Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Christian Heresy I Feel Makes Sense

Despite growing up in a mildly Christian country (the UK) where people tend to take on the trappings of religion and increasingly use it as a basis to be self-righteous and condemn others, religion never appealed to me. Rationally, also I could see no sense of it. I could deal with the possibility of a supreme being, but all the other trappings which came with the worship of God seemed simply human constructs, again to encourage segregation. Also I have trouble with this concept of 'worship'. If a being is supreme, why does it need to be constantly reminded of that fact. Surely worship actually wastes time and distracts from doing what the being wants really us to do? Yet for church organisations, worship is the prime activity.

Having studied the breakaway of the Protestants from the Catholic Church in the 16th century I noted that whereas the Catholics had said you got to Heaven both through doing good works and having faith in God, the Protestants said that you only needed to have faith in God to get to Heaven, you did not have to put in any good work. I felt they had got this the wrong way round, and actually doing good works was the important element and actually demonstrates that you had faith in God. I could not go with Catholicism because it had far too many of the irrational trappings such as saintly intercession and the general pomp and circumstance that the Protestants were against. In addition, I could not accept its attitudes on contraception or abortion for the World we currently live in. So I suppose I felt I was outside the two main strands of Christianity around me.

From a humanist perspective I could see good elements of Christianity and having looked at history I recognised that whilst Christianity and Islam formed the basis of many bloody and cruel conflicts, at times they also restrained excessive behaviour especially in terms of the vulnerable. I think we should be good to other people because that is what being human should be about, but I recognise that the majority of people need something like the threat of eternal damnation to encourage them to moderate their behaviour towards other people especially those they can easily exploit. Increasingly I felt attracted to Pagan approaches to the cosmos, because at least these seem to fit in with how it functions and Pagans do not these days start major wars or seek to categorise and so exclude other people. In contrast there seemed to be so many sub-sets of Christianity and even within a small organisation like the Church of England, even individual churches (as in a group of people going to a single building) seemed to conflict with other churches of the same denomination.

Now, my opinions have shifted in recent years. Analysing it I think this is due to a number of causes. One is that I am ageing and coming closer to when I die as my life expectancy now is about 10-15 years. I do not feel fearful of eternal damnation or consider going to Heaven, but perhaps it is simply that as you age you reflect more on your own life and how it fits into the broader pattern of humanity. Other factors have also contributed, such as 'The Da Vinci Code' movie. I know people saw this as irreligious, but as I have noted here before it actually got me thinking about Jesus as a man rather than something divine. I am convinced he was married and that he lived a normal life for most of the time. I think he was supposed to supply the catering or at least the wine for one of his brother's weddings. That made him seem much closer to me in my outlook. I think churches are on the wrong track when they portray Jesus as somehow super-human, far removed from us mere mortals. How can we ever aspire to be anything close to that? I am never going to be semi-divine, not even one tenth divine, so Jesus is always going to be very far from my existence. If Jesus was an ordinary man, then that is very different. As an ordinary man, he demonstrates things that I myself could achieve. I can do good works, help people, make sacrifices and these things could win me a place in Heaven, because I would be putting myself to the ultimate test which is assisting humanity as a whole.

Now, I was encouraged to reflect on Jesus's humanity by playing the 'Barbarian Invasion' expansion to the computer game, 'Rome Total War'. This might seem a very peculiar source of religious reflection, but bear with me. The expansion starts in the 4th century CE at a time when a lot of aspects of what we see as Christianity in western and eastern Europe were being defined and a lot of things that had been put forward as being part of Christian canon were thrown out at various councils and became known as heresies. These things which were thrown out such as the Gospel of St. Philip and the perception of Jesus as being more human than divine (though the dispute on this is what still keeps the Catholic and Orthodox churches apart) was also pushed aside and as is highlighted in the 'The Da Vinci Code' one day Jesus was human and the next day divine. This was not decided by Jesus but policy-makers four cecnturies later. In 'Barbarian Invasion', various characters you encounter subscribe to different Christian 'heresie' that normally you do not hear much about. So I was attracted to what has been written out of mainstream Christianity. The three I would point to are the Arian Heresy. This went against the concept of Trinity, that Jesus, as the Son, is an eternal element of God, rather it sees him as distinct. Furthermore there is the Nestorian Heresy that Jesus had a purely human element as well as an element which came from God, but that these are distinct. When Jesus was on Earth he was a man. Now to me this makes sense. What is the point of sending down a part of God to show humans how to live, it is much more effective to charge a man with doing that. People emphasise the very ordinary nature of Jesus, who like so many people suffered upheaval and persecution, arrest on the grounds of conscience and execution, things that millions have been through. Surely this is a better illustration to humans of how to behave with humanity, dignity and courage than having a super-human who can opt out of the hazards of life?

Interestingly, in the Gospel of John, Chapter 10, Jesus says he calls God his father, but feels that all men should do that.  He quotes Psalm 82 (Psalm 81 in Catholic Bibles) as reinforcing this view.  This suggests that at the time John was assembling his gospel, which seems to have been around 90CE, that it was being stated that Jesus viewed everyone as a 'child of God' and that he was unexceptional in that.  Nowhere do I see Jesus marking himself out in the Bible as being divine, though many people seem to argue that these days.  Talking of the Gospels, it is interesting how the date of their authorship has been pushed back.  When I was at school we were taught that the New Testament was written 80-200 years after Jesus's execution.  However, now popularly you see statements that it was started in 45 CE, only 10-12 years after Jesus's death.  Previously the different gospels were supposedly written anonymously and given the different names of the supposed authors, even though they state that they were written by apostles close to Jesus.  Many people believe now that the gospels were written by actual apostles of Jesus, but there is evidence that they were only appended these designations later. The Gospel of Mark was written around 64 CE, possibly in Syria rather than Palestine, and seems to have drawn some of its information from relatives of the apostles. It seems the Gospel of Matthew was written sometime after 80 CE by a wealthy Jew, showing adherence to Jewish law and aware of the theological debates of that decade rather than earlier.  The Gospel of Luke was probably also written late in the 1st Century CE and used Mark's gospel for chronology.  Despite people now saying that these were written by apostles alive at the time of Jesus's life and noted down soon after, in fact what we read is more like an account of events in a location with no modern media that occurred in the 1960s compared to today.

Another heresy which attracte my attention was the Pelagian Heresy which argues that individuals choose whether they make their way to redemption and into Heaven without necessarily the input from God. In its view Adam set a bad example to humanity and Jesus a good example. Humans take entire responsibility for their own behaviour whether it is good or sinful, they cannot blame divine forces. Of course God still judges at the end of the person's life, but there is not intervention by God in the process up until then. In addition, everyone starts life with a clean slate, there is no original sin, it is up to you if you are going to be sinful or not. To some degree this is the basis on which most societies view and judge crime. Only individuals of 'diminished responsibility', i.e. deemed not to be in a position to distinguish properly what is good or sinful, if even temporarily, are viewed as exempt from this. In combining Nestorian and Pelagian heresies, I feel you actually have a perception of the role of Jesus which is far more appropriate for guiding human development than mixing it all up with the super-human elements.

Interestingly, of course, Jesus appears in Islam. He is not the son of God (no more, than we are all in fact sons and daughters of God having been created by Him), he is a prophet. In Victorian times, Westerners called Islam, Mohammedism after the leading prophet, Mohammed. Now if we see Jesus as not being a divine being at all, just the leading proponent of a set of principles that lead us to lead a life that is welcomed by God, then on this basis, Christianity is the correct term for what we would be following.

Thus, I suggest that people consider this 'heresy'. Jesus was a man who existed. He came from an ordinary background (though as the Bible makes clear from the Nativity onwards, not as poor as some people make out) and he was filled with a desire to show and instruct people how they can live together in a way that minimises the cruelty and suffering in the World. Naturally this mode of behaviour is one that God approves of. However, God's involvement with Jesus was no greater than rewarding him for the life he lived by giving him a place in Heaven at the time of his death. Jesus was a son of God just as every man on the planet is a son of God and every woman, one of his daughters, but he had no divine elements in him. As such, all of us could aspire to live and behave in the way Jesus did, as fits with the societies we now live in. If we do so then we will achieve a place in Heaven. However, it is up to us to decide how we are going to behave. If we choose to sin, then we suffer. 'The wages of sin are death' and this might be physical death, but even before that it is likely to be spiritual and intellectual death. A sinful life is an empty life, and reward for behaving in a good way is a full life, now and for ever more, that is what humans are here to experience.

A Christian friend of mine was surprised that I felt more belief in Jesus the more human I perceived him. This is in contrast really to the approach adopted by churches over the past 1700 years to emphasise his exceptionality and his super-human nature. This lifts Jesus farther and farther away from us and so makes his message seem inapplicable to us who are just simple humans. Bring Jesus back to humanity and hopefully humanity will be able to behave in a more humane way.

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