Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What America can learn from Caesarea Philippi

Religious uncertainty is at the heart of ailing civilizations. Liam Neeson, accomplished actor and the voice behind Aslan from the movie the Chronicles of Narnia, said in an interview: “Aslan symbolizes a Christ-like figure but he also symbolizes for me Mohammed, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries.” Technically speaking, he is correct. C.S. Lewis, a Christian apologist and author of Chronicles of Narnia, created Aslan to represent Christ. But as for Neeson, his "open-mindedness" is indicative of the religious uncertainty and the moral malaise so common among celebrities. The same can be said for political leaders. President Barak Obama, during a press conference in Turkey of April, 2009, made the claim that America is not a Christian, Jewish or Muslim nation. Admittedly, over the last several decades America has lost much of its Christian character. However, to say that it has no religious identity and then to leave it at that, is not only misleading but it is emblematic of a lack of religious and moral resolve in the political world. In short, total and exclusive dedication to one creed, to one faith, and even to one God is not a virtue not highly esteemed in Western Civilization; nor was it in the first century. Indeed, our post-Christian world is beginning to look like the pre-Christian world of old.

Speaking of the pre-Christian world, ancient paganism expressed its religious uncertainty by worshipping many gods. It is no exaggeration to say that for every town there existed a different god. And to proclaim any single religion as having a “monopoly on truth” or being exclusively privileged as God’s own- as Christianity did -was deemed to be the height of arrogance and worse yet, stubbornly intolerant.

It is important to remember, however, that when beliefs yield to error or habits become vice, they rarely stand alone. It is more true to say that an error or vice exist in families. Values tend to conglomerate around kindred values. Religious uncertainty, for instance, gravitates towards relativism, moral equivalency, and so-called non-judgmentalism. This extended family of values becomes a well-defined belief system with social and political implications. Today, these values marked by uncertainty are dignified with a label such as “religious pluralism;” or a person who holds them is referred to as "open-minded." But once a cluster of values solidifies and gains momentum- thus forming a belief system or a way of life -it naturally opposes contrary values. In the case of religious uncertainty, its opposition is directed against spiritual absolutes, moral obligations and well defined creeds.

Much like today, the Greco-Roman Civilization in the first century was no exception to the aversion towards religious certitude. This ancient civilization was riddled with spiritual darkness and religious confusion. As the prophet Isaiah testified: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”(9:2) This great light was none other than the religious certainty that Jesus Christ offers the world.

In order demonstrate just how religiously uncertain the world was, our Lord brought his Apostles to Caesarea Philippi. This city was named after a Caesar Augustus and King Herod. Its population was predominantly non-Jewish, that is, Gentile or, if you will, pagan. One of its main attractions was a cave embedded in a huge rock formation; or as Josephus said, “a great cavity in the earth.” This was a place where many gods were worshiped. A pool of water existed in this cave, the depths of which were unknown. For the pagans, this measureless depth was to symbolize the bottomless pit of Hades. Their ritual would consist of throwing their sacrificed animals into this pool in hopes that their gods would be appeased. Later, after the Roman Empire annexed this land, Roman temples were to be built in front of this cave to honor their gods; which included a cult dedicated to Caesar Augustus. In pagan Rome, emperors were given divine status.

It was within the milieu that Jesus posed the following question to the Apostles: Who do men say that I am?

More on the next blog-