Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Christianity 101

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
For a class assignment done in small groups, I've recently been reading bits and pieces of God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World - and Why Their Differences Matter by Stephen Prothero, a religious studies professor at Boston University. The book has a long title, but the subtitle is important. It's a clue as to why I actually like this book.  Prothero, a former Christian, does a fine job of synthesizing broad theological topics and history in his accounting of Christianity, past and present. I was skeptical going into this book, but after reading his approach in the introduction and then this chapter on Christianity, Prothero is definitely somebody I could hang with. He has shaken off the myths of the Enlightenment with its fool’s quest for unbiased objectivity and rational knowing, opting instead to get into the languages and thought worlds of ancient and ever-shifting religions. Here's my favorite quote from the introduction:
"The Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it. But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naive theological groupthink - call it Godthink - has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide... The ideal of religious tolerance has morphed into the straightjacket of religious agreement." (3-4)
The assignment has been interesting because in my small group for this class there are two North American men, one of whom is an Anabaptist-derived Christian (me), one North American, Jewish Christian woman from a Stone-Campbell/Restorationist background, and an Afghan-American woman. Very interesting conversations cropping up around our reading of this book and thankfully we're taking Prothero's lead and actually paying attention to the differences. So read on after the break for my quick review of Prothero's account of Christianity and a few distillations of what makes the Christian faith tick.

[Note: Part one of a "Religions 101" series. Also, check out reflections on the book by my classmate, Nathan: God Is Not One??]

Christian History 101
The first two sections on the Christianity chapter focus on theological topics centered around Jesus and stick with what I would characterize as orthodox (in this sense, “normal”) beliefs that wouldn’t offend most Christians. God is known to us (Christians) in three dimensions/modes/aspects: Father, Son (Jesus), and Spirit. To address the fundamental problem of the human (or further, cosmic) condition, sin, God eventually becomes flesh in our midst in the person of Jesus. After exercising his ministry and calling followers to him for a few years in Roman-occupied 1st century Palestine/Judea, Jesus eventually takes the full force of cosmic sin upon himself when he is crucified on a Roman cross, but rises from death three days later, hangs around a bit longer to give final counsel to his disciples before leaving the temporal realm, re-joining the Father. God’s Spirit is then left as an ongoing counselor to the called-out and assembled body of Jesus’ disciples, the ekklesia (Greek), or “church,” often described as Christ’s body. (I’m doing my own theologizing here but Prothero offers a similar account.)

From there, Prothero proceeds on a march through history to trace the experience of the church. Moving in its first centuries as a small, often persecuted group of people, to becoming not only tolerated but eventually sanctioned as the official religion of the Roman empire in the 4th century, beginning under Constantine. After an East/West-Greek/Latin split in the 11th century, the next big upset in the church came in the 16t century with the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation in European Christianity. Prothero rightly places the former alongside sociopolitical developments such as an emerging middle class and the development of the printing press, making possible new modes of Christian expression not even conceivable before that time. Once Christianity hit the shores of the “New World,” the American colonies, there are subsequent waves of religious missionizing and great fervor in the 18th and 19th centuries (two “Great Awakenings” as they’re called).  In part, these give the broader culture in the United States its deeply “Christian” character, still very much at work today. (As an Anabaptist, I have very strong things to say about this, but will keep it buttoned up for now.)

Prothero then spends two sections talking about the interrelated phenomena of 1) Pentecostalism and 2) Christianity’s shift to the Global South (Central/South America, Africa, Asia). Pentecostalism is a spiritual renewal movement that started in the early 20th century, usually attributed to the “Azusa Street revival” in urban Los Angeles in 1906 and quickly spreading around the world. It’s experienced phenomenal growth since that time, in part because it is a movement that has influenced all Christian traditions, old and new, in addition to the handful of institutionalized Pentecostal groups. Especially helpful for Pentecostalism’s spread to the Global South is an implicit “preferential option for the poor” (to borrow a term from Liberation Theologies). Pentecostal expressions of Christianity are truly postmodern in that they “(liberate) Christians from the tyranny of belief, which, after the Enlightenment, (have) become a straightjacket for many” (91). In other words, Christianity from the Reformation era has been obsessed with rational belief, resulting in a disenchantment of creation. Pentecostal Christianity, on the other hand, introduces a re-enchantment of creation, stressing the immanence and experience of God in the world and our place in participating with God in thought, word, and deed. [More: Philip Jenkins speaks on global Christianity.]

Finally, Prothero closes out the chapter with a summary of Christianity’s current rival status with Islam, a relationship that has ebbed and flowed for centuries but is at present strained since the late 20th century and especially post-9/11. The last section of the chapter points to the mystical tradition within Christianity as a potential resource for mitigating its more militant tendencies, especially vis-a-vis Islam. These two final sections are a bit too simplistic but round off an otherwise excellent crash-course in the Christian faith, its history, and its present circumstances and challenges.

Christian Theology 101
The following questions were written by our instructor for each person reading their assigned chapter on a particular faith tradition. So I'm no longer pulling from Prothero's book but rather narrating my own theological reflections...

What is “real” for this religion? What is not real? - Real: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” Not real: “You shall have no other gods before me” (both from Exodus 20:2). We know God most fully in the person of Jesus, the christ/messiah, who said: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

How is the “real” organized for this religion? The called-out, covenant community, the people of God, is the organizing principle. In the Old Testament, this is Israel. In the New Testament, this shifts to the church, the body of Christ. The normative/formative narrative is holy scripture, the Bible, which I’ve already been quoting from.

What is valuable and what is not valuable for this religion? Service to God in all of life is valued. Praising God for the gift of true life is valued. Wasting one’s life with idleness and/or empty religiosity is not valued. In fact, harshest judgments are often leveled at the unfaithful inside the community of faith. Anabaptist/Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, puts it this way: “Christian ethics is for Christians.”

Where does real knowledge come from for this religion? Real knowledge comes from God alone. New Testament literature suggests true wisdom is a gift of God’s Spirit, most active within the covenant community (but not limited to the community, which needs correction in its fallenness).

What must followers of this religion do? Do: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5, quoted by Jesus in Luke 10:27, to which he adds: “Love your neighbor as yourself” from Leviticus 19:18). Further, Jesus calls us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Love commands are central and robust, with personal, social, and spiritual dimensions.
What must they not do? Worship or chase after idols, live sinfully, do injustice, treat the sojourner/alien or the marginalized (widows, orphans) unjustly, etc.

Does it matter that we were raised in societies that were shaped by these faith traditions? Do our cultures and our political and social systems reflect these underlying ways of thinking about the world? Yes. As I've alluded to above, Christianity has, for better and worse, put its stamp on American society and culture(s). American ways of knowing have been deeply influenced by the thought worlds of ancient Hebrew and Greek peoples and the Christian faith out of which it arose.

How would you answer the questions above?

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