Playing Nicaea

Some professors are more creative than mine ever were. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even today “old school” means getting it done the arduous, nose-to-the-grindstone way. A friend of mine, however, is in Turkey where a class on social, political and religious relations has her involved in a role playing game (RPG in internet-speak) where the students take on the roles of the participants at the Council of Nicaea and argue the perspectives of those parties. What a great way to learn what minutiae set ablaze entire worlds! For those of you who don’t follow ecumenical councils, Nicaea was the big one. Depending on whom you trust, there were seven ecumenical councils that early Christians accepted, although others had gone their own direction before the first council (Nicaea) even began. Historians are now aware that Christianity was never a unified religion, just a varying number of winners and losers vying for who had the right to call themselves the true followers of Christ.

Constant Constantine keeps the halo.

Constant Constantine keeps the halo.

Nevertheless, the Council of Nicaea was one of the pivot-points on which all of history in the western world turns. Seem like a sweeping generalization? It is. But an honest one. Nicaea was the opportunity for the first Christian emperor, Constantine, to set in motion the swirling whirlpool of politics and religion that has never truly left the world ever since. Already before 325 C.E. there had been endless bickering about who Jesus really was, when Easter should be celebrated, which books belonged in the Bible (that most political of books), and who had authority over whom. The big question was really the relationship of Jesus to the Father, or, the first instance of “who’s your daddy?” Over questions like these, given history’s long view, thousands of people have died.

It’s not unusual to hear that the Council of Nicaea was the last time all Christians agreed on the major points. Many churches still recite the Nicaean Creed on a regular basis as a symbol of that unity. It is clear, however, already from the period of Paul’s letters (the earliest Christian literature) that differences of opinions had arisen among the first generation of disciples. Those we quaintly call Gnostics were among the earliest believers and they managed to survive, transmogrified, past all of the authoritative councils of the church. The very idea of ecclesiastical authority is one of power. Who has the might to make right? And it was a chance to be seen among the ecclesiastical elite. Nicaea left out, most famously, the Arians. And if the media is anything by which to judge contemporary Christianity, the majority of the Religious Right would fall into that camp as well. Recite with me now, “I believe in…”

5 thoughts on “Playing Nicaea

  1. That sounds like an awesome assignment! My personal favorite Council of Nicaea story is that Santa Claus punched a heretic. Apparently Saint Nicholas got so exasperated as Arius that he couldn’t control his temper.

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    • Thanks, Matthew–yes, I’ve heard that story too. The events at Nicaea were more than just world-forming, they were also entertaining!

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  2. Outstanding blog. As far as I’m concerned, the events at Nicaea should be basic history teaching in every Western Civilization class, and it should start in high school. It’s impossible to understand history or current events without understanding the history around politics and religion.

    Today, though, the “religious left,” if you will, refuses to acknowledge the power of religion in politics. It handicaps our educational perspectives right down to elementary school. For example, my friend from Mexico teaches Spanish at a local private elementary school. It’s a very posh school in a rich and extremely left-wing part of the nation. The school requested that she teach about Mexican culture and holidays, but she is forbidden to speak of the Catholic Church or its influence in Mexico or to put holidays in a religious perspective. These are the leaders in this community and state, and this is the superior, high dollar education that these folks would impose on the public schools. I’m sad to say they are rapidly succeeding.

    Once more education succumbs to politics.

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  3. The assignment of playing Nicaea sounds like a great assignment and one that could work well in the classroom. In addition to that it would be important to transmit to the students the long process that it took for Nicaea to gain ground and to tease out the differences in theological trajectories of the non-Nicene Christians we so comfortably label as “Arians.” The so-called Arians were never in full possession of a stable faction and one can easily identify different theological approaches among them, as well as the discomfort of being labeled “Arians.” Have you read Richard Vaggione’s “Eunomius of Cyzicus and the Nicene Revolution”? That text along with Lewis Ayres’ “Nicaea and its Legacy” offer great narratives regarding how was the Nicene triumph accomplished.

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    • Thanks for the suggestions, David! I’ve not read these, but will add them to my always-growing reading list. The Arians have never been my strong suit.

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