What’s Old Could Be New Again

In their book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, authors Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker explore early Christianity in a way that few Christians are familiar with. This is a Christianity which is obsessed with images of paradise, but this is not an obsession with the afterlife. As Brock and Parker write,

To our surprise and delight, we discovered that early Christian paradise was something other than “heaven” or the afterlife. Our modern views of heaven and paradise think of them as a world after death. However, in the early church, paradise – first and foremost – was this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God. It was on the earth. Images of it in Rome and Ravenna captured the craggy, scruffy pastoral landscape, the orchards, the clear night skies, and teeming waters of the Mediterranean world, as if they were lit by a power from within. Sparkling mosaics in vivid colors captured the world’s luminosity. The images filled the walls of spaces in which liturgies fostered aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual experiences of life in the present, in a world created as good and beautiful.

Saving Paradise, p. xv

This book is the end result, according to the authors, of a research quest that began when they discovered that the oldest crucifixes that anybody has been able to find date from the 10th century C.E. It turns out that images of Jesus dead and dying are a distinctly medieval innovation and that those images simply were not present in the church of late antiquity.

One of the intriguing things about this book is that it is mainly a straightforward history (albeit it of some history that has been sorely neglected), and doesn’t indulge in a lot of speculation. In a work that is admittedly more speculative, John Shelby Spong points in a similar direction. That work is The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, and although I stated that it is somewhat speculative, Spong is a writer and biblical interpreter who does his homework, and I think there is quite a bit of merit in his conclusions. The core conclusion that Spong sets out to demonstrate is that the original author(s) of the Gospel of John meant for it to be understood mystically and metaphorically, and most definitely not literally. When interpreted this way, as Spong writes, “John’s gospel is about life – expanded life, abundant life, and ultimately eternal life – but not in the typical manner that these words have been understood religiously” (The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, p. 9).

So what happened here? How did this early Christianity that embraced life in this world evolve into what we now understand as “traditional Christianity” which is focused on the afterlife and is suspicious of the inherent goodness of creation?

In light of the idea of a emerging religious sensibility that I discussed last week, I now have a theory that Jesus, his earliest disciples, and to some extent, the early church were simply ahead of their time and out of step with the religious sensibility of their age. The ideas and spirituality of Jesus were so powerful that they could not be ignored, and the imprint of that spirituality and sensibility that resulted in what Spong calls “a new God consciousness” became part of the Christian heritage. However, it was a part of the Christian heritage that for a long period of time was suppressed in favor of an ascetic quest for “salvation” that has characterized much of historical Christianity.

As Greer writes in After Progress,

The emergence of this new religious sensibility has been, as such things always are, a gradual process. Historian of religions Catherine Albanese, in her useful 1990 study Nature Religions in America, has traced it back in American religious life to colonial times, and its roots in older European cultures go back considerably further still. That said, it seems to me that the last few decades have seen the new religious sensibility approach something like a critical mass.

After Progress, p. 167

Based on what I have written here, I would add that the roots of the “new” sensibility may stretch clear back to ancient Christianity. Greer writes further on the challenges of established religions speaking to people who live in the new sensibility:

Can the traditions of the current religious mainstream or its established rivals speak to such people? Yes, though it’s going to take some significant rethinking of habitual language and practice to shake off the legacies of the old religious sensibility and find ways to address the needs and possibilities of the new one.

After Progress, p. 241

I agree that this rethinking will certainly be necessary in the case of Christianity, but I would caution that it doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to invent a lot of new stuff. Some of the best tools for this rethinking may be found in a more thorough understanding of our own history and heritage.

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