Throes Of A Bad Conscience


Chapter VII

It is accounted an evil cause that must support itself by violence and destruction. Unhappily this is the case with Christianity after the third century. Repressed and harassed for about three centuries by popular disapproval and the regnant power, when at last it came into favor and security and a measure of power of its own, the Church of Christ at once let loose the fury of its own virulent passion against every group that would not bend to its narrow and fanatical orthodoxy. It then began its long and almost uninterrupted career of persecution, to its eternal infamy. Because they have been forgotten and largely denied, the interests of truth call for a brief restatement of the facts of ecclesiastical vandalism. It is an integral part of the case here advocated, along with the literary forgeries, tampering with sacred texts and the vitiation of the ancient wisdom on every hand.

Massey well outlines the drift of things from the time that ignorance overwhelmed the Christian movement, cast out the uncomprehended Gnosis, and then resorted to measures of violence to cut all links of connection between their doctrines and antecedent pagan religions. Innocent at first of any knowledge of the derivation of their doctrines from reviled sources in heathenism, great was the surprise and resentment of the Christian devotees when little by little evidence leaked out of the startling and complete identities of their ideas and forms with the material of despised former cults. Hotly indignant, the astonished and desperate votaries of the new faith had to find some way to blot out the tell-tale evidences. So the orgy of destruction set in. There are instances close at hand in our own day to enforce upon our minds the futility and the despicableness of the gesture of burning hated books and exiling their authors. Some of this ignominy can be passed back upon the Christian partisans of the early centuries, when the hot fury of fanatical zeal set fire to libraries of the most precious and irreplaceable books in the world. A fact so well known in history as the burning of the Alexandrian library by Christian mobs need not be dilated upon here. It has not, however, been deeply enough stamped upon general intelligence that this vandal deed was probably the enabling cause of the incidence of fifteen centuries of the Dark Ages, and the postponement of the Renaissance to the latter half of that period. The destruction of a library then meant infinitely more than it would mean today, printing not being extant at the time. It is surely not an unfounded claim to say that the flames of those burning books threw not a light but a murky lurid smoke and smudge over the mind of medieval Europe. The evil consequences are still running their course. The destruction of the Alexandrian library is the main indictment in the bill of vandalism, but there are others not so well known.

The severe charge is made by Higgins (Anac., p. 564) that many of the early Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries in their "fanatical excitement" became Carmelite monks and founded a secret corresponding society, meeting mostly at night. (Night meetings violated Roman law and were in large measure the reason for the persecutions.) The heads of this order, says Higgins, had enough power to correct or destroy at pleasure any Gospel in the world not preserved by the "heretics." This, he avers, is the reason why we have no MSS. older than those of the sixth century. This order’s detestation of the "heathen" books was of the deepest virulence, and the fires of their hatred turned into physical flames first at Antioch, as described in Acts, and, says Higgins, were repeatedly rekindled by a succession of councils up to the last canon of the Council of Trent against heathen learning. They sequestered many books for their later destruction. "Here we have the cause, and almost the sole cause, which effected the darkness of the world for many generations."

Higgins relates (p. 565) that St. Gregory is said by John of Salisbury to have burnt the imperial library of the Apollo. (Forsythe’s Travels, p. 134.)

The Victor Tunensis, already mentioned, was, according to Higgins and Lardner, the agent of considerable destruction of Gospels about the sixth century, and probably by order of the Emperor Anastasius at Constantinople.

Some twenty-four volumes of the works of the great Gnostic philosopher Basilides,--extolled so highly by Clement of Alexandria--his splendid Interpretations Upon the Gospels, were all burned by order of the Church, Eusebius tells us. These works alone might have changed the course of Western history into pleasanter channels than those of bigotry and slaughter. Several writers affirm that, what with generations of the most active Church Fathers working assiduously at the destruction of old documents and the preparation of new passages to be interpolated in those which happened to survive, there remains of the noble Gnostic literature, the legitimate offspring of the genuine archaic wisdom, nothing but the Pistis Sophia and some few scattered fragments, precious, however, for the hints they give of the mighty treasure lost.

Mead is authority for the reported burning of the manuscripts of French Rabbis by the Inquisition. He says that for one thousand years the Christian authorities hurled all kinds of bulls, anathemas and edicts of confiscation and conflagration against the Talmud. He cites, too, the vandal acts of the fanatical Crusaders, who left smoldering piles of Hebrew scrolls behind them in their path of blood and fire. Official burnings of Hebrew books began at Montpellier in 1233, where a Jew, an Anti-Maimonist, persuaded the Dominicans and Franciscans of the Inquisition, likely unaware of the purely internal conflict between exotericism and esotericism in Jewry, to commit to the flames all the works of Maimonides. In the same year at Paris some twelve thousand volumes of the Talmud were burned, and in 1244 eighteen thousand various works were fed to the flames.

The story of the destruction, not only of books, but of cities, monasteries and temples, of the early pre-Christian Gaelic civilization in Britain, Ireland, Brittany and Gaul, is a sorry narrative of Christian fury. A Christian mob destroyed the city of Bibractis in 389 in Gaul, and Alesia was destroyed before that. Bibractis had a sacred college of the Druids with forty thousand students, giving courses in philosophy, literature, grammar, jurisprudence, medicine, astrology, architecture and esoteric religion. Arles, founded 2000 years before Christ, was sacked in 270 A.D.

A statement in Westrop and Wake’s Phallism in Ancient Religions charges Cardinal Ximenes with having burned the old Arabic manuscripts. And Draper shows that the same Ximenes "delivered to the flames in the squares of Granada eighty thousand Arabic manuscripts, among them translations of the classical authors." Wilder states that thirty-six volumes written by Porphyry were destroyed by the Fathers.

A candid and unbiased witness is Edward Carpenter, English philosopher, who, in Pagan and Christian Creeds (p. 204), speaks bluntly of Christian practices:

"The Christian writers, as time went on, not only introduced new doctrines, legends, miracles and so forth--most of which we can trace to antecedent pagan sources--but they took pains to destroy the pagan records and so obliterate the evidence of their own dishonesty."

J.M. Robertson (Pagan Christs, p. 325) writes that of certain books mentioned "every one of these has been destroyed by the care of the Church." The treatise of Firmucus has been mutilated at a passage where he has accused the Christians of following Mithraic usages.

. . . . . . .

The invidious task of mustering a large body of such evidence as this would seem to have been well enough performed with what has been given. But another sizable segment of data remains to be put on record, not at all with the mere aim of heaping disrepute on the dominant religion of the West, but for the purpose of adding convincing reality to the claims here advanced that the Christian system early suffered such deterioration as to make both possible and understandable the catastrophic changes alleged herein. The first reaction on the part of non-studious folks in the Christian faith will undoubtedly be the feeling that a group of people so sanctified by piety and holy faith as the early Christians are commonly reputed to have been, could not have perpetrated the crimes against intelligence and righteousness which this work lays at their door. It remains to be shown, then, that the picture of elevated holiness traditionally painted of the primitive Christians has been colored with unduly bright hues.

On the side of philosophy and religion as an intellectual enterprise Mead has most accurately and faithfully, as well as without undue bias, presented the true picture of the situation in primitive Christianity. In his Fragments of a Faith Forgotten he analyzes the effect of the sudden "throwing open" of the secret esoteric wisdom to the untutored populace, and describes the effect of the blinding new light on the masses. He asserts that the adherents of the new religion professed to "throw open everything" to common view, and the procedure left the unprepared rabble dazed by a sudden flashing of light they could not comprehend. The upshot was that they were thrown into a fever of excitement and emotional frenzy, similar in kind, though greater in degree, to the ferment created by every other marked preachment of new and sensational doctrines in religion. The sage custodians of deep spiritual truth were well instructed and supported by astute knowledge of human nature in their policy of esoteric secrecy. They had been well counseled to this posture by witnessing the inordinate emotional upheaval set in ferment by every untimely release of the dynamic psychological potency of great truths imperfectly comprehended and unsteadied by knowledge. The phenomenon is so glaringly exemplified before our eyes in this day that Mead’s words should strike us with singular force:

"The ‘many’ had begun to play with psychic and spiritual forces let loose from the Mysteries, and the ‘many’ went mad for a time and have not yet regained their sanity."

The bold affirmation is here made that this comes closer to being the true analysis of the motivation and expression of the forces that made Christianity the religion it was and gave it its distinctive character and direction than any other estimate advanced over the centuries. We have before us at this present so exactly similar a situation in the ferment of extreme and fanatical ideologies exhibited by a host of modern "spiritual" cults of many varieties that there should be little difficulty in our seeing the obvious correctness of Mead’s analysis. It is the very charge resounding from hundreds of pulpits today, that thousands of semi-intelligent people are playing with psychic, "spiritual" and "occult" forces which, if coaxed into untimely function without competent philosophical acumen, can prove most perilous to sanity and balance. This can be seen and possibly readily admitted by the clergy. What the clergy will not so readily admit, however, is that its own primitive Christianity (after the fatal third century, at any rate) was as errant, wild and misguided a fanaticism as that of the contemporary cults. It was not so as long as it held on to the philosophy and the esoteric Gnosis of the precedent Mysteries. It became such the moment it destroyed the Mysteries, let down the disciplinary safeguards and "threw open everything" sacred and profound to the impious hands of the gullible masses. The idiotic fervor of piety unbalanced by the intelligence requisite to hold it in line with restraint, swept Christianity out of the channels of sanity into the maelstrom of one of the most rabid of all religious ferments in history, and from that into currents that have borne it forward along courses of violence, bigotry and inhumanity almost beyond belief.

In the same work Mead portrays the situation that ensues when a strong ferment brews among the populace, and a new order is instituted following the sweeping away of old barriers. This, too, can have direct relevance and instruction for the world today. He says the new order gives rise at the same time to a wild intolerance, a glorification of ignorance, a wholesale condemnation of intelligent conservatism, and generally causes a social upheaval which is taken to be the divine expression of a new freedom. Always the peculiar mark of this new freedom is that it shortly becomes as dogmatic as the old oppression. Every one of these stages was manifest in the popular revolt against the conservative aristocracy of intellect in religion which from the third century swept Christianity into the role and spirit of an anti-cultural faith. Such would inevitably be the case when the predominantly mystical and emotional types of religion gain the field against the predominantly intellectual and philosophical strains. Early Gnostic and Pauline Greek Christianity were of the latter strain; orthodox Christianity, mostly Petrine after the third century, was of the former type. This is primarily all that is required as datum to qualify a perfectly clear and correct evaluation of the genius of the movement that founded Christianity. With this view as guide and gauge, there should now be made a thorough re-study of the genesis of Christianity. It would be a most illuminating revelation of what perils are generated the moment reason yields the ground to faith in religion, when piety is not balanced by rational elements, or, in broad sense, when philosophy gives place to religion. Mead ends his treatment of the point with the epigrammatic threnody, "Greek rationalism was lost; symbolism was lost." Indicating the truth of both the fact and its significance may be cited Tertullian’s brief announcement that "when one has once believed, search should cease."

On the State of the Church is the title of a treatise written by St. Cyprian just before the Decian persecution. He admits in it that "there was no true devotion in the priests" . . . that the simple were deluded and the brethren circumvented by craft and fraud. Also he declares that great numbers of the Bishops were eager only to heap up money, to seize people’s lands by treachery and fraud and to increase their stock by exorbitant usury. (Quoted by Middleton, Free Inquiry.)

The Catholic Encyclopedia (I, p. 555) may be cited to the effect that even in the fourth century St. John Chrysostom testifies to the decline in fervor in the Christian family and contends that it was no longer possible for children to obtain proper religious and moral training in their own homes. The Encyclopedia adds at another place (VIII, p. 426): "The Lateran was spoken of as a brothel and the moral corruption of Rome became the subject of general odium." Practically in every century nearly every large city in Christendom has been charged with harboring vice and moral and political corruption till the odium mounted to scandal. Yet alongside of this record and its own admissions of rottenness in Christian lands and even in the Church itself, this authority (III, p. 34) boasts that "the wonderful efficacy displayed by the religion of Christ in purifying the morals of Europe has no parallel." Vaunting that "the Church was the guide of the western nations from the close of the seventh century to the beginning of the sixteenth," it can be quoted with a string of admissions such as that on VII, p. 387:--"At the beginning of the Reformation the condition of the clergy and consequently of the people was a very sad one . . . the unfortunate state of the clergy . . . their corrupt morals"--that openly belie the validity of the claim. It itself pronounces the Middle Ages, "of all human epochs, an age of terrible corruption and social decadence." "From the fourth century onward . . . the Agapae gave rise to flagrant and intolerable abuses." It describes the Agapetae as virgins who consecrated themselves to God with a vow of chastity and associated with laymen who like themselves had taken a vow of chastity. "It resulted in abuses and scandals." Jerome arraigns Syrian monks for living in cities with Christian virgins. These Agapetae are sometimes confounded with the Subintroductae or women who lived with clerics without marriage, says the Encyclopedia (I, p. 202).

Even Eusebius refuses to record the dissensions and follies which were rife among the many factions before the Diocletian persecution (Eccl. Hist., Bk. 8, Ch. 2). He delineates the unshepherdly character of the shepherds of flocks, "condemned by divine justice as unworthy of such a charge," their ambitious aspirations for office and the injudicious and unlawful ordinations that take place, the divisions among the confessors themselves, the great schisms industriously fomented by factions, heaping affliction upon affliction,--"all these I have resolved to pass by."

Catholic Encyclopedia says (VI, p. 793) that at the time of Gregory VII’s elevation to the papacy "the Christian world was in a deplorable condition." Doctrinal controversy waxed bitter to the point at times of physical combat, especially, says the Encyclopedia (I, p. 191), in North Africa. "One act of violence followed another and begot new conflicts. . . . Crimes of all kinds made Africa one of the most wretched provinces in the world."

Lundy says that the Arian and orthodox factions fought in the streets and in the churches with such fierce animosity that on one occasion one hundred and thirty-seven dead bodies were found in one of the basilicas (Animianus Marcellinus, lib. XXVII, iii, p. 392). Doctrinal controversy waxed so fierce that it gave rise to the phrase "Odium Theologicum" expressed by one writer in the sentence, "Hell hath no fury like an offended saint." This had been previously matched by the Emperor Julian’s characterization: "There is no wild beast like an angry theologian."

The Encyclopedia portrays elaborately the "general debasement" which the Church shared with the times. It was worst in the tenth century. Simony and clerical incontinence were the two great evils descanted upon. "Many had lost all sense of Christian ideals." Says the Encyclopedia, with more truth than it suspected, no doubt, "the accumulated wisdom of the past was in danger of perishing." In controversion of the general claim of the Church that in the night of the Dark Ages it was the monasteries and cloisters of Christianity that preserved the ancient classics, we may cite Wheless’ sentence: "We shall see that every scrap of Greek and Latin learning which, after twelve centuries, slowly filtered into Christendom, came from the hated Arabs, through the more hated Jews, after Christian contact with civilization through the Crusades." And the Encyclopedia testifies to the fact of sinister force in admitting that even when the development of Scholasticism brought the revival of Greek philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle, "it also meant that philosophy was now to serve the cause of Christian truth." The same force of obscurantism that ten or twelve centuries earlier had blotted out the world’s accumulated spiritual light was now upon its return ready to diffract the pure rays of that light into colors of its own composition by passing them through the medium of that dark glass of perpetuated dogmatism and entrenched ignorance that had extinguished it in the first instance. The same obfuscation of intellect that had put out the light a thousand years before was still at hand to distort its pure gleam when it shone again.

The Encyclopedia speaks (XII, p. 765) of "a revival of learning as soon as the West was capable of it"--after being under Christian tutelage for a thousand years.

At a moment when the conscience of cultured people everywhere is horrified at the savage atrocities of a nation diabolically committed to violence, it might be well to remind those on the side of Christian resentment against "pagan" barbarity, that when the Christian Crusaders entered Jerusalem from all sides on July 15, 1099, they slew its inhabitants regardless of age or sex, while Saladin committed no act of outrage.

J. E. Ellam, in his Buddhism and Modern Thought (p. 140), puts in brief compass and strong terms the degradation of Europe under Christianity:

"Yet the moral level of Europe was lower than that of any savages of whom we have record. Its barbarities and cruelties, its vices and brutality, would have scandalized even Dahomey and Benin. Cyril of Alexandria has a lurid description of the vices even of his own followers. Augustine says much the same of ‘the faithful’ in Roman Africa. Silvianus, a priest of the fifth century, writes: ‘Besides a very few who avoid evil, what is almost the whole body of Christians but a sink of iniquity? How many in the Church will you find that are not drunkards, or adulterers, or fornicators, or gamblers, or robbers, or murderers,--or all together?’" (Silvianus: On the Providence of God, III, 9.)

Lundy (Monumental Christianity, p. 353) speaks of the licentiousness in connection with the Agapae or "love-feasts" held in the Christian congregations--

"When in the fourth century . . . the Church, from the necessity of the case, substituted these Agapae for some of the pagan festivities the abuse became so great that the Council of Laodicea forbade their celebration altogether in the churches." Its Canon XXVIII enacts that "it is not permitted to hold love-feats, as they are called, in the Lord’s houses, or in church assemblies, nor to eat and to spread couches in the house of the Lord."

Lundy states, however, that they were such a scandal to the Christian name by reason of the drunkenness and licentiousness practiced that entire suppression was the final resort.

"But so popular were these festivals among the poor and ignorant classes of the Christian community, such a strong hold had they obtained in their hearts and lives that it was an exceeding difficult matter to suppress them."

They could still be held in private homes and in cemeteries "and were so held for three centuries longer." They were not suppressed until the seventh century, when the Trullian or Quinisext Council took them in hand.

Paulinus, the good Bishop of Nola, laments that these festivities were carried on during the entire night.

"How I wish," he says in the Ninth Hymn to Felix, "that their joys would assume a more sober character; that they would not mix their cups on holy ground. Yet I think we must not be too severe on the pleasures of their little feasts: for error creeps into unlearned minds; and their simplicity, unconscious of the great fault they commit, verges on piety, supposing that the saints are gratified by the wine poured upon their tombs."

The good Bishop’s sad confession that error creeps into unlearned minds is one of the bluntest massive truths confronting humanity. It is also one of the most vital factors involved in the entire history of the Christian religion. Admitted by everybody, it would seem as if, therefore, the very first article in the constitution of a great religion would be to spread honest learning as widely and as deeply as possible.

Lundy sententiously summarizes the situation in the Church, saying (p. 107) that

"Christian doctrine, Christian morals and Christian art degenerated together, and it is called development!" So he can say: "All this is but a repetition of the degeneracy and the debasement of the old Patriarchal faith into Pagan idolatry: of simple truths, as taught by symbols perverted into falsehood by images and idols."

It is hardly necessary to inject the correction of his last statement, that it was not the images and idols that perverted truth, but the failure to go behind those symbols to the sublime meaning now known to be covered by them.

Mead assembles evidence to indicate that the lasciviousness of the Agapae can not be charged against people of such refinement and philosophical acumen as the Gnostics, though Clement does bring the charge against them; but thinks it probable that some cults calling themselves Christians did confuse the Agapae and love-feasts of the times with the orgies and feasts of the ignorant populace. "The Pagans brought these accusations against the Christians, and the Christian sects against one another."

The volume of accusation and supporting data could be heaped up to hundreds of pages. The modest quantity, gathered in desultory reading, here presented is sufficient to carry home the point that flagrant deterioration had taken hold of the Christian movement on a vast scale, and, since things have their causes, something must have occurred in the movement that for two and a half to three centuries manifested high intelligence and moral purity to reduce it so suddenly to corruption and barbarity. This cause, it is contended, as far as it was an influence detached from exterior economic, political and social conditions, was the loss of the esoteric wisdom, philosophical culture and the whole intellectual side of religion, induced by and further inducing the popular submergence of minority intelligence by majority ignorance. The direct relevance to our theme of this fateful shift from philosophical rationalism to massive irrational pietism is found in the reflection that such a vast transformation in outward life and thought was the evidence of another equally drastic change in basic understanding. The larger and more manifest changes in outward life must spring from significant changes in inner consciousness. That inner change was in major part just that shift from symbolic and allegorical esotericism over to historical literalism, the chief item of which was the mistaking of the Christos for a man of flesh.

As this work is not an attack on Christianity, it must be emphasized that the data here presented reflecting adversely on the name and record of that religion have been given purely for the sake of buttressing the leading argument with the support it gains from its setting in a true, instead of a warped, view of past history. The argument would lose some of its legitimate force if permitted to stand in the poorer light of a history that has been, at any rate to common intelligence, grossly distorted by pious misinterpretation, suppression of honest facts, vandalism and juggling of every sort. The aim has been a purely academic or dialectic one, to show that the loss of high knowledge, the historization of myths and dramas, the literalization of the Gospels, the conversion of the personae of the great universal ritual into living persons, the lethal sweep of ignorance and the ensuing degradation and debasement of the whole movement from the interior heat of theological doctrine clear out to the periphery of moral social conduct, were all wholly necessary and consistent elements of the one completed picture. If history can not be brought into court to support a thesis, point a moral or furnish evidence in straightforward truth-seeking, it is studied to little good purpose. We therefore cite the portions of history that bear with very direct cogency upon the great question under investigation.