Missiology and Christian History

Caesarius giving his ‘Rule’ to two nuns (MS c. 990, Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc.Lit.142, fol. 65)

I am spending all of tomorrow at a day-conference about Caesarius of Arles (470-542; bp of Arles 502-542). The opening lecture by William Klingshirn of CUA, tonight (Friday), discussed scholarship on Caesarius, past, present, and future, 1970-2042. One of the interesting points he brought up, and this is something he also discussed in his 1994 book Caesarius of Arles: The Making of a Christian Community in Late Antique Gaul, was the re-interpretation of Caesarius as an evangelist (I’ve only read the introduction, though, so don’t blame him for what follows).

The traditional image of Caesarius of Arles is that he was a great evangelist of Provence and helped drive out the paganism and superstitions that were present in the more rural areas, establishing Christian orthodoxy as we know it.

There is probably truth to that.

But Caesarius as ecclesiastical reformer does not necessarily mean Caesarius vs. paganism and superstition. This is the same sort of image we have of the Reformers everywhere they went, burning statues and smashing stained glass. The truth of these encounters is more nuanced than that, and this is where more recent scholarship is heading.

What Caesarius represents is the ascetic-monastic vision of the Christian life from Lérins, strongly influenced by Augustine and Cassian. What Caesarius represents is the official hierarchy, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy of the organised Christianity of the monasteries, the cities, Rome. What he counters could very well be ‘baptised’ pagan practices. It could also, and here I conjecture based on other examples brought up by Peter Brown in The Cult of the Saints and Authority and the Sacred, be different visions of Christianity, different ways of celebrating that arise in the local context from their encounter with the gospel.

Some things that people like Caesarius and Augustine are fighting against are laudably combatted, such as turning feast days into opportunities for gluttony and drunkenness; some of their positive actions are also helpful such as seeking to install biblical morality in a local population. Other things, such as sacred springs, sacred oaks (such as the one St Boniface [saint of the week here] famously cut down), and so forth, which are favourites of men like Caesarius and Boniface, are probably remnants of paganism, indeed.

The difficulty that happened in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages when Christianity left the cities and went into the countryside of Gaul or the wilderness of Armenia or northern Europe was figuring out where superstition ends and local culture begins. Does the city need to worship like a monastery on Lérins? If people don’t make it to Matins, is it because they are half-pagan still?

This is the problem facing Christian mission at all times. And our standard response, particular moments of inculturation notwithstanding, is to impose the entire Christian system of our own cities, monasteries, cultures, lives upon those of others, be they central such as the truths of the creeds or adiaphora such as particular feast days or certain modes of worship.

What the church must do in all cultural situations is negotiate these boundaries, and seek to present Christ to new peoples and help create worshipping communities that worship in spirit and in truth as part of the trans-temporal, trans-cultural communion of all saints. And as we do so, we need to be open to the gifts and strengths of the new and the old believers in the cities and cultures where we work, rather than always assuming a paternal position that we have authority and are right — on which, see this post at George in Exile.

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