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Showing posts with label Gnosticism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gnosticism. Show all posts

Saturday, August 19, 2017

On Syncretism And the Synthetic Church - Collected Parts

Part I
The Christian Church emerged from Judaism slowly, over the course of decades.

At the earliest moment we are able to distinguish Christians from Jews, Christians had already laid the foundation and were building their “New Jerusalem” on a shifting system of syncretic beliefs.

The term syncretism[i] is controversial among Christian Scholars, and believers.

I do not use the term syncretism lightly.

It is a term ripe with negative connotations among Christians scholars, and the studied faithful. It connotes, compromise, impurity, heresy.

It is still the mission of Christian apologists, even in the 21st century, to insist that in the Christian witness, the “New Testament,” the writings of the Apostles, and of the apostolic age, something fundamentally new, distinct, and unique was being communicated to the world.

There were some among the people I studied with who would even deny that the teachings of the Church grew out of the historical Judaism. Rather than accept the historical correlates between Christian and Jewish traditions after the common era, they insisted that the “Holy Spirit” gave the Church a new, complete, and perfect systems of belief, with no antecedent in the cultural repository of the Hebrew people, and that any similarities a person might think that they are be able to discern between the two traditions are merely coincidental.

For these scholars, the revelation of Christianity to the world is a divine dispensation. It does not emerge from the Jewish tradition, but corrects it.

For instance, even at the time of Christ the Jewish people had a ritual of “purification by water” for those seeking to convert to the Jewish faith, but these Christian apologists would insist that such rituals bore no relationship whatsoever to the baptism offered by John, in the river Jordan, or the later traditions of baptism practiced among the first generation of Apostles.

They would suggest that the Jewish ritual of water purification merely foreshadowed the dispensation of the Sacrament of Baptism. They would suggest that the Sacrament of Baptism did not emerge from the Jewish ritual, but that the Jewish ritual anticipated the coming dispensation.

While it is true that these traditions were significantly different in practice, the basic premise, that water is a vehicle for ritual purification is at the core of each. Furthermore, the Jewish ritual was a prominent feature of spiritual praxis among the sect of Jews known as the Essenes, who lived in a proto-monastic community, in the desert at Qumran, a community which is strongly identified with both John the Baptist, and Jesus of Nazareth.

It requires a profound act of denial, has always required a profound ability to deny reality, to overlook these facts, and claim that despite these facts the Church in its use of baptism brought something new to the world, a brand-new creation, a-historical and perfect.

Christian apologists in any age might believe that this is a qualitatively more “faithful” position to take.

They are wrong.

It is not.

Faith in the witness of the Church can never be predicated on lies, irrationality, or absurdities.

Part II

The Christian Church is a syncretic institution; borrowing language and thought systems, rituals and organization, from every culture it encounters. From the time that Jesus was crucified, to the drafting of Saint Paul’s first letter, the Church was adapting, changing, learning to communicate to an ever-widening audience, synthesizing their diverse beliefs and values, as if they were pulling together thousands of individual threads to form a single piece of cloth.

Good scholarship cannot view this as a negative, because it is true.

Recognition of the truth and abandoning what is false, this is a pillar of the faith.

The Christian Church, emerging as it did from the traditions of the Pharisaic Judaism, is the first great syncretic system of beliefs

This is not a negative commentary.

There is nothing pejorative in these statements of fact. It is merely a statement of what is, the inevitable result of inter-cultural dialogue.[ii]

The Church has handled our natural inclination toward syncretism and synthesis with caution and diligence, too much, always acting to filter our syncretic tendencies, to manage them, to mitigate them, seeking to include and affirm outside ideas only in the narrow light of orthodoxy.

This always involves considerable mental gymnastics, for instance, in the Church’s desire to incorporate the writings of the Hellenistic philosophers, such as; Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, into its cannon, the church felt compelled to find in the writing a prefiguring of the coming of Jesus. They found a way to say that, while the great philosophers were not Christians, they were nevertheless visited by the Holy Spirit and given a vision of the coming of Christ, thereby legitimating their work, allowing for its use as a tool in the construction of a Hellenic/Christian world-view.

The record of the Church on this score is one of mixed success, marked by a constant application of effort. Depending on who you talk with, you will get a different idea of how much and to what extent the Christian tradition has syncretized itself with other traditions.

The truth is this; the Christian narrative is one of continuous syncretization, from the myth of the Virgin Birth, to the Saint Constantine’s vision of the Chi-rho at the battle of the Milvian Bridge…and beyond.

There is little that differentiates the customs and rituals of the Christian tradition, after its transformation into the Imperial Church from the traditions of the Indo-European culture that gave birth to it.

At the beginning of the Christian movement, Jews looked at Christians in their own community as people who were guilty of syncretizing their tradition with the customs of the broader Greco-Roman world.

In the time of Christ, the Sadducees (the most traditional sect of Jews in Judea, in the 1st century) would have named any Jew who held a belief in angels or the resurrection of the dead, a syncretizer.[iii] The chief proponents of such doctrines at that were the Pharisees, a sect to which both Jesus of Nazareth, his disciples, and Saint Paul belonged.

In the first century of the common era, Saint Paul is credited with forming most of the Christine communities outside of Judea, his writings, being the earliest in the Christian cannon, formed the core of what became Christian doctrine. From the perspective of traditional Judaism Saint Paul was synthesizing a new religious tradition, not from their own tradition, but from a corrupt and syncretic system of beliefs popular throughout the Ancient Near East and broader Greco-Roman world.

Part III          

By the Late Fourth century, when Saint Jerome issued his famous question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” he was looking back on 350 years of Christian syncretization with the categories of Hellenistic philosophy, and calling the Church out for what he perceived to be its failing in this regard, criticizing it, and admonishing it, calling it back to what he believed was its true locus, the Jewish faith of 1st century CE.

Saint Jerome was mistaken.

There was no pure form of Christianity true to its Jewish antecedents.  The movement to syncretize the Jewish, and then the Christian tradition with the work of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others began at the beginning. It was contemporaneous with the ministry of Jesus. This movement had its finest, most articulate pre-Christian proponent in the person of Philo of Alexandria, in many way, the Christian movement was an extension of Philo’s work.

Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, developed a scheme by which he demonstrated that the figure of Wisdom in the Jewish cannon was analogous to the Word or “rational soul” of Hellenistic philosophy.[iv]

In the New Testament, Jesus is depicted as being both Wisdom and Word. Philo shared the Stoic and Platonic view that all rational beings share in a part of the “rational soul.”[v] In the cannon of Hellenic philosophy, this teaching goes back to Socrates, and Pythagoras.

In the first century of the common era, just after the death of Jesus, after Saint Paul had written his letters and was martyred, but while the books of the Gospel were still being written, the Stoic philosopher turned Christian, Saint Justin the Martyr developed his theology of the Spermatikos Logos.

Saint Justin carried on the work of Philo and the Stoics. He described a system in which Jesus was identified as the Word of God, as the complete and perfect Word. He taught that the Word of God was disseminated into every rational creature. He taught that the principle that we are crated in the Divine Image was this, that each of us bears within us a seed of the Word, and that this seed is the house of reason, and rationality.

Saint Justin syncretized the work of his predecessors with the teaching and traditions of the Church, utilizing the Hellenistic philosophical categories to augment the emerging narrative of sin, the fall, and redemption through the death of Jesus into his schema.

Saint Justin taught, that as rational beings we share not only a similarity to, but in the actual being of God, the creator of the universe. And that despite this fact, nevertheless, sin has corrupted our nature, and cut us off from God who is the source of our being, and therby sin has limited the full development of our potential.

Saint Justin taught that despite our vitiated nature, the seed of the word endures in us, like a seed that lies dormant. People are still able to live rationally, and come into the knowledge truth, but it is a difficult and uncertain process.

Through the categories of Hellenistic philosophy Saint Justin established the foundation of sacramental theology. He taught that we encounter Jesus (The Word) through the sacraments in a mysterious way that activates our true nature.

Like a dormant seed, made to germinate, we are enlivened by the Holy Spirit.

In this way, Saint Justin Christianized those categories of Hellenistic philosophy, while simultaneously Hellenizing the narrative of the early Church.

This is synthesis, it is syncretization.

Part IV

In the span of years that passed between the lifetimes of Saints Justin and Jerome several Christian theologians rose to positions of prominence through their mastery of Hellenistic philosophy, such as Origin, and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons.

These philosophical systems were used with remarkable effect to fend of rival interpretations of Christianity, loosely referred to as “Gnostic,” and thereby to set standards for what must be considered orthodox, and normative. Saint Irenaeus was the greatest champion of these efforts.

The Gnostic interpretations of Christianity he struggled with, were themselves the product of a different trend in the ongoing process of Christian syncretization with the broader Hellenistic and Near Eastern world, such as the so-called “mystery traditions” and the traditions at the root of the Hebrew Qabalah.  

To put it simply:

What prevailed as Orthodox and Catholic Christianity syncretized itself according to the mainstream schools of Greek philosophy.

What was condemned as Gnostic and Heterodox, either took the categories of Hellenic philosophy too far, which was a problem with the popular work of Origin, or they were syncretized in the direction of the Greco-Roman and Persian mystery cults.

While these were the main dividing lines in the Church in that era, every faction influenced every other faction. These thought systems were living traditions of belief. They were dynamic and evolving.

There was a push and a pull, what emerged from the dialog was a compromise, and as with all compromise, it did not fully satisfy anyone.

Hellenistic Philosophy was used by Christians to defend itself from heterodox interpretations of its tradition. They were also used to provide a rational explanation of the Christian movement to the Roman Empire.

Christians adopted the prevalent language and thought system of their day in order to demonstrate that neither Christianity nor Christians themselves posed a threat to the stability of society. Such was the motive behind Saint Justin’s 1st & 2nd Apologies.

In this way, the Church was protected and preserved through its syncretic use of the categories Hellenistic philosophy, even as it was transformed by them.

By the time of Saint Jerome, the Christian Church had so completely identified itself with the categories of Hellenistic philosophy that those categories precipitated major conflict in the Church over the use of single words, such as homoousious vs. homoiousious or Theotokos vs. Christotokos, which were at the epicenter of the Arian and Nestorian schism.

These conflicts led to centuries of bloody warfare, and the breaches in the unity of the Church never healed.

Part V

In the time of Saint Jerome, the Christian tradition had crossed the threshold of its second major syncretic transformation. This was not a theological, or a philosophical transformation. This was not a liturgical or ritual transformation, though it should be noted that syncretic transformations in each of those spheres was ongoing and continuous.

The second great syncretic movement was the transformation of the Church, founded on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, into the imperial Church of the Roman Empire.

When Saint Constantine, the first Christian emperor achieved his decisive victory over the armies of his enemies in his quest for control of the Roman Empire, he did it in the name of Jesus Christ, and what it meant to live the Christian life was changed forever.

The battle of the Milvian Bridge (28 October, 312 CE) was an epoch defining event.

The transformation of the Church, from the Church of Jesus, to the Church of Rome was not sudden. The emperor, Saint Constantine did not snap his fingers and make it so. It had been happening slowly over the course of generations, and centuries.

Since the time of Jesus, from one generation to the next the changes were gradual. From the beginning of the 1st century in the common era, to the beginning of the 4th century the change was also extreme.  

Jesus of Nazareth, murdered by the Romans, executed for treason and sedition, murdered for preaching on the necessity of love, and mercy, and justice, became Jesus the Christ, a godling who brings victory in battle, and the cornerstone of the imperial government.

After the conversion of the Church, the range of vocations that qualified as “Christian” had drastically expanded. The act of filling these new roles: Christian emperor, Christian consul, Christian governor and Christian warrior is what constituted the new phase of syncretization in the Christian tradition according to the cultural norms of imperial society.

Bishops went from being the shepherds of a persecuted minority to being judges wielding authority in ecclesiastical courts, responsible for the prosecution of heresy, holding lands and titles, levying taxes and raising armies.

Bishops and priests went from being promoted by the members of their own community, to being appointed by the state.

Part VI

The conversion of Saint Constantine and the mythology associated with it, provide an excellent example of the syncretic process at work on a symbolic level, between the state and the church.

In Constantine’s conversion narrative we are able to see the complete synthesis of a religious tradition, Christianity, founded on the story of the life and death of a Hebrew prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, with that of the good old time Indo-European religion, with their pantheon of deities, and their cults of sacrifice.

Prior to Saint Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, even on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine was not yet a Christian. He was an adherent of the Celtic cult of Sol Invictus, which was itself a syncretic variant of the Romano-Persian cult of Mithras Invictus, Zoroastrianism.

This so-called “mystery-cult,” the cult of Mithras-Sol Invictus was the most prominent religious tradition among the officers and ranks of the Roman armies. At the beginning of 4th century, roughly thirty percent of Roman citizens had some affiliation with it, approximately equivalent to the number of Christians living in the empire at the time.

On the eve of the battle that brought him his decisive victory, Saint Constantine purportedly had a vision, revealing to him that he would conquer under the sign of Christ, and so he ordered his soldiers to paint the sign of Christ, the Chi-Rho on their shields, and he was in fact victorious.

This event became the justification for transforming the Christian religion into the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Some might like to view Saint Constantine’s conversion as a radical transformation, but it is a murky matter.

This was not divine intervention.

The soon to be emperor made a political calculation.

Saint Constantine’s opponents had seen the burgeoning Church as a threat to themselves and the imperial government. They saw the suppression of the Church as their path to victory, and control.

They were wrong.

Saint Constantine saw the balance of power tipping in favor of the Christians, he saw their strength in urban centers throughout the empire, he witnessed and acknowledged their ownership and control of various systems of social welfare, the most important of which was the grain dole. He courted their favor and threw in with the Christians.

Not only did the Christians come out for him at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, opening the gates of the city for his soldiers, bearing the mark of Chi-Rho on their shields. When the battle was over they exercised their influence in their communities through the empire, backing the new emperor, allowing him to consolidate control.

Beyond the political calculation that Saint Constantine made, it was insightful, his conversion to Christianity was not that remarkable.[vi]

It must be noted that, in the first three centuries of the common era, there had been an affinity between Christians and members of the cults of Mithras-Sol Invictus.

This affinity went beyond a basic philosophical agreement about the nature of reality, good versus evil, salvation and redemption, Christians and the members of these cults shared seach other’s worship spaces and participated in each other’s liturgies.[vii]

There is evidence that some groups of Sol/Mithraites identified Jesus as Mithras or Sol, seeing the Invictus (the unconquered son) in the risen Christ, believing that they were the same entity.

Given this context, it must be note that even though Saint Constantine gave credit for his decisive victory to Christ, when he was crowned emperor, the coins that were struck to commemorate the event bore his countenance with the inscription Sol Invictus.

This is an example of Saint Constantine’s self-identification with Sol, the Celtic solar deity. His simultaneous embrace of the Christian Church indicates that he also identified Mithras-Sol Invictus with Christ, and we must allow for the probability that Saint Constantine confused himself with Christ as well.

In Saint Constantine’s mind, he was an incarnation of Sol, of Mithra, of Christ. He took their birthday as his own, December 25th. He saw himself as the second coming of Christ, as the Invictus, the Unconquered Son.

Saint Eusebius was the chronicler of Saint Constantine’s life, as well as the dramatic transformation of the Church during the emperor’s reign, including the first plenary council of the Church at Nicea c. 318 CE.

Saint Eusebius hails the rise of Saint Constantine, and explicitly depicts the transformation of the Christian Church, into the state of Christendom that became the Holy Roman Empire, as the coming of the kingdom of God on earth, as a moment of eschatological triumph for the Church.[viii]

Saint Eusebius interpreted the events of Saint Constantine’s life this way, either because he genuinely believed it to be true, or to flatter his emperor. It does not matter which it was. It is consistent with the thinking Saint Eusebius’ expresses, to see Saint Constantine in the role of Christ! For Saint Eusebius, the emperor is the Messiah, returning to usher in the New Age.

Like other Caesars before him, the syncretic transformation of Saint Constantine the emperor, into an allegory of Christ Invictus, represents deification, uniting the ancient imperial pantheon of the state with the new religion institution of the Christian Church. In that moment the new synthesis of Church and State was both symbolically complete, and complete in reality.

This is a seminal event, in it the pattern of syncretization changes.

The growth and spread of the Church is now modulated in accordance with the reality that it has become an apparatus of imperial government.

The Pontifex Rex, an ancient title and station, once held by the head of the Imperial Pantheon, and since the time of Julius Caesar, held by the reigning emperor, was a title now given to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, the Papa, and the synthesis was complete.

[i] Syncretism: The combining of different religions, cultures, or ideas; an instance of this: We are seeing a new syncretism that is uniting parts of different religions.
[ii] David Krieger, The New Universalism, Foundations for a Global Theology, The Faith Meets Faith Series, An Orbis Series in Interreligious Dialogue, General Editor Paul Knitter (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), 20.
[iii] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, v. 1 (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1984), 10.
[iv] The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Philo, 592; also, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Philo, 1297, for a list of his writings.
[v] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, v.1, 13.
[vii] Please see, Mithraic Iconography and Ideology, by Leroy A. Campbell, published by E. J. Brill, 1968. Mithraic Studies, edited by John R. Hinnells, published by Manchester University Press, 1975. Mithraism in Ostia, edited by Samuel Laeuchli, published by Northwestern University Press, 1967. The Mithras Liturgy, edited and translated by Marvin W. Meyer, published by Scholars Press, 1976. Mysteries of Mithras, by Franz Cumont, translated by Thomas J. McCormack, published by The Open Court Publishing Company, 1903. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, published by Oxford University Press, 1989.
[viii] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, v. 1, 133 – 135.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

A Bleak History of Christian Mission - Collected Parts

A Bleak History of Christian Mission
Collected Parts
Part I
Christianity is a missionary religion.

Preaching and teaching is a central component of its dogma, and the injunction to make converts appears in the earliest of Church writings.

The Gospel of Matthew gives the church “The Great Commission,” 28:19 – 20

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (NAB)

This same commission is reflected in an earlier narrative in the Gospel of Mark 16:15

“Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” (NAB)

In the early years of the church, in the years leading to the writing of the Gospels, Christianity was not known as Christianity, and Christians were not known as Christians.

Jesus of Nazareth, known in his home town as Joshua son of Joseph, had been given the title of Christ, from the Greek Kyrios, the anointed one, but he was not worshipped as a God.

Those following the teachings of Jesus, referred to those teachings as The Way, and they saw themselves as followers and keepers of The Way. They saw themselves as students of The Way, disciples, from the Latin discipulos, the saw the church as a school, from the Latin schola, and the symbol they used to identify themselves was not the symbol of Jesus’ torture and death, the crucifix, it was a fish, because the faithful disciples of the way swam together as do a school of fish. They lived together, they prayed together, they took care of one another, and protected each other.  

Those in the way did not rely on any other power to carry out their mission; not the army, not the empire, not kings, and queens, and princes. They cared for one another, and preached the forgiveness of sins, to friend and stranger alike.

The way was transformative, it was a grass roots movement, it cast aside social norms, and it threatened to overthrow the exiting power structures.

It was dynamic, and it lent itself to rapid growth throughout the communities of the oppressed.

The great commission was well suited to the simple mission of the early movement; to love God with all your strength and all your heart, and all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Part II
The exact time is not clear, but within a couple of hundred years after the death of Jesus, prior to the ascendancy of Saint Constantine (c. 300 CE), the Emperor who de-criminalized Christianity, endorsed it, and made it the official religion of the state, as Christianity was becoming a dominant force in the Major urban centers of the Empire, Christian mission began to spread via the political machinations of civil government, and through the use of violent coercion.

Coercion and violence became the modus operandi of Christian mission almost immediately upon the transformation of the Church into an arm of the Roman Empire.

There is some evidence for inter-Christian violence before the Constantinian era, especially during the persecution of the so-called “Gnostic” groups, which orthodox (right thinking) Christians viewed as heretical, heterodox (wrong thinking) Christianity. In the second and third centuries of the church, many so-called heterodox Christians were forcibly converted to orthodox norms, they were killed, murdered, exiled.

In the era before Constantine, Christians experienced regular persecution from the civil authorities that governed them.

The periods of persecution that the early Church endured gave Christians a consciousness of how political power and violence can be used to injure one’s opponents.

St. Augustine of Hippo (4th and 5th Century CE) wrote extensively on the use of political power and violence in defense of the faith. In his dealings with the Donatists he called upon the army to suppress dissent,[i] and he praised the passage of laws that allowed bishops to crucify those that refused to submit to the authority of the Church.[ii]

The persecution of the Gnostics by Christians and the later persecution of Christian heretics in the imperial Church were analogous, and even identical to the types of persecutions that orthodox Christians endured at the hands of the Roman government in the pre-imperial Church and the types of persecutions that the Roman government regularly engaged in, in relation to other secret societies, burial-groups and guilds etc….[iii]

Persecution and Christian mission are not inherently related activities, but they share a common, and a bleak history.

The use of violence in defense of Christianity may seem absurd to some, as it does to me, bu violence in the defense of “right beliefs” is subtly different from violence used to spread Christianity in the mission field.

The persecutory activities that the early Christians engaged in, were the active proponents of, had primarily to do with a felt need to defend orthodoxy.

Violence perpetrated against non-Christians, in order to force them to become Christians, is something else.

Violence, coercion, and the tactics of persecution represent an intrinsic betrayal of The Way, that Jesus taught, lived and died for.

Violence in defense of one’s beliefs and traditions is one kind of betrayal.

The justification of the use of violence to make converts out of non-Christians is a different kind of betrayal.

Part III

With the advent of the imperial Church (early 4th century CE), Christian missionaries, teachers of the faith, began to be used as a means of spreading the civic apparatus of the Roman Empire.

Ulfilas, the “apostle to the Goths” was instrumental in bringing the Gothic people into the fold of the Roman Empire.[iv] He brought the Gospels to the Gothic people, written in their own language, but he did not teach them that Jesus of Nazareth, Joshua son of Joseph, was God, or the son of God, he preached the traditional understanding of who Jesus was, a man who had led an extraordinary life, a prophet who proclaimed The Way, and was killed for his faith. Ulfilas was a follower of Arius, and in the early fourth century the church was tearing itself apart over the question of whether it would adhere to the traditional understanding of who Jesus was, and the new understanding, championed by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria,  that in Jesus, the creator of the universe, God almighty had become incarnate. 

The Emperor Saint Constantine called the first Plenary Council of the Church at Nicea to settle the question once and for all. It was cast as a zero-sum game. The Church would not be allowed to hold both views, and the council was evenly divided.

The party of Athanasius won the day, the party of Arius lost. Many in Arius’ party relented, adopting the new teaching. Many did not. Those who did not adopt the new teaching become known as Arian Christians, heretics, they fled into exile, Ulfilas among them, or failing to flee, they were tortured and killed.

If it was not for the unfortunate events of the Council of Nicea, and the emergence of Arian Christianity as a heretical sect, his missionary activities, the use of the political power of the Roman Empire to convert the Gothic people would be fondly remembered by all Christians.

As it turned out, his conversion of the Goths to Arian Christianity set the stage for the first in a long (perhaps endless) series of inter-Christian wars.

The prosecution of war against the Arians, by the Christian leadership of the Roman Empire, may be seen as another example of orthodox Christianity in defense of itself, like the earlier persecution of the Gnostics, the Marcionites, the Marionites, etc…but there were distinct differences.

  1. Christianity was now the official religion of the Roman Empire and co-extensive with its government.
  2. The version of Christianity promulgated by Athanasius and codified at the Council of Nicea, was a departure from the traditional form of Christianity preached in the Apostolic Age.

It is important to note that the missionary work of Ulfilas, the conversion of the Goths,  marked the beginning of the Church’s role in the growth of the Empire, despite the fact that the outcome of Nicea led to centuries of conflict rather than cohesion and stability.

Part IV

When the imperial Church began the process of the missionizing Northern Europe they took over a process that had already been underway since as least the time of Julius Caesar’s encounter with the Germans.

The earlier process was not missionary work, the Ancient Romans were not spreading the faith. It was the work of bringing the Northern trines into the Roman Empire, it was the work of federalizing, or federating, from the Latin foederati.

Cicero gives us the earliest known use of the term foederati,[v] which the Romans used to classify the tribes of “barbarians” that were migrating South, into the Roman provinces, attracted by the stability of Roman society, and who sought a peaceful coexistence with the Romans as allies, instead of conflict, and war.

The foederati system allowed members of the federated tribes to serve in the Roman army, and after 20 years of service they could muster out with a portion of the rights of a Roman citizen, or even full citizenship if they had distinguished themselves.

For the migrating tribes of barbarians (Germanic people) the only alternative to becoming foederati was war with the Romans. War with the Romans had been the ruin of countless tribes, either one of those two choices, or remain beyond the reach of Roman power, beyond access to coveted Roman goods and markets.

When the Church took over this process, when missionization replaced federation, it systematized what had been a haphazard process. Both functions changed in relation to each other.

Traditional Missionary work, like that of Saint Paul in the first generation of Christian after the death of Jesus, resulted in the formation of grass-roots communities spread in urban centers throughout the Empire. Those communities eventually grew, becoming the most dominant party in the Roman Empire, In the early fourth century they received the support of the Army, under Saint Constantine, Constantine became the Emperor, and the Church became co-extensive with the Empire itself.

What immediately followed were two centuries of religious wars, conflict between opposing groups of Christians. By the time these conflicts were resolved, both the Church and the Empire were ready and eager for renewed expansion.

In the 6th century, when Saint Gregory the great sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury to England as a missionary to the Angles, he officially inaugurated this new era.

The new form of Christian mission/Roman federalization, resulted in the name “Christian” being given to the societies that it penetrated, but it was no longer a grass roots/ emergent movement as in the time of Saint Paul. Christianization was now a top down transformation of those societies.[vi]

It was a slow process and it took centuries for the Church to reform those cultures into its own image. The Church was forced to assert it control aggressively and continuously over the worship life of its flock, and the Church never hesitated to use violent coercion, and every other form of persecution to this end. 

Barbarian leaders, attracted by the stability of the Christian world, including the access to lucrative markets, education for their children, stable laws turned to Christianity primarily as means to improve the material conditions of their societies and as a means of promoting their own dynastic aspirations.[vii]

By the 10th century, the Church had become the sole arbiter of royal power.

Even though powerful war-lords were able to exercise power in their own right, almost invariably those war-lords sought to have their powers ratified by the Church whose authority it was to hand out royal crowns and other titles including that of emperor.[viii]

Often the only difference between a bandit and a prince was ecclesiastical sanction.

Part V

The Church took over another function of Roman government as it entered the imperial phase, the distribution of grain distribution.

Prior to the advent of the Imperial Church, Christian communities in urban centers throughout the Empire had already assumed this function. The Church more than any other group distributed bread to the hungry. In the third and fourth centuries CE, as the bureaucracy of the Empire was collapsing, the Church stepped into this role.

This explains in part the rapid growth of the Church, why it was seen as a threat and persecuted by traditional Roman institutions, and why the support of the Church was a crucial part of Saint Constantine’s successful bid to become Emperor.

Grain distribution was vital to the life of the Empire. Most of the grain consumed in Europe was grown and milled by the Church. The major agricultural estates were centered at monasteries and other ecclesiastical holdings. Grain was the single greatest source of revenue in feudal Europe. In addition to farming, religious institutions throughout Europe, both monastic and diocesan, were vital centers of culture; housing schools, and markets, and the crafts-guilds that supported them. The European nobility coveted these estates as sources of prestige, income and political power.

As Christianity spread into Northern Europe various methods were devised by various parties to help them secure their legal claim to the most profitable lands. Many wars were fought and much violence was perpetrated by Christians against each other, as well as between secular powers and the Church, over the issue of who had the right to make appointments to high ecclesiastical office, and over the legitimacy of hereditary control of Church property.

This practice, known as simony, was the subject of centuries of reform movements within the Church. Yet, it was precisely the practice of simony that helped to spread and stabilize the Church in Northern Europe.

The European royal families and those barbarians, who wished to join them, looked to the Church to be a faithful arbitrator of their rights. Barbarian lords converted to Christianity because they believed that by doing so their dynasty, and their family holdings would be secure. They saw in the Church a vehicle for the preservation of their families and their family wealth. Christian lords, both secular and ecclesiastical promoted the spread of Christianity not so much for the cure of souls but for the territories that would fall into their possession upon their success.

The greatest example of this corrupt system is found in the period of the encomenderos, during the Spanish conquest of America. Secular Christians and those in holy orders rushed to the “New World” to divide up its lands and enslave its people.[ix] They worked whole populations to death. The crimes the Church committed against humanity were so horrific that it was ultimately forced by its “conscience” to pass a decree which ordered that some attempt should be made to convert the natives, that they should not be held as slaves but as friends and pupils, but it was a hollow gesture.

The native populations in the West Indies were completely destroyed. Those who came into contact with Europeans on the American continents were more than decimated. Christians began to import slaves from Africa. Centuries passed, with almost no attempt at all given to converting those people or making them citizens in the feudal system. The Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) even operated a seminary for the training of priests especially for its slave holding plantations in the New World.[x] 

Christendom had been a slave holding society from the very beginning. Even the Gospels encourage slaves to remain with their masters if their masters are just, a bargain that the early church made with the Imperial powers. The question on whether it is lawful for Christians to hold other Christians as slaves, had one consistent answer up until around the eighteenth century, and it was yes.

Christians had always authorized to hold slaves, if they had been captured in a lawful manner; as say through war, where the lives of the captives are forfeit. In addition, people could be sentenced to slavery or indentured servitude through the secular or ecclesiastical courts. Any person who owed a debt to another could be forced into servitude. This included nearly the total non-land holding population of the Christian world.

That the history of Christian mission is characterized by political power and violence is in no way assignable to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus did not advocate the use of political power and violence. His ministry opposed to it.

The great sins Christians have perpetrated on so many helpless people have less to do with the fact that they are Christian, and more to do with the fact that we are human.

[i] St. Augustine, Treatise on the Correction of the Donatists, The Political Writings, edited with an introduction by Henry Paolucci, including an interpretive analysis by Dino Bigongiari (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing Inc., 1962), 223.
[ii] Ibid, Power to Crucify and Power to Release, 340 – 342.
[iii] Robert Wilkin, The Christians as the Romans saw Them (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), 16 – 17.
[iv] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, From Paganism to Christianity (New York: A Marion Wood Book, Henry Holt and Company, 1997), 66.
[v] The Latin Oxford Dictionary, the combined edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), foederati.
[vi] Ibid, 236.
[vii] Ibid, 237.
[viii] Ibid, 238.
[ix] Mario Rodriguez Leon, Invasion and Evangelization in the Sixteenth Century, The Church in Latin America 1492 - 1992, edited by Enrique Dussel, Commission for the Study of Church History in Latin America (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1992), 43.
[x] Laënnec Hurbon, The Church and Afro-American Slavery, The Church in Latin America 1492 - 1992, edited by Enrique Dussel, Commission for the Study of Church History in Latin America (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1992), 369.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Homily – The Gospel of Juke 7:1-10 ©

The Gospel of the Day – 2016.05.29

Faith and Confusion

When Jesus had come to the end of all he wanted the people to hear, he went into Capernaum. A centurion there had a servant, a favourite of his, who was sick and near death. Having heard about Jesus he sent some Jewish elders to him to ask him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus they pleaded earnestly with him. ‘He deserves this of you’ they said ‘because he is friendly towards our people; in fact, he is the one who built the synagogue.’ So Jesus went with them, and was not very far from the house when the centurion sent word to him by some friends: ‘Sir,’ he said ‘do not put yourself to trouble; because I am not worthy to have you under my roof; and for this same reason I did not presume to come to you myself; but give the word and let my servant be cured. For I am under authority myself, and have soldiers under me; and I say to one man: Go, and he goes; to another: Come here, and he comes; to my servant: Do this, and he does it.’ When Jesus heard these words he was astonished at him and, turning round, said to the crowd following him, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found faith like this.’ And when the messengers got back to the house they found the servant in perfect health.


A Miracle – A Meme of Healing

There is a message in this periscope. It is intended for the communities of believers founded by Saint Luke and Saint Paul; Paul who never met Jesus, and Luke the physician who followed him, who also never met Jesus, but who authored the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts regardless.

These apostles lived and worked well beyond the borders of Palestine. They shared their faith with Jews of the diaspora, Gentiles alike.

Through their work, the Way of Jesus became an international movement. As such the narratives they promoted required international characters; Jews to be sure, but Ethiopians, Greeks, and Romans to. And so they narrated the story of the Roman Centurion, a Roman who admired the faith and moral probity of the Jewish people (which was not entirely uncommon in the time of Jesus), a godfearer as the Jews called them.

The Gospel tell us that the Centurion understands who Jesus is, and acknowledges his authority, as a result the Centurion is rewarded with a gift of healing for his servant; the servant who remains anonymous and of whom we are never given any indication about whether he knows Jesus, understands his mission, or has faith sufficient to merit healing.

This narrative was meant to prepare the hearts and minds of Jewish-Christians for the acceptance of Gentiles into their midst; not just Gentiles, but even Romans, and Romans of every class, including military commanders.

It was also meant to convey the message to gentiles that the Way of Jesus was open to everyone.
That is the basic story.

It also contains a deeper narrative; one about the transactional nature of faith, this narrative is a lie.
It tells us in a not so subtle way the gifts of faith, like the miracle of healing, can be purchased through correct belief.

Jesus heals the Centurion’s servant because the Centurion expresses the correct belief about God, with the appropriate degree of commitment.

The way that the narrative plays itself out, the reader can presume that the servant would not have been healed if the Centurion had any doubt about who Jesus was. Not only did he have no doubt, but his faith surpassed that of the entire population of Israel, and with that coin he purchased for another the gift of healing.

This tells us that the miracle of healing can be purchased through right belief, right ideology, right doctrine; that if your knowledge of who Jesus is, is correct, and your commitment to that knowledge is pure, you are eligible to receive the gifts of faith and even pass them on to others.
This thought structure is essentially Gnostic, and belongs to a heresy that was condemned by the church in subsequent centuries.

Gnosticism was condemned because it circumscribed the faithful, and limited the church to insular groups of believers who put more stock in their secrets and mystical traditions than in the charitable Jesus commissioned the church to engage in.

The more significant error is not the gnostic error, however; the more significant error is the error that the gifts of faith are transactional, when Jesus intended for the loving works of Christians to be free, and freely distributed to any who ask, regardless of who they are or how they come.

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thursday, December 31, 2015

On Jesus and Mithra, part Seven and Conclusion (Pages 15 - 19)

Among the Romans, Mithraism, like Christianity was centered in the “house church.” The practice was carried out among people who were intimate with one another. Individual practitioners believed that initiation into the mysteries allowed them to receive immortality through Mithra, but also as a part of a community. Mithraism, like Christianity thought that it transformed the individual spiritually while leaving them in the same social position. The transformation of the individual was interior. It took place in the heart of the individual, and manifested itself in their position in the life of the temple, or Mithraic shrine as they advanced through the stages of initiation, but that did not mean that their status, or rank, outside of the Mithraic community would change; a slave would remain a slave, a plebian would remain a plebian. The activities of the cult were closed to the general society, they were secret and mysterious, and therefore not a cause for disturbance, or upset in the social order outside of the community.

In Roman Mithraism there were seven stages of initiation; the Crow, the Griffin, the Soldier, the Lion, the Persian, the Helio-Dromus (or Sun-Runner) and finally the Father. The symbolism of the number seven should not be lost on us, as in Christianity there are seven sacraments, seven virtues, seven deadly sins etc…The Order of Initiates were grouped in two classes; those in the first four stages counted as one class, and the last three stages counted as another class. An initiate would move up the stages of initiation until he became one with the Father and thus the Father himself. At each stage of initiation, the initiate would learn a secret code that he would later (after death) be used to get him the heavenly realm appropriate to their rank. This belief in ranked heavenly planes, and passwords to allow the individual through the gate of paradise was widely believed among practitioners of Kabalaistic (coming out of the Pharisaic Sect), and among groups of Christians who had fallen into the heretical errors of Gnosticism. 

A ceremony of initiation was called a Telete from the Greek word telos meaning goal or end. In the ceremony of initiation, the initiate would first kneel before the Father. The Father would then perform a “laying on of hands,” followed by a rite similar to baptism; wherein the Father would pour water over the head of the initiate from the horn of a bull. Sometimes the rite of water would be done by full immersion. In cases where the ceremony of initiation was accompanied by an actual animal sacrifice the initiate would be splattered with the blood of the sacrificial animal, or slapped in the face with a shank of meat. In other cases; the blood would be replaced by wine. This rite of blood, wine or water is referred to as the purgation, a ritual cleansing of the individual from their sins. Sometimes the ceremony of purgation would be completed by passing a torch over the head of the individual or even touching the individual with the torch in order to symbolize a baptism of both fire and water. The purgation would be followed by the consecration or coronation where a golden crown would be placed on the head of the initiate; this crown was called the “solar crown.” Iconographically the solar crown was analogous to the Christian halo, which term is derived from the Greek; meaning disk of the sun.

There is much in this symbolism that recalls Christian rituals of initiation; so much that I will not even make an argument for how intimately linked the two systems of ritual initiation are. I will simply let the record speak for itself.

In Roman Mithraism, the initiation ceremony would be followed by a feast meant to symbolize the feast shared by Mithra and Sol. Ideally, the feast would come from the sacrifice of a bull, but this feast was not required. While the sacrifice of a bull was central to Mithraic worship, as the cult spread through the empire, and as worship became confined to house churches it is thought the sacrifice of the bull was replaced with a symbolic alternative. Any animal could serve for the feat, or even a meal of bread and wine. Because the death of the “Primal Bull” was productive of all “good things” on the Earth; any of those “good things” that come from the bull were suitable to be used in the sacred meal. This meal itself, much like the Christian Eucharist, was thought to be an effective means of salvation for the worshippers of Mithra.[1]

This description of Mithraic practices should further our understanding of how Mithraism and Christianity were sympathetic to one another. It should not surprise us to see the markers of Mithraic worship in our own Christian tradition.

In Conclusion

Among the Romans, the first Christian emperor was Saint Constantine, Constantine the Great, who prior to his death-bed conversion to Christianity, was also a devotee of Mithras-Sol Invictus. When Constantine was made emperor, the first coins struck in his honor depicted his face with the inscription Sol Invictus. Some scholars think that Constantine thought that he was himself, an incarnation of Sol Invictus. This may seem somewhat confusing considering that we know that Constantine attributed his victory over his enemies to Jesus Christ. Constantine’s famous vision of the Christian symbol, the Chi-Ro (Px), at the battle of the Milvian bridge (312 CE), is thought to have enabled his victory when his army was at the gates of Rome. In the minds of many practitioners of Mithraism, Jesus and Mithra may have been considered to have bene the same person; that Jesus was an incarnation of Mithra. If this is true it begs the question; if Constantine thought he was Mithra-Sol Invictus, and if Jesus was also believed to be an incarnation of Mithra, did Constantine think that he was Christ?

One thing that I know is for sure, Christianity and Mithraism, as religious and spiritual philosophies, are both filled with hope. Hope for the life of the individual; hope that the individual will ultimately experience justice. Belief that God is good, and that God has given a light to humankind that will guide us in the way to paradise.

Mithraism was less accessible to the average person than Christianity. Mithraism wanted to keep to its secret ways, at a time when Christianity was opening itself to the world, and rooting out those groups, the Gnostics who had those same tendencies toward secrecy and exclusion.

The cult of Jesus would ultimately defeat the cult Mithra in the hearts and minds of the people because, in the end Jesus was no respecter of persons, badges or offices. Jesus was for every person, everywhere, at anytime. However once Christianity ascended, becoming the official religion of the empire, priests and bishops, cardinals and popes, and ecclesiastical courts became the official arbiters of the faith, with their badges and offices becoming ever more important.

[1] Mithraic Iconography and Ideology, by Leroy A. Campbell, pgs. 291-305