Outline

I. A phenomenological analysis of a typical Roman Catholic church in the United States today reveals two very different faces of Christianity in the sanctuary and in the vestibule, suggesting a tension in this religion that has been present for many centuries.

A. The sanctuary reveals an understanding of religion as power mediated through official rituals and forms; architecture likewise connects hierarchical conceptions of divine and ecclesiastical authority.

B. The vestibule reveals an understanding of religion as access to power through a variety of charismatic and unofficial channels; the point is not legitimacy but efficacy.

C. Much of Christian history can be told as the story of the struggle between the poles of the charismatic and the institutional, the popular and the legitimate.

II. Several factors have cooperated in asserting the dominance of "official" Christianity and the eclipsing of "popular" Christianity.

A. In the patristic and medieval period, Roman Catholic priests and bishops were often drawn from the cultured and educated ranks of society. They represented a certain elite outlook that was not held by the larger populace.

1. They were, therefore, already predisposed to Greek and Scholastic philosophy and used forms of Greek rationality to develop Christian doctrine in exquisite detail.

2. Thus, Christian discourse at that time took place at the level of the Church officials, and we have very little evidence of the religious practices of the simple (uneducated) folk.

3. In contrast, what we know about popular Christianity is found mainly in the writings of the official theologians (priests and bishops), who were very wary of those incursions from Greco-Roman religion into Christianity.

4. Saint Augustine of late fourth-century Carthage, for example, was deeply bothered by the popular practice of people banqueting at the tombs of the martyrs in clear connection with the ancient Greco-Roman custom of banqueting in honor of the dead.

5. From the very beginning, then, we see a preference for the rational, the textual, the ordered, and the rational, rather than the popular.

B. Nevertheless, throughout the medieval period, because of their power, we see more and more of the popular and charismatic forms of religious observance entering into Catholicism.

1. These forms were gradually given official recognition insofar as they could be connected to official doctrine, morality, and polity. Thus arose the sacramental system, the worship of saints and relics, pilgrimages, and so on.

2. By the time of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, Roman Catholicism had a very strong infusion of popular Christianity in it, which is what the reformers objected to.

C. The Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment scorned religious dimensions that were considered "superstitious."

1. The Reformation based itself on Scripture and eliminated the sacramentalism of the Catholic tradition, as well as the abuses associated with popular piety (e.g., the traffic in relics).

2. Luther was correct in seeing Roman Catholicism of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries as a great machine for salvation that rewarded deeds without necessarily requiring a deeply held faith (e.g., traffic in indulgences).

3. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment movement (especially in Deism) measured the worth of Christianity on the basis of its exclusion of the supernatural (glossolalia, miracles, healings, visions, prayer, and so on) and its embrace of the reasonable (claims had to be empirically verifiable by the standards of the scientific method) and the morally intelligible and convincing (by the standards of the eighteenth-century educated classes).

D. The study of Christianity adopted the same perspectives on what was "true" religion.

1. Scholarship by its nature is attracted to the historical, the textual, the ideational, rather than the contemporary, nontextual, and embodied.

2. Histories of Christianity focused on the development of its ideas and institutions.

3. Theologies focused on ideas and their development through time.

E. Christianity as actually lived was either ignored or condemned.

III. The understanding of Christian origins and early development has been deeply affected by the same bias.

A. The "Protestant presuppositions" that identify real Christianity with clear doctrine and simple morals has led to the quest for an original Christianity that was uniquely pure, distinct both from Judaism and Hellenism precisely because it was not "religion" but "faith." The same urge drives the quest for a simple "historical Jesus," free from dogma and miracle.

B. In such a view, the religious dimensions of Christianity are attributed to an unfortunate "development" in the direction of Catholicism. True Christianity must always be rescued from religion.

IV. Learning to see popular religion as real religion changes the perception of Christianity entirely.

A. In academe today, we see a change in perspective through three influences.

B. The first of these influences is the contribution of women's history, which has drawn attention to the suppressed and marginal voices of the past.

C. Another influence is the development of social history, which has enabled us to appreciate history as a world shaped by constant social patterns and the interactions of daily life, as well as distinct events.

D. Finally, academe has been influenced by the development of religious phenomenology—looking at religion from the way life is organized around certain experiences and convictions concerning power.

V. From this perception, we can draw three conclusions.

A. We have seen that Christianity from the start is thoroughly "religious" in character, resembling in different ways both Judaism and Greco-Roman religion but focusing its "organized way of life" around the perception of the ultimate power found in the Resurrection of Jesus.

B. The development of Christianity, in this view, is not a fundamental betrayal of its original spirit so much as a transmutation of the forms within which the same spirit has managed to manifest itself.

C. The answer to the question with which this course began—"How can Christianity continue to survive and thrive when it has been attacked and discredited in its Scripture, its ideas, and its morality?"—now becomes apparent: Christianity's capacity to draw adherents remains the same as in the beginning, based in the convincing quality of its claim to transform lives through the experience of power.

Essential Reading:

L. T. Johnson, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity: A Missing Dimension in New Testament Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 1-37.

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