Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Early Years

How did Christianity appear to the men and women of the Roman Empire?  How did it look to the outsider before it became the established religion of western Europe and Byzantium?

These are the questions Wilken intends to answer in this book.  We know the story up until we find John on the island of Patmos, primarily through the book of Acts and through Paul’s letters.  We know the story of Constantine and his adoption of the faith – giving Christianity political authority for the first time. 

But what of the story in-between?  How was this sect seen by those in power: a military threat, a political threat, a source for revolution…or no threat at all?  Wilken will answer the questions not by examining the works of Christian authors, but through the observations of pagan observers of Christianity (albeit, we often only have excerpts of these writings captured in rebuttals offered by later Christian apologists).

Pliny called Christianity a “superstition”; Celsus wrote that Jesus was magician and sorcerer.  Porphyry, Julian, Galen and Lucian are also considered.  These authors cover a period of almost three hundred years – from the early second century into the late fourth century.  Wilken does not address if the criticisms are true or not; he is only after presenting the Roman view of Christianity (and “Roman” is meant to include both Roman and Greek authors).

In the earliest years, Christianity went virtually unnoticed:

For almost a century Christianity went unnoticed by most men and women in the Roman Empire.

Pliny the Elder (Pliny’s uncle and, later, adopted father) wrote his Natural History a generation after the death of Jesus; in the section on Palestine, there is not a single mention of Christianity.  The first mention of the sect by a Roman writer occurs about eighty years after the beginning of Christianity.  To the extent the Christians were noticed, non-Christians saw the Christian community as “tiny, peculiar, antisocial, [and an] irreligious sect…” 

As mentioned, much of what Wilken would find from these authors regarding Christianity comes from Christian apologists in response – these Christian texts have been better preserved.  The debates at the time are the debates many still have today (albeit without even understanding the earlier arguments): creation out of nothing; faith vs. reason; the status and relation of Jesus to God; the historical reliability of the Scriptures.

Early in the second century, Pliny was sent as provincial governor of Bithynia-Pontus, on the northern coast of Asia Minor.  His assignments were numerous: look into irregularities in the handling of funds, examine the municipal administrations, put down potentially political disorders, deal with pending criminal cases, and investigate the military situation.  As can be seen, the sect of Christianity would be considered among a couple of these assignments.

When Pliny wrote of the Christians, he used the same term for club – hetaeria – as he used to described a firemen’s association.  The concern in both cases: would these clubs restrict themselves strictly to professional or social concerns, or would these turn political – eventually revolutionary?

Somewhere between the cities of Amisus and Amastris, Pliny wrote his famous letter regarding Christians.  It is not clear in which city the activities described were occurring – it can only be said that it was one of the coastal cities of northern Pontus.

A group of local citizens approached him to complain about the Christians in the vicinity.  The precise complaint is unknown, but it is possible to infer that the charge was brought by the local butchers: the Christians refused to buy meat for the sacrifice.  Whatever the specific trouble, this was unusual: in most areas of the Empire, Christians lived peaceably among their neighbors. 

Although [Pliny] expected to find evidence of Christian crimes, he found none.  He discovered instead that the rites were innocuous. …All Pliny found was a superstition, a foreign cult.

They would meet to chant verses in honor of Christ as if to a god; they would bind to each other by oath – but not for any criminal purpose, as they would abstain from theft, robbery and adultery; to commit no breach of trust.

With all this, he still summoned the accused Christians to confess: a yes answer would result in execution: per Wilken, “Christians were culpable for the sake of the name alone.”  He did not have authority to execute those Christians who were also Roman citizens; their fate is unknown.  Pliny would write: “Whatever the nature of their admission, I am not convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.”

Charges would increase in other cities; anonymously authored pamphlets were circulated, listing dozens of “suspects.”  Pliny would devise a method to better test the confessions: repeat the formula of invocation to the gods; make an offering to Trajan’s statue; revile the name of Christ.  Such a test had few, if any, precedents in Roman history. 

Trajan would concur with this formula, and add: “…pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation.”


From such beginnings, Christianity would eventually be able to conquer – for all of the good and bad that came with this – the largest empire in the western world.  But there are still a couple of centuries before this occurrence; these will be reviewed in subsequent posts.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Why Sacrifice Isaac?

NB: I know that this book crosses pretty far into the “Christian” side of the discussion here, but I am reviewing it in some detail for a couple of reasons: first, I think the problem of no pain directly contributes to the meaning crisis which directly contributes to the loss of purpose in man, and therefore to our loss of liberty; second, I want to understand better the counter to a tired criticism – if God is love, why is there pain?

Since the life of Christ is every way most bitter to nature and the Self and the Me (for in the true life of Christ, the Self and the Me and nature must be forsaken and lost and die altogether), therefore in each of us, nature hath a horror of it.

Theologia Germanica, XX

The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis

Lewis offers the example of an accomplished artist.  One can envision such an artist sketching a quick picture for a young child, not so concerned about details or exactness.  But what of the painting meant for grand display?  Are we not that for God?

One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute.  In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed us for a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but less.

The more that a father loves his son, the more care he takes in the son’s development; sometimes the form of this care is less than agreeable to the son.  Love is something far more than ensuring a son’s continuous happiness:

The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word ‘love’, and look on things as if man were the centre of them.  Man is not the centre.  God does not exist for the sake of man.

Why would a good God allow such pain?  Who says that His paramount objective is to ensure such pain is never experienced?  Who says that the avoidance of our pain is God’s purpose?

To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God…. I do not think I should value much the love of a friend who cared only for my happiness and did not object to my becoming dishonest.

Unless we are asking our friend to no longer be our friend.

…man, as a species, spoiled himself…good, to us in our present state, must therefore mean primarily remedial or corrective good.

Pain plays some part in the remedy.  We see this every day: one decides to pick himself up only after he recognizes and understands that he has hit bottom.  Without this recognition, no remediation would take place.

A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity.  Christ takes it for granted that men are bad.

Once we accept this, we can understand pain.  Why would we expect paradise and peace in a world of fallen man?  As we are fallen, why would we not want to learn how to get up?  As we are weak, why would we not want to learn the measure of our true strength?

Per Lewis: Good descends to us from God; evil is produced by rebellious man; God exploits that evil for His purpose; this produces the complex good to which accepted suffering contributes. 

It is my understanding that one of the primary reasons for the exponential growth of the early Church was its work in alleviating the pain and suffering of those living under the yoke of Rome.


Abraham takes Isaac to be sacrificed to God…

But as St Augustine points out, whatever God knew, Abraham at any rate did not know that his obedience could endure such a command until the event taught him: and the obedience which he did not know that he would choose, he cannot be said to have chosen.


I had to look up the Theologia Germanica – the source of the quote at the beginning of this post – wanting to understand something about it.  It was written in the fourteenth century by an anonymous author.  According to Martin Luther:

Next to the Bible and St. Augustine, no book has ever come into my hands from which I have learned more of God and Christ, and man and all things that are.

So, Luther loved it.  John Calvin, on the other hand:

…says it is "conceived by Satan's cunning... it contains a hidden poison which can poison the church."

The Church placed it on the list of prohibited books in 1612; it remained on the list until the latter half of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Problem of No Pain

Faith is cold as ice —
Why are little ones born only to suffer
For the want of immunity
Or a bowl of rice?

-          Rush, Roll the Bones

The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis

…when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God most of all.

Lewis begins with a short preface, basically telling the reader how unqualified he is to write on this subject.  We will see.

He opens with the problem of pain – perhaps summarized in the snippet of Rush lyrics offered at the top of this post, but with more flavor.  It is man’s knowledge of pain that has allowed him to develop hundreds of ways of inflicting pain on his fellow man. 

Everything about pain points to the opposite of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit:

Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.

Yet this raises a real problem: if the universe is so bad, why on earth did man dream up this idea of a good Creator?  After all, the world of man at the time of this “invention” was far more painful and frightening than the world in which virtually all of us live in today – they dared not even venture into the nearby forest, let alone across a continent or across an ocean.  Are we to believe that men were not just fools, but completely foolish?

Certainly at all periods the pain and waste of human life was equally obvious. …It is mere nonsense to put pain among the discoveries of science.

Lewis identifies three strands or elements common to all developed religion, and in Christianity one more: the Numinous (mysterious, awe-inspiring); an acknowledgment of some kind of morality; the Numinous power is made guardian of the morality; the fourth, unique to Christianity: Jesus – at one with the “Something” which is the Numinous and the giver of the moral law.

[Christianity] creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimately reality is righteous and loving.

It is relatively easy to look at pain as the anomaly of life – in our time and in the developed world.  But the opposite is the reality: we certainly have the certainty of death – first, one by one, many of our loved ones; eventually, each one of us.  Take away the division of labor and even this mental exercise is enough to cause physical pain; this was the reality of pain for much of human history.

But could not God have made it otherwise?

If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished.  But the creatures are not happy.  Therefore God lacks either goodness, power, or both.

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem of pain.  For this, Lewis discusses God’s omnipotence – His power to do all. 

His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.  You may attribute miracles to him, but not nonsense.

God cannot both give free will to His human creatures and not give free will to them at the same time.  As Lewis says: “...meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’.”

It remains true that all things are possible to God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. …nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.

The ‘laws of nature’ appear to present a strong argument against the goodness and / or the power of God.  Lewis will argue that not even Omnipotence could create free souls without at the same time creating a “relatively independent” nature.

The freedom of a creature means freedom to choose; the freedom to choose implies choices from which one can choose.  The fixed nature of matter, therefore, cannot make it always and everywhere agreeable to every creature.  A man travelling in one direction downhill means that when travelling in the other direction, another man is going uphill.

If fire comforts the body at a certain distance, it will destroy it when the distance is reduced.  Hence, even in a perfect world, the necessity for those danger signals which the pain-fibres in our nerves are apparently designed to transmit.

Wood can be used for a beam just as easily as it can be used to hit our neighbor on the head.  But why couldn’t God transform that wood into soft grass one moment before the blow struck the neighbor’s head?  In such a world, wrong action would be impossible; this would make a mockery of free will.

Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.

We don’t want a Father in heaven; we want a grandfather in heaven: one who likes to see the young people having a good time and enjoying themselves.  But a Father has a greater responsibility: love.  And love requires correction. 


To really feel the joy in life
You must suffer through the pain

Until you struggle through the dark
You'll never know that you're alive

-          Dream Theater, Illumination Theory

There is more to this book, so no grand conclusion as of now.  I can only say something from personal experience and observation: life has had the most meaning when one offers or sees an example of another going through pain, when one is dealing with pain and is comforted by another, when one is comforting and aiding another in pain.

Does this mean we should rejoice in pain, or pray for more?  Hardly.  Pain will come, with or without our encouragement.  But Jesus came to alleviate pain, and Jesus is the archetype for human beings.  What useless creatures we would be if we had no struggles with which to deal.

In the developed world – certainly in the West – life is reasonably pain-free when compared to other places and times.  This drives people to invent ways to risk pain.  And those who take on such risks describe the experience as most meaningful. 

I cannot put such activities in the same category as the pain that comes naturally in life – it cannot fill the same void in the same way.  However, it does demonstrate the truth of much of what Lewis has written. 

It demonstrates, in a less-than-perfect way, that the problem of no pain is much greater than the problem of pain.