“True” Christianity?

Yesterday, I excerpted from a blog post which discussed several books which make the case for an interpretation of biblical texts as not merely not homophobic but as positively homophilic.  Granting for argument’s sake that this intriguing interpretation was a sound textual reading of the Bible, does that therefore make it the “best” way to interpret what “Christianity” teaches? Can there be such a thing as true Christianity?  My suggestion is that suggestions about “true Christianity” are normative ideals people propose for the future understanding of the Christian tradition.  As ideals they are neither true nor false about what Christianity is, they are just suggestions about how they think its future should go.  I argue below that what Christianity, as a matter of description, is just whatever Christianity has done historically.

In reply to my earlier post about new books suggesting possibly homophilic reading of the Bible, Evangelos writes,

Very interesting.  I can’t make any judgment about the book either, but from that description it seems as if it seems to suffer from what I call “Sola Scriptura Syndrome” where Mainstream Christianity has become so used to placing the Bible as the focal point of Christian tradition that even those who try to bring something else to the table about Christianity inevitably find themselves working with that presupposition.  What I’m saying is, it seems to be interpreting Scripture on its own, while disregarding the traditions and opinions of those who read (and wrote) it.  But perhaps this is MY gut reaction.

After posting on that book, I realized I should address the question of whether even discovering a gay-friendly reading of the Bible changes the nature of “Christianity’s” position on the topic if its traditions since the writing of the texts collected in the Bible have nonetheless been homophobic in practice.  Evangelos’s remarks provide an excellent prompt, so I will take his cue.

Evangelos is an Eastern Orthodox Christian so he, like Roman Catholics, of course does not share the biblio-centric assumptions of Protestants in general and American fundamentalist Evangelicals in particular.  I do not know Jennings’s theological background but it suffices to say that whatever his views on the authority of the Bible for determining what “Christianity” says and whatever his views on how the Bible interacts with tradition, in America most of the religious hostility towards homosexuality comes from biblical literalists.

Roman Catholic natural law theorists are for the most part a whole different matter.  They rely less exclusively on the Bible in their arguments than on their broader views about the moral implications of teleology.  One can challenge those views on philosophcial grounds (which I hope to do in a future post).  But for the most part, dealing with fundamentalist Evangelicalism on its own terms means centering on the text that Evangelicals think of themselves as prioritizing over everything else.  If a genuinely persuasive argument can be made to Evangelicals it will have to be rooted in textual interpretation of Christian scriptures.

What defines “Christianity?”  There are four candidates I will briefly distinguish here (and I’m sure each has numerous other permutations we could possibly consider if time and space were not so limited).  The fourth is my own view, which I will explain and defend at some length.

(1)  Christianity might be the explicit sets of doctrines laid out in the Bible, interpreted in terms of the implicit assumptions and attitudes which one can explicate as present in the book itself.  In such a case, the implicit spirit and mindset of biblical authors may be as important guides to how Christian thinking should be defined as the specific claims that result from those habits of mind.  Approaching the definition of Christianity or the process by which one models one’s own way of thinking on the Bible in these terms would make you open to considering Jennings’s arguments.  If Jennings can show that the Bible implicitly expresses an affirmative set of assumptions about homosexual love then “thinking biblically” means having comparable attitudes which inform one’s own reading of the text and one’s ethics (to the extent that one tries to conform one’s ethics to “Christian teaching.”)

(2) A second broadly construed view of what Christianity *truly* is would be one to which Thomists and liberal Protestants alike would subscribe.   This view is that Christianity contains a spiritual and theological truth that cannot contradict the rest of truth but must ultimately be complementary to it.  If the Bible anywhere appears to contradict our best philosophy and science, then we must be misreading the Bible’s meaning or intentions on that point.  For the obvious example, if the biblical creation account taken literally would be refuted by evolution then the mistake is to read the biblical creation account as an attempt to give a literal description of the process of creation.  The “real” point is some theological one–say that we are dependent on God for our being and the order of creation–rather than a literal scientific one.

This view can lead to opposite specific interpretations.  Liberal Christians frequently seem to simply assume that Enlightenment egalitarian, tolerant, progressive moral views must be the essentially Christian ones and so that philosophy makes them amenable to pro-gay readings of the biblical texts.  In the case of Roman Catholics, the issue seems more complicated.  Theoretically, their concern is to interpret the Bible in the terms of the truest philosophy but their Roman Catholicism winds up respecting tradition and traditional interpretations of philosophy itself to such an extent that it cannot very limberly adapt philosophically.  It takes a long time for philosophical changes because they have to be reconciled with theological claims and interpretations of the Bible such that everything is kept as a consistent as a tradition.  To use the obvious example, the Roman Catholic Church has no problem accepting advances in science and philosophy except that sometimes it takes 150 years to concede that a change is actually necessary (as happened with evolution).

(3) There is the view that Christianity is a combination of its sacred scriptures and its traditions.  On this view, what Christianity has historically been sets powerful precedent for determining what it should be taken to be.  I take something like this to be Evangelos’s take and look forward to his remarks on this in reply to this post.

(4) The fourth view is my own.  Christianity contains no specially revealed divine truth, whether communicated through the Bible, the tradition, some Barthian conception of “the person of Christ himself,” or any other Christian source.  There is no reason to agree with those who hold position (2) that Christian claims must always be harmonizable with our best philosophical and scientific  truths.  Christianity, if it even can be legitimately defined as any specific set of beliefs, can simply be capable of commiting errors and including erroneous beliefs among those it comprises.

But even more fundamentally, since Christianity need not be defined by whatever interpretation of it would vindicate it most philosophically or make it truest theologically (since no such kind of truth exists), there is no reason to interpret it as *truly* by defiend by any specific set of beliefs when history shows it to be a multifarious historical tradition, with many competing subtraditions conceiving of the world in often contradicting ways and expressing no one unified coherent philosophy throughout time.

Of course we can isolate some persistent, dominant themes and paradigms as quintessentially Christian, but the interpretations of these broad themes can significantly diverge from each other in ways that put them fundamentally at odds with each other.  In such cases, how do we determine which is “really” Christianity?  We might say that the strands that most consistently carry out the conceptual logic entailed by basic Christian categories is truly “Christianity” but determining such an account seems like it would involve a tremendous amount of arbitrariness and rule out numerous historical Christian movements as “authentically Christian.”

And even if some of its powerful literary symbols may be interpreted to express certain ethical and psychological truths, since its distinctive propositional claims about many philosophical, scientific, and historical matters are manifestly false there is no way to judge what Christianity *truly* is in terms of what the world truly is like since, as a religion, it is not about the world but about rather it is about belonging to a particular tradition.

To define “Christianity,” therefore, is to define a broad tradition (with several major subtraditions and ever more minor ones) much more than it is to define a specific account of the world.  Christian tradition involves varying uses of certain symbols, texts, rituals, icons, ecclesiastical orders, defining phrases, etc. in ways which have various common family resemblances.  But there is no truth about the best way to use them or to reimagine them for future transformations of the tradition.  Even within the tradition itself the means for determining legitimate transformations are in dispute (as my presentation of the 1st three candidates for how we should define Christianity briefly indicated.)

So, what implications do I take away from these observations as illuminating about anything?

(1) Attempts to define intellectually or ethically disreputable manifestations of Christianity in history as not “really Christianity” are normative claims about what one wants Christianity to be in the future.  They are not “factual” claims about what it is historically or what sorts of ethics it has actually embodied.  I cannot say, for example, that a critique of America’s history of slavery is not “really America” simply because it failed to live up to the ideals I think America should embody.  Historical traditions are as historical traditions do.  From within them, we can argue normatively that they should live up to this or that ethical ideal.

But to argue for that ideal is not to argue for “true America” or “true Christianity” but for the intrinsic merits of that ideal itself as something for shaping America or Christianity or what have you.

One might say that “true Christianity” is itself a specific ideal–like, say, of neighbor love or forgiveness or universal love, etc.  The reason I think that’s not helpful is that Christian texts and traditions are too broad to be equated with any specific narrow concept so tightly.  One can argue that when thinking about forgiveness, for example, we can turn to Christian tradition for a rich and powerful variety of illuminating symbols, parables, metaphors, rituals, practices, and conceptualizations that the tradition has developed over centuries.  One can also say that she wants to help create a Christianity according to an ideal of forgiveness or neighbor love or universal love as central.  I see no problem with that.  Each of those are goals are ethically defensible on rational grounds.  Similarly, I am happy to say that I want to help America towards the realization of certain ideals of democracy.  I can cite the American tradition as providing philosophically and historically powerful tools for interpreting and developing democratic ideals.  Nonetheless, when I refer to “American ideals” I really mean a certain set of more specific political and ethical norms that have no necessary relationship to “America itself.”

(2) Personally, as I mentioned in my previous post, I would rather Christians embrace philosophy, ethics, and science in such ways as to make rationally defensible conclusions dominant over received traditions where those received traditions have been ethically and philosophically superseded.  I would rather Christians define the ideal of what Christianity should be in terms of what human flourishing requires, as determined independently of dogma.

So, when I read that Jennings has written books saying that Christianity was truly never homophobic, I hope that his reading of the Bible is defensible and persuasive but I don’t think it means that “Christianity itself” is redeemed from all stains of homophobia anymore than “America itself” can ever be redeemed from all stains of slavery.  If it helps persuade future Christians to reunderstand their ideal for Christianity as one that calls them to thoroughly embrace homosexuals, then that is a good thing.  So, I am hopeful that Jennings’s argument about the best way to read the intent of biblical writers has this persuasive effect on Christians so that they more and more widely define their traditions better ethically.

But does that mean that *true* Christianity all along was homophilic and not homophobic?  No, because *true* Christianity has only been a set of actual, complicated, wildly diverging historical institutions equally responsible for all its harms to humanity as it is for all its  benefits.

As an apostate to the Christian tradition with no influence on it from the inside I can only, from the outside, express my hope that Christians formulate their ideal for themselves in the most rational, humane, ethically ennobling, and politically liberal ways possible.  (Where political liberalism means in government in accord with Enlightenment ideals, not necessarily the left wing of contemporary American politics).

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Evangelos

    Another thought-provoking post! I’ve been wrestling with this response for some time now, please excuse it’s absurd length.

    The question of what Christianity is has been with us at least since the years of Constantine (maybe even the Apostles: do we circumcise or not?). Historically this has been resolved with councils wherein bishops (who were extremely learned men and philosophers of their own right) would come together to confront a theological controversy under the assumption that they were going to be Divinely guided to the truth which would prevail; in the end there was one truth and you bought it or you were a heretic (or you waited a couple of years until the other side was no longer popular). That’s the way the Orthodox Church developed; Church history is essentially confusing, complex, and often very political. At times, decisions seemed to be made democratically, at others they were politically motivated or tense. But it has never been simple to say what is Christianity and what is except for members of a specific sect. Quite frankly, it seems the only thing that all Christians can agree on is that there once was a man named Jesus Christ and the religion is somehow based on him (this latter point being the only thing that differentiates the umbrella term of Christianity from Islam, Bahai’i, and the plethora of Gnostic sects whose gospels seem to have a monopoly on the National Geographic, Discovery, and the History Channels around Easter and Christmas).
    But isn’t this a little troublesome to have such a large tent? Well therein seems to lie the problem; we can’t narrow down Christianity so narrowly that it describes one or three sects (i.e. claiming to have Apostolic succession), but can the Coptic Church really be under the same tent as that of the Church of Latter Day Saints or of the various sects that arose out of the Charismatic movement or even of high Church Episcopalians? Honestly, I have no clue. It depends what you want to credit or blame the Christians on, I suppose. But there’s risk of high insult to some when fundamentalists are grouped together with tose who would do their best to disassociate themselves from them (isn’t this the gripe that moderate Muslims have had for the past 8 years?).

    Perhaps I should try to better define where I stand, as a practicing Eastern Orthodox Christian in the spectrum of Christianity Orthodoxy is a wholistic Christianity, i.e. everything means or is something, each and every aspect of the faith cannot exist apart from the faith as a whole (so the Creed, the Bible and the Tradition surrounding the Bible, the writings of the saints, and rituals all exist as integral parts to a whole), and there is no separation between religious and everyday life. There are many historical “precedents”, but there are just as many developments that are supposed to be in line with those precedents, i.e. we’re not trying to reproduce Orthodox make a point to explain that there are two kinds of traditions for them: tradition and Tradition. The former relates to those practices (often ethnically contigent) that churches, parishes, and nations have adopted, and the latter is over 2000 years old and going strong. Furthermore, Orthodox dogma is extremely narrow: it defines the nature of the Trinity, the incarnation, and the Ressurrection and that is pretty much it. Thus, as I’ve discovered in my reasearch into Death in Orthodoxy, there’s a great deal of freedom to believe what you will where there is no divine revelation (thus there is much latitude). Sure, novel ideas that seem to come from no where are frowned upon, but they are certainly not grounds for excommunication! Hence there is no problem with science, evolution, and other such developments. Historically, some of our greatest saints were some of the most educated men of their time and had no problem using science, philosophy, math, drama, or any other part of the classical education to make their points (see my quote from St. Basil on my Facebook page); others were quite literally clinically insane. So it’s definitely tradtional, but doesn’t quite comfortably in # 2 there.

    Thanks again for this blog and your thoughts; I can tell this is going to be a fun summer!

  • njustus

    I certainly stand in awe of your attempt to comprehensively define Christianity. It’s a burden I’m not sure I could give myself. I of course could offer a definition, but I’m not sure I could do so without revealing more about myself than any objective concept of Christianity.

    I’ve found the proffering of a general definition of Christianity unproductive with believers, because it’s simply too big a target. In discussions I have had with believers recently, they catch me when I make assertions such as “Christianity stands for x or means x” because they take exception to such broad strokes and usually can find some contradictory evidence, however extreme orinconsequential, that must be conceded in order for the discussion to continue.

  • Dan Fincke
  • Janet Greene

    Hi Daniel – it’s Janet Greene from the Unreasonable Faith site. I haven’t read your site in detail yet, but just wanted to let you know that I will. Looks VERY interesting.

  • Dan Fincke

    Hey! Great to see you, Janet! Thanks for relaying your first positive impression! Take a look around and by all means offer your insights and your topic suggestions.

  • http://redheadedskeptic.com Laura

    wow, what a massive undertaking! Very well thought out.

    • Daniel Fincke

      thanks, Laura!