Friday, June 30, 2006

What I Learned in Church History I

The papers have been handed in. The classes have all (save one) been attended and noted to death. The final has been taken. This can only mean one thing:

Church History I is done!

With the completion of this class, my two-course Church History requirement is finished. After taking these two classes, I can really appreciate the value of taking a solid year of church history (even if we didn't really get into Global Christianity) before going into ministry.

(1) One of the many things that I have learned in this class that as much as people like to think it, there was no "Golden Age" of Christianity. New Testament touched on this too (I mean, all one has to do is read Acts and Paul's letters (esp. 1 Corinthians) to see all of the tensions in the early Church), but the message wasn't quite as clear there as it was in this class. We tend to forget that early Christianity was marked by a diversity of thought, practice, and understanding...without even going into notions of what people considered "heretical" at that time. We had the martyrs, who thought that Christianity was about being an authentic witness, and the only way to do that was by dying for your faith. We had the philosophers/apologists, who maintained that Christianity was the "true philosophy" (and it is from this branch that we get the foundations of what is considred heretical). We had ascetics: desert monks and others who valued purity as their understanding of the Christian faith. Then we have those who think Christianity is believing the right things -- ascribing to the "true" doctrines. And these doctrines keep evolving and changing - responding to the argument of the moment.

(2) We're never going to have it all right. In nearly 2000 years of Christian history, no one has ever had the complete picture of what the church should look like or how the Christian faith should be practiced. Dare I venture this: not even Jesus, because I doubt his intention was to construct an institution or to found a new religion, although I have no doubt that he alone had the right idea of what God desires for humans to do. In one way, the thought that we're never going to have the complete picture is rather humbling; the tensions that are going on right now are just a part of a longer ongoing struggle of humans working together to figure out just what the Good News of Jesus Christ actually is...or what it means. On the other hand, it's extremely frustrating, because we like to think that we've learned something in the 2000 years we've been at it. I think we have learned something from history -- we just haven't learned enough.

For me, I'm comfortable with the thought that we're never going to have it all right. I like Nietzsche's view of truth (he was not a relativist!!!): Truth is like a huge the earth. Looking at it, we can only see one small part of it. Others see different parts. Some see parts of it that overlap with ours. Some see parts that are completely contradictory -- but it's all part of the same Truth. I also like the idea that Truth is a being to be related with. Different people will have different interactions with that Truth, but it's all a part of the same whole.

But I digress. Back to Church History.

(3) It brought to mind some of the theological explanations for certain practices that I had never fully realized before. The example that immediately jumped to mind is: icons. There is a difference between veneration and adoration. Adoration is reserved for God while veneration of the representational image points one in the direction of the God who alone deserves to be worshipped. Thinking about that is pretty neat, and I personally would love to see more icons used in worship services.

(4) The readings. The early Christians had a lot to say, and some of their more devotional writings are absolutely beautiful. I think the church today has forgotten about a lot of these figures. Hildegard of Bingen is one such example of this, as well as Augustine. They seemed a lot more free to express their devotion to God in their writings, breaking out at certain points into spontaneous praise. Some of their work I would love to incorporate into my own devotional time.

In short, I loved this course, even if it did cover 1000 years of history in 6 weeks. It was a whirlwind tour, but a fascinating one. I hope I never forget these lessons I've learned...even if I do forget about the Visagoths and the Byzantines and the Donation of Constantine.

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