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Credo: The Nicene Creed

2. In One God

The fourth word in the Nicene Creed is “one.” It distinguishes Christian belief from the Pagan religions with many gods. There’s more to it than just one versus many, though. Monotheism in its Jewish form arose in the midst of an ancient culture with many gods AND a definite view of reality. The Jews changed both. In this writing I’m after an understanding of how that change happened and what it meant. I’m not going to prove the existence of one or any number of gods. To get started, we have to understand the earlier Pagan worldview.

1. Paganism With a modern mindset it’s almost impossible not to misunderstand primitive religion. It looks unsophisticated and na├»ve, but, according to Mircea Eliade,[1] it’s far from that. Disposing of one misunderstanding right away, he insists no culture has ever worshiped any finite thing. The sun that we see was never considered a god; neither were the golden calves or bulls that the Israelites made, against the commands of their prophets. These were symbols. The god worshiped was always something behind the symbol.

Still the gods are hard for us to understand. Practically anything and everything could have a god connected with it. We wonder why people couldn’t just accept what they saw. Why did they have to add another layer of reality? We suppose that primitive people often ran into things that they couldn’t understand, like volcanoes and thunderstorms so they imagined forces to account for these things and called them gods. Why couldn’t they just accept the fact that they didn’t understand something? The answer to that, we think, is because they felt a need to control what they couldn’t understand and that’s what the religious prayers, sacrifices, orgies, and other ceremonies as well as the taboos were all about. But why would people think that such forces as these gods would allow themselves to be influenced by any actions of ours? Or why would the gods be offended by someone’s breaking a silly taboo? Paganism ends up looking ridiculous to us.

It’s easy to tell there’s something wrong with this picture. Primitive religions had gods that don’t have much or anything to do things people would need to control, like a rainbow god and a moon goddess. They also had gods for things that people understood perfectly well, like fertility, and specifically human things, like knowledge, literature, art, and music.

Eliade’s study of folk culture reaches a more generous conclusion about the religions of primitive people. He says they had a different take on reality and causality. With us reality is one thing: you either have it or you don’t. For the primitive mind there is the world we live in and then there is the really real world—a divine world, an eternal cycle of all the essential processes of life and death, a world where every thing and every process is a god. “Heaven” is a possible word for it, but you have to free your mind of Christian influences. This higher, most real world is not perfect in any way that we would recognize. Death is there; in fact, death is one of the gods. Peace is not there any more than it is here. The gods of the stories quarrel and fight a lot. From our vantage point it seems people just projected whatever they saw in the world of nature, including their own lives, into an imaginary other world. From the inside, though, it felt just the opposite. The world of people, this finite world, depended on the higher world. Our world participates in the true reality more or less well.

The world we live in is only more or less real. The most real part of our world, in this view, is its beginning, before anything happened to mess it up, when the world was completely identified with the really real world. This beginning is a time separate from our lived time. The aboriginals of Australia have a good word for it: “dream time.” There’s no historical connection going from it to today. The connection works in the other direction: We consciously try to go back to this beginning, to identify with the “real” time. The technical word is participation. Our world participates in that most real world through religious ceremonies at significant times each year.

Each year, or more often, the world begins anew and the world dies anew. Breaking a taboo is losing the connection with this beginning time. Then reality is lost. Times of famine or unusual sickness might be signs that this has happened. Then there needs to be reconciliation through special ceremonies or practices. These might involve pain, animal sacrifice, even human sacrifice. I’ve never read or heard why so many religions included these negative-seeming practices. My guess is that pain and death are part of the eternal cycle, and we cannot be real unless we identify with these as well as the pleasures of life.

The gods, in primitive thought, don’t play the role that we imagine, hanging around deciding whether to make it rain or not. Rain simply happens in the really real world, and rain happens in our world, especially rain at the right time, when our world participates in the eternal cycle, through the return to the beginning. Reality and causation both are participation.

On this view everything is sacred, or it is lessreal. It seems a strange view of the world, but definitely not simple minded. In fact, the great philosophers of ancient Greece intellectualized or demythologized this same worldview. Plato thought of a heaven of ideas or pure forms. The things of this world below participate in these forms more or less accurately. Aristotle, who rejected Plato’s separated forms, still believed in reality by imitation. The cycles of human life (for example war and peace) and the cycles of nature imitated the more perfect circles of the planets and stars, and these latter moved only in imitation of the most perfect circle. For Aristotle this was mind knowing itself, Aristotle’s God.

I can’t imagine a modern person, even a professed Pagan, believing in these eternal heavenly cycles or believing that our reality depends on always going back to a sacred beginning, never forward. Between us and the ancient world came the Jews, and the take on reality that they developed has determined much of our modern consciousness, whether we follow them religiously or not.

2. What the Jews gave us

A people known first as Hebrews or Israelites and later as Jews came together as an identifiable unit only in the 1200's B.C.E. (Before the Common Era)[2] It was a remarkable process, though most probably without the miracles of the Bible’s Exodus story. The surrounding social world was in chaos. There had been a repressive kind of order, as usual in complex human societies. People on the bottom, the peasant farmers lived in villages and tended the fields mostly for the benefit of the rulers and elite in nearby larger cities. But the system was breaking down. Highwaymen (called "hapiru," a name suggestively similar to "Hebrew") were operating freely outside the law, disrupting the extensive trading network that kept the system going.

We don't know how it started. Maybe some of the hapiru took the lead. People started leaving their settled villages, headed for the hinterlands, the highlands of Palestine, and took up a less culturally advanced, less politically complicated way of life. They didn’t even have kings at first. They did what they knew; they farmed. Perhaps they were joined by some runaway slaves from Egypt. This movement probably happened more peacefully and slowly than what the Bible seems to say, but that doesn't mean that the stories people told about their heritage had to be dull. There was enough conflict and danger in this chaotic beginning. It would not be at all surprising if tales of a mighty, liberating, warrior god told by a group of runaway slaves came to represent the experience of this whole loosely connected community.

What would they think about such a god? Not necessarily that this was the only god there was, but certainly they envisioned themselves as special to this one god, that they could trust this one, and that they ought to be faithful to this one. Vision, trust, and faithfulness are the three meanings of faith out of which faith as belief statements arises. Here are two great statements of early Israelite faith:

  • I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. (Deuteronomy 5:6-7)
  • [C]hoose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:15)

Neither one of these says that other gods don’t exist. In fact, the second presumes that they do exist. Were the Israelites simply adding another god to the world’s religions? They were doing much more than that. The first signal of the uniqueness of this new people is their insistence on not worshiping other gods. I don’t know of any religion not descended from Judaism that is similarly ill disposed to its adherents’ worshiping someone else’s god.  

I think it’s because Yahweh had become something other than a nature god. If your god is represented by the sun, there’s nothing to stop you from worshiping a god of the moon as well if you see other people doing that. In general, nature gods move easily from one culture to another, especially when one country conquers another. But if your god is the one who took you out of one nation and set you down in the midst of some other nations and kept you more or less safe all the while, then any political conflict with a neighbor is going to seem like a religious conflict as well. Israel’s god may have started out as a nature god but became a god of Israel’s history. To serve another god would have been to deny one’s identity as an Israelite.

If other gods are not to be worshiped, maybe it’s because they don’t exist at all. But there’s a between step that the Jews and the early Christians took instead. That is, they assumed there were non-divine but still superhuman powers. Jewish thought in the few centuries before Jesus peopled the world with angels. The good ones, when they appeared to a human, would refuse that person’s worship; bad ones (like the devil that tempted Jesus) demanded to be worshiped. I take that to be the deciding difference between bad and good angels.

Paul, who brought Christianity to the Pagan world, didn’t question the existence of the superhuman beings that peopled the Pagan world. He talks about “elemental spirits” and “spirits of the air,” but in a couple striking passages, he put all of these “powers” in their place:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth [these last two are positions of the planets in ancient astrology] nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)


at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth… (Philippians 2:10)

But more has to be said about how Jewish belief gradually became monotheistic. The process started with the novel idea of a god of history, then developed into a whole new mindset about history and reality. To my mind that’s the important part. The Israelites were aware of the cyclical worldview of their neighbors, and sometimes they felt the same way:

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! … One generation passes and another comes, but the world forever stays. The sun rises and the sun goes down; then it presses on to the place where it rises. … What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:2-9)

You can see that, unlike the Pagans, Jews hated this feeling. But their God also said, in the words of the prophet Isaiah: "See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers." (Isaiah 43:19) I think Israel’s fairly recent and amazing, if not miraculous, beginning had something to do with their belief that God could do new things in history. And that beginning wasn’t the only new thing “God,” in this interpretation of history did. In the year 587 B.C.E. Israel disappeared as a nation, and about 40 years later it came back to life again. Here are some facts about Israel’s history between its birth and this rebirth:

  • There was a period during which Israel was only a loosely knit conglomeration of tribes without a central leader. (Late 1200’s to late 1000’s B.C.E.
  • David and Solomon succeeded in establishing a united and fairly prosperous kingdom. (1000-931)
  • Archaeological remains and the biblical record both show that the worship of gods other than Yahweh was going on during these periods. Solomon set up shrines to foreign gods. I suppose that was partly to keep his many foreign wives and girlfriends happy, but certainly it was also a way to conduct affairs of state—good foreign relations.
  • After Solomon the kingdom split in two. There was a larger Northern Kingdom, usually called simply Israel, and a Southern Kingdom consisting of the Tribes of Judah and Benjamin, called JudahJerusalem was the capital of the Southern Kingdom. The two kingdoms were usually hostile to each other.
  • Neither kingdom was consistent in the exclusive worship of Yahweh, although there were a couple religious reformers among the southern kings. They attempted with mixed results to end the worship of other gods.
  • In 722 Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom. In 587 Babylon finished off the Southern Kingdom. They forced the king, whom they blinded, and the elite of the people into exile. This is called the Babylonian Captivity. It was the end of the nation of the Israelites.

I suppose you could consider this a success story. Israel lasted almost 500 years. Compared to Egypt that’s not much, but it’s twice as long as U.S. history. The ones in exile couldn’t see it that way, though. They had been God’s people, but now they were no longer a people. God had been active in their history, but now their history was over. What could the people possibly believe about God, the god who fashioned their history, in a situation like this? What kind of vision of themselves could they have now? How could they continue to trust? Why should they be faithful to Yahweh now?

That they did is historically certain and, I think, almost as miraculous as their birth would have been if it had happened exactly as the Bible said it did in the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Without land or a temple the Jews became a people of the book. Synagogue services based on readings from sacred texts may have started around this time. It was a time of collecting, editing, combining, rewriting, and composing texts. Jeremiah and other prophets refined their interpretation of their history as God’s people: When they were faithful to God, God favored them, and when they were unfaithful, which seems to have been most of the time, God punished. Most important, when they repented and turned back to their covenant with God, God was merciful. This pattern occurs over and over in the sacred writings, most of which were put in final form around the time of these huge defeats or later.

According to the new interpretation, God's instruments for punishment included the hated Assyrians and Babylonians. That meant God was more than a tribal deity. God was actually using other nations for his purposes.  That might not have seemed like such good news. A person might have preferred to be free of God's interference. But for the Jews it saved their identity as a people. When the Israelites might have given up on their national god and gone wholeheartedly into the service of a more powerful god of a more powerful nation—as they had done before in less dire circumstances—they instead reached for a god not limited to any one nation. In a crucible where torture and death could be the price for faithfulness to Yahweh, Jews began to think of the foreign gods as no gods at all. Monotheism was born in agony. It was about this time that the people began to be called Jews.

The logic of the story

The new thing that the Jews added to our understanding of our lives and our world is that meaning is found not just in the regularities, the patterns, the laws of nature but also in history. History is not just one unique thing after another and not just a repetition of the same things over and over. History, as the Jews conceived it, has a new kind of meaning; it’s a story. History goes from somewhere to somewhere else. New things happen in history.

While Israel was still a going concern, the story was about Israel and Israel’s God. In the aftermath of national tragedy, the Jews’ story couldn’t remain the same; it had to die or grow. The Jews kept their story alive by universalizing it. God became the god of all the nations.

There was no historical or psychological necessity for the Jews to take this step, but there is a kind of logical necessity, after the fact, in the story of a historical god. Psychologically, the Jews may have wanted to—and in fact many of them did—switch to a more powerful god. History would seem to dictate that the nation that ends up on top gets to keep its story intact. But at least some Jews, perhaps realizing that no nation stays on top forever, instead of choosing a temporary fix, leaped with both feet into the story itself, the story of a historical God, and history as God’s story. It could no longer be a story of any one nation; it had to be universal. The God of such a story had to be not just Israel’s but everyone’s.

Two ancient views and two modern ones We have these two ancient views of what makes reality meaningful—the Pagan view of reality as an eternal cycle and the idea reached by the Jews that the world unfolds in history, in a story. But we live in the present with its own worldviews. Here is a summary of those first two followed by two that we find around us today. There are some surprising connections.

1. The ancient Jews, and Christians following them, found meaning in history. Our history is a story. Important new things happen. The first of these new things, discovered or invented by the Jews just as they began to think their God was a universal God, is creation. They thought this was a real event in history. The authors of the story of this creation invented how many days it took. They also partly invented and partly borrowed genealogical lists stretching from creation to their own time, that way reinforcing the connection of our time with the time of the beginning. Between creation and the genealogies they or some later editors put a much older story that sounds more like myth, like something that doesn’t really belong to our time--the fall of the human race; and it was Adam’s and Eve’s fault. So moral judgments and the theological category of sin became an important part of the story. This story’s plot picks up with the history of Israel, its faithfulness or unfaithfulness to its duties to God and to other people, most especially to the poor, the widow, and the stranger. For, as God kept reminding them, “You were once strangers in Egypt, that land of slavery.” The story has an end, too, to be revealed in the historical future, which is in God’s hands. God both created and saved a world and a people. God would act again, this time decisively. The Jewish and Christian scriptures give two poetic visions of that future. In one, Jerusalem, a city on a hill, is raised up to the height of the highest mountain, and “the nations,” all who are not Jewish (not yet Jewish), are streaming up to Jerusalem to worship the one God, Yahweh. In the other a New Jerusalem comes down from the clouds, God reigns, and Jesus’ prayer for that time is simply, “That all may be one.”

2. Ancient Pagans had previously also conceived of original perfection that is lost. With that loss came loss of reality. The solution was the restoration of the original state of the world by ritually returning to the beginning. Loss and restoration are part of Being’s eternal cycle. I don’t get the impression that there’s a moral fault involved, except possibly when taboos are broken. Then special steps are needed to restore reality. As far as I know, picking a fight with a neighboring tribe was never taboo. After all, the gods pick fights with each other all the time, just as in nature one process opposes another—rain and sun, fertility and death—and in doing so they keep the world going. Opposition is forever, and so is the world, which keeps repeating the same cycles—the seasons, birth and death, growth and decay, and for the part of nature that is humanity: love and hate, war and peace.

Bringing things up to date, the two modern views I have in mind are called, none too creatively, modern and post-modern. The first has been with us for quite a while, starting around the age of the Enlightenment. The second is a creature of the last century. 3.

The modern worldview, following the Jews and Christians partway, found meaning in history. More specifically, it was the future giving meaning to life in the present. The modern world got its big push from those movements in science, economics, and politics that gave people reason to hope that the future could be better than the past—and not just to hope; they could actually see how it could be accomplished. Science abandoned the static, hierarchical world of classical Greece and Rome and the Middle Ages for a dynamic view where matter is the same everywhere, no place in the universe is special, and the whole universe, including life on earth, evolves. Technology took the knowledge achieved by science and gave us increasing control over our environment. Both science and technology were thought to be morally neutral; they simply added more power to our freedom of action. Religion, which was no longer needed to explain anything in the external world, still guided the moral realm, even for people who denied God’s activity in this world (as in Deism) or denied God altogether. With or without God people assumed that morality was the same for everyone and pretty much like what Christianity taught. Historical and anthropological studies showed what appeared to be a succession of “ages” from primitive to advanced (which usually meant Christian) culture and morality. Just as science did away with the hierarchy of “the heavens” and replaced it with space, which is the same all over, politics did away with divine support for rule by a few and replaced it with the ideas of freedom, equality, and universal rights. Economics gave us the optimistic promises of capitalism and communism. Philosophy said it could end our dependence on myth and authority and show us reality as it truly is unfiltered by tradition and the limits of our particular time and place. The whole future seemed limitless.

Every one of these movements aimed at worldwide dominance, and some, especially modern science and capitalism, basically attained it. The world was becoming united, and the unifying factor was the desire and apparently realistic hope for a better life in the future. The bywords of the age were “New,” “Change,” and “If you’re not getting ahead, you’re falling behind.” It was a time of faith in the capabilities of men and women to be their own saviors, to realize the Bible’s poetic vision for the future in a literal, secular version without God’s help. There was great optimism, but it could turn quickly into abject pessimism. The world was not supposed to go backward, but sometimes it did, horribly.

4. Post-modernism questions every one of the points on which the modern world staked its faith in progress and world unity, including the assumption that unity is worth hoping for in the first place. It questions:

  • Modern science. The scientific picture of the world is no less a myth than anything else. Science can’t tell us about reality; it only helps make somewhat reliable predictions about what you’ll observe if you take action X, Y, or Z. (Many scientists agree with this analysis.)
  • Technology. There is no such thing as morally neutral technology or science, and freedom is also a myth.
  • History and anthropology. Moral progress is a myth disproved by the horrors of the 20th century. There’s no way to judge that one culture is better than another. Even understanding another culture is next to impossible.
  • Religion and morality. Historical and cultural studies have shown us many belief systems and many moralities. It’s imperialistic to assume that we’ve discovered the best system and to expect everyone to follow it.
  • Politics and economics. The forces of nationalism and ethnic identity, including fundamentalist religions, are dividing our world more efficiently than politics or economics can unite us.
  • Modern philosophy. All of our thinking is limited by the particular situation we are brought up in, in other words, by our tradition and our authorities. We look at reality through less-than-transparent cultural windows, of which there are many different shades, and there’s no way to look at reality directly.

To sum up post-modernism: We can’t think alike, and we’ll never act alike; and that’s a good thing. We need to stop thinking about unity, stop trying to measure progress or judge higher and lower, and rejoice in our diversity. The modern world envisioned a secular but otherwise quite biblical goal of a united, harmonious world and pursued it without God, even when it believed in God. The post-modern world rejoices in a Pagan-like cultural diversity but without the Pagan, or any, gods.

Theology [3] The so-called Western world is one part modern, one part post-modern, and a third part, growing steadily smaller, traditional, religious, and mostly the heirs of Judaism. Even this third group is influenced by the spirit of the modern and post-modern age. We live mostly without God or gods. I don’t think we can do theology as if we were living in some other age. There is mystery in this world, which we can sometimes experience, but we don’t experience the mystery of gods or angels. There is morality in this world, but there doesn’t seem to be a direct link between the moral obligations that we feel and a supernatural reality. There’s no “Do this because God, or the gods, expect it; don’t do that because God forbids it or it’s taboo.” Our moral precepts arise out of our relationships with each other and our world. There’s no easy way that thinking can get us from our world to God.

But post-modernism says that all thinking has the same problem. There’s no way thinking of any kind by itself gets us anywhere. All thinking beyond mere factual reports of sense experience, starts from places that have not been thought through. We’ve inherited these places, not genetically but culturally. They come to us in the symbols that our culture provides; symbols like: freedom, individuality, justice, love, marriage, capitalism, democracy, progress, God and gods, truth, goodness, beauty, Being, Process, righteousness, salvation, authentic existence. These are part of us, many of them, anyway. We hardly think about them at all, but when we do, they all point beyond anything we can possibly say literally about them. That’s why they are symbols. There’s no tying them down to one meaning; there’s no getting to the end of what they might possibly mean. To be human means to take a stand on at least some of them, and since we can never finish understanding them, our stand is never fully justified, never completely rational.

That doesn’t mean there’s no rationality here at all. It does mean that taking a stand (or at least leaning one way or another) always comes before understanding. St. Augustine actually said the same thing: “I believe in order to understand.” We can take our stand in conformity with a hallowed tradition or in rebellion against a tradition we perceive as no longer meaningful, or, if we are especially creative, in a moment of insight that may even create a new symbol. None of these ways is quite rational, but eventually reasons are needed. We try to justify, not completely but, hopefully, beyond a reasonable doubt, by seeing if an idea we’ve claimed stands up in confrontation with other ideas we feel committed to. (For most of us it’s rather traumatic when it doesn’t. Something has to go.) This is the way thinking works in many areas, though the details are different in each. It works this way in science and theology, at least for some of my favorite theologians.

One God Our cultural context, our tradition, our world includes insights of Paganism, Christianity, and Judaism. Often these are only feelings or the vague “spirit” of the age. I have tried to put some of them into thought form, especially these ideas:

  • unity and diversity
  • story and eternal cycle.

A very partial way of justifying some Christian beliefs would be to see how well they stand up in confrontation with our feelings and the things we think we need to say about these four. Even though they seem like two pairs of opposites when you start thinking about them, they all count; they’re all part of the way we experience the world before we come to think about it. I’m going to make this justifying attempt more partial still by taking only the first pair of opposites. (Maybe the other will come back in connection with a later section of the Creed.) The question, then, is: How can the Christian belief in one God for all people, all history, all the world, do justice to both the unity and diversity that are essential parts of what we experience the world to be or at least hope it will be someday?

It’s a question that Christianity has faced before, not always successfully. St. Paul faced it, and he had a fight on his hands. It’s an interesting story.[4] All of the first Christians, including Paul, were Jews, as was Jesus, of course. The early Church welcomed non-Jews but most assumed that these Gentile Christians would have to become Jews, that is, be circumcised and follow all the Jewish laws, such as not eating pork. Paul’s special mission was to carry the “Good News” to the Gentiles. Acting on his own, Paul deliberately made no stipulations to his churches about following Jewish laws, even though he himself was a strict observer. Eventually Paul had to journey to Jerusalem to defend what he was doing. In a meeting of the leaders of the Church, a compromise was reached: Gentiles did not need to be circumcised, and for dietary restrictions they just had to stay away from food that was involved Pagan religious ceremonies. In other words, Paul won that day.

He found out later, though, that some “Judaizers,” had gone to Galatia, where Paul had established a Gentile church, and told the people they had to be circumcised and follow all the Jewish laws. In a separate incident Peter, who had perhaps reluctantly come over to Paul’s view at the above-mentioned meeting, had been sitting down regularly at table with some Gentiles in Antioch. But when people from James, the head of the church in Jerusalem arrived, in deference to them Peter walked away from “table fellowship” with Gentiles. Paul had it out with Peter on the spot for being a hypocrite. Later in a letter to the Galatians Paul could hardly contain his anger. He calls them stupid for being taken in by people preaching a false gospel, one that isn’t “good news” at all because it makes people slaves to the law.

This Paul is the  Saul who once persecuted the Christians for not following the Jewish law. What is going on here? Both sides seem to want the Church to be universal, but only Paul realizes (after some sort of conversion experience) that universality is not just numbers. If everyone were to become Jewish, that would be terrible, according to Paul, because then God would be just a tribal god, only with a bigger tribe. Jesus didn’t specify what he meant when he prayed “that all might be one.” Paul thought he knew, and his idea has been accepted by the Church, in theory if not in practice. The oneness of the Church—ideally, the oneness of the whole human family—is like a body with many members, all of them different. The hand can’t complain that the foot is not like the hand. What would the body be if it were all hand? The unity Paul envisions is the unity of a functioning relationship, not a unity of sameness. Paul wanted Gentiles to stay Gentiles and Jews to stay Jews and all to belong to the Body of Christ.

As I write this I’m living in Montana right next to Glacier National Park. When I think of unity I think about a mountain—with glaciers, lakes, cascades and streams; peaks and valleys, bears and berries, goats and salt licks and mountain lions, not one of which can be lost without affecting all the rest. It’s not at all like a heap of sand. It’s a unity that is all the stronger for being so diverse.

A hundred sixty or so years before Jesus, when Greek culture was supreme, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, descendant of Alexander the Great, decided that all his empire should be one. To him that meant everyone had to follow Greek laws and worship Greek gods. I don’t think he cared if the Jews worshiped Yahweh, but they had to have a statue of Zeus in their temple (Jews called this the “abomination of desolation”). Jews were forbidden to be circumcised, and they had to eat pork. Antiochus also tore down the wall that separated off the sacred part of the temple, where gentiles were not allowed. Later, when the Jews successfully revolted under the Maccabees, the temple was “cleansed” and the wall was rebuilt. The wall was still in place at the time of Jesus.

Paul once referred to this wall (Note my bold print):

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it. (Ephesians 2:13-16)

Breaking down walls that separate us is Paul’s idea of unity. It’s what he thought Jesus accomplished. This happens without anyone’s changing to become like anyone else, whether it’s Antiochus forcing Jews to become Greeks or Christians expecting Gentiles to become Jews. Paul also has plenty of moral prescriptions, but he thinks of them as following from unity in Christ not as causing unity. He also seems to tailor his exhortations to his audience. His lists of virtues and vices resemble closely those common in the Pagan world. Unity and diversity both are part of Paul’s idea of what the Church should be like, and the rest of the Church did finally agree in theory but often not in practice.

A later part of our Creed describes the Church with the words “one” and “catholic” (with a small c) representing these same two qualities of unity and diversity. If Paul is right and if unity and diversity really are an essential part of everyone’s experience of and hope for the world, then to that extent I think Christian belief has some rational and experiential support. A huge question remains: Why did Paul and the whole Church think that this unity of all humankind had to be the work of one individual, Jesus—and not exactly the work but the very person of Jesus? How can that be when that one person is separated from practically all the rest of us by a combination of ethnicity, sex, culture, color, and an understanding of the world that is radically different from what anyone living today thinks? A philosopher might have said, “Understand the world my way and we’ll all be united.” A moral preacher might have said, “Follow my rules.” A politician in America might advocate the spread of democracy, an economist might say, “Let’s all be capitalists” (or, in another time and place “communists”), and a social activist might actually work for some such ideal. Any one of these would seem to be a more likely force for world unity than just a person, wouldn’t it? I end on that question, knowing that it will come up again as I make my way through more of the Creed. The largest part of it is about that one person, Jesus.


[1] Mircea Eliade is one of the foremost researchers into non-Western and early culture. His book Cosmos and History was required reading in one of my philosophy courses in the late 1960’s. Most of what I’m saying about the worldview of the world in which Judaism arose is my understanding of his works.
[2] One of the studies on which this account is based is William G. Dever’s Who were the Early Israelites and Where did they Come From?
[3] This section contains my understanding of the view of Langdon Gilkey in his book Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-Language. His is not the only model by which theology is done today, however.
[4] I’m following the interpretation of Krister Stendall in his book Paul and the Galatians.

 On to 3. The Father