The mainline tradition of Christian orthodoxy represents the cumulative efforts over several centuries to translate the mythological milieu of early Christian experience into a dogmatic system of fixed beliefs. Quickly, and increasingly so over time, these beliefs came to operate as the framework of a Christian worldview, in addition to serving as standards and requirements for membership.
An emerging orthodox Christianity intentionally, and very systematically, delegitimated two other early traditions which still exist to this day. The first of these is centered in the life and teachings of Jesus, regarded as a revealer of wisdom and social revolutionary in the way he challenged status quo religion and morality, ultimately giving his life as a champion and liberator of the human spirit.
Because his singular mission was “to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18), Jesus was profoundly unacceptable to any institution that sought to burden its constituents with oppressive standards (i.e., doctrines) of belief.
Orthodoxy’s solution was to convert Jesus into an object of dogmatic statements, shifting focus from the beliefs of Jesus (i.e., what Jesus himself believed and how he lived out his beliefs) to beliefs about Jesus (e.g., his virgin birth and divine nature). Needless to say, the latter were also much easier to formalize, legislate, and enforce.
A second minority tradition in Christianity that orthodoxy deliberately excludes has its roots not in history exactly, but in experience, specifically the mystical experience of boundless presence, communion, and wellbeing. Christian mysticism is also problematic for orthodoxy, not so much for its liberationist ethic, as in the case against Jesus, but because it subordinates doctrine to experience – or as we might say today, formal religion to a more fluid spirituality.
According to the Christian mystical tradition, beliefs cannot save anyone, and God is not an object but rather a symbol or nickname for the grounding mystery and communal spirit present in all things.
So now, sufficiently severed from the lifelines of Jesus’ ethical vision and the inner mystery of spiritual experience, Christian orthodoxy took up the business of institutionalizing beliefs, managing its membership, spreading the ideology and prosecuting heresies of every kind. What follows are a few main points from the belief system of orthodox Christianity.
1. God is the “King of kings” and “Lord of lords.”
This idea is an obvious holdover from archaic (biblical) times, when human governments were arranged hierarchically and ruled from above by pharaohs, monarchs, and emperors. Many hymns and praise songs of orthodox and evangelical Christianity today energetically promote the belief in a cosmic monarchy and political autocracy, singing enthusiastically and sentimentally of abasing ourselves at the feet of god or Jesus, of worshiping and glorifying our King, of serving and submitting ourselves to the commanding majesty of our Lord.
2. Humans are naturally selfish, sinful, and hell-bound.
A corollary to the belief in a god who exists outside us and above the world is the view of human nature (humans as they are by nature) as spiritually vacuous, deficient, wayward, and corrupt. With nothing good in us and nothing good about us, except what might be granted or added to us by the grace of our King and Lord, our only hope lies in god’s hands and in the authority of his Church. As divinity resides exclusively in god and god resides in heaven above the world, we have no inherent dignity or spiritual virtue in ourselves just as we are. Instead we are selfish by nature, sinful through and through, and destined for everlasting punishment – which we fully deserve.
3. Jesus is coming again – and someday soon! – to close the curtain on history and take all true believers with him back to heaven.
Orthodox Christianity has been anticipating Jesus’ return for the past nearly 2,000 years. Expectations ramp up predictably in times of social upheaval, cultural decline, or general disenchantment with the world as it is. The idea of a curtain-closing finale to history and a last-minute escape from the collapsing world-order (and planetary ecosystem) is highly attractive, particularly to those who also believe that the world is corrupt, human nature is full of sin, and god alone can save us.
Not surprisingly the belief in a savior’s rescue act, and the prospect of getting saved out of circumstances we deeply feel we cannot change, has been a best-selling marketing hook throughout Christian history.
More could be added to this short list of dogmatic beliefs driving so much of orthodox Christianity. I am tempted to also include the doctrine of “redemptive violence” (aka substitutionary atonement), which codified the idea that the violent death of Jesus on a cross was god’s preferred way of satisfying justice and putting things right.
But these three are enough to make my point. Taken together, the popular Christian beliefs (1) in a god-king and divine autocracy, (2) in the inherent depravity of human nature, and (3) in a future rescue when we can say a final goodbye to all our problems – leave little doubt as to why democracy in America might be struggling to survive.
Because American society is but a relatively recent incarnation of the longer Western cultural heritage, and given that Western culture underwent a radical makeover under the influence of orthodox Christianity, the larger cultural atmosphere enveloping American democracy contains deadly toxins (in these three dogmatic beliefs alone) that must inevitably bring about its demise.
We shouldn’t be so shocked that a large number of American citizens and their (mostly Republican) leaders today are working legislatively, as well as violently, to tear down the institutions of democracy and erect a monarchical, top-down, autocratic power structure in its place.
How can we trust each other when everyone is inherently selfish and fundamentally untrustworthy? How can we work together for the improvement of our political system, our economy, the common good, and for the recovery of Earth’s biodiversity when we can’t trust each other to do what is best for everyone?
Besides, if we believe the worst in human beings, can much good come out of ourselves? And if we are expected to wait for our mandate from “on high,” then why should we respect or have any regard for the ‘will of the people’?
Our best hope, it would seem, and really our only recourse, is to look to a future when our savior will come to airlift us out of this mess.