Christianity was bumbling along just fine, apparently, when along comes Arius, who decides the powers that be in the church have it wrong. Christ is not one and the same as the Father, but was created by him.
You can read all about it in any number of church histories, so I’ll just cut to the bottom line. Constantine decides this controversy could mess up the peace and quiet of his empire, so he calls a Conference at Nicaea in 325 to settle the problem. Arius gets his wrists slapped, his books burned, and himself sent off to Yugoslavia or Albania or someplace.
Arius had guts. He didn't give up, and after a time Constantine figured all this angels on the head of a pin stuff couldn’t possibly matter that much and invited him back. A strange thing happened to him on the way to the kiss-and-make-up ceremony, however. Arius felt his bowels exploding one day, went out to the outhouse and shat out his guts so hard that he gave up the ghost. Apparently his beliefs did matter to somebody.
Poor guy. Not my idea of a good way to shuffle off this mortal coil.
This event started two schools of thought. One, that the church authorities poisoned Arius as a means of shutting him up. And two, that God make him shit his guts out as a way of shutting him up because God was a Trinitarian. My guess would be bad mushrooms, but what do I know? I’m just telling the story here as it was told to me by the good people down at Wikipedia.
Anyway, with Arius now out of the picture, the “Trinitarian” party reigned supreme for hundreds of years until the next big smack up when the conflict over the nature of Christ took yet another turn, this time leading to a split between Roman and Orthodox Christianity.
To get back to Arius, though, and that council at Nicaea called to establish truth once and for all and shut Arius up, if you grew up in one of the churches that regularly recite the Nicene Creed (not the Apostles' Creed – that came later to combat another heresy - the Gnostic heresy), you may still remember it:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; …
Consider, you might not have said those lines in bold face if Arius, instead of dying on the toilet, had lived to fight the church leaders at Nicaea, and won.
Next time somebody asks you at dinner whether Christians believe Jesus and God are one and the same, you can answer “That depends,” and you won’t be just waffling.
I remember as a kid how unsatisfying I found the Congregational Church I grew up in. Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, they taught me in Sunday School. I left church thinking I ought to be more conscientious about polishing my shoes and cleaning up my room, which my grandmother used to refer to as Sodom. Which is why I turned out gay, I’m sure, because one thing leads to another, as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, will tell you as they explain how Hurricane Katrina was brought on by lesbians.
I wanted more than “be nice” from church. I went to mass with my catholic friends and I wanted the bells to ring in my church too when the wafer turned into Christ’s flesh and I wanted a “credo” I could say. I ended up an Episcopalian/Lutheran (the former, when the latter wasn’t available), home at last with the groupthink of folk who got up every Sunday and said the “We believe…”
One day, though, the devil snuck into some corner of my mind and asked, “Which came first, your particular belief, or your desire to be told what to believe?” I realized there was something in my psyche that couldn’t handle the vacuum at the time of non-belief. I went Lutheran because they spoke German and that brought me closer to my grandmother and to the world outside of small town New England which was driving me bonkers. If my grandmother had been Turkish, I’d no doubt be certain there is only one God, his name is Allah, and Mohammad is his prophet.
All this religious stuff drives my partner crazy. He grew up in Japan and can’t figure for the life of him why any sane human being could give a hot damn about whether Christ was an Archangel named Michael before he became the Son of God who walks on water. It is a mark, to him, of almost perfect insanity.
It remains important to me, however, because central to my life is the struggle by gay people for full civic equality before the law in my country, something they don’t entirely enjoy because so many religious people “believe” they shouldn’t have it. Actually some believe Western Civilization will fall if we/they give it to them/us, but even those who don’t go that far can be a pain in the ass.
This silly bickering among Christians about whether this guy Jesus was “begotten” (whatever the hell that means) turns out to be not just craziness but a nice neat example of why we are justified in telling them they are full of hot air when they lay claim to knowledge of the mind of God. They don’t know the mind of God. What they do know (if they read a little history – even on Wikipedia) is that somebody who came before them – Pius the 9th, for example, who claimed he was infallible, or Arius on the john, who said Jesus was not the same as God, or a horny Brigham Young, who came up with a real cool plan for getting multiple sex partners at the same time legally -- somebody like that came up with something which stuck and was passed on for some group of needy believers to hang on to, a truth waiting to be seized upon. Once seized, the truth carries the benefit of groupthink and you can look around you and find others like yourself willing to swear till their ass falls off that what you believe is true.
I had a wonderful reminder of the importance of not being too quick to identify one particular Christian belief as Christian when I told somebody it was the Christians who were making my life miserable with their homophobia. “Oh, good Lord no!” she said. “We are a Christian group who believe gay people are every bit as much a part of God’s kingdom as anybody else. Have you read Jim Wallis?”
I hadn’t, but I did. Randall Balmer, too. Evidence is growing that even evangelical Christians, like these two guys, are pulling away from the dead certainty of the Christian right on topics such as abortion, stem-cell research, Republicanism, the environment and homosexuality. The bad news is belief has such toxic potential. The good news is beliefs change.
And this came home to me bigtime during the arguments made before the California Supreme Court which led ultimately to marriage equality in California for gay people, when I noted all the religious groups on our side. Not only is the argument bogus that religious people should dictate to others what their civil rights should be. But even if you do allow that religious belief should enter into the decision making, what are we to do with the variation in the multiple sources of religious belief? And multiple interpretations of the same sources?
We can’t convince people who believe that Christ came to America that he didn’t. Or that Christ himself doesn't want us to drop bombs on Iraqi or Iranian children for patriotic reasons.
But we can remind them that at least one of their beliefs happens to be what it is because some guy had a rough time on the toilet.