What Was Christendom? – Los Angeles Assessment of Books

What Was Christendom? - Los Angeles Review of Books

Not far from the Bank of England headquarters and the Mayor of London's official Mansion House, on a side street called Walbrook, between Cannon Street and Bank Junction, in 1954 a group of construction workers accidentally broke into an underground room that had been buried for centuries was. When digging the foundations for a skyscraper to house the legal and general financial services company, workers entered the carefully buried domain of a third century church from when Britannia was a distant Roman province. Archaeologists from the nearby Museum of London quickly discovered that the site was dedicated to a Middle Eastern messianic figure, whose popular cult had spread throughout Rome in the centuries before the Empire collapsed. These worshipers performed their rituals in hidden catacombs because at the center of this belief was a quasi-divine figure who was involved in a violent sacrifice that was essential to the salvation of the world. Initiates marked their entry into the faith by immersing themselves in a pool of water; they prostrated themselves in front of a picture of his violent victim; and when they met in their temples, they attended a ritual meal in honor of their Messiah's memory. Her Messiah was reportedly born on December 25th. In late antiquity, his cult had followers from Persia to the Picten, Carthage to Cologne. The name of their god was Mithras.

Its religious rivals, the early Christians, certainly noticed the similarities. Church minister Justin Martyr wrote his echoes on rituals such as baptism and communion, claiming that "evil demons have been passed down in the mimicry that the same should be done in the Mithras mysteries". Tertullian claimed that the "devil (the heretic's inspirer), whose job it is to distort the truth, tries to imitate the realities of the divine sacraments with idolatrous secrets". For the Father of the Church, Mithras was a bold usurper of the prerogative of Christ because the Persian God “promises forgiveness of sins through baptism; and if my memory does not fail, I mark his own soldiers with the sign of Mithra on their foreheads, reminds me of a bread sacrifice and (introduces) a false resurrection. “Victorian critics were thrilled with the comparisons, and French philologist Ernest Renan was thrilled that" (i) if the growth of Christianity had been stopped by a fatal disease, the world would have been mithraic ". Subsequent scholars have questioned such an assertion (by far the least problematic of Renan's assertions), although a certain section of the general public sees some kind of confirmation of the unoriginality of Christianity in Mithras and other mystery cults.

Pseudo-scientific works like Brian Flemming's documentary The God Who Wasn't There and books like George Albert Wells & # 39; The Jesus Myth rely heavily on the alleged congruence between Mithraism (and other sects) to argue that that Christianity is based exclusively on ahistorical mythologization. A representative example of this genre would be Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy's The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “original Jesus” a pagan god? The authors write that "(f) when we started to reveal such extraordinary similarities between the story of Jesus and the pagan myth, we were stunned." From these obvious similarities and against any scientific consensus, Freke and Gandy conclude that Christ himself did not exist. Their reasoning was apparently that if Mithras (and Osiris and Dionysius, etc.) didn't exist, then Jesus didn't exist either. At the center of the so-called "Christian myth theory" is the deceptive reasoning, which sees in syncretism a kind of slam dunk that discredits the historical factuality of a first-century Jewish teacher named Yeshua ben Yosef. Often, the mythical details of the sects with which Christianity is compared must be changed or stretched to fit into a critical Procrustean bed so that differences are erased.

Mithraism, despite all the fears it caused among the church fathers, had some remarkable differences. Initiates in Mithräum, London worshiped a god who was magically born from a rock, was associated with pagan gods from Mercury to Sol Invictus and was accompanied by a retinue of strange deities such as Leontocephalin Arimanus. Mithraism differed even more than in the field of mythology in the way it was experienced by worshipers. While Christianity flourished among the Roman underclasses (and was particularly attractive to women), Mithraism was an elite belief favored by soldiers, a cult of mystery in which its initiates had to advance through certain levels of knowledge and whose secrets were not suitable for the common people . Such an ethic was reflected in their religious narrative (as far as we can tell, their writings will not survive if they ever existed). The victim that Mithraism recalled was not the scandalous, degrading, pitiful death of her Messiah, but a victim with whom he was the executioner. In the London temple there is a stone relief in which Mithras slaughtered a divine bull.

Although Mithras is not found in Tom Holland's Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Made the World New, I suspect that the author sees these different victims as what makes the difference between Christianity and its upstart. The followers of Mithraism in their underground temples were just one of many new religions that emerged from the Augustan Age in late antiquity from Manichaeism to Gnostic cults, although Christianity and its fraternal rabbinical Judaism are the only ones that still have followers. Mithraism, despite all of its apparent similarities to Christianity, has only a superficial relationship with the Nazarene faith, because the cult of mystery in its secrecy confirmed the elitism of classic paganism, while Holland described it as a "true division in society" (…) between them who were masters by nature and those who were slaves by nature. “Aside from the joint birthdays on Christmas Day, Christianity and Mithraism were ethically separated by a great rift in which the previous pillars of Roman faith had fallen, including the fact that“ the custom was the ultimate authority; that justice was owed to the great than to the humble; This inequality was something natural that was taken for granted. “According to this standard, perhaps something more is recommendable in pagan consistency than Christian hypocrisy, and yet Holland's view of the singularity of the gospel message must be taken seriously.

Mithraeum is adorned with depictions of Tauroctonia, the mysterious narrative that was ritualized by the followers of God and focused on the violent sacrifice of a bull. As an inevitable violent scene, stone carvings present Mithras in Persian breeches and Phrygian hats, a cloak often around his shoulders, holding a powerful bull between his legs and turning the head of the unfortunate creature as he slides a knife over his neck. The bull with the connotations of mythical creatures from the Minoan Minotaur to the Carthaginian juggernaut is a sacrifice made by the victorious God. When Mithras is spattered with blood, it is not his own. Such a death is to be contrasted with the symbol in the center of Christianity, where it is not a deity who holds the knife, but the bloated, bloody, broken body on the cross that is God himself. Holland writes that "a man who had been crucified himself could be celebrated as a god who can be considered scandalous, obscene and grotesque by people all over the Roman world." The uniqueness of Christianity is not necessarily that God died – Pan died. And it is not that Christ has risen – Osiris has also returned from the dead. It is rather that God should die in such a uniquely shameful way, carried out by a death penalty that is so uncomfortable to the elderly that every culture blames every other culture for its invention. The idea that God should be crucified was so despicable that for almost a millennium Christians refused to portray this moment in their art. The earliest crucifixes were presented in graffiti by taunted pagans. Holland argues that it is this death that distinguishes Christianity from its pagan rivals, because among "a people that has always had the agony of competition to be the best," the crucifix signaled that "God chose the fool had to shame the wise and the weak to shame the strong. "

From the religious mix of classical Europe, it was Christianity that most completely reversed the ethics of the Roman world, in a way that was so complex that it is difficult for us to recognize the innate radicalism of the Christian message. Holland is less interested in the why of the victory of Christianity than in its effects, this religion, which is "at the same time the most enduring legacy of classical antiquity and the index of its complete transformation". He argues that in a "world that took the hierarchy of human things and their owners for granted", the shameful death of Christ had turned the traditional and almost universally accepted oppression that defined the classic world upside down. Holland also shows that, regardless of whether we want to recognize it or not, a variety of supposedly secular contemporary movements, from human rights to socialism to feminism, are possible precisely because they originated in this original scandal, in “Doing nothing by accepting the nature of a slave” Christ had conquered the depths to which only the lowest, the poorest, the most persecuted and abused mortals were confined. “If the secret mystery cults of Mithra's ascendant had been, we could assume that certain principles – egalitarianism, freedom, even revolution – would have been cognitively nonsensical. That Christ was a scorned member of a marginalized group living on the edge of an oppressed province of a powerful empire makes the difference. Mithras was a prince and a demigod, but Christ was different, "closer to the weak than to the powerful, to the poor than to the rich. Every beggar, every criminal could be Christ, ”Holland writes.

Dominion's most important contribution is to emphasize how concepts that we take for granted, even concepts that appear to be as fundamental as "religion" and "secular", are "loaded with the legacy of Christianity". Anglo-American conjectures often refer to a particular historical script, in which the glory of ancient Greece and Rome was obscured by a "dark age" of unthinkable, tyrannical, superstitious Christianity, only to suppress this solar eclipse first through the Reformation and then through the Enlightenment . Such a narrative is attractive to those who consider themselves heirs to Protestantism and secularism, and it remains the de facto paradigm in broader culture. Holland notes that "nothing was true in this narrative," although such an interpretation "has become an extremely popular myth." This simplified understanding of the story is so widespread that it would be embarrassing to find an example, but a critically acclaimed manifestation of this long-discredited story can be seen in Catherine Nixey's The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. Here the author repeats misunderstandings about the classical world that have been common since the Renaissance – for example, that the ancient pagans lived in a "fundamentally liberal and generous" world. As Holland would explain, such an assertion is just the opposite. From Gibbon to Nixey, the story of the shift from antiquity to the Middle Ages and the Middle Ages to the modern age was told in the same way (even if this version is new). Dominion offers a helpful correction that recalls how liberal values ​​have their origins in some abstractions of Christianity, as an author argues sharply who makes it clear that he has no sectarian loyalties to the faith itself.

Classic paganism was tolerant of different traditions, but in the modern sense it was anything but “liberal” and certainly not egalitarian. Tolerance and electoral democracy (and then only briefly) are probably the only aspects of contemporary liberal values ​​that can be found in antiquity. Holland argues in a mostly convincing manner that concepts such as human rights, socialism, revolution, feminism, science and even the separation between religion and secularity (which then enables ecclesiastical unbundling and tolerance) have their origins especially in the Gospels, Pauline letters and the writings of the church fathers . Both Athenian democracy and Roman syncretism may play a short role in Holland's genealogy of the western world, but the narrative he turns about how certain Christian concepts have been secularized into a modern ethos over the millennia is extensive correct and a crucial response to the world's nixeys. “They are incomplete revolutions to be remembered; The fate of those who triumph is a matter of course, ”Holland writes, and we should remember it well. Whether Christian or not, religious or not, the language we use, the conceptual framework through which we think, can be traced back to the first century Jerusalem. What would make Christianity unique, Holland would argue, is the fusion of social reversal (which is evidenced by placing a crucified criminal at the center of its history) with the Pauline doctrine of universalism.

He claims that "preaching a deity that recognized no boundaries, no divisions" "has led to an innovation never attempted before: a declaration of faith that proclaimed itself universal." Following the austerity of Jewish monotheism, personalities like Paul have broadened the definition of covenant thinking significantly, while picking up on the emancipatory logic of inversion implied in the Hebrew scriptures and relating this radical thinking to what Paul would consider the final conclusion – God on the cross. This synthesis of inversion and universalism, according to Holland, provides the principles that "all souls were the same in the eyes of God". The origins of egalitarianism, human rights and even the revolution do not lie with the Jacobins of Paris or the revolutionaries of Boston and Philadelphia, but in the Bible. "There had never been anything like this before," writes Holland, "a citizenship that was not due to birth, descent or legal regulations, but only to faith." While the language of human rights today is estimated to be secular, the thesis would have been nonsensical even for an ancient Roman; Human rights first had to be filtered through this conception of the basic metaphysical equality of souls created by God. If there is a flaw in Holland's interpretation, it is that his triumph sometimes provokes an almost secular supersessionism regarding Jewish contributions to this project. Both inversion and universalism are more than abundant in the Hebrew scriptures, even if Paul preaches that "there are neither Jews nor Greeks, there is neither attachment nor freedom, there are neither men nor women", this is a moving encapsulation of these principles. Perhaps in this one case the rightly critically ridiculed term "Judeo-Christian" is more helpful than not to understand the difference between Athens and Jerusalem.

Although Holland promises not to write a history of Christianity, he has effectively done so, explaining how the various modern categories that he associates with Christianity have actually found their ultimate origin in religion. Certain arguments keep cropping up in his book, and although he does not equally advocate why certain concepts must have an origin in Christianity, one for which he provides unquestionable biblical genealogy is socialism. Far from being the curse of faith, Holland provides ample evidence that socialist thinking, indeed revolutionary thinking in general, would have been nonsensical to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Socialism ultimately derives from the same place where human rights originate – the belief in the fundamental dignity and equality of God's human creatures. So there is a golden thread that links Luke in Acts (which tells how the apostles sold their “possessions and goods they gave everyone as he needed them”) to Basil of Caesarea's sermon in the fourth century that the “ Bread in your board belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your dressing room to the naked; the shoes you let rot barefoot; the money in your vaults to the needy, ”and Karl Marx pleaded in the 19th century,“ from everyone according to their abilities to everyone according to their needs ”. It should be clear that Holland does not emphatically say that socialists must be Christians (although I would argue the opposite). Rather, he argues that values ​​such as equality and economic justice would have made no sense to those in antiquity before the Gospels, even if the same principles could now exist from the beginning without reference. He writes that "in a world in which lepers are treated with dignity and the abolition of slavery could be pushed towards the rich (…) subversion of the traditional way of ordering," a "hint of reverberation" in the distance was the future . "

If Holland is largely convinced of the Christian origin of human rights through a language of natural law and revolutionary socialism, which is contained in the rhetoric of Acts and the scandal of the crucifixion itself, Dominion's argument is less clear when it comes to the genealogy of science and science Feminism. He identifies emerging science with a certain philosophical view that "God's order was rational and governed by rules that mortals want to understand" by seeing the beginnings of empiricism in the Aristotelian scholastics of medieval thinkers like Peter Abelard. The question is asked a little too much, because if Christian Aristotelianism is the origin of the scientific method, it seems more appropriate to simply attribute this category to Aristotle himself. As it is, there are simply too many examples from the classical past or from the non-western world that could serve as a rejoinder to the idea that something about the development of science is necessarily implied by the postulates of Christian theology. If Holland were to argue that certain philosophies about science, whether you call these approaches science or positivism, have their origins in Christianity (and especially Protestantism), it would be an argument for which I would be more amenable. As is sometimes the case with a book that seems too scientific for popular readers and too popular for a scientific audience, Dominion lacks the critical vocabulary to make a more nuanced case.

Dominion makes some evocative guesses that are worth taking seriously when it comes to the relationship between sexual equality and Christianity. The stereotypical understanding of Christianity's preoccupation with sex, whether one imagines the hypocritical sadomasochistic priest or the oppressed Puritans, is far from the term "sexually positive". Apart from the supposedly prigish moralization of early Christians, who reject the funny and carefree, derelict bacchanals of classical Rome, there are the misogynistic passages by Paul, which in many denominations have excluded the full equality of women. In such a context, Holland's argument that Christianity plays a pivotal role in feminism may seem counterintuitive, but by dominating historically the gospel message in the earliest centuries, Dominion points out what is still radical today. Holland describes the sexual politics of classical Rome, which is often romanticized as a kind of libertine utopia, and explains that it represents a "sexual order based on the assumption that every man in a position of power has the right to exploit his subordinates" far from an insulting moralism, "Paul '' insisting that everyone's body is a sacred vessel" was actually a call for physical autonomy. If you read alongside the revisionist historiography of the past two generations, such as EP Sanders & # 39; groundbreaking work on Paul, which showed that the harmful chauvinism of the letters is most likely a later interpolation, then Holland's claims about the hidden progressive gender politics become of Christianity sharper.

Where Dominion is clearly correct and possibly most helpful to those who are still enraptured by the delusion that modernity signals a clear break with a Christian past, it is excavating the deep roots of secularism. This is where Holland's reasoning will be most uncomfortable for strict humanists, atheists and agnostics, while ironically it is also the most accurate observation throughout the book. Holland is definitely right when he realizes that secularism “was not a neutral concept. The word came from behind incense clouds that were irrevocable and venerable Christian. “The separation between" saeculorum "and" religionem "is unmistakably of Christian origin and can probably be traced back to the moment in Mark when Christ says:" Hand over to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar and to God the things that belong to God. " The evangelist tells us that the congregation “marveled” at it, and it is no wonder that the idea that there is a clear demarcation between temple and state, religion and secular is nonsensical in other cultural contexts. The relationship between the saint and the profane was a constant negotiation in Christianity, but these divisions were so consuming that those who reject Christianity in favor of a secular order do not seem to know that the model with which they work is of theological origin Has . Throughout history, the separation between the religious and the secular has only become clearer. Holland explains that after the Reformation the “essence of religion appeared clear: it was in the inner relationship of a believer to the divine. Faith was a personal, a private thing. As such, it existed in a sphere different from the rest of society: government, trade, or law. “An irony is that this is a belief that both Protestants and secularists would agree with, although the more staunch followers of the latter would refuse to recognize their lineage from the former. Yet such a scheme would sound bizarre for most religious self-definitions; Historically, there was no equivalent in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism.

This is not to say that secularism is not a good thing or that it is not worth defending. Only when we appeal to him as a doctrine should we be clear that we are not talking about something neutral, neutral, ahistorical category, but we are discussing what is actually sublimated Christianity. We see this in our own critical apparatus, in which people can no longer recognize religious phenomena as correct, or when we put definitions of sacred experience in straitjackets to impose a Christian belief model on different expressions, which are far from the Western paradigm "Religion . " Throughout most of its history, religion has been not only belief in teachings, but also the language you speak, the clothes you wear, the food you eat, and the society you lead. Defining religion as a pure question of "belief" means projecting a Christian and specifically Protestant understanding of what "religion" is. The reduction of religion to belief and the definition of belief to only delimit belief is a fiction. In a way, the fiction of secularism is critical to an absolutist belief like Christianity, since it can be understood as the method by which Christianity has developed a space for pluralism while maintaining its admirable and egalitarian universalism. Holland writes that "the Church's ambition to save people of all races and backgrounds has become a weapon that must be directed against those who have declined their offer (…), no response to those who have declined, except persecution. " Liberal secularism is an invention of universal Christianity that supports pluralities-free pluralities.

Such a formula will be helpful in interpreting today's western society, culture and politics. As Holland writes, the so-called cultural wars are "less a war against Christianity than a civil war between Christian factions". This is a reading of the current era that needs to be better understood and disseminated. So often the cultural wars are simply read as a Manichaean struggle between the religious and secular, conservatives and liberals, but by locating our supposedly agnostic policies in the long history of Christianity, Holland has done an important service to read our political struggles as more sectarian than could initially be adopted. He claims that if opponents of abortion were the heirs of Christians who "traveled the garbage dumps of Cappadocia to look for abandoned babies to save them, those who spoke out against them also relied on a deeply rooted Christian conjecture : Every woman's body is her own "And that followers of" same-sex marriage were just as influenced by the Church's enthusiasm for monogamous fidelity as those who opposed it, through the biblical condemnation of men who slept with men. "

The point is that each side in these battles would have been unrecognizable to our classic ancestors, who are falsely overvalued as our intellectual ancestors. Whether left or right, liberal or conservative, progressive or traditionalist, Christian or not, Christianity has radically reset the parameters of our view of the world, and that is the language we still speak. "Aren't we hearing the noise of the graves that bury God?" wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the few atheists who took both Christianity and its challengers seriously. "Aren't we smelling the divine rot? – for even putrid gods! God is dead. God remains dead. And we killed him. "

Dominion is a long way to convince the reader that even if the accounts of God's death have not been overrated, there is something to be said that the corpuscular rotting has left his body fertile. There is always a danger of dancing on the grave of a god who is known to revive regularly. The flowers that grow around his grave can bear traces of inner life, even if we are not aware of the soil from which they draw life. Wenn das Christentum eine Erzählung darüber ist, wie Gott sterben und doch bleiben kann, dann ist die Geschichte der Moderne eine Geschichte darüber, wie wir von einer Gottheit heimgesucht werden, von der wir so tun, als ob sie nicht mehr existiert.


Ed Simon ist Mitarbeiter bei The Millions.


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