Is the Roman Emperor Still Your God?

February 19th, 2010

In ancient Rome, the Imperial cult was the worship of the Roman emperor as a god. It came to be at roughly the same time as Christianity. In the cult of the emperor, Caesar was revered as a deity. According to Harvey Cox, “This was what we might today call a “civil religion” — it had its holidays, processions, and holy sites throughout the empire. Adherence to it was required of all of the emperor’s subjects, wherever they lived and whatever other deities they also worshiped. It was the religious and ideological mucilage that held the far-flung empire together.”

Perhaps you see where this is going. There was a certain group that found the imperial cult, well, repugnant. They felt their own goals — bringing their god’s peace and justice to the world — were incompatible with this sort of devotion to a human institution, and the very institution that had killed their leader at that. Their reaction went like this:

Regarding worship of the emperor, Christians responded with an unequivocal “no.” They claimed that Jesus Christ was God’s kyrios (“anointed one” in Greek), but since kyrios was one of the titles attributed to Caesar, they refused to participate in the imperial cult. They were willing to pray for the emperor and for his health, but they stubbornly refused to pray to him or offer ritual tribute. They recognized that one could not be a follower of Jesus while also honoring a rival to the loyalty their faith in him and his Kingdom required; therefore, “not even one pinch of incense on the imperial altar.” This defiance of the political religion of the empire, which led their critics to brand them subversive, landed many of them in arenas with salivating lions.

— Harvey Cox in The Future of Faith

Now, you may be wondering, why am I asking if anyone still worships the emperor of a long-extinct empire? I maintain that this practice is still alive and well, just under a different name.

I have been interested in some of the debates about American institutions that choose to perform neither the national anthem nor the pledge of allegiance. Many of these institutions are Mennonite, and their reason for not participating in these two particular acts mirrors that of the early Christians refusing to worship Caesar: namely, their goal is to bring about God’s peaceful and just kingdom on earth, and no country, no human institution at all, can ever command greater loyalty than that cause.

Moreover, the American national anthem is a particularly violent one, celebrating the taking of life right there at the beginning. Not completely compatible with the ethics of a church trying to bring about a more peaceful world, right?

It is from that basis that many Mennonites, and our institutions, do not perform the national anthem or say the pledge of allegiance. For myself, when the national anthem is being performed, I will stand out of respect for those around me for whom the moment is important, but I do not sing. I am deeply appreciative that the United States, like many other countries, makes it legal to do this. I am heartened by the fact that I do not risk a confrontation with the lions over my religious stance today.

Goshen College, a Mennonite institution, recently decided to go back on a century of history (which goes back farther than the anthem itself, which was only adopted in 1931) and will now be performing the anthem, followed by a prayer, before select sporting events.

And by so doing, they fail both to act in accordance with the way of Christ, and to be a patriot. They fail to act for peace and justice by playing an anthem that supports and glorifies war and violence.

And they fail to be patriotic. Patriotism and nationalism are different things. It’s easy to be nationalistic — to get up there and sing a song that everyone wants you to sing. It is far more difficult to be patriotic. Being patriotic in the United States means using the freedoms we have to improve our country. Goshen ought to use its freedom to not observe the national anthem as a way to try to draw a line in the sand against violence, to suggest that our anthem fails to adequately recognize the character of the American people and who we want to be, and to suggest a better alternative. After all, those people who are venerated today as patriots — anyone from Martin Luther to Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King — stood up to their fallible human governments to seek positive change.

Instead of a route both religious and patriotic, Goshen College has chosen one that is neither. I am deeply disappointed that 300 phone calls have apparently cowed their leadership. What have we come to when our ancestors braved the lions, and we give up our principles over the fear of… bad publicity?

Ah, Goshen, perhaps you are thinking that you could spare a few pinches of incense for Caesar after all?

Categories: Freedom, Politics, War & Peace

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  1. Giorgos

    A small correction to Harvey Cox:
    It is the word “christ” that means “anointed one” in Greek, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ.

    “kyrios” means “lord”/”sir” in Greeks, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyrios.

    Reply

  2. nate

    Well I agree with you in principal.

    But the early Christian stuff is pretty inaccurate. They did not worship cease because they wanted to bring a peaceful planet, they refused to worship him because the ten commandments demanded that they had no other god.

    And the Christian God is certainly no opposed to using a high degree of violence in justified manners. The way the decedents of Adam created Israel initially was particularly blood soaked. One of the lessons in the Bible was that when the Israelites escaping out of Egypt refused to engage the tribes occupying the promised land they were met with some fairly severe penalties for failing to do what God wanted.

    Then on and on through the Bible. Another long series of examples were the various Judges that God created periodically to save Israel on various occasions from their oppressors. Most famous is, of course, Samson who killed 30 men to settle a bet, then killed one thousand-man army with a jawbone of a ass. Then later on killed many more then that after his captivity. Of course Samson was not the only Judge. Other Judges did things like assassination and did a few taking-out-of-entire-armies in 1 to 1000 style fights on their own. These people were heros and the Bible says they were directly under the influence of God to be capable of their various feats (not all of them were violent, of course. Many were feats of wisdom or insight and stuff like that)

    Even in the new testament it’s still fairly bloody stuff going in. After AntiChrist (think of AntiPasto not so much Antimatter. ‘Anti’ describes ‘instead of’ or ‘before’ Christ. Not the opposite of Christ) descendes from heaven to deceive everybody that he is Christ.. and uses his supernatural powers to create a Utopia-like world.. then God/Christ shows up and brings a end to this earth age. People cry and moan, get burned (fire symbolizing the reality of the situation.. for good folks the fire can bring warmth and life, for bad folks it means that they get burned up), people wish mountains to fall on themselves and all sorts of seamingly very bad things. Jesus says several times that he has come to create derision and division between people.. not unite everybody. At least not for now.

    But oh well. Everybody has their own take on the issues. There is nothing to say that I am especially right or wrong.

    ————————————
    On a side note:
    Samson never got his strength from his hair. That’s not Biblical.. it’s something that is entertainment for children. He got his strength from God (speaking in terms of what the Bible says). Long hair is a symbol for being a Nazirite. A nazirite is a person who engages in a special oath for a period of time. There are a few restrictions on what you can and cannot do, and one of them is getting a hair cut. Samson from birth was consecrated by their parents to be a Nazirite (more or less) and thus he never had a shaved head. His girlfriend was harassing him for a long time about the source of his strength and he would make up a different story each time, which she would then do to him and tell the Palestinians (who were rulers over Israel at the time) to come ambush him. This happened a few times so he knew pretty well that she would cut his hair. Thus because he was playing games with God and everybody else the hair cutting symbolized the loss of connection with the source of his power. Later on after he was blinded and all that and he was at the big party hall that he tore down (and thus killing a few hundred to a few thousand more of those then-oppressive Palestinians) he had to pray to God and ask him for one last burst of power, which was obviously granted.

    I just like to bring stuff like that up. Because a lot of what people think is in the Bible is not in the Bible.

    Another favorite example of mine is that in the book of Genesis it never said that Adam and Eve were the first people ever created (far from it) and they never ate a apple to get kicked out of Eden. The Bible very plainly says that God created humans on the six day, then rested, then created Adam and Eve. If anybody is confused about the matter then it’s pretty obvious that other humans existed based on the after effects of Cain being punished for murdering his brother. Cain was given a mark (which is not necessarily a physical mark) so that people would know not to harm him and we was sent off into the land of Nod to build a city and he got a wife. So it’s pretty obvious that it never says anywhere that Adam and Eve was created first. It’s just not there.

    Adam and Eve were Biblically significant because A) they were the first people to really engage in agriculture and B) they were the direct ancestors of the Israelites. If your going by the Christian Bible then that makes them the very first people in the bloodline of Jesus Christ. The whole old testament, except for the Book of Job, is really a long story about what happened Adam and Eve’s descendents.

    This sort of thing is why you have the Pope and whatnot saying that Evolution could certainly be a valid concept and would not conflict with their religion.

    It never ceases to amaze me how many people in the USA that are huge Bible thumpers never bother to read what they are thumping. Or of they do they don’t bother to try to understand what they are reading. It’s like you can just tell them that something is in the Bible, pull some verses out of context to support what your saying, and they’ll beleive you.

    Having ‘faith’ or not for this sort of thing is irrelevent. If you can read things in order and keep in mind that the Bible is not a English book it’s pretty simple to get a decent idea what is in and what is not in it.
    —————————————

    But the part I do agree with you is that certainly it’s much better to stand up for what you beleive in and fight for what you beleive is right then to cave in and sell out to avoid appearing contraversal. Even if your wrong, it’s still better to be ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ on a issue or in life then to just be luke warm about everything. If your right or wrong later then so be it.. you can always change your mind about things as you mature or as people convince you or whatever. None of us are really all that smart.

    Have a nice day. :)

    Reply

  3. Ben Finney

    You base much of your opinion on these topics on the writings of Henry Cox. These statements he makes in “The Future Of Faith”, what references does he give for them? What primary sources does he cite for these accounts of the opinions and practices of ancient people?

    In other words, how is a newcomer like me to independently verify whether the account is accurate?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    There are three endnotes in his chapter 5, which deals with this topic, though none of them pertain to the particular text I cited. He has occasional in-text references as well. The best bet might be for you to find a copy of the book at a library and read it for yourself. There was also an hour-long interview with him on NPR; you can listen to that at http://wamu.org/programs/dr/09/09/21.php#27929

    I’m sure Dr. Cox has been published in various academic settings that might make you happier; the particular book I have was not targeted at academia and so has fewer of those references; nonetheless, the list of endnotes does cover several pages and so is impractical for me to copy here.

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    Ben Finney Reply:

    What would you say are the significant differences Cox asserts from the account given at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Christianity ?

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    I think you are asking the wrong person. I am not an expert on this. I have taken a look, though, and have found nothing that I think Cox would disagree with. In particular, I think this sentence would describe his position: “Other scholars, drawing upon distinctions between Jewish Christians, Pauline Christianity, and other groups such as and Marcionites, argue that early Christianity was always fragmented, with contemporaneous competing beliefs.” (though I think his position is that the beliefs differ, but weren’t necessarily very important or in competition with each other.)

    He would also agree with “the apostles did not otherwise leave a defined set of new scriptures.”

    Under the section of Constantine, Cox relates the same story, but gives additional detail that there is some doubt about the claim of the vision. Between that and the 20th century, I have read little of Cox’s writings. I think he would agree with the summation of fundamentalism in that article.

    I don’t think that Cox would disagree with the Wikipedia page on the First Council of Nicaea, but might say that it misses the wider picture of why Constantine cared, and how he was using Christianity for his own power (and likewise the bishops were using Rome for theirs).

    To summarize, I didn’t find anything that goes against what Cox is saying. Obviously a Wikipedia article isn’t going to capture the depth of a full book, and there are chapters in the book on issues that aren’t even mentioned in the article, especially relating to the difference between faith and belief and the harmful effects of the creeds.

    Ben Finney Reply:

    More importantly, for those claims Cox makes that do differ from the account given at Wikipedia, what basis does he present for his claims that we should be convinced by?

    (“He’s been doing it for a long time” is not a sound basis for being convinced of a claim.)

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    Ben, you’ve asked this question more than once. I’ve already given you an answer above. If you don’t like it, fine, disagree civily, but there is no point to continue to ask the same question over and over. This doesn’t further the discussion. Different opinions are welcome here, as you have noticed I’m sure. Trolling is not, and you are repeatedly skirting that line.

    I am not here to write somebody’s seminary paper, nor am I experienced enough to do so. In the end I am reading Cox to inform myself. As I read other things, I will certainly discuss them here. But I am not going to spend hours or days of my time researching something else right now because somebody asked me to about 4 times on a blog comment. I am not Harvey Cox. I did not write his books. I am just reading one. If you want to see what his sources are and if they satisfy you, look at the book. (I haven’t seen you cite sources for your opinions either, incidentally.) I have cited my sources; it is not up to me to also cite his, and I’m not going to post 35 pages of bibliography every time I make a blog post. This isn’t a dissertation, and if you can’t live with that, research it yourself or don’t read it.

    Google Scholar returns 453 results for Harvey Cox. You’re free to check them out yourself. I’m not going to retype his endnotes for you. If you have an honest interest in discussion, please do so, but if you are simply trolling by asking the same questions over and over, that isn’t going to contribute to anything.

    John Goerzen Reply:

    To answer your last question: I don’t know. Dr. Cox’s is the first book I’ve ever read that discusses the history of faith at this level. I’m quite sure there are plenty of others, but I am not equipped to suggest them at this point.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    I should add: I’m a newcomer to this too. I am no expert, and not really in a position to discuss all sorts of things very well. I’m happy to share what I think at a moment, what I’ve learned, but I’m not a trained theologian or anything. So feel free to argue with me, and I’m certainly in agreement that nothing I’ve posted on this blog would pass muster for a seminary student’s paper — I haven’t done that level of research (yet?).

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  4. Daeng Bo

    I’m not a Christian, but you are, so based on Romans 13, I’m going to say this line of reasoning is bunk. The Pledge of Allegiance even ends with “One nation, Under God ….” How is that creating a worship of nation?

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    I’ve examined the Romans 13 question at http://changelog.complete.org/archives/771-politics-and-the-church and wrote:

    “One commentator notes that “Paul is not stating that this will always be true but is describing the proper, ideal function of rulers. When civil rulers overstep their proper function, the Christian is to obey God rather than human authorities” — a theme Paul mentioned more than once in Acts.”

    As to the Pledge, I do not think that the last line is accurate, nor has it ever been. In fact, most of the pledge is inaccurate; no country has ever had liberty and justice for all, for instance.

    In a nutshell, civil rulers overstep their proper function all the time; how can we have allegiance to them first?

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    One other point: it should be clear from this post that I do not encourage people to take an unquestioning view of their government. I also do not encourage people to take an unquestioning view of their religion, as should be clear by some of my other recent posts. Both are dangerous.

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    Debra B Reply:

    Couldn’t agree with you more, especially your contention that an unquestioning view of either religion or government is dangerous. Moderation in all things . . . except when Goshen decides to sing the national anthem! Then I get a little immoderate!

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  5. Kirklin

    As a child my father and I would occasionally attend GC basketball games. At half-time the school song would be sung. It is arguably the most beautiful song of its kind-would send chills up my spine even as a youngster. I believe this tradition has fallen by the wayside.

    Being an alumnus of GC, I would be willing to consider a compromise position that reinstates the singing of the school song…it dwarfs the national anthem-relegates it to a pathetic “Gong Show” piece.

    Otherwise, there is little more ridiculous (and destructive in spirit) than nationalism. Our nation fervently worships “Caesar” with the worst of them.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Agreed — and I’m curious about the song. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goshen_College lists two — do you know which one it is that you’re thinking of?

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    Kirklin Reply:

    “There’s a spot in Indiana where the leafy maples grow…”

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  6. Mark A. Hershberger

    Goshen College! My mother went to school there and, while in school, met my father at a nearby church. They aren’t Mennonite (closer to fundamentalism, really) but I can see some strong Mennonite influence in my particular take.

    Some of the sheen has come off of my admiration for the Mennonites since moving to Lancaster County, but, in the abstract and often in reality, the Mennonites are still pretty awesome. My favorite uncle is a Mennonite minister. The Thursday morning study group that I’m a part of has a fair number of Mennonite ministers and parishioners in it.

    (And, yes, “Hershberger” is a Mennonite name.)

    That said, as a convert to Orthodoxy, I’ve become a lot more comfortable with less idealized Christianity. Constantine is revered as a saint “equal to the apostles” and with good cause. Considering the horror stories that came from his predecessor, Diocletian, I don’t see how the Church could consider Constantine anything but a saint.

    Which is not to say that he is perfect. David, an OT saint, was a man “after God’s own heart” but was far from perfect. The same could be said for Moses, Joseph, and most other Biblical saints.

    Which brings me back to Goshen College. I’m no fan of civic religion, but singing the Star Spangled Banner doesn’t seem like that big a deal to me. Much more troubling, to me, is the sort of clash that we can see in http://bit.ly/9rYCJh (from my twitter feed) where “Thy Kingdom Come” meets “God Bless America”.

    By comparison, a traditionally pacifist school like Goshen College singing the national anthem before games? Peanuts.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Speaking about Mennonites; the group is broad and diverse. Lancaster County is probably the most conservative in Mennonite Church USA, and is frequently at odds with the rest of the church regarding issues such as women in leadership and homosexuality. It is not representative of the whole. (Goshen is probably on the opposite end of the spectrum, though there are pockets of various positions in both places of course.)

    That is interesting that you consider Constantine a saint, as quite a few people (and I think I’d be one of them) see him as more of a villain. Constantine and the early bishops had a sort of unholy alliance: they were both using the other for power and prestige. Constantine was offering the bishops money and prestige, and in return he hoped the bishops would standardize Christianity enough ot hold the empire together.

    Unfortunately, this led to all sorts of corruption of Christianity; the damaging transformation of faith into belief started at Nicea and is only just now being undone, questions of belief became more important, the concept of heresy took hold, and people that disagreed with exiled or executed.

    Christianity was spreading despite persecution before Constantine; simply stopping the persecution, rather than imperializing it, would perhaps have been far better.

    I’ve been reading The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox just now, and he is rather blistering of both the early bishops and Constantine. I’m currently finding his arguments rather persuasive, but will admit I haven’t been exposed much to the opposing viewpoint.

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    Mark A. Hershberger Reply:

    Whether or not Lancaster Mennonites are more conservative, I don’t know. Certainly there are many conservative Mennonites here. But then, the Amish here seem more liberal than the Amish elsewhere — they met with GWB (a war president!) in 2004 and use motors (but not tractors) during their harvesting. Meanwhile, the Mennonites I know (neighbors who run “Every Church a Peace Church”, the MCC and 10k Villages headquarters across the street, and the people I meet with on Thursdays) seem far less politically conservative and less conservative socially as well.

    I’m familiar with Christianity that demonizes Constantine and the arguments for it. But I don’t think he is the one who started the “transformation of faith into belief”. I’d look more to Augustine and the development of the idea of Original Sin for that.. Some would even blame Thomism or (later still) the Enlightenment. You can even see some hints of this in the pre-Thomas Aquinas Roman doctrine of transubstantiation.

    In short, I think what you refer to as the “transformation of faith into belief” could be restated as the separation of faith and works, something that comes, it seems to me, as a direct result of the rationalization of the Gospel (hence, for example, transubstantiation) and the doctrine of Original Sin (which means brings a fatalism to our actions: they can never match our faith) — as if one can claim to believe that “God is Love” but then act in very ungodly, unloving ways.

    While I do have a lot of respect for Anabaptists, I cannot accept the idea common among Anabaptists and most Protestants that somehow the church died off or became ineffective or “fell away” after Constantine and has only begun to recover since, say, the reformation or at whatever point the church became acceptable again in your own eyes.

    And yes, the nature of Christianity did change when Constantine showed up. This does not mean it disappeared or became, somehow, less real. Many people contemporary with Constantine were troubled by the relative lack of persecution and, as a result, monasticism (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desert_Fathers) began to flourish.

    Its also helpful to know that while we consider Constantine a saint “equal to the apostles”, the title doesn’t mean that we accept everything he said or did as perfect. The number of people revered as saints who had military power is very small. Its helpful to keep in mind that others from that period (like St Nicholas, St John Chrysostom, or St Basil) or later (like St Symeon the New Theologian — one of only a tiny handful to have the title “Theologian”) are respected for their lives of humility and service as well as what they said and wrote.

    The early bishops weren’t perfect. Constantine wasn’t perfect. But Constantine didn’t mean the end of the golden era for the church.

    One thing I found very helpful (when I was still protestant) was to actually look at what the other side had to say on issues. For that reason, I purchased the Roman Catholic Catechism when was published in the late ’90s. It gave me an alternative point of view from all the reactionary anti-Papist stuff I had been exposed to. (I still don’t consider the Bishop of Rome as the ultimate authority — infallibility is a bit much for me — but I understand my Catholic friends a lot better now.)

    As I said, I have a lot of respect for Anabaptists. The focus on living out the Gospel in every facet of life cannot help but earn that respect. But I am troubled by the idea, common among many of them, that the larger church essentially disappeared for a millennium or so. It is, if you’ll pardon the phrase, a very Eurocentric view of the Church.

    I’m sure you can see that I’d love to go on and on about this. I’ll try to shut up, but before I do, let me recommend a resource that I maintain: http://AlexanderMen.com/ Alexander Men was a Russian priest martyred in 1990 by (many believe) the secret police. We’re trying to collect translations of his work there and I think you’ll find something in the Christianity expressed there that resonates with the Christianity you’ve expressed here.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    Hi Mark,

    I think perhaps I haven’t been entirely clear in my remarks. I don’t claim that Constantine killed Christianity, nor that the damage that was inflicted during his lifetime rests solely on his shoulders. The stirrings of creeds and the conflation of faith and belief had already begun before Constantine. That said, I do believe that he hastened, if not outright caused, lasting and severe damage to a large part of the church.

    I don’t agree that the larger church disappeared for a millennium. It existed, and it was a positive force in many ways. The Roman church was also a negative force, and was involved with, for instance, the torture and execution of those that disagreed on doctrine. My core claim is that Constantine made Christianity be about beliefs rather than about a way of life, and this legacy remains with the entire world: Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and American Protestants, evangelicals, and Anabaptists. One doesn’t have to go very far back in my own church’s history to see sad examples of this playing out.

    As Harvey Cox points out, there has been a whole lot of hand-wringing over what are ultimately unimportant issues. Even the question of Constantine that we are discussing is not really all that important. Was he a hero or villain? It doesn’t really matter, if what we are after is knowledge on how to live our lives in The Way.

    I think that the places where the church is most effectively moving away from the legacy of Constantine isn’t with the European or North American churches, but perhaps with the South American, African, and east Asian congregations. But that said, I hear a lot of opinions on all sides out of American churches, and there *is* an awakening of what Cox calls “The age of the spirit” or what Borg calls “the emerging paradigm” going in. I am glad for it, and it is the only way forward for religion in general, I think.

    Mark A. Hershberger Reply:

    FWIW, I just now read the brief overview of “The Future of Faith” on the Harvey Cox page on Wikipedia. I don’t see the history of Christianity as something monolithic: certainly Christianity changed dramatically from the first three centuries until now. I’m just not so sure that there is anything especially significant about the past 50 or so years of the Church.

    But, then, I’m Orthodox, so I wouldn’t. The Church has always been made up of broken people. The Church, we are fond of saying, is a spiritual hospital. So, yes, there is going to be some hard-to-get-rid-of infections.

    I think Fr Men has addressed most of the things I find wrong with the approach Harvey Cox is (apparently) taking. I would recommend his Two understandings of Christianity in particular.

    Beyond that, if the past couple of centuries or so (certainly, this has been happening for more than the past 50 years) of Christianity has shown us anything, it is just how uncomfortable are with the idea that there is one, knowable, spiritual truth exclusive to Christianity.

    The apophatic approach of the Orthodox, on the other hand, emphasises how much of God essence and Truth we cannot know (while still calling us to unity with Him). As a result, Orthodoxy and its saints throughout history have seemed (to me) less concerned with dogma (for example, where the Romans are still updating their dogma, the last council the Orthodox recognize is from the 8th century) and more concerned with humility, prayer, and striving towards union with God.

    But I feel I must emphasize that even those saints would probably be, in many ways, found distasteful in the eyes of modern Christians because of the larger culture they were a part of. This is probably the point that makes me most uncomfortable with what is (apparently) Harvey Cox’s approach: it seems to me more a reflection of the openness of modern culture rather than anything particularly special about modern Christianity.

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I read the summary on that page, but must admit I haven’t found the time to read the whole thing yet. From the summary, I’d say he’s in perfect agreement with Cox.

    As an example, over at http://changelog.complete.org/archives/1307-greek-mythology-and-the-old-testament#comments I posted this quote from Cox describing a meeting of Christians in Hong Kong:

    “It was also clear to me that they thought arguing over doctrines and beliefs was too “Western” and a little boring. Their idea of interfaith dialogue was to work with their fellow Asians of whatever religion to advance the Kingdom that Jesus had inspired them, as Christians, to strive for, regardless of what the others called it… They seemed more attuned to the element of mystery at the core of Christianity and to its vision of justice. They were also clearly impatient with many of the disputes that preoccupy the different wings of the American churches.”

    I’d say that this would be a fair explanation of Cox’s own viewpoint as well.

    I liked your analogy to being a spiritual hospital. Very apt.

    Maybe there isn’t something significant about the last 50 years of the church, but try the last hundred. I’m working from memory here, but I believe that 100 years ago, 90% of Christians were in Europe or the US. Today 60% are in the “global South.” How’s that for a shift, not just in geography, but representing different ideas, different rituals, and different cultures?

    As I’ve said, I think that Christianity is about a way of life, not a set of beliefs or creeds. I will grant that beliefs or creeds may have been helpful to some over the ages, and continue to be helpful for some today, but becoming preoccupied in that misses the point of it all. Unfortunately, we, the global church, are way too preoccupied in it.

    It’s interesting how you are talking about being “less concerned about dogma”. I see that as a good thing, and I think you do too. However, checking out Wikipedia’s Eastern Orthodox page, I still see an unnecessary reliance upon the doctrine of apostolic succession as well as heresy/heterodoxy which is troubling. (By no means is that denomination unique in those issues, of course.)

    I do not omit anabaptist churches from my criticism. Look at the history of anabaptists and you’ll see that they could wreck churches and shun each other over miniscule issues of doctrine with the best of ‘em. I guess the difference was that they just didn’t kill people over it. Some, but not all, churches are moving beyond that.

    Mark A. Hershberger Reply:

    When I say the Orthodox are not obsessed with dogma, this is a relative thing. Dogma is. The Orthodox have a fairly universal agreement on the core and haven’t seen necessary to refine that over the past millennium. The core boils down to the Nicene creed and very little else.

    As a result the Orthodox have, since the 3rd century been relatively free from schism. Again, this is a relative statement. After the Great Schism (east vs west), the Orthodox world has remained largely in communion and schismatic groups have died out or been re-assimilated into the Church.

    I would say that sort of unity (and, yes, I’m glossing over a lot of political infighting, but looking at the “fruit” that the Church has produced) is different than, say, the Mennonites of Lancaster where, last I heard, there were 70+ different denominations calling themselves Mennonite in this county alone.

    In this way, creeds and dogma serve as a center, an anchor. The creed is not the faith, it is not the way, but it gives us an objective point of intellectual agreement while we get about the more subjective business of actually living out the faith. It is because of the creed that we are free to live full Christian lives.

    Creativity and structure are intertwined. Creativity without structure loses its form. Structure without creativity loses its beauty.

    This is why I will not to embrace a creedless Christianity. I’m very much aware of how Ossified and dead Orthodoxy can become, but where there is life in the Church, beauty abounds.

    I’m wary of any “Way” that has no bones, no structure, on which to hang its meat.

    Oh, and, yes, Christianity has changed over the past 100 years. But go back another 6 or 7 hundred before the spread of the Ottoman Empire and look at the areas (Orthodox and Coptic) Christianity occupied. North Africa, Russia, Turkey, and much of the Middle East. That (Western, Protestant) Christianity is now spreading to those areas (and further) doesn’t mean that Christianity is somehow changing dramatically.

    Christianity is about a way of life — anyone who says that reciting creeds or taking part in rituals is sufficient for Christian Life is only getting the bones. But don’t let their obsession with bones get in the way of your own pursuit of a full, complete life. Bones are necessary for life, but they aren’t the whole of it.

    (now… where’s my preview button…)

    John Goerzen Reply:

    That is an interesting statement about “creeds and dogma serve as a center, an anchor.” I think I better understand where you’re coming from now, so thank you for the enlightenment :-) I have heard some authors (Marcus Borg maybe?) talk in somewhat the same terms, thought I think they meant it differently; less as a bit of “intellectual agreement” and more as a communal “thin place” where God can shine through. That helped me understand the importance of the Catholic memorized prayers, for instance, which seemed old and static to me.

    I would say that returning to the way it was 700 years ago *is* a dramatic change. Actually Cox thinks that we’re in some ways returning to the way we were before Constantine, and that this is an excellent thing.

    I’m not saying that we have to have a Christianity without specific beliefs. I’m not sure that it’s possible to have a life without specific beliefs. But what I complain about is the importance people place on them. As an example: I’m out there to change the world. If I call it “Jesus work” and a Buddhist and a Muslim do it alongside me, maybe they have a different name for it, but why should that concern me? I’d take it that far. You and I might believe different things, might approach things in different ways, but in the end, if we are both trying to bring peace and justice to the world, and orient our lives towards that, why should we bother to quibble about the little things? I think that is partly why so many people think “organized religion” has a bad name. All this worrying about which churches we’re in full communion with, who wronged us 1000 years ago, why we’re split over this or that is so much wasted energy.

    To return to the example at hand: it’s not like there was no dogma before Nicea, or no difference of belief. What we’re learning now is that there was *a lot* of variation in belief back then. Far more than we used to think. But *it didn’t matter so much* back then. People didn’t take those differences in belief — and they were vast — so seriously. (This was before they even agreed on what the authoritative gospels were.) And that, I think, is the heart of the tragedy of Constantine and Nicea: that it has misdirected focus for so many for so long. I absolutely agree that Christianity is about a way of life. I just think that the creeds, in today’s time, so often get in the way of that, to the point that people think that Christianity is about intellectual assent to those things. Frankly, I don’t think it matters if my fellow Christians question the virgin birth or the literal interpretation of the creation. They can have their beliefs, and I can have mine, but we can share the same core and the same goals. (And this isn’t limited to Christians, either.)

    Thanks for the very interesting discussion.

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