|When Our World Became Christian (Review)|
|Written by Peter J. Leithart|
|Friday, 04 June 2010 09:29|
Paul Veyne, When Our World Became Christian, 312-394 (trans. Janet Lloyd;
Paul Veyne is one of
Veyne spends a good bit of time rebutting the claim that
There are a few minor misrepresentations in the book. Veyne, in my view, somewhat exaggerates Constantine’s role at Nicea and his authority within the church, and makes too little of the way that Constantine’s support of the church and his polemics against paganism created an “atmosphere” (Peter Brown’s word) of disapproval toward traditional Roman religion. He also underestimates the role that “political theology” played in pre-Christian
Though not a believer, Veyne gets Christianity and the church right too. His suggestion that Christianity was a late antique “avant garde” is illuminating, and he calls Christianity a creative “best-seller” or “masterpiece” that infused a new “unsuspected sensibility” into the Roman imagination, much as a great piece of literature extends the horizons of human vision. Veyne thinks of Christianity in aesthetic terms because he does not believe it is true, but his exploration of this theme explains some of the appeal of Christianity to fourth-century Romans.
Veyne communicates a sense of how odd the church looked to late Romans. Here was a community as devoted to the pursuit of Truth and Goodness as a philosophical school, yet, unlike the schools, open to everyone, including slaves and women. Here was a religion without sacrifice, worship without images of the god. Here was a God who made total claims and radical demands on his worshipers, unlike the pagan gods. Here was a novelty that claimed that all the traditional Roman gods were false. In place of the many stories about the gods, Christianity told one story, but said it was the story that encompassed all and everything. By comparison with the Roman deities, the Christian God was “gigantic,” Creator, Lawgiver, Savior, Lord. The church had authoritative leaders and enforceable rules like a city, but Christians were bound by no ties of blood or soil. Apart from diaspora Judaism (which still had an ethnic basis), antiquity had seen nothing like the church. No wonder pagan Emperors tried to expel it as an alien impurity infecting the body politic.
Peppered throughout the book are comments about the role of religion in human history. Veyne is a decided anti-reductionist. Religion is an independent factor in history, and cannot be unmasked as a cover for power or economic or social interest. He also places refreshing emphasis on novelty in history. For Veyne, novelty is what history is: History recounts eruptions that cannot be explained by any pre-existing trends or causes.
Originally published in France in 2007, When Our World Became Christian is Veyne’s contribution to the ongoing debate about Europe’s Christian roots (a debate in which Pope Benedict XVI and Jurgen Habermas have weighed in). Veyne doesn’t think that
Whether Europeans accept that debatable conclusion or not, Veyne’s slim volume is an essential antidote to the misinformation about