Sunday, 8 December 2013

Speculations on the history of Christianity and Empire

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The grand strategy of Christianity in relation to the world is something that I find myself speculating upon from time to time.

Given the long wait of the ancient Hebrews for Messiah, it would seem that there needed to be social preconditions for the Incarnation to stand its best chance of achieving its goals.

Because human free will is real, and Men are and were free to reject salvation; so social conditions - specifically the state of Mens' minds - is important; thus God must work with society, as best as may be.

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It would seem that the pagan Roman Empire provided the best chance for the Gospel - since it was both multi-national and highly religious (multi-religion): providing the optimal possibilities for the new faith to spread (i.e. the best chance that many Men would choose Christ).

It is to the credit of the many individuals who embraced Christianity under the pagan Emperors, that the Empire swiftly became Christian with the foundation of the Second Rome at Constantinople.

The Christian Roman Empire endured for over a thousand years; after which a Third Rome (self-consciously so) emerged in Moscow - to end utterly in 1917.

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Always it seems that God works to spread his Gospel; and Empire is one way this may happen - but only if Men will it.

Many Empires have arisen in Christendom, and it is as-if some were hoped, or perhaps intended, to become the site of the Fourth Rome and a new Christian Roman Empire.

Medieval and modern Western Europe as a whole had opportunities, but in the end Men chose schism and warfare over the possibility of Christian Empire; and the individual states rejected Christianity as the focus of their societies, hence incipient Empires were not primarily Christian and missionary, but at best the Gospel would follow-behind commercial and military priorities.

Perhaps Madrid, or Paris, or Amsterdam, or London, or Berlin was meant to be a Fourth Rome - but no, it did not happen.

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Meanwhile, a New World was found; and North America became a focus of Christian hopes, then a place where the ground was prepared by phases of revival.

Perhaps there was the divine intention of a North American Christian empire with Philadelphia as the Fourth Rome?

But the US people en masse, as a whole, chose otherwise; and descended into civil war, materialism, another civil war, and modernity.

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The emergence of Mormonism was another chance, with great possibilities and remarkable achievements emerging rapidly and very obvious - but the national response was instead to seek extermination of the budding movement; again, and again, and again.

Extermination of the Mormon religion was the national, indeed, international, choice of Men.

The policy of extermination failed in that objective; but the policy nonetheless successfully prevented what might, perhaps, have become a Mormon Empire; with Salt Lake City emerging as the Fourth Rome.

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Behind all this I imagine Jesus Christ working tirelessly to expand the possibilities of spreading His Gospel - often aiming at the 'ideal' of a Christian Empire - a Fourth Rome, a Third Byzantium; but always, necessarily, working via the free choices of Men.

Also, I imagine the workings of His Adversary Satan and his minions; also tireless in his spreading of lies, encouragement of hatred, selfishness, short-termism; destruction of beauty and virtue...

...focusing his destructive efforts often on any budding hopes of Christian Empire...

...aiming to subvert, destroy and invert; aiming to infiltrate and convert any existing Good Empire into a Demonic Empire.

(...such as The West has now become - reaching-out internationally to attack Good, to destabilize and foment civil violence and war. The demonic Empire of the West may seem to be a failure - and by conventional military standards it surely is - but in the past fifteen years it has triumphantly succeeded in facilitating, enabling and concealing the torment and killing of millions of Christians worldwide; especially in the Middle East and Africa. Clearly, at some level, that is its primary strategy.)

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It really is much, much easier (requires less time, effort, resources) to destroy than to create order.

It is easier to pursue short-term and selfish goals than to love patiently.

Hence Good is always swimming against the stream of natural resistance.

In the end, the prophecies are of utter failure, on this earth - with destruction of the world.

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This world is doomed as surely as Ragnarok seemed inevitable to the Norse pagans; and the Giants of disorder and destruction shall eventually triumph despite the courage of the heroes.

Yet Ragnarok will be (and is being) delayed; for so long as fresh souls are being saved. 

Ragnarok will happen, the pagans were correct about that; but Christians know there is another and better world to come after Ragnarok - and that makes all the difference.

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23 comments:

Valkea said...

The highest Christian goal is not a empire, but congregation or congregation network.

alexi de sadesky said...

Beautiful, Bruce.

mormonchess said...

I love the broad, epic sweep of your speculations. (No sarcasm here, it's genuine appreciation).

The Crow said...

The Norse saw a worthy picture of things: value in the notion of going down fighting. That may or may not always entail swords, hammers and blood.
The one thing you can always say about life, is that it is inevitably death that prevails.
The manner in which one meets it, though, is probably what really counts.

p.s: To all commenters...
That annoyingly unreadable code that demands you prove you're not a robot, always gets much easier to read if you click the refresh button. It's taken me forever to notice that :)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - Yes, it's a horrible thing; but when I have tried switching it off I get flooded with spam.

Arakawa said...

Another interpretation of the timing of Jesus' arrival which is somewhat at odds with the one given here (and only heard among denominations who do not accept the Immaculate Conception) is that it was dependent on the free assent of Mary. (Not just in agreeing at the Annunciation, but also in living a sinless life that made it possible in the first place.)

This paints a somewhat different picture, in that there might have been better opportunities for the Incarnation in world-historical terms (there might certainly have been earlier ones), but they could not have been taken because there was no one as blameless as Mary around at that time. That means, on the one hand, that God was forced to delay sending His Son even until the eleventh hour, instead contenting Himself by sending prophecies and making promises for the future, but on the other hand the salvation of mankind was accomplished in synergy and cooperation with human free-will, without overriding it at any point.

(The Immaculate Conception also works, so long as you do not ask the question of why God did not simply negate the Fall for everyone by the same sort of divine fiat. The standard answer is that God respects human free will, but then in this one case He made an unprincipled exception....)

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as for the code: It's a tolerable requirement, though I sometimes wonder why they put so many pictures of house numbers on there....

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

A point is missing in this otherwise very good reflection. You are hinting at it in this phrase: the state of Mens' minds - is important, but then you appear to leave it aside and emphasize religion and love as the only bases of a well-ordered and enduring civilization. The thing you leave aside is reason (mind) to the profit of heart and will. Heart and will are all important for motivation and action, but if reason is not put forward first, and is abandoned, society falls into disorder and decadence sooner or later.

I think with Maritain that the Word of God chose to become Man in a world that already had a notion of the Logos, a world where the best minds believed the light of human reason originated from, and reflected – no matter how dimly – divine light. Hence the fact that the Romans had the good sense to order their society around reasonable moral tenets, and did not usually force their religion or customs over the conquered people. They willingly became Christians because the belief in truths discovered by the greatest of Greek philosophers had made them more intelligent. As to heart and will, I think with Henri de Lubac that many souls in Plato’s Cave were largely dissatisfied with the belief in blind Fate and terrifying otherworld Powers. So they preferred to come to the light and the promise of a better world, both on earth and after death; to the point that death for the Truth was for many of them preferable to living in darkness and for lesser goods.

Matthew C. said...

I think it is clear that the world will be eventually healed and redeemed, not destroyed. There are many promises to this effect in both the old and new Testaments. For example:

And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
- Isaiah 2:2-4


Samson J. said...

The grand strategy of Christianity in relation to the world is something that I find myself speculating upon from time to time.

Great topic today; I think about this a lot as well. Particularly with respect to questions about the death of faith in England and other Western nations... My belief is that although it makes me personally terribly sad to see England, e.g. - once one of the brightest centres of faith on Earth - have become such a faithless land, the fact may be that God is simply done with England and her Empire. The Empire served its purpose - now it's the turn of some other nation to be used for God's purpose.

You have been convinced that the Mormon religion is/was God's next intended vehicle. Maybe. I have sometimes wondered about the growth of Christianity in China, and whether China may be the next worldwide vehicle for spreading the faith. Maybe not, but all the same I don't believe at all that these things happen by accident, and when I see the massive growth of faith in that land, I wonder whether God is planning something...

In the end, the prophecies are of utter failure, on this earth - with destruction of the world.

This world is doomed as surely as Ragnarok seemed inevitable to the Norse pagans


I don't agree with this, as a post-millenial preterist. It may be hard to see from the West, but there are more Christians in more places, and fewer "un-reached people groups", than there ever have been before.

@Crow:

It's taken me forever to notice that :)

Hahahaha... you will surely forgive me if I laugh a bit at you... Usually I have to refresh it like 4 or 5 times to get one that's legible.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - Interesting. I am always surprised and impressed by the reasonableness, and lawfulness, of the Romans as described in the New Testament - for example, Pilate; and the treatment of St Paul in Acts. At least, they could have been a lot worse, a lot more arbitrary.

@SJ - I hardly know what to believe or hope-for from China; it seems such unpromising soil. And the kind of Christianity which is spreading (ultra-Protestant, home church) is not (I think) the kind that would be compatible with theocracy/ Empire.

But IF China were to become Christian, then there would be no doubt about the fact - it would not be ambiguous, nor difficult to discern.

Kristor said...

Arakawa: The Immaculate Conception was, as I understand it, a necessary but not a sufficient forecondition of the Incarnation. Mary's Immaculate Conception did not mean she was not free, or that it was not possible for her to disagree with the Divine Will.

Furthermore, her Immaculate Conception was not an unprincipled exception. It followed causally (albeit not in the order of time - which, remember, does not bind God (rather, vice versa)) upon her Assent at the Annunciation, and upon the Atonement, of which it was the first creaturely fruit.

Kristor said...

I should havbe said:

"The Immaculate Conception was, as I understand it, a necessary but not a sufficient forecondition of the Incarnation. Her assent was also needed. Mary's Immaculate Conception did not mean she was not free, or that it was not possible for her to disagree with the Divine Will."

dearieme said...

"denominations who do not accept the Immaculate Conception": which, untilDecember 8, 1854, included even the Roman Catholics.

Samson J. said...

I meant to add, as well, that I think this pattern we see, of God using Empires to spread the faith, and then leaving those Empires to their own devices when they are no longer useful, goes to show that God really doesn't favour any particular people.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SJ "God using Empires to spread the faith, and then leaving those Empires to their own devices when they are no longer useful"

Well, that isn't how I see it. I see it as God wanting to use Empires to spread the faith - in other words to have Holy Empires - but that this only happens when Men (en masse) choose it to happen.

And I don't think God leaves the Empires to their own devices (or, at least, not usually or often) but that the people become corrupted - God still works to use the Empire, but the people choose to reject God, and choose to create societies that train other people to reject God, and choose to persecute those who do not reject God... and so on.

Of course, according to Scripture God does sometimes withdraw His... presence? (would that be the word) from individuals and from groups.

But I think the normal state that prevails in evil Empires is of God trying, and trying, to communicate with Man - but Man resolutely blocking-out (and misinterpreting) these attempts: Man turning away - and becoming absorbed instead by hedonism, hatred, despair, intoxication and the rest of it.

Arakawa said...

@Kristor

Reading up on it some more, I'm given to understand that the official dogma states merely that Mary was free from original sin through baptismal grace from her very conception -- which, depending on how Catholicism understands original sin, may in fact be necessary for Mary to be considered sinless.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Valkea (Your comment was caught in the spam filter until now!) "The highest Christian goal is not a empire, but congregation or congregation network. "

That is the ultra-Protestant view, I suppose. It may be the best that can be managed; but is unable to influence/ control national or international policy (such as laws, or foreign policy) - therefore, I do not think it can successfully defend its own existence in a world of power blocs

Kenneth Shaw said...

I kind of rankled at the word "Empire" untill I understood it as Kingdom.

Christ is supreme and universal Monarch of all.

Bruce Charlton said...

@KS - Kingdom, yes - a multi-nation kingdom; Kingdoms under one High King.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

dearieme said:
"denominations who do not accept the Immaculate Conception": which, until December 8, 1854, included even the Roman Catholics.

Then why did Roman Catholics accept Immaculate Conception overwhelmingly from December 8, 1854 on? Because they already believed it. Since nothing can ever be added to Revelation, the only new thing in a newly proclaimed dogma is our awareness and understanding of points we did not see clearly before (cf. JH Newman on “Development of Doctrine”). A dogmatic proclamation serves either to mark an expansion of theological knowledge on a consequential doctrine, or to protect the faithful from heresy, or both.

Adam G. said...

s for the code: It's a tolerable requirement, though I sometimes wonder why they put so many pictures of house numbers on there....

Of the two codes, one is the real code and the other is something for real life that the program is getting humans to transcribe for it. Back when Google was doing Google books, they were mostly proper names from texts. Now they are house numbers that have been captured by, I think, Google cameras. You can put any ol' thing down for the house numbers and still pass the code.

Adam G. said...

To your point, Bruce, there is considerable evidence that Joseph Smith's vision for the Church was a a kind of theocratic federal empire that replicated itself with a series of relatively autonomous communities to fill the earth, and that he saw the United States Constitution as a providential means towards that end.

I have always assumed that the divine meaning of all this was in the subtext somewhere, but it never occurred to me until now that that maybe the divine meaning was right there in the text--Joseph Smith had this vision because God wanted it to happen. Amazing what I learn about my own faith on this blog.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam G - Thanks. Maybe its because I am in the unusual (and likely transitional) position of being neither inside nor wholly outside.