Thursday, September 25, 2014

"Christianity and Classical Culture" II.VI

Part II: Renovation

VI. Quid Athenae Hierosolymis? The Impasse of Constantianism

Things were now changed for Christians. Tertullian had said that "a Christian Caesar was a contradiction." Though with Tertullian, we should remember that 1) he was weird, and ended as a Montanist; and 2) he was the product of exceptionally troubled times. (213-214) And yet, we see a deep contradiction between Christianity and Classicism, which means we must ask 1) why did Constantine take so large a break with tradition? and 2) how does the Gospel apply to its new political context, especially if that context was in the process of sinking? (214)

The answer to the first question was that Constantine was searching for Divine power through the integration of religion and politics. That in itself was old news. The new thing was that the religion in question was Christianity. (214-215)
Thus, the idea was that Christianity offered the success that paganism had ceased to offer. And so the "promise of the Evangel" was increasingly associated with the emperor and his family. (215)

Which is why Constantine's ways and methods remained pagan, even as Christianity was the new religion. (216-217) Constantine was the new Alexander, the new Hellenistic superman.

In hindsight of course we can see that this was not to be a permanent solution, and in fact may have accelerated the decline (217), since Christianity continued to undermine Classical civic virtue.
Even at the time, Constantine's own heirs weren't really sure what he was trying to accomplish! (217-218)

The problem was the attempt to articulate clear Christian principles while avoiding the problems of paganism. (218-219) What was the purpose of Christianity in the new world? For that matter, what was its purpose in the previous three centuries? (219-220) Essentially, the Christians had built a city within a city. Each Greco-Roman institution had its Christian anti-type. (220) But these really show the differences between the two, rather than any similarities--as expressed by the pagans, mob violence, and persecution, as well as by the Christians in their triumph over the secular world (by moving from fear of it for love for it). (220-222) This love brings "a new sense of community" based on ultimate values, which are then shared freely with others. (221-222) Christianity provides the "basis for a radically fresh and original attitude towards experience" (222), based on revelation and faith rather than reason. Tertullian had emphasized this, as had Justin. (222-223) Belief in the "silly" was the challenge to classicism. (223-224)

The sole unifying Christian teaching was the authority of Jesus (224), as opposed to that of nature or reason. What was believed about Jesus was then paramount, especially 1) his historicity; and 2) the confession of faith concerning the events of His life. (224-225) To this end creeds were formulated. The creed embraced Jesus as the "God to end gods," as opposed to the "'virtue' and 'fortune' of Caesar." (225) It also declared the eternal life offered to all who believe, whereas opposed to pagan transcendence, both the body and the spirit were to be saved. (225-226) (contra also the Gnostics)

Of course, there were some borderline Gnostics among the Christians, such as Clement (226) and Origen. Tertullian, however, noted the absolute breach between "science" and "faith." (227) This overturned the classical ideal and suggested that Rome was based on power, rather than virtue. The "religion" and "virtue" of Augustus were merely baptized power. (227-228) Thus Tertullian would secularize government and restrict it from the religious sphere. (228) One consequently should only obey the government so long as there is no sin involved.

Taken to extremes (which of course Tertullian did), this undermines all authority, including the church, and submits all things to the conscience of the individual. (229) And yet, Tertullian fell into the very trap he decried when he declared that idealism was universally wrong. (229-230) This thrust him into a sort of materialism and millennialism, matched later by the Puritans. (230)

The reaction against such men (as by Cyprian) was authoritarian and traditionalist. (230-231) Thus early Christianity was morally strong and intellectually weak. (231) It was only after receiving philosophical assault that it began to develop its own body of thought. (231-232)

Christianity's acceptance (before it was fully intellectually developed) made things worse (232), as the lure of power assaulted the faith and confused the question of how to apply Christian doctrine to the new world order .(232-233) This question hinged on the person of Christ. The first attempt to define Him comes from Arius, refuting Sabellius. (232-233) Arius drew up a Monad based on Neoplatonism, in which the Logos was created. (233) His mistake was the attempt to bridge the eternal and the temporal through the Logos as a part of time (234), as with the Neoplatonic demiurge. Arius attempted to solve the problem of "composition" (how the eternal could enter the flux of the temporal) using Classical methods. (234-235) The Nicene Fathers reacted by proclaiming the unity of Christ's humanity and divinity. (235) Thus Christ was, rather than Christ became. (236) In the same way the Trinity was expounded as both Unity and Trinity (236-237), and both these are to be grasped by faith rather than by reason (237), though they also suggested new rational approaches.

This was a new, "unclassical," way of doing things. Where Plato had equated being and knowledge (so that pure knowledge=pure reality), and so divided the world into the sensible and the scientific, Christianity denied his whole premise (237-238) and argued that experience is the same for all, and that the only difference is how we perceive it. Either rightly by faith, or wrongly through the self. Faith shifted our perspective through the Deity to nature, rather than vice-versa. (238)

This was a new approach to both materialism and idealism. (238-239) The problem of "cause" was solved, and new application and interpretation became the new question: where does man fit in? (239-240)

The Christian view of man is that he is both part of nature and God-like at the same time, especially in his eternal life. (240) But how is that compatible with the idea of death we see everywhere in nature? The answer was sin, which is not a problem of the natural world, but of rebellion against God beginning with Adam and tracing through every man. (240-241) This, in turn identified both the problem (sin) and the solution (rebirth). (241-242) This regeneration, in turn, was built on grace. (242) The source of life is the solution  to the problems of life. This, in turn, meant a recognition that the realm of the spirit, heart, and mind, is the place where events of true significance happen. (242-243)

The big divergence from Classicism is the idea of progress. That we progress (as a fact) is evident (we see this in Aristotle). But aiming at a good often destroys that very good. how then do we arrive at the good without destroying it? Either the end (telos) of thought of of action? (243-244)  (Thought and action are the means as well, represented by Socrates and Virgil respectively.) Christians argue that "good for man is eternal life and that this consists in the knowledge and love of God" (244), on a personal (not corporate) level. Thus the problem of reality is ultimately an internal one, not an external one, with only the sinful self blocking progress. (244-245)

Though Christians recognized the validity of some of the pagan views (245-246), even if only because it was so deeply ingrained by their upbringing as to be irremovable. (247-248)

After Nicea, the question is: how do Christians relate to the pagan and secular values of the Empire? (248) Even formulating this question is useful, since it points to the possibility of meaning beyond the Empire. (248-249) The Christological controversies were, in part, an attempt by theologians and Emperors to work this difficulty out. (249-250)

This didn't work, and Constantine's successors faced yet worse crises and dissension, which even harsh restrictions on corruption and military measures on the borders couldn't restrain. (250-251)  Landed restrictions were increased and minor nobles continued to suffer. (252) Harsh measures against counterfeiters and those who squelched on public debts were enforced. (253-254) Thus we see the "inefficiency and corruption" of Constantianism (254), at least politically.

But what about religiously? Sadly, a spirit of fanaticism, intolerance, and persecution begins to grow among the Christians. (254-255) Pagans and Jews were now the persecuted. (255) Christians were given special exemptions (clergy, at least), and Cynics, such as Ammianus, suggested that Constantine was just a thinly veiled Machiavellian. (Not that they used exactly that language, of course.) This charge may even be borne out by Constantius' grasp at ecclesiastical power, which may have succeeded if not for Athanasius contra mundum. (257) This, in turn, shows the true backbone of orthodoxy, even against the church's own worldly patron. (257-258)

Athanasius held out against the Platonic Arians, both in word (chapter 10), and in "four different kinds of action":

  1. appealing to the Council over the Emperor;
  2. using the episcopacy in his own defense;
  3. appealing to the people (congregation);
  4. suffering personally.
In protesting against the Emperor's right to make church judgments on doctrine or discipline, "he laid the foundation of a specifically Christian political theory." (259) Athanasius' separation of church and state would not, however, lead to a renewal of orthodoxy under the leadership of a Christian. Rather, the mantle of separation of church and state would be taken up by a pagan. 

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