It is interesting to try and understand the essence of 'Christianity' - the single main thing that Jesus did, if you like - and when you do, it seems that there are actually quite a wide range of answers.
My own (Fourth Gospel derived) idea is that Jesus brought the new possibility of eternal resurrected life in Heaven to those who followed him.
Others regard the coming of Christ in terms of setting up a new religion - and then participating in the prescribed activities of that religion. Or a changed relationship between Man and God. Or provision of a source of guidance for (this mortal) life. Others focus on a change in 'reality' in the totality of the universe - an 'evolutionary' view. Others take a morality-focused view; which see immorality/ 'sin' as The Problem, and Jesus offering a solution. There are also other ideas - a surprisingly large number!
But if my own understanding of Christianity as "following Jesus to Heaven" is accepted (as a thought experiment, if nothing more) then it is interesting to consider what happened during the years of Jesus's ministry when a Jew or a Roman Pagan decided to 'convert', to become a spiritual follower of Jesus - to consider what this meant in terms of their pre-existing religion.
My understanding is that - initially - a belief in Jesus was understood in terms of an addition to what was already believed. The Jew added a belief in Jesus to his pre-existing religion, and the Roman likewise.
In other words, the new thing about becoming a follower of Jesus was the expectation ('hope') of eternal resurrected life in Heaven - to come after this mortal life and after death; and that this resurrection was to be attained by following Jesus.
'Following' involved having faith in Jesus (in his being the Son of God, thus divine - therefore able to do what he claimed) - and 'faith' meant something like loving and trusting him.
I think this - specifically about the Jews - is what Jesus meant in those passages of the Gospels where he implied that no aspect of 'being a Jew' needed to be changed in order to become one of his followers.
It also fits with the miracles of faith; where the miracle happens in someone who 'believes-on' Jesus - specifically, personally; without regard to the nature of his specific religious life - which might be Jewish, Samaritan, or any type of Pagan.
This idea of 'Christianity' as pre-existing religion-plus, fits with the observation of people who seemed to be (to to believe themselves to be) Christians and Jews, or (presumably) Christians and Samaritans, or Christians and Roman or Greek Pagans.
It happens because the original Christianity was actually composed of "pre-existing religion"... and then 'adding Jesus'.
This idea of Jesus as 'an addition' to religion is quite different from - almost the opposite of - 'syncretic' ideas of a religion formed from combining aspects of "Christianity" (as it later became) and "some other religion".
The idea is instead that Christianity has an essence - which is the following of Jesus to resurrection - and this essence can be added to almost any other "religion".
But of course, adding Jesus does not leave the pre-existing religion untouched, unchanged! Far from it! In the first place, the Christian idea of death as followed by resurrection (for those who believe-on Jesus) must displace whatever description of death was given by the pre-existent religion.
So the expectation of Heaven needs to replace Sheol, Hades, paradise, reincarnation, annihilation or whatever was previously expected.
Furthermore, adding-Jesus inevitably works-back on the pre-existing religion.
In other words, the expectation of immortal life in Heaven affects the understanding of mortal life on earth - affects it in innumerable ways.
I suppose that this was the basis for the development of the various Christian churches - these are the various consequences of the expectation of Heaven, on Man's understanding of life on earth.
And the churches vary because the order and priority of these changes strikes people differently. Since the changes in mortal life are secondary consequences of the primary reality of resurrection; there will often be disagreement as to which ought to come first, which ought to be most enforced.
But our situation here-and-now, in 2022, is that of no pre-existing religion. "Following-Jesus" cannot easily or obviously be added to Zero - not in the way Jesus could be added to Judaism or Paganism.
Atheism is the - increasingly mandatory - basis of all serious social life and discourse. Religion is everywhere subordinated to ideology - and that ideology is top-down, imposed, and evil.
Our rituals and rules are secular (i.e. Satanic in nature and by intent) - not divinely-attributed.
Jesus is not believed in his promises because he 'cannot be' divine, because 'the divine' is seen as untrue, mistaken, a lie - and indeed impossible.
Resurrection and eternal life are seen as sheerly incoherent in a materialist world where spirit and the soul are seen as merely mythical, pathological or manipulative.
Such is our situation. Men of 2000 years ago (and much more recently) were able to understand what Jesus meant easily and quickly. They could become 'Christians' (followers of Christ) almost instantaneously; simply by understanding that Jesus offered something more than their existing religion, and by experiencing the spiritual conviction (faith) that this offer of resurrection was real and possible.
The offer still stands, and can still (in principle) instantaneously be accepted - and then the expectation of Heaven can still begin its inevitable (but unpredictable, because so wide-ranging) working-back to transform a Man's pre-existing convictions...
Yet the Good News of Jesus Christ cannot nowadays simply add-onto and re-shape existing religious convictions because there are none, and even the basis for religion is destroyed and replaced by a secular, materialist, leftist ideology*.
(An ideology which is in-actuality a mostly-covert Satanism - not neutral but evil.)
The potential follower-of-Jesus ("convert") must also choose to reject many foundational modern metaphysical assumptions concerning the nature of reality; and choose instead to adopt beliefs within-which Christianity makes sense, and can do its work.
And against the background of evil materialistic nihilism - this must indeed be a conscious choice; and (because the world of institutions and rules opposes it) this conscious choice must be personal - that is, individually-motivated.
The essence of Christianity remains the same as ever - what makes a huge and adverse difference is that Modern Man is deeply damaged by this-worldly materialism, a nihilism that is deep and habitual, and by a tacit-and-denied allegiance to the evil agenda of Satan.
*Note: This is why I regard it as a misleading error to call the global, mainstream modern ideology of 'leftism' (or political correctness, or 'woke') "a religion" as so many of those who oppose it do. Despite some superficial resemblances, the leftist ideology is not a religion, it is instead anti-religion - the negation of religion. This is proved by the fact that it cannot (like Judaism, Greek or Roman Paganism etc) be added-to by Jesus, to make someone a real Christian. Precisely because leftist-ideology is Not a religion; if you "add Jesus" to leftist ideology you merely get a fake-Christianity. You get that Christianized-leftism of the kind propagated by the leaders of the major Christian churches and denominations.
This idea makes perfect sense. It would explain why the Celtic people in Britain and Ireland took to Christianity relatively easily and early. The druids saw Jesus as fulfilling and transforming their existing beliefs, just as he himself said. "I come to fulfil the law and the prophets not to replace them." From a personal point of view I see Jesus as completing earlier religions rather than totally supplanting them. But that also means that you cannot go back to pagan beliefs without Christ. He irradiates them but without him they are now but shells of their former selves.
@William - I often think about that story of King Edwin https://charltonteaching.blogspot.com/2020/04/king-edwin-of-northumbria-and-sparrows.html which seems to confirm that the 'main thing' about the new faith was offering a better future after death; and apparently also showing how quickly and easily this conversion was effected.
In so many of these early conversion stories there was no need for elaborate instruction or preparation, or for checking orthodoxy of beliefs. Modern people sometimes interpret this as meaning that the Christianity was insincere, superficial, expedient, confused... but maybe not. Maybe they just Got It in a way that has since become lost, buried, over-complexified?
In their different way, and although they did not distinguish the two ideas, they implicitly distinguished between 'becoming a Christian' and 'joining a church'. And 'the' early British church was extremely varied, in practice, due to remoteness and poor communications - and yet we seem to see unsurpassed holiness/ saintliness among its extremely heterodox practitioners!
Properly interpreted, there may be a lesson for us in these early examples.
This is a good articulation of the situation. It reminded me of Jack's comment last week about churches: "I think it's more useful to view it as family: you're a part of it regardless of how broken and dysfunctional."
I think this post is helpful to understand why it's necessary to consciously be Christian in any church, even Christian ones. True Christianity has nothing to do with enforced policies, or even teachings about morality. These things are vital when death separates us from our posterity, and we want to make hard-won wisdom available through generations of time. It turns out to be good survival and propagation strategy too, but that's really a side-effect of the main point of the wisdom which is to live life joyfully, heartily, abundantly.
In other words, mortal religion is just a way to pass something to our grandchildren to help them navigate this life hopefully despite being cut off from memories of their eternal home and those eternal parents who have willed them into mortal existence.
Jesus is the fulcrum around which all the world moves. Whether we are counting up or counting down he is both our source and destination as we continue to contemplate his mysteries here in Anno Domini 2022
@Lucinda - "mortal religion is just a way to pass something to our grandchildren to help them navigate this life hopefully"
Yes, I think that is what has happened - at least until recently.
As things are Now, at least in the West, it seems that parents find it very difficult/ impossible to pass on religion to their children - as the children move through adolescence to young adulthood.
No matter how thorough the teaching and immersive the religious experience in early life; it seems that nearly-every adult reaches the point of detachment from religion; and then each individual must make a conscious choice to 'return' to Christianity from this detached position - or else become absorbed into mainstream leftist ideology (which is actually Satanic in motivation and assumptions - and this is what usually happens).
Sometimes childhood Christianity is helpful, but sometimes it creates a barrier to adult return - partly because it is easy for adults to reject their childhood level of understanding on the assumption that their own childhood understanding just-was Christianity; whereas their adult atheism is intellectually more complex, impressive and sophisticated.
(My own childhood experiences of Christianity - mainstream middling Church of England, as experienced in a CofE school from age 5-11 - were certainly an obstacle that I had to overcome - since its actual manifestations were simply dull, depressing, and unspiritual/ uninspiring. My later positive church experiences were aesthetic rather than religious - architecture, music, poetry etc.)
Partly there are also problems with the formulation of Christianity, and its identity with one or another of the churches (or churches per se), which I think are genuine deficits in Christian understanding that make Christianity easy to reject.
The purpose of this blog is largely to address such people - by showing a way to be primarily Christian but with different metaphysical assumptions from those enforced by mainstream churches - different assumptions that solve some of the commonest 'theoretical reasons' why some people 'cannot believe' mainstream Christianity.
Good post, lots to think about here.
You raise an important point about people becoming Christian instantly. One good example is the Ethiopian eunuch. If extensive knowledge and intellectual understanding was necessary than this would not be possible.
Something else that relates to this is that Christianity is not a tribal religion, so there is properly speaking, no single "Christian culture". This was understood early on when it was determined that it was not necessary to convert to Judaism before becoming a Christian.
But this also means that when people look to Christianity *primarily* as a means of group cohesion, they are bound to be disappointed. It can be and is that, but there is more to it than that.
"it seems that parents find it very difficult/ impossible to pass on religion to their children"
As the mom of 12, I've often put my mind to this problem. I think a vital starting point is to realize it's not really the main problem, since so many atheists are able to find Christ and embrace Christianity sincerely without good childhood instruction. The real problem is more like what you have described where a child gets a false Christianity. I find it's not too hard to challenge fake Christianity in children (and myself) as long as I keep this in mind.
I used to be fearful of parenting teens, but it's actually been a really good experience, in part because I read this blog and it helps me keep a good, clarified, realistic perspective.
Bruce, this was a very interesting article. I have lately been pondering coming to an understanding of Christianity that approaches it from Zoroastrianism rather than Judaism. I was led to exploring this because of the problem of evil, which seems better resolved in Zoroastrianism than in Judaism or traditional (monist) Christianity.
However, as I understand Zoroastrianism, it already promises resurrection in a kingdom to come (and is, arguably, the source of that doctrine in Judaism). So Jesus's promise in the Fourth Gospel is already promised in Zoroastrianism. Also Zoroastrians sometimes claim or incorporate Jesus as a messiah.
But to treat Jesus as "just another" messiah seems to considerably short-sell His importance.
Zoroastrianism seems to believe that salvation or damnation hinges on your total good works (good thoughts, good words, good deeds) tallied in a ledger against bad works. In that sense, it's similar to a Pelagianist view, perhaps? Would you say that Christianity, properly interested as an extension of Zoroastrianism, would be that by following Jesus you can "wipe the slate clean" regardless of your "bank balance" of good versus evil?
Do you see Jesus as having a special role in the fight vs evil, in terms of harrowing Hell?
Excellent post and comments. I believe C.S. Lewis had stated that Christianity was "paganism plus". It expands upon traditional religions beyond what they could offer without Christ.
That's an interesting point about British Christianity seeming to be more personal yet producing many saints. I agree that we can learn something from those Christians in these times when organized religion has fragmented over abstract theology or been integrated into secular society. Many churches have fallen into the traps of strict legalism leading to schisms or lax liberalism leading an empty shell of faith. I wonder if the history of Christianity would have been better if the examples on the British Isles had been emulated rather than splitting into legalistic definitions of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant.
@RO - Rather than giving an opinion on something I know nothing about - I will describe how I evaluate such discourse. .
When I feel the conversation seeming to hinge upon an exactly correct interpretation of ancient history - I veer away! There are so many uncertainties about such matters!
I think God (being the creator) would Not set things up so that saving faith was dependent on the correct interpretation of accurate history.
In other words, I try to confine my use of historical argument to illustration of ideas that are actually rooted in my own insight, here and now and today.
In other-other words, faith is underpinned by the deep and lasting intuitive affirmation of whatever sources of (putative) knowledge are capable of eliciting this affirmation.
We absolutely need a solid and courage-inspiring Christian faith; and where we find this will vary between individuals. Some still find it in one church or another, but for those who don't we may find it in theology, history, spiritual experience or many places.
@Lucinda - Thanks, but Yikes! When I showed my wife and son (who were handy) your remark about my blog having helped with raising your many adolescent children - the resulting spontaneous burst of laughter might have been regarded as rather hurtful! ("The prophet hath no honour..." as I *modestly* remarked.).I would feel rather crushed by the responsibility, except that I know you and your husband always think things through for yourselves - and presumably therefore filter the trial-and-error explorations and speculations by which my thinking proceeds.
@LM - Yes, I was thinking about CS Lewis while writing this.
I think we can learn from the positive examples of Christians who were, in their time, regarded as heretical in large or small ways. For instance the Oriental Orthodox churches (eg Copts, Ethiopians, Indian Orthodox) broke away from the mainstream (e.g. Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Greek) over the vicious and lethal Monophysite Christology disputes from the fifth century. Yet the overall evidence of about 1500 years fails to demonstrate any clear inferiority of the supposedly heretical Oriental Orthodox in terms of coherence, devoutness and courage compared with mainstream 'orthodox' Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics.
Likewise, the Celtic Christianity of the British Isles became regarded as intolerable and brought under centralized control - yet the *Christian* benefits of this top-down unification and integration are not easy to perceive while the losses are very obvious.
Yet, the differences of Celtic Christianity from Roman arose essentially from passive causes such as traditional inertia and remoteness, and from lack of cities and infrastructure; rather than from active and explicit differences in spiritual convictions.
At any rate, nowadays tradition has been destroyed, passivity works for evil; and therefore we need to have a coherent theory in order to enable us consciously to choose that which is Good and True. Therefore *we* need to theorize and make coherent that which we admire about the Celtic Churches; and in doing so we inevitably make them something different from what they were at the time they dominated.
We cannot escape the need to move forward into new Christian territory, even when the inspiration has been to apply the lessons of the past.
"The purpose of this blog is largely to address such people - by showing a way to be primarily Christian but with different metaphysical assumptions from those enforced by mainstream churches - different assumptions that solve some of the commonest 'theoretical reasons' why some people 'cannot believe' mainstream Christianity."
It worked for me.
My husband and I have a walk together in the evenings and yesterday we asked the question, "what are the elements of our personal religion? What beliefs would we risk it all for?" One we discussed was that compulsory means are invalidating, persuasion is of prime importance. I hope it's not rude, but your teachings have the advantage of not being "close to home", and so we can freely take or leave what we will without any downside.
Forgive me if this is too much information. My husband and I believe many of the same things but we have personality differences that can get in our way, often having to do with my pro-social impulses. You articulate ideas and beliefs on this blog that help alleviate personality-based, marital conflict in a way that could not be accomplished by anyone in our own church, because social groupings necessarily involve compulsory psychological elements, especially for women. You challenge 'sacred cows', which is a good way to cut through superficiality that otherwise dooms communication in relationships. I see in myself a feminine proclivity for system, bureaucracy, Leftism, so when you speak against those things, it helps me to better sympathize with my husband.
These "trial-and-error" teachings of yours are indispensable because they are challenging but sensible and non-compulsory.
You can't add Chrst to Judaism and get Christianity.
As the Jews well know. YOu have to repudiate Judiams.
Same with Paganism, Hinudism etc.
There's no adding, its a wiping away as all things are new again
@c1 - Well, contradiction isn't argument! (Despite what John Cleese said.)
This post really struck a chord with me. I was raised Catholic and considered myself quite observant and dedicated to the faith - until it came time at age 16 for my confirmation. Against my better judgment, mainly because I didn’t want to disappoint my mother, I became confirmed but shortly afterwards reneged inwardly. I did not tell my parents but I had “lost the faith”. Looking back, I can see it was partly the adolescent need to separate and explore other ideas/options and partly the fact that I had come to view Catholicism as an institution of useless rules and unfathomable ritual. It was time for examination. I floundered for awhile, considering myself at times a lapsed Catholic or maybe an agnostic like my father. Along the way I became a “witch”, becoming drawn to personal responsibility and nature-type worship. That didn’t last long and I drifted for a few more years. I ended up marrying a Jewish man who had grown up culturally Jewish but was not religious. He was, like me, still casting about for meaning and a relationship with God. Before marriage he asked me to commit to raising our future children as Jews. I agreed readily, believing that faith and commitment to a religion was more important to me at the time than what that religion might be. I did not convert but over time I demanded more and more religious involvement from my husband and then our children. We became a Jewish household, joined a synagogue, and when my second son was to become bar mitzvah, I officially converted. Since then, the scamdemic occurred which opened my eyes to many things. I have become very aware of satanic influences in our world and that is making me think every day about Jesus Christ and his role past, present and future. So apologies for taking the long way to saying that I am “adding” Jesus to my religious outlook, although in truth I really never left him behind. I feel he was always waiting for me in the background, waiting for my return. Jesus was born, lived his life, and died as a Jew. I will always be comfortable, because of this, in following the Jewish calendar, studying the Torah, and living a Jewish life. I guess I feel closest to saying that I am a messianic Jew, or a Jew for Jesus, but really maybe I’m just a Christian by another route or another name.
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