I was fascinated last night to see a programme on television about the Thornborough Circles. If you are anything like me you will never have heard of them – apparently they are archaeological remains from five and a half thousand years ago – three circles in the meadows that had wooden ‘henges’ on them originally, and connected by an avenue which is barely discernible nowadays. The third circle is slightly out of alignment with the other two. They stand in North Yorkshire as they have done for over five millennia, and are a statement to the beliefs and practices of early man. They were discovered when the first aeroplane flights took place, and the tracings of the circles and their connection by an avenue were seen in the green fields - something quite invisible from the ground. When the banks built on the circumference of each circle were at their full height, and covered with white gypsum, it would have been a striking sight by day or by night.
What fascinated me was that they have discovered that these three circles are connected by an avenue, which means, clearly, that they were of great significance when taken together. Eventually it has been deduced that they were created by men who wanted to mirror the three stars that make up Orion’s Belt in the night sky. The third star in the sky is slightly out of alignment with the other two, and the three wooden henges exactly mirror this misalignment.
The banks and ditches of each circle have openings in line with the connecting avenues – and it has been estimated that the star formation of Orion would have appeared in the sky exactly at the end of the avenues at the end of summer. It must have been an awe-inspiring experience to stand in the middle of one of these three henges under the summer night sky, with the banks glowing white, looking along the avenue which bisects the surrounding banks of the three henges, and seeing the figure of Orion on the horizon in the night sky directly in front of you. It powerfully united earth and heaven. It is a strong reminder of how mankind has felt the need to worship since the earliest times.
Although no connection was made in the television programme I watched, I immediately thought of the three pyramids in Egypt. These also, according to the latest theories, mirrored the three stars of Orions Belt and they also were built in alignment with the stars. Whether there was any trade-off between Egypt and Thornborough I have no idea – but, together, they are a most powerful insight into the nature of human beings five thousand years ago. Religion and God played an immensely important part in their lives – even to the extent of producing the huge amount of labour needed for the various building works.
What does this tell us?
It shows beyond any doubt at all that man has a deep religious need embedded within him. This is a need to understand the world (to do this he must believe in his own rational powers), a need to interact with the creator force (and so he must believe that such interaction is possible), and a need to believe that he can influence that creative force (hence prayers for rain, sun or whatever). These three needs - to understand, to worship, and to pray – are built into our very nature – both five thousand years ago and today.
Two thousand years ago Christ showed that the old Jewish Religion was saturated with man-made rules and concepts. In its place he showed us God as loving Father. We have been trying to bolt his concept of a loving Father onto what we know of the old Jewish faith ever since. And we have all had to engage with the rationalizations of a religious zealot (which is what Paul himself said he was) who became converted to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and profoundly influenced the course Christianity would take. This man was soaked in the Jewish Faith – why should he not be, as he had been totally committed to the faith of his fathers since he was a young man.
Paul learned about new life in Christ by personal experience, and then tried to express that faith in terms that non-Jews could understand. But, of course, he could no more step out of his fundamental Jewish outlook than any of us can step out of our own world view, formed out of the faith of our forefathers, our upbringing and our education.
If Paul had been able to step outside his Jewish background he would have perpetuated Paulianity, not Christianity. He would have created his version of what life was all about, derived from Christ. Instead he developed his ideas from within his Jewish Faith and produced an amalgam applicable for both Jews and Gentiles.
He wanted, indeed, needed to reconcile his Jewish faith with what he experienced in Christ. He worked this out theologically, and then he saw he needed to reconcile Gentiles and Jews in his new found faith. He helped produce a totally new thing. What he produced was true to its Jewish origins (although clearly many contemporary Jews did not agree!) and, yet, was both welcoming to Gentiles and gave them a strong place in the scheme of things.
So where does all that lead us? Simply this: As mankind becomes more civilised, better educated, more knowledgeable, we have reached higher levels of insight. (Please note here: I am not saying, nor do I believe, that mankind is progressing ever upward.) Because we are more knowledgeable, have more insight, understand better what a human being is and the world in which he operates, we can accordingly let go of certain of the Jewish aspects that Paul, in his time and with his background, could not.
This process, which I shall call ‘legitimate development’ of the faith, is a process that has been happening in fits and starts since day one. Over the years we have released our grip on certain of the old Jewish ideas and concepts. Sometimes this has been caused by better knowledge (e.g. the dietary rules) and sometimes by moral advance (e.g. that slavery is not to be tolerated).
Paul himself saw and aided the process – he talked of certain rules being his and not from the Lord. Almost as if he could see that they would be superseded in due course. And they were, after many centuries - wearing hats and hair length are (I hope!) no longer issues in the Christian Church!
Some rules that Paul regarded as sacrosanct we have now jettisoned. For example: divorce. For example: remarriage after divorce. The rules Christ laid down for divorce and remarriage exactly suited the conditions prevailing in Jewish society in his time. But Christians have recognized that, with the advance of our acceptance of equal status for women, such strict rules are no longer necessary.
It is obvious to all, except those who refuse to see, that over the centuries we have seen the slow freeing of Christianity from some aspects of Paul’s old Hebrew Faith. Not completely, of course. Is that thought so revolutionary? It is a process we have seen developing over the last two thousand years. It is a necessary and wholly good ‘emancipation’ or development.
It may be a correct and even necessary process, but it is still very unsettling.
As unsettling as it must have been, five thousand years ago, when the our early ancestors began to question whether it was really worthwhile to expend all that effort and time building those three wooden henges at Thornbury.
Exactly the same process was at work: men were attempting to distinguish between what was important in their religion and what could and should be dispensed with.
No doubt some of the priests and leaders of the old religion, five thousand years ago, like the fundamentalist and conservative leaders in the churches today, reacted angrily at the ‘sacrilege’. No good would come of it, they would say. The old religion was best, they would say.
But Christ always makes to go further, just as he did after his resurrection for the two disciples on the way to Emmaus.
Like them, we ask Christ to come in and sup with us. And we break bread together and we recognize his divinity and his humanity, melded together forever.
But then he vanishes from our sight. He has moved on, refusing to be constrained by our small concept of him and his mission. He vanishes out of our grasp, and we are forced to get up from where we have settled down and to try to catch up with him.
We have to run to keep up with Christ. He is never content, as we so often are, to settle down in one spot. There is a journey to be undertaken and there is a destination. It is the establishment of the Kingdom of God to which we are called, not some cosy place where we can ‘enjoy him forever’.
Up! To work! To wait and watch for his coming! Meanwhile. we are called to an outgoing mission of inclusive love.