The Birth of the World’s Largest Religion – “Grand Scale Culture Wars”, Part 4
In parts 1 – 3, we’ve taken a high altitude look at the often-warring “ways to truth” of supernaturalism and naturalism. These are represented mainly by traditional Christianity and science. The passionate competition between them is not always obvious. Only certain writers and certain issues bring it to the surface.
Among the issues, perhaps the creation–evolution debate is most significant and heated. The year 1925, nearly a century past now, was a key marker, already well into this great cultural struggle. That year was the famed “Scopes Trial” (so named for the science teacher defendant, Mr. Scopes). This “monkey trial” pitted famous secular attorney, Clarence Darrow, against a very popular political and Christian leader who had been three times a candidate for President, William Jennings Bryan.
The issue: teaching evolution in public school. Technically the anti-evolution case (Bryan) prevailed. But in effect, “evolution” (Darrow) won. Apparently the showing of “creationism” wasn’t pretty. (I’ve not bothered to check how Bryan argued the case.) The main point is that things seem to remain at about the same state in this stand-off, after all this time. Emotions are still often high on both sides – whether on evolution-creation specifically or any of several, sometimes related issues.
Now if 100 years is not really a long time in terms of the progress of paradigms, maybe 2000 years isn’t either! I’d argue that is the case! Supernaturalism, in our sense here of two distinct tiers or “way things work” within the universe, is older than that. But let’s use the beginning of Christianity as a meaningful marking point for current-day supernaturalist thinking.
So what caused the emergence of Christianity out of Judaism? This is a massive topic itself, which we can deal with only in broad strokes here, without the scholarship of documentation. I will say, however, that out of passion to understand, I have spent many hundreds (if not thousands) of hours deeply exploring this subject, particularly in the last decade. I’m not merely repeating common conceptions which are often misconceptions. So…
Where did the New Testament (NT) writers get the ideas that went into this new religion?
The answer is complex but it’s accurate to simplify things by saying it was mainly “revelation” and expectation of the “appearance” of the Messiah. The latter is often called the “return of Christ”. The more accurate rendering of the Greek is “appearance” or “presence”, and “Christ” is merely Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah”. So the point is “appearance of the Messiah”. Or we might add, for Jesus’ original Jewish followers, “(re)appearance of Jesus as Messiah (rather than defeated on a cross).
The two key concepts of revelation and Jesus’ victorious status are interlinked, particularly in St. Paul’s case… where we get the biggest influence on Christian theology. It appears the original Apostles’ expectation was significantly different than Paul’s. They expected fulfillment of Hebrew scriptural visions of a Jerusalem-centered Kingdom of God blessing the world through Yahweh, the Jewish God, administering Jewish law. The Messiah was his human “Anointed One” (meaning of “Messiah”). Paul, not having known the human Jesus, saw him as a cosmic savior. This involved a very different nature, status and effect of messiahship: breaking down all meaningful Jewish-Gentile distinctions (though still retaining “privilege” of heritage and such). Paul brought a new focus on inward spiritual transformation by believers’ identification with Christ (Messiah).
Paul makes the point repeatedly that his information about the heavenly Christ (he spends almost no time on the earthly Jesus) came by direct revelation to him. He declares he did not get it from any human source. It was about visions and being transported to heavenly places, with him unable to tell if bodily or only spiritually (2 Corinthians 12).
Now it happens that I believe people sometimes do receive “revelations”, often beneficial, and in extraordinary ways. Maybe visions or auditory messages. Or the much-studied and very real-seeming experiences of a “near death” or clinical death situation, and other ways. In believing this I needn’t be a “supernaturalist”. I don’t have to separate their source out as above-and-beyond the “natural world”. And I can still allow for “God” (or a universal “mind”) to be involved, utilizing natural processes still little understood by us. I know they gradually are being better observed and understood.
But St. Paul, like most ancient Jews and pagans, conceived a powerfully intervening God within a dualistic (what I’m calling two-tier) reality. The most common current view of God is similar.
Although Paul contributed specifics of theology beyond other NT writers, it seems clear that his “founding” contemporaries, the other Apostles, also “inherited” (in Hebrew Scriptures and strong religious traditions) expectations of Messiah’s arrival. He would be a God-anointed special human (certainly not divine). In the late Greek and early Roman period in Palestine, many candidates were identified and often rooted out and killed by the occupiers. For the Jews, these were desperate times that called for desperate measures.
Back to the other Apostles and followers of Jesus: after resurrection appearances they expected his soon “return”. And so it has been passed on down to our day. (In my view, such appearances were visionary only, as actual historical evidence to the contrary is missing and the supposed “evidence” more than dubious, despite what Christian apologists claim… I know, I used to be one of them.)
These other Jerusalem-based leaders, in a similar way to Paul, combined messianic expectations with faith in revelations to remain Jesus followers after his death. (Paul had his vision a few years, not days or weeks, after Jesus’ death and never spent much time in Jerusalem.) From indications both by Paul and Luke (in Acts), these initial “Christians” actually remained a mostly-acceptable sect of Messianic Judaism, not an unusual thing at that time. For simplicity, however, let’s lump their influence together with that of Paul and others as to the emergence of mainly-Gentile Christianity. (There was a fairly lengthy period of it and a distinctly Jewish Christianity existing together.)
To me, a good part of the sorely-needed solution of a 3rd paradigm mediating between naturalism and supernaturalism comes this way: Respecting the roles of both mythology and history. In the case of Christianity, mythology includes quasi-historical accounts supposedly anchoring theology in history. [More on this later.] “Myth” includes but is not merely fiction… one might say it is a sort of trinity: psychology, anthropology and theology. For its part, history as a discipline uses rigorous methodology reflecting science though it is not “hard science” and never fully objective. But it can and should critique that quasi-history portion of any history-based religion such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Recognizing “the power of myth” neither denigrates it nor accords it the supernatural status claimed by Christian concepts of revelation. By this I mean particularly revelation to authoritative figures such as Apostles or later-recognized prophets, as this became Scripture (divinely revealed “Truth”). Recognizing myth, however does call us to what is very challenging to even face, let alone do in depth: examine the very founding-and-operating myths of our own views of the world, whether “religious” or “scientific” or some combination.
What we will look at in our next part will be more depth on the “myth of origin” in the story of earliest Christianity… how it seeks to explain things yet has distorted reality in the process. We’ll explore how the linkage of revelation and authority was necessary and sets views of the world almost as solidly as concrete.
Your questions or comments are welcomed!