Every church seeks to be like the original in Acts 2. Most American churches, however, can’t get there from here.
The early church was communal, experiencing sign and wonders, often in bodily manifestations such as healings and resurrections. As a result, everyone felt a sense of awe. They shared common meals as well as the Eucharist. These “foretastes” of the wedding banquet in eternity gave believers perspective. They gladly relinquished all their earthly goods, selling everything they had and sharing with anyone in need.
These stories of bodily manifestations continue as the church spread east (China), south (Africa), and north (Europe). They taper off with the rise of Islam (600) and its enslavement of Christianity (800-1100). They return with Islam’s decline, and are especially pronounced between 1200 and 1500 in western Europe, particularly with women.
There are hundreds of stories from the high Middle Ages of women experiencing miracles of bodily transformation. They include single women’s breasts becoming engorged with milk to feed starving babies, stigmata, and inedia (living without eating). These incidences are far too numerous to dismiss outright. But then they largely disappear in western Europe. What happened?
It started in the 700s with Islamic scholars discovering the lost works of Greek philosophers. Western Europe at that time had hardly heard of Aristotle. After the fall of Constantinople (1453), Greek scholars fled to western Europe, bringing with them manuscripts of classical works in the original Greek, including Aristotelian rationalism.
Aristotelian rationalism regards reason as the chief source of knowledge. At first this looked like a godsend. Reacting against centuries of bloody religious warfare, rationalism seemed to offer a renaissance—rebirth—of what it meant to learn and be human. Science—Latin for knowledge—was no longer was based on faith in God but reason.
From this came the Enlightenment. The brain became the focus rather than the body. The scientific and mechanical replaced the sensory and mystical in pursuit of unambiguous certainty. Enlightenment thinkers said we ought to be autonomous (“law unto ourselves”), in control, and thinking for ourselves, starting from the ground up. Respect facts but apply healthy doses of skepticism to the claims of authorities.
The European Reformers saw the Enlightenment as a godsend. Reacting against the corrupted practices of the Roman church, the Reformers did away with ritual, mysticism, and metaphor in favor of preaching the word in pursuit of unambiguous certainty. But bodily manifestations declined. So did awe. What once was a soul-shaking encounter with God became in western Europe a relatively benign cerebral tightly-scripted service.
Jacques Rousseau in the 1760s and ‘70s claimed that an autonomous “enlightened” world would be filled with profoundly alienated and unhappy people. Autonomy is about control—I “figure out” what to do with my life, my body, my possessions. Rousseau saw that if every individual has the final say, genuine community is beyond our grasp.
So is the original church in Acts 2. We can’t get there from here, for the churches of America are offshoots of western Europe. They’re a loose collection of autonomous individuals futilely attempting to remain in “control” of their lives. There are no bodily manifestations of the miraculous (they continue to this day in southern hemisphere churches, however). There is no sense of awe. Believers don’t sell all their possessions. They give on average only three percent of income. Can’t get there from here.
Tony Judt, a British historian who specialized in European history, believed most of what history “has to offer is discomforting, even disruptive…” What I’ve written makes many of my church friends uncomfortable. Philip Jenkins, professor of church history, is even more discomforting. “Christians of European descent should learn that they are not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition, still less the authentic core; nor, perhaps, have they ever been.” To become like the church in Acts 2, western churches will have to join two-thirds of the worldwide church (mostly southern hemisphere) that’s largely untouched by the Enlightenment. We can get there from there.
 Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2005), p. 830.