CHAPTER XIII. WHY CHRISTIANITY DID NOT ARREST THE RUIN OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
One of the most interesting inquiries which is suggested by history is, Why Christianity did not prevent the glory of the old civilization from being succeeded by shame? This is not only a grand inquiry, but it is mysterious. We are naturally surprised that literature, art, science, laws, and the perfect mechanism of government should have proved such feeble barriers against degeneracy, for these are among the highest triumphs of the human mind, and such as the world will not willingly let die. But a still more potent and majestic influence than any thing which proceeds from man still remained to the haughty masters of the ancient world. A new religion had been proclaimed with the establishment of the empire, which gradually broke down the old superstitions, conquered the hatred and prejudices of both Greeks and Romans, supplanted the old systems of Paganism, and went on from conquering to conquer, until it seated itself on the imperial throne, and proved itself to be the wisdom and the power of God.
But we see that as this wonderful religion gained ground, whether in changing the lives of individuals, or in allying itself with dominant institutions, the Roman Empire declined. When Christianity was first proclaimed, the Roman eagles surmounted the principal cities of antiquity, and the central despotism on the banks of the Tiber was the law of the world. When it was a feeble light on the mountains of Galilee, the glory of Rome was the object of universal panegyric, and the city of the seven hills rejoiced in a magnificence which promised to be eternal. But when Paganism yielded to Christianity, and when the latter had spread to every city and village in the empire, with its grand hierarchy of bishops and doctors, the proud empire was in ruins. It would even seem that its decline and fall kept pace with the triumphs of a religion it had spurned and persecuted.
[Society retrograded as Christianity spread.]
What is the explanation of this grand mystery? Why should society have declined as Christianity spread, if, as we believe, Christianity is the great conservative force of the world, and is destined to regenerate all government, science, and social life? If the stability of the empire rested on virtues, and was undermined by vices, virtue must have declined and vice increased. But how can we reconcile such a fact with the progress of a religion which is the mainspring of all virtue, and the destruction of all vice? We do know that Christianity did not prevent the empire from falling, but also we have the testimony of poets and historians to the exceeding wickedness of society when Christianity was fairly established.
[A mysterious fact.]
In presenting the strange phenomenon of a falling empire with an all- conquering religion, it is necessary to grapple with the gloomy problem. We have unbounded faith in the power of Christianity to save the world, and yet we see a mighty empire crumbling to pieces from vices which Christianity did not subdue. What a deduction might be drawn from this strange fact, that Christianity can, but did not, save. How mournful the future of modern Christian nations if the same fact should be repeated - if civilization should decline as Christianity achieves its triumphs! Is it possible that civilization, the triumph of human genius and will, may fade away as Christianity, which gives vitality to society, advances? Has civilization nothing to do with Christianity?
[Christianity not however a failure.]
But there can be nothing mournful in the developments of a divine religion - nothing discouraging in the conquests which seemed incomplete. Nor did it really, in any important task, prove a failure; but amid the ashes of the old world, as it disappeared, we see the new creation, and listen to melodious birth-songs. Indeed, the fall of the empire, when we profoundly survey it, instead of detracting from Christianity, only prepared the way for higher triumphs, and for a loftier development of civilization itself. Future ages have probably lost nothing by the ruin of Rome, while the world has gained by the establishment of Christianity, even by the seeds of truth planted by the early church.
Still, it cannot be questioned that, in the Roman empire, vices and corruptions spread with terrific and mournful rapidity even after Christianity was revealed - so rapidly, indeed, that Christianity opposed but a feeble barrier.
The history of Christianity among the Romans suggests these three inquiries: -
First, why it proved so feeble in arresting degeneracy; secondly, how far it conserved old institutions; and thirdly, how far it created a new and higher civilization.
[Christianity fails to check degeneracy.]
The first inquiry, on a superficial view, is discouraging. We see a sublime realism making quietly its converts by thousands, without seemingly checking ordinary vices. We are reminded of Socrates creating Platos, yet failing to reform Athens. We behold witnesses of the truth in every land, which gradually sinks deeper and deeper in infamy as the witnesses increase. And, when the land is about to be overrun by barbarians, when despair seizes the public mind, and desolation overspreads the earth, and good men hide in rocks, and dens, and caves, we see the church resplendent with wealth and glory, her bishops enthroned as dignitaries, princes doing homage to saints, and even the barbarians themselves bowing down in reverence and awe. How barren these ecclesiastical victories seem to a superficial or infidel eye! If Christianity is what its converts claim, why did it accomplish so little?
[Yet still a conquering religion.]