Info

state into their struggle against doctrinal error, the bishops failed to discern the potential for this power to be used against themselves, should a shifting consensus come to deem their own beliefs heretical. Instead, it took only a small step, one well within the bounds of reason, to turn the logic of the ancient state against their former tormentors, and sanctify the use of force not only to suppress traditional religions but even to compel worship of Christ. Augustine is a well-known example, initially opposed to coercion on the traditional Christian grounds that God can only be accepted by a willing heart, then changing his mind because, well, it worked.50

The unique nature of the Christian community also plays an important role. In contrast to virtually any other ancient religion, Christians defined themselves according to a set of beliefs, rather than by ancestral association or practice. Western thought is now so imbued with the Judaeo-Christian perspective that it is difficult to imagine how radically Christianity differed in this way from the traditional religions of the ancient world. The difference lies less in the theology of the message (although there was plenty there to give non-Christians pause) as in the way Jesus defined and constituted his community. Traditional religions were city- or kin-based: you worshipped the gods you did because they were the ones honoured by your city or your family. Jesus built his movement out of strangers. Repeatedly, he is quoted in the Gospels as emphasising that his followers are to relate to each other by a different standard. Told, for instance, in the Gospel of Mark (3.33-35), that his mother and brothers were calling for him outside, he responded, 'Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is mother and brother, sister and father to me.' Followers of Jesus shared an ideology rather than a family; in modern terminology, they were, in the words of Benedict Anderson, an 'imagined community',51 identifying with each other on the basis of a shared historical narrative and, even more, commitment to a common set of beliefs.

The effect of this difference on religious thought has long been understood: Christianity introduced a need for 'conversion' that was largely absent from traditional religion.52 But the social implications of this change have rarely been spelled out. Much can be gained by thinking of Christianity in more neutral terms as a social movement.

Certain advantages accrue to a community based on ideology rather than birth. For one thing, it is not limited to a particular geographical location; for

50 Augustine, Retractationes 31.

51 B. Anderson, Imagined communities - a watershed work.

52 The classic study is A. D. Nock, Conversion.

0 0

Post a comment