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Church History and False Dilemmas

Posted on: October 18, 2020

Category: Theology

Church History and False Dilemmas
As the United States' election draws near, it is hard not to speak about politics. I will refrain from doing so, at least directly, but perhaps next week I will venture straight into the question of Jesus and politics.

This week I want to touch on a philosophical problem that affects our understanding of history. That topic may not seem as exciting, but there are some things to learn, nevertheless. The philosophical problem is called a false dilemma. While this problem relates to many situations in life, I will relate it to church history.

Ancient writers on the orthodox side of rising Christianity are sometimes called the proto-orthodox party. In the second and third centuries, there was no "orthodoxy" as we know it today. There were, though, writers who claimed to be orthodox, that is, to be "correct" in their opinion (ortho means correct and doxa means opinion).

When you believe you are correct, how do you prove that someone else is incorrect (especially when there are no particular standards to follow)? Proto-orthodox writers used a couple of tricks that we still use today. First, you call the one you stand against a name. A name turns the other person or group into an object, a "them." Next, you condemn "them" for being who you named them to be. I think if you were the object that was named something you did not call yourself and then condemned for being who you do not think you are, you would feel very much cheated and humiliated, possibly moved to anger.

A good example of the tactic of naming and condemning is a movement that formed around Marcion (85–160). The movement did not have a name per se, but the proto-orthodox called the movement after Marcion. They were Marcionites. With this name in place, it became possible to label people "Marcionite" whether they were or not. Any similarity to the movement on the part of any group could cause problems because, to the proto-orthodox, the movement was poisonous. At this early stage, the emerging church held little power, but it could still practice social shunning and sometimes violence against the "Marcionites."

We might liken this situation to "ANTIFA," which, to my understanding, is not a singular movement but a cooperative of autonomous groups against forms of fascism (expressed in militia groups and through racism). However, if you are labeled ANTIFA, under the present US administration, whether you think you are or not, you become a public enemy.

Now is a good time to ask, What have these comments about church history to do with a false dilemma? The relationship of church history to a false dilemma becomes clear when we define the fallacy involved. A false dilemma occurs when a limited number of options are presented as the only options. In the history of Christianity, even today within many books on church history, a false dilemma is created between orthodoxy and heresy. It is as if one must make a choice between two defined camps. However, the rise of Christianity is not so simple. Since there was no such thing as "orthodoxy" or "heresy" in the second and third centuries, the scene was one of expressed competitions and alternatives among diverse Christ communities. There was no "them" until there was, in the mid to late third century, a power struggle involving who, among the groups, could claim to be correct.

We can see very clearly the tragedy involved in church history. There are so many lost communities and lost writings in the wake of the rise of dominating Christian orthodoxy. There are so many unknowns about the earliest expressions of Christianity and so many forms of lost spiritualities. If it had not been pushed forward by power concerns and desires to control, Christianity could have emerged as a vast family of inter-connected communities expressing great plurality but common care for humanity. It could have been something like the dreaded, at least to the Trump administration, ANTIFA: a cooperative expression of protest amidst diverse communities and everyday people. A Christianity that is not about control remains, unfortunately, a Christianity that is not known in our shared Western history. The lost spiritualities of Christianity lie only at the margins of the church today.

Inasmuch as we can lament that a false dilemma guided the rise of Christianity and created a misleading division between orthodoxy and heresy, there is always good news for those willing to look. For me, the good news is that the church has lost a lot, if not most, of its social power. It has a chance today, as it did in the first and second centuries, to be neither about control nor about what is correct belief. It has a chance to re-engage its spiritual tradition, which includes great philosophy, the celebration of paradox, the priority of equality, the inclusion of the poor and the outcast, and the understanding that the "Empire of God" (basileia tou theou) is not about God. It is about the everyday realities of life where it is possible to love your enemies. The act of loving enemies is the act of overcoming a false dilemma.

Politics does not usually involve the act of loving one's enemies, which, of course, means not to have enemies, not to think of others as "them." It takes spirituality to love enemies. That could be the promise of a church we have, to date, never known.

©By David Galston


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