Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

Empire and Religion

Rodney recently blogged with an extended quote from Ted Grimsrud about government and religion. This made me think of Douglas John Hall’s work I edited this past year, Waiting for Gospel. On 149–50 he eloquently writes:

There is nothing particularly mysterious about the fact that religion—some religion or other—has been a prominent aspect of nearly every empire. From the first intentional imperium, that of Sargon of Akkad in Mesopotamia, to the greatest contemporary superpower (America), empire has manifested a vested interest in religion. Superficially considered, this may be attributed to the fact that the bulk of humanity is inherently religious, and political schemes always need as much popular support as they can get. We all know, for instance, how greatly the latest Republican administration of the USA relied on the vote of the so-called Christian Right.

But imperial interest in religion has a deeper explanation than the quantitative. Beneath the rhetoric and the bravado of empire, there is a profound if repressed undercurrent of doubt—as there is whenever human beings set themselves up as bearers of extraordinary power, authority, and permanence. Empires are “tragic” in the same way that the protagonists of Shakespeare’s plays are tragic: they court a state of transcendent significance that, subconsciously, they know they’re incapable of attaining. Empires are the fruit of human dreaming, but there is a hidden “weeping” in such dreaming because the fragility of what is dreamt of is darkly sensed by the dreamer. Human beings, individually and collectively, are capable of great things; but there is a limit to our greatness, and when our pride (hubris) tempts us beyond that limit we know, at some deep level of awareness, that we are courting the “fall” that pride “goeth before.”

The quest for religious undergirding and legitimation on the part of empire builders is born of that inner knowledge. They seek in religion the security that they know they cannot assume as mere human enterprises. The builders of that mythic city, Babel (Genesis 11), knew intuitively that the kind of ultimacy and certitude they craved for their state required a Guarantor more relable than themselves or the fortunes of history; thus the tower they erected, a specifically religious venture without much practical use, became the most important part of their project. They needed access to God, or what they imagined God to be: they needed to control the Controller.

When Emperor Constantine invited the Christians to become, as it were, chaplain to his imperium, he was not just doing a favor to his mother’s religion. The diverse and quarrelling old religions of the classical period ha failed, and so had the contrived new “state religion” of emperor worship. The empire of the Caesars was beginning to collapse. Constantine saw in the Christian religion some of the ingredients he needed to ward off Rome’s decline.

1 Comment

  1. This is a very good tip especially to those fresh to the blogosphere.
    Short but very precise info… Thanks for sharing this one.
    A must read article!

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