Thursday, January 31, 2013

Responding to "Roo.Bookaroo"...

...concerning my review of Charles Freeman's "381."

Here is the link.

Your post: Jan 31, 2013 9:51:47 AM PST
You edited this post

This responds to Roo.Bookaroo's comments.

RB: "Charles Freeman has a decent way of defusing critiques and objections to his work."

PSB: True. I was very impressed with Mr. Freeman's congeniality and honesty. That more than anything else has made me a "Freeman fan."

RB: "In a little more confrontational spirit, I am more struck by the fact that there are in this review many simplifications that are distortions of the facts.

"how Christianity went from a tolerated religion under Constantine to the only lawful religion within a century". That is, in the period 313 to 413. By 413 pagan worships were being in the process of being suppressed, but Judaism remained a "religio' alongside Catholic Christianity."

Roo.Bookaroo's point is formally accurate, and formal accuracy is important. Judaism remained a de jure "licit" religion in the Roman Empire.

But we also ought to be charitable readers. Mr. Freeman's point in his book was to examine the "sea change" in social history that saw Christianity go from persecuted religion to a dominant and undisputed position in a short period of time. The point of my observation was to underscore Mr. Freeman's point. By saying "within a century," I wasn't necessarily saying "99 years exactly" and by saying "licit" I wasn't necessarily saying "de jure." Further, it is only somewhat fair to read my review in the context of Mr. Freeman's book. The focus of "381" is not on the position of the Jews, albeit they do get some mention. The focus is on the position of Christians vis a vis pagans and Nicene Christians vis a vis other Christians (including the Manichees,who, to be technically accurate, may or may not have been Christian at all, depending on where you stand on current historical arguments.)

It is clear that in 391, Theodosius outlawed pagan sacrifice, which effectively outlawed paganism. Likewise, according to Mr. Freeman, Jews during roughly this period were subjected to more and more restrictions on their public participation (although their worship was not outlawed.) Did they remain "licit"? Well, sure, if the de jure definition is all that matters. On the other hand, if the point is to explore the realities that people were experiencing - which is what I understand Mr. Freeman's book to be concerned with - then, perhaps, not so much. Perhaps, I should have written "the only unrepressed licit religion" in order to be formally, as well as materially, accurate.

R.B.""Most people...don't know that Council of Nicea under Constantine was only the beginning of Christian influence over the Roman Empire." Not correct. The reverse happened: it was the Roman Emperors who decided to exert control on quarreling Christian factions, and the beginning was not in the Council of Nicaea, but in the Edict of Toleration of Emperor Galerius in 311 at Nicomedia, which was confirmed by Constantine with the Edict of Milan of 313, granting legal status to all religions."

PSB: Well, now who is oversimplifying and sneaking an "apologetics" into a discussion of history?

Clearly, no one disputes the material reality that after Constantine, Christian images, art, architecture, ideas and presuppositions began to infiltrate and then dominate the Roman Empire. That is, after all, one of the points that Mr. Freeman has been making in his various books that accuse Christianity of "closing the Western Mind." (TM) If Roo.Bookaroo has problems with that idea, then he should address his concerns to Mr. Freeman.

Likewise, The Teaching Company has a wonderful lecture series on "The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity" by Professor Kenneth Harl. In one lecture, Professor Harl explains how after Nicea, Christians, with the patronage of the Emperors, began to locate their basilicas in the heart of urban centers where they dominated the visual and conceptual landscape.

As for the point about the Edict of Toleration being the start of purported Imperial influence over Christianity, I would have to respond that marking a precise beginning or end point can be pretty arbitrary. Why should we mark that influence from the Edict of Toleration? Why not go back to the moment that Constantine began to curry favor with Christians before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge? How about going back to the third century, when Christians brought their legal disputes over the control of churches to Roman Emperors? All of these points can be argued with near equal cogency. Perhaps, readers of history should always mentally insert the word "approximately" in front of any sentence that designates a beginning or end point of a trend or development.

R.B: ""But it was not until the last decades of the Fourth Century that both paganism and heretical - i.e., non-Nicene Christianity - were outlawed ". Not correct. "Paganism" was not outlawed by the end of the Fourth Century. A long series of decrees were issued going into the Fifth century to persecute and suppress pagan cults and worships."

PSB: Again, this seems ignore the material substance for the form, and it is wrong - if we are nitpicking - as a matter of formal accuracy.

When Roo.Bookaroo says "not correct" to my statement about outlawing paganism and non-Nicene Christianity, then under the rules of formal accuracy he is playing by, he is "not correct." Obviously, non-Nicene Christianity was outlawed in 381. That was the point of Mr. Freeman's book. If Roo.Bookaroo disputes that, then, again, he should take up that matter with Mr. Freeman.

But Roo.Bookaroo does make a substantive point, which needs to be addressed. Thus, as for the point about paganism, again, in 391, Theodosius outlawed pagan sacrifice, which effectively outlawed paganism, a point made by historians, such as Professor Harl and others. (I'm thinking here in particular of Robert Louis Wilkinson's chapter on Julian the Apostate in The Christians as the Romans Saw Them where he makes the point that for Julian, paganism was a "sacrificing" religion.)

Yes, certainly, paganism didn't go away immediately, some pagans continued to secretly sacrifice until (at least) the time of Justinian, and there were other laws hedging in and finally eliminating paganism. But from the perspective of pagans, who were told that the way they worshipped was outlawed, it was understood that paganism in a very real sense had been outlawed.

R.B: ""...and one form of Christianity, which defined the persons of the Trinity as being "consubstantial," emerged as the only legal religion in the Empire". Not correct, Catholic Christianity did not "emerge" like a butterfly from its chrysalid, it was imposed by Theodosius in his Edict of Thessalonika in 380."

PSB: This is seems to be an "uncharitable" reading of the use of "emerge." It is perfectly acceptable to say that "the San Francisco 49ers `emerged ` as the representative of the NFC out of the 2012 - 2013 play-offs" without implying that the `Niners are a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, although the image of moving from "losers" to "champions" might be properly communicated by that metaphor, which could be said equally of the "sea change" in the fortunes of Christianity between 300 AD and 400 AD (or, as I'm sure Roo.Bookaroo would insist, between 300 AD and 399 AD, so that it remain "within a century.")

Nonetheles, yes, certainly, in the competition for imperial approval, Nicene Christianity did "emerge" as the winner when Theodosius dictated that the orthodoxy of the Bishop of Rome would define the orthodoxy of the empire. That was Mr. Freeman's thesis, which is indisputably accurate insofar as I can tell.

R.B.: "However, "while some theologians want to treat the development of Christian doctrine as the bloodless, intellectual development of conclusions from core Christian premises, the historical fact is that the development of Christian doctrine involved politicking, trickery, bullying and just plain chance." is a fair rendering of Charles Freeman's main thesis."

PSB: Thanks.

R.B: In this review, it is possible to sniff very quickly that the reviewer is defending some kind of latent apologetic dogma. This becomes clear towards the end, when he " recommends 'The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God' by Robert Louis Wilkens to see the elements of continuity and reason that informed early Christian theology," thus trying to counter Freeman's contention that the dominant elements were the imposition of doctrine by brute imperial power (threat of exile and other punishments) and the irrationality in the compromise reached to establish a semblance of unity in the oh so bizarre doctrine of the Trinity that has set so many otherwise healthy brains spinning."

PSB: "Bizarre doctrine"? "Healthy brains spinning"? Jeepers, now who is "defending some kind of latent apologetic dogma"?

If readers are interested, they can peruse my other reviews and see that, yes, I do have a viewpoint. I don't hide it or pretend that it doesn't exist or that I'm writing from some kind of Ptolemaic point around which the universe revolves. But, then, neither is Mr. Freeman, which he candidly admitted. And, for that matter, neither is Roo.Bookaroo, which can be seen from his/her reviews.

My interests, by the way, seem to be church history, Catholic theology, and really cheesy science fiction and fantasy.

I am what I am.

Incidentally, I thank Roo.Bookaroo for his comments. His comments are formally accurate, and I will endeavor to sharpen up my points - by actually "fuzzying" those points with disclaimers like "approximately - in the future.

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