Sunday, 16 June 2013

It Always Was Change

It is possible that divine revelation comes through cultural change, especially cultural change that happens to a stream of religion, but I don't think it adds anything either at origin or later.

Like Jonathan Clatworthy, I don't believe in a fixed, one revelation for all time, Christianity. It was diverse from the beginning, and was always so, always having authorities to fix the diversity and pretend in doctrinal unity and even apostolic succession.

But then I don't believe in the original, faultless, Jesus, never mind all that happened afterwards. And all the time there has been argument between the supernatural (divine powers from on-high), the magical (humans actively working to use a selection of the closer divine powers) and reason (human decision making) in explaining Jesus and subsequent methods of knowing reality.

Jesus himself was responding to rabbinical Judaism and was one of a number of end-time preachers and healers, with a particular reverse-ethic of who would find it easier to be in the Kingdom, the purpose of his healing being the removal of demons to facilitate entry. The rich and better off seemed evidently better suited to enter a coming Kingdom (fewer demons), but not according to Jesus. All this is probable, of course, as doing history on secondary sources is notoriously difficult. The Jesus Seminar has had a go with such secondary methods, and the result is a Jesus who lacks immediacy of motive. We'd probably never heard of him in any significance had it not been for Paul's universalising of a never-met Jesus and turning him into a figure of salvation himself, a Gentile version of a Messiah he saw as in conflict with the Law once you had a messiah. Paul was a vital, cross-cultural figure.

All these things are already cultural and one layer on top of another. The more Jewish versions of Jesus's inheritance were clobbered by the edge-of-empire Romans, but we have recovered their importance; Gnosticism that pre-dated Christianity absorbed Christianity into some of its varieties and became a longer and more significant battleground. The Gnostics then and now had more time for magic, but the supernatural with tradition had its own doctrinal battles.

Originally resurrection and its bodily aspect was an argument, thus Paul's original spiritual body (like a square circle) wasn't enough, but doctrine developed for a long time with the escalation of Jesus's titles. The absence of a tomb, worship of a tomb, speculating as to its position (rather than Romans dumping the bodies) became part of the argument. The resurrection was a part of that area of Jewish belief, so Jesus was the first, and the Messiah was then all or nothing, but the Ascension and second coming are purely Christian beliefs. The ascension told early Christians why they, unlike the legitimatised leaders, and the 'congregation' of different numbers, could not meet Jesus after his death, and a second coming was the obvious consequence of a Messiah absent who had work to complete.

The gospels and New Testament allow any varieties of doctrine, including unitarian and Arian, John being the more Arian, but the doctrines escalated into Jesus Christ as eternal as the rest, including the Holy Spirit that was supposed to follow him, or God that had made him in the beginning according to John's speculations.

Then the Romans split from the Orthodox, over the primacy of Rome, and of course the German princes offered enough protection for Luther to be successful, later Calvin and a variety of Protestants in the loose Holy Roman Empire. We forget the Church in the East, the one that started outside Roman territory and went to China. That did have the Nicene view but no further; it became a magical Church emphasising the birth of Jesus as miraculous over the less important resurrection. There was the Thomas like Church into India too. Different Christian centres had different emphases from the beginning.

All this is swept away however by the change of Western thinking towards rules of evidence: of science, of doing history, of creating social science. Perhaps Christianity was its own gravedigger, but it also was resistant. We became technological, this-worldy, practical: we look for evidence and evidence works. We falsify to strengthen evidence. Yes, there are paradigms of thought that work until some detail of falsification brings them down. The point is that this was first intellectual thinking but has since become ordinary, practical thinking. People do not worship spirits in the fields for crop growth or ask God to change the weather. Chaos theory is even better understood: even evolution of plants and animals and human species too is understood as chaos in formation (because it is specific and local in every instance) that has systemic properties when interacting.

Into our belief world there is nothing wrong with virgin births and resurrections if they are poetry, but if they claim to be real then they contradict modern scientific thought, discovery, and means of collecting evidence. The basis of the mythic and poetic in religion is like having the same in art: art enriches. On the other hand, some doctrines even as poetry are harmful, and the virgin birth is harmful as it creates a ridiculous mother and virgin figure, an impossibility to follow. But then so is a prophet figure who cannot be human if he is male and without a human father.

Of course the Jesus presentation in theNew Testament is not biographical as such, but even in that he both makes a mistake (Judas) and learns (the Gentile with the distant daughter). We have no idea into Jesus and his moral condition, say in how he grew up and the whole notion of moral perfection follows that of his status. In the end, only a full-on divinity, only a full-on moral absolute, can "do" the exchange that is supposed in the atonement, itself a reflection back as soon as the belief was implied.

But atonements have no mechanical method, or any other connection, other than direct exchanges involving more or less there and then the self or the self's group. Martyrdom doesn't work whenever there are pragmatic alternatives. The whole notion that 'he died to save us all' is rather puffed up and wasn't the intention in the first place. The intention is again within that belief world, and again probably, to demonstrate to God his own self-giving to show readiness for God to bring in the new Kingdom reality, whatever was to follow on where the dead would rise. He didn't want to do it but had to do it, assuming the whole story holds up (and the whole story comes with difficulty in terms of the Judas arrangement to be paid as well as much else in the passion narratives).

That sort of belief-world has simply gone, and instead the world has carried on as before, just with different cultural overviews and different views. The gears have slipped, the chain has fallen off, and it can't be put back on again; the fact that a minority in the West now attend or understand anything consciously Christian is a reality of the gears slipping and the chain coming off.

In the West Christianity seems to be divided into the museum keepers, who look for objects of past value and retell the stories associated, and then charismatics who are as if into recreating a drug-like experience for experience's sake (to then use it as a form of evidence of reality). There are others with blinkers on who can someone inhabit a world that no longer exists, either by reading the book as was once read by mummy and daddy or by not coming out of the museum. Some go abroad and fool themselves.

Clearly Christianity, if it exists at all in the different belief world, has to be reimagined, and it will be more like appreciating a painting; or Western Religion is going to be imaginative and broad, both in awe of what we understand through science and in morality what we learn through social science. Religion is a kind of overview, about who we are as a people on a lonely planet, our birthplace and graveyard. It shifts with cultural shifts, and there will be more, but it has shifted rather decisively in recent decades. It's going to be about questions and reflections, taking steps backwards and reconstructing the view.

In fact it is through moral debates and decisions that Church leaders are becoming unhooked from the rest of us. As they opt for the old school, the old ways of believing, the old culture that is passing away, so the moral debate is becoming the way in which they are detaching themselves institutionally. The actions of Welby, Carey and so on are those of yesteryear people, who stay where they were as the world moves on. That's up to them, of course, so long as the consequence of their actions is understood and in the removal of their institutions as having any moral pre-set place in decision taking. That's if their institutions are incapable of sufficient change around them.

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