The Puzzle of Polish Messianism (Interview)
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30


Mateusz Ciołkowski: What is Polish Messianism? How can you define it as simply as posssible?

Dr. Paweł Rojek: Polish Messianism is simply realisation of Christianity not only in individual, but also in collective lives, in social, political, economic and international reality. This is just how the author of this term, Józef Maria Hoene-Wroński, defined Messianism: christianisme accomplie, or the accomplished Christianity. Later, this term was popularised by the greatest Polish poet, namely Adam Mickiewicz, in his lectures in Collège de France, in Paris. The last great representative of that movement was, as it seems, John Paul II. A number of other ideas and attitudes have related to the notion of Messianism, but this one is absolutely the most important.

Is this an exclusively religious phenomenon, or is it somehow linked to politics?

Messianism is a doctrine on the verge of religion and politics. Its goal is to transform politics according to religious models. It is a true Polish political theology.

How could the relation between Messianism and modernity be identified? Are these totally contradicting and separate projects, or do they have some common scope?

The starting point for Messianism is the criticism of modern dualism. In accordance with it, Christianity was to refer only to the private sphere, whereas the public sphere was to remain totally independent from inspiration, justifications or religious arguments. Christians were to practice only individual virtues, whereas the whole social and political world was to be left to itself. This is a conviction which lied at the heart of the intellectual paradigm of modernity. Yet, it turned out that such dualism leads to secularisation. Private religion gradually becomes less and less visible and finally it vanishes. And it is very good, why should we need a religion which gives up the aspiration to transform the world? The Polish Messianists understood that secularisation dialectics very thoroughly. In many points, their reasoning is close to the ideas of a contemporary movement of John Milbank’s radical orthodoxy.

What was a positive proposal of the Polish Messianists?

They wanted to formulate an alternative vision of modernity. It was not supposed to be a return to any known models. The Messianists were convinced that until then in history it had not been possible to make the Christian principles come true consistently in the social life. Even the Middle Ages, so praised by the Christians, was, in their opinion, an epoch of destructive compromise with the pagan world. Transformation of history in the Christian spirit was usually called building of the Kingdom of God on earth. A part of that process was to be civilisation development, watched by the Polish Romantics with concern, on the one hand, and with hope, on the other. Thus, at the end of the day, Messianism was a highly progressive, and not conservative, movement. It contains a lot of pathos of modernity, yet understood not as secularisation, but as becoming aware of humanity’s subjectivity in history.

Yet, a number of commentators believe that Messianism was a heresy. Do you agree with such a position?

Obviously, Messianism was a heresy if it is evaluated according to the standards of the old dualistic theology. In late Middle Ages, Christianity adopted individualistic and transcendental model of salvation. The sense of life on earth was a collection of good deeds, which were rewarded in heaven. Such a concept is included, for instance, in the world bestseller of spiritual literature: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. The Polish Messianism gave up this image. Its authors understood salvation not only individualistically, but also collectively, and not only transcendentally, but also immanently. Humankind was supposed to realise, in earthly life, some positive mission in the world. August Cieszkowski, a Polish Messianist, who expressed this idea probably in the best way, did not dare to publish his great work Ojcze nasz [Our Father] until the end of his life in the fear of being accused of heresy. We can see today that he was right. A French Jesuit, Father Henri de Lubac, in his great work titled Catholicism, groundbreaking for the twentieth century theology, postulated a return to the social and earthly dimension of dogmas. Later on, such an integral vision of salvation became the basis of teachings of the Second Vatican Council. It seems that the Polish Messianists anticipated a great revival of theology, which took place in our century. Cardinal de Lubac himself admitted that when writing in superlatives about Mickiewicz’s lectures in Paris.

Critics of Messianic ideas often criticise the postulate of building the Kingdom of God on earth, perceiving in it almost a risk of totalitarianism. Are they right?

Messianism was a movement referring to a certain positive vision of human development, so, in a sense, it was utopian in its nature. However, not every utopia has to lead to totalitarianism. The idea of the Kingdom of God on earth was based on fundamental recognition of freedom and dignity of every human being. This is what differentiates it, among other things, from other secular or religious ideologies. The religious truth cannot be imposed by force, so a truly Christian system has to be based on the freedom of conscience and religion. So, it seems that it was rather rejection of that positive vision, and not its adoption, which led to the twentieth century totalitarianisms. Unfortunately, it took Church a very long time to formulate a positive vision of the earthly development of humankind. Hoene-Wroński sent urgent letters to successive popes, whereas Mickiewicz even met with Pius IX and, allegedly, he even pulled the Pope’s cassock. The first social encyclical, the famous Rerum novarum by Pope Leo XIII, appeared more or less half a century after the address of the first Polish Messianists. The old Cieszkowski received it with enthusiasm. However, it was very late. Secular ideologies took over the place abandoned by Christians. It was just the excessive caution of Church in formulating the vision of the future which led to the situation in which the future was appropriated first by communism, and next by the ideological liberalism. Thus, the Polish Messianism remained an unused chance.

According to the advocates of Messianism, what did it exactly mean to build the Kingdom of God on earth?

It is a very general slogan. There were a number of different proposals of actions, which were to go in that direction. For example, Hoene-Wroński counted on top-down social reforms introduced by kings, emperors and popes; on the other hand, Mickiewicz thought about a violent social and national revolution. Cieszkowski formulated an evolutionary programme of social, political and economic changes. He was the first one to call for organic work in Poland. In his opinion, building of the Kingdom of God included, for instance, establishing credit unions, developing agricultural education, and popularising artificial fertilisers. Another Polish supporter of Messianism, Stanisław Szczepanowski, built the foundations of the oil industry in Galicia. When he went bankrupt, other Messianists guaranteed his debts. Finally the example of Wojciech Dzieduszycki, understood building of the Kingdom of God simply as realisation, on the Polish soil, of the principles of the Catholic social teaching formulated by popes.

In your works dedicated to Messianism, you distinguish its three dimensions: Millenarianism, Missionism and Passionism. Could you characterise them briefly?

Building of the Kingdom of God on earth, or transformation of the world in the Christian spirit, is the most important element of the Polish Messianism. This idea could be called, following, for example, Andrzej Walicki, Millenarianism. However, apart from that Messianism was also linked to two other ideas, which often, but not always, co-existed with Millenarianism. The first of them was Missonism, or a belief that certain nations have distinctive functions in the joint effort aimed at transformation of the world. The Polish advocates of Messianism were usually convinced that Poland had such a special role to play, but sometimes they also spoke about France or Russia. The nations’ mission was usually justified not by some special virtues or by the fact of being God’s chosen ones, but rather by their history and geographic location. It was rather a burden than a privilege. Another, additional, idea was Passionism. This is how I suggest calling the belief in the sense of collective suffering. Some Messianists, though not all of them, believed that suffering is a necessary condition of building a better world. However, it did not have to mean some historic masochism. It was rather about finding the sense in suffering, which has already happened, and not about unhealthy search for successive defeats. Both those ideas, I think, could be somehow justified from the theological point of view. We have a developed, also in Poland, theology of the nation; there is also deep theology of suffering. Therefore, Millenarianism, Missionism and Passionism create jointly an ideological Messianic complex. I suggested that Messianism is considered a family notion in the sense adopted by Ludwig Wittgenstein. It covers all, or only some, of those ideas. Yet, key for Messianism is Millenarianism, i.e. the Christian revival of the world. On the other hand, Missionism and Passionism are only additions, although commonly they are sometimes identified with Messianism.

The critics of Messianism often comment the well-known formula of “Poland as the Christ of nations.” Where does it come from? How should it be understood?

Every student in Poland, when asked about Messianism, refers just to this very idea. It is a great metaphor used by Mickiewicz in Part 3 of Dziady [Forefathers' Eve]. It has been highly controversial since the very beginning. It seemed too bold to a number of commentators. They believed that, in this way, it threatens the uniqueness of the saviour and diminishes the significance of Christ’s passion. For instance, Juliusz Słowacki or Cyprian Norwid dissociated themselves from it, although they could be regarded as classical Messianists themselves. The formula of the Christ of nations does not have to be, however, understood in some blasphemous way. The other thing is that it was often interpreted wrongly.

What is this formula about then?

Its source was combination of Poles’ suffering described in Dziady with the liturgy of the Eucharist. In fact, it was Mickiewicz’s credo that communities, just like particular individuals, are called to imitate Christ. The life of every human, and also of every nation, can be thus interpreted as participation in Christ’s life, and hence, also in His passion, death and resurrection. It is not a blasphemy, but deep theology of collective suffering. It seems that new formulation of this concept was proposed by John Paul II, who, in his youth, remained under great influence of Polish Messianic poets and philosophers. During the German occupation, he wrote that Poland is a Job of nations, suffering innocently. Job was for him a type of Christ. This statement made by young Wojtyła clearly referred to Messianic concepts. Later on, John Paul II, during his memorable homily at Zwycięstwa Square in Warsaw, on 2 June 1979, solemnly included Polish collective suffering in Christ’s sacrifice. In this way, he did exactly what Mickiewicz had in mind.

In your book titled: Liturgia dziejów. Jan Paweł II i polski mesjanizm [Liturgy of History, John Paul II and the Polish Messianism] you put forward the thesis that the whole Pope’s teaching is permeated with the Polish Messianism.

No one can understand the Polish pope without the context of the Polish Messianism. Unfortunately, so far the Polish commentators have done very little to explain this context and show its significance for artistic, philosophical and theological works of Karol Wojtyła. It is amazing, but we have a number of works dedicated to the relationships between John Paul II and the German phenomenology, Spanish mysticism or Jewish philosophy of the dialogue, but not about relationships with the Polish Romantic philosophy. It seems that my book is the first systematic work on this subject. I have an impression that Polish commentators used to be somewhat afraid of the Pope’s relations with Messianism, thinking that it may throw some shadow on him. However, if we understand Polish Messianism adequately, we do not have to be afraid of anything.

Where did Karol Wojtyła’s Messianism come from?

Karol Wojtyła grew in the cult of the Polish Romantic poetry. He himself mentioned that many times, for example, in his interview with Vittorio Messori. Polish Romantics, such as Mickiewicz, Słowacki or even the Pope’s favourite, Norwid, were obviously Messanists. When he was young, Wojtyła wrote poems in which he predicted the advent of w new Slavonic epoch, which would constitute complete fulfilment of Christianity. He was friends with Mieczysław Kotlarczyk, a theatre visionary, who wanted to revive Christianity in Poland and in the world through art. Wojtyła’s letters to Kotlarczyk from the times of war have been preserved, in which all Messianic threads can be found. Finally, during the German occupation, Wojtyła joined an underground organisation called Unia. Its leader, Jerzy Braun, was a declared Messianist. George Weigel wrote in his biography of John Paul II that the goal of Unia was to support the civil society in its fight against totalitarianism. Well, apparently none of his Polish sources explained to him that, in fact, it was all about building of the Kingdom of God on earth!

Did the experience from his youth influence the Pope in any way?

It goes without saying that the Polish Messianism formed the social understanding of Karol Wojtyła’s Christianity. Later, those inspirations became reinforced by writings of the new twentieth century theology and the experience of the Second Vatican Council. Yet, in the thought of John Paul II one can notice three basic Messianic threads I have mentioned before. In my book titled Liturgia dziejów I tried to show it precisely. For example, the issue relating to the sense of collective suffering was first the subject of the correspondence with Kotlarczyk and the topic of dramas, Hiob [Job] and Jeremiasz [Jeremiah], written during the occupation, and next it was deepened in homilies during his first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 and, afterwards, in the Pope’s letter on suffering, Salvifici doloris. All those letters should be interpreted as one whole. It seems that in his later works, John Paul II developed and deepened his youthful intuitions, which he drew from the Polish Romantic tradition. The same can be perceived in the Pope’s theology of the nation, which was based on youthful Slavdom visions, and in the Pope’s theology of work, which develops the Messianic idea of building the Kingdom of God on earth.

Is it not, however, an accidental similarity of ideas? It was not only the Messianists who spoke about the sense of suffering or the theology of work.

There are a number of direct testimonies showing that John Paul II never abandoned his youthful inspirations. During his pilgrimages to Poland he provocatively referred to himself as a Slavonic Pope, undoubtedly alluding to the well-known poem, in which Słowacki allegedly foretold his pontificate. He filled his speeches to Poles with a lot of allusions to the Romantic poetry. I have also encountered a little-known amazing trail. One of the closest associates of John Paul II was Sister Emilia Ehrlich, a learned Ursuline of the Jewish origin, who, at the Pope’s order, made library searches and prepared footnotes for his documents. She was rarely active in public. Yet, in 1982, she gave an exquisite lecture in the Polish Institute of Christian Culture in Rome titled Comment on Some Aspects of Messianism, in which she outlined the contemporary theological interpretation of the Polish Messianism and she argued that key Messianic threads can be found in Karol Wojtyła’s writings. I do not have any doubts that those issues had to be of the Pope’s interest, since she was involved in them as his close associate. Unfortunately, Sister Emilia died a few years ago in Kraków, having suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and nobody managed to ask her about those issues. I hope that soon we will be able to translate her lecture into English. I have an impression that there is still a lot of work to do to properly understand the Polish context of the pontificate of John Paul II.

Paweł, among other things, you deal with the Russian philosophy scientifically. I wonder whether you can find any figures or works which, in some way, correspond to the programme or diagnosis of the Polish advocates of Messianism?

Relationships between the Polish and the Russian Messianism form a fascinating concept in the history of ideas. In 1824, Adam Mickiewicz was exiled in Russia and this is where he met the most important Russian Slavophiles. A cup with their signatures, which he received as a keepsake, has been preserved until now. Yet, it is difficult to state precisely who influenced whom. Perhaps everybody was drawing from the same sources, for example, from the then popular philosophy of Joseph de Maistre and mysticism of Louis Claude de Saint-Martin. It is certain that the mature Messianism of Mickiewicz was much more universal than the Russian missionism of Slavophiles. Later, such Russian philosophers as Vladimir Solovyov or Nikolai Berdyaev, talked about the Polish Messianism with great esteem. Solovyov thought highly of Mickiewicz, whereas Berdyaev invoked Cieszkowski. Russians, similarly to Poles before, hoped that their country may initiate the work of the Christian revival of the world. I tried to describe the Messianic rivalry between Poland and Russia in my article titled: The Trinity in History and Society. The Russian Idea, Polish Messianism, and the Post-Secular Reason. This conviction about a special mission of the Russian nation has been lasting until now among Russians. However, Polish advocates of Messianism were distrustful of the Russian projects. Krasiński, in his special memorial to Pope Pius IX warned against the Russian nihilism disguised under the cover of conservatism. I think that his diagnosis remains valid also today.

In recent years, Messianism has been going through a certain renaissance in Poland. The circles of “Pressja,” “Teologia Polityczna,” “Kronos” and “44” have dealt with this topic in different ways. What do modern Poles look for in it?

The beginning of the Polish transformation was a great Solidarity uprising in 1980. Its nature, as perceived by a number of commentators, was clearly Messianic. Poles wanted not only free themselves from communism, but also to build a new social system, inspired by Christianity, which would avoid both difficulties of socialist and capitalist societies. It seems that John Paul II really thought that this theological and political experiment might succeed. His writings from that period can be treated as a theological programme for the Solidarity movement. However, a sudden breach happened after 1989. Poles opted not so much for building of a new system as for the imitation of the existing models of liberal democracy. Solidarity heritage, and also Messianic heritage of John Paul II, were deeply renounced and regarded as something non-useful and shameful. In 1990’s, the end of the Romantic era was announced. Poles, instead of dreaming about the Kingdom of God on earth, were to deal with hard market reality. Nowadays, however, the neoliberal model of transformation adopted many years ago is more and more often questioned. High social costs, dependence of the Polish economy and limitation of the public discourse are pointed out. The generation which grew after neoliberal transformation, begins to become interested in the forgotten alternatives. Thus, many intellectual circles become interested, for example, in the old Polish republicanism or just Romantic Messianism. Quite unexpectedly Messianic categories, which were to be forgotten forever, came back to the mainstream. First, in the intellectual circles, later, among writers and artists, and, finally, among politicians. Still a few years ago Donald Tusk announced during his exposé that Poles do not wish to have any Messianism, but today Mateusz Morawiecki tells journalists that he dreams about the revival of Christianity in Europe.

So, does the current Polish government realise the Messianic programme?

It seems to me that the appearance of such threads in the main trend of the public debate proves that Poles go back to their traditional language. And this is already a lot.


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