As I read Jacob Needleman’s book Lost Christianity: A Journey of Rediscovery over these last weeks of summer, I stopped swimming and for the first time felt the current of my headlong search into Orthodox Christianity. The book helped me pull my head out of the water and look downstream. When I did, I saw lots of other people swimming roughly in the same direction, toward Christianity’s past, toward a rainbow that has formed in the mist generating over a waterfall, a beautiful end. We are all swimming, but we are tired of swimming, we hope that swimming in a waterfall will change something of the dynamics of seeking, and we are ready to give up what we’ve always known about swimming, about the techniques and even the aims of swimming, to get to the bottom of it.
Because Lost Christianity is about what it means to search for Christianity’s origins. Needleman does not profess to be a Christian, but he implicitly claims to experience what a Christian must experience in making headway on her search. As a philosophy professor, he also doesn’t claim to be an authority on the Early Church. He’s on a journey, and, like most of us on similar journeys, he feels unqualified to make it. Part of the book’s fun is watching Needleman watch himself speak with monks and church leaders about what’s missing from Christianity today.
I knew – or rather sensed, for I didn’t really formulate it to myself – from that moment on that there was a quality to Father Vincent’s life that I needed to understand. It is extraordinary how such a tiny, fleeting impression such as this can actually be the most significant event of an entire day, even a day filled with far larger, “more important” events and insights. Of course, the truth is that in that fleeting glimpse of Father Vincent, I myself was in a special condition of balance; one does tend to forget that these rare, fragile impressions, these “mustard seeds” point in two directions: toward the inner state of the subject and toward the new reality revealed in the object. (58 – 59)
The book struggles with the object – Ancient Christianity – quite a bit, but the book’s real subject is the subject, the seeker. We watch Needlemen begin to realize that he is always realizing things later. As he discovers this about himself, he also begins to understand a more intuitive, one might say spiritual, side of himself that he hasn’t had to draw on during more purely intellectual pursuits.
Lost Christianity says that the kind of historical search Western culture is trained in – a search that involves only the intellect – will never recover Original Christianity. The search for Original Christianity must involve a spiritual search that would transform me so I can search some more. The adjustments I make in order to swim a waterfall will prepare me, inexplicably, for the deep, calm waters – the pool I long for – at its bottom. The swim is back through time, yes, but it’s also a swim through myself to myself. I can’t recover Christianity without recovering myself in the process.
Christians seek for Christianity at or near its inception. Generally speaking, Catholics and Orthodox Christians experience Christianity in traditions handed down since early Christian experience began to coalesce into traditions. Protestantism doesn’t do that too much, but Protestantism is itself an attempt to restore the church to the way it existed before the church went wrong somewhere. So Protestantism is also aiming for the past, or at least using the past in order to reach a brighter future. The more fundamentalist the Protestant sect, the more limited the historical timeframe and the more limited the sources considered in its search for Original Christianity. But many Protestants, like me, feel that our search has been too narrow in terms of both its timeframe and sources. We have begun to think that church tradition may constitute part of the means by which ancient Christianity has delivered its secrets to every subsequent age.
Christianity – really, all major religions that have survived over the centuries, according to Needleman and his fictional or non-fictional Father Sylvan – has two traditions, two approaches to God: the stream and the pool, to continue my waterfall analogy. Most people wade in the stream, the religion where religious text comes off as proscriptions and prescriptions to help us live moral lives and bring us salvation. It’s a good fit for most state governments and most people. But certain bends in that stream, certain ways in which the sun reflects off broader expanses of the stream where the water runs quieter, may hint at a large, quiet expanse, a destination that gives explanation and even purpose to the stream itself. Otherwise, the stream dries up after a few centuries at most.
Needleman values both the orthodoxy and some of the heresy of the Early Church for their roles in maintaining Christianity. He puts a lot of stock in orthodox teachings because they have preserved the stream as well as the concept of the pool. Father Sylvan writes, “The service of orthodoxy is to stabilize the life of mankind as a whole through a morality that not only gives some kind of meaning to the millions, but which resists or absorbs the initiatives of ‘great men’” (194). The “great men” are often the mystics, the ones who would refashion and ruin the stream if their language suitable for only the pool were used there as well.
People of the pool tend to speak a spiritual language unfamiliar to those in the stream, and that’s a big reason why Christianity is lost to itself, according to Needleman. Telling people how to get to the pool doesn’t work, and “how to” language is not how people in the pool – the waterfall’s basin – talk anymore, anyway. Some Gnostic sects had much to offer Christianity, but their language came across as false doctrine. The church’s problem with Gnosticism, Father Sylvan asserts, came precisely when Gnosticism opened its mouth. “The Gnosis becomes mere Gnosticism when the language of silence is used to persuade, provoke, or explain” (202). Even Orthodox monks and other people of the pool have had their former vocabulary, including words such as “humility,” “purity of heart,” and “contrition,” watered down over the ages by people of the stream (iv). No language currently exists to describe the working of the Spirit in the inner man (59).
But Needleman sees a value in many sects of what the Church labeled as Gnosticism because these sects provide fragments of the pool’s lost truth. Many fragments tend to confirm these two views of religion and reality, one focused on morality for the masses (the stream), and the other focused on mysticism for the few (the pool). These views, as different as moralistic Confucianism is from Chuang Tzu’s philosophy that challenged it, speak different languages.
Some early Gnostic sects spoke of two Gods, “a God beyond the cosmos [for my pool] and a lesser, creator God, the Demiurge, who has fashioned this world and who rules over it [for my stream]. The highest God, the supreme reality, is variously characterized as the “Fore-Beginning,” the “Inconceivable,” the “Beyond-Being,” etc. The Demiurge, on the other hand, is a working principle. (196)
Such teaching is heretical, but it helps one feel a difference between the stream and the pool. And Father Sylvan himself uses Christian expressions in unorthodox ways to describe the pool and the waterfall.
A fine line often exists between Gnostic heresies and the third stage of spiritual development called Gnostikos, which many early monastic Fathers recognized. As John Anthony McGuckin explains in the introduction to his Book of Mystical Chapters, a difference of experience, and the language used to express that difference, created a gulf between the more experienced monks and much of the rest of the church:
In Christian circles, from the late third century onward, when the writings of the earlier gnostic movement had largely been sidelined by the main tradition’s bishops and theologians, [Gnostikos] was used as a technical term in monastic literature to connote esoteric speculation and reflections on the higher mysteries. Many of these later Christian “gnostic treatises” also fell under the disapproval of the bishops and were suppressed, or even destroyed. Some of the gnostic chapters survived, however, as the more advanced monks kept the tradition alive despite all opponents – those outside the church and even those within it – who have often tried to stifle the currents of Christian mysticism because of their unease with a fiercely personal wisdom tradition that was not always easy to control or define. The books of gnostic chapters are often enigmatic and difficult to interpret. . . . [T]hey were not meant to be a teaching tool for those who had not yet experienced such things. The gnostic chapters . . . were meant to be a signal to those who had already experienced some of these things that others were around them who had also experienced the moving of the divine Spirit within and who were ready to communicate on an equal level about the higher mysteries. (9 – 10)
Of course, our tradition, or culture, and our age, among other things, help define how we look at religious text, gnostic or otherwise. But I wonder how much my place along the Fathers’ threefold ascent may influence how I see religious text. With regard to some Scripture, I wonder whether God intended the text to have fundamentally different meanings depending on the maturity of the reader.
Sometimes, religious text seems to hint at this pool I’ve never swum in or even seen. What I call the Holy Ghost may be drawing me, after many years in the stream, to where the stream is headed, and I look at the text with new eyes and find that the pool and the text have been there the whole time. I hope I’ll be saying that, at least, in whatever language I learn on the way to the pool. Here’s a verse I’ve seen in a new way after I began to feel the stream’s pull:
Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. (1 Peter 1:4, KJV)
A ditty I learned as a teenager best describes my streamlined exegesis of this verse:
I am the righteousness of God in Christ
I’m a new creation in him
I’m a partaker of his divine nature
To me he does not impute sin.
This ditty combines verses from three New Testament epistles, including (in line three) the one I quote from 1 Peter. The ditty interprets all three verses, more or less, as describing things that happened to me by virtue of my decision to receive Christ. My interpretation is very reassuring for a young man who feels the same urges and attachments he felt before he became a Christian. I’m not perfect and I still sin, this interpretation goes, but I’ve realized certain important attributes: I’m as righteous as God, I’m a completely new person, and I have taken on a divine nature; that is, I have become like God in some way that I wasn’t like God before.
These attributes came cheaply. “No,” my teenage self would have countered were it alive today, “they came through Jesus’ death.” Yes, but they came cheaply to me, to someone who is called to follow a stream to a similar death. But my stream religion taught me that the righteousness and the divinity I was experiencing then was just about all I’d ever experience, that the stream was all the water I’d ever swim in before death. Anything unusual would come from the Spirit’s occasional outpourings (kind of the stream at flood stage) that we all hoped for. I was promised that, if I swam in the stream long enough, I’d be swimming in that, too.
Christian tradition as well as the Orthodox Church looks at the verse in Peter differently. We can partake of the divine nature after the resurrection, they teach, and we can even partake of it on earth if we follow the stream to the pool. Several people that we know of have done so, and they are regarded as saints – as guides to help us discover the current in our stream. These saints shine like this: I feel part of myself come alive in their presence, a part of myself both vital and undiscovered by me, or at least essentially unknown to me, before I met the saint. These men and women have partaken of the divine nature, or, as the Revised English Bible renders 1 Peter, they have “come to share in the very being of God.”
My movement away from my self-centered view of important Scriptures has been a gradual one, and one can trace some of it on this blog. In “Advent,” I question the currently accepted interpretation of the “born again” analogy and suggest a more prominent (but associated) birth analogy in the New Testament: we carry Christ around inside of us, and we give birth to Christ at our resurrection. It’s a less selfish perspective, and it affords a better view of God’s kingdom.
In “Lichen,” I question my long-held view of Jesus’ riddle about John the Baptist. “The least in the kingdom of heaven” that is greater than John turns out not to be the Christians, the new race of Supermen that Jesus’ resurrection would usher onto the planet. Instead, the “least in the kingdom” is Jesus himself, as he shares elsewhere. This is a less self-centered, more kingdom-centered view.
And in “What Is Conversion?” I question the use of “conversion” to describe a decision to become a Christian, even a decision to “receive Jesus” (a more scriptural way of putting our initiation into the faith). I argue that “conversion” describes the fruits of a hard-won inner struggle, and I suggest that Peter’s denial of Jesus lead to his conversion – even lead to his being “born again,” perhaps.
My earlier misunderstanding of Scripture tracks my misunderstanding of my spiritual condition. I am not far along my spiritual journey, except in years. Whenever God got close to me in the years leading up to my identity crisis, it seemed that he would point out my sin or suggest that I was at the beginning stage of learning the truth. This surprised me; this was not how I had learned Protestantism. This was not how I saw myself or how I reckoned my point on my spiritual journey. I had been a born-again Christian for a quarter century. But I was way ahead of myself, just like my view of religious text was ahead of reality.
Because Christianity in general has lost what I call the waterfall between what passes for Christianity today and what the saints experienced, we’ve appropriated Scripture that has to do with a far more mature spiritual state to describe our shallower understanding of Christian life. Consequently, we’re often underwhelmed by our experience. “Is that all there is to [being born again, being a saint, being an apostle – you name it]?” is a common Christian lament in the West.
A lot of this is a problem with language, I think Needleman would say. We’ve lost the experience, but we keep taking the language that the saints of old used to describe the experience and applying it to our own, more shallow experience. As Westerners, we’re not satisfied with viewing large (and, from the context, obviously important) stretches of Scripture and saying, “I have no idea what this means. I better not come to any conclusions about it until I’ve lived some more.”
I’d like to use our understanding about our relationship to sin to flesh out how we’ve generally gotten ahead of ourselves, both conceptually and experientially.
A Jesuit priest tells Needleman that not just some portions of the Bible but other Christian teachings as well were meant not for novices splashing about in the water but for those for whom the stream was giving some direction:
He went on to explain that, in his opinion, the traditional Christian teaching about mortal, or deadly, sin refers to a relatively developed individual. He enumerated the three characteristics of mortal sin: it must be of a serious nature; it must be done consciously, with “full knowledge”; and it must be deliberate. Until a man has the power to act consciously and deliberately, his sinfulness is of an entirely different nature, as described by St. Paul in Romans: the sinfulness that is in me but is not my own act, the original sin that represents the general human malaise. “It is destructive, but not conscious.” (154)
The Jesuit priest is not saying that St. Paul (or those he may be describing) is not responsible for his sin. He is suggesting instead that there is not enough humanity in this part of Paul’s life for him to even choose to sin. Paul (or the people Paul writes about) is not free enough from sin to be human, to make real choices.
I’m beginning to see another Scripture in a new light, a light that implies a little tongue-in-cheek from Paul in one of his letters to Timothy, his son in the faith and the Bishop of Ephesus:
Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned: From which some having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling; Desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm. But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully; Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust. (1 Timothy 1:5-11, KJV)
The law isn’t for a righteous man, Paul says. But maybe he speaks of how people view themselves. If a Christian finally flows toward the waterfall and discovers his sin, suddenly the law was made for him. Spiritual direction takes on new importance. The commandment leads in the end to “charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned.”
Or maybe Paul speaks of both the waders and the swimmers – of anyone, in fact, who has discovered his or her lawlessness and disobedience.
Oswald Chambers, the American Evangelical church’s favorite devotional writer, confirmed to me years ago that novice Christians were normally in no position to know much about sin and repentance. He disagrees with the Jesuit priest about Paul’s spot on his spiritual journey when he wrote Romans 7, but like the priest, Chambers talks of two levels of Christianity and their different relationships to sin:
Conviction of sin such as the apostle Paul is describing does not come when a man is born again, nor even when he is sanctified, but long after, and then only to a few. It came to Paul as an apostle and saint, and he could diagnose sin as no other. Knowledge of what sin is is in inverse ratio to its presence; only as sin goes do you realize what it is; when it is present you do not realize what it is because the nature of sin is that it destroys the capacity to know you sin. (Biblical Ethics, p. 75)
The stream has few people who really get to know their sin, Chambers is saying. But the stream is where we first adopt spiritual disciplines, and the spiritual disciplines may help us to become human. As Merton puts it:
To avoid sin and practice virtue is not to be a saint, it is only to be a man, a human being. This is only the beginning of what God wants of you. But it is a necessary beginning, because you cannot have supernatural perfection unless you have first (by God’s grace) perfected your own nature on its own level. Before you can be a saint you have got to become human. An animal cannot be a contemplative. (New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 256)
I am an animal, or, as Father Sylvan calls himself, pre-Christian. The stream in this sense is pre-Christian. If I follow the glints on the water I see late summer afternoons and begin to sense the stream’s pull toward the Early Church, I may well shed the attachments that hide me from myself as I also shed the years that have hidden much of Christianity from itself. In other words, I may reach the waterfall.
Needleman and Father Sylvan call my waterfall “intermediate Christianity.” In intermediate Christianity, the soul is born. “[T]he intermediate in man actually represents the source of all the attributes that generally define human nature as distinguished from animal nature: free will, consciousness, moral power and rationality (in the sense of independent reason)” (155). The soul lives in a realm rid of religious emotion and enthusiasm, on the one hand, and intellect, on the other – the two hands of the Protestant church experience. The soul becomes like Adam, God’s fully human son, capable of sinning and of becoming like God.
Intermediate Christianity is lost to us, Needleman asserts. “And the lost element in Christianity is the specific methods and ideas that can, first, show us the subhuman level at which we actually exist and, second, lead us toward the level at which the teachings of Christ can be followed in fact, rather than in imagination” (155). Needleman doesn’t say whether or not we can find it, but he says that the search itself will be transformative.
His interviews with religious leaders and the papers of Father Sylvan offer some guidelines for the search, though. We need to “occupy the body of the old Christianity, the mortal body of the immortal truth,” Father Sylvan writes. (Presumably, he means Orthodox Church practice.) That way, we value “presence.” Our own efforts to correct things (Protestantism is an example) speak of our lack of appreciation for presence and lead to a lack of help from the Holy Spirit, he says (89). We need to involve our bodies because that involvement helps to do things in our spirit that go beyond any emotion we may experience or idea we may get. For this, we should follow the example of the monks, who adopted certain practices of prayer as a result of experimentation (37). Along these same lines, we should work to starve emotion in order to reach “feeling,” which is beyond emotion and allows us to sense and operate from our core (24). Feeling, and prayer itself, makes us vulnerable. “This is the whole aim of asceticism: to become open” (27).
Lost Christianity is the invisible path from the Christianity generally practiced today to the saints we revere. Lost Christianity is the waterfall we may learn to swim in to become free enough to sin and human enough to experience “the end of the commandment” – that is, to love impulsively, like God.
Posted September 1, 2008.