Exercise on Church Relations

Two modern "stable opposites" haunt the study and recollection of Christian legacies. On the one hand, some people regard the Christian past as nothing more than their own present, projected backward. We are the New Testament Church; thus the people we study are just like us. I can understand a fellow like Athanagoras, the reasoning goes, because I understand myself. The danger here is of historical imperialism: assimilating the past into our own present and denying the differences. On the other hand, other people regard the Christian past as fundamentally different from their own present. We are not the Church of Roman antiquity; the people in the study have nothing to do with me. I need not understand a fellow like Athenagoras, the reasoning goes, because he is the product of a premodern, agrarian, prescientific, precritical era, and I am nothing like that. The danger here is of historical relativism: distancing the past from our own present and denying the continuities and similarities. My simplification may make historical imperialism and historical relativism sound like ridiculous positions that exist only in the imagination, but I have seen the stereotypes come to life before my eyes in my brothers and sisters in the Church, and you may have too. They are common because they are so convenient: their grand assumptions are handy for dismissing facts that threaten my understanding of the world, and more importantly, for dismissing facts that threaten the way I want to live. One attitude is offensive, the other defensive; the goals are the same: You must change so that I may not.

Further historical study often challenges these perceptions to the point that we can no longer sustain them, leaving us in the "slippery center." We recognize that the people we are studying are very unlike us, as people from other cultures in our own day are; meanwhile they are very like us, so much so that we can put ourselves imaginatively in their place. These qualities do make them worthy teachers and catalysts for change in our own lives, but not always in predictable ways; we need only to be worthy students.

(Incidentally, two other features make them able instructors: First, being etched in the past, they cannot hear or receive the corrections we would otherwise offer them; their deafness forces us to listen. Second, once we listen, we discover that they were facing some of the same battles with imperialists who wanted Christians to conform to Roman cultural expectations, and relativists who wanted not to have to conform to Christian expectations!)

Sorry about the mini-lecture. Here is your assignment:

The readings and lectures concerning argumentation, persecution, and standardization (Hall chs 5-6, 8-9, Wilken chs 7, 9, and Richardson pp 33-160 and 205-342) present partial snapshots of early Christians' diverse relationships with people they find problematic, both elsewhere in the culture (e.g., pagan antagonists, persecutors, and slanderers) and within their own ranks (e.g., backsliders, heretics, and frauds).

From what you have seen so far, do common threads run through their responses to these various pressures? Is there a pattern in the chaos, or are Christians just responding to different challenges in an ad hoc fashion that has no coherence of its own? If there is an underlying coherence to their various responses to the wider world's various challenges, what is it?

As you think and write, be careful not simply to assimilate the early Christians into your own world, nor to push them away into a world that has nothing to say to yours.

With only a few weeks' exposure to the material, you should consider your judgment premature and provisional. As you mature in your interactions with the ancient Christian past, you will probably abandon this hypothesis in favor of others. That is fine! I still want you to struggle to see, as the blind man slowly came to sight by "looking intently" into the face of his healer (Mark 8:22-25). Some miracles take time and repeated attempts, and it is better to see trees walking than nothing at all.

Please keep your paper three pages, double-spaced, and follow the directions in my handout for writing papers. I want to see proper style, clear writing, a thorough answer to the question, and explicit citations of course materials.

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