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The Soul of Christianity

by Huston Smith

Dr. Smith is professor of religion at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York. This article appeared in The Christian Century, (October 4, 2005, p. 10f) Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation: used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


If we had been living around the eastern Mediterranean in the early centuries of the Christian era, we might have noticed, scratched here and there on the sides of walls and houses or simply on the ground, the crude outline of a fish. We would probably have dismissed it as innocuous graffiti, for these were mainly seaport towns where fishing was a part of daily life.

Had we been Christians, however, we would have recognized these drawings as the logo for the Good News. The head of the fish would have pointed us toward the place where the local Christian group held its clandestine meetings -- underground in catacombs, and in the back rooms of shops and homes. To be known as a Christian was to risk being thrown to lions or gladiators, or turned into a human torch. A cross would have been a giveaway symbol, so a fish was substituted for it, for the Greek letters for the word fish are also the first letters of the Greek words for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." So the Good News was depicted in the crude outline of an ordinary fish.

The people who heard Jesusí disciples proclaiming the Good News were as impressed by what they saw as by what they heard. They saw lives that had been transformed -- men and women who were ordinary in every way except for the fact that they seemed to have found the secret of living. They evinced a tranquility, simplicity and cheerfulness that their hearers had nowhere else encountered. Here were people who seemed to be making a success of the enterprise everyone would like to succeed at -- life itself.

Specifically, there seemed to be two qualities in which their lives abounded. The first of these was mutual regard. One of the earliest observations by an outsider about Christians that we have is, "See how these Christians love one another." Integral to this mutual regard was a total absence of social barriers; it was a discipleship of equals. Here were men and women who not only said that everyone was equal in the sight of God but who lived as though they meant it. The conventional barriers of race, gender and status meant nothing to them, for in Christ there was neither Jew nor gentile, male nor female, slave nor free. As a consequence, in spite of differences in function or social position, their fellowship was marked by a sense of genuine equality.

Their second distinctive quality was happiness. When Jesus was in danger his disciples were alarmed, but otherwise it was impossible to be sad in Jesusí company. And when he told his disciples that he wanted his joy to be in them "that your joy may be complete," to a remarkable degree that objective was realized.

Outsiders found this baffling. These scattered Christians were not numerous. They were not wealthy or powerful, and they were in constant danger of being killed. Yet they had laid hold of an inner peace that found expression in a joy that was uncontainable. Perhaps radiance would be a better word. Radiance is hardly the word used to characterize the average religious life, but no other word fits as well the life of these early Christians.

Paul offers a vivid example. Here was a man who had been ridiculed, driven from town to town, shipwrecked, imprisoned, flogged until his back was covered with stripes. Yet here was a life in which joy was the constant refrain: "Joy unspeakable and full of glory." "Thanks be to God who gives us the victory." "In all things we are more than conquerors." "God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness has shined in our hearts." "Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift." The joy of these early Christians was unspeakable. As the fifth chapter of Ephesians suggests, they sang not routinely but from the irrepressible overflow of their direct experience. Life was not challenges to be met; it was glory discerned,

What produced this love and joy in these early Christians? Everyone wants those qualities; the question is how to get them. The explanation, insofar as we are able to gather one from the New Testament, is that three intolerable burdens had suddenly and dramatically been lifted from their shoulders.

The first of these was fear, including the fear of death. We have it from Carl Jung that he never met a patient over 40 whose problems did not go back to the fear of approaching death. The reason the Christians could not be intimidated by the lions and even sang as they entered the coliseum was that Jesusí counsel, "Fear not, for I am with you," had gotten through to them.

The second burden they had been released from was guilt. Recognized or repressed, guilt seems built into the human condition, for no one lives up to their ideals completely. It is not only that we behave less well toward others than our consciences dictate; we also fail ourselves by leaving talents undeveloped and letting opportunities slip by, so we have a hard time living with ourselves. We may manage to keep remorse at bay while the sun is up, but in sleepless hours of the night it comes through,

the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and
been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the
awareness
Of things ill done and done to
othersí harm
Which once you took for exercise of
virtue. (T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding")

Oppressive guilt reduces creativity. In its acute form it can rise to a fury of self-condemnation that shuts life down. Paul had felt its force before be was released: "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?"

The third release the Christians experienced was from the cramping confines of the ego. There is no reason to suppose that prior to their new life these men and women were more self-centered than the next person, but this was enough for them to know that their love was radically confined. They knew that the human curse is to love and sometimes to love well, but never well enough. Now that curse had been dramatically lifted.

It is not difficult to see how release from fear, guilt and self-centeredness could feel like rebirth. If someone were to free us from these crippling impediments, we too would call that person savior. But this only pushes our question back a step. How did the Christians get free of these burdens? And what did a man named Jesus, now gone, have to do with the process that they should credit it as his doing?

The only power that can effect transformations of the order we have described is love. It remained for the 20th century to discover that locked within the atom is the energy of the sun itself. For this energy to be released, however, the atom must be bombarded from without. So too, locked in every human being is a store of love that partakes of the divine -- the imago dei, the image of God that is within us. And it too can be activated only through bombardment -- in its case, loveís bombardment.

The process begins in infancy, when a motherís initially unilateral loving smile awakens love in her baby and, as the babyís coordination develops, elicits the flickerings of its answering smile. The process continues into childhood. A loving human being is not produced by exhortations, rules and threats. Love takes root in children only when it comes to them. (When the activist folk singer Pete Seeger was asked by an interviewer for advice as to how to raise children, he said, "Pour in the love and it will come out from them.") Love is an answering phenomenon. It is, literally, a response.

An actual incident may help to bring this point home.

He was a diffident freshman in a small midwestern college when one morning the instructor (who was his role model and whom he idolized) opened the class by saying, "Last evening as I was reading the papers you turned in last week I came upon several of the most significant sentences that I can recall ever having read." As he proceeded to read them the student could hardly believe his ears. His heart leapt into his throat, for he was hearing his own words being read back to him. He recorded the incident in his journal: "I donít remember another thing that occurred during that hour, but I shall never forget my feelings when the bell brought me back to my senses. It was noon, and when I stepped outdoors October was never so beautiful. If anyone had asked me for anything, maybe even to lay down my life, I would have given it gladly, for I wanted nothing for myself. I ached only to give to a world that had given so much to me."

If a young man found himself thus changed by the interest a human being had shown in him, perhaps we can understand the way the early Christians were changed by feeling certain that they were totally loved by the ultimate power in the universe. Imagination may fail us here, but logic need not. If we too felt loved -- not abstractly or in principle but vividly and personally -- by one who unites all power and all goodness, the experience could dissolve fear, guilt and self-concern dramatically. As Kierkegaard noted, if at every moment both present and future I were certain that nothing has happened or can ever happen that would separate me from the infinite love of the Infinite, that would be clearest reason there is for joy.

Godís love is precisely what the first Christians did feel. They had experienced Jesusí love and had become convinced that Jesus was God incarnate. Once that love reached them it could not be stopped. Melting the barriers of fear, guilt and self-centered-ness, it poured through them like a torrential stream and heightened the love they had hitherto felt for others to the point where the difference in degree became a difference in kind. A new quality, Christian love, was born. Conventional love is evoked by lovable qualities in the beloved, hut the love people encountered from Christ embraced sinners and outcasts, Samaritans and enemies. It gave, not prudentially in order to receive, but because giving was its nature.

Paulís famous description of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13 ought not to be read as if he were describing a quality that was already known. His words list the attributes of a specific person, Jesus Christ. In phrases of unparalleled beauty, it describes the divine love that Paul believed Christians would reflect toward others once they experienced Christís love for them. The reader should approach his words as if they define a novel capacity which, as it had been fully realized "in the flesh" only in Christ, Paul was describing for the first time.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

So astonishing did the first Christians find this love and the fact that it had actually entered their lives that they had to appeal for help in describing it. In closing one of the earliest recorded sermons on the Good News, Paul turned back to the words of one of the prophets, who in turn was speaking for God: "Look at this, you scornful souls, and lose yourselves in wonder; for in your days I do such a deed that, if [others] were to tell you this story, you would not believe it."


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