Monday, April 4, 2016

The Magic Christians

Some of us remember the film The Magic Christian, a very silly bit of anti-capitalist, anti-greed satire (using that term broadly) which starred Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, and a host of others in cameo appearances, including some of the members of what was to be Monty Python.  The title was the name of an ocean liner on which the protagonists eventually sailed.  I saw it while in high school,  and it appealed to the adolescent in me.

I don't mean to comment on the film here, but use the title to draw attention to those who in the third to fifth centuries CE (somewhat broadly speaking, again) managed to make of Christianity something which was magical, or which I think may be called magical.  "Magical" I mean to refer to something based on a mysterious, extraordinary supernatural power associated with certain equally mysterious rites.

Of course I'm aware of the fact that even the Gospels ascribe miracles to Jesus, and these may count as magic--though not, I think, magic of the remarkable kind to come.  There were several men and beings which the ancients felt were capable of working wonders; even early Christians felt the pagan gods to be demons with supernatural powers.  Also, it's clear that even shorn of the Gospels' occasional, very cursory, references to Jesus being the Son of God and worker of wonders, the belief in the existence of a supernatural, creator god--that of the Jews, in any case--is presumed and manifest in them.  So, Jesus' early followers, if in fact they wrote the gospels, which doesn't seem likely, may be called "magic Christians" to a certain  extent.

But there was nothing unusual in this given the times and the culture.  For example, John the Baptist reputedly did much the same things as Jesus, and though honored in Christianity is not God or his Son.  Something very unusual occurred in the case of early Christianity as it became the Christianity we know of now and throughout subsequent history (at least the Christianity recognized by most of the established churches).  What happened distinguishes Jesus from the run-of-the-mill saviors and magicians who roamed the Roman Empire in those times, and required magic of an unusual sort.

What took place was, I think, necessary in order to maintain that Jesus was God; the only God, in fact.  Not merely God after he was crucified, or before he took human form, but God even while he was human and was killed.  The nature of Jesus was of course a subject of fierce and even violent disputes in the history of early Christianity and even into the Middle Ages and beyond.  Some found it impossible to accept that God, the Supreme Being, could suffer and die on a cross.  So, they thought Jesus must have been human or something less than wholly divine while on Earth, at least.  And so we see controversy of the kind which involved whether Jesus as Son was of the same or similar substance as God the Father.

These and other disputes resulted in the heresies we hear so much of in Christianity.  There was of course the famous dispute between the followers of Arius and Anathasius.   But there was also Nestorianism, which was the belief that Jesus had two natures, one divine and one human;  Monophsyitism, which held that Jesus' divine nature wholly overwhelmed his human nature; Monothelism, which taught that Jesus had two natures, one divine and one human, but only one "will."  This is not even to get into the controversies which came about once the Holy Spirit was in the mix as God as well, and Trinitarianism arose.  A heresy which followed was called Monarchiansm, which held that God the Father predominated over the Son and the Holy Spirit in the Trinity.  As they say, the list of Christian heresies goes on and on, though certainly not all of them involved the true nature of Jesus.

The controversies were deemed so significant that emperors of the Christianized Roman Empire felt it necessary to become involved in an effort to resolve disputes through the use of Councils over which they presided or at least sponsored.  They probably first rose to a governmental concern because the disputes were physical in nature in some cases.  People were killed or injured; property destroyed.  But some emperors were concerned about doctrine as well.  Indeed, emperors favoring a particular kind of Christianity persecuted other Christians in the same manner as pagan emperors are claimed to have persecuted Christians before them, and the Christians persecuted by other Christians believed themselves to be martyrs.

Constantine is generally considered to have been a great unifier of Christian doctrine, but Justinian, a peculiarly dubious emperor, was even more avid in his efforts.  Councils condemned certain views, accepted others.  Excommunications were made and then rescinded.  This went on for centuries.  The Council of Nicea was probably less important in the history of Christianity than that of Chalcedon, held by the Emperor Marcian.

These Christological disputes had the result that the Latin Western Church became disassociated from the Greek Eastern Church and had other significant ramifications.

What is remarkable is that these great controversies have nothing at all to do with the preaching of Jesus; with what he said was right or wrong, what he said one should or should not do.  They are wholly amoral.  Christianity became a matter of definition, and the truth and goodness in Christianity came to be determined by what a person thought Jesus' nature to be and the manner in which he was to be worshiped.  All resulted because it was deemed that Jesus was or should be construed to be the one God.

These disputes, and efforts at their resolution as they appear in written records of the time, resemble philosophical and legal disputes, in that their focus is on abstract concepts and their application as rules to circumstances.  Their legal nature may be understood as resulting from the fact that Christianity became in every significant sense a government as well as a religion.  Their philosophical nature may be the result of the desire early Christians had to give Christianity a basis which would be recognized as similar to if not sanctioned by the philosophy of the time, which was essentially pagan and, I believe, still is pagan.  If Jesus is God, and there is only one God, what then? 

Because of the fact the disputes were similar to legal and philosophical disputes, the arguments raised by one side or the other are not clearly false or absurd.  There is a basis for them in the sense that relevant scripture may be referred to in their support or recognized authorities appealed to by disputants.

But ultimately the resolution of these disputes, to the extent they were resolved, entailed the imposition of certain mysteries, certain inexplicable doctrines.  In other words, Magic, but Magic of the highest kind.  The view that God is one substance but three persons is magical.  The view that Jesus is consubstantial with the Father is magical.  There is simply no other explanation for these beliefs.

It's interesting to consider what would have happened if Jesus was not considered God or divine in some manner, or perhaps a lesser God.  I suspect Christianity would be much less complex and far less dependent on mystery.  But Christians in charge were probably leery of making him a lesser God, as this would smack of polytheism.  And what would the death of one man matter?  Jesus' death and sacrifice would be insufficient to salvation if he was not at all times God.

We tend to forget what a mess Christianity was during its development.  Dispute is considered inconsistent with what is said to be clearly set forth by God.  Perhaps Christianity's search for a rational basis was unwise, and there is none clearly present.  It's no wonder some Christians came to believe that God could not be known except through revelation.  This conclusion may be less the result of mysticism as the realization that applying reason in the case of Jesus/God inevitably results in machinations of a particularly tortured kind.

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