Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma
In the first volume of his 3-volume trilogy Byzantium, by John Julius Norwich (1988, Folio Press), the author ranks Constantine I, Constantine the Great, Emperor of the Roman Empire from 306-337 AD or CE, right up there with the Buddha, Jesus Christ, and the Prophet Mohammed, among the most influential men in all history (p 2). Strikingly, the Emperor in question was not the founder of a great world religion, as are the other three. Ironically, the Emperor historically shares the founding of Christianity with Jesus Christ, as does the Apostle Paul (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]). Consequently, Norwich’s anointing of the Emperor is historically accurate and not as odd as it might first seem.
Norwich is very clear why Constantine is so highly “ranked:” 1) He is credited for adopting Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, and (2) he transferred the capital of the Empire from Rome to the strategically located old town of Byzantium on the waterways Bosporus and Sea of Marmara which help link the Black Sea with the Aegean Sea. Interestingly, both acts are germane to defining what we know today as Christianity, not just the first. He had a lot of help from a lot of subjects along the way, of course, but none greater than his mother, “Momma” Helena.
As the Apostle Paul contributed to the definition of Christianity as much or more as Jesus (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]), so did Constantine I and his Momma.
Set a “historical microscope” on low power on the history of Christianity, and a whole litany of important events never surfacing in detail in churches of any ilk appear. And it is not hard to understand why almost all churches are better served having their congregations of believers ignorant of so much history (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]). Look at the partial list making up the “Big Picture” of Christianity’s evolution: The first century Jewish Revolt (62-70 CE) leaves Paul’s theology the primary interpretation of Jesus’ death; Constantine I calls for unity and consensus from a conflicting plethora of interpretations of Jesus’ life and death (325 CE); Christianity permanently splits in twain with the Great Schism or East-West Schism of 1054; the Western Church has two different papal sees in Rome and Avignon (1378-1417) (also confusingly called the Great Schism); Western Christianity splits via the Reformation into Catholicism and Protestantism in the 16th century; advent of the Roman Catholic Inquisition lasts from 1232 to 1820; Catholics and Protestants try to kill each other off in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648); the Enlightenment of the 18th century ushers in higher Biblical criticism of the 19th century in Western Europe; Christianity continues to shatter and schism into ever more “shards” into the 21st century (Mormonism, Scientology, etc.).
Constantine I, bolstered by Helena, set Christianity on the road to the conflicts and break-ups just listed by calling, ironically, for unity and consensus at the 1st Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 CE. The long litany of what is orthodox (“code” for “winning beliefs”) and what is heretical (“code” for “losing beliefs”) was launched. Since all epistemological systems (What is true and how do you know it is true?) like religion are faith-based, no great religion nor intra-religion conflict or difference can be shown to be “better” or “truer” than any other. Who has the power usually winds up claiming the orthodox label, and the heretical “loser” does not go away, usually, unless by exercise of that power; it seems to always be a case of “might makes right;” what is true and reliable knowledge, epistemology shows, has nothing to do with who has the “biggest stick.” Faith-based epistemology, as opposed to evidence-based epistemology, dooms settlement of conflict, sooner or later, into one group fighting or warring with another; consensus becomes impossible — only bloodshed and human misery are assured.
To be fair to Constantine, he probably never dreamed his Ecumenical Council was doomed, and he officially did not become baptized and an orthodox Christian until just before his death in 337, perhaps in deference to so many of his subjects who practiced a spectrum of non-Christian faiths, from Greco-Roman polytheism to Jewish monotheism. Momma Helena, just after orthodox Christianity was declared the religion of choice, made a holy pilgrimage to the Holy Land, “discovering” all the important sites of Jesus’ ministry (site of His birth, site of His crucifixion, etc.) and returned to Constantinople (the new name of Byzantium) laden with holy relics, like a piece of the True Cross, among the earliest of Christian icons. She was at the time, if not the most orthodox of the orthodox, the most powerful of the orthodox; her son was only too happy to back up her findings and declarations in the name of unity and consensus, which was, of course, unknowingly and impossibly out-of-reach.
And the long history of suffering and strife as listed above was started by Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, Son of the loving God? Was God’s plan through Jesus to establish a Church whose members are inspired to kill off each other, as well as destroy non-believers? I prefer to think not. Christianity, in the multi-forms of the Church, has an epistemological problem exposed by history, always has, and always will. No better way to define this problem than by setting a “historical microscope” on high power and look at the centuries-long struggle to find a consensus definition of the nature of Jesus for orthodoxy over just centuries, a smaller window of time compared to the span of millenniums of “low power.” I have deliberately limited the smaller window of time to coincide with Norwich’s first volume of Byzantium, from the founding of Constantinople to the crowning of Charlemagne in 800 CE, which marked the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. In a nutshell, who Jesus was theologically and in relation to God was far from settled even 450 years after Constantine I’s death!
Constantine I’s “shot” was, again, the 1st Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325. It dealt primarily with the heresy of Arianism (The Father has primacy over the Son.). Most of the Germanic “barbarian” tribes, like the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, and the Vandals were Arians — Christians, but Arian, not orthodox. The father of modern science and co-founder of calculus, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), was an Arian. The 2nd Council, at Constantinople in 381, formally condemned the lingering and bothersome Arian heresy and declared the Constantinople see second only to that at Rome. The 3rd Ecumenical Council, held in 431 at Ephesus, dealt with the Nestorian heresy (Christ is both the Son of God and the man Jesus, as opposed to Rome’s view He is fully God.) The 4th Council was held at Chalcedon in 451 and dealt with the heresy of monophysitism (The nature of Jesus Christ is singular, not dual, and His singular nature is divine.). Variations of orthodox Christianity that survive to this day, like Christian Copts, the Abyssinian Church, the Jacobites of Syria, and the Armenian Church, retain elements of monophysitism. The 4th also declared the sees at Constantinople and Rome as equals, an early step toward the split between the Eastern and Western Churches. The Fifth Council, the second at Constantinople, in 553 had more to do with the power struggle between the Eastern Church and the Western Church than with the nature of Jesus Christ, and was another step toward the final East-West Schism about 500 years later. The Sixth Council, also known as the Third Council of Constantinople, was held in 680-681 dealing with the heresy of monothelitism (Jesus Christ had only one will even though He had two natures.) The 7th and last Ecumenical Council chosen for this listing within my window of “high power” time, or the Second Nicaean Council, came in 787 in the wake of the early iconoclast crisis of the Eastern Church and restored holy images as objects of veneration (not adoration); it technically defined icons, not attempting to define Jesus Christ directly, though it restored to orthodoxy the sanctioning of Jesus Christ as a subject of art. Later iconoclasm and puritanical Protestantism were to struggle against that sanction.
Thus, for slightly more than 350 years, the founder of Christianity could not be definitely defined. And it could be argued the ambiguity of His identity continues to this day. I suspect no great religion is free from such ambiguity, given all the branches and orders within them all. Such is the bane of faith-based religions everywhere and at any time in history, I would say. Such is the sword of evidence-based criticism of all sacred texts and of those who are the texts’ practitioners, in my opinion.
The sincerity of the Apostle Paul and of Helena should never be questioned; nor should the good intentions of Constantine I to unite the minds of his empire. But they always overestimated the authority of written or spoken sacred texts or teachings and the seemingly unfailing willingness of believers to accept what they were told or what they themselves read as the truth. They could not foresee a day when that authority would be questioned and held accountable; they could not imagine the blindness of mind that seems germane to faith-based religion.
The “sorting out” of the Apostle Paul (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]), Constantine I, and Constantine’s Momma begs the question: can the trap of faith-based epistemology be avoided? Are religions, or specifically that of Christianity, doomed to being just as good and just as bad as any other religion? Not only is history the instrument of the “sorting,” it can help answer the begged question just posed. Faith-based religions only dip into the surface of the history that defines and describes their origins; history is used only in so far as it suits the purposes of the organized religion. Much like all faith-based religions, Christianity purposely employs de-contextualization — the plucking of lessons, facts, stories, and creeds from a bygone period of history out of their proper time period and force-feeding them to contemporary society; they may or may not be applicable to today; only by faith are they assumed to all be applicable; only by faith are they seen as from God or from some similar concept representing Reality.
Therefore, we should not de-contextualize; just as Christianity retains lessons from the Old Testament (God’s covenant with His chosen people) and rejects others (the sacrifice of animals to God), the same should be done to the New Testament, as shown by higher Biblical criticism. What “fits” the modern world from Christianity (the Golden Rule and the parables) should be retained and what does not (blood sacrifice for the sins of mankind and the concept of Satan) should be discarded. Atheism is not the inevitable outcome of the criticism of religion; but the retention of doubt to some degree is. Doubt is the means by which the quicksand of unquestioning faith-based belief can be avoided. Doubt is the way not to be shackled by the absurdities of Paul, Constantine, and Helena.
An example might help: Thomas Jefferson, our 3rd President, compiled a book called The Jefferson Bible (1989, Beacon Press, Boston, ISBN 0-8070-7702-X), which was published posthumously (Avoiding all the furor among clergy and believers of all ilks had it been published before he died!) and the original of which is today a prize artifact of the Smithsonian. He doubted that all the red-letter words of Jesus were historically accurate; he compared various translations in various languages and cut out and kept only those words that had authenticity from historians and were compatible and non-contradictory across all four Gospels; he avoided what reasonably could not be verified, such as miracles and theological interpretations of the red-letter words. What was left was a literal cut-out version of the Gospels, but nonetheless a very humane and practical blueprint of how to live by the Golden Rule, a simple treatise on how we can treat each other according to love of our fellow man (philos). The essence of Jesus, Jefferson was trying to say, is not found in the Passion Week and interpreting that week’s meaning, as Paul would have us believe, but, rather, is found in the Sermon on the Mount and in the parables. To find and live by that essence is not to live by blind, unquestioning faith, but to live by purposeful, reasonable kindness toward each other. And, moreover, the essence of Jesus can be found almost universally in other sacred texts.
What Jefferson did may not appeal to all, but what he did reminds us we are all free to interpret religion, or to reject religion, or to find our own religion; we can believe what we want or disbelieve what we want; what we cannot do is foist our belief or unbelief on others; what we cannot do is found our religions solely on faith; what we cannot do, in the case of Christianity, is follow the examples of Paul, Constantine, and Helena, not if we want the truth.
So, maybe it’s time to sort out Jesus Himself……