Friday, November 18, 2011

Useless Truth

Philip Jenkins.  The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died.  New York: Harper Collins, 2008.  ISBN: 9780061472800.

While at BYU, I noted a peculiar fascination with Greek Orthodoxy among some of the faculty with interest in early Christianity.  One of my professors in particular mentioned that if he were not Mormon, he would be Orthodox.  The Orthodox tradition was attractive for its connection to ancient Greek Christianity (or better, Christianities), the closest thing(s) to authentic primitive Christianity that objective-minded historians can find.

Jenkins tells the story of the Greek Christians, and of other Christians outside the western European tradition (though he refers freely to that tradition to illustrate his narrative).  Here you will find the story of ancient Christians in Syria, Egypt, Persia, India, and China, not to mention Asia Minor (modern Turkey).  You will find Nestorians, Monophysites alongside more exotic (and independent) heretics, like the Manichaeans and (inevitably) the Muslims.  You will learn how the Christians conquered the East, and lost it all.  You will be forced to confront how the prosperity gospel (expressed in scriptures like Deuteronomy 28 and Mosiah 2:22) does not work, as you see covenant people suffer the almost complete dissolution of their culture--in spite of every promise, in spite of every revelation, in spite of every miracle.  You will find stories of religious genocide, occurring still in relatively modern times (e.g. the annihilation of millions of Greeks and Armenians by Turks in the early twentieth century).  You will see the best faces of religion (the scholar, the humanitarian, the pillar of society), and the worst (the holy warrior, the sectarian, the scourge of God).  You will see the power of chance, which offered the eastern Christians safety (with the possibility of a Mongol alliance against the Muslim powers) and then snatched it away, perhaps forever (when powerful Mongol chieftains converted to Islam).  Notice that persecution of the Other is a non-denominational doctrine: Christians brought it to the Muslims, and vice versa.  Religion knows how to be kind, and how to be cruel, regardless of who is in charge or what they claim to believe.

The best part of the book, from my perspective, is the very end, where Jenkins talks about the need in contemporary Christian thought for a theology of defeat, failure, and disaster.  How do we deal with the failure of God?  How do we process divine indifference to prayer, to sacrifice, to basic human decency?  Historically, we tend to ignore it, an ignorance that impoverishes our perspective on reality, and cheapens our faith (leaving people like me loathe to believe anything any religious leader may say).  We dismiss the losers as apostates, has-beens, divine rejects.  Their stories go untold.  Their thoughts are forgotten.  Their experiences, the good and the bitter, teach us nothing.  Jenkins calls us to repentance (pp. 261-262):

Christians believe that God speaks through history; and only by knowing that history can we hope to interpret momentous events like the Japanese persecutions [which annihilated Catholicism in early modern Japan] and the fall of the Asian churches.  Yet Christians have systematically forgotten or ignored so very much of their own history that it is scarcely surprising that they encounter only a deafening silence.  Losing the ancient churches is one thing, but losing their memory and experience so utterly is a disaster scarcely less damaging.  To break the silence, we need to recover those memories, to restore that history.  To borrow the title of one of Charles Olson's great poems: the chain of memory is resurrection.

In a nutshell, modern, western Christianity suffers from the same problem that plagues modern LDS Mormonism: an inability to deal productively with its faith history, a history which is full of what Boyd K. Packer might call useless truth.  But that truth is not useless.  That truth is what points us toward new revelation, showing us problems that we have failed to address adequately.  That truth is what keeps us humble, showing us that we do not know the mind of God, that we are (in fact) extremely ignorant of any guiding principle at the helm of the universe.  We have to preserve that truth, telling the "faith-destroying" stories of heartbreak and disaster (like what really happened at Mountain Meadows, or the Council of Nicaea, or the Battle of Ankara, or the Latin sack of Constantinople, or the modern Turkish "cleansing" of Smyrna).  We cannot pretend that uncomfortable truth does not exist without endangering our souls, the souls of our children, and the very heart and soul of our entire community.  Whether you are Mormon, Christian, both, or something else, lying for the Lord is bad.  Ignoring for the Lord is bad, too.  I cannot lie, and I will not ignore.  To do so would be to go against everything that I stand for as a moral human being, as a Mormon and a Christian.

Truth is healing.  "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32).  It sets us free from pretending, free from the fear that something unknown "out there" may take away the inner strength that keeps us sane.  We ignore and abjure it at our peril, especially when it tells us things that we do not want to know, showing us where our puny efforts to control reality break down.  The more we harden ourselves against useless truth today, the worse we are going to feel tomorrow, when it is inevitably shouted down at us from the housetops.  I cannot resist it any more, and that is why I am what I am--estranged from my faith community, without a secure job that I might have had, and generally disillusioned with "faithful" attempts by some religious to obfuscate and deny real suffering (my own and that of other people).  Like better men before me, I come to you now, Internet world, "from the back of a broken dream," simultaneously shattered and inspired by my personal encounter with useless truth.

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