Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Religion as accretion

I was talking the other day with Lois, who has known the Cityside church building at various points in its chequered history, and she was saying how its present state is the result of numerous small changes, without any overall plan, over a period of many years. Some of the switchboards (there are multiple switchboards) control half the lights in one room and the other half are on a different switchboard. There are little nooks and cupboards and odd areas everywhere.

Which is a bit like Christianity, really.

If you know very much history at all, it's hard to consider the Church and its faith as the outcome of a divine plan when it's so obviously the result of thousands of years of more-or-less uncoordinated human decisions. Half the "theology proper" (the theology about God) is based in Graeco-Roman philosophy, and so is a great deal else about the theology, including how it is traditionally constructed and conducted. The Trinity, as I've referenced elsewhere, is probably a result of Egyptian and/or ancient Indo-European influences. The Dying and Rising God, the Flood and its defeat, and many other biblical themes are common to much of the ancient Middle East.

And if you really start looking back, a lot of features we think of as essentially Christian - angels, resurrection, the prospect of a future judgement, even the figures of the Messiah, the one good God and the evil Adversary - come ultimately from Zoroastrianism via late Judaism, from when the Jews were subjects of the Persian Empire.

One response to this is to try to strip all of the accretions away. This is what the Reformation tried to do, more or less, and the later Puritans; also their philosophical descendants like the Jehovah's Witnesses, who remove the Trinity, Christmas and other evidently pagan aspects (while leaving the Zoroastrian bits; after all, they're already there front-and-centre in the New Testament writings). Some theological liberals do the same, for slightly different reasons - not to take the faith back to a mythical, primordial state of purity, but just because, having discovered their origins, they are no longer able to take these aspects seriously.

But I regard it as a bit like, oh, an old building. Say one of those really old churches or manor houses in England, where they have more history (our oldest extant building was built in 1820). Its core might be Norman, perhaps built on the site of an older Saxon, Celtic or Roman fort, villa or temple. But someone built onto it in the late Middle Ages, and someone built another bit in Tudor times, and then again in the reign of Queen Anne, and in the Georgian period, and in the Victorian era, and then they rewired it several times over the course of the 20th century, and now... now it's very rich and layered, and everywhere you turn there is history. It's a jumble, yes. But it's our jumble. And if we stripped all the new layers back (and how do you pick which ones?), what you would end up with would be, frankly, cramped, draughty, primitive, and lacking in either beauty or utility. It's the end product of a great many people who each, for reasons that seemed good at the time, altered it in a particular way, sometimes destroying things we now wish they'd preserved, sometimes preserving things we wish they'd destroyed, but adapting it to the needs of their own time as they saw them.

I can worship in a building like that. But you can see why I hold the Christian particularities fairly lightly, and am quite comfortable being around people who have other particularities in their quite different faiths. To change the metaphor, we all need lenses to look through, because we all have imperfect sight, but your lenses may not help me (though they help you), and my lenses may not help you (though they help me).

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