Hi all! The Christianity 2020 book is going through final edits and should be ready by January 31st. Below is the introduction from the book, which I have adjusted for the blogosphere and will be permanently available here. After consulting with a bunch of folks, I agreed that there needed to be a short, cohesive introduction to the ideas in this blog (and the book). I hope this will help to explain the diverse areas covered in these posts. As always, I’m open to (polite) comment and disagreements.

Introduction

Based on the feedback from some people I trust, I’ve tried to put together an explanation of the sources and background of this blog/book. These subjects overlap and mesh throughout the essays, and so a quick introduction to these topics is in order. The following paragraphs are meant to be introductory, not definitive – but they should give you a good idea of the genesis of the ideas presented here.

The history of Christian thought is quite varied, especially the early history. Until the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, Christian thought was not regulated at all – people with widely disparate views called themselves Christians. Even the earliest Christians – most notably Peter, James and Paul – had quite divergent views of the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. At first these dissenters were out in the open; but later, when the church became almost synonymous with the government, these people either had to go underground, tread lightly, or (in some cases) find themselves the guest of honor at a roast.

Modern scholarship, especially the archaeologic finds at Nag Hammadi (circa 1945) and (to a lesser extent) the Dead Sea Scrolls (circa 1946-1959), has enabled us to access much of the early thought that was considered for many years to be lost for eternity. From this we can see that many “heresies” (Greek for “choices”) were not always the small movements that the Church tried to present them as, but were instead sometimes large movements that dominated entire regions. The systematic destruction of the primary works of these movements, along with the attempted destruction of the beliefs themselves, kept this information unavailable to most people for centuries.

The ideas kept breaking through, though. Some taught in secret, some were able to keep themselves just within the bounds of what the Church would accept, and at least one was denied as a heretic and later declared a saint[1].

To see a quick list of some of these folks, visit the “List of Christian Mystics” page on Wikipedia (I hope that Wikipedia continues to operate! Please donate to them.) This is not a complete list of all the “heretics”, but it is a good beginning set, specifically for the purposes of this book.

Which brings us to the topic of mysticism. A mystic is a person who has direct experiential intercourse with the divine – in Christian terms, with God. There are mystical traditions from pretty much every cultural and religious group throughout human history. Although I am specifically interested in Christian mysticism in this book, I do liberally quote from a non-Christian source (The Tao Te Ching[2]). In my view, there is nothing contradictory in quoting the Tao Te Ching in reference to Christianity – truth can be found in many quarters.

Which brings us to the concept of Truth (capital T). A prevailing view in many groups  (especially academic) is what is variously called postmodernism or social constructivism. Although I give more details in the book, a short description of these views would contain the notion that there is no thing as Truth (with a capital T), there are only varied opinions. This differs from the notion that there is such a thing as Truth, but that no one has a guaranteed lock on it. Only a crazy person thinks that he knows the one and only Truth. Except

The one and only thing that a person knows is their own experience. Thus, someone might report that “I saw what appeared to be a ghost” as opposed to “I saw a ghost” – the first report is unassailable unless you just think the person is flat out lying. A philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein used the idea of a slap to your face – if you felt the pain, you could not deny that it exists.

Which brings us to Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is quoted throughout these essays. Wittgenstein is generally considered to be the most influential philosopher of the 20th century – even according to Time magazine! His first book – the only one published during his lifetime – is a philosophic treatise on the nature of language and logic. He ends up developing a complete and thorough proof of the logical necessity of mysticism. After writing this book he retired from philosophy because he believed he had explained everything… but later on he came out of retirement and went on to become the chair of the philosophy department at Cambridge. Most people who quote his book (called Tractatus Logico Philosophicus) have not actually read the book, because it is a pretty tough slog. In fact, I had one class in graduate school where we covered this book but neither of the two professors had ever actually read it!

Wittgenstein was a logician, and thus I also delve into the nature of logic, which turns out to be one of the best pointers to the nature of God. However, in order to get to that point, one has to wade through predicate calculus, set theory and then the proofs of soundness and completeness of predicate logic, and the (seemingly contradictory) results of the incompleteness of any logic system and the undefinability theorem: “no sufficiently rich interpreted language can represent its own semantics.”[3] This means, for our purposes here, that there is no such thing as a perfect language. Language is inherently limited.

Which brings us back to mysticism. If you directly experienced God, how could you describe that experience? What human words would work in this case? Clearly, there aren’t any. At this point, the mystic has two options: (1) try to describe it anyway, using the vernacular of the time, (2) shut up about it. Now, those who choose option 2 are by definition not heard from much – and so, we mostly end up only knowing about those that choose option 1. And, human language being limited by time, space, and society, these descriptions are always analogic or metaphoric, and are thus easy to dismiss as nonsense, which is really what it is: non-sense. It is not one’s senses that experience the divine – how could it be?

To those that have these experiences, they are as real and unassailable as a slap in the face. What you do about it and with it is another question. You may have had a mystical experience and not known what it was. Or you may have chosen to pretend it didn’t happen because “all that stuff is bullsh*t” – or, you may not have had a mystical experience at all. But one person who undoubtedly did was Jesus.

As I describe in detail in the essays, Jesus was a Jewish mystic – imbued with the Spirit of God at his baptism. This is what made him an “anointed one” – a Christ. Note that I say he was an anointed one, not the anointed one. He was not the only one. There have been other mystics throughout the ages, and Jesus would likely have melted into relative obscurity if it had not been for Paul.

Paul (Saint Paul, Paul of Tarsus) picked up a few nuggets of the story of Jesus and packaged it together with some Neo-Platonic beliefs and “sold” the package to the gentiles (non-Jews) throughout the Roman Empire. It was a slick bit of marketing, but it had little to do with Jesus’s original message, as evidenced by Paul’s vehement disagreements with Jesus’s original disciples[4].

So, you may ask, how can I call this stuff Christianity 2020 if I don’t believe in the “standard model” of Christianity? Because, from all accounts, neither did Jesus! What we have received as the orthodox[5] model of Christianity was defined by humans, mostly from Paul-started churches, in 325 CE.  

And yet still, why even bother to repurpose the term Christianity? Why not call this “Jesusism” or something? I believe that one should not abandon two thousand years of honing the message. Yes, there were a lot of false starts and wrong turns, but clearly there is a divine spark in the overall Christian movement, and to throw this away in a childish temper tantrum is a huge mistake.

Which brings me around to why I believe that Christianity needs to be saved. Isn’t it the terrible religion that oppressed the world for so long? Well, yes and no. Certainly there were a lot of people who did bad things in the name of Christianity, just as there are people who have misused other religions such as Islam and Buddhism.

Christianity needs to be saved because it is the original religion where the individual matters. Before Jesus, religions focused on the subjugation of the individual to the collective. The Jews believed that they had to serve God, no matter how nasty and capricious he was (see the Book of Job). One could argue that the Buddhists focuses on the individual, but in fact Buddhism focuses on the annihilation of the individual. The Roman state religion was used to reinforce the positions of the powerful. Even Plato and Socrates – bastions of democracy – promulgated the notion of sacrificing the individual to the State.

Of the major-league religious figures, only Jesus said “you matter.” This is why Christianity is fastest growing in those places in the world which are under repressive regimes.

Let me close this introduction with one important point. Within these essays, I don’t waste space or bytes saying “In my opinion…” or “I believe…” The reason is that everything I’ve written here is what I believe and saying so would just be needlessly redundant. Why would I write it if I didn’t believe it? Of course I realize that you might have a different opinion, and you have a legal and moral right to that. And I have the right to disagree!

In any case, the ideas in this book are meant to spark in you the notion that you can adopt or maintain Christian beliefs and a Christian lifestyle without having to subscribe to a bunch of hand-me-down beliefs. This is my path. I hope it helps you find yours.


[1] Joan of Arc

[2] According to the updated pronunciation, this is pronounced “Dao De Ching” and thus often written that way now. However, most of the books I’ve found use the “T” version, and this is what I “grew up on” (so to speak) and so I use that spelling throughout this book.

[3] “Tarski’s undefinability theorem”, Wikipedia.

[4] As evidenced by a fresh reading of Acts and 1 Corinthians.

[5] Throughout the book, I differentiate between “orthodox” (small o) and “Orthodox” (big O) Christianity. The first refers to the model of Christianity that was developed through the first seven councils; the second refers to the Orthodox Church, which in the USA is often referred to as “Greek Orthodox.”

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apollo_11_Launch_-_GPN-2000-000630.jpg
Attribution: NASA [Public domain]

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