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The Risks of Being Christian

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Uffizi, Florence/Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali/Art Resource
Tintoretto: Temptation of Adam and Eve, sixteenth century

It was once said of President Calvin Coolidge, a perfunctory churchgoer and notoriously short-spoken, that when questioned by his wife about the theme of the sermon he had just heard, he answered in one word: “Sin.” When asked to elaborate on what the preacher had said, all he vouchsafed was: “He was against it.”

Paula Fredriksen’s vivid little book is calculated to make even the most inert churchgoer sit up. In three chapters she traces the history of the idea of sin in the first centuries of Christianity. She does this by taking major figures from each century and expounding their distinctive notions of sin: Jesus of Nazareth and Paul for the first chapter; Marcion, Valentinus, and Justin Martyr for the second chapter; Origen and Augustine for the third chapter.

They make a strong cast of characters. Some, like Jesus of Nazareth, Saint Paul, and Saint Augustine, need no introduction. But Marcion, Valentinus, Justin Martyr (who flourished around the middle of the second century), and even the great Origen (who lived half a century later) belong to a Christianity that is deeply unfamiliar to most modern people. Justin Martyr was accepted as orthodox by later generations of Christians. But several of the others came to be considered as heretics. Marcion was condemned for treating the Jewish past as irrelevant to Christianity. Valentinus regarded the universe as a vast mistake, caused by the rebellion of envious supernatural powers. Origen’s enemies claimed that he had castrated himself in his enthusiasm for the ascetic life, and that he was prepared to believe that even the Devil would be saved.

In particular, those who wrote in the Greek East in the second and third centuries CE were a remarkable group. They were fierce intellectuals, engaged in teaching intense coteries of disciples. They were deeply engagé, and often at considerable risk. Justin was martyred because he was denounced as a Christian by a rival teacher of philosophy. Origen was the son of a martyr. When he was a boy he wished to follow his father, and his mother had to hide his clothes to prevent him from running out to defy the pagan authorities. Many years later he would die (in 254) as a direct result of the mistreatment that he had received in prison for his beliefs.

In her presentation of these persons, Fredriksen goes for the big picture. For her, sin is not a set of actions to be castigated or exonerated. Rather, sin is a situation thrown into high relief by the emergence of fierce hopes of deliverance and redemption. Her book is “about what people are redeemed from.” An entire world is involved: What is the nature of the bondage from which humanity craves deliverance? What is the means of gaining that freedom? Above all, how much new freedom can be gained? How much of the old world can be expected to cling to the human person in this life (and, who knows, even in the next)? As a result, a debate about the sort of wicked acts that we might expect the clergy to castigate on Sundays rapidly escalates into a debate about hope for change, about freedom, and about the mysterious play of continuity and discontinuity in the human person, and even in the universe as a whole.

Fredriksen places each of her characters against a distinctive background. Chapter 1, for instance, is dominated by the huge presence of the Temple of Jerusalem. We see it laid out in a drawing and a plan. We feel the thrill of its majesty in the time of Jesus and Paul. It was a place bathed in glory. God was present in it. We are looking back into a world profoundly different from our own, “when one approached the altar of God with purifications, blood offerings, and awe.”

In Fredriksen’s opinion, neither Jesus nor Paul had any inkling that this place of glory would soon cease to exist. For both men, the mighty Temple was the anchor of their hopes. Both had preached, with urgency, the coming of an age when the Temple (and with it Jerusalem), “renewed, enlarged, made beautiful [would] stand at the center of God’s new kingdom.”

Whatever one may think of this view, the fact remains that the Temple did vanish. Between 70 and 135 it (along with much of Jerusalem) was erased by the Romans with a vindictive thoroughness that nobody could have foreseen. In the second chapter, Fredriksen explores the implications of this loss for Marcion, Valentinus, and Justin Martyr. They found themselves in a world that had become threateningly vast. Sin was no longer something that could be set right by sacrifices performed in a glorious, restored temple in Jerusalem. Salvation involved nothing less than the reform of the entire universe.

Fredriksen provides a map of the universe as ancient persons saw it. The human race lay at the lowest point of a resplendent universe. Ancient thinkers (pagans and Jews quite as much as Christians) were alternately inspired and oppressed by a vertiginous upward view. As they stepped out under the night sky, they thought of themselves as looking upward at layer after layer of vibrant beings, each more glorious than the last, each very different from their heavy selves. To sin was to remain caught at the bottom of the universe, as at the bottom of a muddy well. To be saved was to reach the region of blazing, weightless light that marked its top.

In the third chapter, entitled “A Rivalry of Genius,” we meet two very different men—Origen of Alexandria (circa 187–254) and Augustine of Hippo (354–430). It is Origen who needs the most introduction. At first sight, he seems the milder and the more optimistic of the two. He believed that all sins would eventually be corrected, and that all sinners would be forgiven: even the Devil and his angels would eventually be converted. But he also seems alien to us because he shared with his contemporaries the majestic view of the universe that Fredriksen expounds in chapter 2. In this universe, human beings were only part of the story. The entire universe appeared to him to be caught up in a mighty process of transformation. He looked up at the sun, thinking that he saw in it a great soul like himself. Like himself, the sun groaned for deliverance. At some unimaginably distant time, the sun would replace its present, shining carapace with something yet more glorious, as Origen hoped that his own body would be transformed, by becoming ever more spiritual and translucent.

Hence the shock of meeting Augustine at the very end of the book. He is the first figure who seems to tread on familiar ground. Augustine placed the complexity of the human will at the center of his notion of sin. He limited his concern for salvation to human beings alone. Compared with the immensity of the universe, so resolutely human-centered a view of sin and redemption would have struck many as claustrophobic. Fredriksen makes clear how idiosyncratic Augustine’s solution was. Yet it would prove decisive, at least in the Christianity of Western Europe. This was by no means the case with the wider Christian world of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, for which a more “cosmic” positioning of humanity remained attractive. Though Origen was condemned as a heretic, the lingering influence of his magnificent cosmic vision still accounts for many of the differences between the Christianities of East and West.

And so we end with two very different styles of Christianity. One—associated with Origen and continued, in modified forms, in Eastern Christianity—saw sin against the backdrop of a universe whose serene immensity dwarfed the human sense of hurry. It was all a matter of time. What was wrong with the human condition would eventually be set right, by a slow process of purification that stretched unimaginably far into the future, and that involved the universe as a whole.

The other—associated with Augustine, and continued largely in the Catholic West—put human beings at the center. The universe and its unhurried rhythms took second place. And with the eclipse of the universe came a heightened sense of urgency. Human sin was not part of a cosmic drama, which had begun aeons before and would continue for aeons ahead. It involved a human battle against the grip of a concrete human past. And it was a battle that could be fought out only within the narrow walls of an ever more prominent human institution—the Catholic Church.

How do we get from the one to the other—from the calm cosmic vision of Origen to the urgent, claustrophobically human preoccupations of Augustine? Let me suggest that we need to approach this problem from a different direction from that taken by Fredriksen. It strikes me that Fredriksen (as she herself makes plain) is interested in the idea of sin. But she is not interested in sinners. Yet by the age of Augustine, being a sinner was, in itself, an intellectually challenging experience. Not only were there more sinners around, as Christianity settled down, at last, to become a majority religion. Sin itself became interesting. Especially for Augustine, sin was not simply something there to be transcended. It needed to be studied.

I think that this may be because sin became a charged idea with which Augustine and his contemporaries thought through the paradox of discontinuity within continuity that confronted them, as much in their own society as in themselves. It offered a way of thinking about change. Things could change. Things had changed. But how much would they change? How much of the sinful past—the “Old Adam,” the “old leaven”—would continue in the church and in the world?

Not only Christians were involved in this debate about change. Pagans also made pertinent contributions. It is interesting that pagans did not see Christians (as we might see them) as burdened by a sense of sin. It was the exact opposite: they thought that Christians were dangerously lax. They seemed to treat sin as perpetually reversible. Christian insistence on conversion and penance seemed to imply that the past could be shrugged off lightly, that one act of repentance, one mystic initiation of baptism, one statement of regret alone was all that was needed. Christians appeared to believe that they could entirely restructure the personality of the sinner, creating a “new being” out of the unyielding bedrock of human nature.

Such quickie mutations were not for old-style pagans. When the emperor Julian the Apostate wished to caricature his uncle Constantine, the first Christian emperor, he imagined a Banquet of the Caesars in which each Roman emperor was brought to the table by a protecting god. Each god was an upward projection of the character of the emperor he protected. Good emperors got good gods—stern and forceful gods. Constantine got the god he deserved—Jesus Christ. And Christ was a softy, just as Constantine had been a softy. Constantine:

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