Sunday, January 18, 2015

Our Worst Nightmare: Olympianity Victorious in the Church

In the mid-1980s, Jacques Ellul published a book entitled The Subversion of Christianity (translated into English by Geoffrey Bromiley). He did so because he wanted to know: “How has it come about that the development of Christianity and the church has given birth to a society, a civilization, a culture that are completely opposite to what we read in the Bible, to what is indisputably the text of the law, the prophets, Jesus, and Paul? There is not just contradiction on one point but on all points…There is not just deviation but radical and essential contradiction, or real subversion” (3).
To put the same question in our own terms, we might ask: How has it come about that Christianity and the Church have become wholeheartedly Olympian? How have they become so in need of, yet hostile to, any meaningful prophetic witness to Jesus?
This subversion has taken two forms. “On the one hand, Christianity has been accused of a whole list of faults, crimes, and deceptions that are nowhere to be found in the original text and inspiration. On the other hand, revelation has been progressively modeled and reinterpreted according to the practice of Christianity and the church” (3).
In other words, the Church suffers not simply from some ethical weakness. It suffers not simply from knowing what to do but being unable to find the energy needed to do it. Our theology has become so blindly Olympian that we interpret the Bible in wholly Olympian terms. Theologically we identify darkness as light. So today, Christ’s Church does Olympian evil with great enthusiasm while thinking it is doing his good.
Through the centuries, the Church has never lacked critics of this “disastrous practice” (6). Voltaire, Feuerbach, Marx, and Bakunin, for example, were happy to mock it.
To respond creatively to critics, past and present, takes discernment. Sometimes they rightly criticize the Church for being Olympian in practice. When they do, we need hear them and repent. Jesus sometimes, though not usually, uses the words of even Olympian opponents to share his truth with us.
Olympian critics, past and present, understandably question the truth of Jesus and his words when we, who claim devotion to him, so enthusiastically worship the same six Olympian gods that they do. We rightly think of Jesus as the one true god of freedom, truth, love, and vitality. In doing so, we rightly affirm the tight connection between truth and love. If we act in an unloving Olympian manner toward others, especially our fellow Christians, we ourselves justify the misgivings which Olympians have about the truth of Jesus.
In listening to critics of the Church, and while making our own criticisms of it, we do, however, want to avoid certain mistakes. “The first is that of rejecting all the church’s past, of scorning and condemning all it has done…On this view Judeo-Christian thinking is the cause or origin of every modern evil…and alongside [it]…we find a glorification of the pure and simple pagan [Olympian]” (7).
Today we find the virtue of people imagined to be secularists (though really Olympians) and the sinfulness of Christians both highly exaggerated. Remember, in our strange age, Olympians are intensely religious people yet deny being religious at all. They then attack Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims, for being religious and therefore ignorant, rigid, narrow-minded, judgmental, superstitious hypocrites.
Another mistake to avoid: emphasizing “that there was another side to the Christian history, that we have to remember that it included Saint Francis or Las Casas, that there were at times fine revivals of truth (the Synod of Barmen), that there have even been authentic popes, and that incontestably there has always been individual and hidden faith. All this is true, but it does not set aside the massive, exaggerated, and infantile accusations whose true objective is to subject humanity to a new bondage” (8).
All this is true, but it is an inadequate response to today's crushing victory of Olympianity over Christianity. No one, not even the Christian Olympians who dominate our churches, will find this response persuasive or meaningful.
“Nor must Christians accept all the attacks on the church’s past and then make the rejoinder: ‘Yes, but see how things have changed today’…Yesterday it sponsored monarchy, today it is for democracy…Yesterday it claimed to have absolute truth and was dogmatic, today it lets people believe what they like. Yesterday it championed a fierce and rigid sexual morality, today it is for abortion, homosexuality, etc…There is no progress here…The church has simply adopted wholesale the ideas and manners of modern [Olympian] society as it did those of past societies…No truth is incarnate in this simple conformity to the dominant trend in our society” (8).
Alas, this is the response which Christian Olympians find most meaningful. Today's crushing victory of Olympianity over Christianity was not a sudden and recent event. It has been a long slow process. Our subservience as Christians to the Olympian gods, our adoption of the beliefs, values, norms, goals, and narratives of our Olympian context, however, has never been quite so overwhelming. This is not because past Christians were more virtuous. It’s because contemporary Olympian rulers have much more powerful means of persuasion at their disposal.

Copyright © 2015 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.