Constantine and Christianity.
For some time, I’ve been fascinated by the idea that it was Constantine, Emperor of Rome (306 CE-337), who transformed Christianity from a persecuted religious sect into a world religion. Some say he supported Christianity as part of a cynical strategy to promote his rule. Others say he had a genuine religious conversion. It seems it was a bit of both, and more besides.
I approach Constantine by way of The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, by Bart Ehrman, whose study of the history of religion led him to lose his faith. He cites the fact that of over 5,000 manuscripts of the New Testament, no two are alike. This realization led Ehrman to become an agnostic. If God inspired the scriptures, which one? Fifteen years later his personal struggles with the existence of evil and suffering led Ehrman to become an atheist. He remains fascinated with Christianity, and often appreciative.
To serve the poor, the sick, and the other
Ehrman argues that the very idea that society should serve the poor, the sick, and the marginalized became a distinctively Christian concern. I wonder if the way he puts it is right.
Without the conquest of Christianity, we may well never have had institutionalized welfare for the poor or organized health care for the sick. Billions of people may never have embraced the idea that society should serve the marginalized or be concerned with the well-being of the needy, values that most of us in the West have simply assumed are “human” values. (p 6)
Is it so simple? Consider Marxism. Some have argued that Marxism is but a this-worldly version of Christianity, heaven brought down to earth. But one could make this claim about any teaching that cared about the poor. What Ehrman means is that in making Christianity a matter of state, Constantine made its concerns a matter of state. Perhaps, but it is interesting to consider that today the happiest states, according to their own citizens, are among the least Christian: Denmark and the Nordic States. Finland is number one, Norway is number two.*