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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.