Why Christianity?

In the comments to my post on “What We Can Know, and How We Can Know It“, Alex Symczak asks:

Also, you can’t argue me into this kind of faith? It relies purely on personal revelation? Then you have no reason to think you’re following the right religion. Your justification cannot distinguish between You, or a protestant, or a Hindu, or a Muslim, or a Pagan. What makes you so special, that God gave you the correct revelation? Or are all others just lying?

This is a fair question; and the answer is that my faith doesn’t rely purely on personal revelation. There is also public revelation, which exists not simply in a book, the Bible, but in human history. Catholics do not base their faith solely on the Bible, an approach called sola scriptura, but on what’s called the “deposit of faith”, which consists in sacred scripture—the Bible—but also in sacred tradition, the history passed down from one generation to the next.

It’s common to meet the claims of tradition with an invocation of the game of “Telephone”, in which a message is passed from person to person in such a way that it becomes hopelessly garbled. But messages of importance are not passed in this way. As an example, there’s an African people, the Lemba, whose oral tradition claim;s Jewish ancestry. They look no different than the peoples around them; but their culture is clearly based Judaism. To have a minyan, a quorum for worship, you must have what in modern America is called a “Cohen”: a descendant of the cohanim, the priests. Genetic studies have showed that the vast majority of the Cohens in America do share a genetic marker; and those considered leaders among the Lemba have been shown to carry it as well. Now here’s the thing: according to Lemba tradition, the Jews came to them about 2,500 years ago.

What is considered important can be preserved.

Last week, I talked about how I personally came to believe in Christ. This week, I want to talk about some of the reasons why I think, upon reflection, that Christianity is the truth. My path to belief was based on the authority of my parents and teachers in the faith, and my personal experience. But I’m an adult now; why does Christianity commend itself to my intellect?

G.K. Chesterton remarked once that the study of comparative religion makes it appear that all religious are basically the same, especially Christianity; and that this similarity is almost wholly misleading. Christianity, and Judaism before it, are entirely unlike the faiths that went before.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is held to be a transcendant God, the creator of the universe; he is not part of the universe. (There are philosophical reasons for believing this; I’ll save that for another time.) He is not Zeus, born of Chronos and Rhea, who lives on Mt. Olympus. Zeus is clearly a part of the cosmos, not apart from it; and this was clear to the ancients. The neo-Platonist philosopher Porphyry placed the gods in his tree of being as a subdivision of humanity: men, immortal. Most of the gods of the ancient world are more like Zeus than like the God of Moses.

The God of Abraham is not the pantheistic deity of Hinduism or Buddhism, truly to be identified with cosmos itself. Hinduism doubtless began in the same way as the Greek or Egyptian religions, but it includes a detailed and rich philosophy and metaphysics, the fruit of long and sustained reflection on the nature of reality and of divinity. This philosophy is based on those signs of God’s presence that are everywhere in the world and are opaque, seemingly, only to modern atheists. Pantheism is one way of making sense of those signs. Had Christ not come, the Greeks were on their way to a sense of the divine beyond their superhuman “gods”; they might have ended up in a similar place.

Confucianism, though called a religion, really isn’t one; it’s a philosophy and code of conduct, and has little to say about the divine.

Because God is transcendent, though, we can only infer a few things about Him from the world around us. It’s unsurprising that those not granted direct revelation carried their ideas onward in a variety of directions; reason from first principles is a dangerous game, and small errors become magnified. But suppose the transcendent God wants to reveal Himself….

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob stands alone because He communicates with mankind in the course of history, in a way we don’t see in other religions. He choose a shepherd, Abram, and leads him to the promised land, not in remote legends, but in history. Later, Moses leads his people out of Egypt back to the promised land. The history of the Jews is real history, and it is all tied up with the actions of their God.

And then, Christ comes, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies: God dies and returns to life. This is a pattern that we see frequently in other religions, but only in Christianity is the time and place clearly identified. We know that Christ lived; we know that he died; no serious historian disputes this.

And we also know that he rose again on the third day.

But wait, you cry! That he lived, I can accept; that he died I can accept; why should I accept that he rose again?

Again, we have history to guide us, and particularly the witness of the early martyrs, who went to their deaths for their faith in Christ’s resurrection.

To fully reveal the strength of this argument, I need to explain how martyrdom worked during the great persecutions under the Roman emperors. The problem the Romans had with Christians wasn’t that they worshipped a non-Roman god; the empire include people of many different lands, and many different beliefs, and the Romans were extremely broad-minded in these matters. They didn’t really care what you believed, so long as you were loyal to the Emperor. But the emperors in those days were accorded divine honors, and temples were built to them all over the place, especially in the remoter parts of the empire. And the way you had to show your loyalty was by offering a pinch of incense to the emperor at his temple: that is, precisely to accord a human being divine honors. The early Christians simply would not do this, saying that worship was reserved to God alone.

It simply isn’t the case that the Romans rounded up all of the Christians they could find and sent them to the lions. Instead, they rounded up those Christians who would not sacrifice to the Emperor, and gave them the choice: make the sacrifice, or die horribly. Many, many of them chose to accept the horrible death rather than to offer the pinch of incense.

Let me say that again: they could have saved their lives by buying a penny’s worth worth of incense and burning it at the emperor’s shrine. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to do; and no doubt the weaker Christians did exactly this. Anything for a quiet life.

But there were many who didn’t.

And that’s the point: they had a choice. People don’t willingly accept death in droves for a man who was merely a good moral exemplar, or for the executed leader of a failed religious movement. Failure is not motivating in that way. But they will—and they did—and they still do, in many parts of the world—accept death for the sake of Jesus Christ who died, and rose again.

So why Christianity? Because in Christianity I see the action of God in history in a way that I don’t see in other religions.

So why not Islam, or Mormonism, or the Jehovah’s witnesses? Because I see those religions as having abstracted a part of the Christian faith and rejected the rest. We know how they arose, and what influenced their founders; and they strike me as a breach with and a simplification of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But that would be another long series of posts.

This post is simply a sketch; whole books have been written about the various points I make. The essential thing is this: if a transcendent God exists, and if He chose to reveal himself to humanity, what would it look like? I submit that it would look like the history we have. We meet Him not so much by abstracting reason (though He is there, too) but by His actions—as we meet any other person.

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  • Peter Gates

    I’m LDS (and new here), and I love the points you’ve made! Christianity’s form and sacred literature is pretty much exactly what you’d expect if you believe in the God described in the Bible; it seems a strange religion for a man to invent, at least to me.

  • Nathaniel

    Are you seriously arguing that Christianity is true because it had people willing to die for it?

    Judaism had people willing to die for it. Same with Islam. Or Communism. Anarchism. Dictatorships. Democracies. Anti-Vaccine hysteria.

    Being willing to die for a cause has absolutely no relation to whether the tenants of a cause are actually true. And when it comes to anything other than Christianity, you’re probably smart enough to realize that.

    • Will Duquette

      The word you’re looking for is “tenets”, not “tenants”.

      Can you name one person who has been tortured to death for “anti-vaccine hysteria”?

      Many people have been willing to go to war for their beliefs, this is true. And many have been executed for their beliefs and given no choice in the matter. Millions of Jews have been executed simply because they were Jews.

      But in the early years of the church, there were many who accepted severe torture when they had an easy way out. They did so because of what they believed. And what they believed was that Christ had died and risen again. Their willingness to die for that certainly indicates the strength of their belief; and given their proximity to the events in question, that certainly increases the plausibility of their belief in Christ’s resurrection.

      I don’t claim that this proves my point with the certainty of a mathematical proof. I claim that it makes the Resurrection historically plausible, at least to those who are not bound and determined to believe otherwise.

      • Nathaniel

        I’d call dying from painful, easily preventable diseases something that could be torture, depending on how awful the disease symptoms are.

        And no, it doesn’t increase plausibility of Christianity, however much you assert again and again that it is so.

        Being tortured and maintaining belief doesn’t indicate what you believe is true. It merely indicates that particular belief is important to you.

        And if we’re really going to play this game, than Jews probably have a stronger claim on truth than any other religious group still in existence. Pretty much the entire history of Europe after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire is a tale of persecution, harassment, death, and yes, torture. (Hello Spanish Inquisition. We certainly weren’t expecting you!)

        And still the Jewish faith lives on, even though the discrimination could have stopped at any time, if the Jews in Europe were willing to simply convert.

        And yet oddly enough, Catholic you remain. Its almost as if you hold it to a different standard than other beliefs.

        • Will Duquette

          But the Jewish faith *is* true; I never said otherwise. The Jews are and remain God’s chosen people. As a Catholic, I believe the Messiah has already come; Judaism teach otherwise. But as regards events up to the time of the Incarnation we pretty much agree.

          • Nathaniel

            There isn’t even an agreement on earlier events. Maybe in some bare facts, but not the important stuff. No original sin in Judaism. Complete disagreement on interpretation of every single prophecy that Christians claim proclaim the coming of Jesus. Wholly different takes on the Binding of Issac. And tons more.

            I’ve never liked how Christians seem to think that Judaism is Christianity, minus the bits about Jesus.

            And on a final note, saying that Judaism is true except for that whole “Jesus is our lord and savior” is a pretty whopping big asterisk.

          • Will Duquette

            On events—the bare facts—I think we do agree; on the interpretation of those events, naturally there is significant disagreement. How could it be otherwise?

            It seems that you’re writing from a Jewish point of view; is this correct?

          • Nathaniel

            Secular Jew, but yes.

            Let me give you one concrete example of what I am talking about. The common Christian method of interpreting the story of the Binding of Issac is that its a story illustrating the virtue of obedience to God, no matter the cost. Sprinkled with some bits about how the story has parallels to the sacrifice of Jesus.

            In contrast, while there is a Jewish interpretation similar to the Christian one about obedience, even a thousand years ago there were Rabbis who openly argued that the story was one of Abraham testing God, seeing if the being he worshiped would really be so vile as to demand human sacrifice of his kin. Or that God was testing Abraham, and Abraham failed. This is supported by the fact that God regularly talked with Abraham earlier in the Bible, but not ever afterward.

            This fits in with another large difference between Judaism and Christianity that I feel is often glossed over by the sort of people who blithely use the phrase “Judeo-Chrisitian.” The Torah is filled with examples of people talking directly to, negotiating, or even arguing with God. The notion that even God has to be able to justify his actions to humans is a notion that can find strong support in Jewish text. Not so much in Christian ones.

            In short, I think those who claim that Jewish and Christian religions are largely compatible come from a position of ignorance, much like those who assume that Hanukkah has a similar importance to Jewish people as Christmas does to Christians.

            There’s a reason why Jew for Jesus are considered a sick joke at best by Jews.

          • Will Duquette

            Another question: what flavor of Christianity are you most familiar with?

          • Nathaniel

            Known and talked to many Protestants and Catholics of all varieties. Never talked to a Mormon, but read a lot about them. Probably least familiar with the Orthodox Church.

          • Will Duquette

            I ask because I would never have described the Isaac story as one of obedience at all costs. I would say that Abraham was in a position of radical trust: God had promised him descendants through Isaac, and Abraham trusted that God would make that good. As for arguing with God, that doesn’t strike me as at all un-Catholic.

        • Will Duquette

          With regard to vaccines, the cases aren’t parallel. They are faced with a decision with two remote possible outcomes: possibly catching the disease, and possibly having some bad outcome due to the vaccine itself. They are not faced with a choice of an *immediate* horrible death on one hand and a physically simple and painless act on the other. Martyrdom is the wrong model.

          (For what it’s worth, incidentally, I’m all for vaccination.)

          • Nathaniel

            Never questioned your support of vaccinations. I disagree with this particular post. Making me think you were a terrible and ignorant enough person to buy into anti-vaccine rhetoric would require a whole lot more than that.

            Its a sign how awful things have gotten that you felt such a disclaimer was even necessary.

          • Will Duquette

            Agreed.

  • Cardunculus

    Very interesting post.

    However, it seems to me that the notion of a transcendent deity is _not_ actually that unique to Abrahamic religions: for instance, in a somewhat unpolished form, the idea can be found already in Xenophanes, who wrote about “One god, greatest among gods and humans, like mortals neither in form nor in thought”.

    Also, you mentioned Neoplatonism; and while in the systems of Plotinus and his followers the individual, personal deities were not assumed to be transcendent, the whole point of their constructions was that all (including these gods) was to be understood as an emanation of the impersonal, transcendent, incomprehensible One that lies beyond the very categories of being and not-being. Granted, Plotinus was definitely aware of Judaism and early Christianity (he wrote against Christian Gnosticism and its concept of an “evil Demiurge” creating the physical world) and might conceivably have been influenced by them, just as he in turn influenced Augustine’s theology; but still.

    Similarly, in Hinduism there are not only the individual gods, but also the transcendent Brahman; and while Buddhism does not really have a notion of a transcendent deity per se, its very aim consists in seeking to achieve an union of sorts with the transcendent reality that lies beyond the impermanence of being.

    Rather, I would argue that the most distinctive aspect of Abrahamic religions is that they understand the Deity to be at once transcendent *and* personal, to be utterly unlike all that exists and yet “take sides” in the happenings of human history, so to say. Xenophanes’ god is explicitly said to have no interest whatsoever in human matters; and similarly, it would make no sense to think of the One or Brahman personally making covenants with a specific population, or appearing to a fleeing criminal under the form of a burning bush and ordering him about political matters. Apollo could be thought of doing such things, certainly; but the One? Nah, that would not work.

    There exists an unresolved tension, it seems to me, between the Deity’s transcendence and its personhood; and where other systems resolve this tension by making an explicit distinction between transcendent/impersonal deities and immanent/personal ones, Abrahamic religions seem almost to revel in this tension, in the weird notion of a God that is at once beyond all that is and deeply and personally involved in all that is, to the point of having specific wants and preferences about it.

    This, of course, reaches its apex in the sheer brilliant lunacy of the doctrine of the Incarnation.

    • Will Duquette

      “the sheer brilliant lunacy”: s’why they call it the “scandal of particularity”.

      • Cardunculus

        Interesting, I was not aware of that term. I find it very fitting.

        On a somewhat nerdier level, I guess that the issue could be described in terms of the Christian cosmos being anisotropic – that is, not all directions are equivalent, not even up to rotation (or the corresponding metaphysical equivalent, I guess). There are privileged directions, places, and times; and reality is not simply something that exists, but it is something that is “going somewhere”, so to say, something that could be said to be developing much in the same sense in which an embryo is developing.

  • KateGladstone

    Re:
    “To have a minyan, a quorum for worship, you must have what in modern America is called a ‘Cohen’: a descendant of the cohanim, the priests.”

    No.
    Please listen (or, rather, read), because I grew up Jewish and have not converted to anything else.

    There _are_ things (a very few) that Jews today need a Cohen for — but a minyan isn’t one of them. A minyan requires only 10 adult male Jews (or, for non-Orthodox Jews, only 10 adult Jews irrespective of sex).

    I would be interested in the source of your information to the contrary.

    • Will Duquette

      I think it’s how it was explained to me at one point; and it’s entirely possibly that it was explained properly and got confused in my memory.


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