History of Christianity  Class 15
What Did We Learn?

History of Christianity  Class 15

What Did We Learn?

The Ever-Adapting Religion 

Our survey of Christianity has been along fairly well-lit paths, where historical evidence has been sufficient for us to observe the ways in which this religion has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for cultural adaptation as it was exposed to multiple cultures. Today, we will review that historical path and follow it briefly from the 16th century all  the way to present days. In doing this we will examine a number of other issues that we were exposed to in this study.

So there are four somewhat related issues I would like to review today as we wrap this up.

Four Themes

  • The Ever Adapting Religion
  • Christianity’s Appeal and Growth
  • The Limits of Historical Knowing
  • Christianity’s Fidelity to Its “Essence

Tracing the History of Christianity

Beginning as a sect of Judaism in Palestine and interacting intensely with the symbols of Torah as it shaped its own Scriptures, Christianity’s first great expansion involved interaction with the dominant Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean world.

During the centuries of persecution, as the movement sought self-definition within a hostile empire, further negotiations with culture were required: To Judaism’s Scripture, Christians said yes, but to its language and law, they said no; to Greco-Roman moral philosophy, Christians said yes, but to its religion, no; Christians said yes to powerful religious experience, but no to experiences that threatened tradition.

Becoming the established religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine caused the greatest cultural adaptation: A formerly despised sect regarded as a superstition became the religious glue for a world-spanning empire. In every respect, Christianity had to stretch mightily in order to play the role assigned it.

The form of Christianity based in Constantinople became ever more Greek in character and ever more integrally entwined with the culture called “Byzantine.” This form continued after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 in the Orthodox Christianity of the Russian Empire.

The form of Christianity based in the old capital city of Rome had to negotiate its existence in the face of the collapse of the empire. A fusion of disparate elements was required to shape “Christendom,” a civilization that lasted for more than 700 years: the emergence of the papacy, the development of religious orders in harmony with the papacy, and the nurturing of a new Holy Roman Empire in the Frankish kingdom.

Between the 16th  and 20th  centuries, therefore, Christianity became a truly “world religion,” with adherents in every land and language.

As  it  expanded,  Christianity  was  increasingly  required  to engage  questions  of  cultural  diversity.  Such  questions,  in turn, raised concerns about the possibility of compromising Christianity’s identity or the use of the Christian mission as an instrument of European cultural hegemony. 

These questions remain open, even as Christianity faces more severe challenges that have been posed by modernity. Perhaps the greatest challenge of all, in light of the greatest part of Christian history, is this: How would Christianity deal with a new era, an era when the state and even society could once again even be hostile to this religion?

Christianity’s “Organic” Growth 

In the first three centuries of its existence, while subject to persecution, Christianity established churches from Jerusalem to Rome. The exact numbers are not well known but their influence was evident from Constantine’s decision to first recognize them and later make them the Imperial religion.

The church grew more after Constantine’s decision, although it was not instantaneous growth and the pagan religions remained popular for more than a century, and pockets remained longer than that.

Not as well known was the continued surprising growth outside of Roman influence in the 5th and 6th centuries as it took root in the Persian empire, then spread to India and China.

The African Story: Amazing Growth, Unthinkable Persecution

In the 20th century alone, there have been some 1.8 million Christian martyrs in Africa. This figure does not take into account the estimated 600,000 Christians who have died in the genocidal conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi, nor does it fully account for the more than two million deaths in the 17 years of Sudanese civil war waged by the militant Islamist government on the predominantly Christian population of the south Sudan.

Christianity in Africa     (Pew Research)

  • 1990           10 million
  • 1970           144 million
  • 1990          276 million
  • 2005          411 million

The Limits of Historical Knowing 

It is important to recognize that this “grand historical narrative” also misses a great deal of “what really happened” in the Christian past. As we noted in the first lecture of this course, there are intrinsic limits to our historical knowing.

Our ability to talk about this religion as a historical entity depends a great deal on Christianity’s involvement in the political order, precisely because it is in the realm of the political that chronology, documentation, and major events are most in evidence.

When Christianity has lacked clear political involvement or when historical evidence is not available, little can be said about the religion in those times or places.

There is every reason to believe, however, that Christianity thrived at the level of peoples’ lives, even when little or nothing of historical significant rose to the level of analysis.

It is against the backdrop of such observations concerning historical visibility that any question concerning Christianity’s fidelity to its identity through all its cultural permutations should be posed.

The question of “the essence of the religion” and “religious forms” is a worthwhile one but is particularly difficult to answer in the case of Christianity, which as we have seen, had no stable identity or form of its own before it engaged, was shaped by, and shaped the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural worlds. Were the first “forms” of Christianity constitutive of its “essence”? Or is the essence one that can exist in dramatically different expressions?

The answer to the question may depend to some extent on what forms draw our attention. If we focus, for example, on the forms of institution, public liturgy, conciliar decisions, and structures of authority, we might come up with one conclusion.

If we focus, however, on forms of religious expression that do not rise so easily to visibility, we might draw another conclusion; such forms might include acts of piety, forms of prayer, or the witness of married life or celibate existence. Note that we are not, here, appealing to a vague “spirit” as distinct from the “body” so as to argue that real Christianity is an inward, “spiritual” thing; we are talking entirely about bodies in different degrees of visibility.

The differences in Christianity in the forms that are available to historical inquiry are obvious and dramatic.

There is a great distance between the simple rituals of baptism and Lord’s Supper in the age of  persecution  and the elaborate liturgy and sacramental system of the church under Constantine.

The desert mothers and fathers of the 4th century might recognize a fellow ascetic in Benedict of Nursia, but they would not know what to think about the magnificence of the Abbey of Cluny and the hierarchical and liturgical dance of life in that monastery.

The evangelist Matthew, who reported Jesus  as forbidding retaliation could not have comprehended the logic behind the Crusades that killed thousands of Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims.

The structure and selling of indulgences, the system of Scholastic theology, and the practice of the inquisition could have found no place in Christianity’s earliest period.

Precisely such dramatic changes in religious and cultural forms made the Protestant reformers charge that in Catholicism, Christianity had also lost its essence and that only a return to the earlier forms, such as those found in the New Testament, could restore the truth of the Gospels.

The Demand of the Reformers  

Thus, reformers  insisted that the essence of  Christianity, authentic Christianity, was to be found in the elimination of the elaborate and highly structured and a return to the simple and spontaneous. 

The targets of the reformers were consistent: Scholastic theology, the power of the papacy, the complications of the liturgy and canon law, the institution of monasticism and religious life generally, and the emphasis on externals rather than internal realities, on “works” rather than the simple response of the heart. 

The justice of the reformer’s charges is difficult to deny, for the changes they point to are obvious to anyone with a historical sense. Yet the fundamental charge that Christianity had lost its “essence” in the time leading up to the Reformation may be much too strong.

The Maasai of East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania)

As an interesting example of a melding of traditional ideas from a culture very different from a European culture it is of interest to consider the Maasai. They are a semi-nomadic people who range over parts of Kenya and Tanzania, which was once a British colony and therefore had experienced mission work from the Anglican church for many years. Kenya currently has over 80% of their population registered as Christian. They are Protestant (several denominations) Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox.

There are huge wild animal parks in this part of Africa and the Maasai thus live among the wild animals and the daily life and death struggles of the animals is something that it is a normal part of their life. Their indigenous religions that they had before being introduced to Christianity reflected that worldview. So in our thinking about whether Christianity might not maintain its "essence" in such a culture it is instructive to consider the Anglican Kenyan Eucharist Rite, or what is sometimes called the Maasai Creed. It was developed in 1960 by the Maasi and Anglican missionaries at the time that the British were leaving Kenya.

When thinking about whether these cultures that are so different than the European cultures that the Anglican church came from could capture the "essence " of Christianity while still maintaining their natural worldview it is instructive to read this creed. Note the similarities to the Apostles creed but note also their slant on aspects things. It is a beautiful creed.

The Maasai Creed

We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created Man and wanted Man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the Earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light. God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that He would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love.

He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Him. All who have faith in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives.

This we believe.


Final thoughts - Fidelity to the Essence

I am convinced Christianity has not lost its essence. But proving that can be difficult, because the “saints” who are practicing the essence of Christianity today are not the formal saints of Catholicism and are not that visible.

They are the “saints” that have lived lives of patient endurance, quiet service, and deep charity in accordance with the gospel and, by so living, communicated something of the gospel’s power from one generation to the next.  And the unknown many saints that gave their lives to mission work in many cultures surely made mighty contributions.

Perhaps there were not so many of such folk as one would like in all these long years, but there were surely enough, for it must be said that without some such spark of life being transmitted from generation to generation, there would not have been any history of Christianity at all to speak of.

Thus Concludes our Examination of the History of Christianity

History of Christianity  Class 15                                     What Did We Learn?

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