Largely Invisible Religious History Shapes Who We Are

Many of us in the West do not realize that the 100 years from 311 A.D. to 410 A.D. were formative to who we are.

“Ancient Forces Shaped Our Lives,” reported Michael Farrell in National Catholic Reporter about a conference at tiny Carroll College in Helena, Montana way back in 2000. According to philosophy professor Barry Ferst, “the fourth century, more than any other, made us who we are today.”

Farrell wrote:

Crucial as were the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, they were not acknowledged as holy days in the early years of Christianity, according to Gordon G. Brittan, Jr. of Montana State University: “There is no mention of their celebration in the New Testament, and Paul makes clear that, Christ’s second coming being imminent, there is little point in remembering dates and anniversaries.”

Early Christians and Jews went underground in 70 A.D., when the Romans sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, wiped out most traces of Judaism and Christianity in Palestine and built Roman temples to gods in their place. Much Judeo-Christian history had to be reconstructed later, once religious liberties were restored in the fourth century and turned into cultural mythology.

Ancient concepts of time were quite fluid. No one knew precisely when and where Jesus was born or crucified, so the dates of Easter and Christmas had to be decided by the institutional church in the fourth century.

“A bishop called Little Dennis (better known as the more exotic Dionysius Exiguus) gets credit for the astronomy, mathematics and other considerations, and the Council of Nicea gets credit for signing off on the formula (the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox), but the controversy drifted across Christendom for centuries…

“Fourth-century Romans, in making the church the establishment, conferred on it the mixed blessing of giving it what it wanted, a piece of the secular action, with some desirable perks but also some thoroughly undesirable consequences,” Farrell observed.

The early church was quite intolerant of polytheistic religion, pagan worship and cults of personality around Roman emperors. This threatened the established order. Christians made good scapegoats and were targets of persecution by Roman tyrants. “Diocletian, in 302, launched the longest and most brutal assault on the church. Many Christians caved in rather than get killed, but it was too late to stop the movement. Already there were more Christians than could possibly be subdued.”

In time, though, as Christianity grew and as the institutional church became more centralized and better disciplined, emperors began to see it as a useful political tool, to unify and stabilize the fractious empire.

In 311, Emperor Galerius “out of the blue issued an edict to discontinue the persecution of Christians.” He was followed by emperor Constantine, who dreamed of a cross in the sky, and the inscription “In This Sign You Will Conquer.” Shortly thereafter, in 312, he won the Battle of Malvian Bridge over the river Tiber. (The bridge still exists in Rome!)

Constantine, publicly at least, attributed his victory to the Christian god, and in 313, in the Edict of Milan, declared complete religious freedom in the empire. Constantine did not become a Christian, but saw a political advantage in devoting government resources to promoting the religion and incorporating Christian images into the military. He turned the pacifist Jesus into a warrior, and corrupted Jesus’ anti-materialistic followers with material riches, symbols of opulence, and offers of political power.

He sent his mother Helena, nearly 80 years old, to Palestine as ambassador. She organized archaeologists to dig up important Christian remnants and determine where Jesus was crucified.

“What the diggers found in the tomb, the story goes, were three crosses, but it was impossible to say which had belonged to Jesus,” Farrell wrote. “So the bishop of Jerusalem, Macarious, had a sick woman handy. He placed her in turn on each of the crosses. The first two did nothing for her, but the third cured her. “Eureka!” Helena probably said.

“What is important is the immense impression these supposed finds made on the public of the empire,” according to Elizabeth McNamer of Rocky Mountain College. “Pilgrims flooded in to offer thanks and to walk where Jesus walked.” Among the spin-offs was a copious literature “mixing together legend and facts.” In this way, though, a Christian future was being forged, a future that, with the passing of time, became our history.

“The God [Constantine] believed in was a God of power, who had given him victory, and he would have had little sympathy with the idea that Christianity meant love or charity or humility, of which his ‘middle-brow’ view of religion would not have the slightest comprehension,” wrote Michael Grant in Constantine the Great: The Man and His Times.

Constantine, Farrell reported, “had seen how the pagans loved spectacle and grandeur, so he set about providing the same for Christians. The latter had, for many good reasons, been keeping a low profile for three centuries and had tended to mock the spectacular temples of the pagans. But a little encouragement from on high can make even a Christian triumphalist and prone to pomp. Soon the church was building great basilicas and getting wealthy, and its bishops taking part in the secular running of the Empire.”

Political power struggles within the church got so bad that by 366, bribery was rampant among the bishops and in an episcopal election, more than 100 people were killed.

“Alas, Constantine,” Dante summed up the legacy, fairly or not: “What evil you brought into the world.”

Religions Are in Constant Cultural Change

It may be lost on some people who have only a shallow and surface knowledge of Christianity or other faiths that religions change all the time “to remain relevant amidst new intellectual developments and new social contexts,” as Michael Farrell in National Catholic Reporter quoted Jerome Baggett, professor of sociology at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. Baggett pointed out that 11th-century pope [Urban II] helped initiate the crusades, and John Paul II asked forgiveness for them.

While one of the appeals of religion is its constancy, steadfastness and enduring eternal truths, religious historians will tell you that the faith of our ancestors is not necessarily the same as contemporary faith. They interpreted things far differently than we do, in entirely different cultural and social contexts. Some examples:

Easter was not observed until 300 years after Jesus’ crucifixion

What If Roman Emperor Constantine Did Not Make Christianity the Official Religion of the Empire?

 

On Achieving Peace and Contentment

In these anxious times, it is easy to feel constantly wrought up. A friend writes that his maiden aunt who has died alone at the age of 92 had long ago found the secret of contentment, and quoted the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Chapter 4, verses 11-12 “”…for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

My mother often spoke of a faith that gives “a peace that passeth all understanding,” which is a quote from the same letter from Paul. Beautiful sentiments.

Is That All There Is? All We Are Is Dust in the Wind?

Catchy tune by Kansas. Everybody probably feels this way sometime. But it sure is a depressing and nihilistic view of life, eh? Kansas Youtube Channel.

Lyrics:

I close my eyes only for a moment, and the moment’s gone
All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity

Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind

Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see

Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind

Now, don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away, and all your money won’t another minute buy

Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind (all we are is dust in the wind)
Dust in the wind (everything is dust in the wind), everything is dust in the wind (the wind)

Then there’s this famous Peggy Lee song. A bit more optimistic, perhaps. If that’s all there is, “let’s keep dancing. Bring out the booze and let’s have a ball.” In the Youtube.com comment section, a commentator posts the following:

“My sister, after being diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, aged 64, used to spend some weekends with me and my husband. One morning during breakfast, she took out her phone and played this song, I was shocked, but it is only now, 10 months later since she died that I understand what she was trying to convey to us. I play this video over and over.”

And yet, to combat the feeling that we humans are insignificant, here on this earth for a short time before turning to dust and forgotten, what matters most is to love, to work, to worship and to serve, to engage in causes larger than ourselves, bigger than any of us as individuals.

Opposites

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.” — Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize speech, 1986.

Journaling as a Sacred Act

“Our years come to an end like a sigh . . . so teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90.

I have been “numbering my days” since I was 13 — keeping a diary or journal — and numbering my ancestors’ days by digitizing and archiving family photos since the 19th century. The value of this hobby seems to increase with age and the fading of memory. It almost seems like a sacred act.

For family and friends, I can recite names,  dates, movies, TV shows, books, acquaintances they may have forgotten long ago. I encourage my students to keep diaries or journals as well. Who knows if their journals might one day — a century from now — become heirlooms, like my grandmother’s travelogue from cruising to Europe in 1914 and witnessing the outbreak of World War I, which was not nearly as interesting to her as the cute boy sitting nearby?

Related: 

Buechner on “diary”