Page 9, 21st July 2000

21st July 2000
Page 9
Page 9, 21st July 2000 — Not another encyclopaedia

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Locations: Rome


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Not another encyclopaedia

THE FORMED/OLE bulk of this 600-page, history of Christianity may be a deterrent at first sight. Be warned of what awaits you, but do not be deterred. It represents a new and ambitious concept in presenting Christian history. It gives a comprehensive overview that, in the author's own words, also "dwells in local features". It is quite a triumph for what has come to be called "polyfocal scholarship".

The presentation of a "global" view of the subject involves its sub-division Into periods of thought and doctrinal development, rather than into chronological historical compartments.

Because, however, it is in no sense an encyclopaedia. many things (as the author says, "perhaps most things") have had to be left out. The result is a narrative of impressive comprehensiveness; but is not for the faint-hearted, nor for those who delight in the struggles of emperors, kings and popes, and inquisitorial battles against heresy.

A prime clue to the book's objective, as well as to its success, lies in its title, and this is for a reason so obvious as almost to be passed over without sufficient thought. It is entitled Christianity. because it is a history of just that, and not a history of the Christian Church. This is its first and most telling point of departure from that long series of conventional accounts which have treated Christianity primarily as an institutional and quasi-political entity.

This latter aspect of Christian history, though of course important, becomes (in cinema parlance) the backdrop to a 2000 year journey of the cerebral in search of the spiritual.

The most controversial figure in human annals — a rarely even mentioned in conventional "history" — stands at the beginning of a movement which, giving a key to the mystery of life, and is the product of the accumulated thought processes of thousands of fascinating men and women.

Never before, I suspect. has this cavalcade of thinkers been presented in a manner which so successfully combines depth, breadth and succinctness. This has been achieved by a process of judicious selec

tion which implies massive knowledge and research.

The book's leitmotif, moreover, as expressed in its subtitle A Global History, is unexpectedly topical. Hans Kung's favourite political exponent of his concept of global ethics turns out to be none other than Tony Blair. Hem again, a mere expression — as in the book's sub-title — can be misleading in being apparently obvious.

Of course, Christianity is a global phenomenon. It is universal, almost by deftnition. But such very possession of "globalness" is intimately bound up with paradox. No other worldwide body, so basically united in essential belief, could so dexterously accommodate so many disparate elements. It is a primary achievement of this book to knit together the countless strands that created this unique conglomerate.

Perhaps its most original

The massive panorama of thinkers, reformers, visionaries, saints, freaks and theologians of every colour is presented with meticulous husbandry'

contribution to Christian historiography is to show how Christians progressed toward unity during the first six centuries. Once more, paradox lies at the heart of the process: at every point powerful, conflicting intellects are in conflict against the background of a crucial need, for the sake of survival, to hammer out a formula, or creed, for united belief.

EACH NEW STEP toward unity produced a new set of centrifugal forces. The author thus rightly sees the post-Nicean Christian body as, in fact, (though he does not use the expression), a confederation of churches. Perhaps, ultimately, the book's main contribution to positive thought about the future of Christianity will be in hastening an acceptance of the "global ethic" as the only possible means for concerted

action. The whole conception of the book is thus characterised by a series of chapters — Jesus, Christ, Churches, Power, Holiness, etc. — which describe defining concepts rather than conventionally delineated periods. If I have any criticism of part one of the book — Ancient Beginnings — it is that the description of the evolution of thought is described as so seemingly natural as to obscure the intense human passion and the (sometimes ugly) power struggles that were operating in the background.

The author refers quite rightly to what had become, by the fourth century, a "Christian Empire", whose very unity and welfare depended on an imposed agreement between Christians as to the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. The Council of Nicea (325) seemed to agree that they were of the same substance the one with the other. But nothing in fact was finally settled. The West (Rome) was barely represented at this momentous council. The original dissenter (not, surprisingly, made clear) was Athanasius rather than Arius. The former's ideas over those of the latter were eventually accepted, but only after a century and a half of titanic conflict as the basis for orthodoxy.

The most important factor, however, in establishing uniformity was the creation of a State-Church by the Emperor Theodosius at the end of the fourth century, who thus completed the work of Constantine as its beginning. The latter merely tolerated Christianity; the former would tolerate nothing else. Christianity thus progressed "from being a persecuted religion to a persecuting religion within the course of four centuries".

But Dr Chidester has already — he says he wants the story to be "fun" — unfolded a gripping drama: the formative elements of those first three centuries come alive from his pen by virtue of greater reliance on the "apologists" of this formative period than, with most commentators, on Eusebius of Caesarea (265-339) as "the Father of Church History". He does well to make much of the earlier "apologists" — notably Justin Martyr (1001 65), whose accounts, while allowing for spin, were extremely valuable.

Apart from anything else, we derive from such sources graphic accounts of what Christians did when they gathered for worship in the mid-second century. They referred to such meeting as 'The Lord's Supper", or "The Breaking of the Bread". This earliest Eucharist, as conducted by the "president", was nothing more nor less than a simplified form of the present Catholic Mass (though nothing like that of the Middle Ages). But the author also makes clear, as against a later extreme Protestant view, that this it was definitely looked upon by the early Christians as a sacrificial meal. It represented Jesus Christ as "the first-born of creation, as a sacrificial offering to God". But their first action was to exchange a "sign of peace", the early Christians having, of course, been pacifists.

Dr Chidester gives an interesting explanation of the theory that while Jesus founded a way of life, it was Paul of Tarsus who founded the Christian Church. (This implies the necessity that such sayings as "on this rock I will build my Church" are later interpolations.) The numerous groups which existed during the 40 years after Jesus' death were of two types: Jesus movements and Christ congregations.

The one adhered to the memory of Jesus as their founding teacher, and collecting his sayings, while the other remembered Him as a divine being, the Christ. But accep tance of the latter belief was primarily due to the teaching of Paul.

NO LESS ORIGINAL are some of the author's concepts and expressions to describe later Christian developments. It must suffice merely to name some of these rather than define them in detail. They are mostly chapter headings and are ingenious descriptions — often with an element of scholarly punning — of trends and phenomena in developing Christianity. It is almost as if a resourceful academicminded headline writer had been at work. The meaning of some are obvious, such as New World, and Holy Russia, but the significance of these

extends, at this author's hands, far beyond the obvious impressions of them with which we are already familiar. Other headings are: American Zion (not what it sounds like); African Prophets; Asian Heavens; Hindu Christians; Christian Cargo; Holocaust and New World Order.

In the case of books such as this, an important question always arises: will so erudite a treatise appeal to the "average" reader? The answer is yes, but such a reader must persist; this will bring rewards. Though much is lost by deliberately avoiding church politics, much else is gained.

The book compels a comparision with that great work of Ronnie Knox, Enthusiasm. Therein were dissected such Christian thinkers of different ages whose views, always intense, often extreme — sometimes "heretical" — were the finally determining factors at human level of the awe-inspiring evolution of global Christianity.

The massive panorama of thinkers, contemplatives. reformers, visionaries, saints, freaks, theologians of every colour, is presented with meticulous husbandry. Many a hitherto shadowy character will take on a new life and meaning. There is perhaps too much detail about some — such as Augustine — and sometimes not enough about others, such as Avveroes and Thomas a Kempis.

If the book produces a single lesson, it is perhaps that there is no conventionally ecumenical path to Christian unity. Only by a strictly non-institutional common adherence to a global ethic can we ever hope to produce a united front. This treatise on "global history" marks a giant step toward a fuller understanding of such a concept. A realisation of this concept of a "global ethic" would transcend a purely ecclesiastical form of unity in favour of a more dynamic and spiritual version. It would represent a triumph of ideology over organisation, even though it would imply a revision of some of our preconceived notions on the role of dogma.

AGREATER EXPERT than myself might spot some errors in the course of this mighty intellectual journey, but not, I suspect, many — unless of a minuscule nature.

The Songs of Songs is said to be known in Latin as the Canticles, rather than Canticle of Canticles; Hus is referred to as Huss. There is an interesting reference to the remarkable discovery by the French missionary Fr Petijean (1829-84) of a Christian community which has survived in secrecy and isolation in Japan since the departure of the Jesuits. This normally is said to have occurred at Nagasaki, whereas Chidester places it in Urakarni. His sources, as usual, are impeccable; so perhaps this hitherto unheard-of spot is the exact location of Fr Petijean's historic encounter, rather than the general locality of what had happened. That amazing Christian community had survived three centuries without church buildings, sacraments, priests, almost certainly a phenomenon unique in Christian history.

The last case happens to exemplify — though in a quite different sense — the author's description of where he had to search to tell the story, namely in "locations that might be unexpected, but nevertheless have been crucial for the global history of Christianity".

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