This is “Part II” of “Wild Hope.” If you haven’t already, please check out Part I, “The Christmas Trick.”
The Roman Empire, as you may know, officially adopted Christianity around 323 CE. I don’t need to recount the whole history here. It’s been done wonderfully by many authors. Of import, is that Rome had a tremendous influence upon the religion’s future. Following Jesus’s death, the number of Christians steadily grew. Disagreements among them existed from the start – a situation that became more pronounced as the faith spread through new lands and cultures. Once Christianity officially became the state religion, however, it was necessary for Rome to get a handle on disparate and often conflicting views and practices within it. So, Emperor Constantine initiated and oversaw the famous First Council of Nicaea, which met in 325 CE to try and resolve contemporary theological issues. (Among the items on the agenda was the date of Easter – Christmas was conspicuously absent, see Part I).
One of the Council’s chief debates centered on Jesus’s origins. It involved two main questions: Was he “created” by God the Father and of what substance? At stake, in a fundamental way, was the extent of Jesus’s divinity. In the end, the Council determined that he was not “created” but “begotten.” His “substance” was likewise ambiguous, translating essentially to him being ‘of the Father’s essence’.
Why were Church leaders so concerned about Jesus’s origins? There is the stock answer, having to do with resolving schisms within the Church, in this case Arianism. The goal of the Council, after all, was to unify Christian doctrine. Religious disagreements were (and remain) a recipe for bloody civil wars and rebellion. Rome wanted Christianity to create more stability for the empire, not rip it apart. The so called “Arian question” was a logical item to address given its prominence at the time. But I want to look a little deeper and explore the underlying forces acting through these men on the Council and their overlords in Rome.
There are several reasons why a Roman on the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century might see the question of Jesus’s origins as paramount. First, and fundamentally, the scholarly and theological relevance of the question would have been obvious to anyone at the time. The culture of the ancient Mediterranean centered its religious rites and beliefs around the veneration of deities. Religion meant gods: Apollo, Mars, Pluto, et al. Offerings and sacrifice to these divine beings was the heart of religious practice for as long as anyone remembered. Different places had different gods, but the basic form was the same, resulting in a commonly recognized language of religion that cut across races and cultures. It would have been a serious stretch to create a Church, charged with overseeing and instructing its followers in the exercises of the religion, that did not involve the worship of a deity. Even if this was to be a new sort of religion, its leaders needed to supply firm answers about the nature of the “person” at its center.
Additionally, the question became important to the Council members simply because they were asked. They were essentially scholars, well studied in a range of texts. Moreover, logic and rhetoric held places of prominence within Roman culture, stretching back to roots in ancient Greece. For the theologians at Nicaea, social standing and respect depended upon effectively wielding their rhetorical skills and supporting arguments. It is a scholar’s duty, we might say, to have a strong opinion and to fight for it. The fact that a disagreement about Jesus’s origins existed, then, was enough for such men to throw their intellect at the problem wholeheartedly.
It was also partly logistical. A hierarchal Church, especially one that is married to a vast political bureaucracy, is a very concrete thing. If you’re meditating in a desert, the importance of whether Jesus was “begotten” or “created” will probably melt away rather quickly. But if you’re operating a large-scale political-religious structure, the pieces need to fit together in a coherent way. You need to have answers for your parishioners, demonstrate your expertise and, therefore, authority. Hierarchies and top-down edicts require an answer to fundamental questions about the faith. The Church needed Jesus to fit within clear parameters and definitions. The ethereal or metaphorical might be tolerated in a sermon or the hearts of practitioners, but firm pillars of understanding are necessary to traditional structures of Church and state.
Finally, the question of Jesus’s origins is rooted in the cultural importance of hierarchy. The Council may not have admitted it directly, but what they wanted to know was whether God ruled over Jesus or if they were equal or semi-equal divinities, perhaps like Jupiter/Zeus and Apollo. Power dynamics were essential to Roman life. Defined socio-political positions undergirded identity and order. The Romans had an ingrained need to know who was in charge. We can assume that the desire for a clear pecking order would be particularly strong among those most invested in an orderly chain of command, like top bishops and imperial officials.
The forces outlined above might be considered reasons that the theologians on the Council seem to have missed the boat from a spiritual perspective. Squabbling about Jesus’s divinity or what substance he was made of took away from the deeper teachings of the man in question. At the same time, the imperative to create a clear, logical orthodoxy meant that the mystical, divine message of Jesus would necessarily be confined in the bounds of earthly social structures and cultural norms. In the process, something essential was lost, which begins to explain how a message of peace, love, and forgiveness became a tool of the opposite.
Still, it is not productive to vilify the Council of Nicaea or perhaps even the culture in which it existed for the outcome. The Council refocused the message of Jesus because creating a state-sponsored religion necessitated it. It was the price of political legitimacy. On a purely practical level, Rome had seen how the unregulated and, we might say, democratic spread of Christianity nearly tore the empire apart. Appropriating and redefining it allowed them to get a handle on the chaos and, eventually, have something that would reinforce the existing basis of state power. By controlling an ‘orthodox’ Christianity (not to be confused with Orthodox Christianity), Rome’s leaders protected the empire from a burgeoning revolt among its armies. It imbued the state with the power and personage of Jesus and, therefore, made it palatable to his legions (literally) of followers. Under the banner of Christ, Rome could continue doing what it wanted to do (pillaging, taxing, enslaving, killing, governing, controlling… and providing essential social services). To ignore Christianity, accept it with its many variances, or adopt a version that held more faithfully to the original teachings would have been a recipe for the Empire’s demise (or at least require a major shift in centuries-old modes of operation). In short, it is too much to expect a powerful political body to willingly pursue a course of action against its own interests. Converting the Empire to Christianity was largely self-preservation. If the church Rome created took on a character that placed state interests above, for instance, Enlightenment for the souls of the meek, we should not be surprised.
The main takeaway, then, is not that the men of the Council were bad or corrupted by worldly matters. It’s not about the ways that the state, through the emperor, influenced the Council’s findings to serve itself above religious piety or theological integrity. It’s not even about how the Roman state (and its European successors) went on to use Christianity to justify horrific violence, genocide, and oppression. Given how brutal the pre-Christian world could be, it’s hard to argue that coopting and adulterating Jesus’s message somehow made things worse.
I’m also not interested in simply blaming “religion” in general for the world’s problems. After all, what is religion but a collective effort to bring spiritual wisdom into practical application? It’s an admirable goal, if often misguided.
The chief issue is that the potential for positive change, represented in this case by Jesus’s teachings, was neutralized by its incorporation into existing systems of power. Rome’s efforts to create an authoritative Christianity would probably not have been a problem in a vacuum. However, the state became the arbiters of Jesus’s message in the process. Those who didn’t like the narrow interpretation were persecuted, killed, and had their texts and temples destroyed. It was therefore the Roman, imperialist version of Christianity that came to dominate and spread. Once filtered through the institutions of Rome, Jesus’s message became a tool of further tyranny, rather dimming its effect as a beacon of soulful liberation.
The history of Rome converting to Christianity might seem like a serious detour from advertising Coca-Cola with cartoon polar bears or employing Santa Claus to enroll children in the short-term dopamine rewards of consumer capitalism, but it’s not. The Romans used the appeal of Jesus’s message to buttress the pervading power of the time, which was invested in their imperial, military structure. Doing so ensured the loyalty and attachment of its citizens and, more importantly, increasingly Christian soldiers to the interests of the state. Today’s pervading system of power is rooted in corporate capitalism. Christmas has become one means to attach people within that structure to its preservation and perpetuation. Unchecked consumerism is more palatable when wrapped in revered cultural ideals. Consistent messaging during the holidays says that to properly celebrate popular religious beliefs (or, given today’s secularism, non-religious remnants of once religious values) requires participation in and support of capitalism and corporate power through the purchase of their wares.
Modern advertisers, then, have become something like the Council of Nicaea, crafting a coherent ideology out of a messy cultural soup to serve the interests of their benefactors. Through a unified story with mass appeal, they safeguard current paradigms of power. The forms shift to accommodate cultural changes, which we see, for example, in socially-conscious messaging or taking “Christ” out of the holiday to focus on more universal values. The goal is the same though – coopt core ideals and beliefs into service preserving a particular power system. As with the message of Jesus, there is potential for positive change in the projection of the humanist or universal ideals that we often see in advertisements (especially around Christmas time). But, like the creation of the Church did to the message of Jesus, the likelihood of any meaningful transformation through such this messaging is neutralized by its support of systems that ensure the opposite.
So, what does all this mean for us, our world, and our own spiritual journeys? Hit up Part III of ‘Wild Hope’ to find out!
[Image below is of a commemoration of the Second Council of Nicaea, probably sometime in the 10th century].