By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Two Ways for a Religion to Expand Rapidly

Age of the CaliphsImage via Wikipedia
In talking with people (something which, by the way, I greatly enjoy), I am sometimes amazed how many (even very educated, otherwise thoughtful people) fail to grapple with basic and undeniable historical facts that enable one to draw practical distinctions between one thing or another. For example, I see a habit of secular people often lumping together Christianity and Islam as more or less fungible and interchangeable expressions of a benighted religiosity for which they have no time.

Yet, there are major, fundamental differences that even a basic knowledge of history brings to our attention. There are at least two ways for a religion to expand with rapid and astonishing speed. The two ways are not created equal. The first way is to lead armies of conquest that transform societies so that those who want full rights and advancement eventually need to convert to a particular religion. That is the undisputed way for the rapid and astonishing early expansion of Islam in many nations that were originally and for centuries Christian, such as Egypt and Syria. (Egypt's population is still about 10% Christian.)

Raphael, St Paul Preaching in AthensImage via Wikipedia
A second way for a religion to expand with astonishing speed is the Christian way of the first three centuries after the death of Jesus. From 30 or 33 A.D. when Jesus was executed under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to 313 A.D., Christianity was outlawed in the Roman Empire and persecuted intermittently, at times more ferociously than at other times. At all times, Christianity was the outsider that appealed first to the outcasts, such as slaves, and to women, who were also not at the top of the power structure in Roman lands. Christianity for about 300 years spread primarily by good, old-fashioned persuasion, persuasion marked by miraculous events, by powerful preaching, and later by persuasive, more philosophical defenses of the Christian alternative to paganism. Christianity did not spread by the sword for three centuries after the death of Christ.

Yes, the rapid expansion of both Islam and Christianity is very astonishing as historical fact. Yet, what is more astonishing is that the Christian version of rapid expansion over three centuries did not occur at the point of a sword, as the aftermath of military conquest. That fact is a major difference that deserves more notice from those who indiscriminately and unthinkingly lump very different religions together. The undeniable historical facts require major distinctions. Even secularists should be literate in religious history in order to make sense of events today.