Summaries: Peter Brown on Christianization

I

The first post introduced the historian Peter Brown and offered a summary of a lecture he gave at St. Vladimir’s Seminary on two fourth century figures, the Roman Emperor Constantine I and the bishop Eusebius of Caesarea. In it, Brown asked what the horizons of possibility were for the two men regarding Christianization. In the course of answering this, he noted:

(1) that Christianization for Eusebius and (or so it certainly appears) Constantine simply meant the “exaltation of Christianity” by its privilege and mere presence everywhere, rather than the obliteration of all rivals or temples (it was symbolically sufficient to destroy only “a few shrines”), or the creation of a Christian majority (which was not envisioned);

(2) that this exaltation, this presencing of Christianity in all places so as to afford the possibility of people becoming Christian is a “visibilization” of a prior victory of Christ over tyrannical gods/stars — Christianity was thus also seen as freedom, as a liberation from the tyranny of many customs deemed either immoral or impious; also, victory already having occurred in heaven, paganism on earth was thus not seen as a serious threat;

(3) the taboos surrounding participation in, or contact with, pagan sacrifice was a very specific ritual marker denoting the boundaries of what a Christian might participate in; this meant that the two communities had a very large middle ground, and that Christians did not need to avoid most of the things associated with the public culture, only very specific situations of ritual/spiritual pollution. This protected Christians from pagans, and pagans from Christians. Specifically Christian behaviors were not expected of pagans, as Christians did not then entertain the idea of being, or even trying to become, a majority.

This sense of the horizons of possibility changed during the course of the fourth century, but the earlier model was not remembered as such. Thus, the need for us to remember the difference, and not project later aspirations and stories onto this period.

II

The second post covered another essay by Peter Brown on the modern narrative of the Christianization of the fourth and fifth centuries that we have inherited. There, Brown was replying to Ramsay MacMullen.

MacMullen exhorts us to “take the times on their own terms without importing into them our modern sympathies” [“What Difference did Christianity Make?”, Historia, 35 (1986), 341], and likewise Brown, echoing the suggestions of Robert A. Markus, states that, when considering what “Christianization” means, we “must begin with close attention to what Christians themselves considered to be ‘Christianisation’.” [Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World (New York: Cambridge, 1997), 16] Despite these agreements, Brown and MacMullen show very different spirits in their respective approaches to the history and the evidence.

In the first essay of Authority and the Sacred, Brown notes three areas in which the Roman world did begin to change under the influence of Christianity, though “with the slowness of a glacier” [Authority, 9], in areas that, in keeping with the criterion of both MacMullen and Markus, marked successful Christianization for Christians at the time:

(1) the model of the heavens-and-earth as a hierarchy of gods, with the lower gods being the ones related to this life and day-to-day affairs, and the High God presiding over more ultimate things — this slowly changed, as bishops and teachers suggested to Christians that the High God, Christ, held sway even here in this life, and it is he who should be engaged, not the daemones, the lower powers;

(2) the symbols of elite power and the legitimacy of that power among the ruling upper classes slowly changed; at first, the elite who were Christian would redeploy classical and Christian motifs together to signify the numinous abundance they had comfortably received from the semi-divine fructiveness of the earth, immediately legitimate because a divine gift; eventually, as times became more difficult as the fourth century carried on, this abundance was disenchanted, its causes secularized, and its possession rendered legitimate only through active service to God;

(3) the transformation of paganism into something more (even other?) than a community of religious practice, into the fallen, evil debris of the past Greco-Roman heritage that perpetually weighs upon all, to be gradually overcome and displaced by the habits and practices specific to the Catholic Christianity in the Church.

This last item is what Augustine of Hippo advocated for, distinct from the eastern models of figures like Theodoret of Cyrrhus.

III

The third post dealt with the origins of the pagan epithet, “tempora Christiana“, or “Christian times.” Why did Christian figures living during the last half of the fourth century, and especially those pagans who lived around the year A.D. 400 who coined the phrase “tempora Christiana“, think they were living in a different age than the ones that had gone before? Brown appears to offer three general trends, here subdivided:

(1a) The Roman Empire and the Church were both seen to have their origins in God. The pre-Christian Israelite demotion of the gods by God changed the earlier widespread belief that the High God had assigned to each nation its own gods and religion(s). A sort of universalism, unification, and a transcendent theological-moral criticism was in the air.

(1b) In the course of the third century, both Church and Empire changed. The unification of the churches from a loose affiliation of local bodies to an organized institution with recognizable leaders (bishops) occurred; the unification of the empire from a horizontally-organized “commonwealth of cities” into a vertically-managed unified empire that bypassed the local elites also occurred. The cities had their local religiones, but now, after the persecutions of the 3rd and very-early 4th century, the unification of the Empire politically hitched onto the unified faith of the Church (see 1a, above).

(2) This “hitching” was not a takeover: the Church prior to Constantine was made up of a diverse population representing each strata of society. Constantine was not merely a remote administrator who cynically used the Church.

(3a) Despite being made up of a diverse population, Christians did make sense of their world by exorcism, by the “clash of gods”, and had emerged from persecution “tensed” against the outside world. Yet they did not initially think of themselves as potentially becoming a majority. When they did become a majority, the earlier enactment of the visibilization of Christ’s victory over the gods in exorcism (by occasionally smashing the temples) became partly a means of securing the half-hearted and preventing them from a relapse into paganism. (Collecting taxes took priority over this, however.)

(3b) The shared culture of the upper classes allowed for a large demilitarized zone of (what had been) pagan culture to both persist and be incorporated into new forms that were not offensive to Christians, because no sacrifice was involved. Largely under the influence of the ascetical movement that had been imported through figures like Jerome, this was no longer acceptable as the fourth century wore on. “Pietas” was no longer devotion to friends and motherland, but to Christ (so Paulinus of Nola against Ausonius of Bordeaux); wealth was no longer a simple blessing, but was likely acquired through many acts of avarice and violence, and must be justified through acts of service to God, or else (in more extreme ascetical visions) be divested totally in being mobilized for charity and this service. The ritual taboos separating Christians and pagans were no longer present to prevent Christian principles from spilling over into society as a whole, which lead to a new epithet of the pagans: “Christian times”, which were not a good thing to them.

It was this charge that eventually brought Augustine of Hippo to write his massive City of God Against the Pagans, and to offer a take on political life that undermined the past certainties of both Christian and pagan sacral societies.

IV

In a fourth post, we saw Brown argue, somewhat indirectly (and perhaps without recognizing it), that Christianity facilitated disenchantment.

This occurred first by the banishment of the gods in a kind of exorcism. The gods, being banished, still left behind statues, and art forms associated with them. Two responses to the lingering monuments of the gods and their art forms appeared:

(1) reject the statues of the gods and the art forms associated with the gods,

or

(2) secularize the sense of the deployment of the gods in statuary and in the arts associated with them. In (2), the gods’ statues no longer referred to the gods, but to the artisans and the cities and the civic officials whose dignity was amplified by their presence; the elegance and grandeur of the cities was likewise thought to be displayed by these statues, removed from any cultic context.

Most learned, urban Christians seem to have chosen (2), which disposition, at least as it relates itself to the arts, was reinforced by Augustine of Hippo’s treatment of signs in his work, On Christian Doctrine.

It then occurred, in a more focused form, by the nascent fourth-century ascetical movement’s imposition of a rubric of utility upon the semi-divine natural world of the Constantinian generation. This rubric saw wealth and the goods of the land as justified not in themselves, as bestowed upon the wealthy in an unproblematic manner, as justified in and by the mere possession of wealth. Wealth was thereafter thought of as “slime”, as a burden to the spiritual life and the return to God. It was then justified by being mobilized for the sake of the dominion of God, for aims beyond this world — notably, in care for the poor, but also in other projects.

3 thoughts on “Summaries: Peter Brown on Christianization

  1. Pingback: Excerpt #2 — Larry Shiner on Friedrich Gogarten on Secularism | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: Peter Brown on Christianization, Part IV: The Death of the Gods and the Disenchantment of the World | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: Peter Brown on Christianization, Part II: Narratives of Christianization | Into the Clarities

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