The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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This is the book I was going to write

July 6th, 2007 · No Comments · christianity, culture, history, media

A good deal of my recent studies were leading me into a very specific direction. I could feel that some sort of writing, perhaps a book, would result from it. There were just a few questions remaining before I could really see the scope of history, and then I would know how I’d want to approach things.

Then Charles Freeman answered my questions for me. The Closing of the Western Mind is an epic romp through a thousand years of philosophy and the abuse of power. His questions were not entirely my questions, but they were similar enough that I feel I got a free pass. His points were to have been my points. His sweep of history was the one I had been furtively sketching out. While I’m glad it’s already done by someone with better history-fu than me, I am left with a big question mark where a book idea had been.

A rare treat! This guy makes some points and draws attention to elements of history that I had overlooked. My mind was muddy where Christianity made the transition from capital crime to imperial obligation: I knew the mechanism had something to do with the hierarchical similarities between the early Church and the Empire. Freeman shows the process clearly.

Emperor granted two boons to the Christians. He provided Imperial tolerance of the faith, and (most importantly) tax-free status to the Christian clergy. The first ended Roman persecution of the Christians, and the second began the internal battles of orthodoxy. (He did not legalize Christianity specifically, nor did he criminalize paganism. The last did not happen until the mid-sixth century.)

The various groups Constantine had selected to be the ‘orthodox’ (and therefore, tax-free) Christians didn’t actually agree on doctrinal issues. So long as the Empire insisted on some statement of certainty about what Christianity was, there would be continuous strife. In the end, it was the (occasionally pagan) Emperors themselves that ended theological conflicts by instituting even nuttier ideas that were themselves the source of further discord.

More crucially, while the Bishops under the Empire were virtual slaves to the Emperor — they were to serve as judges, county clerks, tax collectors, doctors, and keepers of the indigent, they gained quickly in wealth and prestige. Their rapid adoption into the comfortable levels of Roman society provided a balance against doctrinal disagreements. It wasn’t a generation before Bishops, fearing they might lose their power or prestige, were loathe to entertain discussions against the decrees of the ecumenical councils. After the collapse of the Empire in the West, naturally, doctrinal disputes were to break out anew, but Bishops retained their power over other temporal governments for many centuries.

The best part of Freeman’s book is how he carefully traces the steady decline of the Greek intellectual tradition in the West, from the first Greek ‘scientists’ to Pope Gregory the Great. A clear picture is given of how Greeks could accept the rational and irrational simultaneously as ‘logos‘ or as ‘myth’. After the authoritarian Emperors and Popes finished crushing any instinct for scientific inquiry, and with it all that was logical or complex in the ancient pagan world, all they had left was the irrationality of ancient pagan world. Ironically, the Church would frequently speak of logos without allowing anyone the tools by which to truly seek it. That is, until Thomas Aquinas stole the Aristotelean fire from the ashes and began the crack in Roman Catholicism that would eventually result in the Protestant schism and the Reformation. But that’s another story.

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