I bristle at applying “extremist” to terrorist who justify their actions with religion. Violence in the name of God, I contend, displays a lack of faith, not a surplus. [note 1] I have a similar distaste for those who would withdraw from society as an act of faith, but find it less easy to condemn that behavior as a perversion of faith. In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon gives me fresh reason to question my distaste for such social separatists.
Chapter XV of Gibbon’s work deals with the nature of early Christianity. He notes that during the first century of the common era “the disciples of the Messiah were indulged in a freer latitude both of faith and practice than has ever been allowed in succeeding ages.” [note 2] According to Gibbon, the movement split into three major components: those who adhered completely to “Mosaic law,” Ebionites; those who completely reject Hebrew tradition and other doctrines, e.g., bodily resurrection, Gnostics; and the less discussed Orthodox.
But whatever difference of opinion might subsist between the Orthodox, the Ebionites, and the Gnostics, concerning the divinity or the obligation of the Mosaic law, they were all equally animated by the same exclusive zeal, and by the same abhorrence for idolatry, which had distinguished the Jews from the other nations of the ancient world.
Gibbon goes on to describe the early Christian experience as one of constant concern over the possibility of cultural interface with the pagans. Pagan ritual was present in everything from wedding ceremonies to the currency. If someone responded to a sneeze with “Jupiter bless you,” according to Gibbon, the ancient Christian would be compelled to take the occasion to condemn Jupiter. “Such was the anxious diligence which was required to guard the chastity of the Gospel from the infectious breath of idolatry.”
I cringe at the notion of such isolationist behavior and Christians focusing on every trivial custom. It reminds me of the annual War on Tolerance waged by Christianists who are offended by the “Happy Holidays” greeting. But, I reading this passage gives rise to my own anxiety. Is my tolerance, my integration into mainstream society at odds with what it means to be Christian? How much credence should I give the behavior of Christians so shortly after the formation of the Church?
[note 1] For an opposing view see Sam Harris’s The End of Faith. A book that intensely frustrated my Sunday morning study group at Chalice Christian Church, but at the same time inspired some amazing conversations about faith.
[note 2] This lines up nicely with Harvey Cox’s thesis in The Future of Faith. Cox explains that Christianity went through three phases. First the Age of Faith, which was free of dogma for the first 300-400 years. Then the Age of Belief, which was all about dogma and lasted for 1500 years or so. And finally, we are in the Age of Spirit, which nicely coincides with Cox’s youth in the 1960’s. Our group was less offended by but more suspicious of Cox’s work on Faith as compared to Harris’s.