Wednesday, May 04, 2011

'Christ transforming culture' vs 'Rome transforming culture'

Over at Alfred the Great Society I recently wrote about Niebuhr's language of "Christ transforming culture", which I take to be a very profound though simple statement of the Christian approach to culture. As I study the history of the early church, one thing I find interesting is that this paradigm of cultural transformation is something that the early Christians shared in common with Rome.
This may help to explain something that may otherwise strike us as rather puzzling. From almost the very beginning, the Christian movement was seen as a threat to the Roman empire even though Rome tolerated all manner of different religious movements. In the city of Rome, and throughout her empire, there was an array of various mystery cults. These were imported from all over the civilized world, but especially from the East. They offered their votaries privileged access to certain divinities but they did not dictate how life should be lived in the public world. It is this point which helps to explain why Christianity was so different. The mystery cults, like Gnosticism, addressed themselves to a person’s interior spirituality; Christianity, like the imperial “religion” of the Roman state, did not.

But what was the religion of the Roman state or, if you will, the “cult of Caesar? The main feature of the imperial religion was not emperor worship, as is often imagined. It is true that many of the Julio-Claudian emperors claimed to be sons of a god, with some of them even claiming divine honors for themselves. However, this emerged out of, and did not form the basis of the imperial religion, which revolved around loyalty to the empire. Such loyalty involved more than merely paying taxes and defending one’s country. It involved bringing all of one’s external life and allegiance into subjection to the priorities of the state, which is why we may legitimately refer to it as being “religious’ in the broad sense. As N.T. Wright wrote, summarizing the findings set forth in Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society:
The evidence now available, including that from epigraphy and archaeology, shows that the cult of Caesar was not simply one new religion among many in the Roman world. Already by Paul's time it had become the dominant cult in a large part of the Empire, certainly in the parts where Paul was active, and was the means whereby the Romans managed to control and govern such huge areas as came under their sway. Who needs armies when they have worship? 
It is not hard to see why the religion of Rome was attractive to so many. The Roman state offered a vision of the good life; the Roman state offered peace for its citizens; the Roman state brought together previously warring pluralities; the Roman state offered a sense of eschatological progress; the Roman state provided a framework of meaning to answer the question “how should we live?” In short, the commitment that Rome demanded of its citizens was so complete that it can only be adequately described in religious terms, even  though many votaries of the state would not have considered themselves Rome-worshipers.

Unlike the mystery religions, which were private and personal, the religion demanded by Rome was public and political. As Stephen Perks observed in his book Common-Law Wives and Concubines:
The Eastern cults that were popular in ancient Rome, such as the cults of Mithras and Isis, did not structure the lives of their adherents – at least not if they were good Roman citizens. What structured the lives of the Romans was the religion of Rome, which was a political religion. 
Central to the Roman religion was what we may call a “Rome transforming culture” paradigm. Rome was committed to working like yeast through the entire social-political sphere until all of culture was Romanized. N.T. Wright has used the example of the Roman colony of Philippi as an example of this agenda:
Philippi was a Roman colony. Augustus had settled his veterans there after the battles of Philippi (42 B.C.) and Actium (31 B.C.). Not all residents of Philippi were Roman citizens, but all knew what citizenship meant. The point of creating colonies was…aimed at extending Roman influence around the Mediterranean world, creating cells and networks of people loyal to Caesar in the wider culture. (Surprised by Hope)
Against this backdrop it begins to make sense that Christianity threatened the imperial credo while the Gnostics and the mystery cults did not. The Christians were committed to transforming culture just as much as Rome, though the transformation they sought was based on a different set of values. The Christians, like the Caesars, applied the language of euangelion (“gospel” or “glad tidings”) to their movement. The Christians, like Rome, taught that they held the answer for bringing justice, order and peace to the world (Luke 2:13-14; John 14:27). The Christians, like the Romans, claimed that a single man had rightful dominion over the whole earth (Matt. 28:18). The Christians, like the imperial religion, offered a sense of community to previously warring pluralities (Gal. 3:28). The Christians, like the religion of Rome, was intent on evangelizing the world (Matt. 28:19).

But whereas the Caesars sought to Romanize the world through brutality, force and bloodshed, the Christians sought to evangelize the world through love, self-giving, and sacrifice. The glad tidings of Jesus was therefore bad news for Caesar, since it proclaimed there was another way to transform culture that was superior to Caesar’s way. It announced that God had called out a people whose vocation was to work for peace and justice on Jesus’ terms, not Caesar’s. Building on the scholarship put forward in the series of essays edited by Richard Horlsey, N.T. Wright has effectively charted Paul’s missionary work within this same paradigm of cultural transformation:
His missionary work, it appears (I am here summing up in my own way what I take to be the book's central thrust), must be conceived not simply in terms of a traveling evangelist offering people a new religious experience, but of an ambassador for a king-in-waiting, establishing cells of people loyal to this new king, and ordering their lives according to his story, his symbols, and his praxis, and their minds according to his truth. This could only be construed as deeply counter-imperial, as subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman Empire; and there is in fact plenty of evidence that Paul intended it to be so construed, and that when he ended up in prison as a result of his work he took it as a sign that he had been doing his job properly.
Had Christianity been merely one more mystery cult, offering its followers a new kind of spiritual experience, it is likely that the Romans would have taken as little notice of Christianity as they did the mystery cults or Gnosticism. It was precisely because the totalizing claims of Christ’s lordship competed with the goals of the imperial idolatry and competed with Rome for total cultural transformation that Christianity could not be ignored. As Peter Leithart has observed in his book, Against Christianity, in the early church we do not find an essentially private gospel applied to the public sphere, as if the public implications of the gospel were a second story built on the private ground floor. Rather, the Gospel is the announcement that a new creation has burst in upon the old order, transforming, not just individuals, but nations. Such nations included the Roman empire.

Even when the early Christians submitted to the ruling authorities, there was an implicit challenge. In writing to the Romans, Paul made clear that the reason Christians were to submit to the civil magistrates is because they have been placed there by the higher authority of God (Rom. 13:1). Though the Caesars liked to think of themselves as autonomous and subject to no one, Christians proclaimed that earthly rulers are God’s ministers, responsible for carrying out His business here on earth (Rom. 13:2-7). The idea that Caesar’s authority was derivative rather than ultimate was nothing less than fighting talk in the politically tumultuous days of the first and second centuries.

While the “Christ transforming culture” pattern directly confronted the pretentions of Rome, it also challenged 1st century paganism. While Gnosticism denigrated creation, paganism deified it. The Christian doctrine of the goodness of creation articulated by Paul in such passages as Colossians 1:15-20 or later picked up by Irenaeus, deny to Paganism the ability to claim the high ground of celebrating creation. In contrast to the notion prevelant in Stiocism and paganism that matter is itself divine, but also in opposition to Platonism, which taught that matter is less real and substantial than the ethereal world of ideas, the Christian celebration of the Eucharist continually proclaimed the revolutionary notion that Christ had sanctified matter through the event of the incarnation while being simultaneously transcendent from it. Unlike the Gnostics who drew a division between God the creator and God the redeemer, the Christians announced that the God who created and said, “It is good” is also the God who died to redeem the world and whose people are called to act as agents of new creation. Christianity thus presented integrationalist framework that brought constantly reconciled ostensible dualisms in the person of Jesus Christ.

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