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A New Nicaea?

This post does not, strictly speaking, belong to the Augustinian Settlement thread, but it was prompted by JKM's thoughtful comment to last Friday's installment, "A Happy Fault?," so, speaking less than strictly, I'll file it here.


JKM writes,

But in any case, it seems to me (and perhaps this is not the norm), those of us who do not accept, lock, stock and barrel, the views of an organized religion are viewed by those who do as lost souls whose opinions are the product of, at best, ignorance, and, at worst, Satanic possession.

In my reply, I mentioned John Shelby Spong's Why Christianity Must Change or Die, an exciting work that has been heartily denounced by most organized religionists, all the moreso because the author was a bishop of the Episcopal Church. I can't seem to put my hands on the book right now, but as I recall, Bishop Spong addresses spiritual people who feel that they belong to organized religion but cannot accept the miracles and the bizarre metaphysics (such as the doctrine of the Trinity). It's not that these faithful people have theories about the Immaculate Conception that differ from the orthodox position; rather, they find the Immaculate Conception irrelevant and distracting. At the very least, they ask not to be quizzed about these sideshows. If they believe Jesus to be divine, and if they look forward to redemption through his teachings and his sacrifice (however they might construe these statements in their hearts, does that not entitle to worship alongside other Christians?

Why did orthodoxy become so important in the first place? I have written elsewhere about the difference between faith and religion: "Religion is the bond uniting people with the same focus of this kind; religion articulates the bond by prescribing the creeds and rules of conduct that constitute orthodoxy." But how detailed do the creeds and rules need to be? To answer this, we must open the lid on the Roman Empire under Constantine, and take note of a momentous decision that attended the emperor's enfranchisement and subsequent preference for Christianity. In his important study, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (Knopf, 2002), Charles Freeman shows that Constantine's adoption of Christianity was probably more practical than religious: "It was a mark of Constantine's political genius and flexibility that he realized it was better to utilize a religion that already had a well-established structure of authority as a prop to the imperial regime rather than exclude it as a hindrance." The problem was that Constantine knew very little about Christianity - he seems to have seen Jesus as a war god - and he had no idea of the doctrinal disputes that raged among the gamut of Christian sects, which had produced, as is natural when underground movements flourish, incompatible and contradictory understandings of the nature of God, the divinity of Christ, and other hot topics. Ignorant of these quarrels, but determined to put the Christian Church to work in the administration of the Empire, Constantine made a terrible mistake: he granted tax breaks to Christian clergy.

However [Mr Freeman writes], despite his balanced policy towards both pagan and Christian, nothing can obscure the scale of the commitment Constantine showed to Christianity. He started with the granting of special favours to Christian clergy, in particular exemption from the heavy burden of holding civic office and taxation. Earlier emperors had granted exemptions to specific groups (doctors, teachers, athletes are among those recorded), but never, outside the special circumstances of Egypt, to clergy. The exemption was, in Constantine's words, so that the clergy "shall not be drawn away by any deviation and sacrifice from the worship that is due to the divinity, but shall devote themselves without interference to their own laws ... for it seems that, rendering the greatest possible service to the deity, they most benefit the state."

The problem, which quickly arose, of course, was Who's Christian? Coming out into the open, the Christian sects brought all their rivalries with them, and probably would have raised a deafening ruckus anyway, but Constantine's exemptions served only to sharpen the knives. The exasperated Emperor commanded the bishops to convene at Nicaea (modern-day Iznik, where the beautiful tiles come from once again) and obliged them to reach a consensus about doctrine. As Charles Freeman painstakingly shows, the Nicene Creed was hardly an instant success. It never prevailed in the Eastern Church, and it won acceptance in the West only over the course of the Fourth Century. Now that secular historians are interesting themselves in the history of the Early Church, the pious just-so stories that the Roman Catholic Church has been telling for so many centuries that it's hard to think of doubting them stand exposed as just that: nursery tales. And the justification for highly-detailed, my-way-or-the-highway orthodoxy turns out to be - tax breaks.

I ought to stop here, and let what I've just said sink in. But I want to press home the possibility of a New Nicaea, an anti-Nicaea, a convention of moderate Christians committed to establishing a creed that professes the lowest common denominator of faith. Since tax breaks are no longer an issue, the rationale for orthodoxy is supported only by the collective need of worshipers to know what it is that their fellow-congregants believe. What is the least quantum of detail that you, a moderate Christian, insist that the fellow in the next pew agree with?

I believe Jesus to be divine, and I look forward to redemption through his teachings and his sacrifice.

Is that not wonderful enough? Can we not pray together now?


To JKM and whomever...there are, increasingly,
churches that adhere to the movement known as "progressive Christianity" and we welcome those who aren't quite sure what they believe to work and share the same table with those of us who may seem just slightly more certain. (Go to the web site for St Mark's Capitol Hill in DC and you'll find such a parish...better yet, visit when you are in town!) When the revival began back in the 1960's, the rector reached out to "Bored Christians, pagans and interested others..." It is now a vibrant parish some 1200 strong. Dean Alan Jones at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco is another cleric who has sought to create a sacred space where you can, as they say, "reconnect your spirit without disconnecting your mind" I don't think it is good to deconstruct just for deconstruction's sake -- and sometime Spong et al. go too far, but at least they have dared to raise important questions, questions, that if ignored, may someday lead to some very empty church pews!

Thanks, LKH; I had hoped to hear from you on this matter, and I am very heartened by your comment.

Thank you, RJ, for once again expressing, far more articulately than I ever could, my objection to most organized religion. And to LKH--I, too, am heartened to learn that there are churches that promote inclusion rather than exclusion. It is the exclusionary principle to which I most object (and the principle that led me to abandon organized religion)--i.e., the notion that one cannot, for example, be a good Catholic (the religion in which I was raised) if one believes that abortion or birth control may be appropriate in certain circumstances or that a marriage can be valid even if not entered into for the purpose of procreation (and don't even get me started on the patriarchal exclusion of women from meaningful roles in the Catholic church), or the notion that one cannot join a Baptist church if one is unwilling to eschew the occasional glass of wine (a situation in which a friend of a friend recently found herself, when she was denied membership in a Baptist congregation because she refused to swear that she would never again indulge in an alcoholic beverage). None of these sorts of rules have anything to do with what I remember most clearly as the fundamental Christian principles I was taught in my many, many years of Catholic education: principally, that one should practice tolerance and charity, and treat one's fellows as one would like to be treated; although not expressed explicitly, I also recall endless discussions regarding the interpretation of the scriptures, which led me to the conclusion that, on certain points at least, one can agree to disagree.

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