Every so often at around this time, I’ve feel compelled to craft some sort of seasonal message, an Advent message, of sorts.
These messages are not only heartfelt but also are intended to express two things: my evolving views on the Christian faith but also my deep-seated gratitude for this faith, which was instilled into me by my loving, diligent parents and other authority figures. I tend to feel this sense of gratitude rather acutely in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
The Incremental Nature of Christianity
For the last few years, I’ve reflected on the incremental nature of the Christian faith. As strange as this may sound, I relate it to how an exquisitely sharpened ax is driven into the trunk of a tree, particularly in terms of how this contact with the trunk occurs. If this were captured millisecond by millisecond by a high-resolution camera, we would see the unfolding of something remarkable. The initial impression would be expressed as a tiny indentation, a mere fraction of an inch in diameter, though becoming much deeper and wider over the course of only a tiny span of time.
Throughout history, the initial effects of political and religious movements have been similarly expressed. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases, these political and religious movements seldom extended beyond tiny impressions, almost as if some hidden force stopped a blade only a millisecond or so after striking into a tree.
Like an arrested ax, these movements, irrespective of their beliefs, either fail to gain traction over the course of time or are absorbed — preempted — in some measure by larger and more prominent political and religious groups. That has certainly proven to be the case with the vast majority of aspiring American political parties and religious sects throughout our history.
Yet, in rare cases, the initial impact deepens and, over the course of time, exerts deep indentations into human consciousness, much as a sharp ax driven into a tree trunk.
The Jesus Movement
So it was with the Jesus Movement. Jesus’ crucifixion initially amounted to a tiny pinprick on the human consciousness. But over the course of the days and weeks that followed Jesus’ crucifixion, his small circle of disciples and followers were compelled to reflect on his horrific suffering on the cross. They undoubtedly asked themselves, “How could a life so precious, so selfless and seemingly so significant be snuffed out through such ignominious and humiliating suffering and death?”
How this question ultimately was worked out over the course of the next few centuries transformed the fate of humanity.
A quarter century ago, I recall reading a rather compelling argument by the late diplomat and statesman George F. Kennan. He contended that the universal religion that eventually emerged out of the Mediterranean Basin, which we know today as Christianity, had to be the work of some deity or entities operating with the best aspirations for humanity. As he saw it, the remarkable confluence of events at around the time of Jesus’ birth could not have occurred without supernatural intervention.
At this point in life, I’m inclined to challenge that argument. As I’ve contended time and again, human fortunes have been driven by a network that our species, almost entirely unconsciously, has constructed over eons, one that has grown denser and more complex across time.
The human impulse for survival forced our distant forebears to develop very incrementally across the eons a kind of protective layer, what amounted to a networking of religion, culture, and technology, one that has been constructed via language and, more recently and far more significantly, writing. This protective layer has grown denser and far more complex across ages and has, in a manner of speaking, enabled us to sculpt all that we now regard as essential to the human condition. In a sense, God is embedded in this structure, this network, which I’ve come to call the Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton (NHE) to underscore its indispensably formative, protective and sustaining role on behalf of humanity.
NHE is a mouthful, I know, but I can’t conceive of any term better to express its nature of this contrivance. It has served our species in a myriad of ways, essentially in the form of a multi-generational dialogue that has allowed us to connect and build on ideas and concepts across time, whether these happen to be religious, political or cultural in nature.
The rudiments of this exoskeleton could not have been established eons ago but for the invention of language. Language enabled us to construct a few of the critical facets of this network, one that significantly surpassed the social interaction of simian species. But it was the much later invention of writing that enabled this network, this exoskeleton, to undergo great leaps in density and complexity. Writing enabled humans not only to refine their dialogue but to expand it across generations.
As this network, this exoskeleton, grew denser and more refined across time, it enabled human beings to organize political and religious structures spanning entire continents. And given that these massive political structures encompassed many different languages and cultures, this allowed for the cross-fertilization — the meeting, mating and morphing, as I have come to call it — of many different ideas.
The “Adjacent Possible”
In his superb book “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” science writer Steven Berlin Johnson, borrows a concept known as the “adjacent possible” from biologist Stuart Kaufman to illustrate how the cross-fertilization of ideas essentially provides a doorway to newer, more refined ideas and ways of doing things.
This is the critical factor that I believe accounts for why the eastern half of the Mediterranean Basin provided such fertile conditions for the formation and spread of the universal monotheistic religion we know today as the Christian faith. As journalist and religious writer Robert Wright aptly observes in his book, “The Evolution of God,” the Roman Empire provided an open platform of sorts, a means by which all manner of political and religious ideas could be propagated across vast distances.
The Mediterranean Basin during the Roman imperial period provided an unusually rich medium for the merging of the ideals of Greek and Hebrew thought that characterizes present-day Christianity. Indeed, this merging arguably enabled the Jesus movement to make the critical leap to become the world’s first universal religion, a development that held profound implications not only for the Roman Empire but also for future generations of human beings across the planet.
Much of this was portended in the God Fearers — as their name implies, the monotheistic-minded Gentile Roman subjects throughout the empire who identified with much, if not most, of the theology of Judaism, which was practiced throughout much of the Mediterranean world.
It is also worth stressing that Christianity, as the world’s largest and most globally dispersed universal religion serves as its own open-source platform for the formation of new ways of thinking, particularly in terms of how this relates to ethics and the quest toward humanity’s connection to and wider function within the universe — not surprising, considering how deeply Christian views of compassion and transcendence are now so deeply embedded within the human exoskeleton.
In of very real sense, the kenotic (self-emptying) effects of Christianity are still being expressed.
To return to my earlier analogy, it is as if the sharp edge of the Christian ax is still being applied to the trunk of human civilization. And while this impact, in the view of some, is becoming more attenuated over the course of time as a result of secularization, its effects are still profound. Humans, especially in the West, are still engaged in a dialogue that is still profoundly Christian. In a very real sense, the contours of the Christian faith are still being refined.
Perhaps across time we will discover that other advanced species throughout the cosmos have constructed and benefited from similar networks, structures built across eons to protect their species and to pass essential knowledge from one generation to the next.
Some readers may discount all of this as simply fanciful thinking. But it reflects my own protracted struggle to pull disparate threads together into a coherent narrative, one from which others may derive some measure of value.
Recently, a very bright and committed orthodox Christian confronted me with a argument, one with which I’ve struggled with for many years. As she stressed, the problem with taking any view that leaves out a formal Christian god intervening throughout human history amounts to asserting that good and evil simply cannot exist. As she expressed it, “all there can be is mere personal preference.”
Granted, I am no orthodox Christian. I believe that our understanding of God and transcendence is entirely a byproduct of our exoskeleton. Even so, I believe that this greatest of all human contrivances, this exoskeleton, not only has afforded us with grand conceptual and technological leaps but has also enabled us to garner real insights into our species — its genius as well as its acute limitations. In a very real sense, this exoskeleton has enabled us to discern good from evil. And as we refine our understanding of this exoskeleton and how God is embedded within it, we must afford conventional religion, particularly the Christian faith, immense credit. It has played not only a vital but also an indispensable role within this network. Indeed, the march of human progress would not have been possible without the presence of religion, particularly the Christian faith.