Lost Christianity

Are we living in a post-Christian time and nation? Is Christianity lost? What is Christianity, that it might be lost?

Jn. 14:23, 26-27 Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.

“Lost Christianity.” What is Christianity, that it may be lost? You may have heard it said: “America is a Christian nation,” or “America is no longer a Christian nation,” “America never was a Christian nation.”  

Let’s examine these claims. 

America is definitely home to a lot of Christian folks. Many were scandalized when The Cover of Time Magazine in 1966 asked, “Is God Dead?” Nietzche, however, had already declared in 1882 that yes, in fact, “God is dead.”  

Well, actually, thousands of years before that, and many since, Christians have been saying that, well, yes, at one point God was in fact dead — but then he came back to life on Easter Sunday, circa 33 AD. 

The central claim of Christianity is the resurrection from the dead of Jesus of Nazareth, titled Christ in the same way that Julius was titled Caesar and Joe Biden is titled President. Jesus was a righteous man who died an unrighteous death as the result of a conspiracy by those who were jealous of his power, even while he himself claimed no political power for himself and instead worked tirelessly to empower others.  

The word Christ is derived from the Greek Christos whose synonym is Messiah, in turn from the Hebrew moshiach, which means “anointed one”. The anointing of Jesus is held by Christians — and Muslims as well — to be the anointing of the Holy Spirit. To the Jews of his time, this title had a very royal connotation, and this royal connotation was what so fearfully threatened the authorities who conspired to put him to death. 

That this title of Christ was used for him by those who believed in him, and not by those who didn’t, should ring the familiar bell of partisanship in our times. Remember “Not my President”? In the time of Jesus, there was in fact a “King Of The Jews,” and his name was Herod, King Of Judea. To say that Jesus was the Christ, then, was to say that Herod was “Not My King.” Fighting words!  

To investigate what is Christianity, and whether it has been Lost, is to ask about Jesus, the “author and finisher” or the Christian faith, and what anointing it was that made him, and not Herod, the Christ of the Christians. 

*** 

Jesus announced himself to his people with the words of Isaiah:  “’The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the Day of God’s vengeance’…Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Here we get an idea of what Jesus’ anointing was like: hopeful, liberating, healing, and zealous for justice, because actually “God’s vengeance”, far from meaning God gets bloody revenge on arbitrary enemies, is synonymous with justice in the form of uplift for the downtrodden in the tongue of Hebrew prophetic poetry.  

Jesus says many more things about the Spirit throughout his public ministry that make it clear to everyone that in his case, to be anointed in this way is to be one with God. He made no small controversy when he declared “I and the Father are one.” 

But Jesus also offers this oneness with God to his students, because he offers the anointing thereof. He goes into further detail about what it takes to have such an anointing of communion with God: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” 

This is a radical offer, actually. Imagine you’re following the Anointed One for three years, and on the eve of his death, he offers to give you his anointing. The Anointed one is offering to Anoint you.  

Superman just offered to give you his superpowers, in other words. 

On one condition, of course.  

To what teaching did Jesus command obedience? He said only one: “Love one another.” 

*** 

Ok, love one another. Easy. Or easier said than done. And the prize is the Spirit of God. Not bad! The Spirit that worked through Jesus to offer love in its many forms, like hope, liberation, healing, peace, and justice. 

How almost circular that both the path to the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit is love. How peculiar, yet how simple — how beautiful. 

May I be so bold as to say that this is true Christianity.  

*** 

The big question, then, is, has this Christianity been lost? Two summers ago, I was performer and workshop leader at the Wild Goose Festival in Asheville, NC. The annual event is a hub and source of living water and healing for Americans from all over, but especially from the Bible Belt, who are clinging to their Christian faith even as they flee for their life from abusive and oppressive Christian communities. Some said they were de-constructing their faith, others said they were re-constructing it. All were at an utter LOSS as to how to reconcile the Christianity which shattered their lives, with the Christianity within which they felt was somehow still, in spite of it all, saving their souls. 

These types of Christians have also always been here, hiding in plain sight. For them, Christianity is Lost in the world – but not in their hearts. 

*** 

I want to assert something about Lost Christianity: Christianity has always been lost. From the beginning. Therefore, when we say Lost Christianity, I submit we shouldn’t think of it like “it was once here and now it’s gone” lost, as many Christian reformers have always claimed — certain of whom, Baptists would trace our origins to, by the way! — but that Christianity has – and Christians have — always been lost like kids in a hay maze during pumpkin picking season. 

I will cite a few examples of the forms this has taken. Elaine Pagels is a wonderful writer at Princeton who writes about the “Gnostic” Christians. These were allegedly a category of scattered Christian individuals and communities who were in some ways like Christian Buddhists, focusing meditation and ecstatic experiences of communion with God – what we call the contemplative life.  

Church history recognizes the Gnostics as heretics. Pagel’s take is that all of Christianity was once like this, but this contemplative aspect was Lost, snuffed out by the heresy hunters of the Nicean age. 

Well, not so fast Elaine. Christianity is still like this, and orthodox at that, if you’re looking in the right places. A great counterpoint to her perspective can be found in two books “Lost Christianity” by Joseph Needleman, and “The Lost History of Christianity” by Stephen Jenkins. The latter book is a serious rebuke to the popular modern idea that Christianity is somehow a “White European empire” thing, and shows us instead a religion whose roots are not just in the Middle East but Africa and the Near East, communities led by brilliant leaders of all stars, stripes, and colors whose chief aim was not the expansion of empire but the expansion of spirit in communion with God.  

Jenkins’ book about the Lost History of Christianity shows us forgotten pockets of enlightenment in the “dark ages” where Christendom and Islamic culture enjoyed a peaceful marriage and unique syncretism, and the evidence that these communities still exist to this day, such as the Sufi orders. Needleman’s book about Lost Christianity shares with the Jenkins book a survey of the contemplative side of Christianity which was, in fact, the heart of the movement from the beginning.  

Some of the most meditative and ecstatic Christian practices are found in the most ancient of communities, in the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Hiding in plain sight. I once was given a thorough education in the science of prayer by a Coptic Christian cab driver in New York City. There are Syrian Christians who are, like the Coptic Christians, escaping acute persecution in their nations, and they are seeking asylum in our nation, carrying with them these secrets of spiritual life, traditions two millennia old, knocking on the doors of our country, what some people say is a Post-Christian nation.  

Perhaps the Christians of our nation need to consider how much Christianity will be LOST if these brothers and sisters continue to be martyred. It is cruelly ironic that many Protestants cannot consider Catholicism or eastern Orthodoxy to be legitimate Christianity when it is precisely that among the Catholic and Orthodox of the world today are to be found those most persecuted and martyred, which is traditionally considered by all Christians to be the crown of all sainthood. 

Perhaps I digress. 

Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the 19th Century saint of the Orthodox church, said that “The true aim of our Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” If this is indeed the case, we can go back to the words of Jesus, that both the path toward and the fruits of this Spirit is love. It takes love to acquire the Spirit that produces love! Imagine that! What a paradox.  

Then, to ask ourselves whether Christianity has been lost in America, the question we really need to ask ourselves is, are we anointed or are we not anointed with love? 

“Where’s the love?” 

Here’s the kicker. If we are about the work of acquiring the Spirit, then we are walking in love. And if we are walking in love, then we have that spirit. It’s that paradox again.  

The Christian Celts have a great way of illustrating this paradox and turning it into a spiritual exercise. It was the labyrinth — the maze I mentioned earlier.  

If Christianity is the anointing of love, then it can’t help but be LOST. So in this way all Christians are lost — and not just Christians but all people are lost, because we all deal in the business of love, and loving is being lost in the maze.  

We are all human, created in the image of God, and God is Love. We are all lost in the same maze, the maze of this life. It is not our maze, but God’s maze. We all entered this maze of life before we were old enough to understand our own selves let alone understand Life, and we are all equally responsible to shoulder the burdens and share the joys of Life.  

Given that the Spirit of Life has breathed us all into being not just from the moment of our birth, but in this very cosmic continuing moment, let us seize reverently and yet playfully, very playfully, upon that paradox, to seek after that which we cannot seek without first already having it, to be simultaneously lost and finding our way, and simultaneously acknowledge and pray that we may be anointed with the Spirit of Life, and be both worthy of its chief requirement, love, and yet already bearers of its chief fruit, love. 

Let’s walk this strange maze together. 

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