Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Brief Reflection on Julian the Apostate

Once upon a time there was a man born in the relatively auspicious position of being the future emperor of a decaying but still glorious Roman empire. His name was Julian, and he was raised a Catholic. The Church had just been recently accepted in the empire, with the whims of Constantine having swept away the ancient privileges of the Roman deities and replaced them with a vacillating commitment first to one and then to another of the divided sects of Christianity. Julian was not really meant to take throne; jealousy had spirited him away to Athens, where he grew up in the academy among the ancient halls of the philosophers. While there, the young Christian had a conversion experience: he discovered the heritage of the empire, the old myths and rites of the ancient gods, and even while a lector in the new religion he began his initiation into the ranks of the old. When he was at last raised to the purple and granted the title Augustus, he had shed the Christian religion and became, variously, Emperor Julian the Defender of the Roman Religion or Emperor Julian the Apostate.

Julian would also be the last of the Roman emperors to worship the old gods, to wake each morning and sacrifice bulls to the sun or cast the incense zealously before the altar of Mars. His reign was short and memorable: he was an energetic young prince, very learned, relatively moderate even towards his enemies, productive, spartan, and bespoke the best virtues of the ancient pagan. He led the legions himself, would run with charges, and in the end he was killed in combat attempting to lead to safety his beleaguered army, which he had run too far into Persia with a series of impressive but profitless victories. Yet all this is obscured in the epithet he has earned within the place of a specifically Christian history: the Apostate. The most important thing about him, it seems, was his refusal to accept the new religion and his enduring devotion to the old.

Moments of religious and social transition - whether it be the conversion of an empire, the enforced cultures of a conqueror over the vanquished, or even the growth of doubt or conversion of an individual - all offer moments in which the apparent "objectivity" of a society or religion is temporarily broken. The Christians had won an impressive series of social victories after Constantine, to the point that they would soon be able to persecute the pagans in vengeance for the injuries to which they had submitted the Christians. The old religion - once considered the heart of the Roman state and household - was suddenly shaken. Jupiter ceased to be the acknowledged king of the gods; the wrath and potency of Mars was called into question. While it would be incorrect to say that the pagans were not already uncritical of their own religion (at least, the philosophers were), it is clear that the religion was considered as an objective quality of the world: the blessings of the gods were seen as really and objectively demonstrated by the success of the legions and the might, wealth, and success of the empire. The transition to Christianity shook this conviction, and it is noteworthy that while Christianity had suffered social opposition and persecution with growing resolve, the majority of pagans seemed to have fallen in line with the new religion. But in the case of Julian the Apostate, we have a counterexample: a man who had everything to lose and really nothing to gain from his advocacy of a dying, disfavored, philosophically untenable religion nevertheless directed his short imperial reign to the rekindling of its ancient flame.

His project was cut short in Persia by his death, and he had barely begun to revitalize the old religion. Soon, whatever small headway he had made was undone, and within decades the shrines which Julian had worshiped at had been locked, stripped, and razed. But what if they had not? What if he had survived Persia? What if the brief efforts of his youth had been dilated into the work of a lifetime? This is where the currents of history and society begin to unveil religion's social and historical character, where the sheer objectivity of religious belief - that is, the easy-going and dogmatic assumption that religion is unmediated, transcendent, and universal truth - faces its most difficult counterpoint: it is made by and contingent upon temporal events. Christianity's hard-won triumph never faced the difficulty of a pagan revival spurred by a learned and eloquent pagan emperor, and while the old religion lingered in the backwoods of the provinces for centuries the urban capitals became unquestionably (and perhaps only nominally, in some cases) Christian.

Christianity's eventual triumph secured its doctrine as an objective experience within reality: within the empire, or at least within its cities, one was born, lived, and died in a cosmos that grew successively more explicitly and more unquestionably Christian. The moment of crisis - that age of transition in which the future of Christianity was uncertain and it which the shrines of the pagans stood alongside the Christian altars like a social sign of a clash of deities in the heaven - passed, leaving in its wake only the certainty and self-referential dogmatism of the prevailing religion. Christianity had become true, in the political sense, by becoming the most powerful social force - by externalizing its beliefs into the social structures of reality. This is not to say that it might not also be true in that other, more obscure sense of harmonizing with reality. But it is certainly the case that the securing of its political triumph allowed it to control society in such a way that members would grow up without facing those socially dangerous moments of crisis in which doubt and conversion are possible - in which another Julian might arise with the zealousy of an opposed dogma.

It is true that Christianity still retains a powerful degree of social control, but that control is yearly waning in the secularized west and elsewhere. As its social control wanes, the breach of social crisis is once again reopened, and apostasy once again becomes a distinct possibility: people no longer grow up, in general, in a world in which the truth of Catholicism is externalized in a dogmatic social structure designed explicitly to prevent doubt. The new, secular social structures do not serve to reaffirm Christianity. Christians are painfully aware of this situation, which is explicitly framed in terms of crisis, decay, or imminent disaster (one has only to note that there exists an online magazine called "Crisis Magazine" that is quite popular among the conservative Catholics). Yet the roles have switched from the ancient crisis, and now Christianity is on the defensive: it is now the old social order, the old religion, trying desperately and with all the zeal of Julian the Apostate to reaffirm its relevance.


  1. This sounds rather bleak, at least as far as Catholicism is concerned. Though I am interested in the various points you brought up, perhaps Christianity can find a friend in Julian, who like us in many ways, was going against the tide. I would like to remain hopeful however, that the Catholic religion can find a home in a increasingly Secular west but it seems doubtful and I sincerely hope that if I ever have children they can find meaning in the faith. But I think that this is an opportunity for growth, Christianity afterall made great progress intellectually in the Patristic and High Midieval period. But this debate is different, because in many ways the similarities between Secularism [in the atheistic sense] and Catholicism aren't substantial enough for them to truly interact as did the ancient Pagans and Muslims/Jews. But whatever the future may hold, I hope it ends in the Church truly offering the world a vision of reality that can make sense of a rapidly changing world or at least can rival it.

  2. I think it possible that Christianity can survive its loss of social power - after all, it was born and thrived in the when it lacked social power. But I think to do this, it has to become a new religion again. It is seen as the old religion - and increasingly, it is seen as the obsolete religion. If it is to endure, it must recapture that freshness, immediacy, and social relevance analogous (but not necessarily identical) to what made it popular in the first centuries.