What is Christianity?

It’s now 40 years since I stopped being a Christian minister. Am I now a Christian? This is where I have to put on a ‘philosophy’ hat, and ask the follow-up question. What does ‘being a Christian’ mean? Christianity, after all, is by no means a homogeneous entity. There are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant versions. Among the latter there are episcopal, presbyterian, congregationalist, baptist and methodist variants. The lamentable legacy of Scottish presbyterianism is the above ‘Drain Pipe Diagram’. Managing to keep the show on the road, we have inflexible fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals, adventurous progressives, and outrageous radicals. Depending on who you’re reading or listening to, God shape-changes all the way up (or down) from a Mega-Being enthroned among angels and saints in heaven above, to a metaphysical non-being that’s the ‘ground of all being’. You pays your money, and takes your pick.

This confusing, and often contumacious, contemporary clanjamfrie ought to be no surprise. Jesus was a believing Jew, who anticipated the imminent arrival of God’s earthly kingdom in the shape of a restored Israel – an overwhelming cosmic event that would precipitate the conversion to God of all the gentile nations. Not only was Jesus expeditiously and ignominiously executed, however, but no such anticipated cosmic event took place! His followers had to re-think his message. Being Jews, they fine-combed their scriptures for ‘clues’ to ‘explain’, in a positive light, what had happened. Progressively, a variety of different ideas competed for acceptance, some of which, eventually, appeared in a succession of ‘creeds’ and ‘confessions’.

Despite those who seem to imagine that the Christian religion dropped, “once and for all”, ‘oven ready’ from the skies, it didn’t. (Here in the UK, we know all about ‘oven readiness’ – and burned fingers!) In the first three centuries, as now, there were many and varied ‘Christianities’. There were Ebionite, Gnostic, Docetic, Arian and Marcionite factions among others, and they weren’t the best of buddies. Some thought the cantankerous Jewish God was a different one from the kind-hearted Christian one. Some thought Jesus was a human into whom a divine being had entered, then left prior to his death. Others thought Jesus was a divine being whose humanity was an appearance only. Some believed he was the ‘Son of God’, and others that he was ‘God the Son’. Confusion worse confounded. 

The group that won out, was the one chosen by Constantine and succeeding Roman Emperors, to be the state religion. As is invariably the case, winner takes all, and rewrites history to the exclusion of its rivals, whose “pagan” places of worship were destroyed, whose apostate priests were ‘defrocked’ (or otherwise despatched), and whose heretical books were burned. Copies of these rival gospels, epistles and apocalypses, buried before the burning mobs appeared, were only unearthed last century, many from the sands of Egypt (google ‘Nag Hammadi’). These give an insight into the richly imaginative contents of the different shelves in the initial Christian ideological ‘emporium’ of beliefs.

The key point about this, from my perspective, is that there’s never been a “faith once and for all delivered to the saints”. And a good thing too! What could be more repressing (and depressing) than any such rigid, mind-closing interpretation of a Christianity, fortunate (or politically adept) enough, to have hit the religious jackpot seventeen centuries ago. To me, some of these old ideas are now well past their ‘useful’ date. It’s time to ‘unearth’ a more open and less dogmatic Christianity, that’s in touch with how things are, socially, artistically, politically, morally, scientifically, in this twenty-first century. That might save a few ‘solutions’ for non-problems. 

For starters, the Jesus (the Jewish Jesus!) who began it all, needs to be set free from much of the mythical, metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that’s growingly enshrouded him down through the years. We’ve lost a clear and focused view of his way of living, and his way of looking at things, that prioritised ‘spirit’ over ‘letter’, and inclusiveness over prejudice and bigotry, and has so much to offer that’s relevant and liberating for every age and for all time. Space, however, has run out … for now.   

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: