What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give?
Or are we meant to be kind?
And if only fools are kind, Alfie,
Then I guess it is wise to be cruel.
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie,
What will you lend on an old golden rule?
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there’s something much more.
Something even non-believers can believe in.
– Burt Bacharach (1928-2023), from “Alfie” (1966)
Even as Christianity fades in popularity, some of the religion’s sterner denominations continue to condemn people to hell just for doctrinal reasons. There also are Christian denominations whose views of God, or views of roles for women, or thoughts on communion formalities, or rules about making amends for sins are seen by some believers to not hit the right doctrinal notes to make others happy, even within the same denominations, so as to cause sometimes bitter debates. So it is no wonder why at this point there are more than forty-two thousand different Christian denominations worldwide! If I were advising the churches, and even putting aside the fact that afterlife researchers have found that there is in fact no hell, I would advise all versions of Christianity that all this hell-condemning and policing of the minutia of people’s various beliefs amounts to a set of terrible marketing choices, for heaven’s sake! As Jesus Himself said, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions…You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (MK 7:8-9) It is time now for those who are still trying to preserve what little is left of that old-time religion to take the Lord’s point, and to stop all this fussing over divisive doctrinal nonsense. The marketing optics of it all are frankly god-awful!
One might even ask where the whole hell idea comes from, when the afterlife reality itself as we have come to know it pretty well through communications from the afterlife’s residents so notably lacks any mention of a hell. Even Jesus in the Gospels never mentions a hell beyond the gloomy fire-free outer darkness, which does in fact exist as the lowest afterlife level; but it is a place to which only we ourselves might temporarily condemn ourselves. Or Jesus mentions the Gehenna garbage dump outside Jerusalem, whose references don’t look very hellish either. A couple of what look like references to permanent divine condemnations in the Gospels are clearly later suspect additions that were added at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. And, well, simply put, I just don’t get it! When fewer and fewer people are attending churches every year, why are those churches chasing ever more attendees away by instilling in them terror of a hell for which there is no evidence? And when fewer and fewer Americans are mustering any kind of belief in God with each year that passes, why make that problem any worse by insisting that only a God of a certain specific description can somehow win the right to reign on high?
There is no real cure for what ails Christianity now, other than a return all the way back to its true First Source. I have been reading a variety of Christian bloggers, looking for ideas about how we might begin to shape a viable post-all-schisms Christian movement, and over and over we see most modern Christian thinkers making the same key mistake. To their minds, “going all the way back” means reading just the early church fathers, all of whom lived and wrote after First Nicaea in 325 CE. By then, the pure thinking of Jesus Himself was not even a distant memory.
To his great credit, the modern Christian thinker who tries to hew closest to the Gospels’ true First Source is Father Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation. Father Richard believes that when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it lost the essence of the Gospels themselves as what he calls “good news for the poor.” And of course I agree with him, although I consider that Gospels good news to have been not just for the poor, but for all of us! I do get his point, though, and I want to give him the chance to make it to us here. Father Richard says:
“In the early Christian Scriptures, the message of Jesus seems to have been heard in great part by people on the bottom. We see clearly in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospels that people who are poor, in need of healing, or viewed as sinners tend to get the point. Those who are outside or at the edges of the system understand Jesus, while those who are inside or at the center are the ones who crucify him.
“We can date the turning point to the year 313 CE, when the Emperor Constantine established Christianity throughout the Holy Roman Empire. The Church thought that linking up with power was a good way to spread the gospel message. In truth, it became embarrassed by Jesus, the powerless one. Most churches do the same, in their own way. We feel more comfortable with power than we do with powerlessness. Who wants to be like Jesus? Who wants to be powerless? It just doesn’t look like a way of influence, access, or one that is going to make any difference.
“After 313, Scripture interpretations do a 180-degree turn. Take the issue of war: a hundred years before 313, it was unthinkable that a Christian would fight in the army. Jesus’s teaching on nonviolence is self-evident. As Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) observed, ‘I am convinced that [Christianity] has distorted the message of Jesus…. When it had the backing of a Roman emperor it became an imperialist faith as it remains to this day.’ Jesus taught nonviolence, lived nonviolently, and died nonviolently, but this goes right over our heads! We can’t see it because we’ve spent seventeen hundred years interpreting Scripture from the top. Reading Scripture from the bottom is the key to what liberation theology calls the preferential option for the poor. I just call it the bias from the bottom. Apart from conversion and until the ego is transformed, everybody wants to be at the top. Apart from grace, we don’t see anything valuable on the bottom.
“By the year 400 CE, the entire Roman army is Christian and we are killing the ‘pagans.’ After the Empire becomes Christian, there is a whole section of the Bible that we are structurally unable to read. We can’t read anything about nonviolence, powerlessness, or not being ‘winners.’ We can’t see what we can’t see. We can’t hear what we are not ready to hear. And if we are on the top, any critique of the top is un-hearable. This is where action and contemplation are linked together. In the contemplative journey, unless we see this necessary humiliation of the ego and defeat of the false self, we don’t undergo basic transformation.”
The gentle, kindly, and perfectly spiritual Man who is Jesus Himself was forced to watch the perversion of His pure Gospels message by the Roman Emperor Constantine beginning late in the third century. And Jesus understands people so well! He knew precisely what Constantine’s seizure of His burgeoning Jesus Movement was going to mean, and it breaks my heart to think of Him having to watch it happen. Simply put, love and forgiveness, kindness and peace, all those stellar virtues of the least of these, do not sell well among those who lust only for absolute power and control. Constantine cared not at all for the very teachings which were central to the love-based movement that Jesus had so well begun.
But what Jesus had taught was beautiful! He said, “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (LK 6:35-36). And Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect!” (MT 5:43-48). When Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (MT 18:21-23). And Jesus said, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return” (LK 6:37-38).
Sadly, though, none of that was of any use to Constantine, who needed a fear-based way to control the masses as he conquered them. So as he built the Roman Christian religion that is our Christianity of today, Constantine suppressed and destroyed all the peaceful aspects of the Jesus Movement. He built the entirety of his new religion around what was a minor idea that had developed as an aspect of that Movement, an idea based in ancient Hebrew religious practice that proposed that Jesus had died as a pure sin-sacrifice to God. And Constantine thus built his whole religion around the notion of Jesus as the ultimate pure sin-sacrifice, which of course then imposed deep fear and penance upon us all. He did include Jesus’s Gospel teachings in the Christian Bible as He assembled it, but none of that was emphasized. Or even really taught. So all the fear- and guilt-based aspects of modern Christianity came from Constantine. None of that came from Jesus.
And since history is written by its winners, Christians down through all the generations have been taught and have lived our lives knowing things which never have been true. We were taught that Constantine was a hero! He had saved and protected and built the church, and done wonderful things for us and for Jesus as he spread Christianity throughout the world. I can recall how rudderless it felt to be a young Christian even in the nineteen-sixties, simultaneously reading the Bible over and over with an emphasis on the Gospels while I also attended Christian church services. Being taught to love and also to fear, not knowing which beliefs were right, and yet if you guessed wrong about what you believed, your soul might wind up in hell. Could that really be true? Oh my goodness, you never saw a more seriously devout religious seeker than I was as a teenager! But for someone who naively took Christianity as seriously as I took it then, the competing beliefs of Constantine’s fear-based religion and the earlier Jesus Movement still buried inside the Gospels simply never could be reconciled.
What fixed it all for me was the wonderful professor who was my college advisor. Miss Corwin was at the end of her long career, and growing bitter about the fact that her strongly negative view of Constantine’s role in Christian history, while factually correct, was going to remain a minority position. But she taught what was true, and she answered my questions, and while she wanted me to become a minister, I realize now in retrospect that she could see even then that I lacked the fire in the belly that entering the clergy would have required. But perhaps my doing what I am doing now is even more effective at spreading her point of view?
All I know is that the most famous Being Who ever lived came to us from the Godhead two thousand years ago to free us from all religions, and to give us the easiest method for achieving rapid spiritual growth ever devised. If we will follow Jesus’s simple teachings, we can achieve enough spiritual growth in one lifetime to make this our last necessary earth-lifetime. And Constantine has only delayed, but he has not ended the moment when The Way of Jesus can prevail. As my Thomas tells us, Constantine did perform one service for us all. Now everyone on earth knows the name of Jesus! So now we need only to help the world to better understand what Jesus taught, and the true Jesus Movement can at last begin.
I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you’ve missed, you’re nothing, Alfie.
When you walk, let your heart lead the way,
And you’ll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie
– Burt Bacharach (1928-2023), from “Alfie” (1966)