Our second-century moment

‘Orans’ figure, Catacombs of Santa Priscilla. 3rd/4th c.

Many people are comparing our current cultural moment to the final decades of Roman rule in the western Empire and the first century or so thereafter (in order to evoke both St Augustine (d. 430) and St Benedict (d. 547) as guides). There are parallels. But some people are also putting forward the argument that we are living in a second-century moment, at least as far as Christianity in the wider culture is concerned.

This has its parallels as well.

First, the government isn’t really persecuting Christians in the West (despite what some of the fear-mongers will tell you). Instead, for the first time since 312, they frankly do not give a care what Christians believe and desire. We have become a non-issue for them. Although there has been a narrative created of the pre-Constantinian world being one of unrelenting persecution, for most of the second century, Christians were not systematically persecuted, and only occasionally. Persecution is a big hassle, so the government needs to have itself a goal before engaging in one.

Second, the religious map of the world around is becoming more and more pluralist. Now, this doesn’t mean we’ve arrived at the pluralist utopia promised back in the ’90s. No, people are not interested in Christianity as one equal option among many. They’ll express such an idea, but if your Christian conviction leads you step out of line on a specific issue dear to the culture’s heart, you’ll find out just how rigid and puritanical everyone still is. That said, the actual religious landscape is increasingly varied due to the unchurching of many white people on the one hand and the arrival of newcomers to the West who bring with them their own religion. When I lived in Toronto, I visited a massive, stone Hindu Mandir besides a little shopfront Buddhist temple. Alongside these are homegrown New Age manifestations and the organisation of humanism into a new religious movement. The religious landscape of the Roman Empire was itself a smorgasbord, as the excavations at Dura Europos show us (3rd-century Syria).

Third, the internal world of Christianity has been seeing (for quite a while) the return of old heresies, of Gnosticism both explicitly and implicitly. Gnosticism here can be defined as an impulse towards salvation through knowledge about facts and things, gnosis, as opposed to knowing God (which is a personal reality); an impulse towards esotericism, towards secret knowledge; an impulse towards dualism; a rejection of the material world as truly good; a deep spirituality that relativises the place of Christ and thus diminishes him — a cosmic Christ consciousness that I participate in is a lesser thing than Christ as God.

And besides these, versions of Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and Apollinarianism are appearing. They may not be second-century, but their attempts to drown out the symphony of orthodoxy with their own discordant monotony is the same.

None of these parallels is exact, of course. As a historian, I could start pulling each one apart. But to the extent that they hold, what I think they can do is help us frame our attempts to be and make disciples of the living Lord Jesus in our cultural moment. And they also highlight the second century as a place for us to go in forging an ancient-future Christianity, as an important period for the sources of the ressourcement.

To that end, my friend Brian and I will be giving a series of lectures this fall specifically on the second century and how its resources can help Christians today.

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