1902 Encyclopedia > Christianity > Preparation of the World for the Entrance of Christianity

(Part 7)

Preparation of the World for the Entrance of Christianity

Christianity began its career in the world at a time singularly propitious both politically, socially, and religiously for the advent of a new universal and spiritual religion.

Even apart from the entrance of Christianity the reign of Augustus over the whole Roman Empire was an epoch-making period. Never before had the various races of mankind been united under one universal empire which promised to be permanent. For the Roman power was different from the governments of Asiatic adventurers and Greek warriors. Where Rome planted her foot was fated to remain Roman. The ancient Asiatic empires had been for the most part the creation of victorious generals, and had been kept in life only by a tolerably rapid succession of dynasties; their power seemed to depend on the character of the individual ruler. And the empire of Alexander, while more enduring, was not coherent. But from the beginning of her conquests the spirit of Rome herself seemed always to be greater than the vigour and ability of her generals and rulers, and she alone of empires seemed to be indifferent to the precarious stability of government ensured by regular dynastic succession. The Romans conquered like savages, but ruled like philosophic statesmen, till, from the Euphrates to the Atlantic, from the shores of Britain and the borders of the German forests to the sands of the African desert, the whole Western world was consolidated into one great commonwealth, united by bonds of law and government, by facilities of communication and commerce, and by the general dissemination of the Greek and Latin languages. The world had a centre as it never had before, and the golden threads of well-established government connected all the world with Rome. Roads were made connecting Home with the remotest countries, and a system of posts established which provided for easy communication with the capital. Military colonies carried Roman usages and manners, civilization and privileges. to the remotest corners of the empire. Magnificent cities were built in such outlying dependencies as Britain, Gaul, and Germany. The arts and civilization were gradually extending their dominion and subjugating the most distant and most desolate places. To all this Augustus added a more perfectly devised centralization which made the empire a more compact whole, so that any new influence made its throbs felt from centre to extremities in a wonder-fully short time. The world was made ready for the furtherance of the spread of opinions as it had never been before, and for becoming spell-bound by invisible spiritual laws like those which Christian morality weaves around its disciples, The time of Augustus, if it was the beginning of the decline and fall of the Homan empire as a visible earthly dominion, was also the beginning of its permanent establishment on earth in a purely invisible way, when its policy, statesmanship, and legislation were to pass into all the nations of the earth and become part of their lives so long as the world endured.

Socially, too, the world was wonderfully ripe for the entrance and spread of a universal religion. Slavery it is true flourished, and there were conquerors and conquered, privileged and unprivileged classes. But the beginning had already been made of that lavish distribution of Roman citizenship which laid the foundation of a common political life throughout the empire.

The religious character of the times was also marvelously adapted for furthering the advance of Christianity. The old national creeds were fast disappearing, and were being submerged in the vast cosmopolitan religion of Rome. It was the wise custom of conquering Rome to do nothing to disturb the religions of the peoples subdued by her armies, and commonly the principal deities of the conquered nations were added to the overcrowded pantheon of Rome. This religious tolerance or indifference gradually began to eat the heart out of paganism, and all over the civilized world the pagan creeds sat lightly on their worshippers. The various deities were looked on as interchangeable manifesta-tions of a supreme fate-power who reigned alone in the invisible world, while in this visible earth the genius of Rome seemed to be the one object of worship. The old national religions with their well-defined outlines and limits were being gradually effaced, and men were longing for some religion which, while it had the universal character which the times required, should have more individuality and personal power in it than were supplied by the thoughts of a supreme spiritual fate, or by the mere materialist conception of the genius of Rome. And all this bred a thirst for information about sacred things which was unknown in earlier times. The claims of conflicting religions were philosophically discussed, and amid all the gross materialism of the period there were longings for some deeper, truer religion than any they had known. These longings were further stimulated by the gradual but almost universal advance of new religious ideas coming from the far East, which was then regarded as the cradle of science and philosophy. In the 5th century before our era the vast Buddhist movement had overspread all the East from Thibet [Tibet] to Ceylon, and the Greek and Roman conquests in Asia brought Europe within the intoxicating influence of its subtle religious ideas. This strange Eastern theosophy, which during the first four centuries of our era is known by the name of Gnosticism, had a most powerful influence on the old religions of the West, which seemed to dissolve under its touch. Everywhere in the art and literature of the period we find its prevalence in the West during the age of Augustus and his successors. It insensibly undermined the beauteous sensuous mythology of Greece and the harder sterner religion of Rome, and substituted for them a religion in which, if fear was the prevailing emotion, worshippers still felt that there was more spirituality and greater claims to universality than their old national religions could give. And thus the gradual defacement of old religious outlines, the stimulation of strange cravings to know the mysteries of nature and of worship, and the longing for rest in a universal religion of deliverance prepared the world for the coming and spread of the religion of Jesus Christ.

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