Your RDA of Irony

Let’s Get Metaphysical


Once upon a time, there was a nice Semitic religion called Christianity. It was a form of Judaism-lite and had a user-friendly icon named Jesus. Offering an eternal retirement package, the new religion proved very popular among the meek.

Then some Greek intellectuals joined the religion with the express intention of improving it. They felt that since religion was a matter of belief, it should be made into a metaphysical miasma that had to be taken on faith. Christianity was too important to be intelligible. They began redefining, reinventing and elaborating the religion as  soon as they joined the congregation. And being Greek intellectuals, they could bully the meek and take over the congregations. “I don’t care what Peter told you. I’m the one with a degree from Athens.”

Of course, the Greek intellectuals couldn’t agree on anything, so they were denouncing each other as heretics. They were probably squabbling in the amphitheater while it was feeding time for the lions. “Eat him; he thinks that the Son is inferior to the Father.” “No, eat him; he thinks that the Son has a similar substance but a different nature from the Father.” The lions probably thought that they were being martyred.

Constantine was both the first Christian Emperor and Church referee, trying to get the various factions to concur on anything. He coerced some agreement at the Council of Nicaea: there was indeed a Trinity and that everyone hates the Jews.

Since the Trinity was now the doctrine of the Church, the Greek intellectuals could fight over the nature of the Trinity. That would be good for about five centuries of debates, denunciations and schisms. One of the more prolonged and eventful quarrels was over the nature of Jesus.

Was his nature (or substance–yes, they did fight over the precise wording), equally human and divine, mostly divine and somewhat human, or solely divine in a human wrapping? Those who subscribed to the divine nature with a human wrapping were called Monophysites. It was the preferred interpretation among the Christians of Armenia, Syria and Egypt. But at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, a majority of bishops endorsed the idea that Jesus was equally divine and human. So, the Monophysites found themselves declared heretics. You can imagine how pleased they were.

However, the Monophysites really were too numerous to persecute; so all Constantinople could do was annoy them. A Monophysite bishop might be arrested, expelled or even executed, but a sample martyrdom did not deter the popular heresy. It just undermined any loyalty to the Byzantine Empire.

In the 640s, after years of squabbling and harassment from Constantinople, the Monophysites of Egypt were so sick of the Byzantines that they basically surrendered to the Moslems as the lesser of two evils.

Alexandria, the second city of the Empire and a walled seaport, could have withstood a serious siege. The Arabs were just a troop of cavalry on a raid; they were amazed that Alexandria surrendered to them. Imagine if you saw kids stealing your hubcabs and you ran out and handed them your house keys.

In fact, those early Arabs were less oppressive than the Byzantines. The Moslems did not distinguish between Christians; as long as they paid their infidel tax, they could interprete the Trinity anyway they wanted.

So, the Monophysite question cost Byzantium the province of Egypt. And did the Byzantines learn to be less dogmatic? No, not at all: in the ninth century, the Patriarch of Constantinople tried to excommunicate the Pope over the use of a preposition. (Is the Holy Spirit from the Father or through the Father?)

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