The following chapter from The Secular Gospel of Sophia is placed in the middle of several chapters that detail the events and debates of the First Ecumenical Council held at Nicaea in 325 AD. In writing about the hypocrisy, hostility, and arrogance of many of the participating Church Fathers I thought the book needed a little relief to contrast the events at the Council from Jesus’ naked message of love and kindness.
Christianity in this Decomposing World
May 22, 325 A.D. – The Christian World
“And there shall be others of those who are outside our number who name themselves bishop and also deacons, as if they have received their authority from God. They bend themselves under the judgment of the leaders. Those people are dry canals.”
~The Apocalypse of Peter
Draw away from the Council. Move away from Nicaea, from New Rome and Antioch and Alexandria. Consider the years. Jesus was born at the apex of the Empire. Augustus was emperor. For all its economic and cultural advancements, the Roman Empire was built on force and fear as surely as infection thrives on fever and filth. The extractive economy built on conquest and suppression was designed to provide lavishly for the Roman estates and the palace courts scattered throughout the realm and to leave only subsistence scraps behind to be grappled over without concern as to who would wrangle enough to survive and who would perish into dust. Into this world Jesus came to preach salvation in exchange for deeds of kindness and succor shown to the “least among these.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Do as I do and I’ll see you in the hereafter. Simple. No theologian necessary.
By the time of Jesus’ death, Tiberius, a crueler, less competent Emperor, had succeeded Augustus. In the three hundred years that followed, Rome was controlled by a digression of rulers, with few exceptions each more venal and less qualified than the last. Sustained only by the inertia resulting from the impossibility, even for its enemies, of imagining its absence and the occasional reclamation of fragmentary glory by a Trajan, an Aurelian or a Vespasian, Rome extracted an ever-greater portion of an ever-decreasing bounty from its conquered peoples. Waves of invaders swept in and either crawled out or were absorbed by the Roman morass. Traditions faded and were replaced. The ancient pantheon that bound the conquerors could not hold, as new gods, ordained by law, imposed by force, or adopted by faith, invaded and old gods slumped into the obscurity of neglect and disbelief. Life became harsher, crueler, and less coherent. Jesus’ message flourished.
At first there was no clergy. No church. His teaching spread first among the Jews, but there was nothing about it in any of its essentials that required either great, religious knowledge or restricted it to the circumcised. It spread among gentiles of every kind, requiring no particular training, no altar, no temple. Make life better for those you see suffering. Be kind. Offer food to the hungry, even from your own meager share. Bring water to those who thirst. Daub the brows of those who are ill. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that doing these things is the path to eternal and glorious life. In short, the way to Heaven is to make life better here, on Earth.
And so it was that Jesus’ most basic message, stripped of mystery, magic and the apocalypse, grew like an insurgency within the greatest political structure the world has ever known. Overflowed, in point of fact, that realm, into the largely unknown regions of the Hindi, the Mongols and the Hans, flourished at its most primal level and manifested itself in untold millions of acts of kindness and grace and goodness. Christianity in its primal essence was a balm and an opiate given to the eternally dying patient that is mankind.
This flourishing must be understood separate from the growth of the churches that claimed inheritance from Jesus and His apostles. The churches had their place, certainly. A million Christians independently obeying the teachings of Jesus had not the means necessary to protect themselves from the inevitable persecutions of individuals and the state alike. The Church was protection and solace for these Christians. A Church requires structure and structure hierarchy. Priests had to be qualified. Deacons had to be trained to instruct and anoint the priests. Bishops had to be appointed to oversee the flock and manage the economy of the growing congregations. Temples had to be built. Rules of succession and management had to be drawn. And what if some of the worshipers, the practicing Christians, were misinterpreting Jesus’ word, as handed down by tradition and eventually transcribed into gospels and epistles? What if they emphasized only part of His message at the expense of other parts? Shouldn’t they be properly instructed? Of course, and the Church, consisting of the collective intelligence of the most studious and righteous of the faith, was the proper instructor. And what if the texts left some things out, some things that must have occurred or must have been said. Shouldn’t those things be added? Yes, again, and again it was the proper role of the learned and sacred Church to oversee these changes and ordain what is proper to be taught to and believed by all Christians. And so the Church grew. Always in peril, always under attack from within and without, it grew. Its survival and growth proving that it flourished by the Grace of God.
All of these things were done with the purest of hearts by the purest of souls. All of these things were done for the good of all Christians. But it came to pass that Jesus’ most basic message, the instruction to make life in this world better for those who suffer, was diluted. It was not intended to be so, but with time, as the importance of each man’s post within the Church came to be defined and circumscribed, one became less likely to see His message in practice as one looked higher up the chain of the Church’s command. The bishop was less likely to embody this message of love than the deacon, the deacon than the priest, the priest than the parishioner and the parishioner than the new initiate who, having heard the words that Jesus spoke for the first time, ventured out in the world to follow them in practice. Seeing themselves as God’s representatives and interpreters on Earth, the clergy came to emphasize fealty to the Father over service to the suffering.
Now return through time to Nicaea. The Church has reached adulthood. It has been taken into the ruling family. Its place in the Empire is fixed. Here it is tempting to write, “and Jesus is dead,” and end the discussion. But Jesus’ naked message is pure enough and strong enough to survive the tapestries of power and the veils of explanation. Out in the world in 325 A.D., and before then, and after then, this message resonated and motivated millions who heard it or felt it and incorporated it into their hearts, and motivated countless acts of sacrifice and kindness that eased the boundless suffering in this decomposing world.