The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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How are you a part of me?

January 19th, 2008 · No Comments · christianity, culture, history

More notes on the development of culture and the creation of Roman Christianity.

Ancient city-states often worshiped a triad of deities who were, collectively, believed to represent and protect their host city. While several cities may have shared one god or another, the people within a particular city would be faithful to the specific manifestation of the gods in their home cities.

The people of these early cities had a palpable interaction with their civic divinities because they each had active relationships with every other member of the city. The divinity represented the connection each citizen had with everyone else, and thus the relative success of the community. That divinity would be well understood by the people of its city, and the stories people would tell about their gods were representative of how their civic divinity manifested.

By the end of the Roman Republic, the imposed worship of SPQR had displaced and mangled these local faiths of peoples from Iberia to Armenia. In the name of unity and order, individual customs and traditions were generally eradicated in favor of Roman traditions. Not surprisingly, the set and square beliefs of the Senate and People of Rome didn’t fit into the organic Greek or Gothic cultures the way the Asian mystery cults did a few centuries later.

The imported mystery traditions gave the Roman people another opportunity to worship together with others who shared belief in the same divinity. However, the problem from the very beginning must have been the fact that no one could know everyone else in the faith. How does one distinguish those who truly believe the same things and the posers? Since the only requirement was that you showed up and parroted the appropriate phrases and mimicked the expected motions, the fact that many delighted in “touring” the various mystery faiths was more than a slight headache for the leadership of the various cults.

The problem is summarized in the question: “How are you a part of me?” When membership in a faith was determined by residence, the answer is simple. But in crowded urban settings where any stranger could be an enemy as easily as a friend, the answer is not so simple.

Opportunists capitalized in this ambiguity, pointing out the basic similarity between the various cults as a means to hustle membership into the new cult on the block. The encroaching generalization allowed the creation of a common story that would be largely acceptable to the vast majority of followers of Mithras, Isis, and Cybele — as well as to the Greek Neo-Platonists who dominated culture in the Eastern . The name “Jesus Christ” doesn’t reference someone in particular. In the Greek, the name roughly translates back into English as “Anointed Savior”. In this way, “Our Lord Jesus Christ” could have well been “Attis”, “Mithras”, or “Horus”, depending on your audience.

Many of these cults had been long accepted by the Roman authorities. Thus, “Christians” would have been proudly self-proclaimed in many environments that would have brought them no danger or shame. When Nero supposedly blamed the “Christians” for burning Rome, it wouldn’t have been the adherents of an (at the time) obscure Syrian Messiah cult in particular, but of all the rabble of Mithraists, Cybeleans, and Platonists that were draining the Roman coffers without providing civil and military service as would be typically expected.

One of the primary mechanisms for the rapid acceptance of Asian mystery cults in the Roman Imperial period — at least as described by Franz Cumont — had to do with the relative focus of the respective systems. The focus of faith in the late republic was towards the Senate and People of Rome. Faith in the Roman Republic was part and parcel with patriotism and social standing. Belief in the various deities as actual beings had long since past, but the participation in the official cults continued as they had been such an integral part of the social fabric for so long.

In supporting the state, the status quo in a variety of areas was also maintained: the social order depended on proper relationships within and between families; the economic order required that guilds and markets operate just so. By worshiping at the altar of the Senate and People of Rome, one fulfilled patriotic, spiritual, and moral duties.

The first Phrygian goddess cult offered something radical and intoxicating: religions focused on the individual — individual salvation, individual interaction with the divine, and individual moral will. Each following cult further elaborated on the theme, until each was eventually providing eternal life, cures for disease, and even moral purity. The siren song of personal faith drove the enormous popularity of the numerous imported cults. This individual focus is a primary theme of the subsequent Roman Christianity.

The dichotomy between individual and social focus in faith was, in essence, the substance of conflict during three hundred years of ecumenical councils. Addressing these issues in modern times is not much easier. At root, the problem is that religious expression of faith is an entirely personal and individualized activity. Yet, the strongest forms of divinity take the form of the common spirit resulting from an aggregation of people. And so, in order to best feel a direct interaction with divinity, one really needs to find a kindred population with similar faiths.

The Roman Catholic approach of generalizing everything into a homogeneous soup was remarkably successful as long as the Church was able to maintain political relevance and from this position of power, enforce a social focus in the culture. Once the power of the Church began to slide away in the feudal Balkanization of Europe, specific distinctions began to reappear. Again, people were confronted with the question, “How are you a part of me?” and this time, they were just as likely to decide against any shared membership. The Protestant movement stripped away much of the Catholic generalizations and reverted to a primitive form of Arianism that bordered on Judaism. The bulk of what was retained were the working parts of the ancient Roman political structure that allowed the Protestant Princes to lead their people away from the Pope.

Today in America, Christianity has taken the place of the worship of SPQR — membership is required for civic advancement and its prayers and rituals are considered patriotic. Again, we live in an age when few believe the fairy tales and instead participate for the social connection and civic obligation. It’s no wonder the ‘New Age’ movement found so many participants starved for old-time, individualized, religious experiences — all seeking an answer to the question: “How are you a part of me?”

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