I found this to be a rather fascinating passage from Erikson’s Young Man Luther as it offers a window into what an astute outsider sees when examining Christianity. Some of the his observations are disturbingly accurate while in the same breath completely miss the point. Here it is with a few comments along the way.
Christianity also had its early organizational era. It had started as a spiritual revolution with the idea of freeing an earthly proletariat for victory in another world after the impending withering of this one.
Well, I don’t blame him for coming to this conclusion. Just look at where Left Behind theology has gotten us regarding the “withering of the world”. This doesn’t jive with Jesus’ message about the redemption of all creation, or the New Jerusalem in John’s vision, or the Christus Victor perspective of the early church, or the last two millenia. What he is assuming is a gnostic position that might look compatible with the 1st grade Sunday School version of Christianity, but not much else.
But as always, the withering comes to be postponed; and in the meantime, bureaucracies must keep the world in a state of preparedness. This demands the administrative planning and the theoretical definition of a double citizenship: one vertical, to take effect WHEN; and one horizontal, always in effect NOW.
Is that why the church was increasingly institutionalized? The “delayed parousia”? That explains most of it I think.
The man who first conceived of and busily built the intersection of the horizontal and the vertical was St. Paul, a man converted out of a much too metropolitan identity conflict between Jewish rabbi, Roman citizen, and Greek philosopher not to become an empire-builder and doctrine-former.
Though it may not be accurate, I love that introduction to Paul. What other conclusion about the personality of Paul could a non-believer come to if he were to take a close look at the NT?
His much-traveled body reached Rome only to be beheaded; but his organizational testament merged with that of Christ’s chosen successor, the sturdy Peter, to eventually establish in the capital of the horizontal empire of Rome a permanent anchorage and earthly terminal for all of man’s verticals. (Luther, in his first theological restatements, was identifying with Paul’s evangelical identity: he did not know, until it was to be foisted on him, how much he was preparing to identify with Paul’s managerial fervor, his ecclesiastic identity, as well.)
Here, secular Erikson sees Peter as Jesus’s “successor”, which if you see Jesus as a political or social figure (Erikson also wrote a biography of Ghandi) then I guess that makes sense. Even if you believe Peter was meant to be the first pope, I don’t think this is the language you would use.
The sacrifice, in whose blood the early gnostic identity had flourished, was gradually sacrificed to dogma; and thus that rare sublimation, that holiday of transcendence, which alone had been able to dissolve the forces of the horizontal, was forfeited. Philosophically and doctrinally, the main problem became the redefinition of the sacrifice so that its magic would continue to bind together, in a widening orbit, not only the faith of the weak and the simple, but also the will of the strong, the initiative of the ambitious, and the reason of the thinking. In each of these groups, also, the double citizenship meant a split identity: an eternal, always impending, one, and one within a stereotyped hierarchy of earthly estates. For all of these groups an encompassing theology had to be formulated and periodically reformulated.
-Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther, p.180
The double-citizenship, bringing together the weak and strong in submission to Christ – he’s hitting on so many important features but the hammer is slipping off the head of the nail.
“the main problem became the redefinition of the sacrifice so that its magic would continue to bind together” – This is another outsider view, this time looking at the mass in particular and other Christian dogma in general. Could this phrase not be used to critique our contemporary “worship experience” church gatherings as well?
At the same time, Erikson doesn’t really believe in the magic behind the “magic”. He is treating Christianity as an interesting social phenomenon, not something earth-shaking that really happened. He denies that it has any real power beyond that “binding together” of community and the psychological impact inside the individual. But we say those things are in fact, secondary to Jesus’ originating action.