06 June 2012

Constantine, the one way, and the Dark Ages

You probably can't tell that I'm a little pleased to be standing in the Coliseum in front of Constantine's Arch. I tried an unrehearsed, extemporaneous video about the Arch, and here is what I wish I had said.
I'm standing in the Roman Coliseum, perhaps the most iconic symbol of Western Civilization. But I'd like to make the argument that Constantine's Arch behind me is even more symbolic, the sign of a change that helped to usher in roughly a thousand years of what we now call the Dark Ages.
The simple story is that Constantine was the emperor who made Christianity legal. (And within the century, it was not just legal but was the only legal religion.) But that glosses over something at least as important. In making it a state religion, Constantine drove the need for a standard, a clear definition of what was meant by Christianity. It is really just in the last century - with discoveries of scrolls at Nag Hammadi and the Dead Sea - that we've come to appreciate how varied was the Christian world in the centuries after Christ. In that fourth century – through mechanisms like the First Council of Nicaea in 325, Constantine worked to create unity within Christianity, to define beliefs, books to be included or excluded from the Bible, and how to worship. Constantine also banned gnostic religions and home churches that couldn't be regulated. And he did this through the Roman bishop who - when this started - was roughly on par for power with at least a half a dozen other bishops but, by the time the Roman empire had collapsed a century later, inherited the title previously used only by emperors: Pontifex Maximus, soon just pope.
You could argue that Christianity, shifting the emphasis from the natural to the supernatural, from reliance on crude science to crude superstition, brought Europe into the Dark Ages. I'd argue that it was this emphasis on the one way that did it, this intolerance of diversity in belief, thought, and practice. This arrests economic development partly because if you and I have the same everything, we have nothing to trade. (Or even if we have different goods there is still no value to be created in trade if we distrust rather than value what the other has.) By the year 1,000, life expectancy was 18 years, and people's world, rather than sprawl across the whole of Europe into Britain and south to Africa, was limited to a radius of about 5 miles. The Dark Ages was a time of poverty, violence and oppression.
What I call the first economy was a time from 1300 to 1700 when we came out of the Dark Ages. The Protestant Revolution meant that the Christian community became nearly as diverse as it had been in the centuries after Christ. Global trade was proof that diversity - at least in its rawest, economic form - was valued. And this first economy, this shift from an emphasis on one true way to encouraging a variety of ways, began a trajectory of progress and prosperity that did not just bring Europe to the level of Rome but beyond. We stand here amazed at the remnants of their civilization; think how much more amazed they would be at ours
And this arch behind me? Constantine’s Arch? It was a bridge from the Roman Empire to the Roman Catholic Church, from Europe’s largest ever empire into the Dark Ages. This, for me, makes it the most symbolic monument in all of the West.

No comments: