A ridiculously brief history of religion – Christian version

For communion, our church uses a beautiful loaf of leavened bread,
which, coincidentally, happens to be the Eastern Orthodox style.

As I wrote in my first blog, a new reformation is sweeping the Christian scene. It hasn’t fully taken shape yet, but may lead to deeper, more satisfying living, interconnected with all creation. This blog is the start of a multi-part series on how that message may unfold. To begin, I’d like to review Christianity’s evolution.

Before Common Era – BCE

Long before 10,000 BCE: Humankind felt the need to explain and control conditions that affected them. They imagined that unseen beings—gods—controlled the forces which affected the weather, their food supply, and other events of nature and people. Appeasing those gods with offerings, sacrifices, and worship was believed to help humans get improved safety, nutrition, and stability for self, family, and tribe.

Roughly 1200 BCE: A plethora of gods was whittled down to one god who had a human-like relationship with 12 related tribes—the Israelites. Thus was created the monotheistic God of Israel.

Roughly 800-200 BCE: Various scribes, poets, and prophets recorded how they thought God interacted with the Israelite people. Eventually, these were collected into the Hebrew law, prophets, and other writings we call the Old Testament.

167 BCE: Israel started a revolt that gave them some temporary freedom. However, it also caused schisms among the various Jewish belief systems and their leaders. Some groups felt they needed a messiah to lead them. The Pharisees began to teach that martyrs would be rewarded by coming back to live in a Kingdom led by God. This was the first time Jews began to hope for a resurrection of those who “had gone to sleep.”

Probably 4-6 BCE: Jesus was born. By the time he was in his thirties, he had studied his people’s scriptures and felt a calling to remind his fellow Jews about loving God, others, and one’s self. It was a simple, but radical message of interconnectedness and uplifting behaviors.

Common Era – CE

Circa 30 CE: Jesus lived in a rural community and taught with great wisdom about the good in all people. His teachings about love and justice deeply resonated with the common people. Unfortunately, he lived his message of “God’s way” with such integrity that it got him executed. After his death, a few people remembered him so vividly that they still felt him in their midst.

Circa 35-65 CE: A Pharisee named Saul (Paul in Greek) at first punished these Jesus followers, but came around to having a deep belief in the value of this messiah’s message. Paul realized that both Jews and non-Jews could benefit from Jesus’ return. (Since Paul spoke Greek, his “messiah” was “Christos” which some mistake for Jesus’ last name.) Some of Paul’s letters, along with essays about Jesus and the early movement by other writers, survive in highly modified form today. We call that collection the New Testament.

Circa 33-100 CE: The Jesus movement hoped that Jesus would be resurrected and be anointed king of Israel—a messiah who would free them from Roman oppression. His followers gathered mainly in Jerusalem to await the return of their Jewish king. They cherry-picked verses from Hebrew scriptures to substantiate their beliefs. Their hopeful message spread beyond the core Jewish communities in Palestine to much of the Mediterranean region.

100 – 300 CE: “Being Christian” was no longer a derogatory slur as followers of The Way parted from their Jewish roots and created church communities. They grew by attracting people who liked their caring and hopeful lifestyle.

325 CE: Constantine allowed Christianity to be the Roman religion if the leaders would agree on one set of beliefs. The Council of Nicaea decided that the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—would be the best way of describing their experiences of God.

Late 300s CE: People couldn’t understand why evil and suffering existed, so Augustine of Hippo said it must be because we are born with the “Original Sin” that Adam, the first man, caused. This made folks call out to God, “Help, I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” (Or was that an advertising slogan?)

Circa 400 CE: Augustine pushed along the theory of a physical heaven and hell that had been borrowed from Zoroastrianism and incorporated into Christian beliefs. The Roman Catholic hierarchy found that emphasizing these concepts kept the masses contributing to the church even though there’s scant biblical evidence for them.

1054 CE: The Great Schism split the eastern and western (Roman) churches because they had some trivial disagreement over where the Holy Spirit came from and the proper recipe for communion bread. (I don’t know what the big deal was. Our relatives disagree over the “authentic” recipe for certain holiday cookies. But we happily eat them all anyway.)

1097 CE: Anselm of Canterbury codified the concept that Jesus’ death was, for all time, a sacrificial payment to God for our sins. It became known as substitutionary atonement, using the catchphrase, Jesus died for our sins.

1517 CE: Martin Luther disagreed with the Roman Catholic church and said it’s our “faith” in Jesus, the Christ, that is the most important reconciling condition of our relationship with God.

1600-1700s CE: The church pushed for proofs that the Bible was absolutely true and ended up with the opposite result in that this—and other factors—triggered the Enlightenment, which simply created more skepticism.

Modern Era

Early 1800s: Some scholars and theologians increasingly explained the Bible in anthropological and metaphorical terms, so it became less literal and more a way of seeing the spiritual world through human eyes.

Early 1900s: As backlash to these new views of the Bible, believers in the “Plain Truth” of the Bible set down some “fundamentals” regarding the literalness and inerrancy of the Bible. Guess what that created—the Fundamentalist branch of Protestantism.

Mid-20th Century: Increased research and scholarship in many fields, using various critical-study methods, has led to broader understanding of what was really going on in the ancient world and initiated modern biblical interpretations.

21st Century: In progressive Christianity, scholars, theologians, and some clergy have further clarified what the scriptures really mean and are elevating Jesus’ message from a belief system to a loving way of living.  However, they haven’t yet moved far enough beyond deconstructing traditional Christianity to fully developing new Christian spirituality and practices.

Traditional Christian beliefs don’t hold water for a growing number of people. Each year in the U.S., about 2.8 million adults leave Christianity and it’s estimated that there is a net loss of over 3000 churches. This decline is expected to accelerate through the next couple of decades as baby-boomers die and leave the institutional church bereft of members and money.

But living people still have primal needs of the heart, mind, and spirit. What parts of the Jesus message are still powerful? In coming blogs I’ll try to segue from this history into the principles, purposes, and practices of modern Christianity and how they can lead to personal and societal salvation.

_____________________________ Art Fabian — March 25, 2019

If these messages intrigue you, please share them with others who might like to consider different meanings in life. You can receive each essay as soon as it’s written by sending an email to afabian131@gmail.com and say “subscribe.” Of course, you can unsubscribe the same way.

Art Fabian is on a spiritual journey to enjoy more aliveness and to share the goal of wholeness with others. He has no special training or degrees in this field. He’s not a religious scholar or theologian. However, he hopes you might also enjoy walking towards a richer life that benefits us, our neighbors, and all creation.

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