Today’s question comes from Yvette. She writes: “Okay, just sitting here pondering, as I often do. Now, I am not a religious person– I do not know even how I feel about a God in the great beyond. I do believe in Jesus, but not how the Christian religion wants me to believe. My question for you, is if I understand this correctly, to be “Christian” is being “Christ”-like. Before Jesus walked the Earth, what was the religion, and what was it called?”
There are so many layers to the matter you raised. I could write for pages. For now, I will touch upon just a few of them. The responses I give may raise follow up questions for you and others.
The first thing that grabbed me in your statement was your statement “I do believe in Jesus, but not how the Christian religion wants me to believe.”
Let me begin by saying, there is no one way in which the Christian religion wants you to believe about Jesus. That statement may sound heretical to some. Let me unpack that statement for you.
For the better part of three centuries there was diversity in the ways Christians (or perhaps I should say “followers of Jesus”) saw Jesus. Some emphasized Jesus’ humanity. These folks emphasized Jesus as moral teacher and guide. Others emphasized Jesus’ divinity. These folks emphasized Jesus as Savior.
When the powers-that-be (i.e. Emperor Constantine) converted to Christianity in the 4th Century, the diversity of belief became problematic for some – and downright embarrassing for others. So in order to tidy things up, they called Councils that established statements reflecting the belief of the majority. These statements became the creeds (i.e. Apostles and Nicene Creeds) that many know today.
It’s important, however, to understand not all followers of Jesus ascribed to those “established” (or orthodox) beliefs. Those Christians whose expression of faith fits within those established Creeds are known today as creedal Christians. Those Christians whose faith expands beyond the confines of those Creeds are known as non-creedal Christians. Many in the denomination in which I serve (The United Church of Christ) are non-creedal Christians.
I say all of this because I needed to let you know there is not one way in which “the Christian religion wants you to believe”. That’s true in many matters of faith, including who we understand Jesus to be.
The second matter that was raised for me in your comment involved your use of Christ
Lots of folks these days think that the word Christ was simply Jesus last name. It’s not. Christ is the word derived from the Greek word Christos which means “anointed” or “chosen” one. In other words, it’s a title – and not a name – that reaches across time. It certainly captures a much greater time period than the thirty years or so Jesus was on the earth. The term Christ represents the spiritual energies that – according to the Gospel of John – reach back all the way to the beginning of time (i.e. “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” – John 1:1 as told in the King James Version of the Bible). The notion of resurrection also extends the presence well beyond Jesus’ death. That makes your question about time a bit more complicated than you might realize.
The third matter you referred to involves the concept of religion.
For those of us whose spiritual lives were formed by the Jewish and Christian traditions, we were taught that the first thing that that captured our connection with God was the notion of relationship. Before there was a sense of formal tradition or structure, for instance, there was the relationship between God and those early patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith: Adam and Eve, Noah and his wife, Abraham and Sarah, etc.) It was only later that systems were developed in attempts to capture (and codify) the essence of those relationships. Those systems are what we think of as religion.
One of the greatest ironies is that even in the earliest days, folks began to realize that people were paying more attention to the structures/religions than they were to the relationships themselves. That’s why prophets such as Hosea – speaking on God’s behalf – were quoted as saying, “I desire faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings” – Hosea 6:6 as told in the Common English Bible).
So when you asked what existed before religion, I would say Relationship (which I intentionally capitalize to capture its most sacred dimension).
So what about you? What thoughts do Yvette’s question/comment raise for you?