Interprative Frameworks, Part 1: What Is Christianity, Really?

This series–believe it or not–has been about the Bible.  There is method in the madness of my seeming diversion into dualism.  The thing that launched this is my re-reading of the Bible and my realization of how repulsive I found much of  the Old Testament to be.  As a more or less orthodox Catholic, I can’t be a Marcionite and jettison the OT altogether.  On the other hand, I’m acutely aware that when one starts trying to distance oneself from the nasty bits of the OT that one opens oneself up to the accusation that one is just cherry picking the nice parts and leaving out the bad–in short, of being intellectually dishonest and inconsistent.  I have been thinking about this for at least the last three years, and much of this blog has been a way of working out my views in writing.  Thus, the excursus through dualism has been a roundabout way of backing into the question of how we should relate to the Old Testament.

The specific relevance of dualism I’ll save for the next post or the one after.  Meanwhile, the whole question can be boiled down to this:  What is the “correct” version of Christianity, really?  This is a much more difficult question than it seems at first.

The orthodox narrative–of any religion, really–is that the Real, True, Self-Evidently Obvious Right Way was revealed from the start, and that any deviations are Evil Heresies.  Conversely, the narrative usually adopted by the “heretics” is that the Real, True, Self-Evidently Obvious Right Way was revealed to them from the start, but then was crushed and marginalized by the Evil Oppressive Forces of Nasty So-Called “Orthodoxy” (In Scare Quotes!).  Both of these narratives are simplistic, tendentious, and partisan, and both can be shown from  historical studies of the religions for which we have sufficient documentation to be erroneous.  We need to look at this from the point of view of the sociology of religion.  This annoys believers because it makes no allowance for the Divine or for who is “right”; but I’ll address that a little later.  To get a grasp of the issues at stake here, we must start, at least, by stepping back, putting our personal beliefs aside, and trying to assess what is, exteriorly speaking, anyway, happening.  Then, and only then, can we see how to square that with our own religious beliefs.

Religions begin with an experience by one or more individuals–Moses and the Burning Bush, Siddhartha’s Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, Zoroaster’s experience of Ahura Mazda, the experience by the Disciples of the Risen Christ–or sometimes from a complex of experiences by many people over time and other factors, too, that just grows up over time (as with Hinduism, Daoism, etc.).  With the latter category of religion, it’s not unusual for it to remain more or less unchanged for centuries or millennia, since there is no particular body of dogma and doctrine, and there is thus much elasticity in practice and even belief.

In the case of the former–the religions with discrete founders–there is a typical process.  The Founder has some kind of definitive experience (enlightenment, resurrection, contact with God, etc.).  A group of followers forms around the Founder, and are taught by him/her.  Some groups may break with the Founder during his (to save space on his/her) lifetime.  Those that remain continue with the Founder until his death.

At this point, there must be a way for the teachings of the Founder to be propagated.  There may be informal mechanisms for awhile, even for decades–oral tradition, customs, following the teachings of the Founder, etc.  However, sooner or later, crisis points arise.  New situations unanticipated by the Founder (or at least not expressed by him) arise.  Differences of interpretation arise–people begin to ask exactly what the Founder meant by such-and-such (an excellent illustration of this is the Ed Asner “nuclear reactor” skit on Episode 6 of Season 10 of Saturday Night Live, which unfortunately I can’t find to embed).

This results in institutionalization.  Some form of religious authority–priests, monastics, scribes, scholars, charismatic gurus or shamans, etc.–arises which takes to itself the final authority in matters religious.  Typically, not everyone agrees, and debates, struggles, and schisms typically ensue.  The group that ends up with the most power becomes the “orthodox” (or the equivalent in the religion in question); the losers become the “heretics” (recall that the Greek hairesis–whence “heresy”–means literally “opinion”).  Both the orthodox and the heretics claim the authority of the Original Teachings of the Founder and accuse each other of falling away from the True Faith.  This is not surprising, since it is in the interest of each side to do so.

In some cases, various schools of a religion each differing from the others in important ways and each claiming authenticity co-exist for long periods of time before this lining up of orthodox vs. heretical.  Judaism is an important example of this, but we’ll return to this later.

Getting back to schisms, it is typically possible to draw up a tree-like chart of descent for the various sects and denominations of a given religion.  At each point of fission–each branch-off from the previous trunk (or branch) is a disagreement as to who is maintaining the “true” faith.  Was Paul’s teaching a departure from the simple faith of Jesus?  Or was it the followers of Simon Magus that were right (or wrong)?  Perhaps the acceptance of a Hellenistic framework was a betrayal of the Jewish/Semitic nature of primitive Christianity.  Or was it the accommodation to the state after Constantine?  And so on.  Where are we to draw the line?  How do we know which branch at any given point is right, and which wrong.  The answer–sorry folks–is that we don’t.

The thing is that we have no universal vantage point from which to make such a judgment.  Consider:  If I think that the sum of the measures of the angles of a triangle in a plane is 270° and you think it’s 180°, a simple geometric proof will show that you’re correct.  If I believe that g, the acceleration due to Earth’s gravity, is 2.6 m/s2, and you think it’s 9.8 m/s2, then we can do straightforward experiments that will show that you, once more, are right.  Suppose I think that Sitting Bull signed the Magna Carta and that Charlemagne was the first president of the USA.  History isn’t quite as neat and clear-cut as math or physics, but in such a case I could still be proved wrong with little effort.   

With religious truth, we have no such vantage point as in the examples given.  We could argue all day long as to whether, for example, Paul legitimately interprets Christian faith, or whether his views depart from the teachings of Jesus/the early Jerusalem Church/the first believers/the Christian movement which was Jewish in origin, etc., without ever coming to a satisfactory meeting of minds.  Paul is notoriously hard to interpret, as it is, so turning to his writings or the other parts of the Bible is of limited help.  We certainly can’t ask Paul himself.  One might say that the early Church canonized Paul’s writings–and by extension, teachings–by accepting them, but other groups did not so accept them.

One might argue that Paul’s writings are the earliest–but the counter-argument would be that his corruption of Jesus’ “real” teachings began from the git-go.  One might argue that Paul himself and/or other early Christians didn’t actually hold later doctrines retrospectively attributed to them, and this is probably true.  However, it doesn’t settle the matter.  Religions change and adapt over time, and often the full implications of a teaching do not become apparent for centuries.  For example, Paul seems rather wishy-washy on slavery, and if we could go back in time to interview him, he might balk at abolition of it in his time and context.  But if he came forward to our time and saw that it had finally been abolished, he might well smile and say, “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!”

One could claim to have besought God in prayer and come thereby to the correct meaning, but unfortunately people with diametrically opposite views make the same claim.

The only external criteria for religious truth, really, are

1.  Its compatibility with other truth, since truth is one.  Thus, if a religion teaches something demonstrably false, such as that 5 + 5 = 71.32 or that the Earth is flat, then it cannot, at least in its literalist form, be true.

2.  Internal consistency.  If a religion teaches sometimes that Bongo, the great Cabbage God, is the Lord of All, and sometimes that he is the Epitome of Evil, then there’s some deep confusion going on.  Unless this can be resolved, mystically or otherwise, such a religion is probably best avoided.

Outside that, there are no criteria that don’t require a leap of faith.  When I say that Paul is (or isn’t) compatible with Jesus, or the New Testament is (or isn’t) God’s Word, or that the Church did (or didn’t) go off track after Constantine, I can assert this only

1.  By asserting that such seems to me to be correct, or

2.  By asserting that an authority–the Bible, the Pope, the Magisterium, Martin Luther, my pastor, the kid down the street–says so, and that I believe them.

The problem, of course, is that with number 1, I am, in a sense, putting myself up as Arbiter of God’s Will–a lofty claim!–and in 2, I have to give an account of why the Bible, my pastor, or the kid down the street deserves my allegiance and belief in the first place.  Once more, ’tis a puzzlement.

I don’t think there is a totally, external, objective answer that is satisfactory.   Were that so, all humanity would be one religion, just as we all accept that the angles of a triangle in a plane total 180°.  That doesn’t mean we have no means for dealing with this issue–though we’ll never all reach the same conclusion.  I’ll discuss these in the next post.

Posted on 01/08/2012, in Bible, Catholicism, Christianity, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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