Let us proceed in our contemplation of this reflection, as it may be called, of primitive Christianity in the mirror of the world.
Today we continue Christianity Appears
with a selection by John Henry Newman. The selections are presented in a series of installments for 5 minute daily reading.
Previously in Christianity Appears.
“When [the reader of Christian history] comes to the second century,” says Dr. Burton, “he finds that Gnosticism, under some form or other, was professed in every part of the then civilized world. He finds it divided into schools, as numerously and as zealously attended as any which Greece or Asia could boast in their happiest days. He meets with names totally unknown to him before, which excited as much sensation as those of Aristotle or Plato. He hears of volumes having been written in support of this new philosophy, not one of which has survived to our own day.” Many of the founders of these sects had been Christians. Others were of Jewish parentage; others were more or less connected in fact with the pagan rites to which their own bore so great a resemblance.
Whatever might be the history of these sects, and though it may be a question whether they can be properly called “superstitions,” and though many of them numbered educated men among their teachers and followers, they closely resembled–at least in ritual and profession–the vagrant pagan mysteries which have been above described. Their very name of “Gnostic” implied the possession of a secret, which was to be communicated to their disciples. Ceremonial observances were the preparation, and symbolical rites the instrument, of initiation. Tatian and Montanus, the representatives of very distinct schools, agreed in making asceticism a rule of life.
Such were the Gnostics; and to external and prejudiced spectators, whether philosophers, as Celsus and Porphyry, or the multitude, they wore an appearance sufficiently like the Church to be mistaken for her in the latter part of the ante-Nicene period, as she was confused with the pagan mysteries in the earlier.
Let us proceed in our contemplation of this reflection, as it may be called, of primitive Christianity in the mirror of the world. All three writers, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny, call it a “superstition”; this is no accidental imputation, but is repeated by a variety of subsequent writers and speakers. The charge of Thyestean banquets scarcely lasts a hundred years; but, while pagan witnesses are to be found, the Church is accused of superstition. Now what is meant by the word thus attached by a consensus of heathen authorities to Christianity? At least it cannot mean a religion in which a man might think what he pleased, and was set free from all yokes, whether of ignorance, fear, authority, or priestcraft. When heathen writers call the oriental rites superstitions, they evidently use the word in its modern sense. It cannot surely be doubted that they apply it in the same sense to Christianity. But Plutarch explains for us the word at length in his treatise which bears the name:
Of all kinds of fear,” he says, “superstition is the most fatal to action and resource. He does not fear the sea who does not sail, nor war who does not serve, nor robbers who keeps at home, nor the sycophant who is poor, nor the envious if he is a private man, nor an earthquake if he lives in Gaul, nor thunder if he lives in Ethiopia; but he who fears the gods fears everything — earth, seas, air, sky, darkness, light, noises, silence, sleep. Slaves sleep and forget their masters; of the fettered doth sleep lighten the chain; inflamed wounds, ulcers cruel and agonizing, are not felt by the sleeping. Superstition alone has come to no terms with sleep; but in the very sleep of her victims, as though they were in the realms of the impious, she raises horrible specters and monstrous phantoms and various pains, and whirls the miserable soul about and persecutes it. They rise, and, instead of making light of what is unreal, they fall into the hands of quacks and conjurers, who say, ‘Call the crone to expiate, bathe in the sea, and sit all day on the ground.'”
Here we have a vivid picture of Plutarch’s idea of the essence of superstition; it was the imagination of the existence of an unseen ever-present Master; the bondage of a rule of life, of a continual responsibility; obligation to attend to little things, the impossibility of escaping from duty, the inability to choose or change one’s religion, an interference with the enjoyment of life, a melancholy view of the world, sense of sin, horror at guilt, apprehension of punishment, dread, self-abasement, depression, anxiety, and endeavor to be at peace with heaven, and error and absurdity in the methods chosen for the purpose. Such, too, had been the idea of the Epicurean Velleius, when he shrunk with horror from the “sempiternus dominus” and “curiosus Deus” of the Stoics. Such, surely, was the meaning of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny. And hence, of course, the frequent reproach cast on Christians as credulous, weak-minded, and poor-spirited. The heathen objectors in Minucius and Lactantius speak of their “old-woman’s tales.” Celsus accuses them of “assenting at random and without reason,” saying, “Do not inquire, but believe.” “They lay it down,” he says elsewhere: “Let no educated man approach, no man of wisdom, no man of sense; but if a man be unlearned, weak in intellect, an infant, let him come with confidence. Confessing that these are worthy of their God, they evidently desire, as they are able, to convert none but fools, and vulgar, and stupid, and slavish, women and boys.” They “take in the simple and lead him where they will.” They address themselves to “youths, house-servants, and the weak in intellect.” They “hurry away from the educated, as not fit subjects of their imposition, and inveigle the rustic.” “Thou,” says the heathen magistrate to the martyr Fructuosus, “who as a teacher dost disseminate a new fable, that fickle girls may desert the groves and abandon Jupiter, condemn, if thou art wise, the anile creed.”
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