Monday, 30 January 2012

Subterranean Paganism

How Did It Come to This?

Just how Christianised was Western Europe in the first place?  Rodney Stark (One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001]) provokes readers with this question.  His answer: not very.

In the past two centuries we have seen a move away from the Christian faith--and a rapid collapse of the First Christendom--in the West.  What took centuries to build was gone by lunch time, so to speak. Why?  Naturally, in all such "big" questions, the causes are always complex and multifarious. However, some factors will inevitably be more influential and affective than others. 

Here is a summary of Stark's argument:  he draws a fundamental distinction between the quality and timbre of missionary effort of the Church before and after Constantine.
  He believes the great missionary movement of the apostolic and post-apostolic church ended within two and a half centuries, but not for the reasons we might expect.  It ended, says Stark, because Constantine ascended to the purple and made the Christian church official.
For far too long, historians have accepted the claim that the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (ca.285--337) caused the triumph of Christianity.  In fact, Constantine's conversion was, in part, the response of a politically astute man to what was soon to be an accomplished fact--the exponential wave of Christian growth had gathered immense height and weight by the time Constantine contended for the throne.  However, despite a century of ill-founded skepticism, there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of his conversion.  To the contrary Christianity might have been far better served had Constantine's faith been pretended.  For, in so doing his best to serve Christianity, Constantine destroyed its most vital aspect: its dependence on mass volunteerism. (Ibid., p.61)
Once Constantine made the Christian church the official religion, the church became a de-facto organ of state: consequently it became politicized and bureaucratised, subject to politics and influence peddling.  The task of Christianisation moved from persuasion to coercion.  True missionary endeavour declined, along with person to person witnessing, conversion of households, systematic instruction over years into the faith, and participating in a vibrant congregational life.  Naturally, the switch did not turn off immediately.  It was more like a dimmer-switch where the current is reduced gradually and the light fades. 

Eventually the Western Church overcame its prejudices and decided that missionary endeavour outside the bounds of the Empire was an abiding obligation.  Most of the accounts of this work focus around the missionary efforts of monks to kings, rulers, and elites.  The idea was that if rulers, chiefs and leaders converted, the populace would be brought in as well--automatically.  Take the accounts of the conversion of Clovis, for example:
When Clovis announces his decision to be baptized [after a Constantine-like experience of success in battle after calling upon the Christian's God] many members of the court proclaim that they will do so too.  Immediately upon the public baptism of King Clovis, three thousand of his armed followers are also baptized.  But about the Christianization of the several million ordinary Franks, no a word is said. (Ibid., p. 70) 
In fact, the ordinary people were not Christianised.  A century after the conversion of Clovis the man-in-the-street, or the field continued to practise idolatry; they did not recognize the one true God.  The "trickle down" theory of Christianisation and conversion just did not work.
Having become dependant on state subsidies and governed by a privileged establishment, Christianity was by this time a top-down organization, and nothing could have seemed more obvious to the monastic missionaries than the wisdom of devoting all of their efforts to converting the elite.  There were several additional reasons for this, safety being perhaps the most important.  Successful conversion of a group of commoners would provide the missionary monks with no protection, either from the nobility, who may have feared that the group posed a religious challenge to their authority, or from other commoners offended by denunciation of their traditional Gods . . . . In contrast, successful inroads into the elite--even if just among the wives--offered substantial protection. (Ibid., p.73)
Thus, in general--particularly in north-western Europe--Christianity remained a culturally superficial religion, veneer thin.  By the sixteenth and seventeenth century, church officials were struggling with the paganism confronting them not only in northwestern Europe, but in Italy and France as well.  Concern was expressed about
. . . not only a "profound unfamiliarity with the basics of Christianity" but also "a persistent pagan mentality" and a persistence of "pre-Christian ceremonial." . . . . As Jean Seznec put it in his classic work on the subject: "Above all, it is now recognized that pagan antiquity, far from experiencing a 'rebirth' in fifteenth-century Italy, had remained alive within the culture and art of the Middle Ages.  Event he gods were not restored to life, for they had never disappeared from the memory or imagination of man." That elements of paganism survive is one of the remarkable omissions of contemporary perceptions of religion in Europe.  (Ibid., p. 76)
The rapid retreat back into Unbelief, the lionising of ancient Greece and Rome, the recrudescence of Norse pagan myths in Nazi Germany, the rapid descent into state-protected immorality and licentiousness reflect a recrudescence of what always lay beneath the surface in Europe, never having been thoroughly Christianised.

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