2/4/09

Christianities

Bart Ehrman is the head of the Religious Studies department at the University of North Carolina. In his book Lost Christianities (read my review), he talks about the many different forms early Christianity assumed. Ultimately, he argues, one form (not without its own sub-sects and theological disagreements) emerged as the dominant form. He refers to it as the "proto-orthodox," and rightly states that all forms of Christianity today are its descendants.

I know that many, many protestants would reject this notion. They would claim that they are simply a resurgence of first century Christianity, but their declaration is shot out of the water when they have to answer: which first century Christianity are they manifesting?

Now, while I firmly agree that what became known as the Roman Catholic Church is the common ancestor of all modern forms of Christianity (even those who display many characteristics of earlier heresies), I also maintain that the RCC's contention that they have never changed doctrine is not true (I am NOT calling anyone a liar. I am merely stating that this particular claim is not true and has been promoted by well-meaning but misinformed people, not dishonest, or those who choose to ignore certain evidence).

What was orthodox at one time became heretical in another, and vice-versa. I have come to see that all forms of Christianity today (not the magazine... specifically) have elements that would have been considered heresy in an earlier age... even the RCC.

I was asked about the two most glaring examples of this last night. First, most Christians adhere to a form of gnosticism (the belief that it is special knowledge that brings salvation). If we are saved by grace, and we avail ourselves to that grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9), and the only faith we are capable of having must be given to us from God (Rom 12:3, 1 John 5:4, 2 Peter 1:1) then we require a special, supernatural, not available to all, knowledge to achieve salvation. Plus, the belief that only those who have been specifically empowered by the Holy Spirit can properly interpret scripture is another form of this idea of necessary γνωσις (Greek for knowledge) to be a full Christian. Unfortunately, there are over 2 billion Christians in the world today, each claiming their faith, thus claiming the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, yet biblical interpretation is far from uniform among them.

The second was the early heresy of dualism (Manichaeism... later associated with the supposed Cathars) and its resurgence in modern protestantism. Dualism espouses the belief in two distinct "powers" at work in the world: an ultimate good versus an ultimate evil. Here, good and evil exist in and of themselves. Usually they are personified in God as the supreme good and Satan (or perhaps Osama bin Laden) as the supreme evil, but they are dealt with as if they exist apart from these personifications. Dualism would state that these are equally and opposing forces at work. Now, most Christians would deny that aspect and say that God is more powerful than Satan... good is more powerful than evil. But to assert that these are actual forces at work is to call into question the ultimate good itself. If it is more powerful, why hasn't evil been eradicated? Furthermore, if everything originated from God, how did evil come into existence? Did the entirely benevolent God create evil, and, if so, could God have created a world without evil, and, if so, why didn't He/She? The most glaring illustration of this pervasive, semi-dualistic thinking occurred during the presidential candidate forum at Saddleback. Both candidates were asked if evils exists and what was the proper way to deal with it. Notice the second half of the question already assumes an affirmative to the first part.

How to avoid these? We need to stop claiming a direct line to God. No matter how "sure" we are of our relationship to God and the separation of those we classify as not belonging to our group, we must not assume that communication with God is a dispensation to speak FOR God. God and God alone will do the eternal dividing (I certainly hope there is not one in the line for separation but all are destined for eternity with God and each other). God is the author of all truth and we are simply guessing (I will grant that there is a strong element of educated guessing, but we must never claim to have a divinely revealed truth imparted only to us... what if we're wrong?).

As I've said before, to avoid dualism we MUST stop speaking of evil as a noun! If God is sovereign, completely good, all-loving, all-powerful, then He/She (yes, there appears to be female imagery in the bible for God) would not have created an entity diametrically opposed to God's own nature. Evil is an adjective used to describe actions born from humanity's separation from the ultimate good. In a sense, just like cold does not exist but is the absence of heat, evil is the adjective used to describe people, places, and events that choose to exist outside of relationship with the creator God.

The things to remember about heresy are: that heretics always thought (and still think) they are the orthodox, orthodox beliefs and statements are born through confrontations with heresy, and we are all subject to accusations of heresy in some parts of our theologies. I would go so far as to say there has never been someone (other than Jesus) who was not guilty of holding a heretical belief or engaging in a heretical practice at some point.

4 comments:

misfit said...

Let's try this again...

If evil is the absence of God, what does that make of non-Christians? Are we on a different path or a wrong/evil path? I ask because if non-Christians are without God, are they then by definition evil? And what does one do with non-Christians then, convert them, pray for them, suppress them? I ask only to point out the leaps one can make to go from piety to the oppression of a demonized other.

But thanks for sharing your thoughts. Dialog is our friend.

A Modern Ancient said...

Misfit,
Thanks for commenting and posing great questions.

I would not say that non-Christians are absent of God... in fact I don't believe I said that in my post... if I did I was mistaken. Every human being is "created" (I do not hold to a literal reading of Genesis, but I do believe in a creator who inserted a divine spark in humans) in the image of God. Therefore, no one is lacking access to God (this would be the tendency towards a gnostic viewpoint found within some parts of modern Christianity).

I asserted that evil was the adjective used to describe what happens when we separate ourselves from the ultimate good. I then added some confusion when I equated that with dwelling outside a relationship with God. I DO NOT believe one must be a Christian to interact with God. What I DO believe is that Jesus is the one who opened up that access, and whether one knows it or not, their access to God is through Jesus... but knowing it or even acknowledging it is not necessary to experience that access.

I know that my view on this is not the majority within Christianity, but I believe I am in line with acceptable belief. Origen** spoke of this universal access, and he attributed his ideas directly to Paul. I think the most important work accomplished by Jesus was not the atonement for sin (which is important) but the victory over death. Because Jesus conquered death, it no longer holds any power over humanity. I believe this is open to all, even if they've never heard the name "Jesus."

Therefore, someone who follows Christ's teachings (as best they can since some of his teachings are pretty mysterious as well as challenging to live up to) must pray for everyone.

I would also seek to share my experience of God through Jesus (who I also believe to be God as part of the mystery of the Trinity) with everyone... not to suggest they are required to have the same experience as me (that would be ridiculous) but because it has been a positive one for me and I hope to inspire positive experiences with God in the lives of others.

Suppression of others is completely antithetical to biblical teaching.

Seeking to convert others is a weird thing since even the apostle Paul says we have no power to enact a conversion in anyone except ourselves, and even that power is suspect as I pointed out in the post. Again, I would say that I seek to engage in relationship (sincere, not with the ulterior motive to "change" them) with others in order to share my experiences, and to be inspired by theirs as well. If someone chooses to follow Christ's teachings because they heard my experiences, so be it, but it is not my goal to make someone adhere to a set of beliefs... and there is really no such set anyway since Christians have ALWAYS differed regarding interpretations.

I totally agree that many have jumped from piety to oppression. Augustine had the audacity to say that it is loving to actually kill a heretic or infidel if it might bring them to a knowledge of God.

The eminent biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, co-opted Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous statement
"The arc of history is bent toward justice," and stated (in all caps... not to shout but to drive it home) "THE ARC OF THE GOSPEL IS BENT TOWARDS INCLUSIVENESS."

When Christians stop drawing lines between "us and them" and embrace the radical inclusive nature of the gospel, the only thing non-Christians would experience from those who call themselves "Christ-followers" would be service motivated by love.

That love transcends and difference in belief, and I believe the infinitely deeper love of God transcends anyone's lack of understanding or experience.

**Origen was an extremely important early church father who was considered one of the smartest men of his age. His ideas were not outside orthodoxy in his time, but 200 years later a man named Rufinus translated Origen's writings into Latin. The political climate, and the church's access to political power, had changed and Christians were now the favored group. When you are the marginalized outsiders (as followers of Jesus started out) membership tends to be open to all. When you become the elite, restrictions develop. Rufinus was declared a heretic, not Origen mind you, for translating these universalist texts.**

A Modern Ancient said...

Misfit,
After re-reading both my post and my above comment, I can see that some of my phrasing could be construed as condescending towards non-Christians.

That was not my intent. To reiterate:

I value the spiritual experiences of every human being. I would seek to encourage those experiences that produce works that embody love and inclusion, and I would seek to challenge those whose experiences lead to actions missing the attributes of love and inclusion.

I also value disagreement and civil dialogue and even debate. I do believe in truth, I just don't believe that I can, this side of eternity, ever know for sure that I know it for sure. Therefore, I will try to speak in terms of "me" and "my": as in my experiences and how they affected me. I would also welcome anyone else to share in a similar way.

Knowing that I can never prove it empirically, I still hold firmly to my Christian faith. I do believe (but will always admit that I could be wrong) that however someone (or everyone according to the theology I associate with the most) is reconciled to God and gains access to that relationship, the ultimate source of that access is Jesus, his death as atonement, and his resurrection as victory over death.

I think it is impossible to completely refrain from insulting everyone unless you never take a stand on an issue.

If I worded things in a way that made you or anyone else who does not associate with the tradition to which I belong feel "less than," I apologize.

misfit said...

Dave,

As your friendly neighborhood Doubtist, I felt compelled to raise those questions for others. I know that's not how you think. But others may not understand and take your commentary the wrong way. Yours is not the path for me, but I'd say you are just fine on it. We can get along without agreeing, and a mutual wise friend of ours likes differing views, they help him hone his own views.

I'm still jealous I'm not in Medieval heresies too.