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CLASSIC: The “modern” view of the religion dates back to 303 AD


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A theory of religion that many scholars consider “modern” was actually described 1,700 years ago, according to new research by Tony Alimi, Klarman Postdoctoral Fellow in Classics and Philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Shortly after AD 303, the scholar Lactantius argued in his “Divine Institutes” for the philosophical validity of Christianity. Al-Alimi identifies three features of the so-called modern religious views in this text, namely:

  • Religion is a universal practice found in all societies.
  • Religions can be right or wrong; And
  • Christianity is the true religion.

Alimi’s paper, “Lactantius’ Modern Concept of Religion,” published in Journal of Religious History.

“Sometimes religious scholars argue that these ideas, or their confluence, emerged in modernity, as European Christian colonizers encountered new peoples,” Al-Alimi said. “If I am right, we find it already in the fourth century, in Lactantius, that means we have to seriously rethink what is modern about modern conceptions of religion.

“This does not mean that there are no distinct modern concepts of religion,” he said. “But this means that religious scholars need to do more to define what makes modern concepts modern.”

Al-Alimi embarked on this research while writing his book “Servants of God”, which explains the reasons for justifying slavery to Augustine. The Christian philosopher of the fourth and fifth centuries borrowed from and built on Lactantius’ ideas on religion.

Born in North Africa in the middle of the third century, Lactantius studied philosophy with Arnobius, a North African Christian, in Numidia. Lactantius became a teacher of rhetoric, and eventually was promoted by Emperor Diocletian to a position in Nicomedia, the eastern capital of the Roman Empire.

“Lactantius has achieved an impressive level of professional success,” said El Alimi.

But then he converted to Christianity. Around the same time, the emperor began an official program against the Christians. Lactantius resigned his office in 303, before Diocletian had excommunicated all Christians in his work.

El Alimi said, “Lactantius’ defense of Christianity was immediately motivated by the persecution suffered by Christians and the philosophical arguments against Christianity that Lactantius confronted in Porphyry. His writing bears the urgency of one who fears persecution.” “Particularly in On the Mortality of the Persecuted, but also in The Divine Institutes, the text on which I focus in this article, Lactantius makes clear the existential stakes of his arguments.”

Al-Alimi says that these two texts refer specifically to Roman rhetoric and philosophy, particularly the book of Cicero (106-43 BC); In his arguments, Lactantius drew more on classical Roman history, rhetoric, philosophy, and poetry rather than Christian ideas or theology because he aimed to convince non-Christians of his views. As an educated Roman, Lactantius knew Cicero and other classical Roman authors well. Cicero, in particular, commanded respect for Christians and non-Christians alike.

Al-Alimi said that the writings of Lactantius create important connections between the past and the present.

“As a form of history,” he said, “intellectual history is concerned with changes.” “But you can only know what has changed if you know what has remained the same. My paper, therefore, discusses some important continuities between Lactantius and Modernism. In doing so, I hope you will remove some brushes in a way that makes it possible to see what has really changed.”

more information:
Tony Alimi, Lactantius’ “Modern” Concept of Religion*, Journal of Religious History (2023). DOI: 10.1111 / 1467-9809.12928

Provided by Cornell University

the quote: Classicist: The ‘modern’ view of religion dates back to 303 AD (2023, April 4) Retrieved April 4, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-04-classicist-modern-view-religion- dates. html

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