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14 March 2004

Death of Christendom - part II

The primary topic of this essay is not "is Christianity dying?" but "should Christianity die?" You must understand from the outset that this is not an atheist, agnostic, or neo-pagan proposition, but the proposition of a woman who is a Christian. I am not going to wimp out and say "considers herself a Christian". I do have a "personal saviour" and he was a man named Jesus who was born approximately two millennia ago somewhere in the middle east. I love Him and I love His message. But I am in serious opposition to almost everything that has been done in His name for the last 1700 years or so, and especially (since there's not much I can do about the Crusades or the witch-burnings) what is being done now in His name. How can that be? Let me try to explain. . .

Even today, Christians can be divided into two "flavours". I'll bet you think I'm going to say Catholic and Protestant, don't you? Well, I'm not. The two divisions I am thinking of are far more unequal. The battle between them was fought centuries ago, and it was bloodier than the Crusades, more unfair than the witch-burnings; and it was won, according to my beliefs, by the "bad guys". I don't mean that they were really bad people, but I know positively that Jesus, if he ever meant to found a religion at all, would have wanted the other side to win. The two types of Christianity we will call Gnostic and Orthodox. (It was the Orthodox that won.) Now let's not get confused with terminology here. The denominations officially called Orthodox - such as Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox and the like - are more Gnostic than the Roman Catholics, who are the ultimate orthodoctrinaires. Well, maybe; Calvinists are pretty orthodox, and Baptists. Who are the modern-day Gnostics? Well, there are some "neo-gnostics" in the sense that modern scholars and religionists have re-created what they thought the early gnostic churches may have been. The Quakers are quite gnostic. The Unitarians are pretty gnostic, but they are barely Christian. (I could write a whole essay about that , but others have done it better.)
What is the essence of the difference between gnosticism and orthodoxy? "Gnosis" is the Greek for "knowledge" or "knowing". "Ortho-dox" is Latin for "correct-belief". The key difference is in the way that the two theologies say that humans may apprehend the Truth. Gnostics say it is within you, for God is within you and will answer your prayer for knowledge and guidance by revealing the Truth to you personally. The orthodox, otoh, are the Philip K. Dicks of theology - how can you know, they would counter, that it isn't Satan talking to you? Or maybe you're on drugs? Or maybe the human mind is just too sinful and feeble to apprehend the Truth in this way, even if God would deign to talk to you personally. For the orthodox, God is defined as wholly Other Than You. An outside authority must stand as intermediary between you and God, and interpret Truth and offer up your prayers, and tell you your sins are forgiven.
Obviously, the problem with the orthodox solution for gnostics (and freedom-loving people everywhere) is that one of these weak and feeble humans gets an awful lot of power over you, and on some very shaky philosophical ground. This is where politics enters into the religion equation. The Protestant Revolution was originally a partly gnostic movement. Some protestant denominations have the lovely phrase "the priesthood of all the converted". Power must be taken from the priests. Some came to being simply by objecting to the awesome power of the Pope and Vatican. But the need for social control is a deep and pathological hunger in the human soul, often more powerful than the hunger for Truth. So Protestantism developed its own abuses of power, and none more offensive to the philosophical intellect than the insistence on the truth of Scripture. Once you study the history of the church and understand the ugly political processes through which the Canon was edited and selected, it is hard to understand how you could still "believe" in it. And then of course each little doomsday cult of Protestantism has its own "orthodox" interpretation of the Holy Writ, all proclaiming loudly that it is no interpretation at all, but just "Written".
And now, here's another interesting thing about the Gnostic/Orthodox split: it is older than Christianity. In fact there were similar cults and schisms in Judaism almost from its origins. It is possible, and I believe, that Jesus Himself was a Gnostic Jew; some say he was a Nazorean and some say an Essene, or possibly both, i.e., a young man from a Nazorean family and community who joined an Essene monastery for training and purification before beginning his Mission. And, there are Gnostic Muslims as well - the Sufis and others less well known.
So, you have probably figured out by now that I am a gnostic Christian. I do not belong to a Gnostic congregation (well, I do in a way, but it is officially Methodist, who are, by the way, the most gnostic of the mainstream denominations.) So, do I think that Christendom must die because it has gone astray to the horrible wastelands of orthodoxy and social control? Well, yes and no. I mean I do believe that Christianity has gone astray, but it is more than just the gnostic thing.
I realize that I am going to have to make this a multi-part essay. There's a lot more to say before I wrap up with my conclusion, and it's late and I need to sleep. So, in part two, whenever that comes, I really will tell: 1) the story of my own personal conversion, 2) what the word "sacrifice" means to me, and 3) a description of my own imaginings, based upon study, meditation and prayer, of what Jesus's message and mission really were. This will explain why I re-wrote the 23rd Psalm, my own interpretation of the story of the colt on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and the major message of all true religions, which can be found in the Old Testament and the Tao Teh Ching in almost exactly the same words.
Note: I am also going to do something which is considered a major no-no in blogging. I am going to come back to this post and edit it by adding links to some of the words and phrases. I know it's bad, but honestly I am just too tired to do it right now, and I don't like to save drafts because I never seem to finish them. So, I hope I have piqued your interest, and stay tuned.

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