Don MacGregor is a retired Anglican Priest in St Davids, Wales UK. He has been a science teacher, then a priest in numerous churches, large and small, suburban and rural, and a university chaplain. He is also a meditator and a student of Perennial Philosophy. He is passionate to find a new way forward for Christianity which incorporates twenty-first century science and worldviews.
Something happened after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus - after Jesus went from this existence, however that actually happened. What we find is that eventually Jesus became the exalted Lord in the minds of the early Christian believers. The Jesus of flesh and blood became the Christ of faith, the ascended one, the eternal, pre-existing Word of God, the Son at the right hand of God the Father. But it didn’t happen straight away.
We always have to remember, when we read the New Testament, is that it was written by different people with various agendas between thirty and eighty years after the event, so people had plenty of time to ponder, to discuss and argue about the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and ascension. For the first Christians, there was nothing worked out and written down. They had to make sense of it all.
We’re told ‘He opened their minds so that they could understand the scriptures’ (Luke 24:45). They had to go back and look at all the Old Testament writings, to see if they could find things that cast some light on Jesus the Christ, the anointed one. Why did he die? What was the purpose? Where has he gone to? Can it all be true? Who was he? They had to work it all out. The gospel writers wrote down their different versions of the time Jesus was here on earth, but after they had done that, there was still a huge amount to work out, and the early church fathers were the ones who did that, people like Origen, Eusebius, Tertullian and many others. For the next 400 years, people were still trying to work it all out, putting forward different ways of understanding the Christian faith, writing different books and letters, many of which circulated widely in the early Christian Church, but were not eventually accepted into the canon of the bible. One of the central questions was how could Jesus be divine and human? Was he part divine, part human – which part of his nature was divine? Or was he fully divine and fully human? And if so, how can that be?
In working all this out, the early Christians had access to many more writings than were later accepted. As well as the four gospels we know, there was the gospel of Thomas, the Secret Book of James, The Gospel of Mary, and of Peter, the Gospel of the Hebrews, of the Ebionites, of the Nazoreans, and various other accounts of the infancy of Jesus. There were lots of other letters as well – the letters of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Revelation of Peter, Thunder of the Perfect Mind, and so on. At various times, some of these were read widely by the church, but from 393AD to 424AD there were a series of councils of Carthage, where the approved books of the bible in the West were accepted as they are now. Some of the other writings are flights of fancy, or just not well written, or add nothing new, and the whole process over 400 years was one of sifting, discerning, seeing what made sense, what added new insights, and what was written first. However, some, in fact quite a few of them deserve a second look in our time, particularly the discarded Gospel of Thomas, which many scholars now believe to contain the earliest recorded words of Jesus. There are some ‘lost Christianities’ in these other writings, versions of the faith that made sense to many at the time, but were ruled out as heresy by the eventual victors. (incidentally, ‘heresy’ meant ‘choice’ in ancient Greek!)
The traditional view of all this is that it was done with the guidance of the Holy Spirit as well, giving insight and inspiration to some writers – and the church leaders had to discern which books and letters were written with this inspiration. But there were also power games going on at the time. When Christianity was made the official Roman religion by Constantine, it was as much a political move to control the masses as any spiritual inspiration, and the New Testament canon was part of that. A key moment seems to have been the festal letter of St Athanasius of Alexandria in 367 CE, in which he listed all 27 books and referred to them by the phrase ‘new testament’ for the first time. However, he continued to quote The Didache as authoritative for the Church. Meanwhile, Rome rejected Hebrews, but accepted the Shepherd of Hermas. Several other letters were disputed as well.
That process of deciding what is inspired, leading us closer to God, opening us up to be more enlightened, and what is uninspired, closing us down to spiritual progress, is still going on. There are vast amounts of literature and ideas available to us now, and the ingenuity of the human spirit is not in doubt. Leaving aside what is written about all the other faiths, ideologies and ways of being, there are many different paths within Christianity. So, how many Christianities are there? What is the right one? It depends on you, who you are, what stage you are at in life. I can illustrate this with my own story.
I didn’t become a Christian until I was 30. I had a Christian upbringing, went to Sunday School until I was nine, but I hadn’t really understood any of it. I didn’t pass through the doors of a church again until I was thirty. In my twenties, I was involved with the green movement and looked into all sorts of other beliefs, Eastern and esoteric until, in 1983, I started going to a church in Leicester. I was very moved by the love, openness and life that I saw in the people there. In the summer of that year, I had an experience of the love of God that opened my heart and set me firmly on the Christian path. For 9 years I went to that church in Leicester, which was a large, evangelical/charismatic church, with 400 people worshipping together on a Sunday morning. I was an open, charismatic evangelical, and that was entirely right for me at the time. Eventually, I went off to train for the ministry at St John’s College, Notts, then was a curate in a large evangelical church in Birmingham.
But I’ve always liked to read and ask questions, and part of my path has been to look at what other people believe and think and how Christianity can speak into that. My reading and thinking has taken me away from the evangelical church. I became immersed in the mystical tradition of the church for a time, and I know for certain that the way of prayer for me is silent, contemplative meditation – but it’s not necessarily for everyone. I have read a lot of more liberal theology, which makes a great deal of sense to me. I’ve moved from being an evangelical to a much more open, mystical/liberal stance, which has also embraced some of the more esoteric teachings that I read about many years before. My Christianity has totally changed in its theology, the way by which I make sense of the it.
But at the heart of my faith is experience – knowing the touch of God in my life, feeling God’s presence within me, and creating the opportunities, through prayer, through worship and through remaining open to listening to others viewpoints, to reach out to that otherness that is God - both within and outside myself. I’ve had to work out what is right for me at different stages in my life.
Being a Christian means walking the path, following the ways of Jesus, but the path has many different routes within Christianity. They can all lead us to God, but some will work better for your personality and life experience than others. The early Christians had to work it out for themselves, picking and choosing which books and letters to accept and which to discard, and there is now so much information out there, that again, we have to pick and choose and work it out for ourselves. Discernment becomes a high priority, learning to listen to the still, small voice within, guiding, prompting, leading. This small voice works through our higher Self, and I believe we can be more open to that through meditation and stillness. Above all, in this divided world, more goodwill and compassion is needed, with the ability to rise above blame and recrimination to look for a higher way that will lead us towards global cooperation and respect for all life.