This is the second in a series inspired by Bertrand Russell's essay Why I am not a Christian. My intention in this series is, however, not to follow his essay fanatically, but to use it as an excuse to jump off into various digressions. Russell's essay is a good starting point, partly because of its influence, but mostly (to my mind) because he touches on a lot of subjects in a paragraph or even sentence each of which deserve be fleshed out in far greater depth.
I am right at the start of Bertrand Russell's essay, so I will begin where he did, with an introduction. And he began by asking the right question: what do we understand when we use the word 'Christian'. After all, there is not much point in attacking something, unless you first express clearly and accurately what it is that you are not.
In this section he makes a very good point: these days Christianity is not an easy thing to define. He claims that it was somewhat easier in the days of Augustine and Aquinas, where there was near uniform agreement with the various creeds. Now, of course, many people take pride in disputing almost every clause of the creed, while still calling themselves Christian.
He excludes certain possible definitions: being a person who tried to live a good life; or being a member of a society that was traditionally or culturally Christian. In each of these, I have no quibble with him, and fully accept his point that neither of these are good definitions for the reasons he states. He also makes a point about how, in the United Kingdom, Christian doctrine has apparently been arbitrarily changed by parliament, using the example of how the privy council excluded the doctrine of Hell. He mocks this, and I also agree with the mocking. The privy council, or parliament, or general synod can no more declare what is and isn't a Christian than it can declare that a certain type of butterfly should be reclassified as a teapot. If it tries to do so, it is final confirmation (if any more were needed) that the political and church authorities have descended into madness. Thinking that it has the authority to speak for God and exclude a belief in Hell from the definition of Christianity, or attempt to redefine Christian ethics, or to redefine by legal decree certain men as women ore women as men, are, in my view, of the same degree of insanity.
Of course, this view is somewhat simplistic. There was not uniformity of belief even in Augustine or Aquinas' days. Since it is interesting, and expands on what I want to say here, I'll discuss the example of Augustine's time period in my next post.
So this leaves the question of how we can define Christianity. The first and most important thing to emphasise is that Christianity is not simply a matter of belief. To be a Christian requires both that we believe certain things, and that we live in accordance with those beliefs, not just in a few hours on a Sunday but all the time. You can believe all you want, but if you do not have Christian charity, it will all be for nothing (at least as far as being a good Christian is concerned; you would still be a very good hypocrite).
The second thing to say is that if Christianity is true, ultimately the decision of who is and is not part of the faith is not ours to make, but God's. This is a bit of a annoyance for those like me who like the intellectual exercise of writing about Christianity, since we have to begin with our own definitions, and it would be a bit embarrassing to get to the pearly gates and be told No, sorry, its not that at all, or to find that heaven is populated by Medici Popes. I just have to put aside these worries, and do the best I can, while acknowledging that my judgement is not the judgement that matters.
That there is an element of uncertainty brings me onto my third point. Whatever definition we accept should contain a certain amount of flexibility. Enough, but not too much. This is true for almost any useful definition. If we want to define the species cat by thinking of one such animal and ticking off all the properties it has and crossing out all the properties it does't have and we will get nowhere useful fast. Only a madman with no knowledge of modern physics (or a German Philosopher, or both) would think that that is even remotely a sensible idea. There is variation in the idea of being a cat; not all cats are the same, and even an individual cat can change over the course of its life. Instead, we should think of cats in terms of a set of possible states. We can compute the measurable properties from the states. Writing in terms of states rather than properties gives us the advantage that we can also describe how a cat can grow and develop as a movement from one state to another. We can outline tendencies of how those states develop, both those irreversible tendencies such as a kitten becoming an adult cat, and reversible tendencies such as the cat sitting down or standing up. Thinking in terms of properties makes this harder; we should focus on the more fundamental states of being. If a being is within the set that describes all possible states of being a cat, then it is a cat. If it is outside the set, then it is not a cat. All nice and simple. At least its simple until we actually try to do the work and draw up the boundaries of the set, so that it includes all cats and excludes all penguins. Fortunately, I'm a physicist, so the hardest thing I have to think about is a proton. But the same principle applies (or so I want to claim). Once we have the set, we can then think about essential properties which all members in the set share, and accidental properties, which differ from one member to another.
Fourthly, we should be careful to allow the distinction between being a non-Christian and merely being a bad Christian. For example, during the reformation period certain people claiming to be Christian burnt several other people also claiming to be Christian at the stake. It is clear that those who did the burning were bad Christians at the very least, in that they contradicted the commands of Jesus to "Love your enemies", to "remove the plank from your own eye before attending to the speck in your brother's" to "do not judge lest you be judged yourself", and to treat the divisive person "as a pagan and a tax collector" (i.e. a call to disassociate yourself from them rather than harming them). All of these, and many more, directly contradict burning someone at the stake. The people who did the burning might have believed themselves to be Christian, and perhaps believed themselves to be acting in accordance with those teachings. But at an objective level, they weren't. This means that they were either bad Christians, or non-Christians, and which one we choose will depend on how we define the beliefs that make up Christianity and which beliefs we say that it is essential for a Christian to act on. I myself would prefer to treat such people, on both sides of the reformation, as exceptionally bad Christians (and nearly as bad people), but I wouldn't argue too strongly against someone who will state that they stepped outside the bounds of Christianity.
But, unfortunately, what we want to engage in here is intellectual discussion. The intellect is concerned with the truth and falsity of propositions. Bertrand Russell was trying to prove those propositions false, and I believe that they can be proved true. Therefore, to we have reduce Christianity to a set of propositions before we can begin. Reduce? That's the wrong word. We need to extract from Christianity a subset of its essential features, selecting those parts of it which can be expressed as propositions. This should be possible since, as I think everyone agrees, Christianity is in part about beliefs. Then we have something to start with. But which propositions should we choose?
Should we define a Christian as someone who identifies themselves as a Christian? This is perhaps appealing to a post-modern relativist who despises the notion of objectivity, but for the sane among us it is clearly a non-starter. Anyone can call themselves whatever they like. For example, consider the cannabis smoking sodomite Rastafarian, who worships idols, believes that the goal of religion is to break the cycle of reincarnation and be absorbed into nirvana, and this is achieved by saying prayers five times daily and going on pilgrimage to Mecca. Such a man may, if he wishes, call himself 'Christian', but for the rest of us to accept this self-definition would be to strip the word of all possible meaning and usefulness. As a corollary to this, we should be willing to accept that many who do call themselves Christian are not, in fact, Christian. For example, we can consider theological liberals (those who try to interpret Christianity though the lens of enlightenment philosophy). While some of these are merely bad Christians, others, such as those who deny the bodily and physical resurrection, or the incarnation and its corollary the doctrine of the virgin birth, or feel that Jesus was just a man with a strong connection to the innate divine sense within all of us, or believe the absurdity that God is incapable of performing miraculous signs, or believe that science has disproved theism; all these people are clearly beyond the bounds of Christianity, and yet they can be found even in high positions in many Churches.
No, we need to turn to an objective confessional standard.
In some respects, it is easier to ask 'how do we define an Anglican', or 'how do we define a Lutheran', or Presbyterian, or Roman Catholic, than how to define what beliefs are essential to Christianity. Each of these denominations has a confessional standard, whether it is the Roman Catholic Catechism, or the Ausberg confession, or the Westminster Confession, or whatever. For example, my own beloved Anglicanism is constrained by its doctrinal standard: the thirty-nine articles, the book of common prayer including the ordinal, and the series of homilies appointed to be read in churches. Of course, behind these lie the ancient councils, Church writings and scriptures that they were built on and acknowledge as being more authoritative than they are. The thirty-nine articles are a summary of what Anglicans believe are the correct interpretation of those more ancient sources with regards to the various questions which divided the Church in the sixteenth century. Most of those disputes are still relevant today, although, unfortunately, we have also grown a whole load of new disputes, and probably need to add an additional thirty nine articles if we are to sort out this current mess. If we are to define an Anglican by belief (and some would, in my opinion erroneously, define it differently, such as through organisational affiliation), then the definition is simple: somebody who accepts the teachings of the thirty nine articles, homilies and the sixteenth century Book of Common prayer, and, as much as they able, puts those teachings into practice. This would leave a lot of people in contemporary society who call themselves Anglican but aren't, and perhaps a few who don't call themselves Anglican but are. But what of it? Similarly, a Lutheran would be someone who accepts the articles of the Ausberg confession and, as much as they are able, puts them into practice. Now it might be thought that maybe we should try to find out what all these confessions and creeds have in common, and accept that as our standard for Christianity. But this isn't really the answer, because we have to decide which sects and denominations to include in our search. Do we include or exclude the Jehovah's Witnesses, or the Mormons? To decide this, we first need to have a suitable understanding of which sects are Christian which either includes or excludes them before we start, and that rather spoils the point of the whole exercise.
So how should we define Christianity? One obvious definition, which I don't think that anyone would dispute, is that it is the religion which was founded by Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ by His followers. Christianity obviously demands from its believers certain beliefs, rituals, participation in the Church, and actions and attitudes, most importantly the desire that everyone, especially ourselves, be virtuous. Since we are focussing on the beliefs, then how does the definition of Christianity as the religion founded by Jesus determine what those beliefs are? Clearly we should look back to the teachings of Jesus and the doctrines held by His first disciples. If Christianity is correct, then after Jesus ascended in the early 30s AD, he left several hundred, probably no more than a thousand, close supporters scattered in Jerusalem and Galilee; to whom He entrusted his ministry. On top of these, there would have been a few tens of thousands more who would have encountered Jesus during His ministry, and have been sympathetic to the religion; some of these might have joined the Church in the early years, others drifted away and were re-absorbed into Judaism. Of those initial disciples, a small number, eleven chosen by Jesus, his half brothers and other members of his family, and the women who accompanied him, had positions of prominence. If anyone deserves the name of Christian, it is this small group of people, and the others added to positions of leadership in their generation. After an initial Jewish persecution, they scattered to the leading cities of the Roman and Persian Empires, such as Antioch, Alexandria and Rome, and it was at Antioch, where Paul of Tarsus was one of the ministers, that they were first called Christian. They were not completely uniform in their beliefs, but there was only a limited degree of diversity. Therefore, what these people unanimously considered essential beliefs we should consider essential Christian beliefs, and what they considered non-essential, or which varied between them, suggests the allowed degrees of variation, and what they considered forbidden should be considered as being outside the bounds of Christianity.
We are looking for a list of essential definitional Christian beliefs. What is on that list is in itself an essential belief. Therefore if we choose a list that is different from the one believed during the apostolic age, then we are declaring the apostles to be non-Christian, which is absurd. We can, of course, express those beliefs more precisely and systematically: play with the words so that there can be no confusion. What we cannot do is change the meanings of those words.
Bertrand Russell stated in his essay that it was difficult to define the list of core Christian beliefs in his day. If we are define Christianity in terms of those who self-identify as Christian, then that task has become even harder today, because of the contradictory belief systems held by the theological liberals and the orthodox Christians. But it would never have been easy in any age. However, if we were to define acceptable religion doctrine in terms of the beliefs of the religion's founders, then the issue becomes tractable, if still difficult. Of course, that would mean excluding a great many people who call themselves Christian, but who have added, subtracted, or modified doctrine, or taken it from sources other than the beliefs of Christianity's founders, or beliefs which can be reasonably concluded by taking the initial Christian doctrine as a premise.
So what might those key Christian beliefs include? While others might disagree with me, here is my own summary of the core and essential Christian beliefs. Each point can, of course, be expanded considerably, and would be if I were offering a full treatment of the subject.
- Beliefs concerning the nature of God as Trinity, and the person of Jesus, as summarised by the seven ecumenical councils, and the three ancient creeds of the Church. This includes an understanding of God as the creator and continual sustainer of the material universe. Since God is a sustainer rather than idle bystander, the laws of physics (whatever they turn out to be) are a description of how God sustains the universe in accordance with the God-given dispositions of matter. The universe is not mechanical. The belief in God plus mechanical laws is deism; but Christianity is a branch of theism.
- Beliefs concerning the nature of man as being originally good, but deeply corrupted, and incapable of removing that corruption by his own efforts (this is the issue that vexed Paul in his letter to the Galatians), but only through the work of God. A corollary to this is that we need to identify individual elements of that moral corruption, which means that we need to accept the ethics of the New Covenant, as laid down in the New Testament and those commands of the Old Testament which are applicable universally, (perhaps part of the covenant with all of mankind represented by the figure of Noah), rather than just part of the covenant of Moses.
- Beliefs concerning God's ultimate purpose for mankind, including the general bodily resurrection, a vision of Heaven as the Kingdom of God fully realised, a dwelling place reserved for the pure in heart and virtuous, and the reality of Hell.
- Beliefs concerning Christ's place in God's plan for the rescue of mankind from corruption, most especially the role of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and future return. This also implies a belief that God can perform miraculous signs, and has done so, and continues to do so. Beliefs concerning the role of the holy spirit as a giver of life and gifts, guide, comforter, and one who builds up the church and directs us back to Jesus.
- Beliefs concerning how we need to respond to Christ's work, including repentance, trust in God, and, where possible, participation in the sacraments of the Lord's supper and Baptism.
- Beliefs concerning the nature of the Church, and our own roles in it and its mission of guarding the sacred deposit of faith, providing hospitality, general education and material welfare to those in need, and being God's instrument in the mission of saving as many as possible from sin and divine wrath.
Whatever the merits of my own list, Bertrand Russell chose to make it simpler, and selected just three beliefs as being essential to Christianity.
- Belief in God.
- Belief in immortality.
- Belief that Jesus was the best and wisest of men.
Nonetheless, Russell sets out to argue against each of these propositions. I grant him that if he succeeds, he will disprove Christianity. I will discuss whether he does succeed in subsequent articles. But not immediately. I'm about to embark on one of my digressions.
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