Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Satan's Policy

After Goslington I read, or rather reread The Myth of Christian Beginnings: History's Impact on Belief by Robert Wilken. This book was first published by Notre Dame Press in 1971, and rather to my surprise it's still in print, reissued by Wipf and Stock Publishers in 2009.

The title of the book may be misleading. It's not a myth of Christian beginnings that Wilken wants to debunk -- there's no doubt that Christianity originated at a particular time and place -- but a myth about Christian beginnings.

This myth is based on certain assumptions made by Christians. First, the assumption of an essentially unchanging Christianity.
When Christians say that Christianity never changes, they mean that there can be no addition, alteration, or innovation within the history of Christianity that is not legitimated by the apostolic witness. ... Christians believe that there was an original faith given in the apostolic age and that the responsibility of later generations is to proclaim, teach, guard, and transmit this faith to later generations [22].
It isn't only Christians who believe this, oddly enough. I've run into many people who reject Christianity but believe that what Jesus taught was true and good, and that the early church, beginning with Paul, abandoned his teachings; they may allow that a precious few kept the original flame alive. The same view underlies Gandhi's famous quip, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians."
The second assumption is "that the past is authoritative and normative for the present and future. Paul, Matthew, and John are the judges of Athanasius, Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas, Calvin, and Schliermacher. ... The authority of the apostolic age is extended to certain segments of the Christian past as faithful interpretations of the meaning of the apostolic faith" (24-5). This extension shows up, for example, in the belief that the Authorized or King James Version of the Bible (first published in 1611) is the inspired and inerrant word of God no less than the original manuscripts were, a view held by some hard-core American Christians but also by some seeming nonbelievers.

But as Wilken shows, these assumptions are incorrect. There was no core set of beliefs held even by the apostles. Though Wilken doesn't have much to say about this, Paul denied the authority of Jesus' original followers when it conflicted with his teaching, and there was uncertainty even among the leadership of the Jerusalem church about what Christians should believe about Jesus, how they should worship, and how they should conduct themselves. Wilkens says at one point that even the eligibility of non-Jews to become followers of Jesus was originally denied, but this is unlikely. Gentiles were allowed to convert to Judaism, so a Jewish sect like early Christianity would have no basis for excluding them from membership. Certainly the question had been settled by the time Paul became an apostle, a few years after Jesus' death. The real controversy, which appears already in Paul's letters, involved what was required of Gentile converts: must the males be circumcised? Must they observe Jewish purity rules? And so on.

While Wilken later devotes a lot of space to what may seem like arcane theological issues like the doctrine of the Trinity, his opening chapters, at least, should be read by anyone who's interested in history, let alone the history of religion. He shows that the same tendency to read the present into the past appears in secular history as well as sacred, including American history.
Most English-speaking American Protestants trace their origins to the colonists who came from England in the early seventeenth century and settled at Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth. Parents, schoolteachers, clergymen have told and retold generations of children the tale of persecution and oppression in Europe and the desire of these first Americans to establish religious freedom in the new land so that men might live together peacefully, tolerating different views. ... Even such a fundamental pillar of American life as the separation of church and state is widely thought to be an inheritance from the first settlers. Yet those Pilgrims never dreamed of establishing religious freedom in their colonies. Indeed, they had no idea of toleration. "All Familists, Antinomians, Anabaptists, and other Enthusiasts shall have free liberty to keepe away from us." And another: "Tis Satan's policy to plead for an indefinite and boundless toleration. ..." The land, however, was spacious, and men could, if they found the atmosphere confining, simply move on to form a new colony [8-9].
This tendency turns up in the history of science, too, such as the myth of the eternal conflict between science and religion, or the myth of the essential progressive self-correcting rationality of science. Science may wander astray now and then (so the story goes) but never for long:
Scientists, like anyone else, may hold ideas that are simply wrong. Individual scientists have at times advanced faulty theories regarding race, social status, and gender that served those in power. Scientists have at times been complicit in supporting repressive political regimes. But these shortcomings were typically short-lived, and were brought to an end by actions of the scientific community itself. They must be measured against the enormous positive changes that science has wrought. Scientific discoveries have made it possible to hold progressive ideas about human nature that were previously unthinkable. In American society today, the conservation about such topics as religious beliefs, ageing, homosexuality and gay marriage, the origins of criminal behavior, the deleterious effects of persistent organic environmental pollutants, childhood education, global warming – the list is virtually endless – are all informed in one way or another by perspectives that are the result of scientific investigation.
This is a nice summation of the Myth of Scientific Progress by a true believer -- by which I don't mean that scientific knowledge doesn't increase progressively, just as Wilken doesn't mean that Christianity didn't have a historical beginning, but that there is a myth of how it progresses and what its relation is to society. This myth is popular among people who consider themselves secular and rational, unlike those low-IQ religious wackos. Those "faulty theories regarding race, social status, and gender" are still with us, still being declared as brute scientific fact, in revised versions that we are assured are nothing like the bad old theories of the past, only feminists, postmodernists, and weak-minded anti-science irrationalists could possibly object to them; those bad old theories were horrible heresies that had nothing to do with the pure, true apostolic Science espoused by Darwin, Wallace, and Huxley. (Scientists are still "complicit in supporting repressive regimes" too.)

The Myth of Christian Beginnings (and I think I'll sample what Wilken has written since then) confirms my feeling that "religion" isn't a distinct realm of human thought that can be excised to make the world better. The same things that are wrong with religion are wrong everywhere else, and there's no magic way to get rid of falsehood and irrationality, just hard work.