In 532 CE, as historian Catherine Nixey describes in her new book, “The Darkening Age,” a sad gaggle of seven philosophers closed the door and turned out the lights of the Academy in Athens, Greece. The Academy was founded nine hundred years earlier by none other than Plato – whose teacher was Socrates and whose most renowned student was Aristotle. In other words, the Academy was a cornerstone of the ensuing Western philosophic and scientific traditions.*
A century earlier the writing had already been scrawled in blood on the wall when Hypatia, the head of the Academy in Alexandria and a brilliant mathematician according to Nixey, was dragged into a church, beaten with pipes and flayed alive with oyster shells. Some local Christians believed she was Satanic or a sorcerer because of her use of numbers. By 532 it was clear to those seven lonely philosophers that Christian assent to imperial power was threatening their lives. They disappeared from history.
Nixey quotes the influential Christian theologian, Augustine, as gloating that such philosophers had been ‘completely eradicated and suppressed.’ She notes that ninety percent of all classical literature was lost in the centuries following the Christianization of Europe. While decay, fires, and other ordinary ruinations were also to blame, the disappearance was ignited by the Christian inclination to use its power for violent suppression.
For Christians, and I am one, it is important to step back and remember our history. We are as bewildered as we are horrified when we watch ISIS and the Taliban destroying magnificent historic art created by other religions, not to mention brutally executing people of other faiths. Their religion, Islam, must be a violent and hateful theology, we conclude. Yet Christian history also defies the love and compassion that beats at the heart of its religion.
So now, let’s take a dainty and dangerous side-step from theology to civil religion. Civil religion is what gets cooked in when nationalism heats up beyond it normal low temperature. Nationalism takes on the look and feel of religion when there is a widespread belief and fear the nation is threaten. Any time identity is threatened, for individuals or nations, there is a knee-jerk reaction to defend and preserve it even if requiring violence to do so.
If my personal identity is connected to America being the greatest nation in the world (a symptom of nationalistic zeal), then when someone disagrees with that view of America they are threatening my very identity. If the strength and vigor of my identity is based in part, on my race or ethnicity, then the enhancement of other races or ethnicities, or their becoming more prominent, might feel like a threat to my own identity. If I begin to feel like Trump’s success is somehow a gauge of my own strength and wellness, then accusations against him will also feel like an accusation against me.
Note this hazard of the current situation. Christianity and Islam are both rooted in a love-and-hospitality-based theology. Even so, both have ugly and violent persecutions of ‘the other’ in their histories. Nationalism is not based on love or hospitality, it is powered by fear and suspicion of ‘the other,’ and enforced with might-makes-right. It is worth considering the elements of our own identity, choosing carefully which parts we empower.
*“Where did all the Philosophers go?” Online at History Hub, May 24, 2018