Original Sin 26 – So how did this idea come to dominate in the West?

Posted: March 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 26 – So how did this idea come to dominate in the West?

The question of how the idea of original sin as inherited guilt (along with other distinct differences) rose to dominance in the Western Christian world is actually a pretty interesting historical question. In order to begin to understand it, one has to step back into the ancient world within which Christianity formed and took root. For good reason, we tend to associate Christianity with the rise of Western civilization. The two are often so deeply intertwined in our minds, that we tend to unconsciously assume that Christianity is a Western religion.

But it’s not. And the world of those first centuries was a very different one. In that world, what we call the West was the frontier of the Roman Empire. Within the context of Christianity, only one Apostolic See was established — the one in Rome. In the East, by way of contrast, there were four Apostolic sees or patriarchates: Jerusalem (the oldest), Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. (According to tradition it’s said that the Apostle Andrew founded the church that eventually became the See of Constantinople, but the actual elevation of Constantinople to the level of the other Sees probably stems from the same reason that Rome itself was originally included. They were both capitol cities of the Empire. And as the status of Rome declined, that of Constantinople rose. If the realities of political and geographic realities had not played a part in the status and importance of some of the Apostolic Sees, then one would expect to see Ephesus, for example, among them.)

By the time of St. Augustine, the division of language between the Latin West and the Greek East had become more pronounced than it had ever been before. The days of a sole emperor were largely gone and the Empire itself was more strongly divided into a Western Empire under Rome and an Eastern Empire under Constantinople than it had generally been before. The East had Persia as its biggest rival; the threat that Islam became did not yet exist. While Christianity and trade still tied East and West together, those bonds were growing weaker.

In that context, we have to add the fact that St. Augustine stood head and shoulders intellectually above anyone in the Latin West while the East retained many equal voices. Moreover St. Augustine did not write in Greek nor did he like to read Greek. Thus he did not interact with the Eastern Fathers theologically and it doesn’t seem that any of those in the East ever read St. Augustine’s theological works. It doesn’t appear that they were even translated into Greek until many centuries later. St. John Cassian (who I believe is the only Western saint with writings included, for example, in the Philokalia) did try to mediate some of the places where St. Augustine went too far, but his efforts were less appreciated in the West.

As a result, St. Augustine became the dominant interpretive voice in the West in a way that no single person ever became in the East. His interpretations eventually became the normative base for all Western theology. Protestantism rejected some of the late medieval practices and theology of the Roman Catholic Church, but they remained rooted in an Augustinian perspective of reality. If anything, they went further along the path of that perspective than St. Augustine himself ever did. Thus we get ideas like ‘total depravity’ that certainly go beyond anything St. Augustine taught.

At any rate, those seem to be the primary factors in the tapestry of divergence to my eyes. Anyone think I’m missing or overlooking anything?


My Church History Perspective 6 – Since when is “modern” the center of Christianity?

Posted: December 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Church History Perspective 6 – Since when is “modern” the center of Christianity?

The title of this post flows from the fact that a lot of the discussion within Christianity in the US sometimes seems to revolve around “modernity.” Now, I will not argue that the modern culture in (primarily) Western Europe and the US was not significant for Christianity. It’s pretty much the culture that gave birth to the entire Protestant tradition. And it shaped not only our part of the world, but greatly influenced the rest of the world. That influence was in part positive and in part negative. Our scientific advances have made life better. But Western colonialism and the sense of “Manifest Destiny” (strangely rooted in some sort of a “Christian” ethos) under which we conquered what is now the United States left scars across the world. And the 20th century demonstrated clearly how our ability to improve life went hand in hand with our ability to destroy it.

The 20th century began the “postmodern” turn in Western culture and societies. Although still developing or “emerging“, that’s the culture that largely formed and shaped me. A discussion of that turn is beyond the scope of this series, but obviously that turn highlighted a question among Christians in what is broadly called “the West” today. What would the cultural turn mean for the train wreck that “Western” Christianity had become? Within that somewhat limited context, a discussion of “modern” and “postmodern” Christianity made and continues to make sense.

However, I had a problem when I began to encounter another term: premodern. Whether you are speaking of cultures and societies in general, or Christianity specifically, there is no one thing definably “premodern.” We can speak of Christianity within the culture and context of the Roman Empire (East or West). We can talk about Christianity in the context of western Europe after the city of Rome fell and the Roman Empire essentially contracted to the East. We can talk about Christianity in the early (or late) middle ages in western Europe. We can talk about Christianity in Armenia after it had won its freedom from Persia. We can talk about Christianity among the Slavs following their dramatic conversion. We can talk about Christianity in what we now called the Middle East before Islam, after the development of Islam but before Constantinople fell, or after the fall of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The list goes on and on.

Christianity is not centered on the modern culture of western Europe and the United States and cannot be defined in relation to that one culture. Framing the discussion in terms of modern, postmodern, and premodern seems to try to do exactly that. Even when you limit the scope of the discussion to western Europe, there is no common “premodern” period. There were rather many periods, cultures, and cultural shifts before the advent of modernity.

Further, western Europe was not the birthplace of Christianity. Attempting to center the discussion on the cultural shifts of the west strikes me as … odd. I don’t approach history that way. I suppose I don’t try to construct some sort of unified arc within which I can fit the topic of Christianity. Instead, I approach the history of the Church within each of its cultural settings simply trying to understand what it was and how it operated within that context. Although I’m as prone to generalize and make broad statements as anyone else, when pushed I drop back into the story of the small.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 3 – The Baptist Faith & Message of 2000

Posted: July 18th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Baptists, Eucharist, and History 3 – The Baptist Faith & Message of 2000

Finally, we’ll look briefly at the current state of Baptist belief and practice as reflected in the SBC’s 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. It’s extremely brief, so I’ll just quote the entire thing.

The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.

I would say we now take it further than even Zwingli intended. It’s a memorial ordinance. It’s purely symbolic. The bread and “fruit of the vine” (because Baptists became teetotalers in the late 19th century) are now mere bread and grape juice. No hint of the holy. No trace of even a spiritual connection to Christ. It’s not even a Thanksgiving (Eucharist) anymore. It’s a ritual we do out of obedience, as a memorial, and to anticipate the return of our Lord. This is a fairly common modern Western perspective today.

That completes my brief overview of the roots and development of the Baptist perspective on the Eucharist. Next we’ll step back into early Christian history and begin to explore how the Eucharist was understood and practiced by the early Christians. We’ll begin with the Ante-Nicene Christian period when Christianity was an illegal, though not always persecuted, religion in the Roman Empire.


The Great Emergence

Posted: May 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I love listening to Phyllis Tickle. I’ve listened to her speak a number of times over the years (via mp3) and have loved every instance. I believe The Great Emergence is the first book by her I’ve read, though I do have The Words of Jesus waiting on my shelf. I also realize that everyone under the sun has already read and reviewed this book. I’m a latecomer. It took me a while to buy it and then with this minor matter of a celiac diagnosis, my reading has fallen behind the curve lately. 😉

With this particular book, I find myself in the odd position of wanting to like the book more than I actually did. Instead I found it something of a mixed bag. I do think she accurately captures the spirit of the present age and the tension within which we all live in the West and particularly in the US. Those are the parts of the book I found myself almost cheering along with. On the other hand, I found the historical perspective a bit light and the whole 500 year cycle somewhat contrived. Those were probably my least favorite parts of the book.

The section of the book that tried to tie together a whole host of disparate historical events while leaving out many significant realities of the era in order to create a “crisis” around 500-600 CE similar to that which occurred in the Great Schism and the Reformation was the least compelling. I have the disadvantage, I think, of a lot of familiarity with both the imperial (and contra-imperial) history and the Christian history of that era. I just don’t see the same sort of either societal or Christian crisis at that point in time, certainly not working in conjunction. Yes, the West did have some pretty serious societal issues at that time and ongoing. But that was not mirrored in the Christian schism. At that point in time, the See of Rome, largely consumed by those other societal issues, pretty much acted in conjunction with the great Sees of what is known now as Orthodoxy. The schism had as much to do with the politics of the Roman Empire, in its capitol of Constantinople, and with misunderstandings over the actual Greek meanings of the words used. The Armenian state, for example, was caught in a war against Persia at the time and the bishops of its church were unable to attend the council. When they received the council’s results in writing later, they interpreted it as a resurgence of Nestorianism and rejected it accordingly. The monophysite heresy did largely die out over time and never took permanent hold in either the Chalcedonian or non-Chalcedonian churches. The Oriental Orthodox church is not monophysite, nor are they continuing something older or even different than Orthodoxy. Rather their theology is best understood as miaphysite, which is theologically consistent with Chalcedon though it uses different language.

I think there is a deeper misunderstanding of the first thousand years of Christianity embedded within these issues. Toward the end of the book, Phyllis Tickle writes of the impact of Constantine in a way that simply does not fit the historical realities of the time. Further, she seems to attribute the renewed rise of gnosticism, the incorporation of Greek philosophical ideas, the rise of the image of an angry God, and the loss of a Jewish character to Christianity to Constantine rather than to the era of the Great Schism, which is when it actually happened in the West. I don’t disagree with the charges she raises, but they are largely exactly the same charges the Eastern Church has raised against the Western Church when it has been able to interact and speak at all between Islamic and Communist oppression, not something that entered the Church when Constantine made Christianity a legal religion.

With that said, I think her analysis of the Western Church over the last thousand years is pretty accurate for the brief space in which she has to write in this book. Her analysis of the way the postmodern mind deconstructs the structure established in the Reformation (attempting to base authority on a text) is, as they say, spot on. And we are certainly in the middle of both a societal upheaval and an upheaval in our understanding of religion today in the US – beyond a shadow of a doubt.

So I guess I give this book one thumb up. It’s worth reading and it’s a quick read. But read it with a grain of salt, especially when it’s discussing the first thousand years of Christianity.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 5

Posted: May 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 5

As my efforts to understand this Christian faith within which I found myself continued, I kept reading both the Holy Scriptures and patristic writings from the first millenium. Nowhere could I find a change from the core communal practices of fasting, set prayer, and care for the sick and poor (at the very least through almsgiving). Other spiritual disciplines and practices were refined over the centuries, certainly.  But those, which seemed to flow directly from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (which is recorded historically from the late first century and early second century as being the first gospel written), always seemed to form part of the core of the life of the Church. (We won’t discuss Eucharist and Liturgy right now.) There continued to be a monumental disconnect between the church of Scripture and the entire first millenium and what I personally saw and experienced around me.

In an entirely separate journey from my own, my mother converted to Roman Catholicism. She was and is heavily involved with the Carmelites. Somewhere along the way, she shared Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God with me. If you’ve never read or listened to that book (audio is online from several sources), I highly recommend it. Brother Lawrence greatly influenced me and continues to influence my practice of the faith today. Moreover, he is an early modern practical mystic who has much the flavor of the ancient writers I was struggling to connect to the present day church. In order to connect the dots in the middle, I began to explore ecclesial medieval history in the West. I already knew a lot of the non-ecclesial history of Western Europe from the fall of the city of Rome through the medieval period. I didn’t even realize there was this huge gap in my knowledge until I began to explore it. What happened to the Western or Latin Church after the fall of the city of Rome and the rise of Islam drove a wedge between the eastern and western church?

As Rome declined and fell, the order it had imposed in the West gradually vanished. (The Roman Empire, shifted to the capital of Constantinople, continued in the East until the 13th century, of course.) No surprise there. And no real surprise in the work done in the monastic communities preserving the ancient works and serving as centers of light and order. What I saw by looking directly at the church, though, was that during this period more and more of the activities, such as fasting, that had been the work and practice of the whole church, came to be seen as largely more centered in the monastic calling. Rather than being an expression of the fullness of the Christian life to which all believers are called (well, except for celibacy), the monastic calling came to be seen as a higher calling, a different calling, following a different rule of life. And as this happened over time, the practice of the “laity” doing things like consistently and broadly observing the rule of prayer and fasting began to decline. One rule of faith developed for the laity while a different rule of faith developed for monastics.

Then, of course, at the Reformation, many such practices that were deemed too “Roman” by the reformers were simply discarded and a rule of individual choice of discipline and spiritual practice — which quickly devolved into very little actual practice at all — began to replace them all. That which the Reformation began, the Radical Reformation with its deep iconoclasm (an ancient first millenium heresy) soon completed. The Christian church in the West, by and large, became focused purely on the “spiritual” and began to treat the body and the “natural” mind as though they were divorced in some odd way from a person’s body.

I did eventually run into Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines which seeks to correct some of that decline. And his work helped me at least understand the disciplines in a modern context better than I ever had before. And though he writes at length about fasting (which I may explore on the blog at some point), I never actually adopted the practice for myself even though I agreed in theory with everything he wrote.

That’s the first sign of the truth behind my confession at the start of this series. By this point, I knew that fasting and prayer were deeply embedded and intertwined in the practice of Christianity from its very beginning. I knew it was likely an essential spiritual discipline. Yet I did not even try to fast, even in the clumsiest of fashions.

In the next in this series, I’ll close the loop of this journey with the last bit of knowledge about current Christian practice that I was still missing.