“IN a famous passage in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Jesus returns to earth, is recognised by the Grand Inquisitor and is thrown into prison for threatening to subvert the Church. His message of universal freedom had proved impossible to follow. As the Inquisitor taunts Jesus :
Did you forget that a tranquil mind and even death is dearer to man than a free choice in the knowledge of good and evil ? …Instead of the strict ancient law, ( when you came) man had in future to decide for himself with a free heart what is good and what is evil…But did it never occur to you that he would at last reject and call in question even your image and your truth, if he were weighed down by so fearful a burden as freedom of choice?
You hoped, the Inquisitor tells Jesus, that people would worship you out of free will and without the need for miracles, but what they really yearn for is good order. Otherwise they tear themselves apart.
Freedom, a free mind and science will lead them into such a jungle and bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries that some of them will destroy themselves, others will destroy one another, and the rest, weak and unhappy, will come crawling to our (the church’s) feet and cry aloud: ” Yes, you were right, you alone possessed his mystery and we come back to you – save us from ourselves.”
The Church, the Inquisitor concludes, had through the use of “mystery, magic and authority”, soothed the anxieties that Jesus had aroused. Hence the threat posed by his return.
“Mystery, magic and authority” are particularly relevant words in attempting to define Christianity as it had developed by the end of the fourth century.”
This long quote sums up the attitude of Jesus Christ and the Church since its inception by Paul to this day, and it is from the book, The Closing of the Western Mind, The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman. Freeman is the author of three books Egypt, Greece and Rome ; The Greek Achievement and The Legacy of Ancient Egypt.
Theology of sin and punishment.
Freeman highlights the role played by Paul in the evolution of Christianity. He formulated a meaning for Jesus’ death and his resurrection. He also disconnected Christ from the Jewish Law ( Torah) while Jesus had said that he had come to fulfill, not to destroy. Paul disassociated Christianity from the Greek intellectual achievements as well. “The more they ( non-Christians) called themselves philosophers,” he tells the Romans, ” …..they made nonsense out of logic and their empty minds were darkened.” He tells Corinthians, “The wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.” His views on idols, sexuality and Greek rationality which had not found a place in the teachings of Christ became a part of the Christian tradition.
Paul provided an institutional framework for the Church – a comprehensible symbol (death and resurrection), proclaiming enormous rewards of Christian faith and the awful consequences of the rejection of “the Cross of the Christ”. No wonder many have called Paul the founder of Christianity. “It has always to be remembered “, says Freeman, “that Paul is the only major Christian theologian never to have read the Gospels, and one cannot be sure that he interpreted Jesus’ teachings, on the Law, for instance, with accuracy.”
This break from the past led not merely to heresy but to violence in the later years. “During Paul’s life-time Christians would have been unable to desecrate pagan temples without massive retaliation, but by the fourth century Paul’s teachings, supported by Old Testament texts, were used to justify the wholesale destruction of pagan art and architecture”, writes the author.
Augustine is the next important theologian who followed in the steps of Paul and gave powerful expression and coherence to the Christian theology. It is said that he integrated sinfulness into human nature – ” the man who fused Christianity together with hatred of sex and pleasure into a systematic unity” as the German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann has put it. And the author adds that “Augustine’s gradual subjection of reason to faith and authority did much to undermine the classical tradition of rational thought. He accepted slavery claiming it to be God’s punishment. His book, The City of God, became the foundation document of Christian political thought though it is radically different from that of the Gospels. Augustine’s rationale for persecution was to be used to justify slaughter ( as of the Cathers or the native people of America)”, comments the author.
It is hard to believe that Jesus Christ of the Sermon on the Mount would have agreed with the Christian theology of Paul and Augustine. The Sermon on the Mount is a message of peace, love and compassion while the theology of Paul and Augustine is that of sin and punishment, and only of faith and no reason.
Greek and Roman heritage
Athenian democracy lasted for about 140 years and it was a brilliant political innovation in spite of the fact that it excluded women and slaves. It owes its origin and success to thinkers like Heraclitus who believed that there is an underlying order ( logos) and was sustained by continual tensions between different forces. The harmonious city, he observed, is not the one in which everyone lives in peace but one where citizens constantly engage themselves in activity and debate. The scientific thinking is based on the use of reason. The development of deductive proof was said to be the greatest of the Greek’s intellectual achievement. This was used by the Greeks even before Aristotle systemised it. Greek had a galaxy of thinkers like Parmenides, Zeno, Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras and Hippocrates.
” The unexamined life is not worth living”, said Socrates. The observation of the shadow of the earth on the moon convinced the Greeks that it was a sphere. It is in the nature of man, said Aristotle, to be curious. Reason suggested to Aristotle that there is a supreme “unmoved mover”-that which initiates motion. Plato believed that the soul was immortal and it passed from one body to another.
The Greek love for rule of law is expressed clearly in the play Antigone by Sophocles in the following verse :
” When he obeys the laws and honours justice, the city stands proud.
But man swerves from side to side, and when the laws are broken,
And set at naught, he is like a person without a city,
Beyond human boundary, a horror, a pollution to be avoided.”
However, the conflict between city states with limited resources and the internal political tensions led to the emergence of monarchy in Greece. King Philip II of Macedonia ruled a kingdom between Greece and the Balkans. After his assassination his son Alexander succeeded to the throne and he expanded the empire but he was not able to create a stable administration in his vast empire. By the third century BC, Rome became the centre of another empire and conquered Greek cities. Romans first adopted Greek rhetoric, and later Greek philosophy, science and mathematics as well. Rhetoric was extensively used in the election of magistrates in Rome. Marcus Tullius Cicero was one of the famous among them excelled in this art. Here again the republic gave way to monarchy. During the time of Augustus Caesar Rome adopted Greek culture in architecture and literature too. So much so, poet Horace said that Greece has taken ” its captor Rome captive”. The fulfillment of public duties was an important part of being Roman as it was with the Greek.
What an individual believed about gods or myths surrounding the gods was a private matter. It became relevant only if someone publicly offended by disrupting a ritual or openly refusing to follow it.The Romans assumed that other people’s gods were as important a part of the society as their own. “The Edict of Milan of 313, in which the emperor Constantine declared toleration of all cults including Christianity, marks the culmination of this process”, observes the author.
How Christianity becomes a state religion
In his effort to improve administration, Emperor Diocletian declared in 212 that all subjects of the empire except slaves would be given the right to be the Roman citizens. He said that common citizenship meant accepting common responsibility for the state. This put all those who had questionable allegiances in a quandary, especially the Christians who resolutely rejected paganism and constituted an open defiance of the state. The rejection of paganism prevented the Christians to take part in public ceremonies or sacrifices.
The Christians were well-organised with a clear structure of authority ( the bishops), an evolving theology and a ‘saviour’, Jesus Christ, a manifestation of God in human form. The author states, ” They posed the classic political dilemma: How far can one show tolerance to a group that itself condemns the tolerance of the state in allowing pagan worship to continue ?” The Christians saw the pagan gods as demons and believed that pagans would suffer eternal punishment after death. This had resulted in persecution of Christians in the Roman empire by various authorities depending upon the local situation. Diocletian in his first Edict in 303 confiscated Church property. Later, Constantine, in an effort to contain the constant menace to the state tried to absorb Christianity within the authoritarian structure of the state.
Once Constantine announced his “conversion”, he brought Christians within the Roman community without alienating the pagans through the Edict of Milan in 313 proclaiming equality of all faiths. This is the first proclamation in European history which recognised the right to freedom of worship though it was just an affirmation of a right which was implicit in the Roman government, says the author. The emperor conferred some benefits to the Christian clergy such as exemption from the heavy burden of holding civic office and taxation to allow them to pursue their religious activities and to compensate them for the earlier persecution.
This exemption created its own problem for the emperor as Christian communities had diverse doctrines and quarreled with each other – one bishop with another, and even followers coming to blows. The main dispute was with regard to relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Son. Whether Jesus, the Son, is divine and part of the Godhead as some believed or whether Jesus had been created as “Son” thus distinct from a pre-existing God and subordinate to him as Father. There are passages which suggest that Jesus himself saw God as somehow distinct from himself. For example, “Why do you call me good ? No one is good but God alone” (Mark10:18). Then there is John’s famous prologue, “And the Word was made flesh” which indicates Jesus was divine.
To stop doctrinal differences and unite all the factions, Constantine called a council of bishops to enforce an agreed definition of Christian doctrine under his auspices. The Nicene Creed of 325 decreed the doctrine of trinity – God the Father, the Son “begotten” from God the Father, and the Holy Spirit “proceeded” from God the Father. Constantine also passed a law in 326 to confer tax exemptions to the adherents of the Catholic (meaning, ‘correct’) faith and that heretics would not enjoy the privileges but would be subjected to various compulsory public services. Now, the “truth” was to be defined and enforced by law.