M ost churchgoers – both lifelong attendees and relative newcomers – labor under the impression that Christian theology is a settled matter. We assume that at some point in the distant past, devout Christians came together and wrestled earnestly with the mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith. The fruit of their wrestling, we imagine, was a definitive and indisputable set of beliefs about God and Jesus, heaven and hell, and the like. And so, we presume, we don’t need to wrestle with these holy mysteries ourselves. We just need to accept as true the time-tested beliefs that have been passed down to us.
It’s no surprise that so many of us think this way. There are a lot of churches deeply invested in this version of history. There’s only one problem with it – it’s utter bupkis! Just a cursory walk through history reveals a far more complex, perhaps even unsettling reality: what has been handed down to us as “orthodox” theology is as much a product of politics as it is honest spiritual searching.
Our Starting Point: Dialogue and Diversity
In its formative years, Christianity boasted a remarkable diversity of thought. The early followers of Jesus engaged in earnest discussions, striving to understand and implement his teachings on love, forgiveness, and the coming kingdom of God. This period was marked by a vibrant exploration of faith, evident in the wide array of early Christian writings, including the canonical gospels and other texts like the Gnostic writings. This diversity highlights a time of rich theological dialogue, where differing viewpoints were embraced.
However, the landscape began to shift with the conversion of Constantine the Great and the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, which recognized Christianity within the Roman Empire. This alignment with imperial power significantly changed Christianity’s trajectory, pushing it towards doctrinal uniformity. The necessity for a unified belief system to uphold the empire’s cohesion and stability led to the gradual suppression of the theological diversity that early Christianity cherished.
The Council of Nicaea exemplifies this shift. Convened by the emperor in 325 CE to settle a controversy over Christ’s divinity, it resulted in the Nicene Creed, a standardized expression of Christian faith. This council, while addressing a theological dispute, set a precedent for establishing orthodoxy and labeling alternative interpretations as heresies. While the empire become more governable for Constantine, it did so as the expense of the rich dialogue that had so defined Christian theology.
An Unsettling Pattern
This trend of molding doctrine to meet political expedience persisted, with various councils and ecclesiastical decisions often mirroring the interests of the ruling authorities. Concepts like the divine right of kings were shaped to bolster existing social and political hierarchies, showing how theological ideas could be manipulated for secular purposes.
The gradual fusion of Christian doctrine with political ambitions not only curtailed the theological diversity that had been a hallmark of early Christianity but also transformed it into a tool for consolidating power and suppressing dissenting voices. The rich tapestry of early Christian thought was gradually overshadowed by a more uniform doctrine, which, while simplifying governance and control, significantly detracted from the faith’s dynamic and inclusive origins.
Getting back to our roots
Despite the long shadow cast by power and politics, there have always been individuals of deep faith who dared to keep the conversation alive. These courageous souls, often labeled as heretics for their unconventional views — figures like Origen of Alexandria, who explored the vastness of God’s nature beyond the orthodox bounds, or Meister Eckhart, whose mystical teachings pushed the limits of conventional theology — remind us that the spirit of inquiry and dialogue never truly faded.
In our modern era, we have a unique opportunity to rekindle this rich tradition of exploration and conversation. Today, we can draw inspiration from these historical figures who, against the odds, maintained the vibrancy of spiritual discourse. Now, more than ever, we have the chance to be active participants in this ongoing dialogue, contributing our voices to a living faith that embraces diversity, seeks understanding, and fosters community.
This moment beckons us not just to inherit a tradition, but to actively shape it by building our own beliefs, ensuring that the conversation not only continues but flourishes.
Build Your Own Beliefs
In our four-week Build Your Own Beliefs workshop, we’ll embark on a journey to become active contributors to the rich conversation of Christian theology. Each week will be an exploration into the core questions of Christian belief: What is the nature of God? Who truly was Jesus? Does hell exist? Our goal is to dive deep into these topics, guiding each participant towards identifying and embracing their own convictions as followers of Jesus.
As we navigate through these sessions, we’ll engage in meaningful dialogue with one another, drawing on a broad spectrum of historical and theological viewpoints — including both mainstream and the more unconventional. By the conclusion of our workshop, each participant will emerge more articulate and confident in expressing their personal beliefs. Together, we’ll not only deepen our understanding but also prepare ourselves to carry the timeless message of Jesus into the new millennium with clarity and conviction.
We hope you can join us as we build our own beliefs and forge our path in the ongoing dialogue of faith!