A Christianity Worth Believing by Doug Pagitt

Quick summary: Pagitt has totally valid concerns about the strain of Christianity with which he is primarily interested, and a really wonky understanding of the history of the Faith, which is  difficult to get past.

I’ve got to say, right from the start, that I am not the ideal audience for this book. The main thrust is that the author has been told or believed all sorts of things about Christianity, and the content of our faith, which lots of people do, in fact, believe and teach, and which Orthodox vehemently do not. However, Orthodox generally have a very strong sense of having a corporate history with people, places, and events where the Church stood up for those things we do believe, and rejected those things which we don’t. Not only do we believe that icons are right and proper — we have a holiday celebrating that and name it “the triumph of Orthodoxy,” where we process around the church each holding an icon and conclude “this is the faith that has established the cosmos!” Not only do we believe Arius to have been wrong — we talk about St Nicholas punching him and God smiting him. Not only do we believe material objects and bodies to be good — we kiss the bodies of the saints and have myrrh that gushed forth from their bones. Most of the positive things Pagitt has intuitions about, we have songs and holidays about — most of the negative things we have anathamas against. But, as happens over two millennia, we have some other things too. We have theological distinctions that he would no doubt find unnecessary, and customs he would find antiquated. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they still have important reasons, which we happen to have forgotten for the time being.

There is a certain strain in Christianity that emphasizes dualism, tends towards radical predestination, goes on and on about “truth claims,” is inclined to say that at the time of the Crucifixion “the Father turned His back on the Son,” and is very into a kind of “justice” that is not just at all, while brushing past this by saying it’s simply a kind of divine justice we don’t understand. It’s a strain of Christianity that does not have a well defined label at present. Orthodox often call it “Western.” David B Hart often calls it gnostic. Western Christians who don’t believe it might say something about John Calvin or the Enlightenment or Reformed. I’ve never heard a term for it that is entirely satisfactory. Pastor Pagitt’s term for this thing is even more unsatisfactory, to the point of presenting a significant distraction. He calls it “Greek.” Only someone deeply ignorant of the position of Greek Christianity toward that understanding of God (the term “blasphemous” comes to mind) could ever use that label for that heresy. This is, again, deeply distracting, and infects the rest of the paragraph it appears in with cognitive dissonance — and, as of half way through a 230 p book, it’s been about every third page for the past 60 pages. It’s not a fluke, because, again, it happens all the time, and he brings Plato, Aristotle, and (of all things) Zeus into it. It’s like reading a supposedly factual book about the Southwest where the author keeps describing Phoenix but calling it “Santa Fe,” occasionally saying something that is actually true of Santa Fe — just enough to make you realize that they must really have conflated the two cities (while being utterly ignorant of the existence of the other major players in the area). They complain about the brutal heat and massive, flat stretches of Santa Fe, where the homes of 3 million people sprawl in a valley 80 miles wide, ringed by the Sangre de Cristos. Unless what you’re going for is alternate history, this is not alright. Just because the Jews were known to call everyone else Greek, that doesn’t mean a modern American can show the same lack of proper discrimination. I do have the same complaint against the sloppy use of “Western” in Orthodox circles, but at least the phenomenon that’s being described really has been highly influential in Western Europe.

A friend who’s very interested in Emergent Christianity lent me “A Christianity Worth Believing” by Doug Pagitt, and suggested I read it. Ignorance concerning Greece aside, it’s not a bad book. He encountered a lot of the same things that so many thoughtful Christians have: people are going around trying to defend God’s actuality, sovereignty and justice in all kinds of crazy, heretical ways, and that’s no good. He grew up agnostic, never even hearing the Gospel until he was 16, when his friend invited him to an Easter Passion play. He “wanted in on it,” and became a Christian. They subjected him to the standard battery of “spiritual laws” booklets and metaphors involving chasms, trains, and probably cars (though he hasn’t mentioned that one specifically).

He was also introduced to the kind of Christianity Fr. Stephan Freeman calls the “Two Story Universe.” That’s the rigidly divided sort of place wherein God is “up there,” and every once in a while comes down to hit one of the kids who’ve done something wrong. Proponants of this view like to stress that God is “omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent” and so on, and ignore the way in which He is also “everywhere present and filling all things.” He found out about Holistic stuff, Quantum stuff, and other integrated sorts of things, and was floored by them. Later in the book I think he’s going to also talk about how, no, really, we should try to “bear one another’s burdens.”

I’m totally sympathetic to Pastor Pagitt’s understanding of all this. That whole gnostic mess is a mess, and isn’t true. He has a nice writing voice, tells some good personal anecdotes, is pleasant to read, and is spot-on that “God’s ways are not our ways” does not mean it’s right to follow a god that makes creatures some of which are predestined to eternal damnation, some of which only get out of it because an innocent victim is punished instead, and call that just. It’s easy to empathize with his own story and those of some of the people he knows, and in generally the things that he finds repugnant in (for want of a better tern) gnostic Christianity, really are problematic. I don’t believe them to be true either. The emphases he ran into that didn’t make sense to him didn’t make sense to me either.

However, Pagitt is appallingly bigoted about the ancients. The chapter entitled “When Different Was Good” (p 38-50), which presents his account of orthodox Christianity, makes my brain go all squishy. For instance:

By the time Christianity became the official Roman religion under Constantine, it was so deeply a Greek expression that not only had the Jewish heritage faded, but many Christians were fearful of the Jews, and a deep conflict between Jews and Christians was common. This marked quite a change. The influence of telling a dynamic Jewish story in and through multiple cultures was replaced with a Greek monocultural expression of Christianity. It is from within this fully Greek worldview that much of our “official” modern Christianity arose.

He writes like someone who has never read the book of Acts, where the development of the conflict between Jews and Christians, especially Greek Christians, is not exactly subtle. And also like someone who has never chanted Psalms at Vespers, to mark the beginning of the new day (as the Greeks did, an adaptation from the Jews). And what of Egypt, that great center of Christian philosophy? And what about what those Greeks actually said — about hypostatic union, theosis, energy and essence, Christ as “Theanthropos,” the “Spirit of Truth who is everywhere present and filling all things,” noetic vision? What of “God became man that man might become god?” What about St John Chrysostom preaching on our responsibility to the poor?

Of course, I wouldn’t do so well if I had to write a ten page account of the history of Christianity from memory, either. And, yes, there were Greek gnostics. Sometimes a lot of them. Still, this is a public book, which did not have to be written from memory, and deserves better than an overview of Christianity that suggests that the author has never given serious thought to anything the people he’s mentioning actually said, because he can’t get past the fact that a lot of them belonged to a particular culture.

My mind has become a little gloopy, both because my own understanding of history is not terribly precise, but much more because what gets lost in all these assertions about what ancient Christians may or may not have been like is the assertion that those beliefs, whatever they were, was perfectly right and fitting for those people, then, but not for us, now, simply *because* our culture is different in certain undefined ways. Which is an assertion liable to gloop up brains, because it’s pooling a lot of different things, some of them historically inaccurate, into the same basic pool. It’s pulling together things like “the world is flat” (which the Greek philosophers *did not* believe), “spirit is good, matter is bad” (which the gnostics believed, and the Councils did not), “Christ is fully God and fully man,” along with things like the custom of reserving the balcony at the cathedral for the empress’s entourage, or using certain poetic forms for prayer rather than others, or what style of singing (or chant) is most appropriate for worship. The distinction between the universal assertions about God which were either right or wrong then, and are either right or wrong now, and which couldn’t possibly have been right then and have gradually become wrong (like gnosticism), and the things which were customary then and not now, and which it’d be well not to insist on (like speaking Greek) is often signified as “Tradition” and “traditions” in Orthodoxy. Orthodox sometimes go to far in insisting on every tradition all the time. As far as I can tell, Pagitt doesn’t even think it worth distinguishing at all.

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