Home > Christian History, Philosophy > The Great Problem of Contemporary Christianity

The Great Problem of Contemporary Christianity

The Christian community has faced many severe challenges throughout its long and diverse history. Some of those challenges have been prevalent for that entire history. Take, for instance, the problem of evil. As early as Augustine we have an instance of an individual wholly aware of such a problem and systematically attempting to solve that problem.  There are other problems as well. How ought a Christian to interact with his current culture and society? Should he completely withdraw from it? Compromise with it? Attempt to change it? And so on. Other problems are of a more recent kind given to us in the modern period (app. 1600-1800). How can we be certain that God exists? How should science and religion, reason and faith, interact (although admittedly some of these issues were certainly pre-modern as well)? Finally, in the 19th and early 20th century we see the rise of higher criticism, where the Bible is put under the scope and heavily scrutinized through the use of historical and literary criticism. Who was Jesus, the man behind the legend? What are the Gospels really saying: are they really saying the same thing or telling a very different story?  Contemporary theologians, historians, and philosophers of religion are still discussing many of these lasting questions/problems today.

While all of the aforementioned problems are important and have their place, there is a relatively recent problem that has arisen since the rise of globalization, pluralism, and post-modernism in the post World War II period. Few people, surprisingly, have actually brought this problem to the forefront (Bertrand Russell recognized this problem in his essay “Why I am not a Christian”). What is this problem? It is this: we no longer know what it means to be a Christian? In other words, the very definition of “Christian” is no longer clear. When someone says, “I am a Christian,” what is it exactly that they are espousing? Are they saying that there is a set of doctrines that they believe in and in so believing they are thereby a Christian? This is usually the case. But what doctrines are those exactly? What are those doctrines that are essential and which ones are peripheral to Christian belief?

This is an important distinction to keep in mind. Christians today (as well as in the past) differ on so many issues, but the majority of those issues do not require a Christian to take a particular stance one way or another. That is, they are peripheral issues. One can accept or reject the doctrine that a piece of bread becomes the literal body of Christ during communion and still rightfully call oneself a Christian. Likewise, Christians can be Democrat or Republican, Pro-Choice or Pro-Life, Utilitarians or Deontologists, Evolutionists or Creationists, and so on. These are often seen as peripheral issues. But with so much diversity within the Christian community, is there a set of beliefs or doctrines that we can rightfully call essential to Christian belief, such that if one does not hold to them, one is not a Christian?

In one sense this problem is very old. In the past, different sects would create certain essential sets of beliefs and simply condemn other dissenting sects as non-Christian heretics or perhaps as Christian heretics. This was often followed by physical violence, as most of us probably know. But can we really do this anymore? Certainly we cannot resort to violence, but can we even dismiss other sects as non-Christian (even though they themselves claim to be Christian) simply because they do not agree with our essentials? Perhaps we can. In one sense, this does not seem very unreasonable at all. If I am convinced that, say, belief in the divinity of Christ is essential to what it means to be a Christian, then why cannot I not claim that my neighbor (who claims to be a Christian) is not a Christian because he or she does not believe Christ was divine? If I were to do this, I would simply be following out the logical entailments of my beliefs.

This conclusion seems correct. But there are still a few problems. First, we must be careful, as philosopher Eleanor Stump has noted, to distinguish between a heretic (which refers to a particular person) and a heretical or wrong belief. To say that my neighbor’s rejection of the divinity of Christ exempts her from meeting the requirements of my definition of “Christian” is one thing. But to condemn her as a heretic is entirely different. Calling one a heretic is usually considered an attack on the person’s character, often implying that there is something morally wrong with them. The notion of heretic must be thrown away. It has no beneficial use today (other than, of course, an historians usage of the word to describe historical distinctions).

Secondly, and most importantly (this is where the real problem comes in), if we admit the simple fact that various people can and do have different (often vastly different) definitions of what is essential to Christian belief (or what “Christian” means), we are faced with a peculiar realization: nearly any person can claim to be a Christian while excluding nearly everyone else from fitting their definition of “Christian.”  Is belief in the Trinity essential? For many it is, but not for Unitarians. How about the belief that Jesus is God? Not for Arians (or Unitarians). How about belief in a literal resurrection? Not everyone who claims to be a Christian even believes this. Are there any unifying beliefs that do cut across all forms of Christianity? I can think of two.

The first one: belief that God is significant or special in some way. The second one: belief that Jesus is significant or special in some way. That’s it. And how much more vague can we get? I have made these two essential beliefs so vague and open as to include certain forms of mysticism and those who call themselves Christian atheists (although they may even dispute the first essential belief). But alas, those two essential beliefs are so vague that Muslims would also count as Christians. Certainly that is a problem. Christianity must include something further. But what? Perhaps we just have to admit that there are no unifying beliefs or doctrines between the various forms of Christianity throughout the ages. But then we must also admit that nearly anyone can claim to be a Christian, even if their beliefs are so far removed from our own Christian tradition that we hardly recognize them as being Christian related.

I suppose the lesson here is that there is no such thing as “Christianity.” There are just various sects of people all calling themselves the same thing, sometimes (or often) sharing similar beliefs. And while those beliefs may be essential to their own individual (or local communal) epistemological outlook, they are not essential for the Christian community at large. There are no universal essentials within Christianity (or any worth mentioning). If so, that makes it very difficult to define the essence or core of what “Christianity” means and what it means to be a “Christian.” But perhaps we can solve this problem by taking the route of the mystic. Rather than focusing on beliefs and doctrines as such, maybe we should focus on symbols. And insofar as one’s spiritual life is furnished by Christian symbols, perhaps we can say one is a Christian. That is a very liberal definition of “Christian,” one that many would object to. But that does appear to be the most plausible route if we wish to coherently unite all forms of Christianity under one definition.

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  1. 10/12/2008 at 5:34 pm

    I suppose the lesson here is that there is no such thing as
    “Christianity.” There are just various sects of people all calling themselves
    the same thing, sometimes (or often) sharing similar beliefs. And while those
    beliefs may be essential to their own individual (or local communal)
    epistemological outlook, they are not essential for the Christian community at
    large.Indeed!

  2. Ben
    10/22/2008 at 6:31 pm

    Essay or something for the schoolz?

  3. 10/22/2008 at 7:24 pm

    Not at the moment, no. But it could turn into one I suppose.

  4. Ben
    10/22/2008 at 9:45 pm

    Well Done, any significant insights from anyone in particular? And is this the shit you ponder with your time off from school?

  5. 10/23/2008 at 2:11 am

    For the most part, these are my own thoughts. Although Eleanor Stump wrote an article entitled "Orthodoxy and Heresy" where she defends the distinction between those two. She goes on to argue that the notion of "heretic" is no longer viable in today's age. She is the one who mentions the distinction between essential and peripheral beliefs, although I doubt she was the first to do so. So my essay could be seen as sort of the next step to her discussion: what are essential Christian beliefs and which are peripheral? There doesn't appear to be a universal or over-arching answer to that question. And if so, that seems to be quite a victory for pluralism and relativism. So much for that one big happy world-wide Christian family.

  6. 10/23/2008 at 2:12 am

    And yes, these are some of the things that I think about on my own time. 😉

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