Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Religious Black Box And Power

Way, way back, in the good old days, 2005, Jim Marcus of Die Warzau posted this blog entry on the official Die Warzau web site, Show Your Work ( More recent blogs from Marcus are available at his MySpace page and Die Warzau's MySpace page.

Marcus's basic premise in the post is that atheists like himself can't help worrying about what goes on in religious persons' heads. He describes the moral decision making of religious persons as taking place in a "black box."

"When Fundamentalists advance the idea that acts or states that do not negatively impact the welfare of others (masturbation, missing church, homosexuality, etc.) are morally debased the same as those that do (lying, murdering, stealing), they call attention to the fact that they possess a "black box" morality- one that is unconnected to observations concerning the impact of actions on others."

So, what is going on in religious people's heads? Speaking for myself (I'm assuming Marcus would consider me religious) I don't think my ethical/moral decisions are disconnected from concern human welfare. That said, I know exactly what he's talking about and frankly, I share his concern.

The focus of my concern is slightly different from Marcus's. He seems to be focussed primarily on how the Black Box of religious decision making can lead to bad decisions, specifically, decisions with a body count. My concern is with how the Black Box can be used to manipulate people into making or accepting bad decisions. I believe the Black Box is used by religious leaders for control.

Specifically, I think the Black Box is inextricably linked to the Constantinian Shift. Without the Black Box the early Christian leadership and their (relatively) new religion would have been of little use to Rome.

Elaine Pagels in her book "The Gnostic Gospels" discusses how different understandings of Jesus' resurrection within the early (pre-Constantinian) church were not just disagreements between believers but supported the power and authority of certain church leaders. The second and third century predecessors of modern Popes and Orthodox Patriarchs (through apostolic succession) demanded that belief in Christ's bodily resurrection was critical to salvation. The gnostics were less concerned with the historical truth of Christ's bodily resurrection. What was important to the second century gnostic Christian was the reality of the individual believer's spiritual resurrection, something possible before physical death.

As early as the first century the Christian church had a hierarchy we can easily recognize and understand 2000 years later, that of bishops, priests and deacons. These are the men who lead the continued ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. They are also the ones who decided which early Christian writings would make up the faith's holy scriptures. By the middle of the second century the four canonical gospels were decided upon. By sometime in the third century something like the modern New Testament was in use. Writings that did not make the cut such as The Gospel Of Truth, The Gospel Of Phillip, The Apocryphon Of John and The Letter Of Peter To Phillip were declared heretical by the bishops of the day and banned.

That is a lot of power but what does it have to do with bodily resurrection? The bishops' power derived from seeing the bodily resurrected Christ. According to the orthodox tradition, what distinguished the original twelve Apostles was their contact with Jesus of Nazareth after his resurrection. It goes like this: after rising Jesus first appears to Peter whom he appoints shepherd of His followers and calls the "rock" on which He will build His Church. He then spends considerable time with the twelve (or eleven) disciples. Thus, Jesus conferred on them status as the official witnesses to His resurrection and the apostolic mantle to be passed down only by them.

In light of this equivocating about the nature of The Resurrection becomes something more than theology. It becomes politics. To shift the focus from correct belief to personal transformation undercut the power of everyone in the apostolic succession. Dwelling too long on the fact that even the canonical gospels of Mark and John have Jesus speaking with Mary Magdalene before Peter could be problematic.

In The Subversion Of Christianity, Jacques Ellul describes how the success of Christendom is directly related to Christian leaders abandoning the teachings and values of Jesus of Nazareth. He writes about this specifically in regard to the conversion to Christianity of Roman Emperor Constantine I. Constantine is the man who took Christianity mainstream and laid the groundwork for endless argument about the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. He gave the Bishops more power (in the form of weapons) and appropriated their power over Christians to himself.

This is the Costantinian Shift I mentioned earlier. This moment in the fourth century is when Christianity quit liberating people from their oppressors and became the sharpest weapon in the oppressor's armory. It is when Christianity became Christendom. I also think it is the logical consequence of Bishops in the preceding three centuries consolidating their own power and being willing to use force. When faith and the practice of faith ceases to be voluntary and free from coercion and force nothing good will follow.

Be it leaders of the second century church, modern anti-gay activists or the FLDS one thing is consistent about those who actively promote the Black Box to ordinary believers. The Black Box always supports a hierarchy with the person advocating it at or near the top. The preacher who teaches Black Box morality will always benefit from it and someone in the congregation will always have their back pushed to the wall by it.

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