Barrett Brown: My Opening Argument in Debate Against First Things Editor Joe Carter
Before this debate began I introduced a quotation from the Emperor Theodosius I, who reigned at the end of a long and telling struggle between the two major Christian factions of the time: those who ascribed to the Trinity as three co-equal components of the deity which had been worshiped and apparently misunderstood by the Jews for a couple of thousand years, and those who ascribed to the concept of the Father as the superior and - as our friend Joe Carter might put it - non-dependent element of a somewhat different Trinity in which the Son is subordinate to the Father. The latter doctrine, represented by the Presbyter Arius, held sway over a sufficiently influential portion of the Roman Empire to have been adopted by Constantius II and others and thus flourish for a time as the most useful theology to which to ascribe in public, but the circumstances were such that the former doctrine, represented by Athanasius, won the approval of a far greater number of bishops and eventually that of our Theodosius, who did more than anyone else in history to perpetuate modern Christianity by ushering in an age in which those failed to ascribe to its doctrines would exist only to the extent that a series of Christian states allowed them to. It is a fine thing, then, that Theodosius chose to defend by arms the one religious doctrine that is truly and plainly valid; otherwise, we might look back upon the intervening history and see that a tremendous degree of violence and oppression has been perpetrated in reference to some set of beliefs that owe their popularity to historical accident, and we might look upon those who ascribe to such beliefs as either historically illiterate or irrational. In such a wacky alternative universe as I have here proposed, many Christians would know little if anything of the processes that came to define their own beliefs, and the majority of them would have taken on the mantle of Christians in suspicious accordance with the opinions of their parents, well before such a point as they could reasonably be expected to make such a determination on their own.
Here, again, is the Edict of Thessalonika, the first message to be delivered to the world on behalf of Christianity in its complete and modern form:
It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our clemency and moderation, should continue to profess that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition, and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict.
Thus it was that the first act performed by the first political authority to ascribe to Trinitarian Christianity was to threaten with violence all other men who would find themselves under the Christian dominion. From this point on to the Enlightenment, when Christianity and all religion began to lose its control of the state and its influence on the minds of the educated, this threat was carried out with regularity - although, within a few hundred years, such threats were largely unnecessary, as the average person would have no access whatsoever to any materials that would contradict the doctrines under which they were ruled. These were the mechanics by which the Christians perpetuated their system of belief beyond the minority that had come to the religion of their own volition from the time of Christ to the reign of Constantine’s heirs.
To counter my quotation, Joe Carter has reproduced another by Constantine himself, which I will also reproduce here:
My own desire is, for the common good of the world and the advantage of all mankind, that thy people should enjoy a life of peace and undisturbed concord. Let those, therefore, who still delight in error, be made welcome to the same degree of peace and tranquillity which they have who believe. For it may be that this restoration of equal privileges to all will prevail to lead them into the straight path. Let no one molest another, but let every one do as his soul desires. Only let men of sound judgment be assured of this, that those only can live a life of holiness and purity, whom thou callest to a reliance on thy holy laws. With regard to those who will hold themselves aloof from us, let them have, if they please, their temples of lies: we have the glorious edifice of thy truth, which thou hast given us as our native home. We pray, however, that they too may receive the same blessing, and thus experience that heartfelt joy which unity of sentiment inspires.
This was an easy enough “sentiment” for Constantine to have expressed, having done so at a time when Christianity was relegated to a small minority of the empire’s soldiers and somewhat larger percentages of its women and slaves. Had he instead expressed his desire to subordinate the majority of the classical world that still followed the various mysteries and civic rituals, he would not have lived long much longer than had those previous emperors who had been assassinated for considerably lesser transgressions against the known world. In fact, we do not need to wonder whether a believing Christian of the age who on the other hand found himself in the position to enforce his doctrines by force would opt to do so; Theodosius did just that, and this policy remained in force for well over a thousand years. At any rate, well before Constantine had his noted encounter with Christ before the final battle of the civil war, he likewise had an encounter with Apollo, whose qualities he thereafter took on, even commissioning statues of himself as that deity. Constantine was much more fortunate than those of us who never encounter any gods at all, having managed to encounter two, entirely contradictory deities on occasions entirely convenient to his own ambitions. As far as I know, he never repudiated his claim to have something of Apollo in him. And so my first question to Joe Carter, in light of his choice of quotations, would have to be, “Is this individual whom you have chosen to quote as an example of a Christian who displayed tolerance to others actually a Christian? And, if so, would you be willing to vote for a political candidate who claims to have conversed not only with Christ but also with another, more ancient deity?” My second question is, “What should we make of Christianity’s early track record in terms of governance?”
This will do for now.