by Peter Occhiogrosso
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for this is the law and the prophets.
The essential message of Christianity is one of love and forgiveness. Jesus of Nazareth, on whose teachings the religion is based, said that the two greatest commandments are to love God completely and to love others as we love ourselves. Jesus not only taught love and forgiveness, he also practiced what he preached. He associated with the least desirable elements of society--tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, outcasts, and the poor and infirm--healing many of them physically while liberating others in spirit. Out of compassion, he healed on the Sabbath, although that was contrary to the religious law of the time. And even as he was being crucified by the Romans, he forgave his tormentors.
The earliest followers of Christ also emphasized his teachings about love, forgiveness, and communality. They worshiped in their homes, shared meals together, loaned money with no interest, and, during many years of persecution, were willing to die rather than repudiate their faith. Although the first Christians were members of the Jewish community, the religion had a universal appeal that quickly crossed over to the Gentile community. Part of the great appeal of Christianity was that, in the words of Paul, who probably did more to spread the faith than any other disciple (even though he had never met Jesus in the flesh), “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11). Within a few hundred years, this very universality had propelled Christianity to become established as the religion of the Roman empire, and in time it came to dominate all life on the European continent. With the settlement of the Americas by European colonizers, the religion was brought to the New World in overwhelming numbers. Today it is by far the most populous religion on earth. Recent estimates put the number of believers near two billion, or about one-third of the world's population.
But with growth and dissemination came two major developments of a historical, if not entirely spiritual, dimension. The Christian church assumed enormous power in the temporal realm, leading to many of the same abuses that usually come with secular or military power. At the same time it made great strides in cultivating the land of Europe, creating institutions of higher learning, caring for the poor and sick, and cultivating the arts. Eventually, however, the Christian community split and splintered into what are today more than a thousand different sects that espouse such a wide range of beliefs that some Christians look on others as not belonging to the same religion. All this disagreement has developed despite the fact that the vast majority of Christians believe the same basic truth: that Jesus Christ was the son of God--God incarnated on earth--and that he came here to sacrifice his life in order to free humanity from its sins. Most of the disagreements among Christians have to do with how the teachings of Jesus (and other portions of the New Testament, including the book of Revelation), are to be interpreted. And, so, any understanding of the depth and complexity of Christian belief today must begin with an exploration of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
The Life of Christ
What we know of the life of Jesus of Nazareth comes primarily from the four Gospels that appear in the New Testament. The so-called Gnostic Gospels, which were discovered in 1945 after having been suppressed by the early church, add fascinating sayings that don't appear in the canonical Gospels, but not much about the facts of Jesus' life. The basic narrative appears somewhat differently in the versions of each of the four evangelists whose names have been attached to the Gospels, but together they tell a compelling story. It begins during the Roman occupation of Judea. Mary, a virgin betrothed to the carpenter Joseph, has discovered that she is pregnant, even though she has not had intercourse with Joseph or any other man. Joseph is understandably upset, but angels appear separately to Mary and Joseph explaining that the child that has been mysteriously conceived is “of the Holy Spirit,” and will “save the people from their sins.” Joseph agrees to take Mary into his household and not to sleep with her until the child is born.
According to one account, the couple then traveled to Bethlehem to register for a census, and there Mary delivered her child and named him Jesus. There is virtually no record of the early life of Jesus, apart from a single incident at age 12 when he was discovered by his parents talking with the learned teachers in the Temple of Jerusalem. The story of Jesus' public life begins at about age 30, after he was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, spiritual teacher who belonged to one of several Jewish communities offering ritual ablution as a form of forgiveness for sins in anticipation of the end of time. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” John preached, possibly reflecting the influence of the Essenes, an ascetical group of Jews who had dropped out of mainstream society, which they considered corrupt. John was later executed by Herod Antipas. But John's baptism initiated a powerful mystical experience in Jesus. As he came up from immersion in the water he saw “the Spirit descending on him like a dove” and heard a heavenly voice proclaiming, “This is my beloved son.” Jesus immediately sought the solitude of the desert where he fasted for 40 days, and was “tempted by the devil.” Jesus refused the temptation to use his newfound spiritual powers for material gain or self-aggrandizement, and chose instead to preach his gospel of love and forgiveness. Leaving the wilderness, he returned to Galilee and began reaching out to people at the bottom of the social order. He called four local fishermen to join him when he went to the town of Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee to heal and teach. During his three years of public ministry, Jesus healed people suffering from demonic possession, blindness, leprosy, and paralysis, among other ailments. He selected 12 men to be his closest disciples, or apostles, but he was also close to Mary Magdalene, whom he had healed of demonic possession, and some of his most remarkable teachings and healings involved women. (If the Gnostic Gospels do add anything to our knowledge of the life of Jesus, it's that women played a far more prominent role among the first Christians than was commonly believed.)
Jesus taught with parables, metaphorical stories that appealed to the farmers, laborers, and artisans who flocked to hear him. As in classic Zen tales, he used simple images drawn from daily life to confound his listeners' expectations. “Do not resist one who is evil,” he said. “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well” (Matt. 5:39-40). Jesus also elevated the lowly over the rich and powerful, making it clear that it was virtually impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. What he meant by the kingdom of heaven probably had less to do with the afterlife most Christians envision today than with a state of compassionate presence to which we can aspire here on earth. As Jesus began attracting a large following, he also drew the attention of the religious establishment, who may have felt threatened by Jesus' rejection of the exclusionary laws of diet and ritual cleanliness. “What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,'“ Jesus said, “but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him `unclean.'“ What comes out of the mouth, he later explained to his disciples, originates in the heart. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man `unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him `unclean.'“ Jesus also ate with tax collectors, who collaborated with the Romans and paid a fee for the right to extort as much tax money as they could from fellow Jews, and this further infuriated Jewish religious leaders. But the occupying Romans held the ultimate power in Judea, and in Jesus they saw an immediate threat to foment rebellion among the Jewish peasantry. Once Jesus was handed over to the Roman authorities, it took only a brief trial for him to be sentenced to death by crucifixion, an especially brutal form of Roman execution used against criminals and rebellious Jews. After dying on the cross, Jesus was laid in a sepulcher. But when his mother and Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, they were informed by a “young man in a white robe” that Jesus had “risen.” Known as the Resurrection, this event is the cornerstone of Christian belief, proving that Jesus had power over life and death. In some Gospel accounts, Jesus later appeared to his disciples in human form, preached briefly, and after 40 days on earth ascended bodily into heaven.
Christianity in Crisis
After Christianity was proclaimed the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, it began its inevitable sweep across all of Europe until it had become the dominant religion of the Western world and a fair part of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean rim. The concept of an entire land under one religion is captured in the term “Christendom,” and indeed Christianity remained more or less monolithic until a thousand years after the death of Christ. Then, in 1054, following a long period of disagreement over a number of doctrinal issues, the Eastern Church formally split off from the Roman church and became a separate institution. Despite renouncing allegiance to the pope, the Eastern Orthodox Church, as it came to be called, is not substantially different from the Roman Catholic Church of today. It does allow married men to become priests (although not bishops) and interprets some points of dogma differently; places considerably more emphasis on developing mystical practices than does the Catholic church; and follows a more localized hierarchical structure. The Russian, Greek, Romanian, Bulgarian, Albanian, Ukrainian, and Carpatho-Russian Orthodox churches are each autonomous to a large degree, although they all consider themselves part of the larger Orthodox community. They share the Catholic Church's reverence for Mary, the Mother of God (whom they call Theotokos), and many of the saints. But with its emphasis on traditional ritual and the sensory stimuli of richly colored paintings (called icons) and statuary, the aroma of incense, and the sound of chant, the Eastern Orthodox church resembles medieval Christianity more than post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism. In recent years, leaders of both sects have had meetings aimed at bringing the Eastern and Western churches into even closer alignment.
The most serious division within Christianity did not occur until the 16th century, when a series of reformers led by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others, openly broke with Rome and established churches that were at odds with both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teachings. The Protestant Reformation introduced some much needed reforms to a church that had grown institutionally stultifying; the reformers sought to simplify some of the accretions of legalistic dogma and to force the church to rid itself of the corruption that had grown into its increasingly complex structure. The Reformation offered Christians a new sense of simplicity, less intrusion by clergy and complicated canon laws, and a hierarchy that answered to local needs rather than to the pope in Rome.
For all its institutional abuses, however, including the manifest cruelty and injustices of the Crusades and the Inquisition, Christianity has remained a path to divine realization for many people throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times. Like all the other major traditions, Christianity has a rich history of mysticism and has produced a number of mystics whose descriptions of divine union are not unlike those of the great mystics of other religions. It's true that the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in particular have tended to downplay the importance of their own mystics, and that several of the most renowned, including St. John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart, were openly attacked by the church or threatened with excommunication during their lifetimes. And yet, spiritual practitioners from a wide range of other traditions have come to admire the leading Christian mystics and to read their writings alongside those of Rumi, Lao-tzu, and Swami Vivekananda.
The earliest Christian mystics were probably the Desert Fathers, monks who renounced the worldly life to withdraw into study and prayer in the deserts of Egypt and Syria beginning in the 3rd century. In Syria, some monks went naked and in chains, rather like the wandering sadhus of India. Others, called Stylites, lived on tall pillars; monks called Dendrites nested in the branches of trees, while Graziers foraged in the woods like wild animals. Yet other mystical monks, such as St. Basil the Great, who lived in Asia Minor in the fourth century, were literate, upper-class theologians. Basil formulated a set of rules to regulate monastic life--much as the Buddha and his first disciples did. Some of the most exceptional Christian mystics, however, lived during the Middle Ages, such as Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), who spoke of the “Godhead” as a kind of impersonal, transcendent Absolute similar in some ways to the Hindu Brahman (hence the Vatican's discomfort with him). Julian of Norwich (c.1342-1416) was an anchorite who lived in almost total isolation in a cell attached to the wall of a Norman church. Her book Revelations of Divine Love recounts a series of visions she experienced on a single day as she suffered from a near-fatal illness--one that she had asked God to send her--along with her meditations on those visions over a period of 20 years. St. John of the Cross (1542-91), a monk in the contemplative order of Carmelites in Spain, is famous for his mystical poem, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” which describes the point at which the soul has begun to break away from the separative ego and its material consolations, but has not yet achieved the higher consolations of mystical union with God. Teresa of Avila (1515-82), a Spanish nun who knew John, founded a reformed order called the Discalced (“barefoot”) Carmelites, which stressed strict poverty, cloister, and fasting.
Not all mystics are recluses. The 17th-century British mystic George Fox, who founded the Society of Friends, better known as Quakers, chose to rely on the “Inner Light of the Living Christ” rather than formal church attendance. He was imprisoned for six years for his views, and spent much of his life fighting against social inequities, including the prison system. Known for their simple living, work ethic, and opposition to violence, the Quakers migrated to the American Colonies to escape persecution in England, and they became the first American religious group to oppose slavery. Many more mystics have been identified from the Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions, both men and women. Twentieth-century mystics such as Thomas Merton, Padre Pio, Bede Griffiths, Raissa Maritain, and the Peace Pilgrim (Mildred Norman Ryder) have continued the tradition.
Christianity has expanded so widely in the 2000 years since its birth that no one definition can encompass the beliefs of the two billion people professing to be Christians. Roman Catholics account for nearly half of all Christians worldwide, but probably at least 30 percent of non-Catholic Christians would identify themselves as born-again. Many (but not all) of those would be considered Christian fundamentalists, whether or not they embrace that label. The term “born-again” is generally applied to Christians who have gone through an adult conversion experience that included accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior. But just as two born-again American Presidents--Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan--had vastly different political viewpoints, many born-again Christians defy categorization. Although most tend to be conservative politically and socially, large groups of born-agains, especially among the Evangelicals, refuse to align themselves with the so-called Religious Right, remaining staunchly liberal on social issues and often preferring to maintain separation of church and state.
The concept of fundamentalism first grew out of Christian revival movements in California and New England around the turn of the 20th century. These movements were in some sense a reaction against the application of empirical philosophy to biblical criticism during the 19th century, which had led increasing numbers of Christians to accept the Bible as partly metaphorical rather than literally true. Scientific evidence and biblical scholarship were increasingly showing that, on a rational level at least, the Bible didn't stand up to scrutiny as a scientific document or even as the work of many of the men to whom it is credited, including Moses and the four evangelists. Scholars pointed out inconsistencies and contradictions in the text, and, most discomfiting of all, sought to prove that such quintessential Bible stories as God's creation of the world and the Great Flood closely resembled accounts found in recently discovered Sumerian and Babylonian myths that predate the Bible by more than a thousand years. If the Bible was the “word of God,” how could parts of it have been borrowed from previous cultures?
Christians who clung to the old belief that every word of the Bible was literally true came together and formulated their beliefs at revival meetings and Bible study conferences in North America between 1875 and 1915. These groups agreed on five “fundamentals” of Christian belief that were enumerated in a series of 12 paperback volumes entitled The Fundamentals that appeared between 1910 and 1915, Those fundamentals included:
- Biblical inerrancy (belief that every word of the Bible is literally true)
- The divinity of Jesus
- The Virgin Birth
- The belief that Jesus died to redeem humankind
- An expectation of the Second Coming, or physical return, of Jesus Christ to initiate his thousand-year rule of the Earth, known as the Millennium.
Christian Fundamentalism developed at least in part out of a desire to return to a time of less ethnic and religious diversity in the U.S. -- before the massive influx of immigrants from Southern Europe and the Mediterranean rim, mainly Roman Catholics and Jews. Its proponents also sought to return to a world of moral absolutism and male hegemony over women. Fundamentalist Christians have staunchly opposed equal rights for women and the legalization of homosexuality and abortion, and have criticized those Christians who practice liberalized or less rigorous forms of their religion. Although they once eschewed the political arena, fundamentalists have become much more active in promoting conservative Christian candidates for public office and lobbying to have their beliefs, such as creationism, taught in public schools. Antagonism to less rigorous members of one's faith; an embrace of pre-modern, absolutist religious values; and belief in the literal truth of scripture are all characteristics that have also been observed in other religions in other parts of the world. Especially since 1979, the meaning of fundamentalism has expanded to include groups of ultraconservative Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs, among others. As with Christian fundamentalists, fringe elements of these groups sometimes seek a violent solution to their complaints.
Although Christianity began in the Middle East and developed primarily on the European continent for over 1500 years, in the last 500 years it has spread to Asia, Africa, and the Americas and has become even more popular there. Apart from the born-again phenomenon, the United States has produced some unorthodox Christian sects that nonetheless have substantial memberships. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), also known as the Mormon Church (although they are discontinuing the use of that name) claims about 11 million members worldwide, over five million of them in the U.S., giving Mormons more members than either Episcopalians or Pentecostals. Although their conservative, “pro-family” beliefs make them close in spirit to fundamentalist Christian groups, many of those same groups repudiate the Mormons because LDS teachings are radically different in some aspects from mainstream Christian teachings.
For example, Mormons believe that the Christian church fell into error as soon as the first disciples of Jesus died, and so God withdrew his church from the earth, an event they refer to as the Apostasy, or general falling away from the truth. Not until certain revelations were made to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1820 did Jesus Christ begin to restore his church to the earth. Today, Mormons believe, the authority of God exists in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints--a name that implies the shifting of holiness to the modern era. Beyond that, Mormons accept not only the Bible but also the Book of Mormon -- Another Testament of Jesus Christ, as the word of God, while for the vast majority of Christian groups that book, first published in 1830, is not accepted as revealed truth.
The LDS Church was founded in the U.S. by two charismatic Americans, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. The story of the Mormons is filled with fascinating accounts of golden tablets that contained the history of two early American Indian tribes connected to the lost tribes of Israel, all written in a strange script that required certain tools to decipher. In the early days of the church, Mormons did practice polygamy, but they have long since officially repudiated multiple marriages. And yet, on the level at which faith is lived in the larger world, Mormons have much in common with other conservative Christians. The LDS Church has used its army of young missionaries to spread Mormon beliefs across the country and around the world. They have also joined with non-Mormon groups to fight against drug use, abortion rights, and equal rights for women, gays and lesbians. Their growing numbers make the LDS Church a force to be reckoned with in the Christian world; and the Book of Mormon remains among the ten most popular books in America.
Christian Science, formally known as the First Church of Christ, Scientist, also originated and developed entirely within the U.S., the only major new religion to be founded by a woman. Although the church has under a million members, its highly respected media arms (the Christian Science Monitor newspaper and Monitor Radio) and its radical philosophy of healing have kept its name in the public eye. Christian Science began in the 19th century when Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), who had rejected the notion of predestination embraced by her Calvinist New England father, was able to heal herself from a series of ailments by calling on the power of Christ. Eddy suffered from convulsive fits, and, combined with the death of her brother, husband, and mother and the loss of her young son to foster care, left her almost a total invalid. Suspecting that her illness was rooted more in mental than physical causes, Eddy explored alternative healing practices including homeopathy and hypnotic suggestion. A hypnotist and healer named Phineas Quimby, who believed that the mind could both cause and cure disease, helped to relieve her symptoms, but after he died, Eddy became deathly ill again following a nasty fall. After reading and meditating on a Bible account of Christ's miraculous healing, Eddy was healed, and “gained the scientific certainty that all causation was Mind, and every effect a mental phenomenon.” Mrs. Eddy went on to write an interpretation of the Bible called Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875), in which she states that Jesus taught “our dominion over matter,” and that spirit was the sole reality of existence. She claimed it was directly inspired by God, but she reportedly asked a clergyman to help with the grammar. In 1879, she organized the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston; the Mother Church was built there in 1894 and later expanded.
Christian Scientists believe that illness exists only in the mind, and can be healed by specially trained members called practitioners, who help other members heal injuries or disease through prayer, thought, and reading. The prayers are based on the King James Bible, Science and Health and other writings of Mary Baker Eddy. The practitioner is not believed to have healing powers, but rather to help the patient turn to God as the source of healing. Medical intervention is not necessarily forbidden, but is not encouraged, since it is said to interfere with spiritual healing. Although a number of Christian Scientists have been brought up on criminal charges, and several convicted, when their children died after receiving treatment through prayer rather than through conventional medical care, all guilty verdicts have eventually been overturned on appeal. Spiritual healing is now recognized by law, and practitioners' charges are often paid by many large private insurance companies and Medicare.
Christian Science has obvious connections, in spirit at least, to the New Age belief that illnesses may have mental components, as well as Christian belief in the power of intercessory prayer to heal. Yet few Christians would go so far as to eschew all medical help in most cases, and Christian Science has not embraced other New Age principles.
In the World
The umbrella of Christianity can be expanded to include a number of syncretistic religions that incorporate ancient African spiritual beliefs and practices with some Catholic terminology and symbolism. But these are predominantly African religions that were cloaked in Catholicism to hide their practice from slave owners, often substituting the names of Catholic saints for ancient tribal gods and goddesses so that they would be allowed to worship at all. Ironically perhaps, Christianity itself is undergoing something of a transformation as it spreads throughout Africa, Latin America, and the Third World, areas that now claim the majority of Christian converts. Differing social needs and cultural conditions in these nations are pushing the various Christian churches to adapt to their requirements. Just as the major Eastern religions from Zen to Vedanta are changing subtly as they work their way through the filter of Western and American experience, so in many arenas the message of Christianity has been shifting its emphasis from dogma and ritual to the social justice teachings of Jesus as spoken so powerfully in the Gospels. In Latin America, for example, radical Catholic clergy and social philosophers have developed a Liberation Theology, arguing that Christianity at its heart has a great affinity with some forms of socialism. And although Liberation Theology has been criticized by Catholic authorities, the church has in some ways begun to accept the notion espoused by Liberation Theology that sin could be collective. In the modern industrial world, injustice and fraud are often hidden under the names of large multinational corporations, allowing individuals to escape responsibility for the economic hardship and environmental devastation they impose on poorer countries. This awareness of institutionalized injustices and collective sin has been promoted by a number of Latin American bishops who have embraced Liberation Theology, and this represents a major shift in Catholic and Protestant Evangelical thought.1 Once again, Christianity has the opportunity to return to its original message: compassion for one's neighbor over all else.
1. Edward L. Cleary, Crisis and Change: The Church in Latin America Today, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, July 1985.
Peter Occhiogrosso has been writing about world religions and spiritual practices since 1987, when his first book, Once a Catholic, was published. He has written or co-authored a dozen books on religion, spirituality, prayer and healing. His popular guide to the world's religions, The Joy of Sects, is a favorite on high school and college reading lists and web sites around the world.