by Murdoch Matthew
On the Episcopal Café recently there have been several mentions of the work of the people as basic to the church. And not just church – a posting on how young atheists are organizing to improve their communities had me thinking, They’re doing the work of God. My husband, Gary, has commented on the Baptism/Communion controversy by putting his emphasis on “building communities in which people would truly care for each other as God cares for them.”
And now Diana Butler Bass lectures from her new book, promoting the idea that Christian belief comes after membership in the community and taking part in its work. (In a previous book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, she talked about revitalizing the local parish as the basic unit of faith.) “It’s our awakening. It is up to us to move with the Spirit instead of against it, to participate in making our world more humane, just and loving,” she writes.
Ms Bass’s work sounds like we’re re-entering a world similar to that of the early church — pluralistic, many faiths, many stories. Earthquakes aren’t the only forces shaking beautiful old cathedral churches.
Gary and I attended an exhibition at the Onassis Center in New York City, The Transition to Christianity, 3d to 7th Centuries. It gives a much richer picture of the development of Christianity than the standard Early-Church/Church Fathers/Medieval/Modern storyline. The church grew up in a very rich stew of spiritual movements, with much cross-fertilization. The current faith seems too tradition bound, too set in its ways, to easily benefit from contemporary intellectual ferment.
In the first three centuries of its existence, Christianity was only one of many religions in Rome, a small but rapidly growing cult in an empire whose religious practices were as diverse as its populace. The Persian savior Mithras was the focus of a mystery cult whose initiates were primarily military men, and fertility cults, such as those of Isis and Magna Mater, had spread throughout the empire. Many other gods,
especially local and household deities, fulfilled a variety of supernatural roles, overseeing the welfare of the living, from marriage and childbirth to illness and death. These gods rest firmly outside the Greco-Roman pantheon that we associate with classical antiquity.
Into this cultural milieu arose Christianity, which incorporated and adapted a number of artistic forms and subjects. Portrait statues, sometimes reworked from antique sculptures, and the re-use of building materials served practical concerns, but they also demonstrate an openness to diverse styles.
Over the course of the 3rd and 4th centuries, the apostles of Christ acquired a status similar to that accorded to pagan philosophers as venerable teachers and spiritual leaders. The portrayal of the apostles in art adopted the characteristics that best suited their function as Christianity’s first teachers. Philosophers were usually depicted bearded, sometimes balding, wearing undecorated togas and holding scrolls. These attributes signified to the viewer that the subject was a contemplative man.
As late as the 6th century, groups of philosophers could be found decorating civic monuments. Portraits of prominent figures were not merely set up for commemoration, but they were sometimes actually venerated. Pliny (1st century AD) writes that disciples of the philosopher Epicurus carried his portraits in procession at collective celebrations and privately kept his image in their households. The emperor Alexander Severus (d. 235) is said to have honored portraits of gods, deified emperors, philosophers, and even Christ. Saint Augustine of Hippo tells us that his friend Marcellina, a Carpocratian
Gnostic, burned incense and kneeled in front of the images of Christ and the apostle Paul, along with those of Homer and Pythagoras.
Unitarians are trying to honor Jesus along with contemporary exemplars, without much popular success. Can it be done? Culture is changing. Will Church follow, or join Mithraism in the attic of history?
Recently, Amazon tried to sell me an anthology of non-theist essays, which actually looks interesting. The sample chapter they included, The Cultures of Christianities by David Eller Ph.D., makes a point crucial to our current discussions – we argue over “faith” and doctrines, but we actually belong to a culture:
Charles Kraft describes culture as “the label anthropologists give to the structured customs and underlying worldview assumptions [by] which people govern their lives.” . . .
Culture “provides a total design for living, dealing with every aspect of life and providing people with a way to regulate their lives. [Culture] is a legacy from the past, learned as if it were absolute and perfect. [It] makes sense to those within it. [It] is an adaptive system, a mechanism for coping. It provides patterns and strategies to enable people to adapt to the physical and social conditions around them.” . . . It grounds and explains “our perception of reality and responses to it.” Its basic assumptions “are learned from our elders, not reasoned out but assumed to be true without prior proof. We organize our lives and experiences according to our worldview and seldom question it unless our experience challenges some of its assumptions.”
We’re working to adapt our culture to contemporary experience. The problem is that experience differs. Some are struggling to reconcile medieval worldviews with the scientific culture that has followed Galileo, Newton, and Darwin, but this is an intellectual exercise. Gays, lesbians, and feminists find that their experience challenges basic assumptions of the tradition. Indeed, their experience has been left out of the tradition, and treated not as aspects of the human experience, but as individual aberrations or flaws.
Eller makes the point that Christian missionaries quite consciously work to supplant native cultures with Christian variations, adapting as necessary, but wiping out what went before if they can. Western culture seems to be returning the favor, at the moment, supplanting Christian culture with an empirical approach. Ms. Bass seems to
advocate leaving behind the old theological structures and plunging in to the work of community that needs doing. She thinks good behavior and belief will follow. I’m more sanguine – I think that the work of community is worth doing, and I rather distrust “belief,” which often seems a self- or group-serving made-up story. Stick with the need and the evidence. Common ground with community-minded atheists is probably safe territory.
Murdoch Matthew wrote for The Anglican Digest and the Episcopal Book Club in the 1960s and edited many scholarly books for university presses in the 1970s and 1980s . He retired as a copy editor for Random House Children’s Books and now lives in Jackson Heights, New York City.