When Jesus Became God

During my senior year in college Fr. Jerome, later Abbot Jerome, introduced us to historical-critical study of scripture. It was the permission I needed to begin my lifelong quest in search of what’s wrong and what’s right in religion. I’m not satisfied learning something for myself, I want others to know the fascinating truth too.

I have read hundreds of books on Christian teaching and its evolvement, none clearer than Richard Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome. It reads like a thriller novel, full of suspense and violence, hostile accusations, and surprising plot twists. But these events really happened; they were not contrived for a novel. Here I continue the tale started in the previous post.

The first followers of Jesus were mesmerized by his unique teaching and, to use a modern term, his charisma. He seemed to have a privileged connection with God. Like all shamans, he put people in touch with Holiness. Jesus did not think he was God, and he did not tell people he was. After he died, his followers broadcast his teachings or what they perceived to be his teachings. His first followers did not pray to Jesus or think of him as God. Scripture does not teach this either, contrary to popular Christian belief and religious teachings given me in the first part of my life.

Writings by Jesus-followers did not begin to treat him as God until around the beginning of the 2nd century—around the year 100 CE—and this belief grew between the 2nd to 4th centuries. According to Rubenstein,
Arianism, which orthodox Christians now consider the archetypal heresy, was once at least as popular as the doctrine that Jesus is God.
Walter Bauer, whom I read before Rubenstein—both probably in the 1990s—corroborates this statement in Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. On the basis of Bauer’s evidence, I believe the majority of Christians in the first three centuries did not worship Jesus as God. They were committed to Jesus Christ and considered themselves orthodox Christians but did not equate Jesus with God.

The road to Jesus becoming God involved Roman emperors, Catholic bishops fighting each other, and mobs fighting over theological issues in the streets, all contributing generous amounts of violence. Ultimately, writes Rubenstein, it was the lay masses who would decide the issue.

Before Constantine’s well-known conversion to their faith, Christians in the Empire were in trouble for refusing to perform their civic duty by participating in rites of the old religion. Emperors before Constantine tried to terrorize them into submission but that only resulted in more conversions to Christianity.
It attracted Roman citizens for three reasons. Instead of demanding external motions in stale Roman rites without meaning, Christianity 
expressed a new sense of interiority: the perception of an inner space in which an individual could . . . communicate with God, and discover his or her own spiritual identity.

While wealthy Romans abandoned the poor, bureaucrats enriched themselves at the expense of their subjects, and military chiefs overthrew their emperors, Christian bishops and their congregations fed the hungry, housed the homeless, cared for plague victims, and offered sufferers membership in a tight-knit, compassionate community.

Women, in fact, were the Christians’ secret weapon . . . “It is highly likely that women were a clear majority in the churches of the third century.”
The last statement is Rubenstein quoting Robin Lane Fox. Research today is uncovering more evidence of women’s leadership in the early church.

These three attractions of early Christianity often are missing in institutional religion today. Think about it: Orders from the hierarchy today focus on externals and lack depth, media reports of morally-bankrupt clergy are common, and women are denied leadership. These are reasons Christians leave the church and find a different spiritual path—the reverse of what happened when people in the Roman Empire were drawn to Christian churches.

Our times differ in another respect. Americans will find it hard to understand the mix of religion and politics during the last centuries of the Roman Empire when emperors were religious leaders and bishops were political leaders. Add the murderous doctrinal conflicts between bishops and mobs fighting over the relationship between the Father and the Son, and you see the difference between that time and ours.

Our contemporary term “to act like a Christian” denigrates people of other faiths as well as atheists, whom I know to be at least as morally upright as Christians. But Christians of the first centuries deserved the meaning it had then, and women had a lot to do with this.
Ironically, about the time Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, its disagreements over right belief were turning it into a scandal rather than a model of right living. Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325 to direct his Empire into peace and harmony but relations turned even more contentious. The great Arian controversy roiled the Empire until 381.

Rubenstein makes intricate theological arguments understandable, better than any other author I’ve read.

To summarize the theological dispute, Arians distinguished between the divinity of Jesus and the divinity of the transcendent God. They thought of Christ as representing God, not being God. As proof texts from scripture they used “No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18) and “He who sent me is greater than I” (Jn 14:28).
Anti-Arians used as proof texts “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30) and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9).  Led by Athanasius, anti-Arians insisted on a complete identification of Jesus with God.
Officially, Arianism remains a declared heresy but I believe Catholic theologians today are more Arian than anti-Arian.

Again I interrupt this tale because it’s getting long. More about the fascinating 4th century next time.

February 25, Islam out of Arianism?

As a systematics major in the School of Theology, I studied belabored explanations of how God can be three in one, and I followed the arguments of many “heresies.” I learned how the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus—tried to resolve the Arian controversy and put an end to theological disputes by explicating distinctions and definitions. Their formula—three persons or separate individuals (hypostaseis) in one substance (ousia)—did not explain how Jesus could be both human and divine to the satisfaction of everyone, particularly in the Eastern part of the Empire.

Before my theological studies I had already read some Jung and some Teilhard de Chardin, which helped me to realize that all sides in the disputes were hampered by dualism, which envisions vast separation between God and creation.
Departing from dualism, Teilhard and Jung see Inner and Outer as aspects of the same reality. God is not an entity separate from the universe or from us. Christ represents the divinity in all human beings.
I admire the Cappadocians for what they did, but their vision was confined by the limited horizon of their time.

Our time has shrunk the globe. We have the knowledge of other traditions.
Christians are not alone in having a trinity. Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, and many others also have trinities, indicating a mysterious Threeness in our three-dimensional universe. It tends toward 3-fold structures: animal, vegetable, and mineral; liquid, solid, and gas; larve, pupa, and butterfly; past, present, and future; red, yellow, and blue. This tendency toward Threeness alluded to by religions does not necessarily define the nature of the Source we call God. Science today is pointing toward the possibility of other universes with dimensions foreign to us.

The Cappadocian formula was not immediately accepted in the ancient world. What really settled the Arian controversy was threatening hordes advancing on the Empire in the north. This eventually led to the disintegration of the Empire, a long story not essential to this theological dispute. Essential to it is the contrasting emphases between the two theological movements.

Arianism had a higher opinion of humanity than anti-Arianism. Arius’s more human Jesus was “sent not so much to rescue helpless humans as to inspire them to develop their own potential for divinity,” writes Rubenstein. This is close to current Christian teaching.
But in the last centuries of the Roman Empire, this optimistic view of humanity did not assure people who were alarmed by the menace threatening their world. They wanted a more God-like Christ and “a cadre of religious specialists” offering physical and spiritual security. Forget the invitations to be like Christ; they wanted to rely on a mighty Christ.

In 380 the Emperor Theodocius outlawed Arianism. A purge followed.
Arians and other heretics were forbidden to occupy any church or meet together for worship . . .
Arian views . . . would become crimes punishable by death.
Fanaticism ensued. When Theodocius ordered that restitution be made to Jews and “heretics” who had been wronged, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, objected—Jews and heretics had no rights. The emperor rescinded the order because Ambrose threatened excommunication.

The Empire continued to experience a rift between East and West. Eastern bishops tended to assert that the Father was greater than the Son. To people in the West, the Nicene Creed meant that Christ (understood as Jesus) was God, a simplistic understanding misrepresenting the Cappadocian distinctions.
After Theodocius, the East-West split in the Roman Empire hardened. Constantinople ignored the excommunications coming from Rome.
Since the Arian Visigoths converted the Burgundians, Vandals, and several other “barbarian” peoples to their faith, Arianism would remain for the time a significant religious movement in the lands that the tribesmen conquered. . . .
Arianism was now identified with the “barbarians” who were its main advocates.
Rubenstein concludes,
Nicene Christianity, with its majestic Christ incorporated into the Godhead,
its pessimistic view of human nature, and its bishops and saints playing dominant roles,
was better suited to express the hopes and fears of Christians in an age of unpredictable change and lowered social expectations.
Typical piety in the Western world accepted as truth that Jesus is God. Until modern times. Today my readers send me emails repudiating it.

For me the greatest Ah-hah moment in Rubenstein’s book came at the end. In a few centuries, most of the Eastern world—the one uneasy about elevating the Son to the level of the Father—would be swept into a new religion.
The Islamic Jesus was not the incarnate God of Nicene Christianity or the super-angelic Son of the Arians. . . . he was a divinely inspired man: a spiritual genius ranking with the greatest prophets, Moses and Mohammed himself.
The Arian controversy serves as a backdrop that enhances the Muslim prayer to One God. I have no intention of converting to Islam but I also think of Jesus as a spiritual genius, not God. Christian theology is progressing in this direction.


Chris said…
The reason why I keep commenting here is because my experience has been the exact opposite of the views expressed at this blog. To my lights, an objective and dispassionate look at the evidence does not support the revisionist account that is presented here. It is true that the interiority that you eluded to is not front and center in the tradition, but that certainly doesn't mean it isn't there. Also, your preference for nondual metaphysics is a personal bias- nothing more. Moreover, your anti-traditional social/moral commitments strike me as a strain of modern secular humanism, certainly not transcendental humanism.

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