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The Lure of Orthodoxy – 3

January 14, 2015

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

Defining God

Christianity was never a monolithic belief system. From the very start there were different interpretations, different currents and different writings. Yes, there were common denominators but they weren’t as doctrinal as they were practical. Orthopraxy, in fact, came before orthodoxy.

Practically speaking, early Christianity worked but made little doctrinal sense. It was new, not yet fully articulated and stood accused of heresy, polytheism and a host of other dangerous deviations. Christians testified to some spiritual experience accessible to them in the name of Jesus, but had no accurate or standard definition of him, and that was a problem. Was he the Jewish Messiah, a human anointed by God? Had he been adopted by God and thus obtained divinity? Was He, instead, born from God, or the very incarnation of God? How would all this fit within Judaic monotheism, the framework of early Christianity?

These were serious questions about God’s very nature and it was the search for coherent answers that led to the concept of a triune God; an idea that grew gradually, gained acceptance but wasn’t properly formulated until the fourth century, with further additions coming even later.

The first Christians, however, were not Trinitarians and, by later standards, would have been considered heretical. For the first two centuries they weren’t as concerned about correct theology as they became later. As we said, the emphasis was on orthopraxy, meaning correct living, rather than orthodoxy, correct doctrine. As such there were no autocratic impositions from above on a single interpretation and doctrinal diversity was simply the norm.

Even so, there were those who understood the theological implications, the potential consequences of certain practices and beliefs and sought for adequate answers. With a variety of interpretations, it appeared necessary to close the gaps, to harmonize and, to do that, it was first necessary to establish which texts were most reliable. In the search for a correct definition of Jesus and God it was necessary to agree first on a canon of Scripture, so the New Testament began to take form.

Not all writings comprising the final New Testament, however, agreed with one another. Jesus himself had not written anything and those who had written about him, had done so in their own creative way, interpreting from their particular viewpoint. These accounts disagreed on a number of points and, most crucially, on the very nature of Christ. They all attested to something of great significance having happened with Christ, but couldn’t explain it fully, coherently or harmoniously. Each explained it the best they could but also viewed it through the framework of their cultural upbringing. They knew that what they met in Jesus, and experienced after his crucifixion, was divine but how to define it was a real challenge.

Things had progressed gradually and each new writer had continued from the previous, adding to it and striving for a better explanation. For example, Paul was the first to write and had suggested that Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4). Mark, writing some years later, had moved that declaration to an earlier time, to the moment of His baptism by John the Baptist (Mark 1). Matthew and Luke, writing some 10 and 20 years after Mark, avoided the allusion to an adoption, whether at resurrection or baptism, and introduced the story of the nativity. With it, Jesus became the biological Son of God from birth. John, writing last, omitted the nativity and the previous speculations by introducing a yet earlier event. He went right back to the creation account and asserted that the preexistent Logos of God had been incarnated in Jesus (John 1). It was from this last gospel that the Trinitarian definition eventually derived.

The Christological journey, from a Jewish Messiah, at some time adopted into God, then born divine, then preexistent and, finally, to the Trinitarian definition, took centuries. It all came together through a number of church councils, with some political persuasion as well, and in a period which some have termed the Constantinian shift. It was then that Christianity received state sponsorship and its doctrinal unity was no longer optional but required.

The Orthodox Formula

It might be good to see how this process came to a closing and what contributed to that final formulation of Christian orthodoxy. The political need of a united church for a united empire was a factor, which also caused all intermediary and competing interpretations to become illegal. Apart from that, there were many other elements factoring in. Let’s see, for example, what were some of the considerations that led to the Trinitarian formula and caused it to prevail over the alternatives.

The big question had been about Christ’s nature, if human, divine, or both and, if so, how. Consequently on the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We’ve seen how Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John had different and gradually maturing understandings of the question. Many things, however, remained unclear and interpretations continued to grow long after them, with endless speculation over what they had written.

When the new state church decided to settle the matter once and for all, it called for a church council but it actually took a number of them to reach a consensus. Eventually differences were ironed out but not in a completely Christian manner. There were imprisonments, exiles, and plenty of political pressure and this accounts for the ambivalence prevailing over that period. While some see these councils and their final deliberations as the working of the Holy Spirit, others see them as the final departure of the same from the church.

Another factor was that Christianity had moved north and west and was no longer a Jewish phenomenon but a Hellenic one. As such it was coming in contact with a Greek and Roman intelligentsia, who exalted rationality and philosophical debate. Philosophy, the science of the day, required an adequate exposition of the Christian faith. The best minds were thus called to task to resolve its unanswered questions, to make a rational, scientific (philosophical) case for it. The multiplicity of interpretations and the ambiguous stance, halting between monotheism, binity, trinity and polytheism, needed to be resolved.

Starting from Scripture, considering also tradition, and then using philosophical rationality, mixed with cosmological and metaphysical concepts, a system of ideas was gradually developed which connected the dots and created the model of a triune God. Avoiding all previous pitfalls (the heresies of previous centuries) it preserved monotheism, it included the two natures of Christ, the person of the Holy Spirit, and all into a single Godhead.

It was a brilliant solution but so complex that no ordinary person could understand it, so it was crunched down to a simple creed. People were to memorize and recite it and, to give it legitimacy, it was called “The Apostles’ Creed”, though there was nothing apostolic about it. In almost every word, it was in fact a refutation of contrary arguments, arguments that spanned a few centuries and which the apostles couldn’t have heard, just like the Trinity.

Since the deliberations of these councils have become as binding (maybe more) than scripture itself, the orthodox person is forced to believe that God miraculously intervened in the process and that the results were exactly what He intended. Without this belief the whole thing would crumble and that’s why it’s such a sensitive issue, one that many fear to question.

There are, however, those who believe that the process was less than miraculous, that it was impacted by mundane interests, not least of which imperial politics. There are those whose faith isn’t so contingent on creedal formulas, who believe regardless, because they have known Him in whom they believe.

In any case, whatever one believes, when one looks deeper it becomes obvious that some of the premises upon which those councils’ decisions rest, are no longer valid.

A Crumbling Structure

Let us take, for example, the cosmology of a three tiered universe, the history known at the time, the philosophical concepts and all that was then considered as the apex of human wisdom and knowledge. All these, heavily impacted the process and became deeply embedded into our orthodox definition of God. When, after the middle ages, philosophy, history and science began to advance once again, the prepositions of the fourth century became inadequate and, with it, also the orthodox models of that period. That’s when the church entered into a conflict with science, when its discoveries began to challenge key elements of its orthodoxy.

While the complex construction of orthodoxy had stood all through the middle ages, when people like Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Galileo and others, began to challenge its presuppositions, it began to crumble. The structure was undermined and the church reacted violently, because it had confused orthodoxy with God. As with the Pharisees of old, casting doubt upon orthodoxy was considered blasphemy, an insult on God himself.

By making their interpretations so absolute and unchallengeable, they had created a God in their own image, just like the Pharisees of Jesus’ days, and they defended it with the same zeal. In effect, it was orthodoxy that Christ had stood against, and it cost him his life. He had challenged their old interpretations and definitions of God. He had shown a different nature of God, one which contrasted theirs and there simply wasn’t room for both.

Today there are still those who refuse to question old dogmas, who take a mystical approach about the past, saying “give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me”. But there are also those who recognize the subjectivity of human interpretations, of the rationalization of what lies beyond understanding, which is indiscernible, mystical and yet knowable.

The Prison of Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy is what religion creates to preserve itself, and it’s what causes it to die for lack of change. Orthodoxy is a religious prison. Christianity is defined by its ability to break out of an old orthodoxy, to leave the Old behind and move on to better things. That’s why its scripture was called the New Testament, because it was new wine, a new contract, a new relationship, a new understanding of God and a completely new paradigm.

If the New, however, becomes as rigid as the Old and the orthodoxy derived from it become as inflexible as laws carved in stone, then the new has also aged and died. Either it keeps on growing and renewing itself or it will be left behind, as historical rubble.

If new discoveries, scientific, historical or whatever, cause us to doubt our orthodoxy, we must remember that these old definitions of God were not God, but interpretations of something that we can never fully grasp. It is only by having the courage to question, yes, to listen to our doubts and let them become prayers, that we can embrace a living God, who will never cease to amaze us. Our understanding of him will keep on changing and growing, each step of our lives, as we continually leave childish things behind.

“I do not believe in God for any reason. For me believing in God is about believing in life, believing in love or even believing in air. I assume the reality of God and then seek to walk into the meaning of that assumption. When you ask me to state my reasons for believing that “God exists,“ I want to shout that existence itself is a category that makes sense only inside time and space and that God cannot be bound by such human constructs. I see and experience transcendence everywhere. I see the power of life being exhibited in every living thing. I see patterns in life that make sense only when life is viewed as a whole. I see people who have enormous capacities to love. I see consciousness skipping over barrier after barrier. I see relationships that call people into new levels of being. All of these things I see as the experience of the God, whom I cannot define, nor do I seek to do so. Every definition of God, every theism, pantheism, panentheism, deism and even atheism is the product of a human mind that cannot possibly embrace the dimension of the divine. To answer a question like “Does God exist?” is to pretend that I can enter the mind of God. Does my inability to define God mean that there is no God? I do not think so. Many, maybe most people seem to believe in God because they need for God to exist. I do not. I believe in God because God is. What kind of God? God knows, I do not. I think the theistic understanding of God is bankrupt. The problem is that most people seem unable to conceive of God except in theistic terms, so they cling to the bankruptcy of theism as “better than nothing.” I believe that we can let theism die, as it is now doing, and still continue to walk into the mystery of God. It would never occur to me to think that if the traditional definition of God dies, then God must also die.

I continue to hear theistic language in prayers, sermons, hymns and liturgy. I see them as human metaphors, which can never bind my spirit, but which point beyond themselves to a reality that in Paul’s words, we can see “only through a glass darkly.” What we must never do is to identify the metaphor with the reality. The metaphor will always die. The reality will never die. Human life is so constructed that we will always need a metaphor. Our human tendency is to literalize the metaphor. That will always guarantee its death.

So I shall remain a pilgrim, walking daily into the mystery of God. I will walk beyond all boundaries, beyond scripture and creeds, beyond doctrine and tradition, beyond Christianity itself. I will never confuse the pointer with the reality to which it points.

My stance frustrates many. It even angers some, which is always revelatory. Mine is the journey of a lifetime. I love to quote a retired bishop who said, “the older I get, the more deeply I believe, but the less beliefs I have.” —  J.S.Spong”

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