Being raised in the Catholic Church I attended years of CCD, where I learned about the Nicene Creed. However, the view of history I was presented with was this: Jesus passed the torch of his ministry onto Peter, the first Pope. The Pope is the direct conduit to God, therefore everything he tells us is the same as God telling us. Years after Jesus death, there were some differences of opinion on the specifics of the relationship of Jesus to God. It was like a sociable disagreement among friends. So the Council of Nicea came together where the Bishops prayed and received direct influence from God and wrote out the Nicene Creed and we know it’s true because God wouldn’t let his Church go on the wrong path.
If this were like the “good old days” where the Church had full control of what was printed and what was taught, I’d probably still believe this. Ironically, it was my desire to be a purer Catholic and my access to a more secular view of history that ultimately led to my Atheism.
So it was very interesting to me to read Julian by Gore Vidal, a work of historical fiction written primarily in the first person dealing with the life of the Roman emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus, who reigned 360-363 CE.
Julian, before becoming Emperor, is raised under house arrest because he and his family are perceived threats, most of who are eventually “removed”, to emperor Constantius II. Unlike his father, Constantine, who favored adherents to the Nicene Creed, Constantius II was actually for the opposing doctrine – returning from exile those who’d been banished by his father and banishing, or worse, those who followed the Creed. Julian, indoctrinated to the pro-Arian viewpoint, is schooled that Jesus was alike in substance but not the same as God. Julian lives in a world where subtitle differences of belief, to my eyes, are magnified into major political battles for power that shift faster than Sneetches running through a Star-On Star-Off Machine. That the Catholic Church of today is now of the Star-On variety has nothing to do the actual validity of the Star.
While Julian rejects the Galilean religion, he fully embraces the mystery religion Mithraism. During his reign he attempts to undo the damage that the Galileans have done to the Pagan temples, returning his Empire into one of full religious tolerance (with the exception of those uppity Galileans.) At first thought, I could fantasize “if only he had succeeded” in turning the tide of Christianity’s influence on the modern world. But considering how much of the Hellenistic world the Christian world had absorbed, had Mithraism or Hellenism won the day instead, it’s hard for me to distinguish how exactly the modern world might be improved. Would we have eventually stopped the practice of animal sacrifice? Would sex be any less taboo? Would women have fared more equally? I’m not knowledgeable enough to know. We could just as easily be at war because of a President who’d been advised by an oracle as one who talks to Jesus.
Julian is an interesting perspective on the shifting nature of religious belief. The religious super-powers of today come to dominate not because of the veracity of their doctrine or the guiding hand of a supernatural being, but because of the power struggles of the past and the forced conversions that followed.