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?