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Early Christianity: a tough gig

The Roman Empire was far more hostile than today's world.
Mike Aquilina | 29 October 2012
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The Catholic Church has just started a “year of faith” and launched a program for re-evangelising countries where the fire of Christianity seems to have burnt itself out. But is it possible to make a comeback? To assess the chances of reChristianising the West, MercatorNet interviewed Mike Aquilina, an expert in the early history of Christianity, about the challenges of its first three centuries.

MercatorNet: For believing Christians the re-evangelization of Europe looks like a tough job. How long did the first evangelization take?

Mike Aquilina: It's not a tough job. It's an impossible job. If you look at the odds against Christianity in the first, second, and third centuries, there was really no chance the Church would survive. Rome had brute power. And it controlled everything -- the jobs you wanted, the media and entertainment, travel. And even if Rome had somehow managed to lose its grip, its enemies were no warmer toward Christianity. It's not like the Church could have played the Persians against Rome.

The first evangelization took place at a time when Christians really had no advantages. They were outcast by everyone. Their religion was a capital crime. They were denied a voice in the public square.

Yet Christianity prevailed, and the empires died. I suppose you could say it took just shy of three hundred years, if you're counting from Pentecost to the Edict of Milan, the decree that made Christianity legal. But even then a large portion of the population still worshipped the old gods. The thorough evangelization of Europe probably took about a thousand years. And some, like Sigmund Freud, said it never really took in the barbarian lands. So maybe this new evangelization is simply a renewal of those long-ago efforts. 

What were the obstacles faced by the first Christians in the world ruled by the Roman Empire?

The criminalization of Christianity was a big deterrent. Remember, executions were public, and they were enhanced for entertainment value. If you've seen a few people tortured to death in the circus, you'll probably think twice before doing the things they did. There were other obstacles as well. The chattering classes scorned Christianity as an ignorant superstition, suitable for women and the lower classes, perhaps, but not for respectable folk. And then there were the perennial obstacles: apathy, the attachment to an immoral life. 

What was the moral climate at the time?

It was a pornographic culture. Entertainment was all about sex and spectacular violence. Abortion and infanticide were considered a normal part of family life. Adultery was so common that private investigators were among the few growth industries in third-century Rome. It was legal to sexually abuse a slave. It was socially acceptable to sexually abuse children. All the emperors did it. Domitian was considered moderate because he kept only one boy lover.

There was great material prosperity in Rome, but no hope, really. People moved from one wine-fueled hookup to the next, but couldn't come up with good reasons to have children. They coddled their pets instead. The emperors saw the demographic crisis coming. They worried about homeland security. So they tried to legislate fertility. But their efforts came to nothing. The law is a lousy aphrodisiac.

This has a contemporary ring to it…

It does.

What was the appeal of Christianity to the citizens of the Empire? The background of the first Christians was Jewish and alien; the doctrines were strange; you had to give up the baths and circuses… It doesn’t seem like a good deal.

The "good things in life" are just things. They bring momentary pleasure, but never satisfaction. If you're living for pleasure -- and that was the assumption of Roman imperial culture -- you've condemned yourself to dissatisfaction and misery. If you're just living for the next thrill, you're not really living. 

Christians had love, so they had peace. They had happiness, even when they were ostracized, insulted, when they lost their jobs. Whatever. They had it all, even when they were put to death. So many of the early Fathers were converted because they saw Christians martyred, they saw Christians put to death. Christians had something to die for, so they had something to live for. The pagans had no such purpose in life, and they found life hardly worth living and not at all worth passing on to the next generation.

How about the Roman intellectuals? It must have been even tougher for them to shift from pagan religions and philosophy to Christianity.

The intellectuals had to deal with the same obstacles, only dressed up in different fabric. The Christian Scriptures didn't have the ring of Plato or Cicero, so they were embarrassing. Who wants to be seen reading such barbarism?

What's interesting, though, is that Christianity began to reshape the intellectual landscape anyway. Anti-abortion laws appear at the beginning of the third century, and they sound almost Christian. The mystery cults gain popularity as they try to mimic Christian sacraments -- only in a more socially acceptable and less dangerous way. A new movement in Platonism gains traction, and it bears the marks of Christian influence all over it.

I don't think it was harder for intellectuals to convert. And those who did convert made the intellectual case for Christianity rather compelling. Read the early Fathers: Athenagoras, Justin, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Origen. These were no dummies.

You are an expert on the Church Fathers. Who are they? Why aren’t they better known?

I'm not an expert. I'm a journalist whose beat is the first seven centuries. I do love reading the Fathers. They're the great teachers of the faith in the first millennium. They're witnesses to the tradition of the Apostles as it was passed down since the first generation. They're the ones who succeeded at the original evangelization. They're not better known because people don't read history. Our collective memory grows dim around the last seasons of "Seinfeld."

The relationship between faith and reason is recurring theme today. Do the Fathers have anything relevant to say about this?

Well, it was Augustine who helped us to see that faith and reason are mutually fructifying. He said, "believe so that you may understand." Most of the Fathers were men well trained in the intellectual discourse of their times. We know them today because they were writers. They had been trained in law, philosophy, rhetoric, governance. Some, like Tertullian, could wax anti-intellectual -- but they usually did it in ways that are intellectually satisfying and even amusing. Tertullian's critics note that he used the methods of Roman law and philosophy to deconstruct Roman law and philosophy.

And how about the role of faith in the public square?

Justin Martyr, writing around 150 AD, gave us the great principle for living as Christians in the world: Everything that's good is ours. He had a strong sense that he was a son of God, and that the best things in life -- truth, wisdom, love -- were his inheritance. We need to take our rightful place in the public square, even if it means we're being martyred there. That's how the first evangelization took place.

I was moved by the intervention of Archbishop John Oneikan of Nigeria during the Synod on evangelization in Rome. He described visiting a foul prison and finding that many inmates had converted to the Catholic faith there, because they saw the joy in their fellow inmates who were Catholic. That's stunning. We can be happy in miserable conditions. Christianity makes it possible. And we can help others to be happy as well.  

If you wanted to sample the best of early Christian writing, where should you begin?

I like to think that my book The Fathers of the Church is a good, non-academic introduction. For those who'd rather work thematically -- finding out what the Fathers had to say about marriage, for example, or abortion, and so on -- I wrote Roots of the Faith. My most recent book, Yours Is the Church, describes the revolution Christianity worked in the world: what changed and how.

What, in your opinion, are the prospects for a successful Christian re-evangelisation?

Not long ago, I was traveling in Israel. I spoke with a young man whose constant refrain was "Pray for peace." A friend of mine asked him, "What would that look like?" The young man didn't miss a beat. He said, "I don't know. I can't imagine it, but God can. Pray for peace."

Evangelization is as impossible for us as it was for the early Christians. But during those first centuries the Church grew at a steady rate of 40 percent per decade. God can work something great through us, but we need to correspond to his grace. It's his work, but it's ours to do.

Mike Aquilina is a popular author working in the area of Church history, especially patristics, the study of the early Church Fathers. He blogs on early Christianity at FathersOfTheChurch.com.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | Chrstianity, history
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