The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Personal Spiritual Sovereignty

March 24th, 2011 · No Comments · christianity, history, Janus in Nicea

Among many other great cultural losses that occurred after Christianity was made the exclusive mode of religious expression allowed in the Empire, was the idea of personal spiritual sovereignty. There was once a great diversity of and . People were not exclusive to any one church any more than people today are exclusive to any one restaurant. There were many dimensions of spiritual : familial, locative, therapeutic, divinatory, and social. All of these together described the of the early Roman citizen.

It was expected that each person had at the center of their soul an intelligence that dictated the methods and types of religious practice one would follow. Each person was responsible for cultivating their own set of spiritual experiences, and encouraged to explore religion as a means of personal enrichment.

When Christianity became the exclusive mode of faith, personal spiritual sovereignty was replaced by nationalistic fervor. Those who continued to seek out personal spiritual experiences were derided as ‘heretics’ or ‘gnostics’ before being cast into flames after torment and torture.

The national realm does have its spiritual aspect, but it was unfortunate that this one dimension of spiritual experience became the exclusive means of spiritual expression. This was not the deliberate result of some cruel conspiracy, but was the unintended consequence of the gradual slide toward totalitarianism experienced by the Roman Empire on the whole. Some elements of personal and familial spirituality were eventually included into the larger system of faith, but always in a manner that was subjugate to the national interests.


Excerpt from Janus in Nicea: Origins of the Roman Imperial Christian Cult by Christopher Burton. The complete book is available here in print and e-book form.

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