Appropriation Without Attribution: The Problem of the Western Narrative, and the Pope’s Encyclical on the Environment

The late British scholar Romilly James Heald Jenkins, one of the West’s leading postwar Medieval historians, who occupied the prestigious Chair as Koraes Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature at King’s College in London and was Professor of Byzantine History and Language at Dumbarton Oaks, famously observed that Western views and attitudes towards Byzantium and the Orthodox world were “dictated first by ignorance and second by prejudice,” while also noting that “the West’s long-enduring hatred of Byzantium is plainly discernible.”  One of the legacies of that historic Western enmity towards Byzantium has been the construction of a distinctly Western narrative that has largely expunged Byzantium and Orthodoxy from the history of Europe. 

Teaching Byzantine history and civilization to American university students, as I have for more than two decades, poses certain unique challenges.  Most Americans, including most Greek Americans, have little or no accurate and meaningful knowledge of Byzantium and the Medieval Orthodox world.  Furthermore, they come to Byzantine history with a Western-centric (meaning Western European/originally Western Christian) narrative with which they have been thoroughly inculcated by both their formal educations and by Western cultural experience that complicates their study of Byzantium.  These influences produce students who, through no fault of their own, are not only unaware of Byzantium’s seminal place in history, but are handicapped by centuries-old Western narratives that are rooted in an historic hostility towards Byzantium, one that is uncritically, unwittingly parroted by even the most well intentioned, but uninformed, teachers and professors. 

Again, one of the byproducts of this hostility—originating in the Medieval West’s sense of cultural inferiority and lack of political legitimacy vis-à-vis Byzantium, and compounded by the historical ignorance and religious prejudices of the Western Enlightenment—has been the construction of a Western grand narrative that is not entirely accurate.  This Western narrative is premised upon a distorted and fatuous history of the West itself at the expense of, and juxtaposed against, the “East” (with the East, meaning, depending on the shifting needs of the West, any part of the world not rooted in a Western Christian past), beginning with the West’s rivalry and aggression against Byzantium and Eastern Christianity.  This discourse—both religious and secular in its expression—explicitly and implicitly elevates the West in all its forms (its churches, states, societies, institutions, practices, cultures, and ideas) as superior, always first, original, more innovative, and more important than the imagined East in all its forms (Orthodox, Muslim, Asian, Russian, Middle Eastern, “Oriental,” etc.).     

Because of the false history produced by the Western narrative—the bedrock of a modern education—one of the first challenges confronting those who teach Byzantine history is how to help students deconstruct and break through the distorted discourse that is a basic part of their educations and cultural baggage.  The goal of such teaching is not to substitute an Eastern-centric narrative that belittles the West for the Western-centric narrative that belittles the East.  Instead, the goal is to recognize and tackle bias, prejudice, and falsehoods in order to form a more accurate and rigorous understanding of both Byzantium and the West.  Likewise, by deconstructing the West’s prevarications and myths about itself and Byzantium, students can more effectively evaluate how those myths and erroneous histories resonate across time and continue to influence and distort our perception of the world in the present. 

The cherished, unquestioned canards that permeate the Western narrative and that have been repeated over many centuries through Western Christianity, culture, and “learning” are simply too extensive to review here, they are legion.  Nonetheless, to offer correctives to just a few widely accepted fabrications that are important to the Western narrative against Byzantium and Orthodoxy, one might consider the following: the Roman Empire did not fall nor end in the fifth century; the Roman Empire was not restored by Charlemagne in the ninth century; Greek and Roman civilization, classical knowledge, and literacy did not disappear during the Middle Ages; medicine, philosophy, and Greek literature were not preserved only by the Arab Muslims to be ultimately transferred to the West by Moorish Spain; the Bishop of Rome (later pope) had no authority over the Christian Church beyond the territorial jurisdiction of his ecclesiastical See in the Western part of the Roman Empire; the Early Church was not organized under any one, centralized hierarchical authority; and the Orthodox Church was not a schismatic offshoot of Roman Catholicism.

In addition to altering the historical record, part of the logic of the Western grand narrative has been to appropriate advancements from the East without attribution.  The most recent example of this phenomenon is Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment, climate change, and human society.  Indeed, the already neatly packaged media consensus on the Pope’s formal pronouncements on the environment demonstrates the enduring power of the Western narrative to shape public discourse and perception.  Likewise, it also provides us with a remarkable example of how this narrative, even no longer with active intention, continues to diminish Eastern Christianity’s contributions and role in the world.

Pope Francis’ much-anticipated June 18 encyclical, Laudato Si (“Praise Be to You”), calls for immediate unified global action to confront the environmental degradation of the planet produced by rapacious profiteering, apathy, and a blind faith in reckless technology.  The Pope’s encyclical drew from multiple sources, including prominently the writing and work of his friend and brother-in-Christ, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His All Holiness Bartholomew I.  This is not surprising given the fact that during the 1990s Bartholomew became the first major international religious leader to systematically link theology to environmental problems and policy on a global level, an issue that he has continued to tirelessly advance and for which he has been recognized as a world leader for the last quarter century.  Indeed, Bartholomew’s pioneering initiatives on the protection of the natural environment—marked by international, interfaith, and interdisciplinary symposia and summits—began years before faith-based environmental movements in the West became political and fashionable.    

Despite Francis’ laudable and appropriate acknowledgment of the original and seminal role played by Bartholomew in promoting a Christian understanding of, and approach to, the environmental crisis of the present, the media generally ignored this attribution in Laudato Si and in the background reporting on Christianity and the environment.  Instead, the media has been quick to develop a distorted narrative that puts Francis in the role as the first major international religious leader to link theology to environmental issues.  In short, the inexorable force of the Western narrative has already produced a distorted story about religion, innovation, leadership, and originality that sidelines Orthodoxy and that presents Orthodoxy’s theology, language, ideas, and actions as Roman Catholic, as Western—a case of appropriation without attribution.

The subject of Francis’ encyclical may have marked a first for the Roman Catholic Church but it is not a first for and within Christianity.  Furthermore, although the Pope’s lengthy encyclical may contain some new assertive calls for action in the spheres of politics, government, and economics, the theological underpinnings from which the encyclical proceeds are derivative of Orthodox theology, in general, and the work and writing of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in particular.  Indeed, the encyclical’s central theme and repeated invocation of human stewardship and balance with nature represents a Roman Catholic volte-face, a complete rupture from the historic Roman Catholic materialist theology premised upon divine-right domination over the environment in favor of Orthodox thinking about the triune relationship between God, humanity, and nature.  Finally, inasmuch as the Vatican claims that Francis’ encyclical is intended as an ecumenical document to promote discussion and action within and across all faith traditions, it is equally important to respect the principles of ecumenicity by recognizing that such a discussion had been inaugurated well before the publication of Laudato Si and that the Pope’s encyclical is, in fact, an echo, a reflection, a product of that preexisting discussion, not its originating source.  In that spirit, the next two contributions to this blog will focus on the work of Francis’ forerunner in global environmentalism, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.