Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Origins of Christendom in the West (Part 2)

(Continued from Part 1.)

The formation of Christendom may have led to the death or perversion of certain ideals of the Early Church, but it also brought about the flowering of other aspects of Christianity.

For instance, I do not know how firmly we can establish that pacifism was universally held to in the Early Church, but Eoin de Bhaldraithe discusses how the Church went from excluding soldiers altogether, to slowly softening the policy and then eventually replacing aversion to all killing with what he calls Augustine's "theology of violence". On the one hand, we can bemoan the loss of such a high standard of non-violence and deplore the ways that Christian theories of just warfare have been misused to rationalize evil, not to mention Augustine's own ability to justify persecution of heretics and schismatics. On the other hand, the moral theory of the use of force that emerges in men such as Augustine should not be dismissed as nothing more than a cynical perversion of Christian purity at the service of a blood-thirsty Empire. Even if we think it flawed, it merely forms a part of larger Christian theory of government, a theory which is a marvelous witness of the Church's ability to draw from the riches of her tradition (including its non-violent strands) under changed circumstances.

A similar case might be made concerning the flowering of Church's liturgy in early Christendom. Paul F. Bradshaw wishes to argue that this flowering was, in truth, evidence of decline: that, facing an influx of half-converted Christians, the Church had to resort to spectacle and importations from paganism to win the hearts of its followers. But this begs all the important questions. Simpler and less formal does not imply better. Nor does earlier: surely our image of the purity of the Early Church has something to do with the fact that the evidence is scant and largely hagiographical. The simplicity of early Christian worship is too much a product of necessity to judge whether this state was preferred, and we know too little to say that the Church was better for it.

Bradshaw writes:
It was necessary to try to communicate through the style of liturgical celebration itself something of the majesty of God and the reality of Christ’s sacramental presence, as well as of the appropriate attitude of reverence required before that divinity. (277)

But, surely, whether it was necessary or not to so communicate is less important than that it was possible. Is it preferrable that these things not be communicated? Men are not disembodied minds. Given the opportunity, their faith ought to express itself outwardly: in their words and even in their bodies. The purpose is not some cheap emotional experience among the half-converted, but that such expression effectively communicates God's majesty should be counted to its credit rather than making it suspect.

Moreover, the assumption is that the ideal of the Church is defined by the Early Church (or our picture of it): a tiny, but thoroughly dedicated band, with no room for the half-converted. Again, the Early Church was this way from necessity. In the changed circumstances of Christendom, the Church was faced with the problem of balancing the need to maintaining the cohesian of the dedicated few with the need to reach out to the less-than-dedicated many. The elaboration of Christian worship in light of this problem, along with other responses to it, such as the monastic movement (covered by Bhaldraithe), are, to me, not evidence of decline from some fabled purity but rather of the creative flowering of the Church in response to new situations.

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