Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christianity without Constantine

(wow, today's been a great day for clearing out my pending folder...)

Think about it.  After the crucifixion of Jesus, Christianity spread to new areas.  Over time, the people directly associated to Jesus died off.  The message, however, did not.  In a culture steeped in oral-tradition methodology, the stories of Jesus were preserved.  Like twelve blind men trying to describe what an elephant is, based on their reference point, the word of God was transmitted to the dispersed congregation.  All of the messengers described the elephant, but emphasized those portions most important to the audience the message was spread to.

As a result, Christianity had Jews in Judea seeing Christianity as Judaism with an enhancement.  Many of them continued to practice Jewish customs, but incorporated Christian thought into their lives.  Gentiles in Europe who were taught God’s message is for everyone, not just for the Jews.  The learned that God’s love did not require conforming to Jewish customs.  In all cases, God’s message was foundational.  The extra tidbits were there to help the locals digest the message.

Hence, it is reasonable to see how, over the years, numerous writings were made to put to paper, that which had been transmitted by oral tradition and how the writings, while very similar (they were skilled oral traditions), would have regional variations.

Jump forward a few centuries.  The year: 325. The place: Nicea.  Constantine wanted to unify the Holy Roman Empire.  He wanted peace within his borders and wanted to be the head of all important things within his empire.  He sees various diverse groups of Christians and says to himself: “Self, I need unity in my land and these Christians are not unified.”  So, what does he do?  He calls a council of “all” church leaders to unify the religion.  Of the hundreds of church leaders, a vast majority came from lands held within the Holy Roman Empire.

In the years preceding the council, different Christian groups held differing opinions on the deity of Jesus.  The Romans were Trinitarians.  Ethiopians held that Jesus was purely god with not human aspect.  In Alexandria, Jesus was seen as purely human, albeit divinely inspired and in perfect lock-step with God’s will.

So, when Constantine assembled the church leaders, he loaded the group with Roman church leaders.  His reasoning, I presume, is he was more concerned with unifying his empire and his empire’s Christian groups than he was about the religion itself.  Hence, bring in the congregations within the borders of the Holy Roman Empire and get them to agree to a single version of Christianity.  Oh, and bring in a handful of outsiders who seem to take an opposing stance on a topic of the day.  Opposing, meaning they did not agree with the Roman Christianity perspective.

The Arian question remained alive, despite the creation of the Nicean Creed.  Arius was invited back into the Christian fold.  Christian groups outside the Holy Roman Empire continued to believe in non-Trinitarian beliefs.  There are still, to this day, people who consider themselves Christian without accepting the Trinitarian solution.
Does not accepting the Trinitarian solution make these people something other than Christian?  Is God’s message to us is we are to believe in three (and only three) beings all homoousian?  Was Constantine motivated by God to draw Trinitarian leaders to confirm the deification of Jesus, or was he simply unifying his lands?

If Constantine had not brought together the council, what would Christianity be like today?  Would we have agreed to disagree on issues of the deification of Jesus and concentrated on the message of love and compassion?  Or would we have broken down into internal squabbles and have God’s message lost to the history of time?  Can a person be a Christian without buying into a consubstantial theory?

To me, the point is the message.  The message is God’s love.  If a group is living and transmitting God’s message, does it matter what other stuff is mixed into their belief system?  I say it doesn’t matter, provided God’s message is clear and is provided center stage in the theatrics called a church service.  

Compassion: The preface

I want to write an epistle on compassion.  First I need to clear my head of all the confusion generated by my verification of my sources.  So, here goes.

Compassion: (n) a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

This made me wonder if sympathy is the right word.  I always thought sympathy was a disconnected understanding of another's feelings, while empathy was an understanding from a mutual experience.  Shouldn't the better word be empathy?  Unfortunately, while researching the differences between sympathy and empathy, I discovered every person seems to have a different understanding of the two words.  How then, can I understand compassion if I cannot understand the definition?

My research seemed to come to a stand still.  So what happens when I don't learn what God wants me to learn?  God increases the volume of the message.  I'm standing in line with my wife, waiting for a Master Chef audition, and we meet another contestant.  Her name, in her language, means "compassion".  Then we go wandering into various stores in search of Christmas presents and my wife points out a small version of the Mandala of compassion.  I believe when we don't learn the lessons before us, God presses the point.

So, back to my study.

I once challenged myself to find the fewest words to wrap up everything God wants us to know.  Is there one word to define everything?  I started with the golden rule.  Jesus was asked about the most important commandment.  Love God.  But Jesus doesn't stop there.  He goes on to talk about how we are to interact with one another.  Perhaps "love" is all we need.

Off I went to look up the meaning of love.  I will not waste your time with the waste of time I spent looking for a clear definition. There are too many meanings for the word and simply using the word love without a back story for the word would create more confusion than clarity. To simply say “Love one another” leaves too much to interpretation.  I thought “Show compassion to one another” would be clearer.

Unfortunately, most definitions of compassion presuppose the object of one’s compassion is somehow suffering.  Besides, the use of the word sympathy has almost as many meanings as love.  What is needed is a cleaner definition of God’s desire for us.  Something like “Show compassion to one another” without the need for the recipient to be suffering or the giver to have any form of sorrow for the recipient.  More like: Take the time to understand the needs, fears, and desires of one another.  Then make the effort to help them achieve their goals.

Naturally, my mind spins off into various gyrations of this statement.  Are we to fulfill one another’s fantasies or whims?  What about conflicting goals of different people?  What about people who want another person to suffer?  It seems even my simple statement generates its own issues and lack of clarity.

Now I know why this is taking so long to sort out.  I will have to mull on this more.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


I enjoy mental gymnastics and conundrums. George Carlin once asked: If God is all-powerful, can he make a rock so large that even he cannot lift it?  Questions like this spur me to thinking.  I know many people who simply scoff at such absurdities.  Not me.  I use them as springboards to further inquiry.

God and the three omni
We are taught God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.  Take the last one.  If God is omnipotent, can he cast a person so far away that he person is out of his presence?  Better yet, if God is omnipresent, is God in hell?

If we accept the above attributes of God, then we must re-evaluate other normally assumed beliefs held by us.  If God is compassionate, does his compassion for us end when we die in a state less than the grace we believe we need?  Is this life the only chance we have of making a good impression on God?  The god of the bible appears to be both compassionate and willing to negotiate.  Why, then, are we told that if we die a sinner, we must rot in hell for eternity?

I am reminded of an old zen story about a young monk asking a great zen master where he would go when he dies.  The zen master looked at the young monk and replied: “I don’t know about you, but I’m going to hell.”  The young monk stood there dumbfounded and asked how that could be so.  The master, patient as always, told him someone had to go there to help all those people and their suffering.

For some reason, the master’s story rings true to me.  God has such compassion.  God seeks out the lost lamb and welcomes home the wayward son.  Why wouldn’t God be in hell, helping the lost and wayward creations.  We are never cast so far from God’s grace that we are outside God’s sphere of forgiveness.

Monday, November 14, 2011

50th Anniversary

I drove an hour to attend church last Sunday.  Driving an hour each way to attend a service, while not uncommon for me, is not the norm. 

It all started fifty years ago when my father gathered to himself a small congregation of believers into his house and offered them fellowship, service, and a sense of purpose.  My father routinely invited people into our house.  We had people come to our house to meet privately with my father. We had noteworthy and memorable guests for dinner.  We even had the occasional house guest stay with us for extended periods.  Our house’s guests ranged from new-born babies to old, from ordinary blind people to extraordinary dignitaries, and any number of people suffering or otherwise needing help.  So, a gathering of people wanting to form a church was nothing unusual for my household.

My father was up to the task.  Amongst his many skills and professions, my father was an ordained minister.  With the help of his house guests, my father started a church.  My father took no income from the church and instead insisted the money raised be divided in half between missionary work both in the community and around the world and the other half for bills and other expenses.  Expenses like a mortgage on a carriage house and stables.  The church was growing and needed more room than our home’s living room.

Fifty years later, the church celebrated the anniversary of its founding.  I drove there to meet my mother and siblings, and to see how the church was getting on.  I felt the gentle tug of sadness over the loss of the original buildings to the accidental fire years before.  There was the joy of seeing the resilience of the congregation to indebt themselves in another mortgage, rebuilding the building into another beautiful building.  I loved seeing the simplicity retained over the years and was overjoyed to discover the church still values missionary outreach as strong as it did when it began.

Fifty years has passed.  The church is strong.  The core values remain.  What a blessing to see a small seed blossom into such a great, living tree.  The congregation looks for people in need and look to fulfill them.  Boys and Girls clubs, school systems, and victims of crimes (including the innocent children of convicted felons): all are causes the church has given time, knowledge and money to support and improve.

I drove an hour to attend church last Sunday.  What was the sermon about?  How grace is more than simply a one-on-one relationship with God.  It extends to both sides as we emulate the same relationship with have with God to our fellow man. “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul. The second rule is to love your neighbor in a like manner.”

Friday, October 7, 2011

Does it Matter?

I am easily distracted by all the tangent ideas in this world.  Give me a topic and I will find all the other perspectives and issues associated with it, leading to a complete stagnation of reasoning.  Sometimes I combat my own thinking.

The bible tells us that Jesus was asked to identify the greatest law.  In other words, what matters more than anything else?  I could interpret this passage numerous ways, as have many people before me.  Instead, it got me thinking of what was left behind.

I have been put into an intellectual corner on several occasions, sometimes by me. For example, I have been weighing in on the topic of God.  Who is God?  What is God like?  I felt I needed to know the answers in order to better know how to conduct myself.  What does God expect of me?

For starters, God "exists".  And by "exists", I don't mean to some state whose opposite is "non-existence".  There is a god (or more) and I don't question it.  I cannot prove it, but I understand there are things that exist which cannot be proven with words.  Study zen, and ask someone to describe satori in words.  It cannot be understood with words.  God is.  I know it.

But, is there one god or many gods?  Is God so all-powerful and all-present that God cares and interacts with each and every thought and action of every being?  Is there a different god for different people/creatures?  If there are multiple universes, as some people are considering, is it the same God in all of them?

Then, it struck me: does it matter?  What do I need to know?  I know there is a god.  There may be more, but the others don't matter to me. Whether God commands other universes has no impact on me.  It doesn't matter.  I cannot convince someone of God's existence or non-existence with any logical argument.  It doesn't matter.  What does matter?

What matters is I understand my relationship to God.  What matters is what impact my understanding has on my behavior and other beliefs.  What matters is between God and me.

There was a point in my exploration of God where I postulated that God simply created everything as a plaything which he set into motion and is watching the cause and effects of his initial work, perhaps with some nudging here and there.  Under that reasoning, it "explained" why undesirable things to people.

I also considered God as a personal father figure: guiding me with advice and rules.  This explained why my situation would gradually get worse until I learned a lesson. ("God keeps escalating things until you figure it out and change.")

How many ways has God been portrayed?  I have considered them all and rejected them all.  None of them tell the complete story of what I have experienced.  In the end, I ask myself, does it matter?  I also looked at all of them and asked if there was a common thread running through each and everyone of them.

Does it matter?  Not really.  I don't need to pigeon-hole God into some finite construct or symbol whereby I limit God to a single idea.  I don't have to be God's toy or child.

What I know is there is a God.  There may be other gods, but it doesn't matter to me.  God may be all-present and all-powerful, but it doesn't matter to me.  I owe my existence to God and for that, I am humbly grateful.