A Christmas Message – Origins of Christianity

A few years ago I was travelling through central and eastern Anatolia on a personal expedition to see some of the less accessible sights of Turkey: the Tomb of the Sufi mystic, Mevlana, in Konya; the statues of the ancients gods on the summit of Mt Nemrut; the sun setting on the waters of Lake Van; the snow-capped peak of Mt Ararat . . . and I spent a couple of days in the eastern city of Malatya. There weren’t many tourists around at the time, and I don’t look much like a Turk, so I attracted a certain amount of interest among the locals – especially when they found I could speak a bit of Turkish.

I was wandering around the bazaar, and one of the stallholders invited me to drink tea. I accepted, and soon a small crowd gathered, one of whom, it turned out, was a Hadji, a much-respected older gentleman who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and was clearly something of a theological authority. It was also soon clear that here was a rare opportunity to corner a Christian and interrogate him about the peculiarities of his religion. Muslims in Turkey are quite accepting of Christians and Jews, since we are all members of the same monotheistic family. Nevertheless, there are some perplexing issues. ‘What’s this business about Jesus being the son of God?’ ‘Can you just briefly explain that Holy Trinity thing?’ Well, I know my Turkish wasn’t so good at the time, so maybe I didn’t do total justice to my western Christian heritage. I certainly felt it was a little unfair that I should have been chosen as the spokesman and apologist for my religion and culture in that small group of hospitable but genuinely curious Turkish Muslims.

My old Sunday School – Takapuna, NZ

I was brought up in a good Christian family. I was sent off to Sunday school by church-going parents who contributed generously to the weekly collection, and even served on committees. I did my best to make sense of the stuff they used to tell us in Sunday School and Bible Class, until the age of about 12 or 13, when the questions seemed to demand more than the old superficial answers. I’d find myself mouthing the words of one of those creeds (Apostles’ or Nicene) and wondering if I was the only one harbouring secret doubts about all those affirmations that, one assumed, one was expected to believe if one was to call oneself a Christian:


I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Amen.
Well, it’s a big ask, isn’t it! There’s some fairly demanding stuff in there, wouldn’t you say? ‘Son of God’, ‘Born of the Virgin Mary’, ‘resurrection of the body’ . . . It’s a challenge worthy of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, who trained herself to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Not easy without that kind of determination. In fact, only two of the four Gospel authors, Matthew and Luke, make that claim about the Holy Spirit’s paternity – and you can’t help feeling, as you read their words, that they have the ring of something written after the fact; which, of course, they were . . . at least 60 to 80 years after.
And what about Jesus himself? Did he believe his mother was a virgin? References to ‘my Father’ don’t count for much, because God was pretty much everybody’s father figure in those days. Jesus was more inclined to talk about the ‘son of man’, which is a rather more modest claim, and probably has pretty much the same meaning as ‘human being’.
So where do these so-called ‘creeds’ come from? Who concocted them? And who decided that accepting them holus bolus was the sine qua non of being a Christian? I remember one church minister, more adventurous and intellectually credible than most, making some attempt, from the pulpit, to reassure inquiring minds in his congregation that the words of the creed, seen in the correct light, were not as outrageous as they might at first appear. But in the end, the words are there, aren’t they?  You can’t really weasel your way around ‘descended into hell’ and ‘on the third day he rose again’, can you? And, of course, that’s exactly what the writers intended! But who were those writers?
I guess I’d put all such questions on to the mental back burner long before I came to Turkey. I came here to work, unlike some who come on a search for spiritual truth: the touchingly naïve Americans who, from time to time, embark on expeditions to Mt Ararat hoping to excavate the remains of Noah’s Ark; or others convinced that they are praying in the house once inhabited by the Virgin Mary. However, the very existence of such places brought those questions back to mind . . . and, surprisingly, provided unexpected answers to fundamental questions about Christianity, in a country whose population is reportedly 99% Muslim.
One thing you can’t escape from in Turkey is the reality of the early Christian church, and all those places and people: Peter, Paul, John, Mary, Ephesus, Antioch, Galatia . . . At the same time, you come to see also how much the development of Christianity was tied up with its acceptance as a state religion by the Roman Empire centred on Constantinople, and the political realities of that time and place. So, it’s an interesting paradox. On the one hand, you are confronted with the undeniable reality of people, places and events that gave birth to the Christian religion. On the other, you also see that much of the dogma of that religion, the articles of faith which one was expected to espouse as a true believer, were formulated and codified long after the founding events by committees of priests and politicians, for what might often have been pragmatic rather than spiritual reasons.
So let’s start with the real places and people. The Tigris and Euphrates are branches of the river that, according to Genesis, flowed out of the Garden of Eden – and both rise in eastern Anatolia. You’ll be unlikely to find remains of Noah’s Ark, but Mt Ararat can definitely be seen rising to 5185 metres near the border of Turkey and Iran. Head south and west and you will come to the city of Urfa, where you will find a queue of faithful Muslims waiting to enter a cave deemed to be the birthplace of the prophet Abraham.
OK, that old stuff, you may say. But what about the New Testament, the actual Christian business? Well, keep heading west towards the Mediterranean coast and you will find yourself in Antakya, the ancient city of Antioch, the base of St Paul’s missionary activities. You can visit the grotto-church of St Peter, in this city where Christians were, so the story goes, first actually called ‘Christians’. Somewhat more accessible to the tourist resorts of Aegean Turkey lies the town of Selçuk, a short drive or a middling walk from the site of Ephesus, one of the best-preserved cities of the ancient world. It was also the location of one of the Seven Churches of Revelation, all of which are to be found not far away in other parts of western Turkey. There is a widely accepted tradition that the apostle John, charged by the dying Jesus with the care of his mother, Mary, took her eventually to Ephesus, where they both drew their last breaths. Certain it is that the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I had a basilica church built there in the 6th century over what was believed to be John’s final resting place – not far from a restored house held by many to have been the last dwelling of Jesus’s mother, Mary.
I could go on, but you get the point. It was a long time ago, but these are real people, and real places we are talking about here. However, things start getting a little murky when you move from history and geography, into the realms of faith, theology and dogma. Certainly the new religion took off, for one reason and another, and began to be seen by the Romans, who controlled most of the Mediterranean world (and much of Europe) in those days, as a threat to their established way-of-life. The story of the violinist-Emperor Nero is well known – he is said to have passed blame for his own torching of the Imperial City on to the Christian community, which then justified an orgy of bloodthirsty torture and execution lasting from 64-68 CE. More open to debate is the theory that, far from terminating the new religion, Nero’s excesses of violent persecution actually aroused sympathy for the oppressed Christians, and gave the movement strength.
Persecution continued, however, until the reign of Constantine I. He it was who founded the city of Constantinople in 330 CE, and is called ‘the Great’ on account of being the first Christian Roman Emperor. Again, there is some debate about how he acquired his new faith, but clearly, by this point in history, being a Christian had become rather more socially acceptable. The special relationship of a man with his mother is proverbial in the Mediterranean world, and it is known that Constantine’s mother was a Christian. A grander, and rather more ‘imperial’ tale asserts that, on the eve of the battle against his rival Maxentius, to unite the Empire after a period of division, Constantine had a dream instructing him to display the symbolic letters of Christ on his soldiers’ shields. His troops won the battle, and the rest, as they say, is history.
From here began the majestic pageant of Christianity leading to its eventual cultural domination of the world – or its downward slide into politics and corruption, depending on your point of view. Clearly, once Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, there was a need for an orthodox position and a clearly delineated set of beliefs. The first problem that required solving was what to do about the bishops and other high-ranking churchmen who had not only recanted their faith during the years of persecution, but, in some cases, to save their own skins, had actually dobbed in members of their own congregations. Certain purists, known as ‘Donatists’, were, apparently, of the opinion that such turncoats should not be allowed back into the church now that the bad times were over. As we might imagine, however, there is advantage to an emperor in having high-ranking subordinates who can be relied on to toe the party line – and not only were the former apostates allowed back, but many of them returned to high office. Needless to say, there would have been unhappiness in some quarters with this decision.
Nevertheless, having established a coterie of bishops to lead his new institutionalised state church, Constantine called them together in the city of Nicaea in 325 CE. Nicaea, incidentally, still exists as Iznik in modern Turkey, and was the location of a major ceramics industry during Ottoman times. But not to digress, the Council of Nicaea was charged with laying down a code of beliefs for the Church, and in doing so, to alienate heretics who might threaten the state monopoly. The ‘heresy’ of Gnosticism had already been dealt with in the previous century; Gnosticism being a mystical religious philosophy predating Christianity, which tended to avoid the more literal-minded excesses of mainstream Christianity. Having got rid of this threat, it was really just a matter of haggling over details, though these details did cause some serious splitting of the one ‘holy catholic church’.
The Nicene gathering had to deal with the so-called ‘Arian’ heresy. Well, I have no intention of trying to explain this or any of the subsequent theories in a similar vein which these and later holy fathers debated at great length, and, in their infinite wisdom, handed down decisions on. Some of them concerned the perplexing doctrine of the Holy Trinity – in particular, what exactly was the nature of the three beings, Father, Son and Holy Ghost; and what were their relationships to each other, if, that is, they were actually separate at all, which they weren’t, or aren’t. As Spike Milligan used to say, ‘It’s all rather confusing, really!’
Now you might think, with me, that some matters are better left alone, as being beyond the powers of mere mortals to comprehend; and the details might safely be left to the individual understanding of willing believers. Not so, however. The all-knowing holy fathers apparently felt themselves quite capable of making pronouncements on such matters, and began the tradition of formulating creeds for the guidance of future generations. And the wording of these creeds, far from being broad enough to encompass a spectrum of individual beliefs, was, on the contrary, agonised over at great length, so as to specifically proscribe any deviation from the ’true path’, as determined by the aforesaid holy fathers.
Well, it’s a complex but interesting business. Clearly, the process I have touched on here did not end in 325 CE at Iznik. It continued at Chalcedon (modern Kadıköy) in 451 CE, and at other councils throughout the days of the Byzantine Roman Empire. The situation was further complicated by the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054 CE, when Western and Eastern Christendom decided to go their separate ways; and again in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation of the 16thCentury – but we can leave those discussions for another day.
In summary, however, what I want to say is this: I feel a whole lot more comfortable about my Western religio-cultural heritage since coming to Turkey. I have a better understanding of the relationship between the world’s three great monotheistic religions. I have visited places which have added a sense of reality and objectivity to the traditions and culture which I absorbed with the air I breathed through my childhood and education. I have come to see that much of what bothered me, as an inquiring adolescent, about the Christian Church, is, to say the least, of questionable relevance to the philosophy and message of its eponymous founder. And if anything I have said makes you feel a little better in the coming weeks of the festive season, then I will feel my time has been well spent.

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