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Christianity as Law vs. Christianity as Love Christianity as Law vs. Christianity as Love
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-04-04 10:02:13
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"Go to all nations and make them my disciples"
                  --Gospel according to St. Matthew

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."
            
--Gospel according to St. Luke

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Recently I have had the unusual experience of being accused of religious zealotry; not that it is the first time. Some seem unable to distinguish passion from zealotry or even bigotry. Now, while it may be true that, like Aristotle, Vico and Jung, together with various other teachers and scholars, I deem religion an extremely important and proper academic philosophical-theological subject, I have never consciously identified or defined  myself as a fanatic zealot. On the contrary, when it comes to religion, I lean toward skepticism, rational objective harmonious discourse, and free speech as readers can easily ascertain by simply perusing my writings on the issue for Ovi magazine.

The fact is that whole graduate schools exist for the study and exploration of a subject often called natural theology. Those schools go by the name of Divinity Schools; they are as academically rigorous as any positivistic scientific school,  award M.A.s and Ph.D.s in the field and are located within some of the most prestigious international universities. Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, Salamanca, La Sorbonne university, jump to mind, but there are many others.

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I have been pondering on what may have prompted the misguided accusation. Let me share with the Ovi readers some of the reflections that it engendered for me. My first suspicion is that it was prompted by the not so unusual biases and prejudices of a secularized culture steeped in secular humanism; attacks that are not so much against religion in general but against Christianity in particular considered “unenlightened,” or retrograde, be it Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant Christianity. They have been in vogue since Voltaire and Nietzsche. They are considered the hallmark of modernity. In any case, it seems to me, that the issue goes much deeper than mere “enlightened” slanders on religion and is worth exploring. 

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The Library of Yale University Graduate Divinity School

The rampant confusion, alive and well since the birth of humanism in 14th century Florence may be due to the fact that present Christians can be divided into two categories: the Religious Right or what some refer to as legalistic conservative Christians, the secular humanists often confused with the original Christian humanists, while those who fall into the other category are often dubbed liberal non-legalistic Christians. The problem with those terms is that they tend to suggest a political rather than a theological orientation. But what distinguishes the members of these two groups of Christians is not politics so much, but their essential understanding of the nature of God, the role of the church, the meaning of human life, and a fundamentally divergent conception of the universe.

While it may be true that conservative Christians tend to champion tradition and to reject  modern science and the biblical scholarship that liberal Christians embrace; it remains extremely misleading to suggest that the kind of theology to which conservative Christians subscribe is truly more traditional, in the deepest sense, than that of liberal Christians. Labels like “Bible-believing Christian” wrongly suggest that there is something unbiblical and unorthodox about the faith of liberal Christians. There is an exclusionist element in the designation “conservative Christian” because it tends to exclude others from the designation “Christian.”

The difference between conservative and liberal Christianity may perhaps best be summed up by the difference between two key scriptural concepts: that of law, and that of love. Simply stated, conservative Christianity focuses primarily on law, doctrine, and authority; liberal Christianity focuses on love, spiritual experience, and what Baptists call the priesthood of the believer. If conservative Christians emphasize the Great Commission--the resurrected Christ's injunction, at the end of the Gospel according to Matthew, to "go to all nations and make them my disciples"--liberal Christians place more emphasis on the Great Commandment, which in Luke's Gospel reads as follows: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

Conservative Christianity understands a Christian to be someone who subscribes to a specific set of theological propositions about God and the afterlife, and who professes to believe that by subscribing to those propositions, accepting Jesus Christ as savior, and evangelizing, he or she evades God's wrath and wins salvation. Liberal Christianity on the other hand tends to identify Christianity with the experience of God's abundant love and with the commandment to love God and one's neighbor. If, for conservative Christians, outreach generally means zealous proselytizing of the "unsaved," for liberal Christians it tends to mean social programs directed at those in need and resulting in social justice. The first category can be referred to as “legalistic,” while the second is non-legalistic. Pari passu, the Church can be a Church of Law or a Church of Love.

It is a question of placing emphasis on one category or the other, given that all Churches seem to possess both to some degree: legalistic institutionalism and a capacity for love. Were it not so, they could be characterized as cults. For example the present highest pastor of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, functions within a legalistic institution called the Catholic Church but he has opted to place emphasis on  love rather than on the law. Rather than deeming the death of Christ on the cross as a transaction by which he paid for believers’ sins, thus winning them eternal life, he sees the same event as a powerful symbol of God’s infinite love for mankind. Rather than seeing life after life as heavenly reward for the “true” Christian or the saved, he emphasizes the unity with a transcendent, merciful and providential God existing outside of space and time. Rather than emphasizing that God considers only the “saved” his  beloved children, he emphasizes that God loves everyone and considers all humans his children. Rather than reading everything in the Bible as the literal truth promulgated by a wrathful God who rewards true believers, as fundamentalists indeed tend to do, he emphasizes non-legalistically that it must be read critically and insightfully, always understanding its historical-cultural context. This division between legalistic and non-legalistic Christian is found in all denominations, not excluding the Catholic one. The legalists or conservative Christians, on the other hand, tend toward a narrow exclusionist theological view and consider the non-legalist as betrayers of the faith,  not respectful of scripture interpreted literally and thus not genuine Christians. They are the zealots which create so much confusion among the secular humanists who have misinterpreted the whole concept of humanism which is originally Christian. How can not a God who deigns to become human be the apotheosis of humanism?

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Pope Francis washing the feet of Moslems on Holy Thursday

It can safely be asserted that non-legalistic Christians who agree with the Pope’s emphasis on love, worship a providential God of love, a far cry from Aristotle’s abstract First Cause, envision the church, at its best, as a Church of Love. They include non-Catholics of many stripes such as the Quakers or Unitarians, Baptists or Seventh Day Adventists, but they tend to be invisible in the public square and receive little attention from the media. What receives much attention is legalistic Christianity which conceives of a manifestly evil wrathful legalistic God. They tend to view their fellow Americans or Westerners not as having been created equal as the Declaration of Independence would have it, but as being saved or unsaved; the unsaved being the enemy deserving of no respect and whose rights can therefore be curtailed with impunity. This is of course socially dangerous--and it represents, for obvious reasons, a very real menace to democratic civil society, as most secular humanists would concur. America's founding fathers, respected religion because they saw it as strengthening people's best selves and checking their worst selves, but too often, legalistic Christianity--which has deceitfully portrayed the founding fathers of both US and EU as its philosophical allies--does precisely the opposite.

So, all over the world in recent years, legalistic Christians have organized into a political movement so successfully (they usually go by the name of “evangelicals”) that when many today hear the word Christianity, they think only of the legalistic variety. The mainstream media, in covering the so-called culture wars, generally imply that there are only two sides to choose from: the God-of-wrath of the Christian Right found mainly in the Old Testament and the godless secular Left. Many scarcely realize that there is a third alternative. And many, unable to take the Christian Right seriously as a cultural force, view it as a holdover of traditional Christianity that has inexplicably lingered into our "secular times" redolent of “secular humanism” and will gradually fade away as progress advances globally.  Pope Francis’s stance as a liberal Christian remains a great mystery to them, at a par with the mystery of the first Christian communities espousing a socialistic mode of social life, not to speak of “socialist” religious communities such as the Franciscans.

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Pope Francis Visiting the Monastery of St. Francis in Assisi

Legalism has indeed been a part of the Christian picture from the beginning. Yet today's legalistic Protestantism is very much a  "new creation," so to speak. As new species evolve from old because they are specially equipped to endure a changed environment, so today's legalism--an animal unlike any that had ever existed before--emerged as an adaptation to modern secular democratic society. Far from being a vestige of traditional Christian faith which at the beginning of Christianity  approved of the sharing of goods in the name of the common good and charity, it is a distinctively modern phenomenon--one that, while making tradition its rallying cry, has at the deepest level betrayed Christianity's most precious traditions. In doctrine it has replaced the traditional emphases of Christian belief with bizarre doctrinal strictures that have no legitimate basis in scripture, reason, or tradition. In authority it has at times replaced the foundational trust in the individual's "soul competency" with a dictatorial system of clerical absolutism. In law it has replaced Christ's gospel message of love, which drew on the noblest parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, with the harshest edicts from the Pentateuch or from some of the epistles of Paul, selectively chosen, or from the Book of Revelation.

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Pope Francis visiting a Franciscan Monastery

Born out of anger, modern legalistic Christianity has, over the long arc of the twentieth century, become steadily angrier in reaction to spreading secularism. During that period it has also spread like a cancer, winning adherents by the million and posing an increasingly serious threat to other faiths and to democratic freedoms. It has, in the process, warped Christianity into something ugly and hateful that has little or nothing to do with love and everything to do with suspicion, superstition, and even sadism. How can a merciful God condemn people to an eternity of pain and suffering? Quite often, the name of Christian is denied to followers of Jesus who reject the objectionable part of a barbaric theology. In effect it has stolen Jesus--yoked his name and his church to ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that would have appalled him.

All of this is going on as we speak with the assent and consent of the conservative press. For example, Not too long ago, the right-wing policy magazine American Enterprise published a special issue on religion in which the word Christian was routinely used to mean only legalist Christians. This, it pains me to say it, was detectable also in the Ovi magazine thematic issue on religion. Both publications studiously avoided, for the most part, avoided  the terms religion and Christianity, substituting it for “spirituality.” One article in the former referred to the increasing "involvement of Christians in school boards"; another gauged the "Christian influence" on the media and adverted to "Christian media" and “Christian periodicals.” Over and over, in short, the word Christian was used in a narrow way to include only legalistic Christians and to exclude pretty much everybody else. Certainly there aren't "more Christians" on school boards or on Capitol Hill than there used to be; there are simply more legalistic Christians in these places, meaning of course conservative Christian evangelicals who continue to consider themselves “the true legitimate Christians.”

The increasing tendency to use the word Christian to mean only legalistic Christians has given the word an unpleasant flavor. When I now hear the word Christian, several other words immediately go through my mind: bigot, arrogant, mindless, intolerant, rigid, mean-spirited." That may explain the accusation of zealotry awarded to me lately, which indeed could be a good word if interpreted as passionate and serious concern for a good cause. Nowadays one needs to apologize every time one uses it. One wonders: why has the very word Christian come to stand for so many bad things? Why is it often found unwise or an embarrassment to use the word, even in an academic scholarly setting? I have even heard this misguided accusation: “the study of religion is unworthy of an academic,” never mind a C.S. Lewis of a Louis Duprè or a Joseph Campbell, or a Carl Jung, or a G.K. Chesterton. Could it be that the word is now aligned with movements that are patently contrary to the Loving Christ that is at the heart of the gospel in the New Testament? What does Christ have to do with political movements that isolate, inhibit and breed hate and discontentment between human beings?

Why haven't more Christians, at least those who agree with Pope Francis’ non-legalistic mode of being a Christian, made more of an effort to rescue the word Christian from the negative connotations it has acquired lately? Could the cause be in part that non-legalistic Christians have gotten used to thinking of religion as a private matter; something you do for an hour on Sunday? That they have uncritically accepted the idea that one should not talk about what one believes in public; at best such talk should be relegated to purely private mystical experiences to be shared with friends, never mind political action, never mind the  founding fathers of the EU or even the US who were not ashamed of their faith. Or is it because they have been intimidated by the aggressive, unapologetic manner in which legalist Christians assert their mode of belief; or have they perhaps read Nietzsche who made the designation Christian something to be embarrassed of, almost a betrayal of pristine European pagan culture rendering its very humility a sign of embarassment?

Or could the cause be that those discussions are almost invariably represented in the mainstream media as a clear-cut contest between "Christians" (that is, legalists), who supposedly uphold responsibility, values, and family, and liberal secular humanists, who support rights, tolerance, and separation of church and state. And so neither side of it, as presented by the media, is speaking for Jesus Christ--for what he was and what he is really about. Many have even reduced him to a myth invented by twelve ignorant fishermen, as unlikely as that may sound. Indeed, it often seems that the media, secular liberals, and legalistic Christians alike take for granted that the most prominent legalistic spokespeople--men and women like Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Phyllis Schlafly, Sarah Pelin, James Dobson--do speak for Christianity. No wonder many opt for secular humanism and ignore the whole meaning of Paul’s understanding of the body of Christ. The body of Christ, after all,  is not something of much value for them.

The time is ripe for this challenge to be made. For to be a serious non-legalistic Christian in the West today (times when soccer games have substituted worship on Sunday) is to recognize that the word Christian--and, more importantly, the real living Christ--are crying out to be unshackled from the prejudices and precepts to which legalistic Christians have bound them. To be a serious non-legalistic Christian is to recognize that while legalists present themselves as "true Christians, the narrow doctrines they profess, the authoritarianism they practice, and the laws they uphold represent a damaging distortion and subversion of Jesus' message. In recent years, even as serious biblical scholars have answered with increasing clarity the question of who Jesus was historically and what he was about, legalists have radically redefined Jesus, condemning the principles he really stood for and instead have identified him with their own ugliest tendencies. Meanwhile, the secular humanists have looked on blindly or indifferently, for the most part either not realizing or not caring for what is going on.

Yet to examine the nearly two thousand years of tension between the Church of Law and the Church of Love--a tension that has mounted at an increasing rate around the world--is to feel that the present millennial moment is a moment of truth for Christianity, a moment when there is an urgent need for the Church of Law to be challenged. The challenge has indeed begun with the proclamation of the Jubilee Year of Mercy by Pope Francis. If successful, it will show how discontinuous much of today’s Christianity is with the teaching of Jesus the Christ. No wonder some are advocating a return to good old paganism! Paganism will remain a cultural value but, as the first humanists well understood, it will not save anybody and to return to it will be to return not to what it is best but to what is worst. As the Romans put it: corruption optima pessima: the corruption of the best is the worst. We are at the crossroads and it is to be hoped that those who have ears will hear the message of the jubilee year of mercy. Food for thought!

 

 


   
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Emanuel L. Paparella2016-04-05 19:17:11
A note from the author: the last Latin saying has a typographical error. The word is not corruption but "corruptio." Apologies for the oversight.


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