Please be aware that this is an opinion piece which takes an informed but personal view of the historical progress of Christianity and which is grounded in a perspective of faith.
The great seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes once wrote “The Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof”. Two centuries later James Joyce echoed this comment when he wrote “Oh Ireland my first and only love/Where Christ and Caesar are hand in glove!”. With the attainment of independence from Britain, Roman Catholicism gained an inordinate amount of political power and influence in Ireland; this made the country an uncomfortable place for freethinking literary geniuses such as Joyce, who felt compelled to go into exile. Yet up until its establishment as the state religion of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Constantine in the early decades of the fourth century, Christianity had been a persecuted religion. Indeed at the first ecumenical Council of the Church (Nicea 325), called by Constantine to settle a highly divisive controversy over the doctrine of God as Trinity, many of the bishops present bore the marks of torture.
In its first two centuries, there were no serious disputes over doctrine because there was as yet no orthodoxy; church communities were allowed to have differing perspectives on the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth since such differences were then treated as differences of opinion. Hence there were no heretics or heresies. With its new supreme status in the Roman Empire, however, Constantine – a great believer in unity – absolutely prohibited what came to be considered the assemblies of heretics. As Roman Emperor, Constantine also held the title of Pontifex Maximus, or High Priest of the state religion. Constantine took this role very seriously in relation to Christianity, so that decrees of the Church automatically became imperial decrees and attained the force of law. Anyone who refused to abide by these decrees was likely to be subjected to the sanctions of the law. Bishops who disagreed with Church policy could be removed from their sees or banished. In this way political intrigue and jockeying for power and status inevitably became intertwined with doctrinal formulations and disputes. It was the great Augustine of Hippo, however, who declared that dissension against the Church was synonymous with dissension against the state, a stance that would later lead to the brutal activities of the Inquisition. Augustine, in fact, is often thought to be the father of the Inquisition since he advocated the use of Roman methods of torture to assist the Church in its efforts to maintain uniformity. The first recorded execution for heresy was carried out in 385 under the Emperor Maximus. The Church, formerly separate from and persecuted by the Roman Empire, was at the start of a process that would place it in the strange position of being simultaneously the Roman Empire and Christianity; it had begun to persecute itself. From St. Augustine onwards most theologians agreed that heretics should be persecuted and even killed.
The Fall of the Western Empire and the Rise of Christendom
After the fall of the Western Empire late in the fifth century, the Bishop of Rome was regarded by many as a natural successor to the Emperor. As well as political involvement, intellectual leadership in the West was, from that time onwards, provided by Christianity. It was the Church that envisaged and founded the first universities in Paris, Oxford and Cambridge in the medieval era. In the eleventh century, the much needed Church reforms and reorganisation carried out by Pope Gregory VII gave rise to the renowned unity of medieval Western Christianity which gave rise to the term ‘Christendom’. The reforms of Gregory are sometimes referred to as ‘the first Reformation’, but with definitions of heresy sharpened up and the implementation of even more vigorous punishment of heretics, it also led to the emergence of ‘a persecuting society’. In addition, Gregory’s claim that the Pope, as the vicar of Christ on earth, should be the leader of a God-given universal monarchy, led to centuries of struggle between the papacy and the holy Roman Emperor for political domination.
With its greater power and unity, the two opposing faces of the Church became ever more polarised: with all the rigour and discipline of the Roman Empire, the Church taught Christianity, and this led to a new form of heresy. Many devout Christians began to rebel against the wealth and political power of the Church, which they perceived as unchristian. Arnold of Brescia, a pupil of Abelard, shared his teacher’s critical view of the Church and also embraced the republican ideals of Ancient Rome. He held that papal power was a usurpation and that the wealth and power of the Church was unchristian. He led a movement to re-establish a Roman republic and return the clergy to apostolic poverty. Arnold was hanged and burned as a heretic in 1155 by Pope Adrian IV.
The Persecution of the Cathars
By this time, all manner of activities constituted heresy. It was heretical to eat meat on Friday, to read the Bible, to know Greek, to criticise a cleric. The obsession with punishing heresy reached its gruesome peak with the crusade launched against the Cathars of Provence by Pope Innocent III in 1209 and intensified by his successor Pope Honorius III. The Cathars flourished in the Languedoc region of Southern France and in response to what they perceived as the corruption of the local clergy embraced an extremely ascetic form of Gnostic Christianity. Gnosticism was a religious movement that had originated in the ancient world and parasitised many religions. Gnostics considered the body to be evil and the soul good; hence mortification of the flesh was encouraged. The Cathars identified themselves as Christians although they disagreed with the Roman Church on many points. They denied, for example, the validity of clerical hierarchies and of ordained intercessors between man and God; on the latter point they anticipated Luther. Crusaders against the Cathars were accorded the same privileges as those who fought against Muslims, including the attainment of the highest place in heaven. By the end of the fourteenth century the Cathars, along with their culture – which had engendered the traditions of courtly love, poetry, romance, chivalry and the troubadours – had been virtually wiped out.
Despite persecution by the Church authorities, however, outbreaks of so called heresy inspired by Gospel values continued unabated throughout the centuries that followed. Under Pope John XXII (b. 1316) and later 14th century Popes, Franciscan spirituals were burned at the stake for pointing out that Jesus and the apostles had not owned property and preaching absolute poverty. The members of a sect known as the Apostolicals, founded in 1300, aimed to live like the apostles. The more fortunate among them were burned at the stake; others were not so lucky. Dulciano of Novare, successor of the sect’s founder, was publicly torn to pieces with hooks along with his wife. It was only a matter of time before schism would occur as a result of such severe persecutions, and the outbreak of radical Christianity we now know as the Reformation tore Christianity asunder for two centuries.
Martin Luther’s early life unfolded during the outrageously corrupt papal era of the Borgias; it was also a time during which the emphasis on strict adherence to dogma led to threats of hell and damnation for those who fell short in any way. Luther, a sensitive soul, suffered religious terrors from childhood. His entrance into the monastic life was not due to a religious calling but to a brush with death. He was a law student on his way back to university after a visit home when he was struck by a bolt of lightning. Terrified he would die, Luther prayed for help and promised that if he was saved he would become a monk. Having survived the lightning strike, he promptly gave up his law studies and entered an Augustinian monastery.The religious life only exacerbated his fears at first; on the day he was ordained and said his first mass, he was so overcome by terror at the thought of the majesty of God that he almost fled the altar.
Years of spiritual anguish followed, with Luther continuously beset by feelings of unworthiness before a God whom he perceived as harsh and judgemental. This was perhaps to be expected considering Luther’s extreme religious sensibilities and the dogmatic emphasis of the times on the threat of hell and damnation. Luther was finally rescued from his spiritual travails when he was appointed to the chair of Scripture at Erfurt university. This necessitated intense study of the Bible, which was not encouraged at the time even for monks and priests. Lay people were not allowed to read it and couldn’t have even if they were allowed since it was only available in Latin or Greek. In reading the Bible Luther was astonished and gratified to discover a different God to the one he had encountered in dogma and in medieval culture. The Father God of the Bible, and especially of the New Testament, was kindly and merciful; once a person had made up his or her mind to strive for moral improvement, this kindly Father put them on a kind of probation, watching over and guiding their efforts. Most surprising of all for Luther was his encounter with the loving and compassionate Jesus; in the medieval era even Jesus was principally portrayed as a judgemental figure who would consign to the flames of hell those deemed to have died in a state of sin. The Jesus portrayed in the New Testament was non-judgemental, humble, unconventional and more concerned that his followers would love all, even enemies, than that they should adhere slavishly to laws and norms. Moreover, he lived his life as a wandering healer and preacher, with no possessions and no home; he was largely dependent for financial support on those who travelled around with him. This Jesus was a man prepared to take dangerous social risks which, due to his immense popularity, brought him to the attention of the religious and political authorities and led in due course to his execution for blasphemy.
The impact on Luther of his biblical studies was seismic. The promulgation of a new indulgence promising a complete remission of sins in return for money by the then Pope Leo X in order to raise funds for the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was the direct catalyst for his rebellion; the sermon of indulgence vendor the Dominican John Tetzel, which included the notorious slogan “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs” was particularly provocative to Luther. Tetzel dispensed with the usual condition that the purchasers of the indulgences for remission of their sins and those of the souls in Purgatory should demonstrate their own contrition. Luther’s criticisms of the Church were not just confined to its pursuit of political power and wealth, or what he considered to be clerical confidence tricks however. His transformed image of God and of God’s Son Jesus had convinced him that individual Christians should be allowed to read the biblical texts by themselves without needing priestly intermediaries between themselves and God. His views of morality were similarly transformed; he now believed that just as individuals should be allowed their own unique encounter with God, so they were entitled to consult their individual consciences on moral issues rather than being ordered what to do by the Church authorities. Luther’s emphasis on individual religious and moral autonomy is considered to have been a significant factor in the emergence of Western liberal democracy along with its separation of church and state and emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. Indeed the ongoing conflict and dialectic between the Church authorities and the Christians educated and influenced by them would appear to have given rise to what is undoubtedly the freest society the world has ever known. It is within this context that we now return to the remarks of Hobbes and Joyce and the common sentiment that the establishment of Christianity as the state Church of the Roman Empire was not to its moral/spiritual advantage.
The Evolving Kingdom of God
With the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight we can now respectfully allow ourselves to take a God’s eye view of the history of Western Christianity up to the present. All Christians know the story of the life and cruel death of Jesus of Nazareth and its causes. As many of his followers would do after him, the unconventional Jesus took huge social risks in his championing of those considered sinners – or as we would now understand it ‘other’ – in the Jewish culture of the time. As we also know, Jesus did not perceive himself as the founder of a new church (Christianity as we know it was the creation of St. Paul) but as having been sent by the Father to reform Judaism. For Jesus, Judaism had become far too legalistic and had lost sight of the spirit of the Law which ought to, he said, prioritise love over rules. Authentic interpretation of the law and the achievement of right proportion between love, mercy and compassion on the one hand and codified law on the other would bring about a kinder, more just and more generous world which Jesus described as the Kingdom of God. To the disappointment of his many disciples, this was not the political kingdom of Jewish messianic hope that would overthrow the Roman Empire and liberate Israel from Roman occupation: Jesus used storytelling and parables throughout his ministry to try to convey what his kingdom would be like and the kind of love that would be necessary to achieve it. It was his unconventional behaviour and radical love that made him so popular and brought him to the attention of the Roman and Jewish authorities. It was ultimately a combination of religion and politics that brought him down.
Barbaric practices of one sort or another, whether religious, political or cultural would, of course, have been part and parcel of ancient and medieval societies in Europe as elsewhere whether or not Christianity was the established religion. Preoccupation with maintaining a stringent doctrinal orthodoxy is something that pertains to religion as a phenomenon, and not to whatever unique form a particular religion takes. Indeed it was exactly the idolatory of laws and norms for their own sake that Jesus criticised and sought to reform in the Judaism of his day. With the passage of two millennia we can now postulate that the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century was no catastrophe but something that was fated to be. If we consider the authorities of the Christianised Roman Empire to symbolise the authorities of all civilised societies and the various populations ruled and educated by them to be the source of individuals prepared to emulate the radical and risk-taking behaviour exemplified by Christianity’s founder, we can see that Jesus’s battle with the authorities and his efforts to reform Jewish legalism were continued on in successive waves. In such a context we can postulate that the establishment of Christianity in the Empire was the second move in this battle. It took 1800 years to reach the event of the Enlightenment; the latter phase in Western history began with an intellectual revolution that exploded into the French and American physical revolutions, and gave rise to Western liberal democracy. The causes of the Enlightenment were a combination of the Reformation and the achievements of science, which emerged from medieval scholasticism as a new field of knowledge. It was therefore successive movements engendered by Christianity – both lay and religious- that gradually transformed the West into the society and culture it now is. It is always a mistake to perceive Reformation and Enlightenment as events that happened in opposition to the Church; rather the Church, in its upholding of and teaching of Christianity generated these events due to the supremely high ethical standards it has always preached, and the calibre of the education that it provided.
The Rise of Islam
This becomes crystal clear if we try to imagine what would have happened had Constantine not embraced Christianity as the religion of the Empire. No event during the first millennium was more unexpected and critical for Christianity than the rise of Islam. Indeed it’s hard to believe now that by the seventh century the region east of Jerusalem which included Syria, Jordan and Iraq were Christian. Christianity was also of course established throughout the Roman Empire, flourishing from Spain and North Africa in the West to Egypt and Syria in the East as well as Asia Minor (now Turkey) and the Balkans. Interestingly at that stage of its history, the global centre of Christianity was not in Europe but east of Jerusalem. By 750 however, at least 50% of the world’s Christians found themselves under Muslim rule and in the early eighth century Islam also advanced into Western Europe, with its conquest of Spain, Portugal, part of Sicily and what is now the Languedoc – Roussillon region of Southern France. It took until the late fifteenth century for the invaders to be banished from Europe, by which time Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Empire, signalling the final collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire. By the sixteenth century Islam had a new political centre in Constantinople and was establishing itself in southeastern Europe where it persists to this day.
In the face of such a rapid expansion, it is logical to suppose that had Constantine not made Christianity the religion of the Empire, Islam would also, sooner or later, have put down roots in Western Europe. Indeed the fall of Constantinople and the spread of Islam into Eastern Europe might have been a particularly vulnerable time for Western monarchies, since the Byzantine Empire had always acted as a bulwark between Christendom and the territories ruled by Islam. The presence of the papacy in Rome, as well as its long association with the monarchies of Europe and especially the Holy Roman Emperor, ensured however that the combination of religion and politics that was Christendom provided the strength and unity to keep the invaders at bay, up to and including the defeat of the Ottoman Turks in the late seventeenth century, when they were driven from the walls of Vienna by King John III Sobieski. The latter was hailed by the Pope as the saviour of Christendom, and of Western civilisation generally.
Had Islam at any stage during its periods of vigorous expansion established itself in the West there would have been no Reformation, no Enlightenment, no liberal democracy and none of the rights and freedoms that Western women in particular take for granted. It was the continuous dialectic between the authoritarian Roman Empire dimension of Christianity and the radical ideas of its founder that engendered Western moral, legal and cultural progress. Muhammad of course, unlike Jesus, inextricably intertwined the religion he created with politics and warfare: the Islamic notion of a universal Caliphate is one that sees religious law as the law of the land, so that Sharia rather than secular, civil law predominates in most Muslim countries. Yet it is also Islam’s political and military dimensions that have propelled its expansionary success. Unlike Christianity, where Islam is established it seldom gets displaced. Christianity in itself does not have territorial or political ambitions; indeed its founder preached a spiritual kingdom of love, peace and justice rather than the political kingdom which his fellow Jews – including the apostle Peter – expected their longed for Messiah to inaugurate. It is only due to Constantine’s action in making Christianity the religion of the Empire that Christianity is now the world’s largest religion, having spread relatively peacefully from its European base to the Americas, Australia and, latterly, southern parts of the African continent.
Before proceeding further I’d just like to briefly mention a viewpoint that has become quite popular in post Enlightenment Europe. This is the atheistic viewpoint that religion, because of the superstition and violence that are often associated with it, is overall a force for evil rather than good and that we’d be better off without it. To this charge I would reply that up until the relatively recent past religion was not an optional extra since human knowledge of the natural world together with the practical achievements of science had not reached a level at which people felt that they could dispense with the need for a God or gods. It is also generally acknowledged that modern scientific method emerged from medieval scholasticism, especially the work of Thomas Aquinas, Robert Grosseteste and his pupil Roger Bacon. Through its emphasis on rationality and intellectual rigour, scholasticism evolved into empiricism. Without the emergence of scholasticism from the medieval universities along with the interplay between the two aspects of Western Christianity we have been discussing, it is unlikely that we would have attained the perspective from which we can have such a discussion. Without a doubt, the combination of Reformation and the new kind of knowledge engendered by science led to the Enlightenment. Indeed I would go so far as to say that Christendom and the culture it has generated is further revelation, occurring in historical time, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. So where to for Christianity now? This brings us to the the question which is contained in the title of this essay: is the Church of Jesus Christ gradually defeating the Roman Empire?
The loss to Roman Catholicism in particular of the immense political power and influence it wielded up until the Enlightenment period is still considered regrettable by many in the Church, particularly those in authority. I would argue however that the current situation is as it is meant to be, the culmination of a series of moves between Jesus Christ and the Roman Empire (understood as a metaphor for civilisation), the first of which culminated in his execution by its officials and the second of which was the establishment of the Church he founded as the religion of the Empire. In order to understand the full significance of what has happened and what the future holds, we must now remind ourselves of what the stated mission of Jesus actually was.
The ministry of Jesus opened with the famous Markan statement “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” ( 1:15). In contrast to the Davidic Messianic hope of the Jews, the kingdom that Jesus preached was not a political but a spiritual one. This is a kingdom that will be rooted in the hearts and souls of his followers, whose Christian praxis will transform our unjust and unequal world into a warmer, kinder one. It is what we call theologically an eschatological kingdom ; the word ‘eschatological’ refers to the Christian belief that with the commencement of the ministry of Jesus it is ‘already’ here, if ‘not yet ‘ fully realised. The Banquet parables (most of which can be found within chapters 14 to 16 of Luke’s Gospel) recounted by Jesus are particularly evocative, promising as they do an inclusive kingdom whose people will not only enjoy the pleasures of the table, but also convivial warmth and friendship: there will be no hunger or deprivation, either physical or emotional, for those who enter the kingdom. But how is this kingdom to be achieved? It will require the desire to attain Christian repentance rather than the desire for power, wealth and prestige that constitute the values of human society and which are symbolised by the Roman Empire.
That opening statement of Jesus’s mission sets the tone for everything that follows. Repentance requires a change of heart (metanoia in biblical Greek), a recognition of past moral failure. Jesus follows squarely in the Old Testament tradition of relating moral lapses to failures of love and compassion. In a famous passage from Ezekiel, for example, the prophet reveals God’s word to his people: “I will give you a new heart and put new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26). In the writings of the prophet Amos, we hear God say “I hate, I reject your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (5:21). Hosea tells us that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings” (6:6). Solemn religious assemblies can be a way of substituting ritual for authentic morality, a way of keeping God at one remove in order to avoid the close relationship that will transform hard hearts into hearts of love, compassion and mercy. Jesus develops this theme in a radically new way when he talks about Jewish Law which by his cultural era had become bogged down by an array of petty rules added by the Pharisees; these rules were concerned with the minutiae of the law and imposed unnecessary burdens on people. Jesus broke some of these petty rules as when he healed on the Sabbath and was criticised for it by the religious authorities. At a dinner to which he was invited by a Pharisee, Jesus challenged his host by refusing to engage in the elaborate hand washing rituals that had become customary. To the shocked reaction of his host Jesus replied “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness………Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realising it” Lk 11:39-44. At that another guest, an expert on the law answered “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too” (v. 45). To which Jesus replied “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them” (vv. 45-47).
What Jesus is warning against is the belief that moral goodness resides in external actions, particularly those designed to win public praise and approval. But it is a mistake to think that moral responsibility ends with obedience to external commands. This is well illustrated in Matt 5: 21-22 when Jesus says “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times ‘You shall not murder’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement’. But I say to you that if you are angry to a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement”. What Jesus is saying is that God sees behind our external actions to our hearts and motivations, and that it is necessary to have a heart in order to follow God. He regularly criticised the legalism that had come to predominate in the Jewish moral law of his era; a legalistic approach to ethics tends to place the main emphasis on externals and neglects the internal. Jesus clearly felt that an important part of his mission in bringing about the kingdom of God was to reform Jewish law . Yet he in no way detracts from the importance of the law, saying that he has not come “to abolish the law or the prophets…. But to fulfill”. Developing a heart, however, enables the individual to go by the spirit rather than the letter of the law when required, and also to be able to discern when exceptions can be made, as when Jesus himself healed on the Sabbath and allowed his disciples to eat grain on the Sabbath.
From this we can deduce that a defining feature of the kingdom of God will be an internal transformation of hearts that will not be externally visible in individual cases but will work its way upwards to be manifested in a warmer, more compassionate, just and harmonious society. It will of course also be a well ordered society, and one in which people obey external laws not just to avoid public disapproval or to impress in the manner of the Pharisees, but simply because they wish to do the right thing. It will also be a society in which unjust laws will be much less likely to be instituted. Continuing our conceptualisation of the authorities of the Roman Empire (one of the greatest civilisations the world has ever known) to represent the authorities of all ordered and civilised societies, and the kingdom of God to be the just and humane society portrayed in the words and parables of Jesus, we can see how the internal dialectic operating within Christianity has been largely responsible for what, as I argued above, is the freest, most educated and most civilised society in the world. So is the Church of Jesus Christ in the process of conquering the Roman Empire? My answer would be in the affirmative, while pointing out that we have a very long way to go before the kind of society that Jesus envisaged can come into being. To paraphrase Churchill, after two thousand years we have not reached the end of our task as Christians nor even the beginning of the end; rather we are perhaps at the end of the beginning. And we must never forget or overlook the downside of our progress in all fields, which includes the terrible events of the twentieth century and our exploitation of large swathes of the globe. How then are we to progress further? Is it time now for the Church, especially Roman Catholicism, to renounce all political power and leave its ‘Roman Empire’ dimension behind? We turn now to a consideration of the challenges confronting our Western civilisation, which is so firmly rooted in Christianity.
Christianity and Islam
It is often remarked that the 21st century will see a renewal of the clash between Christianity and Islam. If its first two decades are anything to go by, this would certainly seem to be the case. However it would be an error to perceive this clash only in terms of Islamic extremism and its avowed aim to conquer the West by violence and subsume it into an Islamic caliphate. Islam has, for example, made a strong and peaceful resurgence in Turkey’s political sphere through democratic means, almost one hundred years since Kemal Ataturk imposed political secularism on his country and transformed it into a secular state. Then there is the Muslim diaspora in the U.S. and Europe, where a clash of cultures is certainly now taking place. These relate principally to the status of women and the relationship between religion and politics. In countries such as France, which prides itself on its secular culture, the expectation that Muslims should integrate with French culture and be assimilated is causing much controversy. In Islam, politics and religion are basically two sides of the same coin; this goes back to Muhammad who was a politician and warrior as well as a prophet. Christianity, on the other hand, was neither political nor territorial due to the attitude and behaviour of its founder who famously said “Render unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and resisted the temptation to take up arms and become the political messiah his disciples wished him to be. It was entirely fortuitous, as we have seen, that Constantine established it as the religion of the Roman Empire and hence gave it a political dimension. Christianity has both engendered and survived the Enlightenment with its separation of Church and State throughout the Western world. So well established is our secular culture now that there can be no going back for Christianity into theocratic mode as there was for Islam in Turkey; Islam has not been through an Enlightenment and moreover is wedded to politics in a manner alien to Christianity. As a result the greatest clash between Islamic culture and that of Christianity in the West is and will continue to be the former’s desire to maintain its allegiance to Sharia law even in Western liberal democracies. If this is allowed to happen, it will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on hard won Western freedoms, especially where women’s rights are concerned. It may even herald the beginning of a slippery slope back to theocracy via Islam, which flourishes among European Muslims in a way that serves to highlight the corresponding decline in the practice of Western Christianity. If European birth rates continue their rapid decline it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Islam may at some future time achieve political power through the democratic process. It is imperative therefore that Christianity renew itself and move forward along with the great civilisation it has engendered. How then might a Christian revival be achieved? It is my opinion that the developing clash between Islam and Christianity will not be physical or cultural so much as theological, for the arrival of significant numbers of Muslims into the West brings to the fore a question that goes back to the very beginning of Christianity, and was asked by Jesus himself: “Who do you say that I am?”
Who Was Jesus?
It is not generally known that Islam’s sixth century prophet Muhammad, before he founded a new religion, was a member of a Christian sect which held Jesus to be a great prophet, favoured in the eyes of God, but not divine. The status of Jesus in relation to God had been formally defined at the Council of Nicaea (325). That Council, the first ecumenical Council ever held by the Christian Church, was called by the Emperor Constantine as an emergency measure to quell the many theological controversies that had erupted over the question of the divinity of Jesus and to restore unity to the religion of the Empire. At that time there were many different Christian sects and each had their own perspective on the events recorded in the Gospel and on the question of whether or not Jesus was divine. Events had come to a head in the year 318 when Arius, a priest of Alexandria, quarrelled with his bishop on the relationship of Jesus to the Godhead. Arius’s basic argument was that Christ was an intermediary between God and humanity, subordinate to God and neither properly God nor properly man. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss how this issue was dealt with theologically, and it took a further Council (Constantinople 381) for resolution to be achieved thanks mainly to the brilliance of the Cappadocian Fathers who lived and worked in what is present day Turkey. The latter were three theologian/priests who brought to fruition the Trinitarian theology of the previous two centuries. Arianism was the most well known of of the early heresy known as Subordinationism, the view that Jesus was subordinate to the one God, either through being a lesser divinity or a mere human, albeit an exceptionally great one. The Arian/Subordinationist heresy, however, was never completely eliminated and tended to crop up regularly in various locations throughout Christendom.
Muhammad, whose first wife Khadijah’s uncle was a Christian bishop, was for a time a member of a Christian sect which taught that Jesus was a man upon whom the power of God had descended at his baptism, but left him at the time of his crucifixion. Muhammad honoured Jesus so highly as a prophet that he adopted the view that Jesus did not actually die on the cross but was assumed alive into heaven. Muhammad was in fact a theological descendant of Arius, and due to its spread into the West, Islam is raising once again the status of Jesus: the challenge posed by Islam to Christianity may yet prove to be a theological rather than a territorial one; in a worst case scenario it could be a combination of both. Indeed the theological unity established in the West first by Constantine and then by Charlemagne may, once again, be under threat; the doctrine of the Trinity could very soon be as hot a topic as it was in the fourth century, hard as that may be to believe in our secular culture. Each of the three Abrahamic faiths is monotheistic, believing in one God. In Judaism and Islam, however, this one God is a strict monad while in Christianity the one God is a triad composed of Father, Son and Spirit.
The great 20th century German theologian Karl Rahner once remarked that if the doctrine of the Trinity were to be abolished from Christian theology, the average Christian would probably not notice, so unaware is he or she of its existential relevance. This theological ignorance is related to a similar lack of knowledge concerning the Incarnation; there is a widespread misconception among Christians that the divinity of Jesus turned him into a kind of religious superman/miracle worker. In contemporary times this unintentional heresy causes orthodox Christology to be rejected as a mythology of sorts, with no existential relevance to life as it is experienced by Christians. With the advance of Islam in its ‘soft’ theological form, the question asked by Jesus “Who do you say that I am?” will, I predict, become as challenging to future Christians as it was to his disciples and to those early theologians whose task it was to make the Christ event intelligible to the intellectuals of Greek and Roman antiquity. In the face of Islam, the divinity of Jesus assumes a radically new significance; if Christianity is to survive and thrive in this changed environment, Christians will have to learn to understand how Jesus was simultaneously God and man and, even more importantly, what relevance this has for their daily lives. The most pressing task for the Church now is to confront the challenge of Islam to foundational Christian beliefs; the only way this can be successfully achieved is to focus on improving the theological literacy particularly of its adult members. The reward for working towards strengthening and deepening the religious beliefs of its members may very well be twofold, generating both a deeper spirituality and a stronger sense of Christian identity.
Moving forward from Enlightenment with its separation of church and state, I would suggest that the next move of the Church of Jesus Christ should be to renounce altogether its Roman Empire dimension. Roman Catholicism, the largest denomination, is the one that remains most attached to its imperial past. Quite apart from the Vatican’s formal status as a political state, it still contains at its authoritarian core the fearsome cruelty that the Empire displayed towards those it perceived as a threat to its religious and political unity. In contemporary times we have seen the expulsion from Catholic universities of theologians of the calibre of the American Charles Curran, the German Hans Kung, and the harsh treatment of South American liberation theologians such as Juan Luis Segundo, Gustavo Gutierrez, Jon Sobrino and Leonardo Boff. In Ireland we have witnessed in the recent past the silencing of Frs. Brian Darcy, Tony Flannery, Gerard Moloney, Owen O’Sullivan and Sean Fagan. A renunciation of its political power would also involve an end to the related persecution of its own committed members, whose motivations are generally of the highest. Catholic Christianity certainly needs to acknowledge, for example, its great good fortune in having produced Christians of the calibre of Martin Luther, the most famous ‘heretic’ of Roman Catholicism.
The Roman Church has a seat in the UN and is known to cultivate ties with government wherever it is established. The Vatican II vision of the Church as the people of God (derived from the thought of Martin Luther) wherein there would not be a sharp divide between the clerics and laity would certainly lend itself to a less authoritarian, more spiritual Church. It would also be an ecumenical move as it would vindicate the vision of Luther. A more united Western Church, shorn of political power, could renew its spiritual roots and continue its transformation of society from a purely spiritual base; this would surely be a significant step in the evolution of the Kingdom of God. Christianity would then influence politics from outside institutions of power rather than as an institutional political power in itself. It would also lead, as we have seen, to a renewal of Christian identity and strengthen it in the face of Islam’s growing impact in the Western world. Islam may soon be poised once again to conquer Christian Europe. Whether the fresh attempt at conquest is of the hard or soft variety, or a combination of both, Christians will have to be motivated to fight for their religion which is inseparable from Western civilisation. It must never be forgotten that there are significant similarities between Islam and Christianity: to perceive it simply as our enemy would be a mistake. While it has been our enemy on many historical occasions it, like Christianity and Judaism proclaims the one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.The first and greatest sin listed in the ten commandments is the sin of idolatry, namely to substitute worship of the gods of sex, power and wealth before worship of the one God. In the pagan polytheistic cultures of the past, these gods were believed to really exist; in cultures engendered by monotheism they are no longer personified as gods, but can still be idolised and substituted for worship of the one God. The significant similarities between Islam and Christianity – the two junior religions of the three Abrahamic faiths – could attract and even lead to conversions, as Islam still has a vigour of devotional practice that we have lost, especially in Europe. Although we are now living in an increasingly atheistic culture in which science is generally held to be the generator of the highest form of knowledge it would, I believe, be a serious mistake to underestimate the need most people have for a religious/spiritual dimension to their lives. Indeed a best case outcome of the confrontation between Islam and Christianity would be that they would mutually influence one another so that Muslims could see the benefit of the separation of church and state, while Christians could reawaken to the existential benefits of devotional practice. Indeed it may be a possiblity that, in the future, the religions of the West – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – will find themselves united against scientism and the dystopian political culture it is even now well on the way to engendering. The unbridled power of science is capable of doing as much harm as good; it could lead to a world in which human beings are considered as no more than economic units and potential objects of scientific experimentation, one in which science dictates the moral agenda. Be that as it may, however, Christianity will first have to fashion, within the parameters of the secular cultural conditions of the twenty first century, a new, more spiritual version of Christendom which will be characterised by a renewed focus on the divinity of Jesus and the significance of the triune God for Christian living. This can only happen if secular Christianity gets back in touch with its Judeo-Christian roots, the aim of which would be to encourage a stronger sense of Christian identity in the West. The challenge posed by Islam may, ironically, be the catalyst that propels Christendom into the next phase of its development into the Kingdom of God. As we have already seen, this will be a warmer, kinder, more inclusive and compassionate place to inhabit than the world of Empire; it will also be a world that embodies the values of what is, in the opinion of many, the most radical statement on equality ever articulated. This is the famous passage in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, revolutionary in the context of its time and place dealing as it does with the human tendency to exploit and enslave, with racism and sexism: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (3:29).
Sources and further Reading. Robert Louis Wilken, “First Things: Christianity Face to Face With Islam”
Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations (Series)