Over the past weeks it has been amazing to see how quickly our focus has shifted from what seemed at the time matters of urgent concern to another crisis of world altering dimensions. As we all hunker down and pray for those affected by the coronavirus, waiting for the 4th horseman of the apocalypse to ride through town; something about the images of the spread of this disease reminded me of similar images I had seen in college of the movements of peoples, cultures and ideas in history. Of special interest was how the Christian faith spread throughout the Roman Empire and how that faith changed the course of history.
For nearly two millennia in the West the prevailing underlying dynamic of social self-understanding has been (in Girardian terms) some form of the myth, ritual, and prohibitions of the Judeo-Christian tradition. While some may dispute this, none the less, it is generally agreed that this dynamic greatly contributed to the foundations of European and American societies and has influenced in profound ways many other cultures around the globe. Only recently has China emerged as a comparable competitive dynamic on the global scene. And its rise has much to do with its adoption of aspects (especially commercial) of the West’s long hegemony.
How to account for the propagation, persistence and dynamism of this hegemony has been an interest of students of history for a long time. Over the past fifty years or so there has been a concerted effort in academic and political arenas to revise the historical narrative in ways that diminish the importance of the Judeo-Christian elements of the West. The effort here seems to be to challenge the triumphalist ‘hegemonic’ characterization of this influence. Certainly, since the Enlightenment there have been overt efforts to confront and even suppress the influence of Christian institutions and ideas. And in the recent drafting of the constitution of the European Union any mention of Christianity’s legacy was explicitly rejected. However, it is difficult for me to see how this can be done truthfully. There seems to be an ideological edge to this effort that cuts off the limb it is sitting on.
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Matthew 13:33
In the Gospels Jesus uses the metaphor of yeast in describing how the kingdom of heaven spreads in our lives and throughout the world. Yeast is a living organism, a fungus – reproducing by ‘budding’ and is essential for bread & beer making. Viruses, on the other hand, replicate inside the cells of a living host organism which they have infected. The virus itself without a host organism is inert. Viruses exist at the ‘edges of life’. On earth they are the most numerous type of biological entity. Unknown until the late 19th century, viruses are viewed as an important driver of evolutionary development due their ability to spread quickly and adapt to changing environments. This characteristic has given us the metaphorical social media phenomenon of ‘going viral’.
If we were to view the ‘outbreak’ of the Gospel message and its effects as the beginning of a viral pandemic, what might that have looked like? The following is a rambling, unscientific and highly eccentric account of this dynamic over three millennia seen through the time lapse telescopic lens of a viral agent that attaches not to the mucous membranes but to the mind, soul and spirit of those it infects…
The spread of the Judeo-Christian dynamic in human history can be viewed metaphorically as the spread of a virus infecting the human individual and cultural host. As in epidemiology, the ‘index case’ for this infection was a Near Eastern (perhaps present-day Iraq) childless family presumably in the 2nd millennium BCE, we know as Terah’s son Abram and Abram’s wife, Sarai. A voice leads Abram and his family out away from his native culture into an unfamiliar land. There, after numerous encounters with a deity who promises the now elderly couple descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky, they are infected with a virus that embeds in them a unique bond to this deity signified by the change of names from Abram to Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah.
Both miraculous and not so miraculous children (Isaac & Ishmael) are born into this family. And so, Abraham and Sarah pass the virus on to their descendants with the to be expected variations in individual cases. After many generations, through famine, slavery and an exodus to freedom – from this family a numerous and peculiar people arise who begin to tell a story of their unique calling and destiny that claims a universal purview, all in fidelity with the deity who spoke to their ancestors.
This chosen people of a desert deity who calls himself Yahweh becomes the Hebrew nation. Their self-understanding as expressed in the Torah – the books of Moses written down long after the fact, tell the story of the patriarchs. And combined with the writings of their poets and prophets comprise what we know as the Old Testament. As they begin to claim a land promised by Yahweh in Palestine the Hebrew people appear for the first time in the historical narrative of other civilizations around the Near East before the 1st millennium BCE. Known as the children of Israel, the Hebrews experience the vicissitudes of a small nation ruled by judges surrounded by larger more powerful kingdoms. The resistance to the Hebrew virus by their contemporary cultures is formidable. Becoming a kingdom (‘like the other nations’) of its own, Israel is riven by civil war, and defeated and scattered by its enemies. Just as a virus adapts to help it better replicate in response to its environment, so the Hebrews begin to express distinct virtues that are valued by other peoples among whom they are scattered. And ever so slowly they begin to find niches in the civilizations and cultures of the Near East.
Around the later half of the 4th century BCE into and through this milieu marches the Greek educated world conquering Macedonian king, Alexander. Upon his early death his generals divide up his extensive kingdom. Within the vast empires of the Hellenistic kings are spread the ideas of Greek culture, philosophy and religion. A syncretistic cultural amalgam emerges with an openness to novelty through the contact and mixing of the various peoples and cultures of the Hellenistic world. But the hundreds of Hebrew communities dispersed among the cities of this milieu resist homogenization even when they develop individual geographic characteristics, they mostly remain separate and distinct. Many Jews of this period still live in Palestine, the land of their forefathers, continuing to pass the virus down generation to generation. Their host cultures recognize the Hebrews as a people apart. They are frequently persecuted for their difference and refusal to adapt to the ways of their pagan overlords and neighbors. The Jews of Palestine at one-point rebel and attempt to reclaim their lost kingdom only to be defeated. However, Alexander’s successors begin to fight among themselves giving opportunity for Roman military actions culminating in the decisive battle of Actium in 31 BCE and resulting in Roman hegemony.
The Pax Romana provides a period of stability in which a new more infectious permutation of the Hebrew virus first appears in the early years of the 1st century CE. A young Jewish rabbi from a small dusty village who had garnered a popular following during a few years of itinerant preaching is executed by the Romans for sedition, claiming to be the prophesied messiah king of Israel. According to those of his Hebrew contemporaries, the establishment Jewish temple authorities, he was condemned for blasphemy for claiming equality with Yahweh. But his public crucifixion does not end the matter. Three days after his death, his body cannot be found in the tomb. His disciples, who had all abandoned him at his arrest, now claim he is alive and to have seen and spoken with the one they saw tortured and executed.
This new viral strain contains all the genetic information of the earlier virus but is much more infectious – being more prone to ‘pandemic’ outbreak than the particular and more insular Hebrew version. Those infected with this more virulent version of the virus remain, like the Hebrews, stubbornly unwilling to compromise their faith, and frequently present with symptoms of a refusal of revenge for harm done them, forgiving rather than cursing, evincing an unlimited hope that perceives life beyond death, as well as a strange understanding of the mixture of matter and spirit – an unusual and mysterious understanding of bread and wine becoming the flesh and blood of their crucified and risen Lord.
Initially, mostly Jews became infected with this new viral strain, so much so that it engendered a response by the now institutionalized older virus that had been harbored by its Hebrew host for over a millennium. The subsequent persecution of these followers of the risen rabbi by their Jewish relations does not prove effective in stopping or even slowing the spread of the new strain. As often happens among health workers in a viral outbreak, one of those on the frontline of suppression, Saul of Tarsus, apparently gets too close to those infected at the stoning of Stephen and contracts the infection himself. The initial symptoms Saul experiences are disorientation and blindness. While convalescing in Damascus, Saul regains his sight as well as a new name, Paul, and a new vocation to spread what he now understands as a life-giving gospel of the risen Messiah not only among the Hebrews but to the entire multicultural Roman world. As the outbreak spreads beyond the Jewish synagogues of Palestine, eventually the Roman authorities become concerned by its virulence and they too attempt to bring it under control. Yet even the coercion of Rome is powerless to stop the spread of the infectious hope and consolation of an other-worldly love.
A final Jewish revolt against their Roman overlords in 70 CE results in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine furthering the spread of the old and new virus throughout the Roman world which extends West to Britannia, Hibernia and Iberia, North to the Baltic Sea, East through Central Europe to the Caspian Sea and India, and South to Egypt and Africa. Within three hundred years the Roman emperor is infected with the new virus and the episodic persecution of those known as Christians ends. As both the Hebrew and Christian viruses spread over and beyond the lands of the Roman empire a new dynamism is unleashed that will transform the world.
This story does indeed sound like a ‘hegemonic discourse’ so derided in current debates. Of course, the subsequent blessings of the Judeo-Christian tradition have been mixed with the sinfulness of those who carry the virus. Becoming infected does not automatically make one holy, but we do become different than we were before. Even those who resist infection with a strong immune response are changed by contact with it. The mysterious sacramental aspect of the interplay of matter and spirit ensures that the outcome of any particular infection is never predetermined and in many ways dependent upon its environment, especially the relationships to those around it. In the world the Church will always be the primary host and source of the spread of this contagion. But now that the world has had two thousand years to develop a robust immunity, the Gospel virus will need to adapt and find novel vectors of infection. This is what viruses are very good at.
That today this patrimony seems to be disappearing over the horizon as a new enlightened and hyper-secularized future dawns in the East only adds emphasis to Jesus’ question, “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”. Could this be evidence of the presence and influence of other malign viruses? The Church in her scriptures warns us to expect this opposition and to prepare for it. Nevertheless, it has been and will continue to be the faith, hope and love engendered in those who have been completely taken over by the virus that fulfills the promise made to Abraham and Sarah.