the West is godless. We must begin with this truth, for this is the situation of theology today. Not only is it godless in that the concept of God has become empty and superfluous to public discourse of values and policies — use of theology in politics is viewed as both undermining to democratic processes and inappropriate for engagement between what are, by all appearances, the clashes of incommensurable community values—but it is godless in that we have no future.
It appears that the modern world can get along quite well without God. With the advent of the sciences, many mysteries of the world have been explained. No longer do we live consumed by a fear of demons or in unquestioning awe of power hungry gods.
We have access to more information than any era of human history and, in no small part due to this accumulation of knowledge, the question of religion seems to have been answered in favor of secularism. Yet contrary to many Christians, we affirm that this has the potential to be a beneficial conclusion. It shows us that, in a postmodern world, the truth of any matter is no longer determined by appeal to authority necessarily, but by the weight of evidence involved in any claim about reality. While many fret about the jettisoning of Christianity from public life, we believe that when public policy reflects neutrality toward religion, freedom and equality abound, making this a unique opportunity for persons of faith to review and restate their deepest yearnings and convictions in ways previously unimagined, in ways that may often surprise, comfort, and wound.
So why Christianity Now? What purpose can Christianity serve in our era of knowledge and facts: without demons below or heaven above; without a ruling priestly class; without a single interpretation of anything; without a first-century worldview; without a being sitting in space looking down to help a praying man find a parking spot while observing with indifference the inability of many to earn a living wage, looking upon police brutality towards people of color with unflappable equanimity?
Christianity Now because there are deeper things for which religion, at its best, stands. Because there is an inexhaustible mystery of life. Because there is an awareness, by many people, that existence may have a deeper meaning. Because there is a call of conscience which demands of many an unconditional devotion to humanity as such: to our neighbors, because they are humans: to all of creation simply because it has been declared “very good.”
Christianity Now because many feel alienated from themselves, others, and the world. Because Christianity’s message – in this world of alienation, deceit, suffering and, all too often, hopelessness – is about the power of love, the liberation of truth, and the hope that new ways of living are, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, still possible.
Join us as we attempt to understand our situations in the world anew, in light of a thoroughly modern understanding of Christianity.
Before we can answer the question of why Christianity, before we defend this religion and seek to use it to re-engage the culture, we must back up a step and answer another fundamental question – which Christianity?
Many types of Christians exist. I’d even argue that there are many types of Christianities. OF course, many people affirm that there is only one way of truly being Christian, however, what they usually mean by this is that theirs is the only true Christianity. In reality, there are Christianities – varying interpretations of what it means to be a Christian and what the whole affair is about.
For some, Christianity is about believing that Jesus is God and that he died on a Cross to save us all from our sins. Other’s believe that Christianity is about affirming the Trinity, the notion of God as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. For some, Christianity is entwined with a specific moral view of the world. For others, their understanding of Christianity is deeply connected to the notion of church as mystical body of Christ and the sacraments. And there are other, overlapping approaches and views.
The Christian movement did not begin from a single center but from many different centers with different groups of followers of Jesus who tried to make sense of what they had experienced with him and what had happened to him (and them) at the end of his public ministry. Each of these groups had a different interpretation concerning the significance of Jesus, his teachings, life, death, and the meaning of his resurrection. Yes, there was much in common, but there were differences, too.
We find in the Book of Acts talk of different Christian groups in competition with one another. Some insisted more strongly on observance of Jewish law, while others advocated open entry for gentiles without imposing the burdens of the law on them. Paul, in his letters, references other gospels, other teachers, and other versions of Christianity. There was more diversity in the early stages of the Christian movement than many seem to acknowledge.
As I said, rather than Christianity, we should say “Christianities,” especially in terms of the realities of the first through third centuries when Christian identity and practice was far from uniform or consistant. Thus, we see a proliferation of gospels throughout the empire, and by the third and early fourth century there are dozens and dozens of gospels.
Some of the differences in early Christianity were regional and cultural. Christianity spread into the various regions of the Greco-Roman world, adopting concepts from other religions, some of them pagan religions, all of which influenced the early Christian movement tremendously – but also led to diversity.
Despite the diversity there is a common core – the eventual selection of the canonical gospels, the other scriptures, a shared history of the early churches (even if diverse, shared many common themes and experiences) and the eventual attempts to unify Christianity through councils, gatherings, and creating a canon of sacred texts.
Acknowledging the legitimate diversity that exists, we can now ask, what does it mean to be a Christian? Is it about affirming certain propositions? Well, yes, but that doesn’t fully answer the question. Is it attempting to conform one’s life to the teachings and example of Jesus? Yes, but which teachings understood how?
There are multiple tellings of the Christian story, so I need to begin presenting my own understanding of it, and explaining why I find Christianity true and meaningful.
How I Understand the Basic Christian Narrative
For me, the plot of the Christian narrative focuses on the nature of relationships, the search for wholeness – and finding it, and the fullness of life, by loving others and giving ourselves over to goodness.
Like all good stories, the plot has inherent tension – the suspense of confronting necessary choices and their resulting outcomes. The choices confronted form two interwoven subplots – one structural-cultural and the other personal-relational.
The structural-social subplot is a tale of the ongoing conflict between two kingdoms – a kingdom of justice, love, and peace (God’s kingdom) and a kingdom of oppression, dehumanization, and strife (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome, et al).
The personal-relational subplot is about humanity’s relationship with itself – what type of people we decide to be based on the values we chose and how we act toward one another.
The story makes it clear that the stakes are high with our choices imbued with ultimate significance and consequences of life or death, meaning or despair.
It’s something of a nail biter, with plot twists, setbacks, and lots of drama. Which kingdom will prevail? What choice will humanity make? Will we act wisely and chose life, embracing our better self? The written story stops, but doesn’t end – asking each of us to become part of the next chapter and decide for ourselves which kingdom we serve and which self we’ll become – making the final outcome dependent on our choices.
What are some more of the specifics of the Christian story? What are some of the particular claims? What meanings are asserted? What wisdom is offered? Among these insights:
Human Dignity – that human beings are persons and possess an inherent dignity and ontological value that grounds claims of moral truth, human rights, and the need for a compassionate and just social order.
The Primacy of Love – that at the heart of human morality and purpose is the directive to love our neighbor as ourselves. That authentic human purpose can be found in efforts to bring about the true good for ourselves and others. That compassion, forgiveness, kindness, and mercy are the most profound of human values.
Achieving Peace through the Nonviolent Pursuit of Justice – that enduring and authentic peace can only be achieved through the nonviolent struggle for justice for all.
Concern for the Poor, Needy, and Marginalized – that a truly humane society is one that cares for its poor, needy, lowly, and marginalized. That we as a species are a family and that our collective well-being depends on the well-being of the least of our brothers and sisters.
Human Wholeness through Kenosis – that much of the meaning of life is found in giving ourselves to values and goods worthy of our dignity. That we find the meaning of life in self giving and service for others, pursuing goals and goods that go beyond selfish concerns.
This interpretation of Christianity understands it as a path of personal transformation through love and restoring the world with justice and compassion. At the heart of Christianity is kenotic love (the Cross) freeing ourselves from the conditioning that keeps us from being a blessing to all the families of the earth, human and otherwise. Further, Christianity calls us to build a new order of love – the Kingdom. The values of this Kingdom are mercy, justice, equality, freedom, and kindness. Its vision is of a world of peace accomplished through justice where the dignity of all is affirmed.
The Value of Christianity
As we conclude the first part of this essay, a possible response to our entire discussion so far, all our talk of living in a Post Christian culture, and the the nature of theology, is, so what?
Why not let Judeo-Christianity decline? Many find that religion, particularly Christianity, is unnecessary, or worse, damaging to culture, reasoning skills, and an accurate understanding of the world. According to this manner of thinking, religious decline is a sign of progress. Further, perhaps the decline is due to inherent flaws within the Christian enterprise itself.
Another set of questions arise, why Christianity? Why not advocate for the Buddhist narrative or even a secular one? Can’t we find our meaning in psychology, science, or simply the context of our individual lives? Maybe we’re inflating the importance of meaning and having a unifying cultural narrative?
The questions are valid – to argue in the above manner is understandable – but doing so neglects the genuine contributions of Christianity – and neglects the genuine potential Christianity offers to all.
On balance, Christianity has been a humanizing and positive influence, providing the West with core insights and values that have helped generate much of the progress and goodness of Western culture. Further, Christianity was/is formative of the West and therefore should still resonate with its culture if offered again in better form. The culture shaped by Christianity is still capable of powerfully responding to Christianity, presently rightly, even in its Post Christian condition.
Significant developments within the Western cultural tradition are grounded in the affirmation of human dignity – from democracy, concerns of social justice, the assertion of human rights, offering aid to the needy, exercising compassion, and advocating freedom and equality – even the foundations of science itself are rooted in this vision of the rational, dignified person.
The Christian vision has reinforced and even led to many revolutionary ideas – such as the equality of all humanity, the equality of men and women, racial equality, and so on. It dictates love of strangers and calls for the care of the poor and the outcast. This vision remains relevant for any people who wish to be considered humane.
More radically, the moral priorities of authentic Christianity call for a world where the poor and lowly are considered the important ones. Where the imperfect are favored over the legalistic. Christianity has been a force of resistance to the dehumanizing power and violence of Empire, seeking a world of peace and justice.
These, and other, core convictions are hard to come by in other narratives, traditions, and systems. This is not to argue that Christianity has a monopoly on these claims and insights. The argument is not that other religions do not contain truth and value – they do. Nor is it to argue that non-religious worldviews are devoid of meaning – they are not. In a strict sense, the Bible and God are not necessary for understanding and living a good life. Rather, it is to argue for the value and merit of Christianity itself, without the need to denigrate or push out of the public sphere other paths, traditions, and ways of thinking.
Additionally, it is of central importance that we state that or argument is not that Christianity should once again become the prevalent narrative for the West. Cultural influence does not require dominance or control. Christianity also provided the roots of notions such as tolerance, freedom of conscience, and not only freedom of religion, but freedom from religion. Arguing for the positive benefits of Christian influence on the culture is not the same as arguing that Christianity must be the dominant narrative or that Christianity should control the cultural discourse.
What about science? Can’t science offer us the meaning and insights we need for a good life? Those who advocate that all we need is reason and the scientific method – that mythic narrative and argument through mythopoetic metaphor is outdated, unnecessary, and even primitive, fail to grasp the value of religion and theology as a way of correctly seeing the most important aspects of the world. Only a small part of human experience (and mostly the least meaningful parts of it) are susceptible to descriptions that satisfy the scientific method.
It’s hard not to recognize that poetry and myth correspond closely to how humans really experience their lives, often more than does the language of science. And it’s just as unrealistic to pretend that language which has been so persistent throughout human history lacks truth because it doesn’t correspond to scientific standards than it is to pretend that science has nothing to contribute to our understanding of reality because some of its judgments and methods may contradict certain interpretations of certain phrases in certain very ancient texts.
Few traditions so emphasize claims of human dignity, the value of life, and the critical power of mercy and forgiveness. Few traditions have so strongly emphasized the care of the poor and valuing of the lowly. Christianity offers a way of living – a vision that calls us beyond the normal understanding of morality and what constitutes a good life – one that turns the world upside down.
Therefore, I affirm Christianity because I’m convinced it offers a genuine description of the way the life really is. The Bible and Christian theology encode a wealth of wisdom and contain a compelling mythopoetic narrative that can help thoroughly modern people create a rich web of meaning so needed today.