Ages, wherever they showed themselves, were violently and cruelly repressed . . .
One cannot avoid certain misgivings about the validity of the avowed bases for this insistence upon absolute-seeming property rights. The fact that Church authorities, who are the backbone of this insistence, were, in medieval times, exceedingly rich, raises the suspicion, at least, that their theological reasons for retaining their wealth privately were not so much reasons as rationalization of a very human desire to be left undisturbed in their own privileges. But, in addition, medieval production techniques and resources so limited the quantity of goods available to satisfy human needs that this actual scarcity would have rendered any large-scale approach to some kind of communalization of property controls impracticable. Experiments in such communalization could be made only within the circumscribed social enclaves established by the religious communities. Yet it is important for us now to remember that such experiments were kept alive, and that their witness was, in theory, approved by medieval thinkers, theologians and others.
In the world today, the Christian idea that the exercise of private property rights is not necessary, but only socially expedient because of certain contemporaneous conditions, can prove a most useful principle. For in this age our economic problem is not one of scarcity but, in a sense paradoxically, one of abundance. This fact, taken in conjunction with the other fact that in a bourgeois commercial system private property use-rights have evolved into absolute private ownership, poses a different problem. Individualistic control over massive and socially employed productive property, often exercized antisocially (a situation which the Schoolmen could not have foreseen), has brought our present social and economic system to the brink of disaster. The question of a proper distribution of property rights cries out for a fresh answer and solution.
Nothing in Christian theory stands in the way of redefining this question, for the ordering of the ways in which property rights shall be distributed belongs not to natural law. This is something that man must add to natural law by positive enactment, as his reason guides him to prudential judgments fitting practical situations. And situations change, for one reason or another, from age to age.
In addition, we possess today a much better scientific understanding of economic relationships than anything within the equipment of medieval thinkers. We can, for example, now make distinctions between kinds of economic property, between consumers' goods and producers' goods (or capital), a distinction of which the Schoolmen seem to have been utterly ignorant. And an understanding of this distinction alone makes a redefinition of property rights imperative, for producers' goods need now to be put in the hands of a whole producing community if they are not to become the source of enslavement of the majority of men by a minority of their fellows. And consumers' goods need to be more widely distributed and more justly assigned for the ownership and use of individuals than is possible in our own evolved economic system today.
Finally, the notion that man's sinfulness makes the common ownership even of certain kinds of property (in our age, namely, producers' goods or capital wealth) completely impracticable, seems a mere council of despair. The assumption all along has been that man would work properly only when working for his private immediate interest and gain. For the sake of argument, this might still be admitted. But we have sufficient understanding of economic processes by this time, and sufficient productive resources, that we may contrive a socialized system of industrial production in which, when men work best and hardest with communally owned producing units, they will find that they can best serve their own individual selfish interests. The resulting increase of consumers' goods would be returned into their own hands, for private ownership and for socially uncensored use.
But can men learn to accept such property relations? Can they be trusted, even so, not to be lazy, not to take underhand advantage of their neighbors' work, not to quarrel over their share in things produced? We must admit that the almost appallingly individualistic bourgeois man needs, as it were, to be largely reconditioned, psychologically and socially, if he is to be made fit for any kind of communal corporate economic life. But even this does not seem so hopeless to us as it clearly appeared to the dominant medieval thinkers. We know that men change in their habitual social attitudes as they find themselves responding to changing environmental social conditions. Men change and grow from one generation to another dialectically as they come into changing relations, into new varieties of social "give and take" within an ever-changing environment and social structure. Men are not necessarily extreme individualists, seeking only their own immediate personal welfare at the expense of their neighbors' welfare. This is something that the monastic communities themselves show in limited compass. Those who pray daily to God that his Kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven are in no position to say that a social structure enshrining co-operative ownership of certain kinds of property is unrealizable in any measure whatever this side of the next world, and that it is therefore utopian.