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Posts Tagged ‘Nicaea’

Council of Nicaea

Jesus has a great deal to teach us about kindness, tolerance and mysticism, but there are certain factions out there which have rendered the story of Christ unpalatable to the ordinary, thinking individual. These extreme factions have driven many to run for cover, from the ivory tower of the church to the iron fortress of atheism.

Atheist isn’t a term I like to throw around lightly. The label suggests a degree of certainty and intolerance matched only by strict fundamentalists. They have seen the data, they have made the only possible interpretation, and their minds are made up. But what I see, from both camps, is an utter lack of imagination. Fundamentalists, of whatever creed, read their holy books as the incontrovertible word of God, to be taken literally, word for word. Atheists also seem determined to read the scriptures literally, and see no reasonable option but to reject them all out of hand.

I maintain, however, in all my secular wisdom, that there is a third way, a Middle Path, infinitely broader in scope than either of these narrow-minded, literal readings. And in order to get the greatest possible rise out of both the Christians and the atheists, I’d like to demonstrate the Middle Path with a brief examination of the legend of Jesus Christ.

Devout Christians insist that Jesus Christ is the son of God, 100 percent human and 100 divine, flesh and blood but also consubstantial with—comprised of the same substance as—the Holy Father. These Christians, who attest to the word of God, may or may not realize that this definition of Christ is nowhere to be found in the holy scripture. Instead it was issued three centuries after Christ’s death, at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 C.E.

Now, the unimaginative reader might find two glaring problems with this whole concept. First off, the idea that Jesus is 100 percent human and 100 percent divine sort of suggests that he is more like two people, not just one. (Where the star athlete manages to give 110 percent, Lord Jesus is able to give a whopping 200 percent.) But that’s just a matter of discerning between theological propositions and concrete scientific reality. In the story of Jesus, we are obviously dealing with the former rather than the latter.

Secondly, that the creed’s basis comes from a manmade, imperial decree, rather than a blessed and holy book, might seem to remove the sacred underpinnings from the whole business. Again, any stickler would have to admit that’s true and problematic, but in the 21st century we have to accept that the Christian creed, regardless of its origins, is now quite ancient, the product of another time, a holier epoch, as it were. And furthermore, though the paradoxical claims of divinity may be rationally untenable, the fact is that they have become a psychological reality, simply by virtue of having been believed‚ and deeply, generation after generation, for nearly 2000 years.

These concessions, to accept a theological proposition and admit to a psychological reality, may be too much for the firm non-believer, but let’s agree to set that aside and look simply at the mythic content here. My personal inclination, which occupies a narrow band of the immensely broad Middle Path mentioned above, and espoused regularly here in the Tao of Fred, regards the various gods and heroes of mythic lore as symbols for the inner actors that populate our psyches.

One of the greatest psychological and philosophical issues I wrestle with is what’s called the mind-body problem. As humans, we are made up of flesh and blood. We can look in the mirror and recognize our selves, but when we identity who we are, it’s our personality and unique body of memories that we identify with. Imagine a mad science experiment in which you and another subject are strapped down and anesthetized, while a crazed brain surgeon goes about swapping your brains. When you awaken, your mind is in your friend’s body, and your body is occupied by his brain. Now, which one is “you”? In all likelihood, you will agree that “you” are now in the other person’s body. In other words, the physical and visible you pales in comparison to the ethereal, intangible you.

The story of Jesus Christ (similar to the twin motif prevalent in so many mythologies from around the globe) is a fantastic metaphor for this strange paradox inherent to the human condition. The perfect man, also called the Son of Man and the Son of God, is entirely human, of flesh and blood, but entirely divine, of intangible spirit. Only Jesus Christ is able to reconcile these two aspects, these polar opposites that somehow comprise our identity. Not only that, but he attains a state of spiritual perfection, being one with the Father, and in doing so He gains eternal life.

But it gets better, because prior to 325 C.E. (remember the Council of Nicaea?), there was actually quite a colorful variety of Christologies in circulation. The Creed of Nicaea won the day, but a couple of Gnostic Christian groups, namely the Ebionites and the Marcionites, held competing ideologies well worth our consideration. Marcionites, the more popular of these two sects, saw Christ as completely divine and not human at all. Incidentally, they also believed in two gods, an original deity of absolute goodness and perfection, and the Old Testament demiurge who created the material world with all its flaws and imperfections.

The Ebionites, on the other hand, held what is now the standard monotheistic position, but believed that Jesus was not actually divine, but strictly human, adopted as it were, to become the Son of God. It may seem surprising, even shocking, today that such diverse beliefs could have at one time been considered Christian, but alas, times change, beliefs shift, and even histories get rewritten.

But what do these Gnostic belief systems say about the human condition, or the people’s perceptions of the human condition, back in the days of antiquity? According to the Marcionites, flesh and blood and the material world with all its suffering was the product of a lesser creator, and not the original god of perfection. Moreover, according to their docetic Christology, our Savior was purely divine, while his physical body was merely an illusion. As a spiritual being, He existed well before his conception by Mary, hence the virgin birth. Clearly, the Marcionites put a much higher value on the intangible, ethereal aspects of our selves, seeing the material body, with all its appetites and aversions, as little more than dead weight, dragging us down and holding us back from attaining our highest spiritual potential.

The Ebionites, by contrast, considered Jesus as mere flesh and blood, produced through sexual union between Mary and Joseph, little different from you and me. But he was indeed a very righteous man, and so God chose him for the very special assignment, to accept the punishment for all mankind. To indicate His acceptance of this monumental sacrifice, God raised Jesus from the grave following his crucifixion, adopting him in a sense, and sat him at His side on a throne in heaven. Here we have a clear distinction between man and God, rejecting a good deal of the supernatural embellishment surrounding Jesus. In this theology, we find a greater respect for the ordinary flesh and blood individual, with the suggestion that if we too lead a most righteous life, then we too can elevate our spirits and grow closer to God, therefore closer to one another, because God embodies the one singular universal spirit.

Perhaps it was a matter of sectarian politics, or simply a chance event, but maybe, just maybe, the Nicene Creed that we know today prevailed precisely because it resonated so well with human psychology at that time. It provided just the message, regarding the perfection of man, entirely human and entirely divine, that man, increasingly literate and self aware, needed to hear. It certainly was not the most logical explanation. Wouldn’t it make more sense, after all, to say that Christ was half man and half God, rather than 100 percent man and 100 percent God?

But then, we must remember, this is not a myth to be understood rationally. Religion is meant to satisfy man’s irrational side. It’s not about what’s logical, reasonable, or materially verifiable. It never is. It’s about stepping out of that whole paradigm and embracing the intuitive, the imaginative and the magical. Only this way can man fulfill his highest spiritual potential, without having to abandon his physical body, and thereby gain a glimpse of eternity.

To learn more about the archetypal dimensions of the the Holy Father and Son, check out Edward Edinger. To learn more about early Christianity and the Gnostics, check out the works of Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman.

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