The God who has no physical form or obvious presence apart from the person of Jesus Christ has been pursuing me with existential questions, challenging me to explore them since my late teens. I have been trying to excavate answers, like the archaeologist I once was fifty years ago, carefully, patiently scraping away and exposing layer after layer of assumption, of the past, carefully extracting artefacts as they surface from the deep layers of my unconscious, washing away the accretions of time and the internalised constructs of church and culture. I have gradually become aware of what it means to be a spiritual, contemplative human in the twenty-first century from the deep culturally conditioned perspective of a white, middle class, Christian, gay male born in Wimbledon in 1945.
I have just read The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World by Bart D. Ehrman, the James Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, once a Christian but in middle age, no longer a believer. In his Afterword I discovered three final paragraphs that gave me the answer to the questions I didn’t know I’d been searching for.
“The triumph of Christianity [in the fourth century CE] meant a new kind of religiosity, and it is worthwhile thinking about the significance of the change. The Christianity that Theodosius and his successors promoted, sometimes with vigorous legislation and imperial force, was strictly Nicene orthodoxy. This form of Christianity was doctrinaire, insisting on certain theological views as the only right basis for all religious belief. Variation – even seemingly minute details of theological niceties – came to be disallowed. There was one form of truth, and eternal life depended on knowing what it was.
“One thing lost in this triumph was all the massive and glorious diversity of religious expression found everywhere throughout the pagan world. As a rule this enormous diversity brought with it a widespread tolerance of difference, a sense of varying paths to the divine were not only acceptable but also desirable. Tolerance was to be encouraged. Freedom of religion was to be embraced. One of the greatest aspects of ancient paganism, taken as a whole, was the widespread willingness to accommodate and even revel in diversity. That was lost with the triumph of Christianity.
“But changed as well was a world that separated religion, ethics, philosophy, and myth into distinct spheres of human thought and life. Now with the triumph of Christianity there appeared on the scene a “totalising” discourse about religion that encapsulated the totality of the lives of those who adhered to it, affecting not just their cultural practices but also the moral precepts they followed, the stories they told about the divine, and the views they embraced not just about God but about reality itself. Christianity not only took over an empire, it radically altered the lives of those living in it. It was a revolution that affected government practices, legislation, art, literature, music, philosophy, and – on the even more fundamental level – the very understanding of billions of people about what it means to be human.”
What does it mean to be human?
The Christian answer to the question What does it mean to be human? was formulated at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE in response to the Arian controversy. It was, as Bart Erdman says, that there is one form of truth and human life, now intractably linked to eternal life, depended on knowing and subscribing to the forms of faith agreed by the various Councils of the Church, faith in the person of Jesus as fully human and fully divine. To be human, according to the 1662 catechism, is to do your duty towards God and your neighbour, your duty towards God being to believe in him, to fear him, to love him and to worship him, and to serve him truly all the days of your life. Being human was to live in conformity with the doctrinaire theological requirements of approved belief demanded by the Church, without which you could not believe in God, fear God, or love God to God’s satisfaction. This implicit requirement continues today in the Church of England. Clergy are required to confirm that they will conform to the doctrinal beliefs of the Church as defined by the creeds and the Bible.
In the modern West, in Christianity, faith is still primarily about what people believe and how they behave. A person is in a right standing with God when they acknowledge the validity of certain conceptual truths and by living as God wants. It is all about doctrine and ethics.
I don’t believe this construction of Christianity, developed with such triumphant force seventeen centuries ago, is functional, let alone appropriate in 2019. It’s not just that the majority in the West have abandoned the orthodox, doctrinaire, legislative, “monotheistic” construct of the Christian faith that derives from Constantine’s conversion and the decision by Theodosius I later in the fourth century to make Christianity to all intents and purposes the official state religion of the Roman Empire.
The working model of Christianity we have inherited from the evolution of Christianity as the approved state religion in the Roman Empire is no longer functional. That fourth century model had evolved from the identity of Jesus as an apocalyptic, mystical wisdom teacher. Mark, Matthew and Luke developed this identity, creating a new paradigm for the person of Jesus to which John added further, not entirely compatible layers. Paul created his own distinctive paradigm of Jesus that was even further removed from the Jesus original.
What does it mean to be human in the twenty-first century?
Our world is global and pluralistic. British culture is pluralistic. Evolution is a fact of life (a comparatively recent fact of life) and space-time and uncertainty are among the working models by which we now interpret the universe in which we locate ourselves and the nature of matter from which all things living and inert are formed (I hesitate to use the word ‘created’).
Western society in the world outside of the three monotheistic religions is recovering the creativity and freedom, tolerance and diversity that characterised the pagan landscape that Christianity obliterated, a landscape far more familiar to Eastern religions and spiritualities.
The tables are being turned. Today’s wisdom understands that all people are created equal and that we should strive to embody that truth in the way we construct society. Social justice - equality for all irrespective of gender, sexuality, race, colour, social status, ability or disability or economic status - is held as an ideal by the prophets of our time.
Today’s global human family need an answer to the What does it mean to be human question that is as radically different in 2019 as the answer given by a triumphant Christianity seventeen hundred years ago. Now, it is the Christian Church that is being confronted by the development of a new kind of religiosity in human life, a paradigm with which the Church is deeply at odds. The energy of the Church is consumed by fundamental disagreements over the proposition that all people are created equal. Orthodox, traditional Christian opinion is that women are not created equal, LGBTI people are not created equal, disabled people are not created equal, lay people and priests and bishops are not created equal. This idea of inequality is rooted in the monotheistic, dogmatic, doctrinaire construct of Christianity that still dominates Christian practice and thinking.
I think the majority of Christians have already rejected this paradigm, and yet a mass act of collusion means that the bishops and archbishops, cardinals and key conservative leaders in the Church still behave as if their authority is unaffected by the transformed world in which we now live. Lay people enable this otherwise rejected paradigm to survive by passively tolerating this state of affairs. A parallel act of mass collusion in unreality can be witnessed in the UK as we are marched towards the cliff edge of Brexit and in the USA by the prediction that despite everything he represents, Donald Trump may well be re-elected to serve a second term.
Mass collusion is a phenomenon of our time, one way of looking at and interpreting the state of the global human family by not seeing the shift in reality taking place in every dimension of life, refusing or unable to use our innate gifts of wisdom and discernment.
What would a feral Christian do?
Well, this is what a feral priest is thinking – a deeply contemplative activist feral priest. How does the spirituality of feral priests and lay people survive or find proper expression in this radical, shape-shifting evolutionary period?
What do we need to do? Take wise risks, let go of the trust we place in the paradigm that no longer works. Abandon ourselves to the movement of what might be labelled in traditional language the Spirit of God but for which people both religious and secular will have myriad names or no name. People will simply feel need to release themselves from the current insanity, the conformity to teachings that no longer interpret reality. The institutional church draws us in to spending so much time and energy challenging or defending or trying to process our attitude to basic human identities.
The entire landscape of perception has changed and is changing around us and within us. The latter change is what is so scary – the change within, the transformation of the familiar and the loss of our once secure landscapes and images. My recipe for grounded sanity is to give ourselves to the here and now where our life energy is potentially fully present, the sacred as well as the secular.
The evolution of Christianity from the first to the third centuries and the triumph of Christianity in the fourth century has now become an existential crisis for Christianity. We have endured thirteen centuries of a new kind of religiosity, Nicene orthodoxy. It is at an end, this doctrinaire belief in theological niceties and certainties, the inherited orthodoxy and traditionalism.
We find ourselves immersed in a global community glorious in its diversity of religious identities and a growing welcome of difference, of a variety of paths to the divine, a freedom of religious thought and identities, a willingness not just to accommodate but revel in diversity. This is another existential paradigm shift in our interpretation of reality and our understanding of what it means to be human.
The Windhover - To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn
Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). Poems. 1918