Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Why I am not a Western Christian: Rome, Nietzsche, and Protestantism

I've written over the past month about my history with religious institutions and movements, and where all of that has led me. I think it's fair to say that at this point I am a mix of conflicted sentiments, beliefs, logical claims, and emotions for that matter. It's difficult for me to sort through all of these things when I'm trying to talk to others about these things, and it becomes even more difficult when they have strong claims. Most of the time when an atheist tells me they can't take Christianity seriously for almost any reason, I agree. Usually there is some kind of straw man involved, as usually when people oppose something, it is because they are hurt. For me there is no escape from that. However, I believe that it's beneficial to call out one straw man in particular, even while agreeing with the reactions I often hear in the same breath.

What this means is that when someone tells me that Christianity has been responsible for a lot of killing, hurting, and obscuring of the truth, and that there are a lot of ignorant people spouting Christianity, my response tends to be two-fold. First of all, and this is usually the only response I have time to give, I agree and can only say I'm sorry. My particular convictions lead me toward the term Christian, and so I am truly sorry for all of the people doing stupid things and forcing inane beliefs on others that use the same term. It aggravates me that I'm even associated with some of them, and it's hard to see the ones that are reasonable and good people when you've been hurt by the unreasonable ones taking cheap shots and being generally dishonorable and destructive.

Secondly, I believe that this portrayal of Christianity requires nuance, at the very least. I don't blame anyone for thinking that Christianity is only its' Western expression, because I live in the west and most of the Christianity that people have experienced has been western in nature. What this means is that the Christianity people react against is at once influenced by the modernist, Enlightenment era thought, and it is usually reacting to it. A good example of this is how the Catholic Church often makes claims and takes stances on contemporary issues like abortion, the political conflict surrounding homosexuality, contraceptives, and generally will makes its' voice known coming from their "faith centered" perspective. For the devout Catholics, their faith runs through every bit of their lives through various expressed opinions and actions, and their politics and social activism are greatly affected by their theology and spread through their church's power.

Another good example of Western Christianity is the "Moral Majority." I shudder to even bring this group up because of how offensive they are. To put it simply, this movement served to take Conservative Christianity into the political realm and bring about change by outlawing abortion in all cases, oppose any governmental acceptance of homosexuals, promote a "traditional" view of family life, and target non-Christians for conversion (Evangelical activism). The Moral Majority was nearly a theocratic movement, seeking to make the US Government Christian (or return it to its' Christian roots if you ask them).

It is on this second point I wish to focus. How can I call myself a Christian and be revolted and enraged by much of contemporary Christianity?

The movements mentioned are only examples of the way Christianity has evolved in the past few centuries. Indeed, this extends far beyond Evangelical Christian Conservatives and Roman Catholics. This sort of wide sweeping agenda has been happening for centuries. Rome has been this way since the schism from the East a millenium ago, and they've evolved ever since, constantly adapting to culture and being a voice on relevant issues, reasoning from their core theology and often speculating. The Pope's "Ex Cathedra" (infallible while speaking on matters of Doctrine) has assisted with their development. The Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century reacted to the abuses of Rome and demanded a reform of the church to do away with malpractice and corrupt theology. This eventually lead to another schism of the church, and many more to follow.

Protestantism came about around this time, and they distinguished themselves from Rome with doctrines like the Solas and several different fundamental summations of beliefs. In general, the way Protestantism has come to distinguish itself is by the reliance on the Bible as its' sole source of authority, justification by faith alone, and the priesthood (some would say papacy) of all believers. What this means is that a Protestant believes that the Bible is the authoritative source of truth, salvation and justification from Original Sin (I'll get to this in a minute) comes by faith in Christ alone, and the responsibility of all Christians to act in a governing manner in the church from their reading of Scripture.

Protestantism distinguished itself from Rome by moving away from the apostolic succession of the priesthood, probably because of a denial of Papal authority in all matters of doctrine. In other words, since the Bible was now seen as the ultimate source of authority as opposed to Rome's traditions and the authority of the pope, the Bible was theoretically the Pope's replacement. In addition, priests in a Protestant Church were now every member, with a preacher in a loose leadership role. Some protestant churches use deacons, and some use elders, but this is purely for loose ecclesiastical use, as opposed to Rome's authoritative priesthood and ultimately authoritative pope. The protestant is solely responsible for their own faith, and though "good works" are seen as beneficial, they are not seen as necessary in Protestantism. "You will know a tree by its' fruit" has come to mean that you will probably see some sign that a person is saved, but Protestantism sharply reacts against Rome's "works based" Salvation. The Protestant generally shuns the Sacraments as means of Grace, usually preferring to call them ordinances or specific things like the Lord's Supper/Communion or Baptism.

Protestantism kept to their Roman roots in some other ways, however. They kept the doctrine of Original Sin as taught by Augustine, which teaches that all of humanity sinned in Adam, and so we are all guilty and subject to judgment from birth. This has lead to Calvin's emphasis and eventual teaching of predestined Election of the saved, as well as to some odd teachings like the "Age of Accountability," which teaches that before someone can make the intellectual decision to be saved, they are essential saved by their own "innocence." In Rome's case, Original Sin lead to the dogma of Immaculate Conception, which taught that Mary was born free of Original Sin, which allowed for Christ's birth of Mary, a Virgin, without it. More on Original Sin in a moment.

In a way, Protestantism has also largely held onto the legalistic views of Rome by way of their Salvation narrative. In general, Salvation is seen as an intellectual acknowledgment of one's broken and unsaved state to God, and an acceptance of Christ's death as the payment for their sin. From that point, the Protestant is now legally justified in the sight of God, saved by faith alone. Some say they can fall away from this faith given an adequate rejection of Salvation, and some say they never can. Still others say that if the Christian's salvation is rejected, they were never saved in the first place, as the predestined will persevere to death and the end of time.

What I hope you are noticing in what I'm saying here is that Western Christianity has come to be what people generally think about when you say the word "Christian." When I started at college, I made a Facebook group called "Catholics are Christians too!" I made this group after noting the large amount of prejudice against Roman Catholics on my college campus. It was common for someone to state that Catholics believe in dead religion and works based salvation, usually in a tone like they're cursing or about to spit on the people. I created this group because I believed that Catholics had just as much of a claim to the term "Christian" as any Protestant. I bring this up because often people would ask me if I am Catholic. When I said no, they'd be confused, and ask if I was Protestant. Only two options were present for them, Catholic and Protestant, with Protestant usually meaning "Christian." Obviously, not all Protestants are this way. However, it is important to note that the movement of Protestantism itself started from dissatisfaction from Rome that lead to a schism and pointed reactions against Rome's theology.

Roman Catholicism originally schismed from the Eastern Orthodox Church around 1054 AD. They schismed over several matters of theology and practice, but the deciding factor of the schism, in addition to Rome's assertion of the Pope (Bishop of Rome) as the prime authority of the church, was the addition of the filioque to the Nicene Creed.

Filioque. "And the Son." This was a phrase added to the Nicene Creed to make it state that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, rather than simply the Father.

If you weren't raised in Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism you may be asking yourself "who cares?" I know I did for a long time. The East saw this as an addition that brought undue imbalance to the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is a Tri-une God composed of the persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The balance of the Trinity was due to each person of the Trinity having specific roles as seen in history and due to all of them sharing the essence and nature of being God.

If you wonder why you never hear about the Holy Spirit unless you're talking to a pentecostal or someone involved in a charismatic movement, this would be the reason. The Protestant Church inherited the filioque from Rome (though they're generally not as rigorous in theology on this point, obviously), as well as the legalism inherent in the institution that can ultimately be traced to Original Sin.

"Original Sin" as a term, has been used throughout Christian history. It initially referred to the original catastrophic act that caused the brokenness of humanity. If we go back to Genesis, this act was disobeying God by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This was largely caused by Lucifer's corruption and subsequent deception of Adam and Eve into committing this act, which destroyed their innocence and introduced Death into the world. Original Sin came to mean that all of humanity sinned in this act, and we genetically inherit the guilt. I'm going over this again because this is important.

Fast forward to Christ (most Protestants do), and we have a righting of this wrong. One can be wiped free of this curse by accepting the sacrifice which Christ took on himself on the cross, and be resurrected from death in the same way Christ was literally resurrected. Legally, we are justified in God's sight by the Father allowing Christ to bear the entire punishment of Original Sin (the Calvinist at this point would say the punishment for only the chosen Elects' original sin).

Salvation has come to be a "get out of hell" card. People often refer to this as "fire insurance."

No, I am not kidding.

So, to come back to my original point. I think Christianity needs nuance. I agree with Nietzsche's reaction to Christianity, and I agree with the atheist's objections. Indeed, God is dead in our culture, and we have killed him. The Western religions of Christianity have the common threads of being legalistic, reductionistic, impractical, and omnidirectional/contradictory in reasoning in political, theological, and philosophical areas. God kills God to satisfy God's wrath so we can all go to paradise in the clouds or a city paved with gold. All you have to do is believe.

I am not a Western Christian because I think there is far, far more to life than this, and that we cannot rely on myth and storytelling to give us a literal picture of the future or of reality. Salvation has to mean more than this, and Christ's story has to be accepted fully rather than a grand total of 4 days of it. The Bible did not come from a vacuum or float down from the clouds in all its' perfection, and a book cannot possibly be the ultimate source of truth or the ultimate authority on life. I do not believe in Original Sin as taught in Western Christianity because I do not think people are born guilty, and do not think that this esoteric "imputed sin" is passed down through any genetic means. I do not accept the legalism that's been taught to me by the west because of this, and I do not accept the imbalanced version of the trinity that I've also been taught, where the Holy Spirit is either elaborate magic or does not exist, and Christ has primacy over other aspects of God. The question here, however, is why do I believe these things? Who cares what I accept and don't accept? Why does what I believe matter at all, in comparison to the true reality of the universe, if there is one?

Well, that's a story for another day my friends. That day will be next week, or perhaps Friday if I can swing it. Be well, and thanks for reading.


  1. Well said. Admittedly, whenever I write on topics related to this, all I want to do is rant. Thanks for staying on topic ^_^

  2. Dude. You just broke a barrier in my understanding of why the bloody hell the inerrancy of scripture is such a big deal for Protestants. It all makes sense now.

    That aside: a brilliant expose on the topic. Well done. Really: brilliant.