Thursday, May 18, 2006

Early Christian Cacophony

From Amy Welborn's combox:

Burge's Protestantism eeks out in this paragraph:

"Ehrman's more important effort appears in the companion volume, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford). Here Ehrman says that early Christianity witnessed remarkable theological chaos. Everything was in dispute: monotheism, Jesus' divinity, creation. Then, Ehrman says, in the second and third centuries, powerful clerics imposed their views on rivals, ending a golden age of diversity and tolerance. The vanquished rivals supposedly were reformed, suppressed, or forgotten. Other religions and other Christian voices, those outside the mainstream, were crushed. And it is only now, Ehrman says, with the discovery of their lost scriptures, that these long-silenced voices are being heard once again."

The emphasis is mine.

I think "Everything was in dispute" is overstating the case a bit. Some people did actually doubt Christ's divinity, for example, but I think most of the people of greatest historical significance--not just to us today, but the ones closest to the "Jesus Event" itself--were wrestling with problems that today we describe as Trinitarian in scope more than problems with describing the nature of Jesus.

No, I'm not assuming the "winners write the history" position, either. I was just saving it. (:

Let's look at the bold sentence, the one with "...ending a golden age of diversity and tolerance." Which alternate Earth did Ehrman study? Sure, there was "diversity," if you want to call the wide speculations of the Gnostics and other sects denounced from the beginning by the Apostles and other patristic figures a legitimate diversity, then for the sake of the argument I suppose you can, but it's this wedding of diversity to tolerance that catches my eye like a screen door hook latch.

There was little to no tolerance for, let alone acceptance of or respect of, heterodoxy in the early days. I think "respect" and "acceptance" might be closer to what contemporary progressives have in mind when they say "tolerance," which tends to have more of a reluctant quality, and reluctance is not something I'd expect to be a regular part of the practice of something that is supposed to be a good end in itself.

Well, I would, what with our tendency to backslide, but someone who disbelieved original sin might be less expectant.

My use of "denounced" three paragraphs up was not by accident or premisconception. (By the way, "premisconception" is a word now. Like a preconception, it's made prematurely, but like a misconception, it's inexcusably incorrect.) This repressive powerful cleric claptrap did not suddenly occur a hundred years after the Council of Jerusalem. Peter had words against this "diversity," and even more of Paul's are widely available today. The only thing that fits any Constantinian conspiracy is that the Church in the fourth century had temporal power to rely on as well as rhetoric and, most importantly, grace.

If there was a golden age at all, it wasn't when or because there existed a variety of belief as well as worship, all of which was happily accepted as being legitimate or as much within the margin of error of the decades-old Church documents as any other denomination's (if we can call Peter and Paul's sect a denomination) manifestation. Christ Himself said that parents and children would turn against each other because of Him.

Just because there was some variety, because there were fringe elements that were congruently documented by the fringe elements and by the core elements, does not mean that there was legitimate diversity or harmonious acceptance.

Legitimate diversity isn't just difference for difference's sake. Legitimate diversity is what keeps unity from becoming stale uniformity. Maybe a little gratuitous variety is all it takes to create a complementarity that becomes a dynamic unity, but some differences do contain inherent incompatibilities.

Try taking your American electronic devices to Europe to see if I'm wrong. There's nothing wrong with American electrical power standards, and nothing wrong with German electrical power standards, but they won't work together. It just doesn't happen. You can keep them in the same room and be safe as long as you're not trying to make one "tolerate" the other, but once you do, you get smoke and fire and maybe worse. If you bring an adaptor, bully for you, but the presence and function of an adaptor to unify American battery charges with European power outlets do not arise naturally from the juxtaposition of the two technologies.

Is this golden age of variety supposed to integrate with or compete with the single, global Gaia worship that men replaced with all those different pagan systems? Now there is a diversity of belief that contained nearly interchangeable parts, if I may paint with such broad strokes.

Of course, there was still religious conflict, but whatever.

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