Saturday, October 24, 2009

The cut of Constantine's sword

I have journeyed this morning into a man’s mind. I have read his questions and come up with my own.

James Carroll has introduced me, in the 70 pages that I have read so far of what may be his magnum opus, Constantine's Sword, to brilliant men and women spanning 2,000 years, from Rabbi Herschel to Teresa of Avila – minds I vow to know better.

From his pen, almost casually, drop references to some of the world's greatest art -- the sign of a man who has internalized them, a man to whom these masterpieces have personal meaning.

Michelangelo's Pieta.

I started reading this book several years ago but put it aside when it became clear to me that I needed to familiarize myself first with the context of Constantine's age.

Now I am ready.

In this book, Carroll probes the very heart and history of his faith, its passion and pain.

Bernini's Passion of Saint Teresa.

Rome we know or think we know, with its Ides and its Colosseum. The Middle Ages we know or think we know, with its chivalrous knights and horrible plagues – but what of the centuries between? What of the time when Constantinople displaced Rome, however briefly, as the center of Western civilization? When Christianity exploded from an obscure, persecuted sect into a world power?

As Europeans, descendants of Europeans – or even as people from elsewhere who have for better or for worse had interaction with Europeans, whether you are a Filipino or an Inuit or the grandson of a Hottentot, that mysterious era after the “ancient” world ended but before the modern, yes, even before the Medieval period began, forever altered the pattern of your life.

What if there had been no Constantine – the first Emperor to embrace Christianity? Indeed, what if the Christian Church had never received imperial sanction?

Was Constantine a product of the Church in his way of thinking, or did his way of thinking re-direct the Church? Carroll hints, but I have not yet reached the page, that he will talk about that man’s thinking in regards to the sacrifice of a son by a father – will this concern his poor son Crispus, whose untimely death biographer Frank Slaughter blames on Constantine’s “hell-cat” wife Fausta, though suggesting that others would blame the old emperor instead.

Carroll explores the roots of anti-Jewish hatred in Christianity, finding them in the very New Testament writings but without the power to be lethal until Constantine arrived on the scene – he who called the Jews an “odious people and who moved the very date of the Easter celebration to escape the taint of Passover.

A tangent for someone else to explore: If there had been no Constantine, no Imperial entanglement with the Church, what of the endemic eastern Christian squabbles that to this day have left a patchwork of bitterly divided sects in that region (long before Protestantism supposedly cracked the monolithic wall of Christianity)?

When the weight of the empire shifted the balance, now to Arianism, now away, when churchmen found themselves summoned from all corners of the Roman world by Imperial edict, to argue out their differences, do you suppose that little fires flared up into infernos, do you suppose that positions hardened? Do you think that far from solving the problems, Imperial involvement only ensured that they would grow worse, like school children dragging their big brothers into a fight?

What of Mohammed, whose Islam is judged by some to have been a reaction in part to such squabbles, even a Christian heresy at heart? Without a Constantine, would the Quran be what it is and would the wholesale defections to Islam in the Middle East, the very birthplace of Christianity, have taken place?

Arianism, for example, can be seen as a precursor to Islam, according respect to Christ but not granting him the same status or substance as the Father. So, too, does Islam revere Christ, as a prophet, but not as a God – and even speaks of him laughing on the cross at those who mistakenly believed they were crucifying him -- a familiar concept to Christian Gnostics.

These are fascinating questions to me.


Lone Grey Squirrel said...

All great questions. I too have a great interest in that period of history......largely because I know so little of it. I have been recently studying church history and asked many of the same questions but from a position of faith as I have already had a personal experience of Christ in my life.

Eastcoastdweller said...

Lone Grey: Let us reason together, sharing the knowledge that we glean along the way.

The phenomenon of Jesus Christ -- an itenerant who preached for barely three years in an obscure backwater and died the death of a criminal -- yet is revered today by billions of people -- deserves more than a passing glance by any man or Woman of intelligence.