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The Lure of Orthodoxy – 2

November 29, 2014

Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?

Old wine isn’t enough

All divinely inspired teachings and revelations happened at a specific time and were intended for a specific audience. That’s when they were fresh new wine, bringing fresh new experiences of the divine, forward motion and progress. Those same words, in other times and out of their original context, may still hold value, perhaps even great value, but their original meaning can never be fully recovered.

No matter how much bible history and theology one studies, it is impossible to fully reconstruct the original settings because there are far too many gaps and variables. The simple fact that one looks at it from another time renders it a subject of interpretation, sometimes bearing little resemblance to the original idea. This is what happens, for example, when Christians cross reference bible verses from different bible periods and authors. They take words out of their original context to form a collage, an illustration of ideas and doctrines which the original authors might have never intended.

This common practice ignores the progressive development of the Bible accounts, carries older ideas to the level of more recent ones and flattens everything to a single unit. This approach inhibits progress because it doesn’t allow the past to pass and the future to come. When something out of the past is labelled the same as something more recent, because it’s in the same book, where everything is considered “Word of God”, then its the same as mixing new wine with vinegar… it sours everything.

I’ll make an example. When the books of Moses were written and a law was established for the people of Israel, the rule an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was new wine and progressive indeed. In the tribal societies of that period there were no judicial systems based on clear laws for everyone. Every man settled scores with whoever wronged him, either by himself or with the help of his tribe. Vengeful retaliation was common and there were bloody excesses, going way over what the original offense merited. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was thus a progressive step, putting a limit on excesses and instructing to be fair and just. It wasn’t an injunction to meet violence with violence, which was already the norm, but a call to restraint.

Applying this same principle today is a step backward. Stoning people to death for a multitude of infractions, or plucking eyes and teeth for minor ones is indeed barbarous. In its original context, however, it was the first written law that taught what was expected and dealt with everyone in an equal manner. It was the premise to a better functioning and progressive society.

Eventually, the relative progress brought by such a law became insufficient. It was time to realize its limits and move on to better things, past the idea of just retribution and learn about a better law, one holding to a higher moral code and a better representation of God. Jesus introduced such a new code but had to face much opposition from the keepers of the old one.

The Mosaic law had been elevated to perfection, to accurate expression of God’s nature and Jesus had the arduous job of showing them that it was neither. He did so in a number of ways, like saying that Moses had written some of the commandments because of their immaturity (Mark 10:5), basically saying that the Mosaic law was a step in human development, and not the end of the road.

According to him the law couldn’t even come close to representing what God really was like or what he meant for humans to do. He demonstrated this by disregarding some of the commandments in favour of doing something better, like working on the Sabbath, or forgiving someone who, according to the law, should have been punished. In other cases he would quote some commandment, word for word, then add “but I say unto you” and changed it by introducing a newer and better approach. Here is an example:

Ye have heard…‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say unto you that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also… “Ye have heard… ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you, that ye may be the children of your Father who is in Heaven. For He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust… Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father who is in Heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5: 38 -48)

In other words, the original law was not perfect like the Father in heaven and did not reflect his true nature, which Jesus said was loving and forgiving, instead of vengefully just. Jesus’ law of love, in fact, was a better picture of God, and needed to replace that of the old Mosaic law, still carrying the marks of a tribal society and ill fitted for a growing humanity. This was undoubtedly new wine, and it cost him his life to preach it.

There was no settling of scores in his words, no wrath, no giving in to resentment, no hate or revenge, no self-preserving survival mode. His unconditional love and inclusive message became the most progressive idea the world had ever seen. It shone so brightly that, by comparison, traditional religions and their moral codes were light years behind.

That’s how Christianity became the latest and most progressive ideas there was, and that’s why it caused a social revolution. People, especially the humble majority, saw hope in it. It spoke to them, it dignified life, it liberated women, gave hope to the slaves and demonstrated a better and more loving society. While the gods of Rome resembled a capricious nobility, living in villa-like temples, the god of the Christians had lived amongst them, as one of them, even dying as a fugitive slave would, and yet rising again. The message was powerful, the love intense, the camaraderie strong, the service to those in need exemplar and, what’s more, it exposed the corrupt bankruptcy of the old systems.

How the Christian revolution died

When, through adaptation, Christianity espoused the ruling system, everything changed. When the old Roman traditions was dressed into a new “Christian” coat, the revolution was over. When Christianity’s challenge was remodelled into an “approved” orthodoxy, and dissenting ideas were outlawed, everything froze into the still image of a state sponsored Christianity. That was the end of Christian freedom and its revolutionary cycle.

Forward motion stopped and Christianity became the institution and its orthodoxy. The free, progressive, flowing, mystical and charismatic aspects, so appreciated in early Christianity, became increasingly resented by an institution seeking stability in orthodoxy, so they finally disappeared. As there cannot be a reactionary revolution, nor a modern antiquity, neither can there be a progressive orthodoxy. Orthodoxy cannot change, therefore it imprisons its followers into the past and silences God from ever speaking again. At best, orthodoxy, is the reminiscence of a past progress, but such as can no longer move and is therefore dead.

Orthodoxy cannot capture the God experience, the mystical, the sense of direction of humanity in a dynamic relationship with a living God. Orthodoxy can only capture traditions, words, creeds and theological formulas. Having no living reality to offer for the present, orthodoxy glorifies a supposedly supernatural past, which bears no resemblance to human history or our present world. It sanctifies and invests supernatural powers in a book, as if God had written it with his own finger, while ignoring its true history and human aspects. Like the Jews did with the Torah and the Muslims with the Koran, so the Christians have done with their Bible.

That’s why orthodoxy exists mostly within the three monotheistic faiths, because it stands on the assumption that God is perfectly defined within a single book. Each claim to have the right one, the infallible and final words of God but it’s the same paradox as we’ve met before. Just as there cannot be multiple orthodoxies neither can there be multiple and infallible holy books, which describe multiple, and yet single, and yet different, and yet only god.

From the absurdity of such claims come the absurdity of apologetics aimed at defending the various orthodoxies. Each is convinced that theirs is the right one, based on the only holy book, and works to demonstrate that the others are straight from the devil, heretical and false. This fuels religious hatred and wars amongst the three faiths, as well as within the various subdivisions of the same faith, including Christianity.

I have come to the conclusion that orthodoxies are simply old wine, historical accumulations and cultural deposits. That they more clearly define the nature of religion and civilizations, than of God, the source of being. I believe He escapes human attempts to enclose him within a belief system and that He seeks those who will worship him in spirit and truth (John 4:24), in other words in undefinable reality. I believe He is more likely to be found in that unmanageable, mystical, heretical experience of the divine, than in orthodox beliefs. As the retired bishop said: the older I get, the more deeply I believe, but the less beliefs I have.

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One Comment
  1. Who can capture the Wild Wind?
    Who can corner the winds and put them into their place?
    She is the Wind of Wisdom, and she is the Wind of Freedom.
    She is the Wild Wind that comes from whence thou knowest not.
    And wither she goeth, thou knowest not.
    For she is the Wind of the Spirit of God.

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