This essay was published in The Fourth R 28.3 (2015): 17-18.
When Christianity emerged, the city of Rome controlled the Mediterranean basin, and had divided its territories into a number of provinces. Judea was an imperial province, governed by the emperor of Rome rather than the Roman Senate. The religion of Rome in general was comprised of the worship of the traditional Greek Gods in Roman garb, plus new religions that the Romans had allowed into the city.
As a Graeco-Roman religion of salvation, and with the patronage of the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire (Constantine, 325 CE), the new faith rapidly replaced the old religious traditions, which survived only in the countryside (paganus; hence called "pagan"). After 440 CE no pagan names are listed among the elite of the city of Rome.
Since the fourth century CE, Christianity has been a formidable force in the Western world, but only recently with the rise of modern science and a growing reliance on reason rather than faith has it begun to show signs of irrelevance. There had been warnings about the demise of the "pagan" worldview before the Christian hegemony. For example, in the first century CE about the time nascent Christianity emerged, the priest of Apollo, Plutarch, recounted a strange story; he had heard reports of an anonymous voice announcing the death of the Great God Pan, some 300 years before the ancient pagan worldview was replaced by the Christian.
Similar warnings have been sounded about the Christian worldview, which has now survived some 1700 years. Toward the end of the 19th century a German philosopher (Friedrich Nietzsche) in The Joyous Science described a madman who ran into a market place seeking God. "Where is God?" he cried. "I will tell you," he says. We have killed him. He delivered a short speech about the loss of moorings in a world in which God is dead. He looked around at his small audience, and throwing his lantern to the ground, he lamented, "I come too early; my time is not come yet. This tremendous event is still the way…it has not yet reached the ears of man." On the same day he entered numerous churches and sang an "eternal requiem to God" saying, "What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God" (96).
In the 1960s there briefly emerged a group of scholars who wrote about the "death of God" as an event in our time. One of these scholars (Thomas J. J. Altizer) took the incarnation quite seriously: "God has negated and transcended himself in the Incarnation, and thereby he has fully and finally ceased to exist in his original or primordial form. To know that God is Jesus, is to know that God himself has become flesh: no longer does God exist as transcendent Spirit or sovereign Lord, now God is love" (p. 67). "Once God has ceased to exist in human experience as the omnipotent and numinous Lord, there perishes with him every moral imperative addressed to man from a beyond, and humanity ceases to be imprisoned by an obedience to an external will or authority" (127).
Altizer's view clearly suggests there are more than a few cracks in the Christian Conglomerate; nevertheless it is evident that fissures, spearheaded by reason and science, have begun to appear in the seemingly impregnable Christian worldview. The Christian Conglomerate holds that God controls the natural world, but Mr. Darwin's scientific view (evolution) on the origin of our species makes a more convincing case than does the theological answer. The weather more often than not appears to work against the common good. In the early 19th century the church was forced to admit in the face of compelling science that the earth was not the center of our solar system, which had been an item of faith for nearly 1700 years.
The Christian Conglomerate holds that the Bible is a special religious text that puts human beings in touch with the divine will, but over 300 years of scientific study has shown it to be a human collection, and God has been reduced at best to the peripheral role of inspiring some of its ideas. The idea that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19) is an item of faith that is not demonstrable except to those of like faith. The Church is not as Paul believed a divinely gathered community of saints of the end-time, but has become a seriously flawed secular human institution.
Could the church, like ancient paganism, simply fade into oblivion for lack of relevance? Put differently: how is Christianity relevant in the 21st century?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966).
Walter Kaufmann, The Portable Nietzsche. Selected and Translated, with an Introduction. Prefaces, and Notes (New York: the Viking Press, 1954).