Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My Problem With Christian Faith (Part One)

People ask me all the time to define what 'my beliefs' are.  I never know how to answer this request and for this reason I have to admit I have a problem with the Christian concept of 'faith.'

Whenever I have attended a Christian church service I have found the Nicene Creed portion the most problematic.  It's the part where everyone literally seems to turn off their brain and display what they believe is the essence of 'the faith.'   Indeed in Greek and Latin it is called 'the symbol' of the faith for this very reason.  Yet I can't help but think this is the part of the service which is the furthest from Jesus, the furthest from the early Church and the furthest from Judaism.

When you stand in a room hearing the droning voices of basically ignorant people repeating words they don't fully understand it makes you very certain that this assembly simply 'isn't for you.'  For me at least the whole procession seems like a military oath taking ceremony.  It has nothing to do with the original experience of the yesharim (= χρηστοί) who followed the angel who gave the name Israel to Jacob and his descendants.

Yet when you start to think about why the Nicene Creed was established you can start to make sense of things by merely focusing on the shift from Χρηστοί to Χριστιανοί.

The original Χρηστοί of Alexandria clearly must have understand their 'communion' with Jesus to be the establishment of a separate nation within the Roman Empire.  This was the new Israel rising from the ashes of failed messianic revolts.  The definition of Χριστιανοί starts with the notion of a human teacher who gathered disciples who now has no ambitions on establishing a nation within a nation.

So we can start to understand why it was the early creeds were established in the third century.  There was this pre-existent 'nation within a nation' (i.e. the Χρηστοί based in Alexandria) who needed to prove their loyalty to the Roman state.  For this reason the sacramentum were established.  The Latin Church would well have translated the Greek μυστήριον with the pre-existent Latin terminology mysterium so the choice of sacramentum cannot be accidental.  The sacramentum was a military oath taken by all Roman legionaries on entering the Roman army, part of the state ritual created by Augustus during his military reforms in the early firstst century CE. By the third century it was administered annually, on 3 January, as attested by the calendar of state ritual discovered at Dura-Europos, the so-called Feriale Duranum, which dates to the reign of Severus Alexander (222-235 CE).

I don't think that readers can possibly overestimate the importance of loyalty in this rite.  A recent article by Alexandra Holbrook makes this quite manifest as early as the Late Republic.  The point is that when we read Kelly in his Early Christian Creeds discuss the use of the term sacramentum in early Latin authors it becomes clear the military context is never lost.  Speaking about Tertullian for instance Kelly notes that:

whenever he has occasion to refer to the Christian's affirmation of his faith at baptism ... several times he employs the metaphor of a soldier of the imperial army taking a military oath. There must have been a close parallelism between the procedures involved, and since the soldier's oath was generally rehearsed in his hearing while he simply indicated his assent, the obvious deduction is that much the same must have happened at baptism. There is a well-known sentence in his treatise De Spectaculis which points to the same conclusion: 'when we entered the water and affirmed the Christian faith in answer to the words proscribed by its law, we testified with our lips that we had renounced the devil, his pomp and his angels.' The passage from the De Corona which has already been referred to is similar in its bearing: 'then we are three times immersed making a somewhat fuller reply than the Lord laid down in the gospel.' [pp. 46, 47]

What prompted this idea of forcing military oaths upon Christians should be obvious.  The loyalty of Christians to the Empire was questioned as early as the second century where Origen tells us that Celsus in his anti-Christian polemic a True Word brings forward a hostile claim

that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that “of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws.” And his wish is to bring into disrepute what are termed the agape of the Christians, as if they had their origin in the common danger, and were more binding than any oaths. Since, then, he babbles about the public law, alleging that the associations of the Christians are in violation of it, we have to reply [Against Celsus 1.1]

What should be obvious is that the closer we get to Rome the more obvious the imposition of a military creed to demonstrate the loyalty of the 'state within a state' to the Emperor.  It is for this reason that I disgusted by the Nicene Creed.  It has nothing to do with the original faith of the yesharim.  

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