The council of Nicaea (325), convened by Constantine, is one of the most important events in the definition of orthodox Christian Christology. That much is clear. What's more complicated are the connections between the emperor and the bishops who assembled.
I welcome the release of the film because I struggle to come to terms with my final assessment of the relationship between Constantine and the church. What haunts me is a simple question: do well meaning political figures do more harm or more good when they blur the lines between divine and human authority? I tend to think the answer is almost always: yes, they do more harm. Nonetheless, I expect that, when I finally watch the film, my emotions may push me toward sympathy for the Constantinian arrangement and the resulting definition of historic Christianity championed by Athanasius.
One of the hardest things for those of us who value the interconnection of all areas of life--sacred and profane--is the precarious relationship between politics and religion. On the one hand we might grant that we cannot perfectly separate our public, secular life from our private, theological values. On the other hand, we might be deeply committed to the distinction between church and state, between what Augustine called two cities, and what Luther called two kingdoms. We can cheer for all that intellectually, but I suspect many long for a more romantic, nostalgic, integrated world of Christendom.
For this reason, I'm intrigued by thinkers who long for a healthy kind of Christendom, like the Radical Orthodox theologians who reject the "myth of the secular" and the contrived detachment of civilization from reference to God and the great chain of being. I agree with them that there is no truly purely neutral vantage point in the public, "secular" square.
Nonetheless, history suggests that Christians have been the best at being disciples when they were marginalized, and rather embarrassing when they've crawled into bed with power. But even as I write this, I recognize that things aren't that simple. Leaders like Cyrus the Great show up in history to produce good civic results for believers of various stripes. Likewise, European emperors, electors, princes, and magistrates show up throughout the centuries as heroes and defenders of the Christian faith with arguably more positive than negative results. I'm glad that Charlemagne sponsored a renaissance that helped maintain Western learning. I'm glad that Elector Frederick the Wise (1463 – 5 May 1525) prevented Martin Luther from getting barbecued. It seems that the state can be a friend of conscientious believers at times.
So what about Constantine? Without him, we might not have the clear definition of orthodox Christianity that is available in the Nicene Creed (more about this in a moment). If nothing else, he was successful in helping to unify the Christian church. But what did the church look like after that? For one thing, they started to have leaders who dressed like Roman officials. It's hierarchies and processes took on patterns of life and structure familiar to the older Roman bureaucracy. In several cases, the church became a tool of the state.
Now Constantine succeeded Diocletian, one of the most brutal persecutors of Christians. Thus, it must have come as an immense relief to followers of Jesus when Constantine gradually converted to Christianity and famously made Christianity a legal religion (Edict of Milan, 313). Score one for the Christians, right? Not so fast. It also seems that he wanted to use this budding religion to unify the empire, and his rule. The unifying image was the sun. In 321, Constantine indicated that Christians and pagans could join together in a common holy day, sun-day. The images of Jesus and Apollo were hard to distinguish in this move. And they seem to have been conflated--at least occasionally--in the mind of Constantine himself.
Of course we all like the sun; and I'm not the sort of fellow to join in the old puritan fear of pagan imagery carried into Christmas trees and Easter bunnies. But there's one pagan motif that should make us nervous: a ruler as a human representative of the sun. Why? Because whenever one sees this move made by a powerful man, one typically sees a man trying to be a god, or at least a man greedy for universal power.
Many of us learned in school that the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten (d. 1335 B.C.) and his beautiful wife Nefertiti, was the first great non-Hebrew monotheist (or perhaps more technically henotheist) in world history. His major symbol was the sun, with rays that symbolically reached all of creation--just like this ruler. Thus, his connection to the sun showed all people, whether from the north or south of Egypt, whether Egyptian or foreign, that he was the most powerful man of all. His rule could reach as far as the sun's rays on a given day.
Constantine's early life was concerned with divisions in the old empire too. His connection to the sun, like Akhenaten's, indicated that this caesar had a universal reach. Some find it inappropriate that his soldiers incorporated Christian imagery as they waged war. Others look deeper and notice an uneasy amalgamation, in Constantinian symbols, of the solar disk and the name of Christ.
Louis XIV of France was called the "Sun King," connecting himself once again with Apollo and the extensive reach of the sun. This is the same Louis who said "L'etat c'est moi" (I am the state). This is the same Louis who affirmed the divine right of kings.
Finally, Darth Hitler may also have liked to play with sun symbols. Forgive me for bringing up this over-applied figure in history to illustrate my point. Note, however, the similarities: Hitler's image, the Swastika, has roots in Hindu and Jain tradition, but also turns up in old European designs. One theory is that it is an ancient symbol for the sun and its ongoing cycles. I favor that hypothesis. If true, then Hitler is the most recent example of a ruler that merged high priesthood, power consolidation, and the solar disk. Nothing new under the sun, right?
So what do we make of all this? The lesson is that the church seems to have needed protections that were provided by state powers, and subsequently needed protection from the illegitimate influence of those same state powers. The church is at its best when it is a community of outsiders brought together in Christ; but the church has seemingly survived by joining forces with the state. I apologize for not being able to resolve this tension just yet. Nonetheless, I welcome the opportunity for enlivened discussion this film may bring to my circle of colleagues and students.
According to friends of Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto, Faithful Masks Founding Director, the film is set to start filming in 2014 at Cinecitta studios in Rome, the site of the filming of Ben-Hur (1959) and The Passion (2004). Producer Charles Parlato recently said the following about the film:
“The purpose of the movie has always been to restate the case for Christianity seventeen centuries after it was argued before the Emperor of the Roman world---Why do we Christian believers believe as we do? Does it make intellectual sense that God walked on the face of the earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth? So, the movie is about a question that Jesus posed to his Apostles---‘But who do you say that I am?’"
Likewise, Associate Producer Vincent Garbitelli recently commented as follows:
“… ‘Who do you say I am?’--- The question Jesus asks of all of us on the planet. And that question puts us on a journey to Nicaea and beyond and places us in a battle, … Constantine battles mostly in the temporal world, aware of something more; Athanasius battles in the spiritual world, … a humble yet wisely inspired man; …Nicaea--- the place---the council--- the search for that answer that lies in Constantine, in Athanasius,… in the entire audience--- that makes the film unique, powerful, relevant, and utterly moving...”
Whatever the end result of the upcoming film, I'm glad to see folks in Hollywood, and the international film community, continuing to risk the expected negative criticism religious films can generate. Better this than another retread placed on a 1970s television show or another Jackass sequel. I encourage readers to do some background reading, then keep this film on their radar screen as it's release approaches.