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Christianity Doesn’t Suck: Quo Vadis

 

Secular Consumerists (aka Secular Humanists) have made a cottage industry of bashing the belief system of totally innocuous and even quite benevolent people and they enjoy gleefully pointing to things like the Crusades, the Inquisition or the 30 Years War to, basically, say that Christianity sucks. They feel the Christian religion is impugned by such atrocities.

Well, mon frère, did the “scientific” experiments the Japanese military performed on live human subjects in Unit 731 impugn science? Did Joseph Mengele impeach the scientific method? What about sterilization and eugenics movements in the name of cold, hard science? Should we drop science because of these atrocities? Ever hear of Social Darwinism and how it became a justification to colonize “inferior” races? Or how about the fact that folks like Stalin claimed that Marxism was a “science”? How many innocent people died in Stalin’s collectivization experiment? I would venture to say that a vast multitude has died in the name of science.

People always commit their atrocities in the name of something legitimate. People who are compelled to do evil are often lost in such a deep sense of denial that they think their evil is good. Recall that Socrates famously said that nobody knowingly chooses to do evil. It is sloppy thinking to attempt to impugn something legitimate because it has been misrepresented or misused. The fact is that the message of the carpenter’s son from Nazareth transformed a chunk of this world for the better and could have done even more transforming if it had not lapsed into a self-serving institution. If we want to save this world, it might behoove us to listen more closely to that guy and put in proper perspective all the evil falsely done in that guy’s name. Frankly, God is good. Christianity does not suck.

The Roman Emperor Julian II (331 – 363), a nephew of Constantine, took a disliking to Christians after Christianity became the state religion. He fancied himself a philosopher-emperor and refused to resort to violence against them (God bless him for that), but he wrote some dry, tedious prose trying to turn the Roman people back to paganism. Like the Secular Consumerists, he blasted various stories which he took literally instead of symbolically, and he bemoaned the fact that the Christians were such good people. To his chagrin, that was the big obstacle stopping him from turning people away from the early Church. He, basically, said, “We pagan folks can’t win because Christians do charitable works and are too kind, merciful, tolerant, and forgiving. We need to act more like human beings if we want to save paganism! We have to reform paganism!” Well, mon frère, it was too little too late: not even reformed paganism could equal the real stuff of Christianity.

Acting like human beings was, is and always will be the core of real or progressive Christianity. Julian’s religion was based on accepting whatever you already were as unchangeable and burning stuff to petty and malicious gods to get things you wanted. That religion bit the dust readily when Christianity came along and you can see it in ruins at the Met Museum now if you pay $25 and turn left at the entrance. Julian II and the Roman establishment learned the hard way that Christianity does not suck.

When the Christian religion took hold, it was one of the most peaceful and beneficial revolutions ever. Human consciousness in the West irrevocably morphed from a primary orientation to burning stuff to get stuff to caring about how one lived his/her life in relation to others and scrutinizing one’s behavior for things that needed to be and could be changed. The superstitious desire in us to burn stuff to get stuff is still there, but it is secondary now to self-examination and social reform. Honestly though, let’s tip our hats now to our Jewish brothers and sisters, who got there first, since a large chunk of the Tanakh is about the struggle between sacrificing things to idols and developing a humane society based on a new concept of God and religion.

Have you read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization? Before St. Patrick brought the Christian message to Ireland, that place was a hellhole. Internecine and never-ending tribal warfare, slavery, human sacrifice, rape, murder, kidnapping…why, dang it, Ireland simply wasn’t a place safe for women and children. St. Patrick walks in there with a new message and the entire country transforms and becomes a beacon of civilization. That is documented history, please read it Secular Consumerists. You have a nice, stable, semi-humane society now in large part due to the message you continually attack.

There is no other book, however, to my reckoning, that shows the stark contrast between the old system and the new message, and personal and social changes to be brought by Jesus’s true message, than Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis. Indeed, there is no book that better shows how the Christian message could take root and flourish and why it took root and flourished. Marius the Epicurean by Walter Pater is definitely worth reading, but Quo Vadis takes the cake. I mention it here hoping that folks continue to read it to see, essentially, why Christianity does not suck and where we might go if we, as progressive Christians, can continue to promote the essential personal and social meaning of the Gospels, which has often gotten lost or misrepresented throughout the past. Indeed, Quo Vadis is quite a powerful work and was the primary reason for Sienkiewicz to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It is the core challenge of Christianity to look inward and to assess one’s own behavior, while establishing standards for humane, civilized behavior, which separated it so dramatically from what had come before and Quo Vadis reveals this clearly. There was no element of rising or belief in significant individual or social reform in the Roman state religion, and there was much brutishness and injustice which went unchallenged. The philosophy of Stoicism provided a sense of moral earnestness in the Empire, but as Ian Small pointed out in an essay on Pater’s Marius, Stoicism failed to encompass all of human experience and did not condemn the widespread and senseless cruelty that defined large chunks of the ancient Roman experience. Quo Vadis shows that Christianity was a light-bulb moment in the Roman Empire. That which had been taken as natural and which folks were expected to accept was not necessarily natural and could be changed. If enough people changed, rampant and callous social barbarism could be stopped and new, humane standards could be established.

Sienkiewicz illustrates the capacity of the Christian religion to change folks for the better primarily through his characterization of Vinicius. He is a well-heeled tribune and patrician who meets and falls in love with Lygia, a political hostage living in the house of affluent and well-connected Roman Christians, who becomes a Christian herself. Vinicius is intrigued by how different Lygia is, how much kinder, compassionate and artlessly graceful she is compared to other young Roman women. There is a je ne sais quoi about Lygia which Vinicius quickly equates to her devotion to the Christian faith and slowly but surely he opens himself to this new belief system and way of life through his fascination with and desire for Lygia.

Vinicius recognizes that the change brought about in folks through the Christian religion is far superior to anything offered by the state religion and he cannot help but admire the personal qualities of Christians. Whereas the Romans wallow in pleasure and barbarism, Christians show self-restraint and sincere love.  In fact, Vinicius was a military man and there may have been something about the military experience that drew Roman soldiers toward Christianity, as historians have discovered that the Christian movement took a strong hold and grew among Roman soldiers. These men who were used to privation and self-sacrifice may have admired the selfless qualities requiring self-control in this new religion.

Interestingly, the name Vinicius derives from the Latin word for wine and surely Sienkiewicz chose this name deliberately. To the Roman upper crust, wine was an essential component in their nightly debauchery. Wine, to the Christians, represented the blood of Christ as a symbol of profound meaning. To the Romans the drinking of wine liberated one from inhibitions and allowed the freer flow of hedonistic desires. To the Christians, the effect of wine could be equated to human elevation: wine made one more tolerant, compassionate, joyful. The evolution of Vinicius is also a type of evolution in the understanding of wine as a symbol for a new type of driving force behind personal and social life.

Vinicius’s conception of love and desire also undergoes an evolution and this is a central thread in the novel. Initially the uniqueness of Lygia stimulates his need to possess. He is an upper-class Roman who has not learned self-denial – he gets what he wants when he wants it, regardless of how anyone else might be affected. Initially he shows no concern for the wishes of Lygia, although she is intrigued by Vinicius and sees something redeeming in him.  As Vinicius opens himself to the Christian experience, his lust is diminished and he aspires to a selfless love and desire for more meaningful union. This follows his literal attempt to kidnap Lygia to force her to be, basically, his slave. After he is severely injured by one of Lygia’s protectors, and nursed back to health by the woman he had attempted to kidnap and control, it is this tenderness shown to him, despite his attempt to harm her, that finally convinces him that there is real substance in the Christian religion. It is his turning point, when compassion and forgiveness are accorded to him and he is deeply affected by this since he, himself, does not feel worthy of such forgiveness.

Sienkiewicz charts our capacity for Christian change through the character of Vinicius. The key to the Christian religion becomes a type of contagious modeling of behavior based on a capacity for inner discernment concerning emotional responses and motives that are deemed either acceptable or unacceptable according to an ineffable but trusted inner process. Indeed, sociologist Rodney Stark  demonstrated that the Christian religion was not spread by evangelical proselytizers. The Christian religion was spread by individuals connecting with other individuals. Stark compared statistics concerning the rise of the early Church with the rise of the Church of Latter-Day Saints and discovered undeniable parallels. Sienkiewicz hits this nail on the head as well – it was personal interaction, modeling, witnessing of kind and humane behavior that allowed this religion to catch hold and grow.

Sienkiewicz’s novel also examines what it is that needs to be changed about ourselves. Surely the unexamined lust Vinicius felt needed to go. Learning forgiveness in lieu of exercising malice was a pretty good change for him too. But what happens when a Christian zealot comes along and claims that Vinicius’ feelings of love for Lygia are irrational, emotional and not in accordance with God’s law? Well, we see the difference between Stoicism and Christianity here. Peter (who appears as a character in the novel) announces “There is no sin in your love” to Vinicius. Even if it is irrational, if it is irrationally pro-social there is no sin. Christianity never bought into any type of dualism between the intellect and the emotions. There is, therefore, the acceptance in the Christian faith of the non-rational, which separates it squarely from Stoicism. There is a subtlety and flexibility in the approach of the Christian who can accept an irrational but selfless love, but reject something pleasing to him/herself which is harmful to others.

The process of change is also intimated. In regard to the discernment between what is acceptable and unacceptable, there is no dogma. There is no stoic self-denial, no need to follow precepts. It is not a categorical approach. It is an opening up of oneself, it is unforced and comes naturally. There is no need for dogma, law or for any form of memorization or struggle. The change comes slowly, peacefully and irreversibly. There is a possibility for humble receptivity to the Christian message and it works itself out within each individual. You cannot describe what happens, you cannot prove it happens, and you cannot make it happen, but it happens. There is an inner capacity for discernment which works like a germinating seed.

So what happened? Stark believed that once the Roman Empire became officially Christian, free-riders with membership cards but no commitment took over the religion. Officially recognizing the religion diluted the religion. The Christian message could not stop Feudalism, but it could not get killed by Feudalism either. The word is the word is the word. There seems to be a limit to the extent to which Christianity can change material circumstances and social stratification, but the word is the word is the word and the method is sound and can still be applied.

Everything in Quo Vadis is still, therefore, possible and I would argue the goal of progressive Christians is to continually embrace the core Christian values promoted in this amazing book, which should be on the progressive Christian reading list for this holiday season and beyond. To be a progressive Christian, to me, is to keep looking inward, to try to remain humbly receptive to possible change and to keep testing the boundaries of just what might be possible in our attempts to create a more humane world.

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