Last week we continued our reinterpretation of Jesus in the light of our ‘secular’ perspective. We outlined how Jesus can be seen as the first awareness of how we should cooperate with this spark of universal being in each of us if we would be whole. While the awareness that each person and this spark of God are intimately connected was stated unequivocally by John, the beliefs about such a God and Jesus continued to evolve in the first three hundred years of the new Christian church. This week we will take a look at how this evolution unfortunately led to a continuation, even a strengthening of the duality that has underpin religion from its ancient beginnings.
Jesus, Religion and Duality
As we saw in the series of posts on the ‘History of Religion’ (http://www.lloydmattlandry.com/?p=172), the dichotomy between orthogonal concepts, such as this world/the next, Judgmental God/Loving God, and sacred/profane can be seen in all philosophical and religious systems going back to the earliest written records. In most cases, these beliefs are held even though they are in opposition, in a somewhat ‘cognitive dissonance’. In some cases, the level of opposition fades as one side of the dichotomy slowly becomes paramount as society evolves.
Thomas Cahill, reading Jewish scripture as “a documentary record of the evolution of a sensibility”, notes the evolution of the scriptural voice of God from the thundering apparition to Moses to the “still, small voice” of Kings. Nonetheless, even though many of the dualities have evolved toward cohesion, others still persist in both religion and society today.
The Gospel of John, for example, would seem to offer such a cohesion by declaring an ontological basis of unity between God and the human person. However, many of the beliefs that emerged as a result of the three hundred years of strife that plagued the Christian church as it fought amongst itself to define orthodoxy, resulted in a strengthening of one of the most deep-seated dualities in Christianity, that of ‘atonement theology’.
Atonement theology is the teaching that was eventually invoked to bring an end to the most basic controversy of the early church: how could Jesus be God and Man at the same time? There were many beliefs to be found among the diverse Christian communities that made up the early church, but they all boiled down to three: Jesus was divine and not human, human and not divine and both human and divine. Each side held strong reasons for their beliefs, and offered many diverse ‘models’ of reality to support them. The controversies were of such strength as to threaten to divide the new Christian religion.
At the same time, Christianity was beginning to play a large role in the expansion of the Roman empire. The emperor, Constantine, understood that its unique and unprecedented beliefs offered a potential basis of stability to Rome as it expanded into increasingly diverse cultures. A division within Christianity, however, would undermine this strategy, prompting Constantine to step into the controversy. As Bart Ehrman sees it in his book, “How Jesus became God”,
“The empire was vast and was culturally, politically and religiously fragmented. In contrast, Christianity emphasized oneness: there is one God, one Son of God, one church, one faith, one hope and so on. Christianity was a religion of unity that Constantine believed could be used to unify the empire.
But the problem was that this religion of unity was itself split; thus he saw the need to heal the split if the Christian church was to bring real religious unity to the empire.”
As a result, Constantine ordered a ‘Council’ (The Council of Nicea) to be called to establish a consensus on the ‘orthodox’ teaching of how Jesus could be God and Man. At this council, it was decided that the beliefs that Jesus was not totally divine nor was totally human were to be declared as ‘heretical’. The belief that he was both at the same time was declared ‘orthodox’.
The deciding argument, however, put the theory of ‘atonement theology’ squarely into the heart of Christian belief.
Against the belief that Jesus was totally divine or totally human, the argument was presented that neither of these states were possible if Jesus’s sacrifice was to be successful in insuring salvation (or as one theologian has said, “accomplishing his mission”). Jesus had to be God, for a human sacrifice would not suffice to atone for an offence against God, and he had to be Man because suffering was required for a sacrifice, to satisfy the conditions for such an ‘economy of salvation’.
Thus the teaching of atonement theology was inserted into Christian belief. This is a truly profound dualism, between a God so intimate that “He who abides in love abides in God and God in him” and a God so distant that a painful and bloody sacrifice is necessary for him to ‘change his mind’ about man. It has given rise to many dualistic threads in Christian expressions. Two such dualities which persist to this day are:
– As opposed to the teachings of Paul and the gospels, Jesus is seen as ‘closer’ than God, more intimate, and necessary for human-divine relationship. In many Christian expressions, (and in opposition to Paul and the Gospels) Jesus is prayed to, even adored, as a necessary intermediary to a distant God
– The goal of human life is seen as what happens after death, leading to a distance from human life. As Brian McLaren sees it, “We made the Gospel largely into “an evacuation plan for heaven.” ”
Another duality can be seen in the theological process exemplified by the Council of Nicea is that of deciding the words of belief. Correct belief is frequently seen as the ‘ticket to heaven’, and thousands of wars have been fought over their expression. This has been especially the case in the Christian West, and is one of the sources of the decreasing relevance of western religion. Christianity quickly found itself as a structural hierarchy, rooted in society and government, in which adherence to doctrine was of increasing importance. As Karen Armstrong sees it:
“Later Christians would set great store by orthodoxy, the acceptance of the “correct teaching”. They would eventually equate faith with belief. But Paul would have found this difficult to understand. For Paul, religion was about ‘kenosis’ (the emptying of self, the dismantling of egotism) and love. In Paul’s eyes, the two were inseparable. You could have faith that moved mountains, but it was worthless without love, which required the constant transcendence of egotism.”
Also from Armstrong:
“It is frequently assumed that faith is a matter of believing certain creedal propositions. Indeed it is common to call religious people “believers” as though assenting to the articles of faith were their chief activity.”
The Next Post
This week we saw how the traditional dualities found in all religions found new and sharper demarcations with the new Christian religion. As we addressed in the series, “November 24 – Relating to God: Part 5- Psychology as Secular Meditation- Part 2: The Transition” (http://www.lloydmattlandry.com/?p=302), such dualities have persisted even as the West became more secular, and can be seen, for example, in the contradictory approaches of Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers. We also saw how their conflicts play a part in the Western diminishment of the role of religion. This orthogonality and its impact on society can be traced back to how God is perceived as an active agent in life. The distant God in need of a friendly Jesus suggests an underlying darkness to life that must be feared and not embraced.
Next week we will move to yet another historically new perception of God, one that is to be found in the concept of ‘the Trinity.