Although the ascetic impulse had been present in the Christian movement from the beginning, having been articulated for example by the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 7:1-7), it is no coincidence that it should have risen to prominence, in the life of monks such as Anthony, precisely at the time when the church was making its peace with the Roman empire and with the world. Part of the price the church paid for that peace was the necessity of coming to terms with those who could not, or at any rate did not, take its message with utmost seriousness, but who were willing to go along with being Christians much as they had been willing to go along with being pagans, just as long as it did not cost them too much.This gives me a new thought on the phenomenon of secularization. In Christian historiography, we have tended to speak of the secularizing phenomenon as something of a great disaster: the collapse of a Christian civilization, and at some levels that is clearly what has happened. From Luther to that other German, Benedict XVI, you have had Christians (Luther at the beginning of modernity, Benedict at the end) speak of an adjustment to a smaller Church of the more vigorously faithful. My new historiographical thought, which I'm not sure I've seen before, is to therefore explicitly tie secularization into the de-Constantinianization of the Church. (I do see that Pelikan then rightly describes this shift in the Church at the time of Constantine as a secularization of the Church in its own time, so that's some tying of the two concepts together, if not of modernity's secularization.) We have typically spoken of secularization as a bad thing (obviously true on some levels, particularly that of the individual), and of leaving the Constantinian period of the Church as a good thing. What if secularization (along with its cousin, the rise of at least an aesthetic neo-paganism) is just that effect of the shaking off of the Constantinian drift of those who will follow the dominant cultural motif, be it in this case for or against Christianity?
This historiographical point might also have some explanatory power for the drift seen during the secularization period from the "heroic" atheism visible at times in earlier modernity, with its potent and serious philosophical question-asking to the current state of the "New Atheists," as well as the anemic and comparatively un-serious nature of what is today invoked as paganism, with its utter disinterest in attempting to present itself as a serious and explanatory worldview, unlike the historical paganisms of antiquity. This thesis could also have some explanatory power for the rapid decline in religious vocations as the two-tiered approach to Christian spirituality effectively created by the monastic revolution at the time of Constantine and his heirs has also come to an end with the de-Constantinianization of the Church, and the decline of a need for a "stronger" version of Christian discipleship.