Christianity: Diversity, Controversies, and Psychoanalysis

| by Jagath Asoka

( December 25, 2012, Washington DC, Sri Lanka Guardian) Religion has been a fascinating subject that has intrigued me for many years. Recently, my nine-year-old son Rocco said something about Christianity that made me think of the diversity and controversies of early forms of Christianity. Like my son, nearly two thousand year ago, early Christians also struggled with the basic tenets of Christianity: birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The modern search for spiritual knowledge, which is not satisfied by faith alone, is becoming more important than ever. Like Rocco, most of us are not believers, and will not settle for dogma without questioning the veracity; the old stories are less effective, and we want to know and understand; therefore, must be referred to our own experience.

Christianity has never been a monolith. There were widely different views of Christianity; for example, what  one thinks of Christianity—God as a personal or impersonal being, like the Hindu god Brahma, a life force that lies behind the creation of universe; resurrection as a literal or symbolic act; Hell as a real place or a metaphor for life apart from God; Baptism as a divine ritual that removes the original sin or as a symbolic act of circumcision that brings children into the covenant  of God; Eucharist as a literal act of eating the body and blood of Christ that has been mysteriously transformed during the Mass or as a symbolic act that commemorates Jesus’ last supper; and the Bible, as the literal and precise words of God or a human book loaded with spiritual insight but contains false opinions, mistakes, and discrepancies—depends on which Christian group one belongs to.  Like Rocco, early Christians struggled with the basic tenets of Christian faith; the differences were more pronounced then than today, and that struggle, diversity, and controversies continue even today. Even though Christianity means and meant different things to different people, today Christianity is one of the great world religions, the dominant religion of the western world, and a religion centered on life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus as a way for salvation.
There were many forms of Christianity, a plurality of Jesuses, during the first through fourth centuries; these early forms of Christianity—the Jewish Christian Ebionites, the anti-Jewish Marcionites, and variety of groups called Gnostics—did not survive against the forebears of orthodox Christians who eventually came to dominate the Christian religion toward the middle of the third century. These early Christians were called heretics by the orthodox Christians. All these different kinds of Christianity had their own scripture and claimed to represent the religion of Jesus, but they had fundamentally different beliefs that seem completely aberrant to contemporary Christians.
Ebionites were Jewish Christians that originated in and around Palestine in the first centuries AD. Unlike other Jews of the first century, Ebionites—monotheist who followed the Jewish law, observed Sabbath, and adhered to Kosher dietary restrictions—believed that Jesus was a Jewish man, not a divine being, who was adopted by God at his baptism; Jesus was the messiah because God chose Jesus to fulfill the expectation of the messiah; Jesus died for our sins, and as a reward God resurrected Jesus. In Judaism, Jesus is not thought of as a divine being, the Son of God, or the Messiah prophesied in Jewish scriptures.
Marcionism was based on the teachings of Marcion of Sinope in Rome around the year 144. Marcionites were not monotheists. They believed that there were two gods: A creator god of the Old Testament and a superior god who sent his son Jesus Christ to save us from the material world. The Marcionites rejected the Old Testament and its inferior god of the Jews, god of justice, who was the Creator; they regarded Christ as the messenger of the Supreme God of goodness. Paul was their chief apostle.
Gnosticism is perhaps one of the most fascinating forms of Christianity, which represented the religion of Jesus, that came to be lost; had its own sacred books—Gospels, Epistles, and Revelations—but its points of view seemed completely aberrant to orthodox Christians, so orthodox Christians labeled Gnostics as heretics. The Greek term for knowledge is gnosis. Gnostics believed that knowledge—secret, esoteric knowledge given by revelation from the divine realm—was necessary for salvation. This knowledge was available to those who were chosen. The secret, esoteric knowledge was the knowledge of yourself: Where you came from and how you got here; most importantly, how you can return to the divine realm. This material world is a place of imprisonment, and matter is evil and emancipation comes through gnosis. Gnostics believed that the world came into being when a cosmic disaster took place. Human bodies are just traps of sparks of divinity. These divine sparks need to be liberated and can be liberated from this evil world by learning their true identity. This secret knowledge is essential for salvation, as opposed to salvation through faith or dogma.
The Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, a renaissance man of the twentieth century, was the first modern scholar who took Gnostic teachings seriously; Jung was interested in all manifestations of mankind that directly come from the unconscious. Jung was one of the first modern thinkers to trace the spiritual thread which connects the ancient quest for gnosis “knowledge” to our times, finding a parallel of his own efforts to explore the unconscious. To Jung, gnosis was not the intellectual wisdom but the wisdom that expressed by the unconscious. Gnosticism, through its images, visions, and symbols, provided clues to find out how our unconscious mind functioned. Jung began to study Gnostic ideas around 1910 while he examined the dreams of his patients. He revived the Gnostic term “archetype” to describe the mythical and mystical symbols and images that lie below the everyday conscious life but erupt from the unconscious in dreams. His analysis of dreams led him on to a profound study of the archetypes, and he got more and more interested in archetypes. When Jung realized that only the Gnostics were concerned with the problems of archetypes, he regarded the Gnostics as his predecessors.
With Jung’s interests in archetypes we are confronted by the problems of collective unconscious, which have not changed during the last two thousand years. Gnosticism is not philosophy, speculation, or heresy but just an experience of the soul: life is a nightmare until you get gnosis which is an inner experience, an experience of the soul. For Jung, our unconscious mind is deeply religious; religious experience was the center of all human experiences, which requires individual quest, effort, and recognition, not the mass acceptance of religious dogma.
The modern search for spiritual knowledge, which is not satisfied by faith alone, is becoming more important than ever. Like Rocco, most of us are not believers, and will not settle for dogma without questioning the veracity; the old stories are less effective, and we want to know and understand; therefore, must be referred to our own experience.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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