From the moment Jesus breathed his last breath to 381 (probably three hundred and fifty years), Christianity was a highly conflicted movement of loosely affiliated followers of Jesus. As would happen to Islam after Mohammad, Christianity broke into sects of believers defined by prominent personalities and their theoretical proclamations.
In truth, it is probable that even before Jesus died his followers were not like-minded. Fisherman, farmers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and patricians do not see the world through the same lens.
But then something terrible happened. The religion was taken into an empire and shaped in its image. In short, Christianity became imperial.
Even after the Council of Nicaea, which was the Roman Empire’s first concerted attempt to strong-arm conformity and fashion a monoculture out of a disparate religious movement, it took several hundred more years to bring it to heel. 381 C.E. marks the conclusion of that first effort with an enduring definition of orthodoxy: “right belief.”
The process leading up to violent conformity witnessed heroes of orthodoxy, like Athanasius after whom a creed is named, sending club-wielding thugs against theological opponents. Cudgeling opposition began early and was brought to perfection by imperial authority and, eventually, a system of autocratic authority was poured into the mold of the Roman Empire and out came councils, cardinals, and popes.
My point is that conformity of belief and practice is not only unnatural to Christianity as a religion, it is a sad chapter in its history that is only now beginning to end. The Protestant (and English) Reformations brought an end to the Roman Empire of Christianity but not to the violence of orthodoxy. Inflicting conformity of belief and practice has been a cottage industry of Protestantism as well.
The Eurocentric dominance of Christianity is now ending – religion, as usual, is a little slower in its deconstruction than the political-economic culture (in this case, of Colonialism) that is changing ahead of it.
With the demise of Christian empire, and Eurocentric theology and practice, comes the return of true diversity and vibrancy in Christian beliefs and practices. Arius and Apollinarius can once again join in fully with Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa as Christians mining the same biblical wisdom with different tools and lenses. Each one a legitimate “Christian.”
So what has all this to do with you and me as ordinary practitioners of Christian spirituality?
Lots. Orthodoxy spends a great deal of time and effort getting the definitions right for such things as the “Trinity,” “Transubstantiation,” and “Sin.” That’s great if orthodoxy is what is important to you, but it’s not particularly helpful if “right belief” itself is not an idea you think is even possible.
The notion that it is impossible to know God in any meaningful sense that would make such definitions practical – contemporary mysticism in other words – finds a very comfortable home in Modernism or Post-Modernism, or whatever epoch we have entered. Even so, some people still want to re-live the battles between Arius and Athanasius.
Some folks, however, see it as a woeful waste of time replicate those arguments when we have such great new anthropological and archeological contributions being added to the process of mining the sacred from biblical texts. In fact, simply removing the veil and noise of imperial Christianity’s insistence on doctrinal conformity from between the gospel and us reveals a thunderous river of new perspectives.
The upshot to all this is that the doctrine of the Trinity or Atonement, for example, are ideas not actual substance or cosmic facts upon which the Cosmos is built. And in fact, some of those great Christian theologians like Anselm never confused the reality of God with their ideas about God. Orthodoxy and heresy are themselves ideas with no actual substance.
Recognizing the difference between ideas, that are an attempt to describe reality, and reality itself, is the beginning of a more modernist perspective of Christian spiritual wisdom. The reality of God cannot and will not be contained by any idea or set of ideas, period. Beginning with that as a frame of reference takes one to a very different place than “right” and “wrong” belief.