“a purely intellectualized pantheism … invites its adherents to commune with a universe that offers suffering and misery in abundance, which means that it has a strong appeal to the privileged but a much weaker appeal to people who need not only a sense of wonder from their spiritual lives but also, well, help.”–Ross Douthat, “The Return of Paganism”, New York Times (Dec. 12, 2018)
Ever since I stopped calling myself “Christian”, I have wondered at the fact that the story of a Jewish rabbi in first century Palestine should capture the imagination of people around the world for the successive two millennia, and that the religion which developed around his story should become the most popular religion on the planet–with over 2 billion in the world and over 200 million in the United States.
Certainly, historical accident is part of the explanation. I believe there other reasons, though. Near the top of the list must be Paul of Tarsus, who more than any other individual (arguably even more than Jesus of Nazareth) is responsible for the shape and popularity of Christianity. But for Paul, I suspect that Christianity would have remained an obscure Jewish sect which probably would not have survived the first century.
In addition, the Jewish bible played an important part. It is truly a remarkable book (or collection of books), with really nothing else quite like it from antiquity. Full of contradictions and absurdities though it may be, from a purely historical perspective, it is unique. And its uniqueness was recognized and respected by the Roman Empire even before Jesus was born, such that, at least for a while, the Empire made certain religious concessions to the Jewish people that were not extended to anyone else.
But, after years of studying religion, I have to admit (somewhat reluctantly) that there is something unique about the Christian message. People will, of course, disagree with me about what exactly that message is, but I think it has something to do with the relationship between God and people.
For the vast majority of history, people worshiped gods who were inextricably tied up with a particular place and the people who lived there. People tended to be bound to the land where they were born and thus bound to the gods of that place. People did not deny the existence of other gods in other places. In fact, they readily acknowledged their existence, though they might disagree about their relative virtues and powers–in a similar way to which people today favor hometown sports teams (and pray for their success).
This fact can actually be appreciated by an unbiased reading of the Tanakh/Old Testament, which frankly acknowledges the existence of other gods–most obviously in the first of the Ten Commandments, to have no other gods before Yahweh. This commandment was given, not to everyone, but to the Hebrew people, of whom Yahweh was (according to the Yahwists at least) the principal god. Even the most conservative of Hebrew religious authorities did not proscribe the worship of other gods, at least at first. They simply prescribed the primacy of Yahweh in the pantheon.
Later, after the collapse of the Hebrew nations (Judah and Israel) under the Babylonian Empire, and the relocation of the elites (including the religious elites) to Babylon, the Hebrew conception of God was transformed. Cut off from their homeland and their temple (where their god resided), the Hebrew god became abstracted, in a way that would later contribute to that god’s universalization (which would become both a strength and a weakness).
The Hebrew god had always treated the Hebrew people as special. They were his people and he was their god. He was forever forgiving them for forgetting him (after punishing them, of course) and inviting them back into fidelity with him. He seems to have been somewhat unique in this way. Other pagan gods–and Yahweh was a pagan god to begin with–didn’t seem to have the same care for their people. From what surviving records we have, it seems that the relationship of other pagan people to their gods was less familial, and more transactional. The Hebrew god was a god who was forever reaching out to his people. He was, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel a “god in search of man” (forgive my repetition of the original andro-centric language here).
The story of Jesus–as interpreted through his ancient biographers–took this one step further. God was not only searching for his people, but he actually bothered to shed his divinity (or some of it) and come directly to them in the flesh. He was born among them, walked among them, ate with them, suffered with them–and he did this, not with his usual companions–kings and priests–but with common people, and even the social pariahs of his time–the diseased, sex workers, political traitors, etc.
What Paul (not Jesus) did was to go even further with this message. This god, who had come to his people, was not only the god of the Jews, but the god of everyone. No matter where you lived, no matter if you were separated from your homeland–as so many people were, like enslaved people or traveling merchants–this was your god. And he was looking for you, reaching out to you, and had even come down here from heaven above to find you.
And, at least according to some interpretations, he didn’t require any sacrifices–unless you count the sacrifice of your whole former self, your ego. In fact, no other sacrifice would ever be enough. And this is why the poor and common people, who have always constituted the majority of people, would be drawn to this god–because they had less to give up to reach him.
Truly, what a remarkable story. What power there is in that story.
If only that was the story being told in Christian churches today.