Monday, March 26, 2012

What Makes Christianity Distinctive?

A basic question, right?

I mean, we all hear (and say) that Christianity is different from other religions, and that Christians are supposed to be different from other people. It's on bumper stickers: "Christianity is a relationship, not a religion." It's even in the Bible: we are "a peculiar people," a people "set apart," we are "in the world, but not of it," etc. And, at one level, it is fairly simple--Christianity is the community of people who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Christians believe several basic things which are unique to it: God is One, yet Three (Trinity); Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human; salvation and eternal life are found only in Jesus. And yet...

There are groups of people who call themselves Christians that don't agree with all (or any) of the above statements. Some would say that Christ is not necessarily the only way to eternal life, and yet they call themselves Christians. some would say that the doctrines of established faith are incorrect, and they they call themselves Christians. Of course, those Christians who hold to what is commonly called 'orthodoxy' would call these dissenters 'heretics', and that is fair enough, theologically. But, then, this simply leads one to ask: is that all there is to it? Is 'orthodoxy' what makes Christianity distinctive?

At this point, I think, the question becomes more complicated. After all, one might ask, who decides what 'orthodoxy' is? Is it the largest group? Is it the most consistent tradition (or is it traditions?) of the faith? Is it simply to be found in the Bible? Of course, all of these have merit, but there is still, it seems, an unanswered question here. After all, as many scholars have pointed out, the Bible says a lot of things, and some of them are not consistent--some are even contradictory (A recent worthwhile book on this topic is Christian Smith's "The Bible Made Impossible.").

So maybe it's the Bible, 'as interpreted by the tradition'. But this seems to fall short as well; after all, the history of Christianity involves an ever-increasing number of divergent traditions, many of which see the other traditions as 'not quite getting it right' when it comes to properly understanding Christianity. Thus we have Catholic/Orthodox/Coptic/Protestant/etc, and within each of those, multiple subdivisions, each of which claims to have found the most proper way to understand the faith. Whose interpretation of the Bible is the most accurate? Is it the group with the most members? The one with the longest history? The one currently growing the fastest?

Then, there is an even more potentially divisive question--the question of praxis, or how we should live our lives as believers. How much does genuine Christianity depend on living in a certain way? Here we find perhaps even more differences, and even more potential for confusion. Of course, often praxis is guided by theological assumptions (stemming from the Bible, usually), but that is not my main point here. The point is that there are so many divergent ways that Christians can choose to live their lives. Let me just mention a few. There are Christians who believe the right way to live is to be: politically conservative/liberal (or non-political!), rich/poor, immersed in culture/separate from culture, guided by reason/guided by emotion (or intuition), ethically strict/ethically relaxed, pacifist/warlike, exclusive/inclusive, etc.

Obviously, I'm creating strict dichotomies, and the reality of the situation is far more complex and less easy to categorize. Christians are often a mix of many different attitudes and beliefs, and I would guess that a lot of them (including myself) don't know what to think half the time! So, it seems to be the case that, whether we like it or not, there is a lot of inconsistency among Christians--perhaps more today than ever before--about what it is that we really are.

Why am I bringing all this up?  Well, I've had several conversations lately with fellow 'budding theologians' here at Oxford, and it seems we're all dealing with this issue in one way or another.  And, since as Christian theologians we (at least in theory!) are supposed to provide direction to 'Christianity' more generally, we feel a sense of responsibility to share what seems to be the most accurate presentation of the faith to people.  But I wonder whether it really matters, since it appears that most believers are more than happy to follow whatever 'Christianity' seems right to them, regardless of what anyone says, and there does not appear to be any sign of this changing.

So, how can the theologian, or church leader, or any Christian who desires to speak the 'truth' of the faith progress forward in this situation?  It is, I think, probably the most difficult and most important question facing Christianity today--what is it that makes us different?  And how can we effectively share this truth in a way that takes root in our lives, and the lives of others?  If we don't figure that out, then I suspect that we will continue to see more and more people grow weary of the faith and walk away.  I don't like that, but I think it's reality.

My suspicion is that we all need to start again, and keep returning every day, to the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and seriously examine the life, teachings, and passion of Jesus Christ.  If we can't learn how to be distinctive as Christians from that, then everything else seems of very little value.  So, maybe stop reading Paul for a while and just focus on what Jesus apparently really said.  This doesn't mean I think the rest of the Bible is worthless; not at all.  But perhaps it's time to get back to the 'milk' of things, because I'm not sure most of us are really ready to 'eat solid food', so to speak. (And, yes, I'm aware that is a paraphrase of something Paul said. ;-D)

1 comment:

Dave Slater said...

Interesting reflections, thanks for them! However hope you don't mind me pointing out: I think you've given the opposite meaning to that which was meant: 'That doesn't mean I don't think the rest of the Bible is worthless...' - should probably be 'I don't think the rest of the Bible is worthless' or 'That doesn't mean I think the rest of the Bible is worthless'?