Friday, December 11, 2009

DB Hart on Women and the Early Church

For David Bentley Hart, one reason for the spread of Christianity if the four centuries after Jesus was it's vision of humanity. It was the 'total humanism' offered by Christianity in the God who became human, in stark contrast to the dehumanizing practices of paganism, that was so attractive to inhabitants of 'the ancient world'. Hart argues that as society was transformed by Christianity in live with it's vision of humanity - both before and after Constantine - Christianity was increasingly attractive to woman (a point collaborated by the pagan emperor Julian).
"Frankly, no survey of the documentary evidence regarding early Christianity could leave one in any doubt that this was a religion to which women were powerfully drawn, and one that would not have spread nearly so far or so swiftly but for the great number of women in its fold.

This should not really surprise us. Whether women of great privilege would have gained much by association with the Galilaeans can no doubt be debated, but there can be little question regarding the benefits the new faith conferred upon ordinary women - women, that is, who were neither rich nor socially exalted - literally from birth to death. Christianity both forbade the ancient pagan practice of the exposure of unwanted infants - which is almost certainly to say, in the great majority of cases, girls - and insisted upon communal provision for the needs of widows - than whom no class of persons in ancient society was typically more disadvantaged or helpless. Not only did the the church demand that females be allowed, no less than males, to live; it provided the means for them to live out the full span of their lives with dignity and material security. Christian husbands, moreover, could not force their wives to submit to abortions or consent to infanticide; and while many pagan women may have been perfectly content to commit their newborn daughters to commit their newborn daughters to rubbish heaps or deserted roadsides, to become carrion for dogs and birds or (if fortunate) to become foundlings, we can assume a very great many women were not. Christian husbands were even commanded to remain faithful to their wives as they expected their wives to be to them; they were forbidden to treat their wives with cruelty; they could not abandon or divorce their wives; their wives were not chattels but their sisters in Christ. One might even argue that the virtues that Christianity chiefly valued - compassion, humility, gentleness, and so forth - were virtues in which women had generally better training; and that it was for this reason, perhaps, that among Christians female piety was often so powerful a model of the purity of their faith. Even in the latter half of the fourth century, Christian men as prominent as Basil of Caesarea and his brother Gregory of Nyssa could look to their brilliant and pious sister Marcina as a kind of ideal of the Christian life. That ancient Christians were not modern persons, and so could not yet conceive of a society in which men and women occupied the same professions or positions, is both obvious and utterly undeserving of reproach. The 'social technology' of perfect sexual equality - or, at any rate, equivalence - was as far beyond their resources as was the material technology of electric light. But Christians had been instructed by Paul that a man's body belonged to his wife no less than her body belonged to him, and that in Christ a difference in dignity between male and female did not exist. And while it would be silly to imagine that the women who converted to Christianity in the early centuries had first calculated the possible social benefits of such an act, it would be just as foolish to deny that Christian beliefs had real consequences for how women fared in the Christian community, or imagine that Christian women were entirely unconscious of the degree to which their faith affirmed their humanity." - D.B. Hart, Atheist Delusions, pp. 159-161 (bolding added).

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