Early Christian Negotiated Existence
I’ve now posted the paper (PDF) I gave at the recent First Nishan Forum on World Civilizations (Jining, China, 26-27 September) in the “Essays, etc” page of this site. I discuss two interesting texts, Epistle to Diognetus and Justin Martyr’s Apology, exploring how each text unhesitatingly affirms Christian particularities in beliefs and practices, while also affirming Christian positive participation in the wider society. This latter included a readiness to give loyalty to the rulers, while also summoning them to moral responsibility as leaders (Justin).
In the Western nations where Christendom once was dominant, it is dominant pretty much no more. I for one don’t grieve this one bit. I regard “Christendom” as a morally dubious phenomenon that probably did as much harm to the gospel as it ever did any good. It consisted more in the promotion of institutional power of churches and church officials. It may have had some effect in shaping professed public morals, and perhaps even some effect on moral practice. But I don’t like the idea of any religion being able to exercise social coercion, and I think that religious faiths should live or die solely by their ability to commend themselves to the consciences of people.
I think that religions must be fully free to circulate, to advocate their beliefs and values, and that the current demonizing of all religion by Dawkins and equally ill-informed and self-appointed zealots for “the new atheism” is simply so much ranting that reveals the ignorance and demagogery of those involved.
So, I find pre-Constantinian Christianity much, much more exciting than what comes later, with much more to say to churches, Christians, and non-Christians too in our modern era in which Christianity is essentially one religious option in a religiously plural world. If Christians want to figure out how to be authentic and particuarly Christian while also negotiating their contributions to the wider society, it’s Christians and texts from the first three centuries that provide the best resources.