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Nicene Niceties

Reading about the Nicene Creed, in Charles Freeman's excellent The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (Knopf, 2002), I'm struck by how impossible it would be to interest religious Americans today in the dogmatic struggle that it has long been thought to have resolved. The Creed was hammered out, under the presumably impatient eye of the Emperor Constantine, in order to establish a) an orthodox Christian position on the relation between Jesus and "God the Father" and b) a community of the orthodox who would thereupon be eligible for preferential tax treatment. One of Constantine's first acts of toleration was to relieve Christian priests of the need to serve the state (as pagan priests had to do); little did he suspect, apparently, that this would trigger a huge identity crisis among Christians. But how understandable, in retrospect: a swarm of sects, united by a handful of practices and observances but distinguished by all manner of interpretive divisions, proliferating under the rock of imperial ban, suddenly exposed to the light of Official Status. Proponents of the Nicene Creed, which held that Jesus is "consubstantial" with the Father and begotten by him out of time, would eventually prevail, but not without a century of vicious squabbles taken up against those who failed to find any support for consubstantiality in Scripture. Augustine would eventually sum up, with his own incomparable arrogance, the correct relation between the Church and Scripture: "I would not believe the Gospel unless the authority of the Catholic Church moved me." This neatly elides the fact that Augustine was speaking for and as the authority of the Catholic Church.

According to Charles Freeman, the victory of the "Nicean" contingent reflected the Church leadership's surreptitious but wholehearted adoption of Platonic propositions, not the least of which was the idea that, because only a very few gifted men are capable of grasping the nature of things, the rest of us ought to exercise our privilege of letting them tell us what to do. Mr Freeman does not have to work very hard to convince me that Plato was an intellectual tyrant; his success in the past 2500 years must be attributed to the vanity of those who, studying him, would put themselves forward as "authorities." As one Greek philosopher among many, Plato could enjoy only limited influence. there were real limits to Plato's influence, but a church that had absorbed his rationalistic megalomania would prove far more pernicious. Reason shut down in the West because critical debate was suspended, not because critical books were forgotten.

But Platonism (like authority generally) has very little hold on today's religious thinking, and I am sure that it is enough to acknowledge Jesus "as a personal savior," whatever that might mean, without being very specific about just how it is that the human and the divine are combined in the person of Jesus. As a personal savior, Jesus might well "be" certain things to you that he "isn't" to anybody else, or not to many others. You are under no obligation to share.  No televangelist is going to waste his time or yours parsing the metaphysics of Christ's godhead. Doctrinally, these are freewheeling times.

Except, of course, with respect to Topic A. Self-styled authorities draw on the full fund of Augustinian severity when claiming that matters relating to human sexuality are not open to discussion but have been settled for all time in the eyes of God. Isn't it funny? The only practice that Jesus emphatically denounced was - divorce (Matthew, 5:32). But Augustine sets the precedent. What comes first, Jesus or "Christianity"? The authoritarian institution, of course.


I'm sure I have much to say here, but first I have to finish Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews -- A History -- by James Carroll, and then I will have to read The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (Knopf, 2002).  Constantine's influence on Christianity has always intrigued me and I need to read more.  Augustine and the others however are old friends, well let's say in some cases not exactly friends, but we've been around the block together.  More later, perhaps much later, we have however encouraged the more knowledgeable that we know in this area to post here, many of them quite vocal Christians

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