In part one of this series, I wrote about a fundamental disconnect between the life and message of Jesus and Christianity as it has been practiced over the centuries. Of course, there have been times when the church and individual Christians have been faithful to the revelation of God revealed in Christ. Unfortunately, many people’s ideas about the church have been influenced by inaccurate and biased presentations by authors and the media. For those who need some encouragement regarding the faithfulness of the church throughout history, I would recommend David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. Hart reveals the errors of so many criticisms of the church made by today’s opponents, especially the “new atheists.”
My concern in this series is not so much the historical church but the contemporary crisis we are facing today in American Christianity. I am aware of many churches and Christians who are faithful to the message and example of Jesus. However, with the rise of Christian Nationalism and right-wing Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, that message and example are being distorted beyond recognition. The reasons for this distortion are many and have historical roots which must be recognized and understood. A lot of factors have facilitated the rise of militant and bigoted American Christianity, some of which began within a couple of generations of Jesus and Paul. In these articles, I can only provide a cursory look at this historical background. However, I believe that we can begin to embrace the transformation we need to return to our roots in the Christ Event only by becoming aware of how we got to where we are today.
FORGETTING OUR JEWISH ROOTS: With the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE to the Romans, the Jerusalem church ceased to be the headquarters of the Christian movement. From that point on, Christianity became more and more a gentile religion. The animosity between churches and synagogues grew as Christianity began to define itself apart from Judaism. As a result, the Jewish background so central to Jesus’ understanding of God and what he called “the Kingdom of God” were slowly forgotten. Neither Jesus nor the New Testament can be understood apart from its Jewish heritage. Judaism is the Mother of Christianity. The Jewish emphasis on community, justice, the goodness and sanctity of creation, the covenantal loyalty of Yahweh, and God’s involvement in history slowly evaporated as Christianity took on a more Greek and Platonic nature. This transition led to the second factor which negatively affected the theology and life of the church.
Gnosticism: Perhaps the greatest crisis the early church faced was the threat of Gnosticism. Gnosticism was an approach to life and religion which viewed the spiritual as more important than the physical. The mind was superior to the body; men, assumed to be more spiritual, were superior to women; the ethereal heavenly realm was superior to earth. In extreme forms, the body and creation were viewed as evil. Some Gnostics concluded that if creation is inherently evil, it could not have been made by a good god. Some other being, a demigod, made the earth. The goal of religion was to prepare the person for an existence in that heavenly realm of pure goodness and perfect ideas where the physical did not matter or exist. One extreme example of this perspective was found in Docetism which maintained that Jesus only seemed to be human and to have a body. If the body is evil, the perfect Jesus could not have a body. He only “seemed” to be human in that respect. (The term Docetism comes from the Greek verb meaning “to seem or to appear like.”) Therefore, the Docetic Jesus did not die on a cross since he only appeared to have a body. The gnostic and docetic Jesus came to pass on secret knowledge needed to travel through the heavenly realms to arrive at the perfect spiritual existence where God dwells. (“Gnostic” comes from the Greek word for “knowing.”)
The ancient church condemned Gnosticism and Docetism. It retained the Hebrew Scriptures which maintained that creation is good and brought into being by a good God. God as Creator and Jesus as one who was born, suffered, died, and resurrected in bodily form became the creed of the church. However, Gnosticism continued to raise its ugly head throughout the history of the church with its emphasis on the spiritual at the expense of the physical.
Perhaps the following true story will illustrate how Gnosticism still plagues our faith. Theologian Langdon Gilkey was once speaking to a women’s group about the tragedy of world hunger. He explained how thousands of children died every day because of the unjust distribution of wealth in this world and how the Christian faith required its adherents to “feed the hungry” and work for justice. After his presentation, the chair of the women’s group thanked Gilkey for sharing but said, “Our little group is concerned with spiritual matters, not matters like hunger and justice. Now, our hostess has prepared wonderful refreshments in the dining area which I invite all to enjoy.” This group assumed like ancient Gnostics that true religion was a matter of the spirit or soul and had very little to do with realities like hungry children.
Over the years I have heard many different versions of this assumption. “The church is about saving souls, not feeding the hungry or advocating social justice” is a frequent refrain in many congregations. The biblical focus on justice (as deliverance from any kind of oppression one may suffer) has been forgotten despite Jesus’ teachings on the dangers of greed, indifference, and a lack of compassion for those in need. This perspective totally misunderstands the meaning of “spiritual” in the Bible. Theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki’s definition of spiritual reflects its true meaning which exposes the error of all forms of Gnosticism: “We ordinarily call people spiritual when their concerns go beyond themselves to the feelings, thoughts, and dreams of those around them, and of the world at large.”
The world as controlled by keepers of the status quo is very happy for the church to focus on “spiritual things” as defined by modern day Gnostic Christians. With such a focus, it’s easier for forces of evil, greed, and violence to advance their agendas. Such a “spiritual” orientation explains why so many Christians and churches seem totally unconcerned about issues like racism, poverty, and the climate crisis which threatens God’s sacred creation. A church which embraces any form of Gnosticism cannot be the alternative God wants in this world, an alternative which is based on love, compassion, justice, sharing, and community. Jesus’ Kingdom of God assumes this alternative. Authentic Christianity is all about “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven.” Heaven is in good hands. It’s earth which needs mending and transformation. Our spirituality must lead to an immersion into the pain and suffering of this world. Such spirituality is virtually impossible to see in the Christian Nationalism which is poisoning our society today.