important things 4: Christianity's origins

The wonderful thing about this next part of Jack's article and talk, The Two Most Important Things I Have Learned--(I'm now responding to Point II)--is how clearly Jack expresses two differing understandings he has held on the nature of Christianity and its origins. This opens for me the opportunity to respond to what appear to be very solid points of thought, his specific ideas which have grown over decades and which alternately differ and dovetail in certain places with some of my own.

I'll start by looking at the introductory sentence about Jack's original understanding:
"Twenty years ago, my understanding of the origin of Christianity would have gone something like this: Jesus, the incarnation of God, came to earth to teach his disciples how to live as God wanted them to live."

I'll call this Jack's old picture.

If someone were to ask if my old picture used to be the same, I would answer yes and no. I did, similarly, believe Jesus to be the incarnation of God. It might be profitable to unpack that statement. Behind it, for me twenty years ago, was this presupposition: Within the nature of the one God exist three Persons.

I long believed the above claim, because it was an explanation of what I had always been taught. There were Bible verses to back it up. Besides, lots of things in life seemed to happen in threes.

I had grown a bit uncomfortable with my particular Trinitarian presupposition, however, after debating with people from non-Trinitarian groups. During our exchanges I couldn't help observing that, to support their views, they pulled out books by revered teachers of their views. To support my views, I also studied writings or listened to talks by revered teachers of my views.

I hadn't been able to ponder for myself what Jesus' incarnation truly means.

When I came into the Gutenberg group 16 years ago, I heard Jack processing his own presuppositions and ideas. He sought to interpret the Scriptures by using reason and delving deeply (with humility) into possibilities. I loved this refreshing approach. It blew away my one-sentence Trinitarian understanding. While they kept unfolding during the time I studied under Jack, I didn't mind waiting for his latest updated insights. I trusted they were leading me to the closest understanding possible of Jesus' incarnation.

While I did believe Jesus to be the incarnation of God, I don't think my understanding of the origin of Christianity hinged, as Jack's seems to have twenty years ago, on Jesus "teaching his disciples how to live as God wanted them to live." Learning to live God's way was certainly important, but my life experience had already given me an insight into Jesus' interaction with his disciples. Especially relevant to me were Peter's interactions with Jesus. Peter had recognized his need to do specifically what his Master--the Master he had betrayed and then been forgiven by--gave him to do. I wasn't looking, therefore, for general instructions on Christian living (nor do I think the apostles were looking for general instructions on Jewish living; they knew them). I was, 16 years ago, more interested in being freed from a lot of practices and expectations--you might call them rituals and doctrines--that I had known in my familiar, before-Gutenberg cultural Christian experience, which appeared to be missing something. These familiar ways of operating and believing were, I came to recognize, either empty and worthless or partial and lacking something deeply significant.

In all my years, encountering people from Catholic churches to nondenominational churches and several types of groups in between, I had observed those influenced by their peers to act and interpret, and also those improvising new ways to act and interpret. Being naturally an introvert, I noticed the more extroverted people often calling the shots regarding church life; they were flashier and braver than I, and often I resented them for this. I especially cringed when two groups of extroverts quarreled about issues I found tiresome.

Coming to Gutenberg was, again, refreshing, due to a lack of flashy improvisations. I was more than ready to discover alongside other studious people the original intent of the biblical authors. I longed for the significant, deep truth embedded in Scripture.

And so we see that my old picture of Christianity's origins was similar to Jack's--in that I believed Jesus to be God's incarnation--but was different (if I'm understanding him correctly) from Jack's in this sense: I did not consider the apostles' encounter with Jesus to have been "about" Jesus teaching them generally how to live (perhaps how to get along) in this world.

The basic sense I get is that Jack believed long ago that if he was in the right church he would be able to follow its practices and know he was doing all he could for God, so he could have peace of mind. I, on the other hand, by young adulthood sensed that all was not right with any church I had encountered. (And by this I don't mean I was discouraged because every church was made up of sinners. On the contrary, I found myself to be a great sinner, and yet I wanted to follow Jesus. I actually quit going to church until I had children, because, frustratingly, church wasn't "about" us all being sinners wanting to follow Jesus; it was more about doing things right and feeling good about ourselves, as in any social group.)

Regarding his old picture, Jack points out two ramifications he considers important: "(1) There was a faithful impartation of the Truth from Jesus to his apostles and to the original Christian church; and (2) the revealed Truth that was incorporated in the life of the original Christian church is currently reflected in those universally held doctrines, practices, beliefs, and perspectives of traditional Christianity."

These ramifications were not on my radar, because my life experience did not teach or show me that the Truth had been passed along very well. Something had gone wrong, somewhere, because life in the churches I knew often didn't make sense. Before I "found" Gutenberg, I figured all I could do was settle and do my best with what was offered, seeing as I wanted to follow Jesus, study the Bible, and raise my children with an awareness of these things, and somehow I knew God would show me the way.

So I came into the Gutenberg community from within my old picture, which showed me Jesus as God's incarnation, as well as a very broken church history, in some unknown-to-me fashion or another.

Eleven years after that, I was basically an adherent of Jack's new picture. As I've mentioned, I had studied the Bible under Jack's tutelage and trusted where his ideas were leading. At this date I would have started off comments about Christianity's origins using words similar to his: "Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, brought into existence by God, his Father, taught his Jewish disciples the true meaning and significance of what they had already learned as first-century Jews who had been taught the Scriptures in the synagogue."

My mind had changed from my old picture, which had been based on: Within the nature of the one God exist three Persons. I now accepted a new picture, that Jesus was, as I heard Jack saying it, the perfect Man who perfectly expressed God to his followers. I believed that, in this certain sense, Jesus was God. But I no longer believed Jesus existed within the nature of the one God as part of a Divine Trinity.

I had no clue that this understanding, my new picture (from Jack), would turn out to be a perfect preparation for me, when I unexpectedly launched into a serious consideration of Orthodox Christianity.

Obviously Jack was in a different spot, having read some early Church Fathers and dismissed their understanding as "enamored by and influenced by ancient pagan ideas, especially Platonic ideas." Jack believes their intellectual efforts "were less an attempt to understand the teaching of the apostles on its own terms—as the teaching of Jewish prophets who were articulating what God had revealed—and much more an attempt to understand Christian doctrine, practices, and religion in terms compatible with Hellenistic paganism."

For my own reasons, I came to need to dive into that universe of thought built upon the Scriptural interpretations of these ancient Fathers, rather than to continue my immersion in the Gutenberg understanding built largely upon Jack's Scriptural interpretations.

Because this post has grown so long already, I'll post next time on what happened as I wrestled between these viewpoints.

Here is Part 5.