- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 6, 2003

How well does the faith-based worldview of Christianity hold up against the rationality of the classical Roman civilization it supplanted? The question may strike many Christians as being somewhat beside the point, but put in a slightly different way, it is certainly one of the more interesting historical and cultural questions of the last 2,000 years — namely, how did a small and powerless sect manage to co-opt the ancient world’s greatest imperial power? For many believers, of course, it was evidence of the truth of their faith; even for those who are not Christian, though, it is an endlessly intriguing question.

In “The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason,” Charles Freeman surveys this crucial period of transition in the ancient world. He sweeps from the heights of Greek and Roman culture, through the rule of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, to the empire’s full embrace of Christianity and its role in the development of religious doctrine.

It is a panoramic view that Mr. Freeman handles with grace, erudition and lucidity — but also with something of an agenda. In his opinion, the intellectual tradition that began with the Greeks did not simply fade away as the new religion took hold; Greek rationalism was actively suppressed by the early Christian authorities.

From the earliest pages of the book, Mr. Freeman sets up a contrast between this classical rationalism and the (in his description, somewhat authoritarian) belief-system that was developing into Christian doctrine. And it is clear — not least from the book’s title — where Mr. Freeman’s sympathies lie.

The author celebrates the Greco-Roman world for its achievements in politics, science and philosophy. In his telling, however, this vibrant intellectual life would come to an end when the apostle Paul’s deep suspicion of intellectuals (“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise”) came to be ingrained in church teachings. “With the elaboration of Christian doctrine,” Mr. Freeman writes, “faith came to mean acquiescence in the teachings of the churches … faith in this last sense achieved prominence over reason.”

Paul’s influence comes in for much blame here: “[F]or Paul it is not only the Law that has been superseded by the coming of Christ, it is the concept of rational argument, the core of the Greek intellectual achievement,” Mr. Freeman argues. “So here,” he concludes, “are the roots of the conflict between religion and science that still pervades debates on Christianity to this day. By proposing that Christian faith … might contain ‘truths’ superior to those achieved by rational argument … it was Paul, perhaps unwittingly … who declared the war and prepared the battlefield.”

Paul’s anti-intellectualism would not achieve its full impact, however, until it was yoked to the growing authority of the bishops and, later, to the authority of the emperors themselves. As Mr. Freeman shows, the emperors did not hesitate to inject themselves into theological debates.

During Constantine’s reign, for example, the Christian world was mired in controversy regarding the Arian heresy, which held Jesus to be a later creation distinct from and subordinate to the pre-existing G-d. Seeing this internal debate as a threat to the stability of his political order, Constantine called a council of bishops to the imperial palace at Nicaea, in Asia Minor, to settle the doctrinal question and back it up with the power of the state. As Mr. Freeman explains, Constantine’s action would institute the process by which “church doctrine was decided in councils of bishops called under the auspices of the emperor” — which would hold true for all church councils until the eighth century.

Mr. Freeman’s greatest contribution is to show how political exigencies, as opposed to purely spiritual concerns, contributed to the shaping of Christian doctrine. And for the most part he handles the history with a sure grip as he guides the reader through some rather complex and arcane material.

Where Mr. Freeman is on less firm ground, however, is in the book’s central contrast between the rationality of classical civilization and the rejection of that rationality by the church. Although the conflict makes for good drama, it omits an important part of the story.

The extended survey of Greek and Roman achievements that constitutes the opening chapters of the book does describe a civilization whose highest ideals involve man’s intellectual capacities. And when the early Christians reject the ideals of this civilization, it is easy to portray them as ignorant, superstitious, or — worst of all — manipulative.

Such a contrast, though, relies on a view of the classical world as an unchanging whole across the span of several centuries, which is manifestly not the case. The greatest achievements of Greece and Rome — the ones Mr. Freeman touts in the early chapters of the book — occurred hundreds of years before the emergence of the Christian church and the development of its religious doctrine.

By the time Christianity began to gain momentum, the classical world was well into its slow decline and Rome’s best days had been behind it for at least three centuries. Where it once had been a republic built on Greek-style rationalism, the stoic virtues of its leaders and the discipline of its troops, it was now a bloated and decadent mega-state whose emperors occasionally lived in fear of those troops and served at their pleasure.

That having been said, there is much here to admire. And although Mr. Freeman never really answers the central question of why this minority religion swept across the Roman empire and claimed the allegiance of its emperors and the apparatus of the state, his book deepens our understanding of the circumstances under which it did.

Mark Miller is a Washington lawyer and writer.


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