Concluding thoughts on messy Christian history after Constantine

This is the final post in a series on the messy reality of church history after Constantine wherein I have tackled both those who decry ‘Constantinianism’ for ‘polluting’ a ‘pure’ church and those who believe the conversion of Constantine was the greatest thing ever to happen. The other posts are listed at the bottom of this one.

And what, after all this, do I think about church life after Constantine?

I think that relations between the Church/Christianity and the secular government have always, before Constantine and after, a mixture of pleasures and pains.

The Post-Constantinian Pleasures

Painted Cast of Prima Porta Augustus, Ashmolean Museum
Painted Cast of Prima Porta Augustus, Ashmolean Museum

Legal existence and imperial favour are not always bad things! Christians could now meet freely and evangelise freely. They could expand the houses-turned-churches. They could publically build more purpose-built houses of worship (meeting in houses isn’t some sort of pristine vision for Christianity but a necessity for the persecuted).

Christians could now more easily pursue careers in the public service. Sure, this sometimes meant compromise. But it also sometimes meant finally giving Roman government a conscience when it came to things like disaster relief and aid for the poor (beyond Rome’s pomerium).

Indeed, giving government something of a conscience is probably one of the greatest benefits of the cozy relationship Christians now had with Rome and, later, her successor states and other non-Roman Christian polities throughout history. Christians with access to persons of power, who sometimes were persons of power, and access to wealth could provide their nations with hospitals and houses for the poor and lepers.

Because the monastic movement in all Christian societies had some level of official sanction by the Early Middle Ages (if not earlier), monasteries/lavrae/hermitages/priories/anchorholds became alternative ways of living beyond the secular world of warrior masculinity and domestic feminity, of survival for the poor beyond subsistence farming, of, indeed, places for the otherwise voiceless to be heard — think of the monastic women such as St Hildegard von Bingen who had the ear of powerful men or male monastics of humble origin such as St Bonaventure. The monastic movement was also a legitimised counterculture for young men otherwise destined for earthly power and glory, such as St Francis of Assisi.

Notre-dame de Paris
Notre-dame de Paris

Another source of great fecundity in the relationship between the imperia and the church was artistic culture. I cannot stand in Notre-Dame de Paris or St-Denis or Milan’s Duomo or Sant’Ambrogio in Milan or St Paul’s in London or Glasgow Cathedral and say, ‘What a shame the Church teamed up with the secular powers in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.’ This legimation of Christianity in secular eyes has meant the preservation of our faith’s art. I am, as I write, listening to St Hildegard’s music; could this beauty have survived so intact if produced by a hounded, persecuted minority?

My research literally delves into the world of the mediaeval book. Canon law tomes are not, it is to be admitted, the most beautiful. But I wouldn’t want to live in a world where the Kingdom of Northumbria did not foster monasticism to allow the Lindisfarne Gospels, or the Kingdom of the Picts likewise with Iona and the Book of Kells, or the Carolingians likewise and the over 7000 manuscripts that exist from their century and a half, two centuries, alone — most of them driven by the desire of the Carolingian monarchs to reform their society and church around the Christian Gospel.

A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)
A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)

Think: Michelangelo. El Greco. Hieronymous Bosch. Da Vinci. Fra Angelico. Pre-Raphaelites. Raphael. Bernini. Or: Late mediaeval Flemish altarpieces. Stained glass. San Vitale’s mosaics.

A lot of Christian writings would not have survived, if they’d even been written. What would we do without the City of God? Dante’s Divine Comedy? What if Pseudo-Dionysius’ works had all perished? Life without John Donne? Would someone like Gregory Palamas, so dense and hard to comprehend, have made the cut? Would Bernard of Clairvaux have gone into religious life with no monasteries for third sons? No Bede?

Without Constantine (or someone like him) — none of this culture.

That would be a lesser world, wouldn’t it?

There have been pleasures and benefits for Christianity and the imperium, real, substantive benefits. We cannot deny this.

The Pains

Charlemagne, not that he had a beard in real life (Paris, Parvis de Notre-Dame)
Charlemagne, not that he had a beard in real life (Paris, Parvis de Notre-Dame)

But befriending the Emperor is kind of like befriending Two Face, isn’t it? For example, I’m in favour of St Boniface’s evangelising zeal. The early Carolingians supported his mission to bring Gospel and order to what is now Germany. But Charlemagne’s version of mission involved the forced conversion of Saxons whose options were baptism or death.

In Notker’s Life of Charlemagne we read of how Charlemagne induced Danish Vikings to get baptised by giving them gifts. One year, so many came they didn’t have enough white baptismal robes, and one Viking complained that his robe was shabbier than the one he’d got the year before! He protested the Charlemagne was getting stingy.

What does baptism even mean to that Viking or to the Saxons bathing before the Frankish sword?

Charlemagne is not the only ruler to evangelise by the sword. Both King Olaf Tryggvason (d. 1000) and King St Olaf Haraldsson (d. 1030) used this method to evangelise Norway. And, if Njal’s Saga has anything to say, the Olaf-sponsored missionary Thangbrand was not afraid of using violence to promote Christianity in Iceland.

It is said that in Latvia when the king converted he had everyone get baptised. They all went down to the river the next day to wash off their baptism.

The Christianisation of Europe, which brought with it a connection between the cultures of the North (from Iceland and Ireland to Estonia and Latvia to Russia) and the cultures of the classical Mediterranean, certainly tamed some aspects of life, although sometimes I wonder of some of the toning down of harsh aspects of law had more to do with Rome than with Jesus.

Mind you, sometimes Roman punishments and practices of law continued that Christians should have left behind, such as when Maximus the Confessor had his tongue cut out for espousing theology contrary to the imperial vision.

The Christianisation of Europe got a lot of people baptised. And many were sincere. But that was faith a mile wide and an inch deep. If these men were truly, deeply Christian, why did the Pope need to keep making up reasons to keep French nobility from killing each other? Why do Icelandic men keep the cycle of revenge, feud, honour killings, and the like after the conversion of the island in 1000? Why do people complain over and over and over again about the unholy, sinful behaviour of those on pilgrimage?

Finally, another problem arises when Europe starts meeting new people. The first priest in Canada is said to have uttered, ‘First these savages must be civilized, then they will be ready to receive the Gospel.’ An attitude that was hard to shake — for if everyone in Europe is a ‘Christian’, where does European end and Christian begin?

God never will never forsake us

In conclusion, however, I would like to state that God gigantic. He is bigger than Constantine, bigger than Quakers, bigger than Anglicanism, bigger than Charlemagne, bigger than bad missionaries, bigger than Gregory Palamas, bigger than the Great Schism, bigger than the Reformation, bigger than Icelandic sagas, bigger than everything good or bad the Church has done throughout history.

No matter how corrupt the institutions of the Church have become, and it has happened at different times and different places, God has remained faithful. And there have always been faithful Christians who are part of that Church, quietly going about holy lives or vivaciously calling for reform, whether Caesarius in 520, Boniface in 720, Francis in 1220, or Luther in 1520.

Part One is here. Part 2a is about the Late Antique targets for the regularisation of official orthodoxy; Part 2b is about the mediaeval targets. Part 3 is about the orthodox targets of official Christianity. Part 4 is about the Inquisition. I also wrote an excursus on the Synod of Whitby in 664.

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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.

Saint of the Week: Good King Wenceslas (Václav I of Bohemia)

You best know Václav I of Bohemia (907-935) from J M Neale’s popular hymn, ‘Good King Wenceslas’, wherein the saint looks out and sees a poor man gathering winter fuel, decides to bring flesh and wine and pine logs thither to the man’s home, and as he walks forth with his page, his footsteps are warm to keep warm his page as the night grows darker and the wind stronger.

Tradition tells us that his grandfather, Borivoj I, was converted to Christianity by Cyril and Methodius (saints of the week here), and that Václav’s father, Vratislav I, was himself raised in a Christian setting. Václav’s mother, Drahomíra, was the daughter of a pagan nobleman, baptised at the time of her marriage to Vratislav. When Václav was 13 years old, Vratislav died, and the young man was thenceforth raised by his Christian grandmother, St Ludmila.

In a dispute over the regency, Drahomíra had Ludmila strangled. And according to tradition, she then tried to raise Václav in the old ways.

Around 924, Václav took the reins of power for himself. At this time, Bohemia was under pressure from the Magyars (nomadic linguistic forebears of Hungarians) who kept raiding as well as from the East Frankish kingdom that wanted Bohemia for itself. Early in his reign, he also had to put down a rebellion by a fellow named Radslav. In 929, the East Frankish King Henry the Fowler and Duke Arnulf of Bavaria invaded Bohemia, reached Prague, and exacted tribute from Václav.

In other areas, Václav was known for his Christian piety and established a church to St Vitus, today’s St Vitus Cathedral in Prague. He also had a reputation for being educated and treating the poor well. Hence, J M Neale’s hymn.

In 935, his pagan brother Boleslav invited Václav over for the feast of Sts Cosmas and Damian where he had Václav assassinated. ‘Therefore, Christian men be sure, / wealth and rank possessing, /ye who know will bless the poor / shall yourselves find blessing’? So ends the sad tale of Václav, patron saint of the Czech Republic and one of the many rulers of the Early Middle Ages seeking to establish his kingdom in the midst of the forces of the Franks and various eastern migrations, caught between regents in his youth, greater armies in his adulthood, and his brother at the end. But his blessing was a golden crown to be cast down around the glassy sea.

For your listening pleasure:

Confession: Outside of his having been slain by his pagan brother and Duke of Bohemia, I knew nothing of Václav beforehand and adapted this from the Wikipedia entry.

Blog Posts for Context re Green Men and Christianisation

At least nine, and possibly more than twenty, people have read yesterday’s post, Brief Thoughts on the Green Man. I would like to draw the attention of my readers to some posts here that may de-fuse any sticky situations that may arise from people who think I’m off my rocker or have no clue what I’m talking about. In anti-chronological order, they are:

A Few Thoughts About ‘Celtic’ Christianity

Christianisation Under Justinian Part 1 and Part 2

Rosslyn Chapel, ‘the Celts’, and the Christianisation of Europe

I thought there were more that would be useful, but they seem not to be. Enjoy!

Christianisation Under Justinian: 2

A friend of mine is a minister at a church with a very multicultural, international congregation. One day, of the many Africans in his congregation came to him and offered to pay him so that he would put a curse on someone for him. His answer was a firm no.

This is the sort of startling story we hear coming out of Africa more frequently than most of us are very comfortable with. But if the Global South is becoming the new Christendom, as Philip Jenkins argues in The Next Christendom, then ought it not to have all the characteristics of the old Christendom?

When I first mentioned the Christianisation of Europe here, it was in the context of the persistence of pagan practices throughout the Middle Ages, after Europe was an ostensibly “Christian” continent. The ongoing resort to non- and pre-Christian practices by believers go back to the sixth century under Justinian, if not earlier.

One letter of Barsanuphius and John will suffice:

Letter 753:Question: Since my beast of burden is ill, it’s not out of place for someone to cast a spell on it, is it?

Answer: The casting of spells forbidden by God, and it is not necessary to make use of it all, for it is destruction of the soul to transgress the command of God. Apply to it, rather, the treatments and cures of veterinarians,* for this is not a sin. Pour over it holy water as well.

Given that the person addressed the letter to the Two Old Men of Gaza, he was probably well associated with the church (although we cannot forget the social function of the holy man in Late Antiquity). We cannot assess this person’s level of Christian commitment. This person could be head-over-heels for Christ and attend Church assiduously. However, how many sermons about spell-casting do you really ever here? And how well catechised is the growing Christian population of the Eastern Roman Empire in the sixth century?

What this letter illustrates is the continuation of apparently “pagan” practices in the Christian Empire on the part of Christians. It also demonstrates the difficulties attendant on catechising the many Christians of Justinian’s Empire. It also casts away the easy distinction between “Pagans” and “Christians” as we observe the historical record.

Finally, it brings home the importance of helping Christians learn accurate Christian faith and practice so they don’t go around casting spells on sick beasts of burden.

*Lit. “horse-doctors”.

Christianisation Under Justinian: 1

Inspired by some reading I did after this post.

As mentioned in passing previously, the later Patristic age saw a new development in Christianity as large quantities of people converted for social, political, or legal reasons. Over this period, with a succession of Christian Emperors, measures were often taken by the secular government to impose spiritual uniformity in the Empire — this was done as a means of ensuring the continued success of the Pax Romana (thus, the same reason the old pagan Emperors persecuted the Christians) as well as of helping along the spread of orthodoxy.

In response to the Emperor Justinian’s anti-Samaritan measures in this direction — measures that included the closure of Samaritan synagogues and the removal of the right to bequeath property to anyone other than orthodox Christians — the Samaritans of Palestine revolted in 529. The revolt was duly suppressed, and distressed monks sent petitions to the Emperor concerning the destruction of property of Christians. This year is the same year he is alleged to have closed or suppressed the Academy in Athens. (I need a better reference for this to confirm whether it’s true or not.)

Throughout his reign, Justinian also sought to Christianise the Empire through the dual methods of conversion and force, both of which we see in the career of John of Ephesus. John was sent by the Emperor to Asia to convert the pagans there to Christianity. He was also sent around Constantinople at a later date to round up people who were still practising “idolatry” and force them to repent, be properly catechised, and then baptised. This  latter action involved rounding up a large number of upper-class Romans in a church and forcing them to stay inside until they recanted.

In light of these actions geared towards the suppression of non-Christian religions in the Eastern Roman Empire in Justinian’s reign, in the years following 529 a lot of people converted to the Emperor’s religion. This produces interesting problems for the clergy, as we see in some of the letters sent and received by the monastic elders Barsanuphius and John of Gaza:

Letter 821:Question: A decree was promulgated by the Emperor that commands that the Greeks* [sc. Pagans] are not to make use of their customs, and similarly the aposchists [sc. ‘Monophysites‘]. Indeed, certain of them came after holy Pascha, some  to be baptised, others to enter into communion. Ought they to be received? And when ought it to be appropriate for the baptism and the holy communion?

Answer: It is necessary that those wishing to be enlightened are received, and to give them holy baptism in the holy Forty Days or on the Ascension of the Saviour, and they have the week as a festival. But if any of them is considered to do this through custom or simply through fear of the decree, say to him, “If you come because of the decree, this is a sin, but if with fear of God because of your life, it becomes two goods for you, the advantage of your life [sc. spiritual life] and of your body.” It is necessary for the same thing to be spoken by those who wish to enter communion with the Church. And if they say, “Because of God we have come,” receive them forthwith, for they are Christians. (SC 468, pp. 290-292, my trans.)

The next letter is also interesting. The question runs, “Since one of the Gentiles [sc. Pagans] was being arrogant in the midst of the faithful, many say that he ought to be killed or burned: is this good or not?” The answer is, of course, NO, that such action is not Christian. Instead, he is to be handed over to someone for catechesis so that his soul may be saved and he be baptised, entering the ranks of the church.

These two instances show us how … um … evangelism(??) works in an increasingly Christian Empire. Justinian decrees against pagans and non-Orthodox (not just Monophysites but also Nestorians and Arians — the former being driven out of the Empire), and as a result there is a very large number of baptisms and reconciliations to be made. The clergyman of Letter 821 wants to do the right thing, so inquires of the Two Old Men, who give him wise advice. No doubt many were dunked without such care.

Letter 822 reminds us that when the Church becomes an institutional power, we become confused as to what a Christian ought to do. Someone was acting hubristically towards the Christians (κρατέω is the verb used of his action; he acted like he ruled over them) — let’s kill him … no, better yet, let’s burn him! Response: “οὐκ ἔστι γὰρ τοῦτο χριστιανῶν” — This is not of the Christians!

Monasticism helps preserve the way of peace and love, the way of costly grace (cf. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship ch. 1), in the face of an institutionalised Church that is becoming a cultural, social creature.

*Byzantines thought of themselves as Romans.

Rosslyn Chapel, “the Celts”, and the Christianisation of Europe

My wife and I visited Rosslyn Chapel, a Scottish Episcopal Church in the village of Roslin just outside Edinburgh, the other day. It has been made famous by the infamous Dan Brown and his The Da Vinci Code. Its (probable/possible) connexions to the Knights Templar has made for a wealth of exuberant speculation about the myriad decorations in this Collegiate Church of St. Matthew.

Outside of things directly traceable to the Freemasons, with whom the St. Clairs — the Lords of Rosslyn — have historically-attested connexions, most of this speculation is … silly, in my opinion. The sort of silliness borne of people who hear “Freemason” think “Templar” and then see something ornate and think “Code,” rather than “MEDIAEVAL.”

In this beautiful, ornate chapel there are 110 Green Men. Now, if you don’t know about the Green Man, he’s not a mediaeval proto-extraterrestrial. He is a carven image of a man’s head surrounded by foliage and with foliage coming out of his mouth. Some modern renderings of the Green Man make him entirely out of plants. The Green Men of Rosslyn Chapel, from what I saw, are of the former variety.

Here is what the current Earl of Rosslyn in Rosslyn Chapel says:

Over one hundred [Green Men] have been counted in the interior of the building, a profusion of pagan fertility symbols not unexpected in a place so influenced by the Celtic tradition. … The green man symbolised the capacity for great goodness and the parallel scope for significant evil. (21-22)

The Earl goes on to give us a bit of Robin Hood, connecting him with the Green Man.

What surprised me and provoked this post was the statement that pagan fertility symbols are “not unexpected in a place so influenced by the Celtic tradition.” What Celtic tradition, exactly? That of Freemasonry? Or that of the Irish monks who were virulently anti-pagan and Christianised Scotland? Or that of the … continental … Gothic … architecture of Rosslyn Chapel …??

Facts: The Green Man is not peculiarly Celtic, and Rosslyn Chapel is not especially “Celtic”, and this region of Scotland was settled by Anglo-Saxons in the Early Middle Ages, so it was not really very “Celtic” by 1446 when construction began on the chapel.

I’m not going to argue that the Green Man is something other than a pagan fertility symbol (I reckon that’s exactly where he comes from — as to why he’s on churches, that’s a different question altogether), although I’m curious as to the stuff about goodness and evil — it sounds like romanticised neo-paganism to me.

But I am going to argue that the presence of pagan things has nothing to do with Celtic-ness in these whereabouts, even if the Pictish population of Mid- and East Lothian had not been assimilated by the Germanic invaders. Or, at least, if it’s related to Celtic-ness here, it’s just as related to Italian-ness in Italy, Cypriot-ness in Cyprus, Spanish-ness in Spain, French-ness in France, Germanic-ness in the Holy Roman Empire, and so forth.

Conversion to Christianity took a new turn after Constantine’s conversion in the early 300’s, a turn that was kicked into high gear by Theodosius I in 381 when pagan rites in the Roman Empire were outlawed. Justinian (r. 527-565) sought the forcible conversion of pagans throughout Asia Minor and hunted down idolaters in his Christian capital of Constantinople. With a growing number of Christian rulers and potentates, conversion to Christianity became a matter of more than merely personal conviction.

In some cases, as with Olav in Norway or Charlemagne amongst the mainland Saxons, converting meant that you got to keep your life. In other cases, converting meant you got to keep your land, your titles, your money. In some cases, converting meant that you got a better job at court, or extra land, extra titles, and extra money. There were very compelling reasons to become a “Christian”, and not all of them had to do with the death of a Jewish rabbi c. AD 33.

The Christianisation of Europe is an interesting phenomenon as a result. It is true that there has always been a notable population of sincere, honest, devout, catechised Christians in the cities and towns of Europe. It is also true that paganism often went underground in the Middle Ages — even in an ostensibly “Christian” city such as Constantinople; this is often what “witches” were up to, I suspect — worshipping pre-Christian deities with pre-Christian rites.

Sometimes, paganism was simply syncretised into Christianity. Thus, at the Church built on the site of the Temple of Aphrodite in Paphos, Cyprus, to this day women wishing to conceive wrap threads around the building. There is the possibility that St. Brigid of Kildare (not to be confused with the many other Sts. Brigid) was just the slapping of an ST onto a local deity. A lot of local festivals of fire have been maintained to this day. There are more, but I’m tired.

All of this is to say that the Celtic-speaking peoples of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales were no more keen on paganism than the Germanic-, Romance-, Greek-, and Slavic-speaking peoples of mainland Europe. Any pagan connexion the Green Men of Rosslyn Chapel may have is not due to any so-called “Celtic” connexions the area may have had.

But, you see, this problem is the problem of the mythic “Celts.” Everyone lays claim to the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval Celtic-speaking peoples of these isles, sometimes tossing in some of the continental Gauls for fun. The evangelicals see them as some sort of Church free from Roman influence, while the Catholics see them as good Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox as good Western Orthodox. The Neo-pagans and New Agers get all excited about them, too, and lay claim to these peoples as their own. One article I’ve seen discusses the similarities between “Celtic” thought and St. Maximus the Confessor; another wonders at the great similarities between “Celts” and Buddhists.

Basically, say anything you like about being free-spirited, and earthy, and in touch with nature, and making distinctive art forms, and believing in the closeness of the numinous, and being free from oppressive hierarchies, and about making Christianity real to the culture you’re in — or about resisting subversively the influx of Christian ideas — and attribute it to “the Celts”, and you have a hit. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.

So many of the things people imagine to be distinctively Celtic, such as Green Men or the persistence of pagan images and ideas throughout the Middle Ages, are, quite simply, Mediaeval. But we don’t have enough Mediaevalists to go around, do we?