Peter Brown on Christianization, Part IV: The Death of the Gods and the Disenchantment of the World

One of the central features marking the transition to the modern world is disenchantment. What disenchantment entails is suggested already in the word “disenchantment” itself: the word as it was coined in German –“Entzauberung”– literally means “de-magic-ing”. For us moderns, the world, specifically nature, is no longer shot through with innate meanings and magical powers. We do not take seriously suggestions such as that the forests are filled with mischievous brownies, and that our children thus ought not play there. We would not think to eat walnuts because of a headache: the symmetry between the shape of walnuts and the shape of our brains is no longer thought to cause anything through formal affinity (except through placebo). When we come across a glade that stirs us to wonder and lofty feelings, we do not seriously, publicly think that this marks the presence of a god who dwells there — at least, we do not think this simply and without consciousness of alternative views on the glade; we do not say a god dwells there without awareness that to say so publicly is merely to advance one exotic and embattled option among others that are more common, and which are more plausible to the vast majority of our cohort. There are indeed irrational and mistaken ideas about nature floating around, but they (and we) all fall on this side of disenchantment, and so their character is different from any pre-modern notions and modes of engaging the world.

A relatively intense sense of disenchantment may mark the modern world, but the processes of disenchantment do not begin there. They begin, instead, with Christianization.  Continue reading

R. A. Markus, Saeculum III — Civitas Terrena

In the previous post we covered chapter two of Robert A. Markus’ book, Saeculum (having earlier summarized chapter one).

We now turn to chapter three.

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Ramsay MacMullen on Christianization, Part I: What Difference Did Christianity Make?

Ramsay MacMullen begins his essay “What Difference did Christianity Make?” by citing a question from E. A. Judge:

“What difference did it make to Rome to have been converted?” Self-evident changes like basilica-building or people’s attendance at churches instead of temples are surely not what the question is getting at. The point (or at any rate my point) is rather to discover how broad patterns of secular life changed as a result of the population being now believers. Inquiry promises interesting results because Christianity is known to us as a religion, along with Judaism and certain others, that offers powerful prescriptions for living this secular life. There is a Christian morality, in short; and the introduction of the new faith should thus have had historical impact. [“What Difference did Christianity Make?”, Historia, 35 (1986), 322]

MacMullen looks at the period from A.D. 312 to about A.D. 410 for evidence to marshal in the answering of this question, as he suggests that Christian influence upon society, to be relevant to Judge’s question, must be visible prior to the religion’s becoming a majority, when there is no longer something else it can easily be said to resist and change.

The sources themselves are too often “bookish” (such as Clement of Alexandria), drawing much on pagan themes, while we have no idea to what degree said authors (and preachers) influenced their hearers and readers. If influence on action cannot be demonstrated, moral literature reduces “to the compass of a pastime.” [“Difference”, 323]

Doing, and not just talking, and doing “in some opposition to evidently accepted standards”, is the litmus test of difference. ‘Without opposition [Christianization] cannot have produced any difference.” The standards for what constitutes difference must come from this time. [“Difference”, 324] MacMullen looks at five areas of potential change: (1) Slavery, (2) Attitudes to Sex, (3) Theatrical and Gladiatorial Shows, (4) Judicial Savagery, and (5) Corruption.

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Summaries: Peter Brown on Christianization


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:
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