Extreme Faith

I bristle at applying “extremist” to terrorist who justify their actions with religion. Violence in the name of God, I contend, displays a lack of faith, not a surplus. [note 1] I have a similar distaste for those who would withdraw from society as an act of faith, but find it less easy to condemn that behavior as a perversion of faith. In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon gives me fresh reason to question my distaste for such social separatists.

Chapter XV of Gibbon’s work deals with the nature of early Christianity. He notes that during the first century of the common era “the disciples of the Messiah were indulged in a freer latitude both of faith and practice than has ever been allowed in succeeding ages.” [note 2] According to Gibbon, the movement split into three major components: those who adhered completely to “Mosaic law,” Ebionites; those who completely reject Hebrew tradition and other doctrines, e.g., bodily resurrection, Gnostics; and the less discussed Orthodox.

But whatever difference of opinion might subsist between the Orthodox, the Ebionites, and the Gnostics, concerning the divinity or the obligation of the Mosaic law, they were all equally animated by the same exclusive zeal, and by the same abhorrence for idolatry, which had distinguished the Jews from the other nations of the ancient world.

Gibbon goes on to describe the early Christian experience as one of constant concern over the possibility of cultural interface with the pagans. Pagan ritual was present in everything from wedding ceremonies to the currency. If someone responded to a sneeze with “Jupiter bless you,” according to Gibbon, the ancient Christian would be compelled to take the occasion to condemn Jupiter. “Such was the anxious diligence which was required to guard the chastity of the Gospel from the infectious breath of idolatry.”

I cringe at the notion of such isolationist behavior and Christians focusing on every trivial custom. It reminds me of the annual War on Tolerance waged by Christianists who are offended by the “Happy Holidays” greeting. But, I reading this passage gives rise to my own anxiety. Is my tolerance, my integration into mainstream society at odds with what it means to be Christian? How much credence should I give the behavior of Christians so shortly after the formation of the Church?

[note 1] For an opposing view see Sam Harris’s The End of Faith. A book that intensely frustrated my Sunday morning study group at Chalice Christian Church, but at the same time inspired some amazing conversations about faith.

[note 2] This lines up nicely with Harvey Cox’s thesis in The Future of Faith. Cox explains that Christianity went through three phases. First the Age of Faith, which was free of dogma for the first 300-400 years. Then the Age of Belief, which was all about dogma and lasted for 1500 years or so. And finally, we are in the Age of Spirit, which nicely coincides with Cox’s youth in the 1960’s. Our group was less offended by but more suspicious of Cox’s work on Faith as compared to Harris’s.

50 thoughts on “Extreme Faith”

  1. I believe it is not only possible to be a Christian in mainstream society, it is important to our identity as children of God. As a Father, I believe He delights in our triumphs and feels our sufferings. Growing in faith is part of our purpose amongst the challenges of secularism. Our lives should be an example to others about how God and man mingle and bring about Love.
    At least that is what I think today. Check back with me again on Saturday : )

  2. Becky, I think I agree with the position you are taking today. 😉 Something I have trouble shaking is the charge that I have created a belief system that uses many of the same characters as Christians, but that my belief system strays so far a field from what even a sizeable minority of Christians believe that it is dishonest for me to call myself one. There are plenty of folks in favor of integrating with the world though–be in the world but not of it, and whatnot–so it is probably not a legit concern here.

  3. Jim et al. I think it is common today to understand that there were a grand variety of beliefs in the earliest centuries as seen in the more newly found and shared "gospels". The necessity for a single belief system is imperative for a nation (common belief thru Reformation) and before and after. But is it? I give one example. Catholics spend a great deal of focus on transubstantiation as an explanation of Eucharist. I bet not 20% can spell it let alone have it make any meaning. But the Catholic Church makes it a matter of life and death. However, if you ask Catholics they would say nearly unanimously but less clearly, Eucharist is the presence of Jesus among us. We are not all that one. Bonaventure spoke of the unity (meaning that it was the same thing) to gain or be the highest possible human and to be the highest possible Christian. Admmittedly tehre is nuance in that, but it is a very interesting notion in a time of evolutionary thought and so called secularism. I have learned as much form Gandhi as from Alber Schweizer (can never remember how to spell his name) and post modern science (at least what I understand). I think we are all in labor as Paul says, giving birth to Christianity. and I got to believe that birth is the start of the process, not a full born adult. Certainly the first words are not the single credal formula but somewhat akin to baby talk. And you had other ideas that were stimulating. Thanks

  4. Medard,

    I love the shift of focus from what is authorized to what is good.

    Furthermore, in the pursuit of what is good, you are suggesting that we not think of the high point of Christianity as the moments after Jesus uttered the varioius phrases collected in the Sermon on the Mount. Some event in the distant past that we should try to replicate. Rather, the best of Christianity is yet to come.

    It is the type of hopey changey stuff for which I am a real sucker.

  5. I have never understood those who withdraw from society(nuns, monks) and take a vow of silence. What is that doing for God? Not a dang thing. You are just forgotten by society tucked away in your silent hills. You aren't advancing the cause for Christ. Some of them never even leave their comfy (or not so comfy) confines so they aren't even advancing society. I think that if anything, they are wasting what God gave them by not truly living. Kind of ungrateful if you ask me.

  6. Bosco,

    I don't know what fractions of nuns and monks are hermits. The vast majority dedicate their lives to service.

    That said, I share your puzzlement about hermits. Although, I think reading through Scripture, the notion that the ultimate goal is complete separation from this world in favor of The Kingdom is not a foreign notion.

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