How do we know what true Christianity is?

or, Whose orthodoxy is the right one?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether Islamic State militants are truly Islamic. They of course claim to be the true representatives of Islam, but mainstream Muslims argue that I.S. absolutely do not represent them.

With Christianity also, mainstream and progressive believers often feel that what we see as the true Christian message is being hi-jacked by the fundamentalists and fanatics with their homophobic, racist, sexist or anti-science agendas.

But how do we know that our version rather than the extremists’ is actually the right one? Is it even possible to define what is and isn’t genuinely and authentically Christian?

Religion – monolithic or messy?

Recently I was at an interfaith gathering in Croydon, designed to promote harmony and understanding between different religions. Ironically, I ended up drawn into a fruitless conversation with a militant anti-theist.

This good fellow had, he maintained, studied the history and scriptures of all the major religions, and could authoritatively pronounce that they were all fundamentally and historically brutal, bloody and bad.

What struck me was his utter conviction that he as a self-proclaimed atheist academic knew the reality of my faith better than I did. And the more I said ‘but I don’t recognise what you’re describing as my religion’, the more he assured me that his was the reality, and mine was mistaken.

Interestingly, this approach mirrors that of the religious fundamentalists, insisting that only their version is true and all others false.

I’ve encountered before the anti-theist insistence that each religion is a homogeneous and monolithic entity. If some Christians once fought the Crusades or conducted the Spanish Inquisition, then that’s the reality of what Christianity is. If some churches have used the Bible to justify homophobia or apartheid, then that’s what the Bible says and what the church is.

But this just isn’t my experience of the confusingly complex, diverse and often conflicting set of people, beliefs and practices which make up my own or any community of faith.

Re-defining Christianity to suit ourselves?

I can see it from the anti-theist’s perspective. It must be very annoying when they’ve chucked at us all the awfulness that’s been done or daftness that’s been believed in the name of Christianity, and we just say ‘oh, that’s not our kind of Christianity – we would never condone that.’ We can’t always just disclaim all responsibility for our co-religionists’ views and actions. But neither do we have to accept as ‘Christian’ everything that’s ever been taught or done under the guise of Christian orthodoxy.

It also seems obvious to an outsider that there should be a single officially-designated, objectively-definable version of Christianity, which we have to agree to and abide by or else not call ourselves Christian. We can’t just re-define Christianity to suit our preferences and leave out the unpalatable or embarrassing bits – that’s not cricket!

Well, I do accept that it’s mighty inconvenient, inconsiderate and unfair for there not to be a correct version of Christianity that others can hold us to and beat us up with. But the trouble is, there just isn’t – at least not that anyone can agree on.

Whose orthodoxy is right?

Many have of course tried to define an absolutely orthodox, standard, authorised version, but they generally disagree – hence the estimated 40,000+ Christian denominations. And a similar principle holds for Islam, and Hinduism, and Buddhism, and pretty much all the other faiths.

For sure, there are some historical creeds and catechisms and a few core beliefs that give a broad, general outline, some basic common ground. But within and around that there are almost as many variations of Christian belief and practice as there are individual Christians. And there are almost as many interpretations of the Bible as there are people who read it. One believer’s creed is another believer’s heresy.

And that’s just the thing with religion – however much some parts of the official churches try to control and define it, it’s an inherently diverse and evolving phenomenon, not a uniform or static one. And I for one am very glad of that.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that an absolutely orthodox set of beliefs and practices could ever be possible to determine, nor that it would be of that much benefit if we could. But that’s for next time…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Atheism/agnosticism, Fundamentalism, Heresy/blasphemy, Liberalism, Orthodoxy, Religion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to How do we know what true Christianity is?

  1. Daniel says:

    Am I allowed to say its all about the relationship?

    If you were to describe Rosie as you know her it probably wouldn’t match my description of her. Or Faye or to be honest anyone else. I don’t believe there can be a finite set of beliefs or practices as what works now didn’t work then and won’t work in the future. God may never change but as us mere mortals change how God works with us and changes our relationship. Your relationship with your son isn’t the same as when he was two and won’t be the same as when he is an adult!

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    • You’re only allowed to say it’s all about the relationship if you pay Phil royalties or come back to cell 😉

      No, you’re absolutely right – I think you hit the nail totally on the head, and that’s a great way of looking at it. All the attempts to define correct beliefs are a bit like trying to write the perfect description of our wives or kids – but as you say, our relationship with them will be different to anyone else’s, and what we see will be different. And yes, really good point about how any relationship changes over time!

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  2. Noel says:

    “It’s a diverse and evolving phenomenon ” : this statement summarizes your post beautifully. What is the right picture of a river? It is constantly changing and passing by. One second you look at it, and the next second it looks different because the water keeps flowing and changing forms. That is the same as religion and many other concepts. To try to define the “true” Christianity is trying to chase down an image that is not really there. It’s like finding the end of the rainbow . That is why I don’t identify myself anymore with a particular religion. Even though it claims that “God” does not change, the creators of religion (humans) change all the time. And therefore the image of God also changes.

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    • Thanks Noel – interesting thoughts. I agree that religion is like a river or a rainbow – real but fluid, not static.

      Nonetheless I haven’t gone quite as far as you in un-identifying with any particular religion. That’s not because I think that my own religion is fully ‘the right one’ and all others ‘wrong’, but simply because I feel I need a specific context. Others have likened it to language – your native tongue will always be a particular language, but that doesn’t mean that English is better than French, say.

      Also I suppose that for me, there is still something utterly unique about Christ, and something special about the Christian ideas of incarnation and resurrection. But I’m broadly an inclusivist and universalist – for me, Christ is present in other faiths but in a more hidden way.

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  3. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Well spoken. I think it is frustrating to ant-religionists that there is never a universal form of religion they can analyze and attack. I used to visit an active ex-Christian site and they very much castigated a Christianity with which I also disagreed, and it was frustrating to them.

    Many Christians have tight definitions of who is a real Christian. I am an evangelical and I face the same scenario–evangelicals who say I am not an evangelical because I do not represent their definition of evangelical.

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    • Thanks Tim!

      For me now it’s not so much that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ forms of religion (or specifically Christianity), as that there are more and less emotionally healthy ones, more and less spiritually helpful ones. So I can’t come down and say that one particular version is completely correct and all others mistaken, but I can perhaps stumblingly feel my way towards forms that seem more real and genuine and freeing, and away from those which feel more controlling and life-sapping.

      I’m interested (and quite glad) that you still identify yourself as an evangelical. I have no real problem with the term ‘evangelical’ any more than with the term ‘Christian’ – I think both can be used in more and less helpful ways. However, I don’t any longer see myself as fully evangelical as I understand that term, nor truly liberal. I think I’m happy to be something I can’t really label! But also very happy to let others inhabit whichever branch of faith they find most fitting.

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      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        I agree that there is no form that we can call ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but I do think religious groups that hurt people through judgment and condemnation, or who burden people down with legalistic rules are very unhealthy and unhelpful.

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        • Yes, absolutely – I think some branches of Christianity are very far away from the heart of what it’s all about, which is to say from the heart of Jesus. I have to remind myself that he still loves these people and I’m sure is working to liberate them as he is working to liberate me!

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  4. Reblogged this on multicolouredsmartypants and commented:

    Some very interesting thoughts.

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  5. Terry says:

    This is probably going to sound too simplistic, but for me it all hinges on whether God really did raise Jesus from the dead. If God didn’t, then we’re all wasting our time, I believe, and religious beliefs, specific and in general, Western, Eastern, esoteric or ‘of the book’ (pick your volume) are merely social constructions. But, of course, if God did raise Jesus from the dead, then I think Christian claims need to be considered seriously.

    Creeds testify to this reality (if reality it is), so for me this question arises: How do the creeds function? For me, if we can use the (probably poor) metaphor of a human body, the creeds are a skeleton on which the Church grows flesh (and not skin designed to enclose (or trap) whatever is under the skin). Or perhaps creeds are like musical keys: you have a basic set of notes which can be arranged in a variety of ways to make beautiful (or not so beautiful) music.

    Hmm . . . I don’t think I’m actually adding anything here. I’ll shut up now, but will leave my post as it stands.

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    • Hi Terry, I don’t think that’s simplistic, and it’s good to have a clear note sounded (to pick up on your musical metaphor).

      As you’d expect, I both do and don’t agree… for me, it does hinge on what I see as the two linked central miracles of Christianity – God becoming man in the Incarnation, and God raising man to the divine nature in the Resurrection. So yes, I’m with you on that.

      But I’m also more positive towards other religious belief systems than you. I’d need more space than this to explain what I think about other religions, but I do at least think that Christ may be present within them in more hidden ways – that people who follow them are not inherently ‘lost’. I’m naturally inclined towards inclusivism and (hopeful, non-dogmatic) universalism. And I’m not convinced that Christianity is fully formed either.

      As for the historic creeds, I see them as useful, perhaps even vital, but probably place less emphasis on them than you do. But I like your metaphors of bones for living flesh to grow on, and musical keys which can be played more or less harmoniously.

      But I’d still reiterate my main point, which is that I don’t think it’s possible to arrive at any absolute definition of Christian orthodoxy – perhaps other than that (whatever it is) it centres on the person and work of Christ.

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      • Terry says:

        So already it seems to me that you’ve adopted a position – ‘Christian orthodoxy . . . centres on the person and work of Christ’ – that excludes other possibilities. It’s not easy, this religion lark.

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        • Yes, fair point dat 😉

          I was thinking that Christian orthodoxy has to centre on Christ – that would seem at first like a tautology. But, on reflection I realise that you could make an equally (or more) convincing case that it has to centre on the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit…

          So maybe I’m going to have to retreat to my original position, which was that you probably can’t define a Christian orthodoxy that a majority of professing Christians will completely agree on (and that’s tautologous or circular as well, because can you even call yourself a Christian if you can’t define or agree what ‘Christian’ means?).

          It might perhaps be possible to provisionally put forward a few very basic core concepts and principles, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation and Resurrection – but even then you quickly run into difficulties of priority and interpretation…

          So it’s every one for him or herself, right? 😉

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    • PS… actually, the more I think about it, the more I think you’re (W)right 😉 . The starting point for a genuinely Christian orthodoxy does surely have to be that God raised Jesus from the dead – or so I’m starting to think. What I like about that is that it isn’t a theory or an idea, but a historical event (assuming one accepts it as such, which of course many liberals don’t). And from this one event most of the rest of Christian theology and practice emerges and evolves.

      So I cautiously and provisionally think that if a person doesn’t accept that (in some sense) God raised Jesus from the dead, it wouldn’t make much sense to call themselves ‘Christian’, at least in any way that would have much historical backing or meaning. That doesn’t however mean that they are necessarily bad, ‘lost’, unspiritual, cut off from God or whatever – just not orthodox-ly ‘Christian’.

      But then… I suspect that a person may be able to accept and welcome Jesus incarnationally into their hearts or beings without necessarily accepting any historical or theological claims about Jesus. Indeed, possibly without even being aware of what they’re doing. In which case I would call them Christian, but in a rather unusual and atypical sense…

      Dang it, it’s hard work!

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      • Terry says:

        I suspect we’d both say that if a person is ‘saved’, then it’s through Christ. This means that a person who practises another faith – say, Islam – if s/he is saved, is saved through Christ. But how do you suppose s/he would feel, or what do you suppose s/he would think, if, in essence, you or I were to say to that person, “You think you’re a Muslim, but actually you’re really a Christian”? See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anonymous_Christian

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        • I’m a little cautious about using the word ‘saved’ except in inverted commas, but yes, I’d say that whatever exactly it means and however exactly it works or occurs, it has to be through Christ.

          However, I probably wouldn’t say that in quite those words to someone of another faith – not I hope out of dishonesty or fear, but out of respect for their views and feelings. I can see that from another faith’s perspective it appears patristic and patronising, even in a sense coercive. But nonetheless, as I do hold out the hope for the salvation or redemption or kingdom-inclusion of others who have not knowingly professed Christ, from a Christian perspective this is the position I have to take.

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  6. epic says:

    I’m sort of in a transition phase, not sure what I believe now but used to be evangelical. I wondered how your view of Jesus’ death on the cross has changed since becoming more liberal? Do you believe all people are sinners and in need of a savior? And who do you believe Jesus is? Was he God in flesh? Thanks!

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    • Hi epic, thanks for commenting, and those are very good and very difficult questions! I’d say that my current position is evolving and is still a bit confused (or I’d rather say complex).

      I was probably never truly evangelical in the first place (though I thought I was), and I’m not fully liberal now by any means. I’m somewhere in the middle, still trying to work out which parts of my old beliefs I can still accommodate in any way. In a lot of cases, it’s not that I’m completely jettisoning evangelical beliefs, but that I need to re-interpret them quite radically and view them in a whole new light.

      So I do still broadly see Jesus as God in flesh, but my understanding of what that means has maybe changed a bit. Here’s my latest piece on this one: Why did God become human?

      And I suppose I do broadly still see humans as ‘sinners in need of a saviour’, but I have a rather different understanding of sin and salvation these days to the old evangelical ones (links are to my musings on these subjects!).

      I’m certainly no longer convinced that all non-Christians are automatically condemned to an eternity in hell – not that I ever really believed that in the first place.

      And on Jesus’ death on the cross, that’s a very complicated one which I’ve written a fair bit on! Here’s an overview piece: Why did Jesus die? Overall, I’d say that I’ve moved away from the evangelical view that Jesus’ death satisfies God’s righteous wrath towards a more incarnational view of redemption, that Jesus takes our sufferings and messed-up-ness upon himself and redeems them through his own suffering.

      I think a lot of people find after a while that they’re not really temperamentally suited to evangelicalism, and then the question is always – what now? Do I jack the whole thing in, or find a different faith tradition, or try to hold on to my beliefs but in a new way? There are certainly many other ways of being Christian than just evangelicalism, and I’ve found moderate/progressive Anglicanism probably the best fit for me at this stage. But for others it may be Orthodox Christianity, the Contemplative tradition, Quakerism or any number of other alternatives.

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      • epic says:

        Thanks for your response! I’m at the point right now if wondering if I should give up religion altogether or if there are other “right” beliefs about God. After being Evangelical for half my life I’m having a hard time shedding old mind sets. I was always critical of those with a less conservative view of scripture, saying those who held to such beliefs were making up a false God with personality traits they wanted him to have rather than worshiping the one true God. I wonder if that’s what I’m doing now?

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        • Old evangelical habits are hard to shed! Not that this is you, but I’ve seen a fair few people who’ve swapped fundamentalist Christianity for fundamentalist atheism. We get to a point where the beliefs we were taught no longer make sense, but we still have the mindset that we have to know and defend ‘the Truth’, so that often just becomes atheism instead of evangelicalism.

          I think there are other ways forward though. For me, rather than rejecting all the old beliefs it’s exploring them afresh and finding new meanings that actually do work. So while I don’t necessarily hold the old evangelical views of things like sin, salvation, heaven, hell, or scripture, I still find the concepts useful – but they need to be radically re-imagined, have new life breathed into them. The old ways don’t work any more (for me).

          One of the problems with evangelicalism is that it tries to pin everything down and tie everything up into a neat, watertight and rigid system – Truth with a capital T. The truth as I experience it is far more complex, paradoxical and messy than that. I think evangelicalism often works well for lawyers, engineers and physicists who like logic and ordered systems, but not so well for the rest of us.

          So I’d say don’t give up entirely on God / Jesus if possible, but do definitely look for other ways than the conservative evangelical one. And try not to worry too much about ‘right’ beliefs… 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Evan, I agree with everything you say here. And I especially support your encouraging Epic to consider looking for other legitimate ways of thinking rather than giving up God/Jesus entirely. I was a fundamentalist before becoming an evangelical for several decades, and it was rough for me when I began to question certain evangelical beliefs. I even had an entire year of grieving the loss of God before I discovered Jesus as the foundation of my life rather than an inerrant Bible.

            I also use the term ‘fundamentalist atheist’, but I use it a bit differently: fundamentalist atheists tend to attack the Bible from a flat reading of the Bible without regard to context, genre, or culture–the same way Christian fundamentalist do. And if you try to explain it differently, they accuse you of cheating.

            However, I like your use of the term as well, and I think they can be used together.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Thanks – yes, I can echo that sense of loss when you begin to emerge from a more fundamentalist kind of belief. The transition is a very hard time – you’ve left behind the old certainties and not yet gained anything solid in their place. It’s confusing and frightening, and there can be a strong tug to go back to the old ways, and a fear that you’ve lost your faith or become a hell-bound apostate.

              I think the two kinds of ‘fundamentalist atheism’ often go hand in hand. Some fundamentalist Christians lose their faith in God but still stick to their old literalist reading of the Bible – even though they no longer believe it. It’s hard to change mindset and see that there really are other and better ways of approaching scripture than just assuming it’s all literally true or all utterly false.

              In my view, fundamentalism is an immature and simplistic way of responding to the world and to the Bible, both of which are far more complex, messy, mysterious and nuanced than fundamentalism can allow for.

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            • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

              Agreed! 🙂

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      • epic says:

        One thing I’d like to see less of an emphasis on is “sharing Christ”. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of befriending someone solely for the purpose of sharing the Gospel and getting them to pray the salvation prayer. I much prefer the idea of befriending people simply to love them and make them know they matter, both to me and to God. If they ask questions about Jesus I’m happy to share, but I feel like it just repels people and makes it seem like your friendship is “fake” and all you’re really trying to do is win points with God by recruiting the person. That’s not the Jesus I see in the Bible.
        Any suggestions for a church denomination that puts less of an emphasis on recruiting people for God, and more on loving people like God?

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        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Epic, you describe what I now call badgering people with the gospel, and I used to do it all the time and was good at it. I am sorry I did it because it is so alienating. I now promote exactly what you are saying: “befriending people simply to love them and make them know they matter, both to me and to God. If they ask questions about Jesus I’m happy to share.”

          I think you have the right idea. If we have a genuine relationship with someone, questions will eventually come up and we can share what they need instead of what we think they need.

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        • Hi Epic, I’m completely with you on this. I’ve written here about how I used to feel terrible pressure to evangelise / witness but how I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not an evangelist and that’s okay: Why I gave up trying to save the world. What I wrote there echoes your point: “I don’t want to be sold God, nor do I want to sell him. And people aren’t projects; friends aren’t merely evangelism targets.”

          For denominations that put less emphasis on recruiting people for God, I’d say that the non-evangelical wing of Anglicanism or Episcopalianism is generally not too bad (though it has other flaws, like all denominations). Same probably applies for Roman Catholicism though for myself I’m not sure I could handle some of the other aspects! Quakerism is I think a completely non-evangelising tradition which has a fair bit of appeal for me though I haven’t made the leap.

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