WHAT IS CHRISTIANITY?
Updated: Feb 11
By Mary Scriver
This is a sort of a sermon or maybe not. There’s no authority or superiority to it. Maybe not even truth.
Despite every kind of distortion, abuse, misunderstanding, and extortion, Christianity persists — but in many forms, some of them having little to do with the core original ideas. The cross becomes a lucky charm for prosperity and an excuse for genocide. Ministry leaves prophesy and the identification of evil in order to become a version of Jesus in a nightgown surrounded by children and little animals. And yet there is enough power in the ideas to sustain even foxhole believers.
Religion in our time is such a composite of institution, saint, devil, society, respectability, and evil that it’s hardly intelligible. Now that I’m reading the novels of Robert Clark, which take Christianity seriously, I’m reaching back to the experience of seminary. The kind I mean takes comparative or historical religion as its approach. It’s not Bible College but tries to lay philosophical theology against societies of different times and places as a way of exploring them. For some people this is felt as the dismantling of all the ideas they’ve had about what Christianity is, so as to rebuild it in a contemporary and meaningful way. It is rare for people with this kind of education to have congregations that will allow them to preach this upsetting stuff. They want Sunday morning to be a quiet, reassuring, semi-parental experience — what they have become used to. Maybe a rousing bit of emotion now and then.
The question remains, “what should we do?” And where is the line between family and tribe? And how can we expand delight while resisting suffering?
Here are some thoughts. The first is that the Bible is NOT the Word of God. It is an anthology, first the Old Testament that includes the Torah (the first five “books”) and other Jewish canon documents. All were written by men. It’s not Christian until the New Testament, which is composed in the same anthology style. Four are stories about a man named Jesus who didn’t write any of them — we don’t even know whether he could write — and the stories don’t agree. Much of the rest is letters by Paul who saw the potential of the ideas to be shaped into justification for an institution.
Christ is not Jesus’ last name. He is not Mr. Christ. The word is recognition for a mythic figure, a warrior who would come to save the people from oppression by the Romans. Jesus was taken to be this figure. The idea is controversial, but what is not is that the idea of a warrior savior gradually becomes a savior whose weapons are peace and love, a revolution of the hearts rather than the sword.
Another idea phenomenon is that the focus moves from tribe — whose thirst for control leads to war — to the family — the figures of father, mother, and child. The earliest versions of mass are shaped by rural family homes where the chopping block of sacrifice becomes the table for communion.
An historical fact is that crucifixion was a common punishment for criminals and nonconformists, so that choosing the cross as emblematic of death and survival was joined to the deaths of hundreds. The major “warrior” hero is now celebrated as insuppressible though as humble as anyone else. Whatever you think of his human body, his ideas persist.
The Romans finally saw that if they didn’t take the truth of peace and love to heart, the people would rise against them. They converted to “Christianity” and spread it across Europe as they acted in the Old Testament way to conquer and control as much land as they could. In the process the idea of Jesus’ straightforward and inclusive kindness and generosity took a lot of strange turns, sweeping up autochthonous (i.e., earliest or indigenous) ideas and tucking them in wherever they fit. More or less.
The institution of the Roman Catholic Church was very helpful in a time when Europe was divided into warring factions because the Pope was “trans-national,’ claiming God was his authority and the ultimate weapon was Hell. But then the masses broke it all open with Protestantism and have been breaking open Empires with new versions of Jesus’ ideas ever since. In our times we are witnessing the merchandizing of the ideas, connecting allegiance to monetary success, which would not have pleased Jesus.
This is so goofy an account of history that it will be mocked and discounted, but there’s a little kernel of truth in it, sustained by an idea of the world that is a primitive three-layered diagram of heaven, earth and hell, and a child’s dependence on rescue by a big strong parent.
Today’s understanding of the world has exploded and will no longer support the idea of warring factions trying to claim something supernatural. What replaces this potent and detailed institutionalized story of Christianity?
The first force was a widening world wherein the Euro-Mediterranean side of the continent of Eurasia was only a part of the human species on the planet. The second was geology, the increasing understanding of the surface of the planet and how it had changed over the years, a much longer time than any known religion. This was part of a science based on observation, looking at rocks on mountains and finding seashells. Third was the development of glass lenses that allowed us to see out past the stars and deep into our own tissues.
So when seminary pushed aside the tale of the two-thousand-year-old Christianity, it made room for uncountable years and infinities of new thought. Now with DNA showing all living beings share a beginning and a code for continuation, we know we aren’t puppets made of clay by some god, but are participants, each of us with a blink of time to do something for ourselves and others.
The question remains, “what should we do?” And where is the line between family and tribe? And how can we expand delight while resisting suffering? Jesus still seems a good role-model but I’m not so fond of Paul and the Romans love of empire is still a problem.
Christianity can be treated as an opportunity for gaming. So can any other “religion.” But what remains as an irreducible definition of so-called “religion” is the human experience of epiphany, an awareness of transcendence and felt holiness that cannot be stamped out.
The winter fog is clinging to the village, be-furring all with ermine. It’s quiet because of the pandemic keeping people indoors. This is a time of potential waiting for Spring. A cold sun breaks through here and there.
Mary Scriver—“Prairie Mary”—is a retired Unitarian minister who lives in Valier, Mt.