Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Constantinian Blues:Or Did you hear the one about the Greek, the Syrian and the Texan?

One of the benefits of reading several books at the same time ( a habit, I know, that I was fretting over last week) is that it has a way of generating ideas for writing. I am, it seems, a bit of a lateral thinker, so it makes sense that it just doesn't work for me to read only one thing at the same time. That, certainly, explains how I operated in university. I like to make connections between ideas or books or disciplines that don't seem to have much to do with each other at first glance. Sometimes, mind you, they still .

So, what do you Ephrem the Syrian's Hymns Against Julian meets Stanley Hauerwas' autobiography, Hannah's Child? That's right, a reflection on Constantianism. So, what is Constantinianism? According to Hauerwas (among others), it is a mode of thought about the state and the church which isn't working, if it ever really worked. Constantinianism is the alliance between the state and the church which has characterized the Christian religion for just over nineteen hundred years. It began with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, which established toleration for Christianity and continued in Constantine's lifetime until two important developments happened. Christianity achieved a favoured status among religions in the Empire, enjoying tax benefits and imperial money and patronage in abundance. Second, the church and the state had taken the opening steps towards a symbiotic union which would see the state and the church working together to build a Christian society. While those who favour the Constantinian alliance rightly point out that the union did cause the state to be come more Christian and humane in many respects, it is equally true that the church's influence on morals was tenuous at best and it frequently had to underwrite actions which were not in accord to what Jesus taught us in the Bible. In fact, much of the criticism of the church in history is based on these compromises and on the ways that religion underwrote such atrocities as the persecution of heretics, the Crusades and onwards to include the Holocaust.

So, how does Ephrem the Syrian's Hymns Against Julian fit into this? These hymns were written in the summer of 363 AD, while the Emperor Julian was engaged in a particularly strenuous and, arguably, misguided campaign against the Persians which would, ultimately, lead to his death during the retreat of his army. Ultimately, the new Emperor, Jovian, had to surrender the fortress city of Nisibis (the hometown of Ephrem which had held off the Persians in three sieges between the 340s and the 350s) in order to convince the Persians to let him and his battered army return to Roman territory. These hymns begin with forbodding at the coming of the apostate emperor and end in a mingled joy at the death of Julian and mourning at the loss of Nisibis.

So, how does Constantinianism fit into these hymns?

First, the figure of Julian himself is an interesting demonstration of the spiritual impact of this Constantinian alliance between the Church and imperial politics. . Julian was the cousin of the previous emperor, Constantius II, who ruled in the East after his father's, Constantine I, death in 337 AD. In the early months of Constantius' rule, Julian's father, uncle and cousins were massacred in what looks like a dynastic feud. Julian and his older brother, Gallus, were the only survivors from this family, largely because they were considered too young to be threats. They were virtually imprisoned on an imperial estate under the care of an Arian bishop. The two boys were given good classical educations and learned how to dissemble their thoughts, but, certainly, Julian never forgot his captivity at the hands of a Christian bishop.

The incongruity of this scenario, I think, comes out in the telling. A Christian emperor either ordered or, as other sources suggest, permitted a mass murder of his relatives as a way of securing his succession to power. One doesn't have to be a Hauerwasian pacifist to see the accommodation that the Church would have to do to countenance that. Yet, there is no evidence that the Church protested this action or called Constantius or the perpetrators to account. Indeed, the fact that the two surviving royal princes were handed over to a bishop (albeit a heretical one) suggests that, far from criticizing the action, the Church tacitly condoned it and was complicit after the fact in it. Only a desire to keep the state-Church accommodation could explain this set of actions and it is perhaps unsurprising that Julian saw the distinction between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of his powerful followers. So, the question needs to be asked: did this early experience with the 'Christian' power circles around Constantius play a role in inoculating Julian from Christian faith? Was this persecutor the result of internal contradictions within Constantinianism itself? If so, Julian's life presents an early warning about the dangers of the Constantinian accommodation between Church and State; namely that the Church finds it difficult to be the Church because of its obligations to its more powerful partner, the state.

The second point of Constantinian tension in these hymns is the story it tells. One of the interesting things about Constantinianism is that it presents a coherent story; a coherent historical narrative. In itself, this is a good thing. As Hauerwas would say, we tend to be defined by the stories we tell about ourselves So, what is the story that Constantinianism tells us? In particular, what is the story that Ephrem tells us, within the context of the broader Constantinian narrative?

While this story portrays the Church as recovering from the initial shock that the withdrawal of imperial favour and the shifting of that favour to paganism (and anyone else that wasn't officially Christian- heretics, Jews) so that it was the only real opposition to Julian (Hymn 1) , it, also, shows the effect on the membership of the Church that this alliance had. In Hymn 2, we find an admission that many Christians fell away from the Church and, I think, we have to ask why. Is it because the tax and legal concessions drew people to the Church to enjoy those exemptions, so when they were lost, it wasn't worthwhile? Is it because, while it wasn't a requirement for high political office, being a Christian was certainly an asset in the ambitious aspiring young man, so when imperial favour shifted elsewhere, many followed? Is it the magnificence paid for by imperial generosity which convinced one that this was the religion to follow, but, once it was lost, Christianity wasn't worth it? That is, were social and economic reasons more important that faith in Christ? Not for all. Ephrem speaks of penitents and those who follow the pagans (Hymn 2) and the bitter-sweet paradox that the angels (literally, in Syriac, the Watchers) rejoiced for the faith of the former and lamented the apostasy of the latter (Hymn 1). Yet, it is hard to escape the conclusion that fifty years of Constantinianism seems to have produced an incomplete reformation of the faith and courage of the Christian people of the Roman Empire.

To some extent, this criticism is a little unfair. The same flight of the faint-hearts and insincere happened with each of the persecutions Christianity experienced in the Roman period. That this happened is just indicative of the rhythms of enervating prosperity and invigorating tribulation which is a constant tension in church history. Yet, if we consider the job of the Church to teach how to be a Christian, one might ask about the kind of mass failures represented by Julian's short reign. Given that the Church is not a huddle of the pure and holy, but a mixed church of sinners, saints and everyone in between, isn't apostasy a reflection that we haven't taught the Christian virtues in such a way that they are more compelling than the political advantages of being a Christian? Was this an early warning that the Constantinian church may not have been as effective at making Christians than the numbers would have suggested?

The problem of Nisibis represents a third issue- the relationship of the Prince of Peace to the fortunes of Roman-Persian border wars (or, really, any wars). Ephrem is pretty clear about what he thinks about this. Nisibis successfully resisted the Persians over three sieges because of Christ's defence; the last of which was a miraculous flood which drove off a major Persian assault just as it was on the brink of success (Hymn 2). However, under Julian, a idol was established in the city and, as a result, after the deluded Julian died, the city was tamely handed over to the Persian king (Hymn 2 and 3). This incident of idolatry caused the city to be forsaken and handed over to the Persians; a fact recognized by the Persian king when he destroyed the idolatrous altar when he took over the city, but preserved the church of Nisibis (Hymn 2). It also seemed to be a factor when he timed his take-over of Nisibis for when Julian's funeral cortege passed by Nisibis. God forsook Nisibis because Nisibis forsook Him.

Again, we can see the Constantinian narrative in this story, can't we? As long as there was a faithful emperor or, in this case, a faithful city, all would be well for the Christian Roman Empire. This, of course, reflect Old Testament history as well, so Ephrem comes by the narrative honestly. It explains how such a 'God-favoured' city should be surrendered which was the real motive behind the last two Hymns Against Julian. It was a bargaining chip, albeit an unusually strategically important and sentimental one. We find ourselves with the paradox of the Constantinian state abandoning a city so clearly favoured by God that He intervened dramatically to save it which raises the question: does God's favour trump imperial diplomacy? If it doesn't, what happened to remove God's favour then? Here, it was the sin of idolatry.

Again, we see the state and the church working closely together, both in encouraging resistance to the Persians and, also, in reconciling the people of Nisibis to the forced surrender of their town. The resistance to the Persians was easier because they weren't Christians. Indeed, at times, they were persecutors of Christians. Yet, again, what does the Prince of Peace have to do with war or, more specifically, with the border wars of the Romans and Persians? If Hauerwas (and Yoder) is right that pacifism is the only politics which makes sense for Christians, how do we respond to the use of the Christianity to underwrite the state's, any state's wars? How do we react to Ephrem's explanation of the surrender of Ephrem? Was this, really, a truthful narrative?

In many ways, this Hauerwasian reading of Ephrem is a deeply unfair one. It is always easier to critique the stories of another place and time, not only because of our distance to the issues, but also because the objects of our critiques are conveniently dead and, so, can't talk back. Yet, the point of this exercise is to say that we have to be careful about the stories that we, the Church, tell ourselves. Ephrem wasn't a fool or a politician. He was an individual believer trying to make sense of his times and his life as a Christian the best way he knew. What this reflection on his Constantinian assumptions is meant to do isn't to belittle him, but rather call us to ask the same questions about our own stories. Are they true? Are we blind to our own culture's sins? Those are the really relevant questions.



Magister Christianus said...

Phil, your title grabbed me, first because I love the blues, and secondly because I spent a few years as a Texan (not a native, but I got there as fast as I could). I have not read much Hauerwas in recent years, so it was good to see his name appear in again. I posted a comment to your 2006 (?) post about St. Augustine. We are brothers in our vocations and interests, it would seem.

Roger Pearse said...

Is there a translation of Ephrem's hymns against Julian? I've often wished to read these.

Phil Snider said...

Hi Magister;

Thanks for your two comments- this one and the other on Augustine and Me. I'm just getting ready to return to the classroom. I do understand what you're saying about the tensions of being a Latin teacher and Christian, but I think it is my studetns who are holding me there. At least as much of my vocation rests with being there for them. My wife jokes that I'm the unofficial chaplin at my (secular) school. There just enough truth in that to be funny.

As for Hauerwas, his autobiography was the first thing I've seen for awhile. He says he's not done yet, so hopefully he'll be good for a few more.


Phil Snider said...


There is a translation in Kathleen McVey, Ephrem the Syrian Hymns0. New York, Paulist Press, 1989. I just happened to run into it at my favourite theological bookstore, so I had to get it.


Roger Pearse said...

Thank you so much for the reference. That makes TWO translations, then!

By the way, the preceding comment is spam, I think.