What is Christianity? Part III

After several preparatory posts on this subject the time has come to lay out what, in my view, constitutes the most appropriate characterization of Christianity.

First, two caveats:

Given what I have argued previously about “owning” one’s faith I simply do not believe that a scriptural characterization of Christianity—whether by one verse, a pastiche of verses, or a whole chapter—is valid. Scripture helps people understand Christianity but cannot not represent, or sum up, that understanding.

Given what I have argued previously about the social and moral implications, among co-adherents, of defining a shared belief system I am both suspicious of the absence of a generic, evangelical characterization and, sadly, unsurprised by it.

So what is Christianity like, and how would I best describe it?

To my mind, Christianity is best likened dually to a “research project” and a “dramatic performance,” and this dual orientation reflects the dual “prioritis-in-tension” that I see in love and truth, truth and love. This post focuses on Christianity as a research project.

Why a “research project?”

I characterize Christianity in terms of a “research project” because Christianity is intimately concerned with truth. Primarily it concerns the truth about who / what God is, who / what human beings are, and how the two are best to relate. Secondarily, it concerns truth about how human beings are best to relate to one another and to the physical world around them.

In other words, the Bible contains certain truth claims with which readers are presented and upon which, as part of the very process of reading, they will necessarily pass judgment.1 So my proposal is that one responds best to these truth claims by seeking to understand them correctly and then adjudicating their respective truth value (rather than simply accepting or rejecting them).

Broadly speaking this involves three steps. First, determining exactly what the biblical truth claims actually are. Second, determining what is necessary / how to assess their truth values. Third, carrying out a process of adjudication in order to decide both a) to what degree these claims are indeed accurate (as truthful) and b) to what degree they are applicable (as real or relevant).2.

So what is a “research project?”

A research project is not simply an investigation, a way of answering a question, or a hobby. It is a sustained and systematic inquiry into and development of a field of knowledge, carried out in the most appropriate manner to both the field studied and the goal desired. In this case the “field of knowledge” would be those domains providing information and tools helpful to understanding better Christianity’s primary and secondary concerns (as noted above).

So this research project will, of necessity, be multi-disciplinary, for it focuses not simply on a text (the Bible) but on all aspects of human beings (humanity as such, the nature of human relationships, the world as the realm of inter-human relations and as an element of relationality with humanity, etc.). Further, philosophy and hermeneutics (as the “art and science of interpretation”) will also necessarily be involved because the relationship and distinctions between the human and divine, insofar as the biblical truth claims are concerned, needs to be formulated.

The desired goal of such a project must be informed not only by the project’s immediate objective (satisfactorily determining the Bible’s truth claims, in order to decide how best their truth value may be assessed, and then to adjudicate their truthfulness and relevance) but also by the project’s scope. Specifically, with respect to Christianity one is not only dealing with claims to truth but also with their putative claimant.

Thus it is impossible to engage with Christianity as a research project without the specific nature of the biblical truth claims coming into play. For instance, on my determination the Bible minimally proposes such claims as “God exists as an entity” and “this God knows human beings more truly than they know themselves and loves human beings more deeply than they love themselves.” If the biblical truth claims are false then these notions are either meaningless or at least removed from reality in a manner that renders them incompatible with the professed views of much of evangelical Christianity (i.e., incompatible with the view that Christianity relates to all of life—that it offers the “really real”).

I recognize, however, that the argument that we should start by orienting ourselves to Christianity as a research project (in order best to understand and assess its truth claims) would be rejected by those who believe that we come to know God and validate truth claims by developing Christian habits and implementing Christian practices. For these folks we learn most (and first) by “doing.”

Now I too value the mutually informing nature of theory and practice, but I submit that this scenario is not an example of such. Instead, I would argue that acting as though “God is real and God loves me” is merely conjuring up feelings about / attitudes toward God in a “fake-it-until-you-make-it” sort of way, and that this is not the way to engage successfully with self-involving truth claims: when we engage with these biblical claims as a research project we are never merely observers, but are always also participants.

Thus I begin by characterizing Christianity as a research project because it is at this level that those contemplating Christianity’s initial meaning and veracity must start. Only once we develop the tools to evaluate (and begin to see some legitimate content within) Christianity’s truth values can one—as a further, natural step of participation—begin embracing Christianity as a dramatic performance.3

Show 3 footnotes

  1. For example, insofar as texts such as the Gospels are rhetorical in nature the trajectory of the narrative aims to persuade readers on such matters as the identity of Jesus and the necessity of orienting oneself rightly toward Jesus.
  2. In addition to what is “real,” the value and importance of what is possible will be dealt with below, concerning Christianity as a dramatic performance.
  3. Here we might characterize the owner of a research project as a “participant observer” and the owner of a dramatic performance as an “observer participant,” where the emphasis of both is on the latter term and one does not progress (or mature) from one orientation into the next but continues to develop both mutually.

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