Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Looking In All The Wrong Places

Good Mark Shea article.


If I were asked to summarize the typical cultural narrative of Christianity to which the average Westerner holds, it would be something like this:

"Jesus was a good man who taught us to love each other, but tragically he was killed (nobody really knows why, but it probably had something to do with "religious conservatives" who were as bigoted then as they are now). His disciples totally misunderstood almost everything he said and built up this gigantic legend around him, full of miracles and other fictional rubbish in order to construct a vast and complicated church that encrusted the simple ideals of his philosophy like barnacles on the hull of a boat. He never in his life dreamt of, much less intended, a gigantic world-spanning Church to worship him. Anything in the New Testament that says otherwise was just pasted in after his tragic death. Our task today is to peel away the crust of Churchianity and get back to appreciating the simply homely wisdom of a great teacher by understanding who he really was and what he really meant."

Of course, one can find varieties of this meme that don't accept every point asserted above. The various Protestantisms will (usually) accept that Jesus did, in fact, claim to be God and credit at least the apostolic generation (and maybe even a few later generations) with fidelity to His message. The New Age will admit some hazy testimony to the paranormal about Him, but only to reinforce the central message that "His teachings have been distorted and His essential message has been lost."

Secular culture might occasionally stray in the opposite direction a bit by attributing to Jesus some malign motive his sheep were too stupid to grasp. But, as a general rule, the meme "Jesus meant well, but the Church has totally and completely obscured Him and His message" is a hardy perennial in modern Western thought. Against the "simple primitive gospel of Jesus" is habitually pitted the "Christ of faith" and the dead theologizing of creeds and councils.

Now, the remarkable thing about this meme is that it is, in almost every detail, an article of faith -- and, what is more, faith in a purely legendary accounting of history. There is not a syllable of actual support for it in anything that the contemporary documents tracing the development of the Christian faith actually show us. It is simply a content-free assertion that the majority of our culture accepts because they have heard it asserted many times from their TVs, radios, and co-workers around water coolers.


All this present-day conviction that the sure road to the Real Jesus is to take a massive detour around the Church is, I think, largely the Protestant Creation Myth in the last throes of decay into complete imbecility. For, of course, the great boast of the Protestant revolt against the Church was precisely that it proposed to "free" Jesus from the false ideas the Church had imposed on Him and get us back to the pure and original Jesus whose gospel had been so corrupted. Give that notion a head of steam and turn it loose through Western history and you wind up, well, where we are.

The original 16th-century revolutionaries had the mysterious conviction that you could attack a procession of Catholic worshippers, knock the miter off the priest's head, dash the Eucharist to the ground, burn the vestments, smash the images, and overturn the altar -- yet inexplicably seize their Holy Book and declare it an infallible oracle. The heirs of these revolutionaries were astounded when later generations did to their Holy Book what they had done to the rest of the Tradition -- and in their turn went off to find various Jesuses who said exactly what they themselves thought, based on the shred of "authentic sayings" they cherry-picked from Q or proto-Mark or their favorite bits of the Gospel of Thomas. They proceeded happily, Questing for a Historical Jesus, until (to their astonishment) still another generation arose to dissolve that New Jesus in the acid bath of skepticism and erect a still newer one in his place.

And so we arrive at the present hour, when the notion that we have to avoid the Church to find Jesus has become our normative cultural narrative, now spouted with less reflection than a child parroting his prayers. For the child, at least, never fails to ask thoughtful questions, like: "If God made everything, who made God?" while the modern mind never thinks to ask how we know the Church corrupted the simple gospel of Christ, nor how we know what that simple gospel was if we reflexively reject the only possible source of knowledge about Him: namely, the Church that carefully preserved the testimony of "those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (Lk 1:2), those who paid with their blood for bearing witness to "that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands" (1 Jn 1:1).

This is no small reason why one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church is absolutely necessary. For the exact opposite of the meme I recounted at the beginning of this essay is true: The earliest Christians had no concept of the Church as the Obscurer of All That Is Truly Christian and emphatically no notion that the surest way to know the Head of the Church was to ignore His body.

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