Friday 31 March 2017

Past and actually-existing Christianity as a Middle (agrarian) society form of religion

I seem to spend much of my life thinking about matters that most other people never think about even once; and for more than a couple of decades I have intermittently mulled-over a concern that Christianity - as it has been thus far - is a typical product of a middle society.

By middle society I mean coming in-between the simple hunter-gatherer form of organisation and the modern societies that have been most evident since the industrial revolution. (I got this division from reading in anthropology, and perhaps especially from the work of Ernest Gellner.)

In terms of religion - hunter gatherer societies without food storage don't really have any - they are intensely and wholly spiritual but they are not religious. They are typically animistic with fluid beliefs and rituals, no priests - but individual, charismatic, improvisatory shamans, no scriptures (being illiterate) - no alienation, lots of meaning but no purpose to life (because life Just Is - with some cyclical aspects - including recycling/ transformative type of reincarnation)... and so on

Religions that are associated with agricultural societies (and some more complex hunter gatherers - like North West Pacific Amerindians, and Australian Aborigines) are 'totemic - with fixed beliefs and rituals, priests in a hierarchy - and, when there is literacy; scriptures, laws, legals procedures... all actually-existing and viable (not collapsing) religions for millenia are of this form.

Since modernity, we have had the variable survival of middle society type religion in a context of general collapse of religious viability, and weakening of religion as a factor in life.

The implication therefore seems to be that middle society religion is the only kind of religion; and therefore for a Christian the implication seems to be that modernity must be abandoned, and society should recur to an agrarian level - we should go back to the kind of life of the dark ages, the middle ages, or the Christian Roman Empires (Byzantium, Holy Russia etc).

That was pretty much how I was thinking when I wrote Thought Prison (published in 2011) - but I was not able to convince myself of the validity of this perspective. Mostly, this was because I could not regard the middle society Christianity as being good enough.

There seem to have been many aspects of those Christian societies that were wrong, un-Christian - in particular the way in which the religion was centred in the institutional priesthood, with the individual's primary role being obedience. This fault was addressed by the Reformation - but not effectively.

This was also associated with an idea of God that retained many aspects of the un-loving pagan deities - the Christian God was (not always, but far too often) being treated implicitly as if he were a tyrant rather than a loving Father. This fault was not addressed by the Reformation - indeed the Calvinists were more extreme in this fault than the Roman Catholics.

In a nutshell, while on the one hand almost any Christian society of the past was better than the current state of hedonic, nihilistic despairing modernity - with its officially sanctioned inversions of Good; on the other hand, there was no time or place in history when Christianity had good enough for me to regard a return to the society of that era as something I would embrace with whole-hearted enthusiasm...

My conclusion is that we Christians have no alternative but to move forwards into the unknown and a new form of Christianity that is neither the evil present, nor yet the suboptimal past of the middle societies.

This almost certainly sounds vague, wishy washy, wishful thinking, pie-in-the-sky - and there isn't much that can be done to dispel that criticism since there are no examples to point-to (just individuals who seem to embody it - those Romantic Christians like Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Steiner, Barfield and Arkle who I so often mention on this blog) - yet it seems a solid and sustaining conviction to me - able to support a life of faith and courage.

Either way, this is the position I have been forced-into by self-critique and the attempt to be honest and to avoid self-deception.

In sum: Christianity is true, so we must be Christian - but no previous or actually-existing institutional form of Christianity is a suitable model for the future (although one or more may be a suitable basis).

There will be (and needs to be, and should be) a process of evolutionary change in the direction of greater individuality of spiritual life - greater contact with the divine, greater awareness of the divine within -  and a pervasive awareness of God as our wholly loving Father. An evolution (or unfolding) that is an enhancement of the strength of faith, not a dilution.

And if this is good and necessary - and if I and other people sincerely want it - then it will happen; even if if I don't know how...