“The history of religion in power is the best argument for the Enlightenment’s desire to weaken its institutional clout. There is a certain wisdom, not of secularism, but of something that secularism has taught us: if religion is to be a vital part of the culture, it must persuade. It is not a bad thing for the Church to be limited to persuasion, and it is probably no coincidence that in those countries where churches are established and propped up by the state, they are generally unpersuasive to the majority of the population, who show their lack of interest by nonattendance. The relative health of religion in America, as compared to the subsidized churches of many Europeans nations, where almost no one attends church, might be a good argument for the separation of church and state.” (John Garvey, Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions, pp 95-96)
“[St.] Paul … was, nevertheless, a preacher – a proclaimer of the good news of God’s intervention in human history through Jesus Christ. This good news was not a private message of personal salvation, though it included the salvation of individuals. It was a political announcement, or better a theopolitical announcement (politics involving God), that challenged – and challenges – the very core of how people relate to one another in the real world. Man in the modern or postmodern world claims, contrary to their actual experiences, that religion or spirituality and politics can and should be separated.
Religion is supposedly personal and private, while politics is obviously public. That this divorce of religion from politics does not exist and does not work is clear from the daily news. The ancients did not try to mask the connection. They saw God or the gods as deeply interested in human affairs; so too with Jesus and then Paul. Jesus was not crucified for preaching a search for God within, as the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas describes his message, but for preaching the coming of the reign of God.”
(Michael J. Gorman, Reading Paul, pps. 41-42)
“Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.” (James 3:4)
What direction is the wind blowing in terms of religious life in America? Strong wind gusts are swirling through the country.
In the past few days I read 3 articles on religion in America from the Washington Post. I don’t know if it is usual that so many pieces on religion appear in this paper as I don’t always pay attention to such things, but these three caught my attention, and perhaps are representative of the very strong and opposing currents trending in American religious debate.
In mentioning these three Op-Ed pieces I am not to make a particular point. I use this blog to write about things I am reading or thinking about, not necessarily to express any conclusions about what I read. America is in a period of flux regarding a number of issues related to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights: gun control, abortion, gay marriage, and freedom of religion (not to mention its problems with deficits and debt, health care, foreign threats and its ever increasing reliance on the military as its foreign policy department).
The first Op-Ed piece, Why the ‘Ground Zero’ Cross Should Remain by Jordan Sekulow and Matthew Clark (Published: April 4, 2013), agrees with a court decision that says the “Ground Zero Cross” will remain a part of the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum despite the fact that a group of atheists filed a complaint in court claiming “that the mere ‘existence of the cross’ is causing them ‘depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish.’” The steel beams were part of the 9/11 debris –they emerged out of the inferno and wreckage as a cross (an insurance industry “act of God”) rather than being built later from pieces of the wreckage. The fact that Christians may see it as a religious sign does not change that it is a piece of history from 9/11. Orthodox Christians at least have seen the sign of the cross in many events reported in the Old Testament (Moses holding out his arms giving victory to the Israelites for example). Jews and others may not see Christ’s cross prefigured in these same biblical events, but Christians have for nearly 2000 years. It is standard fair for believers of any faith to see the hand of God where non-believers may see only wreckage.
“There is nothing about the existence of the cross, for one, or its inclusion in the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum that violates the Constitution. First, legally, the two steel beams in the shape of a cross are a historic artifact of 9/11, not a man-made religious symbol, despite any religious significance it took on. Second, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Constitution’s ‘goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.’
The heroes of 9/11 and the families of the fallen to whom this cross – this symbol of hope – has meant so much deserve to have this artifact from the wreckage of 9/11 displayed in the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum. They have gone through so much hurt and pain; they do not need to be dragged through a tenuous court battle. The cross should remain.”
Whatever may be said about a separation between church and state which prohibits the government from establishing a state church, the Constitution does not forbid the practice of religious beliefs nor does it ban religion in public discourse or the public domain. It is good, reasonable and important for us to understand what factors shape our moral values in public discourse and debate.
The second Op-Ed piece that caught my attention in some ways is the polar opposite of the article above. Rev. Barry W. Lynn’s What part of ‘no law respecting an establishment of religion’ does North Carolina not understand? (Published: April 4) looks at an ongoing effort in North Carolina by a few politicians to assert state rights regarding religion that would trump the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment. The North Carolina “House Joint Resolution 494, known was the ‘Rowan County Defense of Religion Act,’ makes the claim that ‘each state is sovereign and may independently determine how the state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion.’”
In some ways this is simply part of the endless struggle in America between state’s rights and the rights of the federal government. Lynn is concerned that the North Carolina resolution is simply an attempt to circumvent the First Amendment and make it possible for religions to gain control of government at the state level. The bill declares: “the North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”
James Madison, considered by many to be the architect of the proper relationship between church and state in the American democracy, was very concerned that the majority would always be tempted to impose their religious beliefs on the minority and he believed there needed to be a separation between church and state to protect the rights of all. His efforts have led at times to the majority feeling frustrated and excluded from decisions as they must always take into account minority views. I think that frustration is what causes these particular North Carolina legislators from trying to pass this resolution – they are trying to find the way for the majority’s beliefs also to be protected. Lynne in his article surmises that the courts will continue to defend the views of the minority which seems to be the intent of the constitution and its amendments. The importance of the individual’s conscience is the segue into the last article I will mention.
In Still hoping for change on religious freedom Mary Ann Glendon (Published: April 7) deals with federal legislation “that would force virtually all employers nationwide—including religious charities, schools, and hospitals—to facilitate and fund insurance coverage of sterilization, contraception, and drugs that can cause abortions” even against the consciences and religious beliefs of individuals. As Glendon argues, “It is unconscionable for the federal government to force religious people to check their deeply held beliefs at the door as they enter the world of commerce. These days, our business sector needs to be informed by more moral reflection, not less.”
Religion and morality are not merely individualistically held beliefs but are part of the shared space and dialogue which creates culture. America wrestles constantly with balancing individual rights/individualism with the common welfare. The state is banned from imposing religious beliefs on us but also from interfering in the religious beliefs of individuals and different religions. Churches are prevented from making their religious beliefs required of all citizens but also are protected from state interference in practicing the dictates of their religion. In America with its matrix of religious beliefs, the state is faced with the task of protecting the religious rights of all of its citizens by balancing the demands of the constitution for religious freedom while protecting the consciences of individuals.
In my experience as a member of a minority religion – Orthodox Christian: neither Protestant nor Catholic nor Jewish but a fourth tradition – I have benefited from being allowed to pursue my religious interests and beliefs in our country. I appreciate the rights which minorities are afforded in terms of religious faith and practice.
Life, as Orthodox hymns tell it, surges with the storms of temptations. The winds of controversy blow across the American religious scene, and it takes an active and aware public to defend religious liberties because they benefit our people and our nation.
“… and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:25)
This is the 3rd and final blog in this series dealing with the effort of the state to hold a Roman Catholic bishop legally accountable for failing to follow church procedure in dealing with the sexual misconduct of a clergyman as reported in the NY TIMES on 14 October 2011, Bishop is Indicted; Charge is Failing to Report Abuse. The previous blog is Holding Bishops Accountable for Clergy Misconduct.
A lot of the responsibility for ensuring policy compliance starts with and falls upon the bishops. Our bishops insist that monarchical episcopate puts all power in their hands. So too responsibility for what happens falls upon them, and it appears that the state agrees with this and is going to hold bishops accountable for abuse committed by their clergy. Church leaders failing to follow PSP (even on small issues), being too trusting of the accused and not responding to accusations with urgency are going to find themselves facing criminal charges in America. These are all exact issues which the Sexual Misconduct Policy Advisory Committee (SMPAC) has been endeavoring to make our bishops aware of. Bishops according to St. Paul are supposed to be good managers (I Timothy 3:1-4; Titus 1:7-9) – not just the focal points of liturgical events, but good administrators. Canon law even requires that bishops have someone help them manage diocesan finances because the bishop is responsible for overseeing (administering) his diocese. Today, an additional requirement is being asked of them – be effective administrators. These problems have been brought on not by the world invading the Church but by church leadership not doing what they needed to do within the Body of Christ. (see Stanley Fish’s Is Religion Above the Law? for a recent discussion on the complex relationship in America between the church, its doctrines and disciplines and the rights of American citizens).
While some are complaining that society’s interest in clergy sexual misconduct amounts to nothing more than secularism trying to invade the church and destroy it, there is a different reality these folks are ignoring. What we face in clergy sexual misconduct is that people in the church have encountered evil in the church, hidden under the guise of clerical leadership. It is abuse at the hands of clergy and then abuse and lies and cover-up from the institutional leadership. This is a failure of the Church itself. If there is an invasion of the church by the world it comes in the form of clergy who engage in abuse and misconduct. We have for reasons inexplicable embraced secrecy and darkness, the devil’s friends, as the very means and methods of dealing with sin. The world is asking us to lead by allowing light to shine on every operation of the Church. However, truthfully, Christ is asking us to do the same to protect His flock. We in the church shouldn’t need the world to tell us to do what is right. Christ has already told us, but if we don’t listen to Him, He will speak to us through the world.
The Church which is supposed to be a light to the world, which is supposed to convict the world of sin, which is supposed to save people from evil, has shown itself at times not to be a safe place and has shown itself to be very subject to the effects of the Fall. This is a stunning failure for the Church; it is a call to repentance for all who have accepted positions of leadership in the church.
And it is not the world attacking the church – the church is being attacked from within, from its leadership which does not resist its own passions and temptations. People who are or were in the Church and members of the Church have been abused by institutional leadership. This is not the world attacking the church, though perhaps Satan, but we have men in the church who are willing to be agents of evil.
Additionally, part of the sickness we see in the Church is that Church hierarchy declares that the Church is equated to and made co-terminus with the institutional leadership. Thus the leadership no matter how corrupt is the church and so in defending itself and its decisions, the leadership is defending the church (and sinful behavior) against the membership! The people of God no matter how much Christ embraces them as His own and as His own Body become viewed as a threat to the church (= the institutional leadership). And so allegations of abuse are often treated as threats to the church. Rather than the abuse itself being the threat to the church, leadership views the laity making the allegations against the clergy as threatening – as allowing secularism into the church. It really is sad that the church itself cannot distinguish between what is truly evil and what merely exposes the evil.
But people in the church who are victimized by clerical abuse are the Church and those who abuse have placed themselves outside of the Church no matter how many panagias they wear.
The church is not under attack from the world, we are not under attack but rather the attack is from within – shepherds who are wolves and who are intent on defending their institutional power and privileges against the people of God. We are all and each attacked by these offending clergy and bishops; we are not attacked by the victims who expose the crimes. Nor, as a friend added, are we attacked “by the lawyers, investigators, mental health professionals who offer advice on the matter.” All of these people are working to help and heal the victims and to help the church uphold its high moral standards.
The victims find themselves forced to go outside of the church to find healing, to find safety, to find mercy, to find justice. And again, as a friend noted, sometimes “this mercy and justice will take the form of prosecutions and civil suits.”
That is what is so sick about clergy sexual abuse. As St. Paul said when one member of the Body suffers, all suffer (1 Corinthians 12:26). Sexual abuse in the church is a sickness that affects the entire Body. And even if there is but one case of sexual abuse in the Church, the entire Body suffers.
What has been decided by the state in charging the Kansas City Roman Catholic bishop is that “ministerial exception,” which Stanley Fish defines as the case law that “exempts religious associations from complying with neutral, generally applicable laws in some, circumstances”, does not apply when the abuse of children is involved. Ministers, priests, bishops, clergy are not protected from prosecution in pedophilia cases, and now no longer will clergy supervisors, namely our bishops, be protected if in negligently failing to protect children they do not use due diligence in proactively dealing with abusing clergy. Churches are expected to have Policy Standards and Procedures which proactively protect children from abuse. Failure to follow these PSP may now lead to criminal prosecution not only of abusing clergy but of the bishops who have the responsibility to oversee them and compliance to PSP.
We are trying to cure the illness, not just cope with it. We have to work in the Church, as another friend noted, to remove any opportunity for the responsible leadership to make future excuses about what happened. We don’t need excuses. We need to allow the light of Christ to shine into every corner of the Church and into every heart of our church members to expose sin and evil wherever it may be and to perform the healing which is necessary for the church to be the Church.
This blog series can also be read as one PDF: Blog Series (PDF).
This is the 2nd blog in this series dealing with the effort of the state to hold a Roman Catholic bishop legally accountable for failing to follow church procedure in dealing with the sexual misconduct of a clergyman as reported in the NY TIMES on 14 October 2011, Bishop is Indicted; Charge is Failing to Report Abuse. The previous blog is State Wants to Hold Bishop Accountable for Priest’s Misdeeds.
Many church denominations already have acknowledged that sexually misbehaving clergy often have troubles in many areas of their lives – their marriages, their credit, frequent moves, relational troubles with parishioners, bad driving records, etc. There are warning signs which the courts are going to start demanding churches pay attention to in the lives of their clergy. [Some denominational officials say they have in fact come to recognize that sexually misbehaving clergy frequently have credit problems – they run up huge porn bills on their computers, they have expensive sexual dalliances with prostitutes or have to pay off people to keep them silent or are being black mailed. If the state comes to recognize these as legitimate warning signs of future sexual misconduct, the church is going to have to pay attention to these things in its clergy.]
There is a certain level at which the church might want to pay attention to these things anyhow – does the church not have an interest in its clergy behaving morally, above reproach and scandal, in a holy manner? Should the church passively ignore these areas of behavior even if the state doesn’t demand it of us?
For bishops there is another issue – not only can the bishops be held responsible for the misdeeds of their clergy whom they supervise, but also these clergy are ordained by the bishops, so the bishops share some responsibility for putting these men into pastoral office in the first place. So not only must the bishops practice vigilance regarding following Policy Standard and Procedures (PSP) regarding the behavior of clergy, but more diligence is needed by the bishops in knowing the men they choose to ordain. If there are warning signs of problems, these should not be ignored by the bishops or they will have to give account for whom they ordained.
Going back to the NY Times article. Three things really stuck out in my mind:
1) “Bishop Finn acknowledged that he knew of the photographs last December but did not turn them over to the police until May. During that time, the priest, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, is said to have continued to attend church events with children, and took lewd photographs of another young girl.”
Though the bishop did turn over the photos to the police, the bishop waited 5 months to do so. Not only following the law, but doing so ASAP is critical. Church officials are often slow to react to allegations, sometimes because the accused is a friend or well known and they find it hard to believe that their acquaintance could do such a thing. This is where having a clear PSP demanding the investigation of all allegations, regardless of who the accuser or the alleged perpetrator is, is so essential.
2) “But until May the priest attended children’s parties, spent weekends in the homes of parish families, hosted an Easter egg hunt and presided, with the bishop’s permission, at a girl’s First Communion, according to interviews with parishioners and a civil lawsuit filed by a victim’s family.”
When the church hierarchy tries to suppress knowledge of the allegations, it puts other people at risk for being hurt. Of course the church has to have clear PSPs in how to deal publicly with those accused of misconduct, but it also must be willing to follow and enforce those PSPs and not allow exceptions no matter who the accused is or what his rank is.
3) “That report found that the diocese did not follow its own procedures. It also found that Bishop Finn was “too willing to trust” Father Ratigan.”
Exactly what I mentioned in point 1) above. Hierarchy tends to trust its clergy against their parishioners. Many clergy rely on this for helping them deal with parish problems. Some clergy do foolish and damaging things and then expect the bishop to cover their backs. But clear PSPs can help the bishops make better pastoral decisions, if they themselves are enforcing the PSPs and ensuring compliance with the rules by their clergy, by diocesan staff, and by themselves.
“Truth is never harmed by reality. Truth is derived from meaning, not from a collection of facts.” (Tycho Brahe in The Evidence of Things Not Seen by Lazar Puhalo, pg.39)
The blog series I wrote on Constantine the Great is now available as a PDF if you prefer to read it as one continuous document rather than by following the links in the blog.
The series was based on comments from two recent books dealing with Constantine. The first is Paul Stephenson’s CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR (you can read my short review of this book). The book was a good history read, and portrays Constantine riding the military to power, but giving some credit to the unconquerable and greatest God – that of the Christians – which brought him to power. The second book is Peter Leithart’sDEFENDING CONSTANTINE (you can read my short review of this book). Leithart’s book was more polemical as he was intentionally defending Constantine and his legacy from modern (mostly Anabaptist) critics.
The blog series began with the blog Two Versions of Constantine the Great. There are links in the blog to connect you to the entire set of the fourteen blogs in the series.
As noted you can access the entire series as a PDF at https://frted.wordpress.com/2011/07/18/two-versions-of-constantine-the-great/.
A list of other of my blog series available in PDF can be found at https://frted.wordpress.com/2011/05/19/blog-series-available-as-pdfs/
This is the 14th and final blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great. We are considering the books by Paul Stephenson (CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR ) and Peter Leithart (DEFENDING CONSTANTINE) in evaluating Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire. The previous blog is Constantinople, Constantine’s Legacy. Did Constantine and the Empire become Christian, or did Christianity become tamed and imperialized by Constantinianism?
A number of Christians in the initial centuries of Christian existence wrestled with whether Christianity had any relationship to Athens (pagan philosophy) or Rome (worldly power). What many of them could not even imagine is what would it mean for Christianity if the emperor himself became a Christian. So Constantine’s embrace of Christianity caught many Christian leaders – who were far more used to thinking of Rome as that beast which persecuted them – by surprise. No one apparently had made provision for this, they obviously did not think it inevitable since they were proclaiming a Kingdom not of this world, and Rome was the worldly power most oppressing them.
There was no precedence for the Christians to shape what it means for the emperor to tolerate let alone embrace Christianity. What unfolded was the unplanned for and rocky marriage between the Church and the emperor/empire. Neither side knew exactly how to work it out, and yet the event was upon them. Some aspects of this marriage worked, and some experiments failed, and what emerged in Constantine’s lifetime was a marriage in progress, not a finished product.
We see evidence of Constantine fully embracing some of the teachings and concerns of Christianity.
Constantine “saw it as his duty as emperor, in Lactantius’s words, ‘to protect and defend orphans and widows who are destitute and stand in need of assistance.’” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 217)
There was a new attitude even toward things at the heart of what it meant to be Roman – military might and triumphing in the mortal combat of gladiatorial games or in war. In the early Second Century St. Justin the Martyr (who professed that truth was truth, even pagan truth is truth) wrote that as a result of accepting the Gospel, “we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willing die confessing Christ” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 256). In Constantine’s day we find similar sentiments expressed in the poets of the empire. Prudentius (d. 413AD) wrote a poem:
“Whoever would worship God
Properly with the whole burnt offerings, let him above all offer peace.
No sacrifice is sweeter to Christ; this gift alone please him with a pure Aroma when he turns his face toward the holy altar.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 251)
No longer was animal sacrifice, let alone human sacrifice in the gladiatorial games valued more than peace. Peace became the official offering and sacrifice to God. (Which many believe is reflected in the now awkward and uncertain phrase in the Orthodox Liturgy: “A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.”)
Constantine’s original tolerance of Christianity came in the form of a general tolerance for all religion in the empire. But as Constantine became more committed to the values and teachings of Christianity, he also became confronted by the diversity and divisions (schismatics and heretics) within Christianity. Prior to Constantine, these divisions were dealt with by excommunications, after Constantine the competing factions asked the empire to intervene in their disputes. This too was an unexpected and unplanned for affect on how Christians dealt with each other. Constantine believed it his duty to ensure peace and tranquility in the empire and so naturally assumed he had this god-given role in the church as well. He tried to use church methods to solve these problems – appealed to the bishops to rule on the disputes, and called forchurch councils to permanently settle the problems. Constantine also had no precedent to learn from about how to be the Emperor and also be a member of the Church. So his dealings with church problems show some inconsistencies, fits and starts and changing direction, failure to resolve conflicts, and mistakes. The record doesn’t show him taking over the church, but being actively engaged in the religion whose God he believed had brought him to power. He asked for church leaders to solve problems, and then offered to solve problems with the authority only he as emperor had. It is also obvious in his thinking, that Christian belief had influenced him and he did desire to continue to receive the favor of the God who had brought him to power.
“Once the empire was a creedal empire, heresy could not be seen as a tolerable difference of opinion; it was subversive, an attack on the vitals of the imperial body, and had to be expelled. Inevitably, then, the empire founded on a monotheistic creed fractured and eventually yielded to a commonwealth of Christian peoples, the Byzantine ‘empire.’
It was not long after Constantine, as Alasdair MacIntyre points out, that people of goodwill decided that maintaining justice, peace and civilized life did not require the maintenance of the Roman empire. Some left for monasteries, while others continued in the empire but not of it. Whatever Constantinian moment there had been was over, ironically assisted by Constantine himself, who not only failed to prevent the empire’s inevitable collapse but probably helped to hasten it.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 293)
Leitharts’ conclusion is that the very merging of the state with the church in the Roman Empire did bring about great changes in ecclesiology and authority. Simultaneously however, the issues that were of greatest concern to the church became the problems of the state, and this in Leithart’s opinion weakened the empire’s might and power, and eventually fractured the empire itself. Constantine’s effort to embrace the church directly contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. This in Leithart’s final evaluation is the real legacy of Constantinianism.
The Greek Christians tried to live up to the ideals of the Christian empire that Constantine envisioned and embraced, but found Christianity fragmented by those who rejected centralized imperial power running the Church: monastics, Monophysites, Nestorians, Latins and a host of others (all the non-Greeks of the empire). Constantinianism thus failed to take over the church. Eventually the Roman then Byzantine empire disappeared into the dustbin of history, while the Church continued to carry out its mission to go into all the world, even when and where Constantinianism did not and could not exist.
This is the 13th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great. The previous blog is Constantinianism and the Martyrs. In this blog we will consider the legacy of Constantine in the history of Christianity through the writings of the two modern historians Paul Stephenson (CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR ) and Peter Leithart (DEFENDING CONSTANTINE) as they consider the new capital of the Roman Empire which he established in the 4th Century.
Leithart and Stephenson do evaluate the reasons for Constantine’s rise to power slightly differently and also the degree to which Constantine embraced the Christian faith in shaping his policies and life. Leithart sees Constantine becoming more consciously Christian and believes if we look at him from the eyes of Christians in the 4th Century, his embrace of Christianity is obvious and extensive. Stephenson tends to see Constantine as incorporating Christian ideals into his already existing ideas of imperial power – crediting the God of the Christians with his rise to power, but interpreting these events from the point of view that many previous pagan emperors would have done.
These historians evaluation of Constantine’s legacy is most diverse and even irreconcilable in the comments that are made about Constantinople, the new capital city of the Roman Empire which Constantine creates. Here we see how history is not simply facts but largely interpretation of what is known, surmised, and believed to be true.
Stephenson does not see Constantine as creating a Christian city and thus denies that Christianity was at the heart of Constantine’s rise to power (he sees this as being more military than anything else) nor part of the legacy Constantine wanted to create.
“The prevalence of antique statuary is a strong clue that Constantine did not conceive of his new city, as has so often been said, as a new Christian capital for the Roman empire. Temples were constructed for pagan citizens … The first known chapel in the palace complex, dedicated to St. Stephen, was erected no earlier than AD 421 … a document called the Notitia, written in AD 425, which mentions fourteen churches. If the population at the time were in the region of 350,000 each would have needed to house a congregation of 25,000… Of the fourteen churches that are known to have stood in 425, only three or four can be attributed with any conviction to Constantine. These do not include the first version of the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia, dedicated only in 360.” (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, pp 201-202 )
Leithart reluctantly admits that Constantinople does not represent a complete break with Rome’s pagan past. However, in direct contradiction to Stephenson, Leithhart sees the signs of the emerging Christianization of the Roman Empire.
“From what we can tell at this distance, Constantinople’s break with the pagan past was not so self-evident. … Notable churches dotted the city including the first form of the Church of Holy Wisdom and the Church of the Apostles, where for a time the emperor was buried. Christian imagery was evident throughout. Yet he also treated the city as a project continuous with the Roman past. … he erected a statue to Tyche, the goddess of good fortune, and at the top of the porphyry column that still stands in the center of the old square of Constantinople, he placed a golden statue of Apollo looking toward the rising sun, whose face was remade into the face of Constantine with an inscription that ‘intended to signify that instead of being a sungod Constantine gave his allegiance to the God who made the sun.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 119)
However, Leithart accepts the evaluation of the ancient Christian historian Eusebius that in fact Constantine intended for his new capital city to be Christian. Whereas many modern historians discount Eusebius’ history, Leithart is willing to give him credence as a much closer observer of events than we are.
“Inspired by a dream, Constantine founded the city shortly after his victory over Licinius and dedicated it on May 11, 330. Eusebius found no hint of ambiguity. In celebration of his victory over the ‘tyrant’ Licinius, Constantine established the city as an explicitly and thoroughly Christian civic space, having first cleansed it of idols. Thereafter ‘he embellished it with numerous sacred edifices, both memorials of martyrs on the largest scale, and other buildings of the most splendid kind, not only within the city itself, but in its vicinity.’ By honoring the martyrs, the emperor was simultaneously consecrating the city ‘to the martyrs’ God.’ The emperor insisted that the city be free of idolatry, ‘that henceforth no statues might be worshipped there in the temples of those falsely reputed to be gods, nor any altars defiled by the pollution of blood.’ Above all, he prohibited ‘sacrifices consumed by fire,’ as well as ‘demon festivals’ and all ‘other ceremonies usually observed by the superstitious.’” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 119)
As a final comparision, I offer the evaluation of Constantinople as Constantine’s Christian legacy by modern historian Judith Herrin who wrote:
“Constantine brought sculptures from all parts of the empire to embellish his new capital, including the Serpent Column … an Egyptian Obelisk … Statues of pagan gods (Zeus, Heracles)… on imperial coins, Constantine adapted this type using the Tyche (Good Luck, Fortuna) of Constantinople .. Gradually Christian symbols replaced the ancient ones: the Cross is used for the first time in the sixth century and a portrait of Christ in the late seventh. The nature and degree of Constantine’s commitment to Christianity is disputed: his biographer Eusebius (Bishop of Caesarea, 313-c. 340) emphasizes it above all else, while secular historians record his devotion to the unconquerable sun, Sol Invictus … The sacrificial element of pagan cult was gradually restricted; the killing of animals was to be replaced by the bloodless sacrifice offered to the Christian God. … So whether he was converted by the vision of 312, or only when he knew that he was dying in 337, Constantine spent most of his adult life as a patron of Christianity, supporting the previously persecuted communities; he endowed their grand new churches with liturgical objects … It is not clear how many new religious buildings within Constantinople were built by Constantine. He probably planned the church of the Holy Apostles, to which the imperial mausoleum was attached … In a decisive shift from the Roman tradition of imperial cremation, however, Constantine was buried according to Christian rites in the mausoleum…” (Judith Herrin, BYZANTIUM: THE SURPRISING LIFE OF A MEDIEVAL EMPIRE, pp 8-10)
It is amazing that these three modern historians do not agree on a basic fact: how many churches or Christian edifices were erected by Constantine or in his life time in his new capital. Obviously history is not simply fact, which apparently can’t always be established, but history relies a lot on interpretation. This is important to remember when we read ancient historians and modern ones. When reading history, ancient or modern, we learn as much about the historians as about the history they present. Many modern historians distrust Eusebius as a historian, but we see in the modern historians a similar problem: their beliefs form both the basis of the facts they report and the way in which they interpret those facts.
This is the 12th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great. The previous blog is The Myth of Constantinianism? This blog series is considering Constantine the Great as presented in two books: Paul Stephenson’s CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.
Two ways in which Constantine demonstrated the influence of Christianity on his thinking and piety are associated with animal sacrifice and the gladiatorial games of Rome. Constantine first refused to participate in animal sacrifice and then began forbidding it in areas of the empire which were under his direct control – in the military and in civic ceremony. As both historians Leithart and Stephenson note, animal sacrifice was a normative part of Roman civil society, and in some ways marked the very nature of religion in Rome. Constantine’s personal choice to refuse to participate in such sacrifice and then his forbidding it in civic and military ceremonies in which he took part do reflect the growing influence of Christianity on his religious understanding. Christians did believe that Christ’s sacrifice once and for all replaced the need for animal sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem, and now Constantine recognized that same truth for the empire: animal sacrifice was not needed to please the great God.
Constantine also came to see the gladiatorial games as dehumanizing and not a good part of the Roman Empire. This thinking is a radical change for the gladiatorial games were recognized as almost synonymous with Roman self understanding and self glorification. For example in an early time, Pliny the Younger praised Emperor Trajan for his gladiatorial games as
“a spectacle that inspired the audience to noble wounds and to despise death, since even in the bodies of slaves and criminals the love of praise and desire for victory could be seen.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 194)
What happened in the Empire after Constantine’s conversion is that the games were given an entirely new understanding through Christian eyes. The Christians, who were sometimes the murdered victims in events associated with the games, turned their deaths into witness (martyria) to the Kingdom of Jesus and His power over death. The glories of Rome, namely the gladitorial games, were defeated by the blood of the martyrs who turned their deaths into a triumph over Roman power. The pagan Gladiators despised death to show their bravery and love of praise, but Christianity triumphed over this worldly understanding saying the martyr’s death too despised death because Christ had triumphed over death and now they too shared in this triumph and eternal life. The Christians embraced martyrdom that came to them in the arena and in embracing it as a means to triumph over death and even over the ultimate power of Rome, converted the entire understanding of the gladiatorial games. Dying for glory in this world became despised, just as death had been despised, because the power of this world had been conquered by Christ, and the power of this world – namely the Roman empire and its emperor – had also been conquered by Christ’s death and resurrection at the hands of Rome. As the martyrs imitated Christ in accepting death and proclaiming the resurrection, so Rome’s power was exposed as having no eternal value. Rome under Christian Constantine now gave its claim to glory to Christ Himself, the unconquerable God. Rome had not conquered Christ through crucifying Him, rather the Crucified one had conquered the Roman empire not by slaying anyone but by giving life to all.
“Martyrs endured flame and sword because in that anguish they shared in the sufferings of Christ. But they also knew that the sufferings of Christ were not perpetual. Jesus suffered, died, was buried and then rose again, vindicated by his Father over against all the condemnations of the world and the devil. Martyrs went to their deaths expecting vindication, and expecting that vindication not only in heaven and at the last day but on earth and in time. That is what Lactantius’s treatise on the death of persecutors is all about. ‘Behold,’ he writes to one Donatus, ‘all the adversaries are destroyed, and tranquility having been re-established throughout the Roman empire, the late oppressed Church arises again, and the temple of God, overthrown by the hands of the wicked, is built with more glory than before.’ Just like Jesus.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, pp 308-309)