Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
– Robert Frost (1874-1963), from “The Road Not Taken” (1915)
No one who has any deep sense of the way the Roman Emperor Constantine hijacked Christian history at the First Council of Nicaea in the year 325 CE can keep from wondering about that other road not taken. We know now how Constantine’s Christianity turned out. And the religion that he established served as the basis for a Western civilization which has been very good for some of us, but it also has been destructive of so many earlier cultures, and recklessly destructive of the earth’s ecosystems. And beyond his religion’s inquisition’s and crusades, we’ve had seventeen hundred years of secular wars! So, what might have happened in the Western world if Constantine had not intervened so early, and if instead the first followers of Jesus had been allowed to continue along that other, gentler, and in hindsight much more promising road that was so early abandoned?
The first point to be made is that the followers of Jesus had already begun to take us down that other road for some little distance before Constantine wrestled them away from it. What was then often called the Way of Jesus had been spreading rapidly around the Mediterranean Sea, and it had gained millions of followers over the first three hundred years after Jesus’s Resurrection before Constantine held his First Council of Nicaea, and he there established his Roman Christian religion. And our second point ought to be the fact that the Way of Jesus which Constantine abolished and replaced by force was actually more radical than most of us realize! We have Jesus’s words in hand in a far different twenty-first century, when those words sound like beautiful common sense. But He first spoke them at a time when what He was saying was radical beyond belief. It is no wonder that Jesus’s message was spread so rapidly after His Resurrection, and it was so popular among the common people. He was turning the old world upside down.
We think of Jesus as a spiritual teacher. But Jesus when He was on earth flat refused to abide by the shame-and-honor-based system that had for countless generations dominated the cultures of that time and place. And it was really His refusal to play by those long-established societal rules that was the thing that most bothered the priests and elders of His day. He wasn’t just a religious nuisance, but He was such a social radical that the authorities were soon conspiring to murder Him (see e.g. Matthew 12:14; Mark 3:6, 11:18; Luke 19:47; and John 11:53). Few of us reading our Gospels now realize that Jesus walked the earth not as just a wise spiritual Teacher. Jesus came to earth nearly two thousand years too soon: He was in fact the quintessential nineteen-sixties radical. And what the Way of Jesus was spreading to the common folk after His Ascension was social chaos and revolution.
In that ancient time and place, shame-and-honor was the basis of the morality that people had long felt compelled to follow, not only for themselves, but even more for their families, their villages, and their tribes. If a situation called for retaliation, then people were expected to retaliate. Indeed, for them not to retaliate would have been immoral, because it would have been dishonorable. Therefore, for Jesus to have walked the hills of Galilee saying, “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) was to subvert the prevailing culture’s whole system of morality itself. Jesus’s listeners were being given a new place to find their identity, not in their civilly-granted positions of honor or shame anymore, but now directly in God. The least of these were being given by Jesus a place in society that was no longer being granted by man and by man’s long-established customs, but now directly by God. It was a new world order that was subversive of both the civil and the religious authorities, and it gave to even the lowliest a new place to stand in God’s presence beside the mightiest, since all were now equal in God’s perfect love. It is difficult for us to imagine just how radical these new ideas taught by Jesus really were in those ancient days!
So the Way of Jesus that was beginning to spread on that other road was not just a new version of Judaism. For Jesus’s Apostles and their acolytes to be teaching these radical new ideas, and for these ideas to be spreading so rapidly was becoming a potential threat to the whole Roman Empire. Among those who heard the Apostles’ emissaries, and in the societies where they were teaching, which had forever been based in honor and shame and were solidly rooted in hierarchical family, village, and tribal ties, Jesus’s amazing new message of universal love and forgiveness and equality in God must have landed like a nuclear bomb. But for the lowly masses, who were most of the people, at last it was liberation day.
A telling phrase used in the Acts of the Apostles shows in microcosm the problem raised by this new sect of Judaism that Jesus had founded. It gives us a better sense of why the Way of Jesus was so deeply upsetting to Constantine in particular, and why it had to be either radically transformed or altogether destroyed. The teachings of Jesus were so deeply upsetting to the old world order that followers of the Way were being dragged before the city councils in Thessalonika and elsewhere, and they were there being referred to as “These men who have upset the world have come here also … and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6–7). Multiply that reaction by all the towns and cities around the Mediterranean Sea! Jesus could not have gone around touching the untouchables, eating with the underclass, and healing on the Sabbath Day without playing havoc with all the deeply tradition-bound societies in which His disciples later were going to be teaching, even long after His Resurrection.
It was this highly disruptive three-hundred-year Way of Jesus that Constantine sought to reorder with his First Council of Nicaea. And it was thought by those in authority that Constantine’s Council overall was a very good thing, establishing as it did a more mature Christian movement under the control of a more formal and better regulated council of bishops. But as we have long since established, the fear-based dogmas of the Roman Christian church of Constantine had nothing to do with what Jesus Himself had taught, probably because those teachings were just too subversive of the civic order of that time and place. And the resulting religion has by now splintered into more than forty-two thousand variations. After seventeen hundred years, Constantine’s Roman Christianity has brought us to a juncture where most evangelicals are so confused that they can now say that Jesus is not enough for them anymore, while half of modern Americans by survey are not even sure that they still believe in God. Whenever you plant such a crooked tree, eventually it is bound to fall.
But would things really be so much easier for us now if Constantine never had intervened, and if the Way of Jesus simply had continued along that abandoned (but at the time quite exciting) road not taken? Well, for one thing, we now know that almost right away, the Way of Jesus would have run smack into the fiercely expansionist first years of Islam, as it was then proceeding to temporarily conquer southern Europe. And the ferociously warlike Muslim religion and the entirely love-based Way of Jesus would have been completely incompatible. As I have tried to play out those possible encounters, the robust young Islam that had been exhorted to drive on to conquest by its Prophet, the religion that was offering either death or conversion wherever it went against the gentle missionaries of the Way of Jesus, alight with the radiance of faith and love, I can see only disaster for the followers of Jesus. All that they really could have done would have been to get as far out of the way as possible, to try to go into hiding perhaps, to find ways to disappear and wait out the turbulence. Just as it was that the mammals, small and agile and bright, found ways to survive the Age of Dinosaurs.
The first version of Christianity that would have been spreading along the road not taken would not have been much like the Roman Christianity that is dying today. The Way of Jesus of those first three hundred years was a set of spiritual movements anyway and not even a religion at all, and it was remarkably varied, with many strains and beliefs, but all largely based in the remembered teachings of Jesus, and love-based rather than fear-based. There is no way to know for certain where it would have gone and how it might have developed, but over the course of this past week as I have waited for Thomas to join me, as he always does by Friday, I have tried to game it out. Without Constantine’s First Nicaean Council, it would have taken them longer, but the bishops of the first converted cities were moving toward codifying their various beliefs. So Jesus would have been taken off the cross, where Constantine was determined to keep Him forever, and restored to His role of revered Teacher, rather than being treated as just a figurehead and sacrifice, as He still is to this day in Roman Christianity.
And that, my beloveds, seems to me to be the great difference between what we have had and what we might have had if the alternative Way of Jesus had been left free to wend its way along that beautiful road not taken. Without Constantine and his obsession with wielding Christianity as a means of fear-based control, there would have been no need to keep Jesus bleeding on that cross forevermore, shedding upon us the misery of our own imagined guilt and shame and lowering the consciousness vibrations of every Christian on the face of the earth. In the Roman Catacombs, which date to those first three hundred years after Jesus’s Resurrection, there is not a single cross to be seen! There are only depictions of Jesus, often with a baby goat about His shoulders to signify that He had come to bring His teachings and the ultimate good news of our eternal life to the goats as well as to the sheep. Until we first understood consciousness physics early in this new century, we never could have realized just how deadly it has been to our ability to raise our consciousness vibrations for us to keep rubbing our own noses in Jesus’s death for our sins and shortcomings by making the brutal means of His death the symbol of the whole Christian religion. That cross is always right there in our faces! So, dying in that ghastly way was the point of Jesus’s entire life? THAT was Jesus’s whole gift to us? His three and a half years of teaching, and His Resurrection, and His Ascension actually all amounted to nothing? We even wear gold crosses as jewelry on chains around our necks, for heaven’s sake!
But if only we had kept to that road not taken, then in all the Christian churches over all the earth, there now would never be a cross to be seen! Not even a bare crucifix. No crosses anywhere! Only statues of the teaching Jesus, and also sunbursts perhaps, as symbols of the beauty of the risen Christ. And the religion would not teach that Jesus died for our sins, but rather the Way would teach just what Jesus taught, God’s perfect love and universal forgiveness, and it would crown the Lord’s words with the certainty that Jesus came to prove to us that human life truly is eternal. He said, “I came so that they would have life, and have it abundantly” (JN 10:11). And as I think about it now, our Bibles might well be the New Testament alone, just the Gospels and perhaps Paul’s letters. And our churches would be places of teaching and celebration, open to all and free of judgment. Without those outmoded Old Testament rules, all those who follow Jesus would be models of His love and joy, every one of us more or less like Jesus.
All the guilt and judgment and the awful negativity that Roman Christianity has instilled in its followers is what has killed off the Roman Christian religion. I have no doubt about that! And in fact, all that negativity has killed it dead, I am afraid. I can see no hope for Christianity now. For more than a decade I have been getting emails from people who tell me that they cannot bear to attend a Christian church any longer, and nearly always they will say that they love Jesus more than ever, but they find the religion’s teachings to be no longer believable. Or they will say that they love Jesus even more, but they find the people who attend Christian churches to be judgmental, standoffish, cliquey, and unbearable to be around. This broad Barna poll gives you a sense of just how deeply negative the image of modern Christians actually is! And yet Jesus’s image remains wonderfully positive. No one sees Jesus as judging us, and they are right. Jesus is only love. I am somewhat alarmed that judgmental Christians seem to have tarnished God’s image for so many people, but Jesus tells us yet again that God does not judge us. Jesus says, “For not even the Father judges anyone” (JN 5:22). And Jesus invites us now to “Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light” (MT 11:28-30).
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost (1874-1963), from “The Road Not Taken” (1915)