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.


Monday, August 23, 2010


I'm back from vacation and starting to settle into preparations for the coming school year, so I thought I'd get back to writing again. That isn't necessarily easy because I've really been feeling like I don't have much to say these days, despite the rather frantic pace of my reading. I'm doing my usual summer bonanza of reading, so I'm currently reading five books, plus trying to read some Greek New Testament and working through my patristics reader. That is, in the spaces between taking care of my son and, well, sleeping. I sometimes suspect that reading is an escape from praying for me, so I'm really trying to cut it back. Not with much success, of course.

I think what is most on my mind, however, is what I've been learning over the last year or so about the Desert Fathers- the ascetics active in Egypt especially, but also Syria and Palestine. A combination of books have commended them: Rowan William's Where God Happens (which I read in a book study at church a couple of years ago), Kathleen Norris' Acedia and Christopher Hall's long-awaiting Worshipping with the Church Fathers. On the face of it, these men and women seem far removed from the life of anyone in the modern urban world which I inhabit. After all, did they not flee their own cities? How are they relevant in the here and now?

Good questions, but I admit that, reading them, I wonder sometimes about us. There have been times over the last few months when I've been walking in the very upscale stretch of Bloor Street (Toronto) or in Yorkdale Mall, when I've wonder what it is that we're doing to ourselves and each other. The site of so much abundance and, paradoxically, so much poverty perplexes me sometimes. The abundance is, of course, easy to see in both the stores, the shoppers and the advertising, ever eager to spur us on to more consumption. The poverty is more subtle, but, nonetheless, real. The very fact that advertising works suggests that poverty because, as one of the author's I've read in the last few months has noted, advertising isn't really about getting things, but desiring things. Incessant and unfulfilled desire seems an excellent description of poverty to me; at least, poverty of the spiritual variety. Our malls and shopping areas are, really, temples to consumption as well as our equivalents to marketplaces. While I have no problem with marketplaces (they are enormously practical things to have in a city), I do have a problem with temples to consumption for the obvious reasons.

I also wonder about me. That is, one of the things that I've really taken to heart is a desert story in which an elder shows up at a meeting of monks who were deliberating the punishment of a wayward brother. The elder puts on a backpack of sand on his back and holds out a basket with a little sand in it in front of him. When asked what this was all about, the elder said that he is chasing his brother's sins, while his sins (in the backpack) are chasing him. The monks take the elders point, break up the meeting and don't judge the wayward brother.

That image keeps coming into my mind because it is an excellent reminder about our self-righteousness. It is easier to see the sins of others and not our own sins. It is easier to judge someone else, than to look to themselves for their own shortcomings. This is what G.K. Chesterton meant, I think, when he answered a invitation to write an essay on what was wrong with the world with a terse and eloquent "I am". And, so am I.

Of course, the Christian life doesn't just stop there. What the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) were good at was striping away one's own self-delusions which prevent us from seeing God. This made them subtle psychologists (explaining their popularity in our psychologized and individualistic society), but, also, admirable spiritual guides, even in their imperfections. They saw human failings not as something to justify flagellation, self-inflicted or otherwise, but as something to be expected and, more importantly, to be overcome with God's help. While some desert monks performed strange and, occasionally, repellent ascetic practices, the wisdom of the Desert Fathers was firmly against these demonstrations partly because they were a demonstration of pride and competition in some, partly because they weakened the body and soul of many. There was enough challenge to fast, to pray, to work and to live in solitude day in and day out.

Now, I don't perform these ascetic practices in my life because my life isn't built that way. I am a husband and a father, a teacher and a churchman, so there are a lot of busyness that I'm involved in which makes the desert life impossible. Yet, I had a reminder today about the similarities in the vowed life of a monk and my own vowed life as a husband and father. A colleague of mine had asked for a French translation for 'mid-life crisis' and she, eventually, came up with demon apres midi- the noon-day demon. I laughed, of course, not only because my colleague is hardly fond of religion, but, also, because of the aptness of the phrase. The noon-day demon was used among the desert monastics as a description of acedia- that restless funk that one gets into when one is engaged in routine things and the day begins to stretch on for an eternity. So much of our modern mythology around the 'mid-life' crisis resembles the noon-day demon run amok that it is entirely appropriate that the French use this synonym to acedia to describe it. How many times have we heard someone justify some rash move (an affair, a new sports car, taking up a dangerous sport) as being a way to feel alive again? Acedia, right?

That leads me back to my opening comments, wondering if my reading frenzy is really about avoiding the prayer and the monotony of the occasional glimpses of solitude that I get from day to day. It is difficult to know how far this is my passion for learning or my tendency to want to keep busy and in control. The Desert Fathers are teaching me to suspect what I'm doing and stop worrying about what others are up to. That is a hard enough lesson for me right now.