Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Some recent conversations with Friends revealed that they considered Quaker Universalism to represent anything but Christianity. This is not surprising either psychologically or historically, yet it misses the core premise of universalism: inclusion.
Psychologically, our pattern-seeking brains prefer boundaries and distinctions, and their cognitive shortcut is to divide things into either/or categories. Historically, if I came to Quakerism from outside of the Christian community, or if I have laid down the belief system of that community, I may see Quaker Universalism as the “welcoming other,” something instead of Christianity.
There’s a trick here.
When I look at Christianity—either from the inside or from the outside—I tend to see it as it is usually presented to me by its human advocates: as a system of beliefs and practices, together with the institutions which advocate and defend them. In other words, I see what those advocates project as being “Christianity.” I also see what I project onto “Christianity,” my conscious and visceral reactions to whatever I have experienced in interaction with “Christian” people and institutions.
I’ve used those quotation marks above to signify my dilemma. I see “Christianity” and self-identified “Christian” people, but am I seeing the Truth that those people and I share and sometimes glimpse beyond our projections?
In his new book, Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus, James G. Crossley speaks to the challenges of this dilemma, even within the scholarly tradition of “historical Jesus” research. Crossley writes:
One of the advantages of working with the general “earliest Palestinian tradition” [of the Jesus movement], rather than trying more precisely to reconstruct the historical Jesus, is that it potentially allows for more evidence to assess the ways in which people were part of the complexities and chaos of historical change….
Besides, we do not necessarily have direct access to the words or even deeds of the historical Jesus and working more generally eases some of those more practical problems” (163)
There was great social disruption in 1st century Galilee and Palestine. Family, household and agrarian village life were turned upside down by the socio-economic demands of Herod Antipas’ new Roman cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris. Whether or not Jesus himself spoke out of a sense of peasant revolutionary distress, enough of that sense is reflected in the earliest tradition to show up in the gospels of Mark and the later evangelists.
In particular, Crossley argues that in this tradition the “sinners” Jesus was criticized for sitting at table with were not the lowly outcasts, the riff-raff, but rather “rich people who are powerful, oppressive, abusing justice, and unjustly successful” (99). The Jesus of this tradition does not deny that such people are sinners, but he communes with them in order to bring them back to righteousness.
For Crossley, the great historical irony is that the remedies looked for in this tradition carried within them the seeds of an abusive historical church:
The earliest Palestinian tradition pitted the kingdom of God against Rome, attacked wealth and privilege, supported the poorest members of society, and saw Jesus as an agent of the kingdom in both present and future.
However, the…tradition simultaneously mimicked power and imperialism. It looked to the kingdom of God coming in power and establishing hierarchical rule on earth with Jesus and his followers playing highly elevated roles, including one of judge. Rich and poor would be reversed but the structure of reward was not radically altered….
This imperial theology was also taken up very early, not least by Paul, and, even if it probably would have horrified some of the people responsible for the earliest Palestinian tradition, imperialist theology is not as far removed from Constantine as is often thought. (162)
So many intermingled layers of projection. How to see beyond them?
My suggestion is that universalism is not a belief system but a faith testimony.
I begin with the testimony that all of us are one kindred, regardless of our traditions, our religions, our politics, our behaviors and beliefs.
If that is the case, I first find situations for fellowship with others: self-identified Christians, same-sex marriage opponents, racists, and so on.
Then I find ways for us to sit together in expectant and compassionate waiting, perhaps sharing a meal, while we make ourselves tender and open to seeing what we all share as Truth.
And so it is.