… So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10: 34-35).
~ ~ ~ ~
… What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ (Acts 17: 23-28)
~ ~ ~ ~
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us … and so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1: 1-3) [all from the English Standard Version]
These citations are representative of the spirit found throughout the New Testament. It seems clear that the ancient Christians who were responsible for those documents were self-consciously universalists. As the historical time-line opens up in these New Testament narratives and letters, the reader quickly discovers that certain critical and defining decisions have already been made by the Christian community. The principal and most explicit one was that Christians were not Jews. That focus pervades the entire collection. But it was not the mere assertion of a new identity. I believe it runs much deeper than that. It represents the rejection of sectarianism and the commitment to universalism.
This needs some explanation. Christians originally considered themselves Jews; Jesus was a Jew and he understood his “way” to be the true interpretation of the Jewish covenant (contract) with Yahweh. He said it was a love agreement — more like a marriage than a business deal. There was a universalism implicit in his vision, but he never made it explicit; his message was exclusively to the Jews and he said so. After his death his followers at first continued as a movement within Judaism with hopes of convincing their co-religionists that Jesus’ message represented authentic Judaism and that he was the messiah whose death had a special significance as foretold by the prophets. When and why the Christian decision was made to separate from Judaism is a matter of discussion among scholars, but the Acts of the Apostles is very specific about it. It said it was precipitated by the conversion of Saul the Pharisee who claimed to have a direct personal assignment to preach to non-Jews. The agreement approving Paul and his mission was given in the concrete form of a revision of “gentile” obligations toward the Jewish law. They were not to be bound by dietary restrictions, nor were they required to be circumcised. Effectively this meant there was no attempt to meet the sine qua non conditions under which inclusion in the Jewish national “contract” with Yahweh was understood. A more definitive “clean break” could not be imagined, at least as far as orthodox Jews were concerned.
Early Christians did not think they were rejecting the “Jewish religion” in order to establish a “Christian religion,” changing one sect for another. Leaders like Paul were quite clear: Christianity was the full flowering of Judaism. They knew from Jesus’ message that Yahweh was a “God” of love, and therefore wanted to connect with absolutely everyone. That meant he stopped being just “Yahweh,” Israel’s tribal war god, and revealed himself to be THE “God,” the only “God,” everyone’s “God” — Jesus’ “loving Father,” Plato’s “One,” and the Stoics Logos — what John called, “the LIFE that was from the beginning.” It was an unmitigated universalist vision based on a universal monotheism … and Christianity has always claimed to teach it. Effectively, the early Christians denied there was any split with Judaism. They insisted that they were the “true Israel” of the Jewish Scriptures, the recipients of the blessings promised, and in turn the only ones making the true response to the Jewish contract. It was with Christianity that Judaism was revealed to have been the seed that “God” had, all along, intended to grow into a vast universal tree.
It was a tidy package, theologically speaking, for diaspora Jews like Paul, for whom Judaism was as congenital as his Greek culture. The entire Old Testament was reinterpreted as “prophecy,” meaning symbol, figure, metaphor, and embraced the way one might embrace one’s childhood self, identifying traits that were harbingers of the future adult even though attitudes, behavior and commitments had changed. “Adulthood” as a Jewish Christian involved some significant modifications as far as Paul was concerned: it meant acceptance of Jesus as the messiah whose death was the fulfillment of the contract with “God,” eliminating the national, sectarian claims of Judaism symbolized in the “law.” The framework for the explanation was Jewish. On accepting Christ, in Paul’s view, the Jew remained a Jew but threw open his arms to embrace the whole world, inviting everyone to share the joy of the uniquely intimate Jewish relationship with “God” — the fulfillment of the historic promises to Israel made possible by the death of the messiah.
Paul’s vision of Christianity was elegantly Jewish: in a single act of perfect symmetry, Jesus’ death was simultaneously “God’s” display of self-emptying self-donation to humankind, and humankind’s perfect response to the demands of the Jewish law already completed in the perfect obedience of Christ. All debts were paid; it left us owing nothing at all. The one glitch in Paul’s system was that Jesus had to be both divine and human to accomplish such a feat. Such a hybrid entity, a “god-man,” unthinkable to orthodox Jews, was entirely imaginable to polytheistic Greeks whose pantheon comfortably housed many “sons” of gods. But, more importantly, there were the studies of Jewish-Greek philosopher Philo of Alexandria. He had uncovered a remarkable confluence in Hebrew texts and Greek philosophy between the Stoics’ Logos and the Old Testament “Wisdom,” the personification of the divine Mind that created and enlivened the universe. Christians like Paul and John applied it to Jesus. It made Jesus’ dual role a real possibility for progressive diaspora Jews and a perfect point-of-entry into the Greek world.
The elimination of circumcision and food prohibitions was meant as a way of allowing people of “every nation” who “grope after ‘God’ in the hopes of finding him” to enter his family — to finally know “God’s” name, his family history and what he has done — to know what the “God” they had been worshipping all along was really like (Acts 17). It was “good news, almost beyond one’s wildest dreams, to finally know the “real God” and his epic deeds of love for us. It was not a condition of entry into a new sect, and new “rule” or “law,” a “new contract” where failure to comply meant damnation. It was rather the announcement that the contract had been fulfilled and the Jewish “God” was now showering his gifts on the whole world. Paul’s was precisely the opposite of exclusionary sectarianism. No one was excluded for there was no more “law.” There were no conditions whatsoever. The doors were wide open. “God” wanted to connect with us all and the Christian “announcement” was an open invitation to connect with “God.” It was a relationship, not a contract, an invitation not an imposition.
Early Christian universalism implied a conception of “God’s” relationship to people that did not fit the Jewish paradigm of the tribal contract. The texts cited at the beginning clearly show that early Christians recognized that everyone was already connected to “God” by nature. The very possibility of universalism is predicated on a pre-existing relationship that is not determined by local choices. The source of that relationship could not have been a tribal agreement, a covenant, because people would have remembered and recorded it, as the Jews did. If it were grounded in nature itself, It had to be universal. So the “only god” of the Jews was reconceived as the “One God” who made all things and was therefore related to all by nature. Every nation was created by that “God;” he was, therefore, already their “father.” Everything was in place; the potential for the full flowering of the relationship was there. The core insight was the recognition of this pre-existing connection. The tribal contract was no longer relevant. The “God” of nature implied that the most any religion could offer was a clarification of exactly how that relationship should be understood and lived out going forward, but it did not create it. The missionary function was to “reveal” and announce what was already there, not to to bring it into existence.
This “recognition of prior relationship” is unmistakably present in all the texts quoted above. They indicate that the early Christians were quite conscious of their ancillary role in the announcement of the “new relationship” to “God” — that what they had to say was not new; it was the clarification of “what was from the beginning.” The very condition of Christian mission was that those who heard their message already understood what they were being told. It was what they had been “groping” for: to find “God.”
Relationship to “God” based on the creature/creator connection is naturally universal and the early Christians understood it implicitly. Sectarianism is the antithesis of this universalist respect for prior relationship. Sectarianism presumes to control the relationship. But please take note: you can only do that if you control the basis for its existence. That is the nature of a sect, a cult: you, the sect, own the relationship. The members, in fact, are related to you, not to one another, and only indirectly to “God.” If you have the means to make the relationship come and go, then indeed, members are locked into a dependency upon you as the source of the connection. The nature of a sect is that it is a closed system, imposing specified conditions controlled by the sect. A relationship created by contract is of the nature of a sect, unavoidably. The nature of a universal religion, on the other hand, is that the institution is subordinate, subservient, at the service of a prior and independent natural relationship, one that it did not create and does not control.
What is remarkable is that within a few generations this early Christian way of looking at things came to be reversed. The Christian movement was turned into a sect that claimed to control the relationship with “God.” It declared itself the exclusive inheritor of Paul’s letters and the only one authorized to interpret his ideas. That religion, represented today by the Roman Catholic Church and many of its “reformed” offshoots, was culture-specific to the Mediterranean and later Western Europe; it was exclusivist, offering a relationship to “God” that without the sectarian Church could not exist for “outside the Church there was no salvation.” Relationship (and “salvation”) were conditioned on membership in the sect, and that in turn involved meeting certain ritual requirements (like baptism), making verbal assent to otherwise unknowable supernatural facts (creeds) and conforming behavior to a rationally deduced “Natural law” codified and promulgated by the sect as “God’s law.” Catholicism differed from its later “reformed” (protestant) versions only in which rituals, formulas and moral demands were authentic and saved you from damnation … but in all other respects they all claimed to control the relationship to “God’s” love made concrete in “salvation.”
The relational dynamic implicit in this “Orthodox Christianity,” the official religion of the Roman Empire, which dominated Europe in the middle ages, seems to have negated virtually every aspect of the early universalist vision articulated so eloquently by Paul at Athens. Rather than validating the universal “groping” for “God” and the multitude of means discovered by “every nation” in that search, imperial mediaeval Christianity restricted legitimate religious expression to one set of rituals, formulas and morality — its own — redefining “universal” to mean the reduction of all tribes to one. Instead of transcending the contract mentality which had limited “God” to sectarian conditions for relationship and “salvation,” it reinstalled it as a “new contract” whose quid quo pro requirements cancel out “God’s” self-emptying self-donating open-armed universal gratuity projected by Paul. There is no quid pro quo possible with “God” when your very existence — your “you,” the party of the quid — is a free gift from “God,” the party of the quo.
Far from being the source of exuberant joy, in sectarian Christianity the relationship to “God” has been made elusive and anxiety-ridden, and “God” an ominous task-master whose glaring invasive presence motivates a self-preoccupied obedience through fear of eternal punishment — hardly “good news” for us “existentially challenged” humans.