For early witnesses to Jesus, their meeting place was only that: a building which functioned solely as a convenient place to meet as an organized social group. Nothing more.
Gradually, however, Christians wrongly began to slide back into an Olympian worldview. They began to reconstruct a sacred world.
Their meeting place stopped being solely that. It became a sacred place. Then spaces within the church building came to be regarded as special places that only special people could enter. Before entering a meeting place—now understood as sacred—people had to practice certain formalities. They had to make the sign of the cross, bow down or kneel, and daub themselves with sacred water. Women had to wear something over their heads.
With the church understood as a sacred building, if “anything scandalous takes place in it, it can no longer be used for divine service. It must be reconsecrated” (Ellul, 62). At the same time, taking shelter in it put one closer to the gods and safer from danger.
The structure of a sacred world started taking shape beyond church buildings. Places where martyrs died or were buried, or where visions or miracles occurred, became sacred. People started making pilgrimages to them because the presence of the gods was wrongly understood as being stronger in such places.
A religious worldview started to structure time into sacred and ordinary as well. The apostle Paul plainly said that all times are the same to Jesus (see Galatians 4:8-11). Quickly enough, however, belief in the sacred made Sunday more special, then Easter Day and Christmas, followed eventually by the seasons of Lent and Advent.
Ordinary routines become sacred rituals. Early witnesses to Jesus reminded themselves that they—and the rest of humankind—had been set right with God through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. They did this through a weekly sharing of bread and wine. Eventually that simple weekly recollection of the singular sacrifice of Jesus in AD 30 became a sacred and repeated event. The bread no longer stayed bread but was understood to be the actual body of Jesus. The dividing of that bread into pieces was understood to be the actual sacrifice of Jesus once again. “Naturally the consecrated host is wholly sacred” (64).
Here we run into deeply religious thoughts and practices. Sacraments become sacred words and actions. The presence of God is understood to take place automatically. When sacred persons—priests—say the sacred words, ordinary bread automatically becomes the actual body of Jesus. When priests apply even the smallest amount of sacred water, people touched by it are automatically “washed from original sin and theological virtues are infused into them once and for all. They receive the indelible character of people who belong to Christ” (64). In both cases what matters “is not the believer’s relationship of faith with God but the church’s ritual and the object that has the sacred power of transformation” (64).
People who share a religious worldview together construct a sacred world. In that world, they believe that objects themselves possess divine power. This applies not only to sacred bread and sacred water but to various objects such as palm leaves, dirt from sacred places, and relics (possessions, especially body parts, of dead saints). This worldview eventually widens enough to include horseshoes and, lately, precious rings.
Once Christians started believing that physical objects themselves possessed divine power, the visual came to dominate the verbal. The Olympian gods came to dominate Jesus in the minds and lives of Christians and churches. The visual gods, and the physical objects they were understood to invest with power, became dominant. Jesus, the one oddly invisible god, who insisted on communicating primarily through invisible words, was increasingly ignored.
Christians flooded their church buildings and lives with visual objects: stained-glass windows, paintings, statues, special clothing for priests, the elevation of sacred bread during communion, and, finally, icons. We continue this same Olympian way of thinking and living today by including in our Sunday liturgies slide shows, videos, and even liturgical dancing.
In addition to the domination of the visual over the verbal, religion demands sacrifice. Biblically, Jesus Christ himself was the one last sacrifice for sin. With his crucifixion and resurrection, every human being was set right with God once and for all.
With the reconstruction of a sacred world by churches and Christians, further sacrifices became necessary and plentiful. Christ’s sacrifice of himself was no longer enough for our salvation. Christ’s sacrifice of himself became something repeatable and constant repetition of it became necessary.
Then even the constant repetition of Christ’s sacrifice of himself proved no longer sufficient. One had to sacrifice what was most precious to oneself to get right with God. Suffering became the measure of one’s virtue. How odd.
Again, with the reconstruction of the sacred Olympian world, only in Christian terms, we see the reemergence of a sacred priesthood. The faithful witnesses to Jesus in the New Testament never refer to any person as being called by Jesus to serve him or in churches as priest. They are clear (especially the Letter to the Hebrews) that Jesus Christ himself was the last priest. Jesus himself fulfilled the purpose of all priests and sacrifices of the Old Testament. Instead, New Testament witnesses tell us simply that Jesus called (and calls) individuals to fulfill certain functions on behalf of the group in which they participate. Some people “were deacons (to offer aid), prophets (to preach), teachers (to give instruction), and bishops (to see to good order)” (66).
Once Christianity became nothing more than a variation of Olympianity, churches reconstituted a priesthood of people made sacred by the gods and thereby capable both of representing the gods among ordinary people and of mediating between ordinary people and the gods whom they wished to propitiate. “The sacred is beneficent, but it has such power that if we are not equipped for this relation, it becomes maleficent” (67).
Of course, once Christians recreated a sacred world, the existence of a priesthood representing good powers demanded the existence of a priesthood of warlocks and witches representing evil powers. “In the primitive church we find a remarkable view…that sorcery does not really exist…We must root out from the minds of believers any acceptance of the power of sorcerers…But what finally triumphs is belief in the devil” (67) and fear of those believed to be allied with him.
(Today we have continued our reflections on The Subversion of Christianity by Jacques Ellul [trans. Geoffrey Bromiley; Eerdmans, 1986].)