Thursday, July 1, 2010

"A Different Christianity"

There has been a lot in Sidney’s blogs recently to do with Hellfire and Damnation, the End-of-the-World and so on. All these things are essential features of the fundamentalist Christian view of the world, and they feature too in the beliefs and traditions of the Catholic Church.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that Hellfire and Damnation etc are an essential part of Christian theology. The story is more complicated than that. To begin with, one should consider the nature of theology.

People often confuse ‘theology’ with ‘dogma’. ‘Theology’ is a kind of ongoing debate about the major issues of religion. Christian theology – like the theology of other religions – embraces a huge range of views and hypotheses.

Fashions in theology change over time and are partly controlled by political edicts issued by the Church hierarchy. These political edicts are known as ‘dogma’. ‘Dogma’ is quite distinct from theology.

‘Dogma’ is the collection of pronouncements made by the Church in favour of one or another side in the ongoing theological debate. ‘Dogma’ is essentially a collection of policy statements issued by the management of the Church. ‘Theology’ is to do with thinking about God. ‘Dogma’ is to do with controlling or limiting thought by either legitimizing it or declaring it to be heretical.

The current view of the world presented by Christianity puts sin, guilt, and damnation at the forefront of the picture. In the Christian view of things mankind was initially created in a state of bliss – in the Garden of Eden – and in consequence of sin was relegated to a world of pain, suffering, and death. At this stage the Son of God (Xristos, alias the Logos) intervened and offered Himself as a blood sacrifice to redeem mankind. He chose to be incarnated as a human being.

Because of the profound corruption of human nature he was rejected, tortured and crucified, and He thereby fulfilled the conditions of the ‘blood sacrifice’ required for the redemption of the human race. This is grim stuff.
How might it have been different?

Very few theologians have addressed this question over the Christian centuries. An exception was the medieval theologian Duns Scotus. Scotus was famed in his time for the subtlety and penetration of his thinking. But Scotus went out of fashion shortly after his death and the theology of the Church has subsequently been dominated by the writings of Aquinas.

Later generations found Duns Scotus too subtle altogether, and they decided that the problem was with him rather than with them. The ‘subtle doctor’, as he was known in his own lifetime, later came to be known as ‘the Dunce’ (Yes – the modern word ‘dunce’ is actually a corruption of his name!).

Duns Scotus put forward the startling view that the Fall and subsequent Redemption of mankind were side issues. They were simply the result of a historical accident that had derailed the Divine Plan.

It had always been God’s intention for His Son to take on human nature and to incarnate in the physical world and in a human body: His incarnation was planned as the final glorious stage of Creation. He (the Xristos, the Logos) would incarnate in a perfect world where he would be recognised and welcomed. And he would subsequently lead the rest of Creation in a kind of triumphant procession back to God. No Fall, no Sacrificial Blood, no Crucifixion, no Hell and no Damnation.

I suspect that Duns Scotus’ more positive view of cosmic history would take the fun out of religion for a lot of Christians.

One disturbing implication of Scotus’ ‘Primacy of the Incarnation’ as he called it, is that the physical world – including the human physical body – is by nature good. Another implication (connected to it by a chain or arguments too abstruse for me to summarize here) is that the individual is also by nature good: that the creation of individuals with a will of their own was, in fact, the aim of Creation, and that the free will of the individual is by implication in harmony with the will of God.

This leaves no one to hate, burn, save, send to hell, or feel morally superior to.
Duns Scotus’ view of cosmic history is more than a mere theological hypothesis. I would contend that it represents the theological consensus of the various ‘Xristian’ sects as formulated at the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. The Nicene creed, which was issued by the Council, is generally taken as the foundation stone of Christian theology.

It makes no mention of an historical Jesus of Nazareth, no mention of Mary, no mention of a Virgin Birth, and no mention of crucifixion or even of the Xristos dying. Nor does it have anything to say about the Fall of Mankind, sin, redemption, or hell and damnation.

So the question is: where did all these other grim and implausible ingredients come from?

Sion Liscannor

(See link to Sion's pages "Another Way of Being" on right.)


Lino said...

"So the question is: where did all these other grim and implausible ingredients come from?"

The pursuit of power.

Religion was the science in an unscientific age.

Some power hungry geniuses along the way realized that if you manipulated peoples fears and codified a ceremony (with you at it's zenith) riches and power would follow.

Modern example; L Ron Hubbard's crap.

You are a good person Uncle, you don't need this junk hanging over your head.

poetreader said...

What an oversimplification of Duns Scotus! He would not recognize this description of his thinking, especially in the discounting of a historical Jesus, which would have been the last thing to cross his mind.

Here is also a radical oversimplification of Aquinas, whose thinking was at least as subtle as that of Scotus. Neither of them would have much truck with the various fundamentalisms now existing, but neither of them would recognize themselves in these descriptions.

One may indeed hold and proclaim his own opinions, and should be able to receive respect from those who disagree, even if the disagreement is profound -- but it is simply not good argumentation to ascribe to others views they did not hold.


val said...

It is written: A woman shall compass a man and create a new thing in the earth (Jer 31:22), the man is Satan(Isa 14:16), the new thing is turning the hearts of the fathers to the children. Satan has deceived the whole world (Rev 12:7), until the heel of time(Gen 3:15) when a woman shall bruise him by exposing his lies. Check out the bruising of Satan at please read all the posts before you comment.

Sion said...

Dear Ed,

With all respect:

My contribution does not attribute a disbelief in the historical Jesus of Nazareth to Duns Scotus. What I did attribute to Scotus was the concept of the Primacy of the Incarnation. I have certainly rendered it in a simplified version, but I don't believe I have distorted the implications of Scotus' views.

My statements about the historical Jesus of Nazareth were in connection with the original text of the Nicaean Creed, not with anything to be found in Scotus.

I don't see anywhere that I dismiss Aquinas as unsubtle - only that Catholic theology has been dominated by Aquinas and that alternative views have largely been forgotten.

My point is that there are very different alternative
'Christianities' in the register of Christian theology. This is something you have not responded to.


poetreader said...


I appreciate the gentlemanly response. There's altogether too much rant and anger on both sides of these issues. That's just not cool at all.

I've reread both your original post and my response, and, I'm afraid I do have to stick with my comment that neither Scotus nor Aquinas would recognize themselves in your comments as posted. Perhaps you perceive it as a matter of simplification, but I have to say that what I see is the kind of over-simplification that removes the central principles of the writer to bring out the commenter's version of peripheral issues. In fact, what I see (please forgive me) is the same kind of treatment of the sources that I see from the various kinds of fundamentalists.

Of course there were alternative "Christianities". In their NT Epistles, Paul, John, and Peter all refer to them and even give some clue as to the precise issues then being debated. Is it the case that alternative views of any issue are automatically to be seen as of equal weight? I don't think so. Neither do you, from what I read. It is an issue of what is true, and you and I do differ on that. There is a continuous mainstream of Christianity, to which I subscribe, and which you reject. So be it. I am afraid, however, that I see in your writings a will to see what you want to see, so long as it attacks historic Christianity. You, of course will see my comments in the same, though reversed, light. I don't think this is the best place for a detailed discussion of these things, but felt a need to place a question on the record. I'll probably have little to say from this point on.

Scotus and Aquinas were distinct in their philosophy and emphasis, that much is obvious, but they were both orthodox mainstream Christians, and each recognized those of different views as being within that Tradition, as distinct from those who had wandered into heresy. It was not Aquinas, but ignorant "followers" of Aquinas who labeled Scotus as Dunce. Still today the best orthodox Christian scholars, RC or not, regard Duns Scotus as indispensable to understanding Aquinas and the whole mainline of Christian thinking.

Yes, I do follow your line of thinking, though believing it to be largely irrelevant for understanding Christianity, but there is not the kind of opposition you seem to see between these two scholars, and their disagreements are simply not of a kind to support your thesis.


Sion said...

Dear Ed,

I agree, this blog isn't the place for a detailed discussion of the differences between Aquinas and Scotus. The intention of my original post was simply to give Sidney some new ammunition against the Christian gloom-and-doom merchants.

However, I think I should reply to a couple of points you raise:

1) I don't see that my post implied that Duns Scotus was not 'mainstream', or that there was an essential opposition or disagreement between followers of Aquinas and followers of Scotus. The opposition that I indicated was between Scotus' vision of Creation as God intended it to be - with the Incarnation of the Son as the central event - and the Christian account of history that we now have, which makes the Fall, Crucifixion, and Redemption central. It is a question of emphasis and perspective - but it is an issue of perspective that has profound implications on the way Christians think about human nature.

2) I have nowhere implied that Scotus questioned the existence of an historical Jesus of Nazareth (though I don't agree with him). But I did draw attention to the fact that the original version of the Nicaean Creed makes no mention of an historical Jesus: it mentions Xristos, and it mentions 'suffering', but not crufifixion or death. Why I particularly referred to the text of the Creed in the context of my post is that it draws a distinctioin of the kind that supports Scotus' view of the Primacy of the Incarnation - the distinction between the Xristos 'taking on human nature' and only subsequently being 'made flesh'.

3) You several times say that I am attacking historic Christianity. The point of my original post was to attack Hellfire and Damnation and the devotees of Hellfire and Damnation. I would rather say that I was defending Christianity from its unfortunate association with the degenerate view of human nature preached by fundamentalists.

As for 'historic Christianity': Yes, I consider it to be largely a fabrication, but I don't see how this constitutes an 'attack'. I would rather see it as an elucidation.