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The Christianization of Europe Was Kind of Inevitable

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download In response to one of my posts someone characterizes a historian as having stated that “the Christianization of Europe as a culturally created event that needn’t have occurred.” The “standard model” in history (which has detractors*) is that in the 390s the Western Roman Empire underwent a traditionalist pagan religious-cultural revival, snuffed out by Theodosius the Great victory at Frigidus. But what if Arbogast had won? This might present us with an alternative history where paganism revives, and Christianity is reduced to a sect among sects. Some have made the case that this is in fact what occurred in China in the 9th century to Buddhism. Though Buddhism persisted as a religion in China, it no longer threatened to absorb the Chinese elite as partners a project of cultural hegemony. The fall of Buddhism as the religion of the elite in the 9th century led to the rise of Neo-Confucianism, which in various forms dominated Chinese high culture up to the fall of the Manchu dynasty (in their capacity as non-Chinese potentates the Manchus did patronize Tibetan Buddhism).

And this fact gives us insight I think into the nature and fundamental basis of Christianization in Europe, and elsewhere. The book The Barbarian Conversion tells the story of the Christianization of the polities of northern Europe after the fall of Rome, the transformation of pagan tribal domains into Christian proto-nation-states. But one need not specify anything particular to Christianity, because many of the same dynamics which transformed the pagan tribal federations of northern Europe could also apply to Asia in relation to Buddhism. The conversion to Christianity in northern Europe was often halting, with traditionalist reactions sometimes turning violent. The same phenomenon also accompanied Buddhism’s arrival in Tibet and Japan.

In China and India Buddhism ultimately did not capture the culture in a way that occurred in Burma or Tibet. But the indigenous response illustrates that the clock could never be rolled back in a cultural sense. Neo-Confucianism and Puranic Hinduism were fundamentally different from the variants of Confucianism and Hinduism which Buddhism had confronted and often marginalized. The native, older, traditions were transmuted into something different by the confrontation with Buddhism. If Christianity had been dethroned from its role at the center of the state in the late 4th century, then almost certain Roman traditionalism would have absorbed many of the ideological and ritual innovations of Christianity in relation to the older forms of religious worship. To some extent one can argue that the religious ferment in 6th century Iran, as Zoroastrianism was buffeted by reformist and revolutionary movements, illustrates exactly this impact of Christianity in late antiquity. The Persians at various times flirted with Christianity in various forms (Mesopotamia under Persian rule had very few Zoroastrians, and was likely majority Christianity), but settled on their primal religion. If the Arabs an Islam had not halted the process I suspect that Christian competition and cultural influence would have modulated Zoroastrianism, just as Buddhism reshaped Confucianism and Hinduism.

The broader point is that human cultural evolution is not totally contingent, but seems to fall into broad convergent patterns. All of the world’s “higher religions” exhibit broad similarities (e.g., synthesizing ritual, ethics, and metaphysics). Beginning with the Axial Age, the process of religious innovation seems to have ended a little over one thousand years later with the rise of Islam. One can think of this process as cultural ‘selective sweeps’ across a terrain rich with expansionary opportunities. But once the space was filled by higher religions one saw a sort of cultural equilibrium attained.

* Revisionist scholars who believe that the ‘pagan revival’ has been overblown or exaggerated.

• Category: History • Tags: Religion 

17 Comments to "The Christianization of Europe Was Kind of Inevitable"

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  1. I have a related question. Was the Christianity of 4th century and beyond related in any way to the religion that came before? To a large extent, Roman Catholicism appears to be completely created much later with the Trinity and rituals. The comparison with evolving Hinduism are too much, By tenth century, Hinduism had absorbed quite a bit if Buddhism and Jainism to have lost most of Vedic except rituals. I see a similar evolution, and the Romans had more to do with Christianity than almost anyone else.

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  2. “All of the world’s “higher religions” exhibit broad similarities (e.g., synthesizing ritual, ethics, and metaphysics). ”

    I’m not an expert, but my impression is that most of the metaphysical views that have historically been prevalent in NE Asia aren’t recognizable as “religions” in the Western sense.

  3. “religions” in the Western sense.

    what’s a religion in a western sense?

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  4. First Christianity in the West was not very deep and eradicated swiftly as the Western Roman Empire was poorer and less peopled compared to the East by a wide margin.

    For example England was Pagan from the Saxon invasion until Alfred the Greats conversion in the 800s.

    We think of Western Europe today as wealthy and peopled but neither was true until the 1100s or so. The moldboard plow and wool looms had much to change that. Bruges was a muddy riverbank with long anbandoned Roman ruins in 900, by 1200 among the wealthiest cities in the world off the wool trade.

    And the Vikings offered a comprehensive trade, military, cultural, and religious challenge to Christian Europe. They were never even challenged much less defeated at sea and mostly seem to have over assimilated by the 1000s.

    I would argue the key was Christian literacy and pristly celibacy. Pagan kings converting got a two fer that repeated ever afterwards as Christian.

    First they got literate scribes who could keep records of who paid what in taxes and feudal service in times of war. Who raised how many men at arms, how many peasant archers, etc.

    Second, losers in the sucession race could be sent to monasteries. They would have no heirs to challenge the throne but could be very useful allies in expanding royal authority and territory.

    Rather than genetic determination it was these specific attributes of Chrstian conversion that led men like Alfred the Great to convert from Paganism. Absent those Europe would have beern Odins bloody pagan rule.

    It is significant that Christian conversion was very successful in Latin America, but failed among North American tribes for whom literacy and religious life had no value. It is also significant that Africa has mostly rejected Christianity while South Korea and China have adopted it and Islam essentially wiped out Christianity in the East by Manzikert at the latest.

  5. “One can think of this process as cultural ‘selective sweeps’”

    Yes, the world makes a lot more sense viewed that way.

  6. “If Christianity had been dethroned from its role at the center of the state in the late 4th century, then almost certain Roman traditionalism would have absorbed many of the ideological and ritual innovations of Christianity in relation to the older forms of religious worship.”

    The emperor Julian’s paganism has been said to contain elements of Christian influence (e.g. a conception of the gods as all-seeing, rewarding the just and punishing the wicked). Also Julian wanted pagans to imitate Christian charity (which he regarded as an important reason for Christian success) and tried to organize pagan priesthoods along the lines of Christian bishops (something the pagan emperor Maximin Daia seems also to have tried earlier in the 4th century). Maybe this could be regarded as early signs of adaptation and evolution of paganism in response to Christianity.

  7. I don’t understand why you go to such a late date as the 390s, just before the collapse of the Western Empire (409: Vandals et al. cross into Hispania because Romans were too busy in Italy fencing off the Goths and the Western Bagaudas were seemingly friendly to the Vandals, etc.) The turning point of Christianization is the sometimes called Christian Coup under Constantine and immediate successors, what is a whole century earlier.

    Many believe that Christians in the Empire were at that point not numerous enough to have become hegemonic without first taking power. Without the very active help of the imperial apparatus Christianity would probably have remained a less important sect and could well have been overcome by other orientalist sects like Isianism or Mithraism or, more likely, we would have a much more complex religious history in West Eurasia, in which ancient paganisms, with whatever “reforms”, could have persisted rather easily for lack of an imperial authority with missionary/diplomatic influence on the areas it did not control directly.

    The Constantinian Shift is the turning point of ancient history in West Eurasia: it did not only promote Christianity and, as result, persecute other religions to extinction, but it also determined the catastrophic fate of the Roman Empire by moving the capital to the East, what horribly weakened the Western Empire. Neo-Platonian Christian intellectuals like Agustin of Hippo were critical also into the formation of the feudal order that led Europe to the Dark Ages but, from a more materialist viewpoint, the feudalization of the Western Empire and hence the Dark Ages obey to the Hellenization cum Christianization impelled by Constantine, which deprived Rome/Italy from its critical Eastern tax resources, financial flow that kept the Empire together once the Iberian gold mines were exhausted.

    The “barbarian conversion” was just part of their process of consolidating their power over a population that was already largely Catholic, being reliant on the Latin-speaking literate priests who provided the backbone of the state administration and propaganda machinery.

    What you say about Zoroastrianism is possibly correct but let’s not forget that Persia was also in contact with the Indian cultural area, and hence with Hinduism and Buddhism, and that Judaism was still actively proselytizing in the interstices between both empires (Rabbinic-Jewish states in Kurdistan, Yemen, Khazaria, strong influence in Medina in times of Mohamed), what reflects that, without the direct patronage of the Roman Empire, Christianity was relatively weak and not so influential. This together with the open religious mindset of the Persian Empire (much more tolerant than Rome) allows for many possible religious outcomes in West Asia.

  8. maju, public subsidies to pagan temples did not end until the 380s. so you are wrong in pegging it to constantine’s period.

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  9. Well, the “Constatinian shift” began in 312-313 and culminated in 398, when “Pagan” religions were outlawed by Theodosius. But in all those years, excepting the extremely brief Julian interlude (361-363) political power was concentrated, and growingly so, in Christian hands.

    One may think that in life of Constantine or maybe upon his death, the Christianization of the Empire could be reversed but in time of Theodosius it seems already way too late: the easy by with his pro-Christian and anti-Pagan legislation was enforced evidences such a deep penetration of the Christians in the power network that nothing short of a revolution could have stopped it.

    Even if someone could hold to some hope with the proclamation of Julia, the extreme shortness of his reign evidences that the Christian power was already very strong.

    Actually the revolution did happen (Bagaudae) but it was limited to the westernmost edge of the Empire and its motivation was rather the imposition of feudalism than of Christianity (although both were linked to some extent).

  10. The religions “in the Western sense” (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are based on claimed divine revelation, the religions of NE Asia (Taoism and Confucianism) are based on human speculation, in short they are actually philosophies.

  11. I would like to read a serious study behind the rise of Christianity, the Jesus movement had a lot of educated people and money supporting it.

    Some say Christianity was conspiracy, but by who?

  12. The religions “in the Western sense” (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are based on claimed divine revelation, the religions of NE Asia (Taoism and Confucianism) are based on human speculation, in short they are actually philosophies.

    that’s a bullshit distinction in reality according to cognitive psychology, though there is an intellectual history argument. also, eastern religions of the form you speak of rely on transcendental revelation after a fashion, just not from the high god. in any case, a religion like daoism did have a scientific/engineering streak, which was not particularly religious. but it died off because immortality elixirs kept killing people.

  13. the easy by with his pro-Christian and anti-Pagan legislation was enforced evidences such a deep penetration of the Christians in the power network that nothing short of a revolution could have stopped it.

    it wasn’t easy. nor was it enforced much. paganism died off through the attrition of conversion of the elites who had previously patronized it. when theodosius’ son attempted to dismiss pagan officers in the eastern empire so many resigned that he simply repealed the implementation.

    my contention would be that a non-christian future for the roman empire was possible deep into the 4th century. but that non-christian future would have had many of the features of christianity. the analogy here is to daoism, which with the incursion of buddhism into chinese cultural space adopted many of its features (and some forms of buddhism, such as chan/zen, absorbed a lot from daoism).

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  14. I suspect that the comparison with China may not be as valid but I really don’t know enough of the Chinese process of conversion to Buddhism to judge it with the clarity I may apply to the Roman process of conversion to Christianity.

    One thing that is clear is that in China religion was never as important as it was in West Eurasia (at least since Christian expansion) or also in South Asia. China has always got this secularist agnostic trend with diverse beliefs or even disbeliefs standing side by side in relative harmony. This also happened in the classical Roman Empire, where many religions were active prior to the legal consolidation of Christianity and subsequent persecution of Pagans and other non-Jewish faiths (Isianism, Mithraism, etc.) or even that of Arian (monophysite) Christians, whose offshots in the Eastern Empire favored the expansion of Islam into the Levant and North Africa (monophysite strongholds).

    It is true that the Empire persecuted Druidism and to some extent Judaism also, both in relation with ethnic rebellions, but otherwise it was rather tolerant. The so much fabled persecution of Christians under Rome was in fact almost non-existant, while the persecution of pagans and other religious dissidents once Christianity took power was much more systematic and atrocious than what you assume (and it began long before Theodosius).

    Please read (to begin with): (and linked subarticles, sources, etc.)

    This persecution did not just happen under the late Roman Empire but also under its successor (“Germanic”) states and within the realms converted to this Christianity in Northern Europe, etc.

    Nothing of that happened in China regarding Daoism, the cult of ancestors or Sun Wukong’s worship. They were, as you say, gradually and partly integrated with Buddhism but the shift seems to me very different (softer, smoother) to what happened in the Roman Empire (and by extension in all West Eurasia, starting an era of religious madness, intolerance and wars).

    As someone emphasized above, Judaic religions (incl. Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, Baha’i, etc.) are presented as “revealed by God”. I would not call these “Western religions” because, before the expansion of Judaism in its many variants, Western religions were not at all like these but rather like the loose diversity of Hinduism. This sets the Western (as in “Judaic”) religious paradigm quite distant from all others. And personally I think that for the worst.

    In this sense the illustrate Modern reaction against religion in Europe and, to lesser extent, also in its colonial projection overseas, was and still is almost necessary for progress, both scientific and social (humanistic). It would have been impossible that the West became what it is with the burden of monotheistic religious intolerance and totalitarianism. In order to progress Europe (and the West in general) had to become more like China in the religious and philosophical sense, even if in its own parameters. To do that the illustrates looked not to China but to our own pre-Christian almost forgotten roots, particularly Classical Greece and (to lesser extent) Rome.

  15. while the persecution of pagans and other religious dissidents once Christianity took power was much more systematic and atrocious than what you assume (and it began long before Theodosius).

    how do you know what i assume? i’ve read a fair amount on the topic in the scholarly literature, and am aware of systematic persecutions. though one has to be guarded in this area, since ancient polities were not totalitarian in a manner comparable to modern regimes (or even early modern ones).

    Arian (monophysite) Christians

    the ‘arian’ and ‘monophysite’ (i think they call themselves miaphysite now for the pedants) are totally different theological positions with no overlap (one could argue that the chalcedonian position is between the two).

    in any case,

    1) you are arguing against positions which i’m not actually advocating

    2) you admit you don’t know that much about china, but continue to talk about the china analogy i’m making. is that fruitful? :-)

    anyway, honestly i’m not sure who you think you are talking to, because i don’t hold many of the positions you impute to me. so where do we go from here?

    i do have issues with the taxonomy of religions as normally presented. but that’s a different conversation….

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  16. “how do you know what i assume?”

    That’s the impression you convey with your article and comments, really.

    “you are arguing against positions which i’m not actually advocating”

    Am I? If so my apologies – but that’s what I understood you were advocating.

  17. I haven’t read everything above yet.

    Joining a universal religion often and perhaps usually was associated with literacy, the establishment of a state, and the beginning of formal diplomatic relations and marriage relations with other states. It had less to do with individual belief as we think of it, though that was often enforced by the ruler after the fact. The spread of individual religion within a people is not tightly related to the “conversion of the people”, which is a political and diplomatic event.

    The religion converted to is usually chosen for political reasons. The Lithuanians for example had the choice between Catholic Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, and (before a certain point) Islam. They probably held off their conversion in order to get the maximum payoff from their choice, rather than because they wanted to remain pagan. There was no international advantage or payoff in paganism.

    The Khazars’ conversion to Judaism and the Uighurs’ conversion to Manichaeanism probably were also motivated by the need to be literate and respected international players without choosing sides in the various religious battles going on. That’s my conjecture, there isn’t much data.

    After the Norse converted, they had a fixed place in the international system, but their empire-building dwindled and then ceased. Can’t be sure why, but in order to govern their states with any security the several Norse kings had to shut down the freebooters and adventurers among their own people. Every time a jarl went away on an adventure and came back loaded with gold, he became a threat to the local order.

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