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Calligraphic rendering of text from the Didache

The Two Ways

Rowan Williams

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To whom do we give our loyalty? The early Christians teach us that the choice changes everything.

Most of the writings that survive from the first three centuries of Christianity are what one twentieth-century scholar of religion called “death-cell philosophy”; that is, they represent the kind of thinking that is done under extreme pressure, when what you say or think has a genuine life-or-death importance. Gregory Dix, an Anglican monk writing eighty or so years ago about the worship of the early church, imagined what it would be like to attend the Lord’s Supper in second-century Rome by recreating the experience in terms of twentieth-century London. He takes the descriptions of worship from texts like the so-called “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” the Didache, probably the most ancient account of worship outside the New Testament, and the Apostolic Tradition from the third century, and translates them into the landscape of modern England. A grocer from the unfashionable suburbs slips through the back door of a wealthy brother’s house in Kensington at the crack of dawn to share in the breaking of bread in the drawing room – a brief, quiet event, overshadowed by the knowledge that if they would be discovered they would face at least penal servitude for life, and very likely worse. Any Christian in this period knew that, even if things were relatively peaceful, it was always possible that a suspicious government would crack down. Dix describes how the “deacons,” the ministers who looked after the doors, were charged with scrutinizing everyone who came in very carefully; you’d need to know who your companions were if your life depended on them.

The suspicions were well founded in one sense. If you look at the eyewitness accounts of martyrdom in these early centuries – ­documents like the wonderful record of the martyrs of Scilli in North Africa in AD 180 – you can see what the real issue was. These Christians, most of them probably domestic slaves, had to explain to the magistrate that they were quite happy to pray for the imperial state, and even to pay taxes, but that they could not grant the state their absolute allegiance. They had another loyalty – which did not mean that they wished to overthrow the administration, but that they would not comply with the state’s demands in certain respects. They would not worship the emperor, and, as we know from some other texts, refused to serve in the Roman army. They asked from the state what had been very reluctantly conceded to the Jews as an ethnic group – exemption from the religious requirements of the empire. What made their demand new and shocking was that it was not made on the basis of ethnic identity, but on the bare fact of conviction and conscience. For the first time in human history, individuals claimed the liberty to define the limits of their political loyalty, and to test that loyalty by spiritual and ethical standards.

To speak of Jesus as “Lord of Lords” was to say that his decisions could not be overridden by anyone.That is why the early Christian movement was so threatening – and so simply baffling – to the Roman authorities. It was not revolutionary in the sense that it was trying to change the government. Its challenge was more serious: it was the claim to hold any and every government to account, to test its integrity, and to give and withhold compliance accordingly. But it would be wrong to think of this, as we are tempted to do in our era, in terms of individual conscience. It was about the right of a community to set its own standards and to form its members in the light of what had been given to them by an authority higher than the empire. The early Christians believed that if Jesus of Nazareth was “Lord,” no one else could be lord over him, and therefore no one could overrule his authority. We use the word “Lord” these days mostly in a rather unthinking religious context, as a sort of devotional flourish; for a Roman, it meant the person who made the decisions you had to abide by, from the master of a slave in the household to the emperor himself. To speak of Jesus as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” was to say that his decisions could not be overridden by anyone. You might have to disobey a “lord” in our society in order to obey the one true Master of all – the one who used no violence in enforcing his decisions but was all the more unanswerable an authority because of that. He alone needed no reinforcement, no temporal power, to overcome external threats or rivals.

Calligraphic rendering of text from the Didache
The Two Ways by Randall M. Hasson. View larger.

 

Early Christianity was on the one hand a deeply political community, posing a very specific challenge to the state by saying that the state was a provisional reality – deserving of respect and routine compliance in the ordinary affairs of social life, but having no ultimate claim. On the other hand, it was a movement fascinated by the intellectual implications of what this meant. Because if Jesus is “Lord,” and if God needs no force to defend his authority against rivals, then Jesus’ “policy” is God’s, and Jesus shares without qualification the wisdom and self-sufficiency of God. As early as the beginning of the second century we find the martyred bishop Ignatius from Antioch calling Jesus “God”; Jesus needed no defense against rivals, and so was free to take on himself the burden of human suffering without being crushed or destroyed by it. And because of his own freedom in the face of appalling suffering, he could make it possible for his disciples to face their own suffering with the same resolution and steadiness. What Ignatius called “the passion of my God” was a gift to believers confronting those terrible risks that Gregory Dix brought alive so vividly in his study of early worshipers life.

Like God, we must love those who don’t seem to have anything in common with us.The theology of the early centuries thus comes very directly out of this one great central conviction about political authority: if Jesus is Lord, no one else ultimately is, and so those who belong with Jesus, who share his life through the common life of the worshipers community, have a solidarity and a loyalty that goes beyond the chance identity of national or political life. The first claim on their loyalty is to live out the life of Jesus, which is also the life of God – a life that needs no defense and so has no place for violence and coercion. God, says Clement of Alexandria in the late second century, shows his love supremely in the fact that he loves people who have no “natural” claim on him. Humans love largely because of fellow-feeling, but God’s love is such that it never depends on having something in common. The creator has in one sense nothing in common with his creation – how could he? But he is completely free to exercise his essential being, which is love, wherever he wills. And this teaches us that we too must learn to love beyond the boundaries of common interest and natural sympathy and, like God, love those who don’t seem to have anything in common with us.

This is one of the paradoxes of early Christian thought. It’s really deeply rooted in intense, mutual, disciplined community life, but at the same time insists on universal compassion and universal sympathy. The theo­logy of the early church was not an eccentric diversion from the real business of mutual love and generous service. The doctrines of God’s eternity and unchangeable consistency, the doctrine of Jesus’ full participation in the divine life, ultimately the doctrine that Christians came to call the divine Trinity, and much more, derive directly from saying that Jesus is truly the supreme authority and that he exhibits exactly the same liberty to love indiscriminately as does God himself. Jesus is the earthly face of an eternal love between Father, Son, and Spirit. And when the early theologians write, as they often do, about how Christians are given a share in the divine life or the divine nature – language that can sound a bit shocking to modern ­believers – what they mean is simply that being in the body of Christ, in the community of baptized believers, gives us the freedom to love God the Father as Jesus loves him, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, and so too to love the world with the unquestioning generosity of God, never restricting ourselves to loving those who are familiar to us and are like us.

Calligraphic rendering of text from the Didache

 

Writers on the life of prayer in this period – above all, the great Origen of Alexandria, who taught and wrote in the first half of the third century – associated Christian identity with freedom, the freedom to call God “Father” and Jesus “Lord,” as Origen puts it; which is also, for him, a freedom from what he calls (confusingly to our ears) “passion.” This doesn’t mean that Christians should have no emotions; but that they should be free from reactive, unthinking feelings that dictate their response to people and things. Our response to the world around us must be rooted in a renewal of our minds, seeing through superficial differences to recognize God’s presence and purpose in all persons and things.

And for all these great figures, there were blindingly obvious practical implications – to treat each other with forgiveness and respect, to address poverty and suffering, and to step back from the institutions of the state, especially the army. None of this was fully encoded in rules, but the church expected people to be able to draw the obvious conclusions from the simple starting point of living under a new authority. We know that there were Christian soldiers in those centuries, but we know too that the community in general never settled happily with the idea that Christians should bear arms. Origen is one of the many who could not be reconciled to that idea. And even when things were beginning to change drastically in the fourth century, with a Christian emperor who sounded increasingly like his non-Christian predecessors, there were figures like Martin of Tours in France who discovered, when they converted, that they couldn’t carry on as soldiers. Even the formidable Augustine of Hippo at the beginning of the fifth century – famous as the man who first outlined the conditions for a “just war” – is crystal clear that, while he thinks Christians may take part in defensive war to protect the weak, we should never try to defend the gospel by war. It’s a pity that this side of Augustine’s thought was largely overlooked by people eager to make him an ally of just those imperial military myths that he was so regularly scathing about.

We have to admit that, by the fifth century, the church was looking different. Having become legal at the beginning of the fourth century, it steadily became more and more involved with the power of the state and was seen as giving legitimacy to the emperor. Those who argued for this were neither wicked nor hypnotized by power and influence (though no doubt some had their temptations). They thought that divine providence had at last put an end to their cruel sufferings and provided them with an ally in the Christian emperor. Augustine is one of those who disagreed strongly with this, but not many took up his approach. For most, it was easier to believe that God had brought human history nearer its fulfillment by converting the power of the state. And it was when all this was going on that some serious Christians started moving away from cities and towns to become monks in the deserts of Egypt and Syria – so that they could reconstruct the life of the first believers in Jerusalem, sharing their property and living in simplicity. For many centuries, indeed, the life of the monks was described as the “apostolic” life. And originally it was a life for laypeople, not clergy; those who became monks were as eager to escape from the hierarchy of the church as from the hierarchy of the state. In the sermons and stories that were developed in this setting, we find the same themes that appear in earlier writing: the common life of Christians must display the characteristics of the life of the Lord, in unquestioning compassion and mercy, in generosity and simplicity, and in refusing to defend oneself or compare oneself with others.

In this period, the great central theme of Christian existence was how to live in such a way that it was clear where one’s loyalty lay – because this was the best way of witnessing to a God whose eternal life was utterly free from competition and conflict. The experience of a new way of living in community prompted theological questioning; the theological clarifications reinforced and deepened the sense of the priorities and imperatives for the community. One of the lasting legacies of the early church, then, is the recognition that doctrine, prayer, and ethics don’t exist in tidy separate compartments: each one shapes the others. And in the church in any age, we should not be surprised if we become hazy about our doctrine at a time when we are less clear about our priorities as a community, or if we become less passionate about service, forgiveness, and peace when we have stopped thinking clearly about the true and eternal character of God.

We need communities of believers trying to live out Christ’s radical imperatives. We don’t have to be uncritical of the Christians in that early period. But what they offer us is a clear message about how Christian identity is always a claim to a “citizenship” that is deeper and more universal than any human society can provide. Christians are always going to be living at an angle to the mainstream – not claiming a glib moral superiority, yet insisting that they “march to a different drum” since they recognize final and unsurpassable authority in the living and dying of Jesus of Nazareth. He, they insisted, is the only one who has the right and the liberty to tell us what is real and true in the universe. This does not mean that the church is locked in a violent contest with state or society, that it is struggling for supremacy. If Christ is who we believe him to be, there is never any need for struggle; nothing will make him less real or true. Insofar as there is a struggle, it is against our own willingness to let other authorities overrule Christ. In the early church, that was a life-and-death matter – and it still is for Christians in some parts of the world today.

For most of us the consequences are less dramatic, but the challenge is still there. Our faith is still a “death-cell philosophy,” certainly in a world that confuses “life” with victory, prosperity, or security at the expense of others. We know better what life really is – what must be let go of in order for it to flourish, what astonishing gifts are opened up for those who find the courage to step beyond what is conventionally and religiously taken for granted.  And if the struggle is hard – as it is, even if we are not threatened with martyrdom – there is all the more need for communities of believers trying to live out the radical imperatives: communities of monastic discipline in the old way, new communities focused on peace and the disciplines of nonviolence. We can’t do any of this as isolated individuals with an interior piety. We need the concrete reality of Christ’s corporate Body, nourished by his Supper.

Calligraphic rendering of text from the Didache
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Contributed By Rowan Williams Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. A theologian and poet, he is master of Magdalen College in Cambridge and chancellor of the University of South Wales.

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Calligraphic rendering of text from the Didache

Note from the artist Randall M. Hasson

The Didache’s opening lines speak starkly of two opposites: “the way of life” and “the way of death.” This work of calligraphy illustrates the text’s symbolic contrast between light and dark, life and death, the kingdom of man versus the kingdom of heaven.

The “way of death” column uses a style of writing linked with the “kingdom of this world”: imperial Rome. In the first and second centuries, the Roman Square Capital style of letters was recognizable as the “hand of empire” throughout the Mediterranean world. It was used for public inscriptions such as Trajan’s Column in Rome as well as for literary texts associated with empire such as Virgil’s poems.

The “way of life” column uses the style now known as Uncial, which has its origin in the early church. After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, he and the church fathers wanted to develop a style of writing that would set apart the holy writings from secular texts. For this, they adopted a more rounded hand based on the early Greek scripts. The “way of life” column is written in this hand.

In the artwork, the death column is wide and becomes increasingly chaotic as it disappears into darkness; the life column is narrow and stays straight and orderly, with clearer word spacing. Moving from left to right, the artwork begins with a unified tone that yields to an ever sharper contrast, signifying how human beings, starting at a common origin, go in different directions: the paths of life and death diverge, and there becomes “a great difference between the two.”