Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Trinity and the Emperor

Theology is bunk, but religious history is endlessly fascinating. With that in mind, as I was padding around Paris a year ago, I had to admit that my background in the history of christianity was rather weak despite an extensive academic background in islamic history. And so I set into a year of reading on the middle ages and the history of the religion that rules our world. That is the background of this and future similar posts.

Thesis: the notion of the trinity was propagated by a pagan emperor for political purposes and visited upon a fractious bunch of mostly Greek christians most of whom disagreed, fought the decsion, but had little recourse in the long run.

Christians, broadly speaking, know little about the origins of their religion and know even less about its early history. There are several salient myths that we all know: the huddled downtrodden living in the catacombs, the noble martyrs fed to the lions, and then there is the miraculous conversion of Constantine on the eve of the battle of Milvian Bridge. Alas, either not true or so attenuated as to be in essence not true.

The real truth of early Christianity is that it was profoundly eastern empire in nature, predominantly Greek, overwhelmingly urban, and concentrated among the middle and upper classes. The repressions were sporadic, brutal when they occurred. The empire was primarily concerned not so much to supress christians, but to force them to sacrifice to the particular Roman gods associated with imperial rule. For every poor sod sacrificed in some colisseum, tens of thousand lived their lives quietly and in peace ... sort of like gay people before gay liberation, if you think about it ... official scorn and legal jeopardy, periodic savage repression, unpredictable episodes of violence and death in a large community who mostly led successful lives and whose acquaintances knew exactly what was going on.

Nice image ... early christians as the faggots of their era.

But the myth I am concerned about here is the myth of the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. It is pretty clear that Constantine did not personally convert before the battle in which by besting Maxentius he became the Augustus of the western Roman empire. There is some evidence that his troops may have had the chi-ro, or labarum, on their shields. There is, of course, no evidence that any supreme beings intervened in the skirmish.

Constantine issued the Edict of Milan the next year in which he granted tolerance not only to christianity but to all religions not previously tolerated in the empire, although Jews did not do as well as christians. Polytheistic religions whose members were willing to sacrifice to the Roman gods had always been tolerated. It was, to put it succinctly, the intolerant religions that were not tolerated because they eschewed the empire. More on christianity and empire below. But the evidence on the Edict of Milan points not to a Saul/Paul-type conversion, but rather to a savvy emperior whose prescience about the state of the empire and its future led him to understand that the existing politico-religious system was untenable or at least useless to him.

It took another dozen years of warring for Constantine to become sole emperor, and it was at this point that his understanding, I would argue, of the value of christianity for his place in history matured. He came to understand the future of the empire was Greek and eastern, and history proved him right for only in 1453 did his creation slip beneath the waves. He founded Constantinople and he set out to harness christianity by calling the Council of Nicaea in 325. He presided there on a golden throne, and it was there that he picked the trinity as orthodoxy notwithstanding that the arians almost certainly vastly outnumbered the trinitarians both at the council and in Greek society.

Why did he do it? I think, following the argument of Charles Freemen in The Closing of the Western Mind that he saw, whether explicitly or intuitively, that a trinity of divinities removed the figure of Christ from an ability to sponsor anti-imperial rebellion. Jesus' life, as depicted in the gospels written decades after his life by men who never met him, was one of a rebel against authority; now, in the service of empire a mere decade after that empire had legalized the religion invented in his name, he had to be subsumed into an unapproachable godhead so that his role in religion could become the psychologistic one of providing salvation for the compliant rather than the sociological one of providing means of liberation to the oppressed. The arian approach that Jesus was less than god, a human being taken to god, was just a little too real. What empire wants, as it had with its focus on sacrifice to its ancient gods before Milan, is a godhead that it controls and before which individuals are beseechers, meek and controllable.

Arianism lived on in the east for centuries, and it was the preferred religion of various barbarian horsemen probably more because they sought to differentiate themselves from the Romans they ruled than anything else.

It is remarkable the speed with which christianity turned into its opposite once it had been subsumed and adopted by empire. Things bite back, and the religion that proclaimed itself as the religion of the oppressed became the oppressor with a speed that must have been dizzying.

Nevertheless, those myths of martyrdom and conversion hung around. The present-day christian talk about a personal relationship with Jesus has a bit of an odor of arianism to me. Regardless, such thinking requires some supporting myths, and the greater context of a religion whose worldwide success arose from a deal with empire is not enough. So with a wink and a nod, just as it has been in one way or another for two millennia, the churches propagate myths that they do not believe or which undermine their claims. But then, theology is nothing if it is not contradictory.

Meanwhile, old Constantine finally died, converting only on his deathbed. He had succeeded in yoking christianity to his empire. That yoke remained in place in the eastern church thereafter; the western church had a long struggle with rulership ahead of it which relates to the role of the barbarian horsemen. But Constantine's big moment in Nicaea nevertheless became an orthodoxy for which countless more christians would perish than the few who provided a meal for Roman lions.

Image of Constantine by Markus Bernet (July 10, 2004) courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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