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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.

The Once and Future God

What is the future of God? How can we talk about God, and what do we mean by that word in a postmodern, perhaps even post-atheist world? With these questions Westar Fellows Joseph Bessler, author of A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better, and David Galston, author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, kicked off the first day of Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? with "The Once and Future God" at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, California. As Joseph Bessler said, "We are living without an end to the story" of what life means, individually and communally. Bessler and Galston, with insights from conference participants and presiders Jarmo Tarkki and John Kelly, tackled this very modern problem by exploring how earlier generations have confronted and explained God conceptually.

Christian Theology's Debt to Plato

Early Christians recognized that the significance of Jesus required a wider context than a simple narrative of his life and teachings. They cast the life of Jesus through the lens of the life of Socrates, which we can see in texts such as 1 Corinthians 1-3, in which Paul is confronted with the problem that the cross is a "scandal" - humiliation in the extreme - in Roman culture. He needed to give the cross a new meaning. To kill Christ was to kill a wise one, and this was something Hellenistic culture had done 500 years earlier, with Socrates. Even the condemnation of the State could not undo Socrates; so, too, the Christ.

Joseph Bessler

Joseph Bessler

It is important to understand that Plato, the student of Socrates, created a foundation for Christianity that lasted over a thousand years, so much so that Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) would later describe Christianity as "Platonism for the masses." Plato's theory of the Forms enabled Christians to articulate that appearances are different from reality. What seems like a scandal is in fact, the power of God. There's a sort of longing in Platonism that translates into Christianity, too - a longing, perhaps, for stability. While we can participate in ultimate reality from a Platonic perspective, it's "shadows all the way down." Without guidance, we cannot fully grasp reality. According to Plato, we can reach ultimate reality through reason, which is reliable with proper training. The Christian theologian Augustine would later argue differently, that we cannot reach ultimate reality (God) because of moral fault brought about through moral freedom. This necessitated a savior, the Christ.

God: The Modern Problem

The Platonic view of reality dominated until the 13th or 14th century, when the West shifted toward nominalism, a focus on words and the relationships among words. We have a concept of something not because we know the Form but because we experienced it: a horse is a horse because I saw one, experienced it, and named it. In a world like this, God is free of nature ... and nature is free of God. This shift in thinking about reality simultaneously opened up theology for Protestant revolutionaries and nature for scientists.

David Galston

David Galston

This transition didn't come without losses, however. We can no longer have a transcendental relationship with the universe anymore; we now experience the universe as all there is. What happens to the idea of Jesus if he does not participate in the eternal substance of God? We woke up to the notion that the historical Jesus is really very, very different from the Christ of theology. We are struggling in the wake of this transformation, brought about by modernity, to find the rhetoric for modern religious language.

Modern theologians have attempted to save God: they have explored God as the Word beyond word, God as a mystery in which we participate, God as pluralistic (liberation theology, feminist theology, queer theology), and God as the energy of becoming. All these models struggle with modern language about God. Buddhism offers some help in this situation, inasmuch as it expresses how the world arises all together in relation with everything else. All is defined by relationship, and this fact is experienced as liberating. But we have by no means resolved the issue.

God and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

As modern society gained historical consciousness, theologians like Martin Kahler set aside the historical Jesus as less important, less historic, than the Christ of faith. Theologians didn't do this arbitrarily; the various quests for the historical Jesus are marked by the sociocultural context in which each quest arose. While Kahler found the Christ of faith a better route, theologians like Reimarus and Strauss responded to the hostile environments of their times by appealing to the historical Jesus. The Christ of faith might be associated with princes, but the historical Jesus related with peasants and told parables that upended normal social expectations. The Christ of faith, which society embraced, stood for an important end; the historical Jesus spoke parables without aim, playful in Nietzsche's sense. This opened up the possibilities of Christian language.

Neitzche, too, found a role for the historical Jesus where he rejected the Christ of faith. Neitzche prioritized vitality, forging one's own path, as a direct response to the dominant Christian framework of his era. Neitzche's child, inspired by the historical Jesus, is the one who is open to experience and embodies the "eternal return." Jesus' parables break down the habits of everyday life in a similar way; the stories can be humorous, but they have an edge to them. They are critical. The child, too, is about creativity, critical imagination, seeing things differently. That is the challenge of theology today. Perhaps God as a metaphor has run its course. We need to reawaken our language. The historical Jesus succeeded at that.

A Way Forward

Conference participants asked a variety of questions about the way forward. What role can mystical and ecstatic religious experiences play in our language of God? How do individuals like David Galston and Joseph Bessler, who are both affiliated with particular religious communities, make new language "work" within those communities? What questions will be addressed by the emerging God Seminar?

Want to know more? You can see a video clip and Twitter timeline of live updates from The Once and Future God Q&A Session. Follow @WestarInstitute on Twitter to get updates about future Westar events and projects.

Fellows Jarmo Tarkki, David Galston, Joseph Bessler, and John Kelly responded to conference attendees' questions in the final session of the day.

Fellows Jarmo Tarkki, David Galston, Joseph Bessler, and John Kelly respond to conference attendees' questions in the final session of the day.