I would like to approach the question of the nature of Christianity (and how we best describe it) in two steps.
Step one: before offering my answer, I’d like to explain why I think that whatever answer we give to this question is important. Specifically, I believe that the answer indicates not only how we present Christianity to others, but how we think about God and about ourselves. And I would argue how we think about God and ourselves have ramifications for the full scope of human existence.
My guess is that many people see Christianity as a belief system, and describe it as a series of propositions that people accept, and which have a governing influence on what they understand and how they live. Others might see it more generally as a worldview, and describe it as a particular orientation from which to understand (and live out) key notions about existence. Not the nature or description I would offer, but fair enough.
Yet in terms of the importance of the answer that one gives to this question, I want to frame this by considering two ideas. First, what is the effect of describing something? Second, what is the function of such a description?
At its most basic, describing the nature of a thing means focusing on its characteristics, their workings and interrelations and, by consequence, excluding all other characteristics, etc. Thus we narrow our sights in order to view the matter at hand more accurately. Next, the function of such a description is to orient us—to keep us “on track” in terms of how we engage or interact with that subject or entity, and to differentiate this subject or entity from others.
So descriptions have the effect of both freeing us and constraining us, and they function to maintain a sort of equilibrium—to regulate engagement and maintain distinctions. Straightforward enough.
Yet the point that I want to underscore is that describing the nature of something like Christianity is much more than just engaging our faculties: using our analysis, our creativity, and referencing past experiences. Instead, it actually has social implications. For instance, how one describes something like Christianity may actually impact who one can (and cannot) be friends with!
This means that how we describe something can both open up new relationships and, perhaps more importantly, threaten existing relationships. For example, what affect would it have on your Christian friends if you endorsed a rather different description of Christianity than they do? How might they react (and what implications could this have for your relationships with them)?
My hunch is that many Christians would answer such questions negatively. Perhaps very negatively. More so, my hunch is also that for most of us the assumption that we would receive negative responses (or even be ostracized) is not something about which we are completely conscious. Yet I believe that the pre-conscious fear of negative responses can actually change how we describe something, without us even knowing it!1
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that if we fear, at whatever level, that our Christian peers will respond to us negatively then this “may” effect how we see and describe Christianity. I am arguing that it will effect it. The only questions are how, and how much.
Now I think that it’s worth offering an explanation of these potentially negative responses. I explain them in terms of the type of relationship that one has with truth (and the type of orientation one has toward truth-seeking), but also toward such things as the value of imagination, speculative thinking, discussion (versus debate), etc.
So returning to my earlier comment, above, not only does describing the nature of Christianity have social implications, but I believe that to varying degrees it is actually socially driven—in that our descriptions are socially motivated—depending on the nature of one’s existing relationships and how such things as truth, imagination, etc. are valued (or not) in a given community.
This in turn has moral implications, where for the sake of maintaining status, remaining included, or simply “keeping the peace” within our communities we will veer away from effective truth-seeking, wider use of our imagination, resistance to speculative thinking or refusal to discuss such matters.
Being aware not only of the implications but also of our motivations, my next post will turn to Step two: the question of the nature of Christianity and how one might best describe it.