Saturday, January 29, 2005

Religious Evolution due to Politics

It can equivocally be stated that throughout history, the search for Political Independence has shaped the Religious direction of a given group. The belief in Religion so often attributed to singular faith, would have no basis if it wasn't for the intervention of Politics. I can list dozens of examples, but I shall endeavor to concentrate on one specific Religious Group, only because I know more about its political history then I know of others. Christianity, as we know it today, is not the same entity that emerged at first, as a branch within another religious philosophy (Judaism as we've been told). During the first few hundred years after Jesus, there was great chaos in deciding how best to represent the growing movement. There were thousands of different views on the matter, each influenced by some zealot, clergy member, or philosopher with ties to political groups and power.
Before I continue further, I would like to make a few statements and provide some background information that should help in better explaining the whole situation. I am working on the assumption that there was a man named Jesus (although this is the Hellenized version of his name), who had numerous followers, starting a movement within the Jewish population towards the inclusion of non-jews. Some religions, or even intra-religious branches, are highly exclusive. What this means is that these groups do not actively proselytize, trying to convert or accept new members. As a rule, Judaism is a highly exclusive religious, with the belief that the Jews are superior to other ethnic groups, and that they are the true Children of God. Some did not agree with this presumptively arrogant and exclusive viewpoint, and decided that why limit acceptance to heaven on one ethnic group? In other words, why be bound to religion through blood, and not through other means such as plain faith? Thus, Jesus and his followers traveled around, trying to spread the movement Within their religion, for inclusion. They didn't set out to start a new religion or even new branches, but they disagreed on a philosophical basis with the Dogma of Judaism at the time. Aside from this, I have purposely left out identifying the region that lead to the movement which eventually became Christianity. The reason for this is the loaded nature of naming a given place, especially one that has been involved in numerous political and ethnic conflicts throughout its history. Generally, it is better to refer to most places geographically then politically. Thus, I will not use modern political names, or even ancient ones of the region. I will not refer to Israel, Palestine, land of Canaan, or whatever else may be. I can say Western Middle East, but this is an awkward and broad geographical term. From here on, I will use Southern Levant when I refer to the region. Geographically speaking, the Levant is the Eastern Shore of the Mediterranean that stretches from modern day Syria, through Lebanon, to Southern Israel and Gaza.
In order to better explain the shaping of Christianity through Politics, it is important to understand the reason for the Major divisions within Christianity. Generally, there are three main branches, the First, being the Orthodox, the Second the Catholics, and the Third branch consisting of Protestants. The fundamental Division between these beliefs was a result of the search for Political Independence and Dominance.
During the early Chaos of Christianity, it was decided by the various leaders, that a council must be convened to decide on a solid and stable platform. A philosophy was intent on being found that would unite the various factions and result in a substantial foundation. Thus, in the year 325, the Council of Nicea was convened within Constantine's Empire, to attempt at an initial reconciliation. Many philosophies were discarded at this time, charging those who practiced them as heretical. Christian Gnosticism (Various branches) for example, was one of the discarded beliefs, and those who tolerated, and especially practiced it, where persecuted to their eventual deaths.
The Adoption of Christianity by Constantine was not a religious miracle, but a move for greater political autonomy and independence. At the time of Constantine, Roman power and might was fading quickly, and in order for some remnant of the once might empire to remain, Constantine decided to Settle on the Bosporus, in what we now call Istanbul, previously known as Constantinople. By Adopting Christianity, Constantine solidified his power and dominance, binding the Eastern end of the crumbling Roman Empire together.
By the year 451, Christianity had not only taken a hold, but was flourishing in an ever expanding empire. The only problem was although many different groups had adopted Christianity, Constantinople was pressuring them to lose political independence and become a fully integrated member of the Empire. When the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) was convened to decide on the true nature of Christ, many of the politically autonomous groups decided to solidify their autonomy and avoid gradual assimilation into the ever expanding Byzantine Empire. This is when the first major division occurred, with the Oriental Orthodox church, moving away from the main branch on theological grounds (but in reality, based more on political autonomy). The main subject of this division was on whether Christ had a dual nature, being both fully human and fully divine, or on a single nature of Divinity, called Monophysite. This first division led to the Armenian, Syrian, Coptic (Egyptian), Ethiopian and Indian Orthodox Churches.
As the Byzantine Empire grew Stronger, Rome was invaded by incoming nomadic hordes, and the whole Western region of the Roman Empire had become disorganized and Chaotic. As the years went on, Rome and the Western end of the once former Roman Empire eventually recovered and prospered. While the Byzantine Empire put political pressure on Rome, many of the rulers resented these "Eastern Overlords" and slowly drifted away to retain their political identity. Finally, after centuries of simmering tension, the Great Church Schism of 1054 occurred. In this, Rome made the decision to break away from Byzantine Religious superiority, and instead develop and strengthen what we now consider the Catholic Religion. Thus, the Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholics emerged from the political division that Rome sought.
Turks and Mongols eventually conquered the Byzantine Empire, but since the political strength of Christianity had once again shifted, this time from Constantinople to Rome, Catholicism finally retained religious dominance over Orthodoxy.
With Catholicism being such a dominant force, a new line of friction emerged with the Holy Roman Empire (not to be confused with the Roman Empire). The Holy Roman Empire (which was neither, Holy, Roman, or an Empire) was a conglomeration of political regions within what are now France, Germany and Austria. As Southern Europe increasingly felt the threat of Muslim Power, religious dominance once again shifted. By the 1500's, the Protestant Reformation was under way, resulting in the 3rd and last major split of Christianity. In this, the many regions within Central Europe decided they had enough political pressure from Rome, and in order to avoid assimilation and dominance, decided to adopt a new belief separating them politically from Rome. If one looks at the further divisions within the Protestant Church, it's again possible to see the political overtones. The Anglican Church, Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists, among many others decided to further attain political autonomy and adopt these beliefs.
As can be seen from all the examples, and a small amount of Church History, religion retains divisions not on personal belief structures but on political autonomy and independence. It's not as easy adopting a new language or alphabet, as it is adopting a slight religious difference to retain autonomy. I am not stating that it's not possible to adapt a new alphabet, because all one has to do is look at Cyrillic (the Russian Script) to realize that religious in not the only method of independence. However, Religion is far more effective then an alphabetical or linguistic change.
Finally, with all the previous information one has in mind, how can anyone be sure of the original intent of a particular set of beliefs? These beliefs were shaped by ecumenical politics, linguistic shifts and violent transitions. The bible for example, is often thought by many Christians as the sole unaltered Word of God. How is it possible, that a document can remain unaltered through so much change in the course of its given history? Aside from the numerous linguistic translations that are nowhere near to the original in connotation and meaning, one can also understand the politics that have shaped and molded the belief into what it has become today. To summarize, Religion cannot be taken literally, either as the word of God or written in its original form, because even if that was the case, which I highly doubt, the original meaning and intent would have shifted greatly due to politics, language, and the passage of time in general.

1 comment:

Tito said...

You cited no 'political' motives on all the schisms.

The Truth is Absolute, and the truth being that the schism occured due to theological divisions. Similar to Martin Luther promulgating the Protestant revolt.

The Orthodox has always recognized the primacy of Rome. First amongst equals is what they say. Even today the Orthodox recognize the Pope as first amongst equals. The divisions are theological and the Truth has not changed.

What has changed, and still changes, is political thought.

The Truth is absolute. One of my favorite quotes from Pope Benedict XVI when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as Cardinal Ratzinger.

Merry Christmas!