The first 1500 years of [orthodox] Chritianity: Anti-family/patriotism/nationalism

The first 1500 years of [orthodox] Chritianity: Anti-family/patriotism/nationalism


One of the purposes of my teaching this course,
one of my purposes of teaching all of my courses, is to get students to start thinking completely
differently. In other words, you’ve noticed, perhaps, that
one of the things I stress in my lectures is how odd the ancient world is, even how
odd early Christianity is from what most of us tend to come at it. This is because I teach New Testament studies
and the history of early Christianity almost like ethnography. I try to get you to imagine yourself coming
into a culture that’s really different from the culture you grew up in. This is something I think is basic to religious
studies as a discipline, and religious studies teaches you to look at some kind of group
of people, or an activity, or a belief structure that seems to you initially absolutely bizarre. And you think, how could any rational person
do that? How can any rational person belief that? To keep looking at it seriously and to look
at it with enough sympathy that you actually can see eventually how it is perfectly rational. This document today is a great place to illustrate
that, because whenever I teach this document to people your age, eighteen to twenty-two
year old college students, if you read this carefully and you get into this stuff, it
should be bizarre to you. This document depicts young people who are
attracted to a version of Christianity that forbids having sex entirely. It’s completely ascetic. The Paul in the Acts of Paul and Thecla says,
if you have sex you’re probably not going to go to heaven. Basically the gospel mentioned in this document
is continence, by which this document means avoiding sex. And that’s going to be bizarre enough because
people in the modern world kind of have the idea, well why would somebody join any movement
that forbade sexual intimacy entirely? What kind of draw did that have for people? Why did that gospel succeed? What may be surprising to you is it did succeed. In the ancient world a lot of people, especially
it seems sometimes even young people, were drawn to early Christianity precisely because
it was ascetic. It taught this radical asceticism of watching
what you eat and especially avoiding sex, or if not avoiding sex entirely, severely
limiting sexual intercourse and sexual attraction. What is it about the ancient culture, what
is it about these people that caused them not only to be converted to Christianity but
to be converted especially to a form of it that was radically ascetic? In order to see why that kind of Christianity
was–because that’s the actual kind of Christianity that was successful in the ancient world. If you were listening to most modern American
Christians, modern American people generally, what are the two most important teachings
about Christianity in the minds of most Americans? The family, the importance of the family,
and by that they mean the heterosexual nuclear family, but even the liberal churches which
are willing to recognize gay relationships, they still construe that as gay marriage or
just gay versions of the nuclear family. The family is the most important thing about
Christianity in the minds of a lot of Americans. The second thing is nationalism, patriotism. If you took away patriotism and nationalism,
and the family out of Christianity, most people in modern America wouldn’t recognize it as
such. What’s odd is that, when you read these ancient
documents, that’s precisely the two things that Christianity attacks. This form of early Christianity was anti-family,
for the most part, and it was anti-patriotic. The people who say, but this is traditional
Christianity, those people don’t know their history before 1950, because the church, the
overall Christian churches were never pro-family for the first 1500 years of its existence. The Roman Catholic Church, up until the Reformation,
always had as its official position, not just popular ideas, its official position was celibacy
is superior to sexuality. If you have to have sex, if you can’t control
yourself you’re allowed to get married and have sex within the bounds of marriage. But the better thing, the better virtue would
be to avoid sex entirely for your entire life. The next best thing is to have sex if you
need just to make babies, but then as soon as you have your babies, stop having sex and
be ascetic the rest of your life. If your spouse dies, you are permitted to
get remarried, most of the time, but the higher virtue would be in remaining unmarried and
remaining celibate for the rest of your life. That was considered the doctrine in Christianity,
at least up until the Reformation, so the sixteenth century. When people talk about “traditional family
values” being traditionally the Christian way, they’re not talking about Christianity
as it existed from the time of Jesus all the way up until around 1600, and even then from
1600 until 1950, the ideal form in most Christianity was not the nuclear family but some kind of
household. In Puritan New England, people didn’t live
in little nuclear families–townships, the New Haven Colony, the Massachusetts Bay Colony,
they were organized into households that were run by the male head of household, his wife
under him, children under that, servants and other free people often living in the household
also or connected to the household. If you are, for example, an adult male, twenty-five
years old in New England, in Puritan New England, and you weren’t married, you weren’t really
supposed to live alone or with other men. That happens sometimes, but the town fathers–and
these colonies were ruled as communities, not individual people–the town fathers would
want to put you into somebody else’s household, into the household of another man. They certainly wouldn’t let women, adult women
live separately. Notice, this is not individualism in the modern
sense, and it’s not the nuclear family in the modern sense, these are extended family
households. That was the New England Protestant way. When did the idea that the best form of the
family was the nuclear family come about in popular culture overall? The 1950s. When people talk about that being the Christian
thing they’re forgetting the vast sweep of Christian history. They’re just ignoring it. This document is a good place to see why that
made sense for people, especially in the ancient world, and to make it–since for the Middle
Ages and all the rest of the time you’ll have to take another course.

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