Ancient forces shaped our lives
By MICHAEL J. FARRELL
We stand, to paraphrase Francis Thompson, amid the dust of the mounded years -- our history. Millions of years created mystery and myth, life oozing and then galloping, women and men eventually walking upright, fierce battles and lusty adventures, landmark leaps such as the wheel, the Bible and the Big Mac. The past goes on making us who we are.
The mound on which we stand this pivotal year has layers of history and geography, science and discovery, philosophy and religion and gossip and art and sport and wonder and woe. We have become, in time, complex, and our lives complicated. Trying to cope, we divide existence into, among other things, time and place. To get a handle on time we divide it into years and centuries and more or less. This organized approach is surprisingly recent, the outcome of an earlier eternity of trial and error as untidy time slipped through our fingers.
At key moments in our lives together we stop to take stock, a human gimmick other forms of life have not yet figured out. The year 2000 is an obvious occasion.
Montana, of all places
If we buy the idea of centuries, its only a matter of time until were asking what century contributed most to making us who we are.
Given our mediocre attention span, our focus is usually on the century we live in. But all centuries are not created equal, according to the scholars at tiny Carroll College in Helena, Mon.
Montana is a rugged state with beautiful scenery and a rowdy history. In 1864, the story goes, four dead-beat Southern prospectors stumbled on this neck of the woods and grimly named it Last Chance Gulch. That was before they discovered gold on what is now the citys main street. Later, in search of a more upbeat name, the folks suggested Helena but pronounced it He-LAY-na. The miners and bullwhackers thought this too feminine, but a more manly pronunciation later won approval, HEL-e-na. This, in short, is not typical Plato country, much less Thomas Aquinas country.
Yet here, in mid-April, far from think tanks and Ivy League and such time-encrusted seats of learning as Louvain, Paris and Salamanca, an extraordinary gathering took place to consider The 100 Years That Made 2000 A.D. Over a weekend, scholars from a variety of disciplines and interests came together to discuss why, in the words of program director and philosophy professor Barry Ferst, the fourth century, more than any other, made us who we are today.
Ferst and more than a score of speakers and presenters specified the years 311 A.D. to 410 A.D. to pinpoint the ancient forces that shaped our modern lives. He chased grants, cajoled donors, invited scholars and then invited not only the students but all of Montana to come and hear them, gratis.
Carroll is itself a slightly rare place, a Catholic college run by a diocese. Founded about 90 years ago as a high school, it became a liberal arts college for men before going co-ed in the 1950s. Local Bishop Robert Morlino is chancellor of the board, and casual conversation with the local population made it clear he sees the college as a source of vocations, on the one hand, and intends to kept theological orthodoxy under control, on the other.
Yet the very word orthodoxy had an odd, irrelevant sound amid this tumult of high-flying concepts. A mere glance at the fourth or any century shows ideas have a mind of their own and cannot be corked in a bottle. Religiously speaking, said Jerome Baggett, assistant professor of sociology at Carroll, the fact that religions change all the time in order to remain relevant amidst new intellectual developments and new social contexts surprises no one. For instance, one 11th-century pope [Urban II] helped initiate the crusades, and the current pope recently asked forgiveness for them.
The time conundrum
One early concern of the conference was to come to terms with time itself. No one -- arguably not even God -- could possibly have planned human life on earth the way it worked out. All the topsy-turvy clashes of ideas and circumstances reflect the unpredictability of the human imagination and will. No one could have figured, for example, how complicated the very date of Easter would get, never mind the meaning of the event behind it.
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, Christs second coming being imminent, there is little point in remembering dates and anniversaries. This carelessness about dates typifies the Western cultural attitude toward time until quite recently (NCR, Nov. 5).
As the years passed, however, and Christ did not return, Christians took a second look at reality, which kept happening in spite of them. Already in the early second century, the celebration of the resurrection was growing in impact, and with it a prior period of fasting. Some dates had to be picked to anchor these. It was as if Christians shrugged and conceded that since they seemed destined for the long haul they ought to do some planning.
Besides, claimed Brittan, the Christian story insists on its own historicity, its own time within time: That Jesus did as well as said certain things, and that these were widely seen and heard, is of fundamental importance. If the factual basis of faith, to put it in a paradoxical way, is undermined, then to that same extent we have no reason to believe.
Even at a more elementary level, experience taught people they needed some absolute event to anchor themselves in their history. For Romans, it was the founding of the city in 753 by Romulus and Remus; for Christians it grew to be the resurrection. But because time had been so fluid, and calendars so erratic -- neither Ambrose nor Augustine had any conception that he was living in the fourth century -- the dating of Easter became an intense, drawn-out tussle. 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.
Brittan makes a final point, an admonition for the all-too-human church: It is that ultimately dating events with respect to Easter does not simply orient us with respect to time and history. It orients us with respect to eternity as well and forces us to gauge the meaning of our lives. It constitutes a kind of reminder and provocation. This has all been ignored in the process of our calendars globalization, the imprint of Western economic, political and military hegemony.
This reminder and provocation was the first of many at the conference to the effect that the 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.
Church gathers momentum
Most of us grew up on myths of early Christians cowering in catacombs (it was news to many that there are 70 miles of catacombs under the Rome metropolitan area), eaten by lions and generally persecuted throughout the Roman Empire. Historians insist it wasnt really that bad, though this would be cold comfort to the many who truly were thrown to the lions.
There was very little official persecution of Christianity for the first 200 years of its existence, except for one brief outbreak under the reign of Nero which was confined to the city of Rome itself, writes William A. Herr in This Our Church. The Romans, traditionally polytheistic themselves, were therefore compelled by logic to be tolerant of other religions. Furthermore, Roman law was not oriented to ideology but simply to keeping order. Thus a live-and-let-live accommodation had long been made with the Jews, for example, except for upstarts, of whom Jesus may have been one.
Christians were more prickly and feisty. In those early centuries, prophets and charismatics were forever popping up and announcing the end of the world and coaxing or ordering everyone off to the desert. In their early fervor, some heartily embraced martyrdom, an attitude that could make a Christian a tough nut for an oppressive emperor to crack.
An early bone of contention was emperor worship, a harmless ritualistic custom except for Christians with a literal bent. Behind the harmless incidentals, though, lay a fundamental difference: Christianity was fiercely monotheistic and as intolerant of polytheism as the Romans were tolerant. It had no intention of being one among many religions; it intended to replace the others. This can be a problem when the emperor is head of the others and furthermore endowed with the quaint title Pontifex Maximus, the head bridge-builder.
As the third century crept toward the crucial fourth, nerves got more raw. From 248 to 268, wrote Edward Gibbon in his famous The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, there were 20 years of shame and misfortune and the ruined empire seemed to approach the last and fatal moment of its dissolution. At such times tyrants often need scapegoats: a role for which the early Christians seemed well suited.
Emperor Decius (249-251) began the first systematic persecution of Christians. But 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 305 Diocletian abdicated -- in the late Empire, emperors rose and fell with impressive speed.
But another set of forces was at work. While the Roman emperors were usually eager to have some gods around, sometimes including themselves, they were even more interested in the unity and stability of the empire. A meeting of odd minds was about to take place. Writes Herr: The larger, more centralized and better disciplined the church became, the more its interests and those of the state began to coincide. Christianity wanted to become the sole religion of the Empire, and the Empire wanted to establish ideological homogeneity. It looked like a match.
In such an atmosphere, in 311, Emperor Galerius, out of the blue issued an edict to discontinue the persecution of Christians. He didnt do anything crazy -- by Roman standards -- such as getting baptized, but he did signal a major change in Roman thinking.
Then along came Constantine. While he remains an enigma to historians, it is clear he goosed the fourth century and sent much of civilization down a road on which there was no turning back.
The battle of the Milvian Bridge makes 312 one of the fabled dates of that century. It doesnt matter much whom Constantine fought, Maxentius, or even that he won, so much as the concomitant stirrings in his soul and/or imagination -- one area the historians have not quite fathomed.
Before the battle, according to the Christian writer Eusebius and others, Constantine saw a cross in the sky, and the inscription In This Sign You Will Conquer. That cross, too, real or imagined, helped make our world what it is at 2000. It is no secret that Constantine was prone to visions -- but, as they say in 2000, whatever works.
The following year, 313, Constantine, in what became known as the Edict of Milan, decreed complete religious freedom. He had the Christians mostly in mind but he did not become one -- for much of his life he walked a religious tightrope, which theologians say is a difficult rope to walk. He used his ample financial and military resources to promote Christianity, and there followed a great many conversions. On the other hand, the majority was still pagan and remained so -- there was no mass conversion. So the pragmatic ruler had to keep both sides happy to keep the empire united -- hence the tightrope.
Constantine left a couple of permanent imprints on the Christian West. His God was -- not surprisingly, after Milvian Bridge -- somewhat of a warrior, and his Christianity muscular. Christians heretofore had been pacifists in the manner Jesus was alleged to have been, and many ran into trouble for refusing to serve in the army. All that changed, and soon a just-war rationale would be worked out, and the often-cozy relationship between church and military that endures to our day was being consolidated. Writes Michael Grant in Constantine the Great: The Man and His Times: 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.
Another aspect of the Constantine legacy was opulence. He 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. Numerous cases of bribery to obtain episcopal appointments were reported, writes Herr, and the efforts of some bishops to advance their careers by moving from minor sees to more prestigious [and more remunerative] ones became a major scandal.
When each see is a prize, the see of Rome is the very jackpot. In 366, an episcopal election got so intense that more than 100 people were killed.
Alas, Constantine, Dante summed up the legacy, fairly or not: What evil you brought into the world.
The pilgrim pioneers
Free at last, fourth-century Christians proceeded to do a host of things they could never have done as a suppressed sect. Some went in search of holy places foundational to their faith, a tradition that grew legs and grew betimes bigger and more profitable to this very year.
Pilgrimage, now frequently seen as entertainment, was crucial to Christianity in the fourth century. Just as one understands the Greek historians better when one has seen Athens, wrote St. Jerome, so we also understand scripture better when we have seen Judea with our own eyes. This was all the more crucial because the holy places literally had to be dug from the earth and rediscovered. After the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D., they wiped out nearly all traces of Judaism and Christianity in Palestine, transplanting Roman temples and gods.
Three women were in the vanguard of this new pilgrim tradition, according to a paper by Elizabeth McNamer of Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont.
The first was Helena (a nice coincidence of nomenclature there), mother of Emperor Constantine and consequently the subject of hyperbole and hagiography ever since. She was nearly 80 when her son made her ambassador to Palestine, and soon after that the digging began -- she is the patron saint of archaeologists. Because of Christian devotion to the tomb of Jesus, for example, the Romans covered it with a mound and built a temple to Aphrodite. But Helena dug until she found the tomb.
In an age when many Christians are so uptight about elusive orthodoxy, it is salutary to recall how haphazard were the circumstances that fashioned us and how shifting the sands on which we built the story to which we now cling so fiercely. What the diggers found in the tomb, the story goes, were three crosses, but it was impossible to say which had belonged to Jesus. 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, McNamer told her Montana audience. 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.
Among those early on the pilgrim bandwagon was Jerome, the biblical entrepreneur who set up his cell in Bethlehem and spent the next 25 years translating the Bible. Jerome was soon followed there by his friend Paula, a widow, who left her family back in Rome and headed for the Holy Land in the company of many virgins and one of her daughters. Paula was the ultimate enthusiast. Exclaims Jerome: Was there a single monk whose cell she did not enter to fall at his feet?
The third pilgrim woman, Egeria, became famous only more recently when her diary was discovered in 1884 in an Italian monastery. According to Jerome she traveled in style. But she was a true explorer in search of the life of Jesus, including remote and difficult sites, and thus a great guide for later archaeologists.
Sure, these were well-off, privileged women, but the ordinary motley soon followed them in millions. In one other way, Christianity was taking shape.
Few religions have gone very far without a credible body of writings. Christianitys is the Bible. The original Bible was Jewish and written in Hebrew. It took a century for the new religion to move from being a Hebrew and Aramaic movement within Palestine to become a Greek-speaking movement outside Palestine, Adam Kamesar, a professor at Hebrew Union College, told the conference. In its new Greek milieu it adopted Greek philosophy as its mode of expression. Soon after, as it spread, it had to adapt to the Latin culture as well, even as it tried to figure out what it, Christianity, was, who its members were, what was orthodox and fitting, what Jesus meant by this or that and who was Jesus anyway. The intellectual ferment was exciting in a way it has not always been since.
Already in 250 B.C., top management at the great Greek library in Alexandria decided, according to the legend, to do a Greek translation of the Old Testament, and wrote for help to the high priest in Jerusalem. The latter, leaving nothing to chance, sent off 72 elders to make the translation. The result, ever since, has been called the Septuagint. St. Paul, for one, used it at times in his writings.
But an odd thing happened to the Septuagint. In those pre-computer, pre-Heidelberg days, scribes transcribing the old-fashioned way naturally made typos and other changes to the text. After a couple of centuries of doing this the scholars found themselves with very diverse versions -- the Hebrew transcriptions were meanwhile undergoing similar transformations. This divergence in turn raised the question: How could Gods revelation have two distinct and not always compatible forms?
So other translations began to be made, usually from the Hebrew version of the day. Elements of these new versions have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. By the second century, there were three further versions, those of Aquila, Theodotian and Symmachus. These and others are called the non-Septuagintal tradition by Kamesar. They were used more by the Jews, while Christians still used the old Septuagint, which was getting rusty in the early centuries of the new church.
Christian biblical scholarship begins with Origen, according to Kamesar. Origens prime achievement was a six-version compilation called the Hexapla, which put scholars face to face with the textual problem. By the fourth century, biblical scholarship was a battleground. Fable mingled with erudition. One legend had it that the 72 translators of the Septuagint were placed in separate rooms, yet all came out with the same word-for-word versions. How could they all be wrong? By the fourth century the Septuagint was known as the Bible of the gentiles.
The gentiles of the Roman world had other opinions, though, especially St. Jerome (347-420), who did his own translation, and from the original Hebrew at that. It became known as the Vulgate. Many, including Augustine, objected to this revolutionary new presentation.
But accuracy was only one problem. Another was literary quality. The Bible might be the word of God but in strictly human terms it was no match for Homer, Euripides, Thucydides, Plato, Cicero or Virgil. This was no problem in the early days of the church when most Christians were uneducated rustics. But with the new freedom of the fourth century, when more and more of the educated classes came to be affiliated with the church, and began to read the Bible in a more serious way, this became a serious problem, noted Kamesar.
Though never engraved in stone, the Bible, so central to subsequent Christian centuries, took definitive shape in the fourth century and was canonized at the Council of Constantinople in 381.
Tone of things to come
Several speakers threw overboard any lingering impression that practically all of Europe stumbled over itself to become Christian when Constantine gave the nod.
Sr. Mary Ann Donovan of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, in a talk on the religious outlook of the fourth century, said there was little mass metanoia -- rather a modest redirection of ambition. The ideal of Christian life began to develop different contours. She chose the Hippo of Bishop Augustine, the Alexandria of Bishop Athanasius and the Antioch of Bishop John Chrysostom to elaborate impressionistically on this.
One impression concerns Augustine, in The Confessions, wrestling with his soul. To his friend Alypius he says: What is wrong with us? What is this that you have heard? Uneducated people are rising up and capturing heaven, and we, with our high culture without any heart, see where we roll in the mud of flesh and blood. Is it because they are ahead of us that we are ashamed to follow?
Another impression concerns leadership. The Council of Nicea settled some old arguments but started new theological wars. Bishops became pivotal. They also became key players in civil society as the church was gradually co-opted by the empire following the Edict of Milan. Historian Peter Brown, in Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire, writes of such famous bishops as Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa as local notables, proud of their good birth and of their possession of paideia.
This paideia is tantalizing both in its vagueness and its promise of some great secret for running the world. Brown again: It was not the trivial ornament of a leisure class. It was the exquisite condensation of hard-won skills of social living, the one reliable code that governed the behavior of the powerful. Paideia offered ancient, almost proverbial guidance, drawn from the history and literature of Greece, on serious issues, issues which no notable Christian or polytheist, bishop or layman could afford to ignore: on courtesy, on the prudent administration of friendship, on the control of anger, on poise and persuasive skill when faced by official violence.
While these bishops were, in the lingo of a later era, upper class, there existed in the early Christian centuries an equally powerful pull away from power and privilege. Donovan uses the Life of Antony, a monk, to exemplify this. That the Life was written by the great Bishop Athanasius is already a clue. Forced to live with the monks in the desert during one of his exiles, Athanasius uses the life of this obscure monk to demonstrate what Donovan calls a transformative theology of three stages: withdrawal, transforming struggle and fruitful service. The book became a great success, jolting the mighty and inspiring the lowly.
Other impressions come from the sermons of John Chrysostom, which throw further light on the lives of ordinary Christians: an exemplary moral life despite hints of idolatry, salacious entertainment and other ongoing obstacles to sanctity.
Thus, as the fourth century closes, the old gods, as Augustine put it, offered poor odds. Chrysostom, by contrast, describes the optimism of Christians: We see them shine more brightly than the stars, as they light up the faces of those who look upon them. For the stars shine only at night and could never be seen in the light of day. But these people shine night and day alike because they are spiritual stars.
Professor on a mission
But who cares?
The Carroll College conference is news precisely because few care. In a culture become coarse, students are encouraged to find a job fast and make big money with which to buy things and amusement. We turn up the music to distract us from the lingering lack of substance in our souls. Meanwhile, according to this same scenario, we are forgetting who we are and up what mounded years we climbed, and on what mighty or interesting or occasionally puny shoulders we stood to see what we could see.
I think there are too many professors publishing, conference director Werst told NCR. The publish-or-perish mandate, he believes, is bad for education. Carroll College is a teaching institution, he goes on. I see myself as a tour guide, an explorer helping students to explore themselves. But beyond that, there are many places like Carroll in small towns; they are the only academic institution for that city, and the faculty can bring to the local community an introduction to the wonderful things scholars have discovered. Its a gift from the school to the community.
Born in Chicago, where he seemed destined to inherit the family business until he fell in love with ideas, Ferst has built his academic career on thus connecting the academy and the community. He has orchestrated about a dozen such conferences at Carroll, on subjects ranging from Martin Luther to heart transplants.
A Catholic college, Ferst figured, could not ignore the significance of 2000. The fourth century was the key he offered for unlocking our present. We have, maybe, three or four events which, if they had not occurred, it would be a very different world. As it turned out, following this peculiar concurrence of events, the church became the inheritor of the Roman Empire.
It is a surprise to learn that Ferst is Jewish.
In a very secular age such as ours, he says, people do turn away from what is profound and transcendent. He cites the cliché that there are no atheists in foxholes. Rich and comfortable, we dont see the need for whatever grabs those who find themselves in foxholes.
Early in his career, he was fascinated by fundamentalists and charismatics. He sees in their contending allegiances a similarity to the early church divided and feuding. Instead of concluding that the winners -- who always get to write the history -- were the true and only Christians, Ferst is more evenhanded: In my opinion there were merely different Christianities.
For a week he and his wife, Louise, practically lived the fourth century. On the previous Sunday there was a reception at the Ferst home for Augustine, bishop of Hippo, Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and Roman Emperor Theodosius.
On the Friday evening, dinner was a convivium in the style of fourth century Rome --in the local Baptist hall -- cooked and catered by Louise Ferst and accompanied by dancers, a magician, various Latin readings and not forgetting grace: a hymn to Jupiter. The menu began: Gustati served with crustulum, and elaborated, repositoria of dainties to dance on any tongue and tickle every palate.
While he insists the fourth century has no match in terms of its subsequent influence, Ferst, if he had to pick another, would pick the seventh. While we tend to think of civilization as Judeo-Christian, he notes, since the seventh century a great part of our world has been profoundly affected by Islam.
Present becomes past
The idea of time floated like an elusive balloon throughout the conference. Those who know little else about Augustine know he took several tantalizing swipes at time, for example: How can the past and future be, when the past no longer is and the future is not yet? As for the present, if it were always present and never moved on to become the past, it would not be time but eternity. If we speak of a long time in the past, do we mean that it was long when it was already past, or before it became the past and was still the present? It could only be long when it was there to be long; once it was past it no longer was, and if it no longer was, it could not be long.
But out of shifty, enigmatic time there somehow emerged an everyday past that shaped us. Said sociology professor Baggett: Beginning in 311 A.D. with Galerius ending the persecutions and granting religious tolerance to Christians, and continuing with Constantines Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. and favor toward Christians, the Western world took its first steps toward the caesaro-papist embrace that would mark the relationship between politics and Christianity for the next 1,000 years.
That was not abstract time but real life. It had huge consequences.
What happened before can happen again, contends Baggett. There are key historical moments or paradigm shifts that recur. What was happening in the fourth-century empire and whats happening today in the U.S.A. are startlingly similar in their ramifications, he goes on. His are not a litany of abstractions but a set of real-life circumstances. Finally he quotes from Emile Durkheims The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: In short, the former gods are growing old or dying, and others have not been born.
This prospect was echoed by Sandra M. Schneiders in an Arpil 28 lecture at St. Marys College, South Bend, Ind. (NCR, May 12): Imaginative changes are brought about by shock, experiences which unsettle the whole picture of reality and require that we reconstruct our universe in some new way.
Time is waiting for this new way to happen, great gobs of time as we start another millennium. Will we become a new creation or husks of the old? The mayor of Helena, Colleen McCarthy, came and welcomed the Carroll College conferees. Two thousand years from now, she asked, will people look back, and how will they view us?
History will decide. And well be that history.
National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000