I don’t know if you have been watching the Winter Olympics. Out of a sort of morbid curiosity, I have been following on and off. Truth be told, the sports are entirely foreign to me. Living in South Africa, where the climate is beautifully tropical pretty much all year round, playing in the snow is completely alien to my experience. I have no idea what it feels like to be hit by a snowball, to glide across icy lakes, or to barrel downhill at suicidal speeds. But I could certainly see the attraction – we are not short of adrenaline-inducing activities in Africa. And then there was curling.
I admit that my half-hour dalliance with curling hardly makes me an expert, so if you are a fan of curling (bless you) read these comments in that light and please take no offense when I say that I just don’t get it. I am sure that somewhere out there, deep in the Canadian hinterlands, there is a group of fanatical supporters who dream of taking selfies with their curling heroes, but I don’t see myself ever joining them. For one thing, the game is painfully slow. It is like bowls on Valium. In fact, it makes bowls seem positively reckless by comparison, and I suspect that a mildly agitated spectator is more active than the actual participants. When the most exciting part of the highlights package (ironically there was one – go figure) is the national anthems, then you must know. So you can imagine how surprised I was to hear that one of the Russian players had been banned for doping. Which aspect of performance exactly did he think the drugs would enhance?! The mind boggles. Anyway, another issue I had with the game, aside from its mind-numbing tedium, was that I found it really difficult to figure out what was going on because the athletes (and I use the word in its loosest possible sense) remain completely stoical throughout. At least in soccer or cricket, when a player does something good, there is fist-pumping and group-hugging and ecstatic posturing in front of the television cameras, so that even if you are a complete novice to the game you know that it is appropriate to cheer. It is possible to deduce how the game is played from the responses of the players. Not so in curling. It is cold, mirthless pastime. For everybody, I suspect.
Modern Western Christianity, I believe, has approached theology in much the same way as I have curling. (Aside: I know this is a very tenuous link, but I really wanted to write about curling before the very narrow window of opportunity provided by the Olympics closes, so I apologise for the contrived analogy, but I now have it out of my system…) There is simply no way that we could ever see the beauty of a spirituality whose genesis is millennia removed from us in time, and which was birthed in a culture and an historical context that looks nothing like ours, simply by relying on our own understandings. We cannot ever appreciate the teachings of spiritual leaders like Jesus, or even Paul, for that matter, through 21st Century eyes. We cannot assume that we know them. If we do that, if we frame our understandings of them in our own ignorance, if we refuse to try to engage with them on their own terms instead of ours, we end up either dismissing them as nonsense or inventing our own version of them, which are invariably mockeries. As with curling, the beauty of Christianity can only be gleaned from a genuine attempt to see it from the point of view of the players.
In trying to come to terms with Christianity, it should seem obvious that the perspective we want most is Jesus’s. Maybe to some extent Paul’s too. Through the Bible, which is the best way to get access to Jesus, we are provided with a narrow window into a world utterly removed from our own. We don’t know its rules, its language, its culture, the way that it makes sense of its context. And so we do what we habitually do – we mine our own experiences and understandings for points of connection and we project these onto this world. And when we have done that for long enough, we start to believe that our interpretations are truth. We fail to see the artifice.
One of the problems with the belief that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God is that it makes the assumption that everybody can (and should) read the Scriptures in exactly the same way, which – conveniently for us – happens to be the way we read it today. We can ignore the fact that it is next to impossible that a 1st Century Palestinian Jew under the yoke of the Roman Empire would interpret the Hebrew Scriptures in the same way as a middle-class white male citizen of America (who probably has, if anything, only a rudimentary understanding of Aramaic)- the 21st Century’s version of the powerful elite. So we remain oblivious to our tendency to read our own theologies back into the gospel texts and the Pauline letters (because that is how our brains make sense of the unfamiliar world they present). Our teachings become Jesus’s teachings, our theologies become Paul’s theology. And after a while, we become familiar with these projections and see them as natural. That is why, I suspect, that one of the objections from some of my Christian readers and my Christian friends to my theology is that it runs contrary to “what the church has always believed”. The truth is that it runs contrary to what they believe the church has always believed.
Some of the core doctrines of modern Evangelical and protestant Christianity only arrived on the scene relatively recently, historically speaking. But we will only ever recognise that if we actively resist the urge to read a 21st Century Protestant theology back into the gospels. When we stop assuming that it has always been this way, and look at the journey Protestant theology has taken, Christianity starts to look very different. The Christianity that we know in the West is an amalgamation of the theologies of very many historical figures. Augustine, for example, a 4th Century North African monk, regarded right belief as a key marker of faith, ruthlessly persecuting the Donatists for holding the belief that the church ought to be a sort of ‘exclusive gathering of the Chosen’ rather than a more inclusive society for all sinners. Although Augustine was correct, I think, in challenging the elitism of the Donatist church, his methods of doing so are dubious. He justifies the use of violence by citing the parable of the banquet (Luke 14:15-24), where the master tells his servant to “compel them to come in”. Later church leaders used Augustine’s writings to justify their own violent persecution of pagan religions. I suspect Augustine would have seen a number of parallels between the Donatists and modern Evangelicalism. ‘What we believe’ today is certainly not what ‘we have always believed’. Not that there ever was a unified “we”.
Anyway, another figure whose beliefs shaped Christian thinking was Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th Century priest, who – unsurprisingly, given the feudal social configurations of Medieval England – came to interpret sin as a slight on God’s honour that could not be overlooked. Given that the nature of the offense was too great for a human to pay, although the debt of honour had to be repaid by a human (because humans committed the offense), Jesus – as fully human and fully God, was the perfect substitute for all of humanity, and by the shedding of his blood, God’s honour was satisfied.
Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory found resonance with a German Reformation thinker, Martin Luther. Luther introduced the notion that salvation was by faith alone, and his understanding of the concept of “faith” links it very closely with intellectual activity – believing that Jesus was the perfect substitute– rather than actions. It is also Luther who – along with Huldrych Zwingli, a Swiss theologian – introduces the doctrine of sola scriptura, which forms the foundation of the modern belief in the infallibility of Scripture. This doctrine had not existed in the church until then, and is still not held by the much older Eastern Orthodox church. Another of Luther’s contributions is the idea that all earthly governments are divinely ordained and ought not to be resisted (in my opinion, a grievous misinterpretation of Romans 13, but that is a discussion for another time).
A hundred years later, building on ideas from Augustine (although Augustine strongly opposed the existence of an external locus of evil), Anselm and Luther, a French theologian, John Calvin, introduced what we now know as the Penal Substitution understanding of atonement, namely that Jesus was being punished by God as a substitute for us, thus saving us from eternal damnation. For the benefit of Evangelical churches, I could add Charles Parham to this mix, who introduced experience-based spirituality into the church – speaking in tongues, ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’, and the like. I could add hundreds of names to the list, each of whom have shaped the theologies of various denominations of Christian thinking. But I think you get the point: two thousand years leaves a lot of time for people to add their bit.
So it is a bit disingenuous and wholly inaccurate to maintain that modern Christianity looks anything like the Christianity of the early church. It doesn’t even look anything like the Christianity of its more recent theologians. Calvin, I suspect, would turn in his grave if he were to see the narcissistic rock-concert style church services so prevalent in the church today, even though we hold very closely to many of his central tenets. ‘What we believe’ today is certainly not ‘what the church has always believed’. It is not even what the church believed two hundred years ago, let alone 2000. In fact, even the very first church is deeply divided along theological lines. Paul, in Galatians 1:6-7, accuses the church in Jerusalem of deliberately twisting the gospel so that what they preach is not good news at all. There has never been a singular unifying theology that defines Christian experience. Theology changes because times change, cultures change, languages change, people themselves change. “What the church has always believed” is a myth. We would do well to disabuse ourselves of that notion.
I would offer, as further proof of how we read things back into the texts, the Nicene creed. Adopted by the First Council of Nicaea in 325, it is probably the earliest generally agreed-upon written statement of Christian faith. It is likely our best insight into “what the church believed”. It was embellished later on but in its original form it looks like this:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost.
What intrigues me most is what is not there: three cornerstones of modern Christianity are conspicuously absent. Bear in mind that this gathering of church leaders has come together for the express purpose, among other things, of articulating an explicit statement of faith. Every choice is a thoroughly debated and deliberate one. Omissions are not accidental. With that in mind, consider this: there is absolutely no suggestion that the Scriptures are the inerrant and infallible word of God. I think it is fair to suggest that if this were a core doctrine, it would appear explicitly, as it does in the faith-statements of most modern Protestant and Evangelical churches today. One would have expected holy Scriptures to at least get a mention in a gathering of all the prominent church leaders of the time, especially if they were regarded as being directly from God. Tellingly, the creed omits any reference to Scriptures. Second, there is no mention of hell. Given its prominence in modern preaching, one would expect that had this been a central concern of the early church, it would be mentioned here. Further proof that this is no oversight can be deduced from the fact that in all of the sermons found in the book of Acts, that is, in all of the evangelical work done by Paul’s ministry, there is not a single instance where hell is mentioned. Not one. Not only does Paul not engage in religious terrorism, it appears that eternal damnation (which is a pretty big deal, if it is on the cards) doesn’t even enter Paul’s thinking. Third, at no point does this creed infer that God is the agent behind the suffering of Jesus, in other words that Jesus was being punished by God instead of us. All of these things are beliefs that have for us become normalised, and which we read back into the Scriptures. They are not explicitly there.
So back to the curling analogy. Modern Christians tend to approach the theology of the early church in much the same way as I approached curling: without any understanding of its background, its terminology, its intentions, its protocols. But that doesn’t stop us having a lot to say about it; it doesn’t prevent us from interpreting it through the lenses of our own experience, which tends to end up with an unfair mockery of the original that robs it of its beauty and prohibits genuine engagement by obscuring understanding. If I really wanted to understand curling (which, I am afraid, I still do not), it would require a lot more of me than cursory observations framed within my own prejudicial worldviews. As far as curling is concerned, I am content not to move beyond that. That one thrilling half-hour will be sufficient for several lifetimes. But while that may be acceptable as an approach to curling, it should never be sufficient as an approach to systems of faith, which give shape to our thinking and behaviour, and which consequently shape our societies. The gospel is supposed to be “good news”. I don’t see much “good news” in the threat of fiery destruction at the hands of a schizophrenic, bigoted bully of a god, who is obsessed with human sexuality and is incapable of handling rejection. Fortunately, though, we have been looking at it all wrong. Christianity is not a cold and mirthless faith. Not for everybody, anyway.