Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Authority and the Sacred

Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman world. Peter Brown, 1995.

Chapter 1 – Christianisation - Narratives and process

In chapter one, Peter Brown identifies a common narrative that describes the process of Roman Christianisation then presents an alternative narrative of Roman Christianisation characterised by a crisis of confidence in the imperial system. An explicit narrative is not set forth in the chapter, but rather a series of possible misconceptions that did not address the problem of authority within Roman Christianisation is outlined.

The common narrative suggests Christianisation took place quickly; from the conversion of Constantine in 312, to the death of Theodosius II in 450, we see the end of paganism. (p.4) Peter Brown then suggests that the suspended sense of time in the common narrative of Roman Christianisation owes its origin to the supernatural qualities of the Christian religion itself. The manifestation of Christ was instantaneous, miraculous, and eternal. The narrative that followed placed the end of paganism at the birth of Christ and subsequent conversions of emperors and abolishment of temples and sacrificial ceremonies as ‘mopping up’.

The alternative that Peter Brown presents acknowledges the secular power structure of Roman society. The ‘governing elite’ of the officially Christian empire owed little or nothing to Christianity. Social and cultural changes within the heraldry of power during this period do not reflect a process of Christianisation. Instead Christianisation took place through sermons, such as from St. Augustine, and through changing the social rites and behaviour of a historically pagan laity. The chapter ends with Christianisation being a ‘slow, heroic struggle on earth against the unyielding, protean weight of an unconverted world.’

Chapter 2 – Limits of Intolerance

Intolerance of the post-Constantinian empire influences current notions of the period. The limits of the well-known intolerance are explored here. The notion of tolerance is certainly not to be found, even in a supposedly tolerant paganism. Intolerance held the day for paganism and Christianity. What held intolerance in check for the post-Constantinian empire was the Roman emphasis on civility. The marks of innate superiority in Rome were seen to be courtesy, self-control, and quiet confidence. The ruling elite did not give up their customs of civility and subsequent power to the young Christian church. Religious conformity held back seat to implicit codes of public behaviour.

The religious passions of the time were checked by the nature of the centralised Roman beauracracy; dependence on collaboration of local elites and administrative structures of local cities for the collection and distribution of taxes. Religious anger and intolerance was checked by the need to keep local elites happy. Courtesy was necessary to extort conformity. The fourth century was not a century overshadowed by the conflict of paganism and Christianity. A history of tolerance and intolerance in the later Roman period belongs to the wider political and cultural factors that made up the tenacious moral fibre of the late Roman elites. Violence between paganism and Christianity was not approved as it was essential that the traditional elites should not lose the monopoly on violence; unsanctioned use of force. The elites were determined to conduct the Christianisation on their terms.

Chapter 3 – Arbiters of the Holy – the Christian holy man in late antiquity

This chapter is an attempt to use the lives of the major holy men of late antiquity to seize the characteristics of the period as a whole. The holy man aided the emergence of a new religious commonsense associated with an exclusive monotheism. The religious person was watched closely by his neighbours for evidence of virtue and hence spiritual powers that might prove useful to others. The holy man emerged at a crucial moment in the religious history of late antiquity. He was a figure of genuine spiritual power at a time when the holy stretched far beyond the somewhat narrow confines of the triumphant Christian church. A Christian saint was a person who had been allowed to have the last word in what had been a long and well informed discussion of supernatural causality, in which many other experts had participated.

However, little of Roman public society was occupied by Christian holy persons. The solid gold of demonstrative Christian sanctity was spectacular, but it circulated in strictly delimited channels. Despite this, expectations of the Christian holy man were inexhaustible. Christian holy persons were thrust into prominence during late antiquity by an exceptionally stern and world-denying streak . The prominence of Christian holy men owes to the expectation that they would act upon the spiritual world largely in terms of expectations that echoed all that was most abrasively up to date in the hierarchical and patronage-ridden social structure of the later Roman Empire. The holy man was simply a patron to the one God which mimicked the hierarchy of Rome. Christian holy persons had come to embrace the mundus, the material world itself. By playing a role in the slow emergence of an imaginative model of the world that had a place for such wide-arching prayers, the Christian saints of late antiquity helped to make Christianity at last, and for a short moment, before the rise of Islam, the one truly universal religion of much of Europe and the Middle East.

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