Saturday, March 14, 2009

Robert Wright - One World, Under God

This is a very interesting article from Washington Post reporter Robert Wright, here penning an article called "One World, Under God" for The Atlantic. Wright has a new book coming out soon, The Evolution of God, from which this article has been adapted.

It's a pretty good overview of early Christianity, though I'd have to cross-check it against Karen Armstrong and Elaine Pagels to be sure it's factually accurate.

For all the advances and wonders of our global era, Christians, Jews, and Muslims seem ever more locked in mortal combat. But history suggests a happier outcome for the Peoples of the Book. As technological evolution has brought communities, nations, and faiths into closer contact, it is the prophets of tolerance and love that have prospered, along with the religions they represent. Is globalization, in fact, God’s will?

by Robert Wright

One World, Under God

Image credit: Holly Lindem

For many Christians, the life of Jesus signifies the birth of a new kind of God, a God of universal love. The Hebrew Bible—the “Old Testament”—chronicled a God who was sometimes belligerent (espousing the slaughter of infidels), unabashedly nationalist (pro-Israel, you might say), and often harsh toward even his most favored nation. Then Jesus came along and set a different tone. As depicted in the Gospels, Jesus exhorted followers to extend charity across ethnic bounds, as in the parable of the good Samaritan, and even to love their enemies. He told them to turn the other cheek, said the meek would inherit the Earth, and warned against self-righteousness (“let he who is without sin cast the first stone”). Even while on the cross, he found compassion for his persecutors: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But there’s a funny thing about these admirable utterances: none of them appears in the book of Mark, which was written before the other Gospels and which most New Testament scholars now consider the most reliable (or, as some would put it, the least unreliable) Gospel guide to Jesus’ life. The Jesus in Mark, far from calmly forgiving his killers, seems surprised by the Crucifixion and hardly sanguine about it (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). In Mark, there is no Sermon on the Mount, and so no Beatitudes, and there is no good Samaritan; Jesus’ most salient comment on ethnic relations is to compare a woman to a dog because she isn’t from Israel.

The more familiar Jesus, the one who stresses tolerance and interethnic charity, shows up in the books of Matthew and Luke, which seem to have been written a decade or two after Mark—about half a century after the Crucifixion. This late arrival of the “good” Jesus is enough to make you wonder whether the real Jesus, the “historical Jesus,” was really so good. And in fact some scholars have wondered that. But they’ve been overshadowed by scholars who bring a message less threatening to modern Christians—that the historical Jesus indeed preached boundless love and that, if anything, it is the less liberal teachings that were put into his mouth post-mortem. This is the drift of the much-publicized Jesus Seminar, through which scores of scholars have voted on the various sayings of Jesus to yield a collective estimation of their authenticity.

Why would some scholars downplay the earliest description of Jesus in favor of accounts compiled after there had been more time for myth to accumulate? In part, maybe, because some of them are Christians, or at least lapsed Christians who still resonate to their native faith. But in part, also, because it’s not obvious why a whole mythology about a “good” Jesus would have taken shape decades after the Crucifixion. What, after all, would have inspired early followers of Jesus to invent the idea of a brotherhood that knows no ethnic or national bounds?

Clues have been emerging in recent years, but not clues of the usual kind—not long-lost scrolls or other ancient artifacts. The clues come from the modern world, and they’re all around us. It’s increasingly apparent how analogous a globalizing world is to the environment in which Christianity took shape after Jesus’ death. And in this light, it makes sense that early devotees of the crucified Jesus would develop the now-familiar Christian message, which could later be attributed to Jesus himself.

The chief author of this message seems to have been Paul, whose epistles—letters to congregations of Jesus followers—are the oldest writings in the New Testament. If you view Paul not just as a preacher but as an entrepreneur, as someone who is trying to build a religious organization that spans the Roman Empire, then his writings assume a new cast. For Paul, the doctrines that now form the most-inspiring parts of the Christian message are, in a sense, business tools. They are tools that let him use the information technology of his day, the epistle, to extend his brand, the Jesus brand, across the vast, open, multinational platform offered by the Roman Empire.

To conventional Christians, this may sound doubly dispiriting. First, Jesus wasn’t really Jesus; he didn’t really preach the deep moral truths that have given weight to the claim that he was the son of an infinitely good God. And, as if to rub salt in the wound: those truths, when they finally did enter the Christian tradition, emerged not so much from philosophical reflection as from pragmatic calculation and other disappointingly mundane forces.

There’s no denying that this view threatens the claim that Christians, in worshipping Jesus, recognize God’s one physical appearance on Earth and thus have special insight into divine purpose. Still, as debunkings of scripture go, this one is fairly congenial to religious belief, for it does leave open the prospect of divine purpose generically. In fact, it underscores that prospect. The story of early Christianity highlights a kind of moral direction in human history, a current that, however fitfully, has repeatedly expanded the circle of tolerance, even amity. And if history naturally produces moral insight—however mundane the machinery that mediates its articulation—then maybe some overarching purpose is built into the human endeavor after all.

In any event, whether or not history has a purpose, its moral direction is hard to deny. Since the Stone Age, the scope of social organization has expanded, from hunter-gatherer society through city-state through empire and beyond. And often this expansion has entailed the extension of mutual understanding across bounds of ethnicity, religion, or nationality. Indeed, it turns out that formative periods in both Islam and Judaism evince the same dynamic as early Christianity: an imperial, multiethnic milieu winds up fostering a tolerance of other ethnicities and faiths.

Now, as we approach the global level of social organization—and see the social order threatened by strife among these Abrahamic religions—another burst of moral progress is needed. Success is hardly guaranteed, but at least the early history of Christianity and indeed of all Abrahamic faiths gives cause for hope. However bleak a globalizing world may look at times, the story could still have a happy ending, an ending that brings out the best in religion as religion brings out the best in people.

The “Apostle Paul” wasn’t one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. Quite the opposite: after the Crucifixion he seems to have persecuted followers of Jesus. According to the book of Acts, he was “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” But then, while on his way to treat Syrian followers of Jesus in this fashion, he underwent his “road to Damascus” conversion. He was blinded by the light and heard the voice of Jesus. This changed his perspective. He eventually decided that Jesus was the path to salvation. Paul devoted the rest of his life to spreading this message, and he was very good at it.

Paul, a well-educated Jew from the city of Tarsus, has long been recognized as a figure whose influence on Christianity rivals that of Jesus himself. And it’s long been clear—and hardly surprising—that he is a big champion of themes Christianity is famous for, such as love and brotherhood. The 13th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians includes an ode to love so powerful that it is a staple at modern weddings. (“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful…”) And it is Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, who gives us the New Testament’s familiar extension of brotherhood across bounds of ethnicity, class, even (notwithstanding the term brotherhood) gender: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Of course, since Paul was writing after the time of Jesus, it’s been natural to assume he got these ideas from the teachings of Jesus. But when you realize that Jesus utters the word love only twice in the Gospel of Mark—compared with Paul’s using it more than 10 times in a single letter to the Romans—the reverse scenario suggests itself: maybe the Gospel of Mark, which was written not long after the end of Paul’s ministry, largely escaped Pauline influence, and thus left more of the real Jesus intact than Gospels written later, after Paul’s legacy had spread.

But one problem with this scenario has always been the difficulty of pinpointing the origin of Paul’s emphasis on a love that crosses ethnic bounds, for this emphasis doesn’t really follow from his core message. That message can be broken into four parts: Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ; the Messiah died as a kind of payment for the sins of humanity; humans who believed this—who acknowledged the redemption that Christ had realized on their behalf—could have eternal life; but they’d better evince this faith quickly, for Judgment Day was coming. This message may suggest a loving God, but it says nothing directly about the importance of people’s loving one another, much less about the importance of extending that love globally.

So why did Paul become the point man for a God whose love knows no bounds of race or geography? Is it because he was naturally loving and tolerant, a man who effortlessly imbued all he met with a sense of belonging? Unlikely. Even in his correspondence, which presumably reflects a filtered version of the inner Paul, we see him declaring that followers of Jesus who disagree with him about the gospel message should be “accursed”—that is, condemned by God to eternal suffering. The scholar John Gager, in his book Reinventing Paul, described Paul as a “feisty preacher-organizer, bitterly attacked and hated by other apostles within the Jesus movement.”

No, the origins of Paul’s doctrine of interethnic love lie not in his own loving-kindness, though for all we know he mustered much of that in the course of his life. The doctrine emerges from the interplay between Paul’s driving ambitions and his social environment.

In the Roman Empire, the century after the Crucifixion was a time of dislocation. People streamed into cities from farms and small towns, encountered alien cultures and peoples, and often faced this flux without the support of kin. The situation was somewhat like that at the turn of the 20th century in the United States, when industrialization drew Americans into turbulent cities, away from their extended families. Back then, as the social scientist Robert Putnam has observed, rootless urbanites found grounding in up-and-coming social organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus and the Rotary Club. You might expect comparable conditions in the early Roman Empire to spawn comparable organizations. Indeed, Roman cities saw a growth in voluntary associations. Some were vocational guilds, some more like clubs, and some were religious cults (cults in the ancient sense of “groups devoted to the worship of one or more gods,” not in the modern sense of “wacky fringe groups”). But whatever their form, they often amounted to what one scholar has called “fictive families” for people whose real families were off in some distant village or town.

The familial services offered by these groups ranged from the material, like burying the dead, to the psychological, like giving people a sense that other people cared about them. On both counts, early Christian churches met the needs of the day. As for the material, the church, wrote the classicist E.R. Dodds, provided “the essentials of social security: it cared for widows and orphans, the old, the unemployed, and the disabled; it provided a burial fund for the poor and a nursing service in time of plague.” As for the psychological, in Paul’s writing, brothers is a synonym for followers of Jesus. A church was one big family.

To some extent, then, what Paul called “brotherly love” was just a product of his times. The Christian church was offering the spirit of kinship that people needed, the spirit of kinship that other organizations offered. A term commonly applied to such an organization was thiasos, or “confraternity”; the language of brotherhood wasn’t, by itself, an innovation.

Still, early Christian writings use “kinship vocabulary to a degree wholly unparalleled among contemporary social organizations,” Joseph Hellerman wrote in his book The Ancient Church as Family. In that letter to the Corinthians that is excerpted at so many weddings, Paul uses the appellation brothers more than 20 times.


Why all the kin talk? Because Paul wasn’t satisfied to just have a congregation in Corinth; he wanted to set up franchises—congregations of Jesus followers—in cities across the Roman Empire. These imperial aspirations, it turns out, infused Paul’s preaching with an emphasis on brotherly love that it might never have acquired had Paul been content to run a single mom-and-pop store.

Anyone who wanted to set up a far-flung organization in the ancient world faced two big challenges: transportation technology and information technology. In those days information couldn’t travel faster than the person carrying it, who in turn couldn’t travel faster than the animal carrying the person. Once Paul had founded a congregation and departed to found another one in a distant city, he was in another world; he couldn’t return often to check on the operation, and he couldn’t fire off e-mails to keep church leaders in line.

Faced with what strike us today as such glaring technological deficiencies, Paul made the most of what information technology there was: epistles. He sent letters to distant congregations in an attempt to keep them consonant with his overall mission. The results are with us today in the form of the New Testament’s Pauline epistles (or at least the seven, out of 13, that most scholars consider authentic), mainly written two to three decades after the Crucifixion. These letters aren’t just inspiring spiritual reflections, but tools for solving administrative problems.

Consider that famous ode to love in 1 Corinthians. Paul wrote this letter in response to a crisis. Since his departure from Corinth, the church had been split by factionalism, and he faced rivals for authority. Early in the letter, he laments the fact that some congregants say “I belong to Paul,” whereas others say “I belong to Cephas.” (Cephas is another name for Peter.)

There was another obstacle. Many in the church—“enthusiasts,” some scholars call them—believed themselves to have direct access to divine knowledge and to be near spiritual perfection. Some thought they needn’t accept the church’s guidance in moral matters. Some showed off their spiritual gifts by spontaneously speaking in tongues during worship services—something that might annoy the humbler worshippers and that, in large enough doses, could derail a service. As the German scholar G√ľnther Bornkamm put it, “The mark of the ‘enthusiasts’ was that they disavowed responsible obligation toward the rest.”

In other words: they lacked brotherly love. Hence Paul’s harping on that theme in 1 Corinthians, and especially in chapter 13. It is in reference to members’ disrupting worship by speaking in tongues that Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” And when he says, “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant,” he is chastising Corinthians who deploy their spiritual gifts—whether speaking in tongues, or prophesying, or even being generous—in a competitive, showy way.

The beauty of “brotherly love” wasn’t just that it produced cohesion in Christian congregations. Invoking familial feelings also allowed Paul to assert his authority at the expense of rivals. After all, wasn’t it he, not they, who had founded the family of Corinthian Christians? He tells the Corinthians that he is writing “to admonish you as my beloved children… Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me.”

Had Paul stayed among the Corinthians, he might have kept the congregation united by the mere force of his presence, with less preaching about the need for unity—the need for all brothers to be one in “the body of Christ.” But because he felt compelled to move on, and to cultivate churches across the empire, he had to implant brotherly love as a governing value and nurture it assiduously. In the case of 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, the result was some of Western civilization’s most beautiful literature—if, perhaps, more beautiful out of context than in.

Thus, for the ambitious preacher of early Christianity, the doctrine of brotherly love had at least two virtues. First, fraternal bonding made churches attractive places to be, providing a familial warmth that was otherwise lacking, for many people, in a time of urbanization and flux. As Elaine Pagels wrote in Beyond Belief, “From the beginning, what attracted outsiders who walked into a gathering of Christians … was the presence of a group joined by spiritual power into an extended family.” (And there is no doubt that Paul wanted his churches to project an appealing image. In 1 Corinthians he asks: If “the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind?”) Second, the doctrine of brotherly love became a form of remote control, a tool Paul could use at a distance to induce congregational cohesion.

By itself, this emphasis on brotherhood might not have called for doctrinal innovation. Long before Paul’s time, the Hebrew Bible had told people, “Love your neighbor as yourself”—an injunction, scholars now agree, meaning that you should love fellow Israelites (and an injunction Jesus quotes in the book of Mark). And for all we know, some of Paul’s congregations weren’t ethnically diverse—in which case cohesion within them called for nothing more than this sort of intra-ethnic bonding. So what exactly in Paul’s experience fostered the distinctive connotation of Christian brotherly love—the “universal” part, the part that crosses ethnic and national boundaries?

Part of the answer is that transcending ethnicity was built into Paul’s conception of his divinely imparted mission. He was to be the apostle to the Gentiles; as a Jew, he was to carry the saving grace of the Jewish Messiah—Jesus Christ—beyond the Jewish world, to many nations. (And he probably didn’t get this idea from Jesus, whose encouragement of international proselytizing at the very end of Mark seems to have been added to the book well after its creation.) Here, at the origin of his aspirations, Paul is crossing the bridge he famously crossed in saying there is no longer “Jew or Greek,” for all are now eligible for God’s salvation.

In putting Jew and Greek on an equal basis, Paul was, in a sense, giving pragmatism priority over scriptural principle. By Paul’s own account, the scriptural basis for his mission to the Gentiles lay in prophetic texts—notably, apocalyptic writings in the book of Isaiah, which half a millennium earlier had envisioned a coming Messiah and a long-overdue burst of worldwide reverence for Yahweh. And this part of Isaiah isn’t exactly an ode to ethnic egalitarianism. The basic idea is that Gentile nations will abjectly submit to the rule of Israel’s God and hence to Israel. God promises the Israelites that after salvation arrives, Egyptians and Ethiopians alike “shall come over to you and be yours, they shall come over in chains and bow down to you. They will make supplication to you.” Indeed, “every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” Thus, “in the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall triumph and glory.”

Christians like to look back and see Jesus’ arrival foreshadowed in the less nationalistic passages of Isaiah—such as Yahweh’s promise to bring salvation “to the end of the earth,” with Israel ultimately serving a selfless role of illumination, as a “light unto the nations.” But this passage is ambiguous in context and, anyway, isn’t the passage Paul himself emphasized. In explaining his mission to the Gentiles in a letter to the Romans, he quotes the verse about every knee bowing and every tongue swearing, without mentioning anything about a light unto the nations. He declares that his job is to help “win obedience from the Gentiles.” In line with past apocalyptic prophets, he seems to think that the point of the exercise is for the world to submit to Israel’s Messiah; Jesus, Paul says in quoting 1 Isaiah, is “the one who rises to rule the Gentiles.”

But ultimately this Judeo-centric disposition mattered little compared with the facts on the ground. Any residual scriptural overtones of Jewish superiority to Gentiles that Paul may have carried into his work were diluted by a key strategic decision he made early on.

Read the rest of the article.

1 comment:

Jim said...

Good article, but the mega-theme needs more thought -- is globalization really bringing about a kinder and gentler world? It was responsible for two world wars in the last century, along with a "cold war". Is that all behind us because of a growing "one world" ethic amidst all of our diverse cultures and nationalities? Are the days of nationalism waning?

In my neck of the woods, there are still Russian Orthodox churches, Italian Catholic parishes, Greek churches, Black churches, Hispanic ministries, and Anglo-institutional congregations. Various attempts at generic, trans-national, trans-cultural Christianity are not getting much traction. I can't speak for Judaism and Islam, but I suspect they too flock together according to feather.

I have a friend who criticizes Wright for trying too hard to stuff the past into the pigeonholes of today. E.g. Paul and the "business class". I myself enjoy presentations which put history into the context of modern concerns (e.g. Rufus Fears' "lessons of history"). But as Hartley said, the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Again, Wright has some good ideas here, but some further context and reflection are needed.