Apostles

Anti-Papal Movement

Aryanism

Augustine

Bible

Catholic Church

Christian Church in the Middle Ages

Christian Church, Separation of

Christianity

Conversion of Constantine

Development of World Religions

Jesus Christ

Origins of Christianity

Paul/Saul

Persecutions of the Christians in Gaul

Reformed Churches

Rise and Triumph of Christianity

Rise of Christianity

Roman Church

A History Christianity

Edited By: Robert A. Guisepi

Development And Spread Of World Religions
End Of The Classical Era
Author: Stearns, Peter
Date: 1992

The decline of the classical empires contributed several ingredients to
the spread of what turned out to be the great world religions. Previously,
most religion had been regional. Buddhism, spreading through India at various
points in the classical period, could embrace a whole subcontinent. As
Hinduism evolved from the Brahman religion, it did the same and also spread to
a few other areas of Indian commercial influence in Southeast Asia.
Christianity showed an ability to win a growing minority in the Roman Empire
and at a few points beyond its borders, in the Middle East and North Africa.

The waning of the great empires so confused and reshuffled geographical
boundaries, from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, that the regional confines
of religion were modified more dramatically. The same political decline
encouraged people to turn to more spiritual institutions and rewards. The
result was one of the world's key periods in which beliefs shifted and
cultural allegiances took on new territorial patterns. Even religions still
essentially regional, such as Daoism in China and Hinduism in India, worked to
win new levels of active popular adherence. Just as the 5th century B.C. had
clustered the origins of major philosophical systems for the educated elites
in China and the Mediterranean, so the period A.D. 200-700 grouped fundamental changes in religious alignments.

Christianity And Buddhism Compared

As during the period of chaos in China, Rome's decline brought vital new
religious influences to societies around the Mediterranean. Christianity moved
westward from its original center in the Middle East, just as in Asia,
Buddhism was spreading east from India. Though initially less significant then
Buddhism in terms of numbers of converts, Christianity would ultimately prove
to be one of the two largest world faiths. It would play a direct role in the
formation of two postclassical civilizations, those of eastern and western
Europe.

Christianity resembled Buddhism in important ways. It could stress the
unimportance of things of this world, urging the centrality of people's
spiritual destiny and the focus on divinity. Not surprisingly, Christianity,
like Buddhism, produced an important monastic movement, in which especially
holy individuals grouped to live a spiritual life and serve their religion
through their sanctity. Christianity resembled the version of Buddhism that
spread to China (and later Korea and Japan) by stressing the possibility of an
afterlife and the role that holy leaders could play in helping to attain it.

The Chinese version of Buddhism, called Mahayana or the Greater Vehicle,
placed considerable emphasis on Buddha as god or savior. Statues of the Buddha as god violated earlier Buddhist hostility to religious images, but they
served to emphasize the religion as a channel of salvation. Well-organized
temples, with priests and rituals, also helped bring religious solace to
ordinary people in East Asia. The idea developed also that Buddhist holy men,
or bodhisattvas, built up spiritual merits such that their prayers, even after
death, could aid people and allow them to achieve some reflected holiness.
Christianity in many respects moved in similar directions. It too came to
emphasize salvation, with well-organized rituals designed to promote its
achievement. Religious images, though contrary to Jewish beliefs against
idol-worship, helped focus popular belief in most versions of Christianity.
Holy men, sometimes granted the title saint after their death, were revered
not only as models but also because their spiritual attainments could lend
merit to the strivings of more ordinary folk. The broad similarities between
Christianity and the evolving Buddhism of East Asia remind us of the common
processes apparently at work as new religions spread amid the ruins of great
empires.

Yet Christianity had a flavor of its own. More than any of the forms of
Buddhism, it came to place great emphasis on church organization and
structure, copying the example of the Roman Empire. It also placed greater
value on missionary activity and widespread conversions, believing that error
must be actively combated in God's name. More perhaps than any other major
religion, certainly more than contemplative and tolerant Buddhism,
Christianity stressed its possession of exclusive truth and its intolerance of
competing beliefs. Such fierce confidence was not the least of the reasons for
the new religion's success. The common dynamic and chronology shared by
Christianity and spreading Buddhism suggest a similar process at work, as
ordinary people sought a well-organized spiritual outlet different from
traditional animism, more focused on otherworldly salvation. Christianity must
also be understood, however, in the particular context of earlier
Mediterranean religious traditions and the declining Roman Empire. Its
emphasis on doctrines and exclusive loyalty differentiated it from the more
tranquil religions of eastern and southern Asia, India as well as China, where
a larger variety of beliefs and practices could be combined with Buddhism or
Hinduism.

Christianity began, as part of a Jewish reform movement. During the two
centuries before the birth of Christ many insurgent Jews had preached the
coming of a Messiah, or savior, who would bring a Last Judgment on humankind.

Many reformed Jews also stressed the possibility of a life after death for the
virtuous, which was a new element in Judaism. Jesus of Nazareth, believed by
Christians to be the son of God sent to earth to live a sinless life so that
the sacrifice of his body on the cross would redeem human sin, crystallized
this radical reform movement. Combining extraordinary gentleness of spirit and
great charisma, Jesus preached widely in Israel and gathered a group of loyal
disciples around him. Initially, there seems to have been no intent to found a
new religion. After Jesus' crucifixion, the disciples expected his imminent
return and with it the end of the world. Only gradually when the Second Coming
did not transpire, did the disciples begin to fan out and, through preaching,
pick up growing numbers of supporters in various parts of the Roman Empire.

The message of Jesus and his disciples seemed clear: There was a single
God, who loved humankind despite earthly sin. A virtuous life should be
dedicated to the worship of God and fellowship among other believers; worldly
concerns were secondary, and a life of poverty might be most conducive to
holiness. God sent Jesus, called "Christ" from the Greek word Christos for
"God's anointed," to preach his holy word and through his sacrifice to prepare
for the possibility of wider attainment of an afterlife of heavenly communion
with God. Belief, good works, and discipline of fleshly concerns would lead
toward heaven; rituals, such as commemorating Christ's Last Supper with wine
and bread, would promote the same goal.

This message spread at an opportune time. The official religion of the
Greeks and Romans had long seemed rather sterile, particularly to many of the
poor. The Christian emphasis on the beauty of poverty and the spiritual
equality of all people, plus the fervor of the early Christians and the
satisfying rituals they provided, gained growing attention. The wide reach of
the Roman Empire made it relatively easy for Christian missionaries to travel
extensively in Europe and the Middle East and spread the new word. Then, when conditions began to deteriorate in the empire, the solace of this otherworldly religion won even wider response.

The adjustments affected by early Christian leaders maximized their
conversions. Under the guidance of Paul, Christians began to see themselves as
part of a new religion rather than a Jewish reform movement, and they welcomed non-Jewish converts. Paul also encouraged more formal organization in the new church, with local groups selecting elders to govern them; soon, a single leader, or bishop, was appointed for each major city. This structure paralleled the provincial government of the empire. Finally, Christian
doctrine became increasingly organized, as the writings of several disciples
and others were collected into what became the New Testament of the Christian
Bible.

Christianity Gains Ground

During the first three centuries after Christ, the new religion competed
among a number of Eastern mystery religions. It also faced, as we have seen,
periodic persecution from the normally tolerant imperial government. Even so,
by the time Constantine converted to the religion and accepted it as a
legitimate faith, Christianity had won perhaps 10 percent of the empire's
population. One convert was Constantine's mother, who visited the Holy Land
and founded many churches there. Constantine's tolerant favor brought some new troubles to Christianity, particularly some interference by the state in
matters of doctrine. But it became much easier to spread Christianity with
official favor. Christian writers began to claim that both church and empire
were works of God. At the same time continued deterioration of the empire
added to the motives to join this amazingly successful new church. In the
eastern Mediterranean, where imperial rule remained strong, state control of
the church became a way of life. But in the west, where conditions were far
more chaotic, bishops had a freer hand. A centralized church organization
under the leadership of the bishop of Rome, called "Pope" from the word papa,
or father, gave the Western church unusual strength and independence.

By the time Rome collapsed, Christianity thus had demonstrated immense
spiritual power and possessed a solid organization, though one that differed
from east to west. The new church faced a number of controversies over
doctrine but managed to promote certain standard beliefs as against several
heresies. A key tenet involved a complex doctrine of the Trinity, which held
that the one God had three persons, the Father, the Son (Christ), and the Holy
Ghost. In A.D. 325 a church council met in Nicaea, under imperial sponsorship,
to debate a doctrine known as Arianism, which argued that Christ was divine
but not of the same nature as God the Father. Ruling against Arianism, the
resultant Nicene Creed insisted on the shared Godhead of all three parts of
the Trinity. An important if complex decision in itself, the council also
showed how important unified doctrine was to Christianity, in contrast to the
greater toleration of diversity in Hinduism and Buddhism. Experience in
fighting heresies promoted Christian interest in defending a single belief and
strengthened its intolerance for any competing doctrine or faith.

Early Christianity also produced an important formal theology, through
formative writers such as Augustine. This theology incorporated many elements
of classical philosophy with Christian belief, and helped the church gain
respectability among intellectuals. Theologians like Augustine grappled with
such problems as freedom of the will: If God is all-powerful, can mere human
beings have free will? And if not, how can human beings be justly punished for
sin? By working out these issues in elaborate doctrine, the early theologians,
or church fathers, provided an important role for formal, rational thought in
a religion that continued to emphasize the primary importance of faith.

Like all successful religions, Christianity combined a number of appeals.
It offered blind devotion to an all-powerful God. One church father, denying
the validity of human thought, simply stated, "I believe because it is
absurd." But Christianity also developed its own complex and fascinating
intellectual system for those so inclined. Mystical holy men and women
flourished under Christian banners, particularly in the Middle East. In the
west soon after the empire's collapse, this impulse was partially disciplined
through the institution of monasticism, which gained ground in Italy under
Benedict of Nursia early in the 6th century. Benedict started a monastery to
demonstrate the true holy life to Italian peasants in a region still (to
Benedict's horror) practicing the worship of the sun-god Apollo. The
Benedictine Rule, which soon spread to many other monasteries and convents,
urged a disciplined life with prayer and spiritual excitement alternating with
hard work in agriculture and in study. Monastic movements also developed in
the eastern empires, in Greece and Turkey, and also in Egypt. Eastern
monasticism was organized by St. Basil in the 4th century.

Thus Christianity attempted to encourage but also discipline intense
piety, and to avoid a complete gulf between the lives of saintly men and women
and the spiritual concerns of ordinary people. Christianity's success and
organizational strength obviously appealed to political leaders. But the new
religion never became the creature of the upper classes alone, as its popular
message of ritual and salvation continued to draw the poor. Rather like
Hinduism in India, Christianity provided some religious unity among different
social groups. There was even a special interest for women. Christianity did
not create equality among men and women, but it did preach the equal
importance of women's and men's souls; and it encouraged men and women to
worship together, unlike many other faiths.

Christianity promoted a new culture among those won to its banners. The
rituals, the otherworldly emphasis, the interest in spiritual equality - these
were far different from the central themes of classical Mediterranean
civilization. Christianity modified classical beliefs in the central
importance of the state and political loyalties. Though Christians accepted
the state, they did not put it first. Christianity also worked against other
classical institutions, such as slavery, in the name of brotherhood (though
later Christians would accept slavery in other contexts). Christianity may
have fostered a greater respectability for disciplined work than had been
current in the aristocratic ethic of Mediterranean civilization, particularly
through the values promoted by Western monasticism.

Certainly, Christianity sought some changes in classical culture,
including greater emphasis on sexual restraint, beyond its central religious
message. But Christianity preserved important classical values in addition to
the interest in solid organization and some of the themes of classical
philosophy. Church buildings in western Europe retained Roman architectural
styles, though often with greater simplicity if only because of the poverty of
the later empire and subsequent Germanic states. Latin remained the language
of the church in the West, Greek the language of most Christians in the
eastern Mediterranean. Monasticism played an immensely valuable role in
preserving classical as well as Christian learning through the patient
librarianship of the monks.

The Emerging Religious Map

When the Roman Empire fell, Christian history was still in its infancy.
The Western church would soon spread its missionary zeal to northern Europe,
and the Eastern church would reach into the Slavic lands of the Balkans and
Russia. But Christianity was already established as a significant world
religion - one of the few ever generated. A world religion is defined by
unusual durability and drawing power and by a complexity that can win
adherence from many different kinds of people. Major world religions, such as
Christianity and Buddhism, show some ability to cut across different cultures,
to win converts in a wide geographic area and amid considerable diversity.

One final world religion remained to enter the lists. Islam, launched in
A.D. 610, would initially surpass Christianity in geographical extent and has
remained Christianity's most tenacious rival. With Islam added, the roster of
world religions was essentially complete. Changes would follow, but no totally
new religion of major significance arose - unless one counts some of the
secular faiths, such as communism, that have appeared in the past century. The
centuries after the rise of Christianity, the spread of Buddhism, and the
inception of Islam would see the conversion of most of the civilized world to
one or another of the great faiths, producing a religious map that, in Europe
and Asia and even parts of Africa, would not alter greatly until our own time.
Table 11.1 shows the distribution of religions in the world today.


The spread of major religions - Hinduism in India, Buddhism in East and
Southeast Asia, a more popular Daoism in China, Christianity in Europe and
parts of the Mediterranean world, and ultimately Islam - was a vital result of
the changes in the classical civilizations brought on by attack and decay.
Despite the important diversity among these great religions, which included
fierce mutual hatreds, particularly between Christian and Muslim, the overall
development suggests that important basic currents could run through the
civilized world, crossing political and cultural borders. Common difficulties,
including invading forces that pressed out from central Asia and contagious
epidemics that knew no boundaries, help explain parallel changes in separate
civilizations. Contacts among the societies through trade and travel also
provided common bonds. Chinese travelers learned of Buddhism through trading expeditions to India. Trade and diffusion of artistic styles linked the
Mediterranean world to the Middle East and India.

There was a world framework, in other words, that affected the separate
currents of the major civilizations. The new religions brought to each of the
major civilizations and other parts of the worlh a greater interest in
speculation about spiritual matters and a greater tendency to focus on a
single basic divinity instead of a multitude of gods. Animist beliefs and
practices continued to flourish as part of popular Hinduism and popular
Daoism, and they were not entirely displaced among ordinary people who
converted to Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam. But the new religious surge
reduced the hold of literal animism in much of Asia and Europe, and this too
was an important development across boundaries.

The development or spread of the major world religions - which so clearly
related to the process of decline in the great empires, while depending on the
communication channels these same empires had created - constituted a major
change at a world-historical level. Obviously, some regions were still exempt:
the great religions had yet to touch the Americas or parts of Africa and
central Asia, and they spread only gradually northward in Europe. Obviously
also, each religion had its own flavor; the idea of common process must not be
exaggerated. And even where the new religions spread, they often merged with
important animist elements. Thus Islam long would leave rural beliefs intact,
concentrating on urban religious practice; Christianity often compromised with
animist beliefs in magic and in ritual properties of natural objects, such as
mistletoe or the bones of saints.

Nevertheless, the spread of the great religions did subject many people
in many different societies to a tendency to shift beliefs away from age-old
adherence to the idea of a host of divine spirits in nature, to a great
concentration on a powerful, single divine force and, often, the spirituality
attendant on new hopes for an afterlife. This change reflected the religious
needs of people living amid new political uncertainties. The great religions
could provide solace, and they also helped create new bonds of cohesion in
societies where strictly political ties were loosening. Not only Hindu
civilization, but also Christianity and Islam provided shared beliefs that
could transcend divided, bickering political units.

The great religions could facilitate international trade, for they did
not depend on local customs but on an ever-present God as organizer of all
nature or at least a coherent divine order; successful trade could, in turn,
help spread the new religions. Despite different ideas, the new religions also
tended to promote more abstract scholarship than animistic religions had done,
as part of defining a less tangible but more orderly divine presence. The
characteristics of world religions in gradually challenging animism were very
general, but they did suggest some parallel basic processes occurring in
various parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa in the aftermath of the great
classical empires.


 

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