A selection from Lectures on the Influence of the Institutions, Thought And Culture of Rome on Christianity And the Development of the Catholic Church by Ernst Renan (1880).
History, well written, is always good. For even if it could be proved that man, in his efforts to lay hold of the infinite, had been pursuing a chimera, the story of his attempts, always more noble than successful, could not fail to be useful. It proves that, in very truth, man, in virtue of his aspirations, emerges from the circle of his bounded life... . [...] This effort, unceasingly renewed, to attain the unattainable, is it as vain as the infant's pursuit of the always retreating object of its desire? ... No; they have not laboured in vain, those great founders, those reformers, those prophets of every age, who have protested against the delusive evidence of a fatality which closes us round, who have dashed themselves against the wall of a gross materialsm, who have consumed their thoughts, who have given their life for the accomplishment of a mission which the spirit of their age laid upon them"
The origins of Christianity form the most heroic episdoe of the history of humanity.
This extrodinary movement, with which no other can be compared, came out of the heart of Judaism. But it is doubtful whether Judaism alone would have conqured the world. ...It was, above all, needful that the new movement should transfer itself to the Greek and Latin world, and there, awaiting the barbarians, should become, as it were, a leaven in the midst of those European races, by means of which humanity accomplishes its destiny. What a noble subject will he have, who some day will understake the task of expounding to you the share of Greece in this great common work! You have asked me to explain to you the part of Rome. There is a sense in which, in point of time, the action of Rome comes first. It is only in the earlier part of the third century that the Greek mind, in the persons of Clement of Alexandria and of Origen, really laid hold of Christianity. I hope to prove to you that in the second century Rome exercised a decisive influence on the Church of Jesus.
In one sense, Rome has propagated religion in the world, as it has propageted government, extending over a large part of the earth. But, in the same way as the civilization which Rome propagated was not the petty, narrow, austere culture of ancient Latium, but the grand and large civilization which Greece had created, so the religion to which it finnaly lent its support was not the mean superstition which satisfiend the rude and primitive settlers on the Palatine; it was Judaism- that is to say, precisely the religion which Rome most hated and despised, the religion which, two or three times over, she believed that she had finally vanguished, and supplanted by her own national worship.
... It was, in the full force of the word, a civil religion. It was essentially the religion of the State: ... the State was the true God of Rome.
The consequence of this essentially political character of Roman religion was, that it always remained aristocratic.
Could there be, I ask you, a religion less capable than this of becoming the religion of the human race?
But this great attempt to produce a religion of the Roman State, was evidently incapable of satisfying the religious wants of the heart.
Here, then, is the most extraordinary of historical phenomeona, the highest expression of the irony of history- that the worship which Rome has spread abroad in the world is by no means that of the old Jupiter Capitolinus or Latinris; still less the worship of Augustus or of the Genius of the Empire; it is the worship of Jehovah. It is Judaism in its Christian form that Rome has unconsciously propagated, and that with such vigour, as, after a certain time has elapsed, to make Romanism and Christianity almost synomymous terms.
Certainly, I must repeat, it is more than doubtful wheather pure Judaism, the Judaism which was developed in a Talmudic form and which still preserves so much of its power, would ever have had so extraordinary a fortune. The Jewish propaganda was made by means of Christianity. But we are altogether ignorant of religious history- a fact which I hope some other lecturer will prove to you at a future time- if we do not lay it down as a fundamental principle, that Christianity at its origin is no other than Judaism, with its fertile principles of almsgiving and charity, with its absolute faith in the future of humanity, with that joy of heart of which Judaism has always held the secret- and denuded only of the distinctive observances and features which had been invented to give a character of its own to the peculiar religion of the children of Israel.
If we study the progress of primitive Christian missions, we shall find that they all take a Western direction, or, to put in another way, that they find both theatre and limit in the Roman Empire.
The Roman world became the Chrisitan world; and there is a sense in which we may say that the founders of the Empire were the founders of the Christian monarchy, or at least that they determined its outline and area. Every province conqured by teh Roman Empire weas a province conqured for Christianity. Think of the Apostles in face of an Asia Minor, a Greece, an Italy, divided into a hundred little republics; of a Gaul, a Spain, an Africa, in possession of old national institutions- an it is no longer possible to conceive of their success, or even to understand how their project could have had its birth. The unity of the Empire was the condition precedent of any great religiou proselytism which should set itself above nationalities. In the fourth century the Empire felt this fully: it became Christian: it saw that Christianity was the religion which it made without knowing it, the religion bounded by its frontiers, identified with itself, capable of infusing into it a second life. The Church, on its side, became completely Roman, and has remained up to our own day, as it were, a remnant of the Empire. Througout all the Middle Ages, the Church is no other than the old Rome, regaining its authority over the barbarians who have conqured it,- imposing upon them its decretals, s it formerly imposed its laws,- governing them by its cardinals, as it once governed them by its imperial legates and its procousuls.
In creating, then, its vast empire, Rome laid down the material conditions of the propagation of Christianity. Above all, it created the moral state which supplied to the new doctrine both atmosphere and medium.
It is true that teh Roman Empire, at various epochs, sternly persecuted Christianity, but nevertheless it did not arrest its progress. But the republics would have made it impossible: even Judaism, but for the pressure of Roman authority, would have been strong enough to stifle it. It was the Roman magistrates who prevented the Pharisees from killing Christianity.
I understand and share the indignation of sincere liberals against a system of government which subjected the world to a frightful despotism. ..What the world wanted, after the frightful butcheries of antiquity, was gentleness, humanity. Of heroism, it had had enough: those masculine goddesses, for ever brandishing a spear from the height of an Acropolis, no longer awoke any sentiment. The earth, as in the days of Cadmus, had devoured its noblest sons... . The gentle voice of Virgil well expressed the general cry of humanity- Peace! Pity!
The establishement of of Christianity answered to this cry of all tender and weary spirits. ... The oldest capitals of Christianity- Antioch, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Corinth, Rome- were, if I may use the phrase, common cities, cities after the fashion of modern Alexandria, where all races flowed together, and where the marriage between man the soil, which makes the nation, was entirely dissolved.
Christianity was that breaking forth of social and religious ideas which became inevitable as soon as Augustus had put an end to political struggles. Like Islam, a universal religion, Christianity must be, in its essence, the enemy of nationalities.
And this was one of the causes of the greatness of the new religion. ... We are men and sons of God, before we are Frenchmen or Germans. The kingdom of God- that eternal dream which will never be torn from the heart of man- is the protest against all that in patriotism is too exclusive. The organization of humanity, with a view to its moral imporovement and its highest happiness, is a legitimate idea. But the State understands, and can understand, only the organization of egotism. Nor is this a matter of indifference, for egotism is the most powerful of human motives and the easiest to set in motion. But it is not enough. The goverenments who have started with the hypothesis that man is wholly made up of sordid instincts, have been self-deceived. To him who belongs to a great race, self-devotion is as natural as egotism. And religion is the organization of self-devotion.