The Abrahamic faiths begin with a sense that things are amiss. Death, suffering, toilings: they all boil down to there being a schism between the Source of Creation and creation itself. The covenant with Abraham entails two foundational promises: a bloodline and land. The requirements to benefit from these offerings differ amongst Abraham’s children. Textual Judaism established regulations on living, offerings within the Temple, strict observance on matters of ritual cleanness (understood literally and symbolically), and proscribed fundamental responsibilities for the treatment of those both within and without the covenant community. This manner of living, in broad and inexact terms, was believed to afford one the best path toward restoration to the life God intends us to live within Beloved Community.
This is replicated in Islam; the Qur’an incorporates much of the Tanakh and the Christian Scriptures.* Mohammad provides teachings for Arabs (originally) who wished to follow the Abrahamic God, much like Jesus and the early disciples/apostles provided a pathway for Gentiles. Spiritually, I do not know how to follow Jesus without understanding the ways in which our God has communicated to the Chosen People and the heirs of Ishmael.
Central to Christian theology, largely owed to Paul, is that Jesus fundamentally alters human anthropology. Another oft-used term is ontology, which is a big word for even bigger questions: What is the essence of the human person, in contrast to the Greek concept of accidents? What is intrinsic to us, what is a priori; what is the substance–in Greek, what is the ousia–the “isness” of the human person? Pauline theology argues that in Adam (embodied sin) all persons die, in Christ (embodied redemption), all people live. The way to access this redemption is through faith. Without question, though, Paul did not advocate a lazy, meaningless faith of the lips unsupported by a faith of the heart. Implicit in the mandate of faith is a radical entry into relationships, with priority given to those who are in need and who are within the community.
For Paul, there was a foundational shift in human ousia as a result of Jesus’ resurrection. God broke through all the boundaries and offered reconciliation to all persons who had faith. I like this on its face, but not in practice. As discussed in a previous entry, Christian history is filled with violent, horrible examples that have nothing to do with a free coming to authentic faith, but rather required confession of belief at the tip of a sword or the end of a gun. This is what turns canon into cannons.
Christian doctrine rests upon a belief in original sin, which is really not a biblical principle. It’s an Augustinian hermeneutic; a belief expressed in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. I took an online course in seminary that only had four students; not that many people want to study Augustine in-depth. I did because I wanted to be sure why I object to him so ardently. Augustine is responsible for the idea that human sin passes down through the sex act; Augustine had a longtime mistress, a son whose death Augustine interpreted as God’s judgment on his sexual life, and a complicated relationship with his mother. In Latin, we’d call him Hector quae prominebat, or Hector Projector. His term concupiscence begins the streak of sexual repression and shame that has come to define much of Western guilt about our own sexuality and obsession with that of others.
For Augustine, using a Pauline framework, original sin is wiped away by Jesus on the cross. I give more treatment of that in another series I am writing, but suffice it to say that the blood atonement theology that emerges with St. Anselm does not present a vision of God or Jesus that resonates with my experience of them both. Stripped of the loaded and problematic language, the theory does have a profound kernel: the God described in the Tanakh offers a salvific avenue to those outside the bloodline and land, one that begins and ends with spiritual faith.
Christianity has been sin-obsessed for too long. In no way am I denying the reality of sin, nor am I saying that we should simply ignore it. Not at all. But we really don’t need to make it the alpha and omega enemy of faith. In fact, I see the idea of Jesus’ incarnation as a step away from sin obsession. We are brought into right relationship with God, so we need not fear that sin is the final word; instead, we should focus on living lives that are imitatio Christi, imitations of Christ.
For me, following Jesus has affected a shift in consciousness and spiritual awareness, away from fear into one of love. I do not believe that something magical happened when Jesus came to earth, and our fundamental isness changed. I do believe, though, that in committing myself to Christ I have been able to move stridently toward a more authentic expression of what it means to live honestly and holistically.
Stay tuned for the next installment, which will focus on Jesus’ relationship to salvation and the end times. Please share with friends!
*I rarely use the term “Old Testament,” as it seems an insult to those who regard the Tanakh (Ta=Torah, the first five books; Na=Nevi’im, the Prophets; Kh=Ketuvim, the Writings) as living and ever-relevant. Similarly, I am loath to use the term “New Testament,” but do so regularly when speaking because it is just easier. I prefer “Christian Scriptures” or “Christian Testament,” terms that also allow for non-canonical texts that, despite the rulings of Councils, I believe are wells of wisdom.