A friend of mine posted a blog about some things in Christian history, and asked how I put together my faith with the sketchy history Christianity has had. It’s a really interesting question for me and one I think is crucial for the church to talk about if it is to maintain any integrity in postmodern culture. So, with his permission, I’m going to copy the blog here, and post my thoughts. The original thoughts will be in bold, and my thoughts in italics.
I was born and raised a Christian. Presbyterian Baptism. Some dabbling in Catholicism through my father and ex-wife. Being of a logical and scientific mind, I have always had trouble with blind faith. Same here. But I do not equate reasoning or even doubt with non-faith. I think faith without doubt is either simplistic (and probably novel, naive or young) or in denial of the world we live in) I guess I have some form of personal spirituality and faith but I do not think I need other people to tell me when and how I should go about my own personal worship. All people are subject to sin – pride, jealousy, anger, greed, lust, etc. One need only look at recent headlines of sex scandals and evangelical con-men to see how people can corrupt organized religion in order to deceive, control, and take advantage of the naive. Historically, one can chose from wars, crusades, the dark ages, justification for empires and monarchies etc, etc, etc… This pains me also. I imagine it pains me even more because I consider other christians my brothers and sisters – my true family – so when one of my family acts in a way that is evil, or falls into sin, it hurts like watching a brother or sister deny who their true family is.
For arguments sake, I could concede that Jesus Christ was the son of God. This is an interesting concession to make. I’d like to know why make that concession? Of everything Jesus did, only three claims (virgin birth, resurrection and his divinity (Son of God-ness) are arguable. This is a pretty major concession I think. My point is that we (human beings) have had over 2000 years to rewrite, twist, and misuse his teachings. Yes, yest and yes. That is the tension of christianity I think. Jesus left. while we believe that we have the Holy Spirit to guide us in our lives, we have to allow that there have been those who have rewritten (or at least poorly translated) his teachings and the other Scriptures and used them for their own agendas. The documentary I mentioned really emphasizes this negative impact: I watched the documentary, and it was somewhat interesting. I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘objective’ in it’s presentation, but subjects of this matter rarely are.
- There are many religions and cults that predate Christianity. If being “older” makes you more credible, Christianity loses. Idol Worship. The Greek, Roman, and Egyptian Pantheons. Hinduism. Buddhism. Judaism. Islam. The worship of Roman Emperors as Gods. Christianity disagrees with this claim. It is the Christian understanding that God created the earth and began having a relationship with people immediately. This relationship with God grew into the Jewish faith, of which Christianity is seen as the fulfillment, according to Jesus. That being said, being older gives no credibility, so this one isn’t as strong a point.
- That Jesus was NOT the first or only person to claim to be the son of God. Many others made this claim – Simon Magus, Apollonius of Tyana, Simon Bar Kochba, etc. That’s true. But this isn’t a really strong argument either. It’s easy to make this claim.
- Jesus was not the first who claimed to be born of a virgin. The Egyptian God Horus was born of Isis. Many of the traits and attributed to Mary and the story of Jesus’ birth appears remarkably similar to the Egyptian Story of Isis. Again, making claims of self virgin birth isn’t novel, what is novel is the number of prophecies concerning the Christ. And the stories appearing similar is not surprising, necessarily, from what I understand virgin birth was linked to divinity for most people’s viewpoints See the link http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/out-of-egypt.html
- Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Why would the son of God have to do this? John the Baptist was (in fact) a rival prophet of the time (not a follower of Jesus). I don’t think they were rivals, that seems to be reading into the story. And Jesus’ baptism by John is completely acceptable as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Baptism was/is a common ritual for the Jewish faith.
- Ever heard of Mithras? A Persian God. Story and Temples date to 600 B.C. Born December 25th. Mother was a virgin. Performed miracles. Had 12 disciples. Was executed after enjoying a last supper. Rose from the dead 3 days later. Was called the Son of God. His followers practiced Baptism. They ate bread and wine and called them the body and the blood. Worshiped on Sundays, at Easter and December 25th. The Mithras Cult was huge in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus up until Emperor Constantine of Rome “edited” the Bible. Is it a coincidence that the Mithras legend was absorbed and became stories of Christ? After all, Constantine wanted a single state religion that he could control. He would have to give some concessions to the many followers of Mithras. I don’t want to accept blame for how screwy Constantine was – when Christianity mixed with power, it suddenly and radically changed. I would say the acceptance of Christianity as a mandatory official religion went severely against what Christianity was. Of course we have the value of hindsight now, but many of us would question some of the decisions made in this era. http://www.near-death.com/experiences/origen048.html
- Isn’t it Ironic? Emperor Pontius Pliate had Jesus executed for claiming to be (the Son of) God. This was because the Roman Emperor wanted to be recognized as God. Later Emperor Constantine simply hijacks Jesus’ religion and uses it to stabilize his Empire and control the masses. See link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_I_and_Christianityhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea and/or
- Emperor Theodoseus then makes Christianity the MANDATORY RELIGION of the ROMAN EMPIRE. He outlaws all other religions and has the Temples of Mithras, Isis, Apolonius and Magnus converted to Christian churches or destroyed.
- Ever heard of the Gnostic Gospels? The New Testament (edited by Emperor Constantine) left them out. A few highlights? Mary Magdalene was a favoured disciple of Jesus. I’s quite a leap from disciple to wife or lover. A seriously big leap. Could have been his wife or lover. According to Scripture when a husband and wife lay together (in the biblical sense) they become one. If Christ is God, then when he lay with Mary, it would be the union of God with mortal, sinful mankind. This would cause the implosion of the universe, I imagine. Regardless, a woman was shown respect and power – something that Christianity has fought to suppress for hundreds of years. This is a bad mark on Christianity. Int he culture Jesus was in, women were respected radically, and this continues in the New Testament. Personally, never understood how/why Christianity remained or remains popular with its treating women as second class citizens (unless you were the Mother of Christ). The Gnostic Gospels also claim that much of faith is inward, introspective and there is no need for churches, temples to Worship in (you are your own Temple) and no need for clergy to interpret the words of God for you (you can do it yourself). This actually goes against what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that Christianity is lived with others, not on your own in isolation. 2 Peter 3:16 even says that people need others to help them understand parts of Scripture that are difficult. I don’t think most Christian Churches like the the sound of that!? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnostic_Gospels
- The Gnostic Gospels are all burned (or so thought) by Theodoseus. Interesting that he suppressed rival Christians while cannibalizing Pagan religious practices from the Mithras and Isis Cults …
- It remained the Major Religion until the Western Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) collapsed in the year 1453 – with the fall of Constantinople and the last Emperor Constantine XI.
- The Catholic Church was the only institution to survive the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D.
- During that time were the “Dark Ages” – a time highlighted by the lack of scientific, philosophical, or artistic production by society (of Western Europe). Many attribute this to the Christian Church and it’s censorship and control of state education. Basically, they burned books and killed those who opposed their world-views. Plato’s Academy and other remaining classical schools were closed by the emperor Justinian in AD 529 and non-Christian (Greek) philosophy was banned. The conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312AD.. ..turned Rome from the relatively open, tolerant and pluralistic civilisation of the Hellenistic world, towards a culture that was based on the rule of fixed authority. From that date some education was required and enforced to conform with sanctioned church doctrine, except in private and hidden circumstances. Yeah, so a lot of the middle ages was about church and power. That’s kind of a bad idea I think. The church is an institution of love and service, not power. The power belongs to God.
- It wasn’t until the year 800 that the Church “allowed” classical philosophy, logic, science, history, mathematics to be openly taught (Carolingian Renaissance).
- Boniface III was the first Bsihop of Rome to call himself “The Pope”. Bet you thought that post was older, ordained by God – didn’t you? Most catholics would put the title of Pope on Peter, and carry it from there. I don’t know much about this stuff though.
- The Christianization of the West (Germanic and Anglosaxons) by the Catholic Church started in the 4th century and continued into the year 1000 A.D.
- In and around the 10th century (1000 A.D.), the first German Empire was founded in the west. King Otto I was the leader and, since the clergy were amoung the few literate people, he gave them positions of authority in matters of local government. The church then became suppliers “royal civil servants”.
- The East-West Schism refers to the separation of the Christian faith into Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) sects [1054 A.D.]. Basically, the Pope in Rome wanted to be recognized as the sole leader of the religious world (kind of like Hitler or any other dictator). Since, the East was arguably richer, possessed more land and had a more educated populace – they (understandably) refused to pay tribute to a man in Rome. And they argued over the filloque, which was the theological split.
- This brings us to “The Crusades”. Basically, from 1095 to 1272 Western knights, the “the name of God”, attempted to conquer and rule the East. They wanted to place the Holy city of Jerusalem back in the control of Christianity – as it was now in the hands of Islam. These brutal “Holy Wars” likely represent some of the root of the modern conflicts between Christianity and Islam. Also the Jews. You see, the Jews believed the city was their ancestral home. Those of Islam, believed it was where Muhummad ascended to Heaven. Christians believed it was where Jesus was born, crucified and rose again. Hence the most fought-over piece of real-estate in history. Millions (more?) of lives lost in wars over it. Would God – Islamic, Christian, or Jewish – want or be proud of that? We couldn’t apologize enough to adequately convey our regret for the crusades. We screwed that up a bunch.
- The crusades gave birth to “Holy Knights” and “Warrior Monks” – like the Knights Templar and The Knights Hospitalier etc … Does anyone else think that priests and monks should kill in the name of God? They did it because the pope promised them forgiveness from sin and a guaranteed place in Heaven (sound like modern suicide bombers?). The Church also made them exempt from law or taxes. Pretty sweet deal.
- Examples of European Monarchs using or being used by the church to manipulate, oppress, tax and control the populace are too numerous to document.
- The Church once tried to monopolize healthcare. Prayer, blood letting and self flagellation were the mainstays of their “treatments”. As in other areas, they discredited (even executed) many healers who attempted to use natural herbs, science, logic and reason in an attempt to heal the sick.
- Magisterial Reformation. In the 1500s, the idea that Churches should be under National (Crown) control and not under Rome was beginning to take hold. Henry the VIII wanted to be the figurehead of the Church of England – so he didn’t have to answer to the Pope, he could assign his own Bishops, he could avoid paying Church taxes to Rome, he could annul his marriage). It just so happened that, with the invention of the printing press – more people were reading the Bible themselves – and they wanted change as well (nice coincidence for old Henry). Nice way to start a “Religion” – no? This lead to more death. Henry killing his wives. His Daughter “Bloody Mary” having her cousin Lady Jane Grey executed and persecuting and executing over 280 protestants. She was attempting to restore the Catholic Church in England and undo what her father had done.I would say the heroes of the faith from this era are those who translated, printed and distributed Bibles, even when the church and/or crown said it was illegal. These heroes often paid for the offense with their lives, which is a horrible stain on the church’s history.
- Lutherans were formed at the same time by Martin Luther, a monk who was appalled by the corruption of the Pope and his Bishops of the time (1515). He was particularly disgusted by the sale of “indulgences” – whereby clergy accepted money, land, sons of nobility into church service in exchange for absolution from sin, or safety from hell. Which we see as a very good change. Luther was excommunicated by the Pope but his ability to make pamphlets with a printing press spread his message far and wide. Luther also borrowed from the humanists the sense of individualism, that each man can be his own priest (an attitude likely to find popular support considering the rapid rise of an educated urban middle class in the North), and that the only true authority is the Bible itself (not any person interpreting it). As a protestant, I would argue for the priesthood of the saints as well, and I’m not even a Lutheran.
- Other Protestant religions – Puritans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc etc – all were born out of disgust and dissent towards the Catholic Church. This is true, but if you asked people like Martin Luther, they didn’t want to start new denominations; they wanted to reform the Catholic church, which they loved, but could not let her continue to be so corrupt.They fought for Pelagianism – the belief that original sin did not taint Human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special Divine aid. This is too much of a generalization. I don’t believe thy wanted to argue for Pelagianism. I know for certain that John Calvin didn’t – he said original sin was for sure and made mankind so depraved that they couldn’t turn to God without God’s own help.They were tired of the Church using Guilt as a weapon against the people.
- Puritans were a sect of Anglicans that did not like that Elizabeth I forced them into Anglican Services and to use a Common book of prayer. They disliked Vestments. They did not want to be lumped in with other “Reformers” under her Act of Uniformity (1559). They were also some of the first “Pilgrims” and founders of the Plymouth Colonies in New England.
- The English Civil War [1642 to 1651] led to the end of the true British Monarchy. It established the first British Parliament and the precedent that a Monarch rules by Parliamentary consent NOT divine right.
- The French Revolution [1789-1799]. Obvious factors were poverty and famine. National Debt accrued by the Crown and the blatant excess of the noble class. Another important factor was a need for religious freedom, continued hatred for Catholic control, and influence on institutions of all kinds by the large Protestant minorities.
- The British Empire (English 1497-1945). The Ottoman Empire (Germans 1292 -1922) – was at its height in the 16th and 17th centuries. Many people don’t realize that the German Royal Family simply changed their names and merged with the English Royal Family after World War I (and the Treaty of Versailles 1919).
- Monarchies always worked hand-hand with Christian Religious leaders to justify and consolidate their power. The Church recognized and endorsed their “divine right” to rule other human beings. This part I think is just fun. Of course it doesn’t work in reality, but it sure would be nice if God would just tell us who should be in charge, then we wouldn’t need to vote!
- The Catholic Church still refuses to allow female priests, opposes the use of birth control, counts abortion as a sin, counts humane euthanasia as a sin, and will not recognize gay marriage (despite so large a number of their clergy being gay). I just can’t find any evidence that a large number of catholic priests are gay. That seems like a claim with no base.
- Despite the tenant of “separation of Church and State” – The “Religious Right” continues to exert tremendous influence on political debates and legislation. I’m not a member of the religious right, and don’t care to become one. I don’t like religion.
It seems obvious (at least to me) that Christianity has simply been a tool used to control the masses. Through Roman Emperors, European Monarchies, the Vatican and even local churches – Christianity has been used to promote ignorance, stifle scientific progress, promote class distinctions (keep the rich rich and the poor poor), start wars, encourage bigotry, promote misogyny and suppress women’s rights, etc. This is pretty obvious, that Christianity has been used. It’s sad to me that Christian leaders are so quick to sell their influence in order to gain influence. It happens these days in business, as movies are marketed through churches, there are entire companies that offer such a service to movie distributors. The church is a group that puts a lot of trust in its pastors/priests/leaders and I think we will have to answer for how we treat the people God loves.
If you think of history and humanity as displaying “progress”, (to me) you would have to concede that a move away from Christianity represents progress. It may have been born as a message of hope and peace, but It evolved (through the perversion of man) into a way to control the Roman people. So, perhaps what the emerging church is doing can be seen as “devolving” – leaving the Roman/Greek way of Christianity and returning to a more Hebrew understanding. Then as a way for European Monarchs and Popes to control people. “Reformation” (aka the birth of Protestantism) simply represented the splintering of Catholicism. A way of improving the religion by throwing off certain parts of Catholicism that were too restrictive (as the common folk gained some control of his/her own life). Monarchies died off in favour of governments. Governments saw the threat that religion posed and enacted separation of Church and State (or like minded ideas). Governments took responsibility for education away from the Church. Suddenly, commoners were allowed to learn to read and write (not just clergy members and royalty). The more educated the public became – the lower church attendance rates became. Ever notice how the most success the Churches have in converting people to Christianity is found in Third World Countries (where eductaion and freedom are limited)? This is true statistically. but to say that the Christian growth in the Third world is solely due to illiteracy I think is too broad a generalization. It’s not necessarily a direct correlation. I think the church today, or at least in the last 200 years, has been influential in the education of the masses. Especially since the reformation was based on individuals being able to read the Scriptures themselves, it was an obvious need to help people be able to read and write.
Personally, I cannot fathom how Christian Churches can still draw in Westerners to their flocks? How can educated people suspend their disbelief? How can they ignore the history of abuse of power and atrocities? How can they not see that, even now, their churches are riddled with pedophiles and con-men? That Churches are simply hoarders of real estate, art and money? I don’t think we ignore it. I think we admit our past mistakes, ask for forgiveness and seek to live today in the way of Jesus. I know there are still many churches that have a method of “hoarding” or “taking”, but we are a part of a church that works as hard as possible to be givers.
The Church was once relevant as lawmakers (canon law) – we have evolved past that (have common law, civil law). I don’t think law is a business that the church wants to be in.
The Church was once relevant as government (directly or indirectly through monarchs). We now have governments. this is also a good move.
The Church was once relevant as healers. We now have medical science, doctors. The church is still actively involved in healing. Often through hospitals for physical healing, often through schools which train people in science and medicine.
The Church was once relevant as educators. We have both public and private schools. This is int he western world. In many places in the world the only schools available are run by Christians.
The Church once sold us absolution from sin by taking money, property, sons, prayer and self-flagellation- now people vie for it still (like such things can be bought). Jesus himself told us we can find such absolution within ourselves. I wouldn’t say that Jesus said we can find absolution in ourselves, I’d say he said we can find it in him alone.
The Church once represented a community and sense of belonging. There are many other organizations and groups that can offer that. The church is a community that has a sense of belonging, and it must be distinct from other community service groups and organizations because it is unique in its mission and membership requirements.
I guess it all comes back to two things. The unknown (while alive) and death. That is a big deal. While we live in the world right now, many many people, Christians and non-christians, have a suspicion that there is life beyond what we observe with our own senses.
The unknown (while alive). I don’t see it as an issue. Do I know how the world started? No. There are theories – scientific and religious. It is likely that neither are “right”. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t need to know. Why do things happen the way they do? Is it God? Is it Random Chance? Is it Fate? Another interesting question. Does it keep me up at night? Rarely. Do fables and stories and prayers make it easier – not for me.
Death. Sure it is scary. The bible teaches that death, for christians, isn’t scary. We are assured of what happens and where we are going. So, for Christians, death has no hold on us, it produces no fear in our lives. Is it eternal nothingness? Is it heaven and hell? Reincarnation? Something else? I don’t know. This is harder to reconcile but not impossible. Personally, I don’t need something to fill the void. I am okay going it alone. I certainly don’t want some other person (regardless of age, rank, or experience in the clergy) to tell me how to do it. I don’t want to read “Gospels” written by men, edited and re-edited and re-edited – with bias and extreme self-serving prejudice. I’m okay with people going it alone too, but I have found that this way is not the best way to live life. I have found that the best way to live life is in the way of Jesus, in a community that is trying to live in this way together.
I think the day Christianity (and Islam and Judaism and Buddhism and Hinduism and ALL RELIGION) is thrown off, discarded and expunged from the human consciousness will be the happiest day of all history. Obviously I disagree with this. Imagine all the good in the world that is done in the name of Jesus – to suddenly throw that off would seriously screw up the world.
So, that’s some of my thoughts. What I love about this is that we are having conversations and having them in respectful ways – discussing ideas, their merit and contributions, while maintaining and open and loving attitude. For me, just believing the right things isn’t enough, Christians have got to believe in the right way – with a motivation of love. That, I think, is the way of Jesus.