How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change It Again
The Church of the future can learn from the Church of the past
The bishop was led into the stadium, where death and gore were entertainment, and where the crowd was hoping to drown the harsh realities of life, and the fear of their own mortality, in someone else's blood. Three days earlier, Bishop Polycarp had dreamed that his pillow was on fire. He knew that meant soon he was going to face the flames. Now, as he entered the arena in chains, surrounded by those who hated the faith that he stood for, he heard the voice of God encouraging him, telling him to be strong and courageous. When the crowd saw him and recognized him as the leader of the Christians in their city, they cheered to see that he had been arrested.
Polycarp stood before the Roman proconsul, the man whom the emperor had sent to be the governor of the province. When asked, Polycarp confirmed that he was indeed the bishop of the city of Smyrna. This was as good as an admission of guilt. Being a Christian was not only illegal; it was considered an antisocial, even treasonous, crime — and, therefore, it was a crime worthy of death.
The proconsul attempted to convince Polycarp to deny his faith to save his life. "You're an old man," he pleaded, implying that the ordeal Polycarp faced would be all the more harsh because of his age. "All you have to do is take an oath to the emperor . . . and renounce your fellow traitors." Because Christians worshipped only one God, instead of the many gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon, the non-Christians took to calling Christians "atheists." The proconsul promised Polycarp that he would go free if he would only deny his faith and his Christian community by saying, "Away with the atheists." In response, the bishop of Smyrna turned to the pagan crowd, pointed to them, and said, "Away with the atheists!"
Angered, but wishing to make an apostate rather than a martyr, the Roman proconsul pressed again, "Swear the oath, and I will release you. . . . Curse Christ!" But Polycarp calmly replied, "I have been his servant for eighty-six years, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King, who saved me?" As the proconsul continued to rail at the bishop, Polycarp went on, "If you think that I will do as you request and swear an oath to Caesar, pretending not to know who I am, then listen carefully: I am a Christian. Now if you want to learn the teachings of Christianity, set a day and give me a hearing."
Eventually, the proconsul took a different tack. He threatened that wild animals would tear Polycarp apart while the spectators cheered. But the bishop responded, "Call for them. To change one's mind from evil to righteousness is a good thing, but to go from better to worse is something we cannot do." The proconsul responded, "If you're not afraid of the wild beasts, I will have you burned with fire, unless you change your mind." Polycarp replied, "You threaten me with a fire that burns for only a little while and then is put out. But you know nothing of the eternal fire, the eternal punishment that awaits the ungodly at the coming judgment. Why do you hesitate? Come on, do what you will!"
Members of the crowd eagerly helped gather wood for the fire, and as the bishop prayed, the fire was lit. Although the flames surrounded him, the saintly bishop's body was not consumed. Finally a soldier was ordered to kill him with a dagger. The wound produced so much blood that the crowd looked on in amazement as Polycarp's blood put out the fire. But the bishop was dead. The fire was lit once again, and Polycarp's body was burned to prevent its veneration. But the faithful of Smyrna were able to retrieve his bones, which were treated as holy relics.
What kind of culture encourages people to cheer at the death of an elderly man who is guilty of no other crime than being a Christian bishop?
What kind of culture encourages people to cheer at the death of an elderly man who is guilty of no other crime than being a Christian bishop? And how did humanity progress from the Roman culture of Polycarp's time to the kind of people we are now, feeling surprise, horror, and disgust with such martyr stories? What changed in human society to make us what we are today? And is there evidence that we as a culture could be slipping back to where we once were? This book is about seven cultural revolutions that changed human society for the better. These revolutions are the direct result of the presence of Christianity in the world, and of the influence of the Christian Church on society. But in a time when it has become fashionable once again to cheer the misfortunes of the Church, and to highlight the Church's failures as if they overshadow its faithfulness, it is important to point out the ways in which Christianity has made the world a better place, and to demonstrate that these far outweigh the times when a few leaders of the Church have failed in their mission. The truth is, the best of human society, with its improved quality of life, and its protection of human rights, is the result of these seven cultural revolutions that came about because of the Christian Church. Specifically, these revolutions were a radical change in the way human society thought of the individual, the family, work, religion, community, attitudes toward life and death, and even government.
These seven revolutions have brought about a real transformation in the way people see themselves and their relationships with one another — a conversion that first took place by the implementation of the values of the Gospel in the early Christian Church and later extended to the surrounding culture. Another way to look at it is that the seven revolutions were corrections of certain flaws in ancient society in general, and Roman society in particular. For example, in the ancient world, a person's worth was based on what he or she might produce, or how he or she might be a burden to others. It was Christianity that would give the world a sense of the intrinsic value of every human being. In other words, in the worldview of ancient cultures, some people were expendable, and some people were property. Furthermore, in the Roman Empire the enjoyment of quality of life (along with the freedoms and free time that make that possible) was a luxury afforded to the rich. Both religion and government existed to serve the ruling classes, which created a hopelessness in the lower classes and a tendency toward selfish hedonism in the upper classes. These flaws of ancient culture are generalizations, to a certain extent, but they do describe the world into which Christianity was born.
The seven revolutions, then, were both a response to the Gospel, and a rejection of the cultural values that were in conflict with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. The early Church was nothing if not countercultural, to the extent that even slaves and former slaves could become bishops. As we present them here, the seven revolutions changed the world by changing human relationships, in ever widening concentric circles, beginning with the individual and extending outward to the world. A revolution of the individual affirmed that all people are created equal, in the image of God, and no one is expendable. A revolution of the home affirmed it as a place of safety and love, where women and children are not to be exploited. A revolution of the workplace affirmed that people are not property, that they must be free to choose their work, and that they must be given the free time for worship, for artistic expression, and to enjoy their loved ones. A revolution of religion taught the world that God is love. A revolution of the community taught people to love their neighbor. A revolution of the way people thought about life and death rejected the culture of death and affirmed a culture of life and of hope, encouraging people to stand up for human rights. And finally, a revolution of government set up the ideal that rulers should serve those whom they rule (not the other way around), and that all people should enjoy freedom of religion. In short, the seven revolutions can be understood as cultural revolutions that gave the world a concern for human rights in two general categories: the protection of all human life, and the protection of each person's dignity and freedom.
To be sure, these revolutions are built on the foundation of Judaism, the religion of Jesus and the apostles. But it was the Christian Church that expanded on the teachings of Judaism (such as the concept that all humans are created in the image of God), took the implications of those teachings into the world, and converted the world to a new way of looking at humanity and human relationships. The seven revolutions did not occur overnight. The conversion of the world was a long process, beginning during the Roman Empire. Some of the revolutions were already under way in the first few centuries of the Church, in spite of the fact that Christianity was still illegal and Christians were being persecuted. Some of the changes had to wait until the legalization of Christianity, at which point the Church could begin to convert the empire from the inside. Other revolutions took longer and required controversies within the Church to bring the Church to certain conclusions about how the teachings of Jesus were to be lived. The result is that by the Middle Ages, Christianity had shaped Western culture, and it would continue to influence culture wherever the Gospel spread. And although it is easy to name instances in which Christians have not lived up to the ideals of the Church, it is only because the Church gave us those ideals that we can now recognize and critique such human failures. In other words, without the precedents that Christianity established with regard to the protection of life, dignity, and freedom, we would have no standards by which to judge any person or group (including the Church itself) that fails to protect human rights.
Therefore, seeing things in terms of the big picture, it is important to understand just how much the Church has improved the quality of human life. This book will offer some examples of the many positive contributions the Church has made to the conversion of human culture. Finally, we will show why understanding the seven revolutions is so important for the Church (and the world) today, and we'll offer some concrete steps that can be taken by Christians in the twenty-first century. But before we can get to that, we need to understand the Church of Polycarp's time.
The Pre-Christian World
When we refer to the "pre-Christian" world, we don't mean the world before Christianity came along. We mean the world before Christianity converted it — the world in which Christianity was a persecuted, illegal religion. The Christian Church was born in the Roman Empire. At that time, the "known world" was an empire that stretched from Spain to Israel and surrounded the Mediterranean Sea. Christianity emerged on the far eastern end of that empire and spread all the way across to the western end remarkably quickly, in the midst of a wide range of diverse religions that were being practiced in the vast region. Yet, as a religion, Christianity was different from anything that had come before it. In part, this is because the world had yet to see a religion that combined an open membership policy with strict moral expectations. Anyone was invited to join the Church, but once a person joined they were expected to make a serious commitment to changing their lifestyle. Judaism had moral expectations, but like most of the ancient world's religions, Judaism was essentially the religion of a particular nation; you belonged because you were born into it. Many of the so-called mystery cults (secret societies with initiation rituals, often imported from the provinces of the empire) eventually became ethnically inclusive, so they were not limited to one tribe or nation, but they tended to be relatively homogeneous in terms of the social class or sex of their members. Some groups were open only to women, or only to men, such as the cult of Mithras. We have no evidence that these cults placed any expectations on a member's behavior outside of the rituals in which members participated.
For the most part, traditional Roman religion centered on civic duty — those who participated were not held to a code of morality or required to hold certain beliefs. The priests of the Roman cults were not concerned with what you did behind closed doors, as long as you kept to a minimum level of public decorum, and an acceptable level of patriotic loyalty. The practical exercise of patriotism in the Roman Empire was the imperial cult, in which citizens were expected to make sacrifices to the gods in honor of, or in the name of, the emperor. At the same time, the emperors were following Egyptian precedent and increasingly claiming divine titles for themselves. Julius Caesar claimed to be descended from the gods, and when he died, the Roman Senate proclaimed him divine. Once he was declared to be a god, his nephew and heir, Augustus, claimed to be the son of a god. This trend continued until it came to a high point at the end of the first century with the emperor Domitian, who demanded to be called, "lord and god." Christians and non-Christians alike understood that they were expected to engage in emperor worship, as cultic images of the emperors, and even temples dedicated to the emperors, went up all over the empire.
Christians naturally believed that participating in any pagan worship was idolatry. But the Roman government saw their refusal to be part of the imperial cult as an act of treason, and treason was punishable by death. So the friction between the Christian Church and the Roman government centered on a conflict of loyalties — Christ or Caesar. Conversion to Christianity could not be tolerated because it replaced loyalty to Caesar with obedience to Christ, replacing the empire of the Romans with the kingdom of heaven.
Thus, contrary to popular misconception, the Romans were not tolerant when it came to religion. While they did generally allow conquered people to retain their national or tribal religions (to prevent revolt), the Romans were accepting of foreign cults only to a point. New religions were always suspect, and the extent to which Christianity was seen as something new (as opposed to being a sect of Judaism) worked against the Church in the eyes of the Romans. Other religions were treated with suspicion as well. Certain Egyptian cults were suppressed, and the Senate even tried to legislate against the wild celebrations of some of the mystery cults, such as the cults of Cybele and Bacchus. The Druids were outlawed, understandably, for practicing human sacrifice. And in the third century, an emperor outlawed the Roman version of the Masonic lodge, a gnostic secret society known as Manichaeism. So, in reality, a person was free to add gods to their personal pantheon only as long as the accompanying practices did not include unruly public behavior or suspicious secret activities. And no one was free to ignore the traditional gods that protected the empire, nor were they free to opt out of the imperial cult. The Christians could not fulfill these cultural expectations, so they were among those who did not enjoy religious freedom.
In Roman culture, the concept of freedom amounted to an entitlement to self-indulgence for the wealthy and powerful (those with leisure time). The belief that one deserved one's station in life allowed the wealthy to justify an entirely hedonistic lifestyle, including the abuse of others whose station in life did not afford them protection from exploitation. It was in this context that the Romans first noticed that the Christian Church required that its members reject Greco-Roman religions, as well as the exploitive personal freedoms that powerful Romans cherished. Rather than following the lead of the culture, the Christians followed the example of Jesus, who had compassion for the powerless, and who had said that following him would mean self-denial, not self-indulgence (Matthew 16:24-26). Christian writers openly criticized Roman society for its superstition and hedonism. This, combined with Christians' refusal to participate in traditional Roman religion, meant that to pagan Romans, Christians seemed rigorously intolerant, and the Church came to be seen as downright antisocial.
Jesus warned that his followers should expect to be persecuted (Matthew 5:11–12; 10:16–39; 24:9–13), and indeed they were. Beginning with the precedent set by Nero in Rome in the midsixties of the first century, Roman law increasingly targeted Christians, and especially the leaders of the Church.
By the end of the first century, Christians were tortured and executed simply for admitting to being followers of Christ. The Church came to see itself as inherently opposed to (and opposed by) the culture around it — as we would say, it was countercultural. This distinction became part of the identity of the Church in the first few centuries of its existence. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the early second century, said that "Christianity is greatest when it is hated by the world."
In the middle of the third century, the Roman Empire was about two hundred eighty years old (having changed from a republic to an empire as it emerged from civil war in the decades before the birth of Christ). In fact, it was not too much older than the United States is now. The economy of the empire was in a serious recession as the result of uncontrollable inflation and multiple wars in the region we now call the Middle East. Currency was devalued, yet the emperors increasingly had to spend money they didn't have on bureaucracy, and on the military and its infrastructure. Unemployment and underemployment were increasing exponentially as large landholders took over the small farms and forced the landless into the cities. The average family size decreased as children came to be seen as more of a liability than an asset. Nomadic people (the "barbarians") were crossing the borders and coming into the empire. And as a way to escape from the brutality of everyday life, the brutality of real violence and death was offered up as a spectator sport. All of this sounds familiar to us in the twenty-first century. But in the year AD 249, the emperor Decius came up with a plan for re-energizing the empire — a plan that included a return to traditional religion, that is, the Greco-Roman gods. He apparently believed that the root cause of the empire's decline was that the gods had been neglected, and that the way to fix the problems of his society was to appease the gods.
The one thing that stood in his way was the Church. Christianity was not simply one of the various religious options of the time — not even just one among several movements toward monotheism. Christians rejected the multiple gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon, and refused to settle for consolidating them or worshipping a "high god" who reigned over the other gods. Furthermore, Christianity was a religion based not on the accident of birth or citizenship, but on personal faith and free will choice. As such, the Church encouraged people to convert from other belief systems, to leave their old gods behind, and it required an exclusive relationship with the one God of the Christians. And in spite of the high demands of exclusive worship and moral accountability, people converted and the Church grew. Many Jews were attracted to Christianity, in part because the Church did not require them to follow the many laws of their ancestral faith. Growing numbers of Christians were refusing to participate in the practice of traditional Roman religion, in pagan worship — and this was happening at all levels of society and in every corner of the empire. So it was that at this point in the history of the empire the incompatibility of Christianity and Roman religion came to be most clearly recognized.
Therefore, the emperor Decius decided to force the choice of loyalty by requiring all inhabitants of the empire to make a sacrifice to the gods in his name. Those whose conscience would not allow them to comply were tortured and/or executed. Decius played on the average Roman's mistrust of Christians, as well as the fear that if too many people stopped worshipping the gods, tragic things would happen to the empire. The Christians came to be hated for what the Romans saw as "rigidity," or an inflexibility with regard to the worship of many gods. Christians were called "atheists" because they acknowledged only one God, and ironically the Roman establishment justified its intolerance for the Christian religion by calling the Christians intolerant. This institutional intolerance had already become imperial policy, but now, in the middle of the third century, Decius used it to organize a full-scale, empire-wide persecution of the Church. Half a century later, the emperor Diocletian used a call to traditional religion as the rationale for engaging in intensified persecution of the Church. Intolerance of Christians came to a climax in what is generally known as the Great Persecution, which lasted from about AD 303 to 313.
In spite of the persecution, the Church grew steadily throughout its first three centuries, until there were some urban areas with a Christian majority, and Christians could be found among the ranks of the poor and the rich, even in the imperial court. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. So how did an illegal sect eventually succeed in converting the empire that had persecuted it? The answer is, in part, because Christians were willing to die rather than renounce their faith. Christians' embracing martyrdom, and also their willingness to risk death from illness while caring for the sick, impressed many pagans and convinced them to convert to the faith. That Christians were ready to risk their lives was evidence of their conviction that something greater than the present life was at stake. They had a bigger picture in mind, a life that is larger than life and extends beyond the present life; a life that is a gift from the God who is greater than the powers of this world. In his parables, Jesus told his disciples that the age of the Church would be an age of watching and waiting for something (Matthew 25:1-13) — something greater than any power or empire on earth. Therefore, Christians are willing to risk what they have now to gain what they hope for (Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24).
The fourth century was a turning point in history for several reasons, not least of which is that the status of the Church changed dramatically when the emperor Constantine came to power and ended the persecution. He granted freedom of worship to all religions with the Edict of Milan in 313, finally legalizing Christianity.
Within the Church, it was in the fourth century that Christian monotheism was decisively defined. Of course monotheism was nothing new — the Christian version came from Judaism.
Some other cultures, such as the Egyptians, had approached it, though these forms of monotheism were arguably only a modified form of polytheism. The more intellectually minded among the Romans, led by the philosophers, were abandoning the old mythologies for the idea of one high god, with the other gods falling into place in a hierarchical pantheon of "principalities and powers." Although consolidating the countless gods would have been attractive to a lot of people, this high god was usually understood to be impersonal and so offered little comfort to people living a hard life. Other sects made movements toward monotheism, including some of the mystery cults, but these were in many ways imitations of Christianity, without the moral expectations. Christianity defined monotheism for Western culture. But which version of Christianity? As Constantine was annoyed to find out, there were competing interpretations within the Church, with schools of thought on the fringes that disagreed with the majority of the bishops precisely on the point of what it meant to believe in one God. The sticking point was the man, Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ (which as most Christians know, means "the Anointed One"). As the central figure of the Christian faith, he was universally understood to be the Mediator and Reconciler of God and humanity. The problem was that there were alternative explanations of exactly how he was a mediator and what his relationship was with the one God. While the majority of the worldwide Church held that Jesus himself was divine, and therefore defined God as a Trinity that included God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, there were those who denied the Trinity, and counted Christ among God's creatures. There is evidence that the emperor Constantine had accepted a version of this nontrinitarian teaching at first, but he quickly (and quietly) changed his understanding of God to be in line with those who upheld the Church's established tradition. The details of these doctrinal controversies are beyond the scope of the present book. The point for our purposes is that it was in the fourth century that these debates came to a climax, and the outcome shaped the definition of Christianity and in turn influenced what would become a predominantly monotheistic culture.
The Christian World
Thus in the fourth century, both the Church and the Roman Empire were established in the course that they would follow for as long as the empire continued to exist and beyond. But what the emperor Constantine did in the early fourth century was not what is commonly represented by those who seek to criticize the Church's conversion of the empire; he did not create a marriage of church and state. In the ancient world, government and religion were interrelated, for the most part because religion was a function of one's ethnicity. People believed in the gods of their tribe or nation, which is to say the gods of their ancestors. So when a tribe or nation went to war, the outcome of battle was not thought to be decided by superior numbers or weapons, but by superior deities. The people with the more powerful god(s) won the war. We can see this kind of thinking in the Old Testament. Many cultures believed that their leaders were divinely appointed, and some of these leaders claimed that they were gods themselves. So the intimate connection of religion and government is as old as civilization.
Therefore, putting an end to persecution of Christians would not be the reversal of persecution. Christians were encouraged to evangelize, but they were forbidden to retaliate.
The personal faith of the emperor Constantine is a matter of perpetual debate, and it is not necessary to try to settle the matter here, except to say that whatever one believes about the conversion of Constantine, he never ruled as a baptized Christian. Like many upwardly mobile men of his day, he postponed his baptism (and the moral responsibilities that come with baptism) until the end of his life. He did claim to be a believer in the one God of the Christians, and, what is more, he (perhaps ironically) followed ancient precedent in claiming that he owed his military success and his ascendency to the throne to God. His support of the Church in the aftermath of the Great Persecution, going far above and beyond what could be thought to be politically expedient, is evidence of the sincerity of his faith. One of his first acts as emperor, even when he held only the western half of the empire and still had not yet secured the eastern half, was to issue the Edict of Milan in the year 313. With this edict, Constantine legalized Christianity, and although he left no room for ambiguity on the matter of the favored status of the Church, he did not establish Christianity as the only legal religion of the empire.
The Edict of Milan did not outlaw paganism. In fact, it promised tolerance and freedom of worship for all citizens of the empire. The end of the persecution of the Christians did not mean that the tables were turned and the persecuted would become the persecutors. On one level, Constantine could not afford to alienate non-Christians. (Technically, the Edict of Milan was issued along with the general Licinius, who was decidedly not Christian.) Although Constantine was not afraid to promote the interests of the Church, his overarching concern was the unity of the empire, and he needed the support of the pagans. But on another level, Constantine believed that faith had to come by free will, and that a forced conversion was no conversion at all. People must be free to be wrong, and to come to the truth in their own time. After all, if God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous alike, then both righteous and unrighteous must be free to enjoy the benefits of the Pax Romana.
Therefore, putting an end to persecution of Christians would not be the reversal of persecution. Christians were encouraged to evangelize, but they were forbidden to retaliate. It is noteworthy that during all the time that they were being persecuted, Christians never took up arms against the authorities. And it must not go unnoticed that this nonconfrontational stance was ingrained not only in the Church's new converts, but also in the Church's most powerful convert, the emperor Constantine, and it was reflected in his political policies. Constantine proclaimed that everyone should be allowed to live according to his or her own conscience, without fear. Therefore, Constantine did not endorse forced conversions. Although he did make his pagan soldiers recite a generically monotheistic prayer while the Christian soldiers were at Mass, he did not force them to (pretend to) be converted or to be baptized. If the new emperor believed that God fought his battles for him, then surely God did not need the sword of Constantine to do God's work of converting souls. The bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, a contemporary of Constantine, depicted the cross as an instrument of peace, an image that could be possible only during a time of religious tolerance. The emperor Constantine's primary goal was unity, and he believed that unity — if it was going to be a peaceful existence — required a religious tolerance not previously known in the Roman Empire, or anywhere in the world for that matter.
Unfortunately, that vision of unity through tolerance was short-lived. After Constantine's death, his sons exacerbated the Church's internal conflicts over doctrine, and after their ambitions failed they left the empire in the hands of their relative, Julian — known to us as "the Apostate." Julian was one of the few survivors of a series of plots to whittle away rival heirs to the throne. He had gone to school with Saints Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus, and even before their illustrious careers they suspected that he was secretly a pagan and held animosity toward the Church. When he became emperor in 361, he tried to discredit the Christian faith by reviving the mistrust and hatred of the days of Decius and Diocletian. He looked the other way when pagan factions rose up in anger against the Church, or pagan governors persecuted Christians in their provinces. He made it illegal for Christians to teach in Roman schools, and he allowed certain exiles to return to their home cities so that they could spread disunity and conflict within the churches. In short, his agenda (like that of Decius and Diocletian before him) was to bring back loyalty to the traditional gods, and, with that, to bring back the traditional religious intolerance of the Roman state. Embarrassed by the social outreach of the Church, he even tried (in vain) to replace its charitable work with a secular social welfare system that would be a form of social gospel without the Gospel.
As history (or providence) would have it, Julian's reign was also short-lived. Although his policies did not bring about a renewal of violent persecution of Christians, the cultural persecution that occurred was enough to frighten Julian's successors into taking a "never again" stance. The eventual result was exactly the kind of reversal Constantine had avoided. Theodosius I (r. 379–395) finally made paganism illegal (though this law seems not to have been enforced) and declared that trinitarian Christianity was the only legal religion of the empire through the Edict of Thessalonica in the year 380. This order established that even those versions of Christianity that were determined to be heretical were now against the law. With Theodosius, the empire had reverted to an alliance of government with religion, except that now the religion was Christianity. Trinitarian Christianity had won over paganism (and over heresy), but the Constantinian experiment of religious tolerance was over.
This was the shadow side of the victory of the Church over the empire. In a marriage of church and state, eventually religion becomes subordinated to government, and it can become a tool of the state. In the Roman Empire, religious tolerance was replaced by a state religion within a century of the Edict of Milan. This is the inherent danger of assuming that the government rules by divine appointment. Under this arrangement, any religious movement that does not support the government will inevitably be suspect. From there, the next step is the transition from a state religion to a religion of the state — in other words, the state becomes the religion as religion itself is secularized, reverting to civic duty rather than obedience to God. From there, any religious movement that is perceived as upsetting the civic apple cart is treated as though it is antisocial, or even treasonous.
John Lennon asked us to imagine a universe without heaven, in other words, a world without religion. In doing so, he was standing in the long tradition of thinkers like Edward Gibbon, who proposed that religion was the real problem behind all of society's ills. We would argue instead that religion is the solution to our problems, not the cause of them. But for religion to solve problems, religion must promote the love of neighbor and must allow the neighbor the freedom to follow a different path (as long as that path also promotes the love of neighbor). Therefore one important thing that the twenty-first century must learn from the early Church is that the attempt to force others to share one's views is at best counterproductive, and in the end it is futile. Forced conversion dilutes the membership of any faith community, or, for that matter, any ideology. The integrity of any belief system demands that people accept it by their own free will. As Saint Augustine lamented, creating a situation in which people join begrudgingly, or for reasons other than convictions about faith, only results in filling the group with false members.
Nevertheless, by the fourth century, the Christian Church had overcome paganism, with its devaluation of human life and dignity, and had converted an empire. As it did so, the Church gave the world seven gifts that forever changed human culture. These seven gifts were the seven cultural revolutions that have outlived both the persecuting empire and the converted empire, and in the end, they have shaped Western society (in fact most of the world) as we know it, and for the better. As we move forward into the near future, recognizing and reclaiming these gifts will become more important than ever.
The Post-Christian World
And so we fast-forward to our own time — the twenty-first century. Are there lessons that the Church of today (and tomorrow) can learn from the experiences and conclusions of the early Christians? We think there are, and for one very important reason. It has been said that our world is becoming a "post Christian" world. This means that over the course of recent generations, there has been an observed decline in the Church's influence over society. Christianity is no longer the dominant religion in many places where it used to be, giving way to a secularist worldview under which more and more people are seeing religious faith and morality as not only optional and outdated but even disagreeable.
The concept of morality can be difficult to define, precisely because of the relativism inherent in post-Christian culture. In other words, if we try to define what we mean by morality, it becomes too easy to dismiss the entire concept by asking, "Whose morality?" as though any system of ethics is as good as any other. But this posture negates morality. Rather, when we speak of morality, we are speaking of exactly the kinds of things that the seven revolutions changed in the world. We mean behavioral ethics that are based on the conviction that all people are created in the image of God, and no one is expendable; that individuals and the family must be protected from exploitation; and that people must be free to work and worship according to their own conscience.
The Church no longer shapes the culture. But — and here's the point — in a very real sense, this "post-Christian" world is actually coming full circle to resemble the pre-Christian world — the world in which Christians were persecuted because they criticized the ethics of the culture and refused to participate in its idolatrous practices — practices that involved the exploitation of human beings.
In general, in a post-Christian culture the dominant world-view is no longer founded on Christian principles — or at least we can no longer assume that it will be. The Church no longer shapes the culture. But — and here's the point — in a very real sense, this "post-Christian" world is actually coming full circle to resemble the pre-Christian world — the world in which Christians were persecuted because they criticized the ethics of the culture and refused to participate in its idolatrous practices — practices that involved the exploitation of human beings. Therefore, the context of the Church in the world is moving increasingly toward what it was before the time of Constantine. This is true especially with regard to the place of religion in society, the values of the dominant culture, and popular conceptions of what is acceptable behavior. And although it may seem counterintuitive, given that the majority of people in the United States self-identify as Christians, the truth is that many self-proclaimed Christians are joining the paganization of the culture, not to mention the criticism of Christianity itself. Many Christian denominations in the United States are declining, as participation in a religious community comes to be seen as one optional affiliation among many. For many people, the Church has become a club that they may or may not choose to join (or which they may join but rarely participate in or support). By raising awareness of the culture's move toward post-Christianity, we are hoping that self-identifying Christians will accept the call to live according to the historical values of the Church, and to promote those values in the culture — something that the Catholic Church has called "The New Evangelization."
For the moment, one example will suffice to demonstrate how post-Christian culture is similar to pre-Christian. Like the Roman world, our culture is more and more enamored of entertainment that exploits other people. Real violence is available for viewing in our own homes, not just the gladiator-like "ultimate fighting," but also the reality police shows and the televised murder trials, complete with gory photographs. It is understandable that we are curious about tragic events and that we wish at times to escape from the drama (or boredom) of our own lives by indulging in the drama of other people's lives. But we have to be very careful that we don't become voyeurs as we revel in the real personal heartache and embarrassment of people played out on "reality TV." We watch people humiliate themselves, and in watching we participate in the loss of their human dignity.
In Roman society this kind of glorification of humiliation and violence contributed to people's desensitization to suffering, pain, and death, and the same thing is happening now in our own culture. Desensitization, in turn, leads to dehumanization, especially of the weak. We are not talking about fiction, action films, or even video games, but about actual televised violence and humiliation. Watching these troublesome scenes, sometimes even as they happen, and treating them as entertainment, contributes to a new kind of stoicism, which is to say a lack of empathy caused by the buffer of technology. In other words, when people see traumatic things on a screen, they can tend to dismiss the pain, and indeed the very humanity, of those who are experiencing the painful episodes that are being recorded and disseminated.
The Church of the twenty-first century will have to take a stand against the marginalization of religion and the dehumanization of those who are exploited in the name of entertainment. But in doing so the Church will become fair game for ridicule. Just as the Church was once criticized for being antisocial — for rejecting some of the cultural elements the Roman people held most dear — the contemporary Church will once again be criticized for refusing to affirm the "rights" and the "choice" of modern secular society, and indeed this is already happening. It has come to the point where even those who choose to have large families are often ridiculed and called irresponsible, as though they should naturally share a value that says more children are a burden on society, and they should naturally want to prevent children from being born.
It used to be that devotion to God was respected, even by those who did not practice religious faith. In Western society, Christian clergy were treated with respect, even by those who did not accept the faith. The collar meant something. Just watch a few old movies and you'll see how clergy were once in a category with police officers and teachers — they were seen as people who could be trusted. Admittedly, some of the erosion of respect for clergy is owing to the small number of clergy who have abused their position, and this reaction is understandable. Yet it is now commonplace to assume that aberrant clergy are the rule rather than the exception, to the point where it has become acceptable to take every opportunity to criticize religion and religious leaders. But to blame the Christian religion for the failures of a few of its leaders is illogical, and to reject the teachings of Jesus (not to mention the forgiveness and reconciliation with God that he offers) because some of his followers have abused their power is to punish yourself for the sins of another. Yet many people have done just that. And many have attempted to replace the Church with something else — often something humanitarian, but ultimately something very secular. As we will discuss in the following chapters, the emerging religion of the current empire is a secular religion, one very much like the civic religion of the Roman Empire — one in which people value their freedom to indulge in whatever they please but will compromise religious freedom if they perceive that religious people might critique or curtail their personal freedom.
We want to be clear that the point here is not to compare the United States to the Roman Empire. That has been done, with varying degrees of success. The point is to highlight the similarities between the pre-Christian world (the world before the legalization of Christianity and the conversion of the world) and the new post-Christian world, because both the pre-Christian world and the post-Christian world are anti-Christian. The values of both the pre-Christian and the post-Christian world are different from Christian values, and that difference makes the Christian lifestyle stand out; that difference makes Christians the target of criticism by those who perceive Christian values as being a threat to their understanding of personal freedom. To be sure, in American culture, even in a post-Christian world, persecution of the Church has so far been nonviolent.. Rather, it will be more subtle — what might be called cultural persecution. Nevertheless, the choice of loyalty to Christ versus Caesar (that is, Christ versus culture) is being confronted again, in some of the same ways it once was, and in some new ways.
Increasingly, Christians must live as cultural salmon, swimming upstream, and branded with labels such as unenlightened, closed-minded, and rigid — labels that are being used to marginalize the faithful. Such is the hypocrisy of ultra-tolerance. In a world where it is politically correct to preach tolerance for all, tradition seems to be exempt from that so-called tolerance. Tradition and traditional values, which are perceived to threaten the absolute freedoms of some, are simply labeled intolerant, and then they no longer need to be tolerated. The irony is that at times it seems as if the only sin left is to claim that something is a sin. But Jesus said, "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets (martyrs) who were before you" (Matthew 5:11–12, NAB).
Having said all of that, our goal is not to point fingers and breed more distrust. Our aim in this book is not to draw a line in the sand. The last thing the world needs is more "us versus them" rhetoric. Christians are called to convert the world, not make an enemy of it; we are to promote reconciliation not division. The Church must model the tolerance that the world refuses to grant, even to the point of being tolerant of those who choose to be nonreligious. However, when secularism becomes a religion, as it has in our own time, the criticism that Christians are unenlightened cannot be allowed to be used to bully the religious into conformity with a secular ideology. In other words, tolerance must work both ways, and the charge of intolerance must not be used to justify intolerance.
As we move more and more into a post-Christian world, the solution we will propose is that we follow the example of the early Christians, who had never known a world in which Christianity was aligned with the dominant culture or had such a great influence. So we are not trying to foster animosity; we are trying to promote participation in the work of God in the world. Ironically, as that work becomes more difficult in a world that refuses to follow the lead of the Church, the work will become more clear because it will stand out in contrast with the culture.
Gone are the days when it was fashionable, or even acceptable, to be a Christian. In spite of the fact that a majority of people in First World countries self-identify as Christian, many of these self-proclaimed Christians are joining in the Church bashing. Those who embrace the values of their faith in a world where doing so is frowned upon are the ones who will witness by their very example. And people will see that they are willing to risk the comforts of conformity for the sake of something bigger — a life bigger than life — the kingdom of God.
The Seven Revolutions
So how can the Church live and serve in this new post-Christian world, in which believers are facing various forms of persecution? The starting place is to look at the Church as it existed in the pre-Christian world, and to look at the seven revolutions — the seven ways that the Church changed the world — the seven gifts that the Church gave the world, which affected human relationships in ever widening concentric circles.
In the realm of the individual (Chapter 2), the Church revolutionized the way society defined personhood. To affirm the universal dignity of human life requires the strong to speak up for and defend the weak, those who can't speak for themselves. In the ancient world, for some people the ability to speak was the very litmus test of humanity. Those who could not speak (babies) or those who could not speak the languages of civilization (the "barbarians," who did not speak Greek or Latin) were considered less than fully human and were denied the benefits of society. One Roman writer said that as long as they cannot talk, babies were more like vegetables than like human beings. Yet from the very beginning, the Church affirmed the value of all human life and resisted exploitation and dehumanization. Because of the Christians, this way of looking at humanity became so much a part of Western culture that eventually the Constitution of the United States would be built around the concept that all people are created equal (though this stipulation would not be applied to everyone at first). Long before the Constitution was applied equally to all people in this country, the Catholic Church had already condemned abortion, the abuse of children, and slavery.
In the realm of the home (Chapter 3), the Church revolutionized the way the world saw the family. The foundational value of personhood was applied with equity to women and even to children.20 And, more important, with the development of the Church, the exploitation of all those who lacked support systems was rejected and critiqued. In the realm of what we might call the workplace (Chapter 4), Christianity emphasized the dignity of human labor. Based on the assumed value of the individual person, the Church affirmed the honor in manual labor and eventually rid the world of the belief that one person could own another. In the realm of religion (Chapter 5), the Church defined itself, and, by extension, religion in general. Christianity redefined what it meant for humanity to connect with the Divine and in the process it taught that God is love, and union with God is open to all humans. Thus the Church recognized, in the course of its struggle to define itself, the importance of inclusiveness and the value of unity.
In the realm of the community (Chapter 6), Christians looked outward from the Church and cared for the poor and the sick, regardless of their religion. The concept of Christian charity was something alien to the self-centered perspective of Roman culture, yet by the end of the fourth century Christian charity had replaced Greco-Roman virtue as the goal of human progress.
In the realm of ultimate concerns, Christianity influenced attitudes toward life and death (Chapter 7), not to mention belief in the afterlife. And by doing so, Christians further promoted a culture of life. This new culture of life (and eternal life) gave people the hope they desperately needed, which led to the freedom to rise above the daily grind, and even to express their God-given creativity through art. Finally, in the realm of the state (Chapter 8), the Church revolutionized government. Beginning with Constantine, emperors admitted not only that they were not gods, but also that they were not above the law, and that they were morally accountable to God. Although some, like Constantine, considered the postponement of baptism a loophole in the system, the fact that he thought he had to postpone his baptism to avoid accountability proves the point. There was a higher power, an authority over the emperor, one who had behavioral expectations for the emperor, and one who could remove the emperor from the throne if he did not measure up. With all of these seven revolutions in mind, it is indeed remarkable that the Church, born of oppression in the Roman Empire, would be the entity that brought hope to the world. It is true that there have been times throughout its history when the Church forgot some of the lessons it had learned — the shadow side of the alliance with empires resulted in the endorsement of the subjugation of native peoples, forced conversions, and other forms of coercion and oppression. But these mistakes only highlight the need for the contemporary Church to reclaim its original convictions. Once we have discussed the seven revolutions in detail, the last two chapters will demonstrate why reclaiming these revolutions is so important for the Church of the twenty-first century. Chapter 9 will take in the big picture, the relevance of the early Church for the Church of the future, and Chapter 10 will offer some concrete suggestions for taking action in the new post-Christian world.
Christians can influence the world for the better again. But it will mean making a commitment to stand by a worldview that current society often rejects and ridicules. It will mean making a commitment to accept a countercultural position in society, while many who call themselves Christian simply allow themselves to be converted by the culture. It will mean waking up to the reality of cultural persecution (as well as the violent persecution still going on in many countries) and resisting it. As we have noted, this cultural persecution may be subtle, and it may take the form of pressure from areas as diverse as marketing media, with its temptations toward materialism, and education, with its skepticism about anything spiritual or miraculous. Christians will need to recognize these challenges to traditional faith, call them out, and resist them. We will also need to support one another when we do this, speaking up for our brothers and sisters when they are ridiculed — even if it's just for giving thanks to God when they accept an award or make a touchdown. In this way, the Church of the twenty-first century can overcome the new paganism the way the Church of the pre- Christian world overcame the old paganism — that is, by refusing to deny the faith and by being willing to risk our lives (or the comfort of our lifestyles) for something bigger than life.
Mike Aquilina and James Papandrea. "The Church of the Future can lean from the Church of the past." chapter one from Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change It Again (New York: Image, 2015): 1-32.
Reprinted with permission of Image Catholic Books.
For more information, visit ImageCatholicBooks.com
Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He is the author or co-author of fifty books including A History of the Church in 100 Objects, Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change It Again, Yours is the Church: How Catholicism Shapes Our World, Good Pope, Bad Pope: Their Lives, Our Lessons, Love in the Little Things: Tales of Family Life, Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians, Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers, The Way of the Fathers: Praying with the Early Christians, and Praying in the Presence of Our Lord: With St. Thomas Aquinas. With Cardinal Donald Wuerl, he is the author of The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home, and The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition. See Mike Aquilina's "The Way of the Fathers" blog here.
James Papandrea is a teacher, author, speaker, and musician. He received his M.Div. degree from Fuller Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in the history and theology of the early Christian church from Northwestern University. He has also studied Roman history at the American Academy in Rome, Italy. Papandrea is now Associate Professor of Church History at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary (on the campus of Northwestern University) in Evanston, IL.Copyright © 2015 Mike Aquilina and James Papandrea
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