Saturday 5 June 2021

St Athanasius was one of the six most important men in history


Had Arius defeated St Athanasius in their disputes and the Arian heresy been adopted by the Catholic Church, the world thereafter would have been very different. 

I thought, when I stumbled across the tomb of St Athanasius on Sunday in the beautiful church of San Zaccaria in Venice, that Athanasius is perhaps one of the six or so most important figures in world history. 

Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus and Mahomet would be the first three. 

Who would the others be?

Belloc thought that, had Arianism triumphed, Christianity might resemble Unitarianism or the worship of the stern unitarian God of Islam. 

Belloc, though I love him, was no scholar, but he might be right. 

Or the God of Judaism? 

Or a sort of deism or neo-platonism? 

Deism takes you to the god of the philosophers, who resembles the gods of Lucretius. They contemplated the world without emotion and without intervening in the lives of mortals. 

We don't know, but the world in which we live would have been very different. 

Thinking would have been different.

That has nothing to do with whether religion is true or, as Richard Dawkins says, a kind of computer virus. Religion determines everything, even if no-one believes in his religion any more. 

On the internet I found this written by Professor Anthony Esolen, whose CV makes me feel that I have utterly wasted my life. He has translated Dante, Tasso and Lucretius into English, written many scholarly books and one that sounds fun called The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization.

If Arius was correct, then Jesus was only a creature, albeit the highest. Then God can be said to love, but He cannot said to be Love. He is not in his own right a relationship of love among three Persons. He retreats into transcendence: he does not really enter the world to dwell among us. In that case he either becomes the inscrutable and irrational Allah of the Muslims, a universal sultan, or he vanishes into an abstraction, a Neoplatonic Being, impersonal and unapproachable. Christian worship either way loses its bridge between earth and heaven. Its commandments harden into the dictates of a despot, or decay into a moral philosophy, like Stoicism, benevolent enough, but in most men too weak to withstand the furies of the heart. It is the path Unitarianism took in nineteenth century America, from a dilute Christianity at the Harvard of John Quincy Adams, to a vague theism with an overlay of Christian moral teaching at the Harvard of his grandson Henry Adams, to the cultural nonentity it is now, a hobby for atheists or pantheists who like hymns and incense.
Europe and the world would have been much more different still, of course, had there triumphed the Gnostic/Albigensian religion.

It was a completely separate religion from Christianity or the other world religions and taught that all flesh was evil and only the spirit good.

Cardinal Manning told the young Belloc that all political questions are essentially theological questions and we all see this nowadays, faced as we are not only by Islamism but by the religion of Woke.


  1. Incredibly articulate the quotation. I cannot help noting though that a moral judgement imbues it. It seems to me that the author is happy with the outcome, the said outcome being positive while the alternatives would have been worse.

    In my opinion, being purely abstract constructs of thought, dealing with an unperceivable reality, they escape moral judgement. Arianism or Orthodoxy (in its etymological sense) cannot be good or wrong, they're just plays of erudite minds, "speculation on the elements". And yet, I do not deny their "condensation" in the "real" reality, their material consequences.

    Maybe, unbeknown to myself, I am a hidden Muslim. The thought of a God that dirties itself by dunking into creation, my muddling with people, is blasphemous. For me God dwells in transcendence, inscrutable in the sense of not being accountable. But we have faith that he is love and above understanding, beyond being captured in words or thoughts; the absolute. In my opinion God is photon-like: as the photon moves at the speed of light, it "lives" in an infinite instant, it is contemporaneous with the entire time-axis, therefore there's no precedence between events, they are all happening at the same time, God "sees" everything simultaneously. He cannot predict, in the same way that "he is what he is" he can say "it happens what happens". As the photon has no time, a zero-length interval lasting an eternity, it follows it is ubiquitous.

    Or maybe am I an Epicurian? Apparently Epicurians were most hated and therefore few of their writings survive. Of of the two major reasons (the other being the Epicurians' exhortation to ignore civic life) was that they said that the gods exist but they don't interfere with human life. They didn't say it explicitly but the natural conclusion is that we should not bother about them, that they're irrelevant for this life, that we should live as if they didn't exist.

    Last, I agree with everything in the quotation except the last five words. I think, on the contrary, that God is a hobby for atheists and pantheists who feel insulted by worship, ritual, hymns and incense. When one sees God as a metaphor for perfection, absolute, the source of abstract life, joy, light, love, vital force, it is impossible to accept burning incense, singing, bending, fasting, gesturing, going through the motions, it's simply ridiculous.

  2. I extended the post since you left this comment. Your ideas might resemble those of the poet Lucretius, whose great work "De Rerum Natura" Professor Esolen translated.

    Belloc said something similar to the quotation you so like.
    "Such rationalistic efforts against the creed produce a gradual social degradation following on the loss of that direct link between human nature and God which is provided by the Incarnation. Human dignity is lessened. The authority of Our Lord is weakened. He appears more and more as a man—perhaps a myth. The substance of Christian life is diluted. It wanes. What began as Unitarianism ends as Paganism.”

  3. I completely disagree with you about God not intervening in the world. Pascal had a mystical experience and wrote down what was happening in what is called his Memorandum. It is dated "1654, Monday, November 23, day of Saint Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology. Vigil of Saint Chrysogonus, martyr, and others. From about ten-thirty in the evening to about half an hour after midnight." Then comes a series of hastily written words which do not make sense because the Ineffable does not. But one sentence does. "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and savants… God of Jesus Christ."
    I think religion is mysticism. The Orthodox seem to too. St Thomas Acquinas near the end of his life had a mystical experience which he said was worth all his philosophy.