Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Who's responsible for Christianity's 'Fall'?

I've just lately been reviewing a paper for Religion, a rather fascinating piece on the Marxist classicist Geoffrey E M St Croix. Much of his work explored the dynamics of class struggle in the ancient world ancient and classical Greece. I won't go into the paper I reviewed here suffice to say it focuses on St Croix's studies of early Christianity and the role of class in the 'corruption' if not 'fall' of Christianity from the halcyonic radical days in the lifetime of Jesus to the hierarchical church of the later Roman Empire. The author points out that St Croix runs a Fall narrative of early Christian history. The Guardian obituary I've linked to on St Croix above states that as far as St Croix was concerned

St Paul replaced Plato as his "greatest enemy of the human race", and later that distinction went to Jahweh, the Old Testament Jehovah,

Now I don't mind the old Plato; well at least the younger Plato, before he wrote Laws, and so long as you read him critically (I rather like an Irigarayan lens). He is a crucial figure for any study of love between men, the ethics, spirituality, philosophy thereof. He was a profound influence on ancient culture including what would become Judaism, Christianity and Islam (the Islamic republic of Iran is modelled on Ayatollah Khomeini's reading of Plato as much as it is on anything in the Qu'ran and Hadiths).

But I'm not writing about Plato here but rather Paul, or the Paul of the Fall mythos of Christian historiography. Perhaps more than any other religion (except, perhaps, the 'secular' Marxist/Communist cults, which I regard as a variant of Christianity anyway), Christianity seems haunted by a sense that it does not live up to, does not sustain the power, the purity, the beauty of that time when heaven and earth touched in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity is perennially haunted by a sense of absence, of loss - 'Maranatha!" 'come now Jesus' (or alternatively 'come Jesus but not yet').

And, of course, if there has been a Fall, an absence, then there must be someone to blame. For a long time Constantine has been a favorite scapegoat. That Constantine took over the Church and corrupted it is a fairly old trope. For many Protestants, if the Pope didn't corrupt Christianity it was Constantine, whose corruption enabled that of the Papacy (an idea which no doubt would surprise old Constantine himself). The Da Vinci Code really worked that trope hard even making Constantine responsible for the Christian Bible and the deification of Jesus (Christian biblical canons didn't get stabilised until many centuries after Constantine and Jesus was worshipped long before Constantine was even thought of). Many Catholics shared that point of view too - it let the Pope off the hook, to a certain extent. As a young radical Catholic myself I remember how Constantine was blamed for Christianity abandoning its original pacifism to become a warmongering religion. Certainly Constantine integrated Christianity into the Roman state in what I would term a mutual takeover operation. Sometimes, too, Constantine would share the blame with Augustine. After all, Augustine was liked by those heretics, Luther and Calvin, and he had been a Manichee and he had some very bad ideas about sex. His ideas on predestination were also subsequently rejected by the Church. The fact that Calvin would later run with them only showed what a bad influence Augustine was.

Many Protestants pushed Christianity's 'Fall' back further to some vague period post the New Testament or apostolic period, in the late 1st and 2nd centuries. Pentecostals believe that it was the loss of the Holy Spirit that caused Christianity to go astray but that now, in the charismatic movement which began at the start of the 20th century, the true Christianity has been restored. Ironically, Pentecostalism has been around long enough now that many Pentecostals see that some kind of Fall has happened there, too, in the last two to three decades. Instead of the outpourings of the Spirit, Pentecostal/charismatic churches have become home to rock concert/moshpit feel good Christianity or really 'wild' phenomena such as the Toronto Blessing and being stoned/drunk on the Spirit.

Over the last two centuries another candidate for leading Christianity astray has emerged, Paul of Tarsus. St Croix is not unusual in his estimation of Paul. His view is a common one amongst treatments of early Christianity. If Paul didn't invent Christianity himself then he remade it in such a way that it lost all the radical vision of its founder. Paul is blamed for the deification of Jesus, for mythologising or churchifying Christianity, for misogynising Christianity, for homophobising Christianity. Paul changed a revolutionary movement into a religion and all the rot set in.

Now clearly Paul was an important figure for early Christianity. The New Testament is either dominated by him or is designed to contain him (after all he was popular with the 2nd century Gnostic teachers too). He is most important for Christianity finally being able to relinquish the Mosaic law, enabling it too spread more easily amongst Gentiles (and perhaps just as much amongst Jews too). We also only have letters from Paul - whether or not he wrote all of them I think is immaterial. With the likely exception of the Pastorals, I think they are all in Paul's name and authority, if not from his hand. And I also think that quests for the authentic Paul are no more than attempts to find a more palatable Paul, to let him off the hook of his inconsistencies, errors and prejudices. In which case I'm quite happy to let the Pastorals stand under Pauline authority, as much as Romans, all the more to keep Paul uncomfortable, problematic, a goad to kick against.

But did Paul mark the Fall of Christianity? No. I would argue that the Fall, if such there was, began at the start in Jesus' own lifetime. This 'Fall' is no more than the dynamics of resistance appropriation and assimilation which operate in every movement, religious and otherwise. The idea of a primitive purity is a romantic fantasy. Jesus and his followers were part of an ancient society and had to live in it as much as anyone else. Jesus might have been somewhat an itinerant in his public career but according to the Gospels he had his benefactors too. Not only Joseph of Arimethea, Nicodemus, but also certain women of means such as Joanna and Susanna too. According to Luke, Joanna was wife to the manager of Herod's household! It's easy reading the Gospels to think that all Jesus did was wander around preaching and working miracles until he fell foul of the powers that be. However the Gospels aren't biographies but theological portraits instead. That's why making movies or writing novels about the life of Jesus are so hard to do. None of the Gospels, canonical and non-canonical alike, are interested in presenting a biography of Jesus. Their key concern is presenting who Jesus is, his significance for us the evangelists' audience, and they do so by telling of his teachings and his deeds. For the canonical and some of the other Gospels, the most important of his deeds are his death and resurrection. These events (and also the birth narratives) have an inherent narrative flow that stories of miracles interspersed with parables and preaching don't have. These stories can be arranged and re-arranged in all sorts of ways; if you look at any synopsis of the canonical Gospels it's clear to see. What these stories aren't doing, though, is providing a clear historical narrative of what Jesus did and how he did it and when.

Their effect then is to paint a romantic picture of someone who appears to live simply, itinerantly, carefree. But that is simply an effect, the Gospels aren't interested in what happened in between the parables and the preaching and the miracles and so we don't see it. They're also not interested in plotting his psychology, how he came to know what he knew, how his understanding of himself and his teachings developed. We aren't told about the day to day life, either, of the community around him, his community of followers or of those in his broader support base.

I have little doubt Jesus was a radical but, at least from some of the sayings attributed to him, he was no fool. To put it another way he was strategic about the when and how he would challenge the authorities, particularly the Temple (which was clearly in his sights). While Jesus might have been a peasant I doubt he was either illiterate or poor. The teachings attributed to him in the Gospels are quite sophisticated and show a sharp intelligence, a wittiness and a theological depth. This was no country bumpkin. Jesus picked his times strategically. He certainly did not randomly stir things up without thought of the consequences to innocently or naively stumble into the hands of his enemies. I also think it most likely he aroused messianic expectations in his lifetime, it's the only way to explain his execution. He may well have miscalculated at the end but he may also have embraced the destiny waiting for any messianic figure under Roman rule, re-contextualising it instead in terms of (Day of) Atonement and (associated) Suffering Servant theologies. In other words, Jesus was not simply a political figure, he was first and foremost a religious figure and understood his role in religious terms (albeit with political and social implications). Compare and contrast with Simon bar Kochba, the next Jewish Messiah (Christ) who lived a century later or Alexander Jannaeus who lived over a century earlier, the first Priest-King (Lord's Anointed or Christ) of Jerusalem since the Iron Age. Their roles are more clearly political albeit with religious implications. While bar Kochba is acclaimed Messiah by the great Rabbi Akiva (ben Joseph) he leaves no religious teachings and no cult, whereas Akiva is considered one of the "earliest founders of Rabbinic Judaism... and one of the most central and essential contributors to the Mishnah" Jesus is much more like Akiva than bar Kochba; he is also much more like that other divisive Messiah, the 17th century Sabbatai Tzvi.

One of the greatest temptations in any work on Jesus and Christian origins is to create a Jesus very much like ourselves. Since the Enlightenment, you could say there has been the quest for the rational Jesus, a Jesus that could sit comfortably in Western liberal capitalist societies. Thomas Jefferson 'demythologised' the Gospels to create an Enlightenment Jesus for the new Republic and in the 19th century we get the various Lives of Jesus by such as Strauss and Renan. This Jesus is a kind of philosopher or sage, an idealistic bourgeois. In the late 20th century we get a similar Jesus in the work of the Jesus Seminar. Here we have a peasant sage, itinerant radical, almost Californian, hippie figure. It's not quite clear how or why he ends up crucified, he's such a vanilla figure. It's even harder to figure out how, after his execution, he becomes divine. How does the sage, the Jesus of liberal rational dreams, become the Son of God?

Well, along came Paul, of course. It's a nice binary, sweet Jesus and nasty Paul, and, yes, the Pauline sections of the New Testament, have some much more uncomfortable elements than the Gospels (except for rich people, for whom the Gospels contain a lot of uncomfortable stuff). It's all too easy to make Paul the villain of the piece; he dominates the New Testament, perhaps even more than Jesus does. He is also a central figure in resolving the role of the Mosaic law, Christianity and Gentiles. After Paul, it is no longer necessary for Gentiles to be subject to the Law if they become Christian; it's also not necessary for Jews or Samaritans who become Christian to be subject to the Law either. That's a major change, a significant change. But did Paul invent Christianity? No, it was already there, in some respects you could say it even invented Paul (as my colleague Ed Conrad would say). He gets jumbled up with John and Matthew and Mark and the author of Hebrews, not to mention Peter and Jude and, for a while, with Clement, Barnabas and Hermas too. And if he's not their author(ity) then someone gives him the Pastorals too (and Laodiceans and 3 Corinthians).

I find the binary too neat and tidy and I also think it exists to let Jesus off the hook. Is it really so unimaginable that Jesus invented his own mythology rather than it being imposed upon him by latter day Pauls or Johns or even Constantines? But that makes Jesus rather alien and strange. My own personal view is that if we had a time probe and could snatch Jesus from 1st century Palestine and bring him forward in time we would find him a most bizarre and disturbing figure, not the sweet sage of bourgeois imagination. I'm sure that the authorities of our time wouldn't hesitate to certify him insane (and also Paul, and John and Mary Magdalene and Peter and Joanna and Thomas and Susanna and Matthew and Mark and Junia and Mary his mother and James and probably old Rabbi Akiva and Sabbatai Tzvi too if they were likewise caught up in our time probe). Certainly I can see how a first century Jew could consider himself (or herself), and be considered by other Jews, a heavenly being, a divine being, the divine being. I can also see how that person could decide that their messianic role was to fully instantiate in their own person, no animal substitute, the Atonement ritual of the High Priest, on earth, in the heavenlies (where there is no animal substitute). In other words, objectively that person takes on religiously motivated suicide. I can see that. It fits my readings of 'Old Testament' and studies of ancient Judaism (and subsequent Judaism too).

So how did Christianity 'fall'? Who is to blame? No one and everyone. If there was no 'fall' it could not have survived. There is no such thing as a pure and pristine original Christianity. It's impossible to recreate the 'Church of New Testament times', we don't know enough about it for a start, all we have is an affect of the text. The 'Fall' of Christianity is itself simply the affect of Christian adaptation and translation for new cultures, new times. With adaptation comes appropriation too. Christianity is Romanised, Hellenised, Germanised, Africanised, Armenianised, Slavonicised... But appropriation works both ways too. The cultures, societies, philosophies and theologies that appropriate Christianity are appropriated by Christianity too. The various ruling classes might adopt Christianity as a powerful spiritual juju but they can't get rid of that radical heart, a source, disturbing and uncomfortable but integrally part of that spiritual juju, from which its power is derived, precisely because it disturbs and challenges.

I said earlier, that Christianity, perhaps more than any other religion, is haunted by a loss, an absence. Maranatha! Come Lord! the joyous cry within the Eucharist, the aching cry otherwise; and it is this loss, this yearning, this hope too that is part and parcel of that radical heart, destabilising, undermining the boundaries. The hope, the yearning, the radical destabilising are all part and parcel of the mythology and without it they fall apart and fade away.

No comments:

Post a Comment