Europeans do like their titles. And why shouldn’t they? They have some excellent ones. I was attending a meeting in Britain of university presidents from around the world. I served as one of the academic consultants to this august group, and on the conference table my placard identified me the way the Brits typically do: shortened given names and lengthened titles. So my little sign read, “Prof. Dr. J. G. Stackhouse, Jr.”
The pleasant fellow beside me, however, was the rector of a Polish university and thus had an appropriately grander title. His card read, “His Magnificence K. H. P—-.”
When Martin Luther made his defense before the assembled dignitaries at the Diet of Worms in 1521, he addressed the Holy Roman Emperor thus: “Your Serene Majesty.” Not just “Your Majesty,” as we are used to hearing in terms of our own monarch, but “Your Serene Majesty.”
Serenity in this context clearly suggests someone so powerful that he is utterly unruffled by that which troubles ordinary people. Serenity, which derives from roots meaning “clear and calm” (as in weather), marks a superb highness in one who has risen loftily above all that disturbs and darkens those of us below.
In its imperial heyday, the city of Venice itself was known as La Serenissima—“the most serene one.” For centuries, that is, Venice was prosperous, beautiful, and secure, while other, lesser, principalities struggled along.
This quality of imperturbability characterized ancient Greek notions of greatness as well. Aristotle attributed the creation of the world to an “Unmoved Mover”: one who influences, but is not influenced.
In the cultural shadow of this way of thinking, early Christian theologians sought to glorify God by attributing to God the highest qualities they could imagine. They thus declared that God must be utterly serene—although they used terms such as “immutable” (= God cannot change) and “impassible” (= God cannot suffer).
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