Monday, 28 February 2011

Christianity and Endings

The eighth of the Treatises of S. Caecilius Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (Google Books has John Henry Newman's 1839 translation) has some interesting stuff in it. As Rebecca West notes in her 1933 Life of Augustus, the point of this letter was to explain to he was wrong in supposing 'that the Christians' refusal to worship the gods was the reason for the wars and famines then vexing the world.' The letter starts with a hefty piece of chastisement of Cyprian's political powerful, Pagan reader:
The uproar of sacrilege and impiety which you are wont to raise against the one and the true God, I have heretofore, Demetrianus, passed over in contempt, thinking it more decent and better to put the scorn of silence upon a mistaken man's ignorance, than provoke a madman's frenzy by what I should say. Neither was I without authority of the divine instruction, herein, since it is written, "Speak not in the ears of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of they words". We are commanded also to keep what is holy within our own knowledge, and not to expose it to be trodden on by swine and dogs.
West thinks 'it must have taken a considerable degree of vitality for Cyprian to address in such terms an important representative of the government that not only has the power to put him to death but was ready to exercise it'. I'm not so sure whether this isn't a cannier piece of psychological teasing, an invitation to the Consul to come inside the tent rather than lurk outside with the swine and dogs. Anyhow, what's interesting is what follows. To quote West again: 'after much hearty thwacking of this sort he went on to propound a theory very strange to find in a man of naturally cheerful temperament and not ungratified ambitions:
You must in the first place learn (since you are ignorant of the divine teaching, and a stranger to the truth,) that the world is now reaching its old age, that it stands no longer in its pristine strength, no longer keeps its indwelling vigour and force. This though ourselves should speak it not, though we should draw no instructions of it from the holy Scriptures and the divine teaching, still the world itself declares it, and attests its own ruin in the tottering estate of tilings. The showers of winter fail us, for nourishing the seeds; the sun s heat in summer for ripening the corn; nor in springtide do the fields display their usual growth, and the trees of autumn are barren of their accustomed issue. Mountains disembowelled and ransacked yield a shortened store of marble layers ; the exhausted mines send up but a scanty wealth of silver and of gold; their impoverished veins day by day are narrowed and minished, while the husband man languishes in the fields, the sailor at sea, the soldier in the camp; honesty sinks in the mart, justice from the tribunal, love from friendships, skill from the arts, and discipline from conduct. Suppose you that the coherence of a thing that is decaying can continue in that strength, wherewith it flourished in its youthful and thriving season ? Needful is it that that must wax weak, which is now drawing near its end, and verges downward to the close. It is thus that the descending sun darts his rays with an obscured and impeded lustre, and that the moon, as her course declines, contracts her exhausted horns; thus that the tree once green and fertile puts on the graceless barrenness of the sere boughs in age, and the fountain which once poured out the large effluence of its overflowing veins, worn out by time, scarcely trickles with an insufficient moisture. It is a sentence passed upon the world, it is God s law, that as things rose so they should fall, as they waxed so should wane, the strong become weak, and the great become little; and weak and little when they are, then should they gain their end. [199-200]
I've quoted this at length, since it's good to get a flavour of how vehemently Cyprian bangs this particular drum.

I wonder if a fascination with endings isn't so tightly woven in with the very beginnings of Christianity that now it could never get unpicked, no matter how much the faith pays lipservice to the Christian message of radical newness and freshness coming into the world, or the Easter message that endings as such (like death) have been done away with now. It's a pretty radical heresy, it seems to me, to take that double-message and turn it on its head: to believe wholeheartedly that the world is clapped-out and dying, that the cosmos is so exhausted that its final extinction is just around the corner, that the importnat parts of the NT are not the gospels but the cartoon muddle and ennui of the Revelation of Saint John. And actually, I don't suppose 'heresy' can even be the right word for a belief that shapes the worldview of the majority of a given faith. The word for that, howevermuch it drinks from the cup of (what has always been officially attacked as one of the worst sins) despair -- is orthodoxy.

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