Grand Scale Culture Wars – Part 8 – Linking Current to Ancient Authority
The beginning of this series dealt with a great modern battle. The typical supernaturalism of Western religion clashes with the pure naturalism of much of science and secular culture.
The intensity of the conflict only flashes bright on certain issues. Otherwise, it simmers below the surface. But the lack of more careful and nuanced discussions on it leaves many in difficult positions. One is confusion.
If you’re not thinking much about issues you may be fine. But if you are a curious, thinking person and not a specialist in these areas, you may well be confused. You may be sitting uncomfortably on the fence: “Do I believe my creationist pastor and friends or my evolutionist professors?” Maybe you feel compelled to choose between “black” or “white” when little-noticed gray is also an option – maybe a more realistic and useful one.
Maybe both the pastor and the evolutionist professor have part of the truth? And “gray” comes from combining these parts? Here black might be supernaturalism and white, naturalism; in common parlance, “religion” vs. “science”. Few people know any labels for gray, but in terms of creation-evolution specifically, one might be “theistic evolution”.
What I’m calling supernaturalism is represented well in traditional Christianity, and arguably in typical theism, which would include Judaism and Islam. It is usually the kind of God in these faiths that is objected to by their more progressive members and by atheists. There are relatively few atheists who believe no kind of God exists. (Typically surveyed at less than 10%, and they tend to come and go.) However, much of our science-influenced culture takes up a position against religion-based theism. Religious people often counter-attack. Off we go, wasting energy on both sides.
Worse still, religion is portrayed, especially to college students, as rigid and anti-science. (This is not entirely without basis, when generalizing; but it is still unfairly poisoning the well.) Such students often can’t even imagine an intellectually viable type of faith. It all contributes to a culture seen as anti-religion. At the same time, a majority of Americans are actually religious. If not that, “spiritual but not religious”. Christians tend to react to an anti-religion perception. Among other things, they become overly suspicious of science. Case in point: a correlation between climate-change denial and conservative faith – not nearly 100%, but fairly strong correlation. We’re in a crazy vicious cycle that sparks facets of our culture wars and fuels them ferociously.
Now, let’s rejoin the prior line of history I’ve illustrated, and apostolic authority. The time of Christ and the century or so following was a particularly creative, fast-moving time. For one, in politics – mainly Imperial Rome and resistance to it. Also in religion/philosophy. I combine philosophy with religion here because we often separate them too much. In that time, both Judaism and budding Christianity were not just religious. They had more in-depth borrowing from Greek and Persian thought and even paganism than we often realize…. Can one read the famous opening chapter of the Gospel of John without seeing the philosophical sophistication? “In the beginning was the word [logos], and the word was with God, and the word was God” (John 1:1 – “logos”, beyond our “word”, was a deep, foundational Greek concept). Wow! The nature of everything; thought/word in creation; God and humanity come together. All here and in the verses just following. Heady, “hearty” stuff. I remember being impressed by it first as young as pre-teen age.
A big question is, of course, if the disciples of Jesus actually thought on this level. And if they saw Jesus (“Word”) as God. Many books have been written covering arguments pro and con on this and related New Testament issues. It’s complicated. So I’ll side-step the arguments at this point. No question, though, that thought forms and ways of worship and religious outreach were rapidly changing. This began prior to but was accelerated further by the loss of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 C.E., destroyed by the Roman army.
It’s also tough to pin down when the Gospel of John was written and put in the form we have it (agreed almost universally to be the latest of the Gospels). At the very latest it was within a century of Jesus’ death. More likely within 70 years or so, but well after the destruction of Jerusalem and the re-alignments and belief adjustments it caused.
Now we have almost completed the connection of modern supernaturalism with ancient authority. The lynch pin in the connection seems to be apostolic authority. In the next part, we will examine how special authority was created for what would become a fixed canon of New Testament writings via the concept that Jesus’ Apostles spoke uniquely from God and for God. Connecting certain teachings and writings to them came to give the ideas and documents an authority above others.
However, critics of early church activity and creation of the New Testament often distort the historical record of how things developed as much as do literalist Christians. This feeds into the same action-reaction cycle I mentioned earlier, wasting precious resources and hardening attitudes. That is why both skeptics and true believers need to see this critical period of history more clearly and apply it wisely. (To be continued in Part 9.)