There is no question in my mind that the “Church’s” ascension was due to the support of Constantine. It is good to be emperor and it is good to have the emperor’s power supporting you. Constantine publicly showed his support for Christianity including lavish spending of various building projects. I think money unfortunately influences people’s actions and their focus. Constantine wanted the support of Christians to solidify and fight for his empire. On the one hand, one has to admit that prior to Constantine’s actions, Christianity was growing and had a committed following, otherwise Constantine would not have done what he did. Yet the ramifications of his actions were soon felt.
I think just as important for Christianity was Constantine’s edict of Toleration. Prior to this Christians could be killed for merely being a Christian. I do believe this led many to keep closer ties to Jewish nature of the religion. Jews may have been persecuted for political reasons. Yet due to the ancient nature of their religion they were not persecuted for being Jewish. I think to avoid persecution; Christians tried to have Romans view them as a Jewish Sect. Once the toleration of Christianity was accepted it allowed Christianity to more formally create their own unique theology and separate themselves from Judaism as a completely separate religion. It also allowed them to live their life and reflect more with the fear of becoming martyrs. I think this in and of itself opened the religion up to others as death was no longer a deterrent to entry.
Early Christianity flourished with diversity of ideas, worship, doctrines, and beliefs. Before Constantine summoned the Council of Nicaea in 325, even the question as to the divinity was a deep conflict among different Christian groups. In fact, even after the finalization of the Nicene Creed, there were bitter disputes on this issue amongst Christians. I do not believe Constantine really cared about the theological dispute as much as he wanted unity amongst the Christians. Yet Nicaea was a turning point in Christianity. Although there had been other councils before, this was the first council that was convened by an Emperor. It set the structure in place to bind religious and political wills together. Over the years, religious leaders and therefore their religions have fallen under the sway of political tyranny with devastating consequences for the world. For years Emperors and Popes used each other for their own ends. This in many ways corrupted the original message of Jesus. The Protestant Reformation was a search for this lost purity of early Christianity. Ironically, it allied itself with governments to obtain their freedom from the Catholic Church. This set in motion even more violence in the name of what is true religion. In any event the Reformation shows that even though there are political corruptions of Religion, independent thought in search of truth still finds a way to surface.
In the sense that every new member of group affects and changes the group, of course adding more members to Christianity will change the nature of the Christianity. This is the inherent nature of groups. If something is the truth, if an event is meaningful to you (as I am sure the events of Jesus life were meaningful to his followers) it is natural to want to share it. But others who did not have that exact same experience will never understand it in the same way as the original person experienced it. This brings up the age old debate as to whether one has to experience something for it to be real. Well, I don’t think so, but I think someone has to experience something for it to be as meaningful for that person as the original person. A person in Alaska could be experiencing snow. Yet if I always lived in Florida, I can intellectualize what snow is, but I cannot understand it in the same way as the person who physically experienced snow. That does not make snow non existent. So if we did not live and witness the experience of the life and the miracles of Jesus, doesn’t mean they didn’t occur and doesn’t mean they are not true. It just means we cannot understand it in the same way as his direct followers. Therefore we need to find different ways to understand the experience of Jesus. My point is that it is inevitable that the world changed Christianity and will continue to change Christianity as everyone experiences life (and Jesus) in different ways. Often we are indoctrinated into the religion of our birth and remain within it for social reasons as opposed to real belief. For religion to be understandable, and thus meaningful, it has to be something that one can imprint in their heart and soul. Most people look to religion to help them understand their existence. Can someone really understand their existence through rote acceptance of dictated rules. If so, I would argue that such an attitude leads to superficial and superstitious actions and thoughts that are not truly believed. In order for an individual to truly believe in their heart, I believe this can only be attained through experience, and in lieu of direct experience through introspection and understanding through reason.
One can never know how Christianity would have turned out had Constantine’s acceptance of it not occurred. It had already been trying to form an ecclesiastical structure prior to Constantine. Yet I think without the power of the emperor, it could have fractured into multiple sects. At the very least, it would not have had the far reaching political impact it had. Whether this is good or not would require a dissertation. I have heard some argue that the existence of Constantine was God’s plan to expand Christianity. I feel that he tried to eliminate religious liberty. He choose Christianity as the religion he believed could help him achieve his goals. He then started persecuting other religions. I think what we have found is that God’s will cannot be thwarted by human means. When we try to prevent religious liberty, it consequences are violent and in the long term it moves people away from Religion.
I think in the world today, we have more religious diversity than ever before in history (or maybe we are just more aware of our diversity). People may have to succumb to power structures at times, but intuitively, they understand that God is God and God cannot be captured in words or buildings or food or songs. God is in our hearts and souls. All those other items are just means to help us understand God. To help us understand how to live and how to create a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Since these other apparatus’ are created by humans they are subject to human error and again, I think people intuitively and experientially understand this. People evolve, religions evolve, the Church evolves, and maybe even God evolves. I envision Post Christianity as an evolution of the ecumenical trends we are already seeing in the religion today. This evolution of Post Christian ecumenicalism will include other religions as well. It will focus on relating the teachings and religious beliefs of Jesus with other world religions. With the advent of the electronic age we are entering a new Pentecost which will allow all people to again communicate with each other. As we can better understand each other, we can move in the direction of learning the underlying universal truths that can save the world.