“True” Christianity? (part 2)

“True” Christianity? (part 2) June 24, 2009

Njustus writes in the comments section of this post:

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.

Thanks so much Njustus for stopping by my blog!  I really think it is astute and self-aware when you remark that any attempts to give a definition of Christianity would reflect more about yourself than Christianity.  I think the problem is that Christians who talk about “true Christianity” are not so self-aware.

I don’t think it’s strictly speaking a bad thing to say that one wants Christianity to be something in particular which reflects that person’s own positive associations with the tradition and which is informed by one’s own reason and morality.  In fact, if there must be such things as religions (and for the time being it appears there simply will be), then it would be preferable that those who insist on being religious do so in such a way that is self-conscious of the great extent to which they are creating their religion and not just discovering it.  If they can have the self-awareness to recognize their own reflection and the reflection of the tradition they have both happily and unhappily absorbed, then they can feel free to do something constructive with their tradition.  And, if they are committed to reason and ethics, they can possibly even go about being a part of the dismantling of the authoritarian, traditionalistic, and regressive dimensions of their religion as explicitly as possible.  (Though I still think that is hard to pull off even for the well-meaning moderate.

Njustus’s comment continues:

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.

This problem was why I wrote my post.  When Christians redefine Christianity safely away from any and every objection, the point needs to be stressed that they are doing a creative, normative act and not a descriptive one.  The point is to say, look, everything from the violent theocratic Inquisition to the universalist, pacifistic Quakers has been called Christianity.  And there is no clear way either from within or without the tradition to settle decisively which group was correct or to what extent one or the other was “authentically” Christian.

And the reason for this is that Christianity is not a general field of inquiry (like, say, biology) nor simply a specific theory (like, say, Darwinism) or a simple code of ethics (like, say, utilitarianism) or a political theory (like, say, republicanism) etc.  Christianity is a religious tradition and as such it has existed in and through a wide range of distinct realms of practice.  It has been intermingled with a range of diverging political theories, metaphysical accounts, ethical theories, etc. and it has been embodied in endlessly varying sets of rituals, icons, symbols, prayers, etc.

As Evangelos put it (in the comments section too)

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.

This goes for most (if not all) of Christianity.  There are central recurring themes and symbols, of course.  But there is simply too much diversity due to its interconnections with all the rest of particular ways of life in which it is instantiated to accurately call any particular self-professed Christian a “true” Christian or a “false” one.

From within Christianity, there will be attempts to set Orthodoxy, attempts which Evangelos recapped.  But even when one tries to make things as simple as Evangelos does when he writes,

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).

one still winds up explicitly making judgments that Gnostics cannot be Christians even though they thought their religion was somehow based on Jesus Christ.  Or that Islam cannot be a form of Christianity, even though they have a place for Jesus.  I know plenty of Christians who like to remark that by being a Christian they are really just Messianic Jews who believe the Messiah came already in the person of Jesus.  So, what’s to stop some form of Muslim, maybe a rather liberal and unorthodox one, from calling himself a Christian of a kind?

If you are dealing with a field of inquiry, you can have an argument about true or false.  “What does biology say?” is a question answered by the ideal of full knowledge of life and its interworkings.  “What does Darwinism say?” is a question about a theory and its answer might involve distinguishing a finite number of current splinters but pretty much will be an evolving consensus on many of the most central questions.  But “What is Christianity?  Or “What does Christianity say?” are only questions like “What is America?” Or “What are American ideals?”  They can only be answered with a frank description of the past, an accounting of the dominant ideologies within the tradition, and then a prescriptive argument about what it should be shaped into in the future.  When a Christian says that their ideal is the real thing and the history does not count, all they’re telling you is what they want it to be and want to make it into, not what it has been already.

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