After spending several days mulling it over, I am writing to recommend what I found a very good book which makes a plausible and intricate case from Christian history with which I resonate strongly. And yet I also found this excellent volume slightly unsatisfying.
Professor of Religion and Ethical Studies at Willamette University Stephen J Patterson offers The Forgotten Creed: Christianity's Original Struggle against Bigotry, Slavery, and Sexism
. Writing in the intellectual lineage of such theologians as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and John Dominic Crossan, Patterson explicates the ancient text fragment that we meet in the Apostle Paul's letter to the early Christian communities in central Anatolia, modern Turkey:
For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus,
for as many of you who have been baptized have put on Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile;
there is no slave nor free;
there is no male and female,
for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26-28
Paul's letter was written before any of the Gospel books about Jesus' life and teachings; Patterson contends this fragment is older still, existing before Paul's travels, probably a creedal statement used when people joined these communities through baptism.
And he insists its intent is every bit as broad and radical as we might assume if we did not associate it with a Christian history in which laying down the law about right relationship to God and drawing boundaries about who is in and who is out were such prominent features.
He dissects each of its clauses. He explores their context in the first century Roman empire and concludes Paul was not trying to erase Jewish history:
[This] creed was not originally about cultural obliteration. "There is no Jew or Greek" stands alongside "so slave or free" and "no male or female." These are not distinctions of religion and culture, but of power and privilege. In the world of Greek and Roman antiquity, free men had power and agency, slaves and women did not. ... The creed was originally about the fact that race, class, and gender are typically used to divide the human race into us and them to the advantage of us. It aimed to declare there is no us, no them. We are all children of God. It was about solidarity, not cultural obliteration.
He regrets that
... in the long history of Christian theology, spanning centuries and continents, this creed played virtually no role. How could it? The church became a citadel of patriarchy and enforced this regime wherever it spread. It also endorsed and encouraged the taking of slaves from the people it colonized. And within a hundred years of its writing, "no Jew or Greek" became simply "no Jews," as the church first separated from, then rebelled against its Jewish patrimony, eventually attempting patricide.
He points out that this ancient formula is very different from the carefully negotiated, imperially endorsed definitions of right faith that came to be named "creeds" in Christian religious practice.
[This] creed says nothing a creed should say. It is not about God. Nor is it about the nature of Jesus Christ or how he saves us from our sins. It is about us. And that is perhaps why few have ever really believed it. It is easier, it turns out, to believe in a higher power, a God, a savior, who will save us from our sins of hatred and violence than to think, to believe that human beings are capable of the miracle of solidarity: of reaching out beyond one's own interest to see the interests of another, to live with and for another in the hope only of a common redemption from the tears in the human fabric that have come from difference. ... There is no us, no them.
Patterson's scholarship is accessible and impressive. I can believe his exposition. I highly recommend this book.
• • •
So why have I had a hard time writing about this? It comes down to finding Patterson's way knowing not how I approach these matters. And I don't think I'm alone in that. A little history ...
Recently I was trying to recall for a friend how it came to be that today, at least in its official aspirations, The Episcopal Church, the Christian sub-branch to which I belong, came to affirm the full inclusion of women and LGBT people in all the rites of membership and leadership in the church.
This required a process which felt long, fraught, and belated as we lived it. First women and queers were just there and not about to be silent about our presence. This came as a shock to much of mid-20th century Episcopal conventional orthodoxy, but the brave gender pioneers didn't go away.
And through a succession of internal institutional struggles and with some re-writing of our internal practices, we inched toward welcoming everyone who wanted to come into our particular practice of life in Jesus.
At every step along the way, our scandalized comrades in institutional religion would scream: But you haven't done the theology!!!
This wasn't true; worthy, serious, erudite theologians "did the theology" of women's and queer inclusion over and over. It was just that those who were made uncomfortable didn't read it or like it.
And meanwhile, faithful uppity women and LGBT folk continued to hang around, and participate, and find comfort and truth in the actually existing life of the church. (That goes for many Christian branchlets, I just focus on the one I lived this among.)
Here's a secret: the uppity intruders didn't usually read the theology either. Oh, perhaps occasionally we did. But it wasn't the excellent, urgent, writings of the theologians that made us able to approach God through a changing Church. It was the lived experience within that Church and among its people, in a community that provided us with the assurance that we were, despite all bigotry and suspicion, indeed loved by God.
Patterson is well and truly "doing the theology" and I'm glad. And this still is not the bedrock that does it for me. But I'm delighted that it does for some people! If curious, check out The Forgotten Creed.