A scurrilous expose of religion in the form of a novel
‘Hi Rod, see you should know better than to plonk yourself next to me,’ I said as I turned myself round in my seat to welcome Rod. I’d just finished my soup and was taking a moment to unwind before heading back to my office. I liked to sit in the dining hall and watch the kids interacting. There was a nice feel to it. They had energy.
Rod set his vegetarian soup and roll down in the free space. ‘Somebody has to,’ he said with a wicked glint in his eye.
‘So tell me Rod are you still believing?’ I thought I’d start as I meant to go on. I knew Rod quite enjoyed the banter.
Rod grinned but did not rise to it.
‘Now you’re a Historian,’ I said mischievously. ‘I was wondering if you could see your way to explaining the importance of Emperor Constantine?’ I’d been reading a bit about the Emperor Constantine the Great and the establishment of the early Christian church. I was eager to hear what Rod had to say on the matter. He always seemed to know the inside story.
‘Aaah Flavius the Great!’ Rod declared, picked up his spoon. ‘A major force in unifying the Roman Empire and hence the whole of the civilised world.’
‘Civilised seems to be taking it a bit far,’ I protested. ‘It certainly looked to me as if some of their practices were a trifle barbaric. Civilised is a term I’d shrink from applying to modern times, let alone back then.’
‘Not compared with what was going on around them,’ Rod asserted.
‘So what’s his connection with Christianity?’ I asked innocently, already having a handle on it.
‘He became converted to Christianity and helped pull it together and raised its importance.’ Rod explained as if teaching his kids, taking a spoonful of soup.
‘Why was that?’ I asked. ‘Why did he choose Christianity?’
‘It was probably political,’ Rod conceded. ‘It was a pretty warlike time. There were lots of beliefs and religions. Rome was in danger of falling apart. He wanted to pull everyone together. Every Roman house had a range of different deities. In many ways it was easier to have one. Created a bit of social cohesion.’
‘I see. So he settled on Christianity?’ I raised my eyebrows. ‘Why that?’
‘I don’t think it was as straightforward as that. His mother may have been a convert. He most probably believed in it, though there were reports that he continued to worship pagan gods in private. But these were very dangerous times. There were lots of warring factions. Civilisation was in its infancy. It would have been difficult to fight them all off. He needed something to unify the population.’
‘So let me get this straight Rod – this is an example of the classic State and religion – the age-old alliance?’
‘I suppose, if you were cynical enough, you could say that,’ Rod agreed, breaking his bread roll up and dipping it in the soup. ‘If he managed to get everyone together, he united the whole empire.’
‘How did he sell it to everyone?’ I asked, looking bemused.
‘He adopted it as the State religion and set about popularising it, that’s all,’ Rod said with a shrug, spooning the soup.
‘So, without Constantine this minor little Jewish cult would have died away like all the other nutty Jewish sects,’ I suggested wickedly. ‘Yet Constantine plucked it out of the backwater and raised it up into a State religion that gave it prominence and importance? Why did he pick on that one?’
‘It was convenient,’ Rod grinned, dipping more bread. ‘He wanted something that was new, that wouldn’t outrage one group or another and cause division. Christianity was handy.’
‘But you know all this, how it all came about and still you believe it Rod?’ I asked, looking completely mystified. ‘How come?’
‘I don’t know,’ Rod grinned. ‘You have to believe in something.’
‘No Rod, no you don’t,’ I replied, shaking my head. ‘You don’t have to believe in anything.’
Later that evening we’d got on through the wine to the port accompanied by a few more jays and we were getting a little worse for wear. I had one eye on the clock knowing that I was going to have to get up early and function the next day. It was alright for the others they could lie in. They were looking forward to a day out with the gannets at Bempton; a nice stroll along the cliffs looking at the puffins and at the glorious Yorkshire scenery. I had classes to teach and a couple of important meetings – one with the unions that was looking tasty. I was about ready to call it a day.
‘You know Oph, things change. Those Picts you were talking about. They were never beaten were they? So maybe their gods did protect them?’ Kathy said provocatively.
‘You’re kidding, right?’ I responded. I knew she was just winding me up.
‘It was just an idea, little old Oph,’ she said teasingly.
‘The Picts were undefeated because the Romans couldn’t be bothered,’ I said, against my better judgement rising to the bait. ‘It’s as simple as that. They pushed them back into Scotland and Wales, remote areas that were of little value to the Roman Empire. They erected Hadrian’s Wall to keep them out. That was the limit of civilisation as far as they were concerned. The Picts could have the rest.’
‘So why did they stop the old ways?’ Tobes enquired. ‘Why haven’t we got Scottish woad wearers?’
‘I bet there’s a few,’ I chuckled. ‘The Romans were clever. They always used the same trick. It was easier to assimilate than to replace. They came with their Gods – Mars, Saturn, Sun, Jupiter and so on, and when they encountered a native god they incorporated them. Like at Bath. There were these hot springs that the Picts worshipped. They put in tokens and offering. That’s still why we throw coins in fountains. The Romans had a god of hot springs. They simply paired them up with the British equivalent. They made a combination of the two. It stopped all the conflict. Eventually the old ways died away and were replaced by the new set of superstitions.’
‘Ha, that’s clever,’ Kathy remarked. ‘See Oph, people do learn from history.’
I gave her a stern look. ‘Yeah, I guess so. That’s exactly what the first Christians did. They just adopted all the old pagan traditions. Solstice became Christmas. The fertility rites of Spring became Easter.’
The logs in the fireplace had burnt out and the evening was approaching its embers too, but there was still time for a little repartee before bed.
‘Is there nothing original?’ Tobes enquired.
‘No, not a lot,’ I remarked, but he already knew that. ‘Christianity borrowed its god, myths and sacraments from all over the place. Right down to the resurrection, trinity and son of god. Nothing was original. It all harps back to religions that went before and are now long forgotten and completely superseded.’
‘You have done your research,’ Kathy remarked with a fit of newfound admiration.
‘Never bloody stops,’ Liz commented.
‘Constantine was clever,’ I continued uncowed. ‘Without him and his intervention Christianity would have died away like all its companion cults. The Middle East was a hive of different cults, Messiahs and crackpots. Jesus was one of many. It was the equivalent of stand-up comedy for evangelical jews. You took the family along on Saturday to be entertained. It was the current fad and past-time – bait the phony prophets. It was Constantine who put the seal of approval to it and made it into something it wasn’t.’
‘How did he do that?’ Tobes asked.
‘He liked the unity created by combining everything under one god,’ I explained, reciting what Rod had been telling me that I had added to from my own research. ‘It helped at a time when the empire was breaking up into disharmony. He used it to hold things together and give it a new focus.’
‘He converted to Christianity and became an avid follower though, didn’t he?’ Tobes remarked.
‘Maybe, maybe not,’ I muttered. ‘There’s some debate among historians. Some think he used it opportunistically which still actually staying pagan himself. He was just a disingenuous master politician who used it to create unity when things were in danger of falling apart.’
‘It caught on like wild-fire because the masses loved the idea that they were all equal under god’s gaze and could everyone get into Heaven, even slaves. That was a new and very popular concept. They loved the idea that they were as important as the aristocracy.’
‘I can see that would have mass appeal,’ Kathy said with a little chuckle.
‘We still keep the old gods even today though,’ I went on with my own chuckle. ‘Apart from chucking coins in fountains, touching wood and kissing dice, we have the days of the week – Moon’s day, Sun’s day, Tua’s day, Woden’s day, Thor’s day, Fria’s day and Saturn’s day. The Roman Gods are still around even if they are unnoticed and impotent. They don’t have any power over us anymore but they’re still here.’ I chuckled, downed the last of the port and made as if to get up. ‘You see, we should learn from that. Things people believed in them. They worshipped them. They sacrificed things to them, to the point they were willing to risk their lives or die for them. Where are they now? They are discarded relics, merely the names of the days of the week. Their temples are ruined tourist traps. Everything they stood for has been toppled like Ozymandias – look at my power and quake! All gone and forgotten, to be replaced by the latest trend in deities with this millennium’s new sleek, better version, upgraded to make your worship better. Supersize your religious brand with this year’s three for one special offer!’ I rose from the floor, stretched and put my glass on the table.
They all chuckled.
‘You see all religion is just hard-wired brains and psychology. In this modern world we need to apply rational thought and grow up, don’t we?’ I yawned. ‘That’s it folks. I’m bushed. I’ll never get up if I don’t hit the sack.’
I waved a hand and left them to it.