The Failure and Death of Christianity
John P. Middleton- Nov. 2009-Aug 2010
One doesn’t have to search very far to discover the depth of people’s dissatisfaction with the Christian Religion. If you ask, you will be answered by a blithering array of reasons why not to go to “church” or what is wrong with “church” if you do go. And most of the offered reasons have a degree of validity.
“They always want my money”.
“The people there are petty.”
“I don’t want to be told every week how bad I am.”
“Religion doesn’t work for me.”-
-and a host of other objections of varying degrees of dissatisfaction. The one that always makes me sad is the claim that religion or “church” does not add to spirituality. Sadly, the claim is often true.
How did this happen in the western Christian church?
There are all sorts of answers and ideas, but the simple fact is that youth and young adults are not going to church and seem to abhor traditional Christian religion resulting in increasingly lower attendance numbers in most traditional or mainstream denominations.
Christianity v. Popular Paulinity:
There are two gospels embedded in the western Christian tradition. The Gospel of Purity, from the “Popular Pauline” tradition, chiefly concerned with sin management, which is currently practiced in many American denominations and the Gospel of Compassion advocated by Jesus Christ, chiefly concerned with love of fellow human. The polarization of these polarized traditions has become so pronounced that they are almost incompatible in western Christianity.
Good little boys and girls go to heaven and bad little boys and girls go to hell. That is about the sum of the Popular Pauline tradition in too many churches.
Brian McLaren, one of the leaders of the Emerging Christian Church movement, characterizes this view of Christianity as the “Six Line Narrative” outlined below:
1.We start in EDEN
2. We FALL from Grace
3. We stumble to find TRUTH
4. Some of us are transformed/BORN AGAIN
5. Those that are go to HEAVEN
6. Those that don't go to HELL
These lines represents the entire concept of Christianity as seen in many churches today.
As Mclaren states:
“Our contemporary gospel is primarily
HOW TO GO TO HEAVEN
AFTER YOU DIE
with a large footnote about increasing your personal happiness and success through God.
with a small footnote about character development
with a smaller footnote about spiritual experience
with an even smaller footnote about social/global transformation.”
Global transformation is relegated to the cause of our missionaries and giving money to their ministry....... problem solved.
But this six line narrative about getting to heaven after we die and the lack of concern for social and global transformation leaves us with a feeling of emptiness and often despair. And it does that for a very specific reason………….it is NOT the message of Christ and it does little to effect change in the world. It is instead, a message from an interpretation from the Popular Pauline tradition (including Timothy and others) and some of the Judaic tradition, both of which emphasized living within the “Law” and “purity” as a means of transformation. While we must admit Paul goes all the way to reliance on Faith/Grace, it is the misinterpretation of his Gospel that creates the "Popular Pauline" tradition that permeates many churches. It is not my point in this essay to analyze Paul's writings to explain my allegations further, but simply to point out the dichotomy embedded in a Theology that emphasizes Purity as opposed to one that emphasizes Service.
As stated before, in the Purity tradition, good little boys and girls go to heaven and bad little boys and girls go to hell.
This tradition of Purity sends us in a direction that says only THIS person/group is worthy in God’s eyes, which creates such animosity toward gay and lesbian believers or women in the pulpit and allows many other disenfranchising beliefs. The Purity ethic requires us to search the scripture for texts that exclude persons/groups from further consideration. It requires us to EXCERPT pieces of scripture to support our claims.
So we turn to the Book of Leviticus or the Old Testament, and say “See it says it right here, that if a man lies with another man it is an abomination to the Lord.” And, of course it does say that. It says that and also says that it is permissible to own slaves from a neighboring country, for example. I would venture to guess the idea of Canadian slaves would be abhorrent to most westerners….maybe not. It also goes to great lengths on issues of women’s “cleanliness” and other instructions that simply don’t make sense in a modern world. They were more valid to the ancients, but to any thinking human would be abhorrent today.
However, suggesting the scripture be read METAPHORICALLY, rather than literally, causes many Christians to gasp. They want their scripture to be literally interpreted.
How many Books?
There was no “official” specific list or accounting of all the books that made up the Bible until the commission of the official canon by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century AD. The books that make up the Authorized King James Bible were chosen by men, not divine forces between approximately 312 and 450 AD.
In the Catholic Church the version used is the Douay-Rheims Bible consisting of 73 books. In the Protestant church only the 66 books approved by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1885, which today is known as the Authorized King James Bible, are used. No other books, neither the Apocrypha books, which were included in the original 80 book King James Bible of 1609-11, nor the 14-22 books, now missing but originally mentioned or quoted, in the King James Bible, are considered inspired.
In short, men voted to discount and eliminate 14 of the 80 books of the only “acceptable-revealed word of God” version of the bible in 1895. How can a literal interpreter deal with these facts?
There are many other enormous issues in biblical history scholarship, not the least of which is translation. From Greek to Latin to English alone would create many problems, but the actual translation issues went far beyond those. Much disagreement and interpretation occurred WITHIN specific languages. If one were to study Martin Luther’s Tower Experience one would see that the text which caused Luther to formulate the concept of justification/salvation through Grace/Faith, has been changed in the King James version, created some 90 years later. The word “judgment” in Romans, which so inspired Luther, was changed to “righteousness” by the KJV writers. A modern reader would be unable to duplicate Luther’s epiphany due to the language change.
Literal v. Metaphorical Interpretation
If you ask literal interpretationists why scripture must be interpreted literally, they will point to several “facts”; including the fact of God’s authorship or divine intervention, the fact of “revealed Word”, the fact of the “Red Letter” bible and many other support positions, all of which are subjective.
The simple fact is that the first actual fragment copy of a New Testament scripture we have dates from about 150 AD around 120 years after the crucifixion. For that intervening 120 years Christianity was, either virtually or actually, an outlawed religion which if one were discovered practicing would frequently result in the death penalty. So the typical early Christian meetings often consisted of either simple preaching, rumor or oral tradition, including copying of alleged gospel document fragments by those attending the secret meeting. We simply do not know what was in those copied documents. We do know there were many spurious documents floating around and, by the second to fourth Century when the scripture is initially codified, many “competing” and Gnostic gospels were abounding.
We also know that the literacy rate in those first century days was abominable and any “copying”, then copying again the next week and then again the following week, would have likely been fraught with errors and erroneous interpretations and possibly, personal editing. One can, of course, claim that God guided all the hands during all interpretations so that the original was preserved. However, that argument flies directly in the face of both reason and common sense. The proof of this point is in the many inconsistencies such as those surrounding who was at the tomb on Easter morning. The gospels disagree.
Here we have the crux of the literalists problem. They must fly in the face of reason and common sense.
The world must have been created in a literal seven days….mankind cannot be more than about 15,000 years old….. we cannot have a common ancestor with apes nor engage evolution at any scientific level.
In short, the literalist must be at war with science, mathematics, archeology, anthropology, geology, and common sense among others. One might suggest this position is not only untenable but also diametrically opposed to seeing God’s creation as harmonious and integrated. The literalist is faced with viewing Natural Law and God at war with one another.
I would allege, as a theist, how can God be at war with that which He created? Did he err in the creation? Scripture is not at war with science when read metaphorically or when literalism defers to common sense.
The theologian Marcus Borg, says it best when he states, “Scripture is the lens through which we see God. We ought not worship the lens.”
There are then two forces at work in dividing the faith, the Purityv. compassion ethic and the Literal v. metaphorical interpretation ethic.
All of this foregoing data, however interesting, points out an inescapable fact. Much of the arguments, divisiveness and denominationalism in the church today is clearly the purview of Mankind, not God, and is related more to the PURITY ethic of Popular Paulinity than the COMPASSION ethic of Christ.
Why the emphasis on Purity?
George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Science at Berkeley, has written several texts and essays about why humans think “conservatively” or “liberally”. Some of his conclusions in Chapter 4 of “Thinking Points” and from his book “Moral Politics” follow:
Thinking Points Discussion of Chapter 4 - Part 2: Conservative Morality Created by joe at Rockridge (Rockridge Institute staff member) on Monday, April 23, 2007 12:18 PM
“Key differences between conservative and progressive morality arise that shape how we differ in our responses to political (and religious) issues.
"We now explore the family experience common in many American homes that informs conservative politics. The idealized representation we use is the Strict Father Family.
The Strict Father (or conservative)Family is:
A traditional family with two heterosexual parents - a father and a mother
The father is the head of the household
The mother supports and upholds the authority of the father
A hierarchy exists that is never to be questioned - children do not question their father's authority
Children are naturally weak and lack self-control
Parents know what is best for their children and must teach them right from wrong
Children learn right from wrong when punished for wrong-doing
When children become self-disciplined, respect valid authority, and learn right from wrong they are strong enough to succeed in the competitive world
The primary experience growing up in a strict home presumes that children are inherently weak and that parental respect is maintained by consistently disciplining the child. There is emphasis on the maintenance of authority and self-control. Children who grow up in a disciplined manner will know right from wrong and will be hard-working and successful in life.
The experience of living in a strict home provides an intuitive model for morality. By exploring the concepts involved in thinking about the Strict Father Family, we discover the following values:
Core Conservative Values:
Authority: assumed to be morally good and used to exert legitimate control (therefore it is imperative that authority is never questioned)
Discipline: self-control learned through punishment when one does wrong (it is understood that failure of authority to punish for wrong doing is a moral failure)
Additional Values that Arise When Engaging in Acts of Strictness:
Strength (necessary to be self-disciplined)
Order (arises when people know their place and obey authority)
Ownership (by working hard to earn something you should be able to use it as you see fit)
Hierarchy (those above you have worked harder and proven their worth while those below you are not as disciplined as you)
Duty (each person is obligated to submit to valid authority)
Purity (absolute right and wrong must exist in order to have knowledge of them)
Physical Security (authority figures must provide physical protection from bodily or material harm)
Equity (higher positions are earned through merit)
These values, when organized via the Strict Father Family, constitute a moral worldview that is the foundation of conservative morality. They are all entailed in the body of knowledge that arises through the experience of living in a strict home.
Progressives acknowledge the existence of valid authority expressed through nurturance. A fully nurturant person deserves to be listened to. The standards for legitimacy are quite different. Here are a few examples of valid progressive authority figures (Moral Politics, pg. 134):
People who are empathetic
People who successfully help others
People who solve problems effectively
People who are fair
People who listen to others and communicate effectively
People who nurture social ties successfully
Conservative Morality Expresses Key Principles
When the Strict Father Family is applied to the Nation as Family conceptual metaphor, we get conservative political morality. This deep frame shapes conservative understanding of politics and entails several principles that arise from conservative values.
The Free Market Principle
The free market promotes efficiency, creates wealth, is natural and moral, and rewards individual discipline. Since wealth promotes many kinds of freedom, the market is believed to be a pathway for freedom to be expressed. Government interference of the market is considered to be immoral because it opposes this freedom.
The Bootstrap Principle
With enough self-discipline everyone can pull himself or herself up by the bootstraps. This is a version of the Myth of the American Dream and is sometimes referred to as climbing the corporate ladder in the context of the corporate business world. The government has no responsibility to help those who fall behind.
These principles inform the moral sensibilities of conservatives. Progressives often experience considerable dissonance when they hear them because they run contrary to our understanding of the world.
Conservatives Only Recognize Direct Causation
A person who understands the world through the experience of living in a strict environment will see direct relationships between cause and effect. When they see another person causing harm - such as a burglar shooting a cashier - they will interpret the situation in terms of simple cause-effect relationships: The burglar stole money because s/he hasn't learned the self-discipline necessary to work hard and earn money. The burglar made purely conscious decisions to steal and to shoot the other person. It was a deliberate action shaped solely by the persons lack of respect for authority and inherent moral weakness.
Progressives Recognize Greater Complexity
The experience of living in a nurturant home emphasizes indirect forms of causation. In order to empathize with others in a social environment, it is necessary to recognize subtle contributions to the perspective of others in order to both understand where they are coming from and to communicate effectively with them. “ –George Lakoff"
This lengthy excerpt was necessary to attempt to show a difference in basic thinking that has enormous negative results in the “Popular Pauline” church today. Do we require PURITY, that is certain standards of behavior favored by conservatives, or do we nurture COMPASSION, favored by progressives? We can make a fairly compelling case, although not a total one, that Christ favored the latter, while the Popular Pauline tradition favored the former.
But the church is torn. So much so that the recent schism in the Episcopal church is a direct result of a Purity v. Compassion conflict.
We need to review our concepts of Christianity again and soon . What was so astounding to the first century Romans was how these Christians “loved “ one another, how their compassion for their fellows abounded and how their love extended to all mankind. We have largely lost that tradition. We are now too often “Paulinists” not Christians.
“Purity” as Christ seems to have advocated it was involved more with living within the “Kingdom of God” in all that we do. A condition that did not require us to be sin free but rather good people engaging the failures of our fellow human with love and understanding. The requirement of the Gospel of Mark’s “perfection” is so misunderstood due to language difficulties. The Greek word for perfection “telios” does not mean the same as the English word “perfect” A rose missing two petals is still telios/"perfect" in the Greek as it has lived up to its highest expectation. Mark’s Greek may have required us to live up to God’s expectation of compassion as much as we are able rather than exhorting us to “perfection”, but the King James authors disagreed and prevailed. Here we have another example of translation issues as meaningful and detrimental.
So where are we today? Can we come together on any basis?
Not without opening our hearts to each other. A closed heart according to Marcus Borg,
“-Affects the mind and the reasoning process itself.
A closed heart and bondage go together.
A closed heart lacks gratitude.
A closed heart is insensitive to wonder and awe.
A closed heart forgets or rejects God.
A closed heart and exile go together.
A closed heart lacks compassion.
A closed heart is insensitive to injustice.” (Heart of Christianity P.152-153)
A closed heart is a striking image for the state of much of “Poular Paulinity” with which people are so dissatisfied today.
Christianity requires something else……………………..compassion. We had better quit bickering and start practicing it soon.
John P. Middleton