Sunday, November 02, 2008

Behaving Before You Belong or Believe

I've been reading a chapter by Alan Kreider in a book called The Origins of Christendom in the West - fascinating stuff really. He speaks about the erosion of deeply Christian behaviour in the church from the second century or so until the fifth or sixth century. He's really the guy who coined the phrase "Belong, Behave, Believe" (after Grace Davie who wrote a book about the British Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing before Belonging).

He makes a statement on page 3:
"Christendom was the product of millions of conversions. In the early centuries, becoming a Christian entailed a many-faceted change which involved a rupture with conventional values: the converts’ beliefs, belonging and behaviour were all expected to change. To foster this change, the church developed a process of catechesis and ritual which culminated in the cathartic experience of baptism. "

Baptism and entrance into the church during the first couple of centuries did not occur until after behaviour had changed or until there was absolute certainty that conversion had really occurred. This sometimes involved a three to five year adult catechism period. I wonder what that would do to church growth in the 21st Century? Probably slow it down at the beginning but then I think it would really start speeding up.

Another comment:

"Thus conversion was bound to challenge more than a person’s mental ruts or philosophical categories; it was bound to be more than a Glaubenswechsel or a ‘reorientation of the soul of an individual.’ Indeed the change in belief was often quite secondary to the change in behaviour. People were first attracted to the Christians, not by their ideas, but by their distinctive behaviour and/or by the mysterious spiritual powers that seemed to be among them. … Early Christian writers often commented tht people were drawn to inquire about the faith by observing Christian behaviour."

To explain it further:

"Conversion required something deeper [than experience or attraction]. It required the ‘candidates’ – those who had been impressed by the Christians’ exorcisms (i.e. power encounters) or question-posing lives – to submit themselves to a journey of multi-dimensional change. The catechetical programmes that emerged were developed to superintend this change and to ensure that it was genuine. In the fullness of time, this journey would culminate in baptism as the candidates died to their old selves and were reborn. Then and then only, would the process of conversion be complete."

What happened?

"In the early centuries of the church, we have noted, conversion entailed a process of resocialization which taught converts the skills and understanding necessary to live the deviant life (i.e. different from early Mediterranean culture) of an alternative society; and this required of every candidate a change of life. Now, after Constantine, the alternative society was becoming society itself; and conversion was enabling the now deviant pagans to shape up, equipping them to conform to the now normal norms of a Christian society. As this happened, the processes of conversion changed."

"Significantly the subject matter that they were taught was shifting from earlier patterns. The teaching of Jesus which had been central to early catechesis had now in (the Edict of) Milan (i.e. post 313 AD) been supplanted by stories of the Old Testament patriarchs and behavioural guidance from the proverbs, and the stories and examples of Jesus had been supplanted by stories and examples of the saints. Meanwhile the formation of Christian conduct had come to be replaced by a concentration on the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed."

The Results were predictable:

"In Constantine’s baptism, the church had required the Emperor to change his lifestyle; in Volusian’s baptism (a century later), there is no hint that conversion required a respectable aristocrat to change - whether in his attentiveness to the needs of the poor, in his attitude to violence, or apparently in the opulence of colour of his dress (i.e. wearing purple signified a governmental position which Christians and also many in government had felt was incompatible with following Jesus). It is hardly surprising that in Rome the result was a respectable aristocratic Christianity."

We certainly see that in the current presidential race. We actually see it in many of our churches and even in our own lives. I have been asked countless "ethics" questions. Can I still do this (fill in the blank) and be a good Christian. As Rodney Clapp says in Peculiar People:

“The question is no longer ”How can we survive and remain faithful Christians under Caesar?” but now becomes “How can we adjust the church’s expectations so that Caesar can consider himself a faithful Christian?””

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the point is well taken...bring forth fruit of regeneration.

However, "catechesis" as such and described in the Didache was apparently not present in the Acts narrative nor in Pauline/Petrine epistles.

How then would that affect Kreider's, Davie's and Clapp's thesis?