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Wednesday, 21 May 2008

How St John and the Greeks Ruined Christianity

Unlike some atheists, I don't get too excited by the Gnostic sects and their alternative gospels. None of them go back further than the middle of the second century, and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are both older and more agreeable than these elitist sects with their "secret knowledge" that Jesus supposedly entrusted to his disciples and their complete lack of interest in ethical conduct. The early church fathers wrote very well and persuasively against the Gnostic heretics, and recent papyrus discoveries have shown them to have been both fair-minded in their presentation of their opponents' views and just in their criticism of them.

Reading the early history of the Church, one can't help but being impressed at the way this little band of ex-slaves, women, fishermen, centurions and other riff-raff took on the might of the Roman Empire and spread their faith so quickly throughout the known world. The most obvious reasons for the rapid progress of the new religion were a) its mass appeal, as I have just described: Christianity was the world's first mass democratic movement; and b) the humanity of Jesus' message, the moving story of his life as told in the synoptic gospels, so much at odds with a world ruled by Empire and dominated by the sword.

When, however, we come to the Church Triumphant in the 4th century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, one throws up ones hands in despair at the amazing fatuity of its piffling theological and metaphysical debates. It's even possible to sympathize with Constantine, the first Christian Emperor and murderer of his wife and son, in his futile attempts to reconcile the warring Christian factions. And one positively applauds when Julian "the Apostate" gets rid of the whole fratricidal bunch of them and ostentatiously refuses to persecute them as they would persecute each other and their pagan fellow citizens. Unfortunately, Julian's restoration of the old gods did not survive his brief reign (361-363 A.D.), and then it was back to the Catholic vs Arian debate in all its murderous sterility. [As an aside, Gibbon also suggests that Julian's polytheism was also corrupted by neoplatonism (see below) causing it to become rather un-Roman and fanatical.]

What went wrong with early Christianity? How did it turn from a religion with a simple, humane message and a strong moral basis (the qualities that made it so popular in the first place) into a fratricidal imperial religion with a divisive and esoteric theology beyond the comprehension of most of its followers? How did it move beyond the "riff-raff" of ordinary folk I mentioned above to be captured by emperors, bishops, theologians, and schoolmen?

Well, I'm sure Edward Gibbon gets it right in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when he points to the corrupt form of Platonism that was adopted by the Christians as being primarily responsible for this change. Fourth-century Platonism wasn't the moral and ethical system of Plato himself and his early followers, but had degenerated into arid and pointless metaphysical speculation about matters that were and are quite unknowable. As such, it was perfectly suited to exploitation by the Gnostic sects, and the Catholic church ought to have had nothing to do with it. The early church in fact did a mostly splendid job in rejecting the gnostic gospels, but they slipped up big time in allowing St. John's Gospel into the canon.

Although a rudimentary Christology appears in St. Paul's letters (the earliest of all the NT texts), it was the Gospel of St. John that first began the corruption of Christianity with debased neo-Platonism. Whereas the three synoptic Gospels focus exclusively on the life and deeds of Jesus, on his moral exemplar, John starts waffling on pretentiously and incomprehensibly about the Logos and so forth ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."). While Jesus's words and deeds are, for a man of his time, astonishingly liberal and enlightened, John the Evangelist, infected with this new, corrupt form of Platonism, with his abstract reflections about the Logos starts the drift toward hair-splitting metaphysical scholasticism. The latter reached its apogee of absurdity in the 4th century, when Christians started murdering fellow Christians over arguments as to whether Christ the Father was of the same, or merely a similar substance, as God the Father. The difference in these viewpoints amounted to a single letter in the Greek language: homoousios (of the same substance, the orthodox view) and homoiousios (of a similar substance, the heretical "Arian" view). There was a Blair-like third way, in which Christ was deemed to be "the same" as God, without reference to substance, but this nondogmatic compromise was largely seen as a cloak for Arianism.

Given the complete lack of scientific basis for these untestable theories, the dominance of one or the other was dependent on who had the Emperor's ear at the particular time. Thousands were killed in this abstruse and largely semantic debate, which few outside the Greek Christian world understood anyway. No wonder the Pagans, who were still free to worship their ancient gods until the reign of Theodosius (375-392), viewed the adherents of the upstart new religion as barking mad. This is what happens, they reasoned, when one turns away from tradition and the religion of one's fathers and tries to invent something new (superstitio, something new or placed over the top of the old, which is the original meaning of superstition).

In John's gospel, as in the gnostic gospels, large space is given to Jesus's discussions with the disciples, in which he imparts a great deal of information intended only for their ears. This is at odds with the Jesus of the synoptic gospels, whose words are mostly delivered to the multitude, not the elite. (The gnostic gospels go further still: information is passed to selected apostles, such as the unlikely figure of Judas Iscariot, and is kept from the others. The early church fathers rightly rejected these alternative gospels as lacking apostolic authority, or any authority outside the gnostic sects themselves).

The process was continued by second-century writers such as Justin Martyr (100-166) and those subtle Alexandrians, Clement (c.160-211) and Origen (c.185 - c.254), and by the 4th Century, the simple, ethically centred religion of the apostles was saddled with a wholly useless speculative theology, with catastrophic consequences. The most useful aspect of religion (moral example) and the chief merit of philosophy ("providing a rational basis for moral action" ) were both obliterated in this hellenized theology.

It is surely no coincidence that it was in the Renaissance, when Plato's works were rediscovered in the Greek originals and were studied in preference to the pagan and Christian neoplatonic writers, that humanism emerged in Christianity again, with an emphasis on morality and following the example of Jesus rather than on abstract theology. This new humanist approach to religion, however, was quickly overwhelmed in the new fratricidal struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism....

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