Christianity is the largest of the world religions and, despite being declared dead any number of times by its cultured despisers, continues to thrive and grow. What accounts for its continuing attractiveness and astonishing success in a "post-Christian" world? The answer is not to be found in Christianity's myths, or ideas, or moral teachings, but in its distinctive claim to mediate an experience of the divine power. In short, Christianity draws people because it is convincing as a religion.

Remarkably, present-day Christianity is seldom studied in terms of religion. For that matter, neither is Christianity's origin or history appreciated in religious terms. As a result, much of what makes Christianity appealing to many—as well as much of what repels others—is simply not seen, much less understood.

This course views early Christianity as it appears in the New Testament and other early literature in terms of religious experience. Its thesis is that religious experience accounts for its appearance in history and that experience was expressed and mediated by Christianity's various activities.

The approach differs sharply from the usual ways of looking at early Christianity, in terms of attack or apology. Attackers seek to collapse Christianity into its cultural context. Apologists argue for an utterly unique Christianity untouched in its ideas and morals and structures by either Judaism or Greco-Roman religion. Our approach emphasizes the connections among these culturally intertwined religions, finding the distinctive character of Christianity in the kind of experience of the divine that it enabled and the paradoxical figure through whom it was made available.

To see these issues fresh, we need a new way of looking, other than those offered by history and theology. The course attempts a phenomenological analysis of early Christianity. It uses history and social sciences, as well as comparative literary analysis, to look steadily and seriously at religious experience and behavior. The course's basic premise is that a connection exists between the two, and that by tracing patterns of behavior, we can detect the experience that organized them.

The first section of the course is focused on religious experience as the heart of any religion and above all as the heart of Christianity. The struggle to define religion and to locate the place of religious experience leads to a consideration of the kinds of religious experiences found in first-century Judaism and in Greco-Roman religion. In this section, we make use wherever possible of first-person accounts of visions, healings, and prayers to get a sense of the character of the religious tradition as revealed by its participants. This part of the course culminates in a consideration of the religious experience of Jesus—insofar as it can be determined—and the experience of the Resurrection that gave birth to the Christian religion.

The second section of the course focuses on the manifestations of religious experience in earliest Christianity and how they took on new form as Christianity developed over the next three centuries. For the first generation, we look at a series of practices: baptism, speaking in tongues, fellowship meals, healing, visions, and prayer. Each of these, when placed in the context of ancient religious practices and analyzed in light of even wider cross-cultural patterns, shows the deep convictions concerning the Resurrection of Jesus that are distinctive to Christianity. The course then turns to another set of topics: the holy community, worship, scripture, teachers and creeds, and the saints. In each case, the path is traced from the first generation through the third and even fourth centuries to show how the power of experience does not disappear from this tradition but rather takes on new shape. Once more, our approach is distinctive in viewing internal Christian development not as a form of corruption and decline but as a legitimate transformation.

By its resolute concentration on religious experience, this course throws new light on ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish traditions, as well as on Christianity. In part, the course makes an argument about the nature of Western religion, then and now. Most of all, it argues that Christianity then or now cannot be understood unless its distinctive claims to the experience of the divine are appreciated. As its final lecture suggests, so-called "popular Christianity"—the one scorned equally by sophisticated believers and cultured critics—may well be "real Christianity."

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