Non-Theological Christianity?

In a recent comment on this blog, the inestimable Peregrinus wrote:

I think there is a fairly large body of Christians whose faith is not primarily theological. …Their faith is not necessarily expressed in, or founded on, a firm belief in a set of credal statements. Nor are they particularly concerned to reject credal statements on the basis that they do not agree with them. …These are people who could fairly comfortably be members of a denomination which denies or de-emphasised the historicity of the resurrection.

As shocking as this thought first appeared to me, it finds some support in a recent entry on the First Things blog by Barton Swaim on “Varieties of Religious Certitude”. Swain is reacting to a piece in the Times Literary Supplement by Steven Weinberg who wrote:

Americans are fairly tolerant of us unbelievers. My many good friends in Texas who are professed Christians do not even try to convert me. …I have often heard the remark (once from an American priest) that it is not so important what one believes; the important thing is how we treat each other. Of course, I applaud this sentiment, but imagine trying to explain “not important what one believes” to Luther or Calvin or St. Paul. Remarks like this show a massive retreat of Christianity from the ground it once occupied, a retreat that can be attributed to no new revelation, but only to a loss of certitude.

Of course, I found myself in full agreement with Weinberg–such a lack of dogmatic spine on the part of these “professed Christians” and that “American priest” shocks (but does not surprise) me. I too would have put this down to “no new revelation” but “a loss of certitude”.

However, Swaim’s point is that there has not really been a “retreat” at all, because folk like Luther and Calvin have always been the exception rather than the rule in the Christian community. You think there are very few people around today who take the dogmatic side of Christianity seriously? “So it has always been,” Swaim declares. He cites folk like Jonathan Swift who

believed Christianity to be superior to heathenism as a moral system, but there is nothing in his sermons to suggest that he believed, for example, in the Resurrection or the miracles of Jesus.

and concludes by saying:

I find it difficult to believe that the number of people who now believe in, say, the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ is substantially fewer than was the case two hundred or five hundred or a thousand years ago.

Well, that’s as may be. I still stand with Luther and Calvin–and Athanasius and Aquinas and Leo XIII and Benedict XVI and all the rest–who think that there was some importance in all this theology. Christianity may have survived in the old days as a “superior moral system”, even if its dogmas were not highly prized, but when morality counts for even less than dogma, that doesn’t leave much of a foot for a “non-theological” Christianity to remain standing on.

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6 Responses to Non-Theological Christianity?

  1. Peregrinus says:

    Just to clarify, I am not saying that the “non-theological” Christians deny the resurrection, or that they don’t believe in it. They mostly probably do believe in it, but it is not that belief which give their faith meaning or signficance and, if they had to choose between a particular understanding of the resurrection and the relationships, experiences, etc which really give meanign to their faith, they will choose the latter, probably without too much difficulty.

    This is not as startling as it first seems. Religion does not have to be founded on credal statements of belief. Consider Judaism, a faith which has survived against sometimes fairly steep odds for several millenia. It is almost entirely concerned with how its adhernents live, and only to a very modest extent with what they believe. A “good Jew” is one who observes the law. The principal value of a strong theological faith is that it gives him a moral and intellectual framework which supports observance, but what ultimately matters is that he should observe the law.

    Christianity, of course, differs from Judaism with its emphasis on faith. But even within Christianity, we regularly observe entire communities, entire nations, adopting a revised faith with (relatively) little difficulty, so long as existing relationships, existing institutions, existing practices continue with minimal change. Consider, for example, the readiness with which Scandinavia took to Lutheranism, or England to Anglicanism. Certainly, there was dissent, there was conflict, there were martyrdoms, and there was evidence of some having to wrestle with their consciences. But, on the whole, surprisingly little of all these things. The great bulk of Christians seem to have been little troubled by the change. And where there was signficant conflict, as for example in Germany, this was in many cases fed by political factors and political rivalries rather than by passionate faith in this or that understanding of the Real Presence, or the work of Salvation.

  2. Schütz says:

    Oddly enough, my ancestors came to this country over a dispute between the Lutheran and Calvinist churches in Prussia that was precisely over the dogma of the real presence. I guess this somewhat predisposed me to a dogmatic form of Christianity.

    Yes, you are quite right, Peregrinus. This sort of Christianity is often the dominant form. But I don’t think we should be happy that it remain that way. Because, given that Christianity does not have the strong legal or racial basis that Judaism does, if it is shorn of both its moral and dogmatic requirements (notably, the two areas in which the Roman Pontiff is given the divine charism of infallibility) there remains precious little that is specifically Christian to mark our religion off from any other kind of religious observance.

  3. Peregrinus says:

    “This sort of Christianity [i.e. non-theological Christianity] is often the dominant form. But I don’t think we should be happy that it remain that way.”

    It’s not a question of happiness, I think. It’s more a question of understanding the reality of the religious experience.

    A theoretical model that we all have in our minds is of somebody who hears the Christian message (i.e. hears the teachings of Christianity), considers it openly, becomes convinced of its truth, though an act of will becomes a Christian, and orders his life accordingly, or at any rate tries to.

    In the real world, that is not how Christians are typically formed. Most Christians are brought up as Christians. Baptised as infants, they have been part of the Christian community before they had any intellectual awareness at all of the teachings offered by Christianity. They have lived as Christians and participated in the life of the community, from early childhood. They have learnt at least something of how to pray from before reaching the age of reason. A belief in – or, for that matter, a rejection of – the propositions in the creed comes fairly late in the process. Even those who come to Christianity as adults, in my experience (being on an RCIA team) are mostly brought there through signficant relationships with Christians – typically either a family member, a spouse or a boyfriend or girlfriend. The theology comes later.

    While a “theological” faith is, I agree, essential to a mature Christianity, I think we arrive there by building on people’s experience of, and engagement with, Christianity. Hence cultural Christianity, relational Christianity, whatever you want to call it, is the foundation on which people construct a faith which is both believing and trusting. And, in many cases, it’s a foundation which survives when events, or the vagaries of adolescence, lead to a weakening of belief, or a weakening of trust. And because the foundation survives, belief and trust can in time be rebuilt

    Christians who see a belief in the historicity of the resurrection as unnecessary or negotiable are not necessarily Christians who have fallen away from the fullness of the faith; they may be Christians who haven’t got there yet. Or, if they have weakened in some respect, they have the wherewithal to recover what they have lost.

    Rahner has a perspective here which engages me. He reckons that our relationships within the Christian community are instrumental in effecting salvation. Our relationships of love give us not just friendship and companionship, important though those things are. The also link us to love in such a way that when we stand before the Lord of All and make our choice, a fundamental choice for all eternity, we stand already connected in love in a communion of grace, and therefore much more prone to choose love and God.

    None of which is to say that the historicity of the resurrection is in any sense optional or negotiable. On the contrary, it is essential and central, and the church must (and will) never stop proclaiming it.

    My point is that we should see the faith of the “non-theological” Christian, with its stress on the experiential encounter with Christ in the community or in the liturgy, not as an alternative to a “theological” faith, but as the basis for it.

  4. Schütz says:

    “As the basis for it”? Dunno about that.

    I would be the very first to acknowledge that Christian faith is more than the acceptance of propositions. It is indeed an true encounter with the One who is love in the communion of love. It is belonging to that community of the loved children of God and entering fully into the Communion of the Trinity.

    All that I take for granted. Yet when I say I am “not happy” with this situation, I am simply giving voice to the inner compulsion I feel to proclaim the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ. And I personally experience that call in relation those who are either immature in or ignorant of or insufficiently catechised in the truths of their faith.

    For it is both my experience and my conviction that the cultural/relational experience of Christianity is insufficient to support real faith when it comes under challenge, ie. when the ambient culture ceases to be recognisably Christian, or when the relationships sour or disappear.

    The foundation, as St Paul says, is Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor 3:11). He is the Rock on which we build (Luke 6:48). All other ground is “sinking sand” as the hymn says. If you need to be specific, the Rock of the Christian faith is the Risen Lord Jesus. The entire Christian life, from Baptism to the Last Rites, is an encounter with the Paschal Mystery. The mystery of the Faith is easily summarised: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. To the extent that the Mystery is encountered, to that extent does an individual experience what the scriptures call “salvation”.

    The Church has come through many ages with many different challenges. Few would deny that in the last hundred years or so we have begun to enter upon a new age for the Church, with the new challenges brought by scientism and relativism. Christianity in the past may have succeeded on the basis of the conversion of culture (eg. the Greco-Roman culture) or of whole communities (eg. the conversion of the Slavs, or of the South American Indians). But in the West today the challenge is for the conversion of the individual heart and mind. Christianity will stand or fall on the “great objective” (as Cardinal Ruini called it) to bring about a “new encounter between faith and reason in our time.”

    As for me and my house, not only have I surrounded my children with the community of faith from the day of their baptism, but I have not neglected to catechise them in the teachings of the faith. It is my intention that–long before they reach adulthood–they not only know that they are Christian, but also what it means to be Christian and why they are Christian. Because unless they have this knowledge and can articulate it and reflect upon it, their faith has about as much chance of survival into adulthood as a snowflake has in Hades–no matter how loving and relational and supportive the Church community is.

  5. Athanasius says:

    I think we will soon have the opportunity to find out what this “non-theological Christianity” is actually worth. For instance, a UK Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights has recently recommended that, while it is OK for people to hold in private that homosexual relationships are morally problematic, it is unacceptable for anyone to teach or preach this as if it it true.

    It would be nice to think that the UK Catholic community could unite to resist this kind of thinking (and resist any legal impositions that will emerge from it). But I think the most likely outcome is that much of the Catholic community would roll over and allow their faith beliefs to be dictated by the state. All in the interests of not causing any unpleasantness, of course.

    If they do so, it will be precisely because of their “non-theological Christianity”. The non-theological Christian does not understand what is at stake (i.e. a sexual anthropology that links human nature and destiny to God’s nature), do not know how to defend it intellectually, and are even blissfully unaware that it is *possible* to defend it intellectually. Such Christians are wonderfully malleable, and make excellent fodder for the moral and cultural-relativist project that our would-be social commissars are engaged in.

    Peregrinus says that “Even those who come to Christianity as adults, in my experience (being on an RCIA team) are mostly brought there through significant relationships with Christians – typically either a family member, a spouse or a boyfriend or girlfriend. The theology comes later.”

    With respect, “the theology comes later” is a big assumption, and one not borne out by observation. How many alumni of Catholic education could give you a coherent account of the anthropology that underlies and justifies Catholic sexual morality? Heck, even most of the religious education teachers can’t do it.

    So I agree with Peregrinus that non-theological Christianity is a fact. I agree even more with Schutz that this is an unacceptable fact. I’d even go further and say that this is a fact dangerous to Christianity, and the Catholic community in particular.

    Just like any other sloppily-managed corporation, we look ripe for a hostile takeover.

  6. Schütz says:

    A fine “Last Word” on this topic, Athanasius! Thank you.

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