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Friday, August 21, 2015

Religions–They All Start Out Right So What Happens?

Reading the Bible and the history of the early Christian church together provides two major insights – first how simple, fundamental truths are used and co-opted by rival groups which fight for supremacy; and second, how victorious views become consolidated and codified to form the basis for a major international enterprise.

The story of the Church, then, is a story of human nature and human society.  It is not surprising that a religion began simply by a prophet and his twelve disciples and grew into an institution as big, far-reaching, wealthy and powerful as any. All societies have a tendency to consolidate, strengthen, and expand.  The civilizations of Rome, Persepolis, Athens, or Alexandria all started small, went through minor and major political upheavals, doctrinal spats and bloody wars until power and authority were consolidated. Subsequent disputes and conflicts of course continued after these civilizations reached their apex of credibility and authority and then declined; but they all followed the same trajectory.  The Church is the only ‘civilization’ to have outlasted them all.


It the nature of human intelligence to analyze and form opinions, and the nature of human enterprise and will to promote and defend them. It was quite natural for Tertullian, Origen, Justin Martyr; and Gnostic, Donatist, Arian, Neo-Platonist, and hundreds of other theologians of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Centuries to interpret the words of Christ and Paul differently.  No matter how tightly-reasoned and –argued Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul might have been, there was always room for debate.  Neither Jesus nor Paul gave a definitive, once-and-for-all answer to the nature of Christ, the Holy Ghost, God or the Trinity itself.  There were legitimate claims to the separation of the powers or their unity.

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 Origen, Andre Thevet, www.en.wikipedia.org

Was Jesus created by God or just one expression of the universal essence of Godhood? How human was he? Just enough to endure the suffering which was to lead to the remission of sin; or completely human with emotions and empathy?  What was this ineffable being, the Holy Spirit? Was it as John suggested in the first verses of his Bible something that existed even before time and thus before God the Father? Or simply an essence of God which came into its own after Christ’s death? Questions about faith, grace, works, suffering, and free will raised in the Church’s first centuries persist to this day.

The words of simple men about simple themes became quickly co-opted by intellectuals whose ideas gained public resonance and political credibility. One of the seminal events of Christian history – the ‘conversion’ of the Roman Emperor Constantine and his adoption of the Christian faith as the religion of Rome – was the basis for the first real institutionalization of the Church.  Both early Christianity and Rome needed each other and benefitted from the agreement, and Christianity with its new legitimacy among Gentiles expanded exponentially.  As importantly Constantine, as a powerful secular ruler, knew that doctrinal disputes could only lead to political dissension in the empire.  He understood how the sectarian conflicts between the Jews and the followers of Christ three hundred years before involved imperial Rome to its detriment.

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However, as much as Constantine did to consolidate both his power and that of the Church, internecine theological conflicts continued, especially with the rise and influence of Arianism. The dispute between Arians and more orthodox Nicaean Christians was once again over the nature of Christ and the Trinity, and orthodoxy did not prevail for many more decades.  Finally the Roman Church became the center of Western Christianity and with its Roman-style authoritative organizational structure became more powerful than that of the East which retained its old belief in decentralization.  Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism still have not reached any peace accords.

In other words because the simple themes promoted by Christ and his followers resonated with both Jews and Gentiles and were becoming the basis for a potentially politically important movement, it was logical for more secular- and power-minded members of the new community to try to co-opt them, make them their own and the basis for their particular brand of faith.  The simple words and the hair-splitting theological arguments were both lost in the emergence of the church into an influential institution.

From an intellectual, theological perspective the Bible offers the rational basis for faith so prized by the Catholic Church.  Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were champions of rationality, and the Church to this day has insisted that faith without reason is no faith at all.  Early theologians before they became interested in promoting sectarian movements, had more than enough to chew on.  Biblical exegesis is a billion-dollar industry and for good reason.  Although the principles of Christianity – faith, grace, suffering, redemption, the remission of sin, and salvation – seem simple and straightforward, upon close inspection they are nothing of the kind. The relationship between Jesus and his Father is complex enough, but that between Man and God even more so.

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Thomas Aquinas www.taylormarshall.com

As importantly the history of the early Church provides many lessons in administration and management.  Christian theologians and leaders understood that without an official consolidation of Christian doctrine, inter-sectarian doctrinal debates would continue to the detriment of the movement, so at the Synod of Hippo (393 AD) the Council of Bishops approved a Christian canon.  This was an important step towards rationalizing the new religion, giving in consistency, congruence, and therefore political power. Based on this canon, the Church could now decentralize.  The new bishops could follow an approved text and promote the new faith coherently.

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As in any institution, once you create one layer of authority – in this case bishops who were to convey the principles of the the new faith to the public – you must create additional layers above it; and so the Church evolved the hierarchy we know today.  This consolidation of power was not without its detractors, however, and both Martin Luther and Henry VIII took the Church to task for its religious and secular overreaching.  The Church in the Renaissance was powerful enough to flex its political muscle, and was a major player in European wars.

Henry VIII

The history of early Christianity also is one of remarkable public relations and marketing. Almost single-handedly Paul promoted the new religion from Syria to Rome.  Although one thinks of him as a preacher, Paul was primarily a manager who formed regional and local evangelical teams, preached to them tirelessly about the principles of the faith and about how to promote them, and made repeated performance review visits to be sure that they were adhering to institutional policy and staying on message.

Of all the aspects of the early Church, Paul’s evangelism is perhaps the most impressive.  If one takes a secular view of his enterprise (i.e. without divine intervention) he accomplished his mission through remarkable intelligence, management, and savvy.  He was brilliant.  He modified his message to suit the very different the socio-cultural milieus of the Romans, Corinthians, Thessalonians, and Colossians. He was adept at speaking the intellectual language of his potential clients.

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Both Jesus and Paul were politically very savvy. They knew that the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, and the Pentateuch were the foundations for their teaching.  They could not discredit Mosaic Law and the Ten Commandments without shaking the underpinnings of their new religion; so both attacked the Jews for straying from God’s intent.  They had become idolaters and hypocrites, far from what God expected from his chosen people.

Reading the Bible and the history of the Church together is important because it provides at once an insight into the fundamentals of a world religion – the basis of faith – and lessons in how a popular movement becomes co-opted, institutionalized, and eventually corrupted.  Reading the unalloyed words of Christ - or as unalloyed as they can be after fifty years and the necessary subjectivity of the Evangelists – is enlightening.  Even if taken only as myth, the story of Jesus Christ is powerful, engaging, dramatic, and meaningful.  With only a scintilla of faith, his words become resonant and important.

Dostoevsky in The Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov writes of Christ’s temptations in the desert and how by his responses to the Devil on all three, he set the stage for the creation of a venal, manipulative, and corrupt institution – the Church. People only want miracles, mystery, and authority, the Grand Inquisitor says to the returned Christ.  They could care less about free will and the responsibility of using it to attain salvation.  You – the Inquisitor says to Christ – could have given them food, shelter, and clothing.  You could have alleviated their suffering, but you offered them only promises and by so doing laid the cornerstone of the most corrupt institution on earth.

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While it is understandable how the Church came into existence and how it grew to be the rich imperial power it was in the Renaissance and how it maintained its authority for centuries afterwards, it is still not a pretty story.  Human nature is not pretty; and institutions and empires as they grow are always exploitive and self-serving.  It is the contrast between the simple, essential words of Christ in the Gospels and the growth of the Church (and churches) that shocks.

Christianity is not alone in this religious and historical trajectory. Muslims divided early and clearly and the clash between Shiites and Sunnis persists to this day.  Judaism, despite its ancient roots has internal divisions over Biblical interpretation and tradition not unlike Christians and while it is a settled religion unlike Islam (predating it by almost 3000 years), rabbis still argue.

Religion has become a by-word for conflict, death and destruction. We have come so far from the words of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Koran that only lip service is paid to them.  Even the fundamental principles of the Bible – family, reproduction, and life – are used for political ends; and even principles of compassion and charity have been distorted for secular gain.

Academics are big on going back to ‘original sources’, avoiding the subjectivity and necessary mistakes in interpretation and translation that anything other than primary sources offer.  The Bible should be the primary source on everyone’s reading list. Before one dismisses Christianity for all its murderous excesses, one should see what its originator had in mind. Second on the list should be a history of the Early Church to see how quickly and efficiently this simple religion became big business.

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