Reformation Blues

Welcome to Reformation Year! Well, not actually. It’s more like an anniversary. Five centuries ago this Halloween, Martin Luther grabbed his silver hammer and history forever changed. In 1517 nobody could guess that that obscure strip of land across the Atlantic (nobody knew how far west it went except maybe those who already had lived here for millennia) would one day identify itself so strongly as Protestant that other religions would be merely tolerated. Even when it established itself as a land of religious freedom, it mainly would have Protestants in mind. Indeed, Martin Luther unlikely ever met a Hindu or Buddhist. His concern was the Catholic Church which, in all fairness, had already split into two major branches a few centuries before he was born.

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Thinking about the Reformation makes me uncomfortable. As my regular readers know, I’m concerned about ultimates. In a universe where “you only live once,” and eternity is so very long, you need to make the right choices when selecting a means of salvation. Really, an eternity in constant torment makes a Trump administration look like a day in the kiddie zoo. This is a very important choice. Heaven and Hell are a non-zero-sum game. You pick the wrong one and you suffer for ever and ever and ever. And ever. With one united church at least you could know that everyone else believed the same. Now you have to shop around for salvation. Which brand really does whiten best? Which is the most flame retardant? Things got pretty complicated as soon as that nail entered that Wittenberg wood.

The truly sad thing is that all this splintering represents those of the same “religion.” It’s bad enough that Christian versus “infidel” was already a thing, but from 1517 onward it was Christ versus Christie, as it were. You may have been lucky enough to have been born into the right family, but if you descended from the wrong scion you were still going to end up in Hell. Catholicism may have been corrupt—selling indulgences is pretty shady business when you can get them for free—but once that break is made we can’t all be right. Somebody’s going to end up eternally in torment and it’s not even going to be the heathens. Reformation suggests something’s wrong in Rome. You can’t hide behind being born Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran. No, you’ve got to do your homework and learn which is actually correct. Where is Pascal when you need to make a bet?

The Spice of Religion

BrakkeGnosticsI haven’t really forgotten about the Bible. It has been such an integral part of my life that I couldn’t escape it if I tried. Going into religious studies, however, I feared New Testament studies. You see, having gotten a taste of historical criticism with good old J, E, P, and D, I was afraid what might happen if I looked Q a little too closely in the face. We now know, however, that the New Testament was just as redacted as the “Old,” and that there wasn’t a single variety of Christianity, even in the first century. I just finished David Brakke’s The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual and Diversity in Early Christianity. Brakke admits right up front that some will see him as not being radical enough, but since middle-of-the-road is a comfortable place to be, I found his introduction in the realm of the little bear, just right. The old story, perhaps originating with Irenaeus of Lyon, is that Christianity began as a monolithic faith and then came along these spoil-sports like the Gnostics and soon nobody could keep the truth straight any more. This is, of course, an over-simplification.

Religions are constantly shifting. As Brakke points out, there was no definitive Christianity when Christianity was still Jewish. Paul never calls himself a Christian, and he was, by his own declaration, Jewish. His interpretation of Jesus varies greatly from that of the eponymous John, of Gospel and Epistle fame. No, there never was a single Christianity. Probably from the very beginning there were Gnostics too. And, again with Brakke, they would have supposed they were following what was to become Christianity as well. Same world, different worldviews. They were not sinister and plotting, any more than other varieties of Christians were sinister and plotting. They were trying to live out lives in accordance with what they thought life was all about.

It has become clear over the last several decades that Christianity never really did unify into a single belief system. Constantine certainly gave it his best shot, but Christianity had spread beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire already, and heterodoxy was rife. No account of Late Antiquity can be honest without noting all the fighting going on among true believers about who was a, well, true believer. Really. Tensions existed early between eastern and western brands of Christianity and schisms became as common as missals. Nobody was really able to put Christianity back together again. In fact, this Humpty Dumpty never was an uncracked egg. I’m afraid I’m taking liberties with Brakke here, but the basic truth remains. Christianity came in its own 57 varieties, most of which didn’t blend very well. The Gnostics come out looking pretty good. That is especially the case when the proto-orthodox start gathering stones. In such a case, it is perhaps time to read the Gnostic scriptures to get a little perspective.