About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
When Jesus became God
The central topic is the theological battle between priest Arius of Alexandria and bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, focusing on the rather esoteric question of the actual nature of Jesus Christ. Athanasius held the position that eventually became accepted dogma by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants alike: Jesus is both fully divine and fully human, sharing in the same essence of the Father (and of the Holy Ghost, whatever the latter may be), and never created but existing for all time.
This made absolutely no sense to Arius and many Christians in the Eastern Roman empire. They were influenced by Greek philosophy (neo-Platonism in particular), and so put a high premium on logical consistency. For Arius, Jesus couldn't possibly have a fully dualistic nature, and the very fact that he was referred to as “the Son,” put him clearly in a subordinate position to the Father (where the Holy Ghost stood ain't clear). Moreover, the Arians thought that if Jesus were put so high in the divine realm, he would lose any appeal as a credible savior of mere mortals – too distant and perfect for us to even bother trying to use him as a role model.
The battle between the two contenders went on throughout their lives, and lasted for decades past their deaths. Crucial events (like the first significant “barbarian” invasions of the Roman territory and the first Church council at Nicea) and characters (e.g., Contantine, the Roman ruler who adopted Christianity as the official imperial religion, thus giving it the support of the Roman armies and communication routes) constitute the backdrop to this fascinating story.
But the most interesting part for us moderns is that the two camps were actually supported by violent mobs in the streets, with people killing each other, burning churches, and accusing the other part of atheism (?!) and heresy. Sounds familiar? It seems that the Sunni and Shiites in Iraq are simply following a pattern that has been around for at least a couple of millennia. Rubenstein's analysis makes clear that, while the doctrinal points were indeed subtle and intellectually interesting, the riots in the streets were in fact the result of both political manipulation of the local and “international” rulers and of the increasingly desperate economic conditions of the people living at the sunset of Roman power. Just like the strange case of the Muhammad cartoons. History really does repeat itself, and no, apparently we simply can't learn from it.