…when you can’t agree with each other?
The Hoosier Methodism in which I was raised favored sentimental hymns, including this cherished gem written by John Oxenham’s in 1908, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love, throughout the whole wide earth.”
Seriously? This is more delusional than the belief in God itself that we also cherished. Christians have loved one another since…never. Hey, I was pastor of two churches, and it didn’t take long to figure out the factions, the parishioners who couldn’t stand each other. Doesn’t this go back to the beginning? In Mark 10 we read that James and John asked Jesus for favored seating in the kingdom of heaven, and “when the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John” (v 41). Maybe this was when the ‘one great fellowship of love’ began to fall apart, and in Paul’s letters we see plenty of evidence of Christian bickering.
All this was but a hint of what was to come. In making the case that Christianity is a sham, it’s tempting to urge folks to read Dawkins, Hitches, Harris and Loftus, but it might be even more helpful to have them to take a glance at church history. Truly, it’s one bloodbath after another, persecutions, wars, inquisitions, tortures, executions—all because Christians can’t agree on Jesus and God. Never have, never will.
Maybe reading the history of the church sounds too grim—which it is—so let me suggest a painless shortcut: David Eller’s first essay, ”Christianity Evolving; On the Origin of Christian Species,” in The End of Christianity, John Loftus’ second anthology (2011). Eller points out that the religion of Jesus—whatever that may have been—was lost forever as Christianity has morphed endlessly, changing, adjusting to the cultures it has moved into. At the end of his opening section Eller states, “Christianity will be exposed as a thicket of bickering religions, absorbing local influences and reinventing themselves over and over again—which does undermine any possible claim of uniqueness or truth in Christianity.”
Eller points out that, indeed, Christianity illustrates perfectly how evolution works: adapting endlessly to its various and changing environments: “Like every other product of evolution, Christianity is a bushy tree of sundry and squabbling species—or in the case of religions, ‘sects’ and ‘denominations.’”
Church History courses in seminary were always a drag: almost 2,000 years of strife, back-stabbing, and pious posturing to get through, but Eller offers a streamlined approach, i.e., he focuses on three periods—as he puts it: “(1) the early period, from the first centuries to the Reformation; (2) the American period, with many new, uniquely American adaptations; and (3) the twenty-first century global period with new Christianities emerging in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere.” Eller provides juicy details about what happened in these three epochs; it’s actually fun to read about how much Christianity became something that neither Jesus nor Paul could possibly have imagined. Aren’t Christians even the least bit curious about this? Was this part of God’s plan? Didn’t both Jesus and Paul have it directly from the Heavenly Horse’s Mouth that history was about to end? Bible-believing Christians should be embarrassed that there is any ‘history of the church’ at all!
It’s good to get Eller’s little refresher course about the Roman Church excommunicating the Byzantine Church, which then fractured into several national churches. And Martin Luther was just of one of many who grabbed the headlines as resisters to the Roman church.
Christianity was shattered further when it moved to Americas: “While the United States undeniably has a deep streak of Christian influence in its culture, that streak has taken many forms, including many sects and denominations, and has spawned many new local Christianities, quasi-Christianities, and pseudo Christianities.” Eller describes a few high points, e.g., the apocalyptic Millerites, Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science, Theosophy, the Social Gospel, Fundamentalism—the word deriving from a series of books published 1910-1915, The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth—Evangelicalism and TV evangelism, megachurches and the “prosperity gospel.”
As to the final epoch that Eller covers—the current one—the mutations of Christianity range from the bizarre to the frightening, e.g., the South Pacific Cargo Cults, the blending of Mary with local Mexican female deities, the Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. And “…some Christian groups have taken a decidedly nasty turn in Africa (as elsewhere), like the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, led by Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed spirit medium and prophet who seeks to form a religious state by kidnapping children to fight in his holy army.”
Why does it happen? Why has Christianity galloped off into so many directions? It’s complicated, of course, but the extreme Christian proliferation is a textbook example of how religion works: imagination, fantasy, and over-confidence running rampant. Folks assume that their hunches and feeling about God are evidence about how things function in the supernatural realm.
But no, just no. There are no data about God. Whenever I ask believers to nail it down—tell me exactly where I can find reliable, verifiable data about God—I hear sophistry, theobabble and evasion. I want to see reliable, verifiable data that ALL theists (Christians, Jews, Muslims) can point to and agree, Yes, this is the real thing. I have yet to see that happen.
There is one incident in Christian history that Eller doesn’t mention, but which could be Exhibit #1, #100 or #1000 illustrating that ‘the one great fellowship of love’ is a farce. In 1536 William Tyndale was burned at the stake (actually he was strangled first, then his body was burned) for his crime of—wait for it—translating the Bible into English (he had also opposed Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon). At the time, Christians couldn’t even agree on who should read the Bible.
Feel the love!
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.