Jupiter, chief Olympian god, is all about unity through control and conformity. When the emperor Diocletian (r. 285-305) divided governance of the Roman empire into halves and quarters, he broke its self-evident political unity. That made religious unity all the more important. With Christianity (or, in truth, Christian Olympianity) rapidly becoming the dominant religion of the empire, it became the religion responsible for providing this unity.
Once religious unity becomes the responsibility of the Church, “differences in interpretation now become inadmissible…Heresy is no longer an affair of narrow-minded theologians or hair-splitters. It concerns existence itself…” (Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, 47).
“That is why in the fourth and fifth centuries the dramas of the heresies are not played out in the churches or theological centers but are of popular and collective interest. Little people come to the support of the Donatists [and others]…They die for religious ideas… At issue for everyone was the possibility or impossibility of unity—not merely the unity of the church, but that of the empire as well” (47).
“This political obsession, based on religion, has reverberations throughout the Dark and Middle Ages in the form of an…ideology of universal empire (cf. the empire of Charlemagne or the Holy Roman Empire)” (47).
“The desire for unity led Christianity on strange paths. Two contradictory courses find their origin in this obsession: on the one side is Christian totalitarianism… Political, economic, and intellectual activities must become Christian. A system of total unity is demanded. In the same way, all the known world must become Christian” (47).
On the other side is syncretism. “If unity cannot be attained by the destruction of everything external, by the expansion of a pure Christianity” (48), then perhaps control and conformity can be established through a satisfactory blending of Christianity with everything of significance outside of it. “Scandinavian legends, German Christmas trees, the festival of light, and the meditations of Arab mystics all find an entry into Christianity…No truth or beauty or religion cannot be integrated…” (48).
In the 1200s, Christianity was blended with Aristotelianism; in the 1400s, with the Platonist Renaissance; in the 1700s, with the Enlightenment; in the 1800s, with Buddhism; in the 1900s, with socialism, Nazism, and American exceptionalism; and in the 2000s, with political activism, technological gadgetry, and current events.
“Now it is surely clear that in this obsession with unity Christianity is moving further and further away from its source…Syncretism is a triumph of the prince of lies. In it neither the one side nor the other is true or credible. The unity at all costs that will supposedly lead to God is the ultimate subversion of revelation” (48).
(Today we continued our reflections on The Subversion of Christianity by Jacques Ellul [trans. Geoffrey Bromiley; Eerdmans, 1986].)