Somehow we convince ourselves that, like Eve in the story, we deserve to know everything God knows; at some point we tell ourselves we do. Then we correct others, judge them, set ourselves up as arbiters of right and wrong.
This is what happened to Christianity starting around the time of Nicaea.
The Church had gone from being a predominantly Jewish movement with some quirky ideas about its founder and a gentle, forbearing and kind way of life that endeared itself to others, to an institution financially supported by the greatest political power in the world and run by aristocratic philosophers who thought they could see into God’s mind.
From Agape to Orthodoxy
The faith had started as a matter of good practice largely freed from ritual or tribal rules—loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself, celebrated with the Greek word agape, a universal, unconditional love that transcends and serves regardless of circumstances.
Then it became a matter of teaching, in Greek doxos. You could be orthodox, hewing to correct or good teachings, or you could be heterodox (later evolved to heretical), holding beliefs declared to be incorrect and even wrong.
To be fair to the Christians involved, Christianity’s popular success became its burden.
No one had sought to anoint any of the varied ideas of the Greco-Roman world as tenets of Christianity when Christians were being served as supper to lions. Certainly, no one but Yehoshua’s followers had gotten involved in the debates within the marginal but legal religion of the Jews.
Yet the minute the emperor himself submitted to baptism, every sophist of the ancient world suddenly discovered that he had been Christian all along, that Jesus Christ confirmed his theories. Of course, it was not as if the bishops had videotapes of Jesus to play on YouTube when they wanted to refute heretic who popped up.
Indeed, this was how the bishops evolved an unusual method of defining what the gospels meant, scrupulously avoiding additions to what had been taught. The famous Via Negativa, or negative path, was a way of saying what an apostolic teaching could not possibly mean.
We have already reviewed the intellectual conundrum of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, brought up in words attributed to Jesus that, at least because they are otherwise inexplicable, must have some grounding in actual words of the Galilean woodworker, who apparently did not feel the apostles were entitled to fully understand them.
Of course, if the apostles who lived, slept and walked with Jesus the Christ for three years had no idea what these words meant—they certainly left no paper trail of such knowledge—why would their successors, bishops 200, 300 and 400 years later, who didn’t even speak Yehoshua’s Aramaic, have a clue?
Instead of simply doing more, speaking less and ignoring the arguers, Christians decided they had to take a stand on matters about which they really knew nothing. This was the grand sin of pride of the medieval Church, and it took only a skip, a hop and a jump to end up in the bloodbath of the Crusades and the Inquisition.
Prideful Christianity continues today among people who argue, for example, for or against an ancient language for rituals instead of a modern one, or who condemn or insist on a female as opposed to a male ritual leader, or who decry the (usually sexual) wrongs of others rather than take a good look at their own overweening pride.
Once again, I am drawn to Pope Francis for words out of this mess.
Asked what he thought about homosexuals who practiced the faith, he answered, “Who am I to judge?”
Five words that have been heard around the world. The question is, have we listened?
Who am I to judge whether the Son proceeded from the Father or from the Holy Ghost? Who am I to judge whether there are 7 sacraments, 14 or only 2, or whether we should regard the whole world as a sign of God’s gift to us?
This is not an argument for anomie, Émile Durkheim’s word for what colloquially we describe as “anything goes.” There is right and there is wrong, and we all know what those are, at least for ourselves. If Stalin thought the Gulag was a good thing, he would have advertised the camps in tourist brochures rather than keeping them hidden.
Nor is this an argument for syncretism, the notion that different, even contradictory, beliefs or schools can somehow blend into an amoeba-like universal idea. There is truth and untruth, although we cannot always tell which is which.
However, if you speak with sincerity about something I believe to be untrue, I do not have the right to condemn you, hurt you or coerce you to change your mind.
Jesus taught about this. “Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet.” (Matthew 10:14) This was a Jewish practice at the time, by which Jews leaving a Gentile city would express their separateness from the inhabitants of that city.
I may depart from you, shake off the “dust” of your ideas and hold fast to mine.