Lent: Day 17 of 40 - Constantine

By now we know what persecution is like, and how it shapes our believing, behaving and belonging. The 4th century begins with Diocletion’s edicts against Christians, but people stop enforcing them. Constantine from his garrison in York asserts power, fighting for 20 years to be emperor. About 312AD, he claims conversion before battle.

By 323AD clergy got tax breaks - public and military service exemptions and the chance to legally own property for churches. Sunday work was prohibited in cities, and private ‘heathen’ sacrifices were prohibited. But ‘heretics’ who claimed to be Christian but were not recognized by the ‘orthodox’ church, did not share the wealth.

The Council of Nicaea in 325AD makes Christianity the official religion of empire – but Constantine was not baptized till 336AD. He was re-centering the empire, building Constantinople in anticipation of the barbarian invasions of the west. Let’s not exaggerate his power to impose orthodoxy on the rest of us heretics, let alone his power to impose Christianity on neighbours.

Our own barbaric culture, over-schooled and under-educated, make best-sellers of Brown and Harpur, imagining a medieval power in this century that did not exist. ‘Constantinian’ Christianity was yet to come! The marriage with power took time to build, and will take time to dismantle.

Is normative necessarily normal? Even those who promote civil religion versions of Christianity may not adhere to the faith, or expect everybody else to do so. A norm could be an orienting point, a measurable standard for assessing without controlling coercively – it’s less imperialistic than a ‘universal human right’ Empire needs to use norms, but can’t make us all toe the same line. Was ‘Christian’ ever statistically normal, let alone universal, in any age?

What is ’Christendom’ all about? Do we expect everybody to be orthodox, or do we balance incentives and disincentives to manage religion in service of empire? Perhaps the heretics are the statistical majority, and always have been! Can you imagine claiming a norm, a working standard or rebuttable presumption, without imposing coercively it on others?

Is normative necessarily normal?