Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Our Constantinian Moment

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Our Constantinian Moment

As the days darken and we find ourselves increasingly besieged by barbarism both within and without, we are likely to find the lifeboat of the church inundated with more refugees like Ayaan Hirsi Ali—cultural converts who realize that the worldly goods they valued cannot sustain themselves without the aid of Christianity. This may prove either a blessing or a curse; it all depends on how prepared our churches are to offer these converts the necessary catechesis. 

In 312 AD, by the banks of the Tiber River, a seasoned Roman campaigner stood weighing his options. The struggle in which he was engaged was, to his mind, not merely personal but civilizational. Roman order and all that it stood for was under threat from the rise of expansionist barbarian tribes, which were mobilizing a vast population against the West. At the same time, Rome was rotting from within as the viral spread of exotic mystery religions ate into the moral fiber of the next generation. For decades, Rome had endeavored to fend off these threats with military, economic, diplomatic and technological efforts to defeat, bribe, persuade, appease or surveil. And yet, with every round of conflict, it found itself losing ground.

The Emperor Diocletian had tried to reverse the decline with a revival of Roman patriotism and Roman values based on a revival of the polytheistic state cults. But polytheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life? The spiritual void in Roman life had merely been filled by a jumble of irrational quasi-religious dogma, and the result was a world where cults preyed on the dislocated masses, offering them spurious reasons for being and action. Rome could not withstand the Goths, Slavs, or Persians if it could not explain to their populations why it mattered that they fought.

Polytheism was bankrupt; that much seemed clear to Constantine. If he was to take control of the Empire and actually renew it, he must ground his project in something deeper and more enduring. Christianity alone seemed to have the staying power—the philosophical depth and moral fiber—to save a dying civilization. Accordingly, having seen a strange omen in the morning sky, he opted to interpret it as a message from the Christian God: “In this sign, conquer.” From then on, he called himself a Christian, a lapsed polytheist, steering the Empire he gained away from its decadent paganism toward a social and legal order based upon Christian teachings.

There are of course other interpretations for what happened that fateful morning at Milvian Bridge. One is more cynical: a self-aggrandizing warlord, looking for some kind of leverage over his foes, some justification for his rule beyond mere military might, invented a cock-and-bull story about seeing the sign of the cross in the heavens, thus attracting gullible Christians to his banner. Over the next quarter century, he continued to play on their credulity and ambition, pretending to advance the cause of Christianity while really using the church as a prop to support his own rule. The legacy of this was “Constantinianism,” the millenium-and-a-half devil’s bargain between Christianity and state power, in which the church sold its soul to gain the world. Another is more charitable: Constantine really and truly did have a “conversion experience,” and humbled himself in gratitude before Jesus Christ who had granted him victory and, he thought, a mandate from heaven to remake Rome in obedience to Christ. In the quarter century that followed, he endeavored, albeit with stumbling steps, to secure the church against its foes within and without, to wean his people away from their paganism, and to govern as befitted a servant of Christ.

In between these two interpretations lies perhaps the most probable one, the one with which we started, and which Peter Leithart defends at length in Defending Constantine. Constantine was not seeking merely his own glory or the glory of Christ; he was seeking the glory of Rome, and he saw Christianity as the civilizational glue that could rekindle the dying embers of Roman order. He genuinely recognized and esteemed much that was good in Christianity, but saw it chiefly as a means to an end, not an end in itself—at least at the outset. But he did, crucially, submit himself (as much as any proud Caesar could, at any rate!) to the teaching of the church, and in time came to fully embrace Christianity and seek to advance the kingdom of Christ. And not only did he seek—he succeeded: paganism was sent packing, churches were filled, gladiatorial games ceased, and the Christian Church was positioned for a millennium and a half of civilizational dominance that, while far from perfect, was good for the church and for the world. At what point in his personal development was Constantine “saved”? At what point did he have what we would call a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”? Such are the questions we modern evangelicals are itching to ask, and yet why should we need to know the answer to these questions? The secret things belong to the Lord our God.

It is a timely moment to reflect on the conversion of Constantine, because our civilization stands at a similar crossroads to that which confronted this Roman leader at Milvian Bridge. And many of our own seasoned leaders are making a similar gamble: Christianity alone can provide the glue to hold us together, the spiritual resources to revive our peoples. Indeed, the highly attentive reader might have noticed that most of the phrases in the first two paragraphs of this essay were direct quotations from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “Why I Am Now a Christian,” an essay that sent shockwaves throughout the ranks of Western intelligentsia a few weeks ago. Ali, after all, has been one of the most outspoken proponents of the “New Atheism” for the past two decades, campaigning alongside Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others for a world without religion.

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