Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Spread of Christianity

History of Christian Thought #1

I'm missing all the fun of Martin Luther King Day in the Pacific Northwest. I'm attending Seminary in the mid-west for an intensive three-week course, this time on the History of Christian Thought. I thought it would be good for me to identify (at least) one insightful thing each day to post. So, here goes!

Christianity started as a Jewish revival movement in an obscure religion in a backwater province of the Roman Empire. It was a movement and later a religion that was violently oppressed, including the execution of its founder right at the get-go. And yet, within 300 years it spreads across and becomes the ruling religion of a Gentile Empire. What was so attractive about Christianity that it spread so far so quickly? Nietzsche described Christianity as a religion that appealed to slaves and women - a slur in his mind, since he thought only the weak were interested - but that simply isn't true. It is true that women and slaves did find Christianity attractive, but so did many learned, wealthy and powerful people as well. Why was that?

This is one of the enduring mysteries about early Christian history. Less critical minds will describe it in terms of the inevitable spread of the Truth, but that ignores the millions of people who didn't accept Christianity, and the diverse kinds of Christianities that developed before and since the conversion of Constantine. Just saying that Christianity is the Truth doesn't give much of an answer. Even today, not everyone responds to the Christian message(s) - and indeed, Christians are defined as much by which versions of the Christian message they don't respond to, as well as which ones they do!

Timothy Luke Johnson, a respected Catholic scholar, hypothesizes that Christianity offered an experience of power. Something enabled weak and small people to become powerful and large spiritual figures. Something freed them from fear, from demons, from sin, and gave people an experience of the Divine regardless of their class or situation. It transformed people. Johnson draws a line back to the experience of Easter, where the bodily resurrection of a human being imbues on those who revere and remember that event some degree of that same transformation - death is overcome, the consequences of being human are forgiven, people are new creatures.

I haven't read Johnson's thesis so I can't develop it more than that, and I am not entirely persuaded by it. But, frankly, I have no better idea myself. And so, even if I don't find solidarity in that interpretation of the resurrection, I can try to appreciate the experience the myriad Christians before me have felt in the Easter encounter. Certainly, Johnson's emphasis on Easter is in part a product of his Catholicism and orthodoxy. Those Christians who, like myself, looked more to Jesus' life and actions, had to look outside the Pauline tradition, had to form our faith alongside (not quite within) the dominant Christian community. But there is still something there for us, isn't there? We are Christians, after all, aren't we? Why should I, a relatively wealthy, powerful person (i.e. American affluence in a world of grinding poverty and powerlessness), be attracted to a teaching that radically subverts the power structures that I enjoy?

I think of Marx's idea that people experience - despite class consciousness or unconsciousness - sometimes transcends the limits of their narrative to interpret. That is, sometimes we think or see or feel things that don't fit "in" with the way our world tells us to see the world. And these little subversive nuggets build up sometimes. Something has to account for them. And that's when a person changes... transforms... becomes new... sees things fundamentally differently.

Was that what was happening in the Roman Empire, before Constantine? (After Constantine, when the Church became part of the Power Establishment, I see little that resembled the Jewish Jesus movement.) Am I feeling what early Christians felt? Surely, the answer is yes and no. And I am left to wonder.

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