"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Thoughts on Pagans, Christians, Constantine, Julian, Polytheism and Monotheism

For some reason I just can't get into the writing mood enough to make sense of this post. OK, maybe I got the writing part down, but the editing suffers.

Yet I wanted to record a few things from
God Against The Gods by Jonathan Kirsch that I found interesting. Overall I really enjoyed the book. The chapters on Constantine and Julian were good. I know I've read some about them in the past, but it's been awhile so reading their stories - from this author's perspective and from my grown-up one (ha) - was good for me.   Kirsch asked if Constantine were really a Christian noting how he was labeled "the Great" in Catholic tradition and "St. Constantine" for the Orthodox.  Perhaps Kirsch recognized Constantine didn't seem all that devoted to the faith he claimed to fight for.  He wasn't even baptized until he was close to dying.  Maybe he wanted to commit all the sins he could in life before taking this crucial step because during his life as a so-called "Christian emperor," I surely wouldn't say by his fruits that I knew he was a follower of Jesus.  He had his own son killed for goodness sake!  I even went back and read where the Bible teaches

10By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.   (I John 3)

So does this mean if you kill your own son, you are not a child of God?

After reading all this about Constantine, I made the observation on Facebook:

If my only examples of Christians were the people Julian saw, I think I'd be "apostate" too. Whew!
Yes, I sometimes express my thoughts on books on my Facebook statuses. Just so you know.

Other bits from the book that made it on Facebook as well as other notes of interest.

"'Paganism' to the pagan never existed, ... It is not far from the truth to say that before Christianity invented it, there was no Roman religion, but only worship, expressed in a hundred-and-one different ways." 
-- John Holland Smith in The Death of Classical Paganism  (Kirsch quoted from this guy on pg. 9)

The author shares that paganus is really just a villager and in Roman military terms it differentiated the civilian from the soldier. Christian "rigorists" ready to be soldiers for the One True God "characterized anyone who refused to take up arms...as a civilian, a slacker, a 'paganus.'"  Interestingly Christians were called "atheists" because they were against most of the gods, goddesses and godlings (as this author puts it) except the One True God.

This next bit was wild because the author talks about the fight between Christians because of the wording of Jesus being of similar substance to God vs. the same substance as God.  He said in Greek the only difference in the two (similar and same) was an iota.   Kirsch writes,

"The question of whether God and Jesus were made of the same stuff or different stuff was and is ultimately unanswerable - indeed, that was what church authorities meant when they characterized the Trinity as a mystery - but that did not stop ordinary men and women throughout the Christian community from literally brawling with one another over an iota."
  (pg. 161)

Charming, no?  Seriously I wonder sometimes what God thinks of such things. Does He watch and shake His head at how we treat one another? Especially those of us who say we know and follow and serve and submit to Him.

"At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice, a willingness to entertain the idea that there are many gods and many ways to worship them. At the heart of monotheism, by contrast, is the sure conviction that only a single god exists, a tendency to regard one's own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true god." 
(pg. 2)

The heart of polytheism sounds somewhat like Universalism, doesn't it?  Actually the author ends the book claiming western countries with religious liberty and cultural diversity are honoring pagan values.

"Contrary to what we have been encouraged to believe by the teachings of monotheism, the phrase 'pagan morality' is
not a contradiction in terms.  The pagans may have been guilty of hypocrisy, praising virginity and fidelity while indulging in sexual adventures of various kinds, but they were no more hypocritical than worshippers of the Only True God who have shown themselves to be equally capable of failing to practice what they preach." (pg. 59)

I just thought this was ouch-worthy. Too bad it's true too often concerning us hypocritical believers.

"No wild beasts are so hostile to mankind as are most of the Christians in their savagery toward one another."
  - Ammianus (pg. 211)

It seems Christianity the Religion lost its Jesus roots a long, long time ago. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus or any of the apostles tell us to be unkind to others. Instead Jesus tells us to love our enemies. So if your fellow Christian is an enemy, love him. And for those who believe Paul invented Christianity, he says pretty much the same thing in his letter to the Romans (see chapter 12 here).   These people of the Roman empire taking up arms for Jesus are just in error.  And killing fellow believers? Wow. 

Again, no wonder Julian decided to serve other gods. 

Though Julian didn't have much use for Christianity, the author claims he "admired and envied the superior organizational skills that the Christians brought to bear in setting up and running their churches."  (He liked organized religion...which I find in contrast to more and more people today who want to find God in their own ways.) He decided to copy them and "invented" a "pagan 'church' with its own all-encompassing theology and its own unified clerical hierarchy...He established a unified pagan priesthood. ... He encouraged the Hellenes, the term he used to describe what Christians called 'pagans,' to follow the Christian example in both chastity and philanthropy. Pagan priests were to avoid the excesses of the tavern, the distractions of the theatre and the seductions of erotic literature, and they must shun the company of actors, jockeys and dancers.  He even prescribed a set of dietary laws that he extracted from the cult of the Great Mother - root vegetables, pomegranates and pork were forbidden, and fish was to be eaten only when prescribed."   Additionally he made all the gods and goddesses subservient to the "the most high god whom Constantine had once worshipped, the solar deity variously called Apollo, Sol Invictus and King Helios." (pg. 255)

I thought the dietary restriction part was fascinating! Bye bye, morning glass of carrot juice!  And does this mean french fries were forbidden, too?  Ah!

To really get back at the Christians, Julian decided to allow the Jews (whom the Christians now regarded as their worst enemies) to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.  Although the Jews were monotheists and Julian not, he saw the commonalities between the Hellenes and Jews. 
"'We have all else in common - temples, sacred precincts, altars for sacrifice, and purifications,...in all of which we differ not at all from one another."  (pg. 260)

A series of natural disasters coupled with a rising threat from Persia got in the way of this Spite the Christians rebuilding project.

This quote was at the beginning of one of the later chapters.  Made me of think of morality police who make people keep outward rules -
for God's sake of course!

"What should be said of us, who are forced to live piously, not by devotion but by terror?" 
- Maximus of Turin (pg. 269)

Your thoughts on any of this? I'd love to hear 'em!


sanil said...

"The question of whether God and Jesus were made of the same stuff or different stuff was and is ultimately unanswerable - indeed, that was what church authorities meant when they characterized the Trinity as a mystery - but that did not stop ordinary men and women throughout the Christian community from literally brawling with one another over an iota."

Umm....*headdesk* Ok, I get his point, but that's a terrible argument. One letter can make a huge difference in a word. He should have stopped at the first half of this quote. Now part of me wants to disagree with him just on that principle. :D But I'll move on instead.

Ok, I'll want to read more when I get a chance, but my first impressions of Kirsch's portrayal of monotheism as less tolerant - definitely biased, or at least missing some important aspects. I'd actually argue that without the standard already set by pre-Christian Greco-Roman society, Christianity wouldn't have been so exclusive. The problem is cultural, not specifically religious.

Religion in the Greco-Roman world was social, and following it was necessary for the society to succeed. If someone didn't honor the gods, that was troublesome. It caused conflict and uncertainty within the group, and might draw the anger of the gods onto the community. For awhile, Jews were allowed to maintain their religion because it was ancient and the Greeks and Romans respected that, and so allowed them their rules (including monotheism). When Christianity started defining itself as a new faith and separating from Judaism, it no longer had that protection, no longer seen as an ancient religion. From there, Christians became a target.

When you're using religion to control people, though, like emperors have been known to do, a monotheistic faith has some definite advantages. For one thing, sub-cults focusing on only or primarily one god were becoming increasingly popular (mystery cults), so it could have eventually become a conflict as several of these different but similar gods were all claimed by followers to be the most important god. Drawing everyone under one religious flag would help to maintain that unity and cultural identity that was so important to the Greco-Roman worldview. Furthermore, adopting a new faith that didn't have the interpretations and long-standing tradition of the "pagan" mystery cults meant that Constantine's influence was more likely to take effect. He was able to build not just the religion he wanted, but the accepted, orthodox interpretation of the religion. He couldn't have asked for a better tool in gaining and maintaining control.

On paganism and it's open-mindedness...*headdesk* He's making me do that a lot. More gods doesn't mean more options, it means more responsibilities, as they all have to be satisfied. That doesn't mean one individual has to worship all of them, some of them didn't even have a public cult. But many did, and it was very very important to Greco-Roman society that the gods all received their due. That's why when they encountered other societies they adopted their gods, found commonalities with their own, and started to worship them as well. It has little to do with acceptance, and everything to do with maintaining social order.

Amber said...

I hate doing this, but:

What sanil said. :D

Wow. He really is heavily biased from what you've shared. *totters off to google him*

Hey! He wrote that other book you read, The Women Who Laughed At God. You did read that, right? Or am I hallucinating?

Susanne said...

Sanil, I love reading your critiques! :) Thanks for all that you shared. (And I'm sorry you are not allowed to critique the current book you are reading for your school paper...saw you were frustrated about that on Facebook of course. :))

You always have such interesting stuff to share and I learn A LOT from you!

Amber, similar title, but no I've not read him before. The one I read was Charlotte Gordon's "The Woman Who Named God." Ha...good memories that one! I remember you and Achelois gnawing furniture. :D

Thanks for your feedback on this post!

bigstick said...

Okay, I tried to put this website on one of your post that correctly matched it. This is the closest I found. Anyway I thought you would like this website on the Old Testament and Women. The invention of Adam and Eve and why. Thought you might find it interesting.


Susanne said...

Thank you! Looks like an interesting website. I'll be sure to take some time to look and read some of the articles. I appreciate your sharing it with me.