Wednesday, September 03, 2008

"Historic Christianity":

I often use the phrase "historic Christianity" to denote longstanding traditional orthodox Christianity. Note this tradition goes back thousands of years; if something occurred in Christendom, for instance, 150 years ago, I consider it relatively “novel” looking back at the big historical picture. I also understand there is a long tradition in Christianity of heresy and dissent (prompting orthodox Christians to reply: “This isn’t ‘historic Christianity’"). And I have no personal problem with theologically liberal, unorthodox and heretical faiths (indeed were I to become a Christian it would probably be that kind; and then the orthodox could tell me, "no, you really aren't a Christian").

I especially try to remove 20-21 Century, and even late 18th Century cultural "prejudices" when examining "historic Christianity." Doing so permits me to conclude that much of what the American Founders claimed to do under the auspices of Christianity is either incompatible with such, or, at the very least had an alien origin. For instance, Locke's a-biblical, perhaps anti-biblical notion of the "state of nature" was preached from Christian pulpits during the Founding era to justify revolt. Similarly, today the Christian pulpit might lecture on the need for "self-esteem," which is either a) anti-biblical (I thought Christians were supposed to despise themselves as wretched sinners) or b) at the very least, not of "biblical" origin and thus, not part of "historic Christianity."

I've further concluded that America's key Founders [Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and others] either outright rejected doctrines central to historic Christianity [Jefferson, J. Adams, & Franklin] or show no convincing evidence of believing in them [Washington & Madison]. These doctrines include original sin, the trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, eternal damnation, and the infallibility of the Bible. They were, in short, "heterodox" not "orthodox." The orthodox considered this system [which oft-presented itself under the label of "Christianity"] "heresy" at best, "infidelity" at worst. Whether these key Founders who tended to consider themselves "Christians" [not "Deists"] qualify as such remains a matter of debate.

So with that, we have Founding Father Benjamin Rush, a man who once described his religion as "a compound of the orthodoxy and heterodoxy of most of our Christian churches." You see, as far as I know, he remained orthodox on matters like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and infallibility of the Bible [don't know where he stood on original sin and know he rejected "total depravity"] but he converted from Calvinism to Arminianism and then to theological Universalism believing all eventually would be saved. Yet, because Rush remained orthodox in his Christology, he arguably merits the label "Christian" more so than do the other above mentioned "key Founders."

And so it is when I write about things like historic Christianity and sex, self sacrifice, revolt against government, I really look back at the big picture. Jim Babka leaves a thoughtful comment responding to my notions of Christianity and sex and self sacrifice. My conclusion is Babka's Christianity reminds me of Benjamin Rush's: a mixture of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Babka, an evangelical Trinitarian, is orthodox in his Christology; yet [and perhaps it's his Arminianism that led to this just as it did with Benjamin Rush] I see some theologically liberal, heterodox ideas in there as well that are not, as I see it, part of "historic Christianity."

Note: I personally prefer Babka's faith that embraces "Christian Hedonism" to meat and potatoes evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity [certainly to Calvinism, which ain't my cup a' tea at all].

Anyway here is his comment in full:

Jon, There’s a lot that can be said, and I’ll only scratch the surface with some random thoughts (this isn’t good enough to be a stand-alone blog post)…

1) I think it’s bad form to use critics of Christian faith as the standard by which to judge the Christian faith. Rousseau and Nietzsche are both critics and should not be expected to present a positive explanation of Christianity. Merely to help you understand where I’m coming from (because you know I value your work), “Would you want David Barton’s characterization of your position to be the standard by which an observer judged you?”

2) Christian Fathers is a tricky term. They differ, depending on their age. But I think all bets are off once the Christian faith gets subsidy from Constantine. To my mind, the Roman Catholic Church has had a distorted view on sex — and continues to bear vestiges un-Biblical asceticism. The Catholic distortion is that sex isn’t supposed to be so much fun (I Timothy 4:3). It was Augustine that devised an original sin that was sexual in nature. Sex, from the Pope’s perspective, is for making babies. And if you’re pent up enough, you’re sure to produce bunches of them, who will continue to expand the Roman church’s membership rolls.

3) Provisionally, I’m a fan of Christian Hedonism (minus the Calvinism that permeates the thinking of the man who created the term). Christian Hedonism is the idea that the highest beauty is God, and that happiness comes from seeking that beauty.

4) I am aware of no verses in the Bible that call for “self-sacrifice” other than for God (martyrdom) and on behalf of the Christian community (the LOCAL church). Sharing is an ethic of community, and in-line with point #3, following God is not considered a sacrifice, but the ultimate form of happiness. How can pursuing happiness be a sacrifice?

5) I’ve written about suffering on this blog before. Religion, regardless of form, should have something to say about pain, sacrifice, and death. How one responds to difficulties and persecution is a testimony to the world. One cannot know what role their suffering plays in the unfolding of history. Job couldn’t have known that his suffering would serve as a comfort and a lesson to billions. That doesn’t justify the suffering, but the attachment of meaning does make it more bearable.

6) On a closely related issue, slavery is not embraced in Scripture as an ideal — as a moral good. Quite the contrary. But the Scripture is a book of Hebrew realism. A humble slave could be a testimony to his master, and having won him, secure his own freedom. An obedient and industrious slave could, by applying Christian practice, advance to a better station.

But the Scripture was also a book of Hebrew idealism. Philemon was a slave master, reminded by Paul that he should treat his runaway slave as a brother — a brother! In the early church there was no Jew or Greek, “slave or free” — all members of that church were brothers and sisters. This was a revolutionary ethic. And like our national founding principles, the ideal has not always been achieved, and work remained to be done.

But it should come as no surprise that the leaders of the English and American abolitionist movements, the American civil rights movement, and the European anti-communist movement, tended to be Christian.

7) I’m no fan of the prosperity gospel. I think it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and a poor testimony. I can tell you as well, that the younger generation of Christians (under 35) are waking up to the failure of this “God will make everything happy and nice approach.” There’s very little evidence that it works for anyone, other than the televangelists who sell it. But the deepest problem is that it sells a faux Christianity. To hear the likes of Paul and Jan Crouch, Creflo Dollar, or Rod Parsley tell it, St. Paul was apparently a horrible practitioner of the faith — or worse, didn’t have any (2 Cor. 11:24-27). The Christian faith is one where you are called to “take up your cross” — where you must “count the cost.”

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