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Earthdate 2003-06-02

13.  Julian's failure  by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.

In spite of all the signs of a reaction against Christianity Julian failed; and for himself the tragedy of his failure lay in the apathy of his co-religionists.  In spite of his elaborate treatise against Christianity and his other writings; notwithstanding his public orations and his private persuasions, Julian did not succeed in making many converts.  We hear of no Christians of mark who embraced Hellenism, save the rhetorician Hecebolius and Pegasius, a bishop with a questionable past.  The Emperor boasted that his Hellenism made some progress in the army, but at his death the legions selected a Christian successor.

It is almost pathetic to read Julian's accounts of his continual disappointments.  He could not find in “all Cappadocia a single man who was a true Hellenist.”  They did not care to offer sacrifice, and those who did so, did not know how.  In Galatia, at Pessinus where stood a famous temple erected to the Great Mother, he had to bribe and threaten the inhabitants to do honour to the goddess.  At Beroea he harangued the municipal council on the duty of worshipping the gods.  “They all warmly praised my discourse,” he says somewhat sadly, “but none were convinced by it save the few who were convinced before hearing.”  So it was wherever he went.  Even pagan admirers like Ammianus Marcellinus were rather bored with the Emperor's Hellenism and thought the whole thing a devout imagination not worth the trouble he wasted on it.  The senatorial circle at Rome had no sympathy with Julian's Hellenic revival.  No one shewed any enthusiasm but the narrow circle of Neoplatonist sophists, and they had no influence with the people.

Yet Julian's attempt to stay the progress of Christianity and to drive back the tide which was submerging the Empire, was, with all its practical faults, by far the ablest yet conceived.  It provided a substitute and presented an alternative.  The substitute was pretentious and artificial, but it was probably the best that the times could furnish.  Hellenism, Julian called it; but where in that golden past of Hellas into which the Imperial dreamer peered, could be found a puritan strictness of conduct, a prolonged and sustained religious fervour, and a religion independent of the State?  The three strongest parts of his scheme had no connexion with Hellenism.  Religions may be used, but cannot be created by statesmen, unless they happen to have the prophetic fire and inspiration — and Julian was no prophet.  He may be credited with seizing and combining in one whole the strongest, anti-Christian forces of his generation — the passion of Oriental religion, the patriotic desire to retain the old religion under which Greece and Rome had grown great, and the glory of the ancient literature, the superstition which clung to magic and divinations, and a philosophy which, if it lacked independence of thought, at least represented that eclecticism which was the intellectual atmosphere which all men then breathed.  He brought them together to build an edifice which was to be the temple of his Empire.  But though the builder had many of the qualities which go to make a religious reformer — pure in heart and life, full of sincere piety, manly and with a strong sense of duty — the edifice he reared was quite artificial, lacked the living principle of growth, and could not last.  Athanasius gave its history in four words when he said “It will soon pass.”  The world had outgrown paganism. 

Whatever faults the Christianity of the time exhibited, whatever ills had come to it from Imperial patronage and conformity with the world, it still retained within it the original simplicity and profundity of its message.  Nothing in its environment could take that from it.  It proclaimed a living God, Who had made man and all things and for Whom man was made.  That God had manifested Himself in Jesus Christ and the centre of the manifestation was the Passion of our Lord — the Cross.  Whatever special meanings attach themselves to the intellectual apprehension of this manifestation, it contains two plain thoughts which can be grasped as easily by the simplest as by the most cultured intelligence, and was therefore universal as no previous religion had ever been.  It gave a new revelation of God — a personal Deity, whose chiefest manifestation was a sympathy with all who were beneath Him and a yearning to deliver them at all costs to Himself.  It gave, at the same time, a new revelation of man, made in the image of God and therefore capable of far-off imitation; his life no longer ruled by the precepts of a calculating utilitarianism nor curbed by a statutory morality, freed from the chains of all taboos and rituals, inspired by the one principle “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” and this thought made vivid by the vision of a pure active Divine Life which spent itself in the service of mankind.

Some of the Oriental religions, notably those of Mithras and Isis, were groping after this idea of “brother man”; the Imperial world was, in a vague way, advancing towards it; but the Cross of Christ shewed its highest and clearest manifestation.  Therefore Christianity teaching that every follower of Christ, in so far as he was really a disciple, should imitate the Master, could set the stamp of the Cross on every portion of human life and on every social institution.  It was the religion of the Cross, the religion whose watchword was “brother man.”  It was therefore universal and to it the future belonged.

If such things can be dated, the death of Julian marks the triumph of Christianity in the Roman world, eastern and western.  The exclamation, “Galilaean, Thou hast conquered,” is a fable which clothes a fact.  Yet it would be a grave mistake to say that paganism disappeared suddenly either from the East or from the West.



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