why i am a christian – part iii October 30, 2006Posted by Brad Richert in personal, religion.
Before leaving to Alberta I had patched up some turbulent relationships so I did not feel like I was simply running away from my problems. This was extremely freeing, and allowed me to gain some stability in my life. I was able to find a room close to the university the day I drove into the city of Edmonton. I had a little difficulty adjusting to my new setting, but I was visited by often enough by someone from home (who would later become my girlfriend and then my wife). Scholastically I was just getting by: a couple of B’s, a couple of C’s. Most of my time spent reading was not for school. Only a year into my Philosophy major I had a tendency to pass over my Philosophy textbooks to read books on religious syncretism, Buddhology, and early Christian writings.
My extracurricular readings started to affect my beliefs. I certainly was not a Buddhist, but I certainly was not a Christian either. My extracurriclar studies had tended towards an investigation of the masonic traditions (mainly because of my political interest), which in turn led to an study of hermeticism, occultism, and paganism. The amount of philosophers, scientists, and politicians that were involved in occultic activity floored me. Behind these people’s philosophies was definitely a sense of spirituality that I had not seen before, and one they certainly did not teach at the university. I could not escape it: religion effected everyone whether they knew it or not. I dropped my Political Science minor and decided to double major in Philosophy and Religious Studies. This, of course, would just give me more of an excuse to continue my extracurricular studies. I had all but deserted Christianity (which I will get into more detail later). I was not looking for another religion; I was searching to understand the connection between religion as an institution and the spiritual need that humans seem to have. Along the way, I studied different religions and topics in religion, but it was not until another run in with a movement that would have me concentrating on Christianity yet again: Gnosticism.
I am not going to give a lecture on Gnosticism (at least not at this time), so if you do not know what it is I suggest looking it up. My understanding of Gnosticism as an overall movement throughout religions is key to my current beliefs. My first run-in with Gnosticism was a brief brushing-aside at bible college which was only mentioned as a movement that some of the epistles may have been addressing (which, it was stated, was problematic for an earlier dating of the Scriptures). My first significant challenge concerning Gnosticism also came at bible college and at a new church I was attending that stressed the opposition to modern day Gnostic tendencies within the church (the church, led by two professors I previously mentioned, could be considered an ’emergent church’ – a church confronting postmodernism). The Gnosticism presented, however, was most definitely a straw man. Any sort of dualism within Christianity was presented as a gnostic invention and that the Scripture should be interpreted as an affront to the dualism so often preached by mainstream Christianity (ie. flesh vs. spirit, mundane vs. profane, moral vs. immoral). The problem is that Christianity needs dualism and that not all dualisms are strictly Gnostic. I personally do not believe this extreme example is representative of what the instructors actually believe, but this is what was being presented to the students. A second problem was that when there seemed to be a discrepancy where Scripture looked like it perpetuated dualist tendencies (as the Bible does), the instructors would always say, “no matter what the Scripture says, it cannot deviate from the fact that Jesus Christ lived on Earth and died for our sins” (or something to that affect – it was not any more than a sentence long). The problem with this is that it not only oversimplifies the issue, but that it is assuming that every that wrote the books that we now include in the New Testament actually agreed on the same soteriology and Christology (both issues were not fully developed until the 2nd and 3rd centuries and not agreed upon by the mainstream church until the 4th century). To this day, there is no way that this church would ever allow for the possibility that the New Testament actually has gnostic influences and suggestions.
It was not until I was at the University of Alberta that my extracurricular studies coincided with my academic studies and I was forced to study the nature of dualism is religions, from its ‘birth’ in Zoroastrianism to its development in Greek philosophy, its influence on Judaism and Christianity, and finally the attempted denial of dualism in many eastern religions. Where dualism is relatively easy to define and recognize, Gnosticism is anything but. Again, if you know little about Gnosticism, I suggest a little research. Christian Gnosticism is often distinguised as a movement that denies the benevolence of the Creator God (ie. the Jewish Yahweh) for a much more complicated cosmology, of which Jesus is a divine messenger rather than a saviour. Although moral and cosmological dualism is a key component to Gnosticism, this does not mean the Gnosticism is a key component of dualism. Stating that Christians should reject dualisms such as flesh vs. spirit altogether due to this misunderstanding is comparable to throughing out morality because Jews or Muslims also have a moral code. Needless to say, my interest in Gnosticism had piqued.
As I continued research for course papers and for my own interest, gnosticism appeared again and again. Like I said before, it was this recurrence that brought back my interest in Christian studies. I loved studying other religions, but there was no religion I was as familiar with than Christianity. I started reading scholastic (etic) studies on the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Previous to this newly found interest in etic studies of Christianity I had already come to a personal philosophic breakthrough in the idea of faith solely based on the works of Soren Kierkegaard, notably in his work “Fear and Trembling”. Faith was meant to be a mystery, a paradox concerning morality and spirituality. I did not fully develop this new understanding of faith until much later, but at this point it is important only to note that faith to me, by definition was a “commitment” of some sort, a commitment that crosses logical ethical boundaries based on reason and the moral majority (Kierkegaard, of course, famously uses Abraham’s sacrifice of his son as an example).
The idea of faith is central to every “born-again” Christian, whether they know what faith is or not: what is important is that they develop some sort of understanding of the concept that is capable of supporting his or her ‘type’ of Christianity. While many ‘born-again’ Christians develop their concept of faith through the rhetoric of a preacher or the text of Scripture, mine came from the opposite: a stern adherence to agnosticism (the lack of knowledge – not to be confused with gnosticism) and the firm acceptance of the scientific method (without blindly worshipping that either). I was truly agnostic in the philosophic sense of the word rather than spiritually (although perhaps that as well). I was not anti-Christian or anti-religion, I just simply admitted the lack of knowledge I have in the world as well as outside the world.