Visions of Christianity
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Conflicting Visions of Christianity:
Dissatisfaction with the Church and its Escape from Core Principles
Written after Christs death, The Gospels (c. 70-110) provided a posthumous record of Christs life, teachings, and vision of Christianity. Paul and other followers further established coherence in the faith and its independence from Judaism, but ultimately, Christianitys supreme text, focus on the higher realm, definite hierarchal structure, and appeal to the masses secured the religion a strong foothold in Europe. Most early Christians were Gentiles, not Jews, and Christ preached to all social classes, emphasizing inner qualities and a relationship with God, not Jewish law. As a pacifist, Christ also advocated against using force in resistance to Roman rule. However, as Christianity and its influence rapidly expanded in Europe, the Catholic Church increasingly wielded its claimed divine authority to expand its secular and household influence. I will examine the disparity between early core Christian tenets established by Christ and the values which were developed and accepted by the Catholic Church and many Protestant movements from the Renaissance to the Scientific Revolution. Furthermore, I will use the writings of Giovanni Boccaccio, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Rene Descartes to highlight these differences and analyze their visions of Christianity, as well as sources of influence for their steadfast beliefs and reasons for notoriety. This comparison will demonstrate that Rene Descartes provides the most compelling vision for the proper role of Christianity in Western society because of his emphasis on reason and independent thought.
Giovanni Boccaccio, one of the greatest writers of the Italian Renaissance, envisioned Christianity with the abolition of asceticism and criticizes the concept in one of his short stories from his most famous work, The Decameron. Born in 1313 at the end of King Philip IV of Frances confrontation with Pope Boniface VIII, Boccaccio rose in the ranks among early Renaissance writers as a contemporary and successor of Dante and Francesco Petrarch, the father of the Renaissance. The son of the general manager of one of the greatest European banks of the time, Boccaccio lived a privileged early life and later received an education in law. At age twenty-one, Boccaccio returned to Florence where he witnessed the chaos and mass death caused by the Black Death which would profoundly shape his writing. (Boccaccio, 286)
In the one hundred years following the end of the Crusades, the Church struggled immensely with its image from the consequences of the religious wars. Spotting an opportunity to take advantage of the writhing Church, King Philip demanded that the Papacy pay taxes, claiming that the Church should be treated the same as everyone else. In response, Boniface issued a papal bull demanding Philip to respect papal authority or risk eternal damnation. When King Philip attempted to arrest the Pope out of retaliation, Boniface fled and died shortly thereafter. The decline of church authority and public scuffles between the Papacy and secular led to a new cycle of European history, marked by a reduction in papal influence and growing criticism of the Catholic Church.
One of a collection of a hundred short tales in Boccaccios The Decameron, Natures Revenge illuminates one of Boccaccios central criticisms of the church that Christian asceticism is unnatural and abiding by such principles results in Nature exacting her revenge. Boccaccio chiefly uses satire and wit to expose the religious conformity surrounding believable characters in the tales (Boccaccio, 286). In the passage, Rustico, a monk, succumbs to natural urges and engages in sexual relations with Alibech, a young teenage girl. Boccaccio writes, “Oh, my daughter, said Rustico, this is the devil I was telling you about. Do you see what hes doing? Hes hurting me so much that I can hardly endure it” (Boccaccio, 289). Boccaccio uses Rustico and the devil comparison to ridicule the Catholic Churchs requirement for religious leaders to remain celibate. But instead of bluntly criticizing the Churchs views, Boccaccio cleverly uses sarcasm to mask his underlying message to maintain protection from censorship or accusations of heresy by the Church.
In addition, Rustico takes advantage of the innocent and ignorant girl by using religion as a means to an end. Boccaccio writes, “and he therefore thought of a possible way to persuade her, with the pretext of serving God, to grant his desires” (Boccaccio, 288). Viewing Christianity as a means to an end is also an accurate representation of public reaction to the Black Death. Approximately twenty million Europeans died in the initial outbreak, and Europe suffered an unfathomable thirty-three to fifty percent population decline. Some people blamed Jews while many others believed it was the apocalypse. But regardless of who or what people blamed for the Plague, the Catholic Church suffered greatly. Already in a weakened state, the Church continued to lose support and influence, as the Church could not provide protection from the deadly sickness. Even refusing to bury the dead out of friendship or for money, Europeans turned away from religion and focused their attention and efforts on physical survival. Boccaccio criticizes the Church in a clever manner which shields his unique vision. However, Rusticos explicit exploitation of the young girl is disturbing by modern values, and Boccaccios chief example is not compelling enough, as he fails to directly connect his vision with Christian principles.
Martin Luther, born after the birth of humanism and major outbreak of the Plague in 1483, initiated a split in Western Christianity characterized by further rejection of the Catholic Churchs doctrines and structure. The son of a successful businessman, Luther benefited from an education in law and financial stability which allowed him to continue the movement against the Catholic Church and endorse an entirely different form of Christianity, Lutheranism (Luther, 355). In addition to the Catholic Church not fully recovering from its tarnished image after the Crusades and its difficulties during the Black Death, new technologies and financial oversteps further reduced Papal influence and provided ammunition for dissenting thinkers to spread new ideas and foster a new age of religious thought. The invention of the Gutenberg Press in 1445 provided the means necessary for Northern Renaissance and Reformation leaders to spread ideas with unprecedented speed and success. Preceding its invention, book-making was more expensive and a tedious process. Within years, nine million books were in circulation, and literacy rates were