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Christianity and Colonialism (Gnosticism series)

In my last blog post about Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism?, I used the metaphor of maps and boundary-making to point to the problem of always keeping in mind the purposes behind our “map” of early Christian history. This has proven to be a problem in the study of Christianity because it’s too tempting to take what early Christian writers claimed about themselves—and about their opponents—at face-value.

King goes on in chapters 3 and 4 to give examples of actual scholars who fell into this trap, complicated by the rise of Western colonialism. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars like Adolf von Harnack and the history of religions school tried to move beyond the church’s language of heresy without, however, endangering Christianity’s status as the highest form of religion. Some even went so far as to claim Christianity had taken over and improved upon the ideas of other religions on its path to ascendancy. Of course this or that brand of Christianity might get touted above another, such as Protestantism versus Catholicism, but the status of Christianity itself was left untouched. Scholars assumed the superiority of Christianity just like wider society assumed the superiority of white Europeans.

Today we study that phenomenon under the term "colonialism." Arguably, we haven't yet moved beyond colonialism. It is evident in the ways race, class, and gender are treated differently in pop culture, our legal system, and other social institutions. Bell hooks, an American feminist and cultural critic, links colonialism to our tendency to recycle old ideas in new forms for the sake of power. In Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies, she gives a commonsense example of this phenomenon:

We keep coming back to the question of representation because identity is always about representation. People forget that when they wanted white women to get into the workforce because of the world war, what did they start doing? They started having a lot of commercials, a lot of movies, a lot of things that were redoing the female image, saying, “Hey, you can work for the war, but you can still be feminine.” So what we see is that the mass media, film, TV, all of these things, are powerful vehicles for maintaining the kinds of systems of domination we live under, imperialism, racism, sexism etc. Often there’s a denial of this and art is presented as politically neutral, as though it is not shaped by a reality of domination.

Sometimes people get upset in conversations about racism and other –isms because they don’t feel they should be held personally responsible for the actions of past generations. And that’s a fair complaint, to a point. What Hooks is talking about here is not the past as such, but our choices to reproduce past attitudes through new movies, books, and so on. If we reproduce sexist, racist, and other oppressive images without criticizing or challenging them, we keep them alive for the next generation.

Richard Reitzenstein

Richard Reitzenstein is credited (for better or for worse) by King with the invention of the "gnostic redeemer myth." Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Scholars deal with this problem, too. King is claiming that gnosticism happens to be a tool used—consciously or unconsciously—by scholars of early Christian history to keep alive the basic structures of orthodoxy (“right belief”) and heresy (“deviance”). The orthodoxy-heresy divide served the church’s goal of claiming authority for itself, but it does not in any way serve a scholar’s goal of a better understanding of history.

I found this quote especially illustrative:

Possibly the greatest mischief [of history of religions school] was done by the invention of the Gnostic redeemer myth, that staple of two-page summaries of Gnosticism. This stirring narrative … was constructed by taking bits and pieces from particular motifs from a variety of historical and literary contexts, and combining them into a single, coherent narrative. … In reality there is no single existing ancient literary source that gives ‘the Gnostic redeemer myth’ as scholars have ‘reconstructed’ (i.e., invented) it. (109, italics in original)

Last week I mentioned Daniel Boyarin’s suggestion that the metaphor of “family resemblance” is a useful alternative to other kinds of definitions. No one member of the family has all the family traits, but they all share some. However, now I see that the case of the history of religions school shows one weakness of that metaphor. Because there is no family prototype, out of which the rest of the family members are stamped, we’re all family if you draw a large enough circle. The lack of a prototype allowed scholars who liked the history of religions approach to cherry-pick whatever traits they felt like assigning to gnosticism, without anchoring them in place and time.

All along, King’s point has been that the entire structure of a “good” Christianity and “bad” gnosticism, or vice versa, is flawed. We know things were never so monolithic in practice. The end result is absolutely going to look like a family of some kind, but I can safely say this much: the Christian family is not going to divide easily into two groups.

Join us in reading Karen King's What Is Gnosticism? (Belknap Press, 2005)

This is the fourth post in a blog series on Karen L. King's book, What Is Gnosticism? This book will form the basis of the Fall 2014 Christianity Seminar in San Diego concurrent with the Society of Biblical Literature conference. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

Reader Roundtable: Reimagining God by Lloyd Geering

Reimagining God, by Lloyd Geering

This blog post is part of the Reimagining God book club hosted by Patheos.com. The book club runs Nov 1st to 15th.

Is the concept of God still viable for the future? What do we mean when we say "God"? In my last blog post I introduced four alternatives to fundamentalism from Nigel Leaves' The God Problem, among which Leaves placed respected New Zealand theologian Lloyd Geering among the non-realists and religious naturalists. In this blog post, readers respond both to Geering and to this problem of God language as part of the ongoing book club hosted by Patheos.com that ends November 15th.

It's not too late to submit your thoughts on Reimagining God by Lloyd Geering. You can simply respond in the comments section below or send us a message containing your thoughts on the Westar Facebook page. Comments will be highlighted in whole or in part in another roundtable next week.

Kicking us off, Jim High offers these comments on the problem of authority:

We live in the age of changing authority, and I believe this is why our language has and is changing. We no longer have a central place (The Bible) where all authority comes from. Our understanding of God is also undergoing drastic change because science and evolution shows us a quite different world and God from what we find in the old authority of the Bible. Within Christianity and all other beliefs there are many new ideas about Life, Oneness and our connections to all that exists in the Universe from which Life emerged. Maybe we will never again have a single Authority as we once did. Maybe that is a good thing, but for sure only we humans have control over what happens in the future, good or bad.

While the problem of authority doesn't come up explicitly in Reimagining God that I can recall, it certainly underpins the stories of theologians like Ludwig Feuerbach and Bishop John Robinson, whose work erupted in public controversy precisely because they cracked the authority-giving veneer of the reigning religious views in their respective eras. In his discussion of Feuerbach in chapter 4, Geering writes, "Even today ... those who are most convinced that God is an objective being external to them are the most certain that they know exactly what God thinks and desires on any issue" (69). At the end of chapter 7 on Robinson, he goes on, "The theistic image of God has got to go. It was too small, too human, too personal, and too objective. 'God' remains as a symbol, should we choose to use it, that both refers to all that transcends us and points to the unity of the universe we live in" (113). It is no wonder that the "too human, too personal, too objective" qualities of our concept of God has proven most devastating to the authority God traditionally held in Western culture.

Ludwig Feuerbach

Ludwig Feuerbach.
Credit: Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte, Berlin

A natural question from a specifically Christian angle in response to this authority issue becomes, "What about Jesus?" How does Jesus, both as an historical figure open to anyone and as a divine Christ figure of the church, appear in modern conversations about God? Gene Stecher says:

I’ve never quite understood how ‘no God’ or ‘impersonal God’ fits with the ‘human Jesus.’ What we’re really saying is that if Jesus lived today, when the three tiered universe and ‘spatial’ God has been rationally eliminated, God would not be part of his belief or language system. How would anyone know that? The thing is, if the gospels tell us anything about the human Jesus it is that his belief and language system included a personal God. Do we really know that in today’s world, for him, rationality would obliterate intuitive, revelatory, relational, and other forms of knowing what is ‘whole’ and ‘ultimate,’ ‘personal and impersonal.’ It’s just another case of making Jesus and God in our own image. Going along with this is the notion that Jesus ‘ teachings can somehow exist on their own apart from his deity orientation. His teachings re-present the kingdom of God. They are not isolated nuggets of wisdom raising rationality to its own level of divinity.

Stecher points to the problem of plucking Jesus out of his own era and dropping him into our own specifically as a way to support modern ideas of God. Karen King, in chapter 3 of What Is Gnosticism?, which we've also been reading on this blog, pinpoints this same problem in the highly influential theology of Adolf von Harnack. "Harnack appears to have done with paganism what the polemicists did in the Christian construction of Judaism," she writes. "[Harnack] appropriated all the positive characteristics of pagan thought (such as universalism, rational philosophy, monotheistic piety, and ethics) for true Christianity, while attributing all the negative characteristics (superstition, myth, polytheism, cultic practice) to his opponents, in this case Catholics" (68). Geering suggests an alternative that still carries forward what we find meaningful from the teachings of Jesus, not on the authority of his name but on its own merits: "The value of Christian teaching must be judged not by appeal to divine revelation but to its own inherent capacity to win conviction and obedience. ... Even such so-called teachings of Jesus as we find in the Sermon on the Mount must be valued not because they were spoken by Jesus Christ, but for their inherent capacity to convey to us the ring of truth" (161).

This problem in part arises from the situatedness of ideas in their cultural and historical context. Jamie Spencer, author of Fictional Religion (Polebridge, 2011), gives a nod to Geering's explanation of this phenomenon:

I have read Geering’s book with delight. Here are some quotes that particularly spoke to me. 1)“The modern world is no longer Christian …[but]… it holds in high regard the moral values, aspirations and social mores it has inherited from its Christian matrix.” 2) “We are all products of language-based cultures, and every religion is clothed in a specific language and expressed in a particular set of verbal symbols. This is one important reason why the medieval church was reluctant to allow the bible to be translated into the vernacular, and why Islam refuses to allow any translations of the Qur’an.”

Norman K. Bakken, Ph.D., retired pastor and professor of the Lutheran Church in America, offers up what might be called a panentheistic understanding of the divine for today, one that points us toward whatever it is that manages to transcend the particularity of time and space:

In our age imagining God is no option. What we can imagine is the creative spark of life that is present in all things, a life stream coming with every breath we take, every drop of moisture, every exposure to light, however dim or uncertain. Life is sacred, as are all things and all people. What we must search for is the distinguishing uniqueness of all that is, and every person we meet, so that together we may celebrate an evolving understanding of what life is all about, and what potential humans have in promoting its care and well being.  Jesus was part of that "I AM", and we are part of that as well.  Our problem arises when we forget who we are and who every other is and represents, more, much more, than we can imagine.

As with Bakkan, several respondents turned their attention to the practical ramifications of arguments about the concept of God, not the least of which is the basic question, "Does it even matter?" How far can such arguments take us? Dennis Dean Carpenter writes,

Gods are irrelevant. When fundamentalists realize you realize this and that you are just as inflexible as they are, the conversation turns to the more relevant and important things in life, like good barbecue and the garden.

Religion doesn’t need gods to abuse. It has people of other faiths.

I remember having several conversations with students when I was teaching community college courses on ethics, to the effect that the existence or non-existence of God could only carry a person's ethics so far before it was time to turn to the nitty-gritty details of decision-making. For Geering, ethics encompasses "the ongoing evolution of all cultural norms" (170). He roots ethics not in questions about the existence of God but in human life: "Values such as love, justice, truth, compassion and social harmony ... supply the raw material for ethics because they arise from the human condition" (180). In short, with or without God, we still have to grapple with ethics, and arguably it is ethics that has the greater impact on human relations, including those among the world religions.

Robert Rock visits this topic in this excerpt from a letter he sent to Lloyd Geering:

What I’m trying to do here is to point out, based on the surprising number of historical references in your book, the uncommonly great effect that even the smallest sense of interpersonal relatedness of love and honesty and trust between has on each of us when it comes to experiencing something perceivable as divinity—“God”—“self awareness”—“love”—“inner peace”. And I’m using the smallest, least noticeable (i.e., daily relations) because they appear to be at the core of Jesus’ teaching—a special quality in daily human relating. Example: the fact that you cared to respond to my initial inquiry—leaves me feeling more whole than if you ignored me. I could go on with endless examples of personal encounters that contribute to steady, mutual soul growth, and those that diminish it. I’ll end however with just one more—namely a typical church (Synagogue, Mosque) in which the lives of its people are too often permanently diminished due to ongoing unresolved emotional and intellectual conflicts regarding mutual human trust, respect, honesty, affection, love, misunderstanding—millions of tiny skirmishes—never resolved and festering away at souls, diminishing the otherwise spiritual maturation of its participants.

What I am not saying is to give up all other religious disciplines and concentrate only on human relations. I am saying that all the ways in which we presently attempt to create an atmosphere of “God”, of spirit, of things higher and greater than we—are important—liturgy, song, prayer, confession, meditation, Bibles, Korans, pot lucks, social events—all are important. But if we forget the importance of a constant courageous honesty (toward onesself as well as collectively)—trust, “love”, affection, in all of these, our individual and collective spiritual maturation remains stagnated. This is what I see you have emphasized through your many historical quotations in your book. Now how to more effectively define this special spiritual quality of human relatedness, (you have used the phrase “global spirituality”) and how to live it in community is the next needed thesis.

As you imply—it’s not so much that God is guiding us, as much as it is us, collectively, employing that which has been provided us. Do the words: "Wherever two or more are gathered ... " take on a new meaning?

Rose Keister carries this question forward in the form of a question about the future of the church, a common theme I've also heard raised at Westar events. She writes:

Lloyd Geering is a national treasure although the country is New Zealand. His talk to Christchurch on YouTube is almost a map of where Christianity should be heading at least in his opinion. He is speaking to a filled Church about beliefs that include a lack of a personal God, Jesus as wholly human, supernatural world and no afterlife. Geering still finds value in the church but I believe many people are recognizing that Christianity and religion, doctrine and dogma are not the core of what people find valuable there.

From tribal beginnings through agricultural fertility cults through the mythologies and first state religions and only then through Judaism and Christianity, the core has always been the community gathering for a meal, dancing, celebrations but also mourning. I keep thinking about a community gathering and what that might mean in a post-Church era.

In an interview on the radio program Religion for Life, Lloyd Geering responds to a question about the future of rituals and worship: "We need to celebrate togetherness, and  I think the value of congregational worship is that it brings people together to form a community, a unity, a body of people who are sharing the faith they have. ... The other aspect I want to emphasize is that instead of focusing in our minds on some imagined picture of God and heaven ... we need to focus upon the universe itself and upon nature. It's interesting to note that our chief festivals, which were first of all Judaized and then Christianized, actually all began as nature festivals. ... Indeed, in many ways that's what we need to return to, but they won't simply be returning to what they used to be in the ancient world. They'll be doing it in a way which is consistent with how we see the world today."

Patheos Book ClubThis blog posts is part of the book club on Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic by Lloyd Geering, hosted by Patheos.com. There are several ways you can get involved in book discussions:

  • Visit Patheos.com between November 1 and 15 for free online resources related to Reimagining God, including a full study guide.
  • Use the comments section of this blog (below) to share your reflections on the book.
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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

Marcion: Forgotten “Father” and Inventor of the New Testament

Christianity owes a major debt to a man with no direct connection to Jesus of Nazareth or Paul of Tarsus – a man labeled a heretic by the forerunners of orthodox Christianity. Marcion (c. 95-165 CE) was a shipbuilder, possibly ship owner, from Pontus, a small region in what is now northern Turkey. We know little else about him, except that at some point in his career he joined the Christian community in Rome only to find himself embroiled in debate with the leadership there. Ultimately they were unable to resolve their differences, and the Marcionite community broke from other Jesus followers of that era. It is unknown how separate the communities were in practice, but in some parts of the ancient world Marcionites were called "Christians" while groups with closer ties to Judaism were called "Nazoreans."

Jason BeDuhn gives a lecture on Marcion

Jason BeDuhn

Marcion holds a lasting legacy for Christians as the inventor of the New Testament. Jason BeDuhn, author of The First New Testament: Marcion’s Scriptural Canon, argues that Marcion not only put together the very first Christian canon of scriptures, he gave Christianity very idea of doing so. At the Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? Conference in Santa Rosa, California, BeDuhn spoke about the important role Marcion played in shaping Christian identity. This begins with the relationship between Gentiles and Jews in the Roman Empire. “A good contemporary analogy is the interest some modern White Americans have in Native American religion and culture,” he said, “A similar thing was going on with Gentile fans of Judaism in the ancient world. They wanted to take on foreign spirituality and practices.” However, Jews rebelled multiple times against the Roman Empire in the second century, and Gentile Christian groups fled association with them, taking on new forms in the process.

Marcionites were pesco-vegetarians who embraced pacifism. Women held high leadership roles, at least prominently enough that critics of Marcionites complained about the role women were playing in the movement. They did not believe the god of Jesus was the god of the Jews. They believed the god of the Jews was a creator god that ruled based on judgment and violence, which Marcion argued by appealing to violent texts in the Hebrew scriptures. Marcion saw the god of Jesus as an entirely new being, a higher god who provided escape from the judgment of this world. Most importantly, Marcionites had something no other Christians had: a canon of their own scriptures.

Challenging Traditional Views of Marcion

Critics of Marcion like Tertullian and Epiphanius complained that Marcion cut and edited scripture to fit his beliefs. Biblical scholar Adolf von Harnack accepted this claim in his definitive text on Marcion, Marcion: The Gospel of an Alien God (1920). However, Tertullian and Epiphanius lived several generations after Marcion, and they assumed the New Testament they read already existed in Marcion's era. It didn't. Marcion's critics were reading history backward instead of forward: there was no New Testament yet.

We tend to assume the version of Christianity we see today as inevitable, but actually there were many possible ways for Christianity to develop. Christianity may never have become a religion with a set of scriptures at all. Christians may have continued to interpret and reinterpret Hebrew scriptures, rely on oral storytelling, consider themselves Jewish, and so on. The very attitude of Marcionites setting themselves apart from Jews led them to declare a "new" testament, and that has made all the difference.

Marcion's New Testament

What did Marcion's version of the New Testament look like? It had two parts: the Evangelion, which was a gospel related to the Gospel of Luke, and the Apostolikon, a collection of Paul's letters. Marcion is our first witness to six of the ten letters now considered to be authentic by modern biblical scholars. Biblical scholars came to the conclusion that only some letters attributed to Paul are authentic (most exclude 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, for example). The evidence from Marcion supports this finding. The inclusion of Paul's letters in the New Testament was by no means certain. Rather, Marcion's choice to include the letters succeeded in pushing other communities to do the same thing when they came up with competing canons of scripture, although it took his competitors two hundred years to establish the canon now found in Bibles today.

This is a very different way of looking at the Marcionite New Testament, and scholars will need to compare the edition reconstructed by Jason BeDuhn to determine how this changes our view of how early Christianity developed. For example, the Evangelion is much shorter than the Gospel of Luke, and it is not clear whether they were both written by the same person for different communities, or if a later editor added new material to the Gospel of Luke. Also, BeDuhn found that the Marcionite version of Romans 9-11 is completely different, yet this text has been used by some scholars as a key to Pauline theology. Regardless of how these findings eventually play out in scholarly discussion and debates, BeDuhn identifies four significant contributions of Marcion to Christian history:

The First New Testament: Marcion's Scriptural Canon

Available from Polebridge Press

  1. Christians owe the idea of a "new" testament to Marcion.
  2. Christians owe to Marcion the particular form of the New Testament.
  3. Christians owe to Marcion the prominence of the voice of Paul in the New Testament.
  4. Finally, Christians owe to Marcion a Christian identity built on a special scripture all their own.