Christian Theology as Something New?
So what, then, was Christianity about?
From a theological point of view, for me the answer seemed fairly obvious: Christ. That is, not the historical person of Jesus, or not only this, but the spiritual concept of the Divine manifest and incarnate in humanity, the loving sacrifice of God in order to demonstrate and reveal that love, and the role of Christ-the-Reconciler as the Bridge between the transcendent Father and immanent Holy Spirit in order to complete a Trinity of Divinity that resolves the paradox of union and uniqueness on a higher spiritual plane. Yes, I came up with that definition in college. I loved big words and complicated imagery. (Still do.)
But of course, Christianity does not have the monopoly on trinities, sacrificial dying-and-rising gods, panentheism, or love and Spirit, so I still hadn't really answered my question. And this is the point I return to today, in my contemplation of polytheism. For, if I acknowledge that Jesus the Christ just happens to be my "patron" deity out of many available Reconciler deities from other cultures and climes , then it is possible to argue that I am (and perhaps always have been), in fact, a polytheist who has a personal relationship with the Divine or Source through a Christ-based pantheon. On the other hand, if Christian theology actually offers something substantially new and revolutionary in the development of the spiritual life, if the figure of Christ is not "just another deity" but embodies a strikingly and essentially new way of thinking about our relationship to the Divine, then there is something more than just a label, heritage or common social institution underlying my Christian self-identity. If this latter is the case, it might even mean that I will remain "Christian" in essence, even if I build relationships with deities from non-Christian pantheons and cultures, as long as I continue to pursue a relationship with the Divine in a markedly or uniquely Christian way.
Which brings us to the central question: Is Christ special?
This, for me, is a different question from "Was Jesus special?" regarding the historical person of Jesus and my beliefs about him, as well as the beliefs of the Christian community at large. In the past, I have attempted to answer the question, Is Christ special?, by exploring my beliefs regarding the unique manifestation of Christ as Jesus-the-historical-person. I've struggled to articulate the necessity of believing that Jesus, unlike figures such as Buddha and other Savior deities of the past, did not attain to Christ-consciousness (or, that is, to a conscious embodiment of Divinity) but rather was the unique historical expression of that consciousness itself. Simply put, he was born that way--a paradox, or Mystery, both fully human and fully Divine. But this just seems to confuse the issue, since I'm not even fully committed to this belief. My intuition, instead, is to reply that we are all both fully human and fully Divine, and yet this statement seems to relegate Jesus once again to just another deity incarnate or, alternatively, an ordinary person who's attained to full Divine consciousness.
The real dilemma, for me, is whether or not the very notion of the Mystery of the Fully Human/Fully Divine paradox is not itself a unique contribution by Christianity to the evolution of religion, or whether this idea existed in pre-Christian times. When I ask, is Christ special, what I am asking is if the idea of Christ as developed and explored within the Christian tradition is a new way, and perhaps a more highly evolved way, of understanding our relationship with Spirit.
A Tale of Two Fishes
This question has come to the forefront again as I've been reading Emma Jung's and Marie-Louise von Franz's work The Grail Legend, which applies Jungian psychological analysis to the narrative(s) of the Quest for the Holy Grail. In their discussion of the material, they seem to suggest repeatedly that the beginning of the Christian Age (which corresponded with the Piscine Age, an age not of one but of two fish) marked a new revolution in religion: that of emphasizing individuation. The Grail legend, which suddenly increased in popularity after 1000 C.E., is a response to the ending age of the "First Fish," which was characterized by an unbalanced emphasis on the light and masculine aspects of Christ. This imbalance, absorbed into tradition as defining features of the collective Christian consciousness, resulted in an intensified conflict between opposites: light and dark, masculine and feminine, man and nature, Christ and Antichrist. To redress this polarity, a shift into the age of the "Second Fish," began--the Grail legend with its knightly Masculine seeking an elusive and often ambivalent Feminine was the mytho-poetic expression of this shift--in which these opposites were, ideally, to be reconciled on a conscious level in order to achieve greater individuation and a wholeness of Self.
This conscious reconciliation or re-union is distinct, they explain, from the unconscious unity existing in the "primitive" pre-Christian pagan religions, in that it allows for personal, and not only collective or communal, relationship with God. In their analysis of Perceval's adventure in hunting a white stag and returning with its head to win the love of a water nixie, they discuss the imperative that the "question of the Grail" (i.e. the question about the Grail's origin and purpose, the asking of which would heal the King and restore the land) lays upon the hero. "A mere regression into paganism would be equally meaningless, so that this state of suspension, this crucifixion of the animal soul and the agonizing conflict bound up with it, must be maintained until the growth of consciousness striven for by the unconscious, namely the question concerning the Grail, has been achieved. [p. 275, emphasis added]" In other words, once one realizes there is a question to be asked--once the tension between opposites has been recognized, which inherently points towards the question of their resolution--returning to the pre-sundered state is meaningless, if not simply impossible. This, in itself, is rather obvious, but the fact that the authors designate paganism specifically as the religion to which it would be meaningless to return is likely to cause some objection, if not outrage, among the modern Pagan (i.e. NeoPagan) community.
On the other hand, Jung and von Franz also seem to speak of Christianity and the Christian aeon with a certain amount of ambivalence themselves, as if, given Christianity's second millennium that followed the supposed shift to the age of the "Second Fish" and should have seen the resolutions of the first age's polarities rather than their exacerbation or intensification, they're not so sure the Christian tradition may be up to the task. (Keep in mind, this is my own impression of some of their more subtle statements, and I'm by no means an expert on Jungian psychology on this point.) When discussing the origins and development of the Grail symbol a thousand years ago, for instance, they write, "The return to Celtic and Germanic mythological material on the one hand, and to some apocryphal traditions of early Christianity on the other can all be explained psychologically by the same need: to complete the Christ-image by addition of features which had not been taken sufficiently into account by ecclesiastical tradition. [p.104, emphasis in the original]" But couldn't such a statement be just as applicable to today's alternative spirituality movements, many of which have modern roots in a reaction against Christianity's continued patriarchal, dogmatic and ecologically-ignorant attitudes?
The difference of course, as Jung and von Franz argue, is that the Grail is still an inherently Christian symbol, and the incorporation of other mythological material as an attempt to expand the Christian tradition, not reject it completely. Yet later, in exploring the occasion of Perceval (now acknowledged, at this point in the story, as the best of all knights) crossing the "Bridge Over Which No One Crosses," they write:
This is only half a bridge, but it turns round on its centre when the right hero steps on to it. Being only half a bridge alludes, no doubt, to the fact that Christianity permits only the one, light half of the transcendent function to become conscious but does not allow for the psychic law of reversal of all opposites (enantiodromia), which is surprisingly and frighteningly manifested in the turning round of the bridge on its own axis. It is precisely because of this, however, that Perceval is enabled to reach his goal. In doing so he walks back over the same half of the bridge, but goes forward towards the opposite bank.Once again, here we see an ambiguity: on the one hand, Paganism seems to be dismissed off-hand as a "regression" or at best a "quasi"-urge, while on the other, it is presented as offering solutions to the problem of Christian polarity and imbalance. As usual, the authors seem to imply that the only way "forward" is within and through the Christian tradition, but one wonders exactly why this should be the case. Isn't it possible, instead, for modern humanity to acknowledge the tensions and polarities brought into consciousness by the Christian aeon, and then more forward from these to a conscious but still essentially Pagan spirituality? (Is this possibility also on the minds of the authors when they write, "For in those days, unlike the present, the recognition of nature could have implied a dangerous loss of direction, because it would have seduced naive medieval man into the abyss in which he would no longer have been able to find his way. The primitive in him was still too close to the surface. [p.286, emphasis added]"?)
This incident seemingly represents a regression which nevertheless leads forward, an impressive indication for modern man with his apparent turning back to a quasi "pagan" attitude which nevertheless does not lose the religious and ethical values of Christianity but broadens them through further progress. [pp. 280-81]
So... Is Christ Special?
We seem to have strayed far from the original question at this point. Indeed, it seems obvious from Jung's and von Franz's writing that their answer is an unequivocal, "Yes, the Christ figure as god-image within the Christian aeon is 'special'--it is a new development towards individuation within religion, one which cannot be ignored or abandoned without consequence." If they are correct (and I have no idea whatsoever if their analysis is confirmed or supported by archeological, anthropological, historical and sociological studies or not), then the question becomes: How do we respond to, reject or incorporate the unique aspects of the Christian tradition into our own spiritual lives?
My choice to identify myself as "Christian" hinges, in part, on the answer to this question, though in another sense it is only a small matter of semantics. Whether I choose to identify myself with mainstream Christianity in the future, the Christian tradition is already firmly established as a core aspect of my heritage and the shaping of my personal spiritual consciousness. Indeed, I know already that I will never be satisfied with any religion or spiritual path that does not have the capacity to bring into conscious tension the many polarities and opposites which the process of personal individuation requires; just as I will never feel comfortable within a fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity that refuses to reconcile or transcend those tensions, to unite Christ with his Shadow, the Anthropos with his Anima.
Happily, the path of Druidry--in particular that inclusive Druidry embraced by OBOD and AODA--do not demand an outright rejection of Christianity (OBOD even has a link off the mainpage of their website to an article devoted to discussing "Christianity and Druidry"). Instead, both of these Orders readily acknowledge the importance of all of Druidry's development throughout history, including the period of Mesopagan Druidry that was highly influenced by Christianity.
I feel as though I've finally come home!