Robin Jensen - 'Christianity in Roman Africa"
2:20PM Jun 25, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today it is our delight to be speaking with Professor Robin M. Jensen. Dr. Jensen is the Patrick O'Brian professor of theology at Notre Dame University. trained in both the history of art and the history of Christian doctrine and liturgy, Dr. Jensen's teaching and research explores the intersections among Christian theology, liturgical practice and material and visual culture. She is particularly attentive to the interpretation of Christian art and architecture, in light of its ritual functions and religious significance. She's the author of many books and articles, including the book that we'll be discussing today, Christianity in Roman Africa: The Development of Its Practices and Beliefs, and because of this books, a unique stature I'm going to turn it this direction for our viewers as well. This is an enormous work. Well, I have the book open. I'm also going to show you On the inside of the book, we have dozens of pages over 150 gorgeous color photographs. The book is co authored with her husband Jay Patrick burns and examines the lived practice of ancient Christianity is reflected in both material and documentary evidence. She's very busy scholar, numerous other books could be mentioned. But two other projects that she's currently working on include the cross history, art and the and controversy publication for Harvard University Press, and also the Rutledge companion to early Christian art and the Cambridge history of late antique archeology. Dr. Jensen, we're thrilled to have you this morning.
Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here.
Dr. Jensen, as we begin, if you would just speak about the genesis of this project. It's an enormous book, 670 pages, hundreds of color and black and white pictures and diagrams. This is the fruit of a gargantuan project. How did this book come? About
It's a long story it actually came about around 20 years ago, began to be sort of conceived. I was actually at a meeting at the North American Patristics society and had met. Edie burns, who was not my husband at that time, I'm giving a keynote address on gustan. And his ideas that he was using some of the work of Mary Douglas ritual studies, to see whether he could account for some of the development, some of doctrinal developments in North Africa on the basis of what might say sort of social context, human problems, circumstances that would have arisen would have arisen in the community. And it was really taken with this idea. It was a different way of approaching this as opposed to sort of doctrines kind of falling out of the sky, you know, and having no particular Genesis outside of the brain. Maybe coming spring. And so I asked him at the time if he'd ever been to North Africa because I actually had just been given giving a keynote address on having traveled and looking at Baptist trees and, and mostly in Tunisia. And we sort of started talking about what it would be like to gather a group of scholars to do some collaborative work. Archeologists, art historians, text historians, we ended the time we really put together a small team, we got an NIH grant for this, and we went a group of us to North Africa and it was wonderful sort of having a chance to sort of see things together and from their different perspectives that we had and the different kinds of training we had to kind of begin to on you know, unpack the not just the, the nature of Christianity in North Africa, but how should people live that religion and live their faith and and so we were actually able to kind of reconstruct rituals and spaces that in which they would have been performed. We were able to walk around in a customs Basilica and Hippo later and really reconstruct the movements that might have taken place in a worship service, Eucharistic liturgy, where the altar would have been placed, how many people could stand there, how you would make that work, what that would mean. And I think in my years of, sort of looking at the intersections of ritual, with space and image, there's so many ways in which the the sort of non textual elements shape ways we know things and the ways we think about what we're doing when we're when we're in worship. You know, and receiving the sacraments. So, where we stand, what we hold what we do, what we see what's around us. This is also part of our, the our theological experience, and religious Oh, and enable to really put that together and conversations with these others was was Really good collaborative exercise. Over the years we have meeting, we our group expanded and contracted and presenting papers, you know, different conferences.
And ultimately, it was sort of, you know, everybody's sort of that it's up to you to,
you're gonna write up this book, but I had to say, quite fairly, and it's really important to say this, that this was the product of a lot of people's ideas.
So absolutely marvelous. And thank you for sharing that the work that you put together is pioneering. It's an patristic scholar, I read lots of texts dealing with ancient Christianity, but very few of them are conscious or deal with any sophistication with the material culture. So this is just a marvelous pioneering work that you've put together.
Let me ask some questions.
Some of the questions that come to us from from the traditional studies and left on answered and perhaps this new research methodology can engage in it In a way that textual studies can't. Let's talk about ancient Baptist trees for a moment. You've published other books on ancient Baptist trees as well. Does this type of research help us understand how widespread the practice of baptism by immersion versus sprinkling was, for example?
I do think again, and I'll change your question just slightly to talk about the difference, baptism by immersion and submersion. And so I don't, I don't know how common sprinkling would have been, except maybe in places where there really wasn't much access to water. If somebody was on sacred, for example, and dying, you know, we do have instances of that. And so possibly sprinkling would have been practiced in those instances, but when we actually have a baptismal font, and we do have a lot of wonderful, you know, wonderful, beautiful spaces. I think people were at least very thoroughly wet. Now, that doesn't mean they got their heads underwater. I have to give a little footnote here and, and a word of praise to every Ferguson's great book on baptism. He has written what is probably the most comprehensive work on early Christian baptism that is out there. And it would be fair to say that Everett Ferguson and I don't quite agree. It may be just on the differences between complete submersion head under the water versus what I would call immersion, which would mean that when we get a lot of water scooped over your head, perhaps I think this is for me.
It has little has less to do with my own ecclesial tradition, which prospectuses
Then looking at the size and depth of digital fonts and the shape of baptismal funds, many of them were probably really too small to accommodate real submersion, and we have we have some good reason to think But even I would envision this is that somebody would probably get down in their knees meal in the font and, you know, be thoroughly covered with water maybe with a group of deacons helping to scoop water over the head. And that actually conforms pretty well to the artistic evidence that depictions of baptism in the early church. So you kind of get to two pieces of things going together. What I do say to my students, is that you will see primarily an emphasis on Adult baptism, and I think pretty thorough washing.
Now that's very helpful because, for example, I think confused as I look at images of the baptistry at Dora, Europa's four or something like that, where it's a Baptists, it looks to me like a baptismal tank of swords, but it's not deep enough for somebody to get down under the water. And so I haven't been able to envision exactly what's taking place. But when you point my imagination to various Christian art pieces, Thank you for that, suddenly, you're helping me make a connection there.
A lot of people know that that district jury office and I think that's a unique one, actually, we have very few that are shaped like that. Most of us that we would have even from Italy or from the west in particular, but even from the east are going to be cruciform shaped. octagonal Lee designed, or sometimes will be called quandra lobe. So like for like petals of the flower, sometimes four, sometimes six, and they have steps down in. And once you get at the bottom, there really isn't room for more than about one person to sort of kneel on either end here. And if you think about this, and if you think about somebody being actually nude, people would really want to lie back in those spots anyway, they probably would kind of curl up into sort of fetal position and it would be very birthing imagery would be very much of birthing. Hmm. So I think that really works better. And I think that conforms to what we see in the art and what we see in the architectural spaces.
It's absolutely fascinating. Dr. Jensen, what have you learned about the practice of the Eucharist many of our contemporary discussions of Eucharistic theology, since the Reformation centered around the mode of Christ's presence in the bread and the wine from from your study of the ancient spaces of Christian worship, what were the questions being asked of the Eucharist at this time?
This is a really good case in which we tried to put together texts and space.
And I would say that in the texts, someone might disagree with me, but I think within the text, we don't see so much debate over the nature of Christ presence, at least not in the West, not unethical. Everybody agree that Christ was present, but nobody tried to figure out exactly how that was, you know, we didn't talk about transubstantiation, so much those sorts in some of the later discussion. So everybody sort of agreed that Christ is present, I think what you see in Africa and this might be very good Africa. But I won't say that for sure is that Christ is present in the ecclesial community. So one of the things that I've been really busy with is thinking about a lot is that altars are in this often very close into the center of the space, the church name, they're not high in a platform and at the back.
So the congregation would understand I have to visualize the congregation gathered around the altar.
I don't know which way the celebrate faced, I'm willing to guess the celebrant might have faced the same direction as the congregation as a kind of leader of the people and not as the behind the table as a presenter as itself in persona, Christi. So I what I'm sort of envisioning is that the presider or the celebrant of the sacrament, the bishop usually likely face the same direction as the rest of the people in a sense as a kind of representative of the body and not as somebody who would present himself as the figure of Christ behind the table that I have some evidence for based on where steps are and, and the orientation of some of the iconography and spaces. So, taking this together, I think that for something like a Gustin and his church and Hippo, you Chris was a symbol of the ecclesial community, the body of Christ as a community, not as only as elements, physical elements on the table. So there's the physical presence in the elements, but there's also the physical presence of Christ in the community. And if you gather around that table, you really do instantiate that idea. Now that conforms to the gospel, some text and some wisdom sermons in which he talks about what the Eucharist is, and so that's a good way of putting it together. I think you can see how it worked out in space, and it really does nicely.
Hmm. That's beautiful. Thank you for that reflection. Dr. Jensen in Chapter nine of your texts you discuss marriage, virginity and widowhood. And a Gustin of Hippo is often criticized for his apparently very negative attitude towards sexuality as some of the other church fathers as well. When we look at them in their historical context, particularly a gust in North Africa, do we do we become any more sympathetic to his views on sexuality? How do we understand that as moderns?
I think he was actually one of the first time when the more liberal thinkers on so I will defend him, but I think it's hard for us in our contemporary ideas about this to really understand, you know, how much it helps how sexual relationships must have looked like to somebody in antiquity. And I think from his own experience, this the idea we have of kind of mutual pleasure and consensual ality just isn't quite operative for the ancient world in the same way, which isn't to say they weren't plenty of perfectly happily married people, but I think he He understands that there's something about the sexual drive that is out of control and therefore disordered and sometimes dominating mean sometimes wanting self gratification over the other, even control over the other. And I think he sees that as a sign of disordered human nature. In the same way that I think you'd see something like greed or anger, rage, where you lose control, where you don't have that you, you start to sort of think only of yourself, and and meeting your own needs first, and which, you know, I'm not trying to say that's what sex is. I think that's how he select and sort of see it that way you can understand. I mean, I've had to remind my students, you know, we have a lot of problems with sex in this world. We have jumped into graffiti. I mean, there are ways in which we have to acknowledge that this is a complicated, right, not always for good. And so I think, I think as a manifestation Time, that is how he saw it. He He's one of those wonderful instances where we know he knows it from his own experience, and has really reflected on his own experience of this as opposed to judging others. And in many of his sermons, to his congregation on how these things, you know, most of the time, it's asking them to forgive one another, you know, and, and for him, I think the the operative rescue of all of this is fidelity. If you can remain faithful to another person, you can really work on this together, maybe, and be mutually supportive, you know. So, I think that's the custom the bishop is really a different person than a custom, the Theologian. I think that's kind of wonderful to see how different he is when he's actually speaking to people as he's writing treatises.
So that's very helpful. I've been seeking ways to humanize the guests. On this point, and that will be genuinely helpful. Thank you for those comments. Good. Chapter 11 is entitled honoring the victorious heroes, the cult of the saints. Help us understand this the cult of the saints, the veneration of the relics of deceased martyrs and saints. Where does this practice come from? And what does it look like in Roman Africa? And can you help us getting any closer to understanding? Does this practice come from Roman culture from pagan sources? Is this something that was
that was growing properly out of Christianity? Where do we understand the genesis of this practice was really interesting? I've just
been thinking a lot about this the last two weeks, because I was at a conference in Denmark last week on pilgrimage.
And I suddenly realized and I don't think I've ever put this technical clearly in my head. I don't think this has anything to do with Greco Roman. Uniquely Christian certainly People who were you know, we call them pagans, and they had heroes and they were sometimes deified, but they're sort of alchemy mythological mists of time, like Hercules or something. Emperor is could be day five, and nobody really thought. I think that really cause you know, I mean, so, and they weren't, they weren't venerated. So this idea of venerating saints, I think is, it could be if it has some words that has roots in Judaism, some, you know, patriarchs and prophets. But again, I think the idea of venerating the bodies and the burial places and not only the burial places, what's odd is the saints is a specially Christian and almost uniquely Christian and she take revelation six, you know, the saints are under the altar and crying out. And, you know, you take that text, which is a good biblical text to support the idea of the role and place of saints. And you also take together the book, Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. Then you have Something that I think you start to see the connections here that the saints, the body and the spirit or the soul of the saint is severed, they still link and that. And so things begin to happen to where people really come to the various places or things like they visited the burial places of their ancestors. But now even more these are the places they come. And they come to pray. They pray to the Saints for intercession on their behalf. They don't pray the saints are supposed to carry the message to God right? It's just like having a go between it's not so much that it is it's very clear on this you know, if the what if the miracles have worked is because God chooses to work the miracle at the intersection of the saint right not because the saint does it. But I think people kind of get a little bit closer to thinking about the power of these individuals and the relics of the and the remains of their bodies in a way that it bring the Best Spinner can on it. It has a little bit to do with a belief The physical body is still something that is very connected to our souls and
spirits. Hmm. It's extremely interesting. Do you have any insight on the timeframe for the genesis of this practice? When did Christians begin doing this?
I think almost right away. I mean, if we think about Polycarp, you know, in some of the early martyrs, I mean, people are already you know, the authorities are worried about, you know, people gathering up their remains and, and we have it with, we have with the stories of Propecia and Felicity, we have somebody's blood, you know, the catches the ring with the blood on it, and we see that cyprian people are dipping handkerchiefs into the blood after he's murdered in North Africa around 251. No, but so you have that very early, I think. And it's fascinating to me, I have to think more about how this emerges. And why I don't think it comes up. Have a pre existing tradition so much. It it's a it's a great puzzle to me in the same way that I think Christian pilgrimage is very different, you know, they're going to visit tombs and burial places and to have a Eucharist and not going to a temple of a god to sacrifice an animal. It's a really different practice. So I'm working on this stuff. I'm learning things about it as I go. But that's you caught me right in the middle of thinking about this recently. So
the your your expression has a very vivid sort of freshness to it. Thank you so much for that insight very much. Appreciate that. Dr. Jensen, if I can close with this question. So a question that I've been asking all of our viewers on this program. But I think it has a special pertinence to your research here, given that cyprian North African theologian was the first to write a systematic treatise on the unity of the church. Here's my question. What would it mean for the church to be united today? How would we recommend Is this unity and what can Christians today do to pursue real unity among the church? Thank you.
Um, as a Roman Catholic woman and teaching many years in Protestant schools,
I often encountered the question about why Catholics don't admit Protestants to Eucharist. I think maybe there's there's another the answer to your question in this story. And so, I try to, you know, I think, I think from outside sometimes Catholics look like there may be get accused of not being hospitable. You know, Jesus would have invited everybody to the table I get told, or that we think we're better and therefore they're not good enough to come with us that we don't think the same thing which is closer to the reality but I think the bottom line is not any of those things. The bottom line is that
I put it this way you can't sleep with me till you've married me.
It has to do With a unity and I think it still does have to do with Unity. And so how do we so that the Eucharist is the sacrament of unity? It's a sign of our unity. Now, it's tragic that we all are in different places, and we don't. We're and I'm, I'm fully on board with the idea of ecumenical bilateral discussions, but we have to sort of decide what the sacraments mean, and what they do. I mean, we have to find some consensus on that. And I don't know how soon we can do that. But I think that's the that is the goal that we have to have. We all may have to sort of act as a for ancient African bishops and be in councils, you know, like, we do this and hash these things out. Because that because fundamentally, this is the sign of our unity. And it's also unfortunately, and tragically a sign of our disunity. But, no, we will have to work through that and I think we can I think we can make a commitment to doing it.
Well, maybe not at my time. But I hope
it's been our pleasure today to be speaking with Dr. Robin M. Jensen, the Patrick O'Brien professor of theology at Notre Dame University and author of the marvelous texts that we've been discussing today, Christianity and Roman Africa. The development of its practices and beliefs available from Bergman's press in 2014. Dr. Jensen, thank you so much for joining us this morning. Thank you
for having me. It's been a real pleasure.