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Is Christianity a Mystery Cult?

Old Testament Reading: Genesis 6:1-4

New Testament Reading: 1 Timothy 3:16


Text: Romans 7:7 "What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet.'"

New Testament scholars in the nineteenth century were much concerned over the question whether early Christianity began as a mystery cult, or perhaps became one once the Christian gospel took root in pagan soil. What is a "mystery cult," you may ask?

There were several religious groups, conducted with some measure of secrecy, offering knowledge of their sacred mysteries and ceremonies only to the initiated. They worshipped various deities called kurioi, or "Lords." These included Isis, Serapis, Mithras, Dionysus, and Attis. In each case there was a myth involving the death and resurrection of the Lord. Outwardly, this myth symbolized the death of vegetation in the fall and its resurrection in the spring. Esoterically, as it would be explained to the initiates, the myth was a formula of salvation: your own resurrection or immortality could be secured if you undertook initiation by the prescribed rituals of the cult.

These rituals included sacred meals of bread and beer, a shower in the blood of a lamb or a bull, visions, and less mentionable practices.

I think you can see here some rather obvious parallels to the early church. Even the Apostle Paul saw some similarities. It is of the mystery cults he speaks when he reminds the Corinthians, who were surrounded by such religions, "Indeed there are gods many and lords many, but for us there is one God, even the Father from whom are all things, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things."

But there is a more fundamental question here, a question as to a more fundamental similarity between Christianity and the mystery religions. It is a matter not of similarity in external details of belief and practice, but rather of a similar style of relating to the world around us.

The basic mark of a mystery religion, I think, is that it is an essentially ­private­ affair, insulated from the world. Indeed, it exists to serve precisely as a refuge from that world. It creates its own private cosmos, its own symbolic universe (as Peter Berger calls it), by the use of shared jargon and doctrines among the members, who all cultivate the same sort of religious experiences and use the same terms to describe them.

A mystery religion tends to oversimplify our problems by boiling them all down to some kind of mythic or esoteric pseudo-cause and then -- surprise! -- offering the remedy, and furthermore claiming that it alone has the answer to dispense!

Listen to what anthropologist of religion Winston Davis says about what he calls the Salvation Syndrome.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, religions do not merely reflect man's existential problems. Quite the reverse: religions create the Problem first and then subsume all of man's specific problems (gout, old age, and the plague) under it. ... Brought under this awesome, all-encompassing Problem, concrete problems are reevaluated and given a new symbolic depth. Life is what it is ... because of the primordial deformity of the world... Religion therefore generates and promotes the very Problem it claims to solve. Saint Paul even assures us that without religion there would be no knowledge of the Judaeo-Christian Problem, sin.... The Fall (or sin) in the Christian religion is a good example of the Problem. It is not merely an inductive generalization about the problems of daily life; it is a dramatic statement that not only describes but creates a picture of man's existence in the world. ... Usually, the Problem is presented not as a philosophical abstraction, but in the richer garb of symbol, myth, and ritual.... Finally, each salvation syndrome posits the Way to overcome the Problem... Again there is an endless variety of Ways to attain the Ideal world: faith, sacraments, the observation of decorum or specific taboos, priestly rituals, shamanic orgies, obedience to divine commands, the gnosis of the wise, the devotion of the simple, and so on. Seldom, if ever, can the Way be reduced to a simple, this-worldly utilitarian or ethical praxis." (Dojo: Magic and Exorcism in Modern Japan, p. 130-131).

Psychologist/anthropologist Robert J. Lifton (in Boundaries: Psychological Man in Revolution, p. xii) agrees that even to try to translate such a mythic Way into terms of the mundane, public world that the cultist shares with outsiders and unbelievers "confuses a great mythological vision (embodying a basic component of the imagination) with a 'solution' for man's problems of living."

Yet another sociologist of religion, Richard Fenn, points out that in a pluralistic society such as ours all religions inevitably become privatized. That is, they come to have no agenda beyond their four walls. They come to be able to look no further than their own steeples. Outside, however, members live out the same mundane concerns as their neighbors, who are not co-religionists, because all alike approach the common issues from a secular perspective, the only one they can share.

So, then, if these sociologists and anthropologists are correct, all religions have become mystery religions. All have private mythologies, inner-directed myths and rituals of salvation which function as therapies within the walls of the churches, but which have no relevance beyond. Indeed, how could these mystery creeds? They are myths set in the upper regions of the supramundane sphere, so how could they apply to this sublunar world of the mundane?

The particular case of Christianity surely seems to fit the pattern pretty well. As Bonhoeffer put it in his Letters and Papers from Prison, do we not find ourselves descending like vultures on happy, healthy-minded secular people, trying to infect them with a "sickness unto death" that we have invented, pressing upon them a strange-sounding myth of damnation and salvation? We make them sick so we can sell them our patented cure! Wasn't that the point of the recently televised exorcism? The church plants the suggestion in the minds of naive viewers that their real problem might be demon-possession, so "who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!"

Don't our scriptures abound with a plethora of stories, such as our Old Testament reading, which pretend to tell how we got into this mess? And they seem believable precisely because they have no plausible connection with everyday problems! It is too difficult to derive a real solution to our real problems, so we say there is a ­secret­ cause, let's say the infection of the whole race by sin through the intermarriage of women and fallen angels, or maybe the first humans eating a piece of magical fruit at the behest of a talking snake!

We tell people that if they will accept this improbable diagnosis, they will be well on their way to recovery, that is, of course, if they will remain under our close care. Chances are, they will, and soon we will have them parroting all our formulas of Christian experience. Each one will relate, in precisely the same terms, how they had once lived a frustrating life, aware that something was missing, but not knowing just what until they met so-snd-so, who witnessed to them. Since then, they have received Christ as personal savior and felt the peace of God. All things have become new in Christ, and they are living a life of trust in the Lord through the power of the Holy Spirit.

You understand this is language none of them would use unless they were coached. It is learned behavior, a set of passwords and unquestionable doctrines. And this complex of the Problem and the Way has very little relevance outside the magic circle of the church. Within that circle, the myth and ritual is therapeutic, but at the cost of individual freedom of thought.

I am quite sure, in short, that whether or not Christianity began as a mystery cult, it has certainly become one in our day. I am grateful for the comfort and the healing provided by that mystery religion, but I am not sure it is worth the price. Furthermore, let me suggest that our church is doing its best to build and to live out a Christianity that is ­not­ a mystery cult. We are trying to exist in a Christian context that does provide access to the life-giving symbols and rituals of the Bible, which are, I am convinced, absolutely irreplaceable. But we want a Christian church in which we are not sealed off from the real world. I believe that in this Easter season the mandate for doing so, for constructing a public, non-cultic Christianity is especially clear. 

Let me read you another quote, this one from the theologian Jürgen Moltmann. In his book The Crucified God, he writes: "Christian theology must show how far the Christian confession of faith in Jesus is true as seen from outside, and must demonstrate that it is relevant to the present-day understanding of reality... For the title 'Christ' has never been used by faith only to say who Jesus was in his own person, but to express his dominion, future, and significance with regard to God, men and the world." (p. 84).

The point is that the claim of Easter faith, that (as Paul has it) Jesus Christ rose from the dead to become Lord both of the dead and of the living, is not merely a password into an esoteric fellowship of the like-minded, but rather a claim about Christ as a lens through which to view all of reality, as well as a power capable of transforming it. How do we make it so?

I think there are ways. Paul Tillich, in Dynamics of Faith, dreams of the possibility of a Christian church that will cherish a common creed, a collection of life-giving, God-conveying symbols, but a church that will not make an idol of such a creed, a church that will cherish equally the freedom of each member to take those symbols as literally or non-literally as he or she sees fit, a church that basks in the light of the gospel, but requires of its members no narrow interpretation of that gospel. A church which does not demand of all its members some common plateau of spiritual advancement as a prerequisite for membership. Praise Jesus Christ, we have such a church! And it does not surprise me that it is a small one!

I have been told by some individuals that if we would only give up all this doubting and questioning, if we would only embrace standard-brand revivalistic evangelicalism, we would rapidly expand our membership. I don't doubt that we would. But, ironically, that would be the worst kind of facile modernism: changing your message to tailor it to whatever modern people want to hear! No thanks! We must be faithful to the truth as we see it, however unpopular that may be in a security-seeking, conformity-loving age!

Tillich further says that a church that wants to live in the real world will not simply dispense an esoteric formula of Problem and Solution that puzzles its hearers until they can be cajoled into accepting it by faith. Such a church will preach the old-time gospel, the only gospel there is, but it will try to preach it in a way that will make sense in terms of the particular problems that vex our contemporaries. And that means paying enough attention to our contemporaries to know where they are hurting, and what precisely is hurting them.

This is where the "theology of culture" comes in. Tillich said we need to examine the art of our culture, for he recognized in it the interpreting voice of the culture. This is what we are doing when we offer the Religious Experience Through Film and the Poetry Seminar. This is what comes out in the discussions when a Bergman film raises questions of co-dependent relationships and how to deal with them. I do not doubt that this is the gospel in action, sharper than any two-edged sword.

One more thought. Lifton's words, which I quoted above, struck home with me a few weeks ago when I first ran across them. Easter was advancing apace then, and I paused to wonder whether in our Easter sermons we preachers are trying to pull the impossible trick of taking a great mythic symbol, the resurrection of Christ (and by "myth" I mean a story that may be factual, but which transcends the poor realm of fact), I say, taking that great myth and trying to get concrete this-worldly guidance from it. I addressed this concern briefly in my Easter letter to you. Lifton was acting as my conscience that day.

In a sense we are a mystery cult. We do foster a transforming experience with the Living Christ through sacrament and word. It is an esoteric mystery of divine encounter. That we do not dispense with this is what separates us from the tradition of modernist, utilitarian, social-gospel Christianity. Yet at the same time, I admit that Lifton is right: the mystery of the Risen Christ is not much of a blueprint for life in the world. It is not a pattern for living there. But that is not all there is of Jesus.

We continue to study the gospels, which at least in some measure report the wisdom teaching of the pre-Easter Jesus. There is the Jesus who tells us how to get along in the world. His teaching is certainly not practical and prudential in the worldly sense, and it has more to do with individual integrity than with social reform. It is admittedly limited in scope.

But then neither let us forget, as we approach Pentecost, that the all-pervasive Spirit of the Risen Christ is with us, and where is it that Jesus promises the aid of his Spirit supplying timely wisdom? It is precisely in the world, before governors and kings, before the pagan and the unbeliever.

Is our Christian faith a mystery religion? God be praised, it is indeed! But it is the religion of a mystery which, like Jesus himself, is incarnated in the world.

[ I apologize if, as I rather suspect, this sermon was obtuse to some of you, too technical, too redolent of the academy for a Sunday morning. But occasionally a preacher just has to get an idea out and let it take its chances. And as Meister Eckhart once said, "If anyone does not understand this discourse, let him not worry about that."]




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