Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Arian Heresy

I'm reading When Jesus became God, by Richard Rubenstein and attempting to make sense of it. I am not doing this because I'm seriously considering Christianity as a faith (in fact, reading this book has pretty much convinced me that even though I'm a confirmed Catholic, I'm not really a Christian, for reasons mentioned in an earlier post.) I'm reading this book out of a general fascination with Christian schismatism (my other related historical interests include the Greek Orthodox split from Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation and Henry VIII) and maybe just a little schadenfreude.

Reading this book is not unlike reading any of the other European history books I've read (before World War II) or even reading Alexandre Dumas (without the jokes about Gascons and doctors.) The characters in this book are bishops priests and emperors. These most Christian men have no problem slandering each other, excomunicating each other and inciting mobs to kill the bishops with whom they disagree.

The Emperor Constantine decided to change the official religion of the Roman empire to Christianity. There are several legends, but it seems he did it much the same way an office manager would choose to work with Account Temps or WB Mason (as opposed to Professional Staffing Group or Staples.) The empire wasn't holding together well and he needed people who were organized to help him administer it (and the empire needed to have one religion to keep it unified.)

After deciding upon Christianity as his official religion, Constantine asked for the equivelent of a press release, explaining what it all meant. And then all Hell broke loose. There were Christians (mostly in the east--In Egypt and Greece) who thought that Jesus was either a man "promoted" to God or perhaps a being less than God. This theology proposed Jesus as a model human being which we could all aspire to be if we just loved our neighbors as ourselves, turned the other cheek etc. The head of this faction was Arias.

There was another faction that believed that Jesus was God from the get-go--that he and God stood on equal footing to be equally worshipped. The found the idea of relegating Jesus to the status of a "lesser God" insulting.

Both sides had difficulty in reconciling this all with monotheism. Constantine brought both sides together (repeatedly) favored first one side and then the other and overall failed to grasp why they couldn't just agree to disagree (as many pagans had before them.) Unfortunately, with Christianity (and later with Islam) it doesn't work that way. Christianity (occording to this book) was the first of the religions to claim a severe monopoly on God and, more important, offer a pleasant afterlife as an incentive for joining up.

So it was not possible at this time, for either the Arians or the Nicenes (after the Council of Nicea which is where the fun really started) to agree that they were all Christians-one or the other had to be correct--the other had to be a herasy.

Fast forward through several pages of excommunications, mobs, changes of emperors, flights from the emperors soldiers and having toned the argument about Jesus down, they now have to define the holy spirit. Part of what mellowed everyone out was that the Emporer Julian decided to rename paganism as the official religion of the Roman empire. Suddenly, bishops who would have happily spat on each other's corpses are happy to come to an agreement.

Because the arguments have mellowed out, three men postulated that God could be God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit and no-one, apparently, started a riot.

Meanwhile, the emporer (who was an Arian) was killed in battle and the Nicenes used that as evidence that God was on their side in that argument. Eventually they won.

But mon Dieu! Is the divitity of Jesus really worth shedding blood over? How Christian is that? I look at the current state of US foreign policy and thing "apparently, very."

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