Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christianity? Revolutionary? Let me count the ways. Christianity should have been the revolution which replaced tribal vengeance with radical love.

Christianity? Revolutionary? Let me count the ways

Christianity should have been the revolution which replaced tribal vengeance with radical love.

"Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over…every living thing that moveth upon the earth." That was some brief to give a band of murdering primates, not long from the trees.

Even if we see this "subdue the earth" injunction as a self-generated permission slip – humanity imitating teacher's blue-black ink – here's no denying the outcome. We've had ourselves dominion. Have we ever.

Historically, it was Christianity's equalising fire that impelled us from primitive tribal loyalties toward an idea, at least, of universal franchise.  

Humans now weigh an immense 350 million tonnes of global wet biomass. The only other species that comes close is the Antarctic krill, but they're stuck on rung two of the food chain and we, naturally, are on top. Dominion is what we do.

Yet here we are, on Boxing Day, placidly digesting the heroic gluttony by which we celebrate the birth of the revolution that should, by now, have overthrown the "subdue" regime.


Christianity should have been that revolution. It is on any reading, a socialist, feminist, greenie polemic; the exact opposite of dominion. The child came to earth trailing radical love, openness and equity. Yet for two thousand years we deployed these wands as clubs to perpetuate dominion. That's gotta be interesting. Right?

Exodus, now showing, is not a good film. Ridley Scott turns Moses' grand narrative into another soulless computer generated imagery epic with no sense of sacredness and God as a surly mountain-child with nice vowels and bad clothes. But Exodus does show why the Old Testament world of vengeful mayhem was one you'd want to vacate. It shows why revolution was necessary.   

Jesus' bid to replace tribal vengeance with radical love was an absolute overturning of the apple cart. Even if you don't buy the theology, you should applaud this rampageous inversion since it's this, if we can get our heads around it, that could unlock the future – not just of the church, but of the planet.

Christianity? Revolutionary? Let me count the ways.

Begin with earth. Christianity is rooted in ancient paganisms, but that's not all. The idea of universal love, nestled in Mary's cradle, is not just about personal relationships. It's also about loving nature, discerning the sacred reality of place. This, argues philosopher Roger Scruton, is humanity's deepest intimation of what it truly means to be on earth.

Scruton coins the term "the face of the earth" to convey nature as subject, not just exploitable object. Our failure to recognise this, he says, dooms us perpetually to "deface" nature, producing "an ever-expanding heartlessness."

Melbourne theologian David Tacey writes similarly of the need to reinvest, through the soles of our feet, in an earth-based spirituality. He also notes how deeply subversive this "tread lightly, treat others" approach is of regulation consumer life.

Which brings us to socialism. The last shall be first, the meek exalted, the hungry fed, the rich turned away. This is the most iterative theme in scripture that re-echoed, almost verbatim, through 20th century hippiedom. As Bob Dylan crooned to a generation, "the first ones now will later be last, for the times they are a-changin'."

Historically, it was Christianity's equalising fire that impelled us from primitive tribal loyalties toward an idea, at least, of universal franchise. Without that idea, the incredible second-millennium tide, from Renaissance humanism to Enlightenment thought, the abolition of slavery and the birth of modern democracy could not have happened.

In this feminism, like gay equality, is implicit. But the role of the female in Christianity goes much deeper than Maryology and women priests since it, at its core, is an ancient fertility cult, the cult of the mother.

An unwed Jewish peasant girl, being mysteriously pregnant, can expect to be ostracised, stoned, possibly killed. It is situation catastrophic. Yet she decides to have the child.

The story can be told as the boy-child's, which is the story we have. Or it can be told as the girl's, a story in which Mary, turning metaphysics into physics, remakes history.

There are two critical choices in Christian theology. Both pivot on elective personal submission, the win-by-losing paradox that manifests in the cross. One is Jesus' choice of death. The other is Mary's choice of life. The two are indivisible, and both pin their ultimate trust in the springing of new life from pain and fear.

Yet of these two stories, one is endlessly retold and elaborated. The other is a footnote, a side chapel, an -ology. Mary's voice appears in the lovely (but impersonal) Magnificat, and that's about it. Let's face it. Mary, as told, is boring.

The core Christian message has been betrayed; traduced by a church that has always conceived itself principally as a power structure, with all the conniving, nastiness and deceit that suggests. This betrayal is not simply flawed humans doing their best. It's a 180 opposition to the true Christian message. It allows the pretence that some of us are less flawed than others to replace the liberating truth that we are all cripples.

I think that was Jesus' point. I don't even care whether the story is "true" in the meagre, historical sense. Its power lies in the larger truth that recognising our common frailty anchors human happiness and, probably, survival.

Christianity could lead us to survival but only, it seems to me, if it can radically change this devotion to rigid and exploitative power within its instrument, the church. That seems hugely improbable.

When churches change they generally dumb-down the surface, shedding history while the power structures beneath become increasingly entrenched. This is why most people see church as somewhere between the dull and the downright evil.

So the revolution is incomplete. But if, rather than losing history, we could rediscover the true Christianity of those early centuries – centuries before the Old Testament reasserted its stranglehold dominion, centuries when women were priests –we might yet learn to love the earth and every living thing that moveth upon it.


Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist


Elizabeth Farrelly

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