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6.28.2009

XWB Discussion Post #2

This post is a part of the online discussion about Doug Pagitt's book "A Christianity Worth Believing in anticipation of his visit to Columbus."

A Hellenistic Faith?

The following is an excerpt taken from chapter 5 in which Doug uses the story of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 to show that in the 1st century, the new faith of following Jesus Christ was meant for different people of different backgrounds, races and lifestyles. He proceeds in the chapter to discuss how Christianity became more "set in stone" along with the development of Greek and Roman culture.

"So the Jewish believers were asking the Gentile believers to do whatever they could to make it possible for the two groups to meet together. The first few centuries of the Christian faith were all about this balance between diversity and unity.

But then something changed...Christianity started moving from a faith committed to multicultural unity to one requiring monocultural uniformity. In other words, Christianity began settling into one particular culture and worldview, and all adherents had to convert to that worldview if they wanted to follow Jesus. Strangely, that mandatory worldview was not the Hebrew worldview of the Jewish people. It was the Greek worldview of the Gentiles. ...

... By the time Christianity became the official Roman religion under Constantine, it was so deeply a Greek expresion that not only had the Jewish heritage faded, but many Christians were fearful of the Jews, and deep conflict between Jews and Christians was common. This marked quite a change. The influence of telling a dynamic Jewish story in and through multiple cutlures was replaced with a Greek monocultural expression of Christianity. It is from within this fully Greek worldview that much of our 'official' modern Christianity arose. ...

... Augustine and many who followed him needed to create complex theologies to smooth out the questions raised by all of these competing worldviews. Their theological explanations are brilliant for their situation, but they are just that - situational explanations. They are not in and of themselves the story of God. This is why it's important for us to recognize the cultural encoding that takes place every time a theology is created. every theology is grounded in a culture and set of culturally based assumptions and concerns. To hold to these theologies in the fifth century was to be faithful, for they were created as explanations for the understanding of the world at that time. But to hold to those same conclusions today, when the worldview that demanded them has expired, is simply foolish."


In my opinion, one of the most common mistakes religious people make is that they experience God in a meaningful and real way, and then they aim to replicate that experience with everyone else they know, regardless of any differences in background, personality or experiences. It seems almost contradictory to have a "flexible" or "changing" religion, because inherent in the concept of religion is a set of beliefs and systems that are unchanging, permanent, absolute.

But as we all know, the world - and the people and the ideas in the world - are all changing, and very rapidly. The faith of the 21st century, in many respects, is not the same faith as the 20th century, and certainly not the same faith of the 5th century when Augustine wrote.

But on the other hand, we have the creeds, we have the Scriptures, and we have the traditions of the Church. Does it all need to change? Herein lies the difficult interpretative task: Which beliefs are culturally bound and necessitate revision? And which are more permanent, more foundational and should not be changed at all?

Possible questions to discuss:
  • In what ways do you see the ancient influences in the Christian faith?
  • What parts of your current Christian experience do you feel are more being held over from cultural experiences of the past, and aren't really central to the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus?
  • How do we determine what parts of our faith are cultural and what parts are permanent? Can we make such a division?

2 comments:

Chris said...

I think the points made in this article are too overstated, if I'm understanding them correctly.

First, the author seems to make the leap that most Christians believe that Christianity is cultureless at all times. I don't know any serious (liberal or evangelical) theologian that makes that claim. Maybe there are but I'm just not aware of them.
Secondly, the question of which parts of the church are culture-laden and which are not is really the important one, and although people today like to think that they are the first to ask such questions, The apostle Paul wrestled with this. This is not new. All news is old news happening to new people.
Athens was as multicultural a setting as it gets. Paul was Hebrew by birth, a Roman citizen, reasoning with Greeks with various religious worldviews. I really think that emergents make much too much of the internet and globalization changing things. People at their core don't change, and that's what scripture speaks to. The human condition. When I read scripture I don't go there to figure out how to reformat my hard-drive. I go there because of how it speaks to peoples fundamental fears, hopes, desires, inadequacies and their responses (and mine) to the solution to all of those things.
The other thing to remember is that the church has always been counter-cultural in one way or another. That counter-cultural worldview cost those closest to Jesus their lives. Was the thing that cost them their lives the idea of loving everyone, or social justice, or was it the belief that there was a higher authority. A king that superceded all earthly kings and that losing one's life wasn't really losing it. But rather it meant the possibility of communing eternally with that king. A couple of problems I have with emergents is that they 1) diminish the idea of heaven. They create the false dichotomy of - If you're looking for heaven, then you don't care about what's happening around you now.
It is not wrong to want heaven. It is not wrong to want God. And 2) They don't seem to believe that there are ANY bits or pieces of traditional Christianity that endure throughout time. This may sound harsh, but I don't see a counter culture in emergent Christianity that is worthy of the first martyrs blood. What is emergent counter culture? Anti-consumerism? Social justice? Those things get you medals and spots on public television today.
I think Pagitt may be out of his ken when conjecturing and postulating about church history.
But then maybe I am too.

Greg said...

Wow Chris! You have a lot to say. :) Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

I am struggling to understand what you mean when you say: "the author seems to make the leap that most Christians believe that Christianity is cultureless at all times." I thought Doug was arguing for the opposite, but maybe I've misunderstood your point.

Regarding the very eloquent reason you give for reading scripture-"I go there because of how it speaks to peoples [sic] fundamental fears, hopes, desires, inadequacies and their responses (and mine) to the solution to all of those things."-I could not agree more. Maybe some are quick to emphasize the impact of the Internet and of globalization. But can they really be overemphasized? Are they not significantly altering the way we think about what it means to be the body of Christ?

What would prompt emergents to create the false dichotomy of "If you're looking for heaven, then you don't care about what's happening around you now?" From my own church backgound, I can attest that such a dichotomy is unfortunately all too fitting. When concern for the afterlife trumps our concern for those suffering amongst us, you would probably agree that things have gone askew. If emergent has played even a small role in helping realign the priorities of churches such as my own, then I would call that a good thing.

If you are interested in an emergent view on the bits and pieces of traditional Christianity that still apply, then I highly recommend Brian McClaren's "A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am A Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-Yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian."

What sort of counter-cultural trend would you recommend for emergent Christianity? What works for you? Most emergents would probably be happy to try it out.