I've been reading Will Durant's Story of Civilization, the fourth volume, "The Age of Faith: A History of Medieval Civilization - Christian, Islamic, and Judaic - from Constantine to Dante: AD 325-1300." I realize how the speculations of a handful of men in the men writing in the first four centuries after Christ defined what it is to be Christian. Today, the vast majority of self-described Christians accept as divine Truth the philosophizing of men whose names they hardly even know. The founding Church Fathers had to weave rational explanations to reconcile the logical and natural impossibilities presented as events in Scripture. Of course, there was no one Scripture. Even in present times, there are many different "canons" of the Bible, but probably the most widespread is the Catholic one. Its contents were selected almost 400 years after Christ lived. Jerome was charged with revising the Vetus Latina Gospels but extended them to create the Vulgate, the Catholic Bible. Augustine came to use it only gradually as he wrestled with the inconsistencies and biological impossibilities that inevitably arise in an anthology of ancient allegorical texts. There were differing views of what virgin birth was and what it produced. The Arians and their theological heirs believe that Jesus had not always existed but was created at some point by God. Augustine and some predecessors believed that Christ was coeternal with God. The argument raged for hundreds of years, with many reversals at the top of Church leadership on points that exist only in the minds of men. As Durant puts it: " Probably more Christians were slaughtered by Christians in these two years (342-3) than by all the persecutions of Christians by pagans in the history of Rome." Yet, while the Universal Church won both the debates and the wars, Arianism exists today in such diverse sects as the Unitarians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the same time, Catholic dogma and the opinions of untold masses were formed. 

Arguments over terminology muddied the religious landscape even further. The First Council of Nicaea, in 325 CE, ordained that Christ was both divine, "(homoousios, consubstantial, of one being or essence, with the Father) " and human, " was incarnate and became man." The Monophysites believed there was only one "nature" in Christ, the divine. Others argued for two natures, variously giving more emphasis to the divine or the human. The issue was also often violently debated until the middle of the Sixth Century Current Epoch, but, generally, as little as a semantic difference of opinion with Dogma could get you excommunicated and even executed until as late as the Sixteenth Century.

Another subtlety confronted by Augustine involved the concepts of original sin and whether free will was possible. The orthodox Christian imagines God as all-powerful and all-knowing. If he is all-knowing, then he knows in advance all human actions. If our actions are already known, they are predetermined. There is no free will. If we cannot choose our actions, why should some be punished for eternity? Augustine does not deal with this issue directly. Instead, he rationalizes that evil exists because of human free will. Humans, he theorizes, are naturally predisposed to do evil but can choose to overcome it. Evil exists because of human choice, and God merely knows what choices they will make ahead of time. Here, we have the birth of the concept of Original Sin. Since Eve tempted Adam with the apple, one can imagine which sex gets to bear responsibility for introducing evil into the world. With Original Sin, we have the theological basis for subjugating women for two Millenia across the Christian and Muslim world. Original Sin turns a sexually active woman into the instrument of the Devil, while virginity elevates women to the sanctity of the Virgin Mary. The result is untold millions of lives of entire misery, ranging from the incineration of witches across Europe and the New England colonies to the current nightmare lives being lived by women in Afghanistan. 

Ironically, on a topic largely put to rest in Western Europe but hotly debated in countries such as the United States and Iran, Augustine understood the creation story in Genesis as allegory, not fact. 

However, the notions that most damaged human mental health revolve around the human soul. Biblical scholarship indicates that the concept of the immortal soul separate from the body did not exist in the writings of the Hebrew religion until the First Century BCE and CE. The original meaning of nephesh is a life force that God breathes into beings to make them living. It never has an independent existence. As Wikipedia describes it, in "Genesis 2:7, the text is not that Adam was given a nephesh but that Adam became a living nephesh." This interests me as I have never liked the Christian concept of the soul. It has always smacked me of a corrupt version of Plato's Theory of Forms. In this philosophical theory, there is a separate parallel universe of pure concepts for the things we have in the material world. The material world is transient and often imperfect—the universe of ideas or essences about the material world. Think of a dog, then think of the concepts of a dog and a dog's loyalty. The dog dies; the ideas of a dog or its loyalty are unchanging. These thoughts are closely related to Pythagoras' notions that only numbers and numerical relationships are real and timeless. I knew that Augustine had been a Neoplatonist before becoming a Christian. I suspected that Neoplatonism was heavily influencing his writings on the immortality of the soul. The truth of my hunch came to me in a short passage in Durant's book and in references in both Wikipedia and the Britannica: 

"Fourth-century paganism took many forms: Mithraism, Neoplatonism, Stoicism, Cynicism, and the local cults of municipal or rustic gods. Mithraism had lost ground, but Neoplatonism was still a power in religion and philosophy. Those doctrines to which Plotinus had given a shadowy form— of a triune spirit binding all reality, of a Logos or intermediary deity who had done the work of creation, of soul as divine and matter as flesh and evil, of spheres of existence along whose invisible stairs the soul had fallen from God to man and might ascend from man to God— these mystic ideas left their mark on the apostles Paul and John, had many imitators among the Christians, and molded many Christian heresies" (Durant, p. 10).

And in the Britannica:

"But the idea of the soul as a mental entity, with intellectual and moral qualities, interacting with a physical organism but capable of continuing after its dissolution, derives in Western thought from Plato and entered into Judaism during approximately the last century before the Common Era and thence into Christianity. In Jewish and Christian thinking it has existed in tension with the idea of the resurrection of the person conceived as an indissoluble psychophysical unity. Christian thought gradually settled into a pattern that required both of these apparently divergent ideas. At death the soul is separated from the body and exists in a conscious or unconscious disembodied state."

Platonism and Neoplatonism posit the separate independence of an object and an idea of it. The idea of the object is its Form, which is pure, perfect, and unchanging. The Form of an individual is their soul. When mixed with Original Sin, this results in a toxic view of the body as the source of impurity and sin. In the First Millenium and a Half, when Christians took their Christianity seriously,  anchorites subjected their bodies to immensely self-destructive lifestyles to ensure that they never tainted the purity of their souls with temptation. As a consequence, they were often treated as saints. Jerome counseled virgins with the words:

"Virginity can be lost even by a thought. . . . Let your companions be those who are pale of face and thin with fasting. . . . Let your fasts be of daily occurrence. Wash your bed and water your couch nightly with tears. . . . Let the seclusion of your own chamber ever" (Durant, p. 53).

Young Roman virgins undermined their health following his ascetic recommendations for their souls (Wikipedia, para. 16). 

Durant describes this mortification further:

"Because the monastic idea had come to Rome through Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, and Jerome’s powerful call to the anchoritic life, the West first took up the most arduous and lonely forms of monasticism, and tried to practice in less genial climates the rigors of monks living under the Egyptian sun. The monk Wulfilaich lived for years, with bare legs and feet, on a column at Trier; in winter the nails fell from his toes, and icicles hung from his beard. St. Senoch, near Tours, enclosed himself so narrowly within four walls that the lower half of his body could not move; in this situation he lived many years, an object of veneration to the populace." (Durant, p. 58)

 Bertrand Russell summarizes Christianity's damage to human self-image generally, particularly women in "Why I am not a Christian." 

"The worst feature of the Christian religion, however, is its attitude toward sex—an attitude so morbid and so unnatural that it can be understood only when taken in relation to the sickness of the civilized world at the time the Roman Empire was decaying. We sometimes hear talk to the effect that Christianity improved the status of women. This is one of the grossest perversions of history that it is possible to make. Women cannot enjoy a tolerable position in society where it is considered of the utmost importance that they should not infringe a very rigid moral code. Monks have always regarded Woman primarily as the temptress; they have thought of her mainly as the inspirer of impure lusts. The teaching of the church has been, and still is, that virginity is best, but that for those who find this impossible marriage is permissible. “It is better to marry than to burn,” as St. Paul brutally puts it. By making marriage indissoluble, and by stamping out all knowledge of the ars amandi, the church did what it could to secure that the only form of sex which it permitted should involve very little pleasure and a great deal of pain. The opposition to birth control has, in fact, the same motive: if a woman has a child a year until she dies worn out, it is not to be supposed that she will derive much pleasure from her married life; therefore birth control must be discouraged." (Russell, pa. 26).

These anti-body sentiments bleed into the twenty-first century with the growing Republican attack on contraception, inexorably mixed with the abortion issue. In the wellness community, some believe that exercise for aesthetics is somehow shallow and misguided. The Classical Greeks, who invented exercise, as well as most of what it is to be Western, understood that exercise was good for health, increased human attractiveness, and was a celebration to the Gods of the beauty of the human body. The word gymnasium derives from the classical Greek word to be naked, following the practice of exercising nude that appeared at many points and places during Greek ascendancy. The Olympics, one of many athletic games held in Greece, began around 776 BC. They ended in 393 AD, less than 50 years after Rome became Christian, when emperor Theodosius I decreed that all pagan cults and practices be eliminated.

I have wandered almost randomly through the genesis of the early thinking that defined Christianity. The interpretations and advice of Jerome, Augustine, and, later, Aquinas were often vigorously and violently debated before their acceptance as dogma. Most ironically, that belief held most dearly in so many Christian hearts, the belief in an immortal Soul, bled into Judaism from pagan Neoplatonism. Of course, most today have no insight into why they believe what they believe. They believe what their peers believe, what their families believe, what their culture believes, or, worst of all, they believe what feels good. 

Recently, I came across a meme that cutely captures this last attitude. Ominously it also reminds me of the first characteristic that Umberto Eco identifies as essentially fascist: “If you browse through the New Age sections in American bookshops, you will even find Saint Augustine, who, as far as I know, was not a Fascist. But putting together Saint Augustine and Stonehenge, now that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.”

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