How would you respond to a new philosophy that brought personal liberation, whose highlights were love, forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation, life-enhancement and optimism, with no place at all for repressive authority, guilt, judgment, punishment, enmity, and death? You might rather like it. If so, you would have been like a multitude of people in the second century AD, because this religion won new adherents at a faster rate than any other, then or now. The religion rose and rose for more than a century – eventually losing out to a competing religion, underwritten by the muscle of the Roman Empire.
It’s time to recover this philosophy, and to put it to use today.
Marcion’s Completely New Religion
Marcion was the most successful preacher-philosopher of the second century. He was born in 100 AD in Sinope, a city nestling the Black Sea’s south shore. After making a fortune in shipping, he went to Rome at the age of 39 and gave the huge sum of 200,000 sesterces to the Christian church there.
Over the next five years, he devoted himself to writing his philosophy, an iconoclastic version of Christianity based on the views of Saint Paul, but taking them to their logical conclusion. Paul had made Christianity viable by offering a Jewish-lite brand; Marcion invented a zero-Jewish version.
Jesus had said, “by their fruits shall ye know them”. Marcion looked at the jealous, vengeful God of Israel, the God depicted in what we now call the Old Testament – and he looked at the state of the world, with its suffering, disease, and human oppression. Then Marcion looked at the life and work of Jesus, his message of love, and his compassionate, practical help for the sick, the outsider, the foreigner, and the poor.
The two did not compute. How could the angry God of Israel be the same as the merciful, loving God proclaimed by Jesus and Paul? Impossible.
So Marcion concluded that there must be two Gods – the God of the Jewish scriptures, and the God of Jesus, “God the Stranger”.
The Old Testament God created the world, which explained why its fruits were warped and often sour. Then something completely unexpected happened. The God of Jesus appeared and defeated the God of Israel by paying the penalty for the sins of the world. Grace trumped judgment and punishment. As Paul had insisted, we can be saved from death and damnation by the grace of Jesus and his God. We can transcend the world of matter – created by the inferior old God – and ascend the world of the spirit and love. With the body, decay and death were inevitable. With the spirit, through the grace of Christ, we can become better people, expand the spiritual world, and find life, love and fulfilment that do not yield to death.
The New Testament, therefore, was something completely different – a bolt from the blue, a declaration by the true God of Love that changed everything. Properly understood, Jesus was not the Old Testament Messiah, but a completely new kind of divine being – who could introduce us to the God of Love, holding forth a completely new and wonderful future for humankind.
A Practical Experiment: Rome versus Asia Minor
Marcion called the first council of church leaders together in Rome, and expounded his theories. It did not go to plan. The church elders were not persuaded – we don’t know why, but the sheer novelty of Marcion’s theology can’t have helped.
The form of Christianity that eventually triumphed – the conventional Christianity we know today – had its peculiarities and theological contradictions, but it made the best job of explaining Christianity’s Jewish past. Christianity was explained as the fulfilment of the old one – bringing salvation and freedom, while also cloaking itself in the respectability of an ancient faith. The Christianity that won was “new and improved”, but also grounded in a long history. Marcion’s Christianity was revolutionary and rejected the entire Jewish heritage. The ancient world – at least the powers of the state and established religions – did not like totally new religions.
The church leaders excommunicated Marcion, but without rancor. They refunded his donation, and expected him to return to decent obscurity. That did not happen.
Marcion was sure that his gospel was right. He went back to Asia Minor and was terrifically successful at winning converts and establishing churches left, right and centre. The result was that for two centuries there were more Marcionites Christian than those of any other school. But once the Roman State became officially Christian, in the wake of Emperor Constantine’s conversion in 312, there was a steady and cumulatively overpowering flow of conversions to state-approved orthodox Roman Christianity. Marcionite Christians were eventually declared heretics and worn down or rooted out.
Marcion’s Relevance Today
Here are four reasons why Marcion’s philosophy appeals to me, and why it might perhaps appeal to you:
1. The Good Guys Are Going to Win
It wasn’t fair for Marcion to suggest that the Jewish God was the imperfect God, responsible for all the world’s ills. In the Jewish tradition there were glorious sightings of a merciful and compassionate God, which Jesus himself expressed most eloquently. But where I do think Marcion was right – given some poetic licence – is that there is a moral battle going on that is going to won by the good guys. To some extent this is vindicated by human history and the increase in compassion and liberal values, as well as our imperfect but progressive victory over pain and suffering.
Optimism itself is self-fulfilling. And to link optimism inextricably to goodness seems to me to be a terrific conceptual and practical breakthrough. No religion before Christianity – and no major religion since, including modern versions of Christianity – was or is so optimistic. There were three people in the world who fused optimism with moral purpose so tightly – Jesus, Paul, and Marcion. And as far as we can tell, Marcion expressed it most forcibly and successfully.
It is a constant daily battle; but each morning, afternoon and evening I try to bathe myself in optimism, the kind of active optimism that tries to work out the best way of producing good results with the minimum possible effort. I commend this kind of benevolent optimism to you. Bathe in optimism. Immerse yourself in it. Let it drip from your body and spirit.
2. What is Bad Can be Eliminated
This is the flip side of Marcion’s optimism. Death, destruction, evil, pain, suffering, punishment, strict justice, malevolence, lies, and anger – these have no place in the good God’s makeup. They are not an inevitable part of life. Previously light and shadow were felt to be complementary or inevitable accompaniments. In Marcion’s philosophy, all bad things can and will be overcome, one person at a time, not by human striving, but by opening ourselves to the grace of God. (If you are an agnostic or atheist, substitute “the universe” for “God”.)
3. Goodness Inside
The idea of goodness percolating inside the convert was not unique to Marcion’s type of Christianity – it was strongly emphasised by the “gnostics” and also by mainstream Christianity. But Marcion appears to have taken it more seriously and propagated the view more than any other thinker, except possibly Paul, his great inspiration.
4. The Spirit, not the Body
The Christian community, especially its intellectuals, had a hard job reconciling the Jewish tradition of the goodness of the body with the Greek tradition of goodness of spirit.
It seems to me that the preservation of the Jewish tradition within Christianity, together with the compromises made when the latter became the religion of the Roman Empire, ended up giving the worst of all possible worlds. The material world triumphed over the spiritual one. For sure, Christianity always retained its spiritual side, reflected notably in monasteries and their work. Yet the spiritual world retreated, and the material world advanced, not least within the Church itself. It is a travesty of early Christianity that the most “religious” Christian nation today is also the most materialistic; and that the largest brand of Christianity today is led by prelates decked out in gorgeous garments and Prada shoes. This was the fruit of Marcion’s defeat.
Marcion’s religion was at the extreme spiritual end of the scale – surely the right end for a religion, even for a philosophy of life. Despite being a successful businessman, he denigrated materialism and lauded the spirit. That was one reason why his Jesus was totally divine, not human at all – a heresy that still persists in snippets, such as the hymn proclaiming “veiled in flesh, the Godhead see/Hail the incarnate deity” (my emphasis). Although I am sure that Marcion was factually incorrect, I love his anti-materialism.
The body will decay, but the spirit can still expand.
Bathe in optimism. Eliminate the bad. Open yourself to the power of good. Feed the spirit.
Is Marcion due for a comeback?
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