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21 March 2004

The death of Christendom - part III

The problem with the history of Christianity is that there are so many factions, so many paths, so many heresies, that there is not a theological word left that is not freighted with the negativities of the past. There is no word of which this is more true than "gnostic". A comment that you can read in the part II post below brought to my mind all the strange twists of thought (some of them quite repellent, some of them such wild "heresy" that you wonder if they were really serious) that have existed under the rubric of gnosticism. Reading the Catholic Encyclopaedia version was especially enlightening - you can see how even today the Holy Mother Church loathes and fears the gnostics. But I think all that syncretism and angelology and eschatology are side-issues. You know how I said that the "orthodox" (i.e., Catholics and fundamentalists) are the "Philip K. Dicks of theology"? Well the fact is that Philip K. Dick is a gnostic writer, and his Valis trilogy is often cited in the hermeneutics of modern gnostic thought. Because the thing is, that when you make the decision that inner knowledge of God is possible, there really is no safety net. Answering "yes" to the question "Does God talk to you?" on the MMPI is enough to get you a diagnosis of psychosis, because the question always remains - how do you know? So, I am beginning to wish I hadn't even brought up gnosticism. Let's just say that what a protestant fundamentalist is, and what a pre-Vatican Roman Catholic is, I am as opposite of as you can get within the framework of Christian.

Maybe it's safer to talk about Methodism. I am on secure ground there. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley modified (although that was probably not his intention) the Protestant fundamentalism about scriptural authority. He taught that there were four tools, rather than one book, for the mind to use in discerning God's truth. The four are Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason. Although I was not taught this in so many words as a Methodist child (and a horribly pious one at times, too) in my Sunday school and youth group, I somehow absorbed it. The "experience" part is the "gnostic" element in Methodism. I have always read the Bible, always prayed, always tried to apply reason to religious questions, and always listened, in various ways, for the voice of God. Quakerism, another flavour of Christianity that speaks to me and draws me on and enlightens me, puts most of its faith in this element. But again, personal experience will not tell you how to be good, in the sense of obedient to God, unless you contain within you some Godlike elements. You cannot sit and meditate, or go into your closet and pray in secret, as Jesus himself told his followers, if you believe that you are wholly corrupt and sinful. If you are to be "saved" (if, indeed, you have something you need to be saved from) by "faith alone" then you had better be very sure you are reciting the right creed, worshipping in the right temple, and being ministered to by the right priest. And you need to be prepared to give up your freedom. In this theology, God says you have free will, but only a single choice in which to exercise it - to obey Him through His earthly lieutenants, or not, in which case you are "lost and damned".

And yet, millions do make this choice. Why is that? My own opinion is that it is superstition. Superstition is very ingrained in the human mind. The earliest religions were all about angry gods and painful sacrifice. There is a view of the "progress" of religions (in the fertile crescent, where all "Western" religions began) that says that Judaism's huge leap forward was not monotheism, but a banning of human sacrifice, and a rationalisation of animal sacrifice. You still had an angry God, but He would be nice to you and your people. In return he only required obedience and praise and worship in the correct manner. The sacrifice was not central even in the earliest texts of Judaism - it was more important to know what not to sacrifice. And since people ate what they sacrificed (after part was burned for God and part was eaten by the priest) the kosher laws and the whole doctrine of purity and cleanness arose from the tightening up of Temple practice. Like many of Judaism's truths, this is esoterically told in the story of the "sacrifice of Isaac." In Islam, the celebration of this event, where the human son was not sacrificed, but a goat was substituted instead, is one of the two holiest days of the Islamic year. However, the son that was saved is a different one - it is not Isaac but Ishmael, the true eldest son, the ancestor of the Arabs and the patriarch of Islam. I know no more about this fascinating controversy, not being a theologian of any kind and certainly not of Judaism or Islam. But I think it is interesting to look at how the three major religions of the book play with this idea of the Father sacrificing his Only, or Eldest, or Favourite Son. ("For God so loved the world ...")

Which brings me a bit closer to my point. Sorry it is so rambling, but it took me years to get here.

I never liked that Isaac story. I was fascinated by but also disturbed by the laws and strictures of the Pentateuch. Also, in a seemingly unrelated thread of the story, I was disturbed by eating meat. I didn't know any vegetarians when I was a child, and didn't know it was a possibility. But on at least one occasion, I woke up crying and woke my mother up to tell her that it wasn't right that all those animals were killed for us to eat. She told me to stop being silly, and that was the end of it. As an adult, I converted to vegetarianism several times and remained so for years, but ended up lapsing back to eating fish and other dead animals. I still cannot eat certain meats - lamb, pork and beef - not when I see them out in the fields every day on my way to work. But I digress again. All I want to say is that all this worked on my mind; I tried to apply reason, I wondered if God was telling me something. I read a lot. One very esoteric book I read that nudged my thought in certain strange directions was The Forgotten Beginnings of Creation and Christianity by Carl Anders Skriver. I will quote the synopsis from the compassionatespirit website:
"Carl Anders Skriver (1903-1983) has the distinction of being the first modern scholar to argue that Jesus was a vegetarian on historical grounds. Carl Skriver was an Evangelical Lutheran minister and a pioneer in the area of Christian vegetarianism. In this book, his last major work, he goes back to the "forgotten beginnings" of the world -- the original vegetarian creation of the world, free from violence and killing. His reinterpretations of the first chapters of Genesis show how the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah and the Flood can be understood in a vegetarian way. A scholar of Vedic literature, Skriver shows parallels between both the Genesis stories and the prophecies of a world-redeemer in other cultures throughout the ancient East. Skriver also fundamentally revises conventional ideas about the mission of Jesus -- as Jesus, also, sought to return the religion of his day to these forgotten beginnings."

But I didn't want to talk about vegetarianism, really. I wanted to talk about sacrifice. I mentioned in part II about "the major message of all true religion". This is one of those things where the Wesleyan four pillars worked exactly the way it should. I heard this passage from the Tao read in my Methodist church in Minneapolis, where a reading from the Tao is part of every service:
"These possessions of a simpleton being the three I choose
And cherish:
To care,
To be fair,
To be humble, . . . "
It struck a chord of memory; I was sure I had read those very words, or something close to them, in the Bible. I didn't really search for them, but I found them all the same, in the Book of Micah:
"Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
"He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"
Notice, as I did, that the second verse, which tells us that all God ever wants of us is that we care, we be fair and we be humble, is contrasted to the first verse, in which the primitive and superstitious Man, who cannot imagine how to "appease" God, is concerned with pleasing the Lord with sacrifice. As I say, it took some years, but I read (scripture), I meditated and prayed (experience), I synthesised what I had read (reason) and I observed the history of religions (traditions) and I came up with a little nugget of theology all on my own. And it was this: that there is a fundamental contradiction between sacrifice and superstition on the one hand, and kindliness, justice and humility on the other. And that it was the second that was "pleasing to the Lord". And further, that the message of Jesus was - sacrifice is not necessary. So does it make sense that God would spend centuries saying "sacrifice is not necessary" and then send a Prophet whose purpose was to reinforce that message - and then be a human sacrifice himself? I have to say no, or exclude the voice of Reason.

In part IV, I will explain more about the idea of sacrifice, and how I put Jesus's willingness to suffer and die in a context of freedom and responsibility, rather than one of ritual atonement for Man's sinful nature. This will lead into a discussion of what parts of the Nicene creed and traditional Christian observance I have abandoned, in obedience to God as I understand Him, and how I can still say that Jesus is my Saviour if I no longer believe that he "died for my sins". And hopefully, my exegesis of the story of the unbroken colt will shed some light on this as well. And if I can find it, I will share the kinder and gentler version of the 23rd Psalm.

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