The Pokey Finger of God

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True Believers

September 20th, 2008 · No Comments · christianity, culture, history

At first, I could never understand the True Believers.

My first encounters with them was in Christian churches. My own, initially pedantic, attempts at Bible study repeatedly failed to illuminate the motivations or goals of True Believers. I could never understand just what was so exciting in the as I had ever seen it practiced.

Atheists I understood. Three centuries after Western World returned to rationalism and the Americans are still talking about heaven and God and resurrection with a straight face: this I didn’t understand.

Even I, an unlettered, dillettante, amateur historian could come up with a rational history of Christianity that holds not a single miracle, and yet fully explains all of the historical evidence we do have and why we don’t have any before this. Better yet, many other people have written scholarly books, with rational explanations, all of which refuting the mythology, if not the , of the Church. These things are not secret.

Obviously it’s not enough for people to write books about the fictive nature of the mythos and expect somehow to change attitudes about, or participation in, Christianity.  Why do people still cling to the Church? How can Christianity still have its True Believers in a fundamentally rationalist society? This was the primary paradox at the very beginning of my research.

A clue was uncovered recently, in a political essay that had posited a “spectrum of morality” that included the elements of “inclusion”, “authority”, and “sanctity”. It occurred to me that had co-opted these three into the Church, and this was why it’s not sufficient to point out that the Jesus story is entirely mythical, or that their faith is merely a modern derivative of an ancient, Roman Emperor cult.

Membership and participation within a church community provides its membership with inclusion, a source of authority, and the offering of sanctity. The mythos is really secondary to the activities of the organization on the whole — at the micro or macro level.  True Believers easily suspend their disbelief about their theology because they have been conditioned to accept whatever direction provided to them by their authorities. Further, they have been trained to take direction only from those within their particular hierarchy and no other, so in any question, a believer will favor the authority of their church, all others being heretics, atheists, or secular humanists.

Authority is the key. Those who are included by the authority are allowed to share in whatever the authority declares to be sanctity. It turns out there is a reason why the history of the Church is so remarkably political: the development of an independent Roman Catholic Church was an unintended consequence of the creation of Constantine’s Imperial cult, which he designed as a tool of political organization and control. It worked so well, that it has continued on, as another layer of political control, superior to all others, long after the Empire it was designed to support had fallen away.

Before the rise of the , people looked to their familial and tribal leaders as sources of authority. Inclusion was a function of location, or a commonly known ancestry.  Sanctity was something provided by one of many local or foreign devotional or mystery cults. And this point is important — there was, especially in the late 3rd Century AD, a great variety and depth of religious expression available to nearly every person. Religion tied one to a family and a tribe, it identified one’s culture.

As the ever-more-jealous Imperial cult developed in the span of a few centuries from a theological template into a fully-developed historical fiction, all other sources of authority, identity, or sanctity were repressed, demonized, and burned, where not co-opted outright. The variety and depth of religious expression was thinned and compressed, such that religion became a one-size-fits-all affair.

Through some really clever rhetoric, and the occasional Papal compromise, this new faith gradually expanded somewhat to accomodate the natural religious responses in the citizenry. It gradually recognized deaths and weddings, births and holidays, in order to remain relevant to a people shorn of all other forms of religious expression.

During this period, rationalism was roundly condemned as being a devilish tool to confound the faithful. Not to put too fine a point on it, but a general ignorance of history, logic, and philosophy was praised and encouraged by the clerics, who had a monopoly on education at the time. Such is why the return to rationalism in the 1700’s is a big deal. Political leaders began to seek out, if not become one of, the new rationalists. Once this began, the political control of the Church over the nations began to fail and fall away.

The United States of America was originally a novel political fiction, drawing its authority from rationalist principles of innate human sovereignty. Not from the Church, not from the Gods, but from the citizenry itself. The notion of a separation of church and state came from a desire to centralize all political authority to the secular mechanisms of the state. This has not prevented churches from retaining an unofficial subset of authority in most communities. Every Presidential candidate, for example, must be seen as winning the approval from the biggest names in contemporary religious circles.

Thus the authority of churches has not fallen away at all, but has become stronger, perhaps through a sense of needing to compete with the state for “final authority”.  Part of the reason that this works is that the believers need that source of authority in their lives.  Those who find their faith wanting will often cast about for a new source of authority, inclusion, and sanctity. Just as frequently, the first source who provides these will be believed whole-heartedly.

One cannot ask a believer to step away from their church — their source of inclusion, sanctity, and authority. Membership with this group is likely a key component of their self image, and the context from which they interface with others. That sense of belonging is real, that interaction with a family of families is real. These experiences of fraternity are what bring people back to churches.

Which brings us back to the True Believer. True Believers are a consequence of human psychology and not a deliberate element of Christianity. The key to the True Believer’s personality is that they require an active, fraternal community of faith in which to work. Their enthusiasm frequently propels them to minor positions of power within the community, from which they can lord over others. Theological or dogmatic issues are rarely important, unless they can be used as leverage against any perceived competitors. I have come to recognize True Believers in many other contexts.

The presence of True Believers in modern churches is thus indicative of active, fraternal communities of faith present in churches. Perhaps they could be viewed as a “canary in the coal mine”, as a warning that when a church community fails to periodically attract true believers, that its community has lost conherency. On the other hand, a church full of True Believers can be a highly-charged (if not highly political) affair that might be a little over the top of what most people seek in their communities of faith.

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