Postmodern Christianity and the Bible
As an effective voice in our society, western Christianity (including fundamentalism) is dead in spite of the fact that more people than ever say they’re spiritual but not religious. And the mainline churches try hard to address the dropping attendance by delivering feel good messages and proudly heralding acceptance of new morality long after secular society has finished debating them. But I believe this fails. If Christianity is to survive at all it has to undergo a total upheaval. This may come. It has no name yet. In the interim we may call it postmodern or Christianity 2.0
This is the first of three articles. The first outlines the nature of a new Christianity, or Christianity 2.0. The second will set the context for the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Scriptures section of the Bible. This Book, although obscure to many, is a cornerstone of Judaism and forms the most important underlying tenents of our society today. The third article will look in detail at a section of Deuteronomy known as the Ten Commandments. Most people have probably heard of these laws but the commentary will reflect a postmodern analysis that is more relevant today than ever. The three articles are excerpted from an upcoming book entitled Post-Modern Christianity and Deuteronomy.
Part 1- Postmodern Christianity?
First, a bit of history. Christianity, whether pre-modern or modern, holds its identity through “Jesus Christ.” But the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, was not a Christian. He didn’t even start Christianity. Rather, Jesus was an itinerate Jewish preacher, one of several at that time in the region of Galilee. Unlike most of his peers however, he was intent on reforming the Judaism of his day. His preaching focussed extensively on the injustices fostered by the rich upon the poor of his society.
No question, he was good at what he did. He was charismatic, he could heal, he walked his talk and people recognized something special in him that we would call holy.
He provoked the rich and powerful, challenging their self-declared importance and control over others. Both the Jewish and Roman leadership naturally found this type of preaching unsettling, especially after Jesus became high profile. His challenge grew to the point that the establishment felt it necessary to eliminate him in order to preserve their status quo. We don’t know a great deal else about Jesus’ life but we know his most of his followers abandoned him when he was seized and executed. We also know that they came back together some time after that because the spirit Jesus talked about and exemplified seemed to be still around, stronger than ever. They continued Jesus’ mission and this group grew rapidly. It became a new Judaic sect known as “The Way” - adding one more to the already dozen or so sects already in existence.
These were turbulent times however. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans around 70 CE and again a few years later. The Jewish people and their varied faith traditions were scattered all around the Mediterranean. Unlike the more traditional Jewish sects, some groups within The Way began attracting Gentiles. Soon it became predominantly more Gentile than Jewish and evolved into what became known as Christianity.
But the church (100-300 CE ) didn’t get off to an easy start. After the Roman conquest the movement splintered into several different groups, each having their own interpretations of Jesus' teachings and their understanding of what his execution was all about. This was no simple matter, the various sects had major, fundamental differences which of course led to much turbulence, exiles, political intrigues, leaders rising, falling and rising again and even assassinations (all in the name of God, of course). It also led to a proliferation of writings called gospels. Ultimately as might be expected, there were winners and losers.
The winners were a group who tended to interpret the life of Jesus somewhat narrowly. They held Christianity to be highly hierarchical and centered around leadership that claimed to having direct authority from God. They created an official creed and selected an official church reading list which included only those writings that supported their point of view. Eventually becoming aligned with the establishment and the government of Rome, this sect held a defining meeting at Nicaea around 330 CE and a government sanctioned orthodox Christianity was born.
This is what we know today in the western and developing world. Although there are now a multitude of varieties and sects within the Catholic and Protestant traditions, they mostly ascribe to a basic doctrine set out so many centuries ago: we’re born with original sin, Jesus was the son of God (literally or at least a special messenger sent by God) and the crucifixion of Jesus and his bodily resurrection was the vehicle through which people are “saved” from (or receive atonement from) their sin.
These were “facts” that had to be believed. Orthodox or western Christianity remains for the most part heavily into dogma and strongly rooted in the church as an institution.
The losers didn’t fare so well. Their take on Jesus was egalitarian and spiritual, they emphasized inner knowledge rather than intellectual belief. Their path was known as “Gnosticism.”
And, because it was quite unstructured and had no rigid dogma, it didn’t have a chance against the government sanctioned orthodox church. The Gnostic churches were declared as heretical and were expelled. Their writings were banned and most were destroyed. A few though were hidden. Fortunately some of these hidden collections were discovered by accident in Egypt around 1945 (not to be confused with the Dead Sea Scrolls). Most of the writings were previously unknown by modern scholars.
In contrast to orthodoxy, the Gnostics interpreted the teachings of Jesus differently, less literally. They believed that the “Kingdom of Heaven” was really a state of awareness or consciousness that was inherent in everyone and could be realized by looking inward. Judgment and forgiveness of sin was not something a deity would do. Rather, sin (what we might call doing and thinking “bad” things) would naturally fade away as an individual’s consciousness was raised. This was a much more contemplative spiritual journey.
We may lament that official Christianity existed for 1700 years or so without the insight of the Gnostics. Nevertheless, and in spite of the numberless atrocities and crimes committed in its name, it has worked surprisingly well. Christianity has had its mystics and acknowledged the mystery of God and it has brought untold millions of people the love and comfort of God. It’s still doing so but in the last 100 years or so has lost its impact on most in our society.
A major shakeup is happening however. It started in the 1800s with the advent of serious biblical criticism and has recently accelerated because of the uncovered wisdom of the Gnostics. Many Christians have found that the Church, with its continued archaic set of beliefs and creeds, is neglecting its historical roots with Judaism and Jesus as a teacher. Without this foundation, it has wandered off into areas of questionable integrity and theology. It has forgotten the origin and purpose of story. It turned story into dogma and so cut off inquiry and seeking. It lost its way and relevance, and now has been supplanted in society by the faith of unlimited consumerism and power. Thus the advent of Postmodern Christianity.
Many groups and schools of thought, of course, lay claim to the terms emergent Christianity or post-modern Christianity. Unfortunately in many churches, progress involves innovations along the line of “changing the arrangements of pews.” And beneath these innovations still lies the rigid creeds and structure and authority. Nevertheless, there are several serious writers and scholars (Brueggemann, Crossan, McLaren, Tony Jones) examining a new Christianity. Here, postmodern Christianity refers to a movement that begins to recover the lost heritage of the Gnostics. It breaks with current practices in two significant ways.
First, Postmodern Christianity returns to the very basics of Moses and Jesus but with the acknowledgement that their understanding of the cosmos was magnitudes more simple than our awareness today. No question, postmodern Christianity holds to faith in the Creator, to faith in the God of Abraham, to committing to God’s “commandments,” to justice and mercy, to a sense of contrition, and to the sanctity of life. And it most definitely holds to the Jewish view that humankind’s awareness of God evolved through history. It certainly makes a re-commitment to the Hebrew Bible as a metaphoric story of a people’s struggle to understand life and the spiritual force we call God. This remains our mythology. It deepens Christianity however by venturing well beyond Christology (the singular worship of Jesus as God) and the preoccupation with the forgiveness of sin. Rather, postmodern Christianity looks intensely at the Gnostics: at the Jesus of history, Jesus the Jew and rabbi, Jesus of the Torah. And to understand the Jesus of history we have to understand the two commandments he reiterated from the more ancient Hebrew writings: (i) loving God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our strength (or, radical centering of ourselves in God); and (ii) loving our neighbor as ourselves - participating in God’s passion for a different kind of world, a world marked by absolute justice, absolute equality, and absolute economics of abundance for all. This is the goal. It’s that simple and we grow in these not only through stories about Jesus of the Christian Scriptures but also through the study of the Hebrew Scriptures which gave Jesus the context for his ministry.
The second major change that Postmodern Christianity brings to spirituality is a twenty-first century understanding of “God.” The vast majority of those of Judaic and Christian faith have traditionally considered God to be an actual player, an entity who takes action and intervenes in naturally occurring events. We ask God to do things for us. But our concept of God should evolve along with our understanding of the universe. Such evolution of understanding is quite apparent even in the Bible. We see how the concept of God changes from that of a deity that walks with you in the garden or calls upon someone to sacrifice their child (stories from Genesis) and becomes more and more abstract. We see that covenant living, God’s vision, the Kingdom of Heaven, is really a state of mind, a level of consciousness that transcends ego. Our postmodern understanding of God, therefore, removes the concept of God as judge or deity who gets angry or rewards behavior or has a will in the same way that we might will something to happen. Similarly, the status of “chosen people” no longer exists.
More simply put: God is and things happen. What becomes important is not what happens but, rather, what our response is.
We consider that which we call God to be a force, not an entity or a deity, but simply a force or presence, always present, ever persistent in trying to infiltrate our minds, a force which we experience as love.
God is a lover. Lovers do not cause or prevent the earthquakes or plagues or leukemia or stubbed toes. Rather, just as lovers are there to help us deal with such afflictions, thus is God: ultimate love, ultimate absolute truth and ultimate absolute justice. We cease to “worship” God as though God needs an ego boost. We no longer believe in God. Instead we open ourselves to this unknowable presence. We come to know God. And knowing God in our bones so to speak, our life begins to change.
1. We believe that Jesus was truly a shaman who could heal. Shamans exist today. We do however have to recognize that several of the “miracle” stories (walking on water, turning water into wine, etc) are metaphor, not fact.
2. There was no single, uniform Hebrew religion at the time of Jesus. There were perhaps as many as a dozen versions of the religions that claimed Moses and the Torah. “The Way” was one of them. The term Judaic came into use only after several centuries.
3. What we know today as Judaism evolved as well, but that is another story.
4. This is not to be confused with the group called Eastern Orthodox churches, which are included under the umbrella of orthodox Christianity.
5. Most of this traditional Christian dogma stems directly from Jewish theology that was swirling around in that region at the time of Jesus. Some Jewish sects were expecting a divine messiah while other sects rejected this mythology. It was an active topic of debate. The divine messiah coming to earth as a man and then later being carried back up to heaven is believed by scholars to be a combination of two much older myths whose origins are unknown. Part of the myth attached to Jesus the teacher can be found in the book of Daniel. Jewish myth in general has largely been borrowed from the mythologies of several other societies.
6. Gnosis derives from the Greek term for “knowing” as in “knowing yourself.”
7. The traditional Jewish story claims that God had specifically chosen their nation over all other societies to work with, and the term “chosen people” arises time and time again in, for example, Deuteronomy. It still today forms the basis of Israel’s claim to land in Palestine. One might wonder if the Deuteronomists intended this term to be metaphoric or used it in a literal sense.
8. Taken further, we can talk about God not simply as the Creator, but the underlying substance or sustainer of this universe and any other universes we may care to contemplate. To put it another way, the time/space realm we inhabit is in itself a manifestation of God. From this perspective we ourselves are a product of time/space, thus a manifestation God: “created in the image of God”. (Being a manifestation of God is never to be confused with thinking that we are God. Huge difference.) To pursue this model, if we accept that our consciousness, through which we know good and evil, is also from beyond time/space then we can say that our consciousness is the means by which the universe or time/space or God can observe or know itself. This actually is an ancient Hindu teaching.
9. I use the term “experience” in the sense that we experience love. The deepest thinking/intuitions of the Christian mystics however is that it has very little to do with “experiences” and very much about an awareness of this “outside” permeating our “inside” not as an “experience” as such but as the “is” of existence.