The Tribune - Spectrum

, August 11, 2002

Unorthodox view
Narrating the Christian story
M.S.N. Menon

THE God of Jesus was a God of love, compassion and forgiveness, not of terror and blood sacrifice, as was the case with the Jewish God. How is one to account for this transformation? Obviously, there were other influences in the region. But that is another story.

St. Paul tried to rehabilitate Yahweh among Christians. He failed. The Christians stuck to the God of Jesus. But the name remained. Yahweh became Jehovah.

The Christian inheritance is largely Jewish. But it was also beholden to the Pagan traditions of Greece and Rome. We know now that Christianity was also influenced by Buddhism.

Early Christianity saw nothing wrong with idols and images. In the Roman catacombs (underground places of Christian worship and burial) are to be found the first visual pictures of the Biblical story. These were painted between the second and fourth centuries AD. They have much to say about the early history of Christianity. This proves that early Christianity had no problem with paintings and pictures.


This tradition must have continued, for the most famous painting of all — ‘The Creation of Man’ by Michelangelo was done in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican in the 16th Century AD. A pope supervised it. God is depicted here as an old man, but of powerful build, reaching out his hand to touch the extended hand of Adam.

Here was the Christian vision of God, just as we have the Jewish vision of God in the Illustrated Old Testament.

The Greeks were the greatest sculptors of the world. So Christ and Mary figures must have been introduced in the very early years of Christianity. In fact, no religion can rival Christianity in the multiplicity of images. In some of the largest churches of France, there are as many as 3,000-4,000 statues. Christian sailors had the figure of the Madonna tattooed on their forearms. Pope Gregory IIdefended the use of idols. These idols were never seriously challenged until the Reformation.

Christianity has also a symbol — the Cross. It is an object of religious veneration in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches. According to Christian legends (contested by Islam, as also by the "Kashmiri tradition") Jesus was crucified on a cross. Hence it became a religious symbol. In fact, crosses were venerated even before Christianity by various cults. It was a symbol of fire, which was obtained by rubbing two sticks against each other. But because it was a "heathen symbol", early Christianity frowned upon it.

However, it gained acceptance after St. Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the fourth century AD, discovered the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. Such is the tradition. Perhaps the worship of the Cross was officially introduced into Christianity in the sixth century AD. But the shape of the Cross used by the various sects of Christianity was not uniform. This is rather curious. If, as is claimed, St. Helena saw the cross on which Jesus was crucified, the Church would have made an exact copy of it and enforced it throughout Christendom.

One is, therefore, forced to believe that the veneration of the Cross was adopted from ancient cults by the various Christian sects without a general directive. This also explains why the Baptists, Adventists and certain Protestant groups feel uncomfortable with the Cross because of its heathen origin.

As in Judaism, so in Christianity, God is described in human terms. For example, the Common Prayer says: "Our Father, which art in Heaven." The Apostle’s Creed says: "He (Jesus) ascended to Heaven and is sitting on the right hand of God, the Father Almighty." Here, the Jewish influence is clear.

The Reformation was a revolt against the papacy. It was alleged that Christianity was Romanised and paganised by the popes, that idol worship was a pagan practice and that it violated the Jewish tradition. Which is why the Protestants gave up the worship of idols. Obviously, the men of the Reformation did not know the true cause for the Jewish obsession against idols.

Times change. Concepts change. Gods change. Yahweh was an "old man with a white beard." This image is no more acceptable. Pope John Paul II says that God "is not an old man with a white beard." And he refers to God as "mother".

Does this mean that those who referred to God as an old man and Father were wrong? Yes, and no. Even Jesus could have been wrong, for he referred to God as "Father". Men make concessions to the times they live in. And the new beliefs become the new orthodoxies and new dogmas. There is nothing "final" in these matters.

From this short review of Christianity, it is clear that there is no divine sanction behind any of the Christian beliefs. They are as much a collection of disparate beliefs as in any other religion.

Today large numbers of enlightened Christians do not take the Biblical commands seriously. "The hypothesis of a pervading spirit do-eternal with the universe remains unshaken," says the poet Shelley.

And here is what Einstein said of God. "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slightest details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe forms my idea of God." This superior reasoning power is the chit (consciousness) mentioned in the Upanishads and the pure "blissful consciousness" that Shankara talked about.

But one cannot paint a "superior reasoning power". Nor can one make an idol of it. It is like picturing a neutron. We are here in the realm of Vedanta, the final reach of the Hindu mind in his quest for the nature of God, the final formulation one can arrive at of a God without form or attributes. But Christianity did not make it.

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