As with other major religions of the world, Christianity
has a rich body of literature dealing with Divine Light and ecstasy.
The material in the Hebrew Bible (referred to as the Old Testament
by Christians) has been dealt with already in the section on Judaism,
so it does not need to be repeated here. Like the "Old Testament,"
the Christian New Testament has several references that identify
God as Light. The early theologians of the church also make such
references. By far and large, however, the greatest number of
references to Divine Light and ecstasy are made by the Christian
The Christian tradition as a whole focuses on the
birth, life, death, and resurrection of a man named Jesus. Jesus
was born a Jew, probably in Nazareth, around 4 BC (tradition would
say 0). The story of Jesus is told in the New Testament which,
together with the Old Testament, forms the Christian Bible. Jesus
is said to have cured the sick, and preached the love of God;
of one's self; one's neighbour -- even one's enemies. The New
Testament tells us that Jesus is the Christ, i.e., the Messiah;
he is also referred to as the Son of God, and King of the Jews.
These last two mentioned titles likely got him into
trouble with both Jewish and Roman authorities. Jewish religious
leaders would have objected to any claim to divinity by a human,
and the Romans would have considered anyone who was referred to
as King an insurrectionist -- only the Roman emperor could make
such a claim. Exactly who wanted Jesus dead the most is a matter
of historical debate, but at any rate he was crucified for what
he said and for what others said about him. He died on the cross,
and according to tradition was resurrected from the dead.
This fundamental belief in Jesus' triumph over death
leads Christians to believe that Jesus was and is indeed the Son
of God, and has the power to grant anyone eternal life. Although
sects differ as to exactly what an individual needs to do to accomplish
this, we find here a radical departure from the Jewish tradition
of the day: non-Jews are now encouraged to enter the fold. Further,
Christians-to-be do so not by following Jewish tradition, but
by seeking salvation from Jesus.
Extending itself beyond its Judaic roots helps explain
why Christianity was able to spread so widely -- everyone was
now eligible to become a member. In spite of persecution by Roman
authorities for the first few centuries of its existence, sometimes
severe persecution, the new faith persisted. A change of fortune
came in the early 4th century when the Roman emperor Constantine
declared Christianity a religion to be tolerated in the empire.
Christianity was henceforth able to exist and thrive even after
the fall of Rome.
In 589, the church experienced a major split. The
Western (now Catholic) church maintained that God's Holy Spirit
emanated from both the Father and the Son, all operating within
a single Trinity of Godhead. The Eastern (Orthodox) church accepted
the Trinity, but rejected the concept of the emanation of the
Spirit from the Son. Another dispute involved the veneration of
icons, a practice that the Western church regarded as idolatry.
The Eastern church responded that icons are for the illiterate
as books are for those who can read. At any rate reconciliation
was not forthcoming, and the two branched off to become the Eastern
Orthodox and Catholic churches.
Another major split came in the 16th century with
the Protestant Reformation. Protestants reject the primacy of
the Pope as head of the church, encourage a direct personal relationship
between humans and God, and tend to emphasize familiarity with
the Bible as opposed to participation in the sacraments. Protestant
churches are many and varied, but as a group constitute one of
the three great branches of Christianity.
Today, Christianity has the largest number of adherents
of any religion in the world. Christian churches predominate in
Europe, and in North and South America.
Christian mysticism has its roots in the Bible,
although such references are not extensive. It also exists, albeit
infrequently, with the Church Fathers. Traditionally, Christian
mysticism as a category begins with Pseudo-Dionysius, a monk of
the Eastern church whose writings date from about 500. The great
volumes of Christian mysticism are found in medieval Europe, especially
in the Catholic tradition, but also in Eastern Orthodoxy. Mystical
encounters in Protestantism are quite extensive as far as joy
in Christ is concerned, and occasional references to the Divine
Light can also be found.