The Theosophical Society in America

Christianity-Theosopy Conference: The Turning Point Within Christianity

Originally printed in the September - October 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Jackson, Brant. "Christianity-Theosopy Conference: The Turning Point Within Christianity." Quest  90.5 (SEPTEMBER - OCTOBER 2002): 175.

Christianity-Theosophy Conference

[This is the next to last report from the November 2000 invitational Christianity-Theosophy Conference.Brant Jackson is a member of the Board of Directors of the Theosophical Society in America, a lawyer in Atlanta, Georgia, and a student of early Christian history.]

By Brant Jackson

In 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine needed a new state religion to provide his newly united empire with religious unity and stability, as the older one had been thoroughly discredited during the struggles for imperial succession. Constantine selected one version of Christianity (called “Catholic,” meaning “universal”) out of the many different competing Christian sects, to revitalize and bring stability to the empire, and issued a proclamation (the “Edict of Milan”) that promised tolerance. For the Catholic bishops, who had been persecuted as recently as 311 AD, the emperor’s favor was a miracle from God. They now had political as well as religious power, but they soon found that there was a heavy price to pay for the privilege.

Consider the immense changes required to go from a church composed of small, homogenous congregations to a church required to meet the religious needs of the entire Roman empire, a collection of peoples and religions unprecedented in size and diversity. Furthermore, early Christianity did not have one single “orthodox” or official position prior to 325 AD, when Constantine called together a Council at Nicea to settle certain disputed points of faith. The chief of those was whether Christ was fully God or was more than human but less than divine.

Before the Council of Nicea, each Christian sect had been relatively homogenous and free to understand Jesus the Christ in various ways. Toleration of divergent factions was the rule within early Christianity, for no single group had the political and military power needed to suppress opposing interpretations. After 325 AD, however, this inescapable tolerance changed. Catholic bishops favored by the emperors were given the power to define a body of beliefs, tenets, and dogmas about Jesus, which would be accepted as “orthodox.”

In 381 AD, another council was held at Constantinople, at which orthodoxy was further defined, and the Catholic Church was given the mandate to suppress all non-Catholic faiths, especially Christian Gnostics. With the help of the Roman state, particularly its armies and police, to enforce its dictates, the officially established Church suppressed or destroyed opposing religions within the empire and engaged in heresy-hunting within its own ranks over a period of hundreds of years.

Perhaps the most profound change that followed 381 AD was in the definition of the essential Christian experience. The early religion of Jesus may be characterized as one within the ancient wisdom tradition--H. P. Blavatsky maintained that Jesus taught a variety of theosophy. In this tradition, a person could, by work and study, strive toward the goal of self-purification and self-transformation, in emulation of Jesus’ own example as an initiate.

Catholic Christianity, however, after its elevation as the state religion of the Roman empire, developed a new experience and ritual of Christianity acceptable to the Roman emperors and the many diverse peoples of their vast empire. To carry out its new mandate, faith in Jesus was substituted for self-transformation like Jesus. Christianity’s four-hundred-year wisdom tradition, the theosophy taught by Jesus, was abandoned for an outward ritual based on profession of belief in a new religion of dogmas and creeds about Jesus.

The adoption of Christianity as the state religion by Constantine, and what was required of the Catholic Church in return, marked, according to H. P. Blavatsky, the major turning point in the history of Christianity. She characterized it as the point at which the new state religion “throttled” the old religion of Jesus (Secret Doctrine 1:xliv). It marked the historical demise of esoteric Christianity, which Blavatsky equated with theosophy, and the subsequent rise of what she and others in the nineteenth century called “Churchianity.” It was at this point that the Christian Church lost the keys to its ancient wisdom tradition, keys that Blavatsky proposed modern Theosophy once again held out to the world after 1500 years.