1700 years — from the Council of Nicaea to the forests of India, part one

Christ with St Mina, 6th century icon, Egypt

In 325 AD, the First Council of Nicaea was held.  This was the first Christian council of bishops.

Though this is all a little obscure, there is a point to having a look at the First Council of Nicaea.  It wasn’t just a long-ago, irrelevant event, important only to Christian theologians and of no relevance to anyone else.

It was, on the contrary, a stepping stone setting off down the path that a part of the world has followed from that time until this –  which has impacted the whole world – and continues to do so.

It illustrates a pattern, a mindset, and a modus operandi – a handbook in how to exercise dominion – which may be said to have led down a long, unfortunate road to the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Age of Exploration, and even today, to the mindset that believes that the earth, the environment, the oceans, the forests, and even outer space are to be “used” and not worshipped.

Before the Council of Nicaea, the multitude of Christian sects had no overall leader;  the various pockets of Christianity were pretty much free (barring occasional persecution and martyrdom by the authorities) to worship in any way they wished.

image of Christ

The glimpses we can see of  Jesus in the earliest writings about him portray a man who is a teacher, a healer, a mystic, a psychic, a miracle worker, even a magician.  He is not a revolutionary in any political sense; he relates to individuals of all strata of society equally, the rich and the poor.  When he is not speaking to crowds, he often spends his time alone in the deserts and on the hilltops, where he seeks inspiration, surrounded by nature.

He is not all gloom and doom, but has a light-hearted side—turning the water into wine at a wedding. He is looked down on by some for spending his time with not quite the proper kind of people, sinners and tax collectors.

One of the few times he is portrayed as angry is in a temple, seeing the doves in cages about to be sacrificed.  He releases the doves, overturns the cages, and scatters the coins of those who are selling the doves.

There is something magical about his presence, reminiscent of the magical quality of passages from the Mahabharata or the Ramayana.  There are repeated speculations that Jesus may have spent time in India.  We do not know.  It is stated in the gospels that he spent his earliest years in Egypt; this was the Egypt where the ancient religion of pharonic times was not yet dead.   By the time he was twelve, he was back in Palestine, able not only to read and write (which must have been unusual for a carpenter’s son), but to hold a learned discourse over several days with the elders in the temple.

Three hundred years after he was killed for being a heretic and an insurrectionist, his followers existed in scattered bands, some led by women, with varying views of who he had been and what he stood for.  Clearly he had had absolutely no intention whatsoever of establishing a church in the temporal world.  As a mystic, he was the farthest thing from an administrator. There are many indications that he looked forward to the imminent end of the world, shortly following his death.  But that failed to happen.

Lake Iznik, Turkey

The First Council of Nicaea, in the spring of 325 AD, was held in present-day Iznik (Nicaea), in Turkey.  It is a walled, fortified city, whose western wall rises up from Lake Iznik, which lies in between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.  Around 300 bishops gathered there, convened by the Emperor Constantine.  The Roman Empire was in quite an unsettled state at the time (perhaps rather like our own times), it seemed like a good idea to bring about a greater degree of order and cohesion, at least to the realm of religion.  In short, things were out of control, and there was an urgency to putting everything into line.

A convocation of scholars and theologians might sound like an opportunity, through open discussion, to arrive at levels of spiritual truth and insight.  Indeed they did spend several weeks in discussion. They came up with the Nicene Creed to standardize Christian beliefs, with a list of canons to regulate procedures and how things were to be done, and with a correct way to calculate the right date for Easter. All in all a fairly productive meeting.

But there was one more thing – there was a hidden agenda.  The council had actually been called to suppress the heresy known as Arianism and to consolidate the power of the church in the hands of the bishops.  In other words, to establish, not a spiritual path to enlightenment, salvation, grace, or whatever – but a power structure of a purely temporal sort, which would hold dominion over the lives of the faithful for centuries to come.

Arius didn’t originate Arianism, he had predecessors before him, but he was a leading advocate of this sect, which was named after him. Most likely he was originally from Libya, and he lived as a bishop in Alexandria. We don’t know as much about him as we’d like to because nearly all positive writings about him were burned in one of the first book burnings in history.

Sort of coincidentally there had been an even earlier big book burning, also in Alexandria, of the Library of Alexandria, which in 48 BC destroyed many priceless books of the ancient world. Plutarch wrote that Julius Cesar had “accidentally” burned the library.

Montsegur, the last stronghold of the Cathars in southern France, another suppressed heresy

Anyway, Arius is described by a contemporary as being an ascetic, very distinguished-looking, of high intellectual ability, who was charming and charismatic.  The core belief of Arianism was that Jesus Christ was not God, or at least not anymore than anyone else was – but (paraphrased) that the spirit of God is potentially in everyone and that we all have a connection with God.

Arius, along with a couple of his associates, was present at the Council of Nicaea, and there was a great deal of discussion about the truth or falsehood of his beliefs.  The trouble was that, really, the whole discussion was rigged ahead of time. Constantine had called the meeting to obtain a specific result – the suppression of Arianism and the establishment of what became, from that time onwards, orthodox Christianity.  So there were no real discussions at all – only a pretense of openness, and in the end Arius and his two friends were banished—sent off to the Roman Province of Illyricum, which is now in the general vicinity of Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia.  After a while, Arius was able to get away from Illyricum and make his way back to Palestine, where he found refuge for the rest of his life.

The point here is not primarily to have a discussion about Christian theology, but rather to cast some light on the ways that people put themselves into power – for good or for ill.

Continued in Part Two

Top photo: Wikimedia / public domain / Christ and Saint Mina, 6th century icon from Bawit, Egypt, now in the Louvre

Second photo: Simon Ushakov / Wikimedia / public domain

Third photo: QuartierLatin1968 / Wikimedia / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Fourth photo: Emeraude / Wikimedia / public domain / seen from the bottom of the hill           

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