Johannes Sløk, "The Unified Christian Culture."
In Erik Lund, Mogens Pihl, and Johannes Sløk, History of European Ideas.
3rd edition. Copenhagen: Gyldendal. 1993: 128-135.
This excerpt from a book on the history of European ideas is taken from the first part of a section on the unified Christian culture developed on the ruins of the Roman Empire. This section follows a brief summary of the basic Hebrew thoughts and a more lengthy analysis of the major ideas penetrating the Greek-Roman worlds.
Translated into English by Paul Petersen.
IV. The Unified Christian Culture.
The establishment of the Christian Church and its irresistible growth in spite of contempt and persecution, and finally its take over of all of European cultural life is without comparison the most consequential event of late Antiquity for the future European culture. It is outside the framework of this book to present a coherent description of the message of Jesus himself; our aim is to emphasise those Christian ideas which had the most lasting impact on the self perception and way of life of the European.
These ideas were created through a thorough synthesis. On the one hand, they are of course based on the message of Jesus, especially as shared by the oldest Jewish church. Here we meet a last and deeply original expression of the ancient Israel view of life. But from the very beginning the Christian ideas enter the Greek-Roman world and clash with ideas which, as previously seen, are radically different.
In theory the Church takes the stand that the Greek-Roman culture is nothing but an expression of the darkness of paganism, powerless thoughts of sinful human beings, and Satanic heresies. But such a radical rejection cannot be maintained. Some of the most influential personalities of the Church have themselves their background in classical culture. Even if they as Tertullian (c. 200) want to detach themselves from the culture in which they grew up, it is impossible for them not to reflect on the Christian message in light of the concepts felt natural to them. Others, like Clement (c. 190) and Origen (c. 230) refuse to adapt such negative attitude; to them there has to be some truth in Greek thinking, not least in Platonic philosophy, and their goal, therefore, is quite deliberately to build the philosophical truths and the Christian truths into a comprehensive system of thought.
It is self evident that this synthesis in the first centuries of Church history is extremely complicated, and we will not in the following make any attempt to describe it. We will, however, underline the most important among those ideas which developed in the course of the process.
1. Jesus as Saviour God
Whatever way Jesus understood himself and his mission, he definitely was proclaimed by his followers around the Roman Empire as a Saviour God. On Israel soil this was done by identifying him with the expected Messiah; though he of course had manifested himself completely different than expected, not as the powerful victor, but as the suffering servant of Yahweh. This was, however, only his temporary appearance. Soon he would return on the clouds of heaven, accompanied by heavenly armies, and then he would be revealed as the mighty ruler of the Kingdom of God.
Outside Jewish circles this concept of Messiah was, however, completely unintelligible. The word Christ, the Greek translation of the Jewish name for Messiah, was quickly understood as a personal name, and the proclamation of the divinity of Jesus almost with necessity created quite different connotations. It was unavoidable that the picture of Jesus portrayed by the proclamation of the Church, in a disturbing way came to look like the salvation figure of the pagan mystery cults; also about the mystery god, people told a dramatic story: he was killed under awful circumstances, but had in a miraculous manner returned to life; he was worshipped in closed congregational circles, and through sacramental dedications, such as baptisms and holy meals, the members of the community were united with the god in his death and resurrection and thus gained access to eternal life. - The Christian Church itself was embarrassed by the similarity, and its early theologians explained it as a devilish caricature of the Church of Christ.
But in reality the proclamation of Jesus by the Church is radically different from the worship in the mystery cult of its saviour figure. First of all, the mystery god is a mythical figure; he never existed, and the events told about him all take place in the "ur time" of myth, i.e., outside all history. Jesus on the contrary is a historical personality, and the Church presents events that have happened in our time, events which the earliest members of the Church themselves experienced, were part of and able to verify. This way the Christian Church in a completely different way than any other religious community is dependent on certain historical events, on something factual, and on a person whose true existence it gives no meaning to deny.
It is, however, of paramount importance that the death and resurrection of Jesus is proclaimed as something which happened for the sake of human beings. The mystery god was certainly said also to have died and risen, but it did not happen for the sake of anyone. He was simply attacked by evil forces and killed completely against his own wish. About Jesus, on the contrary, it is told that he voluntarily chose his heavy fate. He was not hit by a tragic accident, but out of love for human beings he took upon himself the enormous task to suffer death on our behalf and - by His resurrection breaking the chains of death - to give lost humans new hope of a true and incorruptible life.
From this difference stems the most decisive one. The mystery god did not act at all; he was simply the victim of tragic events, and his followers could only hope that their own tragic existence would have a similar happy end result as his. But according to the message of the Church Jesus in an eminent sense did act; he did not only act on behalf of himself, but also on behalf of other humans. For that reason life and salvation is no longer left to the effort of humans themselves, but the case is from the very outset brought to a happy conclusion by divine effort. This way humans beings are in a completely different sense in divine care; we are not left alone in a lost existence, but Jesus has by his own power established his fellowship with us - and he is able with power to retain that fellowship.
2. God as Love
This proclamation of the divine act of Jesus is inseparably linked to a decisively different view of God from the general concept of the divine in Antiquity. The ancient gods were self sufficient; they lived their own merry life, and their task was to uphold a just world order. To the degree humans should have any fellowship with the gods, it was up to themselves to create it. As we have previously seen, if human beings were to share the divine, they were the ones who would have to lift themselves above what was mere human.
The Christian God is different. He is proclaimed to be love, and that means love in a very distinct divine sense. To make this point clear one has to differentiate between two types of love which have been labelled with two different Greek words: eros and agape. Eros designates in this case the love which the one of less value feels for that which is more valuable; you love what you lack yourself, and to love then means that you strive to possess it. This eros was portrayed by Plato, the passionate thriving for beauty and happiness, the intensive longing by the mortal for eternity. Agape, on the contrary, is exactly the opposite; it is the love which the more valuable feels toward those without value; agape originates not in poverty, but in abundance; it turns away from its own rich fullness towards that which is less valuable, towards that which is not worth its love, in order to share of its abundance.
In this sense of agape the Church proclaims that God is love. God loves the evil and ungrateful, the sinners and the lost ones, and that he loves them means that he is giving them what they themselves are lacking: goodness, life, and salvation. It is this love which creates an inscrutable unity between God and Jesus; Jesus not only becomes a proclaimer of the love of God, but he himself becomes in his life and deeds the mighty and decisive expression of this love. Therefore the Church proclaims that Jesus in some sense is God, the only begotten of the Father, eternal as God himself. But because of divine love for humans he emptied all his divinity and was born as a human being in order to establish communion with humans at their own level. With Jesus divinity itself has become part of this earthly world in spite of the boundaries of despair and death.
Moreover, it is necessary to understand that this unrelinguishable view is behind the definition by the Early Church of God as the triune. Just as there have to remain an in a sense inexplicable fellowship between God and Jesus, so the fellowship with God in the midst of this mortal world which Jesus has established, must remain even when he has departed. This continuous fellowship is secured by the concept of the Holy Spirit and its unity with God and Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the sign that God is still active in giving His love, or - another way of putting it - the Holy Spirit means that Jesus in a mysterious manner still is present for mortals, creating goodness, life, and salvation.
Let us try to express this deep difference between Christian proclamation and all Ancient understanding of life by a short formula. In antique spirituality - as in pagan spirituality in general - religion is human's way to God, the attempt to break free of its despair and its boundaries to participate in a higher form of life. Christianity on the contrary is God's way to human beings; it is in a sense God Himself who has broken His boundaries by becoming human; He has sought out humans where we are, and He has united Himself with us in our damned condition.
It was impossible for the Church to move from this fundamental view. Therefore it had so stubbornly to fight the so called Arians. Arius (c. 320) did not believe Jesus to be God in the full sense of the word; as the Son of God he had to be created by the Father and, consequently, be subsequent to him. Therefore, he was just a lower god, a heavenly messenger, a prophet like figure. If this understanding had become dominant, the Christian understanding of life would have been lost, or it would have turned back into the Greek concept of humans' relationship to God.
3. The Demand for Love to Fellow Human Beings
Just as God has loved humans undeserved and without limits, humans are to love fellow humans without any boundary. The whole of the Christian ethics is summarized in this impossible demand, and it can hardly be emphasised enough that, impossible as it is, it has had the most far reaching influence on human attitude to its existence; it has introduced a completely new type of responsibility into the world.
As long as the old order was still unshaken, and the individual lived in accordance with the natural social corporate entity, whether the clan or the city state, a person felt responsible towards the fellowship presupposed by the community. Your fellow humans were those with whom you had fellowship, and in accordance with tradition and custom you were obligated towards them.
But we have observed how a destruction of the ancient forms of community led to an isolation of the individual. Your obligation and responsibility towards others disappeared; you were alone and self sufficient. Therefore, you were primarily interested through philosophical and religious efforts to save yourself. The centre for all thought had become the individual ego, "I", and other human beings were about to disappear from one's horizon. Philosophy could of course speak about the honourable soul's generosity, and in the mystery cults a new fellowship could rise between members; yet, none of this changed significantly the notion that the individual human being was alone with itself in the attempt to save its soul.
In this situation the proclamation by the Church of love for your neighbour is something new. As proclaimed, love for other humans means first that you without limits are obligated to the other person, it is truly the neighbour and not yourself who is the goal of the action; you are to love the other as, or rather: in place of, yourself, which of course is completely different from simply doing what you ought to do. With Jesus as the great example you are now unconditionally to sacrifice yourself for your neighbour. But secondly, this love for other humans implies that your neighbour could be anyone. It is no longer just a matter of those with whom you have a natural fellowship. It may even be your enemy. In Antiquity it thus created the greatest surprise when the Church in times of need without differentiation gave help to non Christians as well as to Christians.
It is probably correct that the Church created a closed community where members in a special way felt obligated to those within the circle. Yet the Church in its message also gave a very strong impulse to break the circle, and however unfaithful it has managed this message, it has never completely stopped being given. Even though the demand in its radical nature surpasses all boundaries of possibility, and even though people in the Christian world of course has never obeyed it to the letter, it has nevertheless permeated the understanding within the Christian culture of the demand the other human being is to you. It has become self evident and not open for discussion at all that you should never ignore another human being in need, and that the only true humanity which ethics is able to demand, is to help the needy and the oppressed in their despair.
4. The Future World
With the proclamation of Jesus as the messiah who would shortly return on the clouds of heaven in order to establish the new kingdom with glory and power, the Church introduced the Hebrew concept of history to Antiquity. In the Greek-Roman world this concept is quite unintelligible, and it was also one of worst stumbling blocks for accepting the Church at all. Christianity arose at a time where the Roman Empire finally after centuries of exhausting wars, external as well as internal, had been established as an empire which encompassed practically everything regarded as part of the inhabited world, and which had turned peaceful within its borders. With Augustus the Roman Empire was regarded as an empire of peace, and he himself was, as previously seen, hailed as the divine Prince of Peace, and the religious-political emperor cult which arose at the time, was in reality a celebration of and a declaration of loyalty towards the Roman Empire which people expected to last for ever.
Under these circumstances the preaching by the Church that this world was of the evil and under the governance of Satan, but now getting close to its demise, was regarded as improper at best. More than anything this is the reason for the persecution of Christians, the most dramatic result of the clash between these two radically different views of life. However religiously the message was intended, in the eyes of the Roman it unavoidable had a taste of politics.
Very strange is it then that the proclamation by the Church of what we traditionally call the end of the world, i.e., the dramatic destruction of the present age and the establishment of an eternal kingdom of glory, while being maintained yet nevertheless in a confused way becomes mixed with other concepts. A tendency appears now to perceive the world to come not as the kingdom of glory set in motion by future historical events, but as the life in future glory you after death are to enter. Most likely orphic-platonic thinking provides the influence behind these ideas about the separation of the immortal soul from the body and its placement in a heavenly Paradise or in a Hell beyond death. These two sets of in reality quite exclusive concepts were so much woven together that they were impossible to separate. At times - especially of course during great disasters, wars etc. - high tensed expectations about the soon destruction of the world has dominated the picture and excited people. At other times all this took back stage, and the religious dreams concentrated rather on the deliverance at death from this evil world and on the entry of the soul to the heavenly bliss.
But whether the one or the other of these concepts has been in mind, the idea of a future world has always been a significant element in Christian beliefs. To the future world people looked forward as a comfort during opposition and sufferings; but where this ideas really was alive, it could also create a sense of this given world as temporary and insignificant. By the idea of a future world the Church has made a world beyond this the final goal for all human effort and by that devalued the present existence.
The author subsequently describes and analyses several other key thoughts that developed in the Church and became cornerstones for the thinking of Medieval Christian European culture.