The Two-Fold Detour of Christianity in the Fourth Century

Christianity took a two-fold detour in the fourth century. First, when the emperor Constantine became Christian and spread Christianity through the empire in order to make some peace between warring factions of Christians.  

Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea; the burning of Arian books. From MS CLXV, Biblioteca Capitolare, Vercelli, ca. 825. Wikimedia Commons.

While peacemaking is a good thing, Christianity paid a severe price when it moved from being essentially a thorn in the empire’s side to being a crusade in Christ’s name.  

New Testament scholar Dominic Crossan wonders aloud if the Nicene Creed called by Constantine was a “nightmare.”

The “desert fathers” movement (beginning third century) and subsequent monastic movement (beginning fourth century) both resisted the dominant imperial values of the imperial culture before and after Constantine. 

The price paid by a so-called “Christian empire” was severe on indigenous peoples, their cultures and religions especially from the time of Columbus on.  “Christian empires” of the Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, or Belgian colonizers seldom qualified as something Christ-like.

The second shadow that emerged in the name of Christianity in the fourth century was that of Augustine and his cherished Neo-Platonism.  

“The Four Doctors of the Catholic Church: Augustine of Hippo.” Painting by Gerard Seghers. Wikimedia Commons

Augustine planted dualisms of body vs. soul, sexuality vs. spirituality, nature vs. grace, male vs. female alongside his notion of original sin that fashioned a dualistic Christianity that spread in Western Europe and beyond.

There were movements that resisted this dualism—Aquinas was key—but as historian Père Chenu laments, it never really took hold in the church.

Christianity became less and less moored to Jesus and his teachings and to the original meaning of the Christ event—including the Cosmic Christ and a creation-centered mysticism. 

“Columbus Landing on Hispaniola.” In Great Journeys, America, part 4. Intaglio engraving by Théodore de Bry, 1594. Wikimedia Commons.

Unmoored from the gospels, it became moored to the needs of empire-building including invoking the idea of “redemption” (understood as redemption from original sin) as the rallying cry to conquer peoples of the earth.  And preaching that one was doomed to hell if this “redemption” was not accomplished exclusively through Christ.  And feeding the Doctrine of Discovery (mercifully but belatedly buried recently by Pope Francis after five+ centuries).

The Nicene Creed, crafted by bishops under the eye of Emperor Constantine, does show important traces of the Cosmic Christ cosmology, but it astonishingly leaves out the teachings of Jesus.  No mention whatsoever of “love thy neighbor”;  “what you do to the least you do to me”;  “Be you compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate”; the Beatitudes; or justice.

One has to look elsewhere for that—maybe back to the gospels themselves?

See Matthew Fox, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic—and Beyond, pp. xxxviiif., 114-119.

And Matthew Fox, Original Blessing.

And Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics.

Banner Image: “The Battle of Milvian Bridge,” before which Constantine had a vision promising victory if the sign of the Chi Rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, was painted on the soldiers’ shields. Fresco by Giulio Romano (1520), in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist, Wikimedia Commons.

Queries for Contemplation

What results do you recognize in history and in today’s world that derive from these two movements of the fourth century?  Do you also sense something serious is missing in the Nicene Creed?

Recommended Reading

Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic–and Beyond

Julian of Norwich lived through the dreadful bubonic plague that killed close to 50% of Europeans. Being an anchoress, she ‘sheltered in place’ and developed a deep wisdom that she shared in her book, Showings, which was the first book in English by a woman. A theologian way ahead of her time, Julian develops a feminist understanding of God as mother at the heart of nature’s goodness. Fox shares her teachings in this powerful and timely and inspiring book.
“What an utterly magnificent book. The work of Julian of Norwich, lovingly supported by the genius of Matthew Fox, is a roadmap into the heart of the eco-spiritual truth that all life breathes together.”  –Caroline Myss
Now also available as an audiobook HERE.

Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality

Matthew Fox lays out a whole new direction for Christianity—a direction that is in fact very ancient and very grounded in Jewish thinking (the fact that Jesus was a Jew is often neglected by Christian theology): the Four Paths of Creation Spirituality, the Vias Positiva, Negativa, Creativa and Transformativa in an extended and deeply developed way.
Original Blessing makes available to the Christian world and to the human community a radical cure for all dark and derogatory views of the natural world wherever these may have originated.” –Thomas Berry, author, The Dream of the Earth; The Great Work; co-author, The Universe Story

Christian Mystics: 365 Readings & Meditations

As Matthew Fox notes, when an aging Albert Einstein was asked if he had any regrets, he replied, “I wish I had read more of the mystics earlier in my life.” The 365 writings in Christian Mystics represent a wide-ranging sampling of these readings for modern-day seekers of all faiths — or no faith. The visionaries quoted range from Julian of Norwich to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Thomas Merton to Dorothee Soelle and Thomas Berry.
“Our world is in crisis, and we need road maps that can ground us in wisdom, inspire us to action, and help us gather our talents in service of compassion and justice.  This revolutionary book does just that.  Matthew Fox takes some of the most profound spiritual teachings of the West and translates them into practical daily mediations.  Study and practice these teachings.  Take what’s in this book and teach it to the youth because the new generation cannot afford to suffer the spirit and ethical illiteracy of the past.” — Adam Bucko, spiritual activist and co-founder of the Reciprocity Foundation for Homeless Youth.

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9 thoughts on “The Two-Fold Detour of Christianity in the Fourth Century”

  1. Avatar

    There are a number of ‘man-made’ creeds, prayers and doctrines that are flawed. Many express and affirm a core understanding of the Mystery of faith and then wander off with outdated / misleading statements. Do we not find that Jesus is out there, never near, separate, out of our lives in a lofty heaven and only to be seen again in a final judgement? When we read that any bodies of the Trinity are not available to love and embrace us in the present moment, we should back away from those statements. And we can’t have God as an external object ‘out there, up there’ waiting for us to climb the proverbially ladder and at the same time nonchalantly pronounce that God is within and always ever-present.

    We as ‘sinners’ are not in a complete state of communion with the Lord of All Creation. However, we should never imply that we are not to be worthy as Sons and Daughters of the Most High. Being a sinner or not worthy is an acceptance of humility pertaining to our human condition but never about our true, soulful, and always belonging Divine nature. The dejected man or woman lying homeless on the street is not in communion with their Divine nature, but not without it at any time either. Unless we understand that, we are not in a position to help them in any substantive way. We need to recite the words that are meaningful to us in our hearts, reject the rest and move on. — BB.

  2. Avatar

    Thank you Matthew for reviewing how the mystical tradition and true spiritual message of Jesus and the Cosmic Christ began to be lost in the fourth century with the institutional church with all its spiritually unbalanced/dualistic patriarchal destructive influences on humanity, society, and Sacred Mother Earth to our present day… The spiritual journeys and Faith of All past and present mystics/Souls within Us continue to be essential in Our personal, societal, earthly, and Cosmic development/evolution/Consciousness compassionately with one another within Our Source~Creator’s Spirit/Flow of LOVING DIVERSE ONENESS in the Sacredness of the ETERNAL PRESENT MOMENT….

  3. Avatar
    Shirley Blancke

    These 4th century developments are behind the attack on women in the present, removing the right to have control over one’s own body that conservative Christians support. It is understandable that so many people have gone in the direction of eastern spirituality, indigenous spirituality, or none at all.

  4. Avatar

    My favorite astrology class to teach is about solar and lunar eclipses, “Obsession and Renunciation,” in which I use St. Augustine as a prime example of the Renunciation side of the eclipse axis. His “Confessions” are seasick with self-loathing; the rational logic of the Greeks completely absent. “I will now call to mind my past foulness, and the carnal corruptions of my soul: not because I love them, but that I may love Thee, O my God ….” Divine Discontent, utter rejection of the blessings of God’s Creation. Anti-sexuality bias didn’t come from the Bible; it came from the Confessions, and has been running, hidden, underneath the current of theological thought ever since.

  5. Avatar

    “The second shadow…was that of Augustine and his cherished Neo-Platonism… [which] planted dualism…”

    Don’t mistake the cure for the illness. Don’t attack neo-Platonism.

    It was the AUTHENTIC, ORIGINAL NON-DUALISTIC BIBLICAL MYSTICISM. Long before Plato, it was already in the Old Testament (Genesis, Moses’s Revelation), and was further exemplified/taught by Jesus, boldly and CLEARLY proclaimed in the opening words of the Gospel of John, preserved in the Nicene Creed, and was accurately recognized and conveyed as official doctrine by Aquinas

    Dualistic trauma/separation was the soul-sickness that neo-Platonism/mysticism was sent by God to HEAL. Augustine, like the contemporary gnostics, was steeped in a dualistic, misogynistic worldview, and he was also incredibly neurotic. So he wrote a deeply biased, FLAWED interpretation of neo-Platonic Christian teachings that was “useful” for a misogynistic, imperialistic Christian hierarchy.

    “Neo-Platonism” (= the set of its distinctive, RECOGNIZABLE intuitive/intellectual teachings and mystical Revelation) is the official, NON-dualistic Biblical Mysticism, the source of its deepest theology, including the Trinity. God gifted it as a tool for the healing of souls through the Bible (and through other sources and religions as well), by grace through the Holy Spirit.

    It is the SAME AS the “Cosmic Christ.”


  6. Avatar
    Martina Nicholson

    Thanks for this. I especially love that faith is action. But that the action should be connected to our being fully loved by God, and loving ourselves, as well as the marvels of the world around us, is also important. I think about the nuns in Les Miserables, lying on the stone floor in their abbey, at night, in the shape of a cross, with their arms outstretched, and with a noose around their neck, in order to suffer as much as possible, united to the suffering Christ. How much self-torture came to be the expression of faith in that time. I loved the film “the Mission” which is about the Jesuits in Paraguay, when they were truly trying to translate the Gospel into Guarani, and to stand up for the rights and dignity of the people. Learning to understand the absolute benevolence of GOD, and the imminence of God for us, is a huge part of letting go of the primacy of sin, and coming back to the understanding of the outflowing love of Divine Mystery and energy through matter, the cosmos, our lives. Thanks again for your continuing to draw us forward, into that fullness of mercy, blessing, goodness! We truly have an awesome God!

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