Tuesday, November 17, 2009

TV Viewing Diary: The History of Christianity (1)

Presented by Oxford University's muy simpatico Professor of the History of the Church, Diarmaid MacCulloch, this new BBC series has set about tracking each of the key moments which have given the Christian faith the structures we see today.

This is not a history of theology, he informed us at the start, but a history of the church — a rather convenient excuse for not addressing controversies with contemporary resonance such as the historical origins of the Gospels — and yet he was quickly tackling the doctrinal scrap surrounding the teachings of Arius which led to the Council of Nicea in 325 and the imperially-imposed compromise we now know as the Holy Trinity.

Further dissention within the early church was largely condensed by MacCulloch. In a Constantinople restaurant he mixed water with oil and water with wine in order to explain the respective positions of Archbishop Nestorius and Pope Cyril of Alexandria on the manner in which the human and divine were combined in Jesus. Nestorius was exiled and then partially rehabilitated at the Council of Chalcedon. (He was also condemned for insisting that the Virgin should be described as the Mother of Christ not the Mother of God.)

Yet the first really significant bifurcation occurred when some early missionaries took the eastern road out of Jersualem, whilst others headed west into the empire which in 70AD had sacked the Temple and generally trashed the city, thereby uprooting Christianity from its origins as a Jewish sect.

Eastern Christianity was never to have a Constantine moment, was never to acquire the friends in high places enjoyed by its western equivalent. Still, MacCulloch makes his way to China, finding there an east-facing Buddhist pagoda (pictured), once a seventh century Christian mission, and learns that under the Tang Dynasty Christianity was known as 'the religion of light'. Its adherents were predominantly merchants, and so lacked the characteristic arms-bearing attitude of the Latin church.

Many eastern Christians remained pre-Chalcedon in outlook, rejecting the fudge imposed by the Byzantine emperor. The Church of the East, based for 1500 years (up to 2003!) in Baghdad, was one of these, and its members played a significant role in the translation of ancient Greek texts by the Abbasids.

The Syriac Orthodox church based in Damascus has a liturgy which is rich in symbolic gesture. A priest explained to the intrepid historian that unlike western theology, which has always been 'rational' and philosophical, the Syriac faith (encapsulated and transmitted in a near-relative of Aramaic) could have been knocked up by a poet.

Today Christianity is perceived as an integral part of the 'western' cultural offering, but these ancient eastern offshoots suggest that things could easily have been different, MacCulloch concluded. He even located a friendly Islamic scholar in Damascus willing to admit that the Muslim practice of praying from a prostrated five-times a day was borrowed from the ways of early christians in the east.

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