Religions love to use unusual words to describe themselves. What is the root meaning of “catholic” or “presbyterian”? Notice those are lower case? I’m not talking about the religions. I’m talking about the pedestrian words. Similarly, the word atomic has come to mean almost entirely things powered by nuclear reactions. Yet it has a root in άτομο meaning the individual person or what can not be further divided.
Yes, words change over time (and between languages). Yet it often preserves history and understanding better when we look at the roots of words. From where did our names for things come?
In many ways, they come from the tendency of people to get grumpy at each other and desire to toss each other out of their club. In other ways, it comes from our desires to grasp after power (on the part of some) and our desire to be lazy and let someone else tell us what to think (on the part of others). So we divide into “leaders” and “followers”, sometimes just for convenience or due to sloth. Supposedly our “leaders” are our betters in some way or some topic area. All too often they are only “better” and grasping the levers of power and self aggrandizement. Yet we can’t be everywhere at all times and we can’t be experts in all things. So we like to think we are ‘delegating’ some area of responsibility. The M.D. spends a decade getting to be a good doctor, far more than I could. The Minister spends hours every week (or even every day) in Bible Study. Me? I’ve got dinner to cook and work to do.
Yet an individual can know more than their M.D. about ONE disease. When the individual finds they have some particular diagnosis, they can, and often do, spend more time on that one disease then their M.D. has spent in their entire career. On of my M.D.s that I liked most was a black woman. (I mention that simply to point out how good she had to be to have become an M.D. in a time before quotas and favoritism. She retired several years ago.) WHY was she so good? More than once, I’d show up with a slightly unusual complaint. I’d have ‘done my homework’ and usually would show up saying “Patient presents with apparent rosacea and…” (I worked as a medical records technician for a few years…) but when I did NOT have it ‘figured out’, it usually was not simple and there were ‘loose ends’. I’d “present my patient history”. Some times she would just say “It’s FOO.” But other times, much to my delight, she would say: ~”Well, that’s interesting. Just a minute, I need to look something up.” She would take a minute in her office, and once brought a very thick book back with her to read a bit while looking at some part of me, in alternation. She was “becoming an expert” on some minor aspect of what I had. Since I already knew a lot about my ONE disease, she would learn more. And was not bashful about it. Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, I can not remember a single wrong diagnosis from her nor a single rushed “it’s the usual”…
The point here is just that each of us is an expert on something. Collectively, we can do more and learn more than any one individual; yet delegating too much to those too unsuited to it is the root cause of much grief. Empires are comfortable, until they become tyrannical oppressors. Authority is useful, until it is woefully wrong or indifferent to your particular needs. So we create power structures, that then tend to become self serving instead of serving the people. That dynamic is reflected in the history of religions and of their names.
One of the “big decisions” in any religion is how the hierarchy of authority is structured. It has been the root cause of religious wars for generations. The Protestants revolting against the Catholic mandates of uniformity are still with us in some parts of Ireland, even to this day. So what do the various religion names tell us about them? For Christianity, most often it tells us about the internal arguments over “who decides”. (But it is not just Christians. Jews have Orthodox vs Reformed vs… and the Muslims have sects based on which “leaders” decide what the Koran means. It’s a fundamental property of people.)
Here are my rough explanations of some of the various names, and some snide remarks on my part about “attitude”.
Catholic – basic meaning is “universal”. They are staking out the position that there is ONE Christian church, theirs, and if you are not in it, you are not a valid Christian. Lately there has been a bit of loosening in that they recognize others as Christians, but just a bit lost, and even allow that they might allow communion for some particular denominations. There is an effort to ‘reunify’ some of the various churches, and the Catholic Church is angling to get them back inside the Catholic fold. There is a formal distinction between ‘excommunicated’ and ‘schismatic’ and a few other terms. Great import is attached to ‘name calling’ of other sects into “apostate” vs “schismatic” vs… establishing degrees of distance and rejection from “The One”…
Orthodox – Seen in both the Orthodox Eastern Church and the Orthodox Coptics. Sometimes also seen as “Orthodox Catholic Church” and “Greek Orthodox Church”. Orthodox means “right” (as in correct). So they are saying “Hey, we are the ones who have it right.” For the Jewish Orthodox, they also mean “We have it right, and it is a strict following of the Old Testament.” The “Orthodox Catholic” now becomes “The only ones who have it right”. Nice touch, that…
The ‘3 way split’ between those churches largely comes out of which Apostle went where and started what churches. So another term gets added. Apostolic. An Apostolic Church is claiming a direct lineage back to one of the Apostles. So the Catholics have St. Peter’s Square and are really fond of The Apostle Peter. Then those other 11 Apostles? What about their authority? Crickets… Oddly, there are Christian Churches in India that claim to have roots in one of the Apostles (Thomas, per the Gnostic texts) that ran off to India (and they are likely correct. The “facts on the ground” indicate an antiquity that is about right, and so do their documents.) My favorite, though, is this one:
The Armenian Apostolic Church (Armenian: Հայ Առաքելական Սուրբ Եկեղեցի, Hay Aṙak̕elakan Surb Ekeġec̕i) is the world’s oldest national church, is part of Oriental Orthodoxy and is one of the most ancient Christian communities. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion in AD 301, in establishing this church. The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church claims to trace its origins to the missions of Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus in the 1st century and is an early center of Christianity.
It is sometimes referred to as the Gregorian Church but this name is not preferred by the church itself, as it views the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus as its founders, and St. Gregory the Illuminator as merely the first official governor of the church.
So in terms of “Authority” does being FIRST and having not one, but TWO Apostles make this The ONE and the RIGHT? Hmmm? That’s the problem you run into with “credential wars” and one-upmanship.
Gnostics – They get around this by just saying “We know“. Gnosis meaning ‘knowing’. Their general idea is that anyone can “just know”, so you don’t need that whole “Catholic Hierarchy” and all. Needless to say, the other big churches were not keen on folks running around saying “We don’t need them!”, and ruthlessly attached and stamped out the Gnostics wherever they could (back in about 300-400 AD). Called “heretical” by the Catholics (even ‘worse’ than being excommunicated and far worse than schismatic…) for ‘failing’ to recognize The One Authority. As The Catholics were somewhat dominated by Roman Empire then, I’m fond of my copy of the Gnostic Bible (with the Gospel of Thomas that is not in the Catholic Cannon) and of my copy of the Nag Hammadi Library with similar books in it. While most of the formation of the Cannon by The Roman Catholic Church was a decent job, they made some choices, as to what books to toss, on what seems to be more political grounds. I’m glad to have some of those “tossers” for my own decision making…
There is a myth or tradition confined to a Christian sect in Kerala that he reached as far as India in his travels whereas historically, his presence is not traced beyond Iran and Balochistan. The apocryphal text called the Acts of Thomas clearly mentions that the apostle St Thomas went from Palestine eastwards to a desert-like country where people were “ Mazdei” (the followers of Ahura Mazda ie the Zoroastrians) and have Persian names. The Church Fathers Clement of Alexandra, Origen and Eusebius confirm explicitly that St Thomas settled in “Parthia”, a part of the Iranian world.
The Acts of Thomas records that Judas Thomas landed at Andropolis after a short sea journey, a royal city somewhere to the east of Jerusalem. Andropolis has been identified as Sandaruck, one of the ancient Alexandrias, in Balochistan. The geographical term “India” has been used only twice in the whole text of the Acts of Thomas, and it is used as a synonym for Asia.
Yet there are churches in India that claim they were founded by Thomas…
From the Orthodox Syrian Church:
Apostle St. Thomas reached ‘Muziri in AD 51-52 from the northern part of Indian peninsula visiting many inland-countries and sharing the Gospel in many places as you see the imprints. Perhaps, one reason of selecting the southern coast was flourishing Jewish settlements in along the coast in Kodungallur, Cochin, madras etc., which date back to the Jewish Diaspora or even back to King Solomon’s trading centres. Another reason was the flourishing Roman trade links.
“The Apostle St. Thomas landed at Maliankara (i.e Cranganore) with Habban, the merchant. He (St. Thomas) worked great miracles and in eight months established in that town, the Church of Jesus Christ. Then he went to Mailepuram (Mylapore – Madras) where he preached the Gospel of the Lord for four months and a half and embarked for China. He remained in China for four and a half months and returned to Mailepuram. After he had been there for a month a so, the son – in- law of the King of ‘Tiruvanchikulam’ come to him and besought him to return to Malabar. They embarked on a ship and come to Maliankara (Kodungallore), where, in less than six months, the Apostle converted the King and his family, 40 Jews and 400 heathens.
There’s a pretty long history at that link.
So right off the bat, one thing to notice is that by denying the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and casting aspersions on the history of Indian Christianity as reported by those Indian Christians, the Catholic Church has created a ‘schism’ of it’s own. There is a very long history attached with this, so I’ll only briefly mention it now. Nestorianism.
Nestorianism is a Christological doctrine advanced by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople from 428–431. The doctrine, which was informed by Nestorius’s studies under Theodore of Mopsuestia at the School of Antioch, emphasizes the disunion between the human and divine natures of Jesus. Nestorius’ teachings brought him into conflict with some other prominent church leaders, most notably Cyril of Alexandria, who criticized especially his rejection of the title Theotokos (“Bringer forth of God”) for the Virgin Mary. Nestorius and his teachings were eventually condemned as heretical at the First Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451, leading to the Nestorian Schism in which churches supporting Nestorius broke with the rest of the Christian Church. Afterward many of Nestorius’ supporters relocated to Sassanid Persia, where they affiliated with the local Christian community, known as the Church of the East. Over the next decades the Church of the East became increasingly Nestorian in doctrine, leading it to be known alternately as the Nestorian Church.
The ‘short form’ of this is that the Catholics were asserting the Trinity. “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” as a key element of The Christ. Nestorians were more from the idea that God is god and made Jesus as special, but Jesus was a human just like us. A special one, but still, one that lived and died.
Most likely, Mohammed taught a Nestorian version of Christianity (since he was learning it in the time and place where it was common) and the vehemence of Islam against Christians stems from their adherence to the notion of “Jesus was just a human prophet” and that the Koran stresses that the Trinity is a false teaching. (Islam now asserts that the Bible used by Mohammad has been lost, and current Bibles are corrupt, so only the Koran matters. In reality, Nestorian Bibles are still widely available.)
But this is, at it’s core, just another argument over “Who decides?”. The Roman Catholic Pope? Nestor? Some Imam in Persia deciding to reject the Nestorian / Syriac Bibles?
Back in Europe…
The Protestants clearly are named for protesting. Protesting The One authority of the Catholics.
It is a movement that is widely seen as beginning in Germany with The Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 as a reaction against medieval doctrines and practices, especially in regard to salvation, justification, and ecclesiology. The doctrines of the over 33,000 Protestant denominations vary, but most include justification by grace through faith alone, known as Sola Gratia and Sola Fide respectively, the priesthood of all believers, and the Bible as the supreme authority in matters of faith and morals, known as Sola Scriptura, Latin for “by scripture alone”.
At the time, the Catholics were claiming a monopoly on access to heaven and you pretty much needed to do what they told you to do or you were in Deep Doo. They asserted this extended to Kings as well. The Protestants basically said “Wait a minute! That’s not what Christ said…”
Lutherans are named for Martin Luther who pretty much touched off this whole thing in the Germanic parts of Europe, where Lutherans are pretty much found (along with the USA) to this day.
But a whole zoo of other Protestants sects have popped up over the centuries. They all reach back to this theme as their justification, though. The whole: “Popes. Popes? We don’t need no Steeenking Popes!” moment. That anyone can read the Bible and figure it out for themselves. We don’t need some legacy Roman Empire Hierarchy controlling the gates of heaven, nor demanding a tithe and submission. (Shades of “islam”, that also means submission…)
Needless to say, the Catholics have not been fond of that whole “Do your own thing” and “We don’t need you” attitude. That’s why in a Catholic Mass you are not allowed to take communion if you are not a Catholic. See, they think you are not One With Christ if you are not approved by their hierarchy. (Other churches are much more accepting, and in all protestant churches that I’ve attended, anyone can take communion. Though do ask, as some have special meanings. Near as I can tell, the Jehovah’s Witnesses pass around the grape juice and wafers but nobody takes a sip unless they are making a new statement of joining… To ‘take communion’ is to make a new statement of acceptance of Christ and (I’m a bit unsure of this part) accepting membership with them (perhaps). There was a lot of ‘expectant watching’ as the plate was passed around, but not a lot of sipping…)
Any church that says “We are not derived from an Apostle, but are founded on The Book itself and our own reading / revelation” is following a Protestant ideal. (Though exactly which books are in the books is a bit of another issue…)
If any of this sounds “anti-Catholic” is isn’t. Dad was a Catholic and my Mom converted later in life. I’m pretty sure I was hauled off to be blessed and baptized as an infant. (Though by the time catechism came around we lived on the far side of town, mom didn’t drive, so we walked to the nearest protestant church. I was raised going to Southern Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and the occasional visits to the Catholic and Mormon churches. Even the odd Presbyterian and others. Baptized again as Southern Baptist at 12.) It is more just the sound of someone raised close to Catholic culture. I’ve spent time at Catholic deaf services and the spouse attends mass most Sundays (and is likely to start the “becoming a Catholic” classes soon). It is just recognizing the nature of a Roman Hierarchy for what it is, and reporting how people reacted. My own comparison of the Catholic cannon of books with the other choices mostly has found they did a pretty good job. I’d quibble over some, but not in a big way. Frankly, if they still did the mass in Latin, odds are I’d be attending.
Back at the 1500’s A.D.:
The Catholics were pretty much “The One” and P.O.ed the King of England. In 1538 in the reign of King Henry VIII. Seems he wanted a divorce and The Pope said that was, er, not allowed. So The King decided HE could be ‘the decider’, and split off the Anglican Church (that basically says “Church of England” where my Mom was raised). One thing had been a bit of mystery to me for a while. The American Episcopalian Church. Yes, they ‘broke off’ from the Anglicans, but why “Episcopal”?
Well, episcopal is another name for Bishop. It is basically saying that “The Local Bishop can decide”. That, IMHO, is also part of why in America we have had a new Anglican Rite church pop up. One of the Bishops of the Episcopal Church decided to do “Same Sex Marriages” and the more “scripture driven” folks decided they were not keen on that. So the church has split over that “issue” at the level of Bishops. Now, if your very name says “individual Bishops” can decide, it’s a bit hard to argue they can’t…
So what’s with this whole Presbyterian thing? What’s a “presbyter”?
Presbyter (Greek πρεσβύτερος, presbuteros: “elder”, or “priest” in Christian usage) in the New Testament refers to a leader in local Christian congregations, then often not clearly distinguished from episkopos, presbyter referring to ordinary priests or elders and episkopos referring exclusively to the full order or office of bishop. In modern usage, it is thus distinct from bishop and synonymous with priest and pastor. In mainline Protestant usage, the term is however not seen as referring to a member of the priesthood and terms such as minister, pastor and elder are used.
Any elder or priest can set up a church and decide things. “Bishops. Bishops? We don’t… ”
And so it goes…
There are more ‘flavors’ and sects of various religions than I could hope to list. (Nor do I wish to list them). But I think understanding the nature of Church Authority and how given denominations parcel out authority on doctrine and decisions is enlightening. There are Authoritarian and Hierarchical structures in some, others are disbursed and localized. (Some with disbursed heritage, coping with unwelcome divergence and splitting. Look at the number of flavors of Baptists. Who, BTW, are named for their full immersion Baptism.)
And what about The Church Of The Sacred Carbon?
While “official doctrine” comes only from me, and I think it ought to be minimal; the general structure is “atomic” in the original sense of “individual” and “presbyter” based. So any individual is empowered to read the same books and do the same investigations of life and come to their own, individual, conclusions about “what is right”. ( The ULC doctrine is “Do that which is right”, with which I agree.)
There are hundreds of examples (thousands? millions?) of cases where individuals have simply decided on their own to ignore some particular bit of Church Dogma. From the millions of Catholic Women using birth control, to the Jew who has a ham sandwich from time to time ( I’ve known some: “It’s only a minor sin, and is forgiven at sundown… I think I can make it to sundown ;-)” was once presented to me when I asked…) How many of us follow Leviticus to the letter? See “Ultra Orthodox Jews”… (and even they sometimes miss a few bits…)
So why even start down that “strict rules” path knowing that in reality we are each empowered by nature to have “Free Will”? What use is “Free Will” if using it gets you beat about the head and shoulders with angst, anger, attacks, excommunication, and even physical assault? (That “stoning” given in the Bible and Koran…) So Sacred Carbon Church doctrine is one that recognizes Free Will as supreme. Every individual (atom) has the right, and duty, to decide for themselves what they will accept for themselves. They do not have the right to decide for others. You can encourage others. You can work to common acceptance. Parents have the authority to direct the acts of their children, but at the end of the day, even the child will either accept “that which is right” on their own, or find a new path. Eventually we all outgrow our parents and decide for ourselves.
Yet there is a place for the wisdom of elders. (Presbyters). So folks are encouraged to grow and develop their understanding over time. While each individual is responsible for their own Free Will, and their own identification of “that which is right” and acceptance of it; others have trod those paths before. Looking to them for guidance as to “what didn’t work so well” vs “that was a good choice” is a simple wisdom.
In matters of specific Church Dogma, I’m the present presbyter for The Church Of The Sacred Carbon. Partly I’m asserting that privilege simply to assure that Dogma stays absolutely minimal. To the extent there isn’t an official Dogma on some point, the individual is forced to introspection. and consultation with presbyters. That’s a good thing.
So we have a generalized burnt offering and wave offering. A loose communion based on sharing of that ritual and offering. A respect for ancient Wisdom Texts and Wisdom Teachings. A clear appreciation of Sacred Carbon as the vehicle by which the sun’s energy and the life energy Gift Of The Creator Force comes to us. An expectation that trapped dead carbon in things like coal, wood, and oil are best returned to the Cycle Of Life and encouragement to use them in the Offering and Communion (and any other activity of life – as they are the bringers of life), and a respect for the rites and rituals of others. Beyond that, there is not a lot of dogma. (Though I may add more over time). Plus the overall ULC doctrine of “Do that which is right”.
That puts us in alignment with the protestant ethic of ‘anyone can read the books’, but just with a larger suite of books. And without any need for a “schism” if a couple of folks resolve internal conflicts between them in a different way. We also have an attitude of gnosis in that we think anyone can come to know, all on their own. (Though help from others makes it a whole lot easier!)
If YOU decide that the Burt Offering ought to be offered daily, or even 3 times a day, instead of just one day a week, that that is dogma for you and must be obeyed. It is a mandate of your individual church aspect. It is valid to claim “it is dogma that I must have a burnt offering now” if you have decided that it must be done. You are an atomic presbyter of your own Free Will.
If YOU decide that following strict Torah Law is necessary for your soul, then that is your dogma from your Free Will. If some aspect of The Church Of The Sacred Carbon conflicts with the Torah, it is for you to resolve (though I can’t think of any conflicts. We allow pork, but do not require it, and accept Kosher as preferred.)
If YOU decide that the Catholic Rite is essential for your soul, and that following Papal Decrees matters, then that is your dogma from The Church of You. It is, in essence, saying that the Chief Presbyter (elder) in your understanding is The Pope and that is where authority on most matters rests. Just realize that it is a function of your Free Will to make that choice.
As things move forward, I’ll be presenting some items of Wisdom Texts from many sources. That does not make those things Church Dogma. It makes them Wisdom Teachings. So, for example, the Leviticus laws on Kosher are in fact wise teachings. They will help you to avoid many diseases and illnesses. That recognition does not make them mandatory (but does make them wise). Similarly, the New Testament recognition that many of the old Leviticus Laws might not need to apply has some wisdom in it too. (There’s an interesting circumlocution to dodge Leviticus by Christians that I’ll not go into here). Do we really need to follow Bronze Age food preparation methods in this millennium? Is community stoning really the “that which is right” for modern justice? So you are invited to “pick and chose” among the Wisdom Teachings using your own Free Will and the discernment of your soul in finding “that which is right”. The Wisdom Texts are just written forms of ‘presbyter’ consultations.
Hopefully this brief trip down “faction lane” helps to illuminate the ways that religions fracture and divide over details of dogma, and illuminates why “minimal dogma” is one of our foundation stones. It also illuminates an important aspect of the “hierarchical attractions of power” and why we have instead a “bottoms up” authority.
Each of us is possessed of Free Will. Even Catholics clearly are practicing it, even while officially bound to Papal Mandates. Each of us must choose for ourselves “that which is right” on a daily basis, and without consulting a presbyter on every item. That’s just a reality. Yet there are others who have traveled the road of life before us, who have written Wisdom Texts. There are ‘elders’ alive today who can help us to solve the problems of our lives. We can all be an ‘elder’ on some point or other (it’s not an age thing, though age gives time that can help find answers through more searching) as we all have “mutual superiority”. Just like on some particular detail of my health, I can be more “studied” than my M.D. while they are clearly superior to me on most of the rest of medicine. So use that Free Will and use those ‘elders’ to help solve life’s problems. Both for yourself, and for others.
The foundation of authority over your life is you, and no one else. Others may assert physical dominance over you, even to imprisonment. That does not mean they have authority over what you think, feel, believe, or even how you choose to enjoy your life. Milankovitch spent years in a prison during one of the wars. He used that time to work out the long calculations of his theory. He did not see confinement as preventing him finding joy in life nor doing his life’s work. He took authority over his life, despite others and despite circumstances. We all face various adversities and disappointments in life. It is up to each of us to find the good in this life for ourselves.
Take some time for yourself, and introspection. Look to find that which is good and right for you, now and here. No circumstance and no external authority can remove that right from you. You are your own ‘atomic presbyter’.
So with that, please join in The Burt Offering, and The Wave Offering, and the Communion in sharing. On whichever Sabbath day (or days) you identify as “that which is right”. (Yesterday, I had lamb shish kabobs). There is no need to argue over the Torah identification of Friday, or the Roman Catholic move to Sunday, or the Seventh Day Adventist position that it is Saturday. That is pedantry and dogma that does not help. The Sabbath day(s) are those that work for you, in your Free Will choices.
For me, I’m off to fire up the Altar Fires and prepare the burn offering and the wave offering. Welcome to our life in Sacred Carbon and sharing with others the roots of our life, and our common humanity.