What is Christianity? Part 9

As Ninian Smart points out, there are secular worldviews as well as religious worldviews.   A religion is a religious worldview as opposed to a secular worldview.  Marxism and Secular Humanism are examples of secular worldviews.  Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam are examples of religions or religious worldviews.

Smart, however, asserts that worldviews (both religious and secular) encompass six dimensions:

The doctrinal or philosophical dimension

The narrative or mythic dimension

The ethical or legal [dimension]

The ritual or practical dimension

The experiential or emotional dimension

The social or organizational dimension

(Worldviews, p.8)

This six-dimensional approach to worldviews appears to be contrary to my cognitivist view of religions and worldviews, since only the first of the six dimensions (doctrinal or philosophical) appears to focus on beliefs or claims.

In part 8 of this series, I argued that the doctrinal or philosophical dimension is more basic and more fundamental than the narrative or mythic dimension of a religion or worldview.  My argument was basically that some narratives or stories are religious and others are not, and that what makes a story a religious story is that it has a religious meaning or significance, and that religious meaning is grounded in the doctrinal or philosophical dimension of a religion.  We recognize, for example, that a story is a religious story because we understand how the story teaches or reinforces various religious beliefs that constitute the doctrinal or philosophical dimension of a particular religion.

In this post I’m going to argue that the same holds true of the ritual or practical dimension.   In other words, the doctrinal or philosophical dimension of a religion is more basic and more fundamental than the ritual or practical dimension of that religion.

Consider baptism, for example.  People take baths and showers and go swimming all the time, without there being any religious meaning or significance to these activities.   But sometimes, when a person is sprinkled with water or when a person is submerged into water, this activity has a religious meaning or significance.   In order to recognize the difference between the Christian religious ritual of baptism and other non-religious activities like swimming or taking a shower, we need to understand that the use of water in baptism has a religious meaning.   Baptism is a religious ritual because it has a religious meaning or significance, and the religious meaning or significance of Baptism is necessarily and unavoidably connected to religious beliefs.  Christian baptism is connected to Christian beliefs.

If a person is planning to be baptized, to be submerged in water as a Christian ritual, we can ask that person, “Why be baptized?”  If the person replied, “I haven’t had a shower in four days, and I figured that I could get cleaned up by being dunked into the water in this river today.”, we would think this to be a very odd reply.  If that was the primary motivation for being baptized, then why not just go home and take a shower or bath?  This activity involving submersion in water appears to have no religious significance or meaning for this person, so it seems misleading or wrong to think of this person as engaging in a religious ritual, since it apparently has no religious meaning or significance for this person.  This person does NOT really want to be baptized, to participate in a Christian religious ritual; this person just wants to get cleaned up, to take a quick bath.

If a person is planning to be baptized, to be submerged in water as a Christian ritual, and if I asked that person “Why be baptized?”  I would expect them to answer something like this:

I am going to be baptized in part to make a public profession of my faith in Jesus, of my belief that Jesus is the Son of God and savior of mankind, and that I want to live the rest of my life trusting in Jesus and following the teachings of Jesus.   Also, Jesus commanded that his followers preach the Good News about salvation through faith in Christ and about forgiveness of sin through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, and Jesus commanded that his followers baptize those who accept this message of salvation.   So, in submitting to baptism,  I’m submitting to Jesus’ authority by obeying his command and wish that those who accept his offer of salvation be baptized.   Finally, baptism symbolizes death and resurrection.  Jesus died and rose again for the salvation of humankind, and in being baptized I identify myself with Jesus, and this symbolizes the fact that I am leaving behind my old way of life and starting life over again, and that my new life as a follower of Jesus is powered by, and made possible by, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Of course, not every Christian believer would be this clear and articulate in responding to this question, but some answer roughly along these lines is expected because we expect that the ritual of baptism would have some religious meaning or significance to the person who is planning to be baptized, and that religious meaning or significance would, for a Christian believer, presumably involve some Christian beliefs, such as:

  • Jesus is the savior of humankind.
  • Jesus is the divine Son of God.
  • We ought to follow the teachings of Jesus and obey the commands of Jesus.
  • Faith in Jesus is essential to obtaining salvation and forgiveness of one’s sins.
  • One of the commands of Jesus is to spread the Good News that salvation and forgiveness of sins is possible because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We recognize that baptism is a religious ritual, that baptism is something more than just taking a quick dip or swim, more than just taking a bath to get dirt off one’s body, because we understand that baptism has a religious meaning or significance.   The religious meaning or significance of baptism for Christians is necessarily and unavoidably connected to religious beliefs, to Christian beliefs.  Thus, we recognize and understand baptism to be a religious ritual only because we recognize that it is closely connected with religious beliefs, with the doctrinal or philosophical dimension of the Christian religion.

Therefore, it is clear that the doctrinal or philosophical dimension of Christianity is more basic and more fundamental than the ritual or practical dimension of Christianity, because what makes something a religous ritual or a Christian religous ritual as opposed to being a non-religious ritual, is that the ritual has a religious meaning or significance and such a meaning or significance is necessarily and unavoidably tied to religious beliefs or doctrines.

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