Gospel & Universe

Agora Phobia

This page laments the narrowing of Christian doctrine, both before and after it became the dominant religion in the West

Do Not Inquire About Their Gods - The One & Only - Alexandria, 415 AD

 

Do Not Inquire About Their Gods

In the Middle Ages the religion of the Classical Age remained largely intact in India and China. Yet in the Middle East and Europe, the monotheism of Israel swept away the polytheistic religions of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In the 4th century AD, Greco-Roman cosmology was fatally interrupted by Christianity, which borrowed the older Hebrew chronology and completely restructured the meaning of space and time: God's Meaning in space was the circling cosmos, and God's Meaning in time was the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. 

Despite reworking Mesopotamian stories and laws, the new Judaeo-Christian time-line presented itself as both new and absolute. The universe began around 4000 BC. It was, is, and always will be, controlled by God. With a capital G. It was also not subject to debate.

Take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? -- that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it. (Deuteronomy 12:30-32)

 

The One & Only

Philosophical heir to the Hebrews, Christians inherited a very particular God from among the many on offer. They were also skillful at crafting and solidifying a very specific narrative which set them apart from the rest of the Classical world. The narrative became so consistent and had such powerful messages of love, duty, discipline, and salvation that it overpowered the polytheistic religion of the Classical Greeks and Romans. Christianity was given official status by the Roman emperor Constantine in the Edict of Milan (313 AD) and the Council of Nicaea (325 AD), and in 380 AD Theodosius I declared it the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Church theologians chose Jesus over Jupiter, Ahuramazda, Ra, or Mithras. They also chose Plato’s idealism over Aristotle’s observation. Augustine was crucial here: he girded the topography of Christian metaphysics with the infrastructure of Plato’s ideal realm of Forms. Its apogee, the Good, had already been reinforced in the 3rd century with Plotinus’ addition of the One, an omniscient version of the Good. The Church also separated Christianity from thinkers such as Origen, who saw God as greater than Christ. Like Zoroaster, Origen imagined an eventual universal redemption. He also seems to have followed Plato into the realms of transmigration or reincarnation. 

The philosophical superstructure of Christianity is impressive, but it can also be seen as disheartening in that it narrows religion to a single doctrine, as if multiplicity of belief were some sort of threat. Did it have to be Augustine over Origen, Christianity over Zoroastrianism? Why couldn’t it be and?

 

Alexandria, 415 AD

It was in this climate that the persecuted turned into the persecutors. An example of this, movingly portrayed in the Spanish film Agora (2009), is the case of Hypatia, a North African astronomer and mathematician who attempted to prove the heliocentric model of Aristarchus. In Alexandria, a centre of international learning at the time, Hypatia is striped naked and stoned to death by fanatical Christians in 415 AD. In the film her death is paired symbolically with the crashing bookshelves and the burning manuscripts of the famous library. The film may simplify the situation, yet the point remains: Christians turned quickly from the tolerance necessary for their survival to an intolerance that made it hard to survive if you weren't a Christian.

In a wider sense, Christianity might be seen as a liberating secular force: one can be free to follow the facts and necessities of this world (Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's -- Mark 12:17) and yet keep this separate from the way one follows God (and to God the things that are God's). Yet the beauty of this secularism was a millennium away. For over a thousand years the Church meddled in the material things that belonged to Cesar, putting barriers in the way of anyone who wanted to do Hypatia's type of research -- that is, any type of research that challenged Church doctrine.

The Church superimposed Augustine’s spiritual City of God on the material cities of Jerusalem and Rome. Later, this spiritual City of God sprawled into the cloisters of Constantinople and Aachen, and into the classrooms of Paris, Oxford, and Bologna. After Luther and Columbus, this city sprawled further, from Madrid to Mexico City, from London to New York. Yet these geographical and historical shifts didn't shake the old dogmas, established since prior to the Middle Ages: 1) There's only one God, 2) God's superior to, and fundamentally different from, the material universe, and 3) Salvation can only be attained through belief in Jesus Christ, who's the only Son of God.

The word only comes up often, while the word and is seldom used to provide alternatives.

In this sense the apple didn't fall far from the tree.