Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sprang from the Ground

Commenting on a description of an elaborate, relic-infused dedication of a church by Ambrose of Milan (340-397AD), Robert Louis Wilken writes:
What is significant is not so much what Ambrose did, but what the people of the city demanded of him.  As Neil McLynn, a recent biographer, has observed, the fourth-century cult of the martyrs "was not a pantomime staged for the vulgar but a channeling of powerful energies too intractable for the bishop to have controlled at will, and too pervasive for him to have thought to try."  There is no more telling mark of the new society being constructed in the wake of Constantine than this liaison between city, people, and religious devotion embodied in the veneration of martyrs and saints.  The new order sprang from the ground; it was not imposed from above (131).
A main theme of Jaroslav Pelikan's Credo is that the same "from below" dynamic operates in even the most learned of Christian creeds.
[The creed] could in some sense be characterized as "democratic." Its teaching is not replacing or even correcting or revising or amplifying what the laity have in fact been believing and teaching all along, though perhaps without really knowing it.  It is simply articulating and defending this against recent heretical adversaries, or it is making it more precise by the adoption of a more technical theological vocabulary, or it is transposing it from the implicit to the explicit and from the unconscious to the conscious.  Therefore the laity are still confessing their own faith in this text (341).
Needless to say, many instances of aggressive, top-down imposition of belief did occur, however.  For example, one imperial secretary insisted that Ambrose surrender a Nicene church to the heretical Arians, to the point of surrounding the church with soldiers until Ambrose complied.  The bishop's reply: "I cannot surrender the basilica, but I cannot use arms [to defend it]."

And it worked.