Halfway through reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, and I can’t help but be struck by the thought that it should be absolutely impossible for anyone with a decent knowledge of the first five centuries of Christianity to be a Christian. Theology students all have to know the works of Tertullian, Jerome, Augustine; they have to be familiar with the earliest controversies such as Arianism, Donatism, Manichaeism. They know that the suppression of these alternate faiths was ferocious, and that the agent of that suppression was the very church to which they claim adherence. They know that what we now know as the core of Christianity — the New Testament — was created by the orthodox faction, and that this orthodoxy was the first belief system that required all people to confess the same faith.
How can anyone who has studied these things still believe there is any legitimacy to Christian tradition? The closest parallel we have is the history of communism, except in that case, its founder actually wrote something, and was photographed. But Stalinism, Maoism, and crazy North Korea all required (and in the latter case, still require) citizens to have a common belief about things that could not be proven. It is very, very difficult to find a person self-identified as a communist these days who would gladly volunteer that the Soviet Union under Stalin represented the purest Marxism and should be emulated. Rather, it seems to be universally understood that those countries that experimented with communism never really were experimenting with communism, that it was more a nationalist movement cloaked with the disguise of internationalism. There is no legitimacy granted to those failed configurations. Yet there are those who would freely admit that the first, oh, say, 1,800 years of Christianity were not really representative of Christ himself, but what they’re doing NOW sure is. Really? Can you really focus on the good St. Ambrose but ignore his rabid anti-Semitism? Can you revere Augustine but overlook his joy at the lethal suppression of Donatism?
Christianity had long enough to establish itself as a faith that was self-evidently worthy of one’s belief. It did not. In not doing so, it became nothing but a faith of clay, which can be molded into any shape and put to any use its owner sees fit. But nothing, nothing will alter the mind of someone who has subscribed his or her belief to such a venerated system. It is nothing short of an intellectual obscenity, but so it is.