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.

Re-rethinking polytheists and persecutions (a palinode)

Because any reference to the Christian rulers of Rome requires Constantine's big, giant head
Because any reference to the Christian rulers of Rome requires Constantine’s big, giant head

Every once in a while, a blogger has an idea that he or she would like to be true. Some of these thoughts remain unexpressed because one knows that there is insufficient evidence to argue for the existence of Sasquatch or of dinosaurs alive in Africa.* Sometimes, a blogger can’t help oneself and tries to push the evidence farther than it can go.

And, really, this is what we expect of blogs, right?

Well, I think bloggers should hold themselves to the same standards of truthfulness and accuracy that other writers do, whether journalists or academics. This doesn’t mean always being as rigorous about hunting down proper citations or always waiting to be a proper expert, but it does mean a certain amount of care, thoughtfulness, and caution.

Because, whether you’re blogging about video games or about race in American cinema or about Christian history or about Mormons — or whether you write professional in more formal fora on those subjects — what you are hopefully seeking to express is, in fact, the truth. Seeking to unpack it, whether from obscurity or obfuscation or empty rhetoric or confusion or whatever.

So, I recant, and I remove my most recent post about polytheistic intolerance, due to this comment from Richard Burgess:

Alas, not up to your usual standards. Syncretism generally avoided clashes between religions. Actions against some religions, like the Bacchanalians, were on social grounds, not religious. The Jews they generally tolerated, although every once in a while there were isolated bouts of exile or public violence against them. Actions against Christians arose, first, because they were a new religion, which was an oxymoron for everyone in the ancient world, and failed to participate in public cult (Rome insisted that everyone except the Jews participate in public cult to preserve the Pax deorum, which is really crossing the line from religion to politics and governance) and later it was for their intransigence, and their wealth, which have nothing to do with religion, per se. By the third quarter of the third century they had generally been accept into society. The Great Persecution was an anomalous rear-guard action to fight a war that had already been lost. Manichaeans everyone hated, but there weren’t that many of them and the Romans really don’t seem to have understood them, so for the most part they seem to have been the Roman version of ‘Commies’ that people were finding under every bed. I’m not sure how much really had to do with religion per se as it did with politics (the popes, like Leo, took up the hunt for Manichaeans after the emperors had given it up, and always seemed to find them when things got slow). Christians, on the other hand, in their zeal for uniformity, right from the beginning certainly precipitated and endured more internal and strictly religious conflict that any polytheistic groups, who never argued about the meaning of their god(s) or religious observances in the way Christians did.

It would be surprising to find any society suffered no religious conflict, but when you consider the enormous religious diversity of the Roman empire and the fact that we are talking about a period of, say, 500 or 600 years, the empire’s official tolerance toward just about every religion and its general lack of religious conflict is indeed an amazing, though by no means perfect, model that the modern world would do well to imitate.

My response to the very substantive first paragraph

Sadly for my last post, all true. Part of me wonders if intermittent persecutions of Christians might not have continued after Diocletian, but we’ll never know. I do know that intermittent persecutions of Christians and other minorities have been an occasional aspect of Indian/Hindu history, but — again — uncommon. And the Hindus, like the Romans, have not been 100% all for persecution for all time.

This fact, to turn back to the Romans, is a fact to be considered. When we hear, ‘Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire,’ we imagine that from Nero to Diocletian, every Christian everywhere feared for his or her life and was completely barred from normal public life, hiding in catacombs amongst the corpses of martyrs.

But, in fact, persecution was an intermittent affair for the first three centuries of Christian life, and not all of it was state-sponsored — the martyrs of Lyon were victims of mob violence, if you read the text closely enough. And when persecution was state-sponsored, its enforcement was not uniform, anyway — like any government policy, especially in the ancient world. And what it involved also varied — not necessarily death.

All religious persecution in the Roman world had a social and political element to it, whether Bacchanalians in 186 BC, or the various times Jews were kicked out of Rome, or the different persecutions of Christians, or the universal distaste the Mediterranean authorities had for Manichaeism.

How does the Christian empire compare to the polytheists?

In this regard, Christian rulers have not compared favourably to Roman polytheists/syncretists/’pagans’. This is why Anabaptist groups and Quakers have distanced themselves from state churches — this is why state churches did their best to prove Anabaptists and Quakers right by persecuting them.

The problem, as I see it, is this: Most people in the ancient world imagined that the right rites meant political success. If they didn’t actually believe it, they would at least act like it. When Constantine and his successors converted to Christianity (and, regardless of any ‘failures’ in belief and policy, I believe Constantine’s conversion was genuine), it became important for the Empire to gradually adopt Christian rites because otherwise God would be angry, and then all hell would break loose. (Maybe literally, maybe not.) As a result of this, the tables were turned on the polytheists.

Christianity has demonstrated itself to not be quite as well organised as most of us would like. We have the proto-orthodox, represented by Irenaeus, reacting with alarm at ‘Gnostic’-type groups who are seeking to separate themselves in some fashion as the true spiritual elite. But, worse than out-and-out heretics, that is, groups who use the name Christian but have very widely divergent visions of what that means from each other and what comes to be official orthodoxy, is schism. Novatianists are perfectly orthodox — Novatian’s writings on the Trinity are recommended reading. Donatists are also a problem.

We are busy excommunicating each other and deposing bishops and things long before 312, see.

When you combine this tendency towards intra-ecclesiastical regulation of belief and cult with the idea that the government has to make sure the rites are right, it’s a dangerous situation for those of divergent views.

This, at least, is my theory why Christians persecuted not just pagans and Jews but heretics and schismatics — thus regulating belief so much more closely than did the polytheists.

The second paragraph is also spot-on

Richard’s second paragraph is one with which I have long been in agreement. I will re-quote the final clause:

The empire’s official tolerance toward just about every religion and its general lack of religious conflict is indeed an amazing, though by no means perfect, model that the modern world would do well to imitate.

I think that love is the best way to bring people around to true conversion to orthodox Christianity, whether they are Mormons or ‘pagans’. I am also thoroughly supernaturalist in worldview so that I think true conversion is a matter of God’s activity in a person anyway. For these related reasons, I don’t think the church should force conformity on people outside (I also think there is a wide range of things upon which we within needn’t conform, either).

Freedom of belief is an act of love. It is also an act of protection by a government. I think the secular government should be neither religious nor secularist. It should favour Hindus, Christians, atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, et al., without prejudice — both individuals and organisations. I cannot remember the subtleties right now, but I urge all Christians to read Miroslav Volf’s essay (I think the one about John?) that treats the subject in his book Captive to the Word of God. There you will see that, while not arguing for individual pluralism, there is a biblical case for pluralism in governance. (FYI: Don’t actually try to argue with me on that subject, though, because I am undoubtedly woefully inadequate.)

Anyway, I was wrong. Mea culpa. We should all think on the tolerant attitude of Romans towards those who worship and think differently — an attitude that in personal relations certainly had room for debate, so don’t worry about that!

*But, seriously, who doesn’t want that to be true?