Monday, May 7, 2012

Christian Transformation Through History

There was once a time when all good Christians knew that fidelity to the faith required holding to the strict Jewish laws. It made sense and was very practical. Christianity arose from Judaism and is so deeply rooted in ancient Jewish theology; the Jewish faith was a strongly defining characteristic of the emerging faith. That was until Christianity expanded beyond its Jewish roots and embraced non-Jewish cultures and religious converts with no connection to the ancient faith. Acts Chapter 15 describes the tumult felt as the Church wrestled with the challenging issues required for transformation. It was only a beginning.

The decisions made in these early years of Christianity—decisions to embrace diversity even at the compromise of deeply held theological values—allowed the fledgling faith to encompass the world. Then, fast-forward the time around fifteen hundred years.

There was once a time when all good Christians knew that fidelity to the faith required holding to the strict belief that the earth was flat and rested at the very center of the universe. It made sense and was very practical. The view from earth does imply a relatively flat expanse and the regular rising in the east and setting in the west of all celestial objects gives clearly appears to support the idea of earth’s centrality in the universe. Scripture, as well, can be easily read and interpreted to further ground this belief.

All this changed with great Enlightenment and Renascence thinkers like Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Keppler, Isaac Newton, and Galileo Galilei. Each, in their own way, contributed to the idea that the earth was not a flat object in the center of the universe, but rather a spherical planet, among other planets, all in orbit around the sun. The seismic shockwaves radiating from this reality shook the church immeasurably and challenged our sense of being in God’s creation. Unable to come to terms with a faith that did not maintain the physical centrality of humanity in God’s creation, Christians vehemently (and sometimes violently) resisted the change. In the nearly 500 years since these radical and heretical ideas were first proposed, the church today has embraced the physical realities of Earth’s less-than-central placement in the universe and we have learned that it never compromised God’s love for us in any way. Times, however, would still change things.

There was once a time when all good Christians knew that fidelity to the faith required holding to the strict belief that slavery was approved by God and necessary for the good order and structuring of society. It made sense and was very practical. Given the apparent support of Biblical blessing and the long-held practice throughout much of human history, slavery was easily understood and had many benefits to those in power—predominantly inexpensive labor and greater control.  Generally speaking, those enslaved were also physically different from the ruling culture allowing attributes such as skin color, language, and heritage to serve as defining characteristics of who was more, or less, human.

Early abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, and Christians such as the Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists, rocked the protestant world with their radical beliefs against slavery. It was not easy and change was unbelievably slow. Even as slavery ended as an institutional practice, the discriminatory practices against whole races continued well into the modern age. Even today, matters of ethnic diversity, cultural sensitivity, and racial prejudice still divide Christians. And there are so many more great shocks to Christian understanding and theology that still cause more division than we realize!

There was once a time when all good Christians knew that God created the earth in six days, crowing the creation by forming a man out of clay and breathing into his nostrils to make human life. It made sense and was very practical. Humanity is easily seen as exceptionally unique in Creation and the ancient stories of sacred scripture clearly call for our special relatedness in God’s image. Then a man named Charles Darwin challenged these sacred beliefs with the idea that life was a process of natural selection and evolution. Darwin’s theories gave rise to the so-called “Big Bang” theory and radically challenged much of what Christianity has long believed to be unquestionable. Even today, a great divide exists between Christians over the question of Creation versus Evolution—clearly the final chapter of this transformation in Christianity is not yet complete and it has been raging for around 150 years. Now, a new issue is rising.

There was once a time when all good Christians knew that God abhorred homosexuality and would punish any person engaged in a same-sex relationship with eternal hellfire. It made sense and was very practical. Clearly the mechanics of biological reproduction work against the notion of same-sex encounters and the dominant realm of natural heterosexual attraction causes many to be repulsed at the idea of homosexuality. Scripture was also a strong force as it could be easily read, and interpreted, to assume the most damning posture toward homosexuality.

Some Christians—although by no means all Christians—have come to see homosexuality as a healthy expression of one’s own sexuality that is both created and blessed by God. Like so many of the seismic shifts in the culture of Christianity over history, this one is not likely to play out quickly but the fact that tremendous progress has been made is exceptional. Our understanding of human sexuality is not what it was in years past and theology is struggling—sometimes quite viciously—to come to terms with the implications of new understandings. Yet, amid that struggle is the realization among many that there is a lot more to homosexuality than a mere sex act and that people are capable of highly blessed, fulfilling, and loving life-long partnerships that were once reserved only for heterosexual couples. This is not a bad thing! In fact, it may be one of the greatest movements to positively affect Christianity since the inclusion of Gentiles in the faith.

Like an early church shedding the restrictive shells of its Jewish heritage or embracing a cosmology without the earth at the center, we are witnessing the spiritual transformation of the church in our midst. Such transformation is scary. It challenges our base assumptions of who we are in God’s creation and how we are called by God to be present in the current age. It is not easy, but imagine the church if the Jewish traditionalists had insisted on maintaining the purity of the faith as they understood it or if the church required belief in an earth-centered cosmology.

Such transformation is part of the history and vitality of the church and, I believe, the working of the Holy Spirit moving through time. Although I’ve only highlighted a select few, there are countless stories throughout history where the Church reluctantly embraced new ideas and conformed to the age in order to remain a relevant and dynamic voice for God. It is, in large part, the strength of the Church. Even amid all the tumult, I must say, I am proud and honored to be a Christian and I can’t wait to see where the Holy Spirit is moving the church next!

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