Monday 22 May 2006

Putting the con back in Constantine

Was Constantine, the Roman emperor who legitimized Catholic Christianity, a good guy or a bad guy. The Da Vinci Code implies the latter, and there's a truckload of COG literature over the years that says much the same as Dan Brown. Constantine was, according to this analysis, either a highly savvy politician bent on manipulating the church to his own ends, or, to cite the most extreme option, a pawn of Satan who succeeded in derailing Truth.

Alastair Kee agrees. This Scottish Presbyterian theologian produced a thorough debunking of Constantine's "conversion" in a book called Constantine Versus Christ (1982). If you're interested in the subject, this is one study that's well worth digging up.

I mention this because the subject of Constantine came up in a recent church history tutorial. After a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing, the lecturer closed off discussion with these words of wisdom (which I'm paraphrasing):

"If we accept that Constantine was a bad man, and his legacy to the church was negative, we have to ask whether the Holy Spirit would or could permit such a terrible thing to occur. I think not."

Driving home that night I tossed that particular thought around. I don't know this man's denominational affiliation, but I assume it's something crashingly boring and conformist. These folk - unlike most readers of this blog - will have assumed that the acceptance of Christianity by the empire was a good thing. We of course, having been inoculated with multiple strains of heresy, know better. Being part of the modern Christian fringe gives one some sympathy for the underdogs of past ages. I find myself invariably rooting for the bit players in church history: Arians, Pelagians, Marcionites, all in the spirit of the bumper sticker that says "I support two teams, New Zealand and whoever is playing against Australia."

But there's a more important point than personal prejudices here. If we say that things can't go horribly wrong because of the Holy Spirit's guidance, then nothing can go wrong. Inquisitions, pogroms, crusades - no problem! If anyone is it blame it's the Holy Spirit. Oh wait, let's not blame the Holy Spirit (Matt.12:31)! No really, everything is just fine.

If that seems a perverse position, the dodgy recourse of wicked Popes and Patriarchs, consider for a moment how some of us responded (or failed to respond) during the last days of Armstrongism. The Pasadena apostle could do as he wanted (and make us do as he wanted) with a shake of his jowls and a threat of "not making it." The flock feared for their salvation if they were unconvinced. Jump? Yes sir! How high? How different is that from regarding Constantine and his episcopal buddies as the voice and choice of God?

I'm with Kee on this, even if it means gritting my teeth and also agreeing with Meredith & Co. Constantine was a shonky con artist who knew how to both flatter and coerce as circumstances required. The church however - or at least the part of it that the emperor adopted as his pet project - was hardly an unwilling partner, and anyone who thinks that slimey symbiosis was heralded with doves and haloes has "swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all" (as Luther is reputed to have said).

But lest we feel too smug, it pays to remember the spineless subservience of the dumb sheep to Apostle Herb and his enforcers in our own lifetimes.


Douglas Becker said...

Constantine as a Roman Emperor was interesting. He managed to save the empire for a few more centuries. He believed that his mission was given and supported of God. Evidence suggests otherwise. For the religious among us, Satan the Devil would be a better explanation.

But then again, perhaps demons are real: We just call them something else. The modern term is psychopath.

Snakes in Suits by Dr. Robert Hare and Dr. Paul Babiak give an insight in how psychopaths operate in modern businesses. The descriptions are eerily like cult leaders. In fact, the behavior of psychopaths very well explains the behavior of cultmeisters in the modern Church Corporate.

Constantine appears to be one of those who had no empathy and no conscience--the defining characteristics of a psychopath. He may not have been as bad as some emperors, such as Caligula, but his personalty hardly reflected the fruit of the Spirit.

The Corporation, a documentary about corporations themselves being psychopaths with no empathy and no conscience shows the depth of depravity modern institutions to which psychopathic organizations can sink: No fear, no morals, no remorse. Think Jurrasic Park filled with Raptors.

It is not difficult for some of us to perceive cultic religion organizations as psychopaths and neither is it difficult to engage the PCR to rate the leadership. As radical as it is, it is a framework which supplies a reasonable framework to both evaluate the cult and to explain the experience.

If it really is true that cult leaders are psychopaths, we could dispense with the guilt of our own failure and heal from being conned.

Felix Taylor, Jr. said...

((If it really is true that cult leaders are psychopaths, we could dispense with the guilt of our own failure and heal from being conned.))

So in other words, us ex-members are NOT the problem! Are you listening Greg?