Ok, this post is kind of designed to tie in with Shadow’s recent posts on religion, which I’ve really enjoyed and highly recommend.
The topic is a big one: the real nature of Christianity. The general problem, insofar as I can see it, is that people yearn for two contradictory things. On the one hand, they want the hope and the assurance that there is a world of joy and redemption beyond this existence, a realm of pure bliss, where evil, pain, suffering, loss and so on have no meaning or reality. On the other hand, they are tied to this life; they do not want to die. This world is where their lives and being are constituted. Their identities, loved ones, joys, plans and hopes are here, so renouncing this realm isn’t exactly easy. Many even hope for a paradise to be established in this existence, either through political means or through direct intervention from on high.
Now as far I can read it (and I’m no theologian), the whole tenor of the New Testament runs thus: the world is irredeemably tainted, it is corrupted beyond repair by sin, human greed, selfishness and egotism. Anyone who wants salvation needs to recognise this, clean up their act, abandon the ways of the world and concentrate all of their energy and activities on being righteous, kind, non-selfish and giving, otherwise they’ll end up damned like all of the life-suckers who rule this realm.
In what way is this exemplified in Jesus? Well, he is a man who has no place or position in normal society. Most importantly, he has absolutely no interest in having any, and he goes out of his way to condemn those who are content with their earthly lot. All of his teaching is focused on how people can shed their earthly skins and the shitty habits they’ve picked up as a result of wallowing in their fleshy selves.
On anti-natal lines, he has no wife, he has no children and expresses utter disinterest in the traditional worship of family. When someone tells him his family have arrived to see him, he replies “‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ ; and pointing to the disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mothers and my brothers’” (Mth. 12. 48-50). Also, “No man is worthy of me who cares more for father or mother than for me” (Mth. 10. 37-38). So social conventions count for nothing. Following the herd and the rules only buries you ever deeper in the muck of the world. (Unsurprisingly, DNA worshipper Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion expresses his bewilderment and mild English outrage at such a disgraceful repudiation of the life principle.)
Furthermore, Jesus announces that he hasn’t come to save the world itself, or to maintain life as we know it; he’s only interested in individuals who are willing to see through the world’s deceptions and lies: “You must not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, [...] and a man will find enemies under his own roof” (Mth. 10. 34-37). And, of course, there’s the well-known line “What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self?” (Mth. 16.27). So wallow in the filth of the world if you like, but don’t expect any lasting happiness from it. And another famous line comes at the trial: ‘My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18.36). (It’s also worth recalling the various descriptions in the NT of Satan as ‘Prince of this world’, ‘Lord of this world’.)
I guess if I really wanted to push it, the crucifixion and resurrection stories could be read as an allegorical lesson: renounce the world, let it crucify you for rejecting its way, run the risks of isolation, loneliness and poverty, and gain your reward through knowing you’ll have shed a false skin and become a better person.
What I also find interesting in how Christianity developed as an organised religion is the manner in which the Church attempted to reconcile this world-rejection with the fact that, for most people, such a message is simply too much to bear. (Theologically, the difficulty lay in reconciling the life-affirming nature of Judaism with the rejection of the sin-infested world as preached by Jesus.) As a result, we have schisms and mixed messages. Catholicism prescribes celibacy and non-reproduction for its clergy, yet maintains hostility toward birth-control for the laity. It says we must love the world and each other because we and it are God’s creation, yet urges us to keep a main eye on what may befall our soul after death and not get caught up in life’s machinations. Then you have Protestantism, which to my eyes at least, seems to completely embrace the world and advocates having a good time and enjoying social status as long as you go through the motions of church-attendance. Its clergy are even allowed marry and reproduce, for God’s sake:-)
(Incidentally, in the wake of the various paedophile scandals in the Catholic world, there has been lately a popular call for the Church to revoke the rule of celibacy for its clergy, which I personally believe would be a disaster. The Church is what it is because it rejects the whimsies and fickle demands of the masses; that’s why it’s survived for two thousand years and still commands respect, even amongst its most bitter enemies. Contrast this with the Protestant churches of Ireland and England, utterly ineffectual echo chambers of the secular societies they inhabit.)
By way of a conclusion, for me the genuine religious person is someone who does not feel at home in this world. He or she dreams of something better, and attempts to embody in their own life what they think the world should be with the hope perhaps that others may follow their example. To mount that tired old nag of a cliché for one last trot, if you want to change the world, change yourself.