Do Not Accept False Piety

Do Not Accept False Piety October 2, 2018

Lactantius, an educated convert to the Christian faith around 300 CE, made such a great name for himself that Constantine chose him to be the tutor of Crispus, his son. It under such auspices that he wrote his major work, The Divine Institutes, dedicating it in part to Constantine and his family. The work can be seen both as the accumulation of the Christian Latin apologetic tradition as well as the formation of a systematic theology which could be used to educate Christians and educated pagans alike.  Due to his background as an educator (in rhetoric), much classical learning was both employed and criticized by Lactantius, making his work a classical example of Christian humanism. Nonetheless, as he was beginning to formulate his own theological understanding without much theological guidance for his explanations, his theological declarations often come as a hindrance to the text; it is not that he was thinking with the wrong intent, but rather, he did not have the proper nuance to overcome basic theological ambiguities found in writers of his age that make many of his theological discussion insufficient.[1]

In his discussion on justice, Lactantius suggested two elements which are necessary, beyond the basic virtues, were piety and equanimity. God established the human race so that all should see each other as an extended family, as brothers and sisters treating each other with equal dignity and respect.  Avarice led people astray as they begun to accumulate extraordinary wealth for themselves at the expense of others, turning away from justice as equanimity was overturned:

The source of all these evils was cupidity, and this certainly burst forth from the contempt of true Majesty. For not only did they for whom there was some abundance not share with others, but they even took away the goods of others, drawing all things unto their own private gain, and the things which individuals were working on before the use of all were conferred upon the homes of  few. In order to subject the rest to slavery, firstly, they began to steal away and pile up the necessities of life and keep them tightly closed up, so that they might keep the celestial benefits their own, not on account of their kindly human nature which was not in them at all, but to rake up all things as instruments of their greed and avarice. They also passed laws for themselves and sanctioned, under the name of justice, those most unfair and unjust measures by which they protected their thefts and avarice against the strength of the multitude. Therefore, they availed as much by authority as by strength or resources or evil.[2]

With such a disregard for the equality of all, impiety quickly followed. God, who planned for humanity to work together in peace and harmony, is disregarded, even by those who claimed to be pious:

Someone will say at this point: “What, therefore, is piety, or where is it, or what sort of quality is it?” Surely, it rests with those who know not wars, who preserve harmony with all, who are friendly even to the unfriendly, who love all men as brothers, who know how to restrain wrath and quell all fury of mind with tranquil moderation. How much smoke, and the clouds of how much darkness and error have darkened how many hearts of men, who, when they think themselves especially pious, then, especially , do they become impious? The more religiously they do reverence to those earthly shrines, so much more crime-laden do they rise up against the name of true Divinity. [3]

Lactantius, writing in honor of Constantine, can be seen to be subversive in these points. Constantine inherited and accepted the bounty which was given to him by Rome.  Society was divided as Constantine and his peers accepted the distinctions of classes around them. Rome made war, not peace; even Constantine had not learned how to preserve harmony and be a man of peace. Lactantius could be read as to be challenging Constantine and his authority, but if he did so, it was not because he had an unusual belief but rather, he was explaining the Christian belief and what it suggested for society.  St. Clement of Alexandria, for example, said similar things in his work, Christ the Educator. Concerning wealth, Clement did not deny people the opportunity of possessing it, but if they did, they were expected to use it for the common good:

We should possess wealth in a becoming manner, sharing it generously, but not mechanically nor with affectation.[4]

Piety, seeking harmony with others, likewise was to be found not only in preventing war, but overturning conflict in general by no longer being quarrelsome:

Do not let quarrelsomeness with its love of empty victory creep into our midst, for our aim is the elimination of all discord.[5]

Humanity was a family established by God, and those who found themselves dividing up the wealth of the world for their own private benefit ended up creating chaos in the world, destroying the harmony which God intended for us. Piety can be staged; but true piety demonstrated itself as it followed after God’s desired end for humanity. Those who seek the common good, seeing everyone as brothers and sisters, will treat each other with respect instead of disdain. Those who try to divide the world for selfish gain have lost sight of this and so have lost sight of God. They will seek God for their personal gain; they will seek him and demand from him what they desire; when they do not get what they want, like some entitled youth, they will have no problem being quarrelsome with God, demanding he give to them their basest desires. Externally, they can go to church, say the right things, and appear pious, but their inner relationship with God, their rejection f God’s providence for humanity, makes them truly impious, clouded with the darkness of sin.

Toxic masculinity represents one of the ways this false piety manifests itself in the world. Such men who follow its ideals seek to dominate the earth. They want to show others how strong and tough they are.  They measure themselves not according to charity, not according to equanimity, but according to their strength and how much they can make the world bend to their will. They believe the world is theirs to exploit for their pleasure, and whoever gets in the way must suffer the consequences of their wrath. They measure their worth according to how much power they hold. Lactantius, talking about such people in his time, such people who held positions of power and authority, understood the evil represented by them. And so he said in rejection of their stand:

They are those who prostitute their bodies for pleasure; who, unmindful of why they have been born, contend with woman in submission to lust; who defile and profane the most sacred part of their bodies against all right; who measure their manliness with a sword; and who is more disgraceful that they may be high-priests of religion, they do not spare even their life, but sell their souls to be publicly extinguished. If they sit as judges, either they destroy the guiltless because they have been corrupted by bribe, or they let the guilty go unpunished. [6]

Those who, today, try to recreate a masculinity which worships power, indeed, military prowess, likewise measure their manliness by the sword instead of the honor and piety which God intends. They have fallen for the same fallen ideal which lead to the destruction of many Christians by Rome in the time of martyrs. They, likewise, threaten to imitate the persecutors of the Christians as they threaten brutal subjugation of those who do not respect and obey their supposed superiority. Of course, they want to be seen as superior to others in all ways, including piety. This is why they present themselves as pious, even though they have yet to learn equanimity and piety. They do not know God; how can they, when God represents himself as a loving parent over all? Their false vision of manliness decries charity, justice, and peace  for the sake of self-indulgence,  power, and continuous conflict, making them far from true piety.

St. Moses the Ethiopian said that prayers must be in harmony with deeds:

If a man’s deeds are not in harmony with his prayers, he labours in vain. The brother said, ‘What harmony is there between practice and prayer?’ The old man said, ‘We should no longer do those things against which we pray. For when a man gives up his own will, then God is reconciled with him and accepts his prayers.’ The brother asked, ‘In all the affliction which the monks give himself, what helps him?’ The old man said, ‘It is written, `God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble`’ (Ps. 46.1).[7]

Those who pray for charity for themselves, for God’s benevolent guidance and aid, must likewise be benevolent and charitable to others. We must forgive others if we want to be forgiven ourselves. This does not mean we let injustice remain. That would be impious. Rather, as we pray for God’s kingdom to be on earth as it is in heaven, we must work for justice on earth as it is in heaven, balancing out social imbalances, working to harmonize together the people of the earth so that they can truly see themselves as one family who work for and help each other.

Yes, this might seem like a utopian dream. But it is the vision of God for humanity, a vision the early Christians accepted and died for with the hope that God would make it happen. We must not give up hope. If we pray in sincerity for the Lord’s will be done, we will begin the process of this actualization in ourselves. We cannot accept false piety in ourselves. We must look for and promote the common good. It must begin with us.

[IMG=History of Rome from Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons]


[1] While many will read his text and view some of his opinions as close to heretical, we must remember he was writing before Nicea, and the Arian conflict. He followed the example of many other apologists who affirmed the divinity of Christ but yet had difficulty in explaining the relationship between the Father and the Son so that they remained equal to each other.

[2] Lactantius, The Divine Institutes. Trans. Sister Mary Francis McDonald, OP (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1964), 341.

[3] Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, 352-3.

[4] St. Clement of Alexandria, Christ the Educator. Trans. Simon P Wood, OP (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1954), 227.

[5] St. Clement of Alexandria, Christ the Educator, 144.

[6] Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, 350.

[7] Sts Moses the Black in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 141-2.

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