As I followed my tour group past the overcrowded ticket booths, I wondered what motivates such a swelling throng to appear at the Vatican every day.
If I were optimistic about institutional Christianity, I would declare the motivation to be spiritual. However, I am pessimistic about the prospects of all external forms of Christianity. Although I acknowledge that sincere spiritual motivations propel some visitors to the Vatican each year, for most, the experience amounts to little more than another must-see stop on a Rome site-seeing tour. Put plainly, I sense that most people visit the Vatican for the same reason they trek to the Trevi Fountain or the Colosseum.
So, what was my motivation? Difficult to say. My visit was inspired mostly by my eleven-year-old son’s desire to see the Sistine Chapel, a desire I shared even though I struggled to pinpoint the source of my interest. Was it all about seeing a magnificent work of art, or was there more to it than that?
During my three days in Rome, my thoughts revolved around the divergence between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar, a divergence which became one of Berdyaev’s essential spiritual themes.
While exploring the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill, I became acutely aware of how much religion permeated the once formidable pagan empire. Everywhere I turned, I encountered the ruins of temples and shrines dedicated to gods and goddesses now unworshipped.
The enmeshing of the kingdom of gods and the kingdom of Caesar was too glaring to dismiss. The gods were the empire, and the empire was the gods. It would be impossible for one to exist without the other, in much the same way God of the Old Testament could not exist without his chosen people, and the chosen people could not exist without God. Religion was a matter of nations, and nations were a matter of religion. Yet within this landscape of nation-religion, another faith that lacked all semblance of nation began to blossom.
At first, the kingdom of Christ remained hidden within the kingdom of Caesar. Eventually, it usurped the kingdom of Caesar, but perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that the kingdom of Caesar took possession of the kingdom of Christ.
The temples and shrines of pagan gods and goddesses transformed into basilicas and churches. The once nation-less religion became nationalized, imperialized. The kingdom of this world incorporated the kingdom that is not of this world, and this amalgamation became the foundation for a kind of Christianity that dominated the West – the same kind that now appears to have run its course.
On the subject of this kingdom synthesis, Berdyaev notes (bold added):
"The mixed-up kingdom, in which 'the things of God' and 'the things of Caesar' were not sufficiently separated, wherein one was substituted for the other, has ended.
The Christian state also was a jumbled half-Christian state. Now, half-fast Christianity is an impossibility. A time of choosing has begun.
Christianity can be only a qualitatively inward, spiritual power in the world, and not a quantitative, outwardly coercive power. Really, Christianity can only be a power realizing the truth of Christ.
The new wine is being brought forth in the Christian world and it is impossible to pour it into the old wine-skins.
In the 'world' itself creative religious processes are being discovered, which ought to be recognized as churchly. But the third period, into which we enter, is not yet the final period.”
Christianity as a qualitatively inward, spiritual power resonates deeply with me, especially against the backdrop of the quantitatively external, anti-spiritual, manipulative, and coercive power currently pressing down upon everyone and everything.
The temptation to oppose and overcome such a quantitatively external power with something equally quantitative and external is great, but it must be avoided because such power has nothing to do with power of realizing the truth of Christ.
After the museum and the Sistine Chapel, I spent some time in Saint Peter’s Square to take in the magnificence of the basilica, the veritable nucleus of the mixed-up kingdom Berdyaev describes.
Gazing upon the impressive structure served to confirm something I already knew. The mixed-up kingdom truly has ended, and it will not return. Nor should it. Something more is needed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that something simpler and far more straightforward is needed.
Berdyaev is among those to recognize this need,
“A theocratic and sacred autocratic monarchy will never again arise in the world. The holy Russian tsardom was the last of its type.
This period in the history of Christianity has irreparably ended. And the visionary dream about its return is a harmful utopian and romantic dream; it is the lack of desire or the incapacity to stand before the ultimate religious realities.
The Church knows only one Bridegroom—Christ. The Kingdom of God knows only one King—Christ."
Berdyaev’s metaphysics includes the belief in the Second Coming and the transfiguration of the cosmos resulting in a new heaven and a new earth. I can’t say I share these assumptions about a new heaven and new earth. The only “new” heaven required is a “new” understanding of heaven, which comes down to comprehending what Jesus offers and accepting it.
However, I do believe in transfiguring, beginning with oneself through Christ, without relying upon Caesar or anyone else.
This is the qualitatively inward spiritual power, the ultimate religious reality, that I believe in.