Notes for a Home Church: Why The Church as We Know It Is Dead (Pt 2 in series of 4)

dead-church

In my last posting, I announced the first meeting of a house catholic (i.e. open to all) church. It will take place this Saturday, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, at 5:00 in Peggy’s and my home, 404 Jackson St.

I also mentioned that friends of mine wondered why, noting that the church as we know it is dead.

To be honest, I find their point hard to deny. As already noted, the institutional church is pretty much in extremis. If it disappeared entirely, most of our lives would be little affected. There’s good reason for that. The church has little to do with the historical Jesus, who (in contrast to the one worshipped in our churches) remains extremely relevant to this age of Donald Trump and its ushering in of fascism.

Let me explain

Jesus never intended to found a church. As James Carroll has pointed out recently in his Christ Actually, the Master was a prophetic reformer of Judaism. He remained a Jew to the end of his life. It was beyond his purview even to conceive of belonging to or persuading others to embrace a religion other than a reformed Judaism.

The same was true for his immediate followers. As shown in the Acts of the Apostles, they met in their homes to “break bread” [as was the signature practice of Jesus himself (see below)]. However, they also continued to congregate in the Temple and in local synagogues. Even Paul remained a good Jew. His work with “Gentiles” was with non-Jewish converts to Judaism. His concern was not to burden them by requiring circumcision and kosher diet of such “God-Fearers” wishing to embrace the Jesus Wing of Judaism. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus J. Borg have argued persuasively about this in The First Paul.

As I’ve indicated in my own book, The Emperor’s God, the Jewish Jesus-Community at Jerusalem was led by Jesus’ brother James the Just. Its members were effectively wiped out or driven into exile in the year 70, when the Romans utterly destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple. The resulting Jewish diaspora (refugee Christians among them) spread throughout the Roman Empire. There Christian concern for the poor drew numerous (typically impoverished) non-Jews into their orbit. Largely variant interpretations of Jesus’ identity subsequently emerged – some strictly Jewish, other gentile, some pro-Empire, others Empire-resistant.

In fact, four basic understandings of Jesus  came out of the hodgepodge: (1) Jesus was a completely human prophet like John the Baptist, (2) he was a human being who eventually became divine, (3) he was from the beginning a God who pretended to be human, and (4) Jesus was from the outset somehow fully God and fully human.

It was the latter interpretation that eventually prevailed as “orthodox.” The other three interpretations (along with additional opinions) were labeled “heretical” and suppressed, often quite violently.

In the early 4th century, the non-Jewish, “orthodox,” and pro-empire factions within Christianity rose to prominence. That was after Constantine issued his Edict of Milan in 313. It made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. Then in 325 Constantine himself convened the Council of Nicaea. Its Nicene Creed effectively transformed Jesus into a Roman God – above history, thoroughly Roman, and no longer Jewish. As such, he was not a threat to Rome or any other regime willing to dispense rich favors on the church. By 381, under the Emperor Theodosius, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. As the pro-empire faction of Christian leaders consolidated their power, the historical Jesus and his specifically Jewish concerns were lost forever.

Even more tragically, following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the early 5th century, the Church gradually stepped into the breach and took over its functions. Increasingly, popes resembled emperors, cardinals became “princes of the church,” bishops aspired to princely rank, and priests often fell into the role of religious hucksters hawking spiritual favors such as forgiveness of sins and “indulgences” in exchange for money.

Throughout the process, what gave priests their authority was the power the church claimed for them to “transubstantiate” bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Their ability to forgive sin in the sacrament of penance consolidated their influence. It rendered them indispensable for those wishing to get to heaven after death – which was for Catholics the whole point of life. Without such powers, priestly authority would have vanished.

None of that is to say that the Church sold its soul to empire entirely. Over the centuries, there were plenty of reform movements. Beginning around the 3rd century, the Desert Fathers rejected the growing worldliness of the Church. Franciscans in the 13th century followed in that tradition. Then came the great Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

Key to the latter was the denial of priestly status or authority. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others undercut the priestly class by correctly recognizing that neither Jesus nor the apostles were priests. In fact, the reformers said, any special priesthood was a compete aberration for Christians. If anything, in virtue of baptism, all Christians are priests. They were empowered to forgive one another’s sins. There was no need for the sacrament of penance. Moreover, all the reformers agreed with St. Augustine who taught that belief that a priest’s words could change bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ was absurd and cannibalistically repugnant.

Modern biblical scholarship has proven the Reformers correct on most counts. As Garry Wills has argued in Why Priests?, outside the obscure Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus is nowhere in the New Testament identified as a priest. Instead he is consistently portrayed as a lay person – a prophet extremely critical of priests and their work. When St. Paul lists the charisms, gifts or offices found within the Christian community, nowhere on his list of 16 separate categories does he mention “priest” – much less of a power to change bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood or to forgive sins in “confession.”

Well, if the Eucharist is not a ritual intended to miraculously render Jesus present in the host and chalice, what is it? And what is the meaning of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

We’ll take that up in next Tuesday’s posting – Part 3 in this series.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

7 thoughts on “Notes for a Home Church: Why The Church as We Know It Is Dead (Pt 2 in series of 4)”

  1. So the question is can we put the new wine into the old bottles? And why would we do so? My understanding is that spirituality has evolved new and deeper understandings in tit’s long history since Jesus lived. Not that some of the content attributed to him and his followers does not contain much that is basic to any spirituality. But we know that also much false teaching became connected to this vast and various thing we call Christianity.

    Is it more effective and closer to spiritual truth as we can now approach and frame it to make a fresh start and let go of the whole apparatus of beliefs and practices associated with the Christian religion? Is reinterpreting and updating all of that relic an unnecessary and in some ways impossible task? Is the very clinging to the old remains of Christianity actually a bar to greater, fresher possibilities?

    Just to mention one thing lacking in most Christian congregations, and even condemned in some: meditation. For many in the Church this basic spiritual practice was missing. The historical enmity of the Church to it’s mystics regarded such practices as a dangerous heresy. One could go on to talk of the divinity of all things which was so important in indigenous forms of spirit worship, which was condemned as “pantheism.” Our whole modern world is infected with unconscious beliefs associated with Christianity that are obstacles to creating a wider more tolerant world and a spirituality appropriate to bring it into being and sustain us into a creative future.

    I just raise these questions for this groups consideration that we may learn by contemplating them and sharing our understandings together. I do not mean to take any dogmatic stand on these issues. But they may prove to be critical for shaping a spirituality adequate to get us through this dangerous time, and on to a better more peaceful life together. As people think in their hearts, so shall their world be….

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  2. The changes we need to make are so radical and deep that we are not going to do so on the basis of our lukewarm religiosity. The seduction of the easy middle class life is just too great. The parable of the rich young man who wanted to join with Jesus’ friends, who was told that was easy – just give up your wealth and come along. To which he responded, “This is a hard saying.” Even half measures we are reluctant to embrace. We are in some ways too far gone spiritually to achieve the depth of change necessary in the time left to us. We are deeply ill and in denial about it. This is why a retread of the old tired religion that was really part of our sickness will be totally inadequate to deal with the catastrophe that is bearing down us now with great speed.

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    1. But, Mike, where are we to go in search of the spiritual strength needed to combat Trumpism? I’m convinced all people like us have is the tradition that inspired the Berrigans, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Oscar Romero, MLK, and all those other great radicals, reformers, and trouble-makers.

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      1. Good point Mike. If a few people can use the teachings of various branches of Christianity to launch themselves into a trajectory far beyond the business as usual approaches of most within those churches, all to the good. On the other hand a few heroes like Merton and the Berrigan’s do not an effective revolution make. One could legitimately ask how much real impact those noble figures actually have had on the juggernaut of modern war making, environment destroying capitalist empire?

        Even when the Pope tries to chart a new course for the faithful, how many can hear him? However, I am not going to criticize you or many others who try to walk the walk of these inspiring spiritual leaders. I just wonder if forging a new path is best done trying to bestride two horses on the way. If ways to make the traditional an asset rather than an obstacle? Perhaps a good idea to try that, maybe not – I don’t really know. Like the Pope’s endeavor, we have to wait and see what fruit it bears. In terms of your own house church effort, I am certainly not wanting to throw cold water on it, but hope it is successful in every way. Every effort to serve the Truth and Love is always successful, no matter what the apparent results may seem. We serve something higher than the judgments of this world….

        Peter – I recently studied the Knitter book Mike mentioned in a small group. It is a very wonderful ecumenical statement. There is no real conflict between Catholicism and Buddhism, if these faiths are deeply understood.

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      2. Thought-full, as always, Mike. You wouldn’t be interested in attending, would you — and help us get off on the right foot? This Saturday @ 5 @ 404 Jackson! I want it to be known as The Pope Francis Church of Resistance (to Trumpism). Bring a friend and help us out.

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  3. Some good thoughts Mike. I found that studying Buddhism revealed more about Christianity to me than studying Christianity.

    “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me”

    Seems to me that he explains the whole ritual. He does not say recreate my body and blood, but just use this as a ritual of remembrance.

    I’d agree that the Churches are dying. In the UK one ex-Archbishop has predicted its total demise. I’d blame it on their refusal to engage with their own tradition of knowledge and truth for the sake of protecting dogma and power. Meanwhile the congregation is moving on.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Peter. I’ll be interested to know your response to next week’s posting about the Eucharist. It will centralize the Buddhist understanding. Have you come across Paul Knitter’s “Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian”? Knitter is interesting because he shares our background almost exactly.

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